Take a virtue work-out this Advent…

This Advent, Eve Poole, author of Buying God will be leading us through an ‘Advent Calendar of Virtue’ – 24 simple questions to ask ourselves through the Christmas season. Each day, we’ll tweet a new question via the SCM Press twitter feed. Here’s Eve Poole to explain more. 

Advent used to be about preparing for the Christ-child. Now it’s a relentless fight against time to get the presents bought for Christmas. It’s easy to feel that consumerism has taken over Christmas, and to spend so much time and money on everyone else that you end up feeling impoverished both financially and spiritually. So as well as all that, this year why not do something for yourself. It’s not a ghastly diet, neither is it a gin advent calendar. It’s an invitation to take up a virtue work-out this December.

Virtues are really just habits of the heart, established over the years though education, experience and effort. But like all habits we take them for granted. And some we may use more than others, so they’re easier to switch on day-to-day than their less-used friends. This workout asks you to focus on one a day, to see what flexing each virtue muscle feels like. If one of them feels a bit flabby, perhaps you might try to find more opportunities to hone it, so that in the end you have ready access to a whole range of supple virtues to exercise in your everyday life.

It was Aristotle who first popularised the idea of virtue ethics. It’s now being rediscovered in the context of how to develop character. Character matters more than ever these days, because we’re wholly overwhelmed with options and information. This means we have to be really good at choosing. In order to make wise choices, we need to be grounded in a deep sense of values and purpose, so that we don’t lose our bearings. Virtue ethics contrasts with systems of morality based on rules or consequences, on the basis that it’s less about obeying laws or playing the odds, and more about durable habits and character traits. It’s about developing ethical instincts by practising virtue for virtue’s sake. It’s actually a hugely sophisticated notion, seen retrospectively through the eyes of modern neurobiology. As Aristotle himself puts it in Book 2 of his Nicomachean Ethics: ‘we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.’ And we now know that this is neuro-biologically true: if you change your behaviour, you will rewire your brain.

December is a challenging month for character. So our ‘Advent Calendar of Virtue’ asks a series of questions to invite you to practise virtue. Serendipity may synchronise them with your situation, or you may need to improvise. The suggested discipline, though, is to zoom in on one virtue a day, and put it through its paces to see what you can learn. Even if you can’t manage all 24, even asking yourself the question may help you to re-frame your day. Building up your virtue armoury will also help you to resist the wiles of consumerism except on your own terms, so that you can face Christmas with equanimity.

Follow @SCM_Press to see each day’s challenge from 1st December to 24th December. And why not tell us how its going, what difference its making, or what decisions in your day you made differently? Use the hashtag #AdventCalendarofVirtue

And if you’re curious to hear more about what light theology might shed on consumerism, why not buy a copy of Eve’s book Buying God: Consumerism and Theology

Dr Eve Poole is the Third Church Estates Commissioner, and Chairman of the Board of Governors at Gordonstoun. She has a BA from Durham, an MBA from Edinburgh, and a PhD in Theology and Capitalism from Cambridge. She is the author of “Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions (Featherstone 2015) ” and “Leadersmithing (Bloomsbury 2017)”


Why should Christians bother with philosophy?

This month, we publish a new addition to our popular Studyguide series – The SCM Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith by Ben Pugh. In this extract, he considers why there’s a need for Christians to get familiar with philosophy in the first place?  


The challenges that Western culture keeps posing to the Christian faith are ever new – and yet maybe never wholly new. What is for sure is that the goalposts keep changing. The SCM Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith will, I hope, equip you to understand the culture-shaping beliefs that are driving the kinds of questions it brings to faith. But the aim in introducing you to the discipline of philosophy is not merely a rearguard action. It is not as though all we need are weapons for our apologetic battles with people who have very different worldviews to our own – perish the thought. I am a very peace-loving sort of person. I have an instinctive distaste for the idea of humiliating atheists in public debate. I see the discipline of philosophy rather as a skill to learn, a language to acquire or as a lens to add. 

Let’s take the last of these first. I believe it is just as necessary to add philosophy to our collection of lenses as it is to have biblical studies, church history, systematic theology and practical theology. I find that the greater the number of different angles from which I am able to view this thing called Christianity, the simpler, the nobler, the more magnificent and worthy of my faith it becomes. By way of contrast, I find that the more I look at Christianity through only one lens the more complicated, less certain, more doubtful it becomes. Philosophy seems to be an especially important lens to use. Philosophers themselves seem to occupy a broad range of estimations of their own importance. Some, such as the rationalists perhaps, seem to see themselves as standing outside of the flux of everyday life like an umpire at a tennis match judging everyone else’s wrong moves. Others, such as the early Wittgenstein and Richard Rorty, seem to see themselves as finishing the business of philosophy altogether and making it redundant. I suppose both positions could be seen as equally self-important in different ways. The truth seems to be that, while no philosophical system is perspective-free and no philosophy gives us a complete picture of reality (and some philosophers make a point of not doing so), yet all the philosophies in the Studyguide do succeed in elevating us. They lift us up beyond the confines of our particular discipline. They don’t quite give us a bird’s-eye view of it, but they do give us an elevated perspective which allows us to see our discipline interlacing with other disciplines and with life itself. This is why researchers, in whatever discipline they are working, will typically invoke the name of a philosopher somewhere in their methodology section. They will say that they are working with this ‘epistemology’ or assuming that ‘ontology’. I have come to love more and more the way philosophy concerns itself with the really big questions of life. There is something about asking those big questions with the philosophers that allows me then to return to my theologizing or my biblical study with fresh confidence. Philosophy makes you feel like you know what you’re doing for once, however fleeting that feeling may be!

I mentioned that philosophy is a language to acquire. To help with this, most chapters have a glossary of some sort, some of which will be revision from previous chapters and others will be new terms pertinent to the new chapter. Sometimes I provide a ‘Terminology Time-out’ when I’m aware that I have been using a lot of technical vocabulary and a pause might be needed so that we can examine each term. At other times, rather like someone teaching a language in class, I will throw in unexplained terminology that is new, but you can tell by the way I’m using it what it means. In all these ways I am catering to the fact that, for most theology students, learning abstract philosophical concepts involves literally learning a new language, a language that the initiated converse in with ease but which leaves the uninitiated completely baffled. Soon, you too will know that language, and I am going to help you converse in it.

I also mentioned that philosophy is a skill to learn. The way skills are learned is through application: you try them out. This is why there are regular pauses for reflection or for discussion with others. You will be asked, for example, to think of a film or book that seems to express elements of existentialism or postmodernism, or to describe how something very like idealism can sometimes show itself in Sunday morning ministry. This is more than light relief; it is an essential part of the learning process, especially important when studying philosophers as they tend to speak in the abstract almost all the time. It is only when we apply philosophy that the lights go on in our thinking and we realize we might be starting to become a bit of a Platonist or an existentialist. We suddenly see the benefit of seeing life from the viewpoint of a philosopher.

Lastly, I will not be guiding you into trying to fit your faith into a philosophy
and twisting and distorting it or lopping bits off in the process. In relation to
your faith it is only a lens, though a very important one, and it is only a language, not a replacement for the living or written Word, and it is only a skill through which you can learn to express your faith better in the world today.

I sincerely pray that this book will be a great blessing to you, bringing within your reach concepts that you never knew about or which were going right ‘over your head’ before.

Ben Pugh is lecturer in New Testament and Applied Theology at Cliff College, UK. In addition to the SCM Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith he is also the author of the SCM Studyguide to Theology in the Contemporary World

Order the Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith before 30th November at the pre-publication offer price.

6 books to look out for at AAR/SBL 2018

Once again we’ll have a range of our latest titles and key backlist on display at the AAR/SBL Annual Meetings, held this year in Denver Colorado. Each year nearly 10,000 scholars attend, and the book exhibit attracts publishers from around the world. We’re proud to be hosted at AAR/SBL by our friends at Westminster John Knox Press. Here’s a taste of what we’ll have on display at their booth (#411)

1: The Abiding Presence: A Theological Commentary 

Mark Scarlata’s theological commentary on Exodus bridges the gap between accessibility and scholarly rigour to provide a unique perspective on the overarching theology of Exodus drawing particular attention to God’s revelation at the burning bush, Sinai, and the tabernacle. John Goldingay called the The Abiding Presence an impressive achievement” and Walter Brueggeman said it is”of immense value for preachers, teachers, and serious church readers“.

2: Buying God: Theology and Consumerism

Christians are deeply concerned about consumerism, but lack the tools to be able to engage robustly in the debate about its future. Economists obfuscate, politicians polarise, and church leaders bluff. Buying God argues that consumerism can be as redemptive as it can be parasitical. We just need to consume for God instead. Drawing on the Church’s rich traditions of Social Liturgy, the author Eve Poole, calls on the Christian community to renew its confidence and strength in proclaiming this good news.

3: Blue Planet, Blue God: The Bible and The Sea

The ocean dominates the surface of the earth and is in the pages of the Bible too. The Bible offers a view of the sea and the life it supports which affirms its intrinsic value to God as a good, and indeed essential, part of creation. Blue Planet, Blue God is a unique collaboration between the oceanographer Meric Srokosz and the biblical scholar Rebecca Watson not only offer environmental insights on the sea, but also connect the ocean with other key issues of broader concern-spirituality, economics, chaos, and our place in the world. Paula Gooder called it “one of the most unusual and enjoyable books that I’ve read in a long time“. 

4: Preaching Radical and Orthodox

Since its beginning in the 1990s, Radical Orthodoxy has become perhaps the most influential, and certainly the most controversial, movement in contemporary theology. Preaching Radical and Orthodox offers an introduction to the Radical Orthodox sensibility through sermons preached by some of its most notable proponents, including Stanley Hauerwas, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward. 

5: Work: 
Theological Foundations and Practical Implications

Moving from biblical theology to systematic theology to practical theology, Work: Theological Foundations and Practical Implications offers a comprehensive theology of work. With contributions from a variety of leading theologians including Miroslav Volf and Samuel Gregg, this book brings together biblical scholars, ethicists, economists representing a spectrum of theological voices.

6: Being Saved

With contributions from leading theologians and philosophers, including Oliver Crisp and Paul Helm, Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation brings together a series of essays on the major topics relating to the doctrine of salvation. The book provides readers with a critical resource that consists of an integrative philosophical-theological method, and will invigorate this much-needed discussion.

Find many more titles on display on the SCM Press tables, which you can find at booth #411, hosted by Westminster John Knox. 

If you’d like to meet the editor, David Shervington, during the Annual Meetings email David.Shervington@hymnsam.co.uk

Safeguarding – defensive weapon or missional tool?

A guest post from Helen D Cameron, author of Living in the Gaze of God: Supervision and Ministerial Flourishing

Do we have to do safegaurding?

This is a question that is still regularly asked in local churches and trustee bodies. Despite publicity regarding Jimmy Saville, Harvey Weinstein, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, I still hear people asking, do we have to do safeguarding?

I think we do, but I want to add a qualifying note. We have to do safeguarding as a Church in order that we all might flourish and live abundantly, but I want us to do safeguarding joyfully, enthusiastically and effectively.

I understand safeguarding as a missional tool rather than a defensive weapon to guard the Church from allegations from abuse.  Only when we understand to safeguarding for everyone as part of enabling God’s mission, will we stop seeing it as an unnecessary distraction from mission and ministry and something which stops us from doing mission.  The missional task for the Church is one of co-operation with God in God’s loving purposes for the world. God desires that we should have abundant life – and that is only possible if we live holy lives, which allow all people to flourish, and which offer protection to the vulnerable.

The fact that we are still asking the question suggests we live in a dream state in a mythical world where Church is always wholesome and God’s people free from sin.  Of course we have to do safeguarding because every part of a community must. The Church however should want to take a lead in this area and develop excellence because we believe that relationships should be holy and life giving, that in Christ we are set free, and we should therefore regard each and every person as those for whom Christ died and thus those who we offer service to, not oppression or abuse. Holiness should lead to flourishing for all and if it doesn’t it – isn’t holiness.

Excellence in safeguarding practice in the Church will come about when see it as an everyday part of the task of holy living, as part of Kingdom living where the weak are made strong and built up. When we view it this way it becomes not just the responsibility of the safeguarding officers as experts in safeguarding but  rather everyone’s responsibility.  Our accountability to God for whom we are, have been and are becoming determines our accountability to one another and for one another.  Honesty with God should create honesty between us as a community and as we are God’s gift to one another we cannot ignore our responsibility for care of the gift.

To live in the gaze of God is for the whole of the landscape of our lives and the landscape of our Church’s life to be examined. We may be found wanting. We have many times, in many places and circumstances been found wanting and have failed the vulnerable and weak who were entrusted to our care.  We have, as a Church, been arrogant, dismissive and failed to listen. We have colluded and failed to challenge those with power and authority. We have been like millstones around the necks of the vulnerable and contributed to their drowning in a sea of pain and loss.

So we need to change our culture, our world view, our attitudes and our practice but we also need to do better theology about the nature of sin and forgiveness, responsible grace and we need to improve our tools of accountability. So the better question to ask might be how do we improve the accountability of those in public and representative ministry, those who have role power and status, and how do we help ministers and those with significant pastoral responsibilities to develop an attentive gaze on how they respond to others, impact on them, attend to their own personal needs without seeking them elsewhere and take responsibility for their lives, practice, ministry before God?

I want to suggest that before we get to complaint and discipline procedures there might be a way to increase the oversight function for all those in significant pastoral ministry through regular, formal and intentional 1:1 supervision of practice. The Methodist Church following the publication of its Past Cases Review in 2015 is in a significant place in the implementation of the recommendation of the PCR report Courage, Cost and Hope (www.Methodistchurch.org.uk) that formal supervision of ministers should be introduced.  The Director of Supervision overseeing the work for the Methodist Church is the Revd. Dr. Jane Leach of Wesley House, Cambridge (www.wesley.cam.ac.uk ). The handbook for the training in supervision being offered to ministers in oversight of teams of circuit ministers developed by Jane Leach is entitled Responsible Grace.  The title comes from a reference to Randy Maddox’s book of the same title (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994). Randy Maddox asserts that God’s grace does not descend “untethered into our lives” like a deus ex machina . Rather, Maddox suggests that God’s grace is always linked, always united with a summons to join with Godself’s redemptive work in the world. We are called and chosen to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. We are healed and restored that we might become instruments of healing. We are forgiven and given grace and liberty to forgive others. We are therefore never mere passive recipients of grace, but we are called to become co-participants with God in redeeming the world.  We therefore have responsibilities – to create a safer Church and world, to offer to God the best of ourselves and we are called to faithfulness and integrity so that all might flourish.

Maddox’s phrase “responsible grace” manages to capture in a single phrase the joy of our partnership with God in being those who both hear the good news and in being the good news for the world. It is still God’s undeserved grace. But it comes with a summons to us to respond responsibly to that same grace revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

So, yes, we have to do safeguarding and we want to do safeguarding and we intend to do it excellently because it is central to the work of God.

Helen Dixon Cameron is Chair of the Northampton District of the Methodist Church, former Director of Methodist Formation of the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham and Co-Chair of the Anglican: Methodist Safeguarding Group. 

Living in the Gaze of God is published in November. Preorder now at a special launch price.