CovidDiary Day 1 (Sat 21st March)

I wanted to begin to record some of my thoughts on the fly in the hope of offering some encouragement and reflection at this unsettling time. I don’t know how long it will last for or how consistent I will be but here goes…

Morning prayer an encouragement this am: Ps 31:27—be strong, take courage in your heart, all of you whose hope is in the Lord. Immediately I was taken back to the version of Church of Scotland minister/musician Ian White which my parents used to blast out of the tape player of the family’s Ford Mondeo. As kids, my brother and I used to chuckle at how repetitive the lyrics were. Funny how they are now lodged deep in my memory.

A friend told me today that this is the defining moment of our generation. Years from now people will ask us what it was like to have lived during the Coronavirus. Hopefully part of our answer will be that we lived well and formed good habits…much like my parents did in playing Ian White to my brother and I those many years ago. Be strong, take courage in your heart.

Enjoyed a sunny walk with Olga to Waterbeach in the afternoon which was a mercy. Savoured the sunshine rays, all the more given I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to do this.

Fen Ditton from the riverside

Seeing the chapel where CH Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, started his ministry was also a treat. I wonder what he would have made of Covid-19 and how we should respond.

In the afternoon I ventured to the nearby Sainsbury’s on Sidney St and spoke with an employee there at the self-check out. I was struck by how normally I would have completely ignored this lady but here I was, in these extraordinary times, asking her how she was doing and how the store was coping with the stress and strains of panic buying.

This got me thinking. Make no mistake about it: Covid-19 has revealed to us the fragility of our human existence. It is unsettling, devastating and tragic.

It is also an opportunity. In abnormal times, we find ourselves behaving differently. A conversation with a good friend an hour or so ago reminded me of this, as he spoke about reaching out to friends on their own with a phone call or visiting elderly colleagues who had no one to look after them with a container of soup. In his Times column today, Graham Tomlin wrote about how this period is an opportunity for us as a nation:

Self-isolation, with no sport to watch, no colleagues to chat to, nothing to fill the long hours, can mean we start phoning or writing to friends we haven’t spoken to for ages, learn to play an instrument, try out longer and deeper conversations with family or flatmates. It can give us urgency to find new ways to reach out to friends and neighbours. It could teach us habits of quiet prayer or mindfulness, gratitude for what we do have but temporarily miss, reflection on our lives and what really matters, appreciation for the simple things of life. After a few months it could even teach us a whole new way of life…

For many this will seem indulgent. What new habits are there to cultivate when my job is at risk? When I have to teach my three children following school closures on top of my day job and being a parent and spouse? When there is the stress of obtaining medication or arranging an appointment when the health service is already so stretched? When my elderly parent is ill with the virus?

I don’t presume to hold any answers here, except to say that in these circumstances, sometimes it is enough just to get through the day. And I feel keenly the need to help those in such circumstances. I still haven’t quite figured out how beyond offerings to food banks and looking out for my parents. I still wonder what I might do for my neighbour—the one I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out?

While it might seem indulgent, there is still an opportunity for deeper reflection in this “fallow period” (and yes, I realise fallow can seem privileged for those with the responsibilities I listed above—so how about a period with different rhythms and routines?). It’s a chance to think about our habits, our values, an opportunity to spend time with loved ones, have deeper conversations, grow closer to those from whom we might have grown distant. “We have gifts to give one another in this time”, as theologian James KA Smith reminds us.

We must be realistic. Of course this is and will be difficult. It will stretch us to the limit. But in uncertain times, there is an opportunity for growth and for new, life-giving habits and sacrificial ways of life to emerge.

The Ten Best Podcast Episodes of 2019

Here is my list of the ten best podcast episodes from 2019. You can also read my list of the three podcasts you should listen to in 2020 here.

1. Triggernometry- Matthew Goodwin: Why Labour Lost the Election

This remains simply the best analysis of the General Election (as well as the last 15 years of British politics). Goodwin lectures on political science at the University of Kent and has made a career out of understanding populist movements in Europe. He pretty much predicted the re-alignment that we saw in this month’s election result back in 2014.

Goodwin is another of these bridge voices I mentioned above who understand that most Britons lean a little bit left on economics and a little bit right on issues of culture. His a voice that those on the liberal left ignore at their peril.

2. Confessions – Roger Scruton: Faith, Family and Finding Conservatism

Roger Scruton discusses his turn to conservatism after the riots in France in 1968, his views on family, Islam and faith. Ever found yourself asking, how the conservative impulse to…well, conserve, reconciles itself to capitalism, the greatest agent of change the modern world has seen? Thankfully Giles Fraser poses this question and the conversation that ensues is fascinating.

3. The Holy Political Pod- Jamie Smith’s lecture to Christians in Parliament

The Holy Political Pod posted infrequently in 2019, but their interviews were impactful and always peppered with good humour. I am cheating slightly here as this episode was actually from December 2018. But it was so good that I want to flag it up here.

In his lecture to CiP, James KA Smith provides his quintessentially compelling and realistic framework for the political life as Christians. Christians are called to avoid “living ahead of time”, steering clear of the utopias of the left and the right. He also speaks of the local church as the imagination station where we have our hearts shaped by the liturgical rhythms of the church calendar. Powerful stuff.

Smith has in many ways provided the underpinning for how I think about politics, as you’ll see from my introductory post here.

Incidentally, the Holy Political pod also featured insightful conversations with a panel of experts on religious persecution as well as a variety of interviews with public Christians in the UK. They appear to have taken a hiatus, but I hope they make a return in 2020.

4. The Sacred- Teresa Bejan

How can we improve the tone of our public conversations surrounding the controversial issues of our day? Listen to Elizabeth Oldfield’s The Sacred to find out.

In The Sacred, Elizabeth Oldfield models a way for us to improve the state of our public conversations through examining the sacred values that drive our lives.

As with the one above, this episode actually comes from 2018, though I have listened and re-listened to it in 2019. Moreover, because it so nicely overlaps with the aims of the Saeculum—where I seek to draw critically on the past as a rich resource for thinking through our common life in the present—I want to share it here.

In the episode, Teresa Bejan, historian at Oriel College, Oxford, provides us with a fascinating and extremely useful case-study (in the form of seventeenth century Puritan Roger Williams) for approaching contemporary debates around civility, religious freedom and dissent.

5. Triggernometry- Melissa Chen : US vs. China is the New Cold War

Melissa Chen explores the New Cold War that increasingly appears to be defining our age—the conflict between the Pax Americana and the Pax Sinaitica. Hong Kong and the NBA make an appearance in this enlightening interview. A clearer orientation to China and its relationship to the West you will struggle to find.

6. Onscript- John Behr on Origen and the Early Church (Part 1 and Part 2)

“My wife used to ask me, where would I put the different church fathers on a football team? Irenaeus would be in defence, Dionysius out on left field somewhere. But Origen was the schoolboy who picked up the ball and ran with it. He invented the game of rugby. He got kicked off the team but everybody played rugby thereafter”. Join John Behr on a journey to third century Alexandria where Origen re-defined the way we think about the Christian scriptures.

7. Undeceptions- Teresa Morgan: Moral Classics

How did Christian ethics compare with the ethics of Roman-era Greeks and Romans? Teresa Morgan, one of the world’s leading classicists, leads you on a fascinating tour of moral literature and charts Christianity’s place in the ethical universe of the ancient world. In doing so, we come to see Christianity’s contribution to the world as we now know it.

8. Uncommon Knowledge- Jimmy Lai and the Fight for Freedom in Hong Kong.

Jimmy Lai’s impassioned 3 minute speech at the beginning of his conversation with Peter Robinson is a bombshell (honestly, if you don’t listen to the rest of it, just listen to this, or read it here). China isn’t apologising off for asserting its values, Lai rightly contends. Nor should the West. This is a speech I’ll be pondering for a while yet.

9. GodpodEpisode 135

One of the podcasts I hope to listen to more of in 2020 is the GodPod. Cohosts Jane Williams, Graham Tomlin and Michael Lloyd entertain you with profound and frequently humorous discussions concerning the big topics facing the church and society. This episode provided me with some of the vocabulary I had been looking for to describe the problematic attitudes I had come across towards theology in the charismatic traditions of the Church of England (traditions I have been a part of and of which I am fond). The aim of their critique is not to accuse but to inform and equip.

10. Big Boy TV- Big Boy’s interview with Kanye West

I also want to mention, in closing, the Kanye West phenomenon which took off in 2019 (Katherine Ajibade’s take helps to orient us in our thinking about religion and pop culture). West launched Sunday Services and then released his new album, Jesus is King. In his interview with Big Boy, Kanye was in turns inspiring, frustrating and bizarre. The conversation covered his new album, in which he is as demonstrative has he has ever been about his Christian faith, as well as his relationship to African-American culture, wealth and Donald Trump.

West’s interview with Big Boy had me both nodding in agreement and not infrequently raising an eyebrow in bemusement.

For my money, the best discussion of Kanye’s new album still remains Nathan Mladin’s which is honest in its bewilderment whilst still remaining hopeful about the good that already has and might still yet come about through Kanye’s story.

Reading List—December 2019

Here’s a select sample of books I’m reading at the moment.

  1. James KA Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Brazos, 2019)
  2. Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019)
  3. Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (Bloomsbury, 2019)
  4. Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing the Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019)
  5. Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet (Atlantic, 2012)
  6. Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Introduction to the Great Tradition (All Points, 2018)

No. 6 (Scruton’s Conservatism) appears because Conservatism is the first Western political philosophy I will be reviewing in my Western Political Philosophy 101 series.

On that note, I’m currently looking for recommendations for the other political philosophies I will be reviewing (Socialism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Post-Liberalism). If you have any recommendations, please leave them below in a comment. Thank you.

Welcome to the Saeculum

Welcome to the Saeculum, a new blog that offers a refreshingly realistic take on Christianity and politics. I intend this post as a kind of orientation to the blog and an explanation of why I have decided to start it.

What is this blog about?

In very broad terms, I write about Christianity and politics. I look at how the Christian faith interacts with our common life in the twenty-first century (and more particularly, twenty-first Britain, where I live). I use the term common life since that is what politics (πολιτικά) at its root means—the affairs of a particular place (the πολις or city). I hope to show you that the Christian tradition, when engaged with critically, offers a rich resource for thinking through some of the knotty problems of our day. I also strive to probe the complex relationship between Christian identity and political commitments.

Why another blog about Christianity and politics?

Time is a valuable, finite resource! So why should you spend it reading my thoughts, especially when there are a number of other resources out there on the topic (more on these another time)?

There are four reasons why you should read my blog. Now, on their own, these four reasons might not amount to much. However, when taken cumulatively, I think they amount to a convincing case. So, without further ado, here are four reasons why you should read my blog:

  1. You’ll get an historical perspective on Christianity and politics. My aim is to engage critically with the history of Christian thought and action. Why does this matter? For starters, perspectives from the past (whether from the first century or the last) can break through the argumentative deadlocks we get ourselves into. These deadlocks often result from our preoccupation with the present. An historical perspective can realise that we do not hold all the answers. That the past can offer some way forward. We also find ourselves at an impasse because of the nature of our conversations, frequently held online and on social media. These discussions can often feel like the battle of assertions or preferences (“I believe this…” “well, I believe the opposite”). The undergirding assumptions for those preferences often receive little, if any, discussion. An historical perspective can expose us to some of the different ways that people have approached issues. As a result, we can firm up our own way of thinking about a particular matter without recourse to mere preference.
  2. You’ll get an informed perspective. I completed a doctorate in the history of early Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. I have worked as a researcher in politics and Christianity, both in higher education and at Theos, a Christian think tank. So I hope to let that use that training and thinking in the blog posts I produce. In addition to this background, I am naturally inquisitive. When I don’t know the answer to something, I’ll do my research to arrive at conclusions.
  3. You’ll get an honest perspective. I am not funded by anyone and so have editorial independence both in terms of the questions I ask and the conclusions I reach.
  4. You’ll get an engaged perspective. I will engage with your comments and thoughts with the goal of stirring up debate and mutual learning.

What do you mean by a “refreshingly realistic” take on Christianity and politics?

Thanks for reading the tagline! Let me explain. In this blog, I will try (and the emphasis is on the word try) to look at our political life realistically. When I use the term “realistic”, I mean looking at our common life with appropriate perspective.

Because, you see, we easily lose perspective. And we do so in one of two ways. First, we ride the wave of overweening and utopian optimism, investing all our hopes and expectations in a political leader, placing all our eggs in the basket of a particular manifesto. Til’, that is, the wave crashes down around us as the leader we followed with great expectation fails to bring about the revolution we had hoped for and the manifesto we poured our lives into fails to make the impact it had promised to.

Alternatively, we might look askance at our political world with a mixture of wry cynicism and hopeless despair. On this view, the world is heading to hell in a hand basket. What’s the use in getting involved?

Pessimism and optimism look, at face value, like stark opposites. In fact, they’re a lot closer than they first appear. We all find it quite easy to flit between optimism and pessimism. Consider the familiar scenario. A certain figure comes along. All appears lost. If only the leader of our choice would ascend to power, all would be well. Said leader comes along, fails to make an impact and we’re back at Pessimism Central.

So…if we’ve lost perspective on our political life, how might we go about re-gaining it?

There are, of course, many ways of answering this question. The way I want to approach it, however, involves asking two more. In asking, and hopefully answering these questions, we can begin to chart a yet more excellent way between the extremes of political pessimism and optimism.

These two questions are:

  1. Who are we?
  2. What time is it?

When I say “appropriate perspective”, I am referring to our perspective on these two questions—first, who are we as humans (the anthropological question)? And second, what time is it (the eschatological question)? I think the Christian tradition holds out rich and compelling answers to both of these questions which can offer absolutely vital anchoring points as we approach political life. A bold claim I realise, but hear me out! For more, check out John Dickson’s wonderful explanation of the Creed (between 17:53-25:13 in the link attached).

Who are we?

I am convinced that a robust answer to that first question (who are we?), must include awareness of (1) our createdness by God and (2) our brokenness as human beings.

Createdness. Central to the Christian story is the creation of the universe by a good God. Creation is the great gift of a good Father to his children. In Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures inherited by Christians, the writers observe that God creates the human person “in his image”. The implications of this statement are massive and too immense for exploration here. But to be created in the image of God means to be endowed with dignity. Each person is of equally immeasurable value because they reflect To be created in the image of God also means that women and men are ambassadors of God in the world, bearing some of the creative power of the Creator. It also means that we are free to offend that Creator…

Brokenness. As the Genesis story continues, we come to the heart wrenching moment where human beings continue to enjoy the gifts of the Creator, while turning away from the giver of those gifts. In the Christian tradition, the word for this brokenness is “sin”. I realise that’s not a terribly fashionable word nowadays. But what the root of this word in the Greek (ἁμαρτία; hamartia) should conjure up in our imaginations is the vivid image of the archer missing the intended mark ahead of him. That there is a mark or target reminds us that we have a purpose as human beings—to be God’s image bearers. What this look at the etymology of the word sin also says is that sin isn’t just the sense that we have committed infractions…although it does include that, of course. More fundamentally, it gets at the uncomfortable fact that the moral arc of our lives is bent out of shape. Or, as the Prayer Book puts it, “there is no health in us”.

So what?

Lest you think I am being a misery guts, let me explain why this is important. A robust understanding of the createdness of each individual entails that we treat others with the dignity and respect God has endowed them with…particularly those we disagree with. A robust understanding of our fallenness entails an appropriate humility towards our own political action and thought.

What time is it?

The Christian tradition also has something to say to the question, What moment are we living in? The Christian story that is enacted throughout the Sundays of the year and told through the Scriptures reminds us that we live between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and his second coming (I write this, appropriately, during the Season of Advent, when Christians recall the first coming of Christ and await his second coming as ruler of the cosmos). The Kingdom of God has emerged in the ministry of Jesus, but it has not reached its fulfilment; it has been inaugurated but not fully consummated. We are, in short, living in an in-between period. What kind of posture should this instil in us as we think and act politically?

So what?

The Canadian philosopher James KA Smith puts this beautifully in his lecture to Christians in Parliament, when he claims that Christian hope, rightly conceived, means “not living ahead of time”. Not living ahead of time. To refuse to live ahead of time means to reject all forms of utopianism and dystopianism. To not live ahead of time is to reject the despair that we can do nothing and the overweening optimism that our efforts will save the world. This doesn’t mean that we fritter away our time in passive quietism. And neither does it mean that we launch ourselves into a frenzy of activity that assumes we are moving towards an ever brighter horizon. Rather, realism—or more accurately, Christian realism—as Smith describes it, is “bold but circumspect, tempered but hopeful”.

So, in sum, to be realistic about what we can achieve in our common life is to be aware of who we are (fallen image-bearers) and what time we are living in (the in-between period).

Why the Saeculum?

This brings us to the title of this blog. The Saeculum. Another word for this “in-between period” which we have just been talking about is…you guessed it, the saeculum. The saeculum is the time we are living in right now. The great Christian theologian St Augustine (354-430 AD/CE) used the term saeculum to refer to the period between the fall and the Second Coming.

In reflecting on Augustine’s notion of the saeculum, the great scholar of Augustine Robert A. Markus puts it this way:

The saeculum for Augustine was the sphere of temporal realities in which the two ‘cities’ share an interest. In Augustine’s language, the saeculum is the whole stretch of time in which the two cities are ‘inextricably intertwined’; it is the sphere of human living, history, society and its institutions…

A quick word on the two cities here. In his magisterial work The City of God, explains that there are two cities—the city of God and the city of Man. The difference between the two isn’t merely drawn along the lines of a spiritual-material division with the city of man referring to an earthly and the city of God to a heavenly plane. Rather, the two cities denote two loves, two libidos: the city of man is driven by the love of self, of power and domination (Libido Dominandi), the city of God, by love for God and love of neighbour (City of God 14.28)

Augustine talks about the saeculum being the temporal reality in which these two cities share an interest. What does he mean? To tease out the implications, here is Markus again:

The citizen of the heavenly city was no more a stranger to the saeculum than was the citizen of the earthly city, for here and now the two cities between them are, quite simply, what the saeculum is. It is neither a third thing somewhere between, nor is it, except eschatologically, resolvable into its two constituents. For the citizen of the heavenly city, concern for the saeculum is the temporal dimension of his concern for the eternal city.

In other words, we all inhabit this time, this age, this saeculum. The saeculum is no “third thing”, separate from the City of God or the City of Man. In the saeculum, we all rub shoulders with one another

The saeculum is also the word from which we get the term “secular”. To be secular in the contemporary Western world is to have no connection to religion or spirituality. But in an interesting twist on things, Markus goes on to argue that Augustine is responsible for secularising the church. By this, Markus emphatically does not mean that Augustine made the church more atheistic. Rather, Augustine “secularises” the church by seeking to engage those aspects of creation that fall appropriately within the remit of both the Heavenly and Earthly cities. Augustine has in mind a church that refuses to retreat into an ecclesial enclave while at the same always remembering its ultimate allegiance to God.

On this reading, Augustine’s concept of the saeculum offers a realistic model for thinking about Christianity and politics.

I’m interested. Can you tell me more?

Sure. You can read more about the purpose of the blog, and more about me, here.

What can I expect?

I hope to publish postings roughly once a week.

Here’s a very brief sneak preview of what’s around the corner:

  1. A World of Nation States or A World of Empires? In this series of blogs, I will explore the return of the nation state in recent political philosophy and pose some questions about the role of empires in contemporary British and international politics. I even hope to sneak in a bit of reflection on the political context of Jesus and the first century church!
  2. Western Political Philosophy 101: Under the book reviews tab, I will review the great Western political philosophies (conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism, socialism, post-liberalism) with my own take on each. This is a longer term project which I am excited about developing. I’d like through time to move this series from the written to the spoken word. My hope here is to host at some point a series of conversations with Christians who subscribe to each of these schools of thought. I would love to drill down into why Christians adhere to certain political positions and how they relate this to their Christian faith.
  3. Oikaphilia and Exile (Exploring Identity on Earth and Citizenship in Heaven): I have some ideas brewing on the themes of local identity. In this post, I will investigate the theme of rootedness and love of a particular place and how these relate to (1) a global church and globalised world and (2) the Christian notion of citizenship in heaven.

These are just three ideas in the pipeline, to let you know what’s coming up. No doubt other unplanned reflections will appear.

So, thank you for reading.

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