This morning I read Alan Johnson's moving memoir This Boy and it nearly brought me to tears. Without a shred of self-pity, the former Labour minister simply gives an account of his childhood. Dreadful poverty, but powerful women.

This evening I read a book of sermons edited by the late John Hughes of Jesus College, Cambridge. Entitled The Unknown God, the sermons formed a series responding to the so-called New Atheists. It is funny as well as incisive, bringing together such minds as Terry Eagleton, David Bentley Hart, Tim Jenkins, Alister McGrath and John Cornwell.

The thing about sermons is that they are concise. They focus in a way that a ten or twelve minute time limit necessitates, but manage to be dialectical in nature as well as limited in reach. The only pity is that no New Atheist was invited to preach a response to these responses. (The charge that New Atheists don't preach is, of course, nonsense; assertion rather than engaged and informed argument is the nature of the approach.) but, it would have been interesting to hear someone respond within the constraints of a sermon preached.

The connection between Johnson's book and the sermons (in my reading of both books in a single day) is that Johnson's poor childhood took place as the consumerist post-war generation was growing with an assumption that religion was on the way out. David Bentley Hart observes:

Late modern industrial societies, whose economies are primarily consumerist, are already effectively atheist, insofar as the principal business of economic life in them has become the fabrication of an ever greater number of the traditional prohibitions upon the gratification of those desires. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest good is private choice… What once had to masquerade, even to itself, as a deep moral conviction and intense intellectual passion can now openly disport itself as the conventional and rather boring metaphysical rationality of a society shaped by the mechanisms and logic of the market. (p.89f)

It is the juxtaposition of a memoir that reflects on the mid-20th century development of the consumer society (finding a way out of poverty) with a questioning of the contemporary “radical” scientism that shapes or colludes with it that is interesting here. But, it is further interesting to pursue the accompanying category errors that lead to such confusions – such as that identified between 'faith' and 'belief' by Terry Eagleton.

You have to read the book to see what I mean.

 

Yesterday was a bit worrying. During my sermon at a Confirmation service in Ilkley an elderly woman began to look unwell. As I came in to land she lost consciousness and, assisted by medics in the congregation, slid to the floor. She came round and was eventually taken off to hospital for a check up. When I got home I picked up my eighteen month old grandson, Ben, and he promptly vomited all over me and the kitchen floor. I began to think that if the service at the cathedral later went wrong, I’d begin to take it personally.

Anyway, last week saw some interesting stuff flying around the e-sphere:

1. A new magazine for Muslims has been produced, called Critical Muslim. I haven’t seen a copy and am not sure how its appearance on the scene has been received within the Muslim community, but it is an interesting development. Dr Philip Lewis’s appraisal is worth a look.

2. Nick Spencer did a great parody of the nonsense trotted out by some of the uncritical New Atheists – that religion is dangerous and divisive and should be confined to the dark corners of private entertainment. He starts from the idea that people claim that sport is a religion. It only gets funnier from there.

3. Giles Fraser hits the nail further on the head with an account of how Nietzsche contributed to his conversion to Christianity.

4. Will Hutton bangs the drum for language learning to be taken more seriously in the UK. I bang on about it often enough, but Hutton is better at pointing out that the philistines in government are unlikely to advocate a culture they themselves don’t ‘get’.

5. Leonard Cohen’s new album has been acquired and is being listened to to death. That voice has been lived in. We used to say that Cohen did ‘music to slit your wrists to’, but this caricature has always only exposed ignorance or illiteracy. He is funny, astute, ironic and wonderfully honest about being a complicated human being. My favourite lines from Old Ideas

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the Word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

This week?

I have just arrived in London ahead of the General Synod which meets here until Thursday. The key item on the agenda is the matter of how we move ahead with bishops who might turn out to be women. It’s no secret that the debate is somewhat fraught – after all, this is one of only two issues that the media have any concern for (the other one being sexuality). Lots of other good stuff that drives and characterises the Church of England’s work in parishes and dioceses won’t get a mention, but the ‘loud stuff’ must not be allowed to distract us from what we should be about on the ground.

The torment about female bishops looks something like this. The Church has agreed that there should be no bar to women being bishops. The debate is about what provision should be made for those who cannot accept this. Huge financial provision was made back in 1992 when the Synod agreed to ordain women as priests. Twenty years on there are those who think enough time and provision has been made already. Then, the question is if the Church should create a ‘safe place’ for those who cannot accept ministry from women or men who have ordained women (like me).

There are many who wish to hold the Church together and make space in the Big Tent for the range of voices and commitments, but don’t want to set up first and second-class bishops. The pastoral urge to hold everyone in is tempered by the pastoral wisdom that advocates (a) making a decision, (b) ending the uncertainty and muddle, and (c) allowing everyone concerned to move on. Clarity has to be better than eternal muddle.

But, it is the understanding of what counts as ‘pastoral’ and to whom ‘pastoral provision’ is made that lies at the heart of the heart-searching going on in the Synod this week. And that is why debate is impassioned: we take stuff seriously and are not indifferent either to the theological/ecclesiological issues or the pastoral/people implications and consequences of the decisions we make. However, if it wasn’t clear before, it should be obvious now that some circles simply cannot be squared. I am not aware of anyone – of any persuasion – who is looking forward with unalloyed joy to this week’s debates.

Liverpool beating Tottenham Hotspur this evening might come as a welcome distraction…

 

I was listening to Bruce Cockburn in the car while on my way to visit one of my clergy this morning. The first track on his last album, Small Source of Comfort, is called ‘The Iris of the World’ and one verse calls into question the ability of certain people to ‘get the disconnect’ between perception and reality.

I had just been musing on two pieces of news: (a) the refusal of some prominent atheists to debate publicly with William Lane Craig – not on personalities or assertions, but arguments and evidence, and (b) the furore over the mere suggestion that people considering abortions should be offered counselling before they go ahead with the termination. It reminded me of the response to the most detailed research into the nature of childhood – the Good Childhood report by the Children’s Society – when many commentators, unable to criticise the research, decided that the conclusions were inconvenient to their chosen values, choices or lifestyle and, therefore, rejected them.

The common denominator here is a prevalence in our society to start with conclusions and then try to find evidence to support them. In the absence of evidence, assertion will suffice. The problem here is that those doing the asserting are also the same people who constantly demand from everybody else ‘rational evidence’ for their position.

Take the first issue first. An fellow Oxford atheist philosopher, Dr Daniel Came, has written to Richard Dawkins accusing him of cowardice for refusing to debate with Professor William Lane Craig. Dawkins is not alone: Polly Toynbee and AC Grayling have also declined to debate and it is hard not to conclude that this unwillingness is born of fear rather than rationality. I am still waiting for a response to David Bentley Hart’s The Atheist Delusions and the substantive philosophical and historical refutation of the lazy and unargued-for assertions of the so-called New Atheists he offers. Is it fear that the evidence won’t back up the assertions that puts them off? If not, then what?

David Bentley Hart’s argument – backed up with copious historical analysis and evidence – is essentially that the pre-Christian world actually saw human life as expendable and cheap. What he terms ‘the Christian revolution’ brought about a ‘universal’ valuing of human life, of mercy and justice that did not hold sway beforehand. He then questions whether, in the post-Christendom world, the assumption of universal human niceness can honestly be held if the Christian worldview and associated praxis are removed. In other words, who says that the ‘neutral’ or natural default of human beings is to be nice to each other, to love justice and mercy, to protect the weak and vulnerable, etc? History would seem to demonstrate that such an assumption can not only not be taken for granted, but is actually called into question by the evidence.

Now, this comes to mind because we now live in a culture in which many people think it is OK to have abortion on demand as a sort of right (or routine method of birth control) and for life to be ended where there appears to be any suffering. In other words, we live in a culture which appears to wish to make decisions about the ethics of living and dying in isolation from a common understanding of the worldviews underlying such a position, or the implications of adopting it. Such discussion needs to go deeper and longer than a simple case-by-case judgement on the sentiments and sensibilities of personal circumstances as we go along.

I am not and have never been opposed to abortion per se. But, when you step back a bit and ask what our culture is shaping and on what philosophical basis the moves are being made, there must be cause for genuine concern. Abortion is not trivial; it is not like taking an aspirin for a headache.

That’s why I am wondering: why the outcry about the suggestion that people be asked to think before opting for an abortion? What’s the problem? Yes, there is a massive pastoral issue in supporting people – whatever decision they ultimately make. Yes, there are circumstances where such decisions are enormously complicated. Yes, the ethical responsibilities are not always clear. But, so are the deeper cultural questions that relate to what sort of a culture we are both losing and creating. Even if we don’t agree with the rationale behind the current proposals, that doesn’t let us off the hook of asking the question.

There is a question here for anyone interested in how cultures are shaped and what makes civilisations come and go. I am compelled to agree with David Bentley Hart – with his excoriating judgement on the post-Enlightenment twentieth century state’s proclivity for enormous and technologically organised violence – that we are in danger of glancing along the surface of time, making ad hoc decisions about life and death, but in the absence of any ‘deep’ analysis or rational thought about essential values. It cannot be taken for granted that, left alone and de-religionised (or de-christianised), human beings will ‘naturally’ tend towards goodness, kindness and mercy. Christianity was, in one sense, a response to the evidenced absence of such a corporate nature.

So, what is the philosophical case for assuming that we can do what we want to do simply because we can? And who is to decide what is, or is not, acceptable? And to whom?

Holiday over. Back in the office. Back on my laptop where I can embed links in my posts. It’s also back to viewing the world from home (as opposed to ‘away’).

As the Libya endgame continues, there is a good deal of comment in the blogosphere about the role of the National Transitional Council, NATO, foreign governments, etc. Much of it involves urging caution and questioning NATO’s involvement – approving the end whilst worrying about the means… and the potential consequences. EthicalComment has some good post-holiday observations (as usual) and some useful links to, for example, Chatham House papers.

I was intrigued to catch up with Tony Blair’s reflections on the UK riots. I know too many people who would disagree with Blair on principle even if he said the sky was blue; but, I think he is absolutely right to question the reflex of British politicians, religious leaders and media commentators to blame some sort of generalised moral decline for the riots. Whilst agreeing with Michael White’s critique of the inadequacy of Blair’s critique, I still think he was right to assert (initially when Prime Minister) that specific problems need specific solutions – that the dysfunctionality of some families requires systematic, one-at-a-time, targeted investment of time, expertise and accompaniment to turn around those dysfunctionalities that are deeply embedded in family culture, experience or expectation.

The problem, of course, is that one of the most valuable resources to achieve that end – and one that was making a demonstrable difference to many families – is being severely cut back: Sure Start. Ask any health professional working with such families and they will almost universally tell the same story. David Cameron has trumpeted the percentage increase in health visitors (my wife is one), but the health visitors need resources such as Sure Start to which they can refer their people. There is surely an irony that financial investment in youth provision and resources for supporting families is being severely cut at the very time that the decision-makers are complaining about the dysfunctionality of some of our citizens.

(And, yes, Blair helped to develop the consumer-greedy society that Thatcher began; and, yes, that introduces a further debate about public morality and the shaping of our culture in the last thirty years. But, it doesn’t setract from the significance of the specific point about the so-called ‘hard to reach’.)

This is not just about financial investment and my observation is not about ideology – that somehow chucking money at problems solves the problem. But, it is crazy to cut funding of those resources that are designed to make a long-term difference, but have already made short-term improvements.

Which leads on to the third element of these post-holiday thoughts: the teaching of Religious Education in schools. Again, some commentators will automatically reach for their red ink at the mere mention of religious education having any value at all. They think that their own world view is neutral and that religous world views are somewhere up the loony scale, heading away from neutral. Such respondents should read David Bentley Hart‘s excoriating expose of such shallow thinking in The Atheist Delusions – an academically informed response to the assumptions and ill-informed sweeping assertions of the so-called New Atheists. (Obviously, it’s a bit of a shame to introduce fact and history into these debates…)

However, what is often ignored is that Religious Education does not start from the assumption that a particular religious ‘truth’ needs to be propagated, but, rather, that children and young people need to learn (a) how to think about what they think about the world, (b) how particular traditions have developed ways of doing this through particular histories, and (c) why understanding epistemology – how we know that we know what we know – matters. Surely, this should be indisputable in post-riot England. Yes, I believe that the Christian world view makes most sense of the world, human experience, morality, etc.; but, that is secondary to the importance of at least getting kids to (a) ask the right questions and (b) understand that asking these questions actually matters.

To that end I agree that the teaching of RE should continue to be a core subject in the school curriculum. If it isn’t, what will be saying to the riots of twenty years from now when faced with dysfunctional kids whose morality was allowed to be shaped by happenstance and serendipity rather than being shaped and informed to the extent that they can make their mind up?

It is unsurprising that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome the way he did:

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…

We continue to neglect the shaping of the mind at our future peril.