Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Richard Dawkins: devil’s advocate or phantom menace?

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

I’ve just watched Richard Dawkins The God Delusion on the Mo’ Fo’ channel. Last week we had his Faith School Menace; he’s on a roll!

As a Christian in the liberal tradition I believe we need Dawkins. We may often accuse fundamentalists and biblical-literalists of shoddy thinking, but Dawkins is consistent in demanding reasoned answers for all of religion’s claims. In the same way that the traditional process of declaring a person a saint in Catholicism has used a devil’s advocate to ask hard questions to cut through the wishful thinking and groupthink, Dawkins, rather than being feared or scorned, should be appreciated as one who splashes some cold water on the face of sleep-walking religion.

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Persecution or privilege: the Church Defensive

Not PersecutedDuring Holy Week, I had a couple of episcopal moments. On Palm Sunday, six bishops signed a letter in the Sunday Torygraph that didn’t use the word ‘persecution’, but the resulting headlines did, and one sermon I’ve heard since has. Archbishop Rowan felt it necessary to say publically that they should get things in perspective in his Easter Letter: hear, hear!

The next day, on Maundy Thursday, the Bishop of London felt it necessary refute ‘persecution’ claims in his chrism sermon, but then he went on to talk about how Christians have to fight against the discrimination aimed at us and battle the tide of secularism (this clunkily segued into the twice-repeated materialist motto ‘love is not an emotion’).

On Easter Sunday evening, Nicky Campbell brought out a TV documentary asking whether Christians are persecuted. The show gave fairly free reign to those who wanted to ramp up the persecution fears, but also got the sane voices of the Bishop of Oxford and Theos think-tank in there. I quite liked the clear outline of why the persecution fear exists: that it is based on

  1. the complex secularising of hegemony,
  2. increased non-Christian immigration
  3. and human-rights legislation.

Whereas the fearmongers, like Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, would point to the secularisation of society as the cause, and crusade for the re-Christianisation of our public spaces, the documentary’s outline gives us more substantial handles for what is happening.

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Óscar Romero on sin and the liberation struggle

Oscar RomeroTomorrow, 24 March, will be the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador. San Romero is remembered for his radical faith that compelled him to take a stand against the US-backed right-wing military government of El Salvador. Although often associated with liberation theology, the Marxist theological movement that began in Latin America, Romero rose through the ranks of the church as a staunch conservative, demanding obedience to the church hierarchy and the government, and being openly critical of Marxist priests and the guerilla fighters.

However, it was the assassination in 1977 of Romero’s friend, the outspoken Jesuit liberation theologian Rutilio Grande García, who set up base church communities (Christian worker’s communes) in the poorest districts of the country, that was something of an epiphany to him, and foreshadowing of his own death. Romero said, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path”. Óscar Romero began to speak out against the assassinations and in defence of the poor. He remained critical of the Marxist guerillas, but grew in sympathy for liberation theology.

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Please don’t label me

Please don't label me

I am completely torn over this. The people who brought you the Atheist Bus Campaign are now bringing us a billboard campaign in which a young child asks us ‘Please don’t label me’. The campaign is the shop window for the brash evangelical wing of atheism, the Dawkins–Hitchens tendency.

First of all, the real political issue behind ‘Please don’t label me’ is faith schools. Regardless of a certain moral panic among secularists, the number and popularity of faith schools in the UK have been increasing. This has happened due to a complex network of reasons that are not all that easy to unravel. I want to talk about the political issues around faith schools first, and then the philosophical issues around the labelling of children. I’ve given the two sections under headings below, so you can skip whatever does not interest you. Continue reading


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Why so pensive, Pascal?

Blaise Pascal by Augustin Pajou, Louvre

Blaise Pascal by Augustin Pajou, Louvre

I find the various philosophical arguments for the existence of God intriguing speculations rather than cast-iron proofs. However, in Pascal’s Pensées there appears one compelling argument that ditches the speculation and goes for a straight, honest wager. It goes like this

  • If you believe in God
    • and God exists, you gain everything.
    • and God does not exist, you loose nothing.
  • If you do not believe in God
    • and God does not exist, you gain nothing.
    • and God does exist, you loose everything.

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Ad fontes of Christian humanism

I’ve recently updated my What page, so I thought I would also copy it here as a post for comment.

GarshuniAd fontes is a Latin phrase meaning ‘to the sources’, a favourite motto of Renaissance humanism. I am particularly thinking of Erasmus of Rotterdam with this phrase, recalling his invaluable biblical scholarship. Renaissance humanism both laid the groundwork for the Reformation and re-engaged with the writers of the early church.

The term ‘humanism’ is only applied retrospectively to this movement. The Oxford English Dictionary dates its earliest meaningful occurrence in the French humanisme of 1765, with the meaning of ‘love of humanity’, with a German reference to Humanismus from 1808 being used to describe the classical syllabus of the gelehrten Schulen (‘learned schools’, grammar schools). Our universities’ humanities divisions and faculties are named after this understanding of humanism. It didn’t take long for the term to acquire two more widely applied senses: the intellectual movement of the Renaissance and a philosophy oriented toward the human. There are a few sparse uses of the term ‘humanism’ to refer to a doctrine that Jesus Christ has a merely human nature (adoptionism, ebionitism and perhaps unitarianism), and Schiller used the term as a name for pragmatism; these are not my doctrines, nor my intended meaning. Continue reading


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Church disestablishment and freedom

Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham in my former diocese, has written a blog post (supposedly based on Andrew Brown’s post about slavery/freedom, atheism/religion, which reads like a lesson on how to perform keyhole surgery with a monster truck) about how Denmark is a wonderfully free country with an incredibly established state church, and this makes church establishment good for the rest of us. He even includes a picture of Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, holding up his God hates fags placard, to show us what religion looks like when it’s privatised!

The perfect societies of Scandinavia is a popular meme in British discussion on social and political issues. The fire behind this smokescreen is that Scandinavian countries have managed their natural resources fairly well, remained relatively homogeneous and retained moderately successful social democratic systems. The two latter reasons mean that the real wealth from natural resources is fairly well distributed. This is a Good Thing, but one cannot take the close church-state relationship in Denmark, transplant it elsewhere and make elsewhere look like Denmark.

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