Monday, February 20, 2012


To continue my rambling about my personal political views, let me chip in a very brief post about historicism.  Historicism is the belief that the actual history of a particular person, group of people, or situation really matters.  Unlike more philosophical theories, historicism does not see particulars as reducible (even in principle) to general rules.  There is no overall scheme of things into which particulars must fit.  One cannot, therefore, bring Marxist philosophy (for example) to a situation and seek to present solutions on the basis of that philosophy; one must look at the particular circumstances.  In particular, one ought not to attempt an atemporal analysis, as if this situation had sprung from nowhere - as if it were a generic situation which could have a generic solution.

A grumble: history teaching in the UK is dreadful.  No offence at all is intended to the teachers, who do a grand job with a shoddy teaching philosophy.  When people in politics start to ramble on about British values, and other such twaddle which we supposedly share as a nation, it makes me want to scream.  What we share is history, except we don't know it because we've never been taught it in a coherent way.  And that leads to all sorts of silliness, like British leaders appearing to claim that what really unites us is a sense of fair play (apparently shared with no-one else in the world beyond this blessed isle), or the SNP talking as if Scotland had been somehow conquered and oppressed by England.  All this is due to not knowing the basic story of how we got here.  (Yes, I am suggesting we teach narrative history.  In order.)

Anyway, the point is this: attempting to move forward without looking backward is never going to work.  Being up to date, in and of itself, is of no use.  Being rooted matters.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


I come from a church tradition where the ecclesiastical calendar is not much valued.  That may be putting it too weakly.  I grew up in churches with such a strong adherence to the regulative principle that we did not observe any annual celebrations.  A point was made of singing carols in July.  But that is all by the by.  Even my relatively relaxed current church, which does observe Easter and Christmas and makes occasional nods in the direction of Pentecost and the like, does not make much of the liturgical year.

So I decided to experiment.  Since November, I've been imposing on myself the discipline of saying Morning Prayer, as set out in Common Worship, and I've been deliberately and very carefully observing the different seasons and (for the most part) festivals.  I can't bring myself to celebrate particular persons, but I have been following the lectionary and trying to get into the 'feel' of the different passing seasons.  Advent was a tremendous blessing, Christmas was enriched, and Epiphany (despite it's recent origin as a liturgical season) was a big help.  I've enjoyed the experiment thus far.


It is very nearly Lent.  I don't get Lent.  I can see that in principle it may be useful to have a particular time when we remember our sins, and show our repentance.  Lent, however, seems to involve remembering this whilst forgetting the gospel.  Why can't I say Hallelujah until Good Friday?  Has the gospel been suspended until then?  At the very least I seem to have to assume, for the best part of six weeks, that the good news doesn't apply to me, at least not in its fulness.

Is there a way of doing Lent which is not anti-gospel?  Or shall I just stay in 'Ordinary Time' until Holy Week?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


A utopia is a non-place.  That is the main reason why I am against utopianism in politics.  But perhaps I should explain a bit further.

By utopianism, I understand any political theory or system which believes that we can, ultimately, sort society out and make it work.  A classic example would be communism.  In Marxist theory, there is an identifiable problem which, when done away with via the route of revolution, will give way to generally harmonious living and a society that just works.  The same could be said, as John Gray points out in his book Black Mass, of the neo-conservative belief that if we just introduced liberal democracy into the middle east, all the political and social problems would evaporate.

I am against this kind of thinking because it is unreal, and I am against because it is grand, noble, and powerful. It is unreal, because no utopian vision has yet succeeded in fixing society, and none seems likely to in the future.  Utopian visions require a changed humanity, and since no humanity other than that which has existed through all the centuries of recorded history is available to us (I will qualify this below), we should be extremely wary of anyone who touts a vision for the future that requires such a change.  Aside from the non-existence of utopia - a pretty big problem! - the issue with utopianism is that its breadth of vision, and its rhetorical force, make it inherently attractive.  Who wants to live in a world that can't be fixed?  We all find the idea of the perfect society attractive, and so we should.  But historically, the sheer grandeur of the ideas has led to horrific acts being perpetrated in the name of progress, or liberty, or the proletariat.  Because utopia is such a powerful vision, it seems to excuse terrible things.  And indeed, if utopia were within grasp - if all that were needed was the removal of this or that person in order to finally fix society once and for all - what ought not be done for the achievement of this vision?  Here lies danger.

Utopianism is prevalent in contemporary politics, usually in the UK linked to the economy.  Whether its the end of boom and bust, or some other promise of an eternally bright economic future, we should resist the urge to believe in this beautiful vista.  It is illusory, and if it is believed in it is dangerous.

How does this fit with my theological commitments?  As before, a summary:
1.  Utopianism, as John Gray shows (despite his apparently limited and flawed understanding of classical Christian eschatology) is a secularised version of the Christian vision of the end; I prefer the original and better version.
2.  Utopianism takes no account of human sin, and therefore assumes that given the right conditions we can be better; I disbelieve it.
3.  A new humanity is on offer, but only in Christ, and only to be partially seen on this side of his coming.  It is not something we can bring, but something he brings with him.  It can be looked forward to, and to some extent anticipated, but not forced.

Monday, February 13, 2012


There are at least two reasons why I do not favour the idea of a large state, or view the growth of the state sector as a particularly good thing.  (I should qualify that I am not a thorough-going small state type of person either; as my A-level politics teacher used to point out, the strength of British Conservatism has traditionally [i.e. before the 1980s] been its lack of ideological commitment, and therefore the glorious inconsistency of its adherents).  Anyway, two reasons:

Firstly, I do not believe that the interests of 'the state' and the interests of 'the people' are identical.  This is because I rather doubt that there is any such thing as the interests of the people.  The idea of the general, or popular, will can be traced back to Rousseau.  As generally interpreted, Rousseau suggests that there is such a thing as the General Will, which is not to be identified with the particular will of any one group of people within a society, but with the collective will of the society as a whole.  How this will is to be discerned is a matter of some difficulty.  (Rousseau's own view seems not dissimilar to liberalism of the type espoused by Rawls).  However, the more problematic issue with Rousseau is that he thinks that people can be forced to follow the general will, and that this equates to forcing them to be free.  This idea that one can be made more free by the state's coercive activity is pretty disturbing, but follows logically from the belief that the general will really is the will of society as a whole - that which it wills for the good of all - and therefore it is at some level also your particular will as a member of society even if you do not know that.  You are only being forced to be true to yourself.  Or some such nonsense.

There are two issues with this.  On the one hand, there is no general will, no will of the people - only the different desires and aspirations of different groups within society, such that at its best the state could only represent the interests of some and not all of its people; on the other hand, the state itself is not a cypher, but is made up of particular people who have their own desires and aspirations, such that the state is likely to represent primarily the interests of its own stakeholders and not society more broadly.  It should be clear that the larger the state is - the more the state does - the less likely it is to be working for the common good; broad guidelines could be in everyone's interests, but detailed legislation is much more likely to favour one group over another.  This is why traditionally the state has been seen by many political theorists as at least potentially the deadly enemy of the people, and not their friend.

Secondly, I think that even when the state seeks to be benevolent, what it ends up doing is exercising ever-tightening control over people in society.  Consider this: if the state taxes heavily in order to finance universal health care, then there is suddenly an apparently good argument for the state to control your behaviour in order to make you healthier.  If the state generously offers free universal education, the state gains control over how and what your children are taught.  I deliberately pick two examples of state provision of which I strongly approve to illustrate how dangerous the creep in growing state power can be, and also to show that I am not against state provision of services per se.  I simply think that they come with a serious health warning.

How does this map on to my theological beliefs?  That deserves a post in itself, but to summarise:
1.  I don't believe the state is a redemptive organ - it belongs in the sphere of providence, not the covenant.  This doesn't mean it can't do good, but it does mean it can't do ultimate good.
2.  I don't believe that the state is in view when Christians are instructed to care for people; I think it is a tragedy that the Church has generally handed this role over to a new provider.
3.  I do believe in the redemption of societal structures; but I believe that we must wait for the return of Christ to see it.

Monday, February 06, 2012


The pairing of permanence and change is one of those dialectical relationships which drives the western philosophical tradition, partly due to the fact that it won't fit easily within that system.  (Other pairs which function in a similar way would include unity/plurality, and infinitude/limitation - these are all linked).  They won't fit well into the western tradition because the west has typically been driven by an either/or dynamic.  This goes back a long way.  On permanence and change, consider Zeno and Heraclitus, both kicking around in the 5th century BC.  Zeno seeks to show, through a fascinating reductio ad absurdum, that the very idea of change is nonsensical.  Heraclitus, on the other hand, famously declared that one cannot step into the same river twice - appearing to be referring to the fact that both the river and the person stepping into it are constantly changing.

Clearly the either/or approach does not serve us well here.  In fact, permanence and change are, at least conceptually, dependent on one another.  Without some sort of permanence, there is no change, but only a constantly new universe; there is no way to posit identity over time, and therefore no way to say that anything changes.  To deny permanence is to make change illusory.  Without some sort of change, there is nothing that can be identified as permanent; there is nothing that persists through time, because there is no time.  To deny change is to make permanence a nonsense.

If we persist, with the western tradition generally, in seeing dualities as necessarily dichotomies, we have to prioritise one of the pair, making the other illusory.  When we realise this just won't work, we find some way of relating the two so that both can be true.  The old metaphysics of substance and accidents is an attempt at this; the Roman Mass is a reductio ad absurdum against this view.  If we start from a position of fundamental opposition between the pair, we are left with either horrible tension (Descartes), weird and rather too convenient concurrence between opposites (Leibniz), or the internalisation of one of the pair such that it only exists as a human property (arguably Kant).

So we need Hegel; we need someone who will treat two as two.  Hegel's dialectic, however, ends in monism, because although the two are real and really two, they are ultimately subsumed into one.  Still, Hegel is a step forward.  What we need to be able to say is that permanence and change describe one another; when we say permanence, we refer to change, and when we say change, we refer to permanence.  This is not to identify the two, but it is to resist the temptation to dichotomise.

This is all waffle, of course, but I think it has implications for, amongst other things, the doctrine of God.