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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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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Remembrance Sunday: Nigel Biggar on Just War

With Remembrance Sunday just around the corner, I’ve been revisiting some of Nigel Biggar’s work on war and peace. The purpose of this short piece is to highlight some of Biggar’s chief insights, or at least those insights that most strike me as worth highlighting in the contemporary climate. I have derived these points from my reading of In Defence of War, as well as listening to Biggar’s talks on the justifiability of WWI, on just war in debate with Michael Ruse and on the role of religion in war and peace.

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Nigel Biggar (Politics at the Cross+Roads, Episode 3)

In the third episode of Politics at Cross+Roads, I had the pleasure of speaking with Christian ethicist, Nigel Biggar. Nigel is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christchurch College, University of Oxford. Before that, he taught theology and ethics Leeds and Trinity College, Dublin. Nigel has written on pretty much all the big topics in ethics and public life—war and peace, medical ethics and euthanasia, the nation, empire and much more. He also has a new book out on rights with Oxford University Press.

In the course of the episode, we discussed rights and duties in the context of the pandemic, thinking Christianly about the nation and the importance of realism. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did. 

You can listen to the shorter podcast episode here on iTunes.

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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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.

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