Lars and the Real Girl

I watched Lars and the Real Girl again tonight. It’s a beautifully theological film, rich and layered with meaning. It’s particularly perfect, I think, for students training for ministry, as it touches on mental illness, family relationships, grief, death, community, purpose and patience. And it does so through the most bizarre of plot devices—a sex doll. It’s truly genre-defying stuff.

It was my third watch (and my wife’s first) but I still saw new things I hadn’t seen before.

There’s the obvious references to Easter, Bianca’s Christian faith and missionary career (“Bianca said that’s why God made her, to help people”) the church services (with the pastor’s reference to Paul’s words, “when I was a child I spake as a child” just before the point of Lars’ epiphany). But I also noticed the dynamic of the Two Sons/Brothers and Bianca’s “baptism” in the lake.

I was struck most of all, though, by the care and compassion of the little community that gather around Lars as Bianca gets sick. When Lars’ brother Gus and sister-in-law Karin go out to get some rest, three older ladies from the community come over to keep Lars company with their knitting. “We came over to sit”, they explain. “That’s what people do when tragedy strikes”. “They come over to sit”.

This scene was such an apt illustration of what I had been thinking today about the benefits of the tribe. Here is a community that stood in solidarity and grief, allowing Lars the space to come to terms with the death of his own mother and so make peace with the past and move on to a healthier future.

Homo Tribus: To Be Human is to Belong to Tribes

This is part 1 in a series of 4 blogposts entitled Pitching a Tent: Practical Resources for Navigating A Tribal Age

You can read the introductory post here.

“As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognised them”—Genesis 42:7

“One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his people were and watched them at their hard labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people”—Exodus 2:11


My aim in this series on Christianity and tribalism is twofold:

  1. to rehabilitate the concept of the tribe as a site of meaning and belonging which each of us inhabits

even as 

2. I move against tribalism—the inclinations, practices and habits we adopt through which we seek salvation in something bigger than ourselves and erect walls of hostility that barricade us from those different from ourselves. 

This first post unfolds the first of these two goals—the rehabilitation of the tribe in our collective imaginations. 

We Cannot and Should Not Get Rid of Tribes 

My main point is that we cannot get rid of tribes and, even if we could, we shouldn’t. Let me explain each of these points. 

We cannot get rid of tribes. This is down to two factors: 

  1. we are inescapably meaning-making creatures and we seek to make meaning through groups larger than ourselves 
  2. we experience life first and foremost through a particular tribe. The tribe is the gateway to communal life.

Before we discuss the pitfalls of group association, we must acknowledge that we long to belong. Before we contend that we each possess a capacity to find meaning in all the wrong places, we must acknowledge that we are meaning-seeking creatures. Our capacity for tribal life is an opportunity to relate to others in groups and causes bigger than ourselves. 

At a fundamental level, we each belong to tribes, indeed are prewired for community and tribal life. Even those who eschew all tribal labels belong to a tribe—only in this case, it is a tribe of the tribeless. The question, then, is not “do I belong to a tribe?”, but “which tribes do I belong to?” 

But lying beneath this rather obvious and banal assertion is a deeper insight—we belong first and foremost to particular tribes. We experience the universality of human experience in the particularity of a tribe—whether that be our biological or adopted family, to take the most obvious example, or a particular slice of a religious faith (“Low Church Presbyterians”, “Hasidic Jews”), cultural group (“Chelsea fans”) or place-based community (“the Market Ward of Cambridge”). The tribe is the gateway to communal life.

We should not get rid of tribes—Even if we cannot get rid of tribes, should we not try to do so, or at the very least try to avoid them? Tribes get a bad name, and much of this is to do with tribal behaviour. Yet in this post, I wish to draw attention to at least three positive aspects of the tribe. When engaged with in a healthy manner, tribes 

  1. help us to transcend our individualism, loneliness and obsession with certain types of freedom 
  2. correct our false beliefs and challenge our faulty attitudes and practices through external intervention 
  3.  and help us to develop empathy across tribal divisions by opening us to the views of those within our tribe who might share a common cause but who approach it differently. 


Why am I beginning with a post on the positive aspects of group allegiance? Who am I aiming this post at? I have started with this positive account because I notice that there is a growing reticence towards group allegiance, a shrugging off of tribes and tribalism. Much of this stems from the view that tribes are inherently divisive and thus bad. Tribes get a bad name. Thus, there is a growing number of those who would call themselves “tribeless”. This growing band of people includes the wandering questioners as well as those who legitimately think that they are politically or culturally homeless, with no party or group affirming their values or convictions in any meaningful way. I identify with some of this and am sympathetic to it. Yet even those who would reject tribes belong to a tribe of the tribeless. When we seemingly rejecting tribes altogether, we merely coalesce into new tribes of our own. To coin a phrase, “tribes you will always have with you”. It’s time to think about why this might be and what benefits might accrue from belonging to groups bigger than our individual selves, even as we remain vigilant of their pitfalls.  

If this post offers a slightly rosier account of the tribe, it is not—I hope—because I am self-deceived or naïve to the serious pitfalls of tribalism (the subject of the next instalment). But before we get to that tale of woe, we must acknowledge and discuss the validity of our desires to seek meaning in groups organised according to cause, place or faith. That we often misplace these desires (invest them in the wrong places), or, particularly for Christians, over-invest them in the group at the expense of our ultimate allegiance to God, does not discredit the whole enterprise of tribal belonging. 

To put this another way, before we get into a discussion of how we look for meaning in all the wrong places, we must acknowledge that we seek to create meaning, to attach ourselves to stories, people, places and things. 

Why do we do this? What significance might this basic fact have for how we think about our group associations? And what benefits emerge from group association? These are the questions I address in what follows. 

Created for Community: Group Association in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures

At heart, the human person yearns to belong, yearns to find a home. And that meaning-making or home-searching takes place, in large part, within groups. The heart seeks to make a home in a larger group that organises and mobilises itself around a common cause—whether political, social, cultural or religious. Each one of us affiliates with particular communities that give us meaning and draw us into something bigger than ourselves. We cannot avoid tribes, then, because we cannot avoid the search for home, the yearning to belong. 

We can, of course, describe this in evolutionary terms. The cultural psychology Jonathan Haidt in his chapter “Why Are We So Groupish?”, argues that while “individuals compete with individuals and that competition rewards selfishness”, at the same time, “groups compete with groups, and that competition favours groups composed of team players—those who are willing to cooperate and work for the good of the group, even they could do better by slacking, cheating or leaving the group” (The Righteous Mind, 222). Tribes are not selfish but groupish. “We humans have a dual nature—we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves” (255). 

But there is also a deeper philosophical and theological account for this tribal meaning-making—one that I think is largely compatible with the findings of evolutionary psychology, even if it asking and addressing different questions. 

To begin with, the inescapability of groups as sites of meaning-making is a major theme in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The book of Genesis, for instance, speaks of the need for Adam (“man”) to have a “partner” (ezer) equal to him in power. There is a deeply relational quality to the Judaeo-Christian understanding of anthropology which stems, in turn, from the relational quality of God himself. Contrast this with the early ancient Near-Eastern accounts like the Babylonian Enuma-Elish creation myth against which the authors of Genesis composed their text. In the Enuma-Elish myth, the capricious gods create humans for food and sustenance and to act as their slaves. When composing Genesis, later picked up and read by Christians, the authors depict God in relationship to the human beings he creates “in his own image”. God creates human beings to relate to him, to benefit the earth and to serve one another in perfect mutuality. 

Other texts from the scriptures emphasise our search for meaning in larger groups. In that great rags-to-riches story that is the tale of Joseph, the young boy is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, rises to become head of the house of Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh in whose service he is wrongfully imprisoned before, in a final twist in the tale, becoming ruler of Egypt, second in command to the Pharaoh himself. In fact, there is a final twist still, when Joseph, who remains incognito of course, comes face to face with the brothers who had, years before, considered him dead to them. In one of the most moving episodes in ancient Near Eastern literature, the one who had all of Egypt at his feet recognises his brothers and remembers who he is—Jacob’s son, and brother to the offspring of Israel. Unable to contain himself, Joseph eventually breaks down in front of his brothers and they are reconciled to one another. 

Then there’s the story of Moses. Given up by his Jewish mother because of a Pharaonic pogrom, Moses is fortuitously found by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised in her home as an Egyptian. Yet the Moses story is, in part, one of finding one’s roots. In the text quoted in the epigraph, the young Moses comes across an Egyptian beating an Israelite, “one of his people”. Witnessing the affliction of his countryman, Moses remembers who he is and in a fit of rage slays the Egyptian. Like Joseph, he remembers his identity, which is as an individual who is part of a larger group. The specific action Moses takes is condemnable (and tellingly, Moses forgets that his God has remembered his people’s affliction). But the point still stands—Moses, for all of the riches of his Egyptian life, identifies himself with his people. 

We also find examples of meaning-making in groups in the New Testament as well. St Paul, for example, employs the metaphor of the “body” to describe the “body of Christ”, the church, in his first letter to the Corinthian churches. The body is made up of many parts, each serving the other and yet forming a unity that works together for the common good. Paul’s description of the “body”—of diversity in unity—has echoed down the corridors of time and influenced more than a handful of political philosophies. 

Looking to our own day, one particular form of popular culture is seeped in this story of finding ourselves in larger groups—“the road movie”. As philosopher Jamie Smith writes, “road movies are always buddy movies”. Think of Little Miss Sunshine, the Blues Brothers, Mad Max and, one of my own favourites, Dumb and Dumber. “We hit the road to find ourselves but hardly ever do it alone”.

Even acts of tribalism—those moments when the tribe behaves badly—betray this deep search for meaning in groups. Catholic novelist Bruce Marshall captures this quest for meaning at the individual level when, in provocative fashion, he has a priest in one of his novels say: “A man knocking on the door of a brothel is knocking for God”. So it is with each of us in the groups that we find ourselves in. That we seek to find meaning in the wrong places shouldn’t mask the fact that we are looking for meaning. The condemnable act of knocking on the door of the brothel is, in part, a cry for help, a longing to belong. In a recent episode of the Sacred podcast, Mary Harrington translates this wonderfully into the register of online tribal activity: “Behind all of the fighting [online] there’s a yearning for recognition, a yearning for connection, a yearning to be understood”. 

What this also shows is that tribalism—making the tribe our ultimate source of meaning or, analogously, “knocking at the brothel door”—is the privation or perversion of something that is good. In the same way, our tribal in-fighting betrays a desperation and yearning for meaning and community. Please note that I am not wanting to downplay the damaging effects of this fighting, nor am I wanting to excuse the one who “knocks at the brothel door”. That would be to justify immoral and harmful acts. I simply want us to acknowledge this deep-seated yearning for meaning. Our hearts, John Calvin writes, are “idol factories”, restlessly fashioning meaning out of the created order. Ultimately, as I will argue in part 3 of this series, this search for home can only be resolved by securing ourselves in the identity of Another. As Augustine wrote long ago, “our hearts are restless til’ they find their rest in you”.

The Priority of the Particular: Tribes are the Gateway to the Universal 

We cannot get rid of tribes because we are meaning-seeking creatures and this meaning happens in groups. But another reason why we cannot get rid of tribes is because we simply belong to them as a matter of course. From the get-go, we are born into groups that we do not choose. Particularity is in our DNA. 

The Hebrew Bible has much to say on this theme, which philosophers and theologians describe with terms like “election” and “covenant”. Out of all the peoples of the earth, God chooses Israel to be his particular and peculiar people. The authors and editors of the Pentateuch are quick to attribute this not to the goodness of the people of Israel, lest they think God chooses them for their own intrinsic worth. “After the Lord has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness…it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is…giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.”   

And nor was Israel’s election for its own benefit, as if Israel was to be fattened for its own good. The covenant between God and Israel was a covenant for the nations of the world. Texts like Isaiah 2 have the nations of the globe streaming to the mountain of the Lord—in a shocking twist, the God of Jacob becomes the God of all the earth. God’s election of Israel is precisely for the nations—the people of Israel are blessed to be a blessing. There is a priority to the particular. But strikingly, the particular is the gateway to the universal. 

Upon closer examination, the particularity of peoples, tribes and families pervades the Hebrew Bible. The Levites are selected out of the 12 tribes to be a “particular priesthood”. In 1 Kings, Elijah and Elisha form a mini tribe of prophets. In prophetic literature, the prophets direct their prophecies at particular peoples. The editors of Isaiah have the prophet prophesy against a litany of particular places—Edom, Ariel, Judah, Tyre, the Desert by the Sea, Egypt, Damascus, and Moab, and the list goes on… 

A striking example of particularism appears in the only book of love poetry in the Hebrew Bible—the Song of Solomon. In one important section, the bride of Solomon describes her particular love for the groom, a particularity highlighted by her choice name for her love—“my beloved”. The author then has the Daughters of Jerusalem press the bride for details for what makes her groom so special, so particular: 

What is your beloved more than another beloved,

   O fairest among women?

What is your beloved more than another beloved,

   that you thus adjure us?

The bride gushes forth loving praise for her groom’s appearance which she prefaces with the words, “my beloved is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousands”. The particularity of the bride’s love for her groom takes on new significance when we recall that this poem was read as an allegory for Israel’s exclusive love for her God. 

When we stop to think about it, much of this particularity maps on to our own existence. We begin life in particular families (whether biological or adopted). For the most part, there is a givenness to this, in that we do not choose those who raise and care for us. 

Similarly, we come to love a cause through a particular group. For lovers of football, our passion for the beautiful game comes through watching a particular national or local team (in my case, Chelsea). We come to love music through the bands our loved ones share with us or those we discover and come to share with others. There is a priority to the particular.

Particularity also applies to that “religious community of belonging” or tribe we find ourselves in. This tribe mediates a particular experience of a larger phenomenon, in this case, religious faith. To take Christianity as an example, one is first introduced to the family of faith in a particular way and experiences the faith in that particular tribe—whether that be “Anglo-Catholic”, “Reformed” or “African Pentecostal”. I may well build on that foundation as life goes on or, hopefully upon careful reflection, choose to de-emphasise or reject certain untrue or skewed aspects of that foundation. But what I cannot do is deny that my foundation for knowing and experiencing the larger group of Christians happens through the particular denominational tribe.

In all of this, my experience of life is mediated through the particular tribes I am a part of. Whether it is the groups that I choose—the cause I elect to participate in—or the ones that I do not and cannot choose—my family, my nation and so on—the particular is the gateway to the universal.  

Three Benefits of Tribes: Why We Should Not Get Rid of Tribes  

Even if, as I have been arguing, we cannot get rid of tribes, many of us will feel that we should take steps to getting rid of them, or at the very least to avoiding them. After all, people in tribes can behave badly and do great harm. It is hard to knock this argument given that we have all been on the receiving end of tribalistic behaviour. I have huge sympathy with this sentiment, for reasons I will explore in the next post. But for all this, I think it would be foolish to ignore that groups also contain massive benefits that would simply not be present among siloed individuals. These advantages include, but go beyond, the pragmatic argument that we are “better together”. There are at least three benefits to group association, or tribal life, that we ignore at our peril:

  1. Tribes help us to transcend our loneliness, individualism and narrow versions of freedom by teaching us duty

By their very nature, tribes challenge the all-pervasive individualism of contemporary Western life. They are stark reminders that “no man is an island”. To be sure, larger groups can paradoxically make us feel more lonely than ever. (“This city’s got so many people, but it’s got no soul”, Gerry Rafferty crooned long ago). But when true communion happens with others—when we know and are known—we meet a lasting cure to our loneliness and social isolation. In his On the Road with Saint Augustine, a wonderfully moving travel memoir-cum-introduction-to-Christian-life, James KA Smith writes powerfully of modern man’s search for authenticity. In our quests to find ourselves, we have unquestioningly inherited the assumption that others are barriers to my own self-discovery. In response, you and I barricade ourselves off from other people. And yet the Christian life, Smith goes on to write, is one of finding ourselves in communion. Like those road movies Smith makes reference to, my search for myself happens in community. In Smith’s words: “Our individualism remains oddly communal. ‘I’m off to find myself’, we exclaim. ‘Wanna come?’” 

More than this, our tribal affiliations can challenge the fruits of this all-pervading individualism. As I have written elsewhere recently, this rampant individualism has led us late moderns to overwhelmingly conceive of freedom as “freedom to” and “freedom from”, rather than “freedom for”. In direct contrast to our usual self-obsessed modus operandi, groups organised around place, cause or faith can involve varying degrees of obligations that mutually bind us to one another and teach us the freedom that comes through service and duty to others. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts this better than I ever could when he distinguishes between covenantal and contractual relationships. Contractual relationships are those where the self is in the driving seat, where an association between two individuals exists for a specific period of time, for a particular task and is self-contained, not bleeding into other areas of life. Relationship in the covenantal register (like a marriage, for instance) looks radically different. As Sacks explains, in covenantal relationships, “two ‘I’s’ come together to form a ‘We’, each respecting the independence and integrity of the other but nonetheless we pledge ourselves to one another in a bond of loyalty and love to do together what neither of us could do alone”. Viewed in this way, tribes are places where we can transcend our individual selves and learn a different type of freedom which is very much at a premium in the late modern West—the freedom of self-giving.

2. Tribes have the potential to correct our false beliefs and challenge our faulty attitudes and practices through external intervention 

To state the obvious, being part of a larger group can also expose us to the experiences and wisdom of other individuals. While a simple fact, this has profound and positive effects for each one of us, our identity and our sense of direction in life. In the healthy tribe, we can air our thoughts and feelings knowing that we will be heard. But we also know that where relationships of trust exist within a larger group, we can expect to be lovingly challenged in our beliefs. We experience life “through a mirror dimly”, and this is no less true when it comes to our own knowledge of our own selves. We are mysteries to one another, but to no one more so than our own selves. The trusted other sees me in a way that I can never see myself and can call out the good in me and challenge me when I err.

There’s a terrific scene in Good Will Hunting that exemplifies this point. Boyhood friends Chuckie and Will, the maths genius and protagonist of the film, are finishing off a construction job and discussing what they’ll be doing in 20 years. When Will declares that he hopes he’ll be doing the same thing he’s doing now, his friend Chuckie takes him to task for his failure to recognise his own talents. “Everyday I come by your house and pick you up”, Chuckie confesses. “You know what the best part of my day is? For about ten second, when I pull up to the curb and when I get to your door, because I think maybe I’ll get there and I’ll knock on the door and you won’t be there”. As Jamie Smith explains, “the true friend is the other who hopes you’ll answer the call, who’s willing to challenge you and upset you in order to get you to look at yourself….who prods and prompts you to change course and chase it—and promises to join you on the on the way”. To be in a tribe is to be challenged for my own good. 

To be sure, though, this doesn’t always happen. In fact, as we’ll see, tribes are renowned for their groupthink. But when it is working well, my larger tribe can help challenge my assumptions about those who think differently than I do, or about some other aspect of reality, by “painting a substantive picture of the good”. In this way, my relationship to other members of the tribe can function like “iron sharpening iron”. 

3. Inner-tribal debate can function as a gateway to inter-tribal conversations. 

Last but not least, tribes have the potential to help us develop empathy by opening us up to the views of those who might share a common cause but who approach it differently than we might. In the group, there is often sufficient shared ground for disagreement to be modelled and sufficient trust for differences of opinion to be aired. Again, this doesn’t always happen and within a tribe, difference of opinion can give way to homogeneity of thought. But if tribes are organised around trust rather than similarity of opinion, then profitable debate can take place, even among those with shared assumptions. Inner-tribal debate can then form the practice-ground for training our muscles of character and debate so that when we speak with those who think differently to ourselves, we are primed to act respectfully, rather than defensively. The tribe exists, then, as a ready-made venue for growing in and developing empathy that can then be applied across tribes. This is, of course, notoriously difficult and requires maturity, patience and time. But positive inner tribal interactions can foster and train the attitudes and inclinations that allow for fruitful cross-tribal conversations.  


Tribes offer a profound set of opportunities for growth, then. But there are also serious pitfalls. This is, in fact, to understate the problem. We must face up our own attitudes and inclinations that cause us to turn tribes into fortresses. To return to Marshall’s image, the man going to the brothel yearns for community, yes, but he still errs greatly in knocking at the brothel door. 

A realistic anthropology suggests that our group belongings can turn sour—no longer functioning as centripetal forces that bring us towards a common identity but centrifugally in a way that exclusively emphasises difference without commonality. Alternatively, the centripetal forces can sometimes go into overdrive in such a way that we emphasise commonality, or heterogeneity without difference.

It is to diagnosing our tribalism—its key attributes and causes—that I turn next…

Particularity and Duty

There’s a humorous meme that’s been making the rounds recently that goes something like this: “there any many things in life that you and I do not choose: parents, nationality, appearance…and the Queen of England”.

Chuckles aside, this meme gets at something rather profound about life and our response as late-moderns to it. I’m talking about the givenness of much of human experience. As this joke expresses, we do not choose how we look or our parents. They are given to us. 

Bound up with this givenness is particularity. Each of us is given, which is to say born into, a particular place and a particular family. The particular aspects that make me “me” and you “you” are very often things that you and I do not choose. 

I have a hunch that in the West, we are slowly but surely turning our backs on the givenness and particularity of certain aspects of life. We are increasingly suspicious of “particular” attachments to place and kin, which we view as parochial, burdensome, even oppressive. Conversely, we increasingly seek attachments to groups with universal causes and values. 

I also have a hunch as to why this is happening. I think our growing love of the universal and growing suspicion towards the particularity is tightly wrapped up with our obsession with freedom. 

Or, rather, with a specific type of freedom. The Western individual seeks to be free from all obligation or duty. If freedom exists, then it is a freedom from obligation, not a freedom that binds me to my neighbours. Our attitude towards freedom is a little bit like those who (myself included) have food intolerances. If we are free, then, we are always “free from” (or “free to”), and never “free for”. We are like the scoffing kings in Psalm 2 who exclaim, ““Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”

This is a fairly new development among conservatives, for whom liberty was customarily infused with, or seen as a means to the end of, duty. Liberty was precisely witnessed in those who gave it up in self-sacrifice. Now, though, it is more often expressed in concerns about freedom of speech and, among the Thatcherite and libertarian right, economic freedom. Contemporary conservatives contentedly share the definition of freedom shared by the progressive left—an emphasis on social freedoms, expressed as the right to do what I want as long as it harms no one else. 

There are vestiges of particularity that still exist, to be sure. Flying an English flag might be off limits (except, perhaps, at sports games), but one can happily say, “I love London”. Rootedness to local places (“the local park”, “our primary school”, “my city”, “where I grew up”) is matched by a sense of attachment to family, though the rise of online communities and the constant demands on our attention from addictive technologies mean that the quality of family life is under serious threat. We even read of one individual who sued his parents for giving birth to him without his consent.

Some might even point to the examples of group identity that exist today as strong examples of particularity. Environmentalism, for instance, can take the form of a concern with the effects of climate change on the poor in the Global South which is expressed at the local farmer’s market. Is this not an instance where people demonstrate a love for a particular cause? 

Absolutely. The point, though, is that we choose these communities. In late-modern society, I select those groups that I want to be a part of. It is often pretty easy to be dutiful to those we feel a strong attachment to when that emanates from a shared passion and cause. 

But particularity is different—it contains an inherent givenness that is usually free from, or at least in large part free from, choice. Family. Childhood street. Local neighbourhood. Nation. Most of us do not choose these things. And it is partly for this reason that it is so difficult to love the particular. As anyone who is in a long-term relationship such as a marriage can tell you, it takes hard work and much self-sacrifice to make that relationship flourish. I continually return to the quote of Dostoevsky because it describes so well the inclinations of my own heart—“the more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular”. 

I want to be careful here—there is such a thing as a tyranny of the particular. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, I immediately think of Hitler’s conviction that his particular people were to rule the world. Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony has recently stated that Hitler wasn’t guilty of nationalism (a particular love for his nation) but of universalism (an imperialism that sought to rule the galaxy). I think he overstates the case—Hitler sought to export and conquer, yes. But he sought to do so in the name of his particular nation. He was guilty of both an extreme and pernicious form of particularity—ethnic nationalism—and an imperialism that would see every other nation wiped out and made the slaves of his people. 

This is an extreme example, but a pertinent one that makes our case. But there are everyday examples as well. Do we want a world where parents or the state choose the occupations of their sons and daughters, without their say? There is a reason our ancestors fought for the freedoms we take for granted today, freedoms which are still under threat and which we should defend vigilantly. We should celebrate the right and freedom to choose those groups that align with the passions and callings we have been given. So do not hear what I am not saying—I don’t want to lose the universal and I think it has a crucial role to play in our world. I have written here about the need for the particular and the universal in the Church and here about the need for post-Brexit Britain to maintain a universal outlook. 

My simple point, though, is that I think the pendulum is very much swinging away from the particular and towards the universal. Brexit and the election of Trump are, in large part, a result of this and a reaction against it and must be understood in these terms.

But put more positively, the concept of particularity or particularism can teach us that form of freedom which we have almost entirely abandoned. It is in this particular community, this family that I am called to love and give of myself. The particular is the theatre in which I can practice the virtues of love, care, peace and patience, precisely because there is skin in the game. I grow in virtue in the particular so that I can then grow to love those around me. When it comes to duty, as with so much else, the particular is the gateway to the universal. 

Image taken from


  1. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Unherd’s Confessions Podcast
  2. Samuel Moyn, “Reclaiming the Language of Duty in an Age of Human Rights”, ABC Religion and Ethics
  3. Yoram Hazony on Unherd’s Confessions Podcast

Half Year Review: How Well Have I Stuck to Those New Year’s Resolutions?

We’re over half way through the year and it was my birthday recently, so, I’ve been in a slightly reflective mood. I thought it would be useful to review my new year’s resolutions (see here). The coronavirus was an interesting time for testing these habits and developing new ones along the way.

  1. Resolved to support my wife as she completes her doctorate and starts a new job in the first half of this year. My wife’s thesis is nearing completion and the new job will begin soon. I am about to begin reading drafts which is exciting!
  2. Resolved to develop habits of prayer, worship and scriptural reflection through Common Worship (MP/EP) and the Lectionary (using Bruner’s Commentary on Matthew for Year A). Resolved to encounter the beauty and strangeness of scripture through reading in Greek and Hebrew as much as possible, and reading and singing Psalms in metre (resources like those from John Bell, Ian White, the Free Church Psalter and the KJV translation in the Book of Common Prayer). In terms of prayer, resolved to remember the nations of the world and the church universal (I’ll probably use resources from OpenDoors and Operation World). Resolved to continue to invest in the local church through attending services in which corporate confession, Word and Sacrament feature as well as participating in prayer and discussion groups. I’ve kept to a fairly steady programme of morning prayer (BCP/Common Worship). I find it best to listen to some music (usually through Pray As You Go) to both wake up and stir my heart to pray and worship. I’ve enjoyed reading through Luke’s Gospel, Genesis and Exodus, though I admit to getting a bit lost in Joshua-Judges. I’ve also been mixing things up by reading a devotional theology book in the evening—I’m making my way through Lexham’s Christian Essential Series (and have completed Wes Hill’s wonderful book, The Lord’s Prayer). Extempore and intercessory prayer has been mixed though I have developed a weekly journal for certain days. I’ve been recently moved to pray for the situation in China, for instance.
  3. When it comes to current affairs, resolved to spend more time reading substantial news and comment pieces from major sources (Unherd and The Times) and to support these organisations in their endeavours. Conversely, resolved to spend less time on click bait and Twitter by using the latter for uploading blog posts and answering queries. I signed up for the Times phone app soon after making these resolutions though don’t use it nearly as much as I’d like. I enjoy the coverage from Unherd which I try and catch up with on the weekends. I am spending too much time on social media though I’ve started to read books instead which is working better.
  4. Resolved to keep up my use of foreign languages through the use of a mobile application (Russian so as to communicate with family and Hebrew, Latin and Greek for study). I’ll probably use AnkiMobile. I got as far as March with this but then stopped. I think I’ve tried to be too ambitious and so will be committing from today to just Greek and Russian, with 15 words/phrases a day.
  5. Resolved to read a good mix of fiction and non-fiction. On the former, prioritising British and Russian and for the latter, works relevant to this blog (particularly focussing this year on empire and national identity). I’ll be using GoodReads to track my reading habits. GoodReads has been a very helpful tool for organising my reading. I now try to have one book on culture, one theological book and one fiction book at a time. I still have a bit of a backlog but hope to finish some titles during my Summer break.
  6. Resolved to blog at least every other week as far as is possible. I mostly kept to this, particularly with the CovidDiary though this trailed off. I’ve toyed with writing shorter pieces that just provide a very rough idea which I might then develop into a large piece at a later point. I’ve got a few pieces on the go now over the Summer so I’m excited to complete those.
  7. Resolved to volunteer with a local organisation and so invest in local community. I’ll be helping with a locally organised project that takes place in London. I hope to supplement this with something based in Cambridge itself.
  8. Resolved to endeavour to develop and grow friendships near and afar. One of the joys of lockdown has been to connect with two good friends in Scotland. I hope that we will continue to speak once a week. I’m also in touch with friends in the States and, best of all, enjoying time my niece and brother/sister in law.
  9. Resolved to make every effort to publish my thesis. It’s currently with a publisher. Fingers crossed!
  10. Resolved to support free debate and inquiry in society by attending events like those put on by the Cambridge Union. I got my membership and enjoyed quite a few events, including Ban Ki-Moon’s visit and the Starta v Athens debate.

Pitching a Tent: Practical Resources for Navigating A Tribal Age (Introducing the Series)

By faith Abraham dwelt in the promised land as a stranger in a foreign country. He lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob” – The Epistle to the Hebrews 11:9

This post introduces a four-part series on Christianity and tribalism.

Confessions of a Tribalist 

I want to start this blog post with a confession. In recent weeks, I have to admit that I have been left reeling as our news cycle in the UK has moved from one major societal upheaval after another. 

I remember the distinct sense of national unity that followed the news of lockdown. Culture wars seemed for a brief moment to pause as we took stock of an enemy that, at least at face value, cared little about differences. In its face, we were all human beings. 

As we all know, that sense of unity didn’t last long. (And, to be fair, some of that unquestioned “unity” needed to be challenged, as I wrote about here). 

There was Cummings-gate, the Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests. As many remarked, the world seemed to be on fire in June 2020. 

In all of this, what struck me the most was not the time and effort I was spending in forming opinions on the big topics of the day. Rather, it was that these events came to be invested with rich meaning. As I read and had conversations with others, the positions I took, and didn’t take, came to define me. Whereas I thought I was informing myself on complex and hot-button issues, what was actually happening was that I was being formed by them—or more accurately, I was being formed by the positions I took on those issues. 

And I’ve been wondering why that is…

At one level, I’m sure that part of it is down to being confined to home with (seemingly) little to do. Boredom, in other words. But I think there’s a deeper explanation for the profound and formational impact that these stances were having on me, than sheer ennui. 

Meaning, Belonging and Tribal Identity

I do think there’s something deeper going on, something to do with identity, with who we are as human beings. More broadly, the last 6-7 years or so has revealed a deep crisis of identity in the West. With the issue of Brexit, for instance, we were forced to ask deep questions about who we are as individuals and as a society, and questions about where we find meaning. 

We came face to face with the basic fact that we find meaning and belonging in group identity—what some refer to as the tribe. Now, the word tribe has serious baggage for many of us. Much of this is down to the many obvious examples where groups have behaved badly—which is another way of saying “tribally”. By tribalism or acting tribally, I refer to occasions where we might offer unconditional, uncritical and at times unthinking, support to individuals or programmes whilst rejecting (any dialogue with) those who might think differently to us. 

And yet…if we take the tribe to simply mean a group larger than ourselves, then in this particular sense, the human person is inescapably tribal. I use the word tribe in this very particular way. Tribes are groups organised around place, cause or creed.

I distinguish the tribe from “tribalism” or tribalistic behaviour. Tribalism is, to be sure, a perennial part of the human experience. But as we will see, recent data shows that tribalism in the UK has recently taken on some distinct characteristics. These include:

1) The Tribe as Cult: Frequently, tribes exist as online, virtual communities which engage in name calling or in which dissent from the party line can result in expulsion and harassment. Perhaps more anecdotally, what this suggests is a greater willingness than ever for late-moderns to put all the eggs of meaning and identity in the basket of the tribe. Some might dispute whether the cultic and religious nature of tribal identity is distinctive to our age, but I hope to show in later posts that it is, and that it has something to do with the loss of common narratives provided, most obviously, by the nation-state and faith.

2) Affective Polarisation: KCL’s Divided Britain report from just after the 2016 EU referendum helpfully identifies one of the main characteristics of division as “affective polarisation”—the increasingly intense dislike of the “opposing side” even where substantive agreement exists on particular issues.

3) Common Enemy Identity Politics: this characteristic sees a tribe use group identity not to bring people together (as with “common humanity” identity politics in which we might say, “we are all British”). Rather, with common enemy identity politics, the tribe uses its tribal identity to pull people apart along certain identity markers. As Jonathan Haidt writes, in this mode “[p]eople see everything as a zero-sum game and you’re fighting for slices of a fixed pie”.

On each of these points, the situation seems to be getting more and more pronounced by the day. 

Staying Above the Fray: The Purpose of this Series

Why is this? And how should we respond? 

In taking an issue-centred approach to tribalism, commentators frequently have failed to address these questions. Discussing issues has its place, of course, and allows one to form an opinion and stay informed. I have read a number of very good arguments on the Remain and Leave side in the Brexit debate or responses to the national governments’ approaches to the pandemic, or to the issue of race in the West. But what I have seen less of, is an attempt to move beyond the issues themselves, to hover above the fray of discussion and consider some of the deeper questions, questions to do with how we form these identities (increasingly in online communities), why we invest so much—too much—meaning in the tribes we join and how we might model a healthy group identity.

Consider this mini-series, then, as an attempt to stay above the fray and probe some of these deeper questions to do with tribalism. The big question I want to address is both a meta-level one as well as one that is deeply practical. It can be put simply as follows: how can the late modern individual, and particularly the Christian, navigate the tribalism of the current moment? At one level, this a higher-level question. It has less to do with particular issues—Brexit, say—or drawing on information to take a particular stance. Rather, it has more to do with our attitudes, habits and postures—how we form our identities and are, as often as not, formed by the groups around us. At another level, it is a highly practical question. To ask how we can navigate tribes is to ask: How do I treat the person at work or in my church or religious community (or, dare I say it, my friend group!) who disagrees with me? When it comes to habits and practices, do I turn to Twitter, or some other online community (or tribe), first thing in the morning or as I drift off to sleep at night? What am I doing as I engage in these patterns of behaviour and what are they doing to me? These imminently practical, even quotidian, questions force you and I to re-consider how we treat others and to examine the practices we adopt as we live and operate in groups bigger than ourselves. How can the “I” live in healthy relation to the “we”? This is where the rubber hits the road.

Pitching a Tent: The Argument of this Series

In this spirit, I will be posting a series of 4 thought-pieces on tribalism over the next couple of weeks. My goal is to offer a set of resources from the Christian tradition which I believe might help us—whether you are Christian or not—to understand tribes and tribalism more deeply and provide constructive ways forward for thinking through the pitfalls and opportunities that belonging to a tribe presents. 

A bit about my own approach. I come to this question as a Christian and as a historian of early Christianity. Therefore, I am deeply interested in reading the Christian scriptures and letting them read our own cultural moment. I am convinced that the Christian tradition, understood and applied wisely, offers rich resources for understanding and navigating our tribal age. What follows, then, will involve the close reading of early Christian texts and engaging with the insights of Christian thinkers, past and present. I also draw heavily on the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has probably done more than anyone else in the Anglophone world to understand and diagnose the tribalism of contemporary Western societies. 

My aim is broadly twofold: 

1. I wish to rehabilitate the concept of the tribe as a site of meaning and belonging which each of us inhabits 

even as 

2. I move against tribalism—the inclinations, practices and habits we adopt through which we seek a kind of salvation in something bigger than ourselves and erect walls of hostility that barricade us from those different from ourselves. 

I also want to offer something constructive to the conversation.

My main contribution, I think, is to suggest that the controlling metaphor for thinking about tribalism should be that of pitching a tent. One of the ways I have begun to think about the tribe is as a tent—or perhaps as individual members of a tribe with their own individual tents, living side by side. A tent is not a permanent home but the dwelling of a sojourner who makes his home here while awaiting her final destination. To pitch one’s tent in a tribe, then, means to both inhabit the tribe while also anchoring one’s identity, hopes and desires Somewhere Other (or, more accurately, in Someone Other) than the tribe. The epigraph, taken from chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews captures this perfectly: “By faith Abraham dwelt in the promised land as a stranger in a foreign country. He lived in tents”. 

In part 3 of this series, I will provide a close reading of this text. But for now, what should be noted is that like Abraham, the tent-pitcher grounds her tent pegs firmly within the tribe. It is not that tent-pitchers are uncommitted to the group or cause (though the shape of that commitment, as we will see, will look different). No, they remain deeply committed to the issue or cause around which the group organises itself. At the same time, though, tent-pitchers recognises that the tribe is not their final destination—their hearts are anchored and rooted in God. The eggs of meaning are not all placed in the basket of the tribe. 

From this position of radical security, the tent-pitcher is free to adopt a posture of cautious commitment towards the tribes and groups he finds himself in. The logic of the posture of “pitching a tent” is found in its call to sit lightly, though firmly, to our convictions. We earnestly commit ourselves to the ideals and people with whom we share a common cause, while holding loosely to them, and not basing our identity or pinning our hopes and dreams upon them. From this place of security—with our identity’s firmly rooted in Another—we can meet the differences around us with a greater sense of perspective. We approach the tribe not as a group that will fulfil all of our hopes and dreams. That attitude, I will suggest, soon sees us trading the tent for a fortress. 

Another way to bring this metaphor home is to ask ourselves a question. I spoke above about a crisis of identity in the West. By crisis, I am not primarily referring to a disastrous situation but to the other sense of the word—a crisis as a decision-point or crossroads. This sense of the word evokes the image of a fork in the road at which we must decide on our direction of travel. When we apply this insight to how we navigate the tribalism around and within us, two options are put before us: we can either choose to pitch our tents in a tribe, or build a fortress around our tribal allegiances. The tent-pitcher is grounded in the marriage of loving conviction and firm compassion precisely because her identity is not her own but has been inhabited by Christ. By contrast, the fortress-builder, in seeking salvation in the tribe, soon begins to police its borders, shore up what Grant Mackasill calls “symbolic or social capital”, shun those who think differently and and cast out those who do not conform. So, then, when it comes to tribes, are we those who pitch a tent or build a fortress? 

Before I go on, I should clarify what I am not saying. I am not arguing that we should care less about the issues that matter to us. My point, rather, is precisely about how we care about these issues and the positions we come to. Our caring is, or at the very least should be, qualitatively different.

Of course, Christians have not always lived up to this vision and it would be dishonest to deny this fact. At times, the tribalism of followers of Christ has had an incredibly damaging impact on those around them. Acknowledging this fact isn’t an exercise in self-hate, but is to be honest and humble about our failings so that we can move forward. On other occasions, though, Christians have held to their convictions not only at great personal cost but also in a way that has brought significant and positive change to those around them (I think here of the work of Desmond Tutu in fostering a ministry of reconciliation in war-torn, apartheid South Africa). I believe that we can honestly face the ugly episodes in our past—warts and all—whilst still pursuing the beautiful vision found in the Christian tradition. It is a vision which, as the author of Revelation writes, culminates with people from every nation, language and yes, tribe—here, referring to ethnic groupings but which might even extend to the political, social and cultural tribes I am addressing in this series—find their true home in God and are reconciled, one to another.


This post serves to introduce the series by providing you with a brief taster of the four pieces that will follow. Each post clusters around a single point, with each hopefully unfolding the central argument and building on the next. Together, they map on to what some would see as the dramatic framework of the Christian scriptures, moving from creation and fall to redemption and new creation.

1. Homo Tribus: To Be Human is to Belong to Tribes

At heart, man yearns to belong. The heart seeks to make a home in a larger group that organises and mobilises itself around a common cause—whether political, social, cultural or religious. Each one of us affiliates with a particular community or communities that give us meaning and draw us into something bigger than ourselves. The question, then, is not whether or not we belong to a tribe. We simply do. In this very particular sense, the human person is an inescapably tribal creature. In this post, I look at how, in fractured and isolated Western societies we can look to rehabilitate tribes as places of meaning and common cause.

2. Things Fall Apart: Examining Tribalism with St Paul of Tarsus and Jonathan Haidt 

And yet, things have fallen apart. In the West, we have given ourselves over to a party-spiritedness that is fracturing families, friendships and communities. We are increasingly relating to one another in deeply unhealthy and destructive ways. The patient is critical, and the diagnosis does not look promising. Symptoms include “cancelling” those with whom we disagree, patterns of group-think, ad hominem arguments that focus on labels rather than ideas (and to the extent that we focus on the person, it is the person as a highly dehumanised label). Our tribal impulses have spun out of control, causing us to live in an increasingly fractured state of existence. Factionalism, though, is nothing new. I engage with one early Christian text—Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches—which helps to insightfully highlight some of the contours and causes of tribalism. I bring this together with the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to sketch a profile of tribalism that lays the groundwork for moving forward with constructive solutions. 

3. Pitching a Tent or Building a Fortress?: How the Christian Tradition Re-Shapes the Goals and Methods of The Tribe 

There is hope. I want to suggest that the concept of tribes can be redeemed. But to do so, we must profoundly re-think precisely how we approach our tribal allegiances. I suggest that we might want to consider the scriptural image of “pitching a tent”. At heart, to pitch one’s tent in the world means that one’s hopes and desires are ultimately anchored—we might say that they find a permanent abode—in God. From this position of radical security, one is free to adopt a posture of cautious commitment towards the tribes and groups one finds oneself in. The logic of this posture is found in its call to sit lightly, though firmly, to our convictions. We earnestly commit ourselves to the ideals and people with whom we share a common cause, while holding loosely to them, and not basing our identity or pinning our hopes and dreams upon them. From this place of security—with our identity’s are firmly rooted in Another—we can meet the differences around us with a greater sense of perspective. The result of this posture is that the goal of our tribal activities is transformed—we no longer focus purely on winning, but rather on persuading and growing through exchange. The methods we employ, as a result, are no longer coercive or manipulative, but focus on seeking what is good, beautiful and true.

4. Moral Resources for an Ethical Problem: Habits, Postures and Attitudes for Tent-Pitchers 

Our tribalism is at root a moral problem for which we need moral solutions. The problem of tribalism is not a cognitive one—”why do others think differently than I do?” Diversity of opinion is simply a given. Rather the problem is, at root, a moral one: “how do I treat those who think differently to me”. That is, the antidote to tribalism does not simply revolve around the exchange of ideas or opinions. Rather, it must more fundamentally take stock of the human person and the relational context of belonging. For too long, the human person has either been removed from the equation or become the subject of intense attack. In fact, these are two sides of the same coin since the (often faceless) avatars of social media might lead us to more tempted to engage in personal attack. This is a moral problem and therefore we need moral solutions. I complete this series with a number of practical suggestions that focus on ethical resources—habits, postures and attitudes—that might help us begin to navigate what is, at heart, a moral problem. 

Image Credit:

Reformed Protestantism and The Origins of the Progressive Left

Over on his Youtube page, Nathan Hood has posted an extremely erudite discussion about reformed Protestantism and the origins of the modern left.

Nathan confronts the argument that it is Calvin and the Puritans that lie behind contemporary left wing politics, and particularly the form of progressive left-wing identity politics that exists in the West today. Nathan is careful to define his terms, making clear from the outset that he is dealing primarily, though not exclusively, with the “progressive left” (think Jeremy Corbyn), which focusses on certain dogmas around gender, sexuality and race and promotes an identity that is “multicultural, inclusive, politically correct, social justice-oriented, eco-friendly, and so on”. Nathan dialogues carefully with one proponent of “the Left as heir to Calvinism” view—the blogger Mencius Moldbug—though one need not look far to find the Crypto-Calvinist argument (“the left is puritanical”) in a wide variety of sources.

Against the claim that it is Calvinism that lies behind the progressive Left, Nathan argues that we can find its origins more precisely in those who, in fact, reacted against Calvin and his reformed successors: the seventeenth century Anglican sect known as the Latitudinarians. Known beyond their own lifetime as “broad church” Christians, the Latitudinarians argued that doctrine was inherently divisive and that the Christian should instead focus on right living. Crucially, Latitudinarians determined the principles of a moral life through reason, aided by the Spirit. Nathan does a good job of contrasting the vastly different theological presuppositions of the Latitudinarians and Puritans. For the latter, scripture was the ground of their doctrinal convictions and moral life and indeed their religious experiences of the Spirit. By contrast, the Latitudinarians believed that ethical principles could be derived from abstract reasoning and so merited universal application. Nathan suggests that there are a plurality of “lefts” in contemporary politics that might trace their lineage back to various kinds of modern Reformed Protestantism. But he suggests that it is not so much Calvin as the liberal Protestantism of the Latitudinarians that influenced Rousseau and therefore more naturally act as the grandfather of the kind of progressive politics that has erupted in recent years in the Anglophone West, and elsewhere.

If I have understood Nathan correctly here, then I would want to follow him in looking more closely at the origin points of different forms of left-wing politics. Here, I would want to query whether or not this specific form of progressive left-wing politics can claim the Latitudinarians as their forebears. I greatly appreciate Nathan’s insistence that there are different strands of modern Protestant Christianity that fed into the various forms of left-wing politics we see today. But on this point, I wonder if the progressive left-wing politics he describes at the beginning entirely fits the bill here. The Latitudinarian emphasis on human reason and the application of universal ethical injunctions sounds to me a lot more like the “liberal left” or “centre left” of, for instance, Tony Blair. Blairite policy was often grounded in universal principles which could ostensibly be applied anywhere. The invasion of Iraq was undergirded by the conviction that the Iraqi people would embrace democracy, the most ethical form of government in existence. This attitude seems to run completely counter to progressives who would completely resist Blair’s universalist idea on the basis that a country like Iraq should be free from Western (read “white imperial”) influence.

So where might we find the origins of the progressive left? I agree with Nathan that Calvin and the Puritans don’t entirely match up here, though one does witness in the progressive left the influence of distributivism found in Calvin’s Geneva or the doctrines of original sin (I frequently come across the suggestion that progressive politics majors on original sin without divine grace or forgiveness…and I find this extremely compelling as a hypothesis). But for my money, the progressive left, rightly or wrongly, seems to me to be guided by certain dogmas that are neither purely based on pure reason (as per the Latitudinarians) or a kind of external body of tradition like scripture (as per Puritans and Calvinists) but to a greater extent based on strongly-held internal feelings which come to form unassailable dogma. Of course, this isn’t the whole picture and it would be unfair to suggest it was. The emphasis on personal experience seems to me to be married with other quasi-religious elements such as a realised eschatology (“the long awaited kingdom has come now”) as well a strong emphasis on activism. On each of these points, I wonder if Nathan might be on to something when he makes mention of Quakerism or, we might add, Methodism and even forms of Pentecostalism. Each of these groups, in its own way, places huge stock in personal experience, an active faith and, at points, might implicitly espouse a realised eschatology. Particularly with personal experiences, it is important to note that these might exist independently from scripture or other anchoring forces and hold authority in their own right. This sounds a lot closer to the underlying presuppositions of progressive politics on the controversial issues of the day.

None of this is meant to misrepresent let alone smear particular groups. Rather, what I offer here is simply offered as a way of understanding what makes us tick. More positively, the exercise of tracing the lineage of ideas and their intellectual history has important social effects. Robust intellectual history, believe it or not, can help us build bridges across difference, or at least breed more understanding of how we approach particular matters. In other words, it can help us develop greater social empathy. If I can understand that my neighbour prioritises personal experience when approaching a hot-button issue, I can take efforts to not speak past them, while also explaining that my own reading of the situation prioritises a different way of knowing. At the very least the source of our disagreements will become clearer and, if there is sufficient maturity, we might be able to learn from one another.

Understanding the origins of various contemporary political ideas or movements is more than just a passing fancy, then. To live in the present is to breathe in the air of previous ages. Yet precisely because that air is invisible to our eyes, most of us live unawares of the heritage of the past. To be aware that the air that we breathe is inherited is to be in a position to critically adopt what is good and question and reject what is bad.

As someone who is passionate about discussing contemporary culture and politics in conversation with the history of Christianity, Nathan’s post provided much food for thought. We are in great need of more historically nuanced discussions like this one, that help to show us where we are and how we got there. I look forward to more of these kinds of discussions in the near future!

Once Again on the Location of Worship: The Persecuted Church and Domestic Space

Kings College Chapel (photo: author)

It’s been over a month since I’ve kept my Covid diary. The long weekend has afforded me a bit more time to write and reflect. Part of my thinking has revolved once again around the whole “location” controversy in the Church of England.

In my piece on worship location as adiaphoron (where I argued that the matter is ultimately non-essential), there were a couple of points that I didn’t get to discuss that I’d like to touch on briefly now.

On the term adiaphoron itself, I realise that this argument works from my perspective. I want to worship together, and yes in a church building, but the church building does not take pre-eminence at the moment. To refer to the location of worship as non-essential clearly fits with a more Reformed perspective. While I prefer to eschew labels in favour of substantive dialogue, they are useful heuristic tools. Laying my cards on the table, I would consider myself a liturgical reformed Anglican, which is probably massively redundant as the Reformed tradition within Anglicanism was liturgical to its core…In any case, I recognise that the term adiaphoron does not really work for Anglo-Catholic friends, for whom the location of worship isn’t an optional luxury or choice since the church building is a consecrated space in which the priest acts as representative of the people. So adiaphoron isn’t perhaps the best argument for bridge-building, I admit, even if it is true to my more Reformed convictions. (I suppose this would be a good point for me to outline my own ecclesiology but, perhaps cheekily, I’ll save that for another blog).

I also would like to have discussed the role of church buildings, sacred and domestic space and the persecuted church a bit more.

In terms of church buildings, I focussed on the role of aesthetics, but really I should have acknowledged the variety of roles a church building plays. As I found in my research whilst a research associate at Theos, a church building is often the hub of the community, functioning through a cafe or food bank or classroom as a rich source of social capital. Moreover, as noted above, the church building is also, in certain traditions, seen as holy space where worshippers connect with the throng of heaven throughout space and time.

As I outlined in my piece, I worship in just a such context currently and hugely appreciate this emphasis on sacred space and the historical rootedness and capaciousness of the Christian tradition. But while we’re talking about the communion of saints and the church catholic, what of those sisters and brothers who cannot worship in church buildings for fear of humiliation, persecution or death? OpenDoors has recorded many such cases, including this one from North India.

Closer to home, Stephen Holmes has provided a timely Baptist intervention, noting that Baptists in the seventeenth (and sometimes up until the nineteenth) century in England faced horrific persecution from Anglican clergy and bishops for non-conformism. As Holmes writes, Baptists frequently employed kitchen tables as eucharists and hidden pools for baptisms. The domestic setting for worship is part of the warp and weft of the ecclesial history of these isles and we would do well to consider this fact before denigrating “retreats to the kitchen”.

But thankfully, all of this now seems to be water under the bridge, as the house of bishops decided last week to allow priests to enter churches. This will be welcomed by, among others, a good number of my Anglo-Catholic brothers and sisters. I think it is right that there is now greater licence for those who wish to enter the church and it is good that bishops can no longer penalise or pressurise priests who want to enter their churches. It’s important that the hierarchy has also allowed for individual dioceses to emphasise that those who cannot enter their churches (whether for health reasons and the like) may continue to hold services from home. 

To be honest, I’m just glad that the issue seems to have been resolved so that the peace is kept. I do worry, though, that deep fissures have appeared around this issue and may well resurface in the future. I was reminded in reading a fantastic blog by Iona Morphet, that the most important thing in all of this is to consider how we have these debates. To be clear, I think these discussions need to be had, and I do believe that a pandemic is a good time to have them. But let’s do so with gentleness and respect. On many occasions, we’ve fallen short of this standard, myself included.

Perhaps on this issue, as with others, we need to recapture the beauty of the Elizabethan Settlement which upholds the freedom of conscience for Reformed and Anglo-Catholic congregations (and others) alike. Settlement and compromise is a difficult thing to come to, but our future together depends on it.

In Praise of Unherd’s Coverage of Lockdown

According to a recent Sky/YouGov poll, trust in journalists is at an all time low. In the results of the poll, which surveyed 1652 British adults, journalists fared the worst in terms of public faith, with TV journalists receiving a net score of minus 40 and newspaper journalists, minus 55.

The issue of public trust in journalism is certainly complex. There’s clearly a massive debate to be had about the limits of this data (extent), where the data is and isn’t pointing in this direction (demographics), why people are thinking this way (cause) and why all of this matters (significance).

But in the face of this story, I want to focus on an example of journalism that I have greatly appreciated. In all of this, I have been most impressed by the coverage of the lockdown offered by the team at Unherd. Unherd’s approach is deceptively simple and effective. They seek to give voice to views that one normally wouldn’t come across while also challenging ideas that have unquestioningly become de rigueur. There isn’t a single “line” that all their writers follow, even though there is a broadly (though by no means monolithically) post-liberal flavour to their authors and their contributions.

Here have been some of the pieces I have appreciated from the Unherd team on the subject of the Covid-19 lockdown.

To begin with, I have been immensely challenged by Freddie Sayers’ interviews for UnherdTV. For those who’ve missed it, Sayers has interviewed various kinds of scientists who differ on their approaches to the virus. He has written all of this up in a provocative piece that explores the different worldviews that underlie the various public health recommendations. He’s interviewed Swedish epidemiologist Johan Giesecke who with bluntness and brevity advocates a policy of protecting the old and frail, while allowing social distancing measures for the rest of the population. He has also spoken with Neil Ferguson, one of the scientists responsible for Imperial’s Covid-19 report which has heavily influenced the strategy of the UK government thus far. Perhaps somewhere in between these two figures (at least in terms of the IFR or Infection Fatality Rate he has reached) is the German virologist Hendrik Streeck. He suggests that lockdown measures were introduced too soon and that, because the virus is endemic, we need to think about how we can live with it in the medium to long-term.

Tom Chivers offers a position that looks more favourably upon the lockdown. His piece today (Is the Lockdown doing more harm than good?) contains his usual combination of epistemological humility and careful reasoning. Chivers is broadly behind the lockdown now and in the near-future (“It’s better to lock down when you don’t need to, than not lock down when you do need to”) but is open-eyed to the deaths and death-like existence for many suffering from unemployment and mental-health conditions. “Lockdown is coming at a cost”, he rightly asserts. It’s one of the more open-eyed pieces that backs the lockdown policy. Also in its favour is the emphasis on the uncertainty about our conclusions because of the lack of data (which, he stresses, isn’t the same as saying that we have no data). As he writes:

In short, we need to work out what the cost of the virus would be, if left unchecked; then we have to work out what the cost of our response to it would be; and then use those two factors to decide whether the lockdown is worth the cost. The trouble is, we don’t know either of those things

The one potential blindspot in Chivers’ piece is the lack of discussion around herd immunity, which I would have liked to hear more him speak more about (no doubt he has elsewhere). To be fair, it seems we don’t know enough yet to say how the virus will interact when we come out of lockdown and, in the absence of mass testing and tracing, whether or not one becomes immune having had the virus.

In addition to covering the lockdown, UnHerd has also featured articles that touch on a wider set of issues raised by the pandemic. In this vein, two pieces have provided some much needed realism surrounding our cultural attitudes towards risk and death.

With her characteristically dry humour and wry take on things, Timandra Harkness discusses the need for us to consider risk when it comes to our approach to lockdown. She questions whether the government should have spoken more of risk mitigation rather than risk elimination. She writes,

we would have done better to talk about Covid-19 more like road accidents, as a risk that can’t be eliminated altogether, but can be mitigated. Instead, the Government invoked the language of existential threat, in the face of which no measure is too great. Now, weighing the risks of resuming more normal life against the risks of continuing in suspended animation, they are struggling to coax a fearful population out of lockdown.

Instead of trying to frighten us all into staying at home, the Government should have harnessed our altruism, inviting us to join a grown-up conversation about risk. That would have left the door open to invite us all, now, to weigh the risk of Covid-19 against the lost opportunities of continuing to hide from the world.

Of course, there is a risk, to use that word again, that with all of this talk of quantification and QALYS (the measurement used to determine the value of a life) we become bean counters of souls. Giles Fraser wisely warns us about this approach. And yet, when push comes to shove, difficult decisions need to be made about whose lives are saved. If this seems cold and utilitarian, perhaps even libertarian, then we need to remind ourselves that the UK government is not, as is often asserted, simply trying to balance human lives and the economy. Chivers cautions against this comparison.

It’s really important, by the way, that we don’t get wrapped up in the idea that it is “the economy” vs “human life”. The economy consists of people’s lives, in a very direct way: if you stop people working, you make their lives worse; their businesses go under, they fall behind on rent or mortgages, they can’t afford to buy the things they want or need.

From attitudes to risk, we turn, lastly, to conceptions of death, where Mary Harrington makes a very important contribution. Harrington takes to task the implicit assumption among high-income societies that “everyone will live forever”. The title of Harrington’s piece, “Not Every Death is Tragic”, is rather unfortunate and I imagine will cause many not to read it. I’d recommend not making that mistake. It is a provocative read, but the title has little bearing to the article which is a sensitive, personal and realistic take on death. Her point about herd immunity is interesting and one wonders if this should be the way forward (“Unless a vaccine is discovered, any relaxation of lockdown will result in a new spike in infections, followed by further lockdowns, and so on until we reach — yes — herd immunity”). Perhaps less controversially, Harrington also discusses the fact that in less affluent societies where “death is already a familiar presence, the risk calculus of virus transmission looks very different”. This point has been repeated elsewhere in discussions of a “white collar quarantine” (and I discussed it in this piece over a month ago). Harrington’s comparative point is one that resonates with me, having spoken with family living in middle-income countries outside of Europe, as well as with friends working in blue collar jobs here in the UK.

Harrington delivers some hard-hitting truths on the way we as a society think about death (“our culture treats death as abnormal, even outrageous — not the inevitable fact it still is”). I suppose the only thing I would add is that while inevitable, death for the Christian does not have the last word (see my reflection on hopeful realism here). Regardless of whether it is someone dying at the peak of their powers, or after a long life, death is not how things should be, though we recognise that it is how things in reality are. It is something that we will all go through. Setting semantics aside, Harrington’s piece implicitly reminds us that we might wish to reconsider recovering a common vocabulary for speaking about death that draws on religious traditions in general, and Christianity in particular. I, for one, would welcome this re-development in our public discourse.

Hopeful Realism: Night Reflection for Compline (1 Peter 1:3-5)

Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Resurrection, 2007. Oil on canvas, 178 × 122 cm (

Night Reflection for Compline, Trinity College Chapel via Zoom (Easter Season in Coronatide). Weds 6th May 2020

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

In times like these, death seems to be omnipresent. We knew it’s name before, of course. But in these days of Corona-tide, as some have taken to calling this season, we know with greater clarity the painful reality of death. There’s no mistaking the long, dark shadow it has cast over our nation’s public life.

In the UK, during the month of April alone, 25,000 souls were lost to the coronavirus. Just last week, in a single day 600 died of Covid-19—in a one 24-hour period, what is equivalent to a medium sized Cambridge college lost to the ravages of this horrible pandemic. 

It is no surprise that in times such as these, our assumptions about that most basic reality of our existence—death—are laid bare. 

In some of us is revealed a strong and persistent fatalism; call it pessimism, cynicism, or stoicism. We resign ourselves to death. To the fatalist, death is the natural end of life, the point at which our existence runs its logical course. Nothing else is to be said or done as death has the final word.

For others of us, it isn’t fatalism but idealism that characterises our response to this pandemic. Death seems everywhere present, and yet we would rather not talk about it. As late-moderns so used to the idea of being in control of our destinies, we run a million miles from death. We prefer to laugh it off. In disparagement, we refer to those with any kind of interest in facing their own mortality as “morbid”. 

And yet into the fatalism and idealism of our own hearts, our scripture tonight counters with two assertions of its own. Death is real. Christ has been raised. 

Hear these words again from tonight’s reading:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

For the Christian, death is a topic that is very much on the table. Of all the major world religions, it is only Christianity that has God in Jesus Christ take on mortal, vulnerable, corruptible flesh and die. As our creeds state: “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and buried. He descended to the dead”. I am reminded of my family in rural Northern Ireland who, as per custom, included in their most recent phone call “update”, the news of those who in the local town had died recently. Here, I thought to myself, is a community that is honest about the reality of death. The Christian faith does not shy away from our mortality. Death isn’t something we laugh off, or shut our ears and eyes to in reckless idealism. But nor is it something we fatalistically ascribe to the natural course of a life. In the face of death, the Christian exclaims, “how long O Lord?” This is emphatically not how it should be!

But our scripture this evening makes a second, far more remarkable counter-assertion. Yes death is real. But we also believe that Christ was raised from the dead, and we who trust in him will be raised as well. This is no lame attempt at emotional uplift, or a vague offer of bodyless, paradisal bliss. No, our text declares that God in Christ has given birth to a new world; he has literally birthed us anew. The language of giving birth in early Christianity held apocalyptic resonance—apocalyptic in the sense of a revealing, an unveiling. In raising Christ from the dead, in vindicating him, God unveils a new creation in which we are beginning to participate and which will be brought to full completion in the last time. 

But until then, we grieve and lament the loss of life. We are honest and realistic about the reality of death. But we do not grieve as those without hope. We are neither fatalistic nor idealistic, but realistic. And we are hopefully realistic. For we have the greatest hope of all—that Christ has defeated death in giving up his own life for us and in being raised victorious. Ours is a hopeful realism that neither idealistically turns a blind eye to death nor cynically scoffs at the living hope achieved through Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Yes, death will do its worst. But Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and we will be too. Do we dare entrust our lives, and our deaths to him? Perhaps the better question is, how could we do otherwise? 


Location, Location: Does It Matter Where Church Services Happen During the Coronavirus?

Peterborough Cathedral (photo by the author)

The Problem

On 24th March, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York penned a joint letter in which they advised clergy not to enter churches to conduct services.

For some, this decision has spelled not only a missed opportunity but a dereliction of duty. Giles Fraser has complained that in abandoning its church buildings, the Church of England has retreated from public life. Fraser echoes Bishop Selby who has similarly registered his despondency over the church hierarchy’s decision to go beyond government advice. In doing so, Selby writes, those in positions of leadership

…seem to have accepted the idea that Christianity is a matter for the domestic realm, that our cathedrals and parish churches are just optional when useful and available, no longer the eloquent signs of the consecration of our public life and public spaces. The conviction that the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the places of beauty set apart is an “essential work” undertaken by “key workers” will have become a wistful “BC” [Before Coronovirus] memory. 

I take a very different view.

It seems to me that there is enough leeway in the Archbishops’ guidance for particular bishops and dioceses to conduct services from their churches. Of course, this will depend on the viewpoint of the particular bishop, the greatest strength and weakness of Episcopalian ecclesiology. It seems especially strange to not permit clergy who live next to the church, or where they have access through a side door, to enter, should they want to.

And of course, that phrase “should they want to” is key. Some clergy will actually want to abstain from running a church service from their church building, perhaps out of solidarity with their congregations and communities, out of obedience to their bishop or some other reason. Some clergy I have spoken have expressed the sadness of streaming a service from an empty church in comparison to a warm study or the room of a house.

The current advice from the archbishops seems, to me at least, to be typically Anglican: it allows for those with a firm conviction (theological or otherwise) that the service should be held in the church to do so (again, depending of course on the bishop…though that might not stop some!). At the same time, it permits others who for their own reasons prefer, in this instance, to abstain, to do so. There is a merciful wideness to it.

I found Giles Fraser’s article thought-provoking and he made a number of good points. For instance, the use of the church building makes sense for those vicars whose home lives are chaotic, or the fact that vicars often check on the building for insurance purposes but not for worship-services). As an aside, I thought the title—”The CoE has retreated to the kitchen”—was poorly chosen. I don’t see any anti-feminist agenda to what Giles has written, but the language of retreating to the kitchen is open to that interpretation. The assumptions about secular and sacred spaces would be an entirely different blog post, however, and one I hope to return to!

More substantively, I do think that his piece, and others like it, rest on certain theological convictions and historical judgments that require discussion. To his credit, Giles has raised these points for discussion. This is surely one of the benefits of Anglicanism: a measure of top-down ruling that also has the capacity to take account of voices “from below”.

What I want to focus on in this piece is the issue of location of worship specifically under the circumstances of the current lockdown. I am not discussing the location of collective worship generally but only services held during “Corona-tide”, as some have come to name it. I sense it is only right to consider our current and (as we like to call them) unprecedented circumstances.

All are in agreement that collective church services cannot be held. So the main two choices are:

  1. the vicar/priest streams the service from his/her church
  2. the vicar/priest streaming a service from his/her home

The question can be put like this: Does it matter where church services are held during Corona-tide? Is the location of worship services held under lockdown important?

My short answer is that in the current circumstances, no it does not ultimately matter. What matters is how we address the fact that we are apart from one another. Yes, we are apart from church buildings, and these buildings matter enormously. However, the vicar streaming the service from the church does not, in my view, bring us back together under the one roof of the church.

My judgment that the location of worship being non-essential in these circumstances betrays my own reading of history and theology. Allow me to explain.

The Location of Christian Worship Historically is An Adiaphoron

I hold to the view that the location of Christian worship is non-essential. The technical term for this is adiaphoron, meaning something that is neither morally bad nor good, but neutral. The location of Christian gatherings is, morally speaking, indifferent. (For more on the Stoic origins of this term and Paul’s borrowing of it, see Alex Muir’s blogpost here).

What matters is that Christians are together. And this view coheres with the biblical and theological traditions.

To risk gross over-simplification, there seems to me to be a movement in Judaism and Christianity from an informal setting for worship towards the development of more formal structures and locations for rites and ceremonies.

In Abraham and his descendants, we read of a pilgrim people searching for a land in which to dwell, settling in Egypt under Joseph only to be enslaved by a newly ascendant Pharaoh. Having been miraculously delivered by God in the Exodus, the people wander for 40 years in the desert before finally entering the Promised Land. We then read of the building of the temple under Solomon, a significantly new development. The construction of the the temple is followed, however, by a series of disastrous exiles during which the temple is destroyed, rebuilt, and then destroyed once more.

In early Christianity, there is, mutatis mutandis, a similar movement away from informal attitudes towards venues towards the desire for more formal locations of worship. A few texts demonstrate the earlier attitude of indifference towards location:

1. John 4:19-24

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

2. Revelation 21:1-4

John’s vision of the new heavens and a new earth at the end of the book of Revelation is one in which God is with his people. No temple for the new heavens and new earth, as God communes directly with his worshippers.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them’”.

Alongside such texts, there is also a strain of tradition that identifies Jesus himself as the new temple of God.

3. John 2:18–22

“The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. ”

4. Matthew 26:60–62

“Finally two came forward and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer?’”

In identifying himself, and in being identified by his followers, as the temple of God, Jesus pointed to the true purpose of the temple: to be the place where God met with his people.


So we’ve witnessed the strain of indifference to the particular location of worship in the earliest Christian documents. This raises the question: where, then, did early Christians worship?

Early Christians in the first two centuries, as far as we can tell, did not meet in anything resembling what we think of today as consecrated church buildings. As far as we can tell, such buildings, often referred to as basilicas, emerged later under Constantine the Great.

By contrast, the early Christian gathering (or ekklesia; Greek: ἐκκλησία) most often took the form of a house-church. A wealthy patron or benefactor allowed the use of their home for gatherings for singing, the reading of scripture, baptism, the sharing of the Eucharist and preaching.

The historian of early Christianity Eddy Adams has recently encouraged us to expand the list of early Christian meeting places. On the basis of existing textual and archaeological data, he concludes that early Christians also met in retail spaces such as workshops, leisure areas and burial places. Indeed, early Christians often employed public places like the outer temple for their worship, as several episodes from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles demonstrate (see Acts 2:46).

This indifference to location is also born out by slightly later Christian texts. The testimony of Justin Martyr (dated sometime to the mid second century but extant in later sources, including the Acta Martyrum) is remarkable for the evidence it provides of early Christian convictions about the location of worship. Justin’s defence before the Roman prefect Rusticus before his martyrdom is worth citing in full.

Rusticus the prefect said, ‘Where do you assemble?‘ Justin said, ‘Where each one chooses and can: for do you fancy that we all meet in the very same place? Not so; because the God of the Christians is not circumscribed by place; but being invisible, fills heaven and earth, and everywhere is worshipped and glorified by the faithful‘. Rusticus the prefect said, ‘Tell me where you assemble, or into what place do you collect your followers?’ Justin said, ‘I live above one Martinus, at the Timiotinian Bath; and during the whole time (and I am now living in Rome for the second time) I am unaware of any other meeting than his. And if any one wished to come to me, I communicated to him the doctrines of truth‘. Rusticus said, ‘Are you not, then, a Christian?’ Justin said, ‘Yes, I am a Christian’.

Justin roots his indifference towards the location of assembly in the nature and character of God: “for God is not circumscribed by place”. Since he is invisible and “fills heaven and earth” he is worshipped “everywhere”. This isn’t simply a ploy on Justin’s part to avoid revealing the identity of other Christians (note that he does provide the name of “one Martinus” in his response to Rusticus). Rather, Justin continues the trajectory of adiaphoron attested to in the New Testament texts listed above.


Why does all of this matter for us?

The history of early Christian worship points to the general indifference of early Christians towards the location of worship.

Then as now, what matters is that Christians are together. For us living in lockdown, this means “being together” virtually, in eager anticipation of later being together in person. The practice of worshipping Almighty God should, for now, take precedence over where we do so.

Yes, aesthetics matter. I firmly believe that. Those traditions (or parts of a tradition) that enjoy the heritage of beautiful buildings adorned with artwork, sculpture and architectural wonders will rightly miss these places. I find myself just now worshipping in this part of the Anglican Church. I personally prefer this kind of aesthetic. I haven’t always worshipped in these kinds of settings. I have been part of churches that met in bowling greens, town halls and urban warehouses.

My preference for aesthetic beauty, though, is exactly that—a preference. It’s not a norm that should be enforced on others. Clearly those without the means or the desire to worship in such a space are not deficient in faith. On the contrary, they often complement those more architecturally blessed traditions with fervour in the faith, often expressed in terms of active discipleship, professionally produced modern music and an infectious enthusiasm to engage those outside their walls. In line with the location of worship being a preference, the archbishops’ decision appears to be a pragmatic one, taken in light of the current circumstances.

We clearly live in a tension between our particular places of worship and the universality of God whom, as Justin wrote so long ago, can be worshipped anywhere. There is surely an important piece to be written on how our church buildings reflect the particularity of place. I hope to return to this issue in another blog, and have touched on it here. But what the lockdown is bringing out in full colour is this universal dimension to the Christian faith. As Christians, we can worship God anywhere. He is not bound by time and space. And we are connected to a universal, “catholic” church that extends through space and time.

We long to be back together, and yes we long to be under the roof of the church. Until then, we worship apart, but together, in spirit and in truth.