Paul Marshall on Classical Liberalism

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Paul Marshall, British investor and one-time MP candidate for the SDP/Liberal Alliance, has provided a spirited defence of classical liberalism over at Unherd.

The title of Marshall’s article, “Progressives have sacrificed liberalism”, gives one the false impression that this is purely a pugilistic piece pointed at an imprecisely defined progressivism. This notion is wrong on three counts: 

  • first, the argument is positive and constructive as well as apologetic 
  • second, insofar as the author’s aim is pugilistic (which it undoubtedly is), he targets three rival ideologies: not only progressivism but post-liberalism and libertarianism. (In fact, he takes aim at a further philosophy which lies behind progressivism and libertarianism: the 18th century so-called Enlightenment).
  • And third, on progressivism, the author carefully defines this creed as the conceit that humankind’s moral and epistemological progress is “on a perpetual upward curve in parallel with technological progress”.  

The author’s main contention, in many ways complementary to John Gray’s Two Faces of Liberalism, is that classical liberalism has “lost its moorings”. More specifically (and unlike Gray), he contends that classical liberalism has lost its deep Christian (more particularly still its Protestant) faith revealed in an assumed anthropology (a shared understanding of human nature wherein we possess inherent dignity but are also fallen creatures), a common epistemology (theory of human knowledge where, because of our fallenness we empirically test our hypotheses), and ethics, wherein we pursue virtue and good in light of God’s decrees. 

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How Important is the History of Biblical Interpretation to New Testament Interpretation?

I’ve a new book chapter coming out in Studies in the History of Exegesis (History of Biblical Exegesis 2: 12, ed. Mark W. Elliott, Raleigh C. Heth, and Angela Zautcke; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2022). The book features essays from various meetings of the SBL History of Interpretation section (led by Mark Elliott and Michael Legaspi) and divides into four sections: Matters of Approach, Early Exegetical Cases, Luther’s Exegesis 500 Years On and Early Modern Concurrences and Tensions in Exegesis.

My chapter sits in section 2. I employ the famous command to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” as a case study for answering the question set for the section: how important is the history of biblical interpretation (Auslegungsgeschichte) for the understanding of a New Testament text?

My argument is, in short, twofold: first, that at the exegetical level, the history of New Testament interpretation provides mixed results for New Testament interpretation. Second, at the hermeneutical level, that history offers richer benefits by raising questions about the parallels and discontinuities in the methods and motivations of ancient and modern reading cultures. To illustrate this second point, I provide an enlightening (for me at least) comparison of the exegesis of this command by Origen and Tertullian and by the renowned NT scholar Adela Yarbro Collins. The book will hopefully appear sometime in 2022.

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

The Rightful Place of Emotion in Human Decision-Making: Lockdown Debates as a Case Study

Reason and emotion both have a place in moral decision-making. And yet, as we’ve seen in recent lockdown debates in the UK, the important place of emotion in argumentation has been downplayed, even as it has dominated discussion in the background.*

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Christmas Digest

Happy Christmas to you and your loved ones from the Saeculum!

Tis’ the season for overconsumption! This obviously applies to food and drink at Christmas, but it can also be true of our media in-take as well. Whether it be films, radio programmes, music, periodicals or magazines, we are treated to a rich and overwhelming feast for the senses over the festive period. 

This sense of overconsumption can also seep into the Christmas story itself—an endless array of characters and perspectives to consider, carols to sing and insights to glean. 

Given all of this, I have felt the need to curate some of my reading this Christmas. In this piece, I offer a brief sample—a digest if you will—of Christmas reflections  from across the internet. I have divided these into two sections: Christmas History, which deals with the history of the accounts of the first Christmas in the gospels and Christmas Meanings, which draws out the broader cultural significance of the season. 

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Resting Well: Re-creation, Reorientation and Retreat

Over at the Undeceptions podcast, John Dickson has been hard at work looking at the value of resting well. Special guest Alex Pang (author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less) covers the science of rest and work. The discussion touches on Darwin and Lubbock, two nineteenth century polymaths with prolific literary outputs who both developed systems of rest that helped them produce more fruitfully. I came away more convinced than ever that rest is the fruitful partner of work.

But the real highlight for me was the discussion of rest in the Hebrew and Christian traditions, including Dickson’s 5 Minute Jesus on rest in the Gospels and the Letter to the Hebrews, and his interview with Rabbi Elton. We appear to owe the concept of the weekend, in large part, to the Jewish Sabbath, which seems to represent the first attempt in human civilisation to offer a day of rest to everyone—including servants and animals—living within a given locale. Dickson and Elton also cover the relationship between rest and redemption, with the great prelude to the Sabbath command outlining the rationale for rest: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.

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In Praise of Escapism

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” (J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’).* 

The escapist gets a bad name. 

In our wisdom, we consider those who seek to escape “real life” as doubly cursed: first, as deserters, because they make the attempt to abandon reality, and second, as idealists, because they think such flight from the facts of life is at all possible. 

Among the Reformed traditions in which I find my home, I suspect that some view escapism with this kind of suspicion. Reformed theologians are forever talking about the necessity of engaging with real life, the significance of engagement with culture, engaging with this and that issue related to the public sphere.**

And, closer to home, I see this suspicion, or blind spot, with regards to “escape” in my own thinking. The aim of this blog, after all, is to provide a “refreshingly realistic take on Christianity and politics”. And, in re-reading my own most recent reflections (here and here), I find that it’s almost as if I am making excuses for retreating from the world.

But what if retreat, or escape, or whatever we want to call it, is at times—I do not say always—necessary? What if the world out there, and in here, is so dark, that we ought to escape, ought to take refuge elsewhere?

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Quietness, not Quietism: The Prayer Book on Finding Rest in God

The Book of Common Prayer on at least three occasions makes reference to quietness in its collective prayers, or collects:

“…that we may pass our time in rest and quietness…” (Second Collect, Evening Prayer)

“grant…that thy Church may joyfully serve thee in all godly quietness…” (Trinity 5)

“grant…to thy faithful people…that…they may serve thee with a quiet mind” (Trinity 21)

Quietness is not the same as quietism, however. Quietism broadly speaking refers to a variety of religious and political philosophies characterised by permanent withdrawal from the world. Worldly events mean less, and perhaps are even meaningless, as one seeks truth in spiritual events and internal experiences. 

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What is Real in this Life?: Christian Realism and Christian Mysticism

The observant reader of this blog will notice its strapline: “a realistic take on Christianity and politics”. It’s no doubt a tagline that I fail to live up to perfectly and it would be unrealistic to expect to be realistic one hundred percent of the time.

Nevertheless, what this strapline is getting at, is my desire to pursue the unvarnished truth of the Christian faith and the cultures in which it resides. Or to define the goal negatively, I wish to move away from idealistic and utopian—that is unrealistic or not-true-to-life—analyses of the Christian tradition and its engagement with cultural issues.

It’s why I tackle issues that are messy and complex—vaccines, war, sex, freedom, tribalism, the role of the state and so on. These are all issues that are in the headlines and which reverberate throughout the corridors of power. 

What could be more real than that? 

For Advent this year, I’ve been reading the Archbishop of York’s book for the season, The Music of Eternity: Meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill, edited by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. It features reflections appropriate for the season from Anglican mystic and spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill. I first came across Underhill via Jane Williams who quoted her in an episode of Godpod: “God is the interesting thing about religion”. And I find myself turning to Underhill’s reflections each day for the same reason: her unrelenting attempt to get herself, and to get her reader, out of the way, and place God at the centre of human existence, of human reality.  

Augustine, whom Underhill quotes, makes this point with maximal brevity: “God is the only Reality and we are only real insofar as we are in him and he in us”. 

How do we relate the work of mystics like Evelyn Underhill to the cultural analysis of Christian Realists? 

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Why I’m Pro-Vaccine but Anti-Mandate

When it comes to the covid jabs, I am pro-vaccine but anti-mandate. 

I am, broadly speaking, in favour of the covid vaccines. Getting the jab is, on balance, a wise course of action. This is especially true for those over 50 and those of all ages who are clinically vulnerable. But it might also extend to those aged 20 and over who have no underlying health conditions. With the roll out of the vaccine in the UK, we have seen the reduction of deaths and hospitalisations and so the risk of serious symptoms has been mitigated. Conversely, I find it generally irresponsible not to be vaccinated, though I would want to reserve that opinion on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, at the moment I’d view the goal of as getting as many folks as possible vaccinated against covid to be a good outcome because it is the most effective measure for allowing life to continue while also reducing (of course, never eliminating) fatalities and associated health risks. 

But I must part ways from the extreme voices on the pro-vaccine side who are calling for the vaccine mandate, i.e. for citizens to be forced to be jabbed. Many are comfortable with the state using a variety of measures to compel its citizens to get vaccinated. What appear to be authoritarian measures are, on this view, justified if the goal of vaccinating more people is achieved. I am extremely worried about the measures being used across Europe to compel citizens to be vaccinated. At the time of writing, such measures include lockdowns for the unvaccinated across countries in Europe, the threat of fines and imprisonment in Austria, internment camps in Australia, and segregated areas for vaccinated and unvaccinated in Germany. My central disagreement with the pro-vaccine camp is with the means of getting to that goal of increasing vaccination. 

I dissent from the mandate position on three grounds: first, on the basis of the fact that it is deeply counter-productive to the intended goal; second on the basis of liberty and opposition to authoritarianism; and third on the basis of the precedent that is being set for coercive state action moving forward. 

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