28 November 2006

In praise of reading aloud

Recently, I found myself thinking about my tendency to read aloud. When the opportunity arises, I read aloud for enjoyment. But I also read aloud while reading the Bible, praying with a prayer book or working on my novel. Increasingly, I even find myself reading aloud when editing or proofreading.

This flies in the face of years of conditioning to believe in the superiority of silent reading. The moral superiority of silent reading is drummed into us from our schooldays onwards – the silent pupil is the good pupil, the silent reader is the good library user. Its intellectual superiority is reinforced by all those jokes about people’s lips moving. And its practical superiority is extolled by any number of books on effective studying, which equate efficient reading with fast reading and fast reading with silent reading.

Reading aloud is, of course, a slower way of reading. And, for me, that is its chief virtue. It creates a reading experience that is quite different from fast reading. It forces me to slow down sufficiently to give every bit of the text the attention it deserves. By helping me resist the temptation to skim over the text – a temptation created by too many years in academia – slow reading helps me to get more out of the text.

I find myself with a strange ally in defence of slow reading. According to Friedrich Nietzsche:
let us say it slowly . . . we are friends of the lento, I and my book. I have not been a philologist in vain – perhaps I am one yet: a teacher of slow reading. . . . Philology itself, perhaps, will not ‘get things done’ so hurriedly: it teaches how to read well: i.e. slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes (from the preface to Daybreak)

27 November 2006

Creation Set Free

Another book review for ESSSAT News:

Sigurd Bergmann, Creation Set Free: The Spirit as Liberator of Nature, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans (2005) xvii + 388 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8028-2224-6 (pbk)

In this volume Sigurd Bergmann offers a very demanding re-exploration of theology in light of the environmental crisis. The title suggests that the book is about the role of the Holy Spirit in setting creation free; and a glance at its contents might lead to the gloss – free to participate in the life of the triune God. But such a summary would be entirely inadequate to convey the sheer scope and complexity of what Bergmann has packed into fewer than 400 pages. His own summary of the book runs to 7 pages and no fewer than 28 theses!

Since this is a contextual theology of the environment, Bergmann begins with the context, namely, the altered understanding of nature in modernity and the ecological challenge that is presented to theology. Environmental scientists (and many others) will be surprised to discover that the problem areas he focuses on are not such things as pollution and climate change. Instead he chooses to concentrate on the problematics of ecological discourse. The challenge to theology appears to be how can we speak adequately about the natural world. He notes that, to date, theologians have responded to the challenge in one of three ways: conjunction (a flat refusal to integrate theological and ecological discourse), syncretism or critical integration.

Having outlined the context of his study, Bergmann moves on in Part Two of the book to his main dialogue partner, the church father Gregory of Nazianzus. This part consists of two chapters: ‘The Context of Cappadocian Theology’ and ‘Gregory’s Theological Interpretation of Creation Set Free’. In the first of these, Gregory is shown to have been himself a contextual theologian who struggled to formulate a theological response to problems that have parallels with the present day. In the second, Bergmann expounds Gregory’s theology under four headings: sociality, movement, suffering and spirit. This chapter is unquestionably the centrepiece of the book, making up as it does nearly a third of the text, in which Bergmann offers a painstakingly detailed survey of Gregory’s understanding of creation as set free by the triune God. It makes for a fascinating introduction to one of the most important theologians of the early church. However, one does wonder how Bergmann arrived at the schema into which he fits Gregory’s theology. It is not clear that the schema comes from Gregory himself and the neatness with which it fits into Bergmann’s larger project suggests that this reading of Gregory owes a great deal to the questions Bergmann brings with him from his survey of the ecological challenge. To be fair to Bergmann, this is no mere postmodern ransacking of a texts in order to create a theological bricolage in response to a modern problem. On the contrary, Bergmann approaches Gregory’s texts respectfully with his questions.

Part III is entitled ‘Cosmology as Soteriology—a Constructive Correlation’ and consists of three chapters. Chapter 4, ‘Correlating the Interpretations of Late Antiquity and Late Modernity’ uses the schema developed in Chapter 3 to explore how modern theologians have addressed the challenges of ecology and compares their responses to those of Gregory. I felt that this chapter tried to do too much. Specifically, Bergmann seems to be working with too many modern dialogue partners (I noted at least a dozen in a 70-page chapter). The result is that he is forced to write in a condensed, even cryptic manner heavily laden with unexplained technical terminology. If Chapter 3 was the centrepiece of the book, Chapter 5 is Bergmann’s constructive proposal. Entitled ‘Considerations from the Perspective of Liberation Theology’, it proposes an ecological expansion of liberation theology. The main text of the book finishes in a strangely anticlimactic fashion with a chapter on ‘Methodological Considerations’ in which Bergmann considers criticisms of various theological approaches to correlation and justifies the method he has adopted in the book.

I began the book with high hopes that here at last was a serious theological response to the environmental crisis. By the time I reached the end those hopes had transmuted into a strange ambivalence. On the one hand, I think this is an important study. It is stimulating and suggestive because full of valuable insights and perhaps even more so because it raises more questions than it answers and points intriguingly at lines of enquiry that one might pursue further. But on the other hand, it is a very frustrating book. This is largely to do with the impenetrability of the English translation. Contrary to what is suggested on the back cover, this is not a book that ‘will appeal to thoughtful pastors’ or ‘educated laypeople’ for the simple reason that they won’t understand half of it. Indeed, I suspect the text will try the patience even of theologians who are familiar with the subject. The environmental challenge is an urgent practical, ethical challenge – perhaps the most urgent challenge the human race has faced to date – but this treatment feels too cozy, too academic, perhaps even too complacent. Ironically for what aspires to be a liberation theology, I can’t help feeling that the entire tenor of the book privileges theoria over praxis. On the basis of what I have read here, I shall certainly be looking out for more from Bergmann – hopefully he can be persuaded to follow this work up with a practical liberation spirituality of the environment.

20 November 2006

The oratorio with everything

OK, not quite everything: Mendelssohn’s Elijah doesn’t have exploding airships, but it comes close, with fiery chariots ascending into heaven. And it also has animal sacrifice, mass execution, earthquake, wind, fire and a raising from the dead!

The RSNO’s 2006–7 season is now in full swing and last weekend we performed Elijah in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Mind you, the concert had more than the usual amount of drama: Walter Weller, who was supposed to conduct, had to pull out a couple of weeks ago after an operation and the principal soloist, Matthew Best, was replaced by Peter Sidhom with just hours to go before the first performance.

In spite of the difficulties, the performances went really well. Both The Scotsman and The Herald have good reviews. I think the replacement conductor, Andreas Spering, had a lot to do with the success: he brought a Handelian lightness to a piece that sometimes can seem too heavily romantic.

11 November 2006

Writing – not a spare-time activity

Scot McKnight has some wise words on writing here. In brief, his blog entry explains why it is impossible to treat writing as something that can be done ‘on the side’. He is writing as an academic theologian for other theologians and academics, but his comments hold true for other kinds of writing. As he says,
writing is a lifestyle, a way of life, a way of being, a modus operandi, a way of breathing and eating and drinking. Better yet, writing is a way of learning, a way of coming to know what someone wants to know, a way of discovering.

Writing is not something to do when everything else is cleared off the desk; no, it is something that makes order of the desk. I don’t get up wondering what I will write about, but I write about what I’m wondering.

What he has to say reminds me strongly of one of my favourite books on the craft of writing, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. Unlike most books on the subject, it does not have much to say about plot, characterization, dialogue or description. Nor does it say much about grammar or good English. Instead, Brande focuses on the secret of just getting words onto paper. The book should be compulsory reading for anyone who has ever felt intimidated by a blank sheet of paper or computer screen.

10 November 2006

Prayer wheels go digital

I chanced upon a scary piece of software while doing a Google search this morning. Simply type in your prayer and the program will repeat it for you a pre-set number of times. So you can get on with your life while your computer ‘prays’ on your behalf! This is scary because although the website claims to be Christian (indeed, the statement of faith on the site seems to identify it as conservative evangelical) it is promoting a profoundly un-Christian view of prayer.

Whatever else it is, Christian prayer in all its manifestations is first and foremost an expression of the loving personal relationship between the believer and God. I fail to see how a computer repeating a set of words time after time in an empty room is expressive of anything personal. Imagine how you would feel if, rather than spending time with you, your significant other programmed their computer to email a message to you repeatedly.

Granted the website in question warns that the program is not ‘a substitute for your personal rapport with God. But rather, it is to be used as an additional mode of reinforcement for your Prayers, thanksgiving and dialogue with God.’ But, in what sense is a computer that repeats a prayer for you reinforcing your prayers? As far as I can see, this only makes sense if it is the prayer itself that is important rather than the relationship. It seems to reduce the prayer to a magical formula: repeat this so many times and you will manipulate God into giving you what you want.

06 November 2006

Denying and Disclosing God

Another book review, this time for Science and Christian Belief:

Michael J. Buckley SJ
Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004

This book (an expanded version of the author’s D’Arcy lectures given in Oxford in 2000) is an exploration of the internal contradictions of theism as it has developed in the modern era. Its starting point is the conclusion of his earlier work, At the Origin of Modern Atheism, that atheism was generated dialectically from contradictions in theism.

The first chapter of the book, ‘The New Science and the Ancient Faith’, is perhaps the most directly relevant to the interests of this journal. Here Buckley sets out to demolish the popular conviction that atheism arose out of the antagonism of the new sciences to religion. He does so by examining three ways in which the new sciences embraced religion. The way of Galileo was to see them as separate enterprises. Kepler, by contrast, reduces them to a single Neoplatonic enterprise: ‘a deduction of what is likely and appropriate within the universe from the triune nature of God and the suggestion or the confirmation of that deduction from observation and mathematics’ (23). Finally Newton’s universal mechanics offers an inferential base for religion.

But if early modern science embraced religion so enthusiastically, what led to the emergence of atheism in modernity and the apparent hostility between science and religion? Chapter 2 explores aspects of this question by examining ‘A Dialectical Pattern in the Emergence of Atheism’ with particular reference to three early modern theological experiments – Lessius’s 1613 apologetic against atheism (then understood as the opinions of certain ancient philosophers); Cotton Mather’s use of science in religious apologetics; and the internal philosophical wrangling of seventeenth-century French Catholicism. What these various experiments have in common is an unacknowledged denial that interpersonal religious experience has any cognitive cogency. The subjective dimension of religion is effectively bracketed out in favour of a range of inferential approaches.

In an important essay published in 1946 Paul Tillich traced this turning away from experience towards inference back to the work of Thomas Aquinas. Buckley’s third chapter takes the form of a close reading of specific passages of the Summa, from which he concludes that ‘For Aquinas, God is given initially or primordially in his effects, rather than simply inferred from his effects. God is a presence, not simply a conclusion’ (68). Thus the Summa pointed in a radically different direction from that taken by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rationalism.

Chapter 4 explores the radical shift in the evidential basis for theism that occurred in the nineteenth century. The secular autonomy of the sciences, Kantian epistemology and the rise of evolutionary explanations of design in nature conspired to force the apologists of theism to look increasingly to human nature. The human being became the implicit absolute and God was reduced first to a function in modern philosophy and then to a mere projection.

But, for Buckley, this is by no means the end of the story. The dialectical process may not be arrested at this point. Rather, the initial negation must be allowed to generate its own further negation. So, in the fifth chapter, he explores two different paths taken by the negation of religious experience: atheism and negative theology. Both accept the liability of religious discourse to projection. But while Freud and Feuerbach stop here and call for the disclosure of the authentically human through the deconstruction of the divine, St John of the Cross goes beyond to the negation of these projections in the classical night of the soul.

Finally, the author proposes one way of passing over the atheistic negation of a theism in which primacy has been given to inference and ‘scientific evidence’. He calls for religious experience to be restored to its proper place; ‘not a flight into the irrational or the enthusiastic, but the retrieval of a specifically religious intellectuality’ (xv). His concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full:

[T]his book argues that inference simply cannot substitute for experience. One will not long believe in a personal God with whom there is no personal communication, and the most compelling evidence of a personal God must itself be personal. To attempt something else as foundation or as substitute, as has been done so often in an attempt to shore up the assertion of God, is to move into a process of internal contradictions of which the ultimate resolution must be atheism. (138)

While *Denying and Disclosing God* is a valuable supplement to Buckley’s important earlier work, to see it only in those terms would be to undervalue it. This closely argued and elegantly written set of lectures will be immensely helpful to anyone who wishes to enter into a serious dialogue with modern atheism.

AWOL

In the middle of last week I logged onto my blog intending to delete some comments I had made which on reflection were better not made. I deleted the offending entry and tweaked some of the settings. Not long afterwards (the next time I tried to access it, in fact), I found that my blog seemed to have disappeared in its entirety! Twenty-four hours later most of it was back. However, the most recent entries (in particular, the one I had originally intended to delete) and all the comments that folk have added to my blog in the past year seem to have permanently disappeared.

So my apologies to all whose words of wisdom have gone AWOL. In future, I shall keep an offline archive of my blog entries and comments (or, at least, the interesting ones) so that if this should happen again I am able to reconstruct the blog.