Sunday, 6 August 2017

Inventing the Individual: Book Review

Inventing the Individual 2The book Inventing the Individual, by Larry Siedentop, works on the premise that liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity. That it emerged as the moral intuitions generated by Christianity were turned against an authoritarian model of the church.

He traces the development of society, beginning with its earliest model, the family under the absolute authority of the paterfamilias, guardian of the family god and the sacred flame, through the wider family unit, the clan, to the tribe and the city state. The problem of transferring loyalties from family, to clan, to tribe and city state is addressed, with the establishment of hierarchies of gods, mirroring the hierarchical nature of society.

It is when we come to the Greek/Roman world that the influence of the church is first felt, with Paul establishing an entirely new concept of individual freedom in Christ. Where someone's value had always been determined by their role in society, Paul brought the idea that a 'soul' has worth apart from societal status. In place of the traditional assumption of natural inequality there was, for the first time, a moral equality, a common humanity, with citizens and slaves rubbing shoulders 'in church.'

With the fall of the Roman world and the fracturing of society, the church had to carve out a role for itself as a sovereign power whose area of authority was the care of souls. In doing this the church established canon law that defined its role and proscribed the role of secular powers. Indeed, it was the church, in seeing to its own affairs and survival, that first separated the spiritual from the secular.

The book traces the development of church authority alongside that of the secular world, describing the growth of papal authority and how successive generations wrestled with the inherent dangers in establishing in one man an absolute power, thereby re-establishing the hierarchical model of leadership followed in the ancient world.

There were long periods of conflict, with secular rulers, as well as within the church, as they addressed the question of where authority lay in the church, in the 'servant of servants' or in the church as a body of believers, represented by councils, cardinals, bishops, and clerics. Were Christians 'equal in submission,' as was thought by the Dominicans, or 'equal in liberty,' as taught by the Followers of St Francs? The growth of universities gave a space where these issues could be battled over, the main protagonists being Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham.

The book is well organised, with chapter heads and endings giving good summaries of where we have got to so far and where we are going. Near the end of the book Seidentop writes:

'We have seen how Christian egalitarianism (the 'care of souls') first shaped the distinction between spiritual and temporal authority, creating a sphere for individual conscience. We then followed the gradual but far from complete penetration of this egalitarianism into traditional beliefs - emerging as a kind of schizophrenia among Carolingians.

Finally, we discovered its full potential for transforming institutions in the papal revolution of the twelfth century, when the idea of a 'sovereign' authority over individuals, embodied in a coherent legal system, not only transformed the church, but also began to inspire secular rulers with the project of creating 'states' out of a jumble of feudal jurisdictions.'

Here is the nub of it. The role of the church, as it carved out its own space in the world, is powerful in the development of European, therefore Western liberalism. The 'Renaissance' is a product of this process, and not a break with it, as is popularly believed. Chapter by chapter we see how church government develops, who were the characters involved, what were the respective roles of reformists and traditionalists, what were the issues they struggled over, and what the outcomes.

Addressing the implications of losing sight of our roots, Siedentop e ends with a challenging question:

'If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?'

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Christian Narrative

In speaking to someone about faith issues I dropped into the conversation the, to me, uncontroversial term 'non-Christian,' only to be challenged, 'That's not a nice thing to say, that someone isn't a Christian.' Rather taken aback, I nevertheless realised the problem was one of definition. I was speaking to someone raised to believe a Christian is a good person, as in, 'He's a good Christian man, he'll always do you a good turn.' Of course, the Bible knows nothing of such a man and defines a Christian as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, indeed, as a bad person who has turned to Jesus seeking forgiveness and salvation.

I replied that there are many people in the world who would not thank you for calling them Christian. This was met with sudden incredulity, and I was asked, 'Who?'

Muslims, I replied, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, Hindus, Atheists; When you think about it the list is formidable, and all those communities comprise many good people without being Christian people, non-PsychobabbleChristians.

In his book Psychobabble Dr Stephen Briers, addressing the subject of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, writes about the power of narratives, the stories people tell themselves:

'The stories we tell ourselves are powerful organising forces. They exercise an inexorable pull over our actions, feelings and choices, rather like a magnetic field draws scattered iron filings into alignment with its own invisible lines of influence. When dealing with the steady undertow of someone's implicit narrative, reason and logic often prove feeble instruments. If an action, or feeling or belief 'fits' within the dynamic of the tale being told it will be embraced, however illogical or absurd it may be. Recasting and rescripting such stories is always destined to be an art as much as a science.'

The person in my story found it impossible to relinquish their narrative explanation of what defines a Christian. No amount of logic, or reason, no appeal to the authority of the Bible was going to change their mind. For them, for over seventy years, 'Christian' had been a good person, and 'non-Christian' was an unkind label.

If we want to understand how very powerful someone's implicit narrative can be, consider how seriously God takes this question in addressing it. God delivered Israel out of Egypt, the 'house of slavery,' and having brought them to himself, making them a holy people, set them apart as special before God. You might think such a people would prove eternally grateful, faithful, and uncompromised in their love for him. Yet, in Exodus 19, God must remind them through Moses:

'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.' (Ex.19:4-6)

Chapter twenty of Exodus begins with the ten commandments, that are further unpacked throughout the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, and beyond. Two things stand out here. One is the undiluted devotion Israel is to offer to the God who saved them. It is worth noting that the first five commandments remind us to offer honour to those who gave us life, the first four to God, the fifth to parents.

The second notable command is to avoid being like other nations. As Israel entered Canaan they had a raft of laws designed to make them different, make them stand out, remind them of their special status before God. Their diet was to be different, even the clothes they wore were not to be made of mixed fabrics (Lev.19:19; Deut.22:9-11). Several reasons are offered to explain this, which is not a moral law, one of which is that it was a reminder that they were not to mix Israel's customs with those of the surrounding nations; a sort of daily and visual mnemonic.

Yet Israel so often compromised, adopting the ways of surrounding nations, from demanding they be given a king, 'like other nations,' when they had God for their king (1 Sam.8:5), to practising child sacrifice to Molech (2 Chron.28:3; 2 Kings 21:6) even when God had expressly forbidden it (Lev.18:21) and made clear the precious worth of children (Pr.17:6; Ps.127:3)

Israel proves that if we are not attentive to our covenant faith in God, our narrative, the way we explain the world to ourselves and our place in it, will increasingly be defined by the world around us. Whether via social media, friendships, even family, the clamour of voices vying for our attention, seeking to mould our thinking, is increasingly loud.

Tragically, many follow the clamour and find themselves, like Israel, compromising and compromised. They deny the authority of Scripture, disobey God's commands, avoid the gathering of God's people, find easy fault with the church for which Christ gave himself, and make themselves deaf to the one voice that speaks true words of salvation. The writer of Hebrews gives a clear and urgent warning against such things:

'As the Holy Spirit says:

'Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts

as you did in the rebellion,

during the time of testing in the


where your fathers tested and tried me

and for forty years saw what I did.

That is why I was angry with that


and I said, 'Their hearts are always

going astray, and they have not know my ways.

So I declared in my anger,

They shall never enter my rest.''

'See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. We have come to share Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.' (Heb.3:7-15a)

It was B.B. Warfield who observed, "If everything that is called Christianity in these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. A name applied indiscriminately to everything designates nothing."

It may be comforting to think a good deed makes a good Christian but it does not do to allow what has already been defined clearly, definitively by God in Scripture, to be redefined indiscriminately simply because it suits those who embrace the spirit of the age. So what is a Christian?

Jesus said in Matthew 7:

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. [...]

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’."

There is doing in the life of a good Christian, good works, but that doing is according to the will of God, whose will so many feel they can ignore while still calling themselves by the name of Christ because they are decent people. This is the spirit of our current age and, for so many, the imperative narrative. But as William Ralph Inge wisely observed, 'Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.'

What defines our imperative narrative, that story about the world and our place in it that is not easily changed or compromised? Is it the world itself, that changes like the weather, now forbidding, now commanding, approving and disapproving, moving this way and that depending on whose voice is loudest? Is it the Word of God, that is consistent, unchangeable, guiding God's people as we navigate this troubled world, offering hope to a dying world, looking to a promise of a new world in which God reigns supreme, even as he reigns today in every heart that trusts and obeys him?

Monday, 8 May 2017

What is a Man?

GrantchesterIn a recent episode of the 'charming turning to seedy' British TV drama Grantchester the lead character, a vicar, ended the episode in his now familiar Jerry Springer way, with a little homily to his dwindling congregation. 'Live for today, in the now,' is the sum of his message, before he rushes off to have sex with a now married, but once his secret sweetheart, friend. This is a live-for-now hang the consequences sort of world in which our desires, hopes and dreams are frustrated by a nebulous entity called 'society.'

A eulogy in an earlier episode reminded us we cannot be what we want to be because 'society' wouldn't allow it, as though we were meant to fulfill our immediate desires without judgement or hindrance. If you were looking for something encouraging and uplifting, Grantchester is eminently avoidable. But this seems the spirit of the age, if it feels good, do it; what else is there?

The neo-atheists, channelling Thomas Hobbes, would have us believe nothing makes sense at all and life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Richard Dawkins, when espousing his particularly spiteful form of atheism insists life has no purpose, there is no objective right and wrong, and certainly nothing as asinine and vulgar as good and evil. Yet he dedicates his life to teaching us dullards the correct way to think about things. Lucky us!

The Psalmist wrote that if, 'the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,' it is because, 'Lord you have assigned me my portion and my cup. You have made my lot secure.' (Ps.16:5/6) Not so, Dawkins would insist, if your portion and cup prove pleasant and secure it is the luck of the draw. Of course, whenever he seeks to demolish any arguments against his bleak world view, he is prepared to label religion as evil, to cry 'not right!' and more than a few have had fun with that.

I don't know what sort of world you live in but I find that even the most militant God-denier instinctively seeks purpose in an apparently purposeless universe, justice in a life that has no seeming obligation to be just, reason in an existence that is evidently blind and aimless. Indeed, so important are purpose and justice that the typical atheist cannot actually do without God for, without God, who would they blame?

It is popular to jibe that Christians pray to an 'invisible friend,' but don't atheists aim their ire at an invisible enemy? It is rightly observed, the first two principles of atheism are, 'there is no God, and I hate him!'

Deny purpose in creation as we might, who doesn't identify with the words of Hamlet; 'What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed?'

In his Confessions, Augustine famously wrote, 'You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.' Surely something in us has us recoil from the bleak prognostications of Thomas Hobbes? Some part of us agrees with Hamlet, what is the point if we simply live, eat, breed, and die? What are we - cattle?

And even if we are not yet drawn to Augustine's defining conclusion yet, even as people deny God, I find they seek him in one form or another. Either to blame him or to find, finally, rest for themselves. Either way, it seems, only God can satisfy.

If God is there, what difference does it make? If, unlike Thomas Hobbes, we instinctively seek community, richness, kindness, civility, and purpose in life then surely it matters how we live? Not for the moment, like a character in a play, but for the more we find ourselves reaching out for. If God is there, and if purpose is instinctive but frustratingly elusive, we must surely seek God, discover his purpose for us, and like Augustine, find our heart's rest in finally being the more we were made to be.