Thinking about God: the work of Oliver Quick

Longstanding readers of this blog will remember that I used to take Oliver Quickon aspects of religious faith sometimes, from my agnostic Christian standpoint. I have not attempted this recently as it rather distracts from my main mission of tracking the evolution of liberal politics. But it’s Christmas time, and I have recently finished reading this book about the work of the early 20th Century Anglican theologian Oliver Quick (1885-1944). He is my grandfather. Those only interested in my political musings should read no further.

Oliver Chase Quick, to give him his full name, was the son of a priest, Hebert Quick, who made a name for himself in the development of liberal education, but who died in 1891, when Oliver was but 6. His mother, Bertha, daughter of Indian Army officer Chase Parr, lived until 1934. She became an important family figure, holding together the extended family of Quicks, Parrs and Hills (the Shropshire family into which Oliver’s sister, Theodora, married), developing a family bond which has continued until my generation. Oliver went to Harrow school and then Corpus Christi Oxford, where he surprised everybody by only obtaining a third. That put an end to prospects of an immediate academic career, and he was ordained into the Church. He became curate at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields in 1914, “then a very dead and empty church,” according to my grandmother; the new vicar, who invited Quick in, was the charismatic Dick Sheppard, who started the church’s now famous outreach to the poor. In 1915 Quick became Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, based mainly at Lambeth Palace. There he met Freda Pearson, secretary to the Archbishop’s wife. They were married at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields in 1917, with the Archbishop, Randall Davidson, presiding. Quick became Canon at Newcastle in 1920, followed by Carlisle (where my mother, Julian, was born), St Paul’s, Durham and finally Christ Church Oxford, where he became Regius Professor of Divinity. He died in 1944 of a progressive heart disease – a condition that would almost certainly be readily treatable these days.

Notwithstanding the setback at the start of his academic career, Quick became probably the foremost Anglican theologian of his day. But his work is now largely forgotten. Understanding why this is the case is a central theme of the book, Oliver Quick and the Quest for a Christian Metaphysic, by Alexander Hughes, Archdeacon of Cambridge. This book is directed at an academic audience, and I do not recommend it to a general readership. Sample chapter head: Theological Prolegomena to Christology. I struggled through it from grandfilial loyalty, but I would not like to suggest that I managed to digest it properly. Still, I found it of enormous interest, and it made more sense as I progressed through it. Quick was a man of his times; his work is now of marginal interest because times have changed.

Those times, of course, where the aftershock of the scientific revolution of the 19th Century, of which Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was only the most spectacular part. The world had previously been understood to be a divine act of will with Man at its centre. Scientific thought transformed it into an incidental speck of dust in a nearly infinite universe, coming about through the action of immutable laws of nature rather than divine caprice. What on earth was orthodox religion to do about this transformation? One important response is referred to as “liberal theology”. This accepted the basic premises of scientific materialism, and interpreted scripture to be of essentially symbolic meaning, offering a deeper understanding of the world. The historical truth of biblical stories was treated with a high degree of scepticism. To this line of reasoning there was a counter-reaction, of whom the most famous figure was the German theologian Karl Barth. He injected modern energy in to traditional ideas of divine will in a sinful world, often referred to as “dialectical theology”, because of its confrontation of paradox.

Quick’s work can be understood as plotting a middle way, by constructing a modern philosophical underpinning to orthodox belief. He accepted the “threefold cord” of scripture, tradition and reason. His aim was not to change orthodoxy, but to present it in a new light which the modern mind, with its emphasis on reasoning, could accept. A central aspect of this was framing theology in terms of classical metaphysics – the first principles of philosophy.

Quick was fascinated by the duality that runs through Christian thought from its origins. He characterised this as being between the “Hellenic” and “Hebraic” traditions. The Hellenic tradition is based on classical Greek thought, and in particular the idea of Logos. This has been translated into Latin Verbum, and English “Word”, which means much the same as the Latin. This has led to some perplexity, such as the mysterious opening of John’s Gospel (originally written in Greek): “In the beginning was the Word”. Logos actually means something much bigger than “word” – it refers to rationality and orderliness. We get some of the meaning the idea from its English derivative “logic”. Greeks believed in a pantheon of divine entities interfering with the human world. But these gods operated within a divine framework, the Logos, that lay beyond. It is an essentially passive idea. Liberal theologians equated God with this Logos, who did not therefore become a personal actor in our world. Christian doctrine was essentially symbolic in their eyes. This may be a long way from most people’s understanding of the religion, but the idea has always been there. It is associated with Christian mystics, such as the Spanish 16th Century St John of the Cross, and the 14th Century Julian of Norwich, after whom Quick named my mother. It is not that the mystics were theological liberals, but they developed a vision of divine revelation and universal divine love that is the beating heart of theological liberalism; they downplayed ideas of divine retribution and sin.

Contrast this mystical, symbolic, aesthetic and revelatory path to the Hebraic tradition. This emphasises divine will over revelation, instrumentalism (that is, concrete action) over symbolism, and ethics over aesthetics. This is, perhaps, a more familiar version of religion. It conjures up pictures of fire and brimstone, and the division of mankind between those that follow the Lord (often referred to as the “Chosen”) and those that don’t. It is the idea of religion that the liberal theologians sought to excise as no longer compatible with modern thought. But Quick could not accept this. Christianity without the Hebraic tradition would not be Christianity. But, unlike Barth, he could not reject, or demote, the Hellenic tradition either. He sought to effect a reconciliation.

The details of this need not concern us, and not just because I, without a classical philosophical training, have been unable to grasp them properly. Ultimately the project failed in the sense that there was no satisfactory reconciliation to be found – which, as Mr Hughes points out, is not to say that the effort was not worthwhile. Often the journey means more than the destination. And Quick leads our thoughts to many interesting places. His struggles help us to understand what Christianity is about, beyond the perpetuation of ancient traditions.

The bigger problem with Quick’s work, though, is not his failure to resolve the tension between Hellenic and Hebraic thought, but the way that, in the later half of the 20th Century, idealistic, classical metaphysics has fallen out of fashion. We set our sights lower these days. We feel that a single Truth is unattainable, and we are content to examine rival versions in an unresolved pluralism – we make our own choices but without the expectation that the rest of the world must follow.

Reading about Quick throws light on my own faith, or lack of it. After an Anglo-Catholic Church upbringing, and extensive engagement with Evangelical traditions at university, I came to reject anything that looks like Quick’s “Hebraic” tradition. But without it, what do you have? Scientific materialists believe in the Logos, but that leaves them a long way away from anything like a religious faith. You can layer on top the poetry of love from such mystics as Simone Weil, Quick’s contemporary, or the philosophical exploration of the I-Thou relationship from Martin Buber, another contemporary of Quick’s, of the Jewish faith. That gives you depth. But it was Barth’s highly Hebraic vision that challenged Hitler, and somehow moved things into the concrete world of action and counter action from that of mystic contemplation. I cannot resolve that tension in my soul, so I call myself an agnostic. Quick’s philosophical apparatus may be dated, but the challenge he confronted is at the heart of any attempt to reconcile a modern understanding of the world with religious faith.


When is evangelism intolerance? A dilemma for some Christians

I have a great deal of sympathy with the article by Deborah Orr in the weekend’s Guardian: Whether you are religious or secular imposing your views on others is foolish.  Ms Orr complains about strident campaigning from Christians against abortion and gay rights, as well as secularists complaining about the mention of God in the Boy Scouts’ oath.  I disapprove of these strident attitudes too, and it doesn’t make me feel better about those who advance them.  But I fear the distinction between free speech and imposing views isn’t as sharp as she implies.

Ms Orr praises the “live and let live” Christians she knows, who don’t seek to impose their views on others.  This sounds perilously close to not wishing to convert others to their faith.   I don’t think that is necessarily wrong, but many Christians feel that it is their duty to spread the faith – to evangelise.  Now I have enough of a Christian education to enjoy picking holes in what many practising Christians say, in spite of my having lapsed from the faith.  But in this case I find the duty to evangelise a difficult idea to challenge – it’s solidly grounded in scripture both in  letter and spirit (unlike, I would argue, many Christians’ views on gays, and, indeed, abortion).  The Christian and Islamic faiths differ from others, like Judaism and Hinduism, in this.  You are not meant to keep your light under bushel.

So I quite understand the Christian need to proselytise – and probably that is what many Christians think they are doing when advancing their views militantly on gay rights and abortion.  It mystifies me why so many Christians think these things are so central to their faith – but clearly many do.  Ms Orr, of course, is quite happy about the idea of free speech.  she is happy enough for Christians to publicise their views, provided they show equivalent tolerance when people who disagree with them publicise theirs.  She is objecting to two things.  First the idea that conflicting views should be suppressed because they are insulting to those of faith – part of a process of secular persecution.  I have almost no sympathy for Christians (or Muslims) on that score – surely the duty to bear insults with good grace is the flipside of the duty to evangelise?  But she also objects to attempts to “impose” their views on others, by, for example, Christian registrars refusing to conduct civil partnerships between gays – or the Christian landlord refusing to accommodate a gay couple in a bed and breakfast.  Also, of course, the use of violence to stop people using abortion services – and the attempt to advertise “gay cures” on London’s buses.

Ms Orr doesn’t talk about Christian surgeons refusing to conduct abortions – but isn’t that similar?  I don’t think many people would object to that, though this clearly creates problems and may restrict freedom of choice.  This at least shows that there is some grey amid the black and white.

But, to be fair, Ms Orr uses the word “foolish” rather than “wrong” to describe this behaviour – and this is much nearer to the mark.  This behaviour seems to be much more about a rather modern habit of wallowing in victimhood to attract attention from others.  Christians should have the teaching and spiritual resources to rise above that kind of behaviour, even if atheists do not.  Many do of course, so it is does the churches no good when leading figures like George Carey and Cardinal O’Brien pander to the victim culture rather than showing spiritual leadership.


The mysterious ways of God and the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church’s untenable stand on gay marriage  undermines its entire corpus of moral teaching.

So what are we to make of Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s outburst, We cannot afford to indulge this madness, in the Telegraph over the weekend against the government’s proposals to open civil marriage to gay couples?  After the outrage has subsided I am left with a feeling of plain bafflement.

The implication of the Cardinal’s words is that traditional values in British society are Christian ones, and that it is the duty of Christians to defend them against more modern modern attitudes.  One of the early critics of the Cardinal’s article argued that he was crying wolf; since he had similarly objected to civil partnerships for gays, and as this had not led to the predicted collapse in civilisation, we should ignore his objections this time.  But Cardinal O’Brien takes this episode as part of his justification: he had warned that civil partnerships were just the thin end of the wedge – and, just as he predicted, the debate has now moved on to the sacred ground of marriage.  Where will it all end?  He suggested such outrages as marriage covering more than two people, as a sort of reductio ad absurdam.

But such thinking just shows how much he is out of touch with most of the general public.  Two things have changed.  First people have come to accept that there is nothing harmful in gay relationships, and that such relationships stem primarily from how people are made, and not from their perverted choices.  This change is particularly striking amongst the young, as this Economist article shows.  The second change is that people no longer think that marriage is primarily about having children: it is about lifelong partnership and companionship, driven by love rather than the need to keep the population going.  Put these two things together and objections to gay marriage melt away.

And it’s not as if these issues challenge any fundamental Christian principles.  It is true that the Old Testament comes out pretty strongly against gay relationships, though their prohibition doesn’t merit inclusion in the Ten Commandments.  But Christians, from Jesus Christ onwards, have always taken a flexible attitude to Old Testament teachings.  If Christians may eat bacon, why can’t they have gay relationships?  we nust fall back on higher principles than simply referring to ancient texts.

And on the question of sex, marriage and the family, the Church’s past flexibility is striking.   In New Testament times the primary focus of Christians was the urgency of the Second Coming.  Sexual relationships of any kind were regarded as a distraction.  In the gospels where Jesus makes it plain that the Christian calling may well conflict with family ties, and where this happened family comes second – as he himself had shown through his difficult relationship with his mother.  But now compatibility with family values are a central claim of practically all Christian denominations, with the implication that no conflict exists between family and Christianity.

And the Catholic Church has been here before.  Their stand against contraception is widely ignored in even fervently Catholic countries like Poland.  Opposition to gay relationships and gay marriage is headed in the same direction.

According to its leaders, one of the main attractions of the Catholic Church is its clear laying down of moral principles, in a world where values are undermined by relativism.  And indeed there are important moral weaknesses in the world at large – such as when individuals come up against the state or anonymous organisations (looters and benefit cheats at one end of the social scale, company directors avoiding tax and voting themselves unwarranted salaries at the other).  It’s not that the Church avoids these moral issues, it’s that its untenable stand on issues such as contraception and gay relationships encourages a pick’n mix approach to its teachings even amongst its loyal followers.  And its credibility in the wider world is shot through.  And that’s even before we have talked about the moral failings of certain Catholic priests and the Church hierarchy’s first response when it found out.

It is safe to assume that the Cardinal is a man of faith, and feels that his actions are guided through prayer and are the will of God.  He must follow his calling, and political calculation and what the majority think do not come into it.  So why is God sending him and his Church up such a blind alley?  The ways of God are indeed mysterious.

Why is it to hard for the Christians to capitalise on Christmas?

Why should we take down our Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night (January 5th)?  According to this website it’s because the wood spirits will bring us bad luck otherwise.

Christmas is the second most important festival in the Christian calendar, and it has become the biggest festival in modern Western society.  But Christianity plays a diminishing role.  In the many-layered concoction that Christmas has become, Christianity has left a number of distinctive strata.  The carol service, the children’s nativity play, concerts of sacred music and midnight mass.  These come on top of European pagan strata, and underneath more recent secular ones (Father Christmas and all that).  And as this website shows, more secular types sometimes try to escape the Christian nature of Christmas by appealing to the more ancient traditions.

By and large Christians seem to be accepting this retreat with good grace.  We did get a grump from the Pope about excessive commercialisation, but that was about the only grumbling I picked up this year.  The Archbishop of Canterbury was on the front foot and positive.  This is wise.  The trouble is that the Christian Christmas message has diminishing evangelical weight.

Christian Christmas (it’s a stark sign of the retreat that I have to call it that given that Christianity is embedded into the festival’s very name) is about the fact of Jesus’s incarnation.  It’s about who he is, rather than what he said.  And this takes us into the areas of Christian doctrine that resonate least with the modern world.  “God sent his only Son to save the world” is an expression of faith has become a meaningless string of words to people without faith but with a modern understanding of the Universe.  You are not a Christian because you believe this; you believe it because you are a Christian.

And it shows.  Those carols and nativity plays are distinctly unthreatening to the modern secular sensibility.  The words of the carols have become meaningless, if charming images.  There’s a lot about Kings and Kingdoms, reflecting political arrangements that we now consider to outmoded, and indeed illegitimate as anything more than a token figurehead.  The Virgin Birth is clear nonsense to the modern mind (What does God’s genome look like?).

There is much in the Christian message that resonates as powerfully today as it did 2,000 years ago.  But these Christmas trappings get in the way to the non believer.  To the believer it might be different – they serve as link to the ancient past.  They might help deepen faith, but they will not broaden the appeal.  So Christians at Christmas are best off preaching to the already converted, and watching the evolution of the secular festival with amusement.

Seeing with the eye of faith

A little while ago I blogged on the subject of Islam and the modern world, following the BBC series on Mohammed.  This included some rather dismissive comments about Christianity, which I contrasted with Islam in some rather unfavourable ways, at least with regard to consistency.  Unsurprisingly this annoyed a (Catholic) Christian reader, and we subsequently engaged in a prolonged Twitter conversation, mainly about the crusades.  Twitter isn’t a good medium to explain ideas, and I feel strangely compelled to explain myself properly, even though I am not going to persuade anybody to change their views.  My point is this: I hold my views on Christianity not through ignorance but through a lack of faith.  This has led me to rather a long post, taking me through my own Christian journey.

Faith is an important part of any religion – and any relationship in fact.  To be a Christian you have to subscribe to a whole series of beliefs which you take on trust.  It’s your membership subscription, or, more aptly, the club rules.  You believe these things because you are a Christian; you not a Christian because you believe in them.  Or mostly, anyway.  People will be drawn to the faith because they come to believe, through reflection or experience, in some critical parts of Christian gospel; they then take the rest on trust.  For me I was drawn to the faith in the first place because I believed in my church community and wanted to be part of it; subsequently I was overwhelmed by the truth and beauty of the message of love, forgiveness and redemption that came through in the Gospels and the early Epistles of St Paul.  I lapsed mainly because the burden of faith became too much to bear – the accumulated superstructure of doctrine.  In my heart of hearts I could not believe that God is a person who intervenes in the world beyond the workings of immutable natural laws; neither can I believe in any meaningful afterlife, certainly in the sense of heaven, hell, judgement and so forth.  But I am a secular agnostic, not an atheist.  I am sometimes moved to take Communion in a C of E church service, on the rare occasions that I attend.  It is not inconceivable that I will come back to the faith one day, provided I’m not pushed too hard on the infrastructure of beliefs.

I was brought up as a Church of England Christian.  Both my parents had a strong faith, and took a philosophical interest in it and we talked about Christianity a lot as a family.  My mother’s father was a canon and professor of divinity (at Oxford), though he died long before I came into the world.  Our house was full of religious books, and my mother, who had a degree in Philosophy, studied theology and comparative religion as a mature student.  Our church was rather High, in the jargon of the C of E, meaning that it liked a lot of traditional, catholic rituals.  The biggest controversy at the time (it was the 1970s) was whether women could be ordained to the priesthood – my parents strongly beleived they could, but some of our clergy did not.  At university (Cambridge) I fell in with a much more “Low” group in the Christian Union, associating with Methodists and Baptists.   Here the issues were mainly about how to interpret the Bible, with a strong fundamentalist faction.  I had something of an intense religious experience while meditating in a retreat, as the message of love seemed to explode out of the New Testament in a burst of light.  That experience remains with me still, but I started to lapse pretty much as soon as I began to live on my own in London.

Two experiences in particular stand out in as I passed over the invisible line between faith and agnosticism.  I attended one my local churches (St Mary’s Islington), and the preacher considered at length whether dancing was to be allowed under scriptural rules.  Although he came to the right answer so far as I was concerned (yes), I was appalled by the idea that talking about these sorts of rules was an important part of church life.  In a second instance I visited a packed evangelical service in Nottingham with a couple of university friends.  The preacher there was developing the theme that the Apocalypse was near.  One his arguments: “The price of gold has trebled in just a year [or some such statistic]: that means that the value of money has fallen by two thirds!” – to a chorus of approval.  This dates the story to about 1980, the last time the price of gold shot through the roof.  To me then, as now, this is utter drivel.  Ever since I have had a visceral hatred of the use of gold as a substitute for money.  But more the point I thought to myself: “Why do I have to put up with all this nonsense?”

And so my views of on Christianity became very detached, as I was liberated from the eye of faith.  I have come to see it as a very interesting human phenomenon, and not a process of divine intervention.  It is an outgrowth from the Jewish faith, promulgated by a few years of radical and inspring preaching by Jesus Christ.  Something strange happened on Jesus’s death; his followers became inspired to accept Jesus himself as divine, and to spread the religion further.  There were several strands to this outgrowth, but the most important to us in the west was that of St Paul, who took the message to the Gentiles.  The faith was the right idea at the right time and its popularity exploded.  It survived persecution, with its adherents apparently welcoming martyrdom.

But then it was adopted as a state religion by the Roman empire.  This was a major challenge.  Christianity was at heart a revolutionary creed, with some burning beliefs but with a certain lack of coherence.  Some of its beliefs, especially a very strong strand of pacificism, were inimical to running a state.  Gradually it had to be knocked into shape, and a series of doctrines were established to create an orthodoxy compatible with a state religion, starting with that of the Trinity.  In due course the great thinkers of St Augustine of Hippo and St Thomas Aquinas added to this process to create a coherent framework of doctrine.  This has subsequently been added to and taken away from both by the orthodox branches and various breakaways – the latter often trying to recapture the early Christian magic from the dead hand of the orthodox (that is Catholic and Orthodox) institutions.

These doctrinal systems may or may not be quite tidy, but they really do need the eye of faith to make them work, and the more so as time passes.  They are simply part of a process of divine revelation.  But without faith they just look awkward.  This awkwardness has two roots.  The first are the compromises required to get the cat back into the bag.  Monotheism is one of the most conspicuous casualties here.  The divinity of Christ was an early theological problem, and the Holy Spirit crept in too.  To this pantheon has been added the Blessed Virgin Mary and countless saints, to whom many Christians pray.  Of course Christian theologians offer a reconciliation of this pantheon to monotheism, but these sound very similar to any other defence of polytheism.  The contrast with Judaism and especially Islam is quite striking – though some Islamic sects (notably Shias) have blurred the difference by consecrating saints.

A further difficulty is that the doctrinal view is increasingly at odds with modern beliefs about the universe.  On my kitchen wall hangs a facsimile of the Mappa Mundi, the early medieval map in Hereford Cathedral.  The world is a flat disc, with Britain at the edge and Jerusalem at the centre.  Such a world view was quite compatible with the idea of God being a person, a bit like us, inhabiting a nearby world, and intervening in our affairs.  We can begin, perhaps, to understand the idea of Atonement, that “God so loved the World that he gave his only Son to be a living sacrifice”, which comes through from the very earliest Christian writings.  But now we understand the universe as being vast, which leaves this idea with a problem: either God is much bigger and more powerful than we thought in which case the idea of the son of god, and sacrifice, and indeed the whole concept of God as a person is impossible to get a handle on.  Or else God is much smaller than that, like The Authority in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, in which case it becomes impossible to offer him the respect the religion demands.

And the Crusades?  I am rather shocked that any modern Christians seek to defend them.  The intent, apparently was to protect and liberate Christians in Jerusalem (and elsewhere, for that matter).  This might be argued as an extension of self-defence.  But they have become associated with the slaughter of infidels, and many other crimes (such as the sack of perfectly Christian Constantinople).  These may or may not have been part of the intent, but it is quite futile to separate the “justifiable” bits from the crimes.  Christians do not do that sort of thing now – and Christian communities remain under attack in many parts of the world.  Violence begets violence; early Christians turned the other cheek.  It has allowed Muslims to convince themselves Christianity is something that it is not.  If you’re in a hole, stop digging.  Best to put it all down to a horrible mistake, based on values that we have long left behind.

Compared to Islam, Christianity is a chaotic muddle of a religion.  But in that muddle there remains a burning light, which the muddle, paradoxically, seems to magnify rather than diminish – that light burns more brightly for me than any equivalent understanding in the faith of Islam.


Islam and the modern world

We’ve just finished watching Rageh Omaar’s Life of Muhammad, although the BBC series finished a couple of weeks ago – the joys of the PVR.  In spite of a snarky piece in Private Eye, I really enjoyed it.  I probably know more about Islam than the vast majority in Britain, but this programme revealed how little I actually know.  And while being appropriately respectful, the programme did not shrink from posing many of the challenges made by people today.

Of course, the benchmark I measure Islam against is Christianity, about which I do know something.  Islam is clearly from the same family of religions, and like it sprang from nowhere to become one of the world’s great religions.  Unfortunately, since the programme focused on the life of Mohammed himself, we did not get much insight into how it took the world by storm, merely its eventual success in Arabia.

Islam clearly has many strengths against Christianity.  Its core narrative and doctrine is much better worked out.  Christianity is an accidental religion bursting forth from the teachings of Jesus over a very short period.  So there’s a lot of muddle at the heart, the doctrine of the trinity, the incarnation, virgin birth, and the idea of the Atonement, and so on.  Compared to this Islam is a model of clarity, with the overwhelming dominance of the one God at its heart.

Still, I had not appreciated that the Koran, the revelations of God’s word that came to Mohammed, built up over a period of quite a few years as the prophet struggled from crisis to crisis before his eventual triumph.  This leaves it with a certain amount of ambiguity, which is clearly a problem today.  What makes it worse is the idea that the Koran, as the direct word of God, is sacrosanct and incapable of being wrong.  This is an even harder doctrine than than the popular Christian one of absolute faith in their Book.

Two examples were discussed at some length in the programme.  First there was women’s dress, and the popular idea that Islam means that women should be veiled in public.  Several modern scholars popped up to say that this was not what Koran teaches, with the offending verses being both vague and explainable in context.  Set this against the absolute confidence of a fully veiled woman who believed that the more modestly she dressed, the more pleasing it was to God.  No number of urbane scholars were going to convince her otherwise.

Likewise the jihad doctrine behind terrorist movements like Al-Qaeda.  An even wider range of scholars was on hand to say that this was a misinterpretation of the idea of jihad, and that the killing of innocent bystanders was absolutely forbidden.  Again this had to be set against the conviction of a pair of young men that jihad exactly meant war against the infidel, supported by a blood-curdling looking verse from the Koran itself (which the programme flashed across the screen without reading out); they also had difficulty in accepting that there was such a thing as an innocent bystander.

This kind of irresolvable dispute is all too familiar in Christianity – consider the issues of homosexuality and women priests.   No amount of scholarship will help here, since the believers on either side feel the truth deeply in their hearts.  There is enough in the writings and doctrines of Islam to give terrorists and oppressors of women’s freedoms what they need.  But at the same time these are far from necessary implications of the faith.  In fact Islam is remarkably similar to Christianity in being a basis for all manner of good works and liberal ideas.

My understanding of Christianity is that it has a stronger pacifist element than Islam, though pacifism was not absent from Mohammed’s message.  It will, of course, be very difficult to persuade Muslims of that, given the wanton violence committed in the religion’s very name in the Crusades, and by many Christians since.  Indeed, it only recent political correctness that is taking the positive connotations away from the word “crusade” in the West.

Islamic scholars and imams clearly have a job on their hands in adapting their religion to the needs of the world around them.  But this is not an impossible task, as this wonderful religion, and the life of the great man its prophet, has all the required raw material.  We westerners should respect it more; the basics of Islam should be taught in all our schools, along with those of Christianity.  It is above all the sense of threat that drives so many followers of Islam into an extremist path.  We must reduce that feeling of threat, while standing up for women’s rights and peaceful coexistence.

The enduring legacy of paganism

Tennis stars Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray  throw their (sweat-soaked) wrist-bands into the crowd after winning a match at Wimbledon.  To me this is rather bizarre.  What on earth would I do if one of them landed in my lap?  But the Romans would have understood, and I would not be surprised if victorious gladiators did something quite similar.  The latest exhibition at the British Museum looks at another variation of this behaviour, on a massive scale, that overtook Christianity for over 1,000 years, up to the Reformation in the 1500s.  This was the collection of relics associated with saints (usually body parts) and with Jesus Christ (pieces of the cross, thorns from the crown of thorns, etc.).

This is the Treasures of Heaven exhibition.  At one level it is a showcase for many wonderful artefacts of exquisite craftsmanship.  But the exhibition also explains the practices of this aspect of medieval faith, and gives us an opportunity to reflect on it.  There are three aspects in particular that are interesting.  First is the obsession with relics – seeing, possessing, touching physical objects that have been associated with somebody holy, in the belief that some of the holiness will be passed on.  Second, the importance of saints acting as intermediaries between the faithful and God after their death.  Third, the dismemberment of saints’ bodies for use as relics.

The general idea of relics does have a strong resonance in our culture, which persist still – witness the tennis stars’ wrist bands, the obsession with original artworks over copies, and so on.  The interest is in their use in this religious context, as that is much less common.  It wasn’t part of the Jewish faith from which Christianity grew.  This looks like a pagan inheritance from the Romans.  An obsession with sacred places, to which pilgrimages are made, was also an important part of medieval devotion, but this is unremarkable by comparison; pretty much all faiths have something similar.

The practice of worshipping saints looks like an inheritance from pagan polytheism.  The jump to monotheism from animism and polytheism is a huge one.  In the Jewish faith this seems to have taken quite a long period of time; in the Far East it doesn’t seem to have happened at all, with polytheism evolving directly in atheistic faiths such as Buddhism.  Worshipping saints looks like an intermediate step; a similar thing seems to be the case in Shia Islam.

The dismemberment of bodies really is strange though.  According to the British Museum, this doesn’t seem to have pagan roots.  There is a strong human instinct that bodies should be kept whole.  Perhaps it started because so often martyrs’ bodies where dismembered in early Roman persecution.

Once the cult of relics got going, it is very difficult not to be cynical.  Most of the relics were clearly forgeries.  The practice suited clerical and secular authorities and was exploited by them.  Eventually there was a backlash, started by Martin Luther and flowing on through the Reformation.  Many relics were destroyed, including virtually all those in Britain.  A number have ended up in museums, and so to this exhibition.  The Catholic church persists with the practice, but somehow I think most of the power has gone.  Saints are seen as examples, and sainthood a sort of posthumous honour – and not as active intermediaries.  Relics might be seen as objects for meditation, and not much more.

Meanwhile in popular culture, we have reverted to the idea that dead bodies should be kept whole.  A huge fuss was created when a hospital was found to have retained some children’s body parts for research.  We expend a lot of effort trying to find bodies after a catastrophe, to act as a focus for memorial and “closure”.  As people in Britain drift away from Christianity, they drift back into to a pagan, pre-Christian outlook.  Sports and entertainment stars take up the role of deities; people collect and worship their possessions and even sweat; they conduct pilgrimages to their holy sites.  But we don’t dismember their bodies after death.

Cardinal O’Brien: is this all that’s left of Christianity?

After a wonderful day out in the sun, I return home to a Twitter feed bulging with reaction to Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s Easter sermon in Edinburgh.  It was near top of the BBC news this morning, but it was surprising difficult to locate their coverage on the BBC website (here) this evening.  Archbishop Rowan Williams’s sermon (something about happiness) got much more coverage.  From this coverage I find it rather unclear what Cardinal O’Brien actually said, beyond an attack on “aggressive secularism”, and calling for all Christian denominations to unite against it in defence of traditional Christian values.  This was enough to get Evan Harris wound up and twittering.

I do support state secularism, but my deeper reaction to Cardinal O’Brien’s sentiments are about what it means to Christians.  There seems to be a large body of people for whom a (the?) fundamental purpose of Christianity is to defend its traditional values.  I have heard people on the radio suggesting that the Church got these values right at the start, and that to change them to suit modern fashion is a betrayal.  There is a massive reaction against accepting gays – quite disproportionate to the significance of the issue.  Likewise, many react badly to the idea of women priests and bishops, to the extent of switching from Anglican to Catholic denomination.

I find this very strange because it seems so at odds with the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, to say nothing of how the church has evolved since.  The central message to me of the Sermon on the Mount was that Christians should not be deceived by the letter of the law, but always go to the underlying purpose, and to do so with humility and love.  This is a dynamic message, allowing practices to be continuously re-interpreted.  One of the examples in the sermon was the observance of the Sabbath – where Jesus said that it was nonsense to be totally strict.  And so the church did adapt, notably by extending membership to Gentiles. And this adaptation has been dynamic.  Take its attitude to women.  It is quite clear that in the very early days, the time of Paul, women had a leadership role in the church.  But as Christianity became closer to the establishment this was less acceptable, and so doctrine changed (including some rather dubious epistles making it into the Bible, supposedly from Paul himself).  More recently, women have been returning to prominence, although the Catholic hierarchy are still determined to hold their line in the sand.

Defence of tradition actually undermines the core Christian message.  It is a doctrine to hide behind rather than face up to the challenges that real faith should lead you to.  It is a message of despair.  Is that really all that is left of this once great faith?  At least Archbishop Williams is trying to use his Easter pulpit to promote a message of hope.

The breaking wave: why I am an agnostic

Earlier this month BBC4 ran a documentary “The Secret Life of Waves”, by documentary-maker David Malone.  Apart from explaining the usual stuff about ocean waves, he went off into to a philosophical and spiritual dimension, comparing waves to life itself.  I found this very moving.  It was also nice to see that non-religious professionals are allowed to offer profound thoughts on spiritual matters.  Normally as soon as you mention “spiritual”, assorted religious types start to gather like vultures around a carcass, all too often offering no more than empty dogma.  Radio 4’s Thought for the Day doesn’t allow non-religious speakers.

When a wave breaks it disappears, but the water that carried it remains.  The wave has a life – a beginning, a middle and an end, but no substance of itself.  It is a manifestation of “energy”, although I find that an unhelpful word.  This is all we really need to know about our own lives.  The idea of an afterlife doesn’t really survive serious reflection.  Mr Malone shows this by pointing out that our concept of heaven – an essentially static place – isn’t at all attractive.

I was brought up a Christian, but the idea of heaven and hell never convinced me.  And I have found the idea of a God that intervenes in response to prayer, or sin or anything else, impossible too.  I accept the scientific view of the universe, of its vastness and of our own origins through evolution.  No heaven and hell; no divine intervention; no personal God.  Christianity was built on these ideas.  Without them the wave starts to break, just as an ocean wave breaks as it enters shallow water.

So why am I not an atheist?  I mainly think and act like one, long since having abandoned membership of a church.

Well in the first place I associate atheism with a hard, evidence-based view of the world.  This world has no room for mystery, as my brother Richard Green points out.    It is of the nature of scientific evidence that there can only be enough to cover a small fraction of what we experience; do we simply pretend not to see the world beyond evidence?  Atheists mock God as an “imaginary friend”, and yet their world requires quantities of a sort of negative imagination.

And the religious insights that attracted me to Christianity remain a powerful influence on me today.  I still cannot think of the Sermon on the Mount without excitement – it’s a flame that still burns bright – to invoke another transitory phenomenon.  It is a crazy, defiant creed that tells you to renounce worldly wealth, turn the other cheek, accept humiliation and not be bound by the letter of the law but by its spirit.  And there is so much more – it angers me that so many Christians seem to ignore what I see as the essence of Christian teaching.

And finally there is the wave of religious experience itself.  It is quite something to stand in an ancient Church and feel continuity with it – or to read ancient scriptures after so many generations before have done so.  It gives a sense of belonging.  The wave may be breaking, but I can’t quite renounce it.