Friday, May 30, 2008

The Reaping

My favourite sort of horror film - all supernatural tension and virtually no gore. Solidly done. 3/5

The Economist debunks Peak Oil


My views on the Economist haven't changed since writing this post.


Theodicy meme

To my great pleasure and interest, people are running with the theodicy meme.

These are the answers I've found so far:
Velveteen Rabbi (lovely title for a blog)
Jim West
James McGrath (and I should say that clicking through to his site made me see a tremendously significant SPOILER for the next episode of Lost which has made me a trifle upset; I normally postpone reading James until after I've seen the relevant episodes!)
Eddie Arthur
Chuck Grantham
Tzvee Zahavy
Duane Smith
Alto Artist
Amber Temple
Mark Woo
Several responses at Sarx

I'll try and keep tabs on them all and put the links up here.

For my earlier post on the problem of suffering go here.

The meme is being spread around the community of believers (from which I gain reassurance that my perspective is not at all unusual) but criticisms from an atheist angle can be found at Stephen Law's place. He's written quite a lot about it (see here).


Fifty stunning photos.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


I always get a thrill from seeing these magnificent vessels. I don't think it's just for autobiographical reasons; there is something quite wonderful about them.


Ten things I hate about Star Trek.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sheer foolishness about petrol prices

There have been some e-mails circulating about a proposed boycott of Shell and BP garages with the avowed aim of carrying on "UNTIL THEY LOWER THEIR PRICES TO THE 69p a LITRE RANGE".

Get real people!! Are you really this delusional? Here are some facts that you might like to ponder.

1. The Western oil companies have very little control over the oil price, for the simple reason that they control very little oil.

The companies that control the world's flow of oil are the national oil companies of Russia, Venezuela and the Middle East. Feel free to share with them the plight of the western consumer.

2. The UK government has much greater say over the price of our petrol, but THIS IS A GOOD THING. I'm not in favour of high taxation generally, but the fact that our petrol is so heavily taxed means that the increase in the cost of crude is muffled. In other words, a doubling of the oil price does not mean, for us, a doubling in the price that we pay at the pump. This means that our economy is less likely to go to the wall, and people's jobs will be more secure. THIS IS A GOOD THING.

3. The fundamental reason why the cost of fuel is increasing is PEAK OIL. If you haven't taught yourself what this is yet, then I'd recommend Googling the phrase. There are only two essential facts you need to know:

- worldwide production of conventional crude oil hit a plateau three years ago and not only is there no prospect of this production increasing but it is certain that this production will be decreasing significantly over the coming years;

- worldwide demand for oil is increasing, principally due to the industrialisation of Asia.

Supply is stagnant; demand is increasing - this is why the price of oil is going up! It will continue to go up until there has been enough 'demand destruction' to balance supply and demand. In other words it will carry on getting more and more expensive until most of us can't afford it any more. It's got nothing to do with BP and Shell trying to gouge the consumer.

4. As a result of Peak Oil, and the painful but unavoidable truth that humanity knows of no possible substitute for oil capable of reproducing all the work that oil presently does in our civilisation, oil will first become more and more expensive (see 3 above) and then more and more scarce. The habits of life, centred on the car, which we have built up over the last two generations will be forced to finish as we simply won't have the energy to keep them going. Our future is local, sustainable and resilient. For more information on that, Google the phrase 'Transition Town'.

Boycotting Shell and BP is not only pointless foolishness, it is a distraction from the much more serious and far-reaching changes in our patterns of life that we need to start on NOW! It's time to get real, and to leave the comfortable politics of protest behind us.

Reasonable Atheism (19): Four questions on theodicy

In a comment, scott (gray) asked these four questions, which I think could work as a meme...

1. if the nature of god is omnipotent, benevolent, and anthropomorphic (that god is a person, who sees suffering as wrong, and can change all of it), why does god not act to relieve all suffering, or at least the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of time?
2. if you were god, and you were omnipotent and benevolent, how would you respond to suffering?
3. if this is not the nature of god, what is the nature of god, that allows suffering in the world?
4. if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?

My answers:
1. Put briefly I don't think that these philosophical categories map naturally onto the Christian God (they are Greek rather than Hebrew?). In particular God does not act arbitrarily (that is, he is consistent) and therefore once he is in the relationship of creator to creation, which allows freedom, he doesn't overpower that freedom of creation. Hence we have sin which causes suffering (which is a way of saying: Christians interpret suffering as estrangement from God. I think there is a deeply embedded overlap here between the orthodox Christian view and the Buddhist idea that suffering is illusion, but I would want to ponder that more).
2. Well, I'm not God and part of the problem is that God's will is by definition unfathomable. I'm not sure that a God who was fully explicable in human terms would be worth worshipping. I think this is one of the most crucial areas that lead to incomprehension on the part of atheists, because belief in God requires a certain degree of surrendering judgement and that is so profoundly taboo in Modern understandings that it is barely even mentionable.
3. The nature of God is resurrection after crucifixion. Suffering is overcome and redeemed, not blotted out.
4. I think the question I would want to pursue in the context of a conversation about suffering is: what makes life meaningful in the face of death? Does anything matter? How do we order our lives in such a way that they gain integrity and depth and meaning in the face of what can appear a totally capricious fate? (Nussbaum is really good on outlining the Ancient Greek interpretations of this in The Fragility of Goodness) It seems to me that as soon as a positive answer to these questions is explored either all meaning is self-generated and chosen (which is the specifically Modern conceit) or else we begin to talk about meaning being derived from something apart from our choices. At that point we have entered the realm of religious language and theology.

To turn it into a meme, I tag John, Peter, Paul, Joe and Tom.


The Top Ten Arthur C. Clarke quotations, including this gem:
"All explorers are seeking something they have lost. It is seldom that they find it, and more seldom still that the attainment brings them greater happiness than the quest."

Monday, May 26, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (18): Hart, Law and the problem of suffering

I sent a link to David Bentley Hart's article on the problem of suffering to Stephen Law, which has occasioned some discussion, much of which seems to be incomprehension. I think this is a good example of where there is some talking past each other going on (partly because Hart's argument is addressed to a Christian audience) so I thought I'd try and summarise what Hart's argument is. Click 'full post' for text.

As I read it, Hart is arguing for the following four points (my emphases in bold):
1. The problems thrown up by these catastrophes are not new problems

"...nothing that occurred that day or in the days that followed told us anything about the nature of finite existence of which we were not already entirely aware."

2. Atheists don't understand Christian perspective

" is difficult not to be annoyed when a zealous skeptic, eager to be the first to deliver God His long overdue coup de grĂ¢ce, begins confidently to speak as if believers have never until this moment considered the problem of evil or confronted despair or suffering or death."
"It would have at least been courteous, one would think, if he had made more than a perfunctory effort to ascertain what religious persons actually do believe before presuming to instruct them on what they cannot believe."
(On Voltaire's response to the Lisbon earthquake): "Voltaire’s poem is not a challenge to Christian faith; it inveighs against a variant of the “deist” God, one who has simply ordered the world exactly as it now is, and who balances out all its eventualities in a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality."

3. It is the fault of Christians themselves that they're not understood - lots of bad theology

"In truth, though, confronted by such enormous suffering, Christians have less to fear from the piercing dialectic of the village atheist than they do from the earnestness of certain believers ... more troubling are the attempts of some Christians to rationalize this catastrophe in ways that, however inadvertently, make that argument all at once seem profound."
"All three wished to justify the ways of God to man, to affirm God’s benevolence, to see meaning in the seemingly monstrous randomness of nature’s violence, and to find solace in God’s guiding hand. None seemed to worry that others might think him to be making a fine case for a rejection of God, or of faith in divine goodness. Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all."
Dostoevsky: "Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small child to death, would you think the price acceptable?"
"Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the actual history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoevsky sees — and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his Christian view of reality — that it would be far more terrible if it were."
"No less metaphysically incoherent — though immeasurably more vile — is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature."
"...consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of — but entirely by way of — every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome."

4. Suffering is evil, a cosmic disorder, which will be put right (ie mended)

"Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. [SN: ie not try to justify them] For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave."
"As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead."
"We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”


In sum, Hart is arguing that Christian theology does not seek to explain or justify the existence of suffering in the world in terms of God's ultimate purpose. Suffering is understood as a disorder, a privation of the good, something which is opposed to God and which can therefore be 'hated with a perfect hatred'.

Lying behind this article is another perspective that needs to be taken account of in order to understand his argument, about what it means to call God 'good'. Orthodox Christianity is very careful about what it means to call God 'good' because of the ever-present danger of tacitly assuming a place from which to judge God as either good or evil. So when a Christian believer calls God 'good' the language does not function in the same way as it would when such a Christian describes another person as good (or evil), and, further, it becomes just as meaningful to describe God as the source of suffering (of 'weal and woe' as Isaiah puts it) as it would be to describe God as source of good things when those good things are judged as such in human terms.

This is why possibly the most important sentence in Hart's article is this comparatively early one: "Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all." In other words, the problem of suffering is not as important as we might think it to be, and when Christian theologians treat this problem as something that calls into question the existence of God, they are giving it more importance than it deserves (as a theological question). If this world is all that there is, then the problem of suffering is enhanced - for in the face of suffering and death, how can meaning be established? Yet if - as Christian theology insists - there is more to life than what we can perceive with our immediate material senses, then it is possible to assert that meaning (and therefore the language of faith - Godtalk - theology) persists in the face of suffering.

One way of bringing this out is to return to the question of Voltaire and the response to the earthquake in Lisbon. There was no immediate cessation of belief in God on the part of the residents of Lisbon, rather the opposite. It was only on the cultured sensibilities of Voltaire and his ilk that this event had such an impact; as Hart implies, it was only to theodicy - which, as a form of justifying God to humanity, cannot be orthodox Christianity - that such events were a shock. I do not believe it to be accidental that it is to the increasingly affluent and cultured despisers of faith that such traumas are experienced as shocking. Those who spend their lives more closely engaged with the daily reality and struggle for existence, who are much more acquainted with suffering on a daily basis, are also the ones in whom religious faith is most deeply rooted. (But then, they tend not to be educated in the Western sense, so their views don't count...)


Whose religion is Christianity?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

More manna for the inner ten year old

Another morning when I completely forgot to take a picture. Something is messing with my head at the moment. In the meantime here's a clip I came across which fellow comic nerds will appreciate.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Yup, pretty good, lots of really good bits but I can't quite shake the sense that the ending was a little bit of a let-down. It needed something extra by way of hinting at explanations, but Spielberg is a master at this sort of thing and he hasn't disappointed. 4/5


I hate penalties.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Five questions on creation

This is extremely interesting (via Doug).

1. Do you believe in God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen?
2. Do you believe that the claim that God is the maker of heaven and earth, if true, provides a good explanation of the existence, or some of the characteristics, of the world in which we find ourselves?
3. Do you believe that this claim provides an explanation of matters that would otherwise be inexplicable - such that this explanatory power constitutes a good reason for believing the claim?
4. Do you believe that this claim stands or falls by its explanatory power - such that if it is shown not to have such explanatory power, it follows that it should be rejected?
5. Do you believe that the meaning of the claim is constituted by its explanatory power, such that ‘God’ essentially means only what is needed to provide this explanatory power, and anything that follows from it?

A lot depends upon how the terms are defined (especially 'explanation' - is it meant in a scientific sense, ie causal?) but I would say yes to at least the first four I think. Which makes me unorthodox by his lights!

Bread of Life (4): a real process

Jesus says “This is my body.” Now what might that mean? I will devote an entire session to that question, but for now let us just ponder that when Jesus predicts that the temple will be cast down, he says it will be rebuilt in three days, and then when the local people say, 'how can he rebuild the temple in three days?', the answer given in John’s gospel is 'he was talking about his body'. Communion is the new temple: the temple has passed away, has passed to the Old Testament and that which the temple accomplished in terms of atonement, in terms of wiping away sin, reconciliation with God, those functions of the temple are now enacted within the body. Christ’s body is now the temple.

Jesus also says, “Do this in remembrance of me”. Now the 'in remembrance', the word is anamnesis. It is only used in one other place in the Bible, that’s in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in Leviticus, so there is some debate over exactly what is meant. A key element, however, is this sense that just as with Passover, it is not just a memorial. It’s a re-enactment, you are taking part in the events as you re-enact them. It is a present tense process. In particular there is a sense in which, or a suggestion of, invoking, that Jesus becomes present in the anamnesis. So to do this in remembrance of me, it is do this to bring me amongst you, it has that shade of meaning in it.

St Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 says 'this bread that we share, is it not a sharing, is it not a participation, is it not a communion in Christ’s blood?' Paul is arguing about eating meat from pagan sacrifices, whether it is acceptable for the community in Corinth to do this, and also to eat the supper of the Lord. He says 'well, when you are eating those sacrifices, you are sharing, you are becoming part of the body of the pagans. And you can’t do that because when you are having the Lord’s supper you are becoming part of the Body of Christ'. His argument doesn’t make sense if the process is just a symbolic process, you don’t become a part of the body of pagans if it is just a symbolic act. It’s a real act, there is something real going on. St Paul has a very robust sense of the reality of what it means to share the body and the blood, to share the bread and the wine. Not least because, as he goes on to talk about in 1 Corinthians 11, those who eat unworthily, those who don’t take it seriously, those who are frivolous (which is about not actually believing, not believing in the process, not believing that this is something real going on) - those who eat unworthily are guilty of the body and the blood, which is an expression meaning that they share in the murder, they acquire the guilt of the killing. So they crucify Jesus again. It is saying they are still bound up with the values of the world, the worldly values which crucified Christ, those which put him to death. If you don’t understand what’s going on in communion, if you don’t take it seriously, treat it as this real substantial process, then you are still sharing in the values of the world, and therefore you are still sharing in what murders. It is what kills Christ but it is also what destroys our own inner life.

No TBTM, just 3MT

Completely forgot to take a TBTM on the beach this morning - various things on my mind - but yesterday I met up with a fellow clerical blogger from Kent, which was an excellent day. Go here for a sample of why he's such an interesting writer - indeed, such an interesting writer that he's got a two book contract with Continuum press. Jammy git :o)

Had a nice lunch in this pub, close to my old stomping grounds, where we put the Church of England back into good theological shape.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


I'm going up to London to have lunch with the three minute theologian today. Doubtless we shall continue our plotting to murder George Herbert....

The possibility and relevance of unmediated experience

An essay I wrote for my MA at Heythrop, relevant to a debate going on at the moment.

1. This essay will be concerned with the possibility and relevance of unmediated experience, that is, an experience which is not determinatively shaped by the prior conceptual background of the subject. The essay therefore seeks to understand the debate provoked by Steven Katz in his original article ‘Language, Epistemology and Mysticism’[1], and taken forward in particular by Robert Forman in his edited work ‘The Problem of Pure Consciousness’[2]. Forman’s work was provoked by the work of Steven Katz, and much of the development of his ideas comes in dialogue with Katz. In this essay, therefore, I shall first outline the argument as Katz presents it, provide a summary of Forman’s response, and indicate my own position. I shall then consider what is at stake in the debate as a whole, drawing on some criticisms made by Grace Jantzen.

‘There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences’

2. Katz’s article is concerned to argue the following case:

> there is no such thing as a pure experience;
> therefore all mystical experience is constituted by a formative tradition; and therefore
> the proper form of study of mystical experience is through respecting difference.

Katz begins his article[3] by taking issue with the attempt to account for the phenomena of mystical experience by assuming that there can be any experience apart from the cultural grounding in which such experience is found. Katz claims quite baldly that there can be no such thing as a pure experience. He writes:

‘…let me state the single epistemological assumption that has exercised my thinking and which has forced me to undertake the present investigation: There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences. Neither mystical experience nor more ordinary forms of experience give any indication, or any ground for believing, that they are unmediated. That is to say, all experience is processed through, organized by, and makes itself available to us in extremely complex epistemological ways. The notion of unmediated experience seems, if not self-contradictory, at best empty.’[4]

For Katz both the experience itself as well as the report made of it are ‘shaped by concepts which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience…the forms of consciousness which the mystic brings to experience set structured and limiting parameters on what the experience will be’[5]. Once Katz has explained this guiding assumption, the remainder of his article is concerned with drawing out the implications for the study of mysticism.

3. Katz develops his argument by first considering recent work by Zaehner and Stace. He criticises Stace for being arbitrary in choosing which experiences are to be counted as prior, and for seeing the full force of the point that experience is mediated. Zaehner is criticised on three counts: he is concerned only with post-experiential testimony; his account is distorted by the need for Catholic apologetic; and his phenomenology, although not without merit, is ultimately too simplistic – ‘Zaehner’s well known investigations flounder because his methodological, hermeneutical, and especially epistemological resources are weak.’[6]

4. This is followed by discussions of different forms of mysticism: Jewish, Buddhist and then Christian, the weight of which is concerned to establish the way in which tradition and formation shapes what is experienced. In the course of this discussion, Katz also criticises reliance upon a sense of the ‘ineffable’ to establish commonality between mysticisms. He points out that, purely as a logical matter, if ‘the mystic does not mean what he says and his words have no literal meaning whatsoever then not only is it impossible to establish my pluralistic view, but it is also logically impossible to establish any view whatsoever. If none of the mystics’ utterances carry any literal meaning then they cannot serve as the data for any position…’ (This is supported later in the paper when he points out that merely to say that mystics share an experience of an ineffable and paradoxical nature is not to say that those experiences are of the same ineffability or paradox: ‘To assume, as James, Huxley, Stace and many others do, that, because both mystics claim that their experiences are paradoxical, they are describing like experiences is a non sequitur.’) Katz reaches the interim conclusion that ‘mystical experience is ‘over-determined’ by its socio-religious milieu: as a result of his process of intellectual acculturation in its broadest sense, the mystic brings to his experience a world of concepts, images, symbols, and values which shape as well as colour the experience he eventually and actually has.’[7]

5. In the final section of his paper, Katz broadens his concern to look at questions of language in the study of mysticism. He is concerned to argue that much study of mysticism is misled by superficial resemblances in the surface grammar of mystical speech, without proper regard to what the meaning of such speech might be in its original context. He writes ‘What emerges clearly from this argument is the awareness that choosing descriptions of mystic experience out of their total context does not provide grounds for their comparability but rather severs all grounds of their intelligibility for it empties the chosen phrases, terms, and descriptions of definite meaning.’[8] For Katz, such considerations ‘lead us back again to the foundations of the basic claim being advanced in this paper, namely that mystical experience is contextual’[9] because ‘This much is certain: the mystical experience must be mediated by the kind of beings we are.’[10]

The Possibility of Unmediated Experience
6. This paper is concerned primarily with the possibility of ‘unmediated experience’, which Katz openly describes as an ‘assumption’ in his article, and so it will not closely examine other elements of his paper. Suffice to say that the assertion that the traditional background of a mystic will play some part in preparing for or influencing what is experienced, and that it will determine the way in which such experiences are described – in other words, the second element in his argument – is comparatively uncontroversial; and consequently the third element of his argument, although not without problems relating to the emphasis on difference[11], is also comparatively uncontroversial. However, before beginning to focus on his guiding assumption, it would be worth pointing out that Katz’s avowed pluralism leads to significant problems with his overall project, on three separate grounds:

a) The claim to neutrality between different religious claims is self-refuting, as it takes up a position antagonistic to the claims of the religions themselves;

b) Similarly, with respect to his relativistic perspective, which pretends to a neutral stance from which to observe phenomena without acknowledging the commitments of that stance itself; and

c) His claim that religious perspectives are incommensurable is problematic as that would disallow any form of comparative religious study (for what is to count as a religion?) and therefore rule out the possibilities of articles such as his own.

Put broadly, Katz is situated within a distinctly modernist (post-Kantian) sensibility, which seeks to articulate an objective perspective over diverse phenomena, and which is silent on its own (significant) commitments, as it seeks to arbitrate between different concerns. Such a standpoint is illegitimate if it claims to provide the ‘final truth’ about the nature of mysticism.

7. Forman takes issue with Katz on a number of grounds. He begins his criticisms[12] by stating that Katz ‘maintains two interconnected theses which are linked by an unstated presupposition’. Those theses are, first, Katz’s assertion that all experiences are mediated by our conceptual understanding, and, second, that different religions provide different ‘sets’, i.e. different beliefs and concepts. According to Forman, the logical product of these theses is pluralism, which Forman takes to be important for Katz and others as it represents the rejection of the ‘perennial philosophy’ which maintains that there is a common experience in mysticisms across different traditions.[13] The first of these theses Forman characterises as constructivism, and for Forman this is the source of the difficulties in Katz’s outlook (Forman considers the second thesis, concerning different ‘sets’ to be something which ‘no right thinking person would disagree with’[14]). According to Forman, Katz describes ‘a process in which we impose our blanks or formularies onto the manifold of experience and encounter things in the terms those formularies define for us’[15], which can fairly be characterised as a constructivist position. Forman argues that Katz needs to be committed to a ‘complete’ constructivist thesis for his argument to hold. A modified constructivism might allow for some experiences to be only partly formed by the prior conceptual map, yet that would immediately allow for the claim that it is the non-conceptually formed part of an experience which is essentially mystical, and Katz’s argument breaks down: ‘the best way (perhaps the only way) to protect the pluralist hypothesis is through a complete constructivism’.[16]

8. Moving to specific criticisms of Katz’s article, Forman argues that Katz’s position has the virtues of credibility and respect for the differences between different traditions, but that these virtues are vitiated by fundamental problems with the overall perspective. Forman makes the following points:

a) Katz commits the fallacy of petitio principii, by which he assumes what he is trying to prove. Katz does assert that his paper ‘will attempt to provide the full supporting evidence and argumentation that this process of differentiation of mystical experience into the patterns and symbols of established religious communities is experiential and does not only take place in the post-experiential process of reporting and interpreting the experience itself: it is at work before, during, and after the experience.’[17] Yet as Forman correctly points out, ‘All [Katz] offers are summaries of religious doctrines and restatements of the original assumption. These are instances of an assumed claim, not arguments.’[18]

b) The argument as developed by Katz and colleagues is systematically incomplete. That is, there is no indication as to what concepts and beliefs are to count as important for the shaping of experience. Yet if no limits are applied, the argument is evacuated of meaningful content, for at that point it would have to be argued that all concepts shape all experiences, and ‘all of my experiences would change with every new notion learned. This is clearly absurd, for…I can only learn within a coherent set of experiences which are part of a single consistent background for any experience’.[19] This impales Katz upon a dilemma, for either no limits are applied, which renders the argument empty, or else limits are applied, and this opens up scope for asserting the existence of parallel experiences shaped by a common heritage (e.g. from neo-Platonism in Jewish, Sufi and Christian mysticism), which undermines the pluralism thesis.

c) Katz is careless of the distinction between sense and reference, i.e. that similar language can refer to different things, or, conversely, divergent language can refer to the same thing. Conceptually, as Forman points out, it makes sense to imagine cases where different religious traditions might consider the experiences of a concrete individual, and say ‘that is experience X’ or ‘that is experience Y’. Forman writes ‘There is no problem in using different terms with different senses to refer to the same experience. Whether this is, in fact, what they would say is not a matter for a philosopher to decide in advance’.[20]

d) Forman’s final specific point claims that Katz commits the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Logically, it is perfectly possible that the relationship between belief and experience is contingent rather than necessary, and Forman refers to the different gastro-intestinal experiences undergone by an Eskimo and a Frenchman – the differences in culture and expectation will no doubt shape the experiences undergone, but that does not mean that the culture caused the experiences themselves (the food did that).

Interim conclusions
9. What can be made of Katz’s assertion that ‘There are NO pure (ie umediated) experiences’, for this does represent the foundation of his argument? The first thing to note is that there is no epistemological discussion concerning what is to count as ‘experience’ – whether pure or not – and this is part of Katz’s general inadequacy on questions of epistemology.[21] If experience is taken to mean ‘whatever may happen to an individual’ then it would seem uncontentious to suggest that humans might experience something which is unmediated by prior concepts or beliefs – an obvious example is of a small child experiencing pain, but that can extend to, eg, the instinctive recoil from a hot stove which happens without any nerve signal passing through to the brain. Yet this is not of great significance for our discussions, as the discussion of mysticism depends upon the reports made by mystics of what they have experienced (or, more accurately, upon the teaching of the mystics). The question therefore stands as to what is to count as an experience. An interim definition might be ‘an event undergone by an aware subject, which impinges upon their understanding’. The argument that there is no such thing as a pure experience is therefore that there are no events, which have consequent implications in terms of understanding etc., that are not themselves the products of a prior understanding, and related to this is the argument that it is meaningless to talk of ‘non-conceptual’ experience (because ‘non-conceptual’ is itself a conceptual term). A useful interlocutor to introduce at this point would be Thomas Kuhn, for his understanding of the way that scientific understandings change can provide a non-religious parallel for our discussions. It seems to me that there is a parallel between the constructivist position articulated by Katz and what Kuhn describes as ‘normal’ science, and between the experiences that Forman is concerned with and what Kuhn describes as ‘creative’ or ‘revolutionary’ science.

10. Over the last thirty five years or so there has been a great deal of historical investigation of the way in which scientific revolutions or paradigm shifts take place, sparked in the main by Thomas Kuhn’s ground-breaking study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. [22] Contrary to the received (modernist) opinion that science provided a sure path to knowledge, and that science developed in slow methodical steps to a greater understanding of the truth, Kuhn showed that there were a large number of non-rational factors at work in any paradigm shift. For Kuhn, the great majority of scientific enquiry normally takes place within a particular paradigm. For example, to establish the particular way in which one species has evolved requires research, and the way that that research is constructed is governed by the assumptions inherent within the dominant paradigm. It is rather as if the paradigm has set down railway tracks down which the practice of scientific enquiry must travel. In this way the normal practice of science, in fact the vast majority of what is currently described as science, is a deductive and non-innovative activity. The practice of scientific method is applied to a particular area, in line with the assumptions of the dominant paradigm, and the conclusions derived from experiment or observation are then added in to the relevant body of knowledge. Most science is essentially puzzle solving. As such, this form of scientific endeavour is determinatively shaped by the conceptual background of the researcher, and is open to the type of constructivist interpretation favoured by Katz.

11. However, in contrast to this is revolutionary science, which is when a dominant paradigm is overturned in favour of a different understanding. Classic examples of revolutionary science are the change from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican cosmology, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the change from a Newtonian paradigm to an Einsteinian paradigm. As normal science proceeded within a particular paradigm data experienced would be either incorporated into the prevailing worldview or be rejected as erroneous, but over time there would develop an increasing number of anomalies and inconsistencies between the information gathered and the dictates of the overarching paradigm. The paradigm would be revised piece by piece until the weight of anomalies became too great. At that point the most creative scientists would develop a different paradigm which, once articulated, would then be used to interpret the information gathered in a new and more productive way. As Kuhn writes[23] ‘the perception of anomaly – of a phenomenon, that is, for which his paradigm had not readied the investigator – played an essential role in preparing the way for perception of novelty’. This would seem prima facie to be a well understood example of an experience which was not conceptually determined by the background attitudes and beliefs of the observer. Indeed, by definition, such background details cannot have formed the experience, for it is the status of the attitudes and beliefs that is called into question by the experience.

12. I would argue that the constructivist position, as articulated by Katz, is ultimately a sterile one, which precludes any understanding of normal intellectual (or spiritual) development. Forman makes this point when he argues that the constructivist hypothesis has difficulties in finding a place for creative novelty in their schema[24]. As such I would argue that it IS possible to have an experience which is not mediated by a prior conceptual world-view, and that there is such a thing as unmediated experience. The anomalies described by Kuhn fall into that category by definition, because they are experiences which are not fully understood – the scientist is baffled – and it is only at a later stage, once the overall conceptual framework has changed, that the experiences are able to be linked in with the beliefs and conceptual heritage of the individual concerned. I therefore judge that Katz is wrong to disallow any possibility of unmediated experience, and that Forman is correct to argue for its possibility.

The relevance of unmediated experience
13. Forman spends much time, with his colleagues, in developing a theory of the ‘Pure consciousness event’ and exploring some of the ramifications of this theory. Whilst I have some sympathy for his account, not least in the way in which it can have a spiritually beneficial function in provoking a growth of understanding, this last section of my essay shall be concerned with a criticism of Forman’s approach. This line of criticism is not concerned so much with the possibility of a pure experience, as with its religious relevance.

14. In her book ‘Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism’[25] Grace Jantzen makes the argument that who is to count as a mystic, and what is to count as mystical writing, has changed over time, and been subject to political, especially patriarchal control. From its original sense relating to ancient Greek mystery cults, through the early Christian understanding relating to the discernment of meaning in scripture, in our present age mysticism has come to refer to a highly exalted state of feeling: ‘Instead of referring to the central, if hidden, reality of scripture or sacrament, the idea of “mysticism” has been subjectivised beyond recognition, so that it is thought of in terms of states of consciousness or feeling.’[26] This transition from the public realm to private sensation has the political consequence of marginalising the testimony of the mystics and a significant part of Jantzen’s argument is to show that this transition coincided with the growth of women’s voices in the mystical tradition – so part of the effect of this shift has been to minimise the impact of women’s voices: ‘It was only with the development of the secular state, when religious experience was no longer perceived as a source of knowledge and power, that it became safe to allow women to be mystics…The decline of gender as an issue in the definition of who should count as a mystic was in direct relation to the decline in the perception of mystical experience, and religion generally, as politically powerful’.[27]

15. My interest here is not so much with the gender issue as with the broader political issue. For it seems clear that the modern conception of mystical experience, deriving from Schleirmacher via William James[28], which emphasises the importance of personal feelings, stands in marked contrast to the testimony of the Christian mystics themselves. In particular, the idea of ineffability (that is, the via negativa, or the apophatic path) has changed from being an imagery concerned with letting go of false idols to being a direct report of personal experience. The principal reservation that I have about Forman’s account is that he is concerned with an abstraction from living religious traditions. Although he concedes that this is only one part of the spectrum of mystical experiences, and he does ‘not regard it as salvific in and of itself’[29] I would put the case more strongly: unless these experiences are able to be absorbed and valued by a religious community, then they are irrelevant to theology.

16. Katz’s paper was explicitly based on the assumption that ‘There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences.’ This assumption is unwarranted. For the reasons outlined by Forman, and by consideration of the parallel experiences in scientific research it would seem clear that there are experiences which are not wholly constructed by the conceptual background of the individual. To assert that there are no such experiences is to deny any possibilty of creative development, and, if nothing else, that stands in contrast to the mystical teachings which Katz is claiming to study. However, the existence of unmediated experience is, of itself, not religiously significant. Forman would appear to stand in the line of modernist interpretation which emphasises the importance of the individual experience[30]. Yet this highly academic approach does seem to have disengaged with all that is most vital and distinctive in the religious tradition itself. Two points are worth making in conclusion. The first is that the mystics worked and taught within the context of a living tradition – they were deeply engaged with the inheritance of faith. As Bernard McGinn puts it, ‘No Mystics (at least before the present century) believed in or practiced “mysticism”. They believed in and practiced Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism), that is, religions that contained mystical elements as parts of a wider historical whole’.[31] Secondly, the mystical path, the attempt to discern the nature of God – and to thereby be transformed by God in turn – has what would now be considered essentially political consequences. The fruits of mystical contemplation were to be found in increased social engagement – in the search for justice and mercy in the wider social sphere, hence the concern for the relief of poverty on the part of the mendicant orders and the Beguines. As such, the existence of unmediated experience needs to be subjected to a rigorous religious critique. Fortunately, the writings of the mystics themselves provide the ideal raw material for such a study.

Language, Epistemology and Mysticism, Steven Katz, in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Steven Katz (editor), Oxford University Press (London: Sheldon Press), 1978.
The Problem of Pure Consciousness, Robert K C Forman (editor), Oxford University Press, 1990.
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, 2nd Edition, 1970.
Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism, Cambridge University Press, 1995
Mark A McIntosh, Mystical Theology, Blackwell, 1998
Denys Turner, The Darkness of God, Cambridge University Press, 1995

[1] Language, Epistemology and Mysticism, Steven Katz, in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Steven Katz (editor), Oxford University Press (London: Sheldon Press?#), 1978. Hereafter LEM.

[2] The Problem of Pure Consciousness, Robert K C Forman (editor), Oxford University Press, 1990. Hereafter: PPC.

[3] LEM p23-4.

[4] LEM p26. Emphases in the original.

[5] LEM p26-7. Emphasis in the original.

[6] LEM p32.

[7] LEM p46.

[8] LEM p46-7.

[9] LEM p56-7.

[10] LEM p59.

[11] For example, the fact the people share a common humanity (a common physiology), born of a common existence on one planet, would provide some grounds for optimism relating to the exploration of common elements between different religions.

[12] PPC p9.

[13] I should point out that Forman is not consistent in his discussion of ‘theses’ and ‘axioms’. He moves from claiming that there are “two theses” linked by a “presupposition”, to describing the second thesis AS the “unstated presupposition”, and then to describing a “third axiom of the essay”, as a product of the first two. The “two theses” that he refers to at the beginning can therefore be taken to mean either 1. No unmediated experiences AND 2. Different religions have different sets; or 1. No unmediated experiences AND 2. Pluralism. My account takes the first of these two options as determinative, as the references later in the article seem to imply that this is Forman’s own preference.

[14] PPC p10.

[15] PPC p11.

[16] PPC p14.

[17] LEM p 27.

[18] PPC p16.

[19] PPC p17.

[20] PPC p18.

[21] For a detailed discussion of this point, see the essay by Donald Rothberg, Contemporary Epistemology and the study of Mysticism, in PPC, pp163 – 210.

[22] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, 2nd Edition, 1970.

[23] Kuhn, 1970, p57.

[24] PPC 19-21.

[25] Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism, Cambridge University Press, 1995

[26] Jantzen, p317.

[27] Jantzen, p 326.

[28] For an overview of the history, see Jantzen pp304-321.

[29] PPC p9

[30] To be fair to Forman, his position is a little more subtle. In his discussion of Eckhart, for example, he concedes that Eckhart’s intention is that ‘the contemplative life is only complete when brought into action’ (PPC p114).

[31] Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A history of Western Christian Mysticism, p xvi, quoted in Denys Turner, The Darkness of God, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p261.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.
O my soul, thou hast said unto the LORD,
Thou art my Lord: my goodness extendeth not to thee;
But to the saints that are in the earth,
and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.
Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god:
their drink offerings of blood will I not offer,
nor take up their names into my lips.
The LORD is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup:
thou maintainest my lot.
The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places;
yea, I have a goodly heritage.
I will bless the LORD, who hath given me counsel:
my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.
I have set the LORD always before me:
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth:
my flesh also shall rest in hope.
For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell;
neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
Thou wilt shew me the path of life:
in thy presence is fulness of joy;
at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.
(Psalm 16, KJV)

A brief theological sketch about supervisions

Last week I attended a training course at Pleshey (part 2 of 'how to look after your curate' although it wasn't officially called that). This post explains my disquiet about one aspect of the course - click 'full post' for text.

This part of the course was primarily about the art of supervisions, how to conduct the regular meetings between training incumbent and curate in such a way that the curacy 'succeeds'. There was a strong sense that the Diocese has been a little scarred by, some years back, a high number of curacies 'failing' - hence a renewed emphasis on the training of the incumbents who are due to receive a curate for training.

However, I was a little alarmed that in the opening session we ventured straight into various secular analyses of supervision which, however worthy, are not automatically entitled to be accepted within the church. I asked whether we were going to spend any time exploring the theology of supervisions and it seemed that apart from a minimal engagement with some passages from Mark's gospel, we weren't. This I see as a typical example of the way in which training as a whole in the Church of England is not just theologically lightweight but prone to being captured by secular philosophies travelling under the guise of 'professionalism'.

What I want to do in this post is sketch out the sort of theological framework that would need to be explored prior to engaging with the secular perspectives. I have no doubt that secular perspectives have much to contribute to the conversation, it's just that I believe we need to 'arm ourselves with the Word' before engaging with them, so that our minds are attuned to what is compatible with our faith and what is not. I don't have any especial expertise in this area so this is really a requested agenda in four parts, to be developed by those who are more qualified.

First: I would want to establish the essential groundwork, which would be something about relationships. We worship the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a God who is relational within Himself - and therefore relationships are at the heart of the Christian life. What we have in the supervision is above all a particular and intense form of relationship. Clearly there is a lot of relationship between incumbent and curate that will happen outside of the supervision, but the supervision is when it will come under the microscope, and where there is the greatest opportunity for serious and prayerful growth, so I would want to make this the first theological point: that paying attention to the quality of the relationship between curate and incumbent, and ensuring that it functions well, is the primary task of the supervision process. This can then be developed by describing the particular characteristics that would enable the relationship to function well, eg that it should be truthful (for the truth sets us free) and that it should be loving in the way that Christ embodied etc.

Second: I would want to explore 'the Eli principle'. What I have in mind is the passage in Samuel where Samuel receives his call from God. Eli is in the supervisory relationship and he at first sees the call that Samuel receives as an irritation (it disturbs his sleep - a theologically significant description). However, when Eli eventually recognises that God is present in the process he enables Samuel to listen to God and to follow his own vocation, at great personal cost. This seems to me to be the essential aspect to emphasise at the heart of the supervisory relationship: that God has a particular call on the curate's life, and that this does not necessarily travel through the incumbent. The relationship of incumbent to curate is not that of parent to child, but that of midwife to child - with God as the parent. The task of the incumbent is to enable the particular vocation that God has implanted within the curate to come to flower. As with Eli, this may be a costly endeavour.

Third: I find it remarkable that there was no time on the course when incumbents were enabled to spend time with the ordinal, exploring the different elements contained within it. That could easily be covered in a session like this - or, even better, used as the framework for all the worship elements through the two parts of the course. That was a missed opportunity I think.

Finally: I would want to explicitly articulate and own the different varieties of ministry that are possible within the parameters of the ordinal. I was concerned on the course that there was often a tacit acceptance of the George Herbert model of ministry, even if it was often in the context of the more mature members lamenting the way in which the 'new generation' didn't respect it. It would have been helpful if we had spent time considering the New Testament passages describing a variety of ministries, eg the five-fold division listed in Ephesians. This may have had a direct and positive practical impact in enabling the 'Eli principle' that I mentioned above. It would also have been a good opportunity to touch on wider issues, eg mission and the changed context of a post-Christendom church, which have a very real salience in the context where the curates will be working, and which therefore throw into question what sort of model of ministry should be followed by a curate.

I think a session devoted to exploring these elements would have been extremely beneficial. One of the best things about the course was the opportunity to hear people of widely differing churchmanships and experience discussing what it meant to train a curate. I think that conversation would have been enhanced if we had been able to share and debate the theological frameworks underlying our task as training incumbents.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Theology is not an academic subject

This is by way of an interim response to John's comment. It's a bit of a rant, and I'm sure that calm reflection would lead to rephrasings and more careful language, but I am more and more convinced of the main point as time goes on. (This is from my 'Let us Be Human' lectures.) Click 'full post' for text.

"Hear the word of the Lord O people of Israel for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty and no knowledge of God in the land, swearing, lying and murder and stealing and adultery break out, bloodshed follows bloodshed, therefore the land mourns and all who live in it languish, together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing." So what I said before about ecological crises and so on, links into faithfulness, righteousness, that the wider environment is giving feedback on the moral state of the people.

And it goes on "Let no-one contend and let none accuse - for with you is my contention O priest, you shall stumble by day, the prophet also shall stumble with you by night and I will destroy your mother," which is Israel or the church, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me and since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children, the more they increased, the more they sinned against me, they changed their glory into shame, they feed on the sin of my people, they are greedy for their iniquity and it shall be like people, like priest. I will punish them for their ways and repay them for their deeds."

In other words all these things that are going wrong, it's the priest's fault. It's because the people who have custody of the knowledge of God and whose duty it is to teach that knowledge of God and to train people in God's ways - they have failed. So that's the theme for this morning. I hope you excuse me if it becomes a little bit of a rant. Hopefully my spleen will last long enough to keep us going to half past ten but I might run out, anyhow....

"My people perish for lack of knowledge." I have been talking about idolatry a lot, that idolatry is when we get our priorities wrong. That we give too much importance to things which aren't that important and we don't give enough importance to that which is most important - which is the love of God and the love of neighbour. These two sides of the same coin. And the role of the religious authorities is precisely to teach people about what is important and what is not important, because this is what leads to life. This is the task of the religious teacher. To enable the life of the faithful. It is not simply about filling heads with words. It's about changing the shape of the lived out faith in order that the life itself is fruitful, and the church, small c, has manifestly failed....

Next heresy: the academy. One of the major ones which definitely makes me angry. Theology is not an academic subject. It is not something which accepts the norms and the authorities which are accepted in the academy. And in one sense the origin of everything that has gone wrong with the church in the last thousand years is that theology got shifted from the cloister, from the Eucharistic community, into the academy. It got divorced from the practice of Christian life and worship and this happened in the Middle Ages, around 1100, the rise of Scholasticism, a change in the way that theology was understood, the way it changed the way that God was understood, and suddenly you have this very abstract understanding of the faith coming in, which has all sorts of barbarous consequences. I've gone into this in other sessions before, I am sure that I will go into it again, but atheism for example is the direct consequence of theology forgetting what it is there for. That the defence of the belief in God didn't rest in Scripture or revelation, but rested on academic, philosophical proofs. And this process went on over centuries and culminates in secularism and atheism. The idea that this is just an abstract sense of what you can believe. This is where things really started to go wrong. And of course what it has meant is that theology and the teaching of theology has been absorbed by modernism, by the philosophical agenda arising in the seventeenth century. And the sense that theology or faith is a thing about private preference, that theology is all well and good but keep it to yourself. You know, what I was saying about Qutb last week, I've got a lot of sympathy with some of the things he says.

But theology is rotten. Fortunately this is starting to be understood, but things like how you train priests, how you train the clergy, you are not going to get faithful ministers if you train them in academic criticism of the Bible. This might sound like a really obvious thing, but the way in which clergy are trained in the Church of England, and also in many other denominations, is through the academic study of texts. I think there is only one theological college in England which does it properly and that's Mirfield. Has anyone heard of Mirfield? The community of the resurrection. And their emphasis - they don't have lots of teams of cleaners and cooking people, working for the students to make sure they can concentrate on the academic study of the text, they have the students looking after each other, they clean their own rooms, they actually live out a life of service. That is what is shaping them to be priests....


The UK Department of Transport makes assumptions about the oil price in order to plan its road traffic and congestion management.

Given that oil is presently over $127 a barrel, it's intriguing to see that they are predicting the price to drop by half over the next eighteen months or so....

Civil Servants: you gotta luv 'em.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Five sites doing Christian satire.

Speed Racer

Colourful fast and moderately fabulous. 3.5 out of 5


My course was a little disappointing and I left early (primarily because it was my day off). However I've got some further thoughts about the theology of being a training incumbent, which I'll share when I have more time. I ended up giving a talk on Peak Oil in the middle of the course as well, which was a little odd...


Gene Robinson is a very interesting man.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bread of Life (3): two more roots

Two further roots to the meal are worth mentioning: temple ritual and the order of Melchizedek.

Once the people of Israel had got established in the Promised Land and the Ark of the Covenant was in Solomon’s temple various processes of worship were developed, through the temple. One central ritual was the ritual of atonement, when the sins of the community are wiped clean. The people gather for the ritual and there is a process by which the high priest slaughters a bull as atonement for his sacrifice so he becomes ritually pure, he goes into the Holy of Holies, he puts on the robe of God, the mantle of God (and he is then called 'Son of God') and he comes out and there are two goats, one is the scapegoat, one is the Lord, and he slaughters the lamb representing God and he sprinkles the blood in order to cleanse creation: it is the blood of the lamb that cleanses creation. Then he lays his hands on the scapegoat and it gets driven out and so that the sins are put away and creation is renewed. You can see how the Christian liturgy draws on this language and imagery: we are washed clean by the blood of the lamb. It is a renewing of the community and the whole creation.

One other precursor worth mentioning is referred to in Psalm 110, and in Hebrews in particular, that Jesus is our high priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek. When I first came across this it was rather mysterious, but Genesis 14 is the source. Abraham has been involved in a battle and he gives a tribute to the local king (it could mean that he was the king of what became Jerusalem, because it is that sort of area). But Melchizedek offers a sacrifice and brings bread and wine and this is the blessing, he is acting, he is described as acting, as a priest, and this is a blessing for Abraham. So one of the keys things about this is that this is a priesthood (he is described in Genesis as a priest of the Most High God) that comes before the Levitical priesthood. As Jesus wasn’t a member of the Levitical priesthood, how can he have been a high priest? The answer is that he is a High Priest of the order of Melchizedek, which pre-dates the Levitical priesthood and is more powerful, there are all sorts of references to it being an eternal priesthood and so on, but I don’t want to go into this in too much detail as I will get out of my depth very quickly! It does seem to have been an important factor coming into what was understood.

So what does Jesus say about this meal? He says: “This is the new covenant.” He is deliberately establishing something, and it is drawing on the existing language, this old covenant, this Old Testament. (The word translated as testament is simply covenant, ie an agreement, in fact there were several agreements between God and the people of Israel.) Cultural forms like Passover and the temple ways of renewing the agreement, that covenant between God and the people - what Jesus is doing is saying this is the new agreement, God is acting again, God is renewing this process, there is a new agreement, you don’t have the old agreement any more, the old legal contract, there is a new one and this is what it is: it is the sharing of the bread and the wine.

Music and Lyrics

Sweet not sickly, and some spot-on 80s satire. 3/5

One movie

Ben Myers is starting up another meme, this one on movies, and he's invited contributions:

1. One movie that made you laugh
Bachelor Party

2. One movie that made you cry
The Pursuit of Happyness

3. One movie you loved when you were a child
Star Wars

4. One movie you’ve seen more than once
Blade Runner

5. One movie you loved, but were embarrassed to admit it
Daredevil (Director's Cut)

6. One movie you hated

7. One movie that scared you
An American Werewolf in London, when I first watched it

8. One movie that bored you

9. One movie that made you happy
Iron Man

10. One movie that made you miserable

11. One movie you weren’t brave enough to see
The Descent

12. One movie character you’ve fallen in love with
Anna Scott in Notting Hill

13. The last movie you saw
Music and Lyrics

14. The next movie you hope to see
Speed Racer

I tag: Tom, Paul, Jon, Tim and Joe


There will be a break in TBTMs until Friday as I'm off to Pleshey for part 2 of a training course.

Monday, May 12, 2008

David Ford: "If you have the Bible in one hand, what do you have in the other?"

The clergy of the Chelmsford Diocese gathered together today at the Cathedral to hear David Ford give a talk about the Bible. Some notes available if you click 'full post'.

Ford began by telling an anecdote about a train journey he had recently shared with Prof Nicholas Lash and Prof Eamonn Duffy, when he had asked them what the answer to the title question should be - Lash said 'a glass of wine', and Duffy riposted with 'an Armalite rifle'...

The origin for the question was Karl Barth's comment that the Bible should be read with a newspaper in the other hand - in other words we should relate what we read in Scripture to what we engage with in our world on a daily basis. After a brief discussion of Hans Frei, which I couldn't quite hear well enough to determine how relevant it was(!) Ford said 'What we most need in our church today is a wise interpretation of Scripture' - which I thought was spot on, and this was really his theme.

Ford remarked that we clergy use Scripture professionally every day, and suggested three things that needed to be 'in the other hand'.
1. Scholarship directly related to Scripture, of which there is an abundance to be used.
2. Interpretations of Scripture from Christian history (eg Augustine, Luther etc) so that we become aware of how texts have been understood in history, and therefore the need to re-read Scripture in the light of every new situation.
3. Contemporary theology, which is itself refreshed by contributions from 1. and 2.

This last was crucial, he argued. There are different grammatical moods available in Scripture, including the interrogative, indicative, imperative and subjunctive - but also, most crucially, an optative mood. In other words, our understanding of Scripture has to remain open-ended, constructed around a desire for something that we have not yet achieved. He said that we are on a road, in via, now we see through a glass darkly etc - and therefore the fundamental mood of our faith is desire and longing. It is therefore essential that we don't wrap up our interpretation of Scripture in a tight package of indicatives and imperatives - something vital to faith would thereby be missed.

At the heart of any interpretation of Scripture is a relationship with the living Christ, and Ford discussed the Emmaus story in this light - that as Christians we bring a particular 'resurrection hermeneutic' to the text, and that this allows something new to be discovered - Christ explained the Scripture to the disciples and then their hearts burned within them. What is allowed, encouraged even, is a creative engagement with the text that allows new things to form. The best example of this was John's gospel which begins with a Christian midrash on a Jewish text.

Lying behind the title question was the theme of how to live as a Christian in our contemporary society, and Ford said a little about Charles Taylor's recent book on the secular age, commenting on how secular thought has its own set texts and axioms. There was a digression to discuss an American Jewish author whose name I didn't quite catch (possibly Michael Fishbane??) but this brought Ford to his next major point - that we have to study and interpret the bible in the context of our worship and liturgy. He insisted that we must daily be exposed to reading and being read by Scripture, and that the Daily Office was irreplaceable, radical and basic. It is only by repetition that we become sufficiently immersed in Scripture and enabled to understand it. He remarked that one of the best forms of Anglican theology was the collect, eg from the BCP, and he read out the ASB collect for Pentecost which he regretted having lost:
"Almighty God, who on the day of Pentecost sent your Holy Spirit to the disciples with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame, filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel: send us out in the power of the same Spirit to witness to your truth and to draw all men to the fire of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen."
He remarked that Scripture is full of cries, of pain and joy, and that the hallmark of wise interpretation was the ability to understand those cries.

Finally he ran through some other possible answers to the title question: an empty hand; a blessing; someone else's Scripture; a quinquennial report (he had been a church warden for five years so knew about these); poetry, novels, radio local newspapers etc; a computer mouse and a diary.

On that very last point Ford finished with an impassioned cri de coeur for clergy to take more seriously the responsibility of preaching. He asked how much time we give to our sermons, and whether we mark out particular time for it in our diaries. It is sometimes the only contact that people have with the world of the Bible, and people have died for our ability to do this, so 'please please please take this incredibly seriously'. We should have as our aim in preaching that people should leave with their hearts burning within them...

In questions he recommended some authors: Ellen Davis (three books of hers, especially this one); Luke Johnson; Richard Hays; Tom Wright; Richard Bauckham and, with warm endorsement, Rowan.

A really solid talk, and it was good to catch up with a number of fellow clergy.


Most of you will already have discovered him, but I find the internet-monk to have a refreshingly honest evangelical perspective. This is well worth reading.

Friday, May 09, 2008

On liturgy

It's become apparent in the benefice that I still need to do some explanation as to why liturgy is essential for right worship. So I'm plotting six or seven articles in the parish magazines about liturgy and related matters. They'll probably start out as blogposts ;-)

However, in the meantime, Kyle is on really good form at the moment. Check out his posts on monasticism (definitely something I'm pondering with regard to Mersea) and even more, this post which includes his comments:

Response to Con #1. Oh, if only we could teach people to “simply recite praise to God”! In the Catholic tradition, we understand that the “rigid” liturgy teaches us to pray extemporaneously. The Church teaches us the language of prayer and praise, and until we start to use it, we don’t even know what it would be like to “mean” it. Our “incredibly rigid” liturgy (I’m choosing to claim that, I know you didn’t put it on me) is expanding the imaginative world of our people to understand that they inhabit a world which is receiving the healing presence of this Kingdom where God lives and reigns.

In our tradition, there is very little of what you call “variety” permitted, and I give thanks for that. As a matter of fact, we do the same thing every week, with “different songs, prayers [and] sermons.” And it’s a good thing.

Con #2. Christian liturgy is not meant to be comfortable for “guests or pre-Christians.” It is the rehearsal of the grand story that informs our lives, and it puts the lie to every other story by which people of this world lives their lives. Christian liturgy is political and prophetic, and God help us if those outside the community find it “comfortable.”

Con #3. In our tradition, laity read the scripture (great big chapters of it), serve the Precious Blood, and lead the bible classes. At the same time, the pastor is the Rector (ruler) and what he says goes in terms of Christian worship. The liturgy is bound up with pastoral care, and it is his responsibility.

Con #4. I suggest that for proponents of what you call “contemporary” worship, the reason they struggle to be transformed is 1) the liturgy is inappropriate to begin with (did you eat Jesus this week?) and 2) they have yet to submit themselves to the Jesus who comes to them in what they call “the same old thing.” Chasing after the next interesting thing only seems edifying.

Con #5. Clearly, one man’s “lazy” is another man’s “faithful.”

A final word - the blogger (Jeremy) leaves a comment: "Thanks for the comments, Kyle and indie. Your word are very enlightening and I will reflect upon and learn from them." Would that we all - including me - had such an enlightened attitude.