TBLA(9): the idolatry of romantic love (i)

This is slightly out of my intended sequence, but it is prompted by something I found here which I think is extremely well-expressed: “What nearly all modern Christians have done is place romantic love above marriage. Instead of seeing marriage as the moral context to pursue romantic love and sex, romantic love is now seen as the moral place to experience sex and marriage. This inversion is subtle enough that no one seems to have noticed, but if you look for it you will see it everywhere. Lifetime marriage, with separate defined roles for husband and wife and true commitment is what makes sex and romantic love moral in the biblical view. In our new view, romantic love makes sex moral, and the purpose of marriage is to publicly declare that you are experiencing the highest form of romantic love.”

This is why we have become so snagged on the arguments around gay marriage. If we take it that pair-bonding romantically is the esse of a marriage, then there is no substantial reason to deny marriage to gay couples. It is simply a matter for individual choice. If, in contrast, marriage in its esse involves the raising of children, then the structuring of the marriage bond has to reflect that. That is the traditional Christian and biblical view (of which Dalrock is an exponent).

What the idolatry of romantic love has done is to distort all our values on this subject. Romantic infatuation is well known to be fleeting, and the neuroscience involved is becoming increasingly well understood. The effects of this value shift – structuring our understandings of marriage around romance – are all around us, in the form of divorce and shattered families and all the havoc that has followed.

This is not to say that romance doesn’t have its place, it is to say that we cannot structure a society on the basis of something so shallow. Life, and most especially the raising and forming of new life, is too important to be left to that.

The joy of good, live theatre

Courier article
Well, after an enjoyable cameo role in the panto I’ve managed to get myself a substantial part in the next Mersea Island Players production at the MICA. I’m acting as the director of a small amateur dramatic society, who at one point is rehearsing a part acting as a vicar, so I’m definitely cast against type.

In amidst all the enjoyable strains of learning lines and rehearsing I’ve been thinking about the nature of the theatre, and why ‘good, live theatre’ is an irreplaceable experience. I say that despite being something of a movie addict myself, who hardly ever goes to watch live performances any more. So why do I think theatre is irreplaceable? Well, it’s similar to the difference between work which is done by craft and that which is manufactured.

With live theatre, the emphasis is upon the particular moment. There is something happening in this place and at this time – there are real human beings watching and being watched – and, of course, there is the ever-present risk of something going wrong, whether that be forgetting lines or having an accident or lighting failure and so on. In other words, there is something unique about live theatre as an event. Contrast this with a movie, especially a modern blockbuster. The very essence of what is happening is that it is both manufactured and repeatable. Rather than a direct human interaction between performer and audience, the actors are often recorded in front of a ‘green screen’ on which all the special effects will later be portrayed. This is a fascinating process, and the results range from the awful (Star Wars prequels) to the groundbreaking (the Matrix) yet even when the results are good, it is a very different experience to watch a movie rather than a play.

There is something undeniably primitive about watching another human being act out a story. Small children know and enjoy this intuitively, and will happily play dress-up and act out stories for hours on end. Adults often have that sense of excited wonder drained out of them by all the vicissitudes of life – and the wonderful thing about ‘good, live theatre’ is that is provides a context in which that sense of wonder and engagement can be resurrected. It’s not an accident that I’m using religious language there, for there is an ancient link between theatre and religious ritual – indeed, there is an ongoing academic debate about which emerged from the other. Was it that religious ritual was a particular form of theatre, or that theatre was a particular form of ritual? Whichever is the case, the nature of being able to share in a common experience, journeying through a common story and being changed by that process – this is right at the heart of what makes theatre so special.

This was well known to the ancient Greeks, from whom much of our understanding of theatre descends. They talked about something called ‘theōria’ – a word that has come down to us as ‘theory’ but, as is so often the case, that ‘coming down to us’ is a descent in more ways than one. For the Greeks, theōria was something immensely practical. Aristotle argued that theōria, the philosophical consideration of the nature of things, is the highest and most enjoyable activity there can be, it is the central purpose of the best possible human life. To our ears, this sounds like something very abstract and almost passive. In translations of Aristotle, theōria is normally rendered as ‘contemplation’ which suggests a single, steady gaze held on a single impressive object, like a telescope focused on the peak of a high mountain. This is very much not what Aristotle had in mind. On the contrary, what Aristotle had in mind was something called “sacralized spectating” – the sort of very vigorous and engaged communal experience that comes from a community watching something like the Olympic Games together (either then or now) – or, of course, watching a tragedy in the theatre at Athens. In other words, to participate by watching is at the heart of what the greatest thinkers in antiquity felt was the best sort of life. Our modern media gives us many ways in which to do this – and a dark movie theatre is a very good way in which to do this – yet there is something irreplaceable about ‘good, live theatre’. It is unique, it is profoundly engaging, and it is chthonically human.

Which is why we on Mersea are so extremely fortunate to have the MICA centre available for such productions, and if my view of how the coming years are likely to unfold has any merit, I believe that we will be making much more use of such community resources in the future. To have a neutral community space that can be adapted for such a purpose is a great blessing – long may it last. So please do come along! There are two one-act plays being performed each night on Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th May at 7.30pm. They contain adult content (theme and language) and even though I’m partisan, I do think that the scripts are hilarious – the plays have been performed to great acclaim at the Edinburgh festival for example. I just hope that we actors can do justice to the lines…

Being a church in exile – what changes?

If we are living ‘post-Christendom’ then we are, in effect, living in Exile. Where once the institutions of society and state paid their respects in Christian terms, now the church is told to ‘get with the programme’ and fit in with the secular imperatives. That which the church once took for granted is now not only taken away from us but forbidden to us.

What I am wondering about is how we in the church will change to accommodate this new spiritual reality. Yes, there are lots of echoes of the early church environment but at that point everything was new. Now the most dominant perception of Christianity in the wider community is that it is old and outdated, something already proven to be false. Instead of a simple proclamation of the gospel in conventional terms, evangelism depends upon being rather more sly – at least, it does if it has integrity, and isn’t simply aping the cultural forms that are temporarily dominant.

When the Jews were in Babylon, their entire understanding of faith shifted. The Temple was no more, so all of the worship that had been centred upon the Temple simply ceased to exist – and the spiritual needs that had been met that way were then sublimated and turned to a different direction. Most especially, this was the time when the Jewish community began to emphasise the text, and the meetings that gathered around the text, ie the synagogue. The Text replaced the Temple.

I am simply wondering what Christians are called to do in a parallel context. One option is simply to repeat the inherited truths more loudly – this is what I see many churches doing, both evangelical and Radical Orthodox. Another option is assimilation into the wider culture; another option is simply a resigned despair, the acceptance that we will go down with the ship and let God look after what comes next.

What are the equivalents of the Temple in Jerusalem for Christians today? In a phrase: Word and Sacrament. I believe that what the Spirit is leading us to is an abandonment of both Word and Sacrament as those things have been dominantly understood in Christendom. I do not believe that it is possible to have the same attitude to a text – any text – as has historically been common for understanding the Bible. Similarly, I am starting to believe that it is impossible to have the same understanding of the sacraments in a world that has become thoroughly disenchanted and secularised. Of course, it is possible to come to an appreciation of both Word and Sacrament as a result of deep training – I would describe my own understanding as a fruit of such a process – but I see no way in which that can become an effective means for transmitting the gospel. In a society which treated words as sacred, or that treated objects as always potentially significant, sharing the gospel and the bread and wine is not inherently problematic. It is as if the playing field itself has shifted. Christianity as against the Greek gods or other Christianities can make all sorts of sense – for some of the most significant things are retained in common. The challenge is simply to show that Christianity gives the best answers to the questions.

Yet our situation is one where the questions have changed. If you understand questions of sin and redemption to be significant, that is a context in which the proclamation of the gospel can make sense. Yet what if such questions are seen as inherently neurotic? In other words, it is not that you are seeking an answer to these questions, you simply want to stop those questions being asked in the first place? (Yes, Mr Wittgenstein is hovering behind this thought).

In other words, the fundamental spiritual hunger has shifted. Such things have happened before – the time of Exile was one such, and Christ’s own ministry cannot be understood without understanding all the implications that exile had upon Jewish life (see Margaret Barker for more on this).

As I see it, the fundamental spiritual hunger, in the West at least, is no longer about salvation but about self-realisation. It is as if the metaphysics has been ‘bracketed out’ or ‘cancelled out’ – like with an algebraic equation. That is, all the issues about the after life, the salvation of souls, heaven and hell – these simply no longer have any purchase. That which was described in such terms, the use to which that language was put, such things are still real – but that language is no longer fit for purpose.

The language of a victorious YHWH made no sense in the evnironment of Babylon – and the response was the language of the suffering servant. It seems to me that we are in a situation where the language of the suffering servant makes no more sense and we are having to explore something different once again. The real question is whether the resources of Christianity are deep enough to enable that something new to retain continuity with the old, or whether the Spirit simply wants a break with what has gone before.

Such things I shall continue to ponder. It may simply be, of course, that I am simply wanting to find a form of church that would enable me to become more truly myself…

This is a train of thought inspired by reading Graham’s post

He’s not the Messiah…

Courier article


In his first Easter sermon, the new Archbishop of Canterbury warned against placing too high hopes upon any one individual – what he called ‘hero leader culture’ – for such hopes shall always end up being dashed. He set out some very sane and sensible principles for how to understand his term of office. Most especially, he said “Human sin means pinning hopes on individuals is always a mistake, and assuming that any organisation is able to have such good systems that human failure will be eliminated is naïve.”

Why are we so keen to have such a ‘hero leader’? It seems unarguable that, as a society, we do look for such people. I believe that it is one of the symptoms of the collapse of our culture. Whereas in a society which was structured around Christianity there was a clear understanding of who the Messiah actually is – the resurrected one – in our society, which is filled with fragments of a Christian understanding, there is a constant jostling for that role. The desire for a Messiah remains, it is simply that all the candidates must, inevitably, come up short.

People still want to be saved – but saved from what? In different times and places that can be answered in diverse ways. The Jews at the time of Jesus wanted to be saved from Roman occupation, and so they were looking for a new King David who would kick out the foreign legions. In the Middle Ages, the issue was a corrupt church in which salvation could be purchased, and a ‘ hero leader’ emerged called Martin Luther, and millions died in the wars that followed. In our time the issues are different. I believe that what people most want to be saved from in our time is the burden of choice.

Choice, after all, is one of the principal organising values of our society. Ponder how far all the advertising in our society is predicated upon this particular value, and what influence that advertising taken as a whole has upon the population. For example, in the half-time period of a football match there will be a sequence of adverts on the television – for cars and beer, cleaning products and insurance, mobile phones or perfume. Every single one is saying ‘choose this’, and so, deeper than the diversity of options being presented there is a resoundingly loud drumbeat of propaganda shouting ‘You must choose!’ ‘You must choose!’ ‘You must choose!’

I think people are fed up with this. They want the noise to go away. The prospect of a hero leader offers up a psychological space wherein the power of choice is abandoned, and the burden of choosing is handed over to the leader to be exercised upon our behalf. The relief that we feel when the hero has arrived is immense. We no longer have to make a personal response to all the propaganda. It seems that we no longer have to carry the weight of the world upon our own shoulders. The hero will sort it out! Hence we have a particular news cycle – perpetuated by the media in order that newspapers will be sold and therefore they will be paid by the advertisers – wherein human beings are raised up only in order to be torn down, and then replaced by the next ‘hero’ from the production line. As Welby put it, “Setting people or institutions up to heights where they cannot but fail is mere cruelty.”

The irony is that the genuine Messiah died in order to set us free from such a cycle. It is because the Messiah has already come that a Christian can be set free from searching for another. We don’t need another hero. We simply need faithful discipleship. The paradox of following a Christian life is that, by taking on all the traditional disciplines, which seem to take away our freedom, we actually gain the spiritual space that we most hunger for. When a person colludes with the fantasy of ‘hero leader culture’ both leader and follower are setting themselves up for inevitable disappointment – and at that point, the hero worship turns into the scapegoating process and we end up binding the policeman into the Wicker Man as a sacrifice to the gods.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, understood this extremely well. I believe that he modelled a form of leadership that was genuinely Christian, and that was profoundly marked by a distancing from the ‘hero leader culture’ that so deforms the church. Of course, that was why so many people were disappointed in him. Why didn’t he stand up for this faction rather than another faction? Why didn’t he give a clear lead? He did not do so because he did not wish to short-circuit the necessary path of Christian growth for the church. The Church of England – indeed, the wider Anglican Communion – is torn apart by various divisions of greater and lesser seriousness. The way through such problems is not found by allowing one of the factions to win at the expense of another. On the contrary, the only genuinely Christian path through such conflict is to ‘hold the ring’ in such a way that a conversation between the warring parties can be continued. This is why Rowan’s Lambeth Conference featured the ‘indaba’ meetings, which had as their aim “an attempt to find a common mind or a common story that everyone is able to tell when they go away from it”. Christian unity is not through premature purity – that is what has led to the ten thousand denominations, each of which are convinced that they have the one true faith, but each of which is best characterised by the feeling of ‘at least we don’t have to put up with them any more’.

Archbishop Welby has absorbed this point well. In his Easter sermon he said this: “A joyful and celebratory church is based not in vain human optimism but in the certainty that God raised Jesus from the dead and will also raise us. As a result we know our fallibility and become merciful with each other, we know God’s call and never give up working for and expecting a new shape and life to the church.” In other words, if we can but recognise the true Messiah, we no longer have to seek and accept any inferior substitutes, and that will be a blessing for both leaders and led. Then, just maybe, we might be able to cooperate in building a better future for us all.

Those interested in the theology around this issue might like to look at this book.

Is the gospel an effective vehicle for the gospel?

It is a fairly standard enquiry to ask whether the Church of England (or any other) is an ‘effective vehicle for the gospel’ – whether, that is, the particular institutional forms are such as to make the gospel more readily intelligible to those who have not heard the good news. Often, the answer might be ‘it is the best boat to fish from’ (an answer that I’m less and less persuaded of).

However, that’s not where I want to go with today’s post. I want to just muse out loud on this related question: is the gospel an effective vehicle for the gospel? In other words, if a committed Christian believer understands the life of faith to be one in which meaning and integrity, joy and fulfillment can be found – is the language of the gospel the most effective vehicle for communicating and sharing this?

This is a question about language. Is the language that we have inherited to talk about our faith still in working order? Which is a question that might have been thought done to death with the progressive theologies of the twentieth century, culminating in a negative answer (and which I see as the deep root of church collapse). Yet the conservative response to that progressive agenda doesn’t seem to work much better. Wittgenstein once commented that ‘the whole weight is in the picture’ – that is, if we try and translate the customs and idioms that have grown up organically around the life of faith into some version more palatable to a modern (jaded) taste, is it actually possible to separate out bathwater from baby?

To take one example, is it possible to talk about ‘salvation’ and ‘redemption’ in the same way any more? To be redeemed (from slavery, debtors prison etc) had a very concrete sense that was generally understood. Such things are still around – and it wouldn’t surprise me if we have debtors prisons again before too long – but I do wonder whether the metaphor of ‘salvation’, understood in a sort of ‘spiritual transaction’ sense, has any mileage left in it. The language of penal substitution – as used in Alpha – seems to have a useful purchase when used in a context like that of a prison, but elsewhere?

What I’m inching towards is a sense that the ‘end of metaphysics’ has implications for the language that we use for sharing faith. In a culture that has become determinedly secular, disenchanted and post-sacred, language that depends upon such associations for its weight will inevitably gain diminishing returns. So I wonder whether there needs to be a recasting of Christian language in post-metaphysical form, one which doesn’t presume anything metaphysical.

However, this seems to have more than a whiff of the Don Cupitt/ Sea of Faith approach – which has always seemed a very watery option to me. Something that is full of thumos seems to be what is needed, something chthonic. What is needed is a sensitive translation – not word for word or even concept for concept but something which is true to the underlying Spirit whilst sitting very lightly to the text (or the action).

Is it simply that we are ripe for a new religious movement?

Pope Francis and a church for the poor

(Courier article)
You will doubtless have been aware of a significant puff of white smoke recently, which declared the election of a new Pope. His Holiness Pope Francis has talked about that significant moment, whilst he was sitting next to a fellow South American cardinal: “When things became a bit dangerous, he comforted me, and when the vote for me reached the two-thirds majority, a moment in which the cardinals started applauding because they had chosen a Pope, he hugged me, he kissed me and he said ‘don’t forget the poor’. “That word, the poor, lodged in me here,” Francis said, tapping his head. “It was then that I thought of St Francis. And then I thought of wars and about peace and that’s how the name came to me – a man of peace, a poor man … and how I would like a church of the poor, for the poor.”

Don’t forget the poor. The Bible is very clear about the priority that God gives to social justice – it is a theme running throughout both Old and New Testaments where there are over 2000 texts dealing with how the poor are to be treated, and included within wider society. Put simply, where there is no social justice, God is provoked into righteous anger. It is absolutely of the essence of the gospel that Christians have care for those who are excluded from participating in our society; it is not possible to be a Christian and to have no concern for social justice; it is, in sum, right at the heart of what we talk about when we Christians discuss ‘the Kingdom of God’. So I am delighted to see the new Pope making such a strong, clear and symbolic stand at the beginning of his pontificate. And yet…

When Jesus is asked what is the most important commandment to follow, he does not say ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor’ – that teaching comes in the context of specific instructions to a particular young man whom Jesus loved (Mark 10). No, when Jesus is asked what is the most important commandment, he says this: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I view one of the most dire problems that the church faces, and which vitiates all of its attempts to engage critically with the world, as salt and as yeast and as light, as being due to the evacuation of the sense of the first commandment into a comfortable affirmation of the “second, which is like it”. There is a reason why Jesus says that the first commandment comes first. The first commandment contains a distinct meaning, which cannot be disregarded. Yes, there is an intrinsic link between love of God and love of neighbour – and where there is no love of neighbour then that is a clear sign that the love of God is deficient – but I believe that Christians have become very comfortable with the idea that by doing good works for our neighbours we are doing all that we need to do in order to love God.

I believe that this is false, and is the principal reason why the church in all its forms is now so regularly trampled underfoot. There is more to the church than being just another charity, just another non-governmental organisation, just another group of people who do what seems to be right in the eyes of the world. I believe that if the church gets the first commandment right, the second will naturally follows. I am not persuaded that it happens in reverse; indeed, I suspect that the inverse is eventually self-defeating.

There is something non-negotiable and inescapable about the worship of God when it comes to actually living out a Christian life – and in writing these words I am aware of how strange it might seem that this needs to be said! The worship of God is not simply another particular hobby to be placed alongside other hobbies – some people like to play bowls, some like to sail, some like to sing strange songs in old and draughty buildings. No, in terms of a discussion about poverty there is a much more direct, internal and organic link between the right worship of God and the quest for social justice. If we in the church do not worship God correctly, then we do not discern our values correctly, and we inevitably end up engaged in something which can be called idolatry – and the Bible is very clear that the necessary consequence of idolatry is injustice. In contrast, the Bible is equally clear that where God is worshipped properly then the world and all of us within it are enabled to flourish. Christians cannot separate out the one from the other, for when we do, both commandments are broken.

I am sure that, as a Jesuit (some of the best teachers I have ever had), Pope Francis knows this in his bones. So my delight in his appointment and his pursuit of the second commandment is grounded in an assurance that the first will indeed be placed first. I had high hopes for the leadership that Pope Benedict was able to give, and those hopes were fulfilled. I have faith that my high hopes for Pope Francis will be met likewise. May God bless the work of his hands.