Mission With: something out of the ordinary (review)

When I arrived at Manchester University in 1978, one of the first people I met was a tall, gently-spoken Northern Irishman called Paul Keeble. He had already graduated in Theology from Queens University Belfast and was beginning a course in probation work and was lodged at the same hall of residence as me. Being older, he was the encouraging and kind presence that I needed in those early days away from home.

We both settled at the same church, Brunswick Parish Church, which is located on one side of the Oxford Road, where the university campus acts as a thin, privileged filling in a deprived social sandwich in the inner-city. The incumbent of the church was Martin Gooder, who had developed a theology of mission in the inner-city which was ahead of its time for the 1970s. Although many students wished to settle at the church, which had a reputation for biblically-focussed and thought-provoking preaching, Martin had an active policy of discouraging students from attending unless they were to engage seriously with the church’s ministry and mission within its socially-deprived parish. He also encouraged those students to seriously consider a call to live permanently in the inner-city as a stable Christian presence there. Although I lived there for five years, a move to theological college led me to other contexts, including theological education. Paul Keeble stayed, along with his wife Judith (whom he met through the church).

Mission With: something out of the ordinary (Watford, Herts., UK: Instant Apostle, 2017) is Paul Keeble’s theological reflection on over thirty-five years of living in, belonging to and working in an area of urban social deprivation. It is a work of considerable theological importance, as it represents an informed and long-term piece of practical theology and, in particular, missiology. Reading it in the light of recent comments by Bishop Philip North about the tendency for clergy to flock to wealthy parishes, this book acts as a timely primer in ministry and mission in the inner-city. But that is just one, rather narrow application of this work with its considerable scope.

As with all good practical theology, Keeble’s work gives a good account of the experiences which have shaped his reflection. These began with following the call to dwell in an area which most working-class Christians try to move away from, and even fewer middle-class Christians choose to move into. He tracks the implications for his and Judith’s call to be a presence-among, exploring the challenge of what this means (and does not mean) for Christians who have come in from elsewhere. This is a fascinating take on the theme of missionary relocation, and Keeble’s experience is a highly valuable account. His thought then moves to explore various options for what Christian mission might mean once this step has been taken. With reference to core missiology from the likes of Bosch and later critics, Keeble’s reflection focusses on the degree to which the undergirding incarnational theology of Martin Gooder developed in his own praxis. Over the years, particularly in response to a rise in gun crime during the 1990s, Keeble has found himself involved in community responses to the effects of deprivation, particularly upon the young. Disappointed by a lack of interest by the churches and their leaders, who shied-away from collaborating in responses where they were not in control, Keeble has had to re-evaluate what ‘mission’ means if it is truly to bring empowerment and shalom to the community among whom he has lived.

Keeble distinguishes in the book between mission-to, mission-for and mission-with. The last of these is what the book is mainly about, but it accepts the importance of the other two approaches, even if it is critical of them. The influence of writers such as Bosch, Donovan and Vincent are clear throughout and the footnotes provide a helpful track of influences acting upon Keeble’s theological reflection. This three-fold distinction is helpful as it allows the readers to critically examine their own thinking about mission within contexts to which they may not originally belong. As such, this book serves to unveil an implied missiology represented by the methods being used, be they churches in the suburbs moving in to ‘serve’ a poor neighbourhood, or churches in deprived areas where most of the congregation live elsewhere.

All good practical theology brings challenge, and I found this one of the most challenging theological books I have read in a long time. At a personal level, it challenges the (typically) middle-class reader with the sacrificial demands of a genuinely incarnational mission to the poor. At an institutional and theological level, it raises an enormous ecclesiological challenge: what on earth is the Church in poor areas actually for? Even if we acknowledge the weakness of the non-incarnational methods mentioned above, Keeble’s account of the ‘usefulness’ of the Church in mission-with is deeply troubling. The principal agents of incarnational mission remain individual Christians, being-with and working with their communities.

The suspicion that deprived local communities have towards churches is considerable and too-often justified. In this picture, the Church’s mission comes to the locality at the cost of disempowering non-Church local initiatives serving the common-good. Keeble takes us on an uncomfortable journey through his experiences of genuine changes for the common-good where the last thing needed was a slice of ecclesiastical power-and-glory-grabbing. In such changes, faith-communities (note: not just the Church) have a role, but if lasting change is to be achieved, the initiative has to remain with the wider, grass-roots community.

So what, then, is the role of the Church? Keeble’s focus remains on the local church, as that which provides effective support for Christians in their being-with mission – which in turn serves the shalom of humanity. He agrees about the need for Christians to give an account for the ‘hope that lies within you’ (1 Pet 3:15), but this is usually to answer a question, not to provide an answer before the question is asked. And the right to do it has to be earned and tends to be earned very slowly and sacrificially.

But what of the vocation of the Church to be, in the world, the firstfruits of the coming Kingdom? If this vocation is perceived, in the gritty realities of missional praxis, as mere posturing, is there any role the Church can convincingly adopt in deprived areas which can fulfill this theological vocation? This is the unspoken and uncomfortable question which Keeble’s book leaves us to answer through further theological reflection.

Mission With: something out of the ordinary helpfully relates itself to other contemporary approaches to mission which seek to address the issue of being Good News to the poor in contemporary, post-Christendom. Keeble engages with, for example, the New Parish movement, Fung’s Isaiah Vision and writers such as Morisy, Ken Leech and movements such as Community Organising and Emerging Church/New Monasticism. In doing this, Keeble’s theological reflection on decades of praxis finds its own place as an important voice in contemporary missiological conversation.

Maybe it’s something about the way we interact

When I was young, it was the Cold War. If we were going to be annihilated, it would be by the press of a button by an anonymous authority figure in Moscow, or London, or Washington or Beijing. It was a structured kind of terror. We watched the media, controlled by governments and big business, and were told, on a day-by-day basis, what our chances of survival were. We grew up with it. We were used to it. We knew our voice counted for nothing – it would be decided by powers way beyond our individual control.

Then the Berlin Wall came down, and for a lovely decade, it seemed like the world had become a safer place (unless you lived in the Balkans or Sierra Leone). The internet was born. People could suddently communicate around the world, without the need for governmental power and infrastructure. Universal peace became a near certainty.

Today, we know a different kind of world. Everyone can communicate with everyone. Online, people tear strips off others whom they have never, physically, met, using powerful, terrible threats and insults. Unlike the world of the 1980s, people can now engage in their own, transcontinental conflict.

This is the situation which can be exploited by anyone who wishes to use global (and anonymous) interconnectivity to escalate and promote conflict. We see it in the astonishingly successful internet campaigns of Muslim extremists. Young people do not know much about the long-term cost of conflict, and are therefore easily swayed to join in any fight for “justice” that appeals to their desire for integrity. For religious people, this can manifest itself in a zeal which can be exploited by cynical elders to recruit the energies of young into the cause of their own bids for power. The easy equation: integrity = commitment = absolutism is not just the preserve of Islam: it’s the case for any religion or cause which feeds on an appeal to some transcendent power, be it divine or nationalistic.

I am now in my 50s. I have been a Christian since birth and, since my teens, have been committed to the Christian faith. I know (and remember) the power of the youthful desire for integrity and purity of cause. I remember my desire for God which could eclipse lesser caution, instilled from my elders. The young are easy targets for any form of extremism: religious, nationalist or whatever. When we are young, we want some sense of purity, of integrity, or absolute direction.

I have known the appeal of the purity of the absolute; I have known the desire to be wholly committed, irrespective of the cost. But as you age, other things come into play. Bringing up children makes you realise a unifying identity as a human being. You start to empathise with other parents, irrespective of differences of culture, or creed, or philosophy. As your own children become adults, you watch other parents and children as they struggle to bring forth a new generation: you empathise, you recognise, you remember your own experiences, and … with time … you realise a unity within all human experience.

The internet has brought the possibility of the dissemination of hate, under the guise of purity. It allows those who wish to, to exploit youthful desire under the guise of religion, nationality or “justice”. Young people are looking for something to give their lives to, to commit to, to place their energies behind. It’s a romantic vision and it’s enormously powerful. But this youthful energy can be the undoing of the human race, when it is not united with a sense of our own frailty, fallibility and sheer value. When a Palestinian child is killed by the sophisticated weaponry of the Israeli army, it’s easy for a young Palestinian to convert this enormity into a reaction which delights in the taking of other, equal and young human Israeli life. But an older perspective realises that both actions are defeats, on the wider, human scale.

The immediacy of the internet allows quick reactions and judgements to be made, public stances to be paraded and easy alliances forged. It’s the best breeding ground for heating up any kind of conflict. The internet, rather than fostering an age of peace and growing tolerance, as we had hoped in the 1990s, is being exploited by its users as an incubator for the worst forms of human intolerance, revenge, posturing and recruitment towards violence that has been seen since the crusades. The internet demonstrates, in clear terms, the nature of the human condition. “All of life is there …”

As I grow older, I become all too aware of the weaknesses, as well as the strengths of committing oneself to a particular faith. But I remain in this faith. The reason I do this, is that it has taught me to recognise – to not to be in denial – about my own frailties. The longer I have been a Christian, the more I have had to reckon with my own weaknesses, my own propensity for failure and my tendency or potential to hurt others. I certainly do not feel (if I ever felt) a superiority of my own faith position over that of others (be they of another faith or of no faith). All I feel is a sense of human solidarity with all people who are around on this planet at the moment, and a strong sense of unworthiness that I should share in the privilege and wonder of living the gift that is life. So it is from this, somewhat humbled postion, that I believe, with all my heart, in the need for human beings to reckon, humbly, with their own limitations, and to reckon, kindly and sympathetically, with the limitations of their enemies. In short, this means loving both our friends and our enemies. This love, when we discover it, is nothing short of a revelation and transforms us as human beings. We become more compassionate. We cry easily. We love wildly. We run the risk of peace, even if it makes us look like fools.

This, in Christian terms, is called “the Kingdom of God”, which is an idea which lies at the heart of the Christian vision. It’s a place where people learn to forgive the failings of others, as they discover their own failings to have been forgiven. Where love is greater than anything else. Where God is not “owned” by any faith, but is allowed to be God as God truly is. Where people are set free from the tyranny of “being right” into being loved and being loving instead.

At a time when the news seems to be so negative, I want to affirm that I believe in this vision of the universe, and – in love – I want to celebrate it with others, irrespective of their faith, their belief or their politics.

I hope that this vision comes to pass. Because, although the old superpowers are now a history lesson, the power to destruction that they represented is still there, and much sought-after. I pray that this love, this forgiveness, this generosity would break out across our globally-connected humanity, if only for our own survival. For the alternative is as bad, if not more tragic, than the horror that faced us in the 1980s.

Is it time to call time on General Synod 1.0?

This month’s meeting of the General Synod is not so much about whether women will be allowed to become bishops in the immediate future, as whether the Synod in its current form has any credibility. In November 2012, the same basic question was before it. Prior to those sessions, all forty-four dioceses making up the Church of England had been consulted. All, bar three, had supported the measure, most by very large majorities; yet, still, the legislation failed to pass the House of Laity. At the time, I suggested that the current Synod was clearly “broken” in that it failed to act in a way which reflected the “mind of the Church”. This was why I proposed that Diocesan Synods pass motions of no confidence, in the wake of the vote. Bristol Diocesan Synod went ahead and passed a modified form of my proposals, but the news was soon out that a bid to return the legislation in the life of the present Synod was afoot, so the idea stopped there.

Of course, if the legislation fails again on Monday, Synod will probably be in a worse place in terms of both Church and public opinion. Parliament may choose to introduce legislation – as it still has the powers to govern the Church by Act should it wish to do so; and I think were Synod to fail to reflect the view of the Church of England so unanimously reflected at diocesan level, then there would be few Church voices raised in protest by such a move by the State. So if the vote goes “no”, it will be beyond dispute that the Church’s current system of synodical government has broken down. However, even if the legislation is voted through, I would suggest that the current system is irredeemably discredited in Church circles and beyond.

The current problems

The most obvious problem is with the House of Laity. The members are elected by Deanery Synod members, who themselves are elected by PCCs at the annual church meeting. Most parishes struggle to get people to sit on Deanery Synod, partly because it means several extra evening meetings per year, and partly because everyone knows that most Deanery Synod meetings are like watching paint dry (whilst doing so in a cold church or a damp church hall). As a result, the electorate of the General Synod House of Laity is made up of a combination of the pressganged, the crusading and the accidental, as cartoonist Dave Walker’s picture of a PCC illustrates. Nevertheless, one doesn’t need to be a Deanery Synod member to stand for General Synod. The second, compounding problem is that General Synod meets on weekdays. This inevitably means that the House of Laity contains an unrepresentative and large number of the retired, the elderly and those whose professions allow them to attend during working hours (lawyers and doctors are over-represented professions, for example). There are some House of Laity members (God bless them) who take paid or unpaid leave to attend, but one has to concede that this sacrifice is a huge political disincentive. The third problem is the turnover of members: many among the House of Laity have been members for decades, and to this is added the phenomenon of the “senior figure”, ie. a person who has the time and some motivation to get on lots of committees and to exert considerable influence over process and other members, simply because they are known well and know the system. Of course, among the House of Laity are many outstanding members, many whose professional stature gives them valuable insight into the affairs of the Church and its mission. But representative of the rank and file of the Church, the House of Laity is not. As the debate over women bishops has proved, this is affecting the Church’s reputation and its responsiveness to the challenges of contemporary mission.

Things could be somewhat improved by minor changes in the Church Representation Rules, which govern who can stand and who can vote for General Synod members. It would be entirely possible to synchronise a General Synod election with the season of annual parochial church meetings (APCMs), so that ballots can be held in the local church with all electoral roll members eligible. It is possible for the process to be divided up among parishes, with each parish having a local ballot to determine which candidates get its electoral vote or votes. The pros and cons of various systems are familiar ground to political scientists. But one thing is clear: the electorate needs to change. The current system reflects a pre-internet state of affairs, and dates back, in the main, to systems which were set up with the Church Assembly as long ago as 1919. This is what I mean by “General Synod 1.0” – we’ve been stuck at various minor versions of that model for nearly a century. Society and Church have both moved on, especially in the past twenty years with the digital revolution.

The reason for meeting during the week seems to be the need to keep the total number of meetings (and, hence, travel expenses) down, which pushes up the number of days a single meeting requires to complete the business. The July meeting takes place over a weekend (with a grand communion at York Minster taking half a day), but still spills over as far as the following Tuesday. The answer is obvious: to have a smaller, more representative General Synod meeting more frequently at weekends. The current size of the General Synod is nearly 500 people, and, since any reduction requires the consent of the Synod, rather unsurprisingly it has resisted cutting its own size down to something more cost effective (let us say 300 members). A much smaller synod could then afford, say, five rather than three meetings per year, held at weekends. At a stroke, this would open membership of the House of Laity up to a far wider range of adults. But the deeper problem is that General Synod, as presently constituted, is unlikely to agree anything radical about its nature. Turkeys don’t usually vote for Christmas. If it is capable of bringing the Church into public derision and disrepute by its acts in November 2012, I don’t hold out much hope of its ability to self-reform. Again, we’re stuck by the functionality of “General Synod 1.0”. Perhaps State intervention may be the only way, although as a theologian, I’d rather hope not.

A total rethink?

But are the above proposals merely tweaking with something that needs a more radical change? General Synod is a democratic machine, designed in the twentieth century, in the era of High Modernity. It came into being during a government headed by David Lloyd George that had shown it was quite willing to step in to govern when the Church seemed resistant to the wider political will (as, in part, it had already done with the disestablishment of the Welsh dioceses in an Act of 1911). Above all, the Church needed to prove the relevance and integrity of its own systems of decision-making if it was to continue to command respect (and a subsequent lack of tampering) by the secular state. The mood-music of 1919 shaped a model which has been with us since. That same mood-music is around us once again.

Although the above proposals could make things somewhat better than they presently are, a much better step would be to commission a widespread review of the present system, Synod 1.0, especially in the context of recent problems and the need to engage a wider sense of commitment by very people the House of Laity are meant to represent. This would be a task for theologians (for the task of Synod is to gather together to discern the mind of the Holy Spirit in considering matters of governance and legislature), political scientists (for the method of discerning the mind of the Spirit remains a human task for a human system), representatives of the present Synod, and, especially, those who are presently most disenfranchised: the younger laity and those who have contractual or immoveable Monday-Friday job commitments.

A rethink about General Synod also needs to address a wider set of questions about how the whole nature of democracy is changing in the digital age. Although there is still no consensus about what secular systems of government can or ought to do to address this, the same issue affects younger lay people within the Church of England. If the Church wants to stem the exodus of young people, which has been seriously affecting it for the past thirty years, then proposing models where young voices can be seen to shape directly its teaching, worship, operations and beliefs would be a step in the right direction.

So let us have that review. And then, if General Synod cannot put its own “House” in order, it may be appropriate for the State to do something about it and bring in Synod 2.0 whether Synod 1.0 likes it or not.

The Ontological Argument

A few weeks ago, BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time did an excellent review of The Ontological Argument for the existence of God. It is available on iPlayer here and is well worth a listen.

On a sillier note, some of the Ontological Argument’s weaknesses, as flagged up in the programme, are dealt with by reference to good beer by Jeff Cook in an article on Scot McKnight’s blog here. Enjoy!

Steve Hollinghurst on Hallowe’en

There’s an excellent article by Steve tracing the roots of the contemporary festival. Go follow

Life after the rapture – on grabbing the microphone

The biggest “Christian” internet event of the year so far was the prediction that the world was going to end on 21st May 2011 at 6pm in each time-zone. The reaction by Christians has been either to ignore it, to join in lampooning it as extremely stupid, to protest loudly that they have nothing to do with the speculations of Harold Camping or to grow increasingly depressed at the amount of media interest that such an example of a group of Christians being extremely (and publicly) foolish has generated.

Religions are developing an interesting relationship with the internet. It is now possible for any deviant trait within them to find a global expression which can attract the attention and following of others. This is so, not just in the case of Christianity (and the antics of the likes of Camping) but also for Islam, which has struggled with the way Islamists seem to have “grabbed the microphone” for the whole faith and have extended their appeal to young, impressionable Muslims searching for a way to construct their lives around a passionate expression of their faith, whilst only having an early, developing understanding of its theological subtleties. For both fundamentalist Christians and Islamists, it would appear that the internet is like an unguarded, very powerful public address system where the microphone can be grabbed by those who have the most high-impact (if untruthful) message.

This is an uncomfortable experience for Christianity. From the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century up to the Reformation (in the West), the Church had a sufficiently central role in society, with its own internal authority structure, to ensure that deviant voices claiming to speak on behalf of the whole faith could be marginalized and silenced. Even after the Reformation, the churches of Protestantism had a close enough relationship to the secular arm that, again, the most eccentric voices could not get much hearing or public credibility. After the Enlightenment, although freedom of religious practice and speech steadily grew, the mainstream churches had sufficiently allied themselves with the dominant power structures to qualify them as sources of a “rational” religion, as distinct from “irrational” enthusiasm. It was only in America, where traditional social structures were stretched at the margins of western expansion, that marginal, deviant approaches to Christianity could gain a significant hearing. For this reason American Christianity has never had anything like a social or intellectual elite, controlling the significance of which religious discourse was to be taken seriously and which was not. (Americans may wish to point to the constitution which enshrines religious liberty and freedom of speech, but similar constitutions have operated in Europe for almost as long, yet our religious discourses have usually been constrained by a social elite which have severely limited the extent to which deviant discourses have attained public credibility.) With the internet, however, everyone is equally mainstream, everyone equally marginalised. Privileged discourses are under significant threat, especially in the domain of religion. Even the Vatican and the Queen of England have websites which exist alongside those of religious fanatics and political extremists. The public address system is open to absolutely everyone and the microphone is unguarded, ready to be grabbed by the person with the most attention-demanding message. So, in this case, a message that THE WORLD IS GOING TO END AT 6PM ON SATURDAY understandably grabs the microphone of world attention.

There is only one previous situation where Christianity, as a whole faith, has been seriously challenged by eccentric discourses in this kind of way. In the century immediately following the death of the first apostles, the Christian communities, which were small yet globally-dispersed, had to cope with the fact that their faith was expanding into the Graeco-Roman world. That world was one where religious discourses were multiple and where diversity was unlimited. Before very long, the Christian community itself was struggling with the fact that divergent interpretations of its teaching were abounding within its communities. The teachings of those whom the Church came to regard as “heretics” – people like the Gnostics, Docetists and Marcionites – were sitting alongside more traditional interpretations. It was difficult for local Christians to know for certain whether the understanding of the faith held by their local community was the same as that which was held by Christians elsewhere, let alone that which was held by Jesus and the first apostles. Although the New Testament itself recognized that false teachers would emerge (and indeed were emerging) to lead people astray, it did not provide a thoroughgoing way of structuring the discourse of the Church in such a way as to prevent deviant interpretations of the faith of Jesus from eclipsing, or drowning out, authentic interpretations. This came to be a problem in the following century. The Christian concept of “heresy” grew alongside its key response to the problem, which was to develop an understanding of the Church as a structured community, with authorized ministers in each locality (bishops) who represented the local church to the wider community and the wider community to the local church. These bishops acted as points of accountability. They could be identified as sources of either authentic or inauthentic teaching by reference to other bishops elsewhere. Similarly, they could be trusted (by reference to their relationship with other bishops) by the local community as trustworthy teachers, thus inspiring confidence among local Christians that they were not being led astray.

This, of course, is the root of the Catholic vision of the Christian church and indicates that the Roman Catholic (and Easter Orthodox) churches may have less to fear from the internet than do the churches of Protestantism. Ultimately, the Catholic model was originally designed to cope with exactly the problem presented by the internet. Protestants have broken with this model as they believe it has gradually led the Church to a point where its authority is functionally (if not theoretically) independent of the original apostolic teaching which it was designed to serve and protect. Protestants point back to the Bible as the source of authentic Christian teaching. All other sources are second-order to it. However, the Protestant approach comes at the cost of allowing deviant interpretations of the Bible to thrive without any internal mechanism to marginalise them, except through forming allegiances with social and rational validators mentioned above. Yet it is precisely these “meta-validators” which are being systematically removed by the internet. In short, Protestantism has no functional validation mechanisms left to rule out deviant interpretations of the Bible from claiming that they represent the whole of authentic Christian faith. This is exactly what we had with Camping, whereby all that the rest of Protestantism could do was individually and privately to dissociate themselves from Camping’s claims.

What has worried most Christians is the way Camping’s obvious and crass stupidity has lent support to the claim by opponents of Christianity (such as Richard Dawkins) that Christianity is somehow inherently less “intelligent” than atheism. The existence of atheist parties celebrating Camping’s “prophecy” denoument shows that the point is not lost on Christianity’s detractors. Camping and his ilk are a massive impediment to Christianity’s credibility, and hence do severe damage to its mission. The question of validation – of whether a person is genuinely representing mainstream Christian belief – is therefore of considerable importance to all Christians, and especially to Protestant Christians in the age of the internet. It is easy for the Catholic Church to dissociate itself from Camping – after all, he isn’t a Catholic bishop – he doesn’t speak with the Catholic church’s authority. But few non-Christians on the internet are likely to be sufficiently motivated to engage with the only alternative Protestant Christians have in the validation stakes – to listen to a point-by-point rebuttal of Camping with reference to the Bible.

I am left with the conclusion that unless Protestants are able to come up with some kind of global system of validation – or, its converse, dissociation – then the widespread image of Christianity they are going to have to work with in their mission will be a random collection of absurd and less-than-absurd beliefs about what “Christianity” actually is about. Even if one Christian is able to make a coherent argument commending their faith to another person (either by teaching or practice), who is to say if that really is what Christianity is, or whether it’s about – say – a rapture which didn’t happen on 21st May 2011 at 6pm local time.

Sacraments: God’s kiss

Baron Von Hügel talked about the effects of kissing his daughter, ‘I kiss my daughter in order to love her, as well as because I love her.’ This is also a remarkable commentary upon the sacraments. Love requires physical expression. But does a kiss create love? Not exactly, but it is expected that kisses will cause his love for his daughter to grow. The physical display of affection is the means and instrument by which love is given the expression it craves and is given growth and strengthening in itself.

Leonard J. Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Downers Grove IL: IVP Academic, 2004) p.67; referencing Carroll E. Simcox, Understanding the Sacraments (New York: Morehouse-Gorham, 1956), pp.14-15.

New York

Silence on the blog was largely caused by a trip to New York and to Yale a week ago. It was my first trip there and was for fun. The theology took place in Yale where I was presenting at the Liturgy and Migration conference run by the Institute of Sacred Music and Liturgy.

We had a great time in New York, spending four days doing most of the obvious sights available to someone lodging in mid-Manhatten. But I was caught on the hop by my reactions to the Rockefeller Center. John D. sounds a thoroughly nice guy who liked to do things philanthropically, especially by taking a big risk building the Center with his own money when all other sponsors had pulled out in the wake of the stockmarket crash on Black Tuesday. By going ahead anyway, he provided much-needed employment at a time when noone else was hiring. All the more surprising, then, how negatively I reacted to the frescos within the center and Rockefeller’s credo which is placed on a stone at the front of the building.

The frescos in the Center are a celebration of the achievements of Man (sic) and human progress, which are unmitigatingly positive, combined with a sculpture of Prometheus. Rockefeller’s credo reads thus:

I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.
I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.
I believe in the Dignity of labour, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a liking but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.
I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business or personal affairs.
I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.
I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man’s word should be as good as his bond; that character not wealth or power or position – is of supreme worth.
I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.
I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individuals highest fulfilment, greatest happiness, and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His Will.
I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.

My inner reaction was one of initial sadness, then revulsion, and eventually growing horror. What on earth was wrong with me? After all, it is the credo of a man who is trying to work out what is best for his fellow humanity.

I had come face to face with my own Augustinianism. This was a wonderful creed, which aims at the best for everyone, but ultimately bases its faith solely upon the human being, albeit with some niche found for faith in the penultimate article. (There’s also a niche for Jesus in one of the frescos, although his teaching is largely re-interpreted as moral, subjected to John D’s meta-religion, rather than actually upon its content.)

The sadness-revulsion-horror was because I could not square this monument of 20th century rationalist humanism with the history immediately preceding and following it. The glorying in human cleverness was unremittingly positive, yet it had been preceded by the slaughter of WW1, the trajedy of the Great Depression and was about to be followed by the gulags, the gas chambers and nuclear vapourisation. What kind of blind faith manages to sing a triumphant hymn of praise to homo sapiens when sandwiched by such huge, appalling examples of the flawed nature of this faith’s subject+object? On the other hand, I was also disturbed by my own vehement reaction: was I also in danger of lurching into some kind of reactionary Manichaeeism?

I didn’t sleep too well that night – possibly I was still jetlagging. My dreams were filled with images of the frescos and all the hundreds of skyscrapers which characterise the island of Manhatten. That same day, earlier in the morning, we had stopped to look over Ground Zero. It’s one enormous building site at the moment, with little evidence of the atrocity which took place there. The aim is to open the memorial on the tenth anniversary this coming September 11th. Was all that terrible act caused by religion – of the kind which was probably fuelling my reaction to John D’s humanism? Or was it caused by human nature, masquerading as a religious impulse? Whatever the cause, the images of Ground Zero and the Rockefeller were overlaiden in my disturbed sleep.

These days, I am convinced that the most important philosophical and theological questions are around anthropology (the nature of human beings), since it is on this subject, paradoxically, that the big divide exists between theism and atheism – rather than over the nature of God. (The absence of divine phenomena is not an overwhelming problem for theistic religions. It would be really naive faith which hitched its theistic waggon merely to phenomena.)

The first twelve chapters of the Book of Genesis are a bittersweet story, commencing with the wonder of creation, then outlining the paradoxical nature of human beings and their broken relationship with the Creator. In it, we have the story of the first skyscraper, the tower of Babel. (Chaper 11). The text says, “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’” God, with the divine council, responds with a counter-concern (verses 6-8):

And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

As with many occasions in the Bible, God and humanity are struggling against one another. Human power is a real thing and God in this passage seems to see it as an increasingly negative thing, having no limit. So, the story tells us, the differentiation of speech was an intentional limitation upon the technological power and intellect of humanity, since such power and intellect was flawed, oriented to itself, rather than the creator.

Well, we build our towers now. The skyscrapers of Manhatten have served to raise, artificially, the height above sea level of the average New Yorker by about, say, 50 – 100 feet. If the tower of Babylon was left unfinished, the Rockefeller Center nevertheless scrapes the clouds in its triumphant proclamation of Man, with John D’s credo at its base acting almost as an exposition of Genesis 11:6. There is as much danger in having an overly negative view of our humanity (Manichaeeism) as there is an overly positive one. Concerns with a dangerously positive assessment of human nature should not lead to an equally (and possibly more) dangerously negative assessment, which results in misanthropism. All humanity is to be valued and cherished because we are created, not hated because of our obvious capacity for evil. The whole incident indicated to me the challenge of constructing a realistic anthropology which is honest about human evil, human genius and human beauty and love. Christian theology’s potential gift to the world is a system which can hold those things together. But to do that, still requires a submission to the Being of God as the origin of all things and, ultimately, the Lord of all things.

My final dreams lingered around the image of a little child building a sandcastle, then another coming along and kicking it over out of jealousy. Heaven help us: human nature, in all its beauty, needs some fundamental healing and the longer we walk this planet, the more obvious it seems to me, that we cannot fix ourselves by ourselves.

When religion would have maddened men…

In truth, this vividly illuminates the provincial stupidity of those who object to what they call “creeds and dogmas.” It was precisely the creed and dogma that saved the sanity of the world. These people generally propose an alternative religion of intuition and feeling. If, in the really Dark Ages, there had been a religion of feeling, it would have been a religion of black and suicidal feeling. It was the rigid creed that resisted the rush of suicidal feeling. The critics of asceticism are probably right in supposing that many a Western hermit did feel rather like an Eastern fakir. But he could not really think like an Eastern fakir; because he was an orthodox Catholic. And what kept his thought in touch with healthier and more humanistic thought was simply and solely the Dogma. He could not deny that a good God had created the normal and natural world; he could not say that the devil had made the world; because he was not a Manichee. A thousand enthusiasts for celibacy, in the day of the great rush to the desert or the cloister, might have called marriage a sin, if they had only considered their individual ideals, in the modern manner, and their own immediate feelings about marriage. Fortunately, they had to accept the Authority of the Church, which had definitely said that marriage was not a sin. A modern emotional religion might at any moment have turned Catholicism into Manichaeism. But when Religion would have maddened men, Theology kept them sane. (G.K.Chesterton, Aquinas, Chapter 4: Meditation on the Manichees.)

Constantine misunderstood?

Paul Fromont (again!) usefully highlights a new book, which respectfully takes issue with John Howard Yoder’s reading of Constantine. This looks as though it is a critical contribution to the concept of “post-Christendom” and “post-Constantinianism” in current mission thinking for western churches. The book is Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, published by IVP (USA) in 2010. It’s going on my read list.

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