Thursday, January 31, 2008


You're an accident waiting to happen.
You're a piece of glass left there on the beach.

Monday, January 28, 2008


I realise that despite having mentioned it a couple of times, I've never said much on this blog about the sort of visions that I get periodically. The two most overwhelming ones (August 1990 and May 1995) were sudden, dramatic and life-changing, but they are not very typical. Much more typical is something less dramatic and conclusive, which often recur. They are more like a type of daydream, distinguished from such simply by the sense of being 'gripped', with a strong sense of being 'present' in them (as opposed to a more abstract musing and free-association, which I also do quite a lot of). As I've said before, I have not as yet set much store by these visions. I find them helpful for reflection in terms of my own spiritual journey but I don't see them as having any particular bearing outside of my own soul.

Anyhow, some examples.

Throughout the 1990's I had a recurring vision of being in the presence of Christ but wholly unable to look at him; I was simply grovelling on the floor and only able to look at his feet. As time went on it became much clearer to me that it wasn't Jesus preventing me from looking up, it was myself. (I sometimes wonder if these began before or after I watched Bad Lieutenant which has a very similar scene in it.)

One from the late 1990's: being on the seabed and chained down like an anchor, there is an earthquake and I become a bubble starting a journey to the surface.

One from a guided meditation at Westcott (this one hasn't repeated in the same sort of way as the others, but I have been able to remember it clearly. I think this experience is one of the main reasons why I haven't cultivated this aspect of my personality!!): I was with Jesus in a kitchen where there was a table; in the table was a drawer; we were encouraged to open the drawer and take out what was in it and give it to Jesus. I took out a kitchen knife and stabbed Jesus repeatedly with it.

One from my retreat last November: standing before a small waterfall which was in the middle of a church aisle; I was on one side, Jesus was on the other, and for the first time I could look at his face, although I couldn't see it clearly. The sense was of having got much closer to him but of there still being this screen between us.

As you can see, not something which I ever thought would have much interest for other people, but it's a facet of my life which I'm pretty sure is going to become more prominent as time goes on.


Very interesting sequence of posts about shamanism beginning here.

some features of shamanism.

Calling: The shaman feels a calling, and may wait many years for that calling to mature.
Initiation: The shaman is initiated, very often by terrifying means whereby their fear of death is faced. The community presides over this initiation, although the actual experience is often very solitary.
Communal role: The shaman serves the community’s psychological, social and medical needs.
Authentic authority: Unlike the priest, the shaman derives their authority not from an institution but from a direct experience with the divine. Furthermore, they can loose their power or gift, and do not have a guaranteed status.
Connection with the cosmos: The shaman relates very deeply to community, animals and the world.
Peripheral yet central: The shaman often exists somewhat detached at the edges of a community, and is called upon in times of crisis.
Playful yet mournful: Many shamanic practitioners have displayed a keen sense of humour, not taking themselves too seriously, and can fulfil a subversive “jester” role. At the same time they are “wounded healers” and experience empathy with the suffering of all people and things.
Non-ordinary: The shaman specialises in liminal states, skirting ordinary life. Techniques such as psychotropic plants, sleep deprivation, fasting and rhythm are employed to gain access to these states.
Mythmakers: Shamans are masters of myth and symbol. They are rooted in both their particular traditions as well as a collective un/consciousness.

I think this is me, although, in particular, that penultimate point is the one I'm now being called to explore. I tend not to allow that part of my personality a free rein. As well as what I wrote about in my fire post, I think one reason why my dialogue with atheists has flared up again (more on that soon) is because God is bringing something to birth in me via that struggle.


This fire is out of control.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


found this at Dennis' place. The idea is to highlight the elements of your own upbringing that apply in bold.

(text below copied from Step into Social Class 2.0: A Social Class Awareness Experience. Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka, Indiana State University, © 2008)

Bold the true statements.

1. Father went to college.
2. Father finished college.
3. Mother went to college.
4. Mother finished college.
5. Have any relative who is or was an attorney, physician, or professor.
6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers.
7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home.
8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home.
9. Were read children’s books by a parent.
10. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18.
11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18.
12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively.

13. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18.
14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs.
15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs.
16. Went to a private high school.
17. Went to summer camp.
18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18.
19. Family vacations involved staying at hotels.
20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18.
21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them.
22. There was original art in your house when you were a child
23. You and your family lived in a single-family house.
24. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home.
25. You had your own room as a child.

26. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18.
27. Participated in a SAT/ACT prep course.
28. Had your own TV in your room in high school.
29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in high school or college.
30. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16.
31. Went on a cruise with your family.
32. Went on more than one cruise with your family.
33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up.
34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family.

Which gives me 11 out of 34. Dennis had 27.


All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere

Friday, January 25, 2008

And you held me

And you held me and there were no words
And there was no time and you held me
And there was only wanting and
Being held and being filled with wanting
And I was nothing but letting go
And being held
And there were no words and there
Needed to be no words
And there was no terror only stillness
And I was wanting nothing and
It was fullness and it was like aching for God
And it was touch and warmth and
Darkness and no time and no words and we flowed
And I flowed and was not empty
And I was given up to the dark and
In the darkness I was not lost
And the wanting was like fullness and I could
Hardly hold it and I was held and
You were dark and warm and without time and
Without words and you held me

(Janet Morley)


I don't want to be Mr Pink.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Fed up, exhausted, and fed up with being exhausted.

Sound doctrines are all useless

This is from my earlier book - and I realise that there's rather a lot of material there which has never been posted. Reading something that Scott has written has prompted me to post it. It's quite long but, if I might be so bold, I think it's worth reading!

‘I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life)’
Wittgenstein, 1946

In much of what I have written so far I have explained the way in which certain Christian doctrines have come to be held, and the way in which the rite of the Eucharist has come to be understood. However, the most important part of Christianity is not the doctrine, or the rite, but the life lived as a result. That is the subject of this chapter.

In many ways, Jesus inherited the criticisms of Jewish practice that were first articulated by the prophets. One of their principal objections related to the way in which certain cultic practices were allowed to override the claims of justice. Consider the prophet Amos, who is generally considered to be the oldest of the prophets who have their utterances preserved in a separate book. He was active c. 750BC during the reign of Jeroboam II, at the end of a fairly long period of peace and prosperity. The prophet himself might be considered to be fairly well off as he is described as being a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees, and therefore a property owner. The people were quite ostentatiously ‘religious’ in that they paid their tithes, made elaborate sacrifices and so on, and yet there was a significant degree of corruption and social injustice. According to Amos:
‘Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions and for four I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes – they that trample the head of the needy into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the humiliated; a man and his father go in to the same maiden, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar upon garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined’ (Amos 2.6-8)

Amos’ concern is with the humble and the needy, who are being excluded from the community and exploited by the wealthy. As a consequence of this injustice Amos proclaims the imminent judgment of God:
‘Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are in the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the needy, who crush the poor, who say to their husbands ‘bring that we may drink!’ The Lord God has sworn by his Holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. And you shall go out through the breaches, every one straight before her; and you shall be cast forth into Harmon, says the Lord.’ (Amos 4.1-3)

A key aspect of Amos’ criticism relates to the sanctuary of Bethel, which under Jeroboam II was being built up as a rival to the temple in Jerusalem. The priests there were being employed in the service of the king and at one point they drive Amos away from the sanctuary (Amos 7.13). As such this place was the centre of the ‘cultic’ aspects of worship, which Amos denounces: ‘Come to Bethel and transgress’. It is this criticism of the cult in all its aspects which is so unprecedented:
‘I hate, I despise your pilgrimages, and I cannot feel your solemn assemblies. When you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, nothing pleases me, from the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I turn away my eyes. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I cannot listen.’ (Amos 5.21-23)

This message is echoed in many parts of the New Testament, and is at the heart of the criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees offered there. For example:
‘And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men”.’

‘When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

And most clearly of all:
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And then the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sickand in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they too will answer, “Lord, when did we see the hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

As Jesus puts it on another occasion, ‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my father who is in heaven.’

The point of these references is to indicate that Christianity is not a matter of believing certain propositions to be true, still less is it a matter of being a member of a particular institution. All the language used is there to explain a picture, a way of understanding life and the world. To claim that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is to say something about the way life should be lived. That claim, as a form of words, is irrelevant. If ‘Jesus Christ is a neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie’ had the same result in terms of the way life was lived then it would have equal doctrinal merit.

Christianity is about a way of living life, so that the life is lived in imitation of Christ, acting in accordance with his Spirit. In essence, it means that the faithful person lives their life in a way that has love at the centre, firstly a love for God, and secondly love for the neighbour. The first is crucial, for it is the relationship with God that constitutes the faith which Paul describes as necessary for salvation. To have that relationship with God is to perceive that the most fundamental feature of the universe is that it was created by a God of love, whose nature is revealed in the life of Jesus. ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and he who loves is born of God and knows God.’ Much of the early Christian writing was concerned with spelling out what this primacy of love meant in practice. For example, Paul writes in Galatians:
‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’;
and in Colossians,
‘Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forebearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also forgive’;
and most famously of all, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body that I may be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.’

These are all examples of Christian virtues, but of course, these words, these descriptions do not amount to much on their own – they require a life to be lived out in order to demonstrate their nature. Our culture suffers from the illusion, ultimately derived from Platonism, that the way to God is through the intellectual path. If we could only understand correctly, then we might be saved. Christianity is opposed to this, for ultimately that aspect of Platonism is idolatrous – it is the search for a truth which can be held with certainty in our own human sphere.

The Body of Christ is made up of all those who act in a way concordant with the Spirit of Christ, ie who exercise and demonstrate these virtues. It is by actions that faith is borne forth. As Paul writes,
‘For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury…It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts…’

In this way, Christianity is very much a product of the Hebrew faith from which it sprang. In the opening chapter I argued for three elements in the Hebrew faith: anti-idolatry, relationship, and praxis. Those three elements are retained within Christianity, although the understanding of God is now lensed through the life of Jesus and not through the Law as delivered to Moses. As such, Christianity is a dynamic religion – it requires active moral judgement each day.

As Christianity developed this aspect was at the forefront. If you read the Church fathers their concerns are with this shaping of a life. The Church exists to serve the world by demonstrating this understanding of God – by acting in a righteous manner and showing the nature of love. Of course, if this is what the Church is about, how come we have ended up in such a mess?

Why not just give up?

Warning: painfully grumpy post ahead. I'll probably recant from parts of it tomorrow, if the antibiotics do their work.

First, if you haven't already read about it, read the story of the Rev Dr Tom Ambrose here, and then read Ruth Gledhill's blog about it here. In particular, do read some of the comments after the deposition, and pray for Tom and his family.

OK. Regular readers will know that I've struggled a) with the workload of this job and b) a (much milder) version of what Tom's been through, which has largely run its course, thanks be to God. Yet there are lots of continuing niggles, vexations and disappointments (ie me disappointing others) which wear down the soul, and in the last few days I've had one of those 'straw on the camel's back' moments about one vastly minor parish matter which has caused offence. And frankly I'm fed up, and wondering what the point of it all is.

Let me be clear. Despite rumours of heresy I am more convinced than ever that Jesus of Nazareth is the word made flesh, that in him is life in all its fullness. It's not Christianity I doubt; it's not the wondrous nature of worship and sharing faith that I doubt. It's whether the Church of England fails the Ichabod test (and I would also distinguish between Anglican theology as a whole and the Church of England as an institution in particular). Is it time to abandon ship? That's not the same as abandoning congregations (in that sense the congregation is the ship) but there is a sense that, as Gramsci wrote, 'The old is dying and the new cannot yet be born, in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear'. Is it more true to the Gospel to let this Christendom-encrusted model pass into history? I know Rowan has had similar thoughts.

Thing is, as my wife points out, I know that I wouldn't be feeling like this if I was at my normal level of strength. And I would tend to see this as 'the devil's got his grip on me at the moment'. There are certainly still times when I get filled with enthusiasm about what might be possible through parish work. Yet I have to also acknowledge that I've begun to occasionally entertain thoughts of throwing the whole lot in and saying 'to hell with it', not least because I've never had to struggle with ill-health so consistently since I started work in a parish. I'd become an NSM priest, retrain as either a teacher or a psychotherapist and continue to pursue God with all my heart. I'd continue to read and write (and blog and take photos) but I'd no longer feel so obligated to be nice to those who are incapable of taking Christianity seriously, nor would I have to continually compromise with the world in order to keep within canon law. Or is this just an illusory dream of freedom? I'd certainly not want to join another ecclesiastical establishment; I remain profoundly Anglican in my bones.

Harrumph! My wife thinks I'm going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. As I say, when I feel better physically I'm sure I'll feel more positive spiritually. But I think this is one of those ventings of spleen that is better out than in.

Margrave of the Marshes (John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft)

This was fascinating, although it must be confessed that my musical taste is probably the polar opposite of John Peel's. There's a very funny (for me) moment in the book when Sheila is recounting his dislike for Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits and U2 and I'm thinking 'they're all the ones I really like!' On top of which I have never heard 'Teenage Kicks' which seems to have represented everything he liked. Totally different worlds. (Actually, scratch that - I also went to boarding school so I could recognise a lot of what he described, and I could really relate to his shyness.)

However, the most interesting aspect of Peel's life seems to be the way in which, through pursuing his own interests (= his vocation) he fostered a community and enabled them to experience a sense of belonging, overcoming alienation and loneliness in the process. That seems a holy task. (It also seems to be what Mad Priest has accomplished in a different medium. I'm sure he has a copy of 'Teenage Kicks' ;-)

A blogger with Ollie

This is my friend Paul Trathen, who visited yesterday to go through the course that we are running at Chelmsford during Lent, based on my LUBH material - as well as a few other things.


Cold, wet, horrible and I had a headache so I wasn't going to re-shoot to remove the blur...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Socrates or Jesus?

(Originally written just after I had started writing this blog, on July 17 2005, but I thought it worth tweaking and updating and bringing up front. The 'book' has now become LUBH.)

Where have I got to?

After such a long time of first writing, and then thinking, and then reading and then thinking some more, have I come to any conclusions? Am I ever going to write this book?

Well, I do feel that I have been climbing a mountain, an intellectual mountain to be sure, but a spiritual mountain as well.

For this book that I am compelled to write is really a way of resolving a conflict within myself. The origins of the book lie in an experience that I had around the time of my twentieth birthday, which moved me from being a militant atheist to one who could not deny the reality of God, and one who is now a priest.

That transformation moved me spiritually in a way that I suspect I would never have been able to achieve on my own, and really the last fifteen years can be seen, in one light, as my trying to catch up intellectually with what happened in that summer of 1990.

I think I have now caught up - or at least, if I have not in fact gained the summit of my personal mountain, that summit is now in sight.

The best way to describe the reality behind these words is to talk about the difference between two paths to God, the Platonic path and the Christian path.

The Platonic path has its roots in Socrates, and his attitude in the face of death. He embraced the conflict with the Athenian authorities, and used that conflict - engineering the death sentence - in order to display his teachings about the irrelevance of death. For the true philosopher has an immortal soul, which is not affected by death. Indeed, the best life, the truest, most virtuous and most authentic life, is one in which a person prepares themselves for this death by removing all the 'attachments' to the world from their emotional life, restricts the objects of their concern to the realm of the Forms and seeks, ultimately, to ascend to a contemplation of the One, which, in one neo-Platonic phrasing, is the journey of 'the alone to the Alone'. This is a journey for an intellectual elite; it is a journey undertaken in solitude; it is a journey which is self-directed and under the control of the individual will, properly trained. Those who become 'perfect' attain to the One. And the One does not care whether you make this journey or not.

The Christian path, in contrast, has its roots in Jesus' attitude in the face of death, best revealed in the Garden of Gethsemane: "My soul is sorrowful, even unto death… Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt." Jesus is afraid of death; he is not facing the prospect of crucifixion with philosophical detachment. Yet he surrenders his will to God. Moreover, this surrendering of the will was characteristic of Jesus' mature life, and it was this surrendering which was taught to the disciples. This surrendering bears fruit in a community of loving friendship, exemplified in the Last Supper: "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing, but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." So the Christian journey is one that is undertaken within a community of friendship; it is a journey for everyone; it is a journey which is centred on the abandonment of self-direction and a radical dependency on divine grace - for God cares very much whether you take this path. It is the journey of love: 'Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God'.

So, to summarise: the Platonic path, as I understand it, is an individualistic and intellectualistic project to achieve the contemplation of the One and thereby to achieve immortality. The Christian path, as I understand it, is a Eucharistic and moral project to transform the world in the light of eternity, and thereby gain eternal life.

In the Platonic path, the intellect is dominant.
In the Christian path, surrender of the will to God is key.

(Christianity is not about the abandonment of intellect. It is about surrendering the intellect - and the intellectual products like our ego and the deadly sins that go with the desire for ego-preservation - to a higher power.)

To return to my militant atheism: it was a manifestation of the mainstream of our present culture, in which the modernist project of triumphant Reason - atheistic, self-sufficient, controlling, technocratic, inherently totalitarian - has largely succeeded in eviscerating the Christian alternative. As I am, temperamentally, an intellect-dominated person, that Modernist idolatry took deep root in my understanding. Although I would not have had the words to describe it accurately until very recently: my understanding was Platonist, in the sense that I have described.

That triumphant Modernism was built upon the re-incorporation of the Platonic path within Western Christianity itself, from which came the evils of the Inquisition, Scholasticism, the Crusades, the Wars of Religion and, ultimately, the Holocaust.

Really what my journey has been about is seeking a way to reconcile my intellect with my guiding spirit, my soul, that which is of God within me - to achieve an integrity between a part of myself which was 'touched' by God - and is therefore undeniable, for it is deeper within me than my understanding can reach - and an intellect which, every step of the way, has resisted the implications of that touch. To achieve integrity, to find that peace which the world cannot give, I have had to dig deeper and deeper into my understandings, to uproot what it is in my intellect which is opposed to that touch of God and to slowly and steadily surrender my will to God. Of course, I resist even now, for I am mulishly stubborn. Truly the Will is a terrible master.

I believe that, in essence, what I have to say in my book is to share the fruits of this journey that I have made: to, as +Richard put it, 'speak the word that [I] have been given'. To offer a truly prophetic critique of Western Christianity - prophecy not as a prediction of what will come (although there is that) but prophecy as a demand to return to a proper worship of God, and thereby to alleviate the sufferings of the widows and orphans of the world. For God is a jealous God and a righteous God.

I am conscious of the way that sounds grandiose. Left to myself, my ego would seek to protect itself from such a reckless endangerment - for such boastful-sounding words are hubristic, and I believe deeply in nemesis, although I give that pagan concept a different name. If there was a way in which I could have a quiet and peaceful life I think I would choose it, yet 'not what I will'.

I think much of Jonah fleeing to Tarshish; I think much of Amos: "I am but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees"; I think much of Isaiah: "I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips"; I think of Jeremiah: "Ah Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth!". If I have a 'guiding text' which hovers at the back of my mind as I think and write, it is this:

"Hear the Word of the Lord, O people of Israel;
for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or kindness,
and no knowledge of God in the land.
There is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery;
they break all bounds and murder follows murder.
Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish,
and also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air;
and even the fish of the sea are taken away.

Yet 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.
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."

(Hosea chapter 4).

The Psalmist writes that 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom', and in truth, the more that I reflect on our world and the corruption in our mother the church (it is so corrupt that it no longer can see the corruption), the more afraid I become. I think apocalyptic thoughts.

And yet, and yet. Jesus tells us repeatedly: do not be afraid. For perfect love drives out fear. And we are called to love, for 'God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.' God is a God of mercy and of grace.

And I remember - at this time of both literal and metaphorical darkness - that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overwhelm it.

I hope, in my book, to give an account of the light and hope that is in me.


I said oops upside your head I said oops upside your head

On worshipping bag-ladies

This is a comment I left here which I thought might be worth sharing further.

What would it mean for you to worship a local bag lady? Presumably it wouldn't necessarily mean changing the bag lady (ie giving her a house and an income and so on) because then the bag lady wouldn't have the attributes that you're worshipping. It would probably involve giving the bag lady things that 'bag-ladiness' held to be of value (bottles of scotch whiskey?) but, more fundamentally, it would involve taking on the attributes of 'bag-ladiness' yourself. In other words you would do things like: ceasing to wash, sleeping outside, pushing around an old shopping trolley with all your worldly goods in it and so on. And you wouldn't do this because the bag-lady had told you to do it but - because you worship the bag lady, and see her as what is worth worshipping - you see the qualities of 'bag-ladiness' as of high value. And so, over time, you would turn into a bag-lady (or bag-chimp). In other words, and this is the axiom: you become what you worship. Those things which you hold to be of highest value in life, those are the things on which you will build your life, and your character and behaviour will then be shaped around them. Consider what it means to worship Mammon (ie wealth). For someone who actually sees money as the most important thing (which is what worship means) they will change as a person in order to accumulate wealth. That doesn't mean that they will turn into a pile of gold, but it does mean that they will become avaricious and Scrooge-like.
Now mammon is seen as an idol from a Christian point of view because it is something that destroys life, it is what we call an idol. Idols can be worshipped (and they don't have to be small statues, they can be ideas just as easily) and idols give what they promise - someone who genuinely worships Mammon will become more wealthy - but what they take in return is life, is integrity. As Jesus put it 'what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul'. The difference between an idol and God, in Christian understandings, is that worshipping the living God gives life in return - joy, freedom, peace etc etc. So instead of becoming a bag-chimp, worshipping God enables you to be CELTIC CHIMP in an exemplary way.
We'll probably come back to this as there is a fair bit more to say, but that's enough for now.

Actually, I'll say one more thing, because there is an inverse corollary: if you worship the living God, you become more alive, more integrated, more noble and spiritual etc - therefore, if you're not becoming more noble, spiritual, integrated, alive... then you're not worshipping the living God. Therefore if your experience of Christians is not recognisable by that description then it suggests something about who or what they are worshipping...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Monday, January 21, 2008

What is best in life?

he he he - I'm in that sort of mood :-)

more seriously, I have at last been diagnosed properly - I have an infection in my upper respiratory tract, so have started a course of antibiotics. Hopefully that will cure all this nastiness that has been lingering in my system.


Margrave of the marshes.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Return

I thought this was rather good, but I can't say too much about why because it would constitute a spoiler (though the ending was by no means unpredictable). It had a lot of quality in it, not least an effective and understated performance from Gellar and remarkable colour tones. Recommended, if you like supernatural thrillers. Four out of five.


Nuts to your watches.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Muscles, metaphors, mysteries: on the grokking of God

This is a bit of an off-the-top-of-my-head sort of post, so doubtless I'll say something I'll later want to retract or amend, but I wanted to pursue the theme that Scott has been emphasising in comments, ie that atheists tend to see mystical language as 'cobblers'. As this is pretty central to any religious tradition, it might help to set out briefly what is going on, at least as I see it.

Think of your muscles and all that you know about them; think in particular of your bicep, of how it works and how it moves. Now ponder the fact that the word 'muscle' is derived from the Latin musculus meaning 'little mouse'. I found this fascinating when I first discovered it. I'd always thought 'muscle' was a scientific term with a very clear and distinct meaning - which it is of course - but it started out in life as a metaphor. In other words, as the language was developing and growing, and understanding was doing the same, and as people considered the parts of their bodies they remarked upon the physical resemblance between a mouse and the mass of flesh and tendon that they used to pick things up and hence: muscle.

Now this is an everyday process, especially in science. Consider the phrase 'magnetic field' - what is a field? It's something that horses run around in, normally with a fence or hedgerows bordering it. It's a confined space or area, and that is the sense in which the scientists began using the word 'field' to refer to the area that was influenced by magnetic force. Same with a gravitational field. In other words, in the process of exploring the nature of the material world the language that had previously been adequate needed to be developed and renewed in order to adequately account for and describe what was now being understood. Crucially, the understanding itself was developing in advance of the language. Have you ever had that experience when you wanted to say something and the word was on the tip of your tongue but you couldn't get it out? And then the word comes and you feel release and 'That's what I wanted to say!' Language itself is always catching up on the human life seeking expression, it's a 'static latch' to use a MoQ term, and when it has caught up then the language is itself embedded in all the practices that humanity can invent. Language is not a transparent reflection of the world, it's a constituent part of the world itself - but a part which is also derivative from and dependent on the human life and understanding which drives it. (I might say more about this another time - feel free to read my Wittgenstein essay here.) Which is a way of saying that poets are the most creative of human beings, and that the most creative scientists need to have some poetry in their soul.

However, that's taking me away from my main point: our understanding drives the development of our language, and the language develops through metaphorical exploration and analogy, and the language slowly 'hardens' in meaning (so we know exactly what a muscle is, and for most people the thought of mice in relation to muscles never enters in). It hardens so much that people forget that once upon a time it was an image, an analogy, a metaphor. You could say that, once the language and practices associated have progressed to a certain point the poetry has vanished and the concept has been completely grokked.

What religious believers want to say about religious language is that, whilst some concepts may harden (and possibly thereby become idolatrous and harmful) the core of religious knowing can never be expressed in anything other than metaphorical language. This is mystical speech: the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. Once the language has been developed and understood the creative (poetic) flow of understanding has dried up, not necessarily to bad effect, but certainly in such a way that the ongoing exploration is impeded if the language is made absolute and unchangeable. In other words, what lies at the heart of the religious sensibility is not a conceptual truth but a relationship with reality as such, which is inexpressible in words. Or, perhaps better, it can be expressed in words, so long as the words are not mistaken for what they are pointing to, so the words must be consistently negated and affirmed in turn. (This is what I have learned from Denys Turner, amongst others, and I wrote more about it here.)

In other words, whilst it might sometimes be possible to grok muscles or gravitational fields, we will never be in a position to say that we have grokked God. Religious language is always on the boundary, on the cutting edge, always provisional and open to change. Yet, in just the same way as the understanding goes out beyond existing language, so too is the understanding fully in play in the religious sphere - in fact, I would say that the understanding is exalted in the religious sphere. Mysticism is not the abnegation of reason, it is the apotheosis of reason, where it is possible to understand reason more fully than ever before - to grok it, no less.

A final thought. Most of what is of human value emerges from that understanding which is beyond language. All the most wonderful things in human life were first conceived in imagination, as a faint glimmering or stirring in the soul, before they took material form and expression. To not see this, to see religious language (and many related fields like poetry) as sentimental 'cobblers' requires a very thorough grounding, training and education in certain mental practices and traditions. It results in what I have called 'asophism' - a form of aspect blindness, and I can't help but conclude that it represents a severe diminution of human life and potential.


Reading an interesting article about Chinese finance here which, on page 4, has this sentence: "The opaqueness about intentions and goals is always the issue."

Am I the only person who finds this common resort to adding -ness onto the end of a word clumsy and lazy? Why couldn't the word 'opacity' be used?

Here are some other examples where I don't think it works:

cohesiveness instead of cohesion
conciseness instead of concision
fierceness instead of ferocity
aggressiveness instead of aggression

and one where I think it's justifiable:
attractiveness rather than attraction (because attraction has a subtly different sense and could lead to confusion)

Is this just the difference between a UK-English ear and a US-English ear? I'd be interested to know.


Walking into battle with the Lord (thanks PB!)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I just love it

Well that has put a smile on my face. I hope he appoints Shearer as his assistant, although he's one of the few people in the world who might be able to cope with a 'king over the water'. Have to say, with respect to Shearer, that the whole saga is a bit like one of those soap operas where you can see that two people fancy each other rotten but just never get it together. You want to shout 'just shag each other and get it over with!' Sorry if that's a bit coarse...

Lane on the Virgin Birth

Very interesting article that Byron pointed me to available here.

A handful of quotations:

...this paper will be a critical examination of the significance given to the virgin birth in recent dogmatics. This approach is valid anyway as a partner to the exegetical approach but all the more so with a subject like the virgin birth. Undisputed direct reference to the virgin birth is confined to two brief New Testament passages (Matt. 1: 18-25; Lk. 1: 34f.). It follows therefore that the relation of this doctrine to other doctrines (the task of dogmatics) is at least as important as the exegesis of these two passages.

It is essential clearly to grasp the distinction between the Incarnation and the virgin birth. The virgin birth concerns the origins of the humanity of Christ. It states that Jesus, as man, had no human father. It does not state that God was his human father. The virgin birth is not like the stories of pagan gods mating with beautiful women. The miracle of the virgin birth is that of birth without a father, not of the mating of God and Mary. The doctrine of the Incarnation, on the other hand, concerns the deity of Christ. It states that this man Jesus was in fact God himself, the Logos, the Son of God come in the flesh. Jesus was divine not because he had no human father but because he is God become man. He is the Son of God (in the Trinitarian sense) not because of his human parentage (or lack of) but because he is the eternal Son of the Father, ‘begotten from the Father before all ages’. To summarise the distinction, the Incarnation means that Jesus is the Son of God become flesh, the virgin birth means that he had no human father. It is not hard to see how the two have come to be confused. The one states that God is his Father, the other that Joseph was not. It has been fatally easy to put these two together and to conclude that God was his father instead of Joseph, because Joseph was not.

When it is stated that Jesus did not need a human father because God was his Father the two levels are being confused. Such thinking, if pursued consistently, will lead to a grossly perverted form of either the virgin birth or the Incarnation or both.

The Incarnation would have been supernatural and miraculous even if the incarnate one had had an otherwise normal birth. His preexistence and his divinity would have been supernatural even if his humanity had had a purely natural origin.

The virgin birth teaches that the origin of his humanity was also supernatural.

But many today would not simply state that the virgin birth can coexist with such error. John Robinson, for instance, goes further and argues that the virgin birth must inevitably prejudice the genuineness of Jesus’ humanity and His solidarity with us. This claim can take two forms. First, it could be argued that the very fact of a virgin birth in itself removes Jesus from the arena of humanity. This charge is well answered by R. F. Aldwinkle who argues that ‘it is not the method by which a human being comes to be such which is decisive but the end product itself, namely a human being’. There is no ground for dogmatically asserting that the product of a virgin birth could not be fully human.

[SN: I think this is very weak]

Barth argues that the virgin birth points to the Incarnation in the same way as the empty tomb points to the resurrection. In each case the sign is less than the thing signified but points to it. The relation between them is that between sign and thing signified, not between cause and effect. The virgin birth did not cause the incarnation any more than the empty tomb caused the resurrection. Thus the virgin birth is to be seen not as the cause or the means of the Incarnation but rather as a sign pointing to it. The virgin birth, as a supernatural birth, is a sign of the importance and supernatural character of the One born. It is also a sign to us of God’s initiative in the Incarnation.

[SN: my argument is that the sign now points away from the incarnation]

As the Augustinian approach became orthodoxy it was naturally impossible to conceive of Christ being the product of sexual intercourse. The virgin birth thus became necessary for his sinlessness. Such a view of sex is certainly discredited today, and not only among Protestants.

Karl Barth saw in the virgin birth the expression of a wider truth that is fundamental to his theology. It shows that ‘human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ, the place of divine revelation’. While it does become his nature, this is not because of any attributes that it already possesses but rather because of what it suffers and receives at the hand of God. The virgin birth, therefore, is a further denial of man’s natural capacity for God, a favourite theme with Barth.

[SN: this is the symbolic truth of the VB which I'd accept]

...‘lawless desire’ is unnecessary and [Jesus] did not submit to it but rather pointed forward to the future world where there will be no marriage. This ascetic teaching is based on the doctrine of the virgin birth. Such teaching became common in the following centuries. It is not surprising that this development occurred. The Gospel came to a world where the physical and sensual were despised and where asceticism was exalted. It was natural for such ideas to take root within the Church. It was also natural that the virgin birth should be used to support them. Here we have to acknowledge the truth of Barth’s comment that it might have been better for the Christian doctrine of marriage had there been no virgin birth. This does not mean that the virgin birth is untrue; it simply means that, like most doctrines, it is open to abuse.

Is it any more necessary for the virgin birth to have been a historical event than it is, say, for the Good Samaritan to have existed? There are two reasons why it is important for the virgin birth to be historical. The Matthaean narrative is specially inhospitable to a mythical interpretation. Matthew’s aim is apologetic ― to answer the charge of illegitimacy and to point to the fulfilment of prophecy. Neither of these concerns would be satisfied by a mythical, non-historical virgin birth. The appearance of a child before the consummation of marriage cannot be explained by a mythical sign. As Robinson argues, the alternative to the virgin birth is not conception within wedlock ‘for which there is no evidence at all’, but illegitimacy. Secondly, the role of the virgin birth as a sign goes if it did not happen...

If the virgin birth is a fitting sign rather than an absolute necessity does this mean that it is unimportant? It is true that the doctrine of the virgin birth is not as central as the Incarnation, the cross or the resurrection. It appears with these doctrines in the creeds, but it cannot be assumed that all of the doctrines of the creeds are of equal significance. The descent into hell is clearly less significant than the resurrection. That the virgin birth is less central is supported by the paucity of reference to it in the New Testament and by the fact that very little theological use is made of it there. But less central is not to be confused with unimportant. Its inclusion in the creeds clearly implies that it was felt to be important. The Church should proclaim the virgin birth because it happened, because it is scriptural and because it is a pointer to Christ and to his work.

Some closing remarks. The rigorous distinction Lane makes between VB and incarnation is helpful but he seems confused as to whether the VB indicates the humanity or divinity of Christ, and much of the article supports my wider point about the marginality of the doctrine, ie it is a stripping away of all the consequences, so that it loses the capacity to become 'weight-bearing'. His last paragraph (above) is a non sequitur - I want to ask why did the Fathers believe it to be important, what was it that they believed, and is it possible for us to affirm the same today?


A lovely late afternoon, and Ollie got the best walk he's had in weeks.

A sickness unto salvation

Well the lurgi that has been stalking me since before Christmas, and finally conquered me last week, now seems to be genuinely abating. I say that because it's now 48 hours since I had to have a Sinusitis Lemsip Max, and whilst the symptoms haven't completely cleared up I do now seem to be definitely heading for full functionality. I'm certainly back to writing on the blog, even if meetings and conversations are too much!

However, one of the things I've really been musing on is the gathering together of several threads in my life over the last few months, being: the conversation with atheism, my understanding of the faith (especially the incarnation and my understanding of Scripture), and where I'm supposed to go with it. Truth be told, I was quite rattled when Neil suggested I resign my orders, even more so when my old tutor said I was a heretic, and I felt an old temptation starting to rise again - that I should go back to academia, that I should spend more time in introspection in order to sort out what I believe and why, and that I'm not fit for working in a parish etc etc. In other words that I should hide. It took a few days of lying on my back to realise that this is fitting into a larger pattern. In particular, where I am convinced God is leading me is not backwards into the safety of the academic world but forwards into a much more dynamic engagement with the world (as described here). A much less safe situation, but Luke 17.33 applies.

In other words the sickness has allowed me to draw breath and become centred again, refreshing my relationship with God. A sickness unto salvation - thanks be to God.

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (12): Summary and conclusion

I want to bring this sequence to a close by spelling out the main planks of my argument. The spark for the series was Neil's comment that I should resign my orders.

These are the main points that I would want to make:
1. The accounts of the VB are marginal in Scriptural terms.
2. The VB is marginal in doctrinal terms.
3. The nature of what is believed in accepting the VB has changed since the accounts were written, and that applies to both those who retain an acceptance of the Scriptural accounts in a literal sense, and those who reject it.
4. What the doctrine actually achieves in practice today is to undermine more important doctrines like the incarnation, and hence salvation. That is, the doctrine serves to prevent people coming to Christ, and the insistence upon a literal belief in it (in order to be saved) is a contemporary equivalent of tithing mint and dill and cumin.

I would want to emphasise that my rejection of the VB is not because I reject all miracles as impossible (I don't), nor does it mean that I reject the resurrection (I accept it), nor does it mean I reject Scripture as a whole (I see it as God-breathed).

Several other things have become clearer to me in the course of writing this sequence:
- I really don't take the birth narratives as literally true! I have avoided looking at the area too closely for quite some time, but I can't avoid the conclusion;
- I remain persuadable that I'm wrong, but the persuasion needs to deal with my own objections, not generic ones (like Wright's chapter does);
- my root problem is that I see no way to render an acceptance of the literal truth of the birth accounts compatible with an acceptance of the humanity of Christ (I think this was possible before) - and therefore, if the VB has to be believed in a literal sense, then I don't belong where I am. Fortunately such a commitment is not required of Anglican clergy (what is required - and what I wholeheartedly affirm - is here);
- the contrast is between what is given more authority: Scripture or doctrine? I see the doctrinal effect (which I see as seriously negative) as carrying more weight than the negative consequences of abandoning a literal interpretation, not least because I don't see it as either intellectually or theologically coherent to affirm something like inerrancy. However, it's perfectly possible to judge these things differently without being an inerrantist. Wright, for example, a) gives more importance to the literal account, and b) sees no difficulty in reconciling the account with doctrinal truth. In this he is completely in tune with orthodox tradition, and I am not - which means I'm probably wrong;
- I am more convinced than before of what I originally wrote here: "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."

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (11): Tom Wright

The first thing to say about Tom Wright's perspective (taken from his book with Borg) is that he agrees with me (and the Pope) that the VB is marginal, beginning his chapter by saying "Jesus' birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants", and ending it by saying "If the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke had never existed, I do not suppose that my own Christian faith, or that of the church to which I belong, would have been very different". Quite so.

He goes on to point out that attitudes to the VB function as litmus tests for orthodoxy as a whole, especially attitudes to the Bible and miracles (a point I'll come back to in my concluding post) and admits that their historicity is suspect, saying "as a historian I cannot use the births stories within an argument about the rest of the gospel narratives."

His more substantial point, however, on which the remainder of his chapter is based, seems to be a) you'll only disallow miracles if you're corrupted by Modernist attitudes [I agree, but this is one of Wright's principal targets in the essay and my position is unaffected by it], b) this is how God chose to do it, c) who are we to disagree? concluding by saying "Nor will the high moral horse do any better, insisting that God ought not to do things like this, because they send the wrong message about sexuality or because divine parentage gave Jesus an unfair start over the rest of us. Such positions produce a cartoon picture: the mouse draws itself up to its full height, puts its paws on its hips, and gives the elephant a good dressing down."

I think Wright is confused here, and the confusion runs through the whole chapter. The weight of his point depends upon the truth of b); in other words, is the elephant God, or is the elephant a fallible human being? It is the attitude to Scripture which is the fundamental plank of Wright's case, ie these narratives must be understood to be literally true, which drives him to the conclusions he reaches in this chapter. However, it's possible to show that, even on these terms, Wright is inconsistent (see below).

After a quick appraisal of the theological emphases in each account, which Wright ascribes in traditional terms to the differences between Joseph and Mary's recollections, Wright gets to what, for me, is the heart of the matter. He writes "It will not do to say that we know the laws of nature and that Joseph, Mary, the early church and the evangelists did not". This misses the point, however (my point, at least). It is not that these people didn't understand the link between sexuality and procreation (which seems to be the burden of Wright's point), it is that they understood the 'humanity' to come through being 'born of woman', not, in material terms, in equal parts from both father and mother.

Wright goes on to outline his substantial position, in three stages:
1. Acceptance of incarnation and resurrection opens up the possibility of something like the Virgin Birth. I agree with this point in principle.
2. "There is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7.14 this way before Matthew did... Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk - unless they at least believed them to be literally true?" I think this is an interesting and a strong point, but one which isn't conclusive; that is, it depends upon other factors being more or less probable relative to the unlikelihood of Luke and Matthew inventing the stories.
3. The previously existing models for a VB are all pagan in nature, and it is unlikely that a Jewish mentality would have told the story of a VB for Jesus unless it was true. Wright argues "This theory asks us to believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage." I'm not convinced by this, although I can see the logic of Wright's argument. Two thoughts occur to me. One is that the influence from the Hellenic world had already had a few centuries to shape Jewish thought, and so the Jewish world-view was not so virginally pure as Wright needs to suppose (consider what language the stories are written in, after all). The second is that, despite a very well written and witty defence of his historical credentials, Wright by no means has the unanimous support of his peers on this point. It is a matter of weighting the probabilities and it seems to me that on this point Wright is letting his desire to retain a conservative account of Scripture condition his historical judgement.

Which seems a harsh point, and one I am not qualified to render, but for one thing - the argument that Wright makes with regard to apocalyptic language, which is a point I fully agree with and one which seems to have a very large role in his overall historical reconstruction of Christ's life and mission. Wright says (in the first of his major books) "Within the mainline Jewish writings of this period, covering a wide range of styles, genres, political persuasions and theological perspectives, there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space-time universe. There is abundant evidence that they knew a good metaphor when they saw one, and used cosmic imagery to bring out the full theological significance of cataclysmic socio-political events. There is almost nothing to suggest that they followed the Stoics into the belief that the world itself would come to an end; and there is almost everything to suggest that they did not." In other words the writers of the time were perfectly able to use language creatively to make a theological point. Why then are Luke and Matthew not able to do something similar when writing their birth narratives? Where I think Wright is confused is that he seems to be applying different criteria in these two areas, and the reason for applying different criteria appears to be his desire to preserve a traditional understanding of the VB. Yet he hasn't made that case; it may well be possible to do so, but, at least to my understanding, he hasn't achieved it here.

One more post...

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (10): Marcus Borg

This is a quick summary of Borg's points to do with historical plausibility in the book he wrote with Tom Wright. To begin he writes "I do not think the virginal conception is historical... they are not history remembered but rather metaphorical narratives using ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus' significance".

Borg has three main grounds for doubting the historicity of the narratives:
1. The narratives are late, only being mentioned in two places. It's clearly possible to write a gospel without it, so either the other authors "didn't know about it or didn't consider it important enough to include. Or the tradition didn't develop until quite late and the reason most New Testament authors do not mention it is because the stories did not yet exist".
2. Reinforcing the first point are 5 principal distinctions between Luke and Matthew:
- significantly different genealogies (Matthew emphasises Jewish Kingship and traces the lineage from Abraham through Solomon; Luke emphasises outreach to the gentiles and traces the genealogy from Adam through the prophet Nathan);
- different homes for Mary and Joseph (Nazareth in Luke, with trip to Bethlehem; Bethlehem alone in Matthew);
- different birth visitors (wise men in Matthew, shepherds and angels in Luke);
- Herod's plot (in Matthew, with accompanying flight to Egypt, but absent from Luke);
- use of the Hebrew Bible (Matthew uses prediction-fulfilment formulae five times; Luke echoes the language without treating it as the fulfilment of a prophecy).
In Borg's words "these are enough to make the point that we have two very different stories".
3. "The stories look like they have been composed to be overtures to each gospel". In other words they exemplify the themes which each evangelist wishes to emphasise, 'King of the Jews' for Matthew, mystical prophet reaching to the world for Luke. "In short, the stories look like the literary creation of each author."

I don't want to say much about Borg as I basically agree with him. I'll say more about Wright's chapter in the next post.


Q: If you don't accept Greek metaphysics, eg the viability of applying 'ousia' to God, what is the purpose of the creed?
A: In the language of the time, it was ruling out mistakes. We need to keep an eye on the mistakes, not necessarily preserve the language used to eliminate the mistakes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tescopoly (Andrew Simms)

I was asked to review this for the Gospel and our Culture network. Once it's been published in their magazine I'll put the text up here. You can guess my take on it though, especially given the title of the review: "On the Christian duty to boycott Tesco"....

The meaning of Jesus (Marcus Borg & Tom Wright)

Stimulating and interesting. Borg isn't as much of a liberal as I have previously supposed, although I still find Wright more persuasive on most points. Borg makes a telling point about Wright's methodology being 'flat', ie Wright pays no systematic attention to the high probability that Matthew (and Luke to a lesser extent) used Mark, and that therefore some of the material in Matthew or Luke is less historically reliable. I think that there are ways to respond to that, particularly for theological purposes, but historically Wright's stance seems problematic. I have his more substantial books on my shelf, as yet unread, so he may not be vulnerable to that criticism.

In any case I'd happily recommend this book to someone just starting to engage with the issues. It's pretty clear and it gives a good feel for the shape of most of the debates.

Bringing up boys (James Dobson)

A strange mixture of common sense and hysteria. Not sure I'd recommend it to anyone.


The winds, the rains, the head and the heart
The earth, the roots, the leaves and the bark

Monday, January 14, 2008


Very good indeed: sound script, excellent acting, unobtrusive direction (imagine what it would have been like if someone like Scorsese had made it) and running beneath it all a yearning for what was lost and might yet be. There was a spirit of mercy about it that was most affecting and attractive. 4 1/2 out of 5.


I want to redescribe what it means to say 'Jesus is God' today.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Night at the museum

Great fun. 3 out of 5.

The holiday

Really good date movie with an excellent script - so 4 out of 5.

Smokin Aces

Quite suitable for my brain-dead state. One or two interesting set-pieces, and Ray Liotta was good, but not much else. 3 out of 5 - just.

A quick poll

Having spent most of today asleep in bed - and deciding to give in to this lurgi/flu/sinusitis/Vogon infection rather than keep suppressing it by force of will (also known as accepting Mrs Rev Sam's advice) - I'm having a quick potter around some blogs, and discover that my old tutor Stephen thinks that I am a heretic for saying that Jesus (when incarnate) was not "God, as such". What I have in mind is a kenotic Christology: "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross" (Phil 2, NIV)

In other words, whilst the logos is wholly God as such, coinherent etc, Jesus of Nazareth, as the incarnation of the logos, did not possess all the attributes of the Godhead (eg omnipotence, omniscience and so on). You could say: it was only the second person who became incarnate, not all three (though I'm aware that is problematic in other ways). So far as I'm aware, that is the mainstream Christian understanding (and is how it is possible to reconcile Jesus' divinity with his humanity) - but am I wrong? I'd be most grateful to know what other people believe on this (because if I AM a heretic on this one then I've got some soul-searching to do!!!).

When I feel better I'll write up a long post on the incarnation, because it's been brewing all the while through my stuff on the VB. Not today though.

Very sharp

Mad Priest on good form
An open evangelical is a Christian who, literally, "opens" the Bible, reads it and believes every word it says.

A conservative evangelical doesn't need to "open" the Bible. He has already decided what the Bible says - "It says what it has always said."

I've managed to get out of bed today, which is progress, though I'm still distinctly under-the-weather. I hope in particular to be well on Saturday morning as I have a major parish event to handle. In the meantime I'm catching up on some blog reading/ newspaper reading, and this issue with Elaine Storkey I find fascinating. What I said to Tim in a comment is relevant here - it's not that I want to kick the conservatives out or break communion with them, it's more the other way around. In some small way I think that making my understanding of authority explicit clarifies this underlying issue.


Let's try again.

BTW Newcastle's ownership and fanbase are mental. Allardyce was the best shot at silverware they've had in a long time.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Gordon Brown's leadership (with respect to nuclear power in particular)

Motto found here, which is well worth reading.

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (9): a response to some comments

Tim commented on a previous post referring to an argument from CS Lewis, paraphrased as 'This "unfair advantage" view has always seemed to me like a drowning man refusing to be rescued by the man with the lifebelt around him because, he says, "It's not fair - the lifebelt gives you an unfair advantage".' I have a suspicion that, for once, CS Lewis isn't entirely orthodox.

As I understand it, it's essential to Christianity that Jesus not have a biological distinction from the rest of humanity. In part that is because of the 'what he has not assumed he has not healed' point about salvation, but it is also because we are expected to follow in his footsteps. What is the point of being taught to do something that it is not possible to do? And wouldn't it be cruel to have such an expectation laid upon us?

Thing is, Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12.2) and the first-born of many brethren (Rom 8.29) and we are expected to do greater things than Christ (John 14.12). What prevents us from doing such things is our sin; if we receive grace through faith then that obstacle is overcome and we are liberated to do 'all the good works that thou hast prepared for us to walk in'. In other words there is no biological or innate physical obstacle preventing us from becoming like Christ; the obstacle is our sin, and that is the principal distinction between Christ and the rest of us, that he was like us in every way except that he was without sin (Heb 2.17, 4.15). So at best the lifebelt image refers to our faith, not to our actions; at worst it is dependent on a faulty understanding of discipleship.

Tim and Paul also castigated me for not spending more time on exegesis. I think this is a mistake. There is a big issue here, and some smaller issues. I'm going to intercut Tim and Paul's words with some of mine (in italics) as we go through, before digging out what I think is the main difference. Tim first:

The question is not whether it is possible for God to do or not to do something, but whether in fact he has chosen to do or not to do the thing in question. I agree with this.

What you need to do, Sam, as I keep on saying, is to do some exegesis for us of the passages in Matthew and Luke which describe the virginal conception of Jesus, showing us why they do not in fact mean what the church has always assumed they meant. I'm not sure it's possible to do this; more crucially I'm not sure it's important to do so. There are two questions: a) do Matthew and Luke describe a virginal conception, b) what did Matthew and Luke understand by that? On a) I'm not sure that anyone would argue that they are not describing a virginal conception (I certainly wouldn't), but on b) we get stuck into questions of biblical criticism, in other words, can we take Matthew and Luke to be describing something that we would call 'a matter of fact' or are they being theologically creative (which to my mind doesn't rule out divine inspiration) and describing something consistent with their overall understanding of the incarnation? If the latter is true - and, despite going against Tom Wright for once, that is what I believe - then the question that I want to explore is 'does their story still achieve what they wanted it to achieve?' - because the whole point of my argument is that as a culture changes a story can end up meaning something rather different to what it originally meant.

And I'm sorry, but all this stuff about it being a late doctrine that is only found in a couple of places does not qualify as biblical exegesis. Agreed; the point is that it is comparatively minor.

After all, one could argue that St. John's doctrine of Jesus as the Word is also a late doctrine only found in - well, one place I would add Colossians to this - but orthodox Christianity has made that the centre of its theology of the incarnation. And rightly so - for it makes explicit what is elsewhere implicit; it's a necessary doctrine, it's not at all marginal.

The Eucharist is rarely mentioned in the New Testament, but we have made it the centre of our worship. Er... every gospel plus Paul? I'm not sure how you get 'rarely' from that, most especially given the dramatic focus upon it - plus vast reams of supporting evidence from other scriptures and archaeological investigations. But this is a side-issue.

I, too, would value you doing some exegetical work about Luke and Matthew's writing. Whilst interesting, and true enough, to conjecture about the place of body-dysphoria in the neo-Platonic muddle in much of Christianity, it is, as Tim says, NOT THE POINT of relevance to the orthodoxy or otherwise of the doctrine.
I'm not sure I agree with this. Orthodoxy for me isn't simply a matter of matching up with what the early church believed; it's a belief that the early church correctly articulated a truth which was independent of them. To be orthodox, then, is to be in tune with that higher truth (= the living Christ). My argument is that, because of a change in the wider culture, what had previously functioned as orthodoxy (ie a transparency to the higher truth) has now become toxic (opaque to the higher truth). In other words, the church can agree on something and still be wrong (which is a remarkably Protestant principle for me to be advocating, especially with you two!)

The statement of the doctrine at the heart of the Nicene Creed places its importance way ahead of the concerns of either Aquinas or Augustine - both of whom, by the way, could be easily and consistently read as body-haters, in spite of holding to the 'old orthodoxy' you assert. Yes - but being placed in the creed is a different form of authority than being placed in Scripture.

What Luke and Matthew meant, what kind of thing they were writing, and writing about, is at the heart of this - not Thomist or Augustinian theology and philosophy. Again, I'm not sure I agree with you, because my argument is about what the church has understood the doctrine to mean (and I was taking Aquinas as a representative of church tradition - which he remains for the majority of Christians). But I'll come back to this.

Tim again:

Sam, you can't have it both ways. A couple of exchanges ago you said that you didn't think it was possible to figure out exactly what Matthew and Luke meant by their belief in the virginal conception. Now you say that it's no longer possible to believe the same thing they believed. How can it be no longer possible if you don't know what they believed? The difference between certainty and probability. I don't think it's possible to be certain of what was in Luke's and Matthew's minds, but I think we can have some indications. One of which is the point about Luke being a gentile doctor, which I mentioned in the comments, and which had never occurred to me before. That means he would almost certainly have had the Aristotelean understanding of the processes of conception.

But if we're going to go the creedal route (and I'm not backing off for a moment on my request for you to do some biblical exegesis to back up your viewpoint) then look - the creators of Chalcedonian Christology obviously believed in both the full humanity of Jesus and the Virgin Birth. Yes.

So the little problem you are raising - about how Jesus could be fully human if he wasn't formed in a fully human way - had obviously occurred to them too, no? It was at the centre of all the creedal discussions.

Surely you don't think that the entire Christian world has been waiting with bated breath for twenty centuries for scholars of the last generation to notice this difficulty? No, I think the problem (as I have articulated it) is a consequence of the revolution in our understanding of conception, and was literally inconceivable(!) prior to that. The concerns I am raising simply don't exist if you accept Aristotle's understanding. What has happened in the West is that the doctrine of the virgin birth - and of incarnation - has been rejected as 'superstition', as a result of the more general scientific revolution, and I don't think there have been many people (though I'm hopeful I'm not the first) who have argued from this perspective. I'm wanting to disentangle incarnation from virgin birth, in order to jettison the latter (a literal belief in the latter) as something which was once helpful but is now damaging. It's a bit like the booster stage of the space shuttle launch - if you hang on to it for too long it gets in the way.

Personally I don't think you can ever get away from the paradox. We say that Jesus was fully human, a man like us, but we know full well that in many ways he was not a man like us. First, we've never experienced sinless humanity before. How does that play itself out when it comes to involvement in social sins? Jesus paid taxes, therefore he was embedded in the matrix of social sin that taxation represents, eg paying the salaries of the Roman legionnaires occupying Jerusalem. I'm not sure that inhibits his divinity (though that might be worth discussing).

How does it relate to childhood temper tantrums? Quite frankly, a lot of the problems I go through on a daily basis are a result of my own sinfulness - and in this, Jesus is not a man like me and cannot sympathise with my weakness. And his consciousness of the Father's presence, his awareness of himself as the Son of God, his miracles etc. etc. - all serve to distance his experience from my experience. Ah. I'm totally with you on sin being what separates us from Jesus - but sin alone. On things like the Father's presence, the ability to perform 'miracles' and so on - I see no barrier to us doing what he did. (This is what I feel called to explore through the charismatic stuff by the way)

Shared our humanity to the full - yes indeed, but let's not pretend that his humanity was not impacted in any way by his divinity. The problem you raise seems to me to be just one instance of the tensions we face in holding to the paradox of both our Lord's humanity and also his divinity. Hmm. I think you're placing his humanity and divinity on the same playing field, as if they are contesting the same space. I don't understand it like that.

On another subject, Luke may have been a Gentile writing for a Gentile audience, but in some ways he is as Jewish as Matthew - especially, funnily enough, in his birth and infancy narratives with their conscious placing of Jesus in the stream of OT salvation history. But surely, as Tom Wright points out, Luke and Matthew must have known the risk they were taking in telling the story of a virginal conception in the context of the Greek and Roman myths that their Gentile audiences (and Jewish too, no doubt) would have been aware of. Why would they take that risk, if they didn't think the truth of the historical record was at stake? Well, it might be to do with slander about Jesus' paternity; but as you say - they are consciously telling the story with a theological aim, which is one of the reasons why the historicity of the two stories is suspect.

Midrash? Well I remember NT Wright's criticism of John Shelby Spong at this point - I believe it was in the book 'Who Was Jesus?' (it's at the office and I'm at home!) - in which he asked how much midrash Spong had actually read or read about. I remember Wright answering just the point you are advancing, quoting from a Jewish scholar who claimed that the nativity stories are nothing like traditional midrash. But I can't claim to have studied this, so must leave it to you real scholars! I'm in the same boat - although I will look up Wright in that book and in his book co-authored with Borg. I'll put the two links here that I mentioned in the comments, Doug here (also here which outlines theology I really like, and here), and also this post with more detail on the inconsistencies in the two accounts.

What is becoming clear to me, however, is that behind these disagreements lies the disagreement about the status of Scripture as such. In other words, as Paul argued, "What Luke and Matthew meant, what kind of thing they were writing, and writing about, is at the heart of this - not Thomist or Augustinian theology and philosophy." This assumes at least two things, it seems to me, neither of which I actually agree with. Firstly, it puts Scripture as the highest authority, through which tradition and reason have to travel in order to reach Christ (I think that is the historic Anglican position by the way, so I think Tim's recent disagreement with me on it is justified). Second, however, is the disjunction that is implied between 'theology and philosophy' and 'Scripture' which I don't think is supportable (and this is why I think that in the end the two of you are both Protestants and I'm not! ;) )

For what is at stake in disagreeing over this? There is agreement over things like incarnation, resurrection, Trinity, salvation etc - all those things which I see as the major doctrines. What seems to be at stake is whether Scripture is not giving us the literal truth in this story. I want to argue that this story is to be understood symbolically in the context of contemporary beliefs - and for the underlying point to be affirmed. You two seem to be arguing that 'what Scripture says' is the be-all and end-all. As it happens I really liked Tim's point that "if they believed that the virginal conception had actually happened (and I would contend that they did - along with C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, and the vast majority of the Christian tradition), then you have to start with the historicity of the event and ask what consequences it has for your theology and philosophy, rather than starting with your theology and philosophy, saying 'This doesn't make sense', and then modifying the record to fit your conclusion." I do think that's a really strong point, it's just not strong enough for me in this case. Which is a different way of saying: I give weight to the doctrinal consistency and benefit flowing from particular beliefs; it matters what we believe and, in the end, I just don't see this as being true, in a weight-bearing and life-giving sense. And because I don't place Scripture above the other elements, I'm happy to say either a) Scripture is mistaken, or b) these passages are not to be interpreted in a literal fashion.

Which - rather depressingly - makes me a raving liberal. Ho hum.

(Then again, virtually nobody takes everything in the bible to be literally true. See here with a H/T to Michael for pointing me in his direction).