On Not Living Ahead of Time: The Hopeful Realism of Advent

St Bene’t’s, Cambridge, where I worship, are putting together a series of Advent reflections, with one for each day. I post mine below.

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The subject of my reflection is Augustine’s Letter to Boniface (Letter 189) and is inspired by the thoughts of Canadian philosopher James KA Smith on the letter which you can listen to here:

“we ought not to want to live ahead of the appointed time”

Near the beginning of the fifth century, the great ecclesiastical writer St Augustine addresses a Christian politician weary with his civic duties and the terrible tumult of his times (plus ça change!). We sadly do not have the surviving letter from Boniface to Augustine and so we have to infer Boniface’s attitudes and thoughts from Augustine’s prose. When we do, what we notice is a figure anxious about reconciling his allegiance to God with serving in the government of the time. Among other things, Boniface is particularly keen to know whether he should lead military campaigns as a Christian. Augustine cautions Boniface against abandoning the position he finds himself in and from running away from the gifts God had bestowed on him to fulfil his tasks for the common good.

While we might not follow Augustine in all of his conclusions (we may well raise an eyebrow at Augustine’s justification of Christian involvement in battle, for instance), his words have peculiar relevance and resonance for the Season we now find ourselves in— the Season of Advent. I want to draw our attention, in particular, to Augustine’s short and suggestive supplication: “we ought not to want to live ahead of the appointed time”.

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Christian Life is Lived Between Christ the King Sunday and Advent

James KA Smith’s address to Christians in Parliament from 2018 is a must listen for the week between Christ the King Sunday (a relative newcomer to the Liturgical Calendar) and Advent. Check it out below:

Two New ResPublica Seminars on Post-Liberalism

With a Summer and Autumn of cultural upheaval in the Anglosphere (as a result of Covid, fiery protests of various sorts, Brexit debates and, now, an ongoing US election that will perpetuate the liberal order, whether economically with Trump or socially and economically with Biden), there’s certainly appetite for considering fresh ideas that might take us forward with the crucial task of re-constructing community and society.

It’s just as well, then, that the UK think-tank ResPublica have recently produced two instructive seminars on post-liberalism, that political philosophy which, in broad terms, advocates moving to the left on the economy, to the right on culture and identity and to the local and particular in governance. Identifying the overarching assumption of liberalism as unmitigated autonomy—the human person unmoored form ties to person or place—post-liberals seek to offer a positive vision that prioritises relationships, community and belonging in our cultural, economic and social life.

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Churches Should Stay Open

Following the announcement of a second national lockdown in the UK starting this coming Thursday, the thoughts of church leaders, and religious leaders more broadly, have turned to how this will affect the live worship of their congregations. The published government guidance is not entirely clear on this point, though it seems to point to the end of gathered worship and its replacement by services broadcast by priests from church buildings (the guidance is also clear that buildings remain open for private prayer).

I believe that churches, and other places of worship, should stay open throughout the second lockdown.

Some might be surprised to hear me say this. 

After all, in two previous blog posts on the subject (here and here), I took a more optimistic view of church closures. I was prepared, at that point, to give the Church of England’s leadership the benefit of the doubt given the novelty of the virus and, as I explored, the theological reasons for home worship (I did, however, register my frustration at the prohibition of clergy entering church buildings to film worship). 

I am no longer convinced that my reasons hold in the current situation. I want to explain why I think this, why I have changed my mind.

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Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”

My wife preached on the “render” command last week. The sermon can be read here.

Texts: Matthew 22:15-22; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Isaiah 45:1-7

Image: Titian, The Tribute Money (1516). Public domain.

How Have Commentators’ Understood Jesus’s Command to “Render to Caesar What is Caesar’s and to God What is God’s”?

This Sunday’s lectionary features the tribute passage, which appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels and ends with Jesus’s famous words “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. I wrote a piece a few years back for Currents in Biblical Research which summarised the four main ways that contemporary commentators have read this saying. You can read the article for free, here.

Image: Jacek Malczewski, The Tribute Money (part of triptych) 1908, (Wikiart)

When Realism Isn’t Enough: Cultivating Hopeful Lament in an Age of Disillusionment

The observant reader will notice that the strapline of this blog contains the phrase, “refreshingly realistic”. As I explain here, this is my attempt to pay homage to realism, which I describe as a way of sailing between the extremes of utopianism and cynicism. I argue that for realism to work, it must be thoroughly Christian in nature. That is, it must be shaped by the church’s teaching on who we are and the times we are living in.

Another way of saying this is that realism must be shaped by the Christian conceptions of lament and hope.

Without lament and hope, realism is a gateway to cynicism, a “contemptuous distrust of human nature and motives”. This post is an attempt to explain why our realism desperately needs to be characterised by practices of hopeful lament.

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My Politics Needs Christianity

The British public has perhaps been never more politically engaged, and yet never more politically disillusioned.

As the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement for 2018 and 2019 show, opinions of the governing systems are are their lowest point in 15 years, even as the appetite for political change and engagement has grown.

On the one hand, the number of elections post-2014, including of the most significance of these, the Referendum on EU Membership, has generated an unprecedented level of active political activism among the British population. The Hansard Society refers to the increase in electoral events as an “‘electric shock therapy’ for political engagement”.

On the other hand, there is a general weariness and dissatisfaction just now with political parties and candidates. In particular, there’s a suspicion that the options on offer appear to propagate the interests of the financial and cultural establishment. In the US, this is largely made up of different types of big business, as American academic and commentator Bret Weinstein explains. Disillusioned with the candidates on the ticket, various individuals have formed the Unity 2020 campaign, a movement for a third party candidate, and alternative form of politics. Closer to home, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has sought to transcend the traditional divides between capital and labour, nation and world and even private and public sector (see their New Declaration from 2018, one of the more powerful pieces of political writing in recent years).

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The Patron Saint of Restless Hearts

St Augustine, Fitzwilliam Museum (author’s photo)

Today is the feast day of St Augustine, the patron saint of restless hearts.

I have come to a greater appreciation of Augustine more recently through reading and re-reading Jamie Smith’s On the Road With St Augustine: A RealWorld Spirituality for Restless Hearts.

I’ve come back to many passages of the book. But there’s one I come back to the most:

I won’t pretend there isn’t something scandalous about his advice. Augustine will unapologetically suggest that you were made for God—that home is found beyond yourself, that Jesus is the way, the the cross is a raft in the storm-tossed sea we call “the world”. But what I hope you’ll hear in this is not a solution or an answer, not merely a dogmatic claim or demand. For Augustine, this was a hard-fought epiphany that emerged after trying everything else, after a long time on the road, at the end of his rope. The Christian gospel, for Augustine, wasn’t just the answer to an intellectual question (though it was that); it was more like a shelter in a storm, a port for a wayward soul, nourishment for a prodigal who was famished, whose own heart had become, he said, ‘a famished land’. It was, he would later testify, like someone had finally shown him his home country, even though he’d never been there before. It was the Father he’d spent a lifetime looking for, saying to him, ‘Welcome home’.