Category Archives: General

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.

Normal services

I’ve been away for a week, making sandcastles on Cornish beaches and not thinking about the Gospel of Mark. But I’ve come back with a headful of ideas which I want to stick down soon – the only problem being working out (1) how to fit them into blog-sized chunks, and (2) how to fit them around a flurry of work. More soon…

Follow the meme

Chris, over at Things I’ve Seen, is propagating a meme, and has tagged me as one of its carriers. I’m called upon to answer the following five questions:

Total number of books owned

Between 2300 and 2400, at a quick count. About 900 of those in my office at work; there are probably another 100 at home that count as my work books, 200 that are Hester’s work books; around 70 are Bridget’s books – and a further 150 are children’s books too old for Bridget.

Last book bought

The last book I bought was Grace and Necessity by Rowan Williams. As you’ll know if you came here from Chris’s post, I’ve written about Rowan Williams. I’m not planning on doing very much more of that, but I try to keep up with his more academic writing. I don’t know much about this new book, except that its a tweaked version of some lectures currently still available online: the 2005 Clark Lectures.

Last book read

Well, recreation-wise, I’m in the middle of The Count of Monte Cristo; before that I read John le Carre’s Secret Pilgrim. (I’m also reading some bits of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, which I found online, and which reminds me what it used to be like being a mathematician). Work-wise, I’m in the middle of numerous books, including Peter Ochs, Peirce, Pragmatism and the Logic of Scripture (for the second time), and Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology. Probably the last work book that I read all the way through was Nicholas Lash, Believing Three Ways in One God (again, for the second time). Although, come to think of it, I read various books on Barth for a review I was writing recently.

Five books that mean a lot to you

This is hard. It says ‘mean’ not ‘meant’, so I’m trying to think of books that I think shape who I now am, rather than books which grabbed me massively in the past.
The Bible
Paul Scott, The Raj Quartet. A book (okay, a set of books) that shows what novels can do by way of exploring people, events, culture, and place without flattening.
Tim Jenkins, Religion in English Everyday Life. It’s only a short step from the kind of novel Paul Scott writes to the kind of social anthropology that Tim Jenkins does: intelligent, rich, careful description of social facts.
Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ. An enigmatic and easily mis-read book, this one – but learning to read it well has been a significant part of my theological education.
Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology. A remarkable collection of essays, which I continue to find deeply thought-provoking.

Tag five people to continue this meme

I don’t think five people read this blog, let alone five people with blogs of their own! However, I’ll tag Hester and Bridget (of course).

Apologies for silence

Sorry to anyone who is actually checking here for updates. Work has been bracingly busy over the last couple of weeks – and now I’m off to Cambridge for a Scriptural Reasoning Theory Group conference – plus a trip to Oxford at the end of the week. I’m hoping that things calm down once I’m back..

Inventing New Testaments

I’ve just read through David Parker’s inaugural lecture as Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism and Palaeography in Birmingham. Very interesting stuff:

It would seem obvious … that what I am trying to do is to demonstrate that  there is not and never has been a New Testament, and that copyists and users have been inventing New Testaments at a frightening rate.  I hope that I have sketched ways in which I might make this demonstration.  But I am not going to do so.  Instead, I would like to explore the reasons for the emergence of New Testaments and for their variety, avoiding the usual theological and textual explanations.  Instead I shall present evidence that the most significant contributions to developments in the understanding and character of New Testaments have been technological innovations in production methods and in physical form.  After all, “inventing” is associated most strongly in the modern mind not with artistic creativity but with scientific or technological discovery.  I leave open the question whether we invent particular technologies because we need them at that particular point.  My argument is that it has been developments in the format of books that have been most significant in shaping the ways in which those books have been used.

Who am I? Part II

I’d been hoping to get going on Mark 1:1 this weekend, but I have left my black notebook at work. Without my black notebook, I am nothing… So instead, some more throat-clearing: a few words on my theological stance.

As I said in Who am I? Part I, I am a Christian and an academic theologian. But what kind of labels can be stuck to me without contravening the Trade Descriptions Act? At this point, I’m meant to say that I hate labels, and that they’re so misleading as to be worthless, and so divisive as to be immoral. But I can’t. I love labels. (You know those internet surveys you can do which will ask boxfuls of questions about your political stance or your computing habits or your sex life or your musical taste, and then spit out an answer telling you just what kind of person you are? I love them. I wonder whether all INTJs are like this?) Of course, this doesn’t mean that labels, taken at all seriously, aren’t so misleading as to be worthless, and so divisive as to be immoral…

So:

  • I’m an Anglican theologian;
  • who thinks of himself as credally orthodox, and who habitually says that the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation are at the heart of his theology;
  • who can probably be identified from a mile off by cognoscenti as a student of David Ford;
  • who reads quite a bit of Karl Barth but isn’t Reformed enough to be a Barthian;
  • who finds himself agreeing more often than not with Rowan Williams;
  • who in theological terms is fairly (Anglo)Catholic, but not really in ‘churchmanship’ terms;
  • who could probably be called ‘postliberal’ a la Hans Frei, except that I don’t think I was ever a liberal;
  • who was brought up an evangelical, but by the most easily availble definitions probably doesn’t count as one any more;
  • who was also brought up a charismatic, but almost certainly doesn’t count as one any more;
  • who doesn’t have much time for doctrines of biblical inerrancy or infallibility, but who certainly does have time for doctrines of biblical authority, and the idea that the Bible is norma normans non normata (Google it, you’ll get some idea);
  • who – professional guild markers coming up – subscribes to Modern Theology and The International Journal of Systematic Theology.

If I have to pick one label, I like the phrase coined by Hans Frei to describe one of his teachers: ‘Generous orthodoxy’.

What’s in a name?

Kaì euthùs (καὶ εὐθὺς) can be translated as ‘and immediately…’, ‘and just then…’, ‘and straight away…’, and its rather breathless repetition punctuates Mark’s Gospel as his narrative tumbles from one incident to another. This seemed appropriate for a blog, somehow: ‘and now here’s another thing…’: a rapid update; a tumble of new thoughts and incidents. This blog will be no calm and ordered commentary, no overview: I will be chasing after Mark as he points to first this and then, immediately, that. Racing to catch up, and to make some kind of sense of the course he’s running.

The image in the background behind the title [of an earlier version of this blog] is of a page from the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, covering the first chapter of Mark. If you look carefully, you can see the ‘kaì euthùs’ from Mark 1:12 at the beginning of a line about half way up the visible portion of the second column. The earlier ‘kaì euthùs’ from 1:10 is lost in the blur above – but you can see a faint image of it (with its three final letters crammed in to fit the column) between each post in the blog.

Who am I?

My name is Mike Higton, and I’m –

See also “Who am I? Part II”

Welcome to KAI EUTHUS

There is only so much time I can spend tinkering with the graphics, fiddling with the display of Greek text, and generally prevaricating. It’s time to get this blog rolling – and, specifically, time to say something about what I think I’m doing here.

Whatever else it ends up containing, I envisage this blog arranged around a constant backbone: an eccentric, rambling, ruminative commentary upon the Gospel of Mark.

Let me explain.

I’m a Christian theologian – I lecture in theology at the University of Exeter in the Southwest of England. I specialise in modern theology, and in the interpretation and history of Christian doctrine; I am not any kind of New Testament specialist. However, a couple of years ago two things came together to push me towards beginning a careful reading of the Gospel of Mark.

On the one hand, I realised that, although I spent a lot of time talking about the centrality of the Gospel witness to Jesus of Nazareth for my theology and for my faith, I did not actually spend much of my intellectual energy on paying serious attention to that Gospel witness. I don’t want to breathe any extra life into that still-quacking canard that doctrinal or systematic theologians don’t read the Bible. That is not true of most of the ones I know – and I know quite a few by now. It was, however, the unfortunate case that I had personally been engaged in various projects which had placed discussion of biblical hermeneutics centre-stage, but had not allowed detailed discussion of actual biblical texts into the limelight. I was working on a book on Hans Frei, and could identify all too easily with these lines in the Preface to his Eclipse of Biblical Narrative:

This essay falls into the almost legendary category of analysis of analyses of the Bible in which not a single text is examined, not a single exegesis undertaken. Faced with certain puzzles that demanded historical, philosophical, and theological explanations, I tried to provide them as best I could; but there is no denying the odd result of a book about the Bible in which the Bible itself is never looked at.

On the other hand, I realised that a dividing wall in my mind had, over time, softly and silently vanished away, and that there was in principle no longer any gap for me between devotional and academic exploration of biblical texts. I found that, without having deliberately set off towards it, I had reached a point where it seemed obvious that a careful reading of a biblical text which was as academically rigorous as I could make it could and should also be deeply ‘self-involving’, personally and communally challenging – and that these two aspects were not in conflict, were not even independent, but could and should feed each other. In other words, I was no longer in a position of thinking that I needed to forge connections between the results of acedmic biblical study and a devotional and ecclesial use of the Bible: I no longer saw a gap that might need connections to be built across it.

That’s a rather abstract claim as it stands, but it will do for now as a signpost. I’ll try and explore some more of what it points to as I go along. That exploration will probably need to involve some explanation of the ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ movement which has ended up providing soil in which these ideas can grow – but I’ll leave that to one side for now.

I said that these things came together ‘a couple of years ago’. I have, since then, kept up slow and fitful jottings in a notebook, which have taken me from Mark 1:1 to 2:12. I’ve also written a couple of more formal pieces – you can find a draft of one of them here. I thought it was about time, however, to expose what I’d been doing to discussion and criticism, and to give myself some impetus to make my work on it less slow and fitful. This blog is the result – and we’ll see how well it does.

Getting this blog off the ground has been made possible by three different people. Zack Hubert provides the xml Greek feed which allows me to include the text of Mark in my posts, and was happy to let my friend Chris Goringe write a wonderful plugin to allow WordPress to display it all. And I have used Patricia Muller’s award-winning ‘Connections’ theme as the basis for the site’s styling – though I have made quite a few cosmetic changes along the way.