“The drawing-room atheist might well shake his head in disbelief…”

9780334049821.jpgUntil his life was tragically cut short in 2014, John Hughes was one of the country’s most promising theologians. Many of his writings are collected in Graced Life. John edited another volume for SCM Press too, The Unknown God – a collection of sermons in response to the rise of the ‘new atheists’. Contributors to the book include Alister McGrath and Tina Beattie. Today we bring you a sermon from John Hughes himself, preaching from Amos and Ephesians.


Amos 9:5–end; Ephesians 6:1–20  
“Be strong in the Lord … for we are not contending against flesh and blood …”

What does Christianity have to do with atheism?1 We can begin by asking what is peculiar, what is “new” about the New Atheists. What is the history of atheism? Atheism itself, of course, is nothing new, being found in various forms in the ancient world, and enjoying considerable fashion in certain Western intellectual circles for at least the last century or two. One thing that is remarkable about the new strain, however, is its virulence, the sheer strength of its loathing of religion and its desire to eradicate it from the face of the earth. As Eagleton suggested in his sermon in this volume, this is probably a reaction to the surprising resurgence of religion in geopolitics and even in the West in the last twenty years. Lofty scorn toward religion, such as was found in many mid-twentieth-century Oxbridge dons, is fine for something that you believe to be dying out; but if you think the disease is spreading, then fiercer action may be needed. This already suggests that the history of atheism may be more symbiotically bound up with that of religion than either might like to admit (more of this in a moment).

The other thing that particularly characterizes the New Atheists is what we might call their Anglo-Saxon temperament. By this I mean a particular combination of, on the one hand, not even taking religion very seriously, seeing it as something silly that makes very little difference to life either way; combined on the other hand, with a rather complacent lack of awareness regarding the provenance of their own worldview, which is seen as somehow self-evident to all sensible chaps. As a number of our preachers have noticed, you only have to contrast this with the great continental atheists such as Sade, Nietzsche, Marx, or Sartre to see just how very “English” this style of atheism is. These continental thinkers were much more aware of how Christianity had shaped the values and thought of the West in ways almost too subtle to notice, and how if one were to abandon God, then everything would look different. You will probably have gathered by now that I think these continental atheists make much more interesting dialogue partners for religion, because they at least understand what is at stake, unlike the polite drawing-room English atheists, for whom the news that there is no God seems about as significant as if someone had told them the cricket had been rained off. This “Anglo-Saxon” atheism goes back quite some way – we can see traces of it in Hume or George Eliot – but it is nevertheless a product of a particular culture and history, not the universal self-evident position that it sometimes makes itself out to be. Indeed, when Bertrand Russell quipped that he was a “Protestant atheist” rather than a Catholic one, he was touching on something very important. Anglo-Saxon atheism has a very Protestant, at times even Puritan, ethos. It is classically liberal, affirming human freedom and progress, and suspicious of all tradition and authority. And it would not be unfair, I think, to suggest that it often has a rather limited bourgeois aesthetic sensibility; it is suspicious of images and metaphors, in a way that can incline towards philistinism in its love of brute facts. A passage such as we heard in our first reading about “the mountains dripping sweet wine” just sounds silly to such a mentality. This Anglo-Saxon atheism is also, to be fair, often very high-minded in its moralism, almost trying to be more Christian than Christianity, so that ironically it will attack Christians for failing to live up to their own ideals. Recognizing this Christian provenance of much modern atheism can help contemporary debates in a number of ways. First, to recognize that atheism has a history is to see that atheism is not simply the natural, neutral default position that everyone would have held if they had not been indoctrinated by some religion or other. This, in turn, can help put the debate back on a more equal footing: it becomes a debate between two views rather than between common sense and madness. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the very word religion, which in its contemporary sense is a relatively modern construct, is largely unhelpful and would be best dispensed with.2 If we speak instead of worldviews, or something similar, we might begin to recognize that everyone, whether they are “religious” or not, has views on the nature of ultimate reality, which are, in the final instance, a matter of faith, or interpretation, beyond mere proof. We can describe something in terms of its genetic codes or in terms of mass or energy, and these descriptions are extremely clever, precise, and useful; but they are not the only, or the ultimate, way of describing reality.

Secondly, however, recognizing that atheism has a particular history that relates it to Christianity can help genuine dialogue by enabling atheists to see that some of their most cherished values are the fruit of the Christian tradition. (This can be particularly difficult to see because of how pervasive Christian values still are in the modern world, making them seem simply universal and self-evident rather than distinctively Christian.) For their part, Christians might see that some of the atheists’ objections to religion have their roots in Christianity itself. Some of our other preachers have alluded to this, and it would take too long to spell it all out here tonight, but in brief, Christians would do well to remember that if atheists sometimes talk as if God were some distant clockmaker, or a brutal tyrant, then this is probably because certain Christians did so first! Likewise, if the New Atheists treat the Scriptures in a completely ahistorical way, like some encyclopedia dropped from the skies, then it is probably because there were already Christians doing exactly the same thing. If this is so, then atheism can serve to recall Christians to our traditions, to look at where things may have gone awry, and to recover more authentic accounts of what we believe.

Some writers have gone even further than this on the relationship between Christianity and atheism. Given the way that, in the scope of world history, atheism, far from being the universal default, is actually the more unusual option, they have suggested that Judaism and Christianity actually helped pave the way for atheism, with ideas such as the rejection of all idols, the incarnation (God becomes human), and the crucifixion (God dies). On some accounts, then, Christianity is destined to become atheistic.3 It won’t surprise you, I hope, to discover that I do not take this view. But, I think, there is a half-truth here: Christianity does have a special attitude in relation to atheism that sets it apart from other religions. Christians believe that God does not force himself upon us, that he does leave us the freedom to respond to him in faith or not. This is one of the reasons why Christians must take atheists seriously: because God has given us this freedom to say no to him.

But it does not stop there: at the heart of Christianity stands the cross, where God the incarnate Son cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In this extraordinary, incomprehensible event, at which the drawing-room atheist might well shake his head in disbelief, God is alienated from Godself and experiences the depths of despair. Here God takes upon Godself our rejection of him and bears it for us. Atheism is then not just something to which Christianity can simply be opposed. According to the Christian faith, God takes into himself even the rebellion against himself that is atheism. Within the life of any believer, there are moments of doubt and despair, moments in which we experience isolation from God, as Christ did upon the cross. But in Christ, we believe that even this cannot separate us from God.

Because of this, we can say, by way of conclusion, that Christians should not be overly anxious or defensive towards even the most vehement and aggressive atheism, because if we are right, then it is almost impossible to live a life completely in opposition to God, whatever people may say with their lips. When we hear the language of battle used in relation to Christianity, as in our second reading from Ephesians, or in the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” we should not be misled into taking this literally as calling for some crusade against unbelievers. As Paul says, “we are not contending against flesh and blood”; hence the weapons that are needed are simply “the belt of truth,” “the breastplate of justice,” “the helmet of salvation,” and “the sword of the Spirit.” There is a place for arguments and debates, but finally it will be through the testimony of lives lived that hearts may be changed – lives that enter into the experience of those who reject them and, instead of returning opposition, return love, as God himself does upon the cross.


The Unknown God: Sermons Responding to the New Atheists is on offer now as part of our week long mini-sale. Go to our website to find more details about this and other titles on offer.


Notes

1 This way of thinking about atheism is influenced by the work of Henri de Lubac (Drama of Atheist Humanism) and Alasdair MacIntyre (see especially After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?).

2 See Lash, Beginning and End of “Religion.”

3 This Hegelian thought is developed by various “Death of God” theologians such as Gianni Vattimo.

 

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Human Trafficking – What Does the Bible Have to Say?

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Later this month, we’re publishing Human Trafficking, The Bible and The Church, by Marion L.S. Carson. The book engages with whether the Bible, whose teaching on slavery is so at odds with our contemporary worldview, can inform efforts to end human trafficking, and if so, how it might do so.

Alastair Redfern, Bishop of Derby, describes the book as “thoughtful, thorough and engaging”. In her foreword, Elaine Storkey comments that “Marion Carson cuts new ground. She takes an area outside the normal biblical curriculum, and offers a penetrating analysis of vital key questions.”

Here’s a brief extract from the book’s preface.

“There is, at present, considerable confusion with regard to the Bible and its place within the life of the church. Some ignore the Scriptures altogether, while others claim that its principles and precepts inform every moment of their lives. Some say that they do not know, and will never know, what its documents might mean, while others are convinced that they do know and will brook no disagreement with their interpretation. There are, of course, many gradations between the two extremes. This state of affairs results not only in divisions within the church, but in the routine side-lining of Scripture in discussions regarding Christian practice.

The difficulties inherent in biblical interpretation for today’s world are highlighted when we ask what Scripture might have to say about human trafficking. Over many years’ involvement in Christian anti-trafficking work, I have realized that there is a need to help Christians to bridge the hermeneutical gap between the worlds of the Old and New Testaments and our own. To put it bluntly, simplistic readings of Scripture are hindering a Christian response to human trafficking. Some churches refuse to talk about the subject, considering it too shameful to speak of. It is not uncommon for women who have been trafficked into prostitution to be shunned and punished by their churches on the grounds that they are unclean whores (citing, for example, Ezekiel 34 or Revelation 18). Female victims of trafficking are frequently blamed for their situation on the grounds that women are always responsible for the sins of men and that somehow it must have been their fault. Many Christians have reported to me that they have been actively prevented from becoming involved in anti-trafficking work, their church leadership having told them that they should not associate with sinners or that they should be focusing on their own communities. It is even still possible, on occasion, to hear the view expressed that slavery is in line with God’s will, because the Bible says so.

Part of the difficulty is, of course, that biblical hermeneutics is a complex and difficult exercise. We crave simplicity and directness, but, if we are conscientious in trying to avoid selectivity or naivete in our reading, this can prove elusive. For precisely this reason, speakers, writers, and practitioners often find it easier to base their deliberations on sociology, psychology, and even politics, without reference to the book we claim to be normative for our faith. Disciplines such as these have much to teach us, but if we believe that Scripture has something to say to the church then we must engage with it and try to hear its voice in our time. This book, I hope, will go some way to opening up the question and at the same time, provide a stimulus to theologically informed discussion as to how the church might respond to the tragedy that is contemporary slavery. “

Human Trafficking, The Bible and The Church is published on 30th May. Preorder now to take advantage of our pre-sale offer.


PS – there’s still time to enter our Spring Prize Draw and win a copy of Justin Thacker’s Global Poverty: A Theological GuideTo find out more about how to enter, click here.

 

 

Spring Prize Draw!

Global PovertyIn case you missed it, Justin Thacker’s book Global Poverty: A Theological Guide was published in March. Challenging and provocative, the book seeks to offer a theologically-grounded response to questions around the effect of capitalism on global poverty and whether aid really is a sustainable long term solution for the world’s poor. We posted an interview with Justin talking about the book in March. You can also hear an interview with Justin in this week’s episode of the Church Times Podcast (just search for ‘Church Times Podcast’ on itunes or anywhere else where you access podcasts).

In our spring giveaway, we’re offering one blog subscriber the chance to win a copy of the Global Poverty. If you already subscribe, and you live in the UK you’ll be automatically be entered into our prize draw. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, just enter your email address into the ‘Follow our blog’ box on the blog, and not only will you be entered into this great prize draw but you’ll get a message sent straight to your inbox every time we add something to the blog, so you need never again miss out on our great range of author interviews, articles and new book news. The prize draw lasts until 11:59pm (BST) on Sunday 21st May, and we’ll notify the winner after that date…And sorry, this draw is only open to residents of the UK.

PS – if you’re going to the Cliff College Festival  26-29th May you can hear from Justin Thacker as part of the seminar programme.

“I did not intend to be ‘Stanley Hauerwas'”

9780334043683In 2010, Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps America’s most renowned theologian and Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University, published his memoir Hannah’s ChildThe story of Hauerwas’ journey into Christian discipleship is captivating and inspiring. With genuine humility, he describes his intellectual struggles with faith, how he has dealt with the reality of marriage to a mentally ill partner, and the gift of friendships that have influenced his character.

“I did not intend to be ‘Stanley Hauerwas'” he writes at the start of the memoir. “I am aware, however, that there is someone out there who bears that name. Stanley Hauerwas is allegedly famous. How can a theologian, particularly in our secular age, be famous. If theologians become famous in times like ours, surely they must have betrayed their calling. After all, theology is a discipline whose subject should always put in doubt that those who practice it know what they are doing. How can anyone who works in such a discipline be famous?”. His response to Time Magazine‘s decision to name him “best theologian in America” is bewilderment at “the absurdity of it all” – “‘Best’ is not a theological category“, he remarks.

Seeringly honest about his journey as a theologian and as a Christian Hauerwas’ memoir is at once autobiography, narrative theology and something akin to an Augustine’s Confessions for our time. Hauerwas confesses that “trying to figure out how I ended up being Stanley Hauerwas requires that I say how God figures into the story, and this is a frightening prospect”. 

Next month, Professor Hauerwas will be speaking at two events in London. On Tuesday 20th June, he’ll be speaking at the London home of the think-tank Theos in a lecture entitled ‘The Church in the Time of Trump’ . Tickets are available here. Then, on Wednesday 21st June, he’ll be contributing to The McDonald Lecture Series 2017  , a joint venture between St Mellitus College and the McDonald Agape Foundation. Professor Hauerwas will be speaking on ‘Why Bonhoeffer Matters (for the ministry)’. More details, and tickets available here.

Both these events offer a wonderful opportunity to hear from one the foremost theologians alive today.

Order a copy of Hannah’s Child here.

 

 

SCM Research

 

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This month, we’re publishing Animals, Theology and the Incarnation by Kris Hiuser. This is the first title under our new research monograph strand, SCM Research.

SCM Research will present the latest cutting-edge research across the theological disciplines including practical theology, ethics, ecclesiology and biblical studies.

Focusing on innovative and dynamic research from some of our most exciting emerging scholars and established names, SCM Research aims to demonstrate the richness and breadth of academic theology today.

We’ll be publishing two other SCM Research volumes in the Autumn. Development Beyond the Secular: Theological Approaches to Inequality by Catherine Loy. The book  examines and critiques the theological underpinnings of development work and questions how Christian values are manifest through day-to-day work in the world of poverty eradication. We’ll also be publishing Clergy, Culture and Ministry: The Dynamics of Roles and Relations in Church and Society by Ian Tomlinson, who sadly died last year. The book engages with the work of Wesley Carr to bring theory and practice into conversation by responding to each of Carr’s ‘propositions’ with a ‘critical incident’ from the author’s own parish experience. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford is the editor.

 

There are numerous more SCM Research titles in the pipeline for 2018, so do look out for further news.