Author Archives: Mike Higton

More construction

A quick clarification of the end of the last post.

I suggested that ‘identification of the meanings of the Bible’ might itself be a case of different communities with different ‘interests’ picking out different ‘objects’. I did not mean, however, that every differing interpretative claim – I claim that ‘Son of God’ should be read against such-and-such a Hebrew background, you claim that it should be read against a Hellenistic background – was simply to be traced to differing community interests. Debate about differing interpretations would then always be disguised (ideological) debate about our differing communities (conflicting) interests – the Bible no more than a proxy battleground for our real animosities.

Rather, I was thinking the rather vaguer (though no more original) thought that there is no one obvious thing that ‘interpretation’ means. Different communities with different interests play different kinds of games that I, abstracting in my study late at night, might decide to call ‘interpretation of the Bible’ – but those games might be as different as the games played by different investigators in my little story. The ‘Hebrew’ versus ‘Hellenistic’ debate about ‘Son of God’ is a debate within one of those games – and it is no easy matter to say how it relates to the games played with similar texts by those embroiled in fourth century Christological debates.

I’m forcibly struck by the banality of this observation (and the realisation that the only reason for the previous post was that I liked my silly little story :-)) except for the niggling suspicion that it is a lesson I have not yet learnt. On the one hand, I find it frighteningly easy to proceed as if ‘interpretation’ were one thing – and there were only more and less successful attempts at it. On the other hand, I still manage to proceed as if hermeneutics – i.e., the discussion of what sort of thing interpretation is and how it works – is a nice abstract discipline, rather than one that must feed on historical and social-anthropological attention to the widely differing constructions of materials, nature, origin and end of interpretive activities in differing communities. (Oh, and I should of course never have adopted this deeply misleading ‘community’ terminology in the first place – as if you could define and count the somehow discrete groups involved in interpretative activities.)

Oh dear. I’m having one of those ‘turning to ashes’ evenings: ideas that seemed to have something in them before I tried writing them down seem dull and clumsy when I’ve actually typed them. I’m hovering between the delete key and the publish button…

Constructing the object

I’ve been thinking about the ‘construction of the object’ – i.e., the way that different communities with different interests will not only interpret an object in different ways, but may be said to have different objects – to have something different in mind when they refer to supposedly the same object. I don’t think that acknowledging this is immediately and necessarily a step into a malign postmodernist relativism; I think one can make sense of it even within a naively realist view of the world.

If I were, say, a police investigator working on a case, ‘The Bible’ might mean ‘This specific Gideon’s Bible with the torn leaf and the blood-stain’ – and there would quite possibly be no interesting relationship between that object and other books with similar words in.

If I were the forensic expert on the case, interested in how this book was used to batter the victim, ‘The Bible’ would most significantly be a member of the class of objects of this size, weight, shape, hardness and flexibility.

If I were the investigator, after a significant development in the case, trying to break the code that I now realise was used by the murderer and his accomplices, I might be interested in Bibles of exactly this edition, with exactly this pagination, on which a cypher has been developed – and no others. Nothing else would count as ‘The Bible’.

And so on.

By ‘construction of the object’, I simply mean this process by which the interests of the investigator pick out certain features of certain objects, as members of certain classes. Of course, I do perhaps go further than my little police story warrants when I claim that no ‘construction of the object’ is independent of interests – but I don’t think I necessarily step out of the sam naively realist world in doing so. There is, after all, a story to be told as to why Christians are able to say ‘Bible’ and mean a whole family of texts in different languages, with somewhat differing tables of contents – while Muslims properly mean only texts in Arabic when they say ‘Quran’. To say, ‘No, what “Bible” really means is…’ is always a statement made by some person or group that uses the word in particular contexts for particular purposes.

And, of course, you’re now meant to make a further step and think not just that identification of what is meant by ‘Bible’ might work in this way, but that identification of the meanings of the Bible will work this way – perhaps even more so.

Abducting John

ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν

Mark 1:4

Questions about providence and supercessionism – about what is implied about the nature of the Hebrew Scriptures when Mark says that the coming of Jesus took place ‘as it was written’ – can, I think, be clarified by thinking about John the Baptist.

I don’t think we should lose sight completely of the independent reality of John. It is at least possible to ask whether John is rightly – fairly – interpreted in the Gospel. Perhaps, to some observer of John’s ministry who was not one of Jesus’ disciples (and perhaps to John himself) it would have seemed an odd claim to make to call him the fore-runner, the announcer, the evangelist of Christ. Perhaps it could reasonably have been said that this was not really what was going on, or that it was only one strand of what was going on – and an ambivalent, debatable, soon-questioned strand at that. We can find traces in the Gospels themselves which might lead us to such a conclusion. From such a perspective, the Gospel of Mark’s use of John might appear as abuse – as a violent mis-reading of John, the abduction of John.

To take Mark’s Gospel seriously, however, is to take seriously the claim that John’s identity as fore-runner, as messenger of Christ, is his real identity, his true identity: that even if it was to some extent despite himself, and even if it was with demurrals and qualifications, John did prepare the way for Christ and so made way for the King.

Reading this text with a critical eye, I have to ask what it means to say of John that, even if it was for him and his explicit intenions an accidental or half-hearted matter, even if it was an ‘ambivalent, debatable, soon-questioned strand’ of his ministry, so overwhelming and so central is the truth for which he did in fact make way that his pointing to it is his truth – that whatever else we might have been able to say about him is cast into the shadow by this.

Part of the answer must surely lie in the claim that he “did in fact make way” for Jesus. I don’t think we should downplay this. I’d like to draw upon some classic ecclesical reflection on Mary to put this strongly: I think we could consider John as, to an extent, Theotokos, God-bearer: his ministry provided the matrix for the birth of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ humanity was shaped by this context, and – perhaps – shaped decisively. And I think I’d want to claim that, from the little we know of John’s ministry, it makes sense to say that he was able to play this role because of a fundamental ‘be it unto me according to thy word’ – a fundamental obedience or openness to God that characterised his ministry.

Yet I think we can say all this, about John’s obedience, and about John as Theotokos, without denying any of our critical suspicions about how John himself might have treated the claim that he was nothing more or less than Jesus’ forerunner.

…to be continued.

Postliberalism? Generous/critical/radical orthodoxy?

The new edition of The Modern Theologians is out. (Well done Rachel!) And there’s a great new article in it by Jim Fodor on ‘postliberalism’, which (amongst other things) provides the best description of postliberalism I’ve ever seen. I recognise myself here very strongly:

  1. Postliberal theology represents a postcritical ‘journey to regain an inheritance’ (i.e., a retrieval and redeployment of premodern sources in characteristically ‘unmodern’ ways to meet today’s challenges).
  2. It self-consciously engages and reflects upon theology’s tasks in relation to its ecclesial settings (borrowing but also adapting previously unavailable conceptual tools from the social sciences, especially in their descriptive aspects…).
  3. It deploys narrative as a key category … Concretely embodying scripture in ecclesially appropriate ways stands in contrast to theologies which attempt to ‘lift’ from the text certain teachings or moral truths in a manner that leaves the Bible behind…)
  4. It emphasizes the peculiar grammar of Christian faith, concentrating on its scriptural logic and the regulative role of doctrine…
  5. It allocates to theology a primarily corrective rather than constitutive function. Theology’s aim is to repair, correct and sustain rather than constitute Christian language-games…
  6. It exhibits a distinctively Protestant flavour that is yet open to Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox inflections…
  7. It espouses a non-essentialist approach to religions … Affirming and attending to the material specifics and irreducible differences among religions … helps check, on the one hand, proclivities towards supercessionism … and encourages, on the other, genuine interchange and mutual understanding…
  8. It adopts a non-foundational epistemological posture…
  9. It sees its primary task as descriptive rather than apologetic

I guess I’m an Anglican-inflected postliberal, on this description. Even though I wasn’t a liberal to begin with, and by some definitions turn out to be one now. But what else could you call it?

I quite like Frei’s term, ‘generous orthodoxy’ (see 1984a on my Frei bibliography) – but that doesn’t quite capture it, and in any case seems rather a self-aggrandizing name to apply to oneself. (Frei coined it to describe his teacher, Robert L. Calhoun.) And it has since become identified with Brian D. McClaren, about whom I know next to nothing.

I really want a name that manages to combine:

  1. generous orthodoxy – which I tend to identify with Frei’s pragmatic, descriptive Barthianism;
  2. critical orthodoxy – i.e., something with a bit more anger to it, and a stronger awareness of ‘texts of terror’ and the need for orthodoxy’s self-repair; and even a touch of
  3. radical-ish orthodoxy. – i.e., whilst I can’t go all the way with Milbank, Pickstock and co., I do want something with rather more philosophy/metaphysics to it, and with a decent dash of Aquinas.

Any suggestions?

Status report

I’m spending most of my work time at the moment on the SCM Study Guide to Christian Doctrine – a fairly throrough reworking of the on-line doctrine course that I wrote over the last three years. I’m in the middle of the second chapter, on ‘Knowledge of God’. The first chapter is really just an orientation exercise, explaining what sort of thing I mean by ‘theology’, so this second chapter is the first really substantive material in the book. And, after a couple of weeks’ working on the book, the enthusiasm I originally had for the project has finally kicked back in. Today’s challenge: I want to write about the ways in which ‘knowledge of God’ is not like knowledge of objects, and argue that it is in some ways like knowledge of a piece of music, and in other ways like knowledge of how to play a game – without giving up on a fairly robust realism. And while keeping all this at first-year undergraduate, introductory text-book level.

All of which means that I’m not really thinking about Mark, or about biblical hermeneutics at the moment. (Though the chapter I’m writing does involve an extended exegesis of parts of 1 John, so I hope I haven’t leapt over some horrible biblical studies vs. systematic theology divide in my mind.) But a break from Mark is probably a good thing: I had one of those ‘I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about – or whether, indeed, I am talking about anything’ moments when writing the previous, abortive entry on providence – nearly always (with me) a sure sign that I’ve started asking the wrong question, or at least mis-phrasing the question. I am aware of a niggling worry about my ability to acquiesce in Mark’s use of these prophetic texts, but can’t quite formulate that worry in a way that will allow me to address it.

Believing in providence

Mark makes the claim that what happened with Jesus took place ‘just as it was written’. What has happened in Jesus has enabled Jesus’ followers, they think, to see the truth of the scriptural texts. The texts were, as it were, set up beforehand with Jesus in mind. I don’t think we can get away from the fact that some such claim is being made in Mark’s text.

When reflecting on this a couple of years ago, I wrote the following:

I don’t really believe in such a providential ordering, not at the level of my deepest sensibility, not at the level of my basic stance towards the world – not in my gut. I’m reading (because it has been lent to us) Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, and have found it so packed with portent, each incident foreshadowed and wrapped with prophesied inevitability, that I cannot stomach it. καθὼς γέγραπται is not in my blood.

I find it difficult to sort out my options here. If I say that using these Old Testament texts Christologically is, in some sense, the right thing to do – what am I committing myself to?

Holding pattern

Sorry that there has been nothing posted here for a while. Several reasons:

(1) The Department of Lifelong Learning Theology Exam Board at the very end of July. A five-hour meeting with more paperwork before and afterwards than could be stuffed into an industrial shredder.

(2) The moving of the DLL Theology programme to its new home in the Department of Theology.

(3) My move from DLL to the Department of Theology, and handing over the reins of the part-time programme wholly to my colleague David Rhymer.

(4) Scrabbling to finish a couple of writing commitments that should have been dealt with a while ago: a review of three new undergraduate theology textbooks; the Grove booklet version of some lectures on Higher Education; and the editing of Serious Negotiations, a collection of Rowann William’s essays on various modern theologians.

(5) A quick holiday in Brentwood, house-swapping with Hester’s sister Ruth and her family – and visiting from there friends and family in the surrounding area.

(6) An absorbing e-mail conversation with my friend Susannah Ticciati about the metaphysics of the incarnation.

All in all, these things have distracted me from posting. There is more coming soon, though – I promise!

Just War

Chris’s discussion of justifications for war, and the John Quiggins’ discussion linked to in the comments, have prompted me to try and say clearly something that I’ve made a stab at a couple of times before.

Let us suppose – for the sake of argument only – that we believe a war to be justified. That will always mean that we regard it as the lesser of two evils, because war is always (and obviously) evil, even when justified. We may say, ‘This war is justified’, not ‘This war is good’.

Let me put this another way. To fight even a justified war is to do wrong, in a situation where there is no option available which does not involve doing wrong. To fight even a jusitified war is to sin.

Deciding to fight a war, therefore, whatever the justification (even if it is a straightforward war of self-defence), means accepting huge responsibilities towards those against whom one is being forced to sin.

We incur huge responsibilities to our own soldiers, who we must pervert by training them to fight and sending them into battle.
We incur huge responsibilities to innocent bystanders, who always get caught up in the crossfire.
We incur huge responsibilities to enemy combatants, who are seldom those who have initiated the fighting,
And so on.

To go to war is to take on these responsibilities: to make ourselves answerable for the welfare and flourishing of all these, as well as those we fight to defend. We take on the responsibility to do the least damage possible to all of them, and we take on the responsibility to do all we can to repair damage once the fighting is over. And the depth of the responsibility we incur is proportional to the horror of the fighting that we inflict – and that can hardly be overstated.

So here’s a strange way of regarding a justifiable war: it is an extraordinary and dangerous deepening and widening of our obligations to, our connectedness with, our responsibility for, our enemies and our friends. That’s a cost we must count in assessing the case for any war.

Authenticity

Over at Less Travelled, Ross has written an impressive post on the idolatrous virtue of authenticity – and his post has triggered the release of a rant that has been building up in me for some time. It’s a rant, by the way, which only partly aligns with Ross’s post, so you shouldn’t tar him with my brush.

Authenticity is a myth. That is, when we speak about authenticity, we are drawing upon a very powerful and very attractive picture of how things are. It is a picture which enables certain kinds of forms of life. But it is also a picture which has been invented. That is, it is a picture that has a history. Rather than being the way we have to see things, it is one evolving and questionable way of thinking about who we are and how life works.

Authenticity is a pathology. The authenticity meme – this myth that has evolved and spread until it has become pervasive – is ultimately a destructive one. It is deeply corrosive of social life, and so deeply corrosive of true personhood. Authenticity is a disease from which we need to be cured.

By ‘the authenticity meme’, I mean that picture of the self which suggests that what is real, what is true, what is most properly me, is what goes on inside, behind closed doors, away from the distorting, inauthentic traffic of social life. I mean that picture of the self which suggests that my task is to work on the deceitful surface of my life – all the faces that I present in interactions with others, in groups, in institutions, in society – until it becomes transparent to the authentic depths of who I am. I mean that picture of the self which suggests that you have not met me – not the real me – until I have become authentic with you.

In the face of this corrosive myth, I offer a counter-myth.

I claim that I become who I am only with and through others – and that I discover who I am only in company. Who I am. That is: what I can contribute, what my real strengths and weaknesses are, what I need, what I want, what I can give, how responsive I can be. All these are not sitting there quietly inside me, waiting only upon sufficient introspection, a sufficient effort of honesty, to become clear to me and so expressible to others. Rather, they will emerge (both in the sense of becoming visible and in the sense of coming into being) as I enter seriously into conversation with others, experimenting, exploring, trying out, working – and so finding what resistances and what possibilities emerge over the course of those conversations. And the self I find in the process will be, and can only be, something that both discovered and made in the process. That is, the self I find would have been different had my conversation partners been different, and would have been different had it been someone else engaging with these same conversation partners – but there is in principle and in practice no sorting out what I have brought to this self from what others have brought to it.

Any inner dialogue I have, in which I tell myself my own story behind closed doors, is an imitation (and perhaps a pale and distorting imitation) of the dialogues I have with real others. It is one particular conversation partner, and not necessarily a very good one. It may lie about who I am far more persistently and persuasively than any of my other conversation partners. If it has any insight, any true ability to see and communicate who I am, it will be because it has learnt it from real others over time. The inner voice, after all, grows – it can be taught new things, be given new words. It can be mistaken, and can learn. If I think my job is to go into conversation with others armed with the purity, the inviolability, of this inner voice, then I will simply be binding myself to immaturity.

None of this means, of course, that conversation with others is unproblematic. A conversation partner can impose upon me, can force me into a mould into which I do not fit. A conversation partner can deny me, colonise me, overwrite me. And that’s because a so-called conversation partner can be inattentive, can take shortcuts, can disregard the possibilities and resistances that emerge. A so-called conversation partner can be so taken up with the story he wants to tell that he refuses to allow me anything other than the role he has written for me. But the problem there is not that he is not listening to my authentic self, but rather that he is not letting me become or discover who I am in conversation with him: he is preventing me from becoming a self, not preventing me from expressing an already-formed selfhood. And that distinction is important, because without it we may fail to notice that one of the areas which can be colonised, distorted, imposed upon by others is precisely our inwardness. It may well be that it is my own deep sense of who I am that has been most deeply broken in my encounter with others – that my inner voice, that tells the authentic story of who I am, peddles lies it has learnt from an oppressor.

What we need is not authenticity – the stripping away of constraints until we can be outwardly who we now are inwardly – but love.

Inevitable questions

One quick thought about ‘Son of God’. I claimed in an earlier post, there was a shift from functional to ontological interpretations of that phrase as biblical texts that used it moved into a more thoroughly Hellenized context. It would be easy simply to write that off as a slide into misinterpretation, but to do so would miss the force, the inevitability of the ontological questions in the new context.

Consider a parallel. It is now impossible for us to read the Gospels and not see them as depicting power, its manipulation, and its critique. In fact, it is more-or-less impossible for us not to see that the Gospels are about power, to some significant degree. To step back from questions about power because they impose a foreign framework onto the text would seem to many of us to be an evasion – an irresponsible reading. Power questions are, for us, inevitable.

That does not mean, of course, that a power-focused reading and an ontological reading of the Gospels are ‘equally valid’ in some banal, each-to-his-own-culture sense. But it should disrupt any too-easy picture of the move to ontological questions as a simple betrayal of an original functional purity.