Newsletter 54 (Spring '09)
flourishing world order?
Taylor, in his massive examination of secular belief, has come close to offering
a conclusive interpretation of the phenomenon.1 And yet, some of his
analysis and conclusions will be disputed, and so the debate will go on. This
present review is a modest contribution to the discussion.
Other commentators have tried to elucidate the reality
of secularisation, among them Peter Berger,2 Alan Gilbert,3
David Lyon,4 David Martin,5 Seyyed Hossein Nasr6
and Colin Gunton.7 For whatever reason, Taylor does not engage much
with other explanations, but sets out his own views. He states that he wishes to
present a more convincing, alternative account of the rise of modern secularity
than the current ‘subtraction theory’. By this he means the dismissal of God
from the public sphere and the loss of religious belief and practice among the
populations of Western Europe. His concern is to trace how society has changed
from one in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God to one where
faith (in some kind of transcendent reality) is only one possibility among
As causes, he discusses the processes of disenchantment,
the drive to reform, the rage for order, the move from theism through deism to
naturalism, the accentuated trust in reason and changed attitudes to time. These
are not novel theses, though Taylor contributes fresh and unfamiliar insights
into the historical progression. He believes, for example, that the Protestant
Reformation was pivotal in ending the prevailing world-view of pre-modern
societies. Amongst other factors, he mentions its break with all forms of magic,
its rejection of hierarchical power, its move from church-controlled to
unmediated personal salvation, a rejection of the distinction between sacred and
secular spheres and the call for ordinary people to live a high moral life:
“Reform demanded that everyone be a real,
100 percent Christian. Reform not only disenchants, but disciplines and
reorders life and society (774).
'rage for order'
turn, the Reform movement inculcated a ‘rage for order’. The drive for
higher moral standards throughout the populace meant that “the nascent state
becomes more and more an engineer of morals and social practice” (114). This
is the beginning of the notion of civility, the way that all citizens should
behave in a civilised society. “The advance of civilization brings with
it…more stringent standards which place a…heavier interdict on violent
behaviour” (659). Society is
to be civilised through disciplines, modes of organisation and, above all, the
rule of law. Only in this way can society flourish.
In time, the notion of human flourishing came to
dominate the social agenda. In former times, the chief end of human life may
have been defined as ‘glorifying God and enjoying him for ever’; latterly
the will of God was narrowed to a notion of thriving human welfare. This led,
round about the turn of the 17th/18th centuries, to a
striking anthropocentric shift:
“(It) comes with the eclipse of this sense of further
purpose; and hence the idea that we owe God anything further than the
realization of his plan. Which means fundamentally that we owe him essentially
the achievement of our own good” (222).
theism to deism
shift was accompanied by a move from Theism to ‘Providential Deism’. This
led inexorably to the primacy of impersonal order. God essentially became the
designer of a moral order, whose unchanged laws had to be observed, if human
beings wish to prosper (221). These laws can be discovered through observation
of human life. Thus was born the tradition of natural law: what rational human
beings can discover for themselves about life as sociable beings (129). There is
no need for a supernatural revelation to know the rules. Natural law is
available to all, offers a basis for rational agreement, and replaces the
conflict of interpretations over revealed law. “As the harmony of interests is
written into human nature from the start, sympathy and a community of interests
should have been enough to establish a non-conflictual order of things” (130),
so concern about inherent sin and the need for salvation were no longer seen as
important. “The move to Deism reflects a major shift in our background
understanding of the human epistemic predicament” (293). Now “(human) agents
acquire knowledge by exploring impersonal orders with the aid of disengaged
reason” (294). Thus, naturalism was born as a “massive shift in horizon…
the rise of modernity.” The application of reason to the given moral nature of
the universe was seen as a sufficient tool for working out the chief end of
humanity: to increase and perfect human welfare. Through
critical debate, in an open public space, agreed rational views about the best
political action for government can be achieved (185-191). However, the vision
of a “natural universe, seen as basically benign and ordered” (295), the
legacy of Providential Deism, was profoundly disturbed by Darwin’s findings
that nature is “red in tooth and claw”.
The removal of God from human history resulted in a
transformation of the notion of time. Time has become uniform and ordinary.
Human beings no longer live close to eternity, because for most there is no
eternity. Secular time is all we have. Time, therefore, becomes a precious
resource, which must not be wasted, but rather measured and controlled in order
to get things done with optimum efficiency. “This time frame deserves, perhaps
more than any other facet of modernity, Weber’s famous description of an iron
cage” (59). There is no access to any reality outside of this profane time
These are the main reasons why ‘exclusive secular
humanism’ has taken such a tight grip on the belief system of contemporary
Western societies. However, one
should not imagine that the exaltation of human reason, as a sufficient
instrument for understanding human life, is the only mechanism that has shaped
society in recent centuries. Taylor gives plenty of space to tracing the
influence of the Romantic Movement, and its more recent offshoots, as a
Romanticism was born in dissatisfaction. The
intensification of reason and the procedures of science have tended to exclude
human emotional experiences and the world of art, which often express realities
in ways that transcend normal reasoning. Secular naturalism has no handle on the
experience of beauty. The aesthetic world is a foreign experience. Creativity
has been restricted to the world of the scientifically experimental. The
rational world by itself lacks depth and wholeness. Moreover, the rage for
modern moral order represses feeling, individuality and authenticity. In due
course, the romantic sensibility has led to expressive individualism, a
rejection of deferred gratification in sexual matters, the pursuit of happiness
in the name of self-fulfilment and, in some cases, a return to paganism as a way
of undoing disenchantment and satisfying a nostalgia for older rituals.
object is not merely descriptive and analytic. He wishes to engage as a
(Catholic) Christian with the secular phenomenon. He does this by suggesting
that secularisation has brought with it an irreparable loss. Built within human
experience is an innate desire to transcend present circumstances, find ultimate
meaning to existence, discover goals, beyond daily routine, worth living for and
escape from “imprisonment in the banal” (719). A secular age cannot meet
this yearning for ‘fullness’ or the satisfaction of a fulfilled life. Human
beings who believe that they live in a closed, impersonal, materialist universe
sense that something fundamental is missing. This has led in many cases to the
contemporary search for ‘spirituality.’ Taylor calls this a natural human
aspiration to religion (though clearly not the conventional kind). Nevertheless,
he believes that this search for a deeper reality than is provided by humdrum
existence is still firmly located within the imminent processes of the natural
Taylor sums up the principal objective of the whole book
as “an attempt to study the fate in the modern West of religious faith in the
strong sense. This strong sense I define by a double criterion: the belief in
transcendent reality and the connected aspiration to a transformation which goes
beyond human flourishing” (510). In other words, his study is as much about
the destiny of the Christian faith after modernity as it is about manifestations
of the secular.
The book is like a slow moving river that meanders
slowly and ponderously towards its destination. It is both fascinating in terms
of the subject-matter covered and frustrating due to unnecessary repetition and
the difficulty of trying to follow the main storyline. Nevertheless, I believe
he largely achieves his goals and in the process illuminates huge swathes of
modern Europe’s cultural history. In spite of Taylor’s reservations, I have
come to believe that the notion of human flourishing is a useful point of
contact between the Christian faith and secular belief. It is just that
Christians will insist that humans cannot flourish, whilst living in an iron
cage. Here is the sombre conclusion of this magnum
race of humans has arisen which has managed to experience its world entirely as
imminent. In some respects we may judge this achievement as a victory for
darkness, but it is a remarkable achievement nevertheless” (376).
1. Charles Taylor, A
Secular Age (
2. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1990).
Making of Post-Christian
4. The Steeple’s Shadow: On the Myths and Realities of Secularization (London: SPCK, 1985)
General Theory of Secularization (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978); On
Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (
6. Religion and the Order of Nature (Oxford: OUP, 1996)
7. The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: CUP, 1993)
'The Clash of Civilizations'
Huntington, author of The Clash of
Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), died on 24 December
2008. A flush of articles has followed, appraising the work of this senior
academic and political advisor; he has long been influential in the United
States (his first book was published in 1957). Among them is a testimonial by
his past pupil, Francis Fukayama.1
Fukayama recounts that in books written during the
decades before The Clash of Civilizations,
Huntington challenged the assumption, common among social theorists in the
1950's and 1960's, that the elements associated with Western modernization -
economic development, democracy, social mobility, education, rationality and
secularization - converged in broad social progress. Rather, he argued, these
elements could clash with each other, and must be managed by the establishment
of a (perhaps authoritarian) political order; without this, modernization could
bring social and political disorder rather than advance.
Huntington added to these insights in The
Third Wave (1991), published after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Fukayama writes 'Sam noted that the vast bulk of Third Wave transitions had
occurred in culturally Christian countries, and that there was a distinct
religious underpinning to the pattern of democratization in the late 20th
century.' The United States itself 'did not represent the vanguard of a
universalizing democratic movement; rather, it was successful due to its origins
as an "Anglo-Protestant" society.'
More recently, Huntington argued in Who
Are We? (2004) that the United States' Anglo-Protestant culture
- and bound up with this, the nation's identity - is threatened by an
internal clash both with the 'cosmopolitan and transnational commitments' of
elites on the one hand, and with immigrant groups who are showing a new
reluctance to assimilate on the other.2
Fukayama himself, as is well known, paints a rather
different picture to Huntington in The End
of History (1992). In his recent testimonial he rejects again the latter's
'gloomy picture.. of a world riven by cultural conflict', writing:
'Sam, in my view, underrated the universalism of the appeal of living in
modern, free societies with accountable governments.' Also, while Fukayama
accepts that democracy is historically connected with Christian cultural values
in its origins, he does not agree with Huntington that it is sustained by these
in any fundamental way.
writings serve to warn us against the danger of (1) ascribing to freedom, a
supreme and self-evident value appreciated by ourselves as Westerners, and (2)
assuming that non-Westerners recognise (or will come naturally to recognise if
unhindered) this supreme prize and our Western regard for it. There is a further
danger, however: the freedom prized by Western, secular liberal thinkers can be
a distorted version of freedom, leading them to a false exaltation of
'the West' as well as false expectations of 'the rest'.
Christian discernment is required in judging where such
falsehood is to be found. Take for example, Philip Jenkins' book God's
Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis, reviewed
by Colin Chapman in Network newsletter No. 52. Jenkins writes of Muslims that
'In the longer term, the underlying pressures making for accommodation and
tolerance will prove hard to resist'. Richard Neuhaus, however, is critical of
Jenkins3 (ACCESS 662).He finds Jenkins' prognosis 'somewhat
sanguine', drawing attention to those who speak rather of preparing for a 'soft
Islamization' of Europe. He writes 'The
prospect is that, in the not-so-distant future, someone will publish a book
entitled Allah's Continent. In fact,
several Muslim authors have already published books with very similar titles,
anticipating the future of the Europe that was… I very much wish Philip
Jenkins' God's Continent provided
better reasons for believing they are wrong'.
Now which of these is right? Where does discernment lie?
To be sure, a false optimism based on liberal assumptions is irresponsible and
dangerous; but no less so is a false pessimism.
- Christian, and Western
is required here especially regarding the Western exaltation of freedom: is this
true freedom as found in Christ, or is it a distortion and travesty of this? No
doubt the Western celebration of freedom is historically indebted to Protestant
Christianity. But this does not prove that true freedom is represented by
freedom as the West understands it and exults it today, or that when cultures
clash with the West, it is this true freedom with which they clash.
To be sure, we must take seriously that cultures
uninformed by a Christian imagination may not easily acclaim and embrace freedom
in Christ. But we must also take seriously that Western culture has itself lost
much of its nourishment by the Christian imagination, so that the freedom it
prizes has become a travesty of freedom in Christ. In this case, for other
cultures to clash with the West is by no means for them to clash with the
freedom promised by Christ.
And indeed people from non-Western cultures (Christians
included) not uncommonly protest that the Western vision of freedom is unworthy
(for Christians among them, unworthy of the name of Christ). For them, the
Western vision is too wedded to a post-Enlightenment definition of humanity and
its concept of autonomously choosing, rational, rights-bearing individuals. To
them, the West can appear on the one hand quite ready to pursue its own
interests with disregard for the freedom of other cultures, and on the other
hand quite ready to endorse morally decadent choices at home. Therefore when the
West promotes itself to people of other cultures as the way of freedom and
enlightenment, their response may be deeply ambivalent. Even should they resist
the West despite its hugely impressive achievements, they may borrow from the
West's self-understanding in doing so. Vinoth Ramachandra writes, 'To see the
conflicts of the present world as a clash of Western rationalist ideals and
oriental religious zeal is profoundly misleading. If European powers justified
their imperial conquests with claims of progress and enlightenment, Asian rulers
translated those same ethnocentric claims into brutal nationalist projects', He
illustrates this from the modern history of Russia, China, Cambodia, Indonesia
How vital today is the task of cultural self-awareness
in the West; and how vital the responsibility of Christians, helped by the
international family of Christ, to rise to cultural discernment in the light of
Fukayama, 'Samuel Huntington', http://www.the-american-interest.com/contd/?p=688
Times OnLine: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article5408079.ece
Neuhaus, 'The Much Exaggerated Death of Europe', First
Things, May 2007.
Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths,
SPCK, 2008, p.67.
policy: one crisis and another
current economic crisis is causing much concern. Could it have been avoided?
Certainly some have warned that the recent and continuing global economic system
has an inherent instability and potential for crisis. Others have warned rather
that while this system continues it is causing a crisis of huge proportions.
Michael Northcott's article in Third Way illustrates the latter (ACCESS No. 663). In October 2007
the author wrote: 'The world is faced with a biopolitical crisis… At the heart
of the present crisis is not a conventional empire but the global market empire
fashioned in the last 50 years as governments have deregulated money and trade,
and freed up economic actors and financial markets to enable maximal wealth
accumulation by banks and corporations without regard to political sovereignty
or territorial limits. This has involved an expansion in monetary values in the
form of bank credits, paper money, stocks, and financial instruments such as
derivatives, future, and hedge funds, or unprecedented proportions.' Whereas
those who direct the project of economic globalisation promise redemption from
suffering, he says, 'in reality this vast collective project of global wealth
accumulation disempowers people in communities of place, and so provokes
enormous destruction in the welfare of ecosystems and of human communities…
(it also) presages the greatest ecological collapse in the history of the human
The challenge is to build a global economic system which
will neither itself collapse, nor by
its persistence sponsor a collapse of
this appalling kind.
from the past
has been put in the place of truth… (but) nothing can be built… on the
unphilosophical philosophy of blind buying and selling; of bullying people into
purchasing what they do not want; of making it badly so that they may break it
and imagine they want it again; of keeping rubbish in rapid circulation like a
dust-storm in a desert; and pretending that you are teaching men to hope,
because you do not leave them one intelligent instant in which to despair.'
K. Chesterton, 1935)
to religious leaders in Birmingham, Rowan Williams remarked upon the heritage of
civic feeling and civic pride from the nineteenth and early twentieth-century
(ACCESS No. 670). It had translated into the provision of learning, art, music,
and sport by means of libraries, galleries, concert halls etc. Importantly it
reminds us, he said, that those who thought about cities in those terms were
thinking about citizens in a 'three-dimensional' way: 'in other words, they were
looking at citizens not as voters or interest groups, they were looking at
citizens as people who needed for their life in the community all sorts of
spaces that weren't just functional or problem-solving, but spoke of something
deep and something more than just political in the narrow sense.'
The archbishop went on to acknowledge that 'the whole
notion of investing in public space that had dignity and excitement about it
took a bit of a dip in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and it's taken
some time to "push it back in" again.'
Crucial to the notion of 'three-dimensional
citizenship', he said, is faith: 'people who live in a city are people you may
expect to have relationships and commitments that have to do with religious
conviction.' Where a society is made up of people of many religions, this calls
for a vision of 'argumentative democracy' which brings religion into the public
sphere as part of three-dimensional citizenship. He called on national
government to acknowledge where religious communities are contributing to the
fulfilment of three-dimensional citizenship and 'work with the grain'.
Across in the United States, meanwhile, what place will
President Obama grant to religion in public life? Evidence of some of his
thinking is offered by Madeleine Bunting (Guardian, 12 January): 'Recently,
liberal secular allies have been shocked by his decision not to dismantle, but
to take over and expand, Bush’s controversial flagship policy of funding
faith-based organisations to provide social services…. The point is that Obama
has not wavered in his passionate faith in the progressive potential of
religious belief since he first encountered it in south Chicago in community
organising. He was in his 20s, and for three years he was trained in a politics
based on a set of principles developed by a Jewish criminologist and an
ex-Jesuit with borrowings from German Protestant theologians.' (note: on
faith-based initiatives in the U.S. and the U.K., see ACCESS nos. 658 and 665).
In the view of Os Guinness, the disputed place of
religion in U.S. public life is the key issue confronting President Obama (USA
Today, http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2009/01/faith-and-inaug.html). Echoing
his recent book The Case for Civility
(HarperCollins, 2008) he calls for 'the restoration of a civil and cosmopolitan
public square. This includes an understanding of public life in which citizens
of all faiths - and none - are free to enter and engage public life on the basis
of their faith, but within a
framework of what is agreed to be just and free for people of all other faiths,
too… a framework in which differences are taken seriously, conflicts debated
robustly and policy decided civilly'.
Behind the pursuit of citizenship and civility lies a
certain vision of public space and of the public. The Christian vision, for its
part, is neither of a 'naked' public square nor of a 'sacred' public square; it
starts further back than this dichotomy, in a biblical understanding of secular
and sacred, creation and creator: the 'secular' is the realm of things created
and provisional, which find sacred meaning and purpose as signs pointing to God
who created, redeems, and will fulfil them in new creation. This calls for a
public square open to the question of God's good purposes, and open to those who
make religious claims for what these purposes might be. Christian faith makes
claims not only for faith, but for public space and for a public comprised of
you to those readers who suggested possible explanations why we had to cancel
our last conference Mission - in Christian
Soil? None denied the importance of the theme. Perhaps the Network should
probe further this theme at some point in the future.
we shall shortly hold the last of our conferences on three aspects of the
cultural context of mission in the West: paganism, Christian soil, and
secularist ideology. Having reflected with Tom Wright on Christian Witness in a Pagan Culture, and having postponed attention
to Mission in Christian Soil, we now
gather to consider Responding to
Secularism: Christian Witness in a Dogmatic Public Culture. We shall be led
in this by John Stackhouse, Elaine Storkey, Andrew Kirk and Dominic Erdozain at
Tyndale Hall, Cambridge on Friday 24th April. A flyer is enclosed for
British and European readers, but those further afield are most welcome to come
Please note that places are very limited (50 places), and that we will be
sharing these with associates of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics,
whose Director Jonathan Chaplin has played the key role co-ordinating this
shared event. So please book as soon as possible, and be sure to book before 1st
in 2009, events are being planned in association with Churches Together in
Britain and Ireland to celebrate the centenary of Lesslie Newbigin's birth. The
hope is to hold these in Edinburgh (with involvement from the Church of
Scotland), Birmingham and London. There may be events held elsewhere too; if you
know of any, please let me know, and I will spread news of them. Further
information will follow as it becomes available.
The first in a new series of feature articles:
to Western Culture: Twentieth Century Pioneers
Chesterton (1874-1936) was the Christian apostle of wonder and gratitude, a
prophet against the toxic world-views of his day.
Having been an agnostic and socialist, he surveyed the new century with
horror, and prepared for crusade. He
believed that as the British Empire reached its apogee the age of science and
industry, rationalism and materialism was generating a culture of barbarism and
inhumanity. As a formerly Christian
society dissolved into a miasma of individualism, pessimism, nihilism and
cynical, exploitative capitalism, he also believed, however, that his society
could still take the medicine of Christian hope and enthusiasm, meaning and
purpose rooted in the doctrine of a loving God.
His whole life as a journalist, poet, novelist,
essayist, critic, lecturer, traveller, campaigner and broadcaster was rooted in
his attempt to revive society's dying Christian vision of holiness, value and
solidarity. His radical Christian
message quickly gained for him a huge national and international audience.
He spoke of complex, troubling things in simple, everyday, playful terms
laced with his personal amiability and charm.
Such fresh expression made him stand out in a society still suffering
under Victorian self-righteousness and censoriousness.
He was a prolific writer: a hundred books bear his name
and he wrote hundreds of articles for many periodicals.
Several of his books focussed on religion including Orthodoxy
(1908), The Everlasting Man (1925) and
St Thomas Aquinas (1933); while he
applied his vision to the world around him and its thinkers in other books such
as Heretics (1905), What's
Wrong with the World (1910), Eugenics
and other Evils (1922), and The
Outline of Sanity (1926).
He deplored faith in progress, which he typified as
"a false religion", amounting to "the persecution of the common
Man". Because he was
anti-modernist, Chesterton is construed as a "conservative"; but such
labels ignore his declaration that "I am entirely on the side of the
revolutionists", and his warning that "living things must constantly
be broken up and destroyed; it is only the dead things that can be left
alone". He certainly believed
that Christianity needed fresh expression in order to protect ordinary people
from ancient tyrannies using new guises. He
wanted to mend the backbone of Christendom.
Secularism seduced by the apparent rationality of its
expressions. The young, he said,
"have heard only the latest jargon of their own generation; the last heresy
that has rebelled against the last heresy but one."
Language and thought were being mischievously degraded: "it is a
question of liberty from catchwords and headlines and hypnotic repetitions and
all the plutocratic platitudes imposed on us by advertisement and
knowledge," he warned, "is perpetually tricking and misleading
us." The brave new world
offered by secularism was an inadequate and destructive deceit: in 1908 he
observed that" there is a collapse of the intellect as unmistakeable as a
falling house." People were
terrifyingly gullible: "the modern world will accept no dogmas upon any
authority; but it will accept any dogmas upon no authority."
Those leading the people down a dead-end of secularist
and materialist individualism, pessimism, nihilism and cynicism were the powers
of capitalism and statism, the purveyors of scientism, rationalism and new
paganisms. The modern scientific
mind, he believed, attacks "the 'corner stone of Christianity' - the
sacredness of the ordinary man." Its
atheism actually abolishes "the sense that there is a meaning and a
direction in the world." Its
materialism undermines humanity: "I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope,
courage, poetry, initiative", because it leads to "complete
fatalism". Its scepticism
"removes the motive power".
Chesterton met the age of scepticism with scepticism,
the age of ego with the Christian visions of community, fraternity, humility and
Society was suffering from individual, social, cultural
and political atomization: "this world," he exclaimed, "is all
one wild divorce court." Determinist
modernism was undermining morality, mind and will, which held society
together: "it was a Determinist who told me ….that I could not be
responsible at all." "Will
made the world," he insisted, and "Will wounded the world."
Such insights informed his political views.
He was an egalitarian, freedom-loving democrat, who opposed himself to
both State and Capital. Britain's
"grossly unjust social system"; and he claimed
he had always tried " to put a chain and collar of Responsibility … on
the Top-dog." The rich and
powerful had reduced the common man to the level of a "wage-slave",
and were stripping the poor of their ancient collective Christianity in order to
render them solitary and defenceless before the innovations of the elites.
In his periodical, G.K.'s Weekly
(1925-1936), he gave voice to the political idea called "Distributism",
which sought to redistribute property, especially landed property - to all, so
that every individual worker might secure his freedom and consolidate his family
with home-ownership. He was
especially concerned that political forces were damaging the family.
His "social gospel" seems to have influenced Christian groups
across the English -speaking world.
Generally hostile to imperialism, ho opposed the Boer
War, and spoke up for "victim nations" such as Ireland and Poland.
He warned against the ultra-nationalism of Germany, and against racism.
He opposed anything in the way of morality and medical ethics which was
detrimental to the family or respect for human life.
Chesterton thought the human soul was dying along with
Christianity, and he tried to teach people to be happy, "how to enjoy
enjoyment". He laboured, he
said, "so that a man sitting in his chair might suddenly understand that he
was actually alive, and be happy." "The
chief idea" of his life was that of "taking things with gratitude, and
not taking things for granted." For
this Christian doctrine of humanity was vital: "the only way to enjoy
even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed."
He thought the love of life might be restored by resurrecting the sense
of purpose, meaning and value.
That Chesterton was essentially right, Christians can
now see very clearly. Early in the
last century he declared that "humanity stands at a solemn parting of the
ways", because it is "deserting the path of religion and entering upon
the path of secularism": "this is the drama of our time."
It is, indeed, the drama of our
AN AGE OF
have within the last few weeks started a new job as the Co-ordinator for
Vocations and Spirituality in the Diocese of Salisbury. This has led me to
reflect in a fresh way about the meaning of spirituality in our society.
We are living in the days of the credit crunch. All around us there is taking
place a major readjustment of thinking about many things which have more or less
been taken for granted in recent years. To me at least, it does seem like the
end of an era. I think that we are seeing the end of a particular form of free
market capitalism, and a significant check on the rampant consumerism which has
come to dominate our society.
Consumerism tells us that we live to shop. The meaning of life is to be found in acquiring and consuming things that claim to satisfy our many appetites. If suddenly we all have to live within our means, and for millions of people those means are very limited, what then is the meaning of life?
Spirituality is concerned with our encounter with God, and how that encounter is experienced, nourished and expressed. For Christians this is the God who in Christ promises each of us fullness of life, a life of lasting meaning and fulfilment. "The glory of God is a human being fully alive," said St. Irenaeus.
These are days when Christian communities across the land have an extraordinary new opportunity to show by the way we live what it can mean to be fully alive in Christ.
D.A. Carson, Christ
and Culture Revisited, Apollos/IVP, 2008, pp.244, £12.99(pb)
In this book D. A. Carson, the noted evangelical
scholar, turns his attention to the questions relating to how Christians should
interact with the culture in which they find themselves. The first two chapters
focus on the classic study by H. Richard Niebuhr. Here there is a careful
examination of the terms “Christ” and “Culture” and the typology Niebuhr
suggested for reflection. Carson finds this work seriously wanting and
misleading. The problem is, as Carson sees it, that there is no clear Biblical
theology grounded in the key turning points of God’s redeeming work, from
creation, through the call of Israel, the coming of the promised Christ, his
teaching, death and resurrection, the gift of the Spirit and the birth of the
church, coming to a completion at the End. All of Niebuhr’s “types” can
claim, in varying degrees, some grounding in Scripture, but none of them takes a
full-bodied biblical theology position seriously. So the resulting offering is
various degrees of reductionism.
Then follows a chapter evaluating current debates on culture and
postmodernism in which Carson’s skills in analysis are very evident. Chapter 4
reflects on the notions of secularism, democracy, freedom and power, showing how
all these terms are ambiguous in differing contexts; for example, one person’s
freedom is another person’s oppression. Then comes a chapter examining the
relationship of church and state, drawing mainly but not exclusively on American
resources. Finally, a chapter surveys some contemporary treatments of Christ and
Culture, with attention given to Abraham Kuyper and the recent study by Craig A.
Carter which is also judged to be reductionist.
Undoubtedly there are some important things said in this book but over
all it is a disappointment. Some important studies, for example by Charles
Scriven and John Howard Yoder are overlooked. Carson’s judgment of others
while fair can be too brisk and the reader longs for a deeper engagement. This
sense of depth does appear in the way Carson argues that the Christian
experience of living in particular cultures varies and, in consequence, the
responses are different, a fact not always acknowledged in less wide ranging
studies. But it raises the question as to whether Carson himself has been
sufficiently self-critically aware of his own American evangelical theology.
This issue's contributors
is Spirituality and Vocations Adviser in the Diocese of Salisbury
is a Baptist minister living in Manchester
is a mission theologian and author
holds a PhD in English Literature and is author of The
Truest Fairy Tale: An Anthology of the Religious Writings of G. K. Chesterton
Newsletter 55 (Summer '09)
double anniversary year is being celebrated with numerous articles, programmes,
a feature film (starring the Da Vinci Code
actor, Paul Bettany) and even a set of commemorative stamps. In a supposedly
postmodern era of suspicion towards science, this public celebration of a
scientific theory is noteworthy.
Yet a closer look at the content of the celebrations suggests more
interest in the story of Darwin the ‘great man’ and cultural revolutionary
than in the science. Darwin, it is said, has shown us our true place in the
world, giving us a less arrogant account of our relationship with our fellow
animals than that provided by religion.
Triumvirate of Modernity
interest reflects a more general rise in evolutionary stock over recent decades.
A previous generation venerated the triumvirate of Marx, Freud and Darwin as the
harbingers of the modern spirit - with Darwin very much the poor relation.
Darwinism’s child, sociobiology, was associated with naive positivism and, at
best, politically conservative values. Darwin himself was scarcely a prophet of
twentieth century revolution or sexual liberation: a conventional man of
independent means and linked to the establishment Wedgewood dynasty, he was
positively uxorious, a believer in the superiority of men and the caucasian
races, an advocate of the British Flag and the benefits of Christian
civilisation, even a subscriber to missionary societies and the church roof
fund. Marx and Freud were the real
modern heroes, with their outsider status, their critiques of bourgeois
marriage, morals and reason, arguments congenial to a generation which perceived
conventional practices and traditional institutions as repressive and
Yet Marx and Freud have not fared well. Rather it is Darwin who now stars
in popular debate as well as in the human sciences. Routinely described as a
‘great man’, a ‘saint of the new secular materialist age’, who wears
‘the crown for the scale of his intellectual revolution’, he had the ‘most
important idea in human history’ and his book The
Origin of Species ‘revolutionised the world’ with its ‘profound
insights’, ‘possibly the most explosive work of science ever written’1.
A few specialist radio programmes cast doubt on this naive story, but
Armand Leroi’s What Darwin Didn’t Know made a positive virtue of its mythic
features2. Leroi is aware that the initial interest in The
Origin soon declined, to effectively die out by 1900. Until its revival
within biology in the 1930s, Darwinism was significant, not as science, but as a
popular ideology among colonialists, generals, big game hunters and
‘progressive’ eugenic thinkers such as H G Wells, G B Shaw, Bertrand Russell
and J Maynard Keynes. Its subsequent association with Nazism dented its
reputation but, as an ideology, it is once again enjoying a revival.
Evolution of Evolution
this chequered history, Leroi argues that ‘evolutionary theory has itself
evolved’. This is an interesting but not entirely novel proposal. For a
‘science’, Darwinism has always been uncomfortably closely associated with
its social context. So, applying the evolutionary principle of ‘survival of
the fittest’, what is it about the world-views of some periods that fitted
Darwinism to survive and flourish, whereas it died out in others? Karl Marx was
among the first to see ‘natural selection’ itself as a case of perceiving in
the natural world Darwin’s own English society with its world-view of a
‘division of labour, competition and struggle for existence’. And historians
have long noticed that the popularity of Social Darwinism in the early twentieth
century was useful to rich white men, especially those with racist or
colonialist world-views. Of course, this leaves Darwinism as a cultural
phenomenon vulnerable to social changes. Bertrand Russell observed in the 1940s
that the ‘survival of the fittest’ was less popular among biologists than it
had been, because competitive capitalist world-views were out of fashion3.
Leroi sets out to trace Darwinism’s ‘decline, fall and ultimate
triumph’. Yet, as the phrase ‘ultimate triumph’ suggests, he actually
presents not a story of the evolution of Darwinism, but of its ‘progress’.
For example, he notes that major figures in Darwinism’s twentieth century
rehabilitation were eugenicists and scientific racists, but presents this as an
aside rather than a context4.
Nevertheless, it is worth pursuing the idea that Darwinism, as a
resurgent cultural force, is responding to a change in the contemporary
world-view. To give an evolutionary account of Darwinism’s selection as a
story of our own time, we must show why it is best fitted to survive in
today’s world of the early twenty-first century. Why have Darwinism’s
just-so stories once again become fashionable?
TV programmes on Darwin such as David Attenborough’s The Tree of Life have celebrated Nature with outstanding photography
of its sheer variety and complexity. How, Attenborough asked, can we ‘make
sense’ of the ‘huge range’ of ‘astounding’, ‘dazzling’, and
‘astonishing’ organisms? Reading
from Genesis, he explained to us that the Bible mistook unity for design, and
the Christian doctrine of dominion authorised humanity to ‘exploit the natural
world as they wished’. But, he continued with positively biblical inflexions,
‘a man was born who was to explain’ the variety and ‘our place in it’.
‘His name was Charles Darwin.’ Many programmes have similarly emphasised
that Darwinism accounts for the alleged illusion of design in Nature, and that
it unifies Nature’s extraordinary diversity. Leroi, for example, asserted that
only Darwinism provides a ‘rational answer to why living things bear the
hallmarks of design’, explaining ‘unity within diversity’.
The unification of diversity in Nature is a recurrent theme in these
programmes. But how might this chime with Darwin’s popularity in today’s
cultural context? What is it about the contemporary jungle of world-views which
mirrors Darwinism’s evolutionary account, and provides an environment for its
survival? Perhaps Darwinism’ s promise to bring unity to the diverse jungle of
the natural world also holds the promise of a unifying narrative in the
postmodern jungle of world-views.
Where Marx and Freud thrived in the modernist mid twentieth century with
its unifying belief in science and progress, Darwinism has blossomed in the
postmodern twenty-first century with its variety and diversity of competing
world views. Marx and Freud were congenial to those seeking to break up the
modernist monopoly, and they served their purpose well. They showed social
institutions such as marriage, law, even reason itself, to be founded on sinking
sand, the products of economic circumstances or unconscious forces. And they
sank. But the resultant fragmentation - what the philosopher Jurgen Habermas has
called ‘postmodern chatter’ - has brought its own problems. The old
metanarratives, the big stories of modernity such as science, democracy,
capitalism or socialism, have been replaced by local narratives of gender,
belief or ethnicity. Some miss the old certainties, and hanker after the
unifying narrative of science in a world which now seems in pieces. Enter
Darwinism - unifying the jungle of world-views just as it does natural
diversity, and bringing comfort to the angst of postmodernity. Once again, the
human spirit can engage in the epic struggle of discovery. As Leroi puts it,
Darwin ‘gave us a new narrative or at least the promise of one - he told us
that the history of life is a tale of epic forces and scales and that it was
ours to discover.’ Or Attenborough: ‘We are not apart from the natural world
[as the Bible teaches].... We do not have dominion over it’. But there is an
Darwinism, we are, as Attenborough observes, part of the world, ‘subject to
its laws and processes’. Darwin, unlike many of his modern disciples, saw the
implications of this:
"But then with me the
horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been
developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all
trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there
are any convictions in such a mind?5
These convictions of our mind include reason, truth and justice. As
Darwin darkly suspected, neither natural nor cultural survival in the struggle
for existence guarantees their trustworthiness or authenticity. Darwin feared he
had subverted the very reason he prized and on which he took his stand.
Nietzsche embraced this Darwinian conclusion, and has been proclaimed the
prophet of the very postmodernity contemporary Darwinians abhor6.
Darwinism’s current revival may bring temporary comfort to those who are
unsettled by science’s lost authority but, if consistently pursued, it deepens
postmodernity’s subversive revaluation of all values.
If Darwinism fails to bring cultural unity, it also exacts a cultural
cost for providing a story of unity in the natural world. Darwinism fits the
amazing and beautiful diversity of creation into a single narrative of ‘epic
forces’ by making power, suffering and death into generative principles. As
Richard Dawkins concedes ‘the Darwinian world is a very nasty place; the
weakest go to the wall. There’s no pity, no compassion’. Yet Dawkins values
the pity and compassion which he has inherited from his Christian upbringing
without being able to rationally justify his preference: ‘I couldn’t,
ultimately, argue intellectually against somebody who did something I found
obnoxious. I think I could finally only say, “Well, in this society you
can’t get away with it” and call the police'7. The ultimate
appeal is to the police force, the bearers of social power, not reason. As we
enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, we must hope that the
police retain a firm grip on their Christian heritage.
have been drawn from programmes by David Attenborough, Melvyn Bragg and Armand
Leroi; also Simon Jenkins, The Guardian,
my Six Modern Myths (2000) pp.60ff.
Fisher and Haldane
a letter to W. Graham, 3 July 1881.
A Grafen & Ridley, Richard Dawkins:
how a scientist changed the way we think, OUP, 2006.
accessed 10.4.09: see the final paragraphs of this neglected interview.
fitness and beyond
Lesslie Newbigin, it is recalled, was once told that
'Keep-Fit' classes had been started in the area where he ministered in Winson
Green, Birmingham. 'Fit for what?' he asked.
As a catchphrase, 'Survival of the fittest' involves the notion of
'fitness'. What does it mean? The ascription of 'fitness' can act simply to 'normalise'
- to ascribe normative value, rightness or at least achievement - to what is a de
facto state of affairs.
Rather than 'the survival of the fittest', perhaps we should speak of
'the survival of the best fit': of that which fits best its environment.
The forms taken by life adapted to fit its environment are indeed a
wonder. I marvel at the cactus! Because moisture is scarce, it
is of a shape which provides maximum storage capacity with minimum
surface area for evaporation - it is typically spherical or columnar. Because
water comes and goes with the seasons, it typically has ribs which enable it,
like a concertina, to expand and shrink as a vessel. And because marauding
animals are on the search for moisture, it typically protects itself with
But every such wonder of adaptation presupposes a greater wonder: the
living subject without which the question of adaptation does not arise. The
emergence in the first place of the radical novelty of life incorporating genes
and DNA, and which is the subject of adaptation, is a 'given' for, and thus
beyond the reach of, Darwin's theory of natural selection.
The radically new emerges in:
(1) life in the form of single-celled amoeba which do
not die but divide
(2) life comprising a population of individuals which
have each been born of sexual union and will die.
(3) human life, comprising persons whose identity is
uniquely open. Pannenberg writes: 'One can say that man has a world, while each
species of animal is limited to an environment that is fixed by heredity and
that is typical of the species.' However, 'this cannot involve only openness to
"the world". Rather, openness to the world must mean that man is
completely directed into the "open"... beyond the world... beyond
every possible picture of the world.... Such openness beyond the world is even
the condition for man’s experience of the world....' Such human openness is
ultimately towards God.1
At each new stage, 'survival'/existence and 'fitness' disclose more -
relative to the previous stage - of the meaning they have for human beings under
God. 'Survival' has a certain minimal meaning applied to a stone. It has more
meaning applied to an amoeba, and more again for DNA-based life. 'Life' finds
its full meaning for human beings, open towards the gift of eternal life. So
too, 'fitness' has new depths of meaning for each. The wonder of adaptation in
the natural world, traced painstakingly by Darwin, belongs within this greater
framework. It cannot itself provide that comprehensive unitary principle which,
as Philip Sampson notes above, is sought from it today. That principle belongs
to the deeper wonder of creation and of new creation from the hand of God.
What is Man? (Philadelphia 1970), p8.
Quoted in my 'Michael Polanyi and Human
Identity', Tradition & Discovery,
United States 1994, Vol XXI, No.3. (ACCESS No.677).
Witness in a Dogmatic Public Culture
Nurses suspended for praying, codes of conduct
forbidding teachers from sharing their faith, housing workers in a church funded
organisation suspended for a conversation over coffee… all occurrences in
England in the last few weeks. Are these signs of things to come and the result
of an increasingly aggressive secularisation process? Or are they a rather
confused and clumsy attempt to deal with religious plurality and inclusivism by
ruling anything distinctive out? The pressing nature of the questions brought a
full house of older and younger together for a very stimulating day at Tyndale
House sponsored by KLICE and the Gospel and Our Culture Network.
Four highly competent presentations from distinguished speakers, two more
concerned with how the secular outlook has developed and two with our response
to it, provoked lively debate and questions throughout the day. Dominic Erdozain
from Kings College, London, a young man going far, gave us a masterly overview
of the development of the secular mind in the UK over the last two hundred years
(ACCESS 673) while Andrew Kirk almost persuaded me to buy Charles Taylor’s
magnum opus, A Secular Age, with his
magisterial summary of a seminal, if somewhat laborious work.
John Stackhouse and Elaine
Storkey gave us a clear analysis of the strands within secularism and both were
alert to the opportunities within a secular plurality as well as the
difficulties it presents. Elaine Storkey had some good stories of what fearless
but sensitive witness can open up.
You can’t do every thing in a day but what I would have liked is a bit
more analysis of the impact of “secular pluralism” on social and political
policy along with a discussion of the potential secularisation of the Christian
Mind which I think I detected in John Stackhouse’s answers and remarks at
question time. I just wonder if he is tempted to concede too much by for example
wanting to rule out publicly funded distinctively Christian education. Would
that not see Christian discipleship and learning relegated to private activities
behind closed doors because in his words it is part of the Christian’s
particular rather than general calling? Does such an approach reinforce a
sacred/secular divide? A Biblically informed set of paradigms for responding to
the post Christendom world would move the discussion on. Maybe that is the next
conference, to which I eagerly look forward.
thing which the evolutionary attitude of mind in our day does deny is that there
is any particular sanctity about this particular two-legged being who has come
from the ape by imperceptible gradations, and who may be going back again to the
ape, with equally imperceptual gradations.'
C. S. Lewis well understood the interplay between
theology and imagination. He wrote, not academic theology, but stories with an
indelibly Christian content and works of popular Christian education. As a
result he remains 'still apparently the most widely read religious writer in
Lewis believed in ‘Mere Christianity’. He was impatient with
denominational differences (making ironic the attempt of various wings of the
Church to claim him for their own). He had a sometimes uncomfortable relation
with academic theology. He enjoyed doctrine, however; he described reading it as
‘often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books’2 The
sense of ontology (being) evidenced in his works is reminiscent of Eastern
Of all Christian doctrines, the one to which Lewis pays most attention,
knowingly or not, is that of the Incarnation. Lewis is a superb Christian
communicator, and the Incarnation is about God’s making himself known. His
stories are full of conceptual content and indeed argument. An example of the
latter is the extraordinary anti-reductionist section of the Narnia tale, The Silver Chair,
in which the Green Witch in her underground city tries to persuade the
children of the unreality of the sun, the overland and the great lion Aslan).
Often academic works accompanied stories: The Abolition of Man with That
Hideous Strength, A Preface to Paradise Lost with Perelandra (Voyage to Venus).
Reckoning with truth
In his introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ On
the Incarnation, he describes old books as those which will most correct the
characteristic errors of our own period, those shared by all contemporary
writers, ‘even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it’.3
Lewis deplored what he called ‘chronological snobbery’4, the
practice of assuming that because people lived before us their thoughts are now
outdated. In his ‘Evolutionary Hymn he parodies the modern belief in progress:
‘Far too long have sages vainly/ Glossed great Nature’s simple text; / He
who runs can read it plainly, / “Goodness=what comes next.”’5
His early involvement in science fiction is prophetic. It is motivated at once
by love for the genre and hatred of the ideology (particularly of human racism)
which he saw propagated in such writers as H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapeldon and Arthur
C. Clarke. In The Screwtape Letters (1941)
Lewis portrays Hell as creating and manipulating such currents as much as those
of human vanity, greed and so forth. For Hooper, Lewis is never wedded to the
Spirit of the Age but always engaged in confronting it with the truths of the
As one would expect, then, Lewis was a relentless opponent of the
‘subjective turn’ in theology. ‘In lecturing to popular audiences I have
repeatedly found it almost impossible to make them understand that I recommended
Christianity because I thought its affirmations to be objectively true’
rather than ‘comforting, or “inspiring” or socially useful’.7
For his own part he had been brought to faith ‘kicking, struggling, resentful,
and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape’8;
his experience of God was not of a mere idea but a person both sovereignly
objective and dynamically engaged with us in a way that recalls Kierkegaard,
Barth and Bonhoeffer. Lewis dismissed the so-called ‘decline of religion’ as
a clearing away of ‘a vague Theism’9, which was notable for
costing nothing: ‘there was no danger of Its doing anything about us… There
was nothing to fear; better still, nothing to obey.’10
First things first
Lewis was an unashamed believer in hierarchy, in finding
oneself in relation to an objective external order rather than in self-creation
and absolute self-determination (those gods of our modern world…). ‘You
can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only
by putting first things first.’11 For Lewis this law was universal:
one only got friends, for example, by caring for something else more than
friendship. This was the associated ‘law of inattention’, and is perhaps not
dissimilar to Polanyi’s tacit knowledge.
Above all what is first is God, in relation to Whom we all find our place.
As for Lewis’ friends, J. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, the primal sin is
putting ourselves at the centre of the universe, rather than worshipping the
Creator of all. People are not merely misinformed, but sinners, ‘bent’ in
their wills and needing salvation. This progressively destroys their ability to
see clearly either themselves or anyone else - see the picture of Uncle Andrew
in The Magician’s Nephew, and of the
tempting devils themselves in Screwtape.
The consequences of disobedience are not arbitrary acts of punishment, but
inherent to being itself. In the last of the Narnia stories, The
Last Battle, the dwarves are unable even to see heaven all around them. The
Christ-figure Aslan says of them that, ‘their prison is in their own minds,
yet they are in that prison.’12 Sin, for Lewis, is ontological (and
epistemological) suicide.13 It is perhaps his ontological depiction
of sin which is the most striking .
Lewis always said his knowledge of evil was largely drawn from his own
heart. Similarly, in figures such as the self-deceiving yet still deeply
sympathetic Orual of Till We Have Faces
we recognise our own faces. Lewis’ work is a valuable spiritual guide due to
this honesty and painful self-knowledge (as, for example, in his A
Grief Observed, his memoir of bereavement).
As Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University,
he gleefully described himself as a dinosaur.14 Whilst he
prophetically confronted scientism, he did so rejoicing in the Medieval
‘discarded image’. Having come himself to faith through a belief that
Christianity was a myth come true, he liked to introduce into his works
mythological elements from the Graeco-Roman and Norse worlds that he loved so
much. Unsurprisingly, he had no patience for Bultmannian demythologising. He
spoke (and wrote) disparagingly of those Biblical critics who ‘claim to see
fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.’15
‘The “assured results of modern scholarship”’, he opined, ‘are
“assured”… only because the men who knew the facts are dead and can’t
blow the gaff.’16
Abolition of the man
The fashion today is to emphasise the mythopoetic skill
of his stories, and to deplore his rational (and sometimes rationalist)
nonfictional works of Christian theology. Austin
Farrer, the eulogist at his funeral, regretted the tendency to split his work in
this way, pointing out that ‘this feeling intellect, this intellectual
imagination… made the strength of his religious writings… There lived in his
writings a Christian universe that could be both thought and felt, in which he
was at home and in which he made his reader at home. Moral issues were presented
with sharp lucidity and related to the divine will and, once so seen, could
never again be seen otherwise. We who believe will ask no more. Belief is
natural, for the world is so. It is enough to let it be seen so.’17
In his stories and other works, Lewis presented a case for Christianity
in the face of much criticism. He was a ‘bonny fighter’ for the cause: he
endlessly communicated by talks, sermons, radio as well as writing, and was
willing to take on any opponent in a way since unparallelled. In his literary
criticism, he showed appreciation of the sort he called for in his warm-hearted An
Experiment in Criticism. Though undoubtedly with weaknesses and personal
prejudices, he had great personal generosity, kindness and humility. The film Shadowlands
has done him a disservice in portraying him as buttoned-up and reserved:
Lewis was outgoing, the life and soul of the party who could overwhelm
mild-mannered students with his personality, but whose teaching was red meat to
many. Enriched himself by the wealth of Christian tradition, he continues now to
do the same for us.
A Century of Protestant Theology (London: Lutterworth, 1980), p.130.
Saint Athanasius: On the
Incarnation, translated by a Religious of C.S.M.V. (London: Mowbray, 1970,
orig. 1944), p.8.
Saint Athanasius: On the
Surprised by Joy, pp.166, 167.
W. Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles), p.55.
First and Second Things, ed. W. Hooper (London:
Fount, 1985), p.12.
‘Modern Man and his Categories of Thought’, in Present Concerns, ed. W. Hooper (London: Fount, 1986), p.65.
Surprised by Joy, p.183.
‘The Decline of Religion’, in First
and Second Things, p.72.
Surprised by Joy, pp.168-9.
First and Second Things, p.22.
The Last Battle (Harmondsworth; Penguin, 1969;orig. 1956), pp.134-5
Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall.
Descriptione Temporum’, from They Asked
for a Paper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962), pp.24-5.
and Elephants’, in Fern-seed and
Elephants, ed. W. Hooper (London: Fountain, 1977), p.111.
and Elephants’, p.117.
‘In his image’, in C.S. Lewis at the
Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences, ed. James T. Como (London: Collins,
1980), p. 243.
Philip A. Rolnick, Person, Grace, and God, Eerdmans 2007, 256pp., £18.99
This is an ambitious book, which seeks to
set out the history of the emergence of the concept of personhood, and to
re-express a contemporary account of the human person as created by God.
There is considerable intellectual energy, and a wide scope, which is
both the book’s strength and its weakness.
The opening chapter, which considers the classical Christian
understanding of personhood, is arguably the weakest in the book.
The thrust is basically Western and Augustinian, with the origin of
personhood grounded in the inter-personal relations within the Trinity. The
danger with this approach is that a rather abstract concept of the person can
lurk, and that the inner nature of God is seen more as a God-like essence or
substance which is nevertheless personal, indeed tri-personal.
Over time this arguably evolved into the medieval priority given to the
unity of God over his triunity, with Augustine’s mental images of God
predominant. Rolnick is aware of
Zizioulas’ rather different account, with the person of the Father seen as key
to the understanding of God and creation alike, but he doesn’t know quite what
to make of it. He thinks that
Zizioulas’ Cappadocian approach calls into question the equality of the
persons of the Trinity. The danger
is that Rolnick is left with an underlying tendency to a rather impersonal
concept of God, for all his protestations to the contrary.
A short chapter considers the impact of evolution and Darwin,
particularly in relation to the problem of altruism, which Rolnick sees as a
mark of divine grace upon the underlying natural substratum of human personhood.
There is also a helpful account of how the unity of human personhood
transcends the purely physical, naturalistic aspects of life.
A substantial chapter on postmodernism provides a helpful overview of
such thinkers as Nietzsche and Derrida. Rolnick
sees the problem with postmodernism in its deepening of Descartes’ turn to the
subject, and its consequent tendency towards non-realism and even nihilism.
The finite must necessarily be on its own.
The final chapters attempt a restatement of the classic Christian view of
life, and human personhood, as a gift from God.
There is much here which is stimulating and (to this reviewer) true.
Yet it retains a certain abstract, almost idealistic feel.
As an indication and illustration of this, there is little discussion of
gender and sexuality. One could read
this book almost without realising that humankind takes the form of male and
female. Arguably, this is a
consequence of his rather flat, co-equal understanding of the Trinity, with
humankind made in the divine image.
These reservations aside, this is an impressive and stimulating book,
with many fascinating observations about human personhood.
Jason E. Vickers: Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Theology,
Eerdmans, 2008, 224pp., £15.99 (pb)
This is a provocative book. Vickers asks
whether the doctrine of the Trinity has become separated from daily life. He
contrasts two approaches to faith: faith as assent to propositional truth based
on Scripture (eg doctrine of the Trinity), and faith as the response to God’s
saving work, eg in the invocation of the Trinity in worship.
Vickers’ particular concern is focused on the way in which the ‘rule
of faith’ changes in English Christianity. To appreciated what this means we
need to understand what Vickers understands by the rule of faith: ‘Within the
framework of catechism, baptism, and the liturgy of the early church, the rule
of faith was second only in importance to the divine name itself.’ (p.4) Thus
the ‘rule of faith’ provides a summary of God’s identity as Trinity:
importantly, the rule of faith made clear that the triune God was a God
favourably disposed towards humans, a God who desired ongoing communion with all
of creation, a God who was willing to go to any length necessary to obtain and
to sustain it. In short, it identified the saving activities of the triune
A particular stream within English
Protestant theology has re-interpreted this classic ‘rule of faith’ by
prioritising sola Scriptura, and
thereby distorted (and still distorts) our current understanding of God and
salvation, particularly our understanding of God as Trinity:
the working out of a distinctively English Protestant version of sola
Scriptura led to the separation of the immanent Trinity from the economic
Trinity in that stream of theology and thus to the perception in English
Protestant Christianity that the Trinity has little, if anything, to do with the
Christian life. (p.xi)
In this length of review it is not
possible to illustrate the detail of the discussion, so having indicated the
flavour, I’ve outlined the argument:
Trinitarian rule of faith is broken up by the Reformation in which needed
changes unleash primarily epistemological uncertainties about Christian faith.
Protestant rule of faith, sola Scriptura,
feeds into this epistemic challenge and shifts the emphasis from participating
in God’s Trinitarian life to proving that God is Trinitarian, as seen from a
plain reading of the propositions found in Scripture.
proof that God is Trinitarian is not so easily established, and orthodox
Protestants find themselves in a dilemma of having either to accept the
limitations of their proof which may lead to Unitarianism, or accept that the
Catholics are right.
major protagonist for the resulting minimalist approach to doctrine is Locke
who, having accepted the Protestant rule of faith, of sola
Scriptura, claims that very little of real importance is contained in or can
be proved from Scripture. The personal knowledge of God is separated from
intellectual assent and assent is required to very little. The scene is set for
attempts to re-establish faith in the Trinity.
in Charles Wesley, there is an example of English Christianity where worship
(his hymns) and teaching (his sermons) reflect (ontological) participation in
the divine: the Holy Spirit draws us into a personal knowledge of Trinitarian
I found myself asking three questions as I
read and reflected on the book:
would a Protestant emphasis on Scripture be integrated in a rule of faith today?
Vickers is part of the Canonical Theism movement so one answer is found there.
The placing of scripture within a broader canon might not be satisfactory.
would a contemporary Trinitarian rule of faith look like, eg is the Anglican
Covenant best read as an attempt to provide a classic rule of faith for the
Communion? The Covenant thereby helps establish a Canonical Catholicism.
are the implications for contemporary styles of mission and worship? Given
Vickers’ conviction that ‘Personal knowledge of God was the only knowledge
that finally mattered in early Christianity’ (p.193) who is the Charles Wesley
Reading Vickers during Easter and leading
up to Trinity Sunday has been most rewarding.
Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross (eds.), Mission
in the 21st Century: Exploring the Five Marks of Global Mission,
Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008, pp. 219, £14.95 (pb)
The editors are to be commended on putting
together a rich anthology of voices on contemporary missiology. The emphasis on
contributions from the ‘global South’ is particularly appropriate for this
new century in which the majority of the world’s Christians live in Africa,
Asia or Latin America. Professor Andrew F. Walls is well-known as the doyen of
mission studies. His masterly summary of the changes in Christian mission over
the last five centuries is a fitting conclusion to the book. Dr Cathy Ross,
originally from New Zealand and now mission theologian at CMS and the University
of Oxford, supplies the introduction and has facilitated the inclusion of voices
of church and mission leaders otherwise unheard in the West.
The volume does not set out to define mission but starts from ‘the five
marks of mission’. Surprisingly for a book which takes such a contextual
approach, the origins of the ‘five marks’ in the Anglican Communion are
neither acknowledged nor explained. This seems to be due to the fact that the
book was prepared to inform the 2008 Lambeth conference, with a particular slant
toward CMS, which also explains the foreword from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
But it may be confusing to readers outside that context. The article by CMS
General Secretary Tim Dakin suggests the book also carries a certain agenda to
give mission a more central place in the proposed Anglican Covenant.
Short-comings of the ‘five marks’ formulation are recognised, but the
intention is to show how the marks are applied and resonate in mission
engagement globally. Having two commentators from different continents on each
mark helps to highlight contrasting perspectives and concerns. Among these,
Melba Maggay (Philippines) makes one of the most persuasive arguments I have
read for ‘loving service’ as integral to Christian mission. It is a strength
that the editors have elicited and included forthright opinions (for example
from Emmanuel Egbunu, bishop in the – Anglican, we assume – Church of
Nigeria) that taken in isolation will raise the hackles of many others but which
are set here in the context of mission challenges. There are hints also of new
theological perspectives on mission from the South, for example in the article
by D. Zac Niringiye (Uganda), who emphasises the role of the Holy Spirit in
mission in his exposition of ‘to proclaim the good news of the kingdom’.
In the second half of the book, leading mission thinkers – again from a
range of ethnic backgrounds – comment on contemporary mission issues with
similarly thought-provoking results. For example, Kwame Bediako’s discussion
‘Whose religion is Christianity’, which must be one of the last articles
this late pioneer African scholar wrote, is deeply insightful. And Korean
mission theologian Moonjang Lee’s chapter sheds new light from an East Asian
perspective on theology of religions.
The quality of the articles is almost uniformly high and there is
abundance of challenging resources here both for practitioners and academics.
The book demonstrates how contemporary mission increasingly takes on local
priorities and, as Cathy Ross puts it, is not ‘neat and tidy’. The
implications of this for the future of the Anglican Communion, and any global
organisation, are profound.
Donald Le Roy Stults,
Grasping Truth and Reality: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Mission to
the Western World. James Clarke & Co, 2009, 295pp, £25.
Le Roy Stults has provided a worthy addition to the growing literature on the
work of Lesslie Newbigin, concentrating on Newbigin’s missionary engagement
with Western culture. That this dimension of Newbigin’s ministry can provide
more than enough for Stult’s substantial book is a measure of the substance of
Newbigin’s output, particularly as most of the material under review was
written after Newbigin’s retirement from active missionary service in India in
The book begins with a biographical sketch of Newbigin’s life, followed
by an exploration of the background to his missionary engagement with the West.
The substance of the book explores this engagement, helpfully expounding
Newbigin’s critique of Western culture in the context of the intellectual
streams that helped him to understand it. This approach is generally successful,
particularly in the early chapters, where Stults draws out the significance of
Charles Cochrane’s work on Augustine in drawing out those lines of thought
which most influenced Newbigin, and also in mapping the historical crisis which
Augustine faced which is in some ways similar to the cultural situation which
Newbigin faced on his return from India. These central chapters form a valuable
introduction to Newbigin’s engagement with the West, though the influence of
Michael Polanyi could have been further explored to show how it helped to frame
Newbigin’s cultural as well as epistemological insights. Partly for this
reason, the conclusion to the book is less successful in its critique of
Newbigin. Some of the ‘fault-lines’ are well-drawn, not least Newbigin’s
emphasis upon epistemology to the exclusion of other possible cultural factors.
But in setting these within a framework which hinges on Stults’s view that
Newbigin was against the notion of ‘contextualisation’, his case is somewhat
weakened. Greater attention to Newbigin’s own nuanced exposition of this theme
in Open Secret (and elsewhere) would have helped to reframe Stults’
rather selective argument at this point, particularly at the level of what can
and what cannot be contextualised. More generally, Stults tends to ‘flatten
out’ Newbigin’s writings in a way that does not give significance to their
historical development. Nonetheless, even at points where this reviewer tended
to disagree, there is plenty to benefit from here.
General Secretary of Church Mission Society
Bishop of Chester
Director of Programme in England and Wales, Bible Society
Senior Lecturer in Theology Systematic and Social Theology at Leeds Trinity and
Stephen May is an author and Vicar of Norden
in the Diocese of Manchester
Philip Sampson is an author and former
psychotherapist and Social Science Research Fellow at the University of
Paul Weston is a Lecturer and Tutor at Ridley Hall, Cambridge
Newsletter 56 (autumn '09)
their very nature, centenary celebrations mark that which is past: an
acknowledgement of someone's place in the annals of history. However,
the celebrations ahead also point us decisively forward.
As we approach the centenary of Lesslie Newbigin’s birth (on December 8th),
there are of course good reasons to recognise his achievements in a historical
perspective. As the Times obituary put it –
he was to become ‘one of the foremost missionary statesmen of his
generation’, and ‘one of the outstanding figures on the world Christian
stage in the second half of the century.’ But in the view of some in the West,
Newbigin’s achievements are best viewed in historical perspective – a thing
of the past. After all, wasn’t his main focus on ‘modernity’ with its
overcommitted faith in rationalism? Haven’t we ‘moved on’ in the focus of
our missiological endeavours and attention? To postmodernity? To the rising tide
of Islam? To the new world order of Christianity in which the global south must
inevitably gain centre stage?
It won’t surprise readers of this Newsletter to hear the proposition
that such ‘historicism’ is seriously misplaced. I want to suggest three
reasons why this particular centenary should be celebrated facing forward into
the future in continuing conversation rather than simply back into the past with
first reason is Newbigin’s theological ‘method’. Though trained in a
protestant liberal approach to biblical hermeneutics during his time in
Cambridge, he quickly found on his arrival in India in 1936 (and in particular
during his weekly visits to the Ramakrishna Mission) that the essentially
rationalist apologetic approaches to the bible did not engage those who had not
been brought up in an enlightenment tradition. So in its place, Newbigin began
to develop a theological method which saw the narrative of scripture in its
witness to Jesus Christ as the irreplaceable locus of revelation, and therefore
the source of every true form of missionary translation. Whilst some approaches
to contemporary mission – particularly in the West – appear to flirt with
various forms of cultural relativism, and therefore change with shifting
cultural patterns, Newbigin’s commitment to the narrative of scripture as the a
priori of knowing and the wellspring for mission gives his work a unique
flavour and continuing relevance in our talk of ‘postmodern’ missionary
second reason is Newbigin’s committed contextual engagement. This is the
creative counterpoint to method. Nearly all Newbigin’s work was
conscientiously shaped by it, being attentive to the local context and engaging
with it carefully. Those who are tempted to see him purely as a commentator and
critic of modernity overlook his significant engagement with postmodernity in
his latter years. The influence of Michael Polanyi’s epistemology is highly
significant here, as it was in his discussions of modernity. But Polanyi helped
Newbigin not only to sharpen his critique of Enlightenment assumptions, but also
to develop creative missiological responses to the epistemological challenges
posed by a post-Enlightenment West. In this sense Newbigin’s work (his
‘Unfinished Agenda’ as he put it in the title of his Autobiography) was
always forward-pointing, was post-Enlightenment in its orientation, looking to
new conversations and fresh points of engagement with the local context. This
kind of dialogue will need to become more characteristic of the kind of
theological enterprise needed – not least in the new global Christian context.
This is not to dismiss Western theological paradigms, but to call them into
creative partnership with other parts of the world church in order to produce
those locally relevant forms of missionary church to which Newbigin was so
committed. Whether one agrees with everything Newbigin said, he surely showed us
a way of doing this that will profitably stimulate our missionary thinking for
years to come.
third reason for Newbigin’s continuing relevance is his quest for a form of
witness that could properly be called ‘public’. Again, it is not that he
‘cracked’ this, or gave the definitive answer to the question of what it
means to say that the gospel is ‘public’ truth, but he was at least brave
enough to set out the kinds of questions that need to be addressed. Steering a
course between a disengaged ‘sectarianism’ on the one hand, and a return to
a renewed form of Christendom on the other, his thinking was always
characterised – particularly in his later years – by a recognition that
alongside the retreat of the Western church into the private sphere, the more
robust ‘public’ theology of Islam was and will continue to be a rising –
not to say threatening – phenomenon.
is far more that could be said of course. But I hope that in these ways at
least, the marking of the centenary of Newbigin’s birth will be as
forward-looking as it is retrospective. Our conference in Birmingham in December
is determined to be so, because there are many who find in Newbigin’s writings
not just a mine of accumulated wisdom, but a prescient and cogent
conversation-partner in the challenges that continue to face us.
the Open Secret:
enduring legacy of Lesslie Newbigin
A Day Conference will be held to celebrate the centenary of Lesslie
Newbigin's birth on Friday 11th December 2009 at The Queen's Foundation,
Birmingham B15 2QH, England.
fee £35 including lunch. For a booking form email [email protected];
Conference will also be held in Edinburgh
on Saturday 12th December at St John's Episcopal Church Hall, Princes
Street. For further information and to register contact Rev'd Murdoch Mackenzie
(email [email protected];
tel. 01631 710 550) The main speaker at both conferences will be
Professor Veli-Matti Karkkainen, who lectures on Lesslie Newbigin at Fuller
Theological Seminary, California.
Secret Strength of Lesslie Newbigin’s Theology of Missions
Newbigin was a Northumbrian whose happiest holidays were spent walking the hills
around the family home in Rothbury, and it is tempting to compare him with the
Celtic missionaries who christianized the landscape. He too possessed a deep
spirituality created through hours of prayer that sustained him in his ministry
and he underwent considerable physical hardships and loneliness as he
indefatigably preached the Gospel. However he himself only looked back at the
history of missions in order to plot a more effective advance and he got very
annoyed at suggestions after the publication of Foolishness to the Greeks, that his aim was to re-create mediaeval
Christendom. His theology was always designed to have a practical effect: for
example, to motivate Student Volunteers, to re-energize congregations, to
justify the integration of church and missionary society structures and to
launch an attack on secular humanism and post-modernity in any shape or form. He
opposed the change of name for the International
Review of Missions, a WCC publication he once edited, to
International Review of Mission because he feared the loss of practical
focus on missions. He abhorred the idea of ‘relevance’, whether in Christian
apologetics or mission, but in fact his thought was always highly contextual,
like liberation theology or feminist theology, something one might expect
because of his acute sense of place and politics.
The challenge now is to discern the enduring strengths in his theology of
missions which might make it possible to translate his insights into twenty
first century programmes as with his The
Gospel and Our Culture ere they pass into history.
witness of the Spirit
the Father has sent me, so I send you’ is a verse which has been used to sum
up Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology, but it actually influences his whole
theology, given his emphasis on God’s continuing intervention in human history
and given the Cross and resurrection of Christ as the turning point in that
history.1 Like Stephen Neill and others he would argue that were this
demonstrably not the case, his faith would be extinguished, and his life would
have no meaning.2 However,
the real linch-pin and what is original in his theology of missions is his
understanding of the significance of work of the Holy Spirit both in theory and
in his personal experience. The Holy Spirit is the down payment on the Kingdom
of God, both the proof of God’s eschatological purpose in history and the
means by which His Will is accomplished, particularly in mission and inter-faith
dialogue. It seems that Newbigin was determined not to repeat Karl Barth’s
self-confessed mistake of neglecting the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, first
developing the concept of the mission of the Triune God c 1958-1962, and then
refining his influential statements on the Holy Spirit in The
Household of God (1953)3.
could castigate western European post Enlightenment thought and capitalist
society with the kind of vigour 19th century missionaries from Carey,
Marshman and Ward onwards devoted to denouncing the evils of Hinduism. His first
glimmerings of this critique began as a student under the influence of J.H.
Oldham and Reinhold Niebuhr and perhaps as a reaction to the determinism he had
imbibed from his geography teacher, Bill Brown, before his conversion. However
it is as a striking example of his own understanding of ‘reverse evangelism’
or ‘the re-evangelization of the west’, ideas he popularized in the 1970s,
that he launched his attack after his missionary service in India. He has been
criticized for absorbing so little South Indian thought despite his profound
knowledge of Tamil language and culture and the Sanskrit scriptures.
Yet his position would not be as radical if he had not immersed himself
in a totally different culture, and he could not have translated his strictures
on Vedantic monism to exposing the limitations of deism and atheism. He could
utilize the same terms of reference for Vivekananda as for the sponsors of post
modernism, and write with the same confidence and authority. What he did learn
from India and re-inforce with his own bible study was the quality of Christian
of what Newbigin wrote before his ‘retirement’ in 1979 has become normative.
His goals of globalizing the debate and including Roman Catholics and
Pentecostals are taken for granted. Yet to cast him as an ‘establishment’
figure is a mistake. His commitment to Roland Allen’s approach makes him
profoundly subversive. The secret strength of Newbigin’s theology of missions
derives from not just its roots in scripture and prayer and the way he tested
and matured his ideas over decades, reflecting on his experiences and
intellectual adventures, but also its holistic quality, undergirding all his
theology and integrating his life
Goheen, M (2000) ‘As
the Father Has Sent Me, I am Sending You’: J.E. Lesslie Newbigin’s
Missionary Ecclesiology Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, Zoetermeer
J.E.L. (1993) The Open Secret
2nd ed. Edinburgh.
p106; Jackson, E.M. (1991) God’s Apprentice. The Autobiography of Stephen Neill. London
E (1976) Karl Barth. London
message from Geoffrey Wainwright
Fall semester, as Lesslie Newbigin’s centenary approaches, I am teaching an
elective course at Duke Divinity School entitled “Readings in Newbigin’s
Theology” that is attracting at least forty students.
The students are impressed by the consistencies maintained by Lesslie
throughout his ministry and thought. From
the Bangalore lectures of 1941 on “The Kingdom of God and the Idea of
Progress” to the missionary encounter with Western culture conducted by
Newbigin in his later decades, the contrast remains firm between a world
allegedly built on human discovery and achievement and a world whose cornerstone
is God’s raising of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Not that Lesslie Newbigin was a quietist.
His evangelism was consistently governed by a phrase he repeated on a
return visit to the
In his later years, as already in South India, Newbigin stressed the
importance of the local church in Christian witness:
it is to be “the church for its
place”. Ecclesiologically, the
question is freshly posed in ever changing circumstances as to how the unity of
“all in each place” to which Lesslie was so committed throughout his
ecumenical endeavours is to be attained and embodied in a single Christian
We are now 25 years from The Other Side Of 1984. A quarter of a century has already passed
since Lesslie Newbigin challenged the churches to ask radical questions about
the future of western culture. We have also passed another significant
milestone, in moving into a new millennium. Here we are now, well into the 21st
century, in the world of global warming, the war on terror, and Generation Y.
What does Lesslie’s analysis have to say to us now?
We are now 25 years from The Other Side Of 1984. A quarter of a century has already passed
since Lesslie Newbigin challenged the churches to ask radical questions about
the future of western culture. We have also passed another significant
milestone, in moving into a new millennium. Here we are now, well into the 21st
century, in the world of global warming, the war on terror, and Generation Y.
What does Lesslie’s analysis have to say to us now?
Firstly, Lesslie’s comments about the disappearance of hope in western
culture are as pertinent as ever. Barack Obama has emerged on the world scene as
an astonishing, almost messianic figure, centered on the audacity of hope. We
long for a new quality of leadership, built on faith, hope and integrity. But
the problems are now so vast that we can scarcely believe that any leader could
rise to this challenge and lead us out of the mess we have got ourselves into.
Hope is in dreadfully short supply, and perhaps no-one feels this more acutely
than the young, the generations X and Y of our broken culture, who cling to
friends and drugs and the hope of a fleeting connection in a increasingly
Secondly, the churches seem to me to be going through a long drawn out
death and resurrection. Christendom is dead, but the nostalgia persists. We are
now in the period of the mixed economy church, seeking to hold together models
of inherited church and the new emerging church. The relationship is often
uneasy. But surely the future for the church in western culture is going to be
radically different from the traditional model which already has little meaning
or resonance for those under the age of thirty, and many others as well.
Finally, we are in the age of spirituality. Our culture no longer
requires us to be in the least bit apologetic about speaking in public about
spiritual things. However the church in the west has a long way to go in
rediscovering our confidence in Christ. We are still deeply conditioned by the
imperatives of liberal democracy. Can we today in the words of Lesslie,
offer to our dying culture “a new framework for understanding and coping with
experience, based on the fact that God has become incarnate in the man Jesus?”
'And when we see - as we do - a multiplicity of bodies,
each claiming to be a fellowship based upon the common sharing the Holy Spirit,
yet denying any binding obligations towards one another, and apparently without
any sense of shame about such a situation, and sometimes even proud of it, must
we not say bluntly: ‘Brethren, you deceive yourselves. This fissiparation,
this proliferation of mutually irresponsible sects, is not a work of the Spirit
but of flesh. In your emphasis upon the primacy of the Spirit, and upon the fact
that the Church is intended to be a Spirit-filled fellowship in which the
Spirit’s gifts are known and enjoyed and used for the edification of the
Church and for witness to the world, you are right. But you are wrong in
severing the Spirit from the body, in forgetting that as there is one Spirit so
there is one body, and that the first and most excellent fruit of the Spirit is
the charity which beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things,
and is glad to suffer for His body’s sake, which is the Church.'
Newbigin, The Household of God
Several decades ago a number of formal agreements and
unions between churches were being pursued with vigour. A pioneering example was
the formation of the Church of South India in which Lesslie Newbigin played such
a vital part.
Today such initiatives are not to the fore. However, some see encouraging
signs of ecumenical renewal at a less formal level in the 'emerging' or
'emergent' church. Among them is Leander Harding, who recently quoted the above
words of Lesslie Newbigin on his blog (internet web-log).1
Back in June, he reflected on a conference on the relation between the
emerging church and the Great Tradition.2 By way of introduction he
'The Emergent Church is a term that characterizes a wide
spectrum of Christians and churches often composed of young adults that are
seeking an “ancient-future” way of being the church. These young Christians
often come out of Evangelical and Pentecostal circles, though there are refugees
from the Mainline Churches as well, and they are looking for something more
significant than the trendy consumerist relevance that has characterized many of
the approaches to reaching a secularized society in the 20th century.
It is a very disparate movement and includes examples that resonate deeply with
the orthodoxy of the ages and other examples that seem, as one of the conference
presenters George Sumner said, the latest instalment in the long book of
He then mused: 'As I listened to the themes that were attracting these
young Christians: a more narrative understanding of the message of the Bible, an
interest in ancient practices of prayer and spiritual discipline, a turn toward
the writings of the earliest Christian centuries of the Patristic period, an
interest by formerly free church types in sacramental theology and in the
theology of the church, I was struck by the way in which this movement is
revamping much of what was good about the story of the church and theology in
the 20th century.'
Leander Harding believes we are in a moment when there
is 'a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit moving to renew the ecumenical church'. He
recalls movements of the Spirit in the course of the 20th century: the impetus
of the Edinburgh 1910 World Mission Conference, the rise of Biblical Theology,
the liturgical movement, the new embrace by churches of the poor and the
marginalized, and the charismatic renewal. 'All of these movements', he writes,
'in some way brought with them a painful consciousness of the brokenness of the
body of Christ as it faced the challenge of an increasingly hostile and
secularized world. Out of the renewal in theology, liturgy and mission came a
new desire for ecumenical healing and partnership...' 'It is striking', he
notes, 'how the saints of the ecumenical convergence of the 20th century are the
figures that interest the emergents of the Twenty-first the most. Karl Barth,
Lesslie Newbigin, Michael Ramsey, Yves Congar, Alexander Schmemann were names
that were invoked constantly during the course of this conference.'
Meanwhile what has happened to this heritage in the churches? Leander
Harding is critical: 'During the 20th century God gave to the broken and
fractured global church a gift of the Holy Spirit, an ecumenical moment of
mission and renewal. It was for the most part squandered and has been allowed to
fall to the ground...' Against this background, today is 'a moment for
repentance for those of us in the historic churches which have stewarded the
Great Tradition but have lost touch with the life which generates the tradition
and which carries it forward. It is also a moment of testing for that which is
emerging. Will they marginalize doctrine and the labour of seeking a consensus
in faith and order? Will they succumb to the motto that deeds unite and doctrine
divides and then find themselves in the midst of church-dividing controversy
with no deep doctrinal consensus to guide? Will they be lured into trivial and
faddish relevancy and all too worldly politics at the expense of a more profound
service of peace and justice? Will the established churches who are in a panic
about their declining influence in the culture repent of quick fixes and
pandering to culture and engage with a new generation in a deep renewal of the
roots of Christian wisdom and practice? Will we all catch this new wind of the
Spirit or let it pass us by? What an exciting time to be a Christian.'
Do we see similar developments in Britain? Note that Mike Starkey,
reviewing Apprentice: Walking the Way of
Christ by Steve Chalke (with Joanna Wilde) finds 'a style more redolent of
Roman Catholic of Orthodox mysticism than the author's own Baptist roots'3
Starkey comments 'this desire to rediscover older spiritual traditions and
language has become particularly prevalent among today's Evangelical avant-garde
(many of whom, including Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, offer cover endorsements).
It signals a wider rethinking of old churchmanship boundaries.'
http://www.leanderharding.com/blog, 14th September 2009.
http://www.leanderharding.com/blog, 7th June 2009.
Mike Starkey, Church Times, 28 August 2009.
Blamires, well known as the author of The
Christian Mind, was tutored by C.S. Lewis at University College, Oxford, and
in many ways carried Lewis’ mantle admirably in his love for popular Christian
defence and literature with Christian themes. Head of English and later Dean of
Arts & Sciences at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, Blamires retired in
the late 1970’s to devote his time to writing. For two decades he lectured
widely across the U.S., and in 1987 he was a visiting professor at Wheaton
College in Illinois. Today Blamires resides in Keswick.
Author of over thirty works in English literature and theology, Blamires
wrote popular books delineating traditional Christian thought and critiquing
secular culture that are widely in use today. Much like Lewis, he simply and
eloquently defended ‘Mere Christian’ doctrine, declaring from the rooftops
that as far as secular Western society is concerned, the emperor surely has no
clothes. Less well-known but quite as fascinating is Blamires’ allegorical
fiction, such as New Town, and his discussion of Christian metaphor in works such as Words
the numerous theological works from his pen, Blamires is justifiably most
recognized for The Christian Mind, a
tour-de force of prophetic musings on the lack of Christian thought and
capitulation to secularism rampant in the modern Church in the West. Typical of
his eloquently pronounced laments in this book are quotations such as the
following, in which Blamires discusses the reaction of the thoughtful Christian
to great secular literature of the 20th century:
“What then, is the position
of the thinking Christian, face to face with the cultural situation I have
described? As he reads the things worth reading, whether imaginative or
polemical, he is continually meeting with accounts of the human
condition…which make him sit up and say: This is profound and penetrating…It
is so crucial that it cannot be overlooked. It touches me pre-eminently as a
Christian. Yet this writer is not a Christian…the only way I can pursue
this vital current of thought further is by more reading of non-Christian
literature written by sceptics, and by discussion of it within the
intellectual frame of reference which these sceptics have manufactured. In
short, there is no current Christian dialogue on this topic.”1
Much has happened in Christian scholarship since he first penned these words in
1963, but they are as moving today as they were four decades ago. Here Blamires
captures the stunning, sad, and quite often lonely realization that even today,
the most original and stimulating intellectual writing to be found is often
authored by secular thinkers standing on secular presuppositions.
Much has happened in Christian scholarship since he first penned these words in
1963, but they are as moving today as they were four decades ago. Here Blamires
captures the stunning, sad, and quite often lonely realization that even today,
the most original and stimulating intellectual writing to be found is often
authored by secular thinkers standing on secular presuppositions.
Blamires goes on in the book to detail a positive framework for Christian
thought, which includes an acknowledgement and emphasis on the supernatural, a
commitment to God’s authority as awe-inspiring presence, and a conception of
truth which rejects modern relativistic frameworks. The insight and profundity
of his thoughts in these chapters cause the reader to frequently pause and
reflect on his own spiritual life—a disturbing, yet curiously purifying
experience. Blamires ends his work on a discussion of the ‘sacramental
cast,’ a very much Lewisian emphasis on how the passion of youth and the
beauty of nature cause a longing for another world, which was of course
wonderfully articulated in Lewis’ Weight
In the decades following The
Christian Mind, Blamires wrote a number of sequels to the book of uneven
quality. In the best of these, Where Do We
Stand?, he asks the question of where secular culture resides fifteen years
after the Christian Mind. One theme present in both books of interest to
Blamires (as it was to Lewis) is the decay of reason in Western culture and its
negative influence on the Church. There is, Blamires asserts, ‘a kind of
pseudo-thinking which is imbued with subjectivism so capricious and relativism
so fluid, as to defy analysis and render potential argument null.’ His example
here is a radio interview with a fashion designer, who, in describing his past
success in creating a new clothing line, declares, ‘It was alive… it
anticipated a trend.’2 Blamires concludes that in Western society
Christianity is no longer critiqued on a rational basis,3 a state
which continues unabated today and has perhaps accelerated in recent years.
Interestingly, Blamires also wrote a book summarizing basic Christian
doctrine called On Christian Truth, in
which he explicates the foundational doctrines of the faith, much as Lewis did
in Mere Christianity. There is a
charming simplicity to this work, a shepherd’s heart to articulate Christian
thought in such a way as the genuine seeker can comprehend not only the ideas,
but the liberating atmosphere of new life in Christ. For example: ‘It cannot
be too strongly emphasized that to become a Christian is to accept an extra
dimension to life. From the Christian’s point of view the most notable thing
about the unbeliever’s world is that it is much smaller
than his.’4 One can almost hear Lewis’ characters in The
Last Battle calling: ‘Further up
and higher in!’5
Acumen and Christian Symbolism
Blamires’ academic background in English literature
serves him well in writing popular Christian devotionals as well as symbolic
Christian fiction. A little known work, his Words
Made Flesh, stands as a rich, delightful example of the integration of
academic expertise with faith, in which his knowledge of myth and literary
symbolism brings a depth of worship and devotion to the Christian experience.
Each chapter describes a physical symbol from Scripture such as fire, water, or
wine, and then traces the literary development of such symbols in Western
literature, often harkening back to ancient myth. In his discussion of fire, for
example, Blamires notes that in English one can ‘burn’ with lust as well as
with passion for God, and an ‘inextinguishable blaze’ is of course desired
in some spiritual contexts. He then summarizes T.S. Elliot’s poem, Four
Quartets, in which Elliot communicates that we can either sacrifice
ourselves on the pyre of God’s fire, or continue to burn with unsatisfied
longings.6 Blamires’ literary background here brings an artistic
and devotional depth worth savouring.
As well, Blamires wrote a number of fictitious works with Christian
symbolism, including, early on in his career, a trilogy beginning with Devil’s
Hunting Ground, and most recently, the allegorical New
Town: A Fable Unless You Believe. In New
Town, the main character has a dream in which he is transported to ‘Old
Town,’ which is rapidly decaying and filled with residents trying desperately
to get on a waiting list for ‘New Town.’ As the acronyms no doubt make
obvious, Old Town is symbolic of this world and New Town symbolic of the next,
as well as Old Testament and New Testament living, respectively.7 One
is immediately reminded of Lewis’ allegorical tomes such as The Great Divorce and The
Pilgrim’s Regress. Although the simple prose makes Blamire’s New
Town a quick read, its narrative emphasis on the next world is a poignant
reminder that too often we are satisfied to firmly settle in this world rather
than eagerly anticipate the next.
In all, Blamires is a worthy, if not quite as formidable, successor to
C.S. Lewis in both his Christian fiction and his popular theological and
apologetic works. His heart to make Christianity both rationally defensible and
readily accessible makes him a Christian thinker to both ponder and enjoy.
The Christian Mind. New
York: Seabury Press edition, 1963, 10-11. Emphasis his.
Where Do We Stand?, Ann
Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1980, 142.
On Christian Truth. Ann
Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1983, 12. Emphasis his.
The Last Battle,
Collector’s Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Limited, 2000, 176.
Words Made Flesh.
Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1985, 8-10.
reveals this as well as other obvious symbolic keys to the book in a web
interview on ReadingGroupGuides.com: http://www.readinggroupguides.com/guides3/new_town2.asp.
Accessed August 24, 2009.
By all counts Charles Taylor's A Secular Age is set to become a landmark study to which scholars of
religion and secular society will make reference for many years to come. At
pages, however, many thoughtful Christians will not read it from cover to
cover. The current issue of ACCESS offers three review articles on this book, by
Michael Paul Gallagher S.J., Andrew Kirk and Wilfred McClay. Together, like
multiple perspectives upon a large building, these articles help us grasp it 'in
Eastern Orthodox Christianity, meanwhile, appears in two lights in ACCESS
items. Sergey Filatov (690) finds the Orthodox Church in Russia today
spiritually depleted by decades of atheism and slipping into the role merely of
cultural patron in antagonism to the West. Bradley Nassif (696), by contrast,
writes enthusiastically as a Lebanese American from Antioch in the U. S.
Evangelical magazine Christianity Today
of signs that 'these two great expressions of the Christian faith, the
evangelical and the Orthodox, are gradually coming together in vision' - a claim
which resonates with some of Leander Harding's comments on emerging church in
Wainwright, Embracing Purpose : Essays on
God, the World and the Church, Epworth, 2007, pp xi + 370,
is a magnificent collection of recent essays by one of the leading Methodist
theologians of the past half century. Yet
the description is not quite right; although, as befits a Yorkshireman,
Wainwright is acutely conscious of his theological roots, his theology is deeply
ecumenical. He has represented the
Methodist Church at many ecumenical gatherings, including the meeting which led
to the seminal Lima report on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.
In several of the essays Wainwright quotes from John Paul II’s
encyclical Ut Unum Sint the striking
passage where the Pope called for an ecumenical dialogue which would discover
‘a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is
essential to its mission, is nevertheless open to a new situation’.
He sees hope in the way that Roman Catholics made a promising start in
the incorporation of Wesley’s hymns into their hymnody ‘before we all began
succumbing to mindless modern mantras’. The
essays here show a growing appreciation for contemporary Roman Catholicism,
partly because it has not wavered in its commitment to full, visible unity as
the goal of ecumenism, even if there is still an element of ‘unity on our
terms’. By contrast, Wainwright
regrets the tendency in modern Protestantism to remain content with the
reconciled diversity, a mere ‘inter-denominational readjustment’ – which
he regards as more akin to unreconciled
diversity, or even ‘peaceful co-existence in conditions of Cold War’.
But how does he propose to square the circle of Catholic claims and the
Protestant traditions, if the latter are not merely to capitulate to the former?
His answer recalls emphases from his earlier work on eschatology: unity,
like holiness, is best viewed as a vocation, a pilgrimage.
Might the Roman Catholic Church be open to regard its own present reality
more eschatologically, and therefore incomplete without the Eucharistic
inclusion of fellow travellers who are clearly on the same journey?
This does not answer all the practical questions which would arise, but
it represents a stimulating response to Ut
Unum Sint’s invitation to a patient and fraternal dialogue upon these
intransigent aspects of ecumenism.
For this reviewer, the most striking essays are the two with which the
book concludes. The first, Heresy Then and Now, takes its course from Tertullian’s compendium
of heresies, and sets out their modern equivalents.
A final (at first) surprising, but moving essay A
Remedy for Relativism is an appreciative exposition of Benedict XVI’s
theology, and in particular his attack on relativism, which he suggests has been
conducted with ‘intelligence, learning and art’.
Lesslie Newbigin is quoted at various points throughout the collection,
but especially in those concluding chapters.
Newbigin’s claim that freedom of choice is the central idol of our
culture requires a recognition in response that there is a universal truth under
which we stand, and which judges all our thoughts and choices.
An excessive emphasis upon individual freedom will dissolve truth itself,
and Wainwright endorses Newbigin’s suggestion that perhaps the greatest task
of the Church in the twenty-first century is to be the bastion of rationality in
a world of unreason, defending rationality against the hydra-headed spirit of
the age. This will only be achieved
by a renewal of Christian orthodoxy, and hence the appreciation of Tertullian
Goheen & Craig Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An introduction to
Christian worldview, SPCK, 2008, xvi+205pp., £10.99 (pb)
is Professor of Worldview and Religious Studies at Trinity Western University,
British Columbia and Bartholomew Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University
College, Ontario. This book is the
second of a projected series of three. The
first was The Drama of Scripture: finding our place in the Biblical story
(SPCK, 2006). The final book will be
an introduction to Christian philosophy. They
have set up a series website with some very useful resources at
Worldview analysis has become a widely used tool in the Christian world
and the literature is expanding rapidly (cf. Worldview in Review, Network
newsletter 46, 2006). Can there be
room for yet another book? On its
own perhaps not, but for the whole triad I anticipate a definite ‘yes’.
The strengths of the book are its rich historical perspective, its
Biblical depth and its social conscience. It
throbs with pastoral and missional passion as it calls us to live in the whole
of daily life by the Biblical story we profess.
It is more comprehensive than many other books, addressing both
postmodernity and resurgent Islam (ch 7). It
is also more practical – with sections on business, politics, sports, arts,
scholarship and education (ch 8). At
every point the authors explore strengths and weaknesses and are well aware of
the dangers that can attend worldview thinking.
This series will be an excellent preparation for Christian students going
to college or university, but for others there is still a huge unfulfilled need.
The book is text-heavy, with just one page of pictures and a few small
diagrams – all in black and white. There
is no humour. It will doubtless be
read to advantage by the (relatively) few who have devoured previous worldview
books, but it is unlikely to touch the great Christian public who could benefit
enormously from its insights and tools. WYSOCS’
Reality Bites programme (www.wysocs.org.uk/realitybites.org.uk) uses
challenging stories and questions to bridge that gap.
Those reading this review who have a gifting to reach that wider
Christian audience should not hesitate to play their part.
is Vocations and Spirituality Co-ordinator in the Diocese
Bishop of Chester
with the Faculty Ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ International (www.clm.org)
is a County Councillor, and has been a missionary in India and a University
lecturer. She is writing a major biography of Lesslie Newbigin
is a Tutor with Responsibility for Co-ordinating Training, Church Army
Cushman Professor of Christian Theology, Duke University
is a Lecturer and Tutor at Ridley Hall, Cambridge and Chair of the Network