Your prophet is problematic: is Ezekiel a misogynist?

Fig. 13: Hodegetria icon from Kaftun (11th201313th c.).
Hodegetria icon from Kaftun (11th-13thC) (src)

In many ways I love the Book of Ezekiel: the astonishing vision with which it opens; the promises of restoration for God’s battered and exiled people, and so on. Reading it recently, though, I’ve struggled with some aspects of it (to which I’ve presumably become more sensitised since I last read it): namely, Ezekiel’s use of language and imagery that can only really strike the modern reader as violently misogynistic in nature.

Chapters 16 (“Therefore, O whore, hear the word of the Lord”and 23 (“When she carried on her whorings so openly and flaunted her nakedness, I turned in disgust from her”) are the most glaring examples. But even a glorious passage like chapter 36:16-end (with its promise that “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you”) starts with this:

their conduct in my sight was like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual period.

And yes, I know this is referring to OT laws on ceremonial cleanness, and forms part of wider prohibitions on blood in ceremonial contexts. But it is still language that looks shocking to modern eyes, and which (as has been pointed out to me on Twitter, leading me to edit this paragraph) can cause real distress today.

Having issued something of a cri de coeur about this on Twitter, yesterday afternoon I found myself drawn to restart reading Rowan Williams’ book Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin, which I’d first started a few years ago but somehow got distracted from finishing.

The book is based on icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in the opening chapter Dr Williams discusses the Hodegetria, “she who points the way.” He highlights how, in most depictions of this icon, the Mother of God is pointing to her Son, thus providing an example of how we are to point people to Jesus rather to ourselves. But we should also note how, in many versions of the icon (such as that shown above), Jesus gazes back at his mother, demonstrating God’s love for us, his people.

As Williams writes:

God is not content for me to say only, ‘Forget me, I don’t matter’, because God’s attentive love looks to me, assuring me that he is, to adapt the scriptural phrase, ‘not ashamed to be called my God’, not ashamed to be who he is and to be identified as who he is in relation to me, even though I am a mess.

The allusion is to Hebrews 11:16, “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God” (see also Hebrews 2:11, “For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters”). In Hebrews 11, the writer is referring to the Old Testament people of Israel, the “crowd of witnesses” who lived “by faith”. It is these of whom God is “not ashamed”:

Throughout the biblical story, God accepts identification in terms of those he works with — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Lord God of Israel, the one whose ‘body’ is the community of Christian believers. There is no safe and pure self-identification for God except the mysterious affirmation of the divine freedom to be identified as the God who chooses a recalcitrant and mutinous people (‘I will be what I will be’, as Exodus 3:13 is best translated).

The lesson I draw from that is this: just as (astonishingly) God is “not ashamed to be called my God,” so he is not ashamed to be called Ezekiel’s God. Yes, Ezekiel lived in a patriarchal and misogynistic society, and his writing reflects this. But we neither need to whitewash what he says — as if misogynistic language ceases to be misogynistic when it becomes “sacred Scripture” — nor to cast him aside as the “problematic” relic of a bygone age.

Just as God is not ashamed to be called Ezekiel’s God — just as Jesus is not ashamed to call Ezekiel (and me) his brothers, and hence Ezekiel and me brothers of one another — so we should not be ashamed either of how, and through whom, God has chosen to work and to speak.

The wandering of peoples

Map from Europe: A History, p.216.
Map of first millennium migrations into Europe. From Europe: A History, p.216.

Norman Davies, in his book Europe: A History (see previous post), describes the waves of migration that transformed Europe during the first millennium AD.

One of Davies’ chief aims throughout his history of Europe is to correct the tendency to view history, especially European history, from an exclusively western European perspective. As he observes, this tendency has strongly influenced our view of “the Barbarian Invasions” during the twilight of the western Roman empire (or “the Roman empire”, as we’ve tended to call it in the west, ignoring the fact it continued for another millennium in the east).

In fact, the influx of Angles, Saxons, Franks, Jutes, Visigoths, Huns and the rest was:

[a] massive historical process which, from the standpoint of the Empire, has been called ‘the Barbarian Invasions’ and which, from the parochial standpoint of Western Europe, has often been reduced to ‘the Germanic Invasions’. To the Germans it is known as the Völkerwanderung, the ‘Wandering of Peoples’—an apt term which could well be applied to its Germanic and non-Germanic participants alike. In reality, it engulfed the greater part of the European Peninsula, East and West, and continued throughout the first millennium AD and beyond, until all the wanderers had found a permanent abode. (pp.217f.)

The waves of migration proceeded in a ripple effect, with the ultimate impetus for a westward movement often lying far away to the east:

The critical cause of any displacement might lie far away on the steppes of central Asia; and a ‘shunting effect’ is clearly observable. Changes at one end of the chain of peoples could set off ripples along all the links of the chain. Like the last wagon of a train in the shunting yards, the last tribe on the western end of the chain could be propelled from its resting-place with great force. (p.215)

Hence “the Huns caused ripples in the West long before they themselves appeared.” The Huns had been based in modern Turkestan, east of the Caspian Sea, but gradually shifted west. In turn they pushed the Ostrogoths and Visigoths into the Roman empire.

The causes of individual bursts of migration sound familiar to modern ears, as does the nervous reaction of “civilised” Europe:

The irregular rhythms of migration depended on a complex equation involving climatic changes, food supply, demographic growth, local rivalries, distant crises. For the Romans watching anxiously on the frontier, they were entirely unpredictable. (p.215)

Which brings us to today, and how to deal with what is variously referred to as a “migrant crisis” or a “refugee crisis” – mostly depending on how sympathetic the speaker is to the plight of those (literally) washing up on Europe’s beaches from the Middle East and north Africa.

Many will point out, quite correctly, that there is a difference between a “refugee” fleeing persecution, a “migrant” seeking better economic conditions, and an “immigrant” coming for a particular job or course of study. It is certainly possible to look at any individual, ask which of those categories they fall under, and have differing policies for each.

However, if we are (as seems likely) in a new era of “great migrations”, driven by many of the same factors as in the first millennium – climate change, demographics, war – then it can become absurd to make a Manichaean distinction between “good” refugees and “bad” migrants. If someone flees conflict and persecution in, say, Somalia, they are a “refugee”, and hence “good”; if they are born in a refugee camp just outside Somalia and, having endured abject poverty, flee in search of a better life, they are a “migrant”, and hence “bad”. A similar winnowing could have been attempted in the first millennium: are you fleeing the Huns who burned your village? Refugee. Climate change dried up your water supply? Migrant. It would have been as blunt an instrument then as it is now, and it wouldn’t have altered the overall process one iota.

The difference today is that we – the heirs, most of us, of those former waves of “refugees” and “migrants” into Europe, but often sharing the western-centric perspective of fifth century Romans – are not just fearfully standing on the imperial border waiting for the next ripple to arrive. We can see what’s happening far (and not so far) away. I don’t know what the answer is for how Europe should deal with this situation – but the UK approach of higher fences and each-country-for-itself is manifestly inadequate.

The dos and don’ts of spitting

No spittingJust to bring things back down to earth with a bump after the elegant, spare prose of St Augustine, here’s a post about spitting.

I’m currently working through Norman Davies’ magnum opus, Europe: A History. As well as the main narrative, stretching over 1,000 pages, Davies includes around 300 “mini-essays” on specific topics, which he calls “capsules”. One of these is on “Mores” (pp.346f.), and looks at how social etiquette has varied over the years.

Davies opens with the story of a Byzantine princess who arrived in Venice in the late 11th century to marry the Doge, and was reprimanded for her “anti-social” use of a fork to eat her food:

People in the medieval West took meat with their fingers from a common dish. The fork only came into general use during the Renaissance, and only for lifting morsels to one’s own plate. The table set of knife, fork, and spoon was an eighteenth-century innovation.

He goes on to describe the equally dramatic reversal that has occurred in the etiquette of spitting. Quoting the German writer Norbert Elias, he sets out injunctions on spitting from various etiquette guides over the centuries:

  • Do not spit over or on the table. (English, c.1463)
  • Do not spit across the table as hunters do. (German, 15th cent.)
  • Turn away when spitting, lest your saliva fall on someone. If anything purulent falls to the ground, it should be trodden upon. (Erasmus, 1530)
  • You should abstain from spitting at table, if possible. (Italian, 1558)
  • Formerly. it was permitted to spit on the ground before people of rank. … Today, that is an indecency. (French. 1572)
  • Frequent spitting is disagreeable. At important houses, one spits into one’s handkerchief … Do not spit so far that you have to look for the saliva to stamp on it. (Liege, 1714)
  • It is very ill-mannered to swallow what should be spat … After spitting into your handkerchief, you should fold it once, without looking at it, and put it in your pocket. (La Salle, 1729)
  • It is unpardonably gross for children to spit in the faces of their playmates. (La Salle, 1774)
  • Spitting is at all times a disgusting habit. Besides being coarse and atrocious, it is very bad for the health. (English, 1859)
  • Have you noticed that today we [hide] what our fathers did not hesitate to display openly? … The spittoon is a piece of furniture no longer found in modern households. (Cabanes, 1910)

As the quotations above suggest, spitting’s social acceptability declined rapidly in the nineteenth century, possibly due to fears about tuberculosis. However, as late as the 1960s, Davies recalls, London buses still considered it necessary to display signs saying “NO SPITTING”.

Just in case you find yourself transported back to medieval times and wish to avoid any social faux pas, here are some other examples which Davies quotes (again from Elias) of the etiquette of the time:

  • It is bad manners … to wear a helmet when serving ladies.
  • Don’t blow your nose with the fingers you hold the meat with.
  • If you have to scrape [the back of] your throat, do so politely with your coat.
  • Farts may be concealed by coughing.
  • Before you sit down, make sure that your seat has not been fouled.
  • It is impolite to greet someone who is urinating or defecating.

The last item on the list, though, is one that today’s wealthy guzzlers might also consider adopting:

  • When you eat, do not forget the poor. God will reward you.

Augustine for Latin lovers

St Augustine in his Study, by Sandro BotticelliThe feast of St Augustine of Hippo was a couple of days ago, which provides a slightly belated excuse to share some Augustine which I’ve been meaning to post for a while.

Eugene Rogers, in his book Sexuality and the Christian Body, quotes a couple of St Augustine’s best-known sayings, but then also gives the original Latin – which, as Rogers observes, “is worth savouring”, even for those of us who don’t understand Latin.

Both are from the Confessions. The first is this (from book 3, ch. 1, translation by Peter Brown):

I had not yet fallen in love, but I was in love with love … To love and to have my love returned was my heart’s desire.

Here’s the original. Worth reading in parallel with the translation, to appreciate Augustine’s elegance and economy:

Nondum amabam, et amare amabam … amare et amari dulce mihi erat.

Then there is this celebrated passage from book 10, ch. 27, here in the translation by the magnificently named R.S. Pine-Coffin:

I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new! I have learnt to love you late! … The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have had no being at all. You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odour. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace.

As Rogers observes, the original is again “sparer”:

Sero te amavi, pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova! sero te amavi! Et ecce intus eras et ego foris et ibi te quaerebam; et in ista formosa quae fecisti deformis irruebam. Mecum eras et tecum non eram. Ea me tenebant longe a te, quae si in te non essent, non essent. Vocasti et clamasti et rupisti surditatem meam. Coruscasti, splenduisti et fugasti caecitatem meam. Fragrasti et duxi spiritum et anhelo tibi. Gustavi et esurio et sitio. Tetigisti me et exami in pacem tuam.

Language to feast upon, even if you don’t understand a word of it…

The electing God: Barth and beyond

Karl Barth - the Answer is JesusEugene Rogers, in his book Sexuality and the Christian Body (which I’m currently reading), has an interesting discussion of Karl Barth’s doctrine of election. I don’t have any particular deep conclusions to draw from it: I just found it fascinating and stimulating, and wanted to share some of it in this post.

Rogers begins by describing the central place that this topic has in Barth’s theology:

Barth’s most famous and successful innovation in all the Church Dogmatics is his reformulation of the doctrine of election. Barth diagnoses traditional doctrines of election as suffering under a twofold abstraction: an unknown electing God, a Deus absconditus whose ways are past finding out, whose freedom abstracts from love, and whose character abstracts from the revelation in Jesus Christ; and an unknown elected human being, the object of God’s caprice and therefore at sea. (p.163)

He continues by quoting Barth himself:

In the doctrine of predestination we have to do with the understanding both of God and of the human being in particular: in the particular relationship in which God is the true God and the human being the true human being.

[The doctrine of election] must begin concretely with the acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as both the electing God and the elected human being. (Church Dogmatics II/2, 76; emphasis Rogers’) (p.164)

It is this profoundly christocentric approach to election that enables Barth to subvert the traditional Calvinist account of “reprobation”: the teaching, rejected by Lutherans (among others), that God eternally elects the unsaved to damnation.

Barth reformulates the doctrine of election by taking up all the traditional examples of individual elect and rejected human beings and even animals, setting them into pairs, and referring both, the elected and the rejected member, to Jesus Christ as their typological reference, since he is elect and the rejected human being in one, the rejected human being elected. It is a glorious change of subject from the usual elect-and-reprobate division, a brilliant unasking of the question. All the things the orthodox predestinarians said are true, even about reprobation – if only they all apply first and paradigmatically not to individual human beings, but to Jesus Christ, and to others only “in him.” (p.164)

I love that phrase, “a brilliant unasking of the question”. Rogers continues by describing Barth’s “litany” of such predestined pairs:

Barth finds pairs of elect and rejected everywhere in the Bible, all pointing to the rejected one elected, Jesus Christ. […] So we hear of the following pairs: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Rachel and Leah, Ephraim and Manasseh, Tamar and Judah, Perez and Serah, the offering goat and the scapegoat, the slain bird and the released bird, Saul and David, the man of God of Judah and the Prophet from Bethel, and finally Judas and Paul.

The strength of this approach is that it “gives one a taste for rich biblical exegesis, from Cain and Abel to Judas and Paul,” and encourages a “relentless christocentric focus.” However, it has its limitations:

It does better with character than with plot. It does better with dialectic than with complication. It does better with individuals or groups treated individualistically, than with individuals in community. Even as it evokes and incorporates biblical narratives as no theologian has done since Luther, it also suppresses and flattens parts of them. (p.165)

Specifically, Barth’s dialectical approach can fail to deal with the richness of the social context in which his pairs were situated:

It does not tell Christians how to talk about the means by which God works among others — third parties, circumstances, communities — to hold up the twinned pairs for display. Think of Rebecca tricking Isaac into blessing Jacob, Jonathan allying himself with David, the costuming of Tamar lying in wait for Judah, the dozens or thousands who surround and support the pairs. Barth can evoke these details — but he cannot exploit them. (p.165)

To account for these elements of the biblical narrative, Rogers argues, we need to to take greater account of the Holy Spirit, “that trinitarian person to whom Christians appropriate the movements of hearts, the providence of circumstances, and the gathering of communities, who blows where it wills, and thus resists reduction into twofold categories, however skillfully plied” (p.165).

What we want is not to reject Barth’s christocentric pair-forming, but to supplement that with:

…the overplus that the Spirit supplies, never apart from the Father and the Son, but enriching and celebrating them. It is the Spirit to whom Christians appropriate the plots and turns of biblical narrative, the circumstances and communities of biblical characters, the secondary causes that move their hearts in this world. Barth is richly open for this sort of elaboration, though he does not pursue it. (pp.165f.)

Rogers quotes with approval Robert Jenson’s proposal that Barth’s great insight that “Jesus is the electing God” needs to be supplemented by another: “the Holy Spirit is the electing God.” 

This would reduce the tendency to force complex biblical narratives (with their “lots of detail and lots of characters and lots of complication”) into a formulaic structure:

It would mean a greater openness to the complications and details of the stories, the ways in which the Spirit moves not just pairs of people, but the communities and environments around them, to construct typological relationships, so that supporting actors and circumstances and growth and reversal and plot come into play — or, to put it into more theological language, so that one attends more to community or Church and providence and sanctification and resurrection, not just “the rejected” and “the elect.” (p.168)

That’s not, Rogers emphasises once again, to reject what Barth has done in his own work, but to develop it further:

I am not proposing to give up the typological majesty of Cain and Abel, sacrifice and scapegoat, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, David and Saul, Judas and Paul. But I am proposing that a reference to the Spirit helps Christian theologians to complicate the typology in a way at once more biblical, more communitarian or ecclesial, and more trinitarian in execution as well as in program.

But when we read about Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, David and Saul, we also need to be taking into account “Rebecca and Laban and Jonathan”. To fail to do so “sheers the biblical stories of half their characters and most of their circumstances, the Spirit’s painful, complex work.”

As I said at the start of this post, I don’t have anything particularly to add to what Rogers is saying here (and nor am I going into a discussion of the wider thesis of his book at this stage). I found his account of Barth’s theology of election, particularly Barth’s reading of all those biblical “pairs” as types for the rejected-and-elected Christ, exciting and stimulating, but I was also grateful for Rogers’ further development into appreciating the rich complexity of the Holy Spirit’s work among the “supporting cast” – a.k.a. the People of God. Both these are things which will enrich my own reading of the Bible.

Richard Beck on hope for “Winter Christians”

Richard BeckLast night I had the pleasure of hearing Richard Beck speak at The Borough Common in London, as part of his UK speaking tour. Richard’s wife, Jana, also contributed actively to the discussion.

Richard began by describing how it became apparent early in his marriage that he questioned his faith far more than Jana did hers. One thing that helped them both work through this was being introduced to the terminology “Summer Christians” and “Winter Christians”: Richard being in the “Winter” camp, Jana in the “Summer” – though they agreed that 24 years of marriage has moved them closer together, with Richard being more “autumnal” and Jana describing herself as “early spring”.

The focus of Richard’s talk was therefore on what it means to be a “Winter Christian”, and above all how a Winter Christian can learn to have hope as well as questions. He described how Job 13:15 has been a key text: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

This post sets out an expanded version of notes I made after the talk, with my own thoughts in response. I’ve formatted the notes as quotations (and references to “I” are to Richard), but they are notes made from memory after the event and not verbatim quotations. Apologies to Richard in advance for any misquotations or misrepresentations of what he said.

Psalms, prophecy, poetry 

Walter Brueggemann distinguishes between psalms of orientation and psalms of disorientation. An example of a psalm of orientation of Psalm 1: the righteous get their reward, the unrighteous get their comeuppance; it’s a “Hollywood ending”.

An example of a psalm of disorientation is Psalm 13: one of many psalms that say to God, in essence, “why aren’t things working out like Psalm 1 said they would?” One of the things that gives me faith in the Bible is this way in which it contradicts itself; it squabbles with itself.

But most psalms of lament end with doxology: why? Again, Brueggemann provides a framework for this, when he observes the different kinds of “poetry” that are to be found in the prophets.

First, there is the poetry of indictment. Amos is a good example of this: the prophet confronts Israel with its failure to live up to the terms of God’s covenant, and warns of disaster to come if it doesn’t change its ways, particularly in its treatment of widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor. A lot of Christians (particularly those who would identify as “progressive” or “liberal”) find that this type of prophetic “poetry” resonates with them strongly.

Second, there is the poetry of lament, classically to be found in the book of Lamentations. This is where the disaster warned of by earlier prophets has come to pass: Jerusalem is destroyed, the people are exiled. Now the prophet sets aside the poetry of indictment, and sits beside the people to weep with them. Again, this is a poetry with which I can identify.

But then there is the poetry of hope. After all the unheeded warnings, after the disasters and lamentation, we come to Isaiah 40, “the first chapter of the New Testament”, where God tells the prophet to “comfort, comfort my people.” This poetry of hope is often the hardest for “Winter Christians” to express for themselves.

What Winter Christians need is a balanced diet of indictment, lament and hope.

Some thoughts on this: first, I don’t think I’d go so far as to describe myself as a “Winter Christian”, though I’m closer to that than to “Summer” (talking to Richard afterwards, I said that my two favourite times of the church year are Advent and Maundy Thursday). I’m certainly a “person of two questions” (see below).

One of the main benefits of praying the Daily Office is that, by praying all the psalms on a regular basis, we get that balanced diet of indictment, lament, hope; orientation and disorientation.

One thing that struck me thinking about Richard’s talk afterwards is the importance of realising that the psalms of orientation are as much the Word of God to us as the psalms of disorientation. It’s easy to slip into thinking that the latter are the real psalms, the crunchy psalms, unlike those pollyanna-ish efforts like Psalm 1. But we need to pray the psalms of orientation also (such as Psalm 107 this morning), as an expression of our hope that, ultimately, all wrongs will be righted by God’s justice and love.

How many questions? 

I mentioned above Richard’s distinction between “people of one question” and “people of two questions”. Here’s how he described it earlier in his talk (again, heavily paraphrased from memory):

One difference between Summer Christians and Winter Christians is the difference between being a person of “one question” and a person of “two questions”. Someone may ask, “Why does God allow suffering?” and be given an answer such as: “Because of free will.”

A person of “one question” will accept that answer and move on. However, a person of “two questions” is likely to follow up with: “Well, why did God create us with free will if he knew what the result would be?”, and so on. The moment you ask that second question, your path is determined: there will be a third question, and a fourth question, and your faith walk is always going to be one of questioning.

We shouldn’t fetishise being “questioning” people, though. That can easily degenerate into cynicism. One highly concrete way in which Richard has learned hope (and Jana confirmed these are experiences that have brought the two of them closer together, spiritually) is by spending time with marginalised people: through their work with homeless and poor people, and Richard’s ministry in leading Bible studies in a maximum security prison in Texas.

Lamentation and privilege

Richard described how he had led a very well-received Bible study for a group of university professors on the psalms of lament. This privileged audience readily agreed that the church needed to allow more space for lamentation.

When I was preparing for my first prison Bible study, I reached for this as it had been the most successful study I’d led, and surely prisoners (many of whom had been in prison for decades, and were destined to die there) would understand better than most the gritty reality of life and the need to acknowledge this in our faith.

However, as I started to talk about the psalms of lament, the prisoners cut me off. For them, their faith was the one thing that gave hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. To start deconstructing that was to strike at the root of their very being.

This made me realise the privilege I have. For me, faith is optional. If I stopped believing today, it wouldn’t make much difference to my life tomorrow. But for many marginalised people, faith isn’t optional: it’s the only thing they have that makes sense in their lives. As a result, they are people of hope, not cynical questioners; and I’ve changed, become more hopeful, as a result of this.

That point about how, for those of us with privileged and affluent lifestyles, “faith is optional”, really hit home for me.

Making God’s love credible 

Richard went on to describe how his work with prisoners has also given him a greater awareness of how important the link is between the love we show one another and our ability to experience God’s love:

One prisoner, Steve, asked how the words “God loves you” could have meaning for him when no one had ever said the words “I love you” to him – not his mother, nor his father, nor any family or friends. He had never heard those words spoken to him. So every week now I stand before him and tell him: “Steve, I love you.” My saying “I love you” makes the love of God credible to Steve.

This then has a parallel in our weekly life as a church:

In the same way, when we gather as Christians and share the bread and wine with one another, saying “here is the body of Christ broken for you,” “here is the blood of Christ shed for you,” that has greater credibility because I know that last week, you were showing that sort of love for me; you were being broken for me. That helps me understand what it means for Christ’s body to be broken for me.

The danger of labels

Terminology such as “Winter Christian” does carry dangers, though, as Richard observed during the Q&A following his talk:

We have to be careful we don’t start to apply labels in a way that says, “I’m the best type of Christian.” We often build up our self-esteem in violent ways – psychically violent, that is. We mark the other person down, and mark ourselves up. One of the things that makes Jesus so attractive is his complete refusal to do that.

The biggest problem in the Corinthian church wasn’t diversity or division, but shame. We can see this from 1 Corinthians 12:

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” – this is the language of shaming, of looking down on others as inferior. But God inverts our worldly hierarchies: “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable […] God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member…”

Re-ordering our affections 

Richard concluded his talk by quoting Wendell Berry’s poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, particularly its concluding lines:

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Indictment and lamentation and questioning on their own can lead to cynicism. “Winter Christians” also need to learn to “practise resurrection”, to speak words of hope to others (which can increase both their and your hopefulness). This is partly a matter of reordering our affections:

In capitalist society, we are bombarded with advertising messages designed to secure our affections, to pull them away from the things of God. Right now, someone is being paid to make me want what they’re selling, to make me click on that button. So I do various things to keep my affections centred on God: I pray the hours; I wear a prayer rope on my right arm; I have a tattoo on my left arm; I have a St Francis medallion. My office is nicknamed “the chapel”.

Martin Thornton described the basic spiritual “Rule” of Christianity as consisting of “Mass – Office – personal devotion”, with the most important element of “personal devotion” being what Thornton calls “habitual recollection” rather than formal spiritual exercises. That type of recollective, habitual self-reminding of God’s love and hope is one way to “practise resurrection” in our daily lives.


What did I take away from this? Even though I wouldn’t (quite) describe myself as a “Winter Christian”, a lot of what Richard said resonated with me. To put it into the “Mass – Office – devotion” framework I mentioned in the previous paragraph:

  • Office: praying the Daily Office helps to maintain that balanced diet of orientation and disorientation, of indictment, lament and hope. It can also play a powerful role in keeping our affections centred on God.
  • Mass: we need to see the connection between the Eucharist and the concrete reality of our life together as a church: showing love for one another, refusing to bring into the church the world’s categories of who is “superior” and who is “inferior”.
  • Devotion: at its heart, this is about reordering our affections – particularly in the direction of hope and resurrection – through the habitual recollection of God in our daily lives.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and “religionless Christianity”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Religionless Christianity” is one of the resonant phrases (along with “the church for others” and “the world come of age”) which emerged from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “prison theology”, and which have intrigued many Christians ever since.

Bonhoeffer’s death prevented him from developing these ideas further or making it clearer what “religionless Christianity” means or looks like in practice. In many ways, the phrase has become a blank screen onto which Christians have projected their own ideas about what the church should look like.

Sabine Dramm’s book Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction to his Thought provides a helpful, brief exposition of Bonhoeffer’s prison theology. As I’ve described here, Dramm is particularly good at showing how the prison theology stands in continuity with what Bonhoeffer had been saying before his arrest – including in his unfinished Ethics, but also in books such as Discipleship – rather than being a sharp departure from his earlier theology.

Dramm demonstrates that Bonhoeffer’s “non-religious interpretation of Christianity” does not imply “a renunciation of every type of cult” (i.e. of corporate worship or personal devotion), but is about “Christian life in a non-religious world”; a world in which it is no longer self-evident that people have “a sort of religious antenna” (pp.199f.) However, it is still left unclear as to what “religionless Christianity” actually looks like.

This essay by Will Abbott describes some of the attempts that have been made to unpack Bonhoeffer’s phrase, by scholars including Bonhoeffer’s friend Eberhard Bethge, Clifford Green, Larry Rasmussen and Paul Ricoeur. One recurring theme is the rejection of the “God of the gaps” concept, including the final “gaps” of metaphysics and personal interiority. Others include “the centrality of christology” and (picking up on another of Bonhoeffer’s phrases) “the idea that Christianity is directed towards others in the world.” Bethge, in particular, links it to Luther’s distinction between religion as a human work and faith as the work of God. 

For me, the most useful part of Abbott’s essay is the “checklist” he provides for assessing which elements of Christianity are “religious” or “religionless” in the sense intended by Bonhoeffer:

  • Is it episodic? Does it focus on crises in people’s lives, and ignore their ordinary existence?
  • Is it parochial? Does it relate only marginally to people’s lives?
  • Is it subjective? Does it focus on private issues?
  • Is it individualistic? Does it ignore the bonds of community and focus on a person’s relationship to God to the exclusion of that person’s relationships with other people?
  • Is it otherworldly? Does it ignore life here and now to focus on a paradise to come?
  • Is it intellectually dishonest? Does it attribute to God what can be explained otherwise?
  • Is it humiliating? Does it demean the value of a human being?
  • Is it self-centred? Does it focus a person’s attention in him- or herself, to the exclusion of others?
  • Is it gap-filling? Does it use God solely to explain something we can’t currently explain otherwise?
  • Is is interior? Does it focus exclusively on a person’s internal, affective state?

This list isn’t intended to be applied rigidly – “it is quite unlikely that something will be rejected for meeting only one of them” – but provides a basis for thinking critically about our life as a church. To take one example: for Bonhoeffer, an example of “religion” was the tendency to turn to God only in times of trial or distress (a tendency that, in the terms used above, may be “episodic”, “individualistic”, “self-centred” or “parochial”); the absence of this tendency among his fellow prisoners, even during “the nightly torment of air raids,” was one of the observations that led Bonhoeffer to his belief in a “post-religious” humanity. “There are no atheists in foxholes” is thus a religious statement in this sense.

Another example (this time of the “intellectually dishonest” or “gap-filling” aspects of religion) might be the tendency described by Bonhoeffer, when he asks rhetorically whether the church’s remaining target market amounts to:

a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as “religious”. Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervour, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? (Letters and Papers from Prison, p.280).

This is brutal stuff, but are we quite sure that our churches’ “evangelistic” strategies are entirely free of such thoughts?

Where all this leaves us isn’t clear, and perhaps never may be. But Bonhoeffer’s sketched-out thoughts on this subject can continue both to challenge and inspire us. To end on a more positive note, for Eberhard Bethge (as summarised by Abbott) “religionless Christianity” amounts to “living for one’s contemporaries”; resolving “to stay in contact with the world around [us], rather than flee to some otherworldly realm.” In short, it is:

the commitment to live in the world and for the world, listening to the world’s needs, and responding to the world in the world’s own language.