Category Archives: General

Dawkins’ and Grayling’s wilful ignorance

I don’t normally trouble myself with Richard Dawkins’ diatribes against religion, I must admit – but some of the response to his latest book has been fun. Terry Eagleton has written a review in the LRB which is a good read. Along the way, he says of “card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins” that

If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

A.C Grayling – another of those rationalists who switches his considerable brain off when it comes to religion – replies in a letter the next week:

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises (LRB, 19 October). For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies. Religion is exactly the same thing: it is the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers, which (mainly through the natural gullibility of proselytised children, and tragically for the world) survives into the age in which I can send this letter by electronic means.

Grayling, like Dawkins, does not see that if they make claims about what the ‘premise’ of religion is, or the claim that religion is “the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers”, they would do well to check that those claims are true – that they have got the premise at least roughly right, and that they have made half-way respectable claims about what “religion” is. Until they can be bothered to do that, they will continue talking culpably misleading nonsense.

Grayling also launches an attack on another thing Eagleton says. Eagleton wrote:

Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves.

In Grayling’s hands, this becomes:

God does not have to exist … to be the ‘condition of possibility’ for anything else to exist.

Grayling is a well-informed philosopher, and I would suspect him of deliberate dishonesty at this point if I didn’t know that his brain reboots in safe mode every time he encounters religion. Eagleton had said “in one sense of that word”, and you don’t have to know very much about contemporary discussions of medieval philosophy to know that there can be an intelligible debate about the different grammars possible for existence claims, and the strange things that happen to that grammar when one tries to speak about the existence of the ground of the possibility of the existence of any and all particular things – strange enough that for some ways of using the word “exists” it would be truer to say that the ground does not exist than that it does. This may all be mistaken; it may even be nonsense – but one might actually have to argue about it to prove that point. Grayling is another Johnson, thinking he can refute Berkeley by kicking a stone.

Watertight arguments

Walking around the University in the weeks prior to the start of term, I noticed on several occasions two small white vans in one of the staff car parks, doors open to reveal a clutter of maintenance equipment. On the sides of the van, in large letters: “Concept Sealants”. I’m partly comforted by this, and partly worried – I have visions of men in white overalls bursting into a lecture room where I’ve just fudged a complicated argument, glue guns and soldering irons at the ready.

Low tide

The Sea of Faith*
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

Ever since I was an undergraduate – and perhaps before – I have found that my faith, or rather my confidence in my faith, ebbs and flows. The tide is some way out at the moment, and I can hear the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of tumbling shingle. At times like this, if I set my compass by felt conviction, I find myself heading towards a somewhat sceptical agnosticism: feeling meaningful patterns, comforting claims, fraying between my fingers. Or, better, losing any sense of rhythm or tune and instead hearing only noise.

I’m not agonising about this. I’m not particularly worried. It’s partly that, to judge by past experience, these things go in cycles for me. And it’s partly that I don’t set my compass entirely by ‘felt conviction’, and do not think that I ought to. And it’s partly that I quite like it here, on the naked shingle, standing too low down to gain an overview.

* and no, I’m not aligning myself at all with another theologian who famously quoted this poem…

Getting going again

Well, that was a long gap.

The main practical reason? Unbelievable quantities of work. Becoming Head of Department, preparing for an internal pilot Research Assessment Exercise, organising the 2006 Society for the Study of Theology conference. and trying to finish the SCM Study Guide to Christian Doctrine. Amongst other things.

This has meshed, however, with some deeper reasons. I tend to find that my attitude to what I’m doing, theology-wise, goes in cycles – and since October or November last year I’ve been experiencing a loss of confidence: one of those times when I’m sustained only by various habits, practical commitments, and deadlines – rather than by any strong sense that what I’m doing makes sense or is worthwhile. (It’s not depression, not even mildly: the last few months have also been amongst the most cheerful of my life, I think.) I’ll talk about some particular aspects of that in some separate posts, particularly as they affect the kind of stuff I have been doing (or not doing recently) on the blog.

Back from AAR

I’m back from AAR, and from a Scriptural Reasoning pre-meeting. Jetlag and babylag are still holding me under, and I have a ferocious week or so ahead in order to get my timetable back under control – but I have a backlog of posts to make some time soon.


Apologies for the long gap. I’m on paternity leave at the moment, Tom having joined the family last week – and the week before that having been disrupted by preparations for his arrival. More soon…

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.

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.