Buffered and porous sexuality

Buffered and porous sexuality

There is no easy way to talk about what I’m about to mention, even anonymous I’m trying to be light on the personal details of the issue. Yet recently I’ve been challenged by my view of sex as one that is arguably sub-Christian. I think my view is one that many Christians in and in a way many outside the Church share, to the Churches shame. That is one in which we have essentially sundered the link between sex and new life. Procreation has become an opt-in measure, not the natural by-product of sex and this is as much a change of the mind as a change in our bodies and practices.

For years I realised that I had come to view sex as something in and of itself to no absolute end. I held marriage as the natural and right place for such a thing but sex within that was about shared union and mutual enjoyment, not life. Biologically I knew what was meant to take place, but I was also aware of the barriers we had put in place to stop biology taking its natural course. The reason deep down was economic and arguably selfish. We told ourselves we could not afford children and wanted to pursue careers and lifestyles that were not possible as parents. We did not want the responsibility.

When we changed our mind on this my idea of sex changed too. It became scary, to be honest, it became something potent and powerful in a way which was bigger than either of us that was beyond our control. The idea of choosing this responsibility also seemed somewhat inane and cheaper than the idea of just embracing the fact that sex for many people in history was always like this. I realised, to use Charles Taylor’s terms that sex is an inherently ‘porous’ act and we had been living with a ‘buffered’ imitation of such things. That is not to denigrate ‘buffered’ sexuality but really to explain that ‘porous’ sexuality seemed so much more powerful. It changed you physically but it changed you in coming to terms, climbing and overcoming that mountain that parenthood presents. To choose it, to bottle it and put it on the shelf for a rainy day seems artificial and manufactured, not authentic in the same way.

We are emotionally invested in the choices we make, and we make them for our own reasons. Our autonomy is really important to us in today’s age and it is something taken from us with pregnancy. It follows its own course for good or bad and you cannot help but worry your way through it because it is in many ways out of your hands and totally in God’s. We are unwillingly dragged into becoming porous people for a time as life grows outside and yet within us. We are so desperate to bring a measure of control and agency over the whole experience but you realise in some ways pregnancy, like life, isn’t about you ultimately. You are a passenger as much as the child in a way. The fate of all of you on that journey is still, even today, uncertain. I feel uncomfortable writing about this, mainly because I am a man, sex doesn’t affect me in the same way as a woman. At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. This is arguably cultural as well as religious decline. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. To replace the generations that are now unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if they look at our culture and see it as impotent. Maybe this is too strong,

At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. This is arguably cultural as well as religious decline. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. To replace the working generations that are now unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if they look at our culture and see it as impotent. Maybe this is too strong, maybe not.

At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves in small ways. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. Even the church is loosening its sexual mores in the face of this. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. Faith isn’t the only thing that suffers from this but our culture too. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. That we need to replace the generational gaps in the labour market that lie unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if the new arrivals look at our culture and see it as impotent.

As a Protestant, I realise now maybe I sound more Catholic on this matter but I think they are right in this and we have simply no voice of any conviction on this. Yet I think, to be honest, this is the downside of having churches localised to a particular nation, culture or time. The ever-quotable G.K Chesterton once said that tradition is the democracy of the dead that refuses to be overthrown by those who happen to be living (paraphrased). Yet people say that something like 80% of Catholics use contraception in the West and I completely understand why. At the same time, however, I increasingly think that they are wrong to do so. Despite all the struggle and challenges, it might present to us. We want our lives to be safe, we want to be in control but that isn’t life as intended. Maybe this is naive but I’m wondering if the accepted societal wisdom isn’t right on this. I understand choice, I understand autonomy, but I also understand that this might be idolatry.

On a recent visit to Rome

On a recent visit to Rome

I recently got back from a break in Rome. I’d imagined what visiting it would be like for some time and was really fortunate to be there with my wife. Experiencing it with her and sharing our different thoughts and reactions to it was a real gift. I’ll try and break-down some of the things that I thought about whilst there.

The City

I can see why people call Rome the eternal city, everywhere new developments sit side by side with structures that go back to the time of Caesar.

I got a strong sense that contemporary Romans are proud of their heritage, culture, where they came from and the continuity linking the past to the present. The line between old and new is blurred and it wasn’t uncommon to see new developments built into or amongst Roman ruins. I think in the UK such a thing would be sacrilege but it was nice in a way to breath life into old structures once more in a new way. It also struck me how architecture is an integral part of culture and the acts of building on and exposing one’s history cannot be anything but an expression of cultural continuity and an embrace of the past. Perhaps we need to do the same at home. Instead of being a spectacle our history will become participative and part of us.

Piazza Navona Rome Italy

When we visited the colosseum, I was struck by how it was much more than a gladiator arena and a site of early Christian martyrdom. At times it was also a barracks, farm, home, muse and ecological treasure. It was alive in that sense and it was only more recently that it had become something very different in its transition to spectacle.


I came to Rome as a tourist, I’m grateful because it gave me access to places in previous years I might not of come close to. The interior of the Vatican comes to mind when I think of this. Yet I could not be shocked by the sheer volume of tourists in such a place. When we walked down a street we could not help but be reminded of when we visited Bali years ago where you are relentlessly accosted with various forms of paraphernalia and trinkets. You can’t blame them since that is perhaps the best form of income available to these hawkers but I could not help but feel the whole thing denigrated the city. Yet in a way I was part of that denigration, I was part of an economic ecosystem that seemed to have stolen something from the city. I was conflicted because I greatly appreciated being there, but my presence lessened the place itself.

I’m reminded particularly of visiting the sistine chapel, we were asked not to take photos and to keep silence yet the whole hall was rammed with tourists loudly talking to themselves and taking photos. The disrespect was shocking and the impotency of the guards who stood above the crowd and shouted in an effort to bring order was embarrassing. We had little time available there and had rushed to see it and thought the whole thing induced a mild form of anticlimactic cognitive dissonance. The Vatican itself I thought was generally run badly, at least publicly facing, and my wife commented that the whole thing felt largely like a theme park. I couldn’t help but agree.

I was also consciously aware of the sheer number of monks, nuns and priests wandering about Rome. I quite enjoyed seeing them although I didn’t interact with any. Many nuns were acting as a form of tour guide for some and I did wonder about the dividing line between tourist and pilgrim. The line seemed increasingly blurred and it wasn’t unusual to see someone walk around snapping photos in a church, check twitter and then quickly bow and cross themselves before heading off to the next site. A tourist shop, depending on where you were, was as likely to sell icons, rosaries and medals as it was roman swords and small cheap stone statues.  It was incredible to be surrounded by such art, such history and yet the accessibility of it in a peculiar way denigrated it. Even the act of ‘paywalling’ some of it, whilst understandable, only contributed to the theme park impression left on my mind. Yet I was honestly grateful to have been there and see what I did but that Rome was somehow worse for it.

Churches and art

The sheer volume of churches, and their wealth is eye watering. I quite enjoyed seeing the aforementioned monks, nuns and priests going about their days in Rome. I enjoyed the reality that there was a church on every corner, open and in active use. There was an accessibility in this which left the mind to ponder the opportunity and blessing of being able to take communion and pray throughout the day no matter whether you were at work, at home or somewhere in between. Would it be that every city was like Rome in that regard.


When I first visited Rome one of the first churches I wanted to visit, near where we were staying, was Santa Maria della Vittoria which housed the Ecstasy of St Teresa. Truth be told I found the church incredibly disturbing and it sent my Protestant ‘spider sense’ off as soon as I stepped through the door. I couldn’t help but feel it was a total perversion of the gospel with its ostentatious displays of wealth, to say nothing of the saint veneration taking place. The Marian churches in particular I could not honestly believe and to my mind I could not help but notice in many instances Mary appeared more than Christ and that when the two were together Christ was either smaller or off to the side entirely. I’m reminded of one painting in the Vatican, I wish I knew its name, which was huge and appeared to be the second coming of Christ. Only that Mary was at the center and Christ was off to one side. I honestly could not believe it, this picture like many was beautiful in its craftsmanship but at the same time, to be honest, was utterly perverted to my mind.


The one exception to my experience, and I cannot explain why was the Sant’Andrea della Valle. My wife noticed this church and wanted to step in. Outside it is huge and aside from the dome on top relatively unremarkable, but inside it is so beautiful. The interior is golden, the windows are tinted so that the light is yellowed, there were huge lettered mosaic inscriptions in latin around the edges. The ceiling covered in depictions of the patriarchs, saints and near the altar a triptych of St Andrew’s martyrdom on his cross. Everywhere there was light and my wife commented that here you can really feel the saints looking down on you. I don’t think we ever talked about such things but you could and their depictions were literally doing so in this case! We sat for a bit and as we did the organist started to practice, the addition of the music moved me profoundly and induced a form of aesthetic experience that almost caused me to well up a little bit as I took in the work inside. To bring it back down I found the body of a dead cardinal on display in a side chapel, this was a repeated feature that occurred in the other church I mentioned and even in Westminster Cathedral back home. I found the whole thing absurd and my wife didn’t realise they were the actual corpses at first but statues. It was only when I pointed out the decayed teeth and withered flesh behind the slightly open mouth and broken plaster that she noticed. It was sobering and in a way reminded me of reading Martin Luther’s reaction to the church in Rome when he visited. I can appreciate the aesthetics of the churches but I am distinctly more grateful and appreciate the tragic necessity of the reformers.


The other thing I was reminded of on this topic was that I had recently watched the HBO miniseries the ‘Young Pope’ which, for all its faults really taps into the aesthetic marvels of Catholicism. As I walked around I couldn’t help but contrast the Church of Pope Jude Law to the Church of Pope Francis and be reminded of a First Things article on the peculiar appeal of the former over the latter.

Paolo Sorrentino, who wrote and directed the series, does not seem to be a traditional Catholic. As with most recent treatments of faith, a little more religious literacy would have gone a long way. Nonetheless, The Young Pope reveals the exhaustion of attempts to make the Church attractive by conforming it to the world. Reveling in supposedly old-fashioned garments like the papal red shoes and wide-brimmed saturno, it shows how attractive an unapologetically traditional Catholicism can be.

Sorrentino is not the first artist to admire Catholic tradition without adhering to it. Perhaps because they stand at some distance from the faith, or perhaps because they are trained in manipulating forms, artists have a way of hitting on truths about the Church that many Catholics cannot see. The signatories of the 1971 “Agatha Christie Letter” that pleaded for the preservation of the Latin Mass—people like Vladimir Ashkenazy, Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, Nancy Mitford, Iris Murdoch, and Joan Sutherland—were not generally Catholics, let alone traditional ones. But as artists, they were able to see the beauty and value of a liturgical form that too many practicing Catholics, through familiarity, had foolishly come to despise.

As a filmmaker, Sorrentino is particularly alert to the power of images. “In the 60s,” says Pius, “the young people that protested in the streets spouted all kinds of heresies. All except one: power to the imagination. In that, they were correct.” He vows that his first public appearance will be a great visual event, a “dazzling image, so dazzling it blinds people.” For Sorrentino, the Church is most eloquent in its pomp and dumbshow.

Marshall McLuhan! Thou shouldst be living at this hour. The media theorist believed that every group needed a common symbol or code, something that set them apart and made clear their purpose. Often this would involve “costume and vestment”—visible markers of identity. “What the young are obviously telling us is this: we want beards, we want massive costumes and vestments for everybody. We do not want any of this simple, plain, individual stuff.” Decades later, watching HBO, it is hard to deny that McLuhan was right.


I’m not sure how I’d react if the Church did move in this direction but there is something powerful being tapped into there. To be honest I had thought about wandering in my Protestantism recently but if anything a visit to Rome more than undid that. I didn’t realise how Protestant some Catholics or Orthodox were in the west and Rome reminded me of times I visited Orthodox churches and monasteries in Russia. Beautiful undoubtedly and sincere too but I can see how the reformers turned away and instead proclaimed ‘sola fide’ in face of such things. If anything I admire their bravery for doing so all the more now.

In closing

Rome is definitely a city unlike any other, in many ways I wish every city was like it. It didn’t feel like a city in a traditional sense because of its unique blend of history and religion. I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that so much of the contemporary western identity has its roots in what is found in Rome. It feels naturally suited to pilgrimage but in its contemporary setting seems tailored increasingly to tourism. Tourism takes a place and turns it into a spectacle for those wandering its streets. It makes a place accessible but simultaneously creates distance between it and the visitor. Maybe it was because I was a Protestant in the most Catholic of cities that I could only have seen it from the outside. Despite this, I loved the italians merging of historic and contemporary architecture that brought it alive and think it’d be great if the British did a similar thing with their historic buildings in some measure.

In any case I’d definitely recommend a visit

Authority and Idolatry

Authority and Idolatry

Recently I’ve been challenged to think about the role images play in the Christian church. I notice a lot of Orthodox and Catholic polemicists against Protestants in particular discuss the importance of the seven ecumenical church councils. By this they really are placing emphasis on the last, the second council of Nicea which validates the use of images in church.

Imagery came up again in reading William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain” which details his travels through the Middle East in the footsteps of John Moschos back in the 6th century. Whilst travelling through the Syria of the mid 90’s he comments on John of Damascus, known for defending the use of images whilst living under Islamic rule. I’ve haven’t read the ‘Fount of Wisdom’ but John’s (the latter of the two mentioned) peculiar and unique situation made him and his views something I’ve been curious about. The only quotation I’ve found of his on images, without access to any writings directly reads the following..

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honour is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.

We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.

St. John of Damascus

I think the comparison of the cross is potent namely because many Protestants have no issue with displaying a cross in church, or even wearing one. In fact I know of few aside from the Puritans et al who’d have an issue with this. Particularly because in the example given the worship is directed towards God alone. The contention however lingers on the term ‘venerate’ namely because it is a word rarely used in the everyman’s English language and is synonymous with worship. For John to say he venerates instead of worships images is akin to stating that he lingers in the bath instead of soaking. It is largely a linguistic phrasing without a substantive difference to the everyman.

Despite disputing of the term veneration, to be honest if we are referring to images of God alone the harm that can be done in any confusion is minimised. What is questionable however is in John’s example of the cross. Detractors of Protestantism accuse us of worshiping the Bible but in the case of Orthodoxy or Catholicism in a literal sense this is much closer to the truth. In the venerations of objects of worth; crosses, gospels, bread, wine and even the images and appendages of the departed there are actions involved. Bowing, kissing, prayer these are all ultimately directed to God we are told. Yet at the same time I have detractors of Protestantism say it is too cerebral, too internal and does not inhabit the body. This is why an Eastern or Latin Christian might stand a particular way or face a particular direction in prayer and I would confess that their is some truth to the criticism of Protestantism in this case. Yet by this reasoning if we enact worship with our bodies their is a disconnect when we say that our exhibition of this behaviour to created objects is not in fact worship because of some interior difference.

Whatever you or your church believes on this the interesting thing to me is the emphasis placed on it. The theology at work behind the second council of Nicea seems to be largely about the nature of the incarnation and the redemption of the physical world through the work of God. This is absolutely important and Protestants do uphold this. The linking of the issue however to the veneration of specific objects and images is an issue that, depending on your view of the Eastern or Latin Church is linked to a persons salvation pushes this beyond the immediate theological dispute into something more. More in that it ceases to be about the immediate flashpoint issue of idolatry and instead about authority.

The issue of authority becomes central because it is not enough that a Protestant hold to a particular view of the incarnation and God’s work in the world. It is the idea that truth is ultimately vested in an institution. I mention this more so after listening to an episode on ‘Non-Mainstream Christianity’ (Part 2c) from the podcast ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy’ in which Eastern Orthodox Fr. Stephen Damick, having detailed several cults highlights the trouble of adhering to an institution other than the Orthodox church. That discerning for yourself the truth is the same process by which a heretic might by lead to set up their own church. That even though you might have good intentions, others might exploit this same ‘mechanic’ for their own gain. Such is the history of Protestantism.

In this light the claims of a historical council are less important to the everyman than the point of adhering to the council itself. Truths pertaining to right, wrong and salvation slip into the guise of an institution. Dostoevsky in the Brother Karamazov touches on the friction of this in his short story ‘the Grand Inquisitor’. The story itself  reflects the actual life of Christ and echoes the plight of the Old Testament prophets over and against the idolatry of an unbelieving Israel. The thread through all of this is that truth can transcend an apparent authority.

Yet when confronted with an unbelieving world we cannot escape the question that Pilate confronted Christ himself with “What is truth?”. The serpent similarly challenged Eve with the question “Did God really say…?”. The serpent is worse of the two because he did not deny God but gave grounds for Eve to live outside her creators will. The temptation exists to desire that God had taken away such freedom from Adam and Eve. Just as the Church in the tale of the Grand Inquisitor took the freedom from humanity.

Oh, never, never, will they learn to feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them
bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!” That day must come when men will understand that freedom and daily bread enough to satisfy all are unthinkable and can never be had
together, as men will never be able to fairly divide the two among themselves. And they will also learn that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, miserable nonentities born wicked and rebellious. Thou has promised to them the bread of life, the bread of heaven; but I ask Thee again, can that bread ever equal in the sight of the weak and the vicious, the ever
ungrateful human race, their daily bread on earth? … True, they are vicious and rebellious, but we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them–so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men!

– Excerpt from The Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky  

The Grand Inquisitor gives his reason for acting and believing such in that he is acting in the service of the serpent. Did God then, being himself and not the serpent, give Adam and Eve the ‘burden of freedom’ to act as they would? Aldous Huxley in Brave New World touches on this idea in his own way when he details an exchange between the ‘Savage’ and Mustapha Mond.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

– Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I guess it is too Protestant of me to say that the ability to ‘claim them all’ that the Savage describes is an intrinsic part of a inherited Christian worldview and in their own way gifts of God.

In closing, I can’t help but be reminded, when thinking of idolatry and authority but be reminded of Daniel chapter 3. Daniel and his peers knew that God was able to save but would not crave to the pressures of this authority that made such demands of them. When I think about Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace I think of Wycliffe who, like Daniel and his friends, went to the flames willingly but unlike them won a martyrs crown. In both instances it is faith in God alone that is the bulwark against authority whether temporal or spiritual. We know that God is able to rescue, but even if he should not we can say to the world “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up”.

The Prayer of the Weak and the Joy of Singing Psalms

The Prayer of the Weak and the Joy of Singing Psalms


Imagine that God had given us a hymn book? – one with his words.  One that revealed his character.  One that expresses our emotions and hearts in words that the Holy Spirit inspires.  One that speaks of and to Christ.  One that is traditional, modern, post-modern and contemporary. One that is praise, lament, confession, rejoicing, individual and collective.   What would we give for such a book?    What value would we place on it?   Well he has – the book of Psalms – and yet it appears that many evangelical churches seem to place very little value on it.   I genuinely don’t understand churches that don’t sing psalms – apart from Ps 23 and those like 10,000 Reasons (based on Ps 103) that draw inspiration from them.

I think for me I would find it almost impossible to go to a church that did not use the…

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Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over,
The bending poplars, newly bare,
And the dark ribbons of the chimneys

Veer downward; flicked by whips of air,

Torn posters flutter; coldly sound
The boom of trams and the rattle of hooves,
And the clerks who hurry to the station
Look, shuddering, over the eastern roves,

Thinking, each one, ‘Here comes the winter!
Please God I keep my job this year!’
And bleakly, as the cold strikes through
Their entrails like an icy spear,

They think of rent, rates, season tickets,
Insurance, coal, the skivvy’s wages,
Boots, school-bills, and the next instalment
Upon the two twin beds from Drage’s.

For if in careless summer days
In groves of Ashtaroth we whored,
Repentant now, when winds blow cold,
We kneel before our rightful lord;

The lord of all, the money-god,
Who rules us blood and hand and brain,
Who gives the roof that stops the wind,
And, giving, takes away again;

Who spies with jealous, watchful care,
Our thoughts, our dreams, our secret ways,
Who picks our words and cuts our clothes,
And maps the pattern of our days;

Who chills our anger, curbs our hope,
And buys our lives and pays with toys,
Who claims as tribute broken faith,
Accepted insults, muted joys;

Who binds with chains the poet’s wit,
The navvy’s strength, the soldier’s pride,
And lays the sleek, estranging shield
Between the lover and his bride.

St. Andrew’s Day, 1935 – George Orwell

Pushed up into the world

Pushed up into the world

Over the last few years I’ve been noticing a particular shift in my beliefs. I don’t know why, because it isn’t intentional and it feels in many ways out of my control. What seems right or decent today is something I’m not sure the me a decade or even five years ago would necessarily agree with. A decade ago I was more ‘principled’ I believed in rights or values that were universal. I believed society should be organised along those rights and values applying them without consideration to all people. Yet in many ways whilst this is admirable I’ve increasingly seen such things enacted or enforced by those in authority, in power to pressure smaller groups, increasingly individuals, to fall in line. These principles don’t have to be popular they just have to be ‘right’ to those with the ability to enact change.

Today I increasingly see the value in community, in immediacy and the particular. That is an intrinsic part of being British, in our politics we don’t have a constitution like the US, we have a tradition. It’s not always for the ‘best’ but love it or hate it this is who we are, and if we don’t like it we acknowledge that and change it but we cannot forget who we are. This is why the blind insistence on ‘British values’ by politicians in trying to combat extremism is so asinine. The very attempt is an exercise in denigrating who we are by conjuring up vague, ahistorical and generalised principles that we should fall in line with. What is being British? In reality it has a great more to do with Tolkein’s ‘Hobbits’ than Parliament’s ‘Values’. Who we are is a particular thing more rooted in our history, culture, habits and language than any abstraction. Abstraction is what we have been seeing increasingly in the tail end and conception of the 20th and 21st centuries which has gone hand in hand with a diminishment of individual liberty.

From my own perspective, this change is a shift of seeing the good in the world not as something pushed down on the world but instead as something pushed up into the world. It starts with the individual, family and what they produce is important. They produce beliefs, aesthetics, languages and homes. They might be good, they might be bad but an abstraction of the truth does not determine this. Truth isn’t abstract but grounded in the particular, there is a reason Christ was born to Mary, died on a Roman cross and rose again. These things are increasingly being treated by the world as incidental or even optional but they are not, they’re important. Truth is ultimately found in Christ, nothing else. It can’t be abstracted, it can’t be divorced from Christ and his particulars. We live in an age where we are taught that secularism is value neutral, this is a lie. Secularism is a relativising notion that supplants any truth for the authority of the state. A Monarch in that sense is more honest in their particularity of beliefs and convictions, just as you can be an honest opponent or supporter for your own differing reasons. The contemporary secular state by contrast claims it has no time for the particulars of right or wrong and instead seeks to universalise, to homogenise. In place of truth is pure commerce and the erosion of anything other than the facilitation of the state and its financing.

This particularism is the natural outworking of position that prioritises a love not just of home but the land itself. We should care about our environment because it’s not only our home but our sustainer. Environmental abuse is nearly always perpetrated by those who have no attachment to the land being abused. This is most applicable to the natural environment, but I believe increasingly it applies to our social and cultural environments. None of these are sustainable in our current circumstances. We are fortunate in that social and cultural environments are inevitable and should old ones be supplanted new ones will be founded. Yet this is to say nothing of the cost of loss passed on to a community in the event of such a thing.

As a result of this change I realise I don’t really believe in things like ‘human rights’ anymore and the statement ‘we hold these rights to be self-evident’ in the US constitution I think are based on a faulty premise. Yet as a Christian I know certain behaviour is warranted of me by God that might constitute something akin to human rights but that the language is not helpful. Economically I subscribe much more to something like Distributism these days. I feel like I have a greater respect for other cultures and languages and how we communicate the kingdom of god to various cultures becomes a much more important consideration. I’m interested in how that has been done historically in addition to being much more passionate about my own history, the good and the bad. People do matter, but the term people is too abstract. My neighbour matters.

Responding to Orthodox criticism of Sola Scriptura

Responding to Orthodox criticism of Sola Scriptura

I’ve recently started listening to the Ancient Faith Radio (an Eastern Orthodox podcast network) series ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy‘. This is done by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and compares Eastern Orthodox doctrine to other beliefs.

For the most part I’ve found it an interesting listen on the differences between Roman and Eastern Christian beliefs (I’m only seven episodes in as of writing). So far I’m less surprised by the points I disagree with him, but I am surprised by the points on which I generally agree.

Episode seven of the podcast addresses what is known as the ‘Magisterial Reformation’. This is what most people think of when they imagine the Reformation. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli all get mentions including the Anglican Church and the five Sola’s of the reformation. Fr. Andrew being Eastern Orthodox disagrees with the Protestant view but his assessment of the doctrines I feel is particularly deficient. In fact it is deficient enough to actually write down the reasons as to why, partly so I can process this response in a manner outside of my own mind in order to see if my views bear out.

Early on in Fr. Andrew’s description of Sola Scriptura he states that the principle fails at the first hurdle because the principle itself is found nowhere in scripture. Yet this highlights a belief that Protestants subscribe to a form of circular reasoning emerging from the text itself. This isn’t true, Protestants do not hold to scripture but the view that what it contains is trustworthy. We trust scripture because it is an authoritative window on the life, identity, work and implications of Christ as depicted by his apostles and prophets. In addition, the outworking of the miraculous in the lives of those contained within are taken as signs of divine assent, the greatest of which being Christ’s conquering of death. We do not trust a text but the reliability of what the text depicts.

Fr. Andrew however builds on his view of Sola Scriptura by highlighting that whilst scripture is one thing, how we interpret something  can vary massively, as is highlighted by the differing beliefs of all the major reformation churches. He effectively upholds the old claim that the Protestants here have exchanged the Pope singular for making ourselves Popes plural. That we are interpreting scripture in our own image.

This claim of Fr. Andrew however is forcing an overly narrow understanding of the Protestant theological outlook. We recognise that we are fallible, that just as St Augustine or St John Chrysostom might of been correct in some things doesn’t mean they were always right. Yet this is not to say we should cease from making any and all truth claims. Just as we might make one claim, there is the honest likelihood that others might disagree and this is where the separate churches emerge amidst the peculiarities of cultural and political norms of the period. Personally I do not believe the reformers were definitively ‘right’ I just believe they were more right than wrong. The degree to which they are right is in the degree of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The approach taken by Fr. Andrew however feels like it teeters on an almost Post-modern rejection of ‘truth’ altogether. In place of truth is pure authority in the absence of understanding.

There is also a degree to which however Fr. Andrew opens Eastern Orthodoxy up to criticism here too. If scripture is not sufficient, the tradition must step in to support and help frame it. Yet the root criticism that we cannot genuinely know or interpret scripture can be applied to the interpretation of tradition and the decisions of various councils. Even in this matter Eastern Orthodoxy is not without schism and disagreement, the division with the Roman church being the most obvious example. I could not help but feel that Fr. Andrew’s framing of such divisions, particularly with the Roman and Eastern church was more about who was going to be ultimately recognised as the preeminent authority on tradition and that in such arrangements there could be no ultimate reconciliation. Fr. Andrew says as much in this episode. I confess we all must have our lines which we cannot cross but to somehow put the Protestants in a box in which they alone in being unable to faithfully understand or interpret what they consider sacred seems to be inconsistent.

At the beginning of the Podcast series Fr. Andrew compares the exercise he and the listeners are about to undertake as similar to; a mathematician checking his proofs or a scientist interpreting their data. That ultimately he is convinced of Eastern Orthodoxy because of its ‘truths’. Yet this is precisely what he argues the Protestants are guilty of at the time of the reformation in this episode. This is the process of examining the evidence before them and using their own judgement and reason to discern truth. This is to say nothing of history and theology being less of a science than the aforementioned things. Consistently Eastern Orthodoxy is presented as something not true because an individual is convicted of such a thing but because of its episcopal traditions and councils. This is truth taken on Authority, not reason. The contrast I think is reflected in the well-known exchange between William Tyndale and a Catholic depicted in Foxe’s book of Martyrs.

The clergyman asserted to Tyndale, “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”

John Foxe, “Chap XII”, Book of Martyrs.

The claims to authority are emphasised to a greater degree where Fr. Andrew later negatively conflates the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scripture with the view that we must constantly revise our understanding of scripture in light of new archaeological discoveries that shed light on a relevant era. I would agree with this but see it as a positive thing, I believe scripture ultimately communicates truth, that truth is totally contingent on historical events. Paul himself wrote “And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.”. He later goes on to specify that was a literal event in the same passage, yet if it turned out Christ had not really been raised then I would need to reevaluate my trust of scripture. I do not think Fr. Andrew would necessarily disagree here but I feel it is something of an own goal for the point he is trying to make. Ultimately, whether we want to or not we are accountable for our decisions and interpretation of what is true and what is false based on how we make sense of the world. What defines the historical Protestant movement is an insistence that ultimately scripture is the highest authority.

In relation to my own tradition, Fr Andrew makes the point that the original Anglicans upheld ‘scripture, tradition and reason’ as their guiding lights. Whilst he correctly highlights that we have since deviated from such a thing (for shame) I cannot help but associate myself with those convictions. Scripture is my highest authority, I respect the councils and fathers of the church that compiled and gave us the Bible yet acknowledge they are fallible. On some points they took things too far or I do not think they were right. Many Orthodox and Catholics look back on the some of the writings of someone like Origen, Augustine or even Tertullian in potentially similar ways. Even in scripture Peter is shown to be fallible at times in his judgement and actions. I think the Orthodox do a lot that is right and I associate with them in some ways more than with my liberal counterparts. Yet ultimately Fr. Andrew gives an deficient account of the faith of the reformers in his summation. The reformation has created a great many issues reflected in the profusion of different theologies that have emerged over time in the west since the split from Rome. Some of the pentecostal and prosperity preaching I see today in particular just makes me want to sack the whole thing in. Yet I look back to the faith of the reformers, I look back to the early church and take heart. I’m thankful for the lives and witness of these saints and ultimately they inspire me to believe that the situation today isn’t beyond redemption, God willing.

As a final point I want to add that there was no transcript available of the talk so if I have taken anything out of context, or misunderstood it in any way I ask for forgiveness.