25 December 2015

Christmas greetings

Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer to winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

Joy and peace this Christmastide

29 November 2015

Traces of the Trinity

 A review of Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience. By Peter J. Leithart. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4412-2251-0. 177 pp. £10.99

I really enjoyed this slim volume from the pen of Peter Leithart. It is a really imaginative and thought-provoking piece of work, which stands loosely in the ancient vestigia trinitatis tradition. Like other works in this tradition, its basic premise is that God the Creator has left traces of his handiwork within creation and so it encourages us to look for traces of the artist in his work of art. However, there the similarity ends. Many exercises in seeking vestiges of God in creation are essentially exercises in natural theology: such vestiges are taken to be evidence for the existence of God. By contrast, Leithart is more interested in looking at the world with the eye of faith.

Specifically, Leithart latches on to perichoresis or coinherence – allegedly the most abstract concept of Trinitarian theology – and looks systematically for traces of such mutual indwelling in creation. The result is an extended meditation on the importance of relationality in the created order.

Beginning with our relationship with the things around us, he calls into question modernity’s emphasis on things at the expense of their interconnectedness, for example reminding us that a hammer is only a meaningless lump of metal and wood when abstracted from its appropriate environment in the hand of a craftsman. More generally, creatures only make sense when seen in their appropriate environments, in the network of relationships that gives them meaning.

In Chapter 2 he turns to interpersonal relationships, criticizing in passing the individualism that has been such a feature of Western society for the last couple of centuries. Perhaps he could have lingered slightly longer over friendships (e.g. C.S. Lewis’s remarks on the death of Charles Williams could have been expanded helpfully in this context), but it is a short book and so he moves quickly on in Chapter 3 to sexual relationships.

The next three chapters offer a change of direction, moving from the social world to the world of the intellect. First he explores our perception of temporality, which he presents as a mutual indwelling of past and future in the present. In Chapter 5, he turns his attention to the nature of language, emphasizing the interpenetration and interdependence of ideal and sensible. And Chapter 6 brings together time and human expression in an exploration of the perichoretic nature of music.

Having thus traced the outlines of a perichoretic ontology, Leithart asks in Chapter 7 how this way of looking at the world informs ethics. And he argues that such an ontology implies an ethics of loving openness to the other rather than a deontological or a situational ethics. Chapter 8 explores the practical implications for human and specifically Christian existence of suggesting that rationality itself perichoretic. This leads him to re-present several well-known binary oppositions, including liberal vs conservative and divine foreknowledge vs human freedom, in terms of mutual dependence. Given the brevity of the volume, he can do no more than hint at ways forward, but the material is certainly thought-provoking.

The final chapter, ‘I in Thee, Thou in Me’, is a discussion of perichoresis in light of John 17.

The whole might be seen as an exercise in relational Trinitarianism, which is sometimes misleadingly referred to as social Trinitarianism and dismissed as tritheistic. But Leithart is not about to take such misrepresentation lying down. A concluding appendix offers a brief defence of the kind of Trinitarianism promoted by the likes of Colin Gunton.

The book is easy to read and written in a popular style with a minimum of footnotes, but there is nothing simplistic about it. It amounts to a profound devotional exercise in learning to look at the world through a Trinitarian lens. As such it ought to be compulsory reading for undergraduate theologians about to embark on a study of the Trinity. Equally it could be mined by clergy and Christian educators seeking material to enable congregations to begin to grasp some of the implications of the doctrine of the Trinity.

30 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 30

The Three Notes
(30) The humility, love, and joy, which mark the lives of Tertiaries, are all God-given graces. They can never be obtained by human effort. They are gifts of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of Christ is to work miracles through people who are willing to be emptied of self and to surrender to him. We then become channels of grace through whom his mighty work is done.
The image of Tertiaries as channels of God’s grace is a reminder that it is God who must work through us. We don’t set out to change the world, or our local community, or even ourselves. Rather, we make ourselves available to God so that he might transform the world through us.

It has happened before. In about 1204 a troubled young man thought he heard God saying to him, ‘Rebuild my church for, as you can see, it is in ruins.’ He took it rather too literally and so he begged, borrowed, and even stole in order to restore the little church of San Damiano just outside the walls of Assisi. Gradually other troubled young men joined him and Francis found himself the reluctant leader of a dynamic new religious order that, during his lifetime, transformed the Church in Western Europe.

29 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 29

(29) This joy is a divine gift, coming from union with God in Christ. It is still there even in times of darkness and difficulty, giving cheerful courage in the face of disappointment, and an inward serenity and confidence through sickness and suffering. Those who possess it can rejoice in weakness, insults, hardships, and persecutions for Christ’s sake; for when we are weak, then we are strong.
In reading this, we must remember that these are principles, not a rule. Tertiaries are not expected to fake joy when the going gets tough. Rather this has the form of a promise: even when life seems intolerable, something of the divine joy will slip through; there will be a light in the darkness; there will be moments of laughter in the midst of sadness, of joy in the midst of grief.

28 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 28

The Third Note
Joy
(28) Tertiaries, rejoicing in the Lord always, show in our lives the grace and beauty of divine joy. We remember that we follow the Son of Man, who came eating and drinking, who loved the birds and the flowers, who blessed little children, who was a friend to tax collectors and sinners and who sat at the tables of both the rich and the poor. We delight in fun and laughter, rejoicing in God’s world, its beauty and its living creatures, calling nothing common or unclean. We mix freely with all people, ready to bind up the broken-hearted and to bring joy into the lives of others. We carry within us an inner peace and happiness, which others may perceive, even if they do not know its source.
During his earthly ministry Jesus showed very clearly that he loves life. His followers too should rejoice in all that is good in God’s creation. Yes, there is sin and evil out there – and we should discern and oppose these – but these are not the defining characteristics of the world we live in. On the contrary, orthodox Christian teaching has always insisted that God sees the material world as very good.

The natural world is God’s good creation and we should rejoice in it – a view traditionally associated with Franciscans of course. But that includes our own physicality (and with that our sexuality).


And the human world (our social arrangements, institutions, and cultures) is as much a part of God’s good creation as the natural world. So it is never wrong to enjoy great art or drama or well-prepared food or fine drink. We should not neglect to sing or laugh or dance together. Neither should we look down on the simpler, humbler aspects of our human world as too unsophisticated or primitive – a well-made pizza offers as much enjoyment as the latest creation of a Michelin starred chef; an old folk song shared by friends over a pint as much a recital of Schubert Lieder.

All of God’s creation is good. Therefore we must rejoice in all things.

27 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 27

(27) The Third Order is a Christian community whose members, though varied in race, education, and character, are bound into a living whole through the love we share in Christ. This unity of all who believe in him will become, as our Lord intended, a witness to the world of his divine mission. In our relationships with those outside the Order, we show the same Christ-like love, and gladly give of ourselves, remembering that love is measured by sacrifice.

26 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 26

(26) Therefore, we seek to love all those to whom we are bound by ties of family or friendship. Our love for them increases, as our love for Christ grows deeper. We have a special love and affection for members of the Third Order, praying for each other individually and seeking to grow in that love. We are on our guard against anything that might injure this love, and we seek reconciliation with those from whom we are estranged. We seek the same love for those with whom we have little natural affinity, for this kind of love is not a welling-up of emotion, but is a bond founded in our common union with Christ.
Today’s portion of the Principles sounds a little too easy – as if love for others automatically increases as love for Christ deepens. The juxtaposition of ‘increase’ and ‘deepen’ is interesting. What is that meant to signify? How can my love for Christ grow deeper? Surely this is not something I can achieve – it is not a matter of my efforts. Christianity doesn’t work like that.

Increased awareness of the depth of Christ’s love for me may evoke a response of love in me. But this is not a matter of my effort. I simply put myself where Christ can make me more aware of his love – i.e. in worship, in devotional reading of Scripture, and in the places where Christ is likely to be in this world (among the poor, the marginalized, the suffering). These are the places where he is likely to act. But he may also act through my other reading, my encounters those who are not poor or marginalized or suffering, and through creation.

25 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 25

The Second Note
Love
(25) Jesus said, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13.34–35)
Love is the distinguishing feature of all true disciples of Christ who wish to dedicate themselves to him as his servants.
Love is the distinguishing feature of those who follow Christ. It can also be an aid to discernment. When faced with a decision, why not ask which outcome will help me love better? Obviously it will be irrelevant to some decisions (red wine or white? lamb or chicken?). Arguably those decisions are not important to God. God is love, so God’s concern will be with those decisions that affect our relationships with one another – the ones where the question which outcome is more conducive to love is only too relevant.

24 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 24

(24) The faults that we see in others are the subject of prayer rather than of criticism. We take care to cast out the beam from our own eye before offering to remove the speck from another’s. We are ready to accept the lowest place when asked, and to volunteer to take it. Nevertheless, when asked to undertake work of which we feel unworthy or incapable, we do not shrink from it on the grounds of humility, but confidently attempt it through the power that is made perfect in weakness.
We should pray for others rather than criticizing them. This is true enough. But this should not be used as an excuse to avoid facing up to wrongdoing or wrong teaching within the Christian community.

There may be times when criticism is necessary, but before we go down that road we must stop, pray, and examine ourselves. By the time we have scrutinized our own motives and behaviour, repented of where we have fallen short, and prayed for the well-being and spiritual growth of the person we wanted to criticize, hopefully any remaining vestiges of our criticism will be constructive rather than destructive.

An attitude of humility implies that we will not push ourselves to the front. We seek the place where we can serve without drawing attention to ourselves rather than the leadership role or the high-profile position. But, on the other hand, we should not use humility as an excuse for avoiding responsibility.

23 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 23

(23) Humility confesses that we have nothing that we have not received and admits the fact of our insufficiency and our dependence upon God. It is the basis of all Christian virtues. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux said, ‘No spiritual house can stand for a moment except on the foundation of humility’. It is the first condition of a joyful life within any community.
Humility is at the root of all Christian virtues. This is not Uriah Heep’s pseudo-humility barely hiding a deep well of resentment, not a brave face put upon the necessity created by a subordinate position. Rather, it is a realistic understanding of our own finitude. We were created from the dust, and to the dust we will return.

Humility refuses status. It will not play the hierarchy game. It rejects power over others. It will not dehumanize the other by taking refuge in I–It relationships, but recognizes the worth of the other – all others – (which resides in the fact of our all being made in the image of God) by seeking to establish I–Thou relationships.

22 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 22

The First Note
Humility
(22) We always keep before us the example of Christ, who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and who, on the last night of his life, humbly washed his disciples’ feet. We likewise seek to serve one another with humility.
This is about looking for opportunities for self-effacing service rather than ostentatious service. One example that comes to mind is the senior church figure who on arriving at a conference centre discovered that the toilets were not particularly clean. What did he do? He changed into old clothes, found the cleaning cupboard, and set about cleaning the toilets himself.

Serving with humility is about generous giving to the other without thought of how one might benefit.

21 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 21

The Three Notes of the Order
(21) Humility, love, and joy are the three notes that mark the lives of Tertiaries. When these characteristics are evident throughout the Order, its work will be fruitful. Without them all that it attempts will be in vain.
This is a salutary reminder of our dependence on God both as individuals and as an Order. Contra the religious snake-oil merchants, there are no self-help books that we can use to make ourselves more humble or loving or joyful. None of these characteristics is something we can work up for ourselves. All we can do is rely on God’s nature as the ultimate giver and look to God to gradually transform us in these areas.

20 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 20

(20) Tertiaries endeavour to serve others in active work. We try to find expression for each of the three aims of the Order in our lives, and whenever possible actively help others who are engaged in similar work. The chief form of service that we have to offer is to reflect the love of Christ, who, in his beauty and power, is the inspiration and joy of our lives.
Our role in life is that of the servant, because that is the role Christ adopted. But being a servant does not entail unquestioning obedience to those with worldly authority over us.

We are called to serve those around us, particularly those with no worldly call on us, and ultimately all of creation by doing good – bringing healing and wholeness, proclaiming God’s good news by word and deed, comforting those who sorrow or fret or fear.

Our chief form of service is to reflect the love of Christ. This is about more than emotion, feeling, or attitude. It is primarily about action. We cannot bring the kingdom by our own actions, but we can offer ourselves as God’s co-workers, by committing daily acts of subversive love.

19 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 19

The Third Way of Service
Work
(19) Jesus took on himself the form of a servant. He came not to be served, but to serve. He went about doing good: healing the sick, preaching good news to the poor, and binding up the broken hearted.
Jesus took on the form of a servant. And I suspect most of us immediately think of the hierarchical implications of the word ‘servant’: this is someone who was subject to the authority of another. This is not a position that most people in modern Western society feel comfortable with.

But I wonder if we should put more emphasis on the service of a servant. If as Miroslav Volf suggests, God is the ultimate giver, then in taking on the form of a servant Jesus is simply reflecting the divine giving in human life.

And this again points us to the generosity that came up when we looked at poverty/simplicity. That was generosity in the sense of giving of one’s goods. This is generosity in the deeper sense of giving of oneself. And this is to be the model for a Franciscan’s approach to all the work he or she does.

18 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 18

(18) As well as the devotional study of Scripture, we all recognise our Christian responsibility to pursue other branches of study, both sacred and secular. In particular some of us accept the duty of contributing, through research and writing, to a better understanding of the church’s mission in the world: the application of Christian principles to the use and distribution of wealth; questions concerning justice and peace; and of all other questions concerning the life of faith.
Study is actually a rather tricky area for Franciscans. Although the Franciscan Order rapidly became one of the leading intellectual forces of the medieval Church, Francis himself was quite ambivalent about the value of study. He was perhaps only too conscious of the potential for learning to create divisions and to be used as a badge of status.

Study is not just about reading; it must involve articulating my response to what I have read. And note-taking (essentially copying what the source has said – either verbatim or in my own words) is not sufficient. This applies even (or perhaps especially) to Bible study. To engage fully with the text, I must write my response.

But perhaps my personal bias in favour of research and writing misses the point. All of us (not just the academically minded) have a duty to study the world around us in order that we might better live our Christian lives in it. We live and we engage more effectively if we make an effort to understand it.

We can see this in the earliest Franciscans: a passion for understanding the world, which transformed natural philosophy (the forerunner of physics) from the fringe interest of a few eccentrics to a central part of the late medieval university curriculum.

17 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 17

The Second Way of Service
Study
(17) ‘This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’ (John 17.3)
True knowledge is knowledge of God. Tertiaries therefore give priority to devotional study of scripture as one of the chief means of attaining that knowledge of God that leads to eternal life.
Under the rubric of study, priority should be given to Scripture because it is through Scripture that we can most reliably hear God. God may speak to us in many other ways. But God has promised that he will speak to us through the words of these texts.

But what is meant by ‘devotional study’ of Scripture? It is certainly not a matter of applying our intellectual skills in order to tease out the original meaning intended by the human author(s). All texts of any complexity say more than their authors intended to say. And in the case of the Bible, we also have to reckon with a divine author working in, with and under the human authors.


However, devotional study is study in the sense that it should be disciplined and systematic. Over the centuries, Christians have devised many different approaches to the disciplined reading of the Bible but one of the longest lasting (and arguably one of the most helpful) is the approach known as lectio divina (‘divine reading’), which traditionally consists of four phases:

  1. Lectio: This is slow, attentive reading of the chosen passage, which is usually fairly short. Generally speaking the same passage will be read over several times (four times in traditional Benedictine practice), each time with a different emphasis.
  2. Meditatio: This is the leisurely pondering of the passage (or perhaps just a sentence, phrase, or even word from the passage). The emphasis is not on attempting to analyse the passage but rather to receive it as a love letter from God.
  3. Oratio: Our prayerful response to what has gone through our mind (and heart) during meditatio.
  4. Contemplatio: The final phase is silent resting and listening in the loving presence of God.
On second thoughts, contemplatio is not really the final phase. The true final phase is when we go out from where we have been reading and praying and apply what we have learned in our daily lives.

16 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 16

(16) Tertiaries recognise the power of intercessory prayer for furthering the purposes of God’s kingdom, and therefore seek a deepening fellowship with God in personal devotion, and constantly intercede for the needs of his church and his world. Those of us who have much time at our disposal give prayer a large part in our daily lives. Those of us with less time must not fail to see the importance of prayer and to guard the time we have allotted to it from interruption. Lastly, we are encouraged to avail ourselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation, through which the burden of past sin and failure is lifted and peace and hope restored.
Prayer may be primarily about deepening our relationship with God, but it can never be only about that. We are called to have Christ-like compassion for the world and so we will inevitably share our concerns with God our Father. That is intercession: the Godward expression of our compassion.

In intercession, we ask God to meet those needs. And we ask him to enable us to meet those needs. There is nothing of the shopping list in this precisely because it is driven by compassion. It certainly bears no relation to the kind of prayer promoted by the peddlers of prosperity theology.

Today’s passage from the Principles underlines the importance of intercessory prayer. And again it points out that the tertiary should be learning to pray constantly. Prayer times are an important part of that, but I need to put the whole of my life in the context of prayer, i.e. in the context of a growing relationship with God.

The passage also mentions sacramental confession. I am still evangelical enough to feel uncomfortable about confession and its trappings. However, that doesn’t let me off the hook: regular serious self-examination is an important aspect of Christian discipleship. The term ‘confession’ suggests an emphasis on the things I have done wrong, and there is clearly a place for acknowledging and turning away from one’s sins, but I wonder if (for the Franciscan particularly) there ought also to be an emphasis on our utter dependence on God.

15 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 15

(15) The heart of our prayer is the Eucharist, in which we share with other Christians the renewal of our union with our Lord and Saviour in his sacrifice, remembering his death and receiving his spiritual food.
The Eucharist lies at the heart of Christian worship. First and foremost, it is here week by week that we most directly encounter the risen Christ who makes himself available and vulnerable to us in the broken bread and poured wine. But second, it is here more than anywhere else that we are drawn together into the community that Christ is preparing to be his bride. If you like, this is the Church’s engagement party with the Lord celebrated week by week in anticipation of the eschatological marriage feast.

The Principles actually say that ‘the heart of our prayer is the Eucharist’: the heart of our prayer is not a form of words but a communal action. This implies more generally that Christian prayer is not just about words; our actions are also part of our prayer. Prayer needs to be seen as every form of communication with God. And our actions communicate more loudly (and often more truthfully) than the things we say. Prayer cannot be separated from righteous action.

14 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 14

The First Way of Service
Prayer
(14) Tertiaries seek to live in an atmosphere of praise and prayer. We aim to be constantly aware of God’s presence, so that we may indeed pray without ceasing. Our ever-deepening devotion to the indwelling Christ is a source of strength and joy. It is Christ’s love that inspires us to service, and strengthens us for sacrifice.
The Franciscan life is not just about praying and praising God at set times. We seek to develop a life saturated in prayer and praise. It is about becoming ever more conscious of God’s presence until we are effectively praying without ceasing.

I have to admit that I am only ever intermittently aware of God’s presence. This is a point on which I need to work.

The Orthodox make constant use of the Jesus Prayer precisely so that they might be constantly aware of God’s presence. But I wonder how some of the psychophysical activities associated with the Jesus Prayer in the Orthodox tradition would fit with Franciscan spirituality. There is more than a hint of inner emigration about them, which contrasts quite sharply with the Franciscan tendency to seek God in the world.

13 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 13

The Three Ways of Service
(13) Tertiaries desire to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, whom we serve in the three ways of Prayer, Study, and Work. In the life of the Order as a whole these three ways must each find full and balanced expression, but it is not to be expected that all members devote themselves equally to each of them. Each individual’s service will vary according to his or her abilities and circumstances, yet each individual member’s Personal Rule of Life must include each of the three ways.
The three ways of service are three ways in which we express our love for God. Prayer is the most direct expression of our love for God. Study is seeking to love God with all our mind. Work is love in action in the world.

The Principles make it clear that our circumstances dictate the balance between the different areas. This is emphasized precisely to prevent tertiaries feeling guilty about not devoting enough time or energy to one or other of these areas. Conversely, it should also prevent us from looking down on other tertiaries for whom the balance is different. (1 Corinthians 12 obviously comes to mind here.) We have different gifts, different personalities, different circumstances, which go to making up our own personal equation 
of prayer, study, and work. But God graciously combines those different equations to create a balance in the Order as a whole.

12 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 12

(12) Personal spending is limited to what is necessary for our health and well-being and that of our dependants. We aim to stay free from all attachment to wealth, keeping ourselves constantly aware of the poverty in the world and its claim on us. We are concerned more for the generosity that gives all, rather than for the value of poverty in itself. In this way we reflect in spirit the acceptance of Jesus’ challenge to sell all, give to the poor, and follow him.
We should limit our spending to necessities. But the Principles explain that these include whatever is needed for our well-being and that of those around us. This is about human flourishing not bare existence, about living generously rather than abstemiously.

The Principles speak of (material) poverty’s claim on us; we are called to combat it with our generosity. And that means not just alleviating incidences of poverty that we encounter, but joining together to attack the root causes of poverty.


I am inclined to think of generosity as the positive counterpart of poverty of spirit. Poverty of spirit not only recognizes our radical dependence on others but embraces and celebrates that dependence. We no longer see that dependence as something to be feared and so we are free reach out to those beyond our self-made barriers. It is in that reaching out and sharing with others (rather than hoarding things to ourselves) that generosity is born.

11 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 11

(11) Although we possess property and earn money to support ourselves and our families, we show ourselves true followers of Christ and of Saint Francis by our readiness to live simply and to share with others. We recognise that some of our members may be called to a literal following of Saint Francis in a life of extreme simplicity. All of us, however, accept that we avoid luxury and waste, and regard our possessions as being held in trust for God.
This part of the Third Aim is about the relationship between simplicity and generosity. We aim to live simply, but not so that we might hoard our earnings for some future extravagance or even to secure our own future. Rather, our simplicity should enable us to live generously.

We should avoid luxury and waste. Of course, today the latter is doubly important because of the environmental implications of waste.

Closely related to waste is hoarding, a practice that is encouraged by the retail industry with its constant temptation to buy special offers (three for two; BOGOF). But hoarding goods is just as much an attempt to secure our own future as hoarding money. And it compromises our desire for external simplicity by encouraging clutter.

What about avoidance of luxury? We should avoid it for our own sakes because luxury breeds self-indulgence and encourages us to be possessive. So it is the very antithesis of the Franciscan way. But we should also avoid luxury for the sake of others because it creates barriers and provokes jealousy. As Franciscans, we are called to break down social barriers. It follows that anything, such as conspicuous spending, that reinforces such barriers is to be avoided.

But a balance needs to be struck. While we are to avoid luxury, we should not do so by adopting an asceticism that fails to enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation.

10 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 10

The Third Aim
To live simply.
(10) The first Christians surrendered completely to our Lord and recklessly gave all that they had, offering the world a new vision of a society in which a fresh attitude was taken towards material possessions. This vision was renewed by Saint Francis when he chose Lady Poverty as his bride, desiring that all barriers set up by privilege based on wealth should be overcome by love. This is the inspiration for the third aim of the Society, to live simply.
Simplicity plays a significant role in the life of Franciscans, but it is underpinned by the more fundamental concept of poverty. This refers not merely to the (usually involuntary) lack of the material goods necessary for human well-being, but to the fact that as human beings we are not self-sufficient; we depend for our very existence on others and ultimately on God.

The Franciscan way is radically opposed to all forms of wealth because at root the accumulation of wealth is about the creation of a (false) sense of security that denies our radical dependence on others. And, of course, to ensure our security we need barriers (existential or material) to separate us from those who threaten us.

Very early in his pilgrimage Francis became aware of the barriers that protected his relatively privileged lifestyle from the minores, the have-nots of medieval Italian society. And he dedicated himself to breaking down those barriers by going downwards through them and meeting the people on the other side not as recipients of charity but as equals.

Franciscans today seek to do likewise and simplicity comes into the equation because many of the barriers that divide people are created by how we spend our money: where we choose to live, the clothes we wear, the places we shop, where we go when we eat out, how we entertain ourselves, whether and where we go on holiday, even whether we have decent broadband. So a basic question as we try to live as Franciscans will always be: will this action tend to build up or break down barriers between me and others?

09 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 9

(9) As Tertiaries, we are prepared not only to speak out for social justice and international peace, but to put these principles into practice in our own lives, cheerfully facing any scorn or persecution to which this may lead.
The tertiary is expected to display the kind of just behaviour that is likely to result in scorn or persecution. This implies that she might be expected to extend the call for social justice to unpopular causes and to marginalized, ostracized, and even hated individuals or groups – society’s scapegoats.

In our culture with its barely disguised hatred of immigrants, Muslims, bankers, and anyone even suspected of sexual offences (particularly against children), Franciscans need to be at the forefront of those defending the rights of people who have come to this country to escape persecution or to improve the lot of their families, the rights of those whose religious views differ from the mainstream, the humanity of the very rich (recognizing the burden that wealth imposes on people), and the rights of the accused to be presumed innocent and given a fair trial.

It is easy enough to say this, but as Franciscans we must practise what we preach. And the most effective way to do this is, like Francis, to start where we are – with our personal relationships and our everyday dealings.

08 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 8

(8) Members of The Third Order fight against all injustice in the name of Christ, in whom there can be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for in him all are one. Our chief object is to reflect that openness to all which was characteristic of Jesus. This can only be achieved in a spirit of chastity, which sees others as belonging to God and not as a means of self-fulfilment.
Members of the TSSF are called to fight against injustice. But how are we to fight? Franciscans must pursue the fight against injustice in a non-violent manner. Our warfare must be shaped by our vocation: we fight by prayer and by actively seeking reconciliation.

We are clearly called to resist all injustice – simply refusing to accept it, speaking out against the injustice we see around us, behaving justly towards those who are treated unjustly, taking their side against their oppressors, aiding/protecting them from the oppressor.

Beyond mere protest and resistance, Christian moral theory has traditionally permitted law-breaking in the interests of justice. The classic example of this would be the poor person who steals to feed their starving family. For the Church fathers, the real thief in this situation was the wealthy person who withheld food from the hungry. An contemporary parallel might be offering sanctuary to asylum seekers. There is a place for law-breaking in order to treat the widow, orphan, stranger, or alien justly and compassionately.

07 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 7

The Second Aim
To spread the spirit of love and harmony.
(7) The Order sets out, in the name of Christ, to break down barriers between people and to seek equality for all. We accept as our second aim the spreading of a spirit of love and harmony among all people. We are pledged to fight against the ignorance, pride, and prejudice that breed injustice or partiality of any kind.
Breaking down barriers, seeking equality, spreading love and harmony: these all arise out of the fundamental Franciscan principle of fraternity. All creatures are inextricably interconnected in a way that is best put in personal terms. And this is most clearly illustrated by Francis himself. During his life he learned to love even the most insignificant creature (he is reputed to have moved worms out of his path so that they wouldn’t be trampled on) and of course he celebrated our personal relationship with the rest of creation in his Canticle of Brother Sun in which sun, moon, and stars and the four elements are presented as our brothers and sisters.

So as Franciscans we seek to break down the barriers created by treating others as objects (I–it relationships) and treating them instead as our brothers and sisters (I–Thou relationships).

One obvious way of breaking down barriers is simply to step across them and join our brothers and sisters beyond the pale, in the ghetto, in the slum, in the detention camp, in the Bantustan, in Gaza. Another way of breaking down barriers (especially the less tangible barriers) is to look for the beauty, the goodness, the truth in the other: 
when I can see this, there can no longer be any barriers between us and we can learn to love one another.

06 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 6

(6) The primary aim for us as Tertiaries is therefore to make Christ known. This shapes our lives and attitudes to reflect the obedience of those whom our Lord chose to be with him and sent out as his witnesses. Like them, by word and example, we bear witness to Christ in our own immediate environment and pray and work for the fulfilment of his command to make disciples of all nations.
What am I doing to make Christ known? As a Tertiary I am called to bear witness to Christ to those around me – by word and example. I suggested yesterday that example alone is not enough, but neither is word alone. Perhaps if my behaviour were more Christ-like I would have more opportunities to speak about him.

So the starting point if I want to make Christ known is not a carefully prepared argument. Instead, I begin to make Christ known by acting in a more loving manner. By showing more care and compassion for those around me (either physically or virtually) and for those with whom I have any kind of connection. That, of course, brings to mind the example of Francis stopping in his tracks and expressing love for that which he feared the most, by embracing a leper.

05 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 5

The First Aim of the Order To make our Lord known and loved everywhere
(5) The Order is founded on the conviction that Jesus Christ is the perfect revelation of God; that true life has been made available to us through his Incarnation and Ministry; by his Cross and Resurrection; and by the sending of his Holy Spirit. Our Order believes that it is the commission of the church to make the gospel known to all, and therefore accepts the duty of bringing others to know Christ, and of praying and working for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
I have sometimes heard Tertiaries quoting approvingly the story about Francis telling his brothers to go out and spread the gospel, and if necessary they can use words.* This is taken to affirm what is sometimes called ‘lifestyle evangelism’, the idea that how we live can be a more authentic witness to the gospel than what say. Unfortunately this too easily becomes a cop out: we try to make our lifestyle a substitute for actually proclaiming the gospel. But the commission to ‘make the gospel known to all’ cannot mean less than evangelism in the sense of gossiping the gospel, of not being afraid to speak of our faith whenever it is appropriate to do so.

* This story seems to have originated in the 1990s and is probably based on a misunderstanding of Chapter 16 of Francis’s Regula non bullata, where he speaks of two ways for the brothers to live among the Saracens (i.e. Muslims), one of which is ‘not to engage in arguments or disputes but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake and to acknowledge that they are Christians’.

04 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 4

(4) When Saint Francis encouraged the formation of The Third Order he recognised that many are called to serve God in the spirit of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience in everyday life (rather than in a literal acceptance of these principles as in the vows of the Brothers and Sisters of the First and Second Orders). The Rule of The Third Order is intended to enable the duties and conditions of daily living to be carried out in this spirit.
The Principles speak of living in the spirit of poverty, chastity, and obedience in everyday life rather than literally.

I’m not convinced about this. I suspect Francis actually meant us to live these things as literally as possible given our station in life. It is not that poverty, chastity, and obedience can be taken as entirely metaphorical. But rather that we must ask how far we can live them while also fulfilling our everyday responsibilities.

A professional needs to dress in a certain way. A worker may well need reliable private transport or their own computer. What does poverty mean in this context?
What does chastity mean in a culture where sex has been trivialized and commodified? Is it merely a matter of abstinence? Or is it, rather, about the quality of our relationships, our commitment to the other, treating the other as a person rather than merely an object for our own gratification?

What does obedience mean in an age when respect for authority is seen as a quaint, possibly pathetic hangover from an earlier era?

Then again surely all Christians are called to these disciplines. So the the Franciscan way is not something extra so much as an articulation of the way we should already be living.

03 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 3

(3) Jesus calls those who would serve him to follow his example and choose for themselves the same path of renunciation and sacrifice. To those who hear and obey, he promises union with God. 
The object of the Society of Saint Francis is to build a community of those who accept Christ as their Lord and Master, and are dedicated to him in body and spirit. They surrender their lives to him and to the service of his people. The Third Order of the Society consists of those who, while following the ordinary professions of life, feel called to dedicate their lives under a definite discipline and vows. They may be female or male, married or single, ordained or lay.

The Franciscan way is a path of self-surrender and sacrifice, giving myself up to God and for others.

But what does ‘
self-surrender and sacrifice’ mean in practice? There’s a lot of historical baggage attached to those words, baggage that tempts us to think in terms of hair shirts, self-flagellation, and asceticism of all sorts. Small wonder that Christianity is often condemned as joyless and life-hating.

The truth, as Francis was at pains to point out, is the precise opposite of that. If Luther was right about thinking of sin as being turned in upon oneself, the self-surrender that the Franciscan way calls for is the painful, gradual, sacrificial uncurling of oneself and turning outwards towards others. So self-surrender is really about learning to put others’ interests before our own. And those others are not just the usual suspects (family, friends, like-minded individuals), but the real ‘others’ of our society: the lonely and the loners, the bereaved and the suffering, the strangers and aliens (the economic migrants as much as the ‘deserving’ refugees).

02 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 2

(2) In the example of his own sacrifice, Jesus reveals the secret of bearing fruit. In surrendering himself to death, he becomes the source of new life. Lifted from the earth on the cross, he draws all people to himself. Clinging to life causes life to decay; the life that is freely given is eternal.
We should not try to hang on to the present, the known, the safe, the routine. We only really live if we venture into the new, the unknown; if we are willing to experience something new and different. We need to get out of our comfort zone – and that includes meeting new people, particularly people outside the Church.

Clinging to life cause life to decay; the life that is freely given is eternal! This is true in so many ways. The life God wants us to live is an outgoing life. It is no coincidence that one of the classic definitions of sin is an existence that is incurvatus in se, turned in upon itself.

Francis followed Jesus in going out to those who lay beyond the boundaries of respectable society. We are called to follow them in reaching out, in giving our lives to those who are on the outside.

01 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 1

It’s October and Francistide will soon be upon us, so it seemed good to me to devote my blog this month to the Principles of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis (TSSF), which is the Anglican subdivision of the worldwide Franciscan family.

The basis of that which follows is the Rule of the Christa Seva Sangha at Poona. Its successor, the Christa Prema Seva Sangha, had as its English branch the Brotherhood of the Love of Christ, St. Ives, Huntingdonshire, and the latter, when it joined the Brotherhood of Saint Francis of Assisi, and so formed the Society of Saint Francis, transmitted the original Rule. This version was revised in August 2005. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
The Object
(1) Jesus said, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.’ (John 12.24–26)

The Principles begin with a quotation from the Gospels. This highlights the point that the Franciscan vocation is first and foremost about following Jesus.

The grain dies and falls into the earth in order to bear fruit. Only by dying to self can we learn to live for others. This is what Franciscan poverty is truly about.

21 September 2015

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem (2)

A Church of Scotland prayer for peace in the Middle East:


God of justice, bless those who work for peace through justice. Strengthen their resolve in the face of seemingly endless violence. Guide the leaders of the people of the Middle East to know your will and to support a just peace for all of your children.
God of love, lifting up the holy land for all humankind, breathe love and compassion into our prayers with a desire for nothing other than peace: peace in our hearts, peace for all creation, and especially peace in the land that is called holy.

God of hope, we lift up the city of Jerusalem, distracted and divided, yet still filled with promise as all the cities of the world. Come again into our cities, places of worship, Upper Rooms and Gethsemanes, that we may be given sight to recognize you.

God of mercy, even as we long to understand that which is often beyond our comprehension, we lay before you the hearts, minds and bodies of all those suffering from conflict in Palestine and Israel and from the ongoing occupation. Shower upon all the people of the Holy Land the spirit of justice and reconciliation.

God of the nations, give to all our people the blessings of well-being, freedom, and harmony, and, above all things, give us faith in you that we may be strengthened to care for all those in need until the coming of your son, our Saviour and Lord.

Amen.

20 September 2015

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

Today is the beginning of the World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel.

The Jerusalem Prayer (prepared by Christian leaders in Jerusalem for use during the week):

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair.” (2 Corinthians 4.8)
We pray to our Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Rescuer.
You, in your mighty works, O God, have sanctified this land and have made it holy. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, this land has been set apart with a special calling. The continuing political conflict that scars this land and harms all its peoples is a scandal against Your will.
We lament the many forms of violence afflicting people in this land. We grieve that the barrier of separation has split Palestinian communities from one another and sharpened the divide between Palestinian and Israeli societies. This barrier has contributed nothing to justice, and less to peace.
We pray for comfort, for the strength to not lose heart. We pray that the wall and all similar walls will fall.. We believe that the Wall is a “momentary affliction … for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4.16–18). We pray for reconciliation and for peace, as we commit to working for justice for all persons who live in this Holy Land.
As we observe this week with our sisters and brothers around the world, we ask for the strong comfort of the Holy Spirit for all who seek justice in this land. Inspire us to not be content with mere words, but to engage in acts of costly solidarity. Inspire us to be instruments of your peace, the workers of your will.
“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2.14)
Amen

19 August 2015

A Word annoyance resolved

I recently upgraded to Office 2013 and everything seemed OK at first. However, when I subsequently upgraded to Windows 10, Word 2013 started refusing to open files that had been emailed to me, which was a real nuisance since most of my work comes that way.

Clicking on the Help button in the error message led to scary stuff about possible corruption of the file I was trying to open. But why should everything I downloaded be corrupt, and why if that were the case was Word 2007 happy to open the same files?

Initially I worked round the problem by opening the files in Word 2007 and resaving them, which seemed to convince Word 2013 that they were OK. However, having dug about a bit, I have discovered that Word 2013 (combined with Windows 10?) has a new security precaution built in: it simply blocks all downloaded files!

To get round this on a file by file basis, you can go into File properties and manually unblock the file. But for me a better solution was to go into Trust Center (in Word options) and add my entire Documents folder and subfolders to Trusted locations. Problem solved.

12 August 2015

Idealist and Windows 10

As long-time readers of this blog will know my computer use is built around Blackwell Idealist, an ancient database management program which used to be marketed as ‘the information manager’. In addition to it being essential to the bibliographical research and note-taking phases of my workflow, I use it to manage my personal journal, a repository of story and novel ideas, and several other databases. If I add that the date on the copyright page of my copy of the Idealist manual is 1995 (!), you’ll realize why it was with some trepidation that I pressed the button to start my system upgrading to Windows 10 this weekend.

The good news for any other worried Idealist users out there is that the whole upgrade process went smoothly. In fact, this has been the smoothest transition to a new version of Windows in my experience (and my experience encompasses ten different versions since the days of my very first laptop, which ran Windows 3.1 on 4MB of RAM and which I upgraded to Windows for Workgroups in order to make full use of the then cutting-edge 32-bit capabilities of Idealist). Yes, there are a few annoyances (Microsoft will insist that they know better than the user when it comes to all kinds of settings), but the main thing is that Idealist is still working! What is more, my first impression is that it appears to run more smoothly on Windows 10 than it did on Windows 7 (which sometimes seemed to be slow about shutting Idealist down).

So, for any Idealist user worrying about the prospect of Windows 10:

  • Don’t worry. The upgrade should be fine.
  • If you are planning to install Idealist on a shiny new Windows 10 computer: (a) If it’s a 32-bit system, Idealist’s installation program should still work (and once installed, set Windows to run the program in compatibility mode for e.g. Win98). (b) If it’s a 64-bit system, the installation program won’t work. But it is easy to install the program manually. Simply save the folder containing your existing working program (which will most likely be in the Program Files (x86) folder of your current computer) to the Program Files (x86) folder of your new computer, create a shortcut pointing to i32.exe (with the appropriate compatibility setting), and you’re ready to go.
  • You should probably devise a viable migration strategy anyway. Idealist may have survived to work with another generation of Windows but it is over 20 years old. Sooner or later 32-bit programs will go the way of their 8-bit and 16-bit predecessors.

19 June 2015

Nonviolent Action

A review of Ronald J. Sider, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015.

This little volume by Ron Sider consists mainly of a series of studies of examples of non-violent direct action (NVDA). The text is divided into four parts: ‘Proving it Works’ explores early developments in NVDA, the contributions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and the role of NVDA in the recent history of Nicaragua and the Philippines. Part 2 focuses more closely on the part NVDA played in the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Part 3 examines ‘Recent Victories’, including Liberia and the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. The concluding part is a call to action, which proposes that the clear successes of NVDA warrant its use as a moral alternative to war.

The book amounts to an extended pragmatic argument for NVDA based on a carefully selected series of cases. Since it is a relatively short book, a high degree of selectivity is necessary. But that very selectivity is also a weakness, particularly in view of the fact that all the examples he examines were successful. What about occasions when NVDA has failed (e.g. in China, Burma, or Bahrain)?

Sider’s selectivity seems to extend to his definition of NVDA. He seems to focus exclusively on mass protests against what modern liberal-minded Americans would regard as oppressive regimes. What about strikes, boycotts, and pickets? What about the Sanctuary Movement? What about prophetic/symbolic protests against nuclear weapons? What about the Occupy Movement? He avoids examples of NVDA directed against Western government policies, big business, the military-industrial complex, and those who threaten the environment. In other words, he avoids anything that might offend large sections of his potential readership.

Who is the book addressing? In the final section, Sider seems to direct his remarks at two main constituencies. On the one hand, he wants to wake up Western Christian pacifists who are too passive (complacent?) in their pacifism and who underestimate their capacity to bring about real change by taking appropriate (non-violent) action. On the other hand, he uses his collection of successful cases of NVDA as a stick with which to beat Western Christian advocates of just war theory. I felt this criticism was unfair since just war theory is about placing moral limits on the way a government wages war rather than being a defence of the use of violence per se.

In conclusion, this is a useful introductory study of major successful twentieth-century examples of NVDA. However, it fails to offer anything but a pragmatic justification for the use of NVDA. The reader will search in vain for any theoretical theological or philosophical underpinning. Sider fails to recognize when or why NVDA might fail. It would be very instructive to compare/contrast the political/cultural contexts of successful and unsuccessful cases. More generally, he fails to draw any practical lessons from the cases studied. Are there common factors that might be woven into a strategy for the successful deployment of NVDA? So while the book might be helpful to newcomers to the concept of non-violent action, it will be of very limited use to scholars or practitioners.

09 April 2015

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: theologian and martyr

Today is the seventieth anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution in Flossenburg concentration camp. His last words to a fellow inmate were, ‘This is the end – but for me, the beginning – of life.’ His life, and particularly his death, is a salutary reminder to all Christians that we cannot avoid being political. As Christians, we do not have the luxury to remain silent;

Bonhoeffer is primarily remembered for his theology and his opposition to Hitler, but he also wrote a number of hymns and poems. Here is a translation of his best-known hymn (which if I remember correctly he wrote while in prison). The words seem peculiarly appropriate:

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be Yours alone.

23 February 2015

The Myth of the Market

A review of The Myth of the Market by Jeremy Seabrook (Black Rose Books, 1996)

Jeremy Seabrook’s book is a damning indictment of free market economics. He writes as a disillusioned socialist who has witnessed the total capitulation of democratic socialism (and, more recently, totalitarian socialism) to the content, if not the rhetoric, of free market ideology.

The book divides naturally into three parts: an initial analysis of the ideology (or mythology) of the market; a central section in which the author goes ‘walkabout’, illustrating his claims about the shortcomings of the market (or caring capitalism) from first-hand experience of places as diverse as Bombay and Glasgow, Rome and Lapland, even prosperous Illinois furnishes him with ammunition; finally, he reverts to a more analytical approach.

His case against capitalism is that the goods it promises are largely illusory. Far from being the agent of human emancipation, the free market reduces freedom to the freedom to spend (if you have money). It even fails to provide genuine freedom of choice since our spending patterns are increasingly dictated by the advertisers and image makers. Accompanying this narrowing of freedom is the gradual reduction of human beings to consumers: creativity and genuine individuality are crushed as we become increasingly dependent on the market.

The book is passionate, emotive, even tendentious in places. After reading it, I felt battered and depressed by the absence of any alternatives to global capitalism. Seabrook presents a nightmare vision of a global free market leading ultimately to apocalyptic totalitarianism. He does call upon Greens to resist but gives no clues as to how resistance might be organized.

In a sense, he fails to take his own analysis seriously enough. I recognized in his description of the free market all the hallmarks of a religion. Granted he does describe the market as the object of a quasi-religious cult, and he clearly sees the purveyors of fantasy in all its forms as the mediators of a substitute spirituality. However, he seems unaware of the sheer psychological force of a living religion. Money and the market are so successful precisely because they are archetypal in character. If you like, they are the loci of genuine (albeit, demonic) spiritual power. The Bible’s presentation of the first-century Mediterranean economy as Mammon remains uncomfortably relevant in the twenty-first century.

For Christians, this book offers a salutary reminder and a challenge. It reminds us that Western society, far from being secular, is intensely religious. His diagnosis of what ails our society is extremely helpful. However, we must beware of his pessimistic conclusions. The challenge is to show how the good news of Jesus Christ can be a practical and optimistic form of resistance to Mammon/the market.

16 February 2015

Christianity is a way of life

One of the blogs I follow has just published an entry on Islam, which begins thus:
Many centuries have passed since there was any meaningful dialogue between Muslims and Christians, mainly because the two religions are like chalk and cheese. Christianity is a profoundly theological faith: Islam, like Judaism, is a way of life. . . . because Islam is first and foremost a way of life it has no detailed theology of, for example, sin and salvation; and where it does venture into theology it is usually only to deny Christian beliefs.
I find this deeply disturbing. It is profoundly wrong (perhaps even heretical) to set up such a contrast between Christianity and Islam.

Such a contrast misrepresents Islam. The implicit dismissal of it as (merely) a way of life and the explicit description of its theological traditions in entirely negative terms (as nothing more than a reaction against Christian doctrine) betrays a profound ignorance of its theological depths. One merely has to think of the sophisticated schools of classical Islam that preserved and built upon Greek philosophy (and thereby helped to enrich Christian theology in the Middle Ages).

But the contrast also misrepresents Christianity (and herein lies its heretical potential). Of course Christianity is ‘profoundly theological’. But it is first and foremost, like Islam and Judaism, a way of life. Indeed, as a Christian, I view it as the way of life – according to Brother Francis, the vita evangelica, the form of life that is shaped by the good news of Jesus Christ. It is only secondarily theological, since as part of that gospel life we are called to love the Lord our God with all our minds. Theology serves the Christian life by articulating it and enabling us to discern what is and what is not an authentic expression of that life. Any account of theology that elevates theology above praxis runs the risk of degenerating into a new gnosticism in which right doctrine matters more than right behaviour.

NB I am not for a minute suggesting that the author is a heretic, or even that he seriously believes in the contrast his words seem to create, merely that he has expressed himself badly.

09 February 2015

Spirituality and the Secular Quest: a review

Peter H. Van Ness (ed.) Spirituality and the Secular Quest (London: SCM Press, 1996)

I begin my reflections on this massive volume with some trepidation. This latest addition to a series entitled ‘World Spirituality: An encyclopaedic history of the religious quest’ is certainly a very ambitious project. Given that we live in a predominantly secular era, the editors of the series felt that, for the sake of completeness, they needed a volume exploring the spiritual dimension of secular beliefs and practices. The result is a very diverse collection of papers grouped in broadly historical and broadly thematic contributions. The historical section tackles the roots of secularism together with various key phases and movements within the modern era. The thematic section attempts to encompass the bewildering diversity of beliefs and practices for which people might claim a spiritual dimension today. Most readers will find something in here of interest and relevance to their own situations.

Inevitably the quality of the contributions is uneven. Many of them are thought provoking. Several of them are quite hard going, demanding some familiarity with the technical jargon of contemporary critical theory. I also felt that several contributors were uneasy with their brief. As I read the book, the image that came to mind more than once was of ugly sisters trying in vain to make their feet fit a glass slipper.

In spite of the wealth of valuable material contained in these pages, by the end of the volume I too felt uneasy about the entire venture. The sheer breadth of the volume raises a serious question. If gay leathersex sadomasochism can count as a spiritual practice (pp. 344–6), is it possible to conceive of anything that would not count as spiritual? The encyclopaedic nature of the book suggests that it is both descriptive and comprehensive. There is certainly little indication that the authors are aware of any significant omissions.

Nevertheless, I am conscious of important areas of life that this book has simply ignored (and, by that marginalization, condemned as inherently unspiritual). The editor's working definition of spirituality is a good place to begin an attempt to identify these margins. Van Ness summarises the spiritual dimension of life as ‘the embodied task of realising one’s truest self in the context of reality apprehended as a cosmic totality’ (p. 5).

In the context of modernity (which, after all, is the cultural context of any book that focuses on contemporary secularity), the definition is disturbingly narrow. Modernity invariably interprets self in individualistic terms. Thus, in answering the question where is spirituality to be found in a secular age, the contributors have, mostly, shied away from the public sphere. Spirituality only appears to enter the public arena insofar as it concerns the personal identity of people in minorities and special interest groups (specifically feminists, gays, civil rights activists, and environmentalists). The spirituality inherent in scientific enquiry (or in academic methodology generally) is equated with the attitude of the individual practitioner. Similarly the treatment of the spirituality of arts, sports, and games focuses on the individual. For example, we are assured that even in a team game the sportsman is ultimately alone. Tell that to the footballer whose team has just lost a match because a team-mate scored an own goal!

It is tempting to accept this as a description of spirituality in a secular era. We could take this as another manifestation of the sharp dichotomy between public and private that prevails in the modern world. The social processes of objectification and rationalisation have evacuated the public sphere of meaning and value. In such a situation, where else should we seek meaning (and spirituality) but in the private sphere?

However, the fact that secularisation has led to a quest for spiritual experience in the private sphere, does not imply that the public sphere is inherently non-spiritual. On the contrary, as Walter Wink has argued very powerfully in his ‘Powers’ trilogy, our public institutions invariably possess a spiritual dimension.

Why does this matter? Because of an unspoken but patently false assumption about the nature of spirituality. According to Van Ness, the spiritual dimension of life is about self-fulfilment. It is entirely positive and beneficial. In view of the history of spiritual practice, I can only describe this as a naively optimistic view of spirituality. One contributor suggests that sadomasochism between consenting adults may be an aid to spiritual growth. However, what if I feel that a spot of child sex abuse or some human sacrifice would aid my spiritual development? Where do the grotesque self-mutilations of a St Rose of Lima figure in such a view of spirituality? What should I make of Adolf Hitler – an indisputably evil man, but one whose evil was tied into a very charismatic spirituality? Like every other aspect of human experience, the spiritual dimension of life is morally ambiguous and must be subject to an ethical critique.

In practice, the contributors to this volume do make implicit ethical critiques of their subject matter. For example, exploitative forms of sexuality are explicitly excluded from consideration in the chapter on gay spirituality. Other contributors are critical of consumerist tendencies in contemporary spirituality. However, the volume’s silence on the spiritual dimension of our public life prevents even such a limited critique of this. Yet because this aspect of our existence has been consistently neglected in the modern era, this is precisely the area that is most in need of conscious and critical scrutiny.

Perhaps the most powerful public spirituality of the late twentieth century is the spirituality of the market. Radical economists like Jeremy Seabrook acknowledge its archetypal status. Seabrook highlights our tendency to use religious and quasi-religious terminology in relation to the market. He also notes the way in which economic language invades other areas of human activity. Of course, Seabrook is not the first person to acknowledge the spiritual dimension of the market. Within the Christian tradition, we call it Mammon.

Closely related to the market is the military–industrial complex that was such an important part of the Cold War. Walter Wink has explored its spiritual dimension in some depth in the final volume of his ‘Powers’ trilogy: Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991). Other distinctive features of our public world that have a clear bearing on the spiritual dimension of life include the mass media and the global information network.

From a Christian perspective, genuine spirituality can never be merely a matter of private spiritual practice. Even if we accept Van Ness’s definition of spirituality as the quest for self-fulfilment (a dubious view of what would count as spirituality within the Christian traditions), our understanding of human nature requires us to acknowledge the public dimension of spirituality. God did not create us as isolated individuals. According to Genesis 1, ‘male and female he created them’, i.e. as part of a network of social relationships. True self-fulfilment – achievement of the purpose for which God created us – is not possible apart from this network. Thus, in the quest for a Christian spirituality for a postmodern era, we should not be content with the narrow space in which modernity has attempted to confine spirituality. Quite apart from the impact we might have upon society, our own spiritual growth depends upon our finding Christian ways of being spiritual in the workplace, on the Internet, in the market.

It would, of course, be unfair to criticise this volume for failing to provide a Christian perspective on its subject matter. In spite of my reservations, it remains a thought-provoking overview of the spiritual quest in a secular era. Those who are called to think seriously about contemporary Christian spirituality would do well to ponder its contents (and its omissions).

10 January 2015

Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology

Review of Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A. J. Swoboda, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Practice, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014.

In this recent addition to the burgeoning literature on ecotheology, a diverse team of evangelical theologians set out to introduce an evangelical ecotheology.

The volume is structured in four parts. They begin with methodological issues. An autobiographical introduction suggests that this book has arisen out of their personal experiences of environmental crisis. Chapter 2 takes us to Scripture – the predictable starting point for an evangelical approach to the environment but also the appropriate starting point for any orthodox Christian perspective on the subject. Thus in our engagement with the environment they recommend that we return constantly to the biblical witness, while maintaining a dialogue with the various Christian traditions and always conscious of the fallibility of our interpretations. They take for granted the popular metaphor of the two books: Scripture and creation are equally revelatory; and they warn against reading creation in ways that might lead us to romanticize, deify, or, spiritualize it. And they conclude the chapter with a brief survey of biblical reasons for creation care. In the following chapter, they pick up and further develop the theme of creation as revelatory.

Part II is an introductory exploration of ecotheology, beginning with a whistle-stop tour of how Christian traditions have viewed the natural environment, which admits the ambivalence of most of those traditions but nevertheless gives the reader an impressive introductory list of resources for further development of an ecotheology. The other two chapters of the section are devoted to a systematic survey of the major theological loci and how they relate to environmental issues.

With Part III, we turn from theory to Christian ecological practice. This is not so much because of the traditional Western intellectual prejudice that prioritizes theoria over praxis, but rather because for Christianity the two are inseparable: by their fruit shall ye know them and a theology that does not bear good fruit must always be questionable. After a discussion of what is involved in developing an ecotheological mindset, the authors embark on an exposition of good ecological behaviour for individual Christians in which they outline no fewer than ten spiritual/ecological disciplines. The final chapter of the section recalls that as believers we are not isolated individuals but members of a community as it explores ways of greening the Church.

In a brief concluding section, they highlight a distinctive feature of Christian environmental care: it is rooted in a specific hope – the restoration of all things. And they flesh out some of the characteristics of Christian hope as they relate to the environment.

The book certainly offers ample resources for someone embarking on an orthodox Christian exploration of environmental issues, but in what ways is it distinctively evangelical? Starting as it does with the Trinity, their systematic account of ecotheology suggests a post-Barthian perspective (albeit one informed by wide reading in the major Christian theological traditions) rather than a distinctively evangelical outlook. I must confess I was left wondering whether the approach is described as ‘evangelical’ simply because the authors self-identify as such.

One striking feature of the book is its perspective. This is particularly evident in the chapter on embodying down-to-earth living. For example, they offer, inter alia, an ecological examen, which includes such questions as ‘What kind of car do you drive?’ ‘How often do you fly?’ and ‘How often do you select cleaning products that are biodegradable or nontoxic?’ And they recommend buying a stainless steel thermos so that you can drink tap water while on the move rather than buying bottled water! This is environmentalism for suburban, middle class North America.

In conclusion, this is a well-written volume, and while it does not break new ground in ecotheology (evangelical or otherwise) it is a useful introduction for newcomers to ecotheology who want something written from an orthodox Christian perspective.