Saturday, 25 April 2015

The idea of a Christian Society - the genius of T.S. Eliot

I nearly lost the will to live trying to read the poetry of T.S. Eliot when I was younger. Unknown to me back then, he was a member of the Church of England and wrote the ‘Idea of a Christian Society’. This little book is much more interesting to me. It’s a great book, and I’ll be blogging some startling excerpts from it in the future. As a taster, here is a shortened version of an article he wrote first, before the book., in 1937 

It is an amazing bit of thinking. Some of it could have been written today. Some of it is poignant – as the crimes of 1940s Germany are almost within sight. But it’s prophetic of the evils of our day as much as his. Eliot believed that the Church had an important part to play in influencing society for the better. He doesn’t tell us how to run the world. But he teaches Christians to think about how they can positively influence the way it is run.

Without further ado, here are the man’s words on the place of the church in English society.


T.S Eliot “Church, Community and State” February 1937, The Listener


... What is often assumed, and it is a principle that I wish to oppose, is the principle of live-and-let-live...

I do not mean that the Church exists primarily for the propagation of Christian morality: morality is a means and not an end. The Church exists for the glory of God and the sanctification of souls: Christian morality is part of the means by which these ends are to be attained...  To accept two ways of life in the same society, one for the Christian and one for the rest would be for the church to abandon its task of evangelising the world. For the more alien the non-Christian world becomes, the more difficult becomes its conversion.

The church is not merely for the elect... Nor does it allow us to be Christian in some social relations and non-Christian in others... It therefore must struggle for a condition of society which will give the maximum of opportunity for us to lead wholly Christian lives, and the maximum of opportunity for others to become Christians...

Now, how is the Church to interfere in the World? I do not propose to take up the rest of my time by denouncing Fascism and Communism. This task has been more ably performed by others, and the conclusions may be taken for granted... [Written in 1937, how poignant is that? CG]

We need not assume that our own form of constitutional democracy is the only one suitable for a Christian people, or that it is in itself a guarantee against an anti-Christian world. Instead of merely condemning Fascism and Communism, therefore, we might do well to consider that we also live in a mass-civilisation following many wrong ambitions and wrong desires, and that if our society renounces completely its obedience to God, it will become no better, and possibly worse, than some of those abroad which are popularly execrated...

The influence of the Church can be exerted in several ways. It may oppose, or it may support, particular actions at particular times. It is acclaimed when it supports any cause that is already assured of a good deal of secular support; it is attacked, quite naturally, when it opposes anything that people think they want. Whether people say the Church ought to interfere, or whether they say it ought to mind its own business, depends mostly on whether they agree or disagree with its attitude upon the issue of the moment. A very difficult problem arises whenever there is occasion for the Church to resist any innovation – either in legislation or social practice – which is contrary to Christian principles. To those who deny, or do not fully accept, Christian doctrine, or who wish to interpret it according to their private lights, such resistance often appears oppressive. To the unreasoning mind the Church can often be made to appear to be the enemy of progress and enlightenment. The Church may not always be strong enough to resist successfully: but I do not see how it can ever accept as a permanent settlement one law for itself and another for the world...

... one reason why the lot of the secular reformer or revolutionist seems to me to be the easier is this: that for the most part he conceives of the evils of the world as something external to himself. They are thought of either as completely impersonal, so that there is nothing to alter but the machinery; or if there is evil incarnate, it is always incarnate in the other people – a class, a race, the politicians, the bankers, the armament makers, and so forth – never in oneself... for most people, to be able to simplify issues so as to see only the definite external enemy, is extremely exhilarating, and brings about the bright eye and the springy step that go so well with the political uniform. This is an exhilaration that the Christian must deny himself...

It is not enough simply to see the evil and injustice and suffering of this world, and precipitate oneself into action. We must know, what only theology can tell us, why these things are wrong. Otherwise, we may right some wrongs at the cost of creating new ones...   

... the Church cannot be, in any political sense, either conservative, or liberal, or revolutionary. Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things; liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things.

Perhaps the dominant vice of our time, from the point of view of the Church, will be proved to be Avarice. Surely there is something wrong in our attitude towards money. The acquisitive, rather than the creative and spiritual instincts, are encouraged. The fact that money is always forthcoming for the purpose of making more money, whilst it is so difficult to obtain... for the needs of the most needy, is disturbing to those who are not economists...

We cannot be satisfied to be Christians at our devotions and merely secular reformers all the rest of the week, for there is one question that we need to ask ourselves every day and about whatever business. The Church has perpetually to answer this question: to what purpose were we born? What is the end of Man?


The second part of my quotes from T S Eliot on this subject is at the following link: 

Monday, 20 April 2015

UK politics: muddled and contradictory ways are the norm

It’s the fringe thinkers on both the left and right who seem to me to have the better analysis of what’s wrong with the economy. The political parties in the centre (Conservative and Labour and LibDems) hardly have any analysis worth listening to, as if they are too blind to see what’s wrong with the world.

But when it comes to doing something about the state of the world, the fringe thinkers worry me, and suddenly the wishy-washy centre seems more acceptable.

I can’t have it both ways. So what’s wrong here?

On the socialist side, I can read the Morning Star and find myself in agreement with much of their economic analysis. But when the left is in power in the UK, what happens? Again and again, they run to borrow from the capitalist finance markets. They see loans from capitalist financiers as the way to end austerity! Aaaargh!!! This is a deadly compromise. Once the prey-day lenders have got you on the hook with debt, your socialist dreams are in hock to them. Kiss your dreams goodbye. Surely, socialists should get their income base in place from taxation and other non-debt incomes before committing to public spending. Otherwise, they take the nation to the capitalist debt-trap of international money markets. Every time. Groan.

The capitalist finance markets are only too glad to lend money – at interest – to faux socialists, desperate socialists and muddled socialists. From there are on, it’s either get out of debt quick or see your socialism poisoned by the capitalist trough your snout is buried in.

Then there is the Green Party. Also on the left. Their USP should be the ecology. But the ecology is taking second place in the Green Party to the 1980s politics of left-wing academia. They’ve been hijacked. Take the population increase happening in the UK. That’s a big green issue which they bizarrely ignore. If, as forecast, the population of the UK rises by tens of millions in this century – say from 60 million to 90 million – then the ecology of this land is kaput. The damage will be irreparable. UKIP have pointed out – and in this at least they are spot on - that the present rate of UK population increase means that we need to build housing equivalent to the size of Hull every year.
That’s 85 more towns the size of Hull to be built this century. What will this do to consumption of the UK’s natural resources, especially the number one most valuable resource – water? Countries run out of water. It happens. The EU, in a fun blog, has noted that water is a precious and sometimes scarce resource even in the UK -

The Carbon Disclosure Project is also getting hot on the problem of water usage and the problems we face in the future - But do we in the UK hear anything from the Government about plans for new reservoirs to be built at the same time as new housing and how this will meet the need? No. And otherwise, are we going to be praying for a 50% increase in rainfall to meet a 50% increase in population by the end of the century? Come to that, what about the fact that last winter, Britain had about one day's worth of gas spare? What will happen to natural resources with a massively larger population? The energy crisis is coming and it will be urgent. Life could be as many people of the UK have not seen before. And I don't just mean that there's no gas and no hot water - in fact, no water - when you turn your shower on.

This is a major green issue. One thing that would turn down the tap on population increase is limiting immigration. The alternative is ecological meltdown this century unless energy needs are planned for urgent delivery. So why don’t the Greens tackle this major ecological threat by doing the obvious thing first - limit immigration? The explanation for their lack of interest is easy: because ecology is secondary to the Greens now. It’s more important to them to cast themselves as the opposite of the UK Independence Party which is an anti-immigration party. To contrast themselves with UKIP, the Greens now talk themselves up as massively pro-immigration. How many decades to see the ecological devastation to the UK with endless new housing estates and rationed natural resources? Not long, I expect. The UK is not a relatively big land(s), despite Britons’ delusions to the contrary. Look at its comparative size on this Peters Projection map of the world:!-Peter-s-Projection

So the Green’s have lurched away from their core business in order to ‘not look like UKIP’. Crazy. The same behaviour happened in the 1980s Labour Party. Up to 1983, many Labour thinkers saw the EU (called the EC back then) as a wicked capitalist club, and campaigned the 83 election to leave the EC. Wow! But then their arch-enemy, Tory Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher (“Maggie Maggie Maggie! Out out out!”) made her anti-EU noises (“Non non non!”, she said to the EC) and, lo and behold, suddenly Labour lurched the opposite way, made itself pro-EU, pro the capitalist club, so that it could be the opposite of Thatcher. Abysmal. Parties should concern themselves with having principles and what they believe in, not lurch around trying to be the opposite of someone else. Dire.

Did I mention UKIP? They are really not very good at selling themselves! Why haven’t they pointed out to the Green Party that population increase in the UK is a green issue? Why are they letting the Greens get away with proposing a built-over Britain which will be living way beyond its means where natural resources are concerned? Of course UKIP make it toxic by using the ‘I’ word, and then most of the population stops listening to them. Of course, restricting the flow of immigration is a ready means to slow down population increase in the UK. But – for whatever reasons… - the Ukippers prefer to use the toxic word ‘immigration’ rather than the more neutral words ‘population increase’. If they want a better hearing, they should stop using the word ‘immigration’ – which critics treat as code for ‘racism’ – and speak of ‘population increase’.

So all in all, the state of play in political discourse in the UK is poor and petty. But what about the centrist parties?

Well, the centrists want it both ways on just about every issue, and that doesn’t work. They want to stay in the EU but at the same time reduce the impact of immigration – virtually contradictory and it will have little or no positive impact. They want to reduce the deficit but keep borrowing from the capitalist financial markets at a phenomenal rate. They all practice redistributing wealth through the benefits system, but it’s lacking a philosophy. It’s a centrist muddle. For example. We could have workers on decent wages and so paying income tax to help pay for public services. Instead of that, we have workers living on tax-free low wages and working families credits (wealth redistribution handouts) – and not paying income tax which could have contributed to public services. This means less tax is coming in and the budget deficit is remaining ever a problem – because workers aren’t paid a decent wage. So now what happens is that big businesses like Tescos put staff on tax-free low pay and the government subsidises Tescos effectively by topping up the low wages with tax credits. £££ for Tescos, a black hole for the deficit to deepen in. Shocking. The Morning Star has pointed this out eloquently. Bizzarely, UKIP hasn’t. (I know, I know, not all immigrants are in the low-pay economy of minimum wage and zero-hours, but many are.)

UKIP as usual fail to sell themselves or figure it out properly. They could give the lie to the centrist parties two-faced spin about migrant workers. On the one hand, migrant workers are taking the low pay jobs that Brits supposedly don’t want. Sounds great. On the other hand, they say - misleadingly - that migrant workers pay tax and so make a net contribution. Double great? Hang on a second. Those two statements are contradictory. Where they are on low pay, then they are paying little or no income tax after all - thanks to the tax-free low wages policy. Migrant workers paying no income tax but using British roads, GPs, etc., etc., just like home-grown workers.
UKIP’s contradictory response is to raise the tax-free pay threshold even higher, so that, even more so, low-paid workers (migrant and home-grown workers) don’t pay income tax. Migrants (shock! horror!) paying no income tax and using public services!?!? Admirably, it's helping the poor out. But it’s contradictory for UKIP. Muddled policies as usual. The Morning Star got it right – it’s low pay that’s choking the recovery because it doesn’t raise income tax revenues. And it blights workers’ self-esteem and aspirations. UKIP are missing a trick.

As for the centrist parties, it’s the usual directionless muddle. I said that already. Say no more.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Christian God's personality: what is it?

The Biblical God has had his personality questioned more than a little of late. He's big enough to take it without losing his rag. But to understand the Biblical God’s personality, it is informative to look at his image - that is, Jesus himself. 

A good thing to do is to read the gospels - try the Gospel of Mark - to see what makes Jesus joyful, sad, frustrated and angry. You can tell a lot about a man by what makes him angry, for instance.
So, in the Christian way of seeing it, there is no way better way to get to know God than to get to know Jesus. So what's his personality?
By personality we may mean "what aspects of Jesus distinguish him from other people?" I don’t think ‘personality’ is something one simply possesses like a kidney or a liver, so I’m suspicious of simplistic statements that try to put anyone’s “personality” neatly in a box.
We can infer personality from observing behaviour, because personality is to do with how we relate to other people and to God and to the world. We can tell a good tree or a bad tree by observing the fruit it produces.
So to list some of Jesus’ personality traits, I would include at least these, in no particular order:

Trusting and accepting
Can stand up against tradition/authority/the majority

Fair and genuine, disliking hypocrisy and injustice
Respecting others as well as himself

Consistent, faithful and steadfast

Gentle and encouraging

Patient and slow to anger

Quick to forgive
Not quick to judge

Intelligent and articulate
Loving and honest
Attentive and responsive

Showing leadership
Taking responsibility
Concerned for others’ welfare
Strong moral/ethical standards and keeps his own standards
Able to give and receive love
Sense of humour

Sociable and tolerant

Putting others before himself
Prepared to be unpopular
Not a worrier
Conscientious and careful
Imaginative and creative

Practically minded
Want to know Jesus better? I suggest reading any of the gospels in the Bible. Or all of them!

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Judaeo-Christian values: what are they?

In the UK lately, there's been talk about what "Judaeo-Christian values" are. So what are they? This is not difficult to answer, because Jesus set out his values in a neat and tidy way.

Here they are, as found in the famous Sermon on the Mount. These values are known to Christians as the eight 'Beatitudes'. Matthew's Gospel reports Jesus saying what he really values like this:

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
 Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
 Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
 Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
 Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
                                                                                      Matthew 5:3-10

Now, the point of 'values' is that they drive our 'ethics'. That is, when we know what's important to us (values), we know how we should behave (ethics). We think about what matters to us most, and then we put that into action.

So Jesus teaches values and ethics in a joined-up way here. Those eight Beatitudes are his values. In his Sermon on the Mount, he does what you are supposed to do next. He takes his 'values' and makes 'ethics' out of each of them in turn, to make them more practical. These ethics are the ways his followers should behave if they are living by his values.

So, for example, take this simple value: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." In the sermon, Jesus takes that simple value and turns it into ethical behaviour like this: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matt 5:38-48)

So this is how Jesus does it. Value by value, and ethic by ethic, he turns values into ethics.

So that you can follow what he does in the sermon, here is a guide. Using a style of the Jewish teachers, he does his explanations of his values in reverse order. So the eight values (Beatitudes) first, then his eight ethical teachings in reverse order to match. In other words, it goes like this:

VALUES                                                                                ETHICS BASED ON THE VALUES

Blessed are the poor in spirit                                                       - Matt 7:7-11
Blessed are those who mourn                                                      - Matt 7:1-6
Blessed are the meek                                                                   - Matt 6:19-34
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness         - Matt:6:1-18
Blessed are the merciful                                                              - Matt 5:38-48
Blessed are the pure in heart                                                        - Matt 5:27-37
Blessed are the peacemakers                                                        - Matt 5:21-26
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness - Matt 5:11-20

(I got that breakdown from Roger Forster's handy little book The Kingdom of Jesus, pages 78-80.)

Jesus' ethical examples were relevant to the issues of his day. There's a challenge for us today to take the eight values of the Beatitudes and turn them into ethical choices that are relevant to the worlds we live in today. So some people might put 'peace-making' into practice by helping people to end conflicts by making agreements. Others might put 'purity' into practice by encouraging faithful marriages. And so on.

And that, in a nutshell, is what Judaeo-Christian values are about.

Apologists and historians: can they mix?

I confess to wearing more than one hat.

Some of what I write is obviously wearing my historian hat (I read my Masters in Church History and have a classics degree).

For some of what I write, I'm wearing an apologetics hat, because I believe Christians should be able to give answers about their faith. I strongly believe knowing history is in apologists' best interests. I want to play my small part in bridging that gap. Very often, academic historians know stuff that apologists would be pleased to know, if only they knew where to look. So historians and apologists can mix in a healthy way,

I aim to be straight with you when I'm wearing my historian's hat and when I'm wearing my apologist's hat. Sometimes it's plain obvious what genre I'm writing, as history-writing and apologetics have different purposes, although both can be rigorously honest. Call me out if I'm not being straight about which I'm doing.

Occasionally, I'm in the mood to talk about something completely different. I reserve the right to say, "And now for something completely different."

By their bookshelves ye shall know them.

As it is written, "By their bookshelves ye shall know them."

Therefore I do declare that the most frequently perused or read authors on my bookshelves are:

Paul Barnett
N.T. Wright
Richard Bauckham
Larry Hurtado
Oskar Skarsaune
Alexander Wedderburn

Students and teachers familiar with those names will tell in an instant that I'm especially interested in 'Christian origins', in Christianity before Constantine. I'm interested in asking questions like these: what did the first Christians really know about Jesus? What was life like as a Christian in the first three centuries of the church? What did early Christians read? What did they believe? How Jewish were the early churches? Is Christianity today 'authentic'? That and more. Asking those questions has deepened and strengthened my Christian faith and given me an appreciation of what other thinking people say about the church.

Those names also tell you that I use conservative Christian scholars most. I also cross-check them with more radical or more sceptical scholars.

Other books I much use are collections of essays such as The Ways That Never Parted, and Jewish Christianity Reconsidered. I also have particular soft spots for a range of books I'll occasionally mention.

My most perused 'primary sources' are the Bible and early(ish) patristics (especially Ignatius and Irenaeus), while dipping into other Jewish and Christian texts. I think the most under-used early Christian work is Irenaeus' On The Apostolic Preaching.

Thus, by their bookshelves ye shall know them.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Christians involved in politics? Can it ever be right?

I give my answer.

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy."

                                                                Proverbs 31:8-9

That is all.

Saturday, 4 April 2015


"Hello, this is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I'll get back to you." *beep*

Only kidding! Some views and news will be landing here shortly!

Blessings to all