Reformation and Secularity


Recently, I was invited to give a paper to the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy. The event was billed as ‘Luther, Protestantism and Society’, and was a low-key way to mark Reformation Day. There was, however, no beer to be found, and so the event was always going to struggle to be true to character.

There were, however, four speakers. Monica Melanchthon (Pilgrim College) spoke on ‘Luther, Bible, and Gender’, focusing especially on Luther’s exegesis of Genesis 38. Gordon Preece (Director of RASP) spoke on ‘Luther, Vocation, and Precarious Work’, and Andreas Loewe (Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) spoke about ‘Luther, Music, and Bach’.

I offered some reflections also, abbreviating parts of a larger project that I’ve been working on. For those who may be interested, here’s a version of what I said (minus all the technical apparatus).

Reformation and Secularity

Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy, 31 October 2017

Taking Some Bearings

Debates about personal and religious liberties can get ugly, even in so-called liberal democracies. They can also be instructive. For some, such debates expose the lamentable erosion of a grander and shared communal story – an account of how we came to be where and who we are, and so a way to answer the question, ‘How then shall we live?’ For some others, such debates expose the myth that such a story ever existed, and that adjectives like ‘traditional’ – as in ‘traditional values’ – are considerably more novel than their Galahads would have us believe.

Ecclesial communions are not disinterested bystanders to such debates. Nor are they newcomers to the game. (By comparison, liberal democracy has only just turned up.) God-botherers have been playing this one for a very long time. In fact, we even wrote lots of the rules. Today, I want to offer four little reflections on what I judge to be live challenges for those religious communities committed to staying in the game, and for whom the various reformations of the sixteenth century remain critical for the formation of their identities.

One particular misjudgement I have in my scope is that social vision that places the church at the centre of things, a misjudgement that sponsors modes of being in the world that are at odds with some of Protestantism’s most remarkable instincts. Of course, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for such instincts.

Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation

Brad Gregory’s ambitious, provocative, and polemical book The Unintended Reformation (published in 2012) sits among a growing body of scholarship concerned with the geneses, definitions, and assessments of what many God-botherers often misrefer to as ‘secularism’. Epigrammatically, his thesis (which is neither new nor without serious historical misjudgements) is that liberal modernity is the progeny of the Protestant reformations of the sixteenth century. Continuing the destructive work begun by Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, these religious and intellectual upheavals, Gregory argues, are to be lamented because they are unwittingly responsible for ending over a millennia of Christianity as ‘a framework for shared intellectual life in the Latin West’, and because they created the conditions out of which grew some of the greatest maladies of the modern world, among which Gregory names individualism, pluralism, scepticism, capitalism, secularism, and consumerism – a smorgasbord of isms that have, he believes, left the world disenchanted. The Protestant response to ‘the failure of medieval Christendom’ was, in Gregory’s assessment, to squeeze transcendence out of intellectual and public discourse, and, consequently, to discard any meaning from the world that cannot be justified by an insipid and existentially-disquiet form of revisionism.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to the charge of disenchantment that Gregory lays at Protestantism’s door, especially because behind that door lies a musty room filled with very sober second- and third-generation Calvinists in whose work certain ‘metaphysical assumptions … probably did contribute to an eventual conception of a disenchanted natural world’. But a towering Manichaean saga that blames Protestants for dismantling some imagined and monolithic medieval synthesis represents a classic case of drawing up an indictment against the past, and then refusing to let it testify on its own behalf. ‘Such attention as we give to it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore’, as Marilynne Robinson has argued, ‘incompetent’.

Contra Gregory, I would argue that the liberalising consequences of the reformers’ intentional efforts made those who welcomed them to be more at ease with secularity not in spite of their theological convictions but precisely because of them. While those who hanker for some near-Edenic past in medieval Christendom will lament that the genie has gotten out of the bottle, those who take their energies from the spirit of the reformations will not grieve that there is no way of getting him back in.

Protestant commitments to the doctrine of providence, expressed, for example, in Calvin’s positive assessment of creation as God’s ‘dazzling theater’ (Inst., 1.5.8), or as ‘a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible’ (Inst., 1.5.1), and in Luther and Calvin’s enthusiastic appraisal of non-ecclesial vocations, undermine the old dualisms between so-called ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ space. Both quoted fondly the psalmists words: ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ (Ps 24.1). Luther’s political theology therefore has little qualms about stripping the church of jurisdiction and property, and about empowering worldly rulers to exercise their vocation of caritas towards the state’s citizens, and beyond. It did not, in other words, ever cast the world to the dogs …. Unless, of course, you happened to be an Anabaptist, or some German peasant demanding agrarian rights and freedom from oppression by wealthy aristocrats.

Of course, the modes of secularity with which the magisterial reformers made their home also assumed the kind of Constantinian arrangements that made their programs of reform possible in the first place, and which kept the church at or near the centres of power. While Protestants have not left such arrangements go entirely unchallenged, there remains a pressing summons to rigorously reassess them.  Any tradition that finds itself in a situation where many of the underlying commitments and assumptions upon which its identity were forged are now crumbling, has to do some hard thinking about its ongoing character. So it is to this that I now turn by way of four brief reflections.

Belief beyond medievalism

A more compelling account of the story of western modernity than that offered by Gregory is that made by another Roman Catholic, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. In his essays Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, Taylor is concerned with what he calls ‘the conditions of belief’: ‘How’, he writes, ‘did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naïvely within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances …; and in which … unbelief has become for many the major default option?’ Taylor tells the story of why in a so-called post-secular age ‘the hegemony of the mainstream master narrative of secularisation’ is increasingly being challenged, and of how in our ‘secular’ age, transcendence and immanence coalesce into one dis-connected whole in which ‘believers are beset by doubt and doubters, every once in a while, find themselves tempted by belief’ (Smith).

The work of many of our best novelists, musicians, poets, filmmakers, artists and other endangered species attests to the belief that our age is haunted. We no longer need the church to perform this role for us. Jamie Smith describes it well: ‘On the one hand, … [w]e live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence  …. On the other hand, even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now’. Paul Elie also describes well the character of belief in our time:

We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, are complicated by our lives. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty; but the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.

This makes religious belief less stable than those who confuse faith with certainties condone. I am not suggesting for a moment that sixteenth-century Europeans could have imagined the world that Taylor is seeking to understand and to map. They couldn’t have. But some of the instincts they fostered, birthed against the background of their own turbulent time, remain serviceable for us today. The Reformed project’s instincts, if rarely its practice, have been to appraise belief in terms unconstrained by the ‘protective guardianship’ (Sarah Coakley) of the status quo. Its instinct, if rarely its routine, has been to lose faith in settled arrangements, and to learn instead the habits ‘of dispossession, the constant rediscovery and critique of the myth of the self [or of the institution] as owner of its perceptions and positions’. This is the kind of thinking that ‘unsettles all claims to a final resolution of how we define and speak of our interest’ (Rowan Williams), and of belief. When it comes to believing – or to not believing – in anything we are now on our own, and responsible for ourselves. ‘Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives’ (Taylor). The medieval social space and intellectual imaginary after which Gregory hankers no longer exists, if it ever did.

Taylor is right to observe that the social imaginary in which moderns live is one in which ‘the fate of belief depends much more than before on [the] powerful intuitions of individuals, radiating out to others’ (Taylor) than it does on the unchallengeable status that a single orthodoxy once enjoyed, or on what he calls ‘the church’s good magic’ – an orthodoxy and magic which Gregory argues are a precondition for making the world intelligible. In my judgement, there is both loss and gain to be named here. On the one hand, it requires a more deliberate effort for belief to find the requisite shape in communal life. On the other hand, as Taylor observes, ‘other facets of our predicament in relation to God come to the fore; for instance what Isaiah meant when he talked of a “hidden God”. In the seventeenth century, you had to be a Pascal to appreciate that. Now we live it daily’. Or, as Abraham Heschel once put it: ‘While stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith’.

Into such spaces, Christian communities can recover the shared vocation of being unstable and vulnerable bearers of the live question that brought them to birth in the first place – ‘Who do you say that I am?’ To so proceed is to welcome one of the genius insights of that first generation of Protestants regarding the freedom of the Word unharnessed from but at home among the particularities of any one culture or form, including ecclesial ones, a subject to which we now turn.

Church beyond Constantinianism

For most of its life, Western forms of Christianity have not heeded the words of the Hebrew prophets to be a sanctuary unescorted by borders or bullets. Nor have they placed much store in the warning carried in the words ‘… crucified under Pontius Pilate’. Instead, they have been made inebriate by drinking from the same wells of imperialism that created the empires of Egypt, Assyria, and the United States.

Signs that the keg may be running a little low occasions another opportunity for Protestant communions to dissent from all ‘stupid allegiance to political authority as if that were service to the church and, a fortiori, to God’ (William Stringfellow), and to embrace instead what Davis McCaughey called a ‘transitory character’. Without minimizing Christendom’s remarkable achievements, it seems judicious, imperative, and overdue for those traditions forged under its assumptions, atmosphere, and protection to undergo appraisal. This, as John de Gruchy rightly reminds us, does not mean ‘adopting a politically neutral stance or eschewing the responsible use of power’. Indeed, a project like the Reformed’s is, after all, essentially public and acutely concerned for the public commons. ‘The question is not’, therefore, ‘whether the church is going to use political influence, but how, on behalf of whom, and from what perspective it is going to do so. Is [such influence] going to be used “to preserve the social prestige which comes from its ties to the groups in power or to free itself from the prestige with a break from these groups and with genuine service to the oppressed”?’

For those who hanker after a secure life, a kind of invulnerable area in the world, the Word of God holds out no promise, no escape, no counterfeit security, no withdrawal from the actualities, ambiguities, uncertainties, and instabilities of human life. The idolatry of certainty – whether cultural, political, or intellectual – signals ‘a withdrawal from accepting the peril and the promise of the Incarnation’; namely, the call to live ‘an exposed life’ before God, one ‘stripped of the kind of security that tradition, whether ecclesiological or institutional, easily bestows’ (Donald MacKinnon). This is the church’s atypical and baffling existence. It also goes by another word – ‘discipleship’. It was this direction towards which a young Lutheran by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was looking when in London in the early 1930s he preached that:

Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its apologia for the weak … Christendom has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should … take a stronger much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.

The worldliness of the church

During his first American tour, Bonhoeffer spoke also of a church ‘beyond religion’. While his now-famous wrestlings with the question of a ‘religionless Christianity’ and of ‘interpreting biblical concepts nonreligiously’ seem to have had their main geneses in Karl Barth’s theological critique of religion, it is clear that Bonhoeffer was pressing beyond Barth towards something more as-yet unknown. Neither an ‘extra’ to the normalities of human existence nor a ‘stopgap’ for when we have reached ‘the limits of our possibilities’, Bonhoeffer’s God is fully present in all of life’s ‘polyphonic’ dimensions. ‘We cannot, like the Roman Catholics’, Bonhoeffer said, ‘simply identify ourselves with the church’. For ‘Jesus calls not to a new religion but to life’, the content of which is a participation in God’s powerlessness in and suffering ‘at the hands of a godless world’.

Bonhoeffer’s is a call to reject the claim that ecclesiocentricity and its institutional permanence are necessary in order to make the world coherent. He rejects, in other words, the myth that the church is the telos of world history wherein ‘the whole space at one’s disposal is filled with ecclesiology’, and where ‘the world has disappeared from the horizon’ (J. C. Hoekendijk). He rejects, therefore, a church turned in upon itself (ecclesia in se incurvata) and so the reduction of mission to proselytism into particular cultural forms.

Here we come to modern Protestantism’s failure to know why it exists anymore. As a commentator noted in The Washington Post just last week, ‘Protestantism has become an end in itself … The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share’. Bonhoeffer did not make this misjudgement. Firstly, because he had no problem with saying the third article of any ecumenical creed. He refused, in other words, to not hope for and work towards the genuine and international unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. And secondly, because in his terms: ‘The church is church only when it is there for others … The church’, he wrote, ‘must participate in the worldly tasks of life in the community – not dominating but helping and serving’. This refrain found echo in the World Council of Churches’ report, published in 1967 as The Church for Others and the Church for the World. The report grappled with the perception of a growing secularization in the West, pleading that the Church not discern in its ‘change of social function’ a ‘loss or emigration from society’ lest it understand mission to be ‘a counter-attack to restore’ Christendom. It argued also that we might be wisest to consider the possibility that secularisation might in fact be ‘a fruit of the gospel’, and a much-welcomed invitation to seek traces of Christ’s transforming work ‘outside the walls of the Church’ and among those ‘who may have little or no connexion with the churches as they are today’.

Gregory’s long threnody for medieval Christianity masks an unwillingness to consider that, however unintended they may have been, the liberalising consequences of the reformers’ congeniality with what we today might call ‘secularity’ was a deliberate theological move. It was a move birthed of the instinct that the hegemony of the ecclesia meets its counter story in the truly catholic authority of the free and freeing Word who ‘came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (Jn 1.13). The fact is too that Gregory can lament for a past time all he likes. There can be no going back. The nostalgia for the absolute is just that – nostalgia, and nothing more.

Faithful secularity and the humanising of the public commons

The one thing that is certain in our current cultural and political climate is that things are ‘deeply uncertain and fluid’. ‘There is’, as Rowan Williams has noted, ‘widespread impatience with transnational institutions, from the EU to the UN, yet equally widespread anxiety about the dominance of a single power. We are increasingly aware of the issues that cannot be solved by single sovereign states on their own – ecological crisis, terrorism, migrancy – yet are uncomfortable with any notion of global jurisdictions’. In addition, there is the profound ‘discontent of the disenfranchised and insecure’ (Williams). The global north is increasingly conscious of facing a highly critical, if internally diverse, Islamic world and is struggling to know how best to respond to its presence both within and outwith its borders. ‘Enlightenment liberalism, the self-evident creed of reasonable people, now appears as simply one cultural and historical phenomenon among others. Its supposed right to set the agenda for the rest of the world is no longer beyond question’ (Williams). Things once seemingly reliable now feel fragile, and endangered.

At the same time, how we appraise and navigate secularity itself is also undergoing significant revision. A growing number of historians, sociologists, political theorists, cultural anthropologists, and theologians are debunking the so-called secularisation thesis and are proposing alternative accounts of secularity in which ‘religious and nonreligious commitments and practices interact over time’ (Luke Bretherton). Among these is the theological ethicist Luke Bretherton. Drawing upon insights from Aristotle, Hannah Arendt, Saul Alinsky, and others, and from his own experience with grassroots democracy in the work of Citizens UK, Bretherton’s is a vision of democratic politics and of vibrant civil society expressed in what he calls ‘broad-based community organizing’. He promotes a vision in which those who carry myriad obligations, commitments, identities, and practices – those representing varying economic, political, kinship, intellectual, and religious concerns – learn to coordinate, converge, communicate, debate, clarify, negotiate, and seek to forge a common life, a life that will inevitably call into question the kind of arrangements orchestrated to leave economic, political, and religious elites immune from accountability and responsible participation in a common social, legal, economic, and political space. Bretherton recognises that ‘whereas the medieval city offered one set of political opportunities and challenges, the modern and now world city offers an assemblage of material and social conditions for a different set’. Rather than shy away from this reality, or rail against it, however, Bretherton leans into its opportunities. He writes:

What community organizing represents is a means of reconstituting, from the ground up, a sensus communis, which can then form the basis of a practical rationality on which shared judgments can be made. It does this through assembling a ‘middle ground’ out of the existing traditions, customs, and habits that have poured into the city. The practices of community organizing create the conditions through which a shared world of meaning and action can emerge – albeit one often based on partial misunderstandings and misconceptions.

Bretherton’s is a call to the virtuous pursuit of a shared polis formed ‘through particular kinds of democratic practices rather than a single tradition, neutral procedure, or agonistic relations’. It is life that presupposes a space wherein active citizenship is organised and exercised through voluntary associations around common interests, goals, and commitments to life’s flourishing. Such a commitment need not, of course, be grounded in any consensus about what constitutes ultimate truth, or even agreement that such an oddity may exist. It requires only that citizens be dedicated to meet in such a space, and a just state that will normalise liberal democracy’s chaotically-pluralist character. Here, Bretherton seems to have in mind something like Nicholas Wolterstorff’s talk of ‘integrated existence’ – the integration that makes the public square to be truly the square of the public.

The plea for better knowledge of and investment in local civic activism echoes that of a growing number of voices concerned to counter the bastardisation of democracy as what the Italian social scientist Vilfredo Pareto refers to as ‘the circulation of elites’ who have detached themselves from – and become disdainfully imperious towards – those they rule. In the US, for example, Richard Falk has for over two decades now championed the idea of what he calls ‘globalisation from below’. This deeply Protestant-like vision rejects the homogeneity and unity that globalisation-from-above seeks, for a vision instead that ‘tends towards heterogeneity and diversity, even tension and contradiction’. Much of this tension and contradiction is, as the Belgian sociologist Geoffrey Pleyers has suggested, the fruit of the fact that broad-based community organising is characterised by both ‘elite cosmopolitan activists’ who ‘share a top-down conception of social change’ and grassroots activists who reject such approaches as too approximating of the very social machinery they are determined to overthrow. In the sixteenth century, many Europeans committed to ecclesial and social reform felt likewise – that despite the rapid internationalisation of the movement, and however disparate in form, its productive energy was always expressed locally, with voices both from above and from below.

Lest the liberal state lose its essential liberalism it must be marked too by a continuing dialogue with religious communities, and those with each other. Viable civil societies in religiously plural contexts presuppose viable interreligious and extra-religious relations, with a high priority given to efforts at the local level where the freedom to engage in ‘convivial and cooperative relations’, however difficult and unstable, and to do so in ways that avoid ‘religious vandalism’, yields – dare I say it? – signs of the Spirit’s work in the earth.

Traversing Boundaries

The realities with which I have been concerned in this paper offer both challenges to and opportunities for theologians. We are increasingly working ‘within a re-enchanted world’ whose imagination is being fed from a smorgasbord larger than any single religious or cultural tradition can offer. Such a world moves theology from nearer the centre of things (where Gregory and many others would like it to be) towards the ‘discursive borderlands’ where interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations become normative. If theological faculties have frequently forgotten this habit, let me offer assurance that mine is not a call to novelty (Aquinas, for example, worked in such a way) but to renewed commitment to boundary-traversing discourse undertaken under new conditions of enchanted metaphysics. It is a call also to receive with gratitude what Marilynne Robinson names simply ‘the givenness of things’. The future of theology means making our way across boundaries, like a small cloud rising over the sea’s horizon, bearing hobbit-like witness to promised rains for a famished land.

When assumptions are challenged, when faith is stirred, when things once familiar become the new unknown, when we find ourselves travelling ‘too near the mountains’ in unguarded territory seldom traversed by ecclesial wayfarers, and when all we have in our kit are ‘old maps’ which are of ‘no use’ in this new terrain, it may be that at that point we have just begun, like Abraham and Sarah, and Frodo Baggins, on a quest that will leave us, and the future, different. My reference here to Mr Baggins is wholly intentional: colourful and noisy and undersized hobbits enter the quest, as J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us, not to preserve ‘this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire’, but rather to engage in ‘liberation from … evil tyranny’. Such is a reminder of the Christian calling too, that this people of God are not called to preserve that familiar life that they had known in the Shire but rather to imagine a future in which all of life’s enemies have been overcome, and to direct all their embodied efforts towards such an end. Along the way, they not only lose their reputation, but they also carry many unanswered questions, all the while knowing that there can be no going back. (Nor, as Frodo was to discover, can there be anything to be gained by going sideways.) But it is precisely in both the refusal to abandon questions and the determination to move forward nonetheless that Frodo and his strange company of friends discover that prudence is not about worldly cleverness but is rather about uncomplicated minds and wills conformed to a life of virtue, of boundless mercy, and of unbending devotion to the destruction of that which would undo their very being. In Protestant parlance, it is a simply that life which is lived under and by and toward the Word alone.

Jason Goroncy
Reformation Day 2017

Karl Barth: Gottes fröhlicher Partisan

Divine bias

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‘Our world still needs to learn that the reason every person and every kind of person must be seen with equal respect is not that their culture is equally healthy, or that they have earned equal treatment, but that equal dignity is ascribed by virtue of a divine bias in favor of the Other’.

– The not-exactly-kosher-these-days John Howard Yoder, ‘Firstfruits: The Paradigmatic Public Role of God’s People’, in For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 30.


After the wake and speeches, when the guests in black
Had with the charm of ordinariness
Dispelled the gross terror of a fellow dead
(Eyelid grown waxen, the body like a sack
Bundled into the tomb) and the women with their mindless
Ritual of grief had murmured abroad all that could be said –

Then, as the world resumed its customary
Mask of civil day, he came, too late to mend
The broken vase (a cracked one could have been mended)
God’s image blackened by causality.
And the woman said, “Since he was called your friend,
Why did you not come then? Now it is ended.”

And when, the army blanket of grey earth
Put off, Lazarus from the cave mouth stumbled
(Hand, foot and mouth yet bound in mummy cloth)
To the sun’s arrow, furnace of rebirth –
What could they do but weep? infirm and humbled
By Love not their love, more to be feared than wrath.

– James K. Baxter, who died on this day, 45 years ago.

You can read more about Baxter here, and more of his poetry here.

Why teach and study (and fund) the humanities?

Alexis de Tocqueville; portrait by Théodore Chassériau, 1850Amen! The NYRB has just published a(nother) brilliant piece by Marilynne Robinson. The entire essay is well worth reading, and re-reading. And here’s a snippet:

Why teach the humanities? Why study them? American universities are literally shaped around them and have been since their founding, yet the question is put in the bluntest form—what are they good for? If, for purposes of discussion, we date the beginning of the humanist movement to 1500, then, historically speaking, the West has flourished materially as well as culturally in the period of their influence. You may have noticed that the United States is always in an existential struggle with an imagined competitor. It may have been the cold war that instilled this habit in us. It may have been nineteenth-century nationalism, when America was coming of age and competition among the great powers of Europe drove world events. Whatever etiology is proposed for it, whatever excuse is made for it, however rhetorically useful it may be in certain contexts, the habit is deeply harmful, as it has been in Europe as well, when the competition involved the claiming and defending of colonies, as well as militarization that led to appalling wars.

The consequences of these things abide. We see and feel them every day. The standards that might seem to make societies commensurable are essentially meaningless, except when they are ominous. Insofar as we treat them as real, they mean that other considerations are put out of account. Who died in all those wars? The numbers lost assure us that there were artists and poets and mathematicians among them, and statesmen, though at best their circumstances may never have allowed them or us to realize their gifts.

What was lost to those colonizations? The many regions that bore the brunt of them struggle to discover a social order they can accept as legitimate and authoritative, with major consequences for the old colonizers and the whole world. Who loses in these economic competitions? Those who win, first of all, because the foot soldiers of those economies work too much for meagre, even uncertain pay and are exposed to every insult this cheapening of fundamental value visits on the earth and the air. How many artists and scientists ought there to be among those vast legions? And among their threatened children? There is a genius for impoverishment always at work in the world. And it has its way, as if its proceedings were not only necessary, but even sensible. Its rationale, its battle cry, is Competition.

A great irony is at work in our historical moment. We are being encouraged to abandon our most distinctive heritage—in the name of self-preservation. The logic seems to go like this: To be as strong as we need to be we must have a highly efficient economy. Society must be disciplined, stripped down, to achieve this efficiency and to make us all better foot soldiers. The alternative is decadence, the eclipse of our civilization by one with more fire in its belly. We are to be prepared to think very badly of our antagonist, whichever one seems to loom at a given moment. It is a convention of modern literature, and of the going-on of talking heads and public intellectuals, to project what are said to be emerging trends into a future in which cultural, intellectual, moral, and economic decline will have hit bottom, more or less.

Somehow this kind of talk always seems brave and deep. The specifics concerning this abysmal future are vague—Britain will cease to be Britain, America will cease to be America, France will cease to be France, and so on, depending on which country happens to be the focus of Spenglerian gloom. The oldest literature of radical pessimism can be read as prophecy. Of course these three societies have changed profoundly in the last hundred years, the last fifty years, and few with any knowledge of history would admit to regretting the change. What is being invoked is the notion of a precious and unnamable essence, second nature to some, in the marrow of their bones, in effect. By this view others, whether they will or no, cannot understand or value it, and therefore they are a threat.

The definitions of “some” and “others” are unclear and shifting. In America, since we are an immigrant country, our “nativists” may be first- or second-generation Americans whose parents or grandparents were themselves considered suspect on these same grounds. It is almost as interesting as it is disheartening to learn that nativist rhetoric can have impact in a country where precious few can claim to be native in any ordinary sense. Our great experiment has yielded some valuable results—here a striking demonstration of the emptiness of such rhetoric, which is nevertheless loudly persistent in certain quarters in America, and which obviously continues to be influential in Britain and Europe.

Nativism is always aligned with an impulse or strategy to shape the culture with which it claims to have this privileged intimacy. It is urgently intent on identifying enemies and confronting them, and it is hostile to the point of loathing toward aspects of the society that are taken to show their influence. In other words, these lovers of country, these patriots, are wildly unhappy with the country they claim to love, and are bent on remaking it to suit their own preferences, which they feel no need to justify or even fully articulate. Neither do they feel any need to answer the objections of those who see their shaping and their disciplining as mutilation.

What is at stake now, in this rather inchoate cluster of anxieties that animates so many of us, is the body of learning and thought we call the humanities. Their transformative emergence has historically specifiable origins in the English and European Renaissance, greatly expedited by the emergence of the printing press. At the time and for centuries afterward it amounted to very much more than the spread of knowledge, because it was understood as a powerful testimony to human capacities, human grandeur, the divine in the human. And it had the effect of awakening human capacities that would not otherwise have been imagined ….

In the history of the West, for all its achievements, there is also a persisting impatience with the energy and originality of the mind. It can make us very poor servants of purposes that are not our own. A Benthamite panopticon would have radically reduced the varieties of experience that help to individuate us, in theory producing happiness in factory workers by preventing their having even a glimpse of the fact that there could be more to life. Censorship, lists of prohibited books, restrictions on travel, and limits on rights of assembly all accomplish by more practicable means some part of the same exclusions, precluding the stimulus of new thought, new things to wonder about. The contemporary assault on the humanities has something of the same objective and would employ similar methods. Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy. All the rest is waste and distraction.

(Little wonder that Ben is so excited about his new job!)

Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

A little something for the Catholic cats and pigeons to have fun with:

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit. “God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers” (Heb 1:1), “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” (Dei Verbum, 8). We are called to make this voice our own by “reverently hearing the word of God” (ibid., 1), so that our life as a Church may progress with the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, towards those new horizons to which the Lord wishes to guide us.

– Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

Peter Brown on Sarah Ruden’s translation of St Augustine’s Confessions

confessions-88.jpgWhile some reviewers have found Sarah Ruden’s recent translation of St Augustine’s Confessions unnecessary, ‘jarring’, and marked by too many ‘aesthetic costs’, many, it seems, have welcomed it, and that not least because of the ‘vivid, personal prose’ that characterises its pages. Among the latter we might now add the brilliant Augustine scholar Peter Brown who, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, notes that one of the things that he most appreciates about Ruden’s work is its presentation of God’s lively personhood, a liveliness that makes Augustine more alive also. Here’s a taster:

So what is the correct reaction when we open the Confessions? It should, perhaps, be one of acute embarrassment. For we have stumbled upon a human being at a primal moment – standing in prayer before God. Having intruded on Augustine at his prayers, we are expected to find ourselves pulled into them, as we listen to a flow of words spoken, as if on the edge of an abyss, to a God on the far side – to a being, to all appearances, vertiginously separate from ourselves.

The measure of the success of [Sarah] Ruden’s translation is that she has managed to give as rich and as diverse a profile to the God on the far side as she does to the irrepressible and magnetically articulate Latin author who cries across the abyss to Him. Most translations of the Confessions fail to do this. We are usually left with the feeling that one character in the story has not fully come alive. We meet an ever-so-human Augustine, with whom it is easy to identify even when we most deplore him. But we meet him perched in front of an immense Baroque canvas called “God” – suitably grand, of course, suitably florid, but flat as the wall.

How does Ruden remedy this lack of life in God? She takes God in hand. She renames Him. He is not a “Lord.” That is too grand a word. Its sharpness has been blunted by pious usage. Augustine’s God was a dominus – a master. And a Roman dominus was a master of slaves. Unlike “Lord,” the Latin word dominus implied, in Augustine’s time, no distant majesty, muffled in fur and velvet. It conjured up life in the raw – life lived face to face in a Roman household, lived to the sound of the crack of the whip and punctuated by bursts of rage ….

To make God more of a person, by making Him a master, does not at first sight, make Him very nice. But at least it frees Him up. It also brings Augustine to life. In relation to God, Augustine experiences all the ups and downs of a household slave in relation to his master. He jumps to the whip. He tries out the life of a runaway. He attempts to argue back. Altogether, “Augustine’s humorously self-deprecating, submissive, but boldly hopeful portrait of himself in relation to God echoes the rogue slaves of the Roman stage” [Ruden]. (Indeed, the thought of the bishop of Hippo as having once been the slippery slave of God – like Zero Mostel as the plump and bouncy Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – somehow lightens the impression of a seemingly inextricable roller coaster of sin and punishment that we usually derive from reading the first part of the Confessions.)

For God can change His mood. Like any other free person, He can show a different side. The Confessions is about the marvelous emergence of new sides of God as Augustine himself changes in his relation to God, over the years, from slave to repentant son to lover. Ruden may have to defend her re-translation of the name of God from “Lord” to “Master.” But her approach is a thoughtful one. It is governed by a determination to present Augustine’s relations with his God as endowed with the full emotional weight of a confrontation between two real persons. She takes no shortcuts. Small departures from conventional translations show her constant effort to capture an unexpected dimension of tenderness (very different from that of the slave owner) in God’s relation to Augustine and in Augustine’s to God.

To take small examples: Ruden does not have Augustine “embrace” Jesus as if He were a proposition. He takes Him in his arms. When Augustine looks back at his first mystical awakening, he cries: Sero te amavi: “Late have I loved you!” It is a famous cry. But it is a little grand. You and I would say: “I took too long to fall in love.” And this – the less dramatic but more human turn of phrase – is what Ruden opts for. Repeated small acts of attention to the humble, human roots of Augustine’s imagery of his relations to God enable Ruden to convey a living sense of the Being before Whom we find him transfixed in prayer: “Silent, long-suffering and with so much mercy in your heart.”

So far, I’ve very much enjoyed reading Ruden’s translation, and it will sit happily alongside my copy of Chadwick’s translation of the same. The latter remains my go-to translation, but Ruden certainly helps me to notice things that I have otherwise missed while reading Chadwick and others. I can also imagine setting some of its chapters as readings for my students, precisely because of the reasons Brown names. For both of these reasons, I am grateful for Ruden’s work.

And how perfect is that cover!

What to do with your Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey form: a 5-step guide

Step 1. Draw a pretty picture of yourself on the form. Claim it as ‘yours’.


Step 2. Add some style.


Step 3. Create a little jigsaw. Be sure to ‘lose’ a couple of pieces too. That way, your form can serve as a kind of parody of the process itself.


Step 4. Help the little bastard find its way to the recycle bin. The ‘lost’ pieces should be placed in the regular rubbish.


Step 5. Brew yourself a nice cup of tea.


Note: In my view, the postal survey is an insane and destructive process that undermines the integrity and responsibility of the federal parliament, and in so doing weakens a key mechanism whereby human rights are legislated and implemented. While I certainly welcome a change in law (something I’ve written about here) the ends do not, in my view, justify the means. On this, I agree with Michael Kirby v.1. That said, I am open to the possibility that time will prove me wrong about that. In the short term, at least, the process will, one hopes, assist No voters to accept the outcome less painfully than they might have otherwise.

Theological ‘bush camps’

20170701.jpgThere is a wonderful little documentary here on the Hermannsburg Mission and the work of the theological ‘bush camps’ organised by the Finke River Mission as part their commitment to the continuing education of pastors.

Philosophising: 13 questions with Michael Leunig


1. What is the biggest threat to our minds?
Our minds.

2. What is freedom?
Non-compliance and creativity.

3. What illusion do you suffer from?
Other peoples’ illusions.

4. Where are humans heading?
To hell, as always – but you have to go through hell and survive it in order to get to heaven. So in the unlikely event that you do get to heaven, you’ll be in a pretty bad shape and then things are not so heavenly after all.

5. The most important part of your education?
My failure.narcissist

6. Which “thinker” has had the greatest influence on your life?
For all I know it may have been the butcher who employed me to clean up his shop every Saturday morning when I was a kid. He was a thinker in the ordinary sense – as most people are. The heart thinks too. The early primal unconscious or semi-conscious influences may have been as important to my developments as the writings of Lao Tzu or D. W. Winnicott.

7. What do you doubt most?

8. Your favourite word?

9. If you could change one thing about the world, what would that be?
Myself – obviously.

10. The question you’d most like to ask others?
I wouldn’t like to ask anyone a question unless they inspired a particular curiosity.

11. What is a good death?
I’m not sure what the choices are but I’d like to doze off smiling after lunch  in a quiet, sunny paddock near the forest, listening to the birds and not wake up; a death where the coroner’s report says ’cause of death: unknown’.

12. What do people accuse you of?
I have been accused of many things and they all amount to a nicely balanced and hugely varied array of offences, shortcomings and failures. Pretty much the full spectrum. I regard many of these accusations as compliments or testimony to my more interesting nature.

13. What is the meaning of life?
For humans as for all the plants and creatures: know yourself, grow yourself, feel yourself, heal yourself, grow yourself, be yourself, express yourself.


On Tolkien’s vision of sorrowful joy

Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg.jpg

Ralph Wood has written another excellent piece on J. R. R. Tolkien’s assessment of history, evil, being a company, eucatastrophe, impatience, joy, Beowulf, mercy, patience, pity, providence, sympathy, and ‘sorrowful joy’. Here’s a taster:

For Tolkien, the chief question – and thus the real quest – concerns the proper means for “redeeming the time.” The great temptation is to take short-cuts, to follow the easy way, to arrive quickly. In the antique world of Middle-earth, magic offers the surest escape from slowness and suffering. It is the equivalent of our machines. Both ancient and modern magic provide what Tolkien called immediacy: “speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect.”

The magic of haste is the method chosen by those who are in a hurry, who lack patience, who cannot wait. Sauron wins converts because he provides his followers the necromancy to achieve such instant results by coercing the wills of others, giving them brute strength to accomplish allegedly grand ends by cursory means.

The noble who refuse such haste prove, alas, to be most nobly tempted. Gandalf, the Christ-like wizard who quite literally lays down his life for his friends, knows that he is an unworthy bearer of the Ring – not because he has evil designs that he wants secretly to accomplish, but rather because his desire to do good is so great. Gandalf’s native pity, when combined with the omnipotent strength of the Ring, would transform him into an all-forgiving, justice-denying magus, not a figure befitting the origins of his wizard-name in the Anglo-Saxon word wys (“wise”).

You can read the full essay here.

[Image: ‘Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg’, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Source.]

Calling Bullshit

Chen Wenling - What You See Might Not Be Real.jpg

Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West, from the University of Washington, have developed a course called ‘Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning for the Digital Age’.

The lectures and readings might be crap, but they are at least easily accessible online, and the little assignment looks fun. But what I think I most like about the look of the course is the format, and the refreshing use of Benny Bloom’s silly taxonomy:

Learning Objectives

Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:

  • Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.
  • Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.
  • Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.
  • Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
  • Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.

That said, would it not be considerably more interesting – and manifestly more important – to take (and to teach) a course on the possibility, nature, and habits of ‘truth’ and its relationship to the cardinal virtues, rather than one on ‘bullshit’?

Pontius Pilate, in his greatest moment, probably thought so too: Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια; It’s a pity he ‘would not stay for an answer’ and so risk having his ‘mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth’ (Francis Bacon).

[Image: Chen Wenling, ‘What You See Might Not Be Real’, Beijing Art Gallery, 2009. Photo credit: Ng Han Guan/AP]

On euthanasia for Alzheimer’s patients

‘If only euthanasia advocates could be sued for false advocacy. For years, they have soothingly assured wary societies that only those with the capacity to choose to be killed would have access to facilitated death. That promise was always highly questionable. “Choice” has never been the point of euthanasia—otherwise euthanasia should be available to anyone, sick or well, who wants to die. Rather, the goal is to normalize killing as an acceptable remedy to suffering, even—as we are seeing with the Alzheimer’s policy—when the patient is incapable of making a rational decision’.

– Wesley J. Smith, ‘Euthanasia for Alzheimer’s patients?’

Jeremy Begbie and Joseph Jordania on human musicality: a public lecture [kind of] in Melbourne

Human Musicality 917.jpg

Rethinking the Roles of Church and State in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

The ABC Religion and Ethics site has posted some of my thoughts around Australia’s same-sex marriage debate [sic] here.

‘What kind of resistance is possible against a world without mercy?’

Hannah ArendtThe LARB has published an interesting essay by Wen Stephenson that draws upon wisdom from Hannah Arendt for those living at the dawn of a new ‘era of increasing global instability, ripe for all the varieties of political and social evil’.

The essay includes reflections on subjects such as totalitarianism, human rights, making judgements, collective guilt, conscience, evil, making moral choices, nonviolence, civil disobedience, and crimes against humanity.

And on empathy:

[Em]pathy, though much celebrated, is not always a reliable impulse toward moral action – that it can cut both ways. Because our natural inclination to empathize with the victims of crime and injustice, while generally a good thing, when mixed with our tribal instincts – our biases, conscious or not, in favor of people like ourselves, members of our own communities — can lead to a dehumanization of the stranger, the other, especially if that other is the perpetrator (or perceived to be) of a crime. It’s easy to empathize with a victim, as one should; to empathize with a murderer – to see ourselves in another who violates our deepest values and taboos – is something else, something that may seem beyond our merely human capacity.

You can read the whole piece here.

Marilynne Robinson on Writing

‘Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected. It’s like wrestling with the angel: On the one hand you feel the constraints of what can be said, but on the other hand you feel the infinite potential. There’s nothing more interesting than language and the problem of trying to bend it to your will, which you can never quite do. You can only find what it contains, which is always a surprise’.

– Marilynne Robinson on Finding the Right Word, The New York Times, 22 September 2017.

… in a little corner with a little book


‘I have sought for happiness everywhere, but I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book’. – Thomas à Kempis

‘There’s a strong impulse in our culture to run away from these little corners. We’re told that society’s winners will be the thinkers who network, collaborate, create, and strategize in concert with others. Our kids are taught to study in groups, to execute projects as teams. Our workplaces have been stripped of walls so that the organization functions as a unit. The big tech companies also propel us to join the crowd—they provide us with the trending topics and their algorithms suggest that we read the same articles, tweets, and posts as the rest of the world.

There’s no doubting the creative power of conversation, the intellectual potential of humbly learning from our peers, the necessity of groups working together to solve problems. Yet none of this should replace contemplation, moments of isolation, where the mind can follow its own course to its own conclusions.

We read in our little corners, our beds and tubs and dens, because we have a sense that these are the places where we can think best. I have spent my life searching for an alternative. I will read in the café and on the subway, making a diligent, wholehearted effort to focus the mind. But it never entirely works. My mind can’t shake its awareness of the humans in the room.

When we read deeply and with full commitment, we enter an almost trancelike state that mutes the outside world. The distance between words on the page and the scampering abstractions in our head collapses. As with the first generations of silent readers, heretical thoughts come and go; we’re stripped of intellectual inhibitions. That’s why we habitually retreat with our book to private spaces, where we don’t need to worry about social conventions, where the world can’t possibly read over our shoulder. That’s why we can’t jettison paper, even though the tech companies have tried their hardest to bring that about’.

– Franklin Foer, ‘How Technology Makes Us Less Free

 [Image: Minoru Karamatsu, ‘Reading’, 9 September, 2017]


Luther, Protestantism and Society

This should be fun.



AG Lionel Bowen on the principles for an Australian Human Rights Bill

Hear, hear:

‘A strategy of compliance with international human rights standards which does not involve legislative definitions of rights must be half-hearted and hollow, if not suspect. Those who argue that our existing legal and social institutions make a Bill of Rights unnecessary, overlook that the common law does not offer clear or wide-ranging statements of an individual’s freedoms and liberties; at best, the common law offers remedies in a haphazard and incidental way often only after satisfying complex procedural requirements; the power of the Parliament to confine or withdraw totally common law “rights” – this may occur unintentionally and even unnoticed by the public at large; the fragility of community attitudes and pressures on which so many of what are popularly regarded as individual freedoms rely. In the light of this, the Government does not believe that it is sufficient or appropriate to rely on administrative measures alone and those aspects of our common law or general culture which recognise rights here and there. Furthermore, the enactment of a Bill of Rights has a vital educative function. It has the capacity to inspire respect for fundamental freedoms and liberties by setting out rights in positive, declaratory form. It is a broadly based declaration drafted in Australia for Australians, in conformity with international standards. Alternatives whether reliance on the common law, particular legislation or administrative mechanisms and programs without more do not spell out and proclaim key rights and concepts in the same way as does the Bill of Rights’.

– Lionel Bowen, via Frank Brennan