Category Archives: Personal

And relax…

I’ve come home from my last bit of teaching this term (an evening class on the Reformation), and am already beginning to feel whispers of relaxation drift through me. What with the pile of unprepared teaching, taking on the School Learning and Teaching Committee brief, and the RAE, it has been – well, busy, I guess. There were some days where I briefly considered not going for coffee, it was that bad.

Anyway, over the next couple of weeks I plan to write a paper on Psalm 2 – Christological and historical-critical readings, and what on earth they might have to say to one another. That’s for the Truro Theological Society in January. And I’d quite like to sketch out a paper on John the Baptist at the beginning of Mark, and on the idea of a ‘tradition’. (Don’t ask; it makes sense in my head.) And I plan to do some more God Delusion blogging. Of course, there’s also some marking and a bit of preparation for a new course on Aquinas, but you never know.


The last two posts, and Rachel’s comments, prompt an aside.

This is one of those times when an apparently clear path turns out to lead into a thicket. And trying impatiently to pull one bramble out of the way pulls several others into view. Several issues are mixed in together; it’s not quite clear that we have hit upon the distinctions or the vocabulary to sort them out; and the point of what we’re saying has become elusive.

It is at this kind of point that it actually becomes necessary to think. To work, to labour at untangling without oversimplifying. I find that my life (the life of an academic theologian!) doesn’t actually involve that many occasions when I am required, in this sense, to think. Most of the time (when I’m not absorbed in those activities in which thinking would be a dangerous distraction – like driving, or attending committee meetings…) my life involves putting myself in places where I might be called upon to think – and then waiting, listening for the call.

It’s not that we’re obviously tussling with big, dramatic profundities. Playing with big, dramatic profundities doesn’t often involve a real labour of thinking, in my experience. We’re simply trying to work out whether anything can be saved from a platitude that seemed like an obvious thing to say about a particular passage. But the labour of thought is set of by small incongruities, small rucks in the carpet.

All this is one reason for reading the Bible slowly, of course: putting oneself on a path that leads into thickets.

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…

Beginning in the middle 2

I said in the last post:

one of my reasons for starting this project was to make some kind of devotional fresh start, to get ‘back to basics’ (if British readers can ignore the nasty resonances of that phrase) – even though any complete ‘fresh start’ is always an illusion.

Let me explain that a bit further.

  1. Every so often as I was growing up I went through religious ‘crisis experiences’, in each of which I was convinced that I had been drawn to a wholly new start: to throw out my lukewarm and half-hearted ways, and embark upon a new life of commitment and authenticity. The religious atmosphere in which I was growing up gave me convenient names for these, at least to begin with. I called the first ‘conversion’ and the second ‘baptism in the Spirit’. Things got a bit more confusing when the third arrived and felt more dramatic than the second, but I didn’t let this worry me too much. What did eventually worry me was the onset of crisis-fatigue. It becomes harder and harder to believe that a new revolution was going to ‘stick’ when you have already been through several, and know that the new regime fairly swiftly comes to resemble the old – and, worse, that the effects of the revolution are only preserved by rather desperate attempts to go on generating a hothouse atmosphere in services or prayergroups, in which the intense feelings of the crisis can be rekindled without too much worry about the content…
  2. Another thing about these crises: I tended to assume that they had to involve a stripping away of all the compromised accretions of my life, and returning to a single-hearted purity. I was always stepping back from complexity into simplicity. All the negotiations, deliberations and calculations of ordinary life would be shown up to be just so many ways of avoiding the clarity and absoluteness of the Gospel’s demands on my life; and I would discover that what I had been lacking was not understanding or subtlety or wisdom but the will to put the simple Gospel into practice…

Fast forward several years, to an academic theologian who has left the religious atmosphere of his youth for chillier climes, but who nevertheless finds himself tempted from time to time with an old vision. When the complexities and doubts of his theological investigations seem to be overwhelming him, so that he no longer knows quite where he stands, and (on bad days) no longer knows quite what he believes, he is tempted to think that what he needs is a revolution – and a revolution that will consist in an act of will, seizing hold of simplicity. The temptation comes in two forms. On the one hand, on the gloomiest days, he is tempted to seize hold of the simplicity of atheism. A voice in his head suggests that it is only vacillation, only compromise and weakness of will that keeps him from cutting through the knots in which he has tied himself and admitting to himself and to the world that he no longer believes. Strip all this away! the voice says; Start again! On brighter days, a similar temptation calls in a different direction: to cut away all this complexity and subtlety in favour of simple faith.

The trouble is, I find I don’t believe in such revolutions. It is partly revolution-fatigue: the knowledge that I have been here before, and the belief that it will only make a temporary difference. It is mostly, however, the belief that the stripping away of complexity, deliberation, calculation and negotiation would be a betrayal. I no longer think things are that simple. Some of the complexity might be weak compromise and self-delusion, but some of it at least emerges from living in a complex world, with a faith whose history, structure, and contemporary reality are themselves ineradicably complex. An heroic act of will, cutting through the dross and returning to simplicity, would be a denial of much of what I think I know: a comforting illusion, a falsehood.

When the last serious bout of such longing for revolution was upon me, a couple of years ago, a new thought struck me. I realised that what I needed was not a revolutionary act of will, but instead the building of a new, ongoing, practice of contemplation. A new attention to the sources of my faith, right in the midst of the persisting complexity and negotiation. Not starting again, but the building in to a life already running of a more constant, more attentive reference to the heart of faith. How about, I thought, a return to the Gospel of Mark: not as a turning away from what I currently am (an academic theologian with all sorts of questions and opinions and involvements and worries), but precisely as what I currently am: an attempt to bring all of what I am to all of this text, and see what (over time, with effort) emerges.

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…


  • 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’.

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.