Sunday, December 30, 2007

So that was 2007

A year which began in the most wonderful manner.

The year I outlined Let us Be Human, which contains anything that I might have of significance to communicate to the world.

Also the year in which I worked through a number of my issues about evangelicalism - which has changed me in some ways I haven't yet fully understood.

The year I joined a gym, at last - and put on a lot of weight whilst simultaneously lowering my body fat index. I also grew my pony-tail again - which I haven't had since 1991 or so. My brother thinks it makes me look like Francis Rossi....

A year in which I calmed down in many ways (some probably not apparent to the outside world yet), especially with regard to church. My decision to lay George Herbert to rest has a lot to do with that.

A year in which my musical re-awakening proceeded apace, which was creatively cathartic. That latter post is one of the ones I'm most proud of writing - as was this one. I think those writings are what of most permanent value from this blog - even if only for me!

The year I attended a festival for the first time.

I read lots of books.

I watched lots of film and TV series (including Dexter which I greatly enjoyed and will do a proper write up of soon).

A year our eldest decided that he actively wanted to go to school, so we gave up on homeschooling - not without reservations.

A year of continuing to read lots of blogs - I'm now about 18 months behind on my reading of the Times Literary Supplement!! My actual blogroll is distinctly different to that listed on this page - I just haven't had a chance to update yet. In particular, the blogs I read have continued to shift away from the political and towards the Biblical. I have most especially enjoyed meeting some fellow bloggers in the flesh - and I hope to continue to meet more as time goes on.

And, of course, a year in which my photography moved on a stage.

(2005 here; 2006 here)

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (2): Doctrine

This was going to be in two parts - Scripture and Doctrine - but I realise that the latter has many more elements in it that I would like to unpick, and I think a sequence of short posts spread over time will be more helpful. So there will be another five or six after this one.

What are the most important doctrines in the Christian faith? I would say the following are the most central and distinctive:
1. The resurrection - the unique event, incomparable, sui generis - upon which all else rests. Without it our faith is in vain, with it the world turns around and we are free. Sin is conquered, liberty is proclaimed to the captives. Et cetera.
2. The incarnation - a consequence of the resurrection, whereby Jesus of Nazareth is proclaimed Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The purpose of all creation, that through which the entire cosmos is formed and led - this has come amongst us, full of grace and truth. The primary revelation of the nature of God. That which cannot be reasoned or deduced - our eyes are opened from the outside - God comes to us and shows us the light. Thus, incarnation includes salvation - or (following Finlan) theosis is more foundational than atonement - and, I would argue, language of the Fall belongs as a subset of this doctrine, rather than independently.
3. The Trinitarian nature of God - that God is found in relationship - that we are invited into that relationship which exists apart from our own desires and understandings, and that in that relationship we find our most authentic and telic existence.
4. The doctrine of creation - that the world and all that is in it is created by this triune God - that we are creatures dependent upon the eternal sustenance of the Creator - we are held in being, held up by love.

Seems to me that these are the central and most distinctive Christian doctrines. In what way does the notion of the Virgin Birth affirm them, or deny them? Historically the link has been with the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is what I'm going to focus in on in more detail with future posts. But I would say that at most the Virgin Birth helps to affirm Incarnation, but has nothing to do with the others - and even that helpful role is now open to question.

What makes me angry with (some) atheists

Scott g asked me why I lose calm when discussing matters related to atheism, which I've been pondering. At root I don't agree that it isn't about praxis, although I accept that the link is not direct.

I think there are two sorts of atheist criticism, and one of them riles me, the other doesn't at all (in fact I find it rather congenial - oops, there might be more on that another time).

The first sort I associate with Dawkins and his ilk, and it is by far the most common sort that I encounter (admittedly this might be triggered by people discovering who I am and what I do). This tends towards supercilious condescension (The God Delusion etc) and is convinced of its own intellectual superiority. This riles me because for various reasons I see it as not only intellectually inadequate but manifestly inadequate; that is, any fair minded investigation of the debate would undoubtedly consider the Dawkins critique to be not just false but foolish too (think of Terry Eagleton's famous evisceration of that book). In other words, what engages me here is a conviction that the truth matters - and these sorts of atheists seem not to care about truth.

Now the second sort of atheist is rather different to this - and in fact, the variety of this second sort is much greater and more interesting than the uniformity of the first sort. Perhaps a better label would be 'non-Christian' rather than atheist, because I would include people with all sorts of diverse understandings here, eg Buddhists, pragmatists, MoQists and so on. Such people can criticise Christian understandings much more radically than the Dawkins-style fulminations because they are a) more educated and understanding of mainstream Christian thought, and b) they accept the reality and necessity for rejecting science as the primary boundary marker for knowledge and wisdom. In other words this second sort of 'atheist' is living in the same world that I'm living in, and we can have all sorts of productive conversations - and we do.

Really what my "thresholds" were about were fencing off the first sorts of atheists; or, perhaps a bit more defensible, they are ways for me to work out what sort of atheist I am engaging with. I really enjoy and value the conversations I have with the second sort, but not the first, which I find frustrating. Now that is a spiritual issue, because I don't think that this reaction of frustration and anger is a defensible one; it's a fault in me. Hence I need to try and cultivate my inner calm.


In lieu of a TBTM, and in honour of a lazy Sunday morning :-)

Saturday, December 29, 2007


My beloved thought that I was down and in need of a boost, so took me off for a whirlwind trip to Paris, leaving boys with Granny (thanks Granny!) and just the little girl for company. The above photo was the first one I took, just after walking out of our hotel door. I hadn't changed the setting away from monochrome, but I quite like the result.

On the 'allee des cygnes'.

Doing my usual thing. Not wondering 'where's the beach'...

In our walks around the city we were very struck by the passionate intensity of the public sculpture - quite a contrast to that on display in London.

My wife is a big Rodin fan.

The French love their straight lines.

Our Lady of Paris.

On the way home.

The Tower this morning

Strictly speaking, it was yesterday morning.... (grin)

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Possibly the furthest out that I've seen the tide (probably not the furthest out it's been this year of course).

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Thresholds for a sensible conversation with an atheist

I've been musing - in between sneezes and christmas pudding - about what is needed to have an intelligent conversation with an atheist; that is, a conversation which has some chance of fostering growth in understanding on either side. There are general things to do with civil debate and openness to changing of minds, but there are some more specific needs as well. So I thought I'd jot these down (I'm sure an atheist could come up with some reciprocal ones from their side!).

1. The atheist needs to either understand, or be willing to be taught, the concept of idolatry. This is not new-fangled 'liberalism', this is the main root of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In brief, God is not a member of a class - any class. That class can be 'existing things' or 'beings' or 'good' - all of these fail to capture God. So often the understanding of God being rejected is not one that a moderately trained theologian could accept. As Denys Turner puts it, the atheist hasn't even reached the 'theologically necessary levels of denial'. A usual response at this stage is to say 'well you and the theologians might believe that, but most Christians (Muslims/Jews) don't!' Well, that may or may not be true, but it's a juvenile clouding of the issues. If we're going to have a serious debate then we need to engage with the best exemplars of the tradition, the ones with most influence. It would be like saying that science is evil because of Mengele's experiments.

2. Related to this, the atheist needs to have a broader sense of historical perspective that that dominated by post-Enlightenment controversies. If the arguments for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity are all centred on, eg, literalistic claims in Genesis vs geological evidence then we're not going to get very far. Those arguments were generated by the scientific revolution, that is, the theological force of Ussher or Paley is within an already scientific epistemology. If that epistemology is not accepted - in other words if there is an epistemology with much broader and deeper roots in the Christian tradition being employed - then those arguments are frankly not very interesting. A different way of saying this is that you don't have to be a fundamentalist to be a Christian - indeed the overwhelming majority of Christians in time and space are NOT fundamentalists, and it would be helpful if this were acknowledged by the atheist.

3. Putting that same point in a different register: the atheist needs to understand the grammar of religious faith, that is, that religious faith doesn't function as an inadequate precursor of scientific investigation. The role that the language of belief plays within the life of a Christian is not at all like that which the language of science plays in the life of (say) a biologist. It is integrated with a much broader way of life. Unless that is understood then the conversation never begins. Practice gives the words their sense; religious believers do things with words!

I think if these three elements were in place then a much more interesting conversation could result. I'd be interested to know what the equivalent requests would be from the atheist side. Possibly: "don't assume you have to believe in God to be good"?


Boxing Day? I want to put my nose in a box and only let it out again when it promises not to explode any more.....

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007


I really should be concentrating on my sermons, but this is marvellous.

Two good articles on the financial bust

I read various economic blogs regularly (another aspect of my general geekiness) and thought you might be interested in these two articles, as they are comparatively clear about our current mess.

Number one: "The ticking time bomb in the U.S. banking system is not resetting subprime mortgage rates. The real problem is the contractual ability of investors in mortgage bonds to require banks to buy back the loans at face value if there was fraud in the origination process. And, to be sure, fraud is everywhere..."

Number two: "When big operators take on a lot more risk than they otherwise might -- they drive faster, perhaps, because they know their car has anti-lock brakes -- it tends to raise the danger stakes for the system as a whole. Millions of dollars of losses can break the bank at a few unlucky firms. Billion -- or even trillion -- dollar failures can bring down the whole house of cards, especially given the dense network of dependent relationships that exists in the global financial arena."

I do think the sub-prime fiasco is the trigger for the fourth turning.

A point of clarification on conscience

Tim said in a comment "both sides in the current dispute claim to be [following their conscience], and yet you seem to be saying that somehow the 'conservative' side isn't doing it right - or, they're drawing the wrong conclusion from what they're hearing. I'm just not sure on what basis you make that judgement, Sam - because make no mistake, it is a judgement."

I think I need to expand on this, because I don't want to argue that holding the conservative position is necessarily against conscience - I don't believe that it is - I just think that one form of the conservative stance (possibly the dominant and most vocal one) seems unsupportable (that is, those who use this argument are precisely 'not doing it right').

I think there is a difference between these two positions (both forms of the conservative perspective):
1) the expression of homosexual desire is sinful; it is destructive of the soul and pernicious; and Scripture and tradition have unanimously taught us this from the beginning;
2) the expression of homosexual desire is contrary to Scripture, and therefore it is sinful, destructive of the soul and pernicious.

The first recognises some reality beyond itself, to which Scripture is a revelatory witness, and therefore implicitly recognises that IF it could be established that the expression of homosexual desire (in the context of permanent life-long union etc) were not sinful, destructive, pernicious etc THEN we would need to reinterpret Scripture. This I think is a position which is tenable and responsible and 'on the same playing field' as those who precisely want to argue that such a re-interpretation is right and of God. The community both for and against the change can thereby discuss what is right and true about Scripture and the expression of homosexuality and seek an understanding of God's will. This, I think, is the position that Rowan is defending.

The second, however, does not recognise anything outside of "Scripture"; which then becomes reified and absolutised. There is no place from which it is possible to argue that - for example - Scripture is silent on the specific subject being argued about (which is a view I am sympathetic towards). It's not possible to interpret Scripture creatively or in a new way. I see this approach as a) a breach with traditional forms of interpretation in and of itself and b) highly prone to subordination to political objectives. This seems to me to be the position adopted by a great many people in the debate, and I don't recognise it as defensibly Anglican. (It may be defensibly Christian, but of a non-Anglican sort).

As I see it, the more thoughtful and reflective conservatives are arguing option 1), and Rowan in particular is arguing it from a position (assuming he hasn't changed his mind) which doesn't agree with option 1) but is 'in the same ballpark'. That is, Rowan personally believes that our view of Scripture needs to change and develop, but that this change needs to be done in the right way - and he's now embedded in an argument for that right way being established (and he sees the establishment of that right way as being more important than the public acceptance of LGBT ministry). I'm sure that what Rowan would like to see is a) an establishment of the Windsor Covenant, followed by b) an endorsement by that covenanted community - at some point down the line - of the acceptability of LGBT relationships etc.

My problem is with the advocates of option 2) which have, from my perspective, an anachronistic, Modernist and idolatrous understanding of Scripture, ie I think they're fundamentalists. That's why my longer post was about 'The authority of Scripture' as such - it's independent of what position is held on the current dispute. It's possible to hold both a conservative position and to hold that view of Scripture. It's also possible - of course - that I've got it wrong. But that's why the blog is so useful - I can rely on people pointing out errors of fact and logic in my position!!

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (1): Scripture

Neil (OSO) objected to my brief post on the VB where I said "it's an extremely marginal belief and not essential to faith". Well. Whilst I'm on the subject, let's dig in a bit more. Or: I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb! I think there are two broad grounds for saying the the VB is a marginal belief, the first is Scriptural, the second doctrinal. The Scriptural side is short and sweet, which means I can fire this one off immediately. The doctrinal one may have to wait until after Christmas (dependent on how my sermon preparation goes today...)

The VB is testified to in 2 places in Scripture, the prologues to Matthew and Luke. It is not mentioned in Paul, Mark or John or any of the other writings. As such - given that we can be confident that they both had copies of Mark's gospel in front of them - we can say that the account is a late development in Scriptural terms.

Yet the Scriptural point goes rather deeper than this. It's not simply that the story is only mentioned in late strata, it's that there is no 'echo' of the story at any other point. To bring this out, let's compare the Scriptural witness to the Virgin Birth with the Scriptural witness to the resurrection.

The resurrection is testified to throughout Scripture, from the earliest to the latest, and, more crucially, it is testified to implicitly as well as explicitly. The text might rightly be described as saturated with the resurrection. It is the precondition for there being testimony about Jesus at all. Any recognition of Christ as Lord is dependent upon the resurrection in that without it he is simply a criminal condemned to a shameful death, and bearing the curse from God that results. Without the resurrection there is no gospel.

The same cannot be said for the story of the Virgin Birth. It is not a precondition for communicating the gospel - or else Mark and (most especially) John would have needed to give an account of it. Paul would have made some mention or reference to it; given all the things that he DID talk about it would be odd if something so allegedly central were not referred to, particularly given his appeal to a gentile audience (after all, it's the sort of story that such an audience could expect to understand swiftly). Indeed there is at least an indication that Paul believes things in contradiction to the VB - consider Romans 1.3, when he says of Jesus that he was "as to his human nature a descendant of David" - how does that reconcile with Joseph not being involved in his paternity? There is no clear prophecy of it in the Old Testament either - despite Matthew's attempts to find one, again, in contrast to other features of Christ's life, death and resurrection.

One can ask - if the story is removed from the New Testament, how much damage would be caused? (For comparison: if the resurrection were removed from the NT, consider how much damage would be caused!) For we would not need to remove all the details of the two (different) birth accounts; we would merely need to remove the word 'virgin' and the sentences reinforcing it. Would anything else be removed at the same time? Well, all the accounts about Joseph can be left in place. All the language about Mary saying 'yes' to God can still be in place, and the Magnificat is untouched (hooray!). If, for example, we hypothesise either an illegitimate union between Mary and Joseph, or, perhaps, a rape of Mary or something like that - ie something which gives rise to some 'scandal' and which needs to be overcome by angelic support to both Mary and Joseph - then I don't see what of any substance is lost. We can still talk about God's being the prime mover in a situation, and there's no need to abandon any parallelism with the Genesis account of the spirit moving over the face of the waters.

To my mind, nothing is lost, and potentially a great deal is gained. But the gains can't be considered without going into the doctrine, ie what is at stake in this insistence that the story of the VB is true? That'll come later.

A sermon on the Virgin Birth

I preached this three years ago, on the texts that have come round again for tomorrow morning. After the service I was told that I was 'very brave', but reading it through again I'm not sure that I was...

20041219A virgin shall conceive

I like to think of myself as quite a conservative sort of Christian. That is, although I came into the church through the liberal door, I have found that the more I study the faith, the more comfortable I find myself with the classical formulations, and the greater weight I place on the Church Fathers and how they understood what Christianity is all about. However, although I've come quite a long way from my liberal beginnings - to the extent that I would now find it quite an insult to be labelled as a liberal - there is still one area where I can't quite overcome that liberal inheritance. And our readings this morning bring my one remaining qualm directly to the surface.

Let's begin with Isaiah. In our Old Testament reading this morning the Prophet Isaiah is predicting the birth of a child to a young woman. The political context is quite fraught, and I shall give a rapid explanation - those of you who have been coming to the Learning Church sessions will recognise some of this. Isaiah is writing in the 8th century BC, and this is a time when the united kingdom under David and Solomon had split into two Jewish kingdoms, Israel in the North and Judah in the South. Assyria was the rising local superpower, and Israel and the neighbouring state of Damascus were seeking Judah's assistance in fighting against Assyria. The king of Judah, called Ahaz, didn't want to go along with this, and so Israel and Damascus besieged Jerusalem, to try and engineer regime change and the installation of a more favourable ruler. Now the issue confronting Ahaz is whether he should seek a political alliance with the Assyrians, to defend his own position, or whether he should trust in God for protection - and as you can imagine, Isaiah is quite clear about the choice that should be made. Isaiah says to Ahaz that a young woman will give birth to a child, and before that child has come to maturity, the powers that threaten Ahaz will have been defeated. What Isaiah is doing is setting a time frame for how long Ahaz would have to wait - and, indeed, less than twelve years later, before such a child would have reached maturity, the kingdoms of Damascus and of Israel have been defeated by Assyria. So in Isaiah, there is no sense of the birth-process being somehow miraculous; indeed, had Isaiah wanted to make a point about virginity, he would have used a different word. That is, he uses the word 'alma, meaning young woman, instead of the word betula, which would have specifically meant virgin.

So where has Matthew got his text from? For clearly, in verse 23 he is quoting Isaiah as referring to a virgin conceiving a child. The answer to this is quite straightforward. In the third century in Egypt, following the expansion of Greek culture after Alexander the Great, the Hebrew bible was translated into Greek, and it was the Greek text that Matthew was quoting from, not the original Hebrew. And the Greek text translated the word meaning 'young woman' with the word parthenos, meaning virgin. So, in the translation from Hebrew to Greek, the element of virginity has been brought in, and it is this which underlies Matthew's text. For it is very important to Matthew to establish the way in which Jesus is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. Five times in these early chapters Matthew uses the expression 'this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the prophet'. Matthew is talking to an audience of Jewish Christians, and he is very concerned to establish the connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament - think of the Sermon on the Mount echoing Moses on Mount Sinai for example - and this is guiding his interpretation here.

So where does that leave the doctrine of the virgin birth? Well, within Greco-Roman culture the story of the origins of an heroic figure was quite a well-established form. Hercules, for example, was given the story that his mother was impregnated by Zeus, and this accounts for his superhuman strength. And of course, in our own day, the same understanding can be seen in children's comics. Think of Superman - his wonderful powers require an explanation, and that is given by his origin on the planet Krypton. The real truth about Superman is that he is not one of us.

Which brings me to what my real qualms about the virgin birth consist in. For the standard liberal argument against it is to simply say 'that sort of thing doesn't happen'. That doesn't carry much weight with me, largely because I don't give science and scientific explanations the importance that our culture does - they are much too partial and prejudiced to be substituted for religious truth. If the living God could raise Christ Jesus from the dead - which is something, let me be clear, I'm quite happy with - then I can't see any reason why the much less difficult matter of a virgin birth should be beyond Him. No, my worries come from a different direction.

One of the images in the New Testament which means the most to me is the tearing of the curtain in the temple. I read this as the abolition of the dividing line between God and humanity, that in Christ, the one who is both fully human and fully divine, this division is overcome, and all of the religious obstacles that had been put in the way of a living relationship with God - all of the Pharisaic legal traditions, the money changing in the temple, the religious purity laws - all of these have been overcome through Christ who is, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. But Jesus can only do all this if he is in fact human in the way that we are human. The church father Gregory of Nazianzus put it like this: what he has not assumed, he has not healed. In other words, if Jesus was like Superman - who appeared to be from earth but was actually from the planet Krypton - then he cannot save. He cannot take on the burden of our sins and he cannot show us the way of life. For where Supermen can go, mere mortals cannot go. So my worry about the virgin birth is not at all that it was impossible. My worry is that it diminishes Christ's humanity, and that means that he is no longer my friend, he is no longer the one who can speak to me as a brother; instead he is an alien, totally other. I can't reconcile my faith with that.

However. I should reiterate that my worries on this score make me unorthodox, and that means that not only am I officially wrong on this, but, if the past is any guide, in a few years time I will, through God's grace, have gained understanding of the mystery of the virgin birth, and accepted it. If that proves to be the case, I promise to come before you again and explain the how and why.

But in the meantime I struggle with texts like the one we had this morning from Matthew. I wrestle with my doubts, I try and reach some sort of understanding that will make the texts come alive with meaning for me, in the way that the tearing of the curtain in the temple speaks to me. What gives me joy is that I work in a church which isn't afraid of this sort of exploration, that instead teaches us that our reason is a gift from God, which, if we let it, will lead us further into the mystery of our salvation, and the truth of the Incarnation of the Son of God, whose festival we shall be celebrating together at the end of this week. And surely that is the right way, for in Christ all truth finds its expression, and if we hold fast to truth, we will always come back to him. For Jesus Christ is our Saviour, the one 'declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead'. May he guide us into all truth, throughout this Christmas time, and always. Amen.


All the people.
So many people.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A bit more about Scripture

Following on from that long post, I think part of the reason why I relate to Scripture as I do can be explained autobiographically. That is, I came to faith after being immersed in the critical study of Scripture. There never was a time for me - at least after attaining 'the age of discretion' - when I have seen Scripture as being absolute or without error. The critical study of Scripture actually allowed me to move through it and see what it was about. Consequently I don't have anything at stake in whether the Bible contains errors or not; I've always understood that there are such errors, but that doesn't make any difference to faith in the living Christ.

The key question is what Tim articulated: "how do we decide whether the voice in our heads telling us to do something which is against scripture comes from God or not?" Ultimately I don't think there is a finite answer to that question; we have to follow our conscience - a conscience which is educated and informed by Scripture, Tradition and Prayer - but still conscience all the same. And that means, we follow our conscience whether we are accepting 'Scripture' or rejecting it - in other words, even for those who are explicitly being obedient to Scripture, they are in practice following the higher authority of their own conscience.

There are some very knotty roots in play here. One of which is the doctrine of utter depravity, because if you accept that then any reliance on conscience becomes objectionable. Yet that has all sorts of other frankly appalling consequences so I don't propose to spend much more time exploring that strand.

The other one, though, is the search for certainty - very much the Modern predilection and neurosis - and this is driven, at least in part, by the seeking for security in salvation. But I don't think that this form of certainty is available to us. Not simply because we walk by faith and not by sight but because we live by grace and not works, and whatever we do can be redeemed.

In other words, God allows us to get it wrong. And if we get it wrong but we are acting in good faith and humility and actively seeking the will of God then I have no doubt that over time God will reveal to us that we have got it wrong - and that, in fact, perhaps the 'getting of it wrong' is precisely what God was seeking (paradoxically) in that by growing through that struggle and finally discerning that truth then we will have reached a better place than we would have done without going wrong in the first place! Some things we need to learn for ourselves, even at the cost of making a mistake.

Which is why I am more and more of the opinion that, with respect to the current arguments, I should speak a little less and listen and trust a little more. When I read someone like Christopher, for example, I'm aware of a seeking after God. Those who reject TEC's changes as 'abomination' or whatever are really saying 'we don't trust you to be honestly seeking God, and even if you were, we don't trust God to be active in your life to lead you to the truth'. That seems faithless to me, let alone what it indicates about fellowship.

For who is harmed even if we assume - for the time being - that this will be a mistake? (ie accepting ministries from LGBT clerics). Why can't we trust that God is in charge and active in this process - and trust and believe that even if we disagree with what is being done? It's as if the objectors think that we mortals have the capacity to silence the stones!

I think I'm just becoming sensitised to the political use of the language of 'Scripture', and I don't like it very much.

Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?

Lots of people give their answers (including Rowan) here.

Doug's been writing some interesting stuff on this recently (here is the latest).

My problem remains how to reconcile Jesus' humanity with his special creation; or, put differently, I don't see why God's creative activity _has_to_ conflict with the normal processes of reproduction. Incarnation isn't dependent on it; indeed, I suspect that the story was developed in order to support the doctrine of the incarnation and now works to accomplish the precise opposite. Either way it's an extremely marginal belief and not essential to faith.


Pointing beyond itself.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

en courage

A colleague mentioned - I suspect via Bob Jackson - that incumbents do their most substantial and creative work between 8 & 13 years in post (don't ask me how they define that!). I find that a hopeful thought. I've been here four and a half years and I'm only now starting to see the shape and nature of what needs to be done. Still, God is manifestly in charge of the process and his timing is always perfect.


Time it was
and what a time it was
it was
a time of innocence

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Monday, December 17, 2007

A long way down (Nick Hornby)

I like Hornby's writing - he has a very Christian sensibility, by which I mean he's quite happy to reveal the truth about people, in all our worm-eaten glory, but he does so without judgement and with much compassion and humour. He has a gentle spirit. This was good, and absorbing, without being great.

Life on Mars

I should first say that I really enjoyed this series (watched it all on DVD) with lots of echoes of Thomas Covenant's dilemmas, cracking characterisation and effective realisation of the environment of 1973. Having said that.... I just had the sense it could have been so much more. I suspect the original story was geared around a single series, and when it became obvious that it was successful it got padded out across two - but the padding didn't really work and there wasn't enough plot development to sustain interest. I might change my mind if I rewatch it, and the rewatching reveals more than I was first aware of, but I doubt it.

Very good though, and I'll certainly watch the planned sequel. Four out of five.

The devil wears Prada

I thought this was rather good; nothing remarkably apart from routine, but it was all done well with decent performances and competent direction. Three and a half out of five.


By turns hilarious and excruciating. I came to the end of it feeling just a little nauseous, as if I'd been morally compromised in some way. I was also hoping for a "No Pamela Andersons have been hurt in the making of this film" notice, but there wasn't one. Two out of five.


And here's one from yesterday afternoon:

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I feel a Maggie Thatcher moment coming on...

Just to explain that cryptic comment a few months ago ;-)

I'm coming to the conclusion that the present distribution of parish share, most particularly as it affects the Mersea Benefice, is unfair not proportionate or reasonable, and that this has consequences for both my health and the health of the communities in which I serve.

First graph, with Mersea in dark blue. This gives the relationship between parish share and stipendiary posts (ie diocese-paid) using 2007 parish share figures. St John's pays the largest share but has two posts, hence they don't show up so strongly.

Second graph, giving the relationship between full time posts and church membership size. This one is more intriguing, but the figures aren't quite so reliable as they are a mix of usual Sunday attendance (for those churches that filled out the questionnaire for the Deanery Plan) or Electoral Roll, which is rather a different number. However the larger churches did fill out the forms, so if anything this graph exaggerates the size of the smaller churches. Again, bear in mind that St John's is divided by two, although it is (only just, grin!) the largest church in the Deanery.

This final table is simply re-ordering the data, using 2008 parish share figures, to give an indication of what each patch 'pays' for a clergyman. Again, bear in mind that the St John's figure is half their parish share.

Deanery Balance 2008

Name of Benefice

2008 share/ftsp - ascending order

Greenstead St Andrew


Colchester St Barnabas Old Heath


Colchester New Town & The Hythe St Steph St Mary Mag & St Leonard


Fingringhoe St Andrew


Berechurch St Margaret w. St Michael


Myland St Michael


Colchester St Peter & St Botolph


Shrub End All Saints w St Cedds


Colchester, St James & St Paul w All Saints, St Nicholas & St Runwald


Wivenhoe St Mary Vn


Colchester Christ Church w St Mary at the Walls


Colchester St John & St Luke


Lexden St Leonard


Mersea Benefice


A different way to put this is to say that the Mersea benefice transfers around £50k into the central pot. Or, to explore that from a different direction, the Mersea benefice is equivalent to two other benefices put together - say Shrub End plus Fingringhoe (which would then match the number and variety of churches).

Is this reasonable? It's true that there is now a large staff team here, but a) the associate priest is paid for by the parish (ie not included in the above figures) and subsidised by a former member of the congregation, an arrangement which won't last for ever; and b) the system is kept in place by the support of a number of retired clergy - and is it fair to expect the system to keep going on the backs of those who have already given their life in ministry to the church? And there are other questions as well - nobody I speak to disputes the need for the stronger parishes to support the weaker, but at what point does that obligation become fulfilled? If places like Mersea (and Lexden and St John's) are the ones upholding the diverse ministry across the Colchester area, does that support need to be done in the way it presently is done, or can it be done differently? And what happens when the this transfer of wealth becomes directly damaging to the donors, ie it inhibits the strengthening and development of mission in their own communities? That sounds like a recipe for locking-in decline.

In other words, is the present system of parish share - a classic example of mid-20th century state socialism - the best way to support ministry, or would we be better off going back to a pattern of livings, whereby those ministries that were successful and prospered were able to reinforce their success by direct funding and control of further mission? My suspicion is strongly that the existing system will soon collapse (because of wider economic trends as much as anything else) and that more historic system will re-emerge. Then we shall have Mersea Minster as the central resource for discipleship and worship in the area south of Colchester. I find that prospect rather encouraging.

My ethical stance

With a h/t to Byron, and agreeing with his comment.

1. Aquinas (100%)
2. Aristotle (100%)
3. Plato (82%)
4. Ayn Rand (80%)
5. Spinoza (79%)
6. St. Augustine (74%)
7. Stoics (70%)
8. Nietzsche (70%)
9. David Hume (66%)
10. Cynics (62%)
11. Ockham (61%)
12. Kant (56%)
13. John Stuart Mill (54%)
14. Epicureans (51%)
15. Jeremy Bentham (46%)
16. Thomas Hobbes (41%)
17. Jean-Paul Sartre (40%)
18. Prescriptivism (32%)
19. Nel Noddings (24%)

Take the test here.


Seriously gloomy.
Which is a comment on the weather not my state of mind. I'm just exhausted...

Friday, December 14, 2007


Too tired to think.


birds can fly so high and they can shit on your head
yeah they can almost fly into your eye and make you feel so scared
but when you look at them
and you see that they are beautiful
thats how i feel about you
thats how i feel about you


and she said "wot?"

Thursday, December 13, 2007


And we fight
all of the time
you and I
it's alright
we're the same soul

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


There are more on flickr.

Eager longing (December Synchroblog)

We have three small children - the eldest just five and a half - and you can imagine the sense of anticipation that is building as Christmas hoves into view. Now, given my views on commercial culture (see my LUBH talks) you might think that the way in which the children are so focused on 'presents' is something to be repudiated or frustrated. And yet, there is something here that is worth redeeming. And that is hope.

For what the kids are doing is looking forward to something. They don't know quite what it is - they've had all sorts of hints - but they are excited by it all, and it all seems a little bit magical. And then there is the day itself, with lots of celebrations and opening of presents and lots and lots of fun.

Now it may well be that the attention given to presents - most especially the attention given to the receiving of presents, rather than the giving - is something that needs to be grown out of. But what is now clear to me is that this time is all about the hope and longing for something to come into a life - and that it is very important and healthy to nurture that hope.

Imagine that such things were squashed and made pious; that such longings were replaced by more acceptable and formulaic religiosity. Something utterly essential would be lost. For that eager longing is something needed in our world. Some sense of possibility - that things will soon change - that we can achieve or obtain what we most desire - that seems to me to be healthy, and the adult expression of it - what we need when we consider the state of our world, what we need in order to deal with the state of our world - that is built on the foundations of small boys filled with eager longing for a castle, or a digger, or an Action Man.

We need to nurture our eager longings. That way we might one day be revealed as children ourselves.


A synchroblog is when a number of different bloggers agree to write on the same topic at the same time (I missed that last element this month).
Redeeming the Season is the Topic for this month's SynchroBlog. Now there are a variety of seasons being celebrated at the end of each year from Christmas to Hannukah to Eid al-Adha and Muharram, from the Winter Solstice to Kwanzaa and Yule. Some people celebrate none of these seasonal holydays, and do so for good reason. Below is a variety of responses to the subject of redeeming the season. From the discipline of simplicity, to uninhibited celebration, to refraining from celebrating, to celebrating another's holyday for the purpose of cultural identification the subject is explored. Follow the links below to "Redeeming the Season." For more holidays to consider see here

Recapturing the Spirit of Christmas at Adam Gonnerman's Igneous Quill
Swords into Plowshares at Sonja Andrew's Calacirian
Fanning the Flickering Flame of Advent at Paul Walker's Out of the Cocoon
Lainie Petersen at Headspace
The Battle Rages at Bryan Riley's Charis Shalom
Secularizing Christmas at
There's Something About Mary at Hello Said Jenelle
Geocentric Versus Anthropocentric Holydays at Phil Wyman's Square No More
Celebrating Christmas in a Pluralistic Society at Matt Stone's Journeys in Between
The Ghost of Christmas Past at Erin Word's Decompressing Faith
Redeeming the season -- season of redemption by Steve Hayes
Remembering the Incarnation at Alan Knox' The Assembling of the Church
A Biblical Response to a Secular Christmas by Glenn Ansley's Bad Theology
Happy Life Day at The Agent B Files
What's So Bad About Christmas? at Julie Clawson's One Hand Clapping

Kim Fabricius on Dawkins et al

"Professor Dawkins himself has a knack for the memorable metaphor. His great book The Selfish Gene is a case in point. People can be literally selfish, but not genes. Indeed Dawkins does not even think that there are genes for selfishness. Okay, he wrote: “The gene is the basic unit of selfishness.” But he didn’t really mean it. Not literally. The author of Genesis said that the universe was created in six days. But who would take that literally except some crazy fundamentalists? Oops – and Dawkins."



All is calm, all is bright.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Kevin's Dirt: a wonderful metaphor for the impact of science on our society.

(From this book).

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Humanist institutions

Time to keep pushing this one!

Neil said: "Why is it necessary to have "special" institutions that pass on humanistic belief? Surely it would be done from a humanist to his family, his workplace - sounds like evangelism! Schools and Universities would be the best example of humanist/secular "institutions". Art and Media is then influenced by humanism, which we see presented on television, the internet, etc etc. So there's no humanist churches. And there's no special humanist "institution", but does that mean that humanistic beliefs and attitudes do not influence society at large?"

If I might say so, this is a classically Protestant response!! But what I wanted to pick up on was the example of universities. These do indeed have a particular aim and ethos, and they are very good at instilling particular practices and habits in the students that attend (and later teach) at such institutions. So they could be called - with a nod to Robert M Pirsig - the 'Church of Reason'. I would even go so far as to accept that they teach particular virtues, eg commitment to the truth and to honesty in research (which, by the by, shows up one of the dependencies of "scientific" research on moral culture). Yet would it be generally accepted that the universities produce people who are 'more moral' or 'more good' than the average? To go back to Scott's summary of my quest, "I want to know where humanism is building up society in such a way that more people will tend to do good rather than evil."

In addition to that, the universities and schools, especially in this country, are obviously dependent upon the Christian tradition for their founding and initial establishments and ethos. What is a) the distinctive humanist contribution to academic study, and b) what is the benefit to the good of society from that contribution.

The same thing applies in other fields. Think of hospitals and medical care generally - where, again, the Christian influence is pretty explicit. In terms of training of nurses or doctors today there are certainly institutions which - in theory - can shape people to work for the good of society. But what does humanism bring to this? Especially now, when the UK health care system has been overrun by the meddling mediocrities from Whitehall, and what matters is the meeting of some abstract 'target' rather than the healing of an individual person. (And there are issues lurking behind this as well, to do with the healing of the whole person rather than simply the 'broken mechanism' of their body).

Where is the humanist institution that is concerned with creating better people? (And it begs the question: what are people FOR?)

Rothko's Red, with seagulls

Well. I wanted to put up at least one more...


Some absolutely stunning conditions for photos this morning. I've put another eight or so on to flickr, some of which are probably better than this one!

Friday, December 07, 2007

God hates you for all eternity

My worry is: this seems obviously absurd and way beyond parody. But - how many people outside the church see normal Christianity in this way? In other words - the stuff that (some) Christians think 'normal' - do outsiders see something like this? Are these people simply exhibiting an extreme version of something at the centre of mainstream faith?

"And on the cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied...."


There will be several more on flickr in a few days. Right now I'm a little bit knackered.

Pursuing humanism

Let's run with this a little longer as both Scott (Gray) and Neil (OSO) think I'm being unfair to humanists.

Firstly, I'm not aware of any theoretical reason why a humanist culture is necessarily incapable of sustaining long term moral endeavour and improvement. My concern is a practical one, ie that I'm not aware of this sustaining being done in this culture. ("This culture" mainly referring to the UK, but not excluding the other Anglo-Saxon societies).

Secondly, this point is one about religious belief over against secular thought. In other words it isn't something that hangs on the specific beliefs advocated by Christianity. Confucianism, for example, is more than adequate to foster the social goods that concern me, and the theologies of Christianity and Confucianism (if the latter could be said to have a theology!) are very distinct.

Thirdly the existence of humanists who do good things is insufficient to answer my concern. We can all agree on the existence of such wonderful people; conversely we can also agree on the existence of wicked people who happen to be religious believers. The question is about what fosters the goodness and inhibits or reforms the badness.

Fourthly, this is a separate point to the one of accountability (hence a separate post). Whether humanism can coherently give an account of its accountability is to my mind an open question (I'm pretty sure it can't) but that's not the concern here.

The issue is this: the mainstream of Christianity demonstrably cultivates the virtues, be they compassion, a desire for social justice, a commitment to the truth, and so on. These virtues are developed through the adoption of particular practices which embody them, and cohere through the telling of stories and sharing of expertise. There are institutions which exist to, amongst other things, foster this moral development. In Christian terms it is called discipleship; doubtless there are equivalent terms in the other religious faiths.

My point is that I am not aware of institutions which cultivate the development and amplification of a moral sense, with associated practices and disciplines, within this country, of a humanistic form. I repeat, such things are not at all impossible. They seem to have existed in Ancient Greece (the gymnasia). I just want to know - where are they? (It's also perfectly possible that there are many such institutions, and this post is merely parading my ignorance of them).

Hence my comment in the original post, that humanism is drawing on the bank balance built up by centuries of Christian teaching. I want to know where humanism is putting money in.

(For those familiar with him, the influence of Alasdair MacIntyre should be obvious!)


A wild and wowly morning.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Proud of our youth

I travelled into Colchester by bus today, to do some Christmas shopping and to watch the film I've just reviewed. I got to the bus station at about 7.50pm and settled down to the half hour wait for a bus to take me home. Now I don't often use the bus, but each time I use it something interesting happens. This time more than most.

I started reading a book, but after a while, a man came over to the shelter who was clearly very much worse for drink. He immediately started accosting me and the handful of people waiting with hostile and abusive language - he even called me an intellectual impostor for reading! (Shock, horror - perhaps alcohol gave him second sight...). However, I managed to have the beginnings of a more civilised conversation with him and he wandered off to the far end of the shelter. Unfortunately he then started haranguing some of the others, including two smallish children (aged about 15), one of whom gave him a bit of lip back - very effectively, but possibly very foolishly. I managed to distract his attention back towards me, in the course of which - because he was banging on about being a soldier - I told him that I was a padre. Which information meant nothing to him and he soon confessed to not being a soldier. But then, realising what I did for a living, he proceeded to harangue me even more aggressively for being a paedophile - for that is what the priesthood is now best known for - and he carried on shouting directly in my face (as in literally one inch or so from mine - I was mostly sitting down) and threatening all sorts of dire physical assaults upon me, giving demonstrations by striking the wall of the shelter and so on.

Now why do I call this post 'proud of our youth'. Mainly because the two other people there, both quite young though older than the small kids, displayed very cool heads, showed concern and compassion in looking after the little ones, and were very sensible and useful in steering the nutter away from the scene of conflict and generally calming things down.

This could have been a story about how rotten our society is. Yet what has most imprinted itself on my mind is how good all these kids were. Very encouraging. Although it'll now take me quite some time to get to sleep as the adrenaline is still in my system!

American Gangster

I thought this was really good - and I'm sure it will stand the test of time - but ultimately there was something missing; perhaps any sense of moral struggle within the main protagonists, no progression or redemption. But it was a good tale well told. Satisfying, if not surprising. Four out of five.

To what are humanists accountable?

I wanted to pick this element out from Ian's comments, where he said: "To what is a humanist accountable ? ... to humanity what else ... and rest of the living cosmos. (which would merge with your view, on Pantheistic territory). The balance of freedoms (from) with responsibilities (to)."

Firstly - and for the record(!) - I'm not a pantheist!!! Once upon a time I might have accepted the label 'panentheist' but these days I'm more sceptical of all those metaphysical systems and am content with 'Christian'.

However, the key question I want to pursue is: what does it mean to say that a humanist is accountable to humanity? Is that a democratically defined good? Or is there some other sort of value at stake here? If so, how is it pursued, how are conflicts reconciled, how is it explicated and communicated? In other words, what is the distinctive way in which a humanist cultivates the virtue of "humanity" in themselves and in their friends and neighbours? All these things are front and centre in a religious tradition, but seem absent from humanist (and atheist) discourse, on the whole. Humanism seems to be drawing on the bank balance built up by religious believers without paying anything back - which is why our society is now morally bankrupt and heading rapidly down the toilet.

Sorry for the rant, but I'm really interested in pursuing this aspect.


I believe in miracles
Since you came along
You sexy thing

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A response to Davidov on Godtalk

Click full post for text.

My responses in italics.

Your post leaves me with two fundamental questions. First, the ideas you refer to would by some be called moral sense, sense of purpose and reflection respectively. What is a humanist missing if they have the same feelings but ascribe a different source? If they are not missing something (like a God which exists separately from our attitudes to him) isn't religion just a choice rooted only in the subject's personal views?

I think there is a lot of overlap. Not surprising as I also believe that all humanity is made in the image of God. Yet I would say that a religious perspective completes that which is only partial in a humanist perspective. In particular I think that what a religious perspective brings is a sense of the coherence and purpose that exists outside of the preferences of the individual. You could say: a religious perspective includes an accountability that is (usually) absent from a humanist perspective (for to what would a humanist be accountable?).

Secondly, where does this conception of God leave the basic understanding of Christianity common in our society?

I don't have a dog in that race. That is, it is manifestly clear to me that "the basic understanding of Christianity common in our society" is mistaken.

Did God "create" the world?


Can prayers be answered by God changing things?

I'm still thinking this one through, but I'm more minded to say yes than no.

Has any miracle, including those in the Bible, ever happened?

Short answer is yes, but I think your using a particular understanding of miracle here. Have you ever read this post?

What does life after death mean?

Something other than eternal life, usually.

Is there some external entity which forgives our sins if we repent?

This sounds like you're asking if God is a being.

In what way was Christ more than a prophet?

He was raised from the dead.

If none of this follows the traditional path (God created and cares about the world and sent Christ to redeem us from sin) what plans does the Church have to tell people that they can safely put these ideas to one side?

I'm wholly in favour of the traditional path.

Can I add a third? Isn't this conception of God reactive to the success of science since the Renaissance?

Not at all. Science isn't that important; or, to put that differently, science is itself dependent upon theological assumptions.

Most highly educated theologians, who can't just be dismissed, seem to have had very simple ideas of God until quite recently.

Sorry, that's rubbish. Unless you're using 'simple' in a technical sense, in which it's a truism.

You say that atheists (not me btw) want the concept of God to be ridiculous. Aren't they just challenging the concept of God common until science cast doubt on it?

If a 15 year old cannot adequately defend the concept of evolution against criticisms from well-informed creationists, does this make evolution false? Very little atheism that I am aware of takes theology seriously; someone like Dawkins is much happier with a summary dismissal. See the quote from Denys Turner here.

To take two C16th examples - can it be that this conception of God was really the one for which Cranmer, Lattimer and Ridley were burnt to death when they could so easily have obtained a pardon?

The Reformation martyrs weren't put to death for their conception of God. At least I don't think they were. It was much more to do with how Christianity was to be pursued relative to the authority of the central institutions.

What sort of oddball, in the face of such a subtle and difficult concept of God, could not accept an alternative view or that there would be no detriment for bending with the breeze? What sort of psycho would pass the sentence when hanging was an option for non-religious crimes?

Some truths are worth dying for; in other words, sometimes it is more life-giving to be killed for living IN the truth than to go on living apart from the truth.

A few more (1) Those who debated Henry VIII's first divorce in the context of Leviticus said they thought his breach of the law explained why he had no sons. The Pope was petitioned for divorce. Did those petitioning him and the Pope know that the premise was false


(2) Didn't those who denounced Galileo do so because they believed the cosmology in the Bible was accurate.

See my posts here and here.

(3) The last execution for heresy in Britain was 1697. Surely those accusing and trying him believed that his critcism of eg miracles was in fact wrong. Surely they themselves believed in miracles.

You know more about this case than I do.

Two more recent examples - in the late C19 a debate was arranged in Oxford between a Darwinist and a ... Bishop. The Church was seen as the relevant other side of the debate. The Bishop propounded the Biblical view of creation and poured scorn on the idea that he was related to a monkey. This is very recent and the Bishop was not an idiot. (A woman cried out in protest and fainted when the Darwinist told the Bishop to his face that he was indeed related to a monkey - what a very C19th scene).

To my mind both sides of this debate had become locked into a non-orthodox world view.

At a similar time another Bishop calculated that the world was c.7,000 years old based on Bible passages. This implies that he believed the Bible set out facts about creation which would withstand rational analysis.

Archbishop Ussher. See my comment immediately above - it's an extremely late development, and this IS a reaction to Renaissance science.

Here is a challenge. Can you name a Bishop in the C of E or Catholic Church who said, even in private papers, before 1900, that no miracles happened or the Virgin Birth was a metaphor?

Well... I'm not saying that no miracles happen; I'm saying (in effect) that the understanding of miracles common today, and shaped by scientific philosophy, is misleading and non-Scriptural. The straight answer to your question would probably be 'one of the 18th century deists' but no name springs to mind.

Very happy to pursue this further, though as I write this I realise I've written quite a lot about this elsewhere.


I was just ten years old when you got here
White suits and the King of Pain

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

What do I mean when I talk about God?

Click 'full post' for text.

First, possibly my all-time favourite Wittgenstein quotation:
'I should like to say that ... the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of *certain particular* words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer... It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to say it. Practice gives the words their sense'. (From 'Culture and Value', in remarks dated 1950. The passage as a whole I would like read at my funeral)

So what do I mean when I talk about 'God'? It's a troublesome word. It's normally (that is, normally in non-Christian circles, and even in some that are Christian) understood to refer to a being, of supernatural origin, who acts and intervenes in the world. The God I believe in is not a being - because he is not a anything. God is not the member of a class - any class. So is the word 'God' a metaphor? Of course. We cannot capture God in our language; all attempts ultimately fail; and yet the attempt is edifying and enlarging. It is like climbing a ladder. In order to climb, one must first place all one's weight upon a particular step, but to progress, one must abandon it completely.

I have found it very difficult to get atheists to understand that point. That could be because they have much invested in the concept of God remaining ridiculous.

So what do I mean when I talk about 'God'? Several things, in no particular order other than the order I've thought of them.

Firstly I have a sense - I guess most people have a sense - of when I have started down a wrong path; or, conversely, when I am pursuing a right path. This could be compared to the physical sense of balance; or, an image I've used elsewhere, it is like the 'tilt' mechanism on a pinball machine. I will sometimes use the word God to refer to that which is calling me into balance, or warning me against being off balance.

Related to this is the sense of vocation, that is, that I am on a path with a particular destination, and that I am being led along this path from moment to moment. I will talk about God in this context, as that which is illuminating my next steps - a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path. In this sense God is a lure - an active and intentional agent drawing me forwards.

This broadens out into something about intimacy and concern. The creativity and desire which is drawing me forward is personal; that is, I relate to it as I would to a person. I don't normally have a conversation - not in the sense that I would have a conversation with another human being - but that I am communicated with is undeniable. Indeed, it's routine, it's a large part of my prayer life, listening to what God might have to say to me.

Sometimes I have visions. I distinguish these from daydreams and the routine permutations of my imagination by the sense of seriousness and conviction with which they seize me (not all are equally serious). When this happens I take these to be particular and specific messages from God.

Another aspect to this is to do with truth. There was an occasion recently when I realised that I was not speaking the truth (that is, I was not persuaded of something that I was arguing for). I was not IN the truth. When I reflect on a situation like this then the distinction between one set of attitudes, beliefs and propositions and another set is very strong, and one set will seem much more attractive and luminous. I will use the word God to talk about the difference between them. Most frequently this will involve some sort of personal interrogation about motives, and the process of illumination will often disinter some sort of personal hurt or bad habit or vice which is preventing me from living in, and listening to, the truth. In other words, discerning the truth is a spiritual task, and this is one of the most important ways in which God makes himself clear to me. Crucially, all that I refer to when I talk about God is independent of my own conscious will and desiring.

Finally, I would want to talk about God in the external world, as an agent in the world. God is not an agent like other agents, however; not a cause alongside other causes. Rather, God is the precondition for all things that are held in being. When I see God at work in the world what I am really saying is that here my eyesight has been clarified; I'm not saying anything all that specific about God. God does not specially 'intervene', for God is always present. What changes is in me.

Now, to gather some of these strands together, I would want to talk about that which is intimately involved in my life leading me forward into truth and life and integrity and with which I can communicate in a personal way. That's what I mean when I talk about God. Yet there is one thing more. In the same way that as you walk into the light it becomes more possible to see, so too as I have slowly walked into the light of God, I have been more able - ever so slowly - to discern what God looks like. And He looks like this:

Come Holy Spirit (David Pytches)

I came across this in the church library the other day, and as I am starting to pursue an exploration of charismatic thinking and practice, it seemed remarkably heaven sent. I found it to be a very interesting book, and a reassuring one, although a little dated in some ways (it was written in 1985). David Pytches is one of the founding figures of Charismatic Spirituality in the UK, being particularly involved in New Wine. I'm attending a New Wine conference next April in Harrogate, which should be illuminating.

Things I liked about it: first and foremost, the theological grounding for expecting 'signs and wonders' as a normal and routine part of apostolic ministry. I'm persuaded of this, and I suspect this is the most important thing I need to digest. I also liked the way in which the exercise of a healing ministry (for example) was separated off from any sense of controlling the outcome or feeding the ego of the minister (one of the things that had always steered me away from charismatic spirituality).

There were two things I didn't like. The first was a sense of spiritual confinement, in that prophecy, for example, is a much larger and more dynamic gifting than is expressed in Paul's letters - but Paul's letters seemed to set the parameters for the exercise of that gift. This seemed sub-biblical; bizarrely, I would want to enlarge the active role of God beyond what was argued for here. The other element which seemed wrong was the lumping together of other faiths with a general sense of the demonic. I am not persuaded that, for example, the practice of yoga is Satanic; indeed I would argue quite strenuously for the opposite - that this sort of opposition to yoga is Satanic, in that it is embedded in skandalon and the taking of offence.

Yet those criticisms are not central to the book. I'd recommend it as a first step - it has certainly helped me.