Christianity, Cameron, and Rev

David Cameron’s several interventions during Easter week concerning his own faith and his perception of the UK as a ‘Christian country’ aroused much interest, and more derision; by contrast, in it’s third series, the BBC2 sitcom Rev has apparently reached that level of popularity which requires newspaper columnists to take pot-shots at it (see Tim Stanley in the Telegraph and, much more interestingly in my estimation, James Mumford in the Guardian). Unravelling the various lines of a media and social media feeding frenzy like the one that surrounded the Prime Minister’s comments is not easy. His narrative of his own faith journey, which has clearly deepened in recent years following the death of his son Ivan, deserved much more respect than it got – a judgement I base simply on an ethical commitment to decency and respect in the face of personal tragedy; his line about a ‘Christian country’ was a soundbite that was largely meaningless without further specification of what a ‘Christian country’ might actually be; it successfully baited a predictably shallow response from the rent-an-atheist crowd, whilst inviting more thoughtful writers to propose potential meanings for the term and to test them against the evidence (see the present Archbishop of Canterbury here and his predecessor here). One, seemingly repetitive, feature of this furore offers an interesting contrast with the portrayal of Christianity in Rev: although neither term fits entirely comfortably with a good understanding of the essence of Christianity, the debate around the Prime Minister’s various remarks generally constructed Christianity in terms of ethics, whereas Rev constructs the faith in terms of spirituality. David Cameron wrote in the Church Times of ‘the Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love’; of course, I do not doubt that these are ‘Christian values’, even if I would be happier with the word ‘virtues,’ and with a slightly different list (adding things like faith, hope, justice, prudence, courage, and temperance…). To define Christianity, however, in terms of these values is to elevate a part to the whole, and in particular to elevate effects above causes. The debate that followed offered some – fairly unkind, in general – words about the Prime Minister’s personal morality, and the morality of his government’s agenda. Most of this commentary failed to offer any rounded judgement or nuanced analysis, but even if it had, it constructed claims to Christian identity in terms of the achievement of certain moral standards. The Prime Minister’s original construction of a Christian country as one full of people committed to doing good was contrasted with a more corporate vision of a Christian country as one in which the government is primarily tasked with doing good; the notion that Christianity should be equated with doing good went largely unchallenged. (Danny Webster on Threads was an honourable – and energetic – exception.) Tim Stanley’s criticism of Rev (link above) constructs it on similar grounds: it, he claims ‘depicts a vicar trying to be kind to his parishioners – with hilarious consequences’. That does not ring true as a description of the show I have watched; Adam’s relationships with Colin, Adoha, Mick, and (perhaps particularly) Ellie are much more complex than ‘trying to be kind’ – ‘trying to be good,’ perhaps, but even then only with the qualification ‘and regularly failing’. The heart of the show, though, is not in Adam’s attempts to be good, but in Adam’s attempts to be Christian. Almost every episode through the three series turned on a moment of prayer, during which Adam realised what he must do, or after which events turned out for the better; the climax of the first series came when Adam’s fairly spectacular personal collapse was arrested by a dying person’s request to see him; in a powerful affirmation of vocation he re-dons his collar, quoting Isaiah 6 ‘The Lord said, who will go for us? And I said, here am I; send me.’ Prayer and vocation are not primarily about ethics; they are about spirituality, about a relationship with the divine. (The last episode of the third series again used clerical vestments as a metaphor for vocation; it’s not my tradition, but I can recognise and understand it.) It was this, I suspect, that made Rev so popular with so many Christians, and particularly with so many ordained ministers. Yes, the acting was wonderful (I’m slowly coming to the view that even an episode of Top Gear with Olivia Colman in it might be worth watching; she really is that good. And Tom Hollander is not very far behind); yes, the observations of inner-city church life, which I have known first-hand, and (I am told) the observations of the inner life of the...

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Two Gods, Three Faces: An Easter Poem

Two Gods, Three Faces: An Easter poem     The statue of the god who guards the turning of the year Has two stone faces carved. One looks toward the future yet to be One back to all that was. Blame sculptor for the flaw perhaps, but Each face is blank. Unmoved by what is gone, Aloof to what will come.   Olympus’ peak is famous for its cold But still, Could even an olympian god look thus? Gaze on time now gone with just Indifference? No tears? No sadness? No mourning for what might have been? No joy? No triumph? No little smile for real though modest gain? And could his other face be samely flat As it surveys the future? No hope? No fear? No trepidation in those cold blank eyes?   Not even calm, serene. Unable, not unwilling, to feel joy, Or sadness, anticipation, or desire. Perhaps the law from Sinai’s peak was right: ‘Make no image of your deity’ Who could carve or draw or see what God should feel?   * * *   Another face. Not blank, but wet with tears ‘If you only knew what must to bring you peace…’ Then wet with sweat in garden in the night Then wet with blood and tears when crowned with thorns.   He wept at what had been Then changed all that would be. His face was seen, if never drawn or carved. No blank indifference in the eyes of Christ.   Passionate, face blazing, he threw himself (the scholar said) On history’s wheel to try to make it turn! And turn it did at last (the scholar said) And mangled his dead body as it rolled.   Better that than four cold eyes of Janus? To care, to act, and if to fail, At least it was for love, for purpose strong.   But what if that crushed body was re-knit, With bone joined to bone, sinew to sinew, Refilled once more with the Spirit’s breath? The past recarved, what is to come redrawn On that cold morning that made all time new. What primal joy, what last desire Was written on the face that first Looked on the folded...

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On patience: some reflections on the ethics of argument

The all-too familiar morality of strong opinions which we let off all-too easily and which accomplish nothing at all. I discovered yesterday morning, in the introduction to a seminar he was giving here in St Andrews, that Oliver O’Donovan, the leading moral theologian of his generation, is a colleague; apparently he took an honorary chair with us on his retirement from Edinburgh (which I probably should have known…). The above line is a quotation, as near as I could get it down, from early in a scintillating presentation on ‘Ethics and the Future’; Oliver reflected on time and action, hope and patience, as proper modes of Christian ethical life; it was, as we expect from him, beautifully crafted and extraordinarily tightly argued. The following reflections no doubt owe something to what he said, but are mine (his primary application was to the sterility of government by statistical prediction). It seems to me that, particularly on issues that are held to matter, we presently operate with an overwhelming urgency of decision. You have to come to a view, pro or anti, for or against. Argument is a luxury that follows from forming a position, (at best) a post-factum articulation of the instant judgements that were made; more likely a groping for pseudo-intellectual fig-leaves to cover the exposure of our lack of moral reflection. It would, to illustrate the point, be fatal to any politician’s career were she to greet a new question, fact, or development presented to her on air with the line ‘That’s interesting; I need to think about that…’ She is required, culturally, to take a firm position immediately. This might be presented as a requirement of honesty: it is certainly the case that, presented with a moral issue I have not previously considered, I have an immediate, instinctive reaction in one direction or another. In recent Christian ethical reflection – and more widely, if less universally, in moral philosophy – this has been valorised under the name ‘virtue ethics’: the goal of ethical formation is the development of such character that my instinctive decisions will be good, will instantiate virtues. To need to engage in moral deliberation when confronted with a question is, on this telling, already a sign of dis-ease, or a failure of moral formation. Now, at one level I understand and entirely accept these arguments; faced with one of the banal moral ‘dilemmas’ so beloved of ethical textbooks, I should need no deliberation. Finding a wallet on the floor, I should not need to think about whether to steal its contents. It seems, to me, however, that the situation of finding a wallet on the floor is a rather particular one: I am possessed of all the salient facts, as well as whatever character traits I have developed, and so I am, at least potentially, able to make an instinctive and correct decision. Compare a political debate – ‘What,’ to take the currently-noisy theme in my context, ‘do you think of the proposal for Scottish independence?’ I take it that the issue is, finally, one of moral deliberation: on the 23rd September (or in fact a little before, as I shall be away on the day and shall vote by post), I will make a decision on whether to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and that decision will be based on my best judgement as to which act is more ethical. Even if my moral intuitions are perfect and invincible, however, to come to that decision requires – at least potentially – extensive knowledge, some of which at present I do not have, and so I cannot form a snap judgement well. (To take one of the issues that has caused some noise, currency union, there are two quite distinct questions to form any intelligent moral evaluation of the issue. First, does continued Scottish use of sterling actually matter? There is an economic judgement to be made concerning the effect of currency union or an alternative – the reintroduction of the Scottish Merk, say – on various issues. Were I to be convinced that the Scottish economy would be weaker one way or the other, and that that weakness would be detrimental to something that mattered (economic weakness usually is; witness this week’s reports about foodbanks…), then the question is ethically charged. Second, if the question is ethically charged in this way, what is the likelihood of currency union continuing beyond a vote for independence? That seems to be a political judgement; as I read the arguments so far, there is some agreement that the rUK economy would be damaged by excluding an independent Scotland from sterling, but also an argument...

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