27 December 2012

Thought for the day: failed states

What are our political leaders trying to hide when they refer to certain countries as ‘failed states’? In an article for a forthcoming issue of Globalizations, Saskia Sassen makes the following pointed comment about such language:
Such language represents the facts of these states’ decay as set in a historic vacuum, a function of their own weaknesses and corruptions. These states are indeed weak, they are mostly corrupt, and they have cared little about the wellbeing of their citizens. But it is important to remember that it is and was often the vested interests of foreign governments and firms that enabled the corruption and the weakening of these states; and good leaders who resisted Western interests did not always survive, notably the now-recognized murder of Patrice Lumumba by the United States government.
For example, such language was often used of Afghanistan, focusing our attention on its contemporary lawlessness and corruption while carefully obscuring the role that the United Kingdom and Russia and, more recently, the Soviet Union and the United States played in reducing it to a ‘failed state’. In fact, looking at the  worst 20 countries on the failed states list, one is immediately struck by how many of them are the victims of European colonialism and/or US/Soviet neocolonialism.

24 December 2012

Christmas greetings

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

11 December 2012

Patrick Moore, 1923–2012

Patrick Moore, one of my childhood heroes, died on Sunday. Like many others of the past couple of generations, I owe my lifelong interest in astronomy to him. I was given one of his books for my seventh birthday, and that effectively decided the initial trajectory of my school and university education (without that initial push regularly reinforced by episodes of The Sky at Night, I would almost certainly have studied geology rather than astronomy for my first degree and, while I might still have ended up doing theology, I certainly wouldn’t have found myself doing postdoctoral research on the parallels between theological and contemporary physical understandings of temporality).

Moore was also a keen musician, sufficiently accomplished on the xylophone to have been able to play a duet with Evelyn Glennie. I don’t know if he had any say in the choice of the theme music for The Sky at Night (I suspect he did, because he mentions in his autobiography the difficulty they had in finding a suitable signature tune), but if so I also have him to thank for my lifelong love of the music of Sibelius.

Like so many other people, I’ll miss him.

26 November 2012

If you believe this . . .

In a moment of idleness, I pasted a few paragraphs of my novel into ‘I Write Like’ and it replied with the following:

I write like
Vladimir Nabokov
I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

Traditional fantasy in the style of Vladimir Nabokov? No, I don’t think so!

08 November 2012

Theology as stamp collecting?

I recently dipped into Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine only to find that on the very first page he defines systematic theology in the following terms:
Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, “What does the whole Bible teach us today?” about any given topic.
This definition indicates that systematic theology involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teachings clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic.
This may seem innocuous enough to some readers, but it put me in mind of certain older philosophies of science. Specifically, the view that the task of the scientist is merely to gather and summarize observations in order to establish various more or less simple ‘laws of nature’. One suspects this was the view of science to which Ernest Rutherford was objecting when he said ‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting.’

Like Rutherford, I think this ‘stamp collecting’ approach to science is inadequate. Science should be about more than merely summarizing observations. Rather it involves the proposing and testing of theories – proposing models to explain how the world works – e.g. light behaves like a wave. Further, most physicists regard their theories as models of what is really going on rather than merely as heuristic devices for making predictions about the world. What is really of interest is not the prediction of particular experimental outcomes but the model itself as an understanding of reality.

Nor is ‘stamp collecting’ an adequate approach to theology. Theology is more than a mere summary of what the Bible says. Faith seeks understanding: drawing out the implications of what the Bible says to get a better understanding of God and God's relation with the world. For example, there is no way you can arrive at the full orthodox doctrine of the Trinity if you strictly limit yourself to summarizing what the Bible says on the topic. And yet the doctrine of the Trinity is the very foundation of orthodox Christian belief.

How then should we approach theology? My own preference is for the answer given by Robert Jenson in the introduction to his little book Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Fortress Press, 1973):
Theology is the persistent asking and disciplined answering of the question: Given that the Christian community has in the past said and done such-and-such, what should it do now? The question may be divided: (1) What has the Christian community in fact said and done? and, (2) What should it say and do in the future? The first sub-question, pursued within the context of the whole question, gives historical theology. The second sub-question, likewise only when pursued within the context of the whole question, gives systematic theology. (p. vii)

29 October 2012

Kai Euthus redivivus?

I was more than a little disappointed when Mike Higton stopped posting to his blog, Kai Euthus, nearly three years ago. So it was a pleasant surprise this morning to discover no fewer than three new posts on that blog. It looks as though Mike is planning to start blogging again and he has started by providing useful indexes to some of the series of older entries on his blog. So far, we have ‘The God Delusion’ (more than 50 posts taking a critical look at Richard Dawkins’s book of that title), ‘Aquinas’ Five Ways’ (16 posts on Aquinas’ proofs of God’s existence), and ‘The Body’s Grace’ (13 posts examining the article in which Rowan Williams set out his personal views on human sexuality).

04 October 2012


Today Franciscans everywhere remember with thanksgiving the founder of their Order, celebrate his radical love for God in Christ and creation, and dedicate themselves anew to emulating that love in their own lives. So here is a blessing that seems appropriately Franciscan:
May God bless you with a restless discomfort
about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships,
so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression,
and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for
justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer
from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may
reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that
you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able,
with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
And the blessing of God the Supreme Majesty and our Creator,
Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word who is our brother and Saviour,
and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, be with you
and remain with you, this day and for evermore.

03 August 2012

For Calvinism

Some months ago I received a free copy of Michael Horton’s For Calvinism from Zondervan as part of their blogger review programme. For various reasons, it has taken me much longer to review it than I expected, but here at last is my review:

This is one volume of a pair of books exploring two poles of contemporary American evangelicalism. Its sister volume, Against Calvinism by Roger Olsen, argues the case for an Arminian approach. Here Michael Horton offers a passionate and eirenical defence of the Calvinist pole.

His opening chapter outlines the essence of Calvinism in terms of the various solas of the Reformation: ‘Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the source and norm of Christian faith and practice, and this Word proclaims a salvation that is by God’s grace alone (sola gratia), in Christ alone (solo Christo), through faith alone (sola fide). Consequently, all of the glory goes to God alone (soli Deo gloria)’ (p. 27). Thus salvation is entirely and exclusively the work of God (monergism). This is contrasted with Arminianism, which proclaims the free gift of grace to all humankind coupled with an element of synergism (a degree of human cooperation in the work of salvation).

The bulk of the book is given over to an exposition of the so called five points of Calvinism (a.k.a. the doctrines of grace). In the first of these chapters, Horton makes the point that ‘Reformed theology never starts with the fall, but with God’s good creation’ (p. 35) and with the notion that humans are made in the image of God. Thus the first of the five points, total depravity, refers to a distortion of that original goodness. He also reminds us that the ‘total’ in this phrase is extensive rather than intensive; it implies that the distortion applies to every aspect of our being rather than that we are in some particular respect totally depraved.

Moving on to the doctrine of election, Horton insists that the Calvinist insistence on its unconditionality does not imply that it is somehow arbitrary. Rather, the point is that it is entirely a matter of God’s love for us and has nothing to do with our capacity for faith. Some Christians complain that this is not fair and Horton agrees: if God’s response to human sin were rooted exclusively in divine justice, we would all be justly condemned. Election is a matter of divine mercy rather than justice. This is an attractive presentation, but I’m not sure it really answers the most serious criticism of Calvinism, namely that it is inescapably and unacceptably deterministic.

The next chapter explores the doctrine of atonement. Horton summarizes six theories that have been proposed over the centuries to make sense of Christ’s atoning work. He points out that no one theory adequately accounts for the reality. However, in his view, two aspects are essential for any theory to reflect adequately the New Testament witness: redemption must be particular and objective. While no evangelical would dispute the second of these, it is questionable whether the New Testament really does imply that Christ died only for the sins of the elect. Horton marshals the most persuasive Calvinist arguments in favour of this view, but I confess I remain unconvinced.

Finally he combines effectual calling (his preferred term for irresistible grace) and perseverance into a single chapter. These he maintains are implications of the monergism that is fundamental to Calvinist theology.

Having given an outline of the intellectual dimension of Calvinism, Horton turns to its implications for Christian life and practice. Calvinism is variously criticized as either antinomian or legalistic. By contrast, Horton presents a Reformed spirituality in which we work out our sanctification in fear and trembling knowing that it is all by the grace of God. It is a spirituality rooted firmly in the means of grace and virtually opposite in direction to that of much contemporary Christianity. Much contemporary Christianity concentrates on the seeker after God and is directed Godwards; Calvinism is a spirituality for those who have been (perhaps unexpectedly) found by God – it is directed from God to humankind.

Another common criticism of Calvinism is that is has been or is indifferent or antipathetic to Christian mission. Horton admits that there have been hyper-Calvinistic distortions of which this would be true. However, he denies that this was ever true of mainstream Calvinist thinking and demonstrates his point by outlining the Calvinist contribution to Christian missionary activity.

In summary, this is a clearly written and carefully argued defence of Calvinism. It makes an excellent introduction to a major theological and spiritual root of contemporary evangelicalism.

Normal service will be resumed . . .

I am conscious that very little blogging has gone on here in recent months. I could live with that if I were using the time to write other less ephemeral pieces, but the truth is my writing seems to have dried up almost completely. No, I’m not suffering from ‘writer’s block’; I suspect it is largely due to the fact that, when I’m not editing, I have been busy organizing the annual conference for the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. This is the second year I’ve done it, but this year seems to have taken much more time and effort on my part. Anyway, I retire from the SfEP Council after the conference next month, so hopefully blog posting will be a bit more regular after that.

08 June 2012

Queen’s English Society RIP

The Queen’s English Society is no more. Apparently it died of chronic apathy. Over at Language Log, Geoff Pullum has written an obituary in which he dissects the corpse, then scatters its dismembered remains to the four winds. He concludes:
The Queen’s English Society was a passing whim for the sort of people who write harrumphing letters to the Daily Telegraph, superficial and silly from the start. It never had a serious groundswell of educated opinion, or linguistic or literary understanding, or genuine missionary zeal behind it. For real work on educational questions like how to encourage clarity in writing and how to reduce the frequency of puzzlement due to genuine grammar errors, we’ll need a more serious effort, and a more informed and committed group of people than this sloppy and ineffectual ex-group of soi-disant grammar guardians.

Judging by the errors and infelicities he detects in the society’s final press release, the Queen’s English is better off for the demise of this body. The whole article is worth reading (here).

07 May 2012

Celebrating the French election

One French supermarket celebrates the election of François Hollande:
(Note: During the election Hollande was nicknamed Flanby after a brand of creme caramel apparently because of his blandness.)

24 April 2012

On splitting infinitives

From a letter from Raymond Chandler to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly:

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between.

The editor passed on his comment to the copy-editor (even then, it seems, people confused copy-editors and proofreaders) who replied to Chandler. He subsequently sent her the following:

Lines to a Lady With an Unsplit Infinitive

Miss Margaret Mutch she raised her crutch 
With a wild Bostonian cry.

"Though you went to Yale, your grammar is frail,"
She snarled as she jabbed his eye.

"Though you went to Princeton I never winced on 
Such a horrible relative clause!

Though you went to Harvard no decent larva'd 
Accept your syntactical flaws.

Taught not to drool at a Public School 
(With a capital P and S)

You are drooling still with your shall and will 
You're a very disgusting mess!"

She jabbed his eye with a savage cry.
She laughed at his anguished shrieks.

O'er the Common he fled with a hole in his head. 
To heal it took Weeks and Weeks.

"O dear Miss Mutch, don't raise your crutch 
To splinter my new glass eye!

There ain't no school that can teach a fool 
The whom of the me and the I.

There ain't no grammar that equals a hammer 
To nail down a cut-rate wit.

And the verb 'to be' as employed by me 
Is often and lightly split.

A lot of my style (so-called) is vile 
For I learned to write in a bar.

The marriage of thought to words was wrought 
With many a strong sidecar.

A lot of my stuff is extremely rough, 
For I had no maiden aunts.

O dear Miss Mutch, leave go your clutch 
On Noah Webster's pants!

The grammarian will, when the poet lies still, 
Instruct him in how to sing.

The rules are clean: they are right, I ween, 
But where do they make the thing? 

In the waxy gloam of a Funeral Home 
Where the gray morticians bow?

Is it written best on a palimpsest, 
Or carved on a whaleboat's prow?

Is it neatly joined with needlepoint 
To the chair that was Grandma's pride?

Or smeared in blood on the shattered wood 
Where the angry rebel died?

O dear Miss Mutch, put down your crutch,
and leave us to crack a bottle.

A guy like I weren't meant to die 
On the grave of Aristotle. 

O leave us dance on the dead romance 
Of the small but clear footnote. 

The infinitive with my fresh-honed shiv 
I will split from heel to throat.

Roll on, roll on, thou semicolon, 
ye commas crisp and brown.

The apostrophe will stretch like toffee 
When we nail the full stop down.

Oh, hand in hand with the ampersand 
We'll tread a measure brisk.

We'll stroll all night by the delicate light 
Of a well placed asterisk.

As gay as a lark in the fragrant dark 
We'll hoist and down the tipple.

With laughter light we'll greet the plight 
Of a hanging participle!"

She stared him down with an icy frown. 
His accidence she shivered.

His face was white with sudden fright, 
And his syntax lily-livered.

"O dear Miss Mutch, leave down your crutch!" 
He cried in thoughtless terror.

Short shrift she gave. Above his grave: 

28 March 2012

Some advice on reviewing books

A few weeks ago Ian Sales blogged the following helpful advice on how to write a good book review:
  1. A dishonest review is a bad review.
  2. Not all books are good.
  3. It’s not just good books that deserve reviews.
  4. If a book is a bad book, it’s dishonest not to say so.
  5. If a book is not a good book, it’s dishonest to refuse to review it.
  6. Books can be bad for a number of reasons; most of those reasons are a result of failure of craft.
  7. Reviews are not written for the author of the book being reviewed; their audience is potential readers of the book being reviewed.
  8. A good review is not opinion because it will contain evidence supporting its assertions.
  9. Whether or not a reviewer enjoyed a book is completely meaningless, since enjoyment is unrelated to quality and is entirely subjective.
  10. A review does not have to meet the expectations of people who have read the book being reviewed.
  11. A review is based on a critical read of a book; this means the reviewer has probably put a lot more thought into their reading of it than you have.
  12. If you come across a negative review of a book you thought was good but you did not read the book in question critically, then you are not qualified to comment on the review’s findings.

Just one or two quibbles.

On 5: I have occasionally refused to review a book. I don’t think this is dishonest. When I review I try to find something positive to say even about books that are mostly bad. If a book is so bad that I can’t find a single redeeming feature, I then have to decide whether I need to write a review warning potential readers off or whether it would be better to starve the book of undeserved publicity by simply not reviewing it at all. (But perhaps that is a hangover from the days when I was reviews editor of an academic journal and had to make decisions about which reviews to include in the limited space available to me.)

On 6: Ian is writing about reviews of fiction. Obviously with non-fiction there are additional criteria for what makes a book bad (e.g. factual accuracy).

On 9: I don’t think enjoyment can simply be dismissed like this. For me, enjoyment is an important indication of a good book. Of course, an enjoyable read isn’t necessarily a pleasurable read. Rather I am looking for something that draws me in and compels me to read on (or, in the case of non-fiction, is thought-provoking). 

27 March 2012

Evangelicals and climate change scepticism

On 1st March 2007 a small but influential group of evangelicals headed by James Dobson wrote an open letter to the National Association of Evangelicals in the USA. The purpose of the letter was to complain about Richard Cizik, a vice president of the NAE. Specifically, they objected to his public support for action to protect the environment in general and, in particular, action against global warming, which they perceived as ‘dividing and demoralizing the NAE and its leaders’ (Dobson et al. 2007: 1). They feared that if members of the NAE took him seriously, they would be diverted from the real issues facing American evangelicals, specifically ‘the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children’ (Dobson et al. 2007: 1). Moreover, they feared that a growing concern for the environment could lead evangelicals into political alliances with ideological opponents. The combined effect could be to undermine American evangelicalism. Just a few months earlier, a larger group of evangelicals signed an open letter rebuffing ‘Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action’, a manifesto published by the Evangelical Climate Initiative in February 2006. A more extensive piece of work along the same lines was published by the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance in 2006.

As Richard Wright (2000) points out, scepticism about environmentalism is nothing new among conservative evangelicals. But it seems that, as public attention has focused on global warming as the key environmental issue, so too has the attention of the evangelical sceptics.

The Sceptics’ Strategy

The strategy of the sceptics has been to sow doubts in the minds of uncommitted evangelicals on a number of issues.

The reality of global warming

The sceptics do not deny that the earth’s climate is a dynamic system. They accept that the climate has changed in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

However, some evangelical climate sceptics put great emphasis on the theoretical nature of anthropogenic global warming, comparing it with Darwin’s theory of evolution, Hawking’s theory of information loss in black holes and the phlogiston theory of heat. For example,
Ever seen a monkey give birth to a human? But, we’re told, the fossil record and the Galapagos Islands and the duck-billed platypus and a whole host of other factors are all best explained by the theory of evolution. So too, we are told, that various factors relating to the amount of ‘greenhouse gasses’ and a measurable change in earth’s temperature are all best explained by the theory popularly known as ‘global warming.’ (Smith 2007)
The comparison with Darwin is, of course, an appeal to an evangelical shibboleth designed to sow doubts in the minds of conservative evangelicals for whom evolutionary theory is one of the hallmarks of secularism. Beyond that, the emphasis on the theoretical nature of anthropogenic global warming plays upon popular understandings of the term ‘theoretical’, which particularly in American English tends to be equated with ‘hypothetical’ or ‘speculative’.

The anthropogenic dimension of global warming

However, most sceptics do not deny global warming outright. Instead one of their main tactics is to question the scientific evidence for a significant anthropogenic element to global warming. According to Calvin Beisner and his colleagues, ‘our knowledge of climate history also reveals substantial natural variability. The mechanisms driving natural climate variations are too poorly understood to be included accurately in computer climate models. Hence, the models risk overstating human influence.’ (Beisner et al. 2006: 3) They contend that a range of natural causes such as fluctuations in solar output, changes in cloud forcing, and precipitation microphysics may be more significant than human carbon dioxide emissions. Writing in First Things, Thomas Sieger Derr is more definite:
The likeliest cause of current climate trends seems to be solar activity, perhaps in combination with galactic cosmic rays caused by supernovas, especially because there is some good observable correlation between solar magnetism output and terrestrial climate change. (Derr 2004)
In common with many climate change sceptics, both religious and secular, Derr also suggests that the recent warming trend is just a blip in a larger natural cycle and that temperatures at the present day are still lower than they were during the Middle Ages.

The effects and severity of global warming

In recent years, popular environmentalism has tended to play up the potentially catastrophic effects of global warming, presumably in the hope that the fear factor will galvanize governments into taking the problem seriously.

By contrast the sceptics tend to minimize the possible effects. For example, Beisner et al. claim that a temperature rise of about 3 °C is unlikely to be catastrophic, ‘because CO2-induced warming will occur mostly in winter, mostly in polar regions, and mostly at night. But in polar regions, where winter night temperatures range far below freezing, an increase of 5.4 °F is hardly likely to cause significant melting of polar ice caps or other problems.’ (Beisner et al. 2006: 4)

More generally, the sceptics tend to highlight the uncertainties in scientific papers on global warming and emphasize the most conservative estimates of the impact of global warming as evidence that fears of catastrophic climate change are unfounded. For example, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance cites the fact that the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Review has revised downwards some of the potential impacts of global warming as evidence of ‘the collapse of the catastrophic human-induced global warming dogma’.

But they are not just concerned to minimize the possible negative effects. They also highlight potential benefits of global warming: longer growing seasons in high latitudes; new living spaces in the tundra. Yes, a changing climate may mean drought in some places, but it will also mean increased rainfall in others. Global warming will increase the activity of the climate system, leading to a global increase in rainfall. Furthermore, they argue that increased carbon dioxide levels may actually benefit many food crops.

The efficacy of carbon dioxide emission controls

The sceptics maintain that Kyoto-style emission controls are simply not cost effective. This is hardly surprising, given that they believe human greenhouse gas emissions play only a relatively small part in climate change.

Furthermore they point out that a system of such controls driven by Western economic interests could lead to greater injustice by denying development opportunities to the Third World. Specifically, ‘Because energy is an essential component in almost all economic production, reducing its use and driving up its costs will slow economic development, reduce overall productivity, and increase costs of all goods, including the food, clothing, shelter, and other goods most essential to the poor.’ (Beisner et al. 2006: 12) Ironically, given the political conservatism of the global warming sceptics, this is an argument first adopted against Western environmentalists by anti-colonialist neo-Marxists in the 1960s.

The motives of the climate change lobby

While some climate change sceptics argue that action to limit anthropogenic global warming will harm the poor, others discern a completely different political motivation behind policies like the Kyoto Protocols. Thus, writing in First Things, Thomas Sieger Derr asserts that
The IPCC is a UN body and reflects UN politics, which are consistently favorable to developing countries, the majority of its members. Those politics are very supportive of the Kyoto treaty, which not only exempts the developing countries from emissions standards but also requires compensatory treatment from the wealthier nations for any economic restraints that new climate management policies may impose on these developing countries. Were Kyoto to be implemented as written, the developing countries would gain lots of money and free technology. One need not be a cynic to grasp that a UN body will do obeisance to these political realities wherever possible. (Derr 2004)
Another possible motive imputed to those who are concerned about climate change by Derr is ‘a somewhat murky antipathy to modern technological civilization as the destroyer of a purer, cleaner, more “natural” life’ (Derr 2004).

The Underlying Theology

In light of Derr’s comments about the motives of those who are concerned about climate change, it would be tempting to dismiss the sceptics as simply having sold out their faith to the ideology of secular capitalism and Republican/neocon politics. And one might point to the fact that the leading theoreticians of the sceptics’ position belong to the Acton Institute for Religious Freedom, a think tank that has received significant funding from the Exxon oil corporation. (For a more detailed account of the political commitments of Christian anti-environmentalism, see Wright 1995). However, to limit ourselves to a political analysis would be to overlook that they believe they have good theological reasons for the position they have taken.

Rejecting the myth of the given

One of the more recent myths of (late) modernity might be called the myth of the given: we find ourselves in (Heidegger would have said ‘we are thrown into’) a finite world with finite natural resources. It is a closed system and the size of the cake is fixed. The finitude of the natural world did not matter during the expansion of modernity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But when every continent has been mapped, every ocean sailed and much of the mineral wealth of the developed countries has been mined out, attitudes change.

Against the common-sense view that we have been thrown (as it were by chance) into this limited resource, which must therefore be husbanded carefully, evangelical environmental sceptics quite rightly remind us that the Christian doctrine of creation asserts an altogether more positive view. The world is not a hostile environment into which chance has thrown us. Rather, it is God’s good gift. Furthermore it is open to God and it is sustained by God.

Drawing on the reality of God’s continuing care for creation, the climate change sceptics question whether God would allow the earth to be damaged by human activities of filling, subduing and ruling the whole earth as mandated in Genesis 1:28. According to the New Testament scholar Wayne Grudem, ‘It does not seem likely to me that God would set up the world to work in such a way that human beings would eventually destroy the earth by doing such ordinary and morally good and necessary things as breathing, building a fire to cook or keep warm, burning fuel to travel, or using energy for a refrigerator to preserve food.’ (cited in ISA 2007)

It has to be admitted that God’s care for creation is a point often overlooked by Christian environmentalists. The world in which we live has not simply been left to its own devices by an absent God. On the contrary, God actively cares for God’s creation.

But how far can we take faith in God’s active care for creation? Grudem’s comment begs the question of which human activities in the modern world are ‘ordinary and morally good and necessary’. Some evangelical climate sceptics seem to think that in God’s covenant with Noah we have an implied promise that the earth will never be subjected to another environmental catastrophe on the scale of the Noahic flood. Thus Beisner and colleagues argue that ‘a Biblical theology of Earth stewardship will recognize the superintending hand of God protecting the Earth. Particularly when it is combined with our earlier observations about the resiliency of the Earth because of God’s wise design, this ought to make Christians inherently skeptical of claims that this or that human action threatens permanent and catastrophic damage to the Earth.’ (Spencer et al. 2005: 17) While Beisner and colleagues are content with scepticism, others take this as a virtual carte blanche for human impact on the environment.

An anthropocentric interpretation of dominion

However, evangelical climate sceptics are not content to reassert that the world is God’s good gift. They also insist that it is God’s good gift to us. The raison d’etre of the non-human is to serve the human.

Thus nature is ours to use for the benefit of the human race as a whole. It is but a small step from this to the assertion that it is sinful not to make full use of the world for our benefit. For example, the dominion mandate is seen as a manifesto for the transformation of the earth into a garden city. (Not so very different from the metaphor of spaceship earth that used to be bandied around by technocentric environmentalists – the nightmare vision of the earth as a totally managed environment.)

The absolutization of human freedom

There is a very strong emphasis on human freedom in the theology of the climate sceptics. And, of course, freedom is a fundamental part of any Christian anthropology (since we are made in the image of a God who is free).

However, it would appear from some of their writings that they believe human freedom to be unconstrained save by the direct moral commandment of God. And whatever is not explicitly forbidden by divine command is permitted.

I can’t help feeling that those who think along these lines fall easy prey to the modern notion that whatever is permitted is compulsory. Take, for example, a recent debate among American evangelicals about driving large gas-guzzling vehicles. The line of the climate sceptics seems to be that any attempt to question the morality of driving such vehicles is tantamount to an attack on our God-given freedom.

Dominium Terrae: an alternative interpretation

Our vocation to rule the earth is made plain in Scripture. The issue is how we are to exercise that vocation. My contention is that the evangelical environmental sceptics have badly misread Scripture at this point.

The etymology of the terms used in Genesis may suggest that dominion be equated with selfish tyranny, but the ideology of kingship we find in the Old Testament implies that the king is the servant of the people he rules. But we are called not to be kings but representatives of the King of kings. The vocation to rule the earth is set firmly in the context of our being created as God’s image within creation: the representatives of the Servant King.

As part of that representative dominion we are given freedom to use the earth’s resources to meet our needs. In the creation stories we are given the plants, while in the Noahic covenant we are given every living thing. But even that limited use of natural resources is hedged around by divinely imposed limits later in the Pentateuch. Gleaning to the edge of a field is forbidden as are double cropping and clear felling of an enemy’s orchards. And we are commanded to let the land lie fallow one year in seven.

In any case, the sceptics are simply wrong to assume that the world is God’s good gift to us. Rather Genesis 1 paints a picture of an ordered environment (including autotrophs) that is God’s good gift to all heterotrophs (including humans). A similar point is made in Psalm 104 and the later chapters of Job.

Contrary to the complacency of those who look to the Noahic covenant as a guarantee that no environmental disaster will befall us, the Bible repeatedly uses the motif of a reversal of creation (accompanied by the imagery of the Flood) as a warning of what will befall a disobedient people. To take just one example, consider the Bible’s interpretation of the reversion of the Promised Land to wilderness during the Exile.

So we are given the freedom to use the world to meet our physical needs. I can agree with Grudem that necessary use of resources will not lead to environmental catastrophe. But there is no mandate within Scripture for our exploitation of the environment to satisfy the conspicuous overconsumption of the developed world (and particularly the United States).

Beisner, E. Calvin, Paul K. Driessen, Ross McKitrick and Roy W. Spencer (2006) ‘A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Response to Global Warming’ Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. Available online at http://www.ecalvinbeisner.com/farticles/CalltoTruth.pdf

Derr, Thomas Sieger (2004) ‘Strange Science’, First Things (November). Available online at http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=395

Dobson, James et al. (2007) Letter to Chairman of the Board, National Association of Evangelicals, 1 March. Available online at http://www.citizenlink.org/pdfs/NAELetterFinal.pdf.

Evangelical Climate Initiative (2006) ‘Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action’. Available online at http://www.christiansandclimate.org/statement

Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (2007) ‘An Open Letter to the Signers of “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action” and Others Concerned About Global Warming’. Available online at http://www.interfaithstewardship.org/pdf/OpenLetter.pdf

Smith, Jeremy (2007) 'Petroleum Pundits', reformation21. Available online at http://www.reformation21.org/Past_Issues/2007_Issues_17_27_/2007_Issues_17_27_Counterpoints/Counterpoints_March_2007/Counterpoints_March_2007/307/vobId__5439/

Spencer, Roy W., Paul K. Driessen and E. Calvin Beisner (2005) ‘An Examination of the Scientific, Ethical and Theological Implications of Climate Change Policy’, Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. Available online at http://www.interfaithstewardship.org/pdf/ISA_Climate_Change.pdf

Wright, Richard T. (1995) ‘Tearing Down the Green: Environmental Backlash in the Evangelical Sub-Culture’, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 47: 80–91. Available online at http://www.asa3.org/aSA/PSCF/1995/PSCF6-95Wright.html

Wright, Richard T. (2000) ‘The Declaration under Siege’ in R. J. Berry (ed.), The Care of Creation: Focusing concern and action (Leicester: IVP), pp. 74–9.

15 March 2012

Cloud computing and flash crashes

Bryan Ford of Yale University has just posted a disturbing paper entitled ‘Icebergs in the Clouds: the Other Risks of Cloud Computing’, which outlines some of the hidden risks of cloud computing. According to the abstract:
Cloud computing is appealing from management and efficiency perspectives, but brings risks both known and unknown. Well-known and hotly-debated information security risks, due to software vulnerabilities, insider attacks, and side-channels for example, may be only the ‘tip of the iceberg.’ As diverse, independently developed cloud services share ever more fluidly and aggressively multiplexed hardware resource pools, unpredictable interactions between load-balancing and other reactive mechanisms could lead to dynamic instabilities or ‘meltdowns.’ Non-transparent layering structures, where alternative cloud services may appear independent but share deep, hidden resource dependencies, may create unexpected and potentially catastrophic failure correlations, reminiscent of financial industry crashes. Finally, cloud computing exacerbates already-difficult digital preservation challenges, because only the provider of a cloud-based application or service has the ability to archive a ‘live,’ functional copy of a cloud artifact and its data for long-term cultural preservation. This paper explores these largely unrecognized risks, making the case that we should study them before our socioeconomic fabric becomes inextricably dependent on a convenient but potentially unstable computing model.

Personally, it is enough to make me wary of entrusting my data to the cloud. In fact, I wonder if I have already gone too far in that direction by using Gmail. Loss of my emails and contacts thanks to Gmail crashing would be not be a complete disaster but it would be at the very least a time-consuming annoyance.

14 March 2012

More treasure

Princeton Theological Seminary has just launched the Theological Commons, a digital library containing over 50,000 volumes on theology and religion. Among the highlights, they have digitized 100 antiquarian volumes from Tom Torrance’s library.

13 March 2012

Prayer as subversive activity

I recently mentioned the National Secular Society’s victory over Bideford Town Council re prayers on the agenda of its business meetings as a vehicle for sharing Matthew Parris’s entertaining cross-bench view of Christianity as social ‘Evo-Stik’. But the case does raise the issue of the place of Christian prayer in modern society.

I find myself asking what on earth the people who want Christian prayers on the agendas of political bodies such as the House of Commons think they are doing? Do they seriously want God to guide their business? Or are they (in line with the Evo-Stik view of religion) merely invoking the name of God to give the proceedings a veneer of religious respectability?

I suspect the latter because prayer as I understand it is incorrigibly subversive of the status quo. Not at all the kind of thing people who are seeking to maintain the system are likely to be comfortable with.

Jeremiah (29:7) called upon the exiles to 'seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.' That call to pray for the peace of the community in which we find ourselves applies no less to Christians today. But this is much more than asking for violence to be restrained or even for the harmonious maintenance of the status quo because shalom is so much more than a mere absence of violence or discord. In his book Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Cornelius Plantinga describes shalom thus:
The prophets…dreamed of a new age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain. The foolish would be made wise, and wise, humble. The dreamed of a time when the deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease, and people could go to sleep without weapons on their laps. People would work in peace and work to fruitful effect.
…The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed; a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.
This is what we are calling down upon the communities when we pray for the ‘peace’ of the city. And implicit in it is the final overthrow of business as usual.

And that is not just the view of the Old Testament. Turning to the Lord's Prayer – the model for all Christian prayer – we read ‘Thy Kingdom come’. This is nothing less than a heartfelt plea for the present political powers to be swept away by the reign of God. To pray for this is to commit ourselves to a permanent critique of the society in which we find ourselves because all societies belonging to this saeculum inevitably fall short of the Kingdom. (How many of our MPs and peers realize this when they daily assent to a prayer that concludes ‘so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed’?)

05 March 2012

Treasure trove!

I have just discovered a website that is a treasure trove for anyone who is seriously interested in the first millennium of Christian theology. Its title is simply ‘Greek and Latin Literature’ but in addition to a wide range of Greek and Latin classics it also contains most of the Patrologia Graeca and Patrologia Latina conveniently arranged in pdf files for easy downloading!

03 March 2012

Matthew Parris on religion

I don’t normally read Matthew Parris because I find his right-wing politics uncongenial, and I never imagined that I’d find myself recommending something that he had written (particularly on religion, given his well-known atheism). But I have just been pointed in his direction by a piece in Antony Billington’s blog.

There has been a lot of discussion of the place of Christianity in British society recently, particularly in the wake of the court decision that Bideford Town Council may not make prayer part of the formal business of their meetings. As you can imagine, that case has generated a lot of heat from those who see Christianity (primarily in the form of the Church of England) as part of the social glue that holds together British (or perhaps English) society. Parris quite rightly highlights the oddity of such a position with the following:
One of the reasons we can be pretty sure Jesus actually existed is that if He had not, the Church would never have invented Him. He stands so passionately, resolutely and inconveniently against everything an established church stands for. Continuity? Tradition? Christ had nothing to do with stability. He came to break up families, to smash routines, to cast aside the human superstructures, to teach abandonment of earthly concerns and a throwing of ourselves upon God’s mercy.
Jesus came to challenge precisely what today’s unbelieving believers in belief so prize in what they presume to be faith: its supposed ability to ‘cement’ the established order of things, and bind one generation to the next. But the problem with using Christ as a kind of social Evo-Stik, . . . is that it saps the life force with which their faiths were at first suffused. By trying to span and bind, Anglicanism has become bland. . . .
. . . If a faith is true it must have the most profound consequences for a man and for mankind. If I seriously suspected a faith might be true, I would devote the rest of my life to finding out.
You can find the rest of the article here.

01 March 2012


It probably won't surprise you to learn that because I spend hours every day dealing with words on a computer screen I am mildly obsessed with typography. As a result, I am always on the lookout for the ideal font. That search has just led me to download a new font from the publishers Brill, which is called imaginatively 'Brill'.

'Brill' is a serif font in the Baskerville tradition. My first impression is that its Latin and Greek characters look quite elegant (actually it looks quite like Gentium, which is the font Brill has previously recommended to authors). More importantly, it is a Unicode font with no fewer than 5,100 characters including a complete set of combining diacritics. So it should be possible to write just about anything with any accent in most major languages (though I do have certain reservations about the appearance of its Hebrew characters).

Only time will tell whether it will become a regular part of my editorial armoury, but it certainly looks like a useful addition to my list of fonts.

29 February 2012

Better late than never?

I meant to mention the Ash Wednesday Declaration last week, but life intervened in the form of a couple of tight deadlines. Hence the title of this entry. Though, on reflection, the title could also apply to the declaration itself since theologians have been calling attention to the religious implications of the environmental crisis for several decades now. But, judging by the list of eminent signatories, concern for our impact on the environment has at last made it on to the agendas of the upper echelons of a number of mainstream churches.

The preamble reads:
Climate change and the purposes of God: a call to the Church
The likelihood of runaway global warming, which will diminish food security, accelerate the extinction of huge numbers of species and make human life itself impossible in some parts of the world, raises questions that go to the heart of our Christian faith.

What should our relationship be with God as both the origin and the end of all things? How do we balance our energy and material consumption with the needs of the poorest communities, and of future generations and other species? How do we sustain hope in the midst of fear and denial? How can we encourage global cooperation, challenge unsustainable economic systems and change our lifestyles? These fundamental questions prompt this urgent call to the Church.

28 February 2012

Long on Hebrews

Another book review:

D. Stephen Long, Hebrews, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)

Stephen Long has made a valuable contribution to the Belief series of theological commentaries on the Bible. In it, he argues that the letter to the Hebrews is particularly important for contemporary readers because of the way it integrates doctrine, ethics and politics, and because of its metaphysical sophistication. We live in a world that has been flattened and disenchanted by the forces of secularism, but Hebrews reminds us of the world’s complexity. It also teaches us to read Scripture in light of Christ’s strange victory.

The commentary works through the text of the letter in a verse by verse manner. While not as detailed as some commentaries that focus on every nuance of the Greek text, Long surveys the major theological themes of the letter and examines them in some detail. The themes he focuses on are neatly summarized by his fivefold division of the letter: God Speaks (1:1–2:18); Christ: Faithful and Merciful High Priest (3:1–6:20); Priesthood and Sanctuaries (7:1–10:39); Finding Yourself among the Saved: Faith and Endurance (11:1–12:12); and, Concluding Paraklēsis and Theophanic Vision: Pursue Peace and Holiness (12:14–13:21).

There is a tremendous amount of helpful material in his commentary on the text. But I was particularly impressed by his ‘Further Reflections’ sections. These are two- or three-page asides in which he deals with the relevance of sections of the letter to particular contemporary theological issues. So, for example, he offers a very useful study of Protestant gnosticism and modernity. Other topics covered include infant baptism, canonicity, ‘Judaizing’, perfection and deification, the politics of the priest-king (a particularly interesting section in which he proposes Hebrews as a biblical alternative to Plato’s philosopher-kings), and apocalyptic.

Long’s commentary is not a substitute for a careful analysis of the text, but it does serve as a valuable theological complement to such an analysis. This will be a valuable addition to the library of every serious student of the New Testament.