Archive for July, 2012

Last week Richard Beck posted on Experimental Theology about “Skilled Christianity”. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2012/07/skilled-christianity.html He described his journey from pushing back at the “beliefs” of Christianity towards being more skilled at the “practices of Christianity. To this end he cites a great cloud of inspirational figures who have guided him on this course including – Rene Girard, William Stringfellow, Dorothy Day, Therese of Lisieux, James Alison, Orthodox theology, Arthur McGill, Christus Victor, Walter Wink, Christian anarchism, Jürgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, Walter Brueggemann, Thomas Talbott, N.T. Wright, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr and Rowan Williams

He ends with a neat turn, that faithful Christina practice, even if not faith-filled Christian belief, is driven from a paradigm shift – in seeing everything from a new perspective and with a new interpretive framework. (Romans 12 comes to mind).

§ As well as the excellent post, my attention was grabbed by an interesting post by “Jlh11a”. He wrote; “I’ve been fascinated, as someone who is essentially orthodox and interested in preserving orthodoxy, that about 70% of the time what you are saying sounds like a voice from within. A voice of an orthodox Christian, describing Christianity and (of course) also fighting its abuses, as all orthodox Christians must spend at least some of their time doing.

The other 30% of the time you sounded–heterodox. Not just that you disagreed with me. But that you really seemed to be trying to "make up" an alternative to Christianity, something new, something better. Something that would appeal to your Buddhist readers or your agnostic readers, but left me quite cold. Because however compelling your creation was, I keep deciding that I like Christianity better.

It’s odd, because in most circles I move in I’m the "progressive" or "liberal" guy. But when I look at minority voices within Christianity–pacifism, non-substitionary-atonement, universalism, or whatever–I do so as someone who basically likes the church and likes Christianity and wants to make it better. And I can’t ever figure out whether you’re speaking to me–or to a group who really don’t like the church or Christianity at all, and are trying to invent a better alternative from it–perhaps, even, a moral high(er) ground from which you can look down at all who are evangelical, or conservative, or otherwise traditionally Christian.

I really can’t tell.

My first take on that was this; “I think I like what you are saying, and it leaves me asking a few other questions.
Firstly one about orthodoxy, which is really a question about our view of history. Is orthodoxy something that we have now, and against which we can measure the orthodox, or is orthodoxy something we’ve lost, perhaps at the Constantinian shift, maybe before or after. (this of course precludes the idea that there never was a single orthodoxy and that the early church celebrated a kind of multidoxy).
If orthodoxy has been with us for 2,000 years then I can imagine that anything that looks a bit new or different will be suspect, but if you subscribe to the idea that orthodoxy is something we lost, to a greater or lesser degree, then novelty or innovation are exciting as they raise the prospect – “is this one of the missing pieces?”. I think that latter experience is what I experience on this site from time to time.
The other question you imply, is the idea, to paraphrase what I think you are saying, of a Christianity 2.0. Inherent in this is the idea that Jesus and Paul etc, gave us all the basic frameworks, and left us with the joyful task of putting flesh to the bones. In other words its impossible to do things like breaking bread, worship or evangelism “to the New Testament” model, because the New Testament doesn’t give us enough data – the most we might hope for is to do things in the spirit of the NT. Thus, as a faithful community, inspired by the Spirit, we should not be surprised if we don’t continue the developmental thrust of the earliest apostles. I would regard slavery as the easiest example of this and non-patriarchal leadership and non-heteronormative sexualities as examples of more tricky (i.e. current) ones.
So is the goal to make / find / re-discover something “better” than orthodox Christianity – well it all depends what you mean, but I find myself – with caution – saying yes.
Look forward to the pushback.”

To which he responded; “I guess it’s a matter of degrees, isn’t it? Everyone I think of as "orthodox"–people like C. S. Lewis and Chesterton, Augustine and Aquinas, N. T. Wright and Dietrich Bonhoeffer–is trying to do at least four things at once: preserve the truth that is there, recover the pieces that went missing, reform the abuses, and innovate by fleshing out the many, many areas where we can appropriately build on the original "bones" of the faith.

And all of this may be what Richard (or others here) are doing. And sometimes we’ll agree with each other, and sometimes we won’t, and that’s fine.

But at some point–and it’s more a matter of tone than a distinct line–people don’t really want to fiddle, from within, with the truth that the real church has really preserved. Whether they are talking about the "Constantinian shift" or the "Papal heresy" or the "dissolution of doctrinal integrity in American evangelicalism," what they’re really saying is that they don’t have to preserve or respect what the real church has really taught. Instead, they use the Christian tradition rather the way I use Peanuts cartoons–a possible source of wisdom, when we happen to agree with it, but that’s about it. And they feel completely dismiss their own grandmothers and cousins and fellow church goers in a way that I would not be willing to dismiss any Christian.

And this may not be what Richard (or others here) are doing. And even if they are, there’s nothing wrong with that. It just isn’t what I mean by orthodoxy, and I don’t find it as persuasive or even interesting as orthodoxy.”

Now, this leaves me thinking a number of things. Jlh11a has correctly identified for me, at least, if not for Beck, a major driver in my engagement with the Christian faith. From the moment I was gripped by the gospel and filled with the Spirit, I have had a sense that the multifaceted life in Christ was so much bigger, better, truer than the way most of us tend to experience / practise it. The more I have read Church History or theology, or heard sermons from different traditions, the more often I get a glimpse of another facet of this jewel. Now the question Jlh11a rightly asks is this; is this a creative process, of adding to orthodox Christianity, or is it mostly an archaeological process of subtracting from our current expressions of Christianity, to pare it back to the orthodox. I think it’s the latter, but I need to be open to the prospect that that is just something I like to tell myself. I think one test of this is that the more I know about Christianities and their histories, the less I confidently hold as personal beliefs. When it comes to virtually everything in the faith now, I can say a little bit about several traditions – and recognise that each has its merits. What’s more even where I do have a preference for one reading, I am reluctant to claim the stamp of orthodoxy, which as a Truth-claim is a power-move. We are all heterodox. Only God is orthodox, and I even have my doubts there.


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Just listened to Pete Rollins recent talk on Homebrewed Christianity.


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We has some friends round for supper the other night and the topic turned around, as it so often does to what we’re reading. Various people proffered titles known and unknown – a Fifty Shades here, a biography there, some theology, some current affairs. What could I say about the book that has gripped me for the past few weeks? Well its a book about history – not quite although there is some history in it, OK its a book about economics and the emergence of forms at the stretching point of capitalism and the enclosure of various commons – yeesss, but its not an economics text either, its a book of theology, of philosophy, of cultural analysis – maybe but not really. So what is it? It’s a book about Pirates!

In this third book Kester brilliantly riffs and mashes across the literary genres, like some anarchic librarian – trying to see what Peter Pan, Star Wars, The Odyssey and the parable of the Prodigal Son look like on the same shelf. The answer is profound and one that, as soon as you have read it you want to go back to the beginning to make all the links that were present in the text but absent from the naive first pass. The second reading is like going back to the desert island with a map, albeit a tatty map composed by a rum sozzled liar.

I hestitate so say what the book is “about”, other than its about Pirates. One could say its about freedom, about the law, about death, about life, its about me and its about you.

One final nugget of buried treasure – the piratical reading of the parable of the prodigal son – is absolute dynamite (or at least gunpowder) – I was amazed to see such a fresh reading of such a familiar text.

Buy it. Read it, Rip it. Share it.

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Here is an article I wrote for Business Connect – I find the hard wordcount cap and publishing deadline to be a useful discipline. But it always makes for some very difficult choices where a statement cannot be nuanced…


When Mohandes K Gandhi placed “Science without Humanity” as the fifth of his seven social sins which he discerned as the roots of violence in the world, he was probably referring back, in 1925, to the dehumanizing effects of industrialisation and recent technological advances. These were seen in the new factories of both the earlier industrial revolution and the new mass production systems which were being developed across the world. These systems reduced human input to that of a cog in a wheel, with no creative, artistic or cognitive input into the work of their hands, making the worker little more than an automaton.

More chillingly they were seen in the mechanisation of warfare in the trenches of Western Europe which created a grotesque production line demanding the input of young men at one end and efficiently churning out the finished goods of broken bodies and destroyed lives at the other.

While there is much to say, theologically and culturally, about these issues which would be of great relevance today, I am going to take up a theme implicit in Gandhi’s formulation, that of the relationship between science and faith. If science and faith had Facebook pages they would probably describe their relationship as “it’s complicated”. This complicated relationship arises from the fact that, certainly within the Western world, both science and faith have changed over the years.

We have had episodes in the relationship that both sides probably regret and others that can be looked back on with rosy reverie. The burning down of the Great Library of Ptolemy in Alexandria 391AD by the Patriarch Theophilus, and the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton Tennessee in 1925 would count as two of the more regrettable incidents. The foundations of the great Universities of Europe, including Oxford, Cambridge, Padua and Toulouse, along with the work of Christian scholars such as Francis Bacon “pioneer of the scientific method” and William of Occam “father of modern epistemology” must count as some of the brighter moments.

For most of the Church’s existence there was a broad understanding that all truth was God’s truth, and an appreciation that the study of natural history illumined the creation. This stance can be summarised in the formula;

Science = Right, Faith = Right

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century gave rise to new ways of looking at society, humanity and a new approach to science which paved the way for great advances in technology. Some of these advances challenged contemporary notions around issues such as the age of the Earth, the origins of human life and nature of the Biblical tradition that set the scientific community at odds with positions the churches chose to maintain. We might say the formula shifted to;

Science = Right, Faith = Wrong

Against this onslaught one branch of Christianity chose to redefine the faith. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a group of scholars from Princeton such as Benjamin Warfield and Charles Hodge edited a set of 90 essays in a twelve volume book called “The Fundamentals; a Testimony to the Truth”. In that moment Fundamentalism was born, with new doctrines about the Bible, authority and prophecy. For a Fundamentalist the formula is;

Science = Wrong, Faith = Right

Thus if your interpretation of Genesis 7 requires you to believe that the whole Earth was covered with water to a depth of more than 29,052 feet (Gen 7:20) for 150 days (Gen7:24) and that every single living thing on Earth perished in this short period (Gen 7:23), then any finding of science that is incompatible with this account must be a lie. This defensive approach has led to antagonism and misunderstanding from both sides and generally a lack of constructive dialogue.

This antagonism has proven a positive environment for the evolution of an aggressive brand of Fundamentalism Atheism, which it must be noted is a philosophical position not a scientific theory, as espoused by its evangelists such as Professor Richard Dawkins.

More recent versions of epistemology, the philosophy that looks at how we know what we know and the theory of knowledge, truth and certainty, offer a possible way through this impasse. For the post-modernist, all claims to objective truth are suspect, as such claims are made by subjective human beings. Objective Truth could only be absolutely known by an objective knower, which clearly disqualifies an Oxford Professor or any other limited, fallible human being. We all know in part “as through a glass darkly” and our knowledge is subject to revision, improvement and challenge.

Post-modernists tend especially to critique claims to truth which are supportive of unequal power relations in society. For the post-modern, a claim to objective truth is an assertion of dominance over the other, by making her subject of your truth claim. A stance of epistemological humility is preferred which gives space for the other to share her story. For the post-modernist the equation becomes;

Science = Wrong, Faith = Wrong, or you are wrong and I am wrong.

Some Christians feel worried about a stance, that does not have the heavy firepower of the Fundamentalist “I am right and you are wrong” position, but many others embrace this position, as it gives an ideal stance from which to humbly tell the story of the carpenter from Nazareth and why we follow him. Theologically it leaves room for only God to know the truth and no room for us to boast in what we have discovered.

CS Lewis once said “If Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it isn’t true because it is Christianity.” A Christian approach to Science, is threefold; one of awe at the marvelous complexity and simplicity of the universe; one of careful appreciation of the gifts of technology, while being aware of the dehumanising potentials of so many new developments and one of recognition – that all searchers after truth are on a journey that we too can appreciate and share.


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