The God Delusion

The God DelusionIt has become so popular, so widely discussed, so much a feature of discussions on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science site (sites I visit a lot), that I have decided to take the plunge, and read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I plan on providing a running commentary on what I read here in my blog (even though it does not have a great deal to do with the blog’s initial aims).

A couple of preliminary comments before I start:

  1. I am not planning on reading through, organising my thoughts, and then writing an organised critique, theme by theme. Rather, I’ll comment on what I find, as I find it, not knowing quite where he or I will end up.
  2. I will, however, cheat to a certain extent: I’ve been scribbling notes to myself as I read, and my blog entries are worked up from those notes. At the time of writing, I’ve read (and scribbled) up to somewhere in ch.3, and have glanced ahead to the start of ch.4. So this isn’t quite pure ‘stream of consciousness’ reviewing.
  3. I’m reading the 2007 Black Swan paperback edition.
  4. I have read several newspaper articles and blog comment pieces about the book; I have also read an article by Nicholas Lash in the latest New Blackfriars, but I have not tried (and probably will not try) to read widely in the secondary literature that the book has already generated. So apologies if I flog here horses that have already died elsewhere.
  5. No-one, if they spend a moment to check who I am, is going to expect me to be a huge fan of the book. I hope, though, to be a generous, fair and open-minded reviewer, even (especially) when it annoys me. If anyone is reading this blog, I hope they’ll keep me to that in the comments.

Continuity and Discontinuity

I’ve been on holiday for a week, in (mostly) sunny Cornwall, and confirming that Kynance Cove is one of my favourite places in the world (and the Lawrences some of my favourite people).

Anyway, just one last post to put the ‘abducting John’ strand of thinking to bed. I have spoken of a ‘dialectic of description and registering resistance, within a life in pursuit of holiness’, and then suggested that needs to be rethought. I’d like instead to suggest that a theologically nuanced reading of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus in Mark (and, more deeply, between Mark’s Jesus and the ‘as it is written’ of the Prophets) will start with a ‘reading for continuity’: reading John in terms of Jesus and Jesus in terms of John: John the Baptist as the one who made Jesus possible; Jesus as the one who was made possible by John. Reading John as theotokos, as I put it a long time ago). This is itself an ongoing process, a matter of continual adjustments in reading as a better ‘fit’ is sought between the two sides; it is not a matter of a static, achieved interpretation.

This ‘reading for continuity’ will be shadowed and interrupted, however, by ‘registering discontinuity’. Register the resistances on both sides: that in Jesus which exceeds anything we can see made ready in John; that in John which is unassimilated, unpreseverved, unfulfilled in Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel lends itself to reading for continuity (that is how it tells the story) and to seeing the ‘resistances’ on Jesus’ side. It allows glimpses or hints of resistances on John the Baptist’s side only indirectly, through the gaps in what it says. When it comes to the Prophets, and to the Hebrew Scriptures in general, those resistances are considerably more visible.

What I am suggesting has some connections to the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’ and opposing proposals of a ‘criterion of similarity’ in Jesus research – but I am not proposing criteria for judging historical authenticity: rather, I am proposing (to myself, if no one else) a set of questions to have in mind when reading, a set of processes of reading to go through, and hold in tension, in order to be sent more deeply by these texts into serious thought.

And I have one last complication to throw back in, from another strand of posts on this blog. ‘Reading for continuity’ may well be rather complex, if one of the forms of such continuity involved is precisely the ‘prophetic’ continuity of speaking from within the excess involved in any attempt at continuity. John the Baptist is made, in Mark, to stand (in part) precisely for that inspired discontiunity-for-the-sake-of-obedience which is an authentic, continuous strand in the Hebrew scriptures…

On and on and on

So here’s the story so far on the ‘abduction’ strand of my thinking. (And, yes, I know I am belabouring this to death and back, but the whole point of this kind of exploration is to see attend to the little niggles of irritation that suggest to me that I’m talking rubbish, and see whether I can make them go away.)

Really, this is all part of an exploration of the first two Greek words after the superscript in Mark: ‘As it is written’. I am interested, roughly speaking, in what kind of relationship to the Hebrew Bible, and to the Judaism of Jesus’ day and before, we are talking about if we take those words seriously. But in order to approach that hoary old topic at an angle, with the faint hope that it might help me think about it differently, I have been investigating a proxy issue that Mark immediately presents to us: the nature of Mark’s (the Markan community’s, early Christians’) reading of John the Baptist: the way in which the historical figure in the desert (I’m assuming there was one) became the textual John, written entirely as forerunner to Jesus.

After much footling, I came to a provisional and partial answer, based on thinking about what it meant for a Christian to claim that John’s identity was truly ‘hid with Christ in God’, and the difference between saying that and saying that Christians therefore knew John’s true identity in a way that John did not: a difference that has a lot to do with the fact that Christians are not God. And yet persisting in wanting to say that Christians do, through Christ, have ways of speaking truly about God – and so ways of talking about what it means for identities to be ‘hid with Christ in God’. I talked about a dialectic between Christ-focused reading (e.g., of John, starting our description of his identity with talking about how he related to Jesus) and registering the resistance, the excess of John relative to our Christ-centred description. And this whole dialectic making sense only as practised by people, a community, that is pursuing holiness (the purification of its love), so as to purify its descriptions from selfishness.

When we take this rather abstract idea back to Mark, however, we are forced to say that Mark displays only one side of the dialectic clearly: the Christ-focused description of John. The other side is present only in glimpses: the way the unassimilated John appears between the cracks in Mark’s description. (That’s a deeply problematic way of putting it, but let it stand for now.) This dialectic is not something I have derived from Mark, in other words – but is about asking what I, as a Christian reader of Mark who has a whole lot of other bits of Christian theology bubbling around in his head, have to say in order to be able to follow Mark, at least in part.

Then, I back-pedalled slightly, by noting that there might be ways in which we could describe John such that the tension between what we could glimpse of his unassimilated, pre-abducted identity through Mark’s Christ-focused description, and that Christ-focused description itself, was lessened. And that’s what I was talking about in the last post. But, as I noted in that post, my way of raising that possibility seemed to have comitted me to a kind of investigation for which I have neither the aptitude nor the appetite; I seemed to be back-pedalling for the sake of unconvincing, speculative apologetics – which isn’t what I had set out to do at all.

However, what that back-pedal does reveal which is more directly appropriate to my project is that speculating about John suggests that my dialectical hermeneutical proposal may rest on too dichotomous, too discontinuous, a picture of the unassimilated/assimilated distinction: that it may simply be assuming that John’s unassimilated distinction is utterly distinct from the use that Mark has made of him. Or at least that it tends in that direction. And whether or not that is unfair to John (I leave the detailed investigation to those who have the stomach for it), if we broaden our perspective back out to the wider question I started with, that overly dichotomous picture is more obviously a pretty dodgy one: it itself smacks of supersessionism.

So my neat, pious, ‘dialectic of description and registering resistance, within a life in pursuit of holiness’ might need to be rethought a bit.

Okay. If this is really all exegesis of the first two words of Mark, how long is the rest of it going to take me?

Back to John’s Abduction

In an earlier post, I suggested that Mark’s application to John of the prophetic texts from the Hebrew Bible may have been sparked by playful verbal connections between those texts and John, but that the fuel set alight by those sparks might be a somewhat deeper connection:

John’s ministry of repentance was, I suspect, a ministry that self-consciously performed a preparation for the coming of YHWH as already understood in ways shaped by verses like these from Isaiah. John prepares for the coming of the Lord – and when the Lord comes in ways unexpected even by John, John’s ministry of repentance does not cease to be a preparation for it.

This is an inviting line of argument, or so it seemed to me at the time. It promises to give me a way of saying that to read John as preparing for Jesus is a reading with the grain of his lived specificity, even if John did not see himself as a forerunner of Jesus. And so it promises me a way out of worries about the violent abduction of John.

It is too easy, however – and not only because it involves a kind of speculation about John’s message and motivation which takes us way beyond any historical warrant we have. It either involves reading John’s obedience to YHWH purely formally, as if John will proclaim the Lord’s coming with no content, refusing to say anything about what that arrival will involve (a move which tends towards reading obedience as a purely negative submission, not as participation, and tends towards a reading of YHWH as arbitrary power), or it reads back into John a kind of apophatic theology which, while theologically much more attractive, seems to me to be historically implausible.

I could claim that this problem arises simply because I am seeking answers at too abstract a level of inquiry. Only if we ask more closely about what obedience to YHWH, preparation for YHWH, could mean in John’s time, and what we can tell of John’s take on such obedience, and what it means to claim Jesus as the fulfilment of such obedience, could we hope to make this line of argument stick… or so I might argue. Only that looks like turning into the kind of full-blown historical-critical investigation for which I have neither time nor competence.

And, in any case, this kind of discussion seems to show that (even when I have not acknowledged it) ‘saving’ Mark from accusations of violence has been my agenda – indeed, showing that Mark’s descriptions are (in some deep way) faithful to historical reality. I turn out to be wanting to out-historical-criticise the historical critics! And that’s not what I had originally set out to do: I think my rather different concerns have got dragged off path by the gravitational pull of some heavy apologetic questions lying off to one side. Time for a bit of a rethink.


It is (finally) sunny, the birds are singing, and I’ve just finished work on my half of the the Modern Theologians Reader. Picture a very large pile of photocopies, all carefully marked up, and sheets and sheets of endnotes packed with the fruits of days hunting for bibliographical and biographical details: all tidied up and ready to send to my co-editor. Joy.


Well, after a long gap, I’m back. A small part of the gap was caused by an update to WordPress that broke Chris Goringe’s handy ‘Greekify’ plugin that I use to display the Greek text in posts – which in turn broke the display of the whole blog. Chris has now sorted that out (though you’ll notice that at present you can’t get lexical/grammatical info by hovering your mouse over Greek words). Chris deserves a medal, but instead will get a plug for his new blog: Playful Reading. In his own words:

I hope you will find here a series of short ‘playful readings’ of the Bible. You might think of them as interpretations, or retellings, or as an abuse of the text; whatever. I present them in the spirit of play, not believing them to be The Truth, but believing that the inspiration of scripture goes deeper than any of our hermeneutics, that the Breath of God is deeply enough embedded in the Biblical narrative that something of God can emerge from whatever angle you read, and that the complexity of the narrative is more true than any single reading.

I’ve also finished off a couple of projects that have been hanging over me, and absorbing all the attention that might otherwise have gone on blogging. I finished the SCM Core Text in Christian Doctrine – rather belatedly (and with a very different arrangement from that described in the old blurb on the Amazon page). It should be out in December. And I’m nearly done on the reader for The Modern Theologians that I’ve been editing with David Ford – although I don’t imagine it will see the light until late next year.

With all that out of the way, I have an itch to get back to my stalled thinking on Mark, as well as anything else that crops up. I give it, say, five weeks before I stop posting again.

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.

The Law and the Prophets

Even scriptures that are adhered to by the most rigid of conservatives do not fully dictate their own application. There is always an ‘excess’ in application: decisions made on grounds other than unyielding continuity – pragmatic grounds, aesthetic grounds. That is not simply a failure of continuity, though, or a force that fights against continuity: this possibility of excess is also what makes faithfulness to a text possible in history.

(It is, by the way, easy to slip between talking about texts and talking about power-structures in this context, even though they are not quite the same thing. But what I have said about scriptures is true of ‘power-structures’: they are perpetuated, but always perpetuated differently. Power always evolves – though not necessarily in ways you’d like…)

The relationship between law and prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures is, perhaps, analogous on to this relationship between continuity and excess. Prophecy is the arrival of the word of God at the edges of our current obedience, showing where our obedience is no such thing and calling us to change. You could see it as the excess which makes continuity possible – which calls to new construals of the existing text, a new grasp (pragmatic, aesthetic) of what is central and what peripheral, that is needed in order to carry on. It is not that without prophecy, continued application of the text would involve no excess. No, it would still necessarily evolve over time and space. But prophecy, as it were, authorises evolution in a particular direction – or calls readers back from the direction they thought was the way forward and sets them on another. Prophecy makes obedience to the law possible as obedience – precisely at the same time as, in fact precisely because, it attacks existing obedience to the law, existing construals of the law. Without prophecy there is no faithfulness, only arbitrariness.

And, yes, to those looking back, the claimed ‘authorisation’ will in part be judged by what it made possible – by what happened, or can happen, next.

When John the Baptist is described, he is wrapped in the words of the Hebrew Bible. He is presented as a continuation, a form of faithfulness to the text. But that means (whether we think about John the actual human being, standing in the desert, or “John” the character in the gospel texts) that John will be a new way of reading the text: he will of necessity be excessive – and this is necessarily true before we have noticed the explicit liminality that marks his portrait. But when we go on to look at the details – the desert setting, the raw food, the strange clothing, the asceticism – we can see that John stands explicity for divinely authorised liminality: for that prophetic call to faithfulness which disrupts present obedience. He stands for, announces, represents a call to continuity that explicitly recognises that continuity must be excessive, and therefore must involve us in decision and repsonsibility – and precisely in doing this he stands in the prophetic tradition that has always announced this message, but of necessity stands in it differently (as all the prophets do).

So, yes, John’s liminality is the form that ‘as it is written’ takes.

And, no, I don’t know what to make of the leather belt.


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.