Monthly Archives: October 2011

The quiet before the storm

I feel I must apologise for my lack of postings this week. Despite it being relatively gentle in terms of my day job, I haven’t had the time to finish any blog postings to a degree I consider satisfactory. Readers who notice my regular spelling and grammar mistakes will know how low my standards are, so you can possibly imagine how terribly half-formed my posts are at the moment.

I was also asked to lead my church housegroup on the subject of worship (which my church will looking at over the next month or so), so I spent a fair amount of time this week researching that. I do hope to summarise my thoughts on that, not least as it coincided with the opportunity to attend a “flashmob” evening song outside St Paul’s cathedral. I have various reservations, which I attempted (and probably poorly at that) to summarise on twitter & facebook, which prompted some interesting responses. I’m still not sure whether or not I will attend. My aim will be to clarify my thoughts and allow for a more open discussion.

I also promised Gurdur a response to a piece he wrote a couple of weeks ago, though in trying to search for references I have not been very fruitful, and that which I have found has not been of the highest quality. My lack of brevity has again struck, and the response is likely to span several posts. At present, it looks like this:

1) the difference between a disciple & an apostle, and was Paul either?
2) Authorship of the contested Pauline writings (this is the one which is hard to find any solid evidence on) and
3) Paul’s guilt and self-forgiveness in relation to the death of Stephen. This is subject to change.

I am also approaching the end of a couple of books and will be reviewing these also. There are many more in the pipeline, but these are a little further away from completion.

I hope to be able to finish a good number this weekend, to be posted next week. In the mean time, have a good weekend.

Political whips

This should be a fairly short post, hopefully. I’m working on a few others where my lack of brevity is causing a significant delay, particularly as they have been promised for many months now.

The news was abuzz over the weekend and Monday with the news of a vote that was to take place in the House of Commons. The proposition was to hold a referendum on whether or not to remain part of Europe. At the time of writing (Monday evening) this vote has not yet taken place. This should change by the time this goes live on the web.

I have my own opinions on Europe, but that is not the point of this post. I wish to concentrate more on the relation between referenda, democracy and party whips. The Conservative party said they would impose a “3-line whip” on MPs to ensure that they opposed the bill. It was estimated that up to 70 Conservative MPs may rebel and vote for the motion. It seems unlikely that the motion will pass, due in part to this whip. The meaning of “3-line” as I understand it (as ever, please correct me if my facts are wrong) is that if an MP holds a ministerial post, that they will either be expected to resign from that post, or be sacked, should they choose to go against the party line.

The job of a Member of Parliament is to provide representation in the House of Commons on behalf of their constituents. The job of a party whip is to ensure that an MP of a given party follows that party’s policy, regardless of whether or not it was in a manifesto on which it was elected. It is easily conceivable that the interests of the party to which they belong are different from the interests of the constituents they represent. So the MP is left with a fundamental quandary. In such a situation, they have to choose between two mutually incompatible choices.

If they value democracy, and consider it to be the heart of our system of government, then there can be only one choice: to represent the constituents. If they think it is more important to toe that party line than it is to provide the people of this country a voice in government, then they should obey the party whip. This clearly demonstrates that party whips are inherently opposed to democracy. It is shame on our Parliamentary system that this anachronistic post is allowed to continue to existence.

If party whips were banned then we would lose nothing of value. What we would gain would be MPs who are more accountable to their electorate than they are to their party. This is what democracy should look like. It doesn’t fix everything. There are other problems we have in our system. But this would be one change that would improve the status quo. I am not a revolutionary; I believe most progress comes gradually, but this would be an easy improvement to make that would pave the way for further improvements.

I know that referenda are expensive and it is simply impractical to use them for every decision. Personally, I would welcome a referendum on Europe, given how wide-ranging it is. The question of EU membership is no less relevant today than it was when we last had a referendum in 1975. I wasn’t even born then. My grandparents who had the vote then have all since passed on. Though I am not certain of the statistics (if anyone can provide a source for the numbers, please do!) I think it is reasonable to suppose that those who were eligible to vote in 1975 now form the minority of the electorate today. 36 years of life in Europe may also have changed some opinions. I am not saying what way I would necessarily vote, I merely point out my belief that having the opportunity to have a democratic vote on the matter is more welcome than a dictatorial stance of “this should not be talked about.”

Update: It is now early in the morning and the news is that the motion was defeated as expected. A full list of the rebelling MPs (which, I am glad to say, includes my own representative) may be found here.

How do you define a christian? Part 3: Sacraments as boundaries

Part 1: Self-definition
Part 2: Creeds & Confessions

In most forms of christianity, there are various “ceremonies” which are often referred to as ‘sacraments’ by those of a high church persuasion. Sociologically, these can be good demarcation boundaries for who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ In particular, the two I am thinking of are baptism and communion (the latter also known variously as eucharist, holy communion, mass or The Lord’s Supper). Personally, I’m not a fan of the term sacraments, as it is quite pretentious and off-putting for those who are not well versed in high church terminology. My own view is that church should be open and welcoming, including in the terminology used. The ordinary person on the street should not be given any reason to stay away from church on the basis that they don’t know what the “right way” is to behave and talk in church.

There’s an early christian handbook for new believers, which seems partly based on the gospel of Matthew, called the Didache [you can read the full text of the book here]. If you read down, chapter 7 has specific instructions on baptism and chapter 9 has instructions on communion. Both are very formal and ritualised but will be familiar to those who have grown up in many western churches today.

I recently read both the book itself, along with an analysis of it by a catholic professor, Thomas O’ Loughlin (you can read the review here). Although I think O’Loughlin missed the point somewhat, he does make an interesting observation when he says:

“any group which has a developed sense of belonging…; a firm sense its own history….; and a clear unifying set of ‘facts’….will have a very clear sense of its boundaries, and of who is within the group. Furthermore, it will ritualize [sic] the gateways in those boundaries so that the whole group have a badge of identity and newcomers know they have crossed a threshold.”

This is also echoed slightly by the christian theologian, Tom Wright, in Surprised by Hope, when he says:

“I have come to believe that the sacraments are best understood within the theology of creation and new creation….God’s future has burst into the present and…somehow the sacraments are not just signs of the reality of the new creation but actually part of it. Thus the event of baptism – the action, the water, the going down and coming up again, the new clothes – is not just a signpost of the reality of the new birth, the membership (as all birth gives membership) in the new family. It really is the gateway to that membership.” (emphasis added)

I do not think that the purpose of baptism and communion is to act as ritualised gateways, though I do think such the sacraments may be used thus. To draw an analogy, the raison d’etre of a book is to be read, although that doesn’t stop me from using it as a doorstop or as a spider-squashing device. The purpose of baptism is to publically declare one’s faith, but this is no way determines whether or not someone is a christian. If you accept the idea of baptism as a “gateway” then, when taken in a soteriological sense, this would mean that those who are not baptised cannot be part of God’s kingdom. I would argue instead that it is an indication(but not a definitive marker) that one already has become part of God’s kingdom.

One very interesting thing to note is that while we have a record of Jesus being baptised, and of John the Baptist doing the same to others, there is no record of any members of The Twelve themselves being baptised. They are instructed in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The book of Acts describes some of the early church leaders performing baptisms, yet I don’t recall seeing a specific incident where they themselves were baptised. The closest I could find was in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he uses the inclusive term “us” to describe those are baptised, implying he was shortly after his experience on the road to Damascus (watch this space for a further post on that topic, later this week or early next week).

This, of course, does not mean baptism is a once-and-for-all thing, which I suppose sets me apart (pardon the pun) from Calvinism where the idea of a secure election is sacrosanct. I have many friends who have publically declared their faith and been baptised only later to have left church life, renounced their faith or just plain old given up. One of the better writers on the web who has done this is Daniel Florien, author of the Unreasonable Faith blog.

In any sociological group, there is an important concept of “the other” – i.e. to define oneself not only by what you are, but also by what you are not. So I acknowledge it can be helpful to think in terms of those who are baptised as different from those who are not, or to consider those who take part in communion as having a different belief from those who do not take part. Yet I think it isn’t helpful to regard these as absolute boundaries.

There is a very obvious thought experiment one could do: suppose someone, having examined the evidence and reasons for belief, makes the free and conscious decision to “become a christian” (however they want to phrase this). They are on their way to publically acknowledge this by being baptised and on the way there they are killed. If we take Wright’s view at face value, then this person would not have met the membership requirement of the new birth. O’Loughlin’s view is not quite as harsh, but there would certainly be considerable doubt over whether they might be considered to be an ‘insider.’

It is also interesting to note that between them, the different stances churches adopt on baptism and communion are probably two of the main reasons for divisions and splits, which in my opinion is a sad state of affairs. I won’t go into any detail here, as the next section in this mini-series will be on denominations where I will be exposing some of my own prejudices on the matter.

Dale Farm: 2 Questions

“The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
Robert Peel

This was the view given by Robert Peel, the founder of the metropolitan police force.

Looking at the scenes from Dale Farm and reading the accounts, it seems that this vision has been lost. I simply ask these questions:

  • How many people were being harmed, and to what extent, by the occupation of the land at Dale Farm?
  • How many people were being harmed, and to what extent, by the eviction of the occupants of Dale Farm?

The interests of community welfare and existence have been least in the minds of those ordering and carrying out the eviction. Instead, the existence of the community has been openly persecuted and their welfare ignored and trampled upon. The violence that has been seen on both sides has been shameful. The protesters should not have thrown bricks and debris at the police, but it has to be noted that this was an act of desperation to which they have been driven. Likewise, the police use of tasers is deplorable.

“Agitation is the marshalling of the conscience of a nation to mould its laws.”
Robert Peel

Book Review: Surprised By Hope by Tom Wright

Before reading this, I knew it was a kind of ‘lite’ version of the Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), which Wright published a few years earlier. There was also some additional material included, where he built upon the conclusions reached at the end of RSG. The only other thing I was aware of was that it was not universally welcomed by all christians, and has faced something of a backlash at times.

The book is certainly aimed at a wider audience than RSG as Wright tries as hard as possible to say away from technical terminology, though he can’t resist returning to ‘inaugurated eschatology’ on one or two occasions. As usual, though, his writing style is brilliant, clear and easy to follow. He picks his analogies carefully, and always maintains a pace to keep the reader interested.

His basic thesis is as follows: many christians have muddled beliefs about death, resurrection and the afterlife. This then leads on to a confused idea of how the ideas of life after death relate to ideas of life before death. The book outlines some of the current ideas about these topics and Wright contrasts these with the beliefs of the early church, or what we might consider to be “authentic” christian belief. He demonstrates how some ideas that are commonly assumed to be christian are in fact adopted or adapted from alternative sources. One example of this is the notion of Hell. Many christians that I know have very firm ideas of a literal lake of fire and eternal torment, when in fact this is really just the Hellenistic idea of Hades, with some twists put on it by the likes of Dante Alighieri and John Milton.

Similarly, the traditional idea of heaven and the Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory are also shown to have no real relation the beliefs held by the early church. As I read it, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, sometimes suspiciously too much, so that I questioned whether or not my own prejudices were being pandered to. Certainly I find myself frustrated when I wish to challenge fellow christians about what they believe only to have told to me “The bible says… [insert Sunday school cliché]” to the extent that I question how many people regularly question what they believe and look to the bible for a proper basis, rather than cherry-picking certain passages and claiming the bible “says” what their particular interpretation is of this particular passage.

Of course, I don’t deny the possibility that I may do that myself. Just like anyone else, I’m a fallible human. If you think I’m wrong, please feel free to point me in the right direction (or at least, what you believe the right direction to be!).

Wright develops his own idea of “Hell” which he admits has no significant precedent. His view is that we become more and more defined by that which we worship and define ourselves by. So while christians become more Christ-like, those who “refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light…by their own effective choice, [become] beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.” (emphasis included in original text).

I do not agree with this, as my understanding of the bible leads me to be an annihilationist. I know this is also not a widely accepted view, though this does only prove Wright’s point that there is a wide range of beliefs within christianity.

From here, the level of controversy only increases. Having set out his stall with the historic evidence for the resurrection, what the ascension meant and what the earliest creation hope for “life after life after death” he then moves on to the idea of salvation. The two key questions posed, which I think we all ought to answer, are:

1) What are we saved from?
2) What are we saved for?

Wright’s particular answer is framed in terms of creation and new creation. Given my own liberal-baptist background, I have been used to the idea that salvation is about the restoration of a broken relationship with God. Wright calls this into question and claims such a worldview has missed the point. Personal salvation is a secondary matter to the restoration of creation. This view is, I think, one of the main areas where he rubs up against a large number of christians, who have been taught a different emphasis. I say emphasis, because I don’t think it really is a fundamentally different understanding from that taught from the front of churches week in, week out; but the deanthropocentrication represents a massive shift in focus.

Following on from this, the final section of the book looks at how this all affects the look of the church. Here, Wright does not shy away from politics. And when christianity (or religion, if you consider christianity to be a religion) and politics mix, controversy almost inevitably follows. It is probably fair to describe Wright as morally conservative but socially liberal. He has criticisms of both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Probably the most insightful area of this section is when he talks about the “massive economic imbalance of the world, whose major symptom is the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt.” He goes on to say, “I simply want to record my conviction that this is the Number One moral issue of our day….The present system of global debt is the real immoral scandal, the dirty little secret – or rather the dirty enormous secret – of glitzy, glossy western capitalism.” Now that you’ve read that, consider this: this book was published in 2007, a full year before the Credit Crunch.

The conclusions of the last couple of chapters are not always that insightful or strong. Here, Wright does betray an Anglican bias, particularly with his advocacy of liturgy and other such religious rituals. So in one moment he calls for us to be living as “resurrection people” but in the next he supposes that the best way to live this out is in religiosity. I completely disagree with this application. I don’t think religion should have any part in christianity, so for me, this final section devalues the book slightly.

Other than that, it is an insightful and thought-provoking read; well-written with a razor sharp wit and a well-researched basis.

Book Review: The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper

I bought this book back in the spring, but had hesitated to read it. The reason for that is I found it quite intimidating, given the thickness of the spine. I will admit that the philosophy of science is something I have dabbled in only as an interested amateur though, of course, years of scientific training and discussions as a student have enabled me to reach (if you will allow me a moment of immodesty) a reasonably sophisticated understanding of my own view of science. Now, though, it seemed appropriate that I ought to look at what others have said.

Before reading this, I was aware that Popper’s views are not universally accepted and that he shared something of a professional rivalry with Bertrand Russell. Also, as a Christian, I find it interesting that I have seen Popper referenced far more by Christian scientists, whereas Russell tends to be more favoured by atheistic scientists. Of course, this is only a trend and there are exceptions. While Russell was a well-known opponent of Christianity, I was keen to learn more about what it is in their competing philosophies that has appealed to the different sets of scientists. So, of course, I will be following this up with some reading from Russell at some point, though if you have any good suggestions as to where to begin, I would be very grateful.

The book begins in a surprisingly accessible manner. I was expected some very high level philosophy that would be difficult to understand, but the translation is very easy to follow. Where he gets a little more obscure, he brings it back down-to-earth with examples that help to put his argument in context. I would describe the argument that Popper creates as being cumulative; that is, there are lots of references to earlier sections and, in particular, definitions. So you have to concentrate or else you can find yourself reading about “singular statements” and not know what he’s talking about if you haven’t followed it earlier.

For this reason, I would not recommend reading this book over a long period of time. I think it demands to be read quite intensively in as short a time as possible in order to ensure that one may follow it all.

The main thrust of Popper’s argument is to say that theories are never verified, they can only be falsified. He dismantles the positivist point of view which led to empiricism and shows that empiricism reduces to mere psychologism. From here, he then needs to discuss the degree of falsifiability. He considers a theory to be less likely the more ways it can possibly falsified. From here, what I think he should have done would then be to talk about corroboration and how a theory stands up to attempts to falsify it. Unfortunately, he leaves this to the end and instead goes off on a rather long and tortuous tangent talking about probability.

This quite long section was the downside for me, as his discussion (and in particular, notation) was quite obscurantist, making it difficult to follow and quite oblique. From here, he moves on to talk about quantum mechanics and in particular the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It has to be noted that this was written during the years that quantum theory was still being formed and, having a background in quantum mechanics myself, I found many of his ideas to be simply wrong. They are a noble attempt at getting to grips with quantum mechanics but ultimately, they have not stood up to subsequent theory and experiments. So in a weird twist, you could say that his argument in this aspect has been falsified.

This brings me to my last point. If his theory is to be thought of as a scientific theory at all, then it must play by its own rules. That is to say, there must be a set of singular statements from this theory that can, in principle at least, be subject to testing to see if they can be falsified. Such a set of statements is not presented to the reader, so I could only conclude that while Popper’s contribution is to be valued and considered, it doesn’t constitute a scientific theory. It remains an application of metaphysics.

Book Review: Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath

I read this as a follow-up to Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, in part of my effort to understand the history of the early church better, and to understand why modern Christianity has taken the shape it has (even if that shape is somewhat fractal-like). Of all of McGrath’s previous writings (I’ve read a fair few, though not all) my favourite to date was his history of Protestantism, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. With that in mind, I was looking forward to another book that was more historical in nature than apologetic.

In his introduction, McGrath attempts to outline his understanding of why there has been renewed interest not only in the history of heresy, but also the resurrection (or adaption) of earlier heretical ideas. From here, he starts to give an overview of the book: why it is important to have an understanding of the history of belief and how the notions of orthodoxy and heresy arose.

McGrath then goes on to have a look at some specific heresies; who the main characters were behind them, a history of their origins and the reasons why they became viewed as heresies. These specifically include Arianism, Docetism, Ebionitism, Montanism, Pelagianism & Valentinism.

The portrait that is painted by Ehrman of a minority heresy that is marginalised and oppressed by an emerging orthodoxy is called into question by McGrath. Ehrman’s history was derived (and acknowledged) in part from that of Walter Bauer, where there was a metanarrative of a battle between the hegemonic orthodoxy and the oppressed individuals that were thrown out of the church for heresy. Instead, the picture we are presented with is of various groups of people who made an honest attempt to understand the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather than being driven out of the church, the theologies were considered to be dead-ends that ultimately undermined the person and ministry of Jesus. When such views were then rejected, their protagonists left of their own accord in order to establish their own breakaway churches.

In a discussion on the relation between orthodoxy, heresy and political power, McGrath makes one excellent point. Those who defend the heretics by portraying them as the freethinking liberals who are hushed by a more conservative, oppressive orthodoxy, the question is posed: what if it had been the other way around? Some heretical ideas may have led to Christianity becoming far more like Islam, where there was far more oppression of women, a leader who is revered as good but not divine and where it is likely that any suppression of heretical ideas would have been at least as fierce as it actually was. In other words, the oppression (if any) faced by the heretics would simply have had a different target if what we recognise as orthodoxy had been deemed heretical.

McGrath also points out the difference of what is a genuine heresy (being a theological disagreement) and what is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a heresy (which was more often than not a challenge to the authority of the church). His main point in example is that of Martin Luther and the origins of the Reformation, declared to be a heretic by the Roman Catholic church, but which was ultimately shown to be a restoration of patristic ideas and that it was particular aspects of Catholicism that were in fact heretical, and continue to be so to this day.

There is also included a slightly odd little chapter on how Christian heresy relates to Islam. In it, he points out that the forms of Christianity which Mohammed talks about are highly characteristic of certain heretical ideas that were more common in the area that he moved around in prior to his writing the Qur’an.

The one thing that spoilt the book is some of the small rhetoric touches McGrath uses. He still seems to be in a similar mindset to when he wrote The Dawkins Delusion, with references to a secular/religious divide which he seems to have projected back on to an earlier period where such a divide did not exist. That said, this laxity in language is not wholly pervasive, it merely peppers the text every now and then.

Overall, it is a very good book and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested not only in the history of particular heresies, but also in the very idea of a heresy. It is not an overly academic book, and is written very much as an introduction to the subject. The notes contain many further references for the interested reader. This gives it the strength of being very accessible and, as ever, McGrath’s writing style is very clear and easy to follow.