Monthly Archives: May 2014

Theology – an idealistic view

After noting in my last review that the author had a rather idealistic view of how physics works, I thought I might take a lesson from that and give a similar-styled view in relation to theology. I wouldn’t pretend that this is how theology works, rather a sketch of a manifesto for how it should work. The seed of the idea goes back to a conversation I had some months ago about whether it was possible for theology to be a purely academic subject.

Then, as now, I would love for there to be healthy circularity in the relationship between theology and church life. Because of this circularity, where one starts might be arbitrary. So let’s first have a think about community.

Being a christian does not just mean giving assent to a set of ideas or subscribing to a creed. Nor is it just about living as part of a community. Both are involved, but one without the other will be an anaemic form of christianity. The shorthand terms for these are orthodoxy (correct view) and orthopraxy (correct practice). My idea is that these two need to held in balance. To emphasise one over the other leads to a lop-sided faith. With all due cautions over the relative terms (see here), I have found that those who identify as liberal christians will tend to emphasise orthopraxy whilst those who are more conservative will place an emphasis on orthodoxy.

The theologically informed Church

Churches need to be theologically informed. Without sound teaching, the risk is not only that false teaching may creep in, but there is also a risk that there is a wrong emphasis in what is taught. As Kurt Willems has recently pointed out, churches which constantly emphasise teachings on single issues are those one should be cautious about. Though not a church, anyone who occasionally reads the fundamentalist e-zine, Charisma, will be familiar with the constant stream of homophobic and Zionist output. The misplaced emphasis (leaving aside how much I disagree with the content of those views!) means that the form of christianity that emerges is rather cross-eyed (no pun on cross intended). The gospel may be right in front of your nose but you look from one fringe to another and portray them as the most important thing, then the message of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection gets sidelined.

“High” and “low” perspectives

So how about theology? The study of the bible inevitably has to start with a view about the bible. Whether one chooses a “high” view or a “low” view of scripture is a thorny issue which I shan’t attempt to explore in any great depth soon. For now, I think it best to pick a place on the spectrum and work through to see if it comes up with a coherent picture.

My own view is that I am at the “high” end of the spectrum but do not advocate the idea of inerrancy. Too often, discussions about how one views the bible focus on the question of authority. This is, in my view, unhelpful. If one accepts the idea of God (how might one get to this point?) then it would seem to follow, given centuries of christian teaching, that God is the ultimate authority. In the great commission, Jesus gave authority to his disciples. To some, this is the origin of the idea of apostolic succession, whereby a christian order of priesthood is established. For more on this, see here. To others, it is the origin of the idea of apostolic authorship, whereby the criteria for inclusion in the canon of the New Testament has to be that the author came from a list of apostles. While this may serve to understand the exclusion of the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas (both of which were included in the Codex Sinaiticus) it does give rise to some awkwardness over the inclusion of the books of Revelation and Hebrews, as well as the epistles labelled John and the pastoral epistles, whose authorship was disputed much later.

Instead, the question to which “the bible” is the answer is: “What is the earliest and most reliable source of information regarding christianity, its origins and aims that we have?”


Given this, where might one start with the more academic work of theology? Surely, it has to be with the task of exegesis: the task of bringing out of the texts what the author(s) meant to say to the audience they intended to read/hear it. To do so with integrity requires a study of the languages the texts were written in and an understanding of the cultures in which and to which they were written. This why theology is not really a solo discipline in and of itself, but in a similar way to geology being a hybrid of mostly chemistry, physics and geography, so theology is a hybrid subject, requiring mastery of the use of many tools.

One may question whether the task of exegesis is ever complete, though to remain stuck within this would prohibit progress, so we must at least come to tentative conclusions and move on, bearing in mind the need to possibly revisit the exegesis and alter it. So what is the next step? Well, there are many possibilities. This is why theology is such a rich subject, as, having put together the ingredients of the cake and properly baked it, we may slice it in any number of ways.

One could look at particular authors and try to understand their particular views, in relative isolation from other biblical authors. Or one could look at themes that emerge across a range of authors and develop a theology of these ideas, as seen from the perspective of many authors. However we set off, we need to not lose sight of the heart of the gospel nor the direction it heads towards. What should hopefully emerge from such a study is the idea of doctrine. To some, the idea of doctrine is foundational. Though it is important, I would argue that it is an emergent idea from the foundation of the writings themselves. After all, the development of systematic theology is a relatively modern phenomenon, not found in any of the writings of the bible. One might even go so far as to say that the notion of systematic theology is itself misguided; after all, Jesus was asked some very straightforward questions to which he gave rather unexpected and totally unsystematic answers. I think part of the reason is that what we are talking about is life. And life cannot be boiled down to an axiomatic approach without destroying the richness of variety that exists within and between cultures across centuries of civilization.

So if we have doctrine can we draw a straight line from that to application? I would argue not. The reason for this is that we live in a very different time from the communities out of which the writings of the bible came. So if we combine an understanding of those cultures with a correct understanding of the doctrine, then, and only then, can we make sense of the practical applications.

An example

To give a particular example, if we look at 1 Timothy 2 and take it as face value, then the bible is very clear that women are not allowed to teach. This would mean no pastors, no vicars, no “priests”, no bishops, no housegroup leaders are allowed to be women. But to take a passage in isolation from the positive affirmation of the role of women in the early church then the simplistic maxim becomes less black-and-white and more something to be worked through. If one then adds into the mix the cultural background in which Timothy lived, that of Ephesus, with its cult of Diana led by a female priesthood, then one can understand that there might be a time-and-location-specific reason for the way Paul wrote. The counter-argument includes Paul’s characteristic appeal to the Torah, specifically to the order of creation. At the risk of getting unnecessarily sidetracked, I shall leave further exploration of that particular issue for another time. I intend only as an example of the kind of ways of thinking that I believe are healthy.

The great cocktail

To return to the main point, then. Imagine a set of tubes. We have two input tubes and one output. The two items feeding in are doctrine (having been properly prepared) and community of the local church. When these two are mixed, what we should end up with is a realistic, Christ-centred practicality. That mixing is the job not so much of the academic theologians, but of our church leaders, whether one refers to them as pastors, priests or vicars, they are the great cocktail mixers who have the tough job of holding these two inputs in balance whilst remaining relevant to their own church community and indeed, the wider, unchurched community around them.

Coming full circle

So having made the point that churches need to be theologically informed, and how that might look in practice, how about the other way around? In short, it’s about theology being informed by the life of the Church. Without it, what we risk is turning the study of theology into a purely academic field, devoid of life.

So when it comes to the issues that affect the life of the Church and its members, which are in essence the issues that face humanity, then ivory tower thinking will not do. All the time, there are pressing questions which are asked both within christian communities and asked of them by the rest of the world. How might we respond?

This is where get to glimpse that theology is not a static subject, restricted only to the study of ancient texts. Within the bible, we see how doctrine interacted with the needs of the community, both Jewish and christian, and we have examples of how it has worked, but mostly how it hasn’t. I would hope that we’re good at learning from the past, if only just to make brand new mistakes. But my hope would be that good theology, informed by the Church it seeks to serve, helps to restrict the range of mistakes we might make.

To go back to my example above, for centuries it might well have been unthought of that women might have leadership roles within churches, just as one might take it for granted that slavery is a fact of life. Yet changing societies put pressure on churches to re-examine what we think, and such re-examination is no bad thing. Differing hermeneutics have given rise to people defending the use of slavery, though again we need to be conscious of differences in cultures, in that the kind of slavery against which the abolitionist protested was quite different from that present in the Roman Empire in the 1st century. Likewise, the feminist movement gave credence to the thought that there is no good reason why a woman shouldn’t hold to the same roles as a man. Today, I can’t think of any churches that advocate slavery, though the issue of women in leadership continues to be an issue for some.

In so doing, though, there needs to be care taken not to simply jump on a bandwagon. What sometimes worries me with churches that have more liberal social values is that sometimes they seem to skip the good theology part and jump straight to conclusions. In other words, the idea that “Jesus was a liberal” is taken as axiomatic, rather than the product of exegesis. It for such a reason that I cannot agree with Vicky Beeching’s anachronistic example of this, “Jesus was a feminist“.


So what we need is a Church that is theologically informed. A Church that is familiar with the texts which are the best source of information about the origins, ideas and communities of our belief, both as a matter of history, but also as a matter of everyday practicality, living as an example of a renewed humanity between pentecost and parousia. At the same time, theology as a study has to be informed by the Church and the many church communities that comprise it. There needs to be something of an urgent hotline whereby the very real issues christians face throughout the world can be addressed by those who have the gift of understanding, in order that the Church may be soundly led and guided.

Of course, this is all idealistic and doesn’t necessarily reflect the real world. I would hope that some of this is faintly familiar, though I guess many of you have other insights borne out of your own experience of church life and theology.

So, what do you think? Does all this sound reasonable, pie in the sky or just setting off on the wrong track?

Book Review: Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Lisa Randall

I must confess that in reading this I have been guilty of tokenism. Last year, I took a look through the list of authors who I have read over the last few years and noticed a paucity of women writers. So, having asked around for some recommended reading, I added a whole swathe of extra books to my reading list (of which this was one which ultimately ended up on my Christmas wishlist and which I was subsequently gifted by my little sister and her family). This is the last of the science books I was given for Christmas. I still have the last two parts of The Forsyte Saga to work through as well as finish Paul and the Faithfulness of God which I got for my birthday (at the time of writing this, I am on page 1,284 out of 1,519 of the main text).

Enough about other books, though. What of this one? Subtitled ‘How physics and scientific thinking illuminate our universe’ it definitely falls into the category of ‘pop science’ and is described early on as a prequel to her earlier work, Warped Passages, which I have not yet read.

It is mainly about the large hadron collider (LHC), the work that it is intended to do and the theories underpinning it, as well as a look to what may come later. Randall’s writing style, though, isn’t exactly linear. She takes us down various side avenues for some time before returning to the main theme. Looking at some of the reviews on Amazon, this seems to have irritated some readers, as did some of the diagrams. I can’t say I agreed with those other reviewers. So long as you expect a slightly idiosyncratic take then what you get is not just another rehash of A Brief History of Time, Cosmos or The Elegant Universe. Indeed, given the heavy focus on the LHC, I would liken it far more to Paul Halpern’s Collider, though with both a beginning and a conclusion regarding scale, there is also more than a hint of You Are Here by Christopher Potter.

After a gentle opening chapter, Randall looks at scientific thought. In so doing, she attempts to contrast scientific thinking with other modes of thinking, though instead of offering a balanced approach which might take in history, philosophy and art, she takes some cheap and rather unwarranted pot shots at religion. Given her rightful advocacy of rigour in scientific thinking, it is clear that she has not applied such rigour to her analysis here. Such is evident when one’s starting point is 

She tries to strike up a reconciliatory tone (so as to not deter the many scientifically minded people who also might be considered, however, loosely, “religious”) but ultimately ends up in a bit of a muddle. I cite: “Religious adherents who want to accept religious explanations for how the world works as well as scientific thinking are obliged to confront a tremendous chasm between scientific discoveries and unseen, imperceptible influences – a gap that is basically unbridgeable by means of logical thought…Either way, it is still possible to be an accomplished scientist….But any religious scientist has to face daily the scientific challenge to his [sic] belief…They are simply incompatible.” So that’s clear, then. You absolutely can be religious and a scientist, as well as the two being incompatible. No confusion there at all. No wonder one of the endorsements on the back comes from Richard Dawkins! [Late edit: Having now finished the book, I note that in the acknowledgements in the back, she admits this was not her area of expertise and that she thanks some who helped her with this section. As such, perhaps the trouble was that she took poor counsel]

After this, the book improves considerably. In terms of a book intended for public consumption, Randall does a good job of clear communication without patronisation. We get a fairly detailed picture of the history of the LHC as a progression (culmination?) of investigations into particle physics. In doing so, we get to Randall’s case for why the investigation is important though she doesn’t quite delve into the economics and politics of it to the same extent that Halpern does in his account. By steering clear of any controversy and presenting a rather idealised account of how science progresses (contrast this with the more realistic/cynical view of Lee Smolin) I would encourage any reader of this to take Randall’s relentless optimism with a big pinch of salt.

Over and above the other works referenced, what we get here is a fairly detailed description of how the LHC works, along with the particular experiments, with particular focus on ATLAS and the LMS. The precision with which Randall examines the inner workings is a symptom of the passion that she has for the experiment, which is evident throughout the book. Along the way, we get sidetracked a bit, but though these diversions resulted in some negative reviews I thought they rather enriched the text. The only downside here was one passage where Randall posited that good ideas will always find an audience, citing as an example a single instance where someone who wasn’t part of the scientific establishment had their work noticed by someone who was, and that idea flourished. What surprised me was that a rationalist like Randall didn’t recognise this as an example of a variation of Survivor Bias.

The culmination of the book is a good description of how the Higgs mechanism works. While much has been said about the Higgs boson in recent years, I have read far too many second-rate descriptions of the science underlying the theory. This is absolutely not second-rate. Randall gives a very clear account which anyone with an A-level in physics should have no problem grasping. Of course, at the time of writing, the discovery was still not confirmed and was a tantalising opportunity which was expressed with what by now I realised was Randall’s customary rosy-tinted exuberance.

It would not surprise me in the least if Randall were either writing another book giving more details about the discovery or if the chapter in this book were being re-written for a later edition. This reader, though, may be more inclined to give John Butterworth’s new book a spin.

The book ends with a look beyond the then hoped-for Higgs discovery to look at what may well be the most pressing issues in physics: dark matter and dark energy. Randall stays with the standard terminology but rightly points out the names are a little misleading. I had not really thought about them too hard, but when you do, you realise that “dark matter” doesn’t convey the meaning quite as well as “transparent matter” does. It is here that the reach of physics stretches beyond our experiments and where theorists like Randall come to the fore. My personal view is that theorists should be at the vanguard of physics, with the experimentalists following on behind, trying to falsify or (as far as possible) confirm the work of the theorists, whilst keeping in mind Popper. Randall differs from this slightly with a slightly confusing take on “top-down” versus “bottom-up” approaches, though her usage seems topsy-turvy compared to what one might naturally think those terms mean.

At over 400 pages, it’s not the briefest of takes, but Randall’s writing style makes it quite easy to get through without getting bogged down. There are a few sections alluded to above that could do with trimming or revising, but on the whole it is a very creditable work that I would recommend to anyone interested in particle physics.

Book Review: The Man of Property (The Forsyte Saga part 1) by John Galsworthy

There are many books which we are told from time to time that we should read. Either that or there come lists which ask “how many of these books have you read?” Nearly always weighted towards fiction, they are often arbitrary but will often have various books in common. One that regularly appears as a ‘great’ of English literature is John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. Though upon opening it, one soon realises that, like The Lord of the Rings, it is not a single book, but a trilogy.  As such, I shall review each part as I go along, regarding each as a separate book, though I hope you don’t think this is in any way cheating on my part as a way of increasing the numbers of books I read this year. Already, I am a long way behind last year’s comparison. This is partly because some of the books I’m reading are rather lengthy but also because, having since moved to London, I get less time on my daily commute.

So, on with the review. We open with a scene where we are introduced to all the members of the Forsyte family. They are described as upper-middle class, residing in London in the latter part of the 19th century. Each member gets a cursory description in order that we can get to know a little about them, though most of the main character development is made later on in the novel.

The man who is the subject of the title of Soames Forsyte, who wishes to have a new house built on the outskirts of London for his wife Irene. He hires a builder, Mr Bosinney, to construct the house in accordance with his wishes and later on, for Bosinney to decorate it too. Yet all is not well in the marriage between Soames and Irene, with a hint of an affair in the offing for the latter. But such things are not readily discussed by members of the Forsyte family, which we see at first as a matriarchy led by Aunt Ann. So while on the face of it, they are a prosperous and respectable family, what Galsworthy does is to slowly (sometimes very slowly) peel back the layers to show that all is not well. For example, Old Jolyon and Young Jolyon are shown speaking together for the first time in many years.

The collective Forsyte pride in their ownership of property leads to a view that they never really die; their identity is bound up in what they own and what they own is what they pass on when they pass on. This is put to the test, though I shall not spoil it here by saying which family member(s) die (though a glance at the chapter titles gives a big clue!).

At times, Galsworthy’s writing style is a little long-winded, and we get various vignettes of dialogue which seem unrelated to the overall plot, though given that there are two later volumes I wonder if these side-plots are developed much further. Another point particularly to note is that at the start Galsworthy states that this as much an allegory of how countries behave towards one another as it a statement about the 19th century gentry. Yet do not think that gentry implies genteel. Though Galsworthy writes as a neutral narrator, one cannot help think that the things he chooses to portray are demonstrative of a condemnatory attitude that he wishes to impute to the reader. Nowhere is this stronger than in what is referred to as “the ultimate act of property” a husband exerts upon his wife. Though the act is not spelled out, it is hinted at and referred to after the event occurred, so we do not precisely when or how it happened. Though it is a hideous and vile act, credit must be given to Galsworthy as to how he dealt with it.

*spoiler warning*

The book ends in two parts. The first is the end of the first published volume, with the latter being an interlude that was published a few years later, but which in the volume I read was counted as the coda to The Man of Property.  The first of these two endings focuses on Irene leaving Soames following the death of Bosinney and pondering the question of what will happen to the property, the construction of which precipitated the major events of the novel. In this respect, it almost becomes a character in and of itself, though several locations may lay claim to a similar personification. In the interlude, Indian Summer of a Forsyte, we meet Irene again, sometime later as she meets up with Old Jolyon. The two embark on reminisces of Forsyte family life while much of the family was abroad. The second ending sees the death of Old Jolyon as he was embarking on a quite intimate friendship (another affair?) with Irene.

*end spoiler*

The fact that the book contains a large amount of dialogue makes it easy to see why it has been adapted for visual media so often. The writing style gets a little turgid at times and had it been a standalone novel, almost a quarter of it could have been cut out without suffering any significant loss. As it is, though, I am willing to give Galsworthy the benefit of the doubt by believing that he may pick up on some of the loose threads in the later volumes, which I shall be reading shortly, alternating with some other types of writing before coming back to fiction.

The prisoner’s dilemma: a communitarian view

A little over a weeks ago, I posted a review of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In it, I made a few comments regarding individualism, mostly  expressing my sceptical view of it. I wanted to give a little more flavour to that idea and contrast it with a view I have been coming round to for a little while now: communitarianism.

The illustration is via a classic piece of game theory called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. You may have heard of it, you may have not. If not, you may have still come across the concept as it has been used in a few game shows down the years (Shafted – with Robert Kilroy-Silk, Golden Balls – with Jasper Carrott). There are many variations of the dilemma, so I’ll illustrate with a simple example.

There are two players and a prize fund of £1,000. The two players must, without knowing what the other has done, choose whether to STEAL  or SHARE. There are 3 possible choices:

  • Both choose to share.
  • Both choose to steal.
  • One chooses to share and one chooses to steal.

Of these choices, there are then 3 possible outcomes:

  • If they both choose to share then the prize fund is split evenly between them and they both get £500.
  • If both choose to steal then no one gets anything and they both leave empty-handed.
  • If one chooses to share and one chooses to steal then the one who chose to steal gets the full £1,000 while the other person leaves empty-handed.

An individualist view

The individualist will be looking out for what benefits themselves the most. Since (s)he cannot know what the other person will do, there must be equal weight applied to the probability of the other person stealing or sharing. Their reasoning may follow along these lines:

“If I steal, then there is a 50% chance the other person will steal and so I will get nothing. But there is also a 50% chance that they will share, in which case I get the whole £1,000. So my Expected gain would be (£0 x 50%) + (£1,000 x 50%) = £500.

“If I share, then there is a 50% chance the other person will steal and so I will get nothing. But there is also a 50% chance that they will share, in which case I get £500. So my expected gain would be (£0 x 50%) + (£500 x 50%) = £250.

“So to maximise my expected value, it is most rational for me to choose STEAL.”

A communitarian view

The communitarian will be looking out for what benefits the community (of which they are a part) the most. So again, (s)he cannot know what the other person will do, there must be equal weight applied to the probability of the other person stealing or sharing. Their reasoning may follow along these lines:

“If I steal, then there is a 50% chance the other person will steal and so no member of the community will get anything. But there is also a 50% chance that they will share, in which case the community will get the whole £1,000. So the expected gain for the community would be (£0 x 50%) + (£1,000 x 50%) = £500.

“If I share, then there is a 50% chance the other person will steal and so the community will get £1,000. But there is also a 50% chance that they will share, in which case the community still gets £1,000. So the expected gain for the community is (£1,000 x 50%) + (£1,000 x 50%) = £1,000.

So to maximise the expected value for the community, it is most rational for me to choose SHARE.”

Additional thoughts

Of course, there are complicating factors that could come into play in each. My point is to show the shape of the argument, not the details. For example, the individualist may think that the other person is also an individualist and therefore expect that the other person is more like to STEAL than to SHARE, altering their own behaviour in anticipation of the other. This can lead to some rather circular (or perhaps iterative might be a better term) thinking which I would rather not pursue here.

In using the word communitarian, I am here trying to think through things myself first and then see if there is a word to suitably describe it, rather than appealing to any kind of ‘tradition’ or ‘school of thought’ which I might adopt.

In advocating a communitarian view there is, of course, an assumption that I consider the other person to be part of the same community as me. If I were not then I could either be indifferent or hostile to them. In other words, might I try to act in such a way to minimise the amount they left with. The other assumption inherent to this is that the gain of wealth is a good thing. Of course, these can and should be examined at some point, but for the sake of the illustration, it is preferable to keep all other factors equal.

Of course, what this doesn’t do is negate the idea of acting in one’s self interest. A communitarian point of view is dependent upon various people being in the same community. Going back to the illustration above, if I choose to SHARE while the other person chooses to STEAL, then some of that money may well end up benefiting me indirectly. They use it to hire my services or buy something from me. They may donate some to a local art gallery which I like to frequent. It may be much more indirect than that.

So one mustn’t be lulled into thinking that communitarianism is wholly altruistic. It is just primarily altruistic. I still stand to gain by being part of the community which has a gain.

I’m sure many readers will by now see where I am hinting at in respect of being part of a church community, but I’ll let you follow the dots for yourself.

Oasis, unity and bad news for evangelicals?

This has been milling around my head for some time before I started to draft it a couple of weeks ago. After the events of last Friday, when the Evangelical Alliance decided to eject Oasis from membership, this has come into sharp relief. The discussion that then follows has been reshaped following this, though I have kept some aspects of the more general blog post I had begun. I hope it still reads OK, though please forgive me if it subsequently reads slightly jumbled and for any repetition.

The original question I had in mind was:

Are evangelicals bad news for the Church?

It’s a question that’s been bugging me some time. Whenever I read the term ‘evangelical’ (or the more condescending ‘evo’) it is almost always used in a negative sense.

I have written before about my frustrations when evangelicals are misleadingly portrayed. My objection is not a denial that there are issues within the very broad church that is evangelicalism, but rather that the negative aspects are those that people go looking for in order to highlight and then apply more generally so that they are portrayed as being in some way symptomatic of evangelicalism as a whole.

Part of the difficulty comes in trying to pin down precisely what one might mean by the term ‘evangelical’. There is little consensus (though not a violent disagreement, either, it might be added) amongst those who identify as evangelical as to precisely what they mean by it. I’ve broached the topic before, as has Danny Webster (who works for the Evangelical Alliance). My own church has its view here and the Evangelical Alliance has its own take. And these are just British viewpoints!

For an American viewpoint, one may look at the Evangelical manifesto. I must confess I was not aware of it’s existence until a few months ago, though upon reading it, I was struck by how much I agreed with it and was pleased by its moderate tone, in distinction from the tone one often hears coming across the Atlantic where the boundary between evangelical and fundamentalist views seems somewhat fuzzy.

As has been pointed out by others, the very breadth of evangelicalism sometimes waters down the effectiveness of the term. One danger is that ‘evangelical’ simply becomes a catch-all term used by those who don’t identify as such to label anyone with whom they disagree. In much of modern parlance, adjectives can be used as insults, and the most common word read in association with the term evangelical is ‘conservative’. In a world of black and white, it is not uncommon for ‘conservative’ to applied to someone, not on the grounds of a fair description, but rather to push them away and effectively say “[they’re conservative (i.e. bad) but we’re liberal (i.e. good)]” – The difficulty with this is that things aren’t really black and white and especially within christianity there are elements of being conservative and elements of being liberal in just about all strands of christian belief and expression. [late edit: as has been pointed out in the comments, some use the ‘liberal’/’conservative’ insult the other way around. My experience is that this is less common, but I acknowledge my limited experience may not be representative] To take just a few:

Social attitudes

This encompasses some of the hottest topics in the Church today, not least those surrounding women in leadership roles and whether or not we fully affirm christians who identify as LGBTI. For the record, this evangelical does recognise women in leadership and has no issue worshipping alongside LGBTI christians, a term I would deny is oxymoronic. In so doing, I acknowledge that there are some who would differ from me in good faith; while I might, from time to time, try to persuade such a person, I would not seek to enforce my view on them or to break fellowship with them over such a matter. What sometimes frustrates me is when I see christians who like to portray themselves as liberal attacking or criticising other christians who hold different opinions on such matters, especially when they go looking for areas on which to disagree. It demonstrates a level of intolerance that I think is quite unloving and certainly a betrayal of the term ‘liberal’. [late edit: I saw this comment was under discussion on the Changing Attitudes FB page. An example which I would cite was a post I saw from a friend who consistently affirms as ‘liberal’ but who said they would not consider in a million years going to a church they perceived as being conservative, going so far as to question why such churches exist at all. In my view, this goes too far.]

Economic attitudes

Roughly speaking, is one a capitalist or a socialist. Confusion comes here when capitalists try to claim to be liberal by means of “neoliberalism” or “economic libertarianism” which are both shorthand terms for, in my view, “freedom to economically oppress others”. This is a massive topic which I have written a bit about before, so I won’t further expand on it today.

How one views the bible

Much of the discussion around (and around and around) this centres on how one views the principle of sola scriptura. In so doing, one needs to bear in mind the historical background of the reformation in which the principle was formed. It is an instance of ‘definition by opposition‘. One may get a glimpse of how non-evangelicals think evangelicals view the bible from a comment on this piece, but which represents a slight caricature. I cannot do justice to the matter here, so in summary all I will say is that I view the bible as a collection of books which is the most reliable source we have for understanding the origins, themes, aims and beliefs of the christian faith. To get as true and fair an understanding of christianity, out of which flows a faithful adherence, the Church and its members must make the best effort to understand it in its his historical context and from there to apply it to the society, geography and time that we find ourselves in today. That understanding may be aided by any available tools we have, whether that be linguistics, historiography, tradition, etc. (all of which may be brought together under the umbrella term, ‘theology’).

How we express our christianity

In very broad terms, which are sometimes helpful and sometimes not, we might use the analogy of “high church” or “low church”. Similar terms one might hear are “creeping up the candle”. Though this terminology originated with the English part of the reformation, it has come to indicate how ceremonial a church is. So a church that has a very conservative expression of worship, where the leaders have to dress in special clothes and where there’s bits of processing around and chanting could reasonably be called “high church”. In contrast, one might have a “low church” which is far more informal and where the worshippers are allowed a greater degree of freedom of expression. These latter churches, in their style of worship, is far more liberal.

Unhelpful adjectives

Of course, these 4 I’ve listed are neither exhaustive nor are they mutually exclusive. For example, how one views the bible may well inform how one approaches the other 3. Yet it is sometimes the case that those which are more liberal in their expression of christianity are more conservative (capitalist) in their economic views. I think here particularly of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) which is known for both having an exuberant Pentecostal worship style and for advocacy in some parts of the church for the prosperity gospel. So it is that almost any church may be described as conservative by one group and as liberal by another.

Yet with almost any term one may choose to use to describe oneself or to describe other churches and christians, we risk trying to hold on to so tightly to the  adjective as to what type of christian we wish to describe that we lose focus on being a christian. As such, I would advocate using adjectives with the utmost gentleness and little to no sense of posession, as one try to hold a bunch of bubbles in the hand. To press the matter too hard will simply burst the bubbles which may sparkle for a time, but are ultimately empty and pass quickly.

So with that said, what of the matters of the last week?

Oasis and the Evangelical Alliance

I would assume by now that anyone reading this is familiar with the events of last Friday. If you are not, I would refer you in the first instance to the two press releases made by the Evangelical Alliance and by Oasis regarding the expulsion of the latter from membership of the former.

The debate that has been stirred up has been phrased by some (unhelpfully in my view) as a battle for who gets to decide how the term ‘evangelical’ is defined, and consequently who can and cannot be described as such. This seems to me like too much stock is being placed in the adjective and that in so doing, emphasis from the noun is lost. i.e. in my view, it is more important to identify as a christian than it is to identify as an evangelical. So the actions of the Evangelical Alliance is not so much a threat to the use of the term ‘evangelical’, it is a threat to the use of the term ‘alliance’.

One of the great ironies over the Oasis/EA separation has been that in choosing to eject Oasis, the Evangelical Alliance has stepped outside of the reformation ‘tradition’ (for want of a better word) of questioning the status quo. They have sought to impose their own form of orthodoxy on others and have chosen to excommunicate a valued part of the alliance for not adhering to one particular interpretation. In so doing, they have acted, not as the reformers did (the latter of whom had great courage to step out of the shadow of medieval Catholicism), but have played the role of the authoritarian who dictates how scripture can and should be interpreted. [late edit: This is not intended as a Marcus Borg style ‘because is it orthodox, it must be wrong’ type argument. See the comments below]

While Chalke wanted to be open and welcoming, the Evangelical Alliance chose to make it a divisive issue. In my view, the most appropriate response is to try to restore unity, rather than exacerbate disunity. This is why I would disagree with @losthaystacks who indicated that she thought the most appropriate reaction was to end her personal membership of the Evangelical Alliance. There is a point to it – that to maintain membership may be interpreted as giving consent to the action taken – though I would disagree, preferring to maintain church unity and to speak plainly that one disagrees with a particular stance. In this way, I would agree with the Evangelical Alliance’s policy, which in this instance they seem to have chosen to not apply in this instance:

“We respect the diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding that God grants to His people, and acknowledge that some differences over issues not essential to salvation may well remain until the end of time.”

“We call on each other, when speaking or writing of those issues of faith or practice that divide us, to acknowledge our own failings and the possibility that we ourselves may be mistaken, avoiding personal hostility and abuse, and speaking the truth in love and gentleness.”

So in that very spirit, I recognise that my view may be wrong (as always) but the evidence of the Evangelical Alliance’s treatment of Oasis appears to be an attempt at unity by bullying. In other words, “agree with us or we will have no fellowship with you”. The statement regarding the matter makes clear that there had been prior communication and that Oasis had been asked to distance themselves from the view held by Chalke. Yet the idea of resigning membership over the matter seems to be to be equally ungracious and no less an example of an attempt at unity by bullying.

The usefulness of an analogy

One of the key objections that Evangelical Alliance later cited was that Chalke was endorsing a change in the definition of marriage. During the discussion on the legislation as it was going through Parliament. As an example, you can read a well-articulated objection on these grounds over on @PeterOuld’s blog. Underlying the objection is the assumption that marriage should not be redefined. It is this assumption I would challenge on 2 accounts.

Firstly, the idea of marriage as being “between one man and one woman” is not a permanent an unchanging definition that has stood since time immemorial. It just hasn’t (until now) changed an awful lot in western democracies in the last few centuries. I well recall a useful set of seminars I attended a few years ago given by Rabbi Lionel Blue about how the changing definition of marriage can be seen just within the Torah; the example that sticks in mind was from Deuteronomy 24, where the granting of a certificate of divorce was a radical change recognising that the wife being divorced had a “greater level of humanness than a pot or a pan” (Rabbi Blue’s words, not mine).

The second objection is the analogy in the New Testament regarding the analogy of the church as the bride of Christ. As an approximation (hopefully not a caricature) the argument goes that to change the definition of marriage undermines or invalidates this analogy. Yet in my view, the underlying message of the analogy is not so closely tied to referent in the analogy that a change in the latter renders the former redundant. We might need, in later years, to do some more work to understanding it, but it seems odd to think that same-sex marriage is any threat to the idea of the Church as the body and bride of Christ. To cite 2 examples of this, one may understand the Parable of the Good Samaritan on a surface level as an encouragement to see all people as our neighbours, to whom we are to behave in a way honouring (and being part of) the kingdom of heaven, but one understands more how counter-intuitive this was once you realise the animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews. The fact that that precise ethnic tension is not obvious to today’s readers doesn’t render the message of the parable null and void. As a second example, the invention of the seed drill for regular planting of seeds did not invalidate the Parable of the Sower.

What does this say in our witness?

I am coming to an end, but if you have read thus far, I thank you for your patience. Though it has been pointed out how general the term ‘evangelical’ can be, I would hope that there can be agreement that a key feature is a particular emphasis which is placed on evangelism. Evangelism takes many forms. Part of it is pedagogical – teaching the world about the gospel so that one may make an informed decision as to whether or not to accept it. But it is more than that. Our very lives are to be a witness to the calling we have received; how we treat one another says a lot about the values we hold. This may be seen in Romans 12 and in particular in Jesus; exhortation: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

So what does the forcible exclusion of an organisation that is open and welcoming to all say as a witness?

What is says to me is that the message of the Evangelical Alliance only differs from that of Westboro Baptist Church in its tone, but not in content. [late edit: I am aware this is a provocative comparison. I considered removing it, but once drafted, I could think of a good reason to delete it; it remains my honest (though of course, potentially flawed) opinion] This undermines the living out of the principle of “love your neighbour as yourself”. In ejecting Oasis on the basis cited, there is an effective statement which says “evangelicals oppose equality for LGBTI people.” That is not a sentiment I agree with. Yet it would be a mistake to cause further disunity or to use this as a reason to abandon the Evangelical Alliance and all the very good work that they do, through their member organisation and individuals.

Unity isn’t easy. So while I agree with the support and inclusivity that Chalke has expressed, and while I disagree with the actions of the Evangelical Alliance, I will not speak a word of condemnation. That is all too easy to do and is, I believe, the cheap way out.

My remaining hope is that the hurt cause to LGBTI individuals, families and communities as a result of this will not deter them from the gospel. Not all evangelicals are open and welcoming, but many are. And I hope that there is peace and forgiveness, in spite of the cost.

Book Review: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

Of late, I have bought a few editions in a series called ‘Great Ideas’ published by Penguin Books. They tend to be short works (or short abridgements of larger works) and represent a wide variety of influential writings covering the history of civilization.

I hadn’t actually planned on reading On Liberty at this time of year, but it so happens that I had an accident and needed to go to hospital to get something checked over. At the time, I was (and still am!) reading Paul and the Faithfulness of God as well as The Forsyte Saga, both of which are bulky books and which I didn’t want to carry around with me in A&E. So I grabbed the first slim book I could find and read through the first quarter of it while I was waiting to be seen, X-rayed and assessed. It was also intended as a first follow up from Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction.

In sitting down to review this book, I must admit that I found myself in a little difficulty. The book is written as an argument for a particular point of view, though Mill takes a number of tangents which distract from the main thrust of the book. One could choose to enter into a full-blown study of all these tangents and how they branch off from and feed into the core of his point. But to do so would require a great number of essays and I am aiming for a review of no more than about 900 words. So I shall try to stick to the point.

As I began to read I found myself thinking “I agree, I agree, I agree.” The opening argument over a person’s right to liberty provided that it does not infringe on another’s was an argument I have heard before, sometimes from my own mouth, at other times from others citing Mill. The further I read and the more I thought about it, though, the more I doubted the soundness of the argument. Just to pick a few points, Mill slightly paraphrases the old adage “no man is an island” but doesn’t really follow through with this. After all, if it is right to state that the no person should be hindered from any thought or action that doesn’t affect anyone else, does such a situation exist in real life? While at first glance something I think in the privacy of my own home may seem as isolated as one can get, can one really think that it is isolated from every subsequent thought, and hence action, that I undertake? If any of those thoughts and actions affect another, can one really say that were devoid of influence from earlier thoughts and actions? I would post not, though it is another matter to question whether or not any influence on another is a form of impingement on their liberty; a question that Mill does not seem to properly address.

After his initial discussion on liberty, he turns his attention to religion. If you know me and are familiar with Mill’s views on the matter, it will come as little surprise that I disagree with him. His portrait of what religion is, in particular christianity, seem to be particular to his experience and from this experience he extrapolates to take his negative views to apply more widely than can reasonably be justified. It is rather unfortunate that his rather skewed views on this topic have perpetuated.

From here, he moves on to his view on individualism as the paramount virtue which much must be protected. Though he doesn’t use the word, this is a founding exhortation of libertarianism. In some places, he makes a very good case, particularly with relation to not inhibiting genius. In terms of the argument that is there, one could find it very convincing, as indeed many who call themselves neoliberals do. That is, until you think about it. What he does is to try to play a false dichotomy between liberalism and authoritarianism, without considering alternatives or properly following through the consequences of individualism.

What makes it doubly bizarre is that he appeals to Bentham on a couple of occasions, and others comment that this liberalism is grounded in utilitarianism. Yet the conclusion that Mill draws is that the needs of the individual are paramount. In other words (to twist the familiar summary of utilitarianism which may be found in a popular film), the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. I would disagree with Mill on this. Because of my christianity, I would favour a more “communitarian” approach whereby, whilst preserving our individual freedoms as much as possible, the needs of others must be put ahead of our own.

Whether you agree with me or with the view of Mill that I have portrayed here, I would encourage you to read it. Even though I would not wholly endorse his view, there is a great deal that is merit worthy contained within this small volume. Given its influence on modern thinking, it also serves as a useful education in the roots of how many neoliberals think.