So that was 2007

A year which began in the most wonderful manner.

The year I outlined Let us Be Human, which contains anything that I might have of significance to communicate to the world.

Also the year in which I worked through a number of my issues about evangelicalism – which has changed me in some ways I haven’t yet fully understood.

The year I joined a gym, at last – and put on a lot of weight whilst simultaneously lowering my body fat index. I also grew my pony-tail again – which I haven’t had since 1991 or so. My brother thinks it makes me look like Francis Rossi….

A year in which I calmed down in many ways (some probably not apparent to the outside world yet), especially with regard to church. My decision to lay George Herbert to rest has a lot to do with that.

A year in which my musical re-awakening proceeded apace, which was creatively cathartic. That latter post is one of the ones I’m most proud of writing – as was this one. I think those writings are what of most permanent value from this blog – even if only for me!

The year I attended a festival for the first time.

I read lots of books.

I watched lots of film and TV series (including Dexter which I greatly enjoyed and will do a proper write up of soon).

A year our eldest decided that he actively wanted to go to school, so we gave up on homeschooling – not without reservations.

A year of continuing to read lots of blogs – I’m now about 18 months behind on my reading of the Times Literary Supplement!! My actual blogroll is distinctly different to that listed on this page – I just haven’t had a chance to update yet. In particular, the blogs I read have continued to shift away from the political and towards the Biblical. I have most especially enjoyed meeting some fellow bloggers in the flesh – and I hope to continue to meet more as time goes on.

And, of course, a year in which my photography moved on a stage.

(2005 here; 2006 here)

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (2): Doctrine

This was going to be in two parts – Scripture and Doctrine – but I realise that the latter has many more elements in it that I would like to unpick, and I think a sequence of short posts spread over time will be more helpful. So there will be another five or six after this one.

What are the most important doctrines in the Christian faith? I would say the following are the most central and distinctive:
1. The resurrection – the unique event, incomparable, sui generis – upon which all else rests. Without it our faith is in vain, with it the world turns around and we are free. Sin is conquered, liberty is proclaimed to the captives. Et cetera.
2. The incarnation – a consequence of the resurrection, whereby Jesus of Nazareth is proclaimed Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The purpose of all creation, that through which the entire cosmos is formed and led – this has come amongst us, full of grace and truth. The primary revelation of the nature of God. That which cannot be reasoned or deduced – our eyes are opened from the outside – God comes to us and shows us the light. Thus, incarnation includes salvation – or (following Finlan) theosis is more foundational than atonement – and, I would argue, language of the Fall belongs as a subset of this doctrine, rather than independently.
3. The Trinitarian nature of God – that God is found in relationship – that we are invited into that relationship which exists apart from our own desires and understandings, and that in that relationship we find our most authentic and telic existence.
4. The doctrine of creation – that the world and all that is in it is created by this triune God – that we are creatures dependent upon the eternal sustenance of the Creator – we are held in being, held up by love.

Seems to me that these are the central and most distinctive Christian doctrines. In what way does the notion of the Virgin Birth affirm them, or deny them? Historically the link has been with the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is what I’m going to focus in on in more detail with future posts. But I would say that at most the Virgin Birth helps to affirm Incarnation, but has nothing to do with the others – and even that helpful role is now open to question.

What makes me angry with (some) atheists

Scott g asked me why I lose calm when discussing matters related to atheism, which I’ve been pondering. At root I don’t agree that it isn’t about praxis, although I accept that the link is not direct.

I think there are two sorts of atheist criticism, and one of them riles me, the other doesn’t at all (in fact I find it rather congenial – oops, there might be more on that another time).

The first sort I associate with Dawkins and his ilk, and it is by far the most common sort that I encounter (admittedly this might be triggered by people discovering who I am and what I do). This tends towards supercilious condescension (The God Delusion etc) and is convinced of its own intellectual superiority. This riles me because for various reasons I see it as not only intellectually inadequate but manifestly inadequate; that is, any fair minded investigation of the debate would undoubtedly consider the Dawkins critique to be not just false but foolish too (think of Terry Eagleton’s famous evisceration of that book). In other words, what engages me here is a conviction that the truth matters – and these sorts of atheists seem not to care about truth.

Now the second sort of atheist is rather different to this – and in fact, the variety of this second sort is much greater and more interesting than the uniformity of the first sort. Perhaps a better label would be ‘non-Christian’ rather than atheist, because I would include people with all sorts of diverse understandings here, eg Buddhists, pragmatists, MoQists and so on. Such people can criticise Christian understandings much more radically than the Dawkins-style fulminations because they are a) more educated and understanding of mainstream Christian thought, and b) they accept the reality and necessity for rejecting science as the primary boundary marker for knowledge and wisdom. In other words this second sort of ‘atheist’ is living in the same world that I’m living in, and we can have all sorts of productive conversations – and we do.

Really what my “thresholds” were about were fencing off the first sorts of atheists; or, perhaps a bit more defensible, they are ways for me to work out what sort of atheist I am engaging with. I really enjoy and value the conversations I have with the second sort, but not the first, which I find frustrating. Now that is a spiritual issue, because I don’t think that this reaction of frustration and anger is a defensible one; it’s a fault in me. Hence I need to try and cultivate my inner calm.


My beloved thought that I was down and in need of a boost, so took me off for a whirlwind trip to Paris, leaving boys with Granny (thanks Granny!) and just the little girl for company. The above photo was the first one I took, just after walking out of our hotel door. I hadn’t changed the setting away from monochrome, but I quite like the result.

On the ‘allee des cygnes’.

Doing my usual thing. Not wondering ‘where’s the beach’…

In our walks around the city we were very struck by the passionate intensity of the public sculpture – quite a contrast to that on display in London.

My wife is a big Rodin fan.

The French love their straight lines.

Our Lady of Paris.

On the way home.

Thresholds for a sensible conversation with an atheist

I’ve been musing – in between sneezes and christmas pudding – about what is needed to have an intelligent conversation with an atheist; that is, a conversation which has some chance of fostering growth in understanding on either side. There are general things to do with civil debate and openness to changing of minds, but there are some more specific needs as well. So I thought I’d jot these down (I’m sure an atheist could come up with some reciprocal ones from their side!).

1. The atheist needs to either understand, or be willing to be taught, the concept of idolatry. This is not new-fangled ‘liberalism’, this is the main root of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In brief, God is not a member of a class – any class. That class can be ‘existing things’ or ‘beings’ or ‘good’ – all of these fail to capture God. So often the understanding of God being rejected is not one that a moderately trained theologian could accept. As Denys Turner puts it, the atheist hasn’t even reached the ‘theologically necessary levels of denial’. A usual response at this stage is to say ‘well you and the theologians might believe that, but most Christians (Muslims/Jews) don’t!’ Well, that may or may not be true, but it’s a juvenile clouding of the issues. If we’re going to have a serious debate then we need to engage with the best exemplars of the tradition, the ones with most influence. It would be like saying that science is evil because of Mengele’s experiments.

2. Related to this, the atheist needs to have a broader sense of historical perspective that that dominated by post-Enlightenment controversies. If the arguments for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity are all centred on, eg, literalistic claims in Genesis vs geological evidence then we’re not going to get very far. Those arguments were generated by the scientific revolution, that is, the theological force of Ussher or Paley is within an already scientific epistemology. If that epistemology is not accepted – in other words if there is an epistemology with much broader and deeper roots in the Christian tradition being employed – then those arguments are frankly not very interesting. A different way of saying this is that you don’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a Christian – indeed the overwhelming majority of Christians in time and space are NOT fundamentalists, and it would be helpful if this were acknowledged by the atheist.

3. Putting that same point in a different register: the atheist needs to understand the grammar of religious faith, that is, that religious faith doesn’t function as an inadequate precursor of scientific investigation. The role that the language of belief plays within the life of a Christian is not at all like that which the language of science plays in the life of (say) a biologist. It is integrated with a much broader way of life. Unless that is understood then the conversation never begins. Practice gives the words their sense; religious believers do things with words!

I think if these three elements were in place then a much more interesting conversation could result. I’d be interested to know what the equivalent requests would be from the atheist side. Possibly: “don’t assume you have to believe in God to be good”?