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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Doing liberal theology well

I once thought that many theological positions can be grounded in Jesus’ life and teaching, even fundamentalist ones, but that one could never call Jesus liberal. I thought that because I misunderstood liberalism (and perhaps fundamentalism too). I had thought that liberals were those who make the Bible say what they want it to say by twisting and manipulating God’s words. Of course, they are morally corrupt too. And it’s almost generous to describe this position as wishy-washy.

Of course, liberals don’t want to listen to the criticism. It’s far too easy to retort ‘Pharisee’ than begin the painful task of removing the English oak rafters from our eyes. From bishops to Sunday school teachers, convenient claptrap is peddled because it’s easy to digest. They are the fast food snacks of theology: McDoctrine. It’s a McDoctrine to explain away difficult gospel passages by saying that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, as is introducing a discussion on church teamwork by describing the Trinity as Team. These things are superficial in that they have no place in the Christian tradition, biblical interpretation or rational understanding. Saying that God’s love is your first and last principle is good and right, but the theological imperative from this is not one to cosy niceness. Continue reading


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Have US evangelicals reached the end of the road?

Thanks to Jeff Volkmer for pointing me to an article in The Christian Science Monitor from March this year titled  The coming evangelical collapse. The article gets close to going apocalyptic and rehearsing favoured conspiracy theories, but manages to get in enough social and theological reflection on the state of US evangelicalism to give food for thought.

I am not an American, so I am a little wary about discussing the socio-political context of religion in the US, especially when I was the first to shout ‘anti-American’ when I perceived Bishop Alan Wilson’s description of freedom of religion in the US as caricature.

There are two related things that the article does not touch on: the place of race in US evangelicalism and a change in the country’s First Believer. I have this nagging suspicion that when the article talks about evangelicals that it really means white evangelicals. After all, evangelicalism in the United States has been segregated along racial lines since the abolition of slavery. Even though segregationist attitudes have mostly disappeared, the conservative nature of church institutions continues to separate US evangelicalism into two racially distinct cultures. Even the signifier ‘evangelical’ is often only used in the US context to stand for ‘white evangelical’ (this is not the case elsewhere), whereas the ‘black evangelical movement’ is called ‘Black Church’; that is the white half is designated by religion, while the black half designated by race. Perhaps it is no wonder that a white American evangelical might see only half of the picture.

The second thing here is the election of Barack Obama. His election was widely seen as a defeat for the so-called ‘religious right’ (who are, no doubt, a more complex grouping than many consider them to be). However, Obama is a committed Christian and member of the Methodist Church (which is usually seen as evangelical, but is perhaps more mainstream Protestant in the modern US context). Obama is often described as ‘liberal’ by those on the political right, but his ‘liberalism’ is widely supported in the Black Church: just mention Civil Rights Movement. Of course, seeing as African Americans are more likely than their faded compatriots to be poor, imprisoned or the victim of crime, it is little surprise that the Black Church has deeper feeling for ‘social gospel’ in place of the tendency to the ‘prosperity gospel’ that often seems a heartbeat away from the religious lifestyle advocated in the White Church. Continue reading


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Establishment and the Church of England

Yesterday I spent the day in Oxford for Affirming Catholicism’s The Established Church: Past, Present, Future conference. The speakers were Nigel Biggar (Oxford professor of moral and pastoral theology), Matthew Grimley (Oxford tutor in 20th-century British cultural and religious history), Mark Chapman (Oxford reader in modern theology), Judith Maltby (Oxford reader in church history), Elaine Graham (Manchester professor of social and pastoral theology) and William Whyte (Oxford lecturer in modern history).

Of these, only Biggar and Graham entered into explicit arguments in support of the establishment of the Church of England, and perhaps did so because they alone specifically dealt with the future of our establishment arrangements. Biggar presented a clear and concise argument for establishment based on political and moral philosophy, while Graham presented a compelling version of the sociological argument from localised social capital. Continue reading