Thursday, 21 March 2013

Choice Words

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Christian Advent

Does 'Advent' have to be this big 'Christian' phenomenon which 'the church' has an obligation to pontificate about - rather than to listen carefully to the voices outside it, to discern the potentially truer understanding which lies within them?

An alternate take on the meaning of advent for Christians might place more - much more - emphasis on the story of the three Magi. If you read the Gospel of Matthew, it's the FOREIGNERS, the OUTSIDERS, the NON-JEWS who come from afar to see and celebrate the coming of the newborn king. NOT the covenantal people: they do not recognise him in this way. Christians have the same problem. The Christmas story is important and powerful precisely BECAUSE it speaks in a special way to outsiders. Let the outsiders come. Let them celebrate. But don't let's start telling them that their gold, frankincense and myrrh aren't 'Christian'. Because the Matthaean narrative defies us to speculate that the TRUE understanding of Advent lies definitively *within* the community. It doesn't. There are many more magi among us today, living outside the community - wishing to bring their gold, frankincense and myrrh. Let's not try to tell them they've been following the wrong star.

Hmmph. I think that's what's wrong with the Christmas sermon that tries to make Christianity counter-cultural, a protest movement against the decadent moral sludge of 'modernity'. Christianity is about the fulfilment of culture, the enrichment and embracing of it. That's what Christians need to be taught. They do not and should not be taught to feel embattled, to need to counter 'modernity' - to treat it as an 'enemy'. To feel like 'the world' just doesn't understand. That's Johannine theology, and I think it's bad. You don't find it on the lips of the Synoptic Jesus. He's not leading a protest movement against 'the world'. To love the world, to love our enemies, may be to feel critical of them. But we must first reach the stage where we are truly happy to concede that this world - these enemies - may in fact have rather a lot to teach us in ways we're not quite prepared to expect. That should always be the first - and is perhaps even the only worthwhile - point of emphasis. It's that preparedness for the unexpected - the preparedness for being completely undercut in our assumptions - that Advent (the birth of the child-God in the lowly manger) is at heart all about.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Experimental Philosophy

The true consists in what is valuable.

In what is valuable lies truth.

The 'skill' of determining what is more and what is less valuable (and what is more and what is less true) is not reducible solely to acquired human characteristics, nor to the motion of particles.

Discernment of truth and of value is never full and complete.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Voltaire and the Philosophy of History

'History is but a pack of tricks we play on the dead'. The words are Voltaire's - and characteristic of him they are too: gently provocative and not without some ring of truth to them either. I read somewhere (I forget where) that Voltaire coined the phrase 'philosophy of history' and remarks of this sort fit naturally within the oeuvre of a writer who was much preoccupied with the course of history, the passing of time and the meaning of progress. One of the chief targets of Voltaire's sarcastic arrows was the Christian church, a church which to his mind had been ravaged and made to look absurd by the new uncertainties and cultural shifts which had accompanied the movement towards a more modern age. 'Movement', it should be stressed, rather than progress. For whereas some more optimistic thinkers perceived in the new age of mechanisation and mass production, in the burgeoning of new and purportedly less constricted cultural forms, an inexorable forward 'push' in the course of human affairs, Voltaire resisted the temptation to see things this way.

It would be a mistake to hail him as a visionary in this respect, as an inaugurator of a new discourse concerned with the nature and problems of history. Questions concerning the nature and trajectory (or lack thereof) of history had puzzled thinkers for many previous centuries and had received a wide variety of answers. Voltaire's suspicion of progress (was it really happening?) fits within a broader trend here. But he undoubtedly played an important part in the move toward formally recognising the importance of a sub-category of philosophical questions concerning the character of history. These questions would play a leading role in shaping some of the key landmarks of 19th century philosophy - particularly, the works of Hegel and Marx.
I don't know if he was onto anything but he certainly heightened awareness of these questions - questions which are a matter of continuing interest to me.

Friday, 3 April 2009

My Top 20 Philosophy/Theology Books

My selection focuses in the main on works which exclude from their purview a particular focus on the exegesis of Biblical texts. The theory of interpretation is discussed in a number of them, however. I would rank them as doing the most to shape my thinking about philosophy and theology out of all the books I've read in the fields. I will compile a similar list of books dealing with the New Testament and early church in due course.

20. Denys Turner, Faith Seeking.
19. Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason.
18. John Cottingham, The Spiritual Dimension.
17. W.D. Davies, Christian Engagements with Judaism.
16. Owen Chadwick, Hensley Henson: A Study in the Conflict between Church and State.
15. Herbert McCabe, Faith within Reason.
14. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism.
13. Robert Morgan, The Nature of New Testament Theology.
12. John Macquarrie, A History of Twentieth Century Religious Thought.
11. John Barton and Robert Morgan, The Oxford Companion to Biblical Interpretation.
10. George Pattison, A short course in the Philosophy of Religion.
9. John M. Rist, Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized.
8. Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology.
7. Keith Ward, God, Chance and Necessity.
6. Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters.
5. R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History.
4. Ian Ker, Newman and the Fullness of Christianity.
3. Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery.
2. Blaise Pascal, Pensees.
1. Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith.

Monday, 30 March 2009

John Gray and the secular fundamentalists

A nice article by John Gray on secularism.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

How to be an atheist: A lesson in Muscularity

I begin this post with an excerpt from an essay in Denys Turner's excellent book 'Faith Seeking', which occurs at the conclusion of the Yale philosopher-theologian's challenge to contemporary atheists. Turner writes as follows right at the conclusion of his discussion:

'So, 'How to be an atheist?' It is not easy; you need to work at it. Be intellectually adult, get an education, get yourself a discipline; resist all temptation to ask such questions as you do not know in principle can be answered, being careful to suppress any which might seem to push thought off civilized limits; be reasonable, lest you find yourself being committed to an excessive rationality; and have the good manners to scratch no itches which occur in intellectually embarassing places - at least in public...if you want to be an atheist, then, it is necessary only to find that the world is to be a platitudinously dull fact. But, I warn you, to be as resolute as it takes in the conviction of such cosmic dullness requires much hard work, not a little training, and a powerful mental asceticism. Anything less resolute, and you run the risk of affliction by theological itches...' [Faith Seeking, p.22]

Perhaps the thing I like most about this description is its stern focus on the drab conformity of much atheism, which consists in its sweeping under the proverbial carpet of life's big questions. The image which comes most readily to my mind in this context is the desire of Adam and Eve to 'hide' from God in the garden of Eden, post fruit taking, a desire which - Paul assures us (1 Cor. 15:22) - leads only to death. In Christ, meanwhile, hiding is unnecessary. Being made alive involves coming out into the open; it involves countering and reacting against the drab conformity which life in hiding demands.

However, when light comes into the world, to evoke an image from John's Gospel, some people prefer to stay in the darkness. The darkness is comfort in numbers, the realm of uncontroversy and macho back slapping; the darkness is a world in which deaths are plotted, and where the demise of the wilfully unrecognised light is hoped for. The darkness refuses to stretch out its arms to its deliverer and instead reaches to its own deliverance, which it finds confirmed in others doing the same thing. Johannine imagery, for all its worth here, only takes us so far.

What Turner's comment invites us to understand is that 'atheism' - conceived in its opposition to Christian faith - thrives in its contemporary forms on being 'civilized', staying 'rational', and refusing to move into 'uncivilized' or 'irrational' circles or trains of thoughts. The complaint owes its urgency, I think, not only to the author's Marxist sympathies. It also comes out of a genuine understanding of how the Pharisaic legalism which the Gospels can so strongly protest against can work. Not, you will understand, that I think Jesus was 'out to get' the Pharisees or to rebel against 'Pharisaism' per se: it is more likely, certainly, that he saw in Pharisaism much that was worthy of admiration, much to be commended - but also the potential for abuse, serious abuse - and this was something, I think, which certain Pharisees were themselves not particularly given to seeing. In a way, Pharisaism in its negative guises (the guises which Jesus protested against) and Atheism (that is, Muscular, Legalistic, Atheism with a capital A) are natural bedfellows.

They both start from principles of order and rationality, on the need for being civilized. And they take strong exception to acts of dissidence or words of complaint against them. And if we return to Denys Turner's words, they both require a stringent intellectual regime to support them, in which asking certain questions is ruled out de rigueur - on the basis of some unstated, hidden, a priori reasoning. Christian faith, and Christian lives, are best realised very often as acts of dissidence, as sustained attempts to break through barriers of order and rationality which are constructed in the name of reason, order and being civilized. Love, and loving behaviour cannot be relied upon to conform to these expectations; the holy spirit, the spirit of love, is too unbridled for the harness of pure reason, pure order, pure civilization, as they are conceived by Muscular Atheists. For their constructions - made apart from a political stance which finds its origin in the desire for love of God and neighbour (does love consist above all in its rationality??) - miss the mark very profoundly. And this is so even while the most collegiate support for the atheist worldview is available among friendly peers who would also sweep a certain kind of question under the carpet as part of the intellectual training in rationality and being civilized which Good Atheist Thought relies upon.

As for Christianity, meanwhile, the only wisdom, the only reason, consists in the love of God and of neighbour (which is like it). And here, a point which many Christians themselves miss needs to be made: to love as Christ demands is not to sit cosily in intellectual communion, with regimes of reason and order comfortably in place. For that is what the Pharisees and the Atheists do. To love is to believe, to be Christlike, and to pick up our crosses and follow: to love is to do what is right and to feel and think it throught doing it. And doing means challenging, overturning, reinventing, creating. This means, very often, doing what the legalists would have you not do: it involves overthrowing their tables, cracking the intellectual whip and breaking down the barriers of order and reason which they construct to maintain their communities of cosy control and peer support. God's love seeks people out: it won't let them hide. It's a lesson many Christians - myself included - need constantly to remind ourselves of.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Aelred of Rievaulx on Friendship

Spiritual Friendship by Aelred of Rievaulx, the 12th century Christian mystic who lived as a Cistercian monk in Yorkshire, is a beautiful and well known tract which is well worth a read. It certainly qualifies, I think, as a 'classic' of Christian spirituality. I'm about half way through it (the book takes a dialogue form - in style it is in this respect not dissimilar to Plato - and the Aelred character is the centrepiece and a compelling discussant). I reproduce here one of my favourite lines from the text, where Aelred asks his discussant Ivo the following:

'Have you forgotten that Scripture says: 'He that is a friend loves at all times' (Prov. 17:17). Our [St.] Jerome also, as you recall, says: 'Friendship which can end was never true friendship' (Jerome, Letter 3.6 in Patrologia Latina 22:335). That friendship cannot endure without charity having been more than adequately established. Since then in friendship eternity blossoms, truth shines forth, and charity grows sweet, consider whether you ought to separate the name of wisdom from these three'.

The striking thing about the text is the essential link it insists upon between eternity and friendship, and with truth and charity, and finally with wisdom. All this links beautifully with at least two crucial biblical motifs: God as love/charity (1 Jn. 4:16) and Christ as truth (Jn. 14:6). And the link between wisdom and the presence of Christ (so e.g. Col. 3:16) is also clearly in view. It's a clarion call to remember that true love inextricably reflects and exists in the truth and love of God in Jesus Christ. Aelred, to repeat, is well worth a read.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

A Review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion

The book aims to put the 'scientific' boot into 'religion'. In this respect, its author knows he is doing nothing new. Since the 1800s, popular works have been written which have described how 'science' should render 'religious' beliefs and practices obsolete. Dawkins is in some ways a sophisticated contributor to this discourse - though this can be explained for the most part in terms of the competence of his rhetorical sleights of hand, whether intentional or not - and in a number of ways disappointing.

For a start, his thesis is not that science 'disproves' religion. That would be - according to his own criteria of judgement - something he could only show by publishing in a peer-reviewed scientific journal evidence to that effect. And Dawkins does not claim to possess such evidence. So, the author is careful throughout to avoid using scientific jargon to describe the project he's engaged in. Herein lies the book's rhetorical sophistication. It presents itself as the argument of a scientistic rationalist. But it does not attempt to root its assertions concerning the non-existence of God (it is 99.99% that he does not exist, we are told) in scientific proofs.

That leads to an interesting fact about the book. You're not reading science; you're reading philosophy (and, dare I say it, theology). Dawkins knows these aren't his fields. He's curiously damning about one of them ('theology') and doesn't really mention the other ('philosophy'). This is an important fact I've discussed elsewhere. Interestingly, all of the God Delusion's 'philosophers' are atheists or agnostics, whereas all of its 'theologians' are theists. This rhetorical tactic of separating people into 'philosophers' and 'non-philosophers' on the basis of their belief in God is hardly charitable. Especially when you consider how many of the greatest 'philosophers' the world's ever seen have been theists: Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel and, amongst modern day philosophers, e.g. Plantinga. The failure to explore the relationship between philosophy and theism in the book is baffling.

Now it's true that there are lots of atheistic philosophers too. Everyone knows about Bertrand Russell and David Hume. But the God question didn't just disappear when their arguments appeared - at least, not in the minds of very many of the world's best philosophers. Is this important fact considered by Dawkins?

No, not really...he's more interested in pursuing the unsophisticated arguments of unsophisticated theists (his highly questionable claim to have refuted the cosmological and ontological arguments for the existence of God apart). And that, for most people (including perhaps himself) will be satisfactory. Fundamentalist believers make easy targets for many people, and it hardly takes an Oxford professor to take a swipe at them for most people to believe they're pretty nuts. What you might expect from an Oxford professor, though, is a little more respect for and awareness of the nature and history of philosophical argumentation, especially if that's what he's engaging in.

Many very eminent scientists are theists - contrary to what Dawkins implies in his book - and he doesn't confront in the God Delusion the kinds of ideas they might seek to offer in opposition to his. Check out John Barrow, John Polkinghorne, Freeman Dyson or Arthur Peacocke. And as for the philosophers, you'll hardly hear a peep from Dawkins about Plato, Hume, Aquinas or Kant. And that seems rather a shame, because these are the guys many of the philosophical academy would turn to if they want to get serious about the history of theism and philosophical arguments for or against it.

Philosophy, however, can't and doesn't work like science. Atheism and 'Reason' won't be true bedfellows until it can. And it's worth emphasising that very many philosophers - including very many atheists - see no reason to believe the harmonisation of 'science' and 'philosophy' will ever happen. But why?!

Philosophical ideas constitute 'evidence' (one of Dawkins' favourite words) of a very peculiar kind. It's not easy to twist them into irrefutable proofs about the external world, as centuries of logicians have found out (often to their dismay). Words and ideas are very tricky customers. It's very difficult to know for sure what they can and can't tell us about what's true, what's real. How good a job can they do? To take a simple example: if there were a God (and how would we know for sure that he was there?), how much could words and arguments do to describe 'him' and how much would it be beyond their power to describe? Any answer to such a question relies on the individual insights of the person who answers. If a person makes the decision beforehand that 'God' cannot possibly be describable in language, then it's no surprise if the person doesn't end up believing in a God knowable only through words and arguments. If, on the other hand, one begins with the premise that a certain combination of words and arguments could 'prove' God's existence or character, then investigation into the presence of such a God could proceed. But the ground rules have to be established. That's what Dawkins (writing in his new role as a philosopher) fails to understand and it's one reason why his academic reviewers have been so unimpressed by his book.

Consider the following: someone decides that 'God' must be the character described with complete accuracy in the pages of the Bible OR just a big fantasy. You choose either one or the other, if those are the only options, don't you...But should these be the only two options? For centuries, Christians (and Jews) have opposed simple minded interpretations of the Bible and have fully admitted that it's riddled with problematic statements and self contradictory claims. It doesn't stop them believing in God. God is more than the Bible. The Bible is first and foremost an important historical record. Only once it is interpreted as history can it be used for the purposes of philosophy or theology. But these sensible, considered positions aren't addressed by modern anti-religion polemicists such as Dawkins. And the failure to address them makes the God Delusion inadequate as a work of philosophy. And since it is not 'science' either, what is it?

Well, it's certainly a crowd pleaser. Witness the statements of applause in the dustjacket of the book. But is 'truth' being conveyed to the crowd in a 'reasonable' way which handles the 'evidence' fairly? Hardly. If it were, the book would be in a top scientific journal. Whole areas of philosophy would have become no-go areas. The great religious institutions (all of which pay attention to the findings of science, at least in their modern incarnations, despite Dawkins' suspicions) would have closed down. And yet none of this has happened.

The best conclusion to draw is that the God Delusion fails in its most basic ambitions - to show that all ideas of 'God' should be considered as species of 'delusion' - but nevertheless succeeds as an entertaining but extended rant, whose chief value is in undermining naive kinds of theism (the kinds, the author insists, which persist amongst almost all 'religious' people). For those who continue to seek God, however, the 'God Delusion' will not offer an insurmountable barrier. Dawkins himself sees the attractions of Jesus. 'Atheists for Jesus', he advocates. Well, if Jesus was God or the son of God (whatever we take these words to mean), he's clearly not far away from 'getting God' after all. His real truck is with unthinking, dishonest fundamentalism. This is something he has in common with many of the world's most religious people. The real 'delusion' is that of the insufficiently thoughtful.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Prayer in the Daily Mail

Today's Daily Mail ran with a story about how a hospital nurse who asked an elderly hospital patient if she wanted her to pray for her has been suspended from work and faces the sack. Read more here.

There's a lesson to be learned from this story, although it's certainly not the lesson which the Daily Mail journalists were trying to sell. What they have to say we've heard a thousand times before. Woe is Britain; cherished traditions are falling away; Christianity is persecuted; political correctness runs wild. No, these perennial Daily Mail subjects are not the ones I want to talk about here. What's more interesting is to look at what they're actually trying to defend - whether they know it or not - in this specific instance.

To judge from the information contained in the article, the nurse in question had "asked" her patient if she wanted her to pray for her. Now that's important. I very much doubt any of the health officials the article mentions would have had a problem if the nurse had tottered into a quiet corner to say a few words of prayer on her behalf without asking. Then there's the underlying implication which attaches to the fact that she asked if she would like to be prayed for. Was permission needed? If not, what was the point in asking? The answer to this question takes in a number of issues and relates above all to the form of Christianity which the nurse was giving expression to.

Of course, the whole exchange has all the hallmarks of Biblicist evangelicalism (the article stiplulates that the nurse is a worshipper in just such a tradition, a 'Baptist' one). In this tradition, people can and should be put on the spot and asked difficult questions; not only that, but people are asked if there's anything they should or might like to have prayed for on their behalf. In itself, this way of doing things no doubt irritates some people (though not the woman concerned in this instance) but is not really particularly harmful.

But what if someone is lying on their deathbed and you are from a tradition which believes that people who don't 'follow Christ' (in the way you see fit) will be damned. Then the 'prayer' question can represent a whole different agenda. The underlying implication is 'I'll let you know that I'd like to pray for you right now, because if you don't submit to Christ pretty soon, you'll be stewing with Satan before too long: prayer, therefore, is the least I can do'. If that was anything like the impression left by the nurse on the woman she was dealing with, or with anyone else for that matter, it would be no surprise whatsoever if complaints were made.

A final point is worth mentioning here and it relates to the ethics, not to mention the eticet, of prayer. Prayer can and should happen whateverthe people being prayed for think about it. They don't have to know about it. To pray for someone, I don't, and should never, need a permission slip. In this respect, prayer is like forgiveness. It should be done whether my adversary forgives ME or not. Or like love. I must love my enemies whether they love me or not.

The person who asks someone permission to pray for them is not listening hard enough either to God or to their neighbour. 'Would you like me to pray for you?' is not a question any Christian should ever have to ask. They should be praying for the person concerned anyway. Underlying their prayers should be the belief that deep down, in the heart of hearts of the person they are praying for - however far from God they might seem, that person WANTS to be prayed for. Now that's far more non-PC. Questions of this sort, of course, are - alas - not the Daily Mail's strong suit.