Book review: A More Radical Gospel, by Gerhard O. Forde

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I’ve just finished reading A More Radical Gospel, a collection of essays and lectures by Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde (1927–2005).

The essays set out elements of Forde’s vision of “radical Lutheranism”: that is, a Lutheranism that centres its ministry and identity on the proclamation of the gospel as unconditional promise, while sitting relatively lightly to historic Lutheran doctrinal formulations such as the Formula of Concord. Appropriately, the book ends with a set of sermons, allowing Forde to conclude with the direct proclamation of the gospel that is such a critical concept in his theology.

Forde is a stimulating thinker and writer, and I found these essays thought-provoking, often exciting, and (mostly) spiritually energising. What I find most helpful in Forde: his emphasis on the gospel as a first-to-second-person proclamation (“I absolve you”, “I baptise you”); what Forde calls “primary discourse” (“speaking for God”), as contrasted with the “secondary discourse” (“speaking about God”) of systematic theology, exegesis, and so on. This comes through particularly strongly in his sections on eschatology, authority and ecumenism.

Criticisms? The biggest is that I really can’t get my head round his theology of the atonement. As I understand it, Forde argues that it’s not that Jesus died to satisfy God’s justice, demonstrate God’s love or win a victory over evil. Rather, God wanted to forgive humanity unconditionally, we didn’t want it, and so we killed Jesus to keep intact our conditional, law-based approach; only for God then to vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.

I like Forde’s emphasis on the “brute facts” of the crucifixion, of reaching an understanding of what the cross means “from below” before we go on to ask what it means “from above”. However, I don’t think he even does justice to the event considered “from below” – do the Gospels really present Jesus’ death simply as a refusal by his hearers to accept unconditional forgiveness? – which makes Forde’s argument about its meaning “from above” feel unconvincing. In the end, one is left wondering how necessary or central the cross is to the gospel, if understood in Forde’s terms. It also seems to leave a lot of biblical data unaccounted for.

To end on a more positive (though still controversial note), I liked Forde’s approach to ecumenism: above all his emphasis on the church’s identity (and hence its true, albeit hidden unity) being found in the activity of the proclamation of the gospel and administration of the sacraments as gospel; an activity which is not confined to any one denomination or tradition. This involves setting aside a confessional Lutheran insistence on full doctrinal agreement as a precondition for altar fellowship (which I know some reading this will disagree with strongly); but it also allows for a distinctly Lutheran approach to ecumenical dialogue, rather than seeking bland compromise formulas in which “every cat is grey”.

After the fold, I’ve posted the brief summary notes I wrote on each essay to aid my own recollection. They may not make much sense without the full text, but hopefully they will whet your appetite to check out more of what Forde is saying in these essays. You can also get a flavour from the quotations I’ve posted on my Tumblr.


Eschatology: The Last Word First 

  • Radical Lutheranism: Lutheranism should find its identity in the religious landscape by doubling down in proclaiming the gospel in all its radical unconditionality, a proclamation that takes seriously both justification by faith and the bondage of the will. Not that these will always be the content of our preaching, but that they inform and undergird the unconditional proclamation of forgiveness in Christ.
  • The Apocalyptic No and the Eschatological Yes: grace as an eschatological breaking-in of the new, not an ontological infusing of power into an old being.
  • Lex semper accusat? The Reformation perspective – that the law always accuses, and that the gospel is the end of the law – paradoxically frees us up to have a positive view of the law in the civil/political/ethical sphere, not as an end in itself, but as a tool to assist us in taking care of this world.

Legal and Evangelical Authority

  • Authority in the Church: The Lutheran Reformation: “The preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the highest exercise of authority in the church”; “scripture interprets itself” means that the Word acts upon us rather than sitting as a passive object of our subjective interpretation.
  • Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres: Reflections on the Question of Scripture and Tradition: Sola scriptura can only be understood properly in the light of the sui ipsius interpres, that the Word acts on the hearer rather than vice versa. Only this can resolve the dilemma between the supposed need for an infallible interpreter on the one hand, and individualistic subjectivism on the other.
  • The Irrelevance of the Modern World for Luther: Never mind what the modern world should make of Luther: what would Luther make of the modern world? He’d decry its lack of distinction between human judgment and divine judgment, reducing everything to the former and ignoring the latter; and its superficiality as regards sin, death and the devil.

Atonement and Justification: Christ Unbound

  • Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ: Why is the death of Jesus necessary? Understanding Jesus’ death “from below”: he was killed for proclaiming an unconditional forgiveness and mercy that we do not want (“…and you would not,” Matthew 23:37). Understanding it “from above”: God cannot have mercy on us “in the abstract”. Christ’s death satisfies God’s desire to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, because it creates believers, and thus “actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in the concrete.” [I found this Forde’s argument in this essay quite hard to follow, tbh]
  • Loser Takes All: The Victory of Christ: We want to turn the story of Jesus and his cross into the story of a “winner”; but the story of Jesus is the story of someone determining to follow the path of being a loser in a world of winners. The resurrection is not God snatching victory from defeat, but his vindication of Jesus’ following the loser’s path.
  • In Our Place: Forde engages with a feminist critique which accuses all theories of atonement as valorising suffering (“divine child abuse paraded as salvific”); he agrees with some aspects of the critique, but emphasises that any understanding of the cross in terms of its moral purpose is mistaken, and leads to an “us vs them” mentality (“had we been there, it would all have come out differently”). Rather, Christ’s death is a “happy exchange”: he takes our place and gives us his.
  • Forensic Justification and the Christian Life: Triumph or Tragedy?: We don’t progress morally in the Christian life, our lives approximating more and more closely to the righteousness imputed to us in Christ; rather, imputation is an eschatological breaking-in of the new world, and this attack on sin from without is then worked out more and more fully in our lives.
  • Luther’s “Ethics”: stop thinking ad modum Aristotelis (“in the manner of Aristotle,” in which the fundamental human story is one of ethical development aided by grace), start thinking ad modum scripturae (“in the manner of scripture,” in which grace alone determines our relationship with God): “good works do not make a good person, but a good person does good works.”

Unecclesiological Ecumenism 

  • The Meaning of Satis Est: Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession is not a “counsel of despair”, an attempt to patch together a minimal definition of unity in a splintering church. It’s a redefinition of the church in a manner consonant with justification by faith. Hence the church is defined by its activities of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, not by any human rites, ceremonies, institutions or offices; and hence its unity is an invisible object of faith, not a visible institutional or ceremonial unity.
  • Lutheran Ecumenism: With Whom and How Much? Ecumenism, for Lutherans, should not be a matter of “political correctness” or “ecclesial correctness”, but of confessional integrity: contributing our distinct understanding of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, rather than either working to concoct bland compromise statements in which “every cat is grey” and for the sake of which legitimate theological questions and concerns get steamrollered in the name of “repressive tolerance”. Let’s recognise one another as Christians and as churches on the basis of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, and then discuss our theological differences.
  • The Catholic Impasse: Reflections on Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue Today: Lutherans and Catholics need to stop papering over the cracks in ecumenical discussion and acknowledge that fundamental differences remain between them. Postliberal Lutheran theology rejects both ecclesiastical infallibilism and biblical infallibilism in place of the living, present-tense gospel declaration. This is what roots it in catholic tradition, since the paradigmatic expressions of that proclamation are the concrete, catholic practices of preaching, absolution and the sacraments; Lutherans are not (contrary to widespread Catholic belief) “subjectivists” preaching an unmediated gospel.
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2016 books round-up

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It’s January, so it’s time for my annual summary of the books I’ve read during the previous year (previous years: 2013 | 2014 | 2015). As usual, these are categorised as fiction, non-fiction (excluding theology), theology, and “other” (mostly graphic novels and comic books). Asterisks indicate books I’ve read before.

The overall picture can be seen from these charts. First, by category:

category

Second, by format/source (with “other” shown in pale blue):

format

In other words, while I was hitting the library pretty hard, it was mostly for reading comic books.

Fiction

This was another good year for reading fiction (after the shocker in 2014 when I read only ten novels). One intentional theme throughout the year was reading novels by women, including three major sequences: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. Of the three, my favourite was the Gilead trilogy, and of those I’ve singled out Lila as one of my two favourite novels of the year.

My other favourite for the year is Luther Blissett’s astonishing Reformation-era historical novel, Q. But pretty much all the listed books are worth reading. Other particular highlights include Ali Smith’s lovely, life-affirming novella Girl Meets Boy, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Paul Kingsnorth’s extraordinary novel the Norman Conquest, Wake, written in a form of cod Anglo-Saxon.

Non-fiction

The usual mishmash under this category. Edward Ross’s Filmish, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Kate Evans’ Red Rosa are all good enough to get listed here rather than under graphic novels. The Silk Roads is a fascinating (even if, towards the end, slightly over-cooked) presentation of a part of the world, and eras of history, that are too obscure for most of us. The implosion of the Labour party and the disaster of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader sent me scurrying back to Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?

Very hard to select two favourites from this, so in the interests of balance I’ve gone for two works of English history from sharply contrasting political viewpoints: Robert Tombs’ affably magisterial history of the English people, and Selina Todd’s account of the twentieth century working class, combining vivid eyewitness testimony with a sharp political analysis, held together by an effective use of the life of pools winner Viv “spend, spend, spend!” Nicholson as a framing device.

Theology

My main aim this year was to read more Lutheran theology. For the first half of the year, I made a reasonably good effort at this, with a particular focus on Luther’s theology of the “captive will” (see the books by Joshua Miller, Oswald Bayer and Gerhard Forde, as well as Luther’s own Bondage of the Will).

Around September, though, there was a change of direction, as I realised that, with only one or two exceptions, it had been years – well over a decade, in fact – since I’d read books that engage directly with the Bible, whether as introductions or commentaries. Originally I intended this to be my 2017 reading focus, but I soon realised I wanted to start right away. I also switched Bible reading plan to one that aims at reading the whole Bible systematically over the course of a year.

The nature of the project is summarised by the title of Marcus Borg’s flawed but stimulating book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: specifically, reading with an openness to mainstream scholarly understandings of the biblical books’ content, origins and authorship. Above all else, this was prompted by reading an essay by Peter Enns in which Enns describes a colleague who was shocked to discover how far scholarship was from what he’d been taught at his evangelical college. He asked his former professor why this was, only to be told:

Our job was to protect you from this information so as not to shipwreck your faith.

Upon reading that, I realised I no longer wanted to be protected from “this information” – while at the same time wanting to hold on to the Bible as Christian scripture. Hence a mixture of books that are strongly historically-critical in their approach (such as Alberto Soggin’s Introduction to the Old Testament) and writers such as Walter Brueggemann and Ellen Davis who, without rejecting the insights of biblical criticism, focus on how the Bible as we have received it, in all its plurality, reveals God to us.

This is another category from which it’s difficult to pick favourites, so I’ve selected one from each of the year’s main foci: Joshua Miller’s Hanging by a Promise, a profound and thought-provoking account of God’s hiddenness, and Ellen Davis’ Getting Involved with God, not least for her brilliant chapters on Old Testament wisdom literature.

Other

As will be seen from the charts at the start, this category is mostly the story of me and my library card attacking Southwark’s large collection of comic books and graphic novels. It’s also the story of having finished watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer earlier in the year and making a start on the “season 8” series of comic books (though deciding that I’d had enough of a good thing after four volumes). The one non-comic book is Mallory Ortberg’s splendid literary parody, Texts from Jane Eyre.

Favourites from this category, again chosen fairly arbitrarily: Dan Dare, for the retro nostalgia but also the superb artwork (which has dated less badly than the politics and gender relations), and Evan Dahm’s Kickstarter-funded Vattu series, also mostly on visual grounds.

Plans for 2017

No hard-and-fast plans, but some overall aims:

  • continue reading “books about the Bible”
  • read more theology by women (recommendations are warmly invited)
  • dip my toe into the vast and deep waters that are Karl Barth
  • make more headway on my to-read shelves than I managed this year…
  • more poetry, War & Peace, “and a pony”…

Seeking enchantment in a secular age

taylorA friend recently lent me James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular. This short book (140 pages) is a summary and introduction to A Secular Age, a monumental 776-page analysis of secularism by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor – of whose existence I must shamefacedly admit to having previously been ignorant.

Taylor’s analysis of secularism identifies three senses in which the word “secular” can be used. What Taylor calls “secular₁” refers to the classical and medieval understanding of “the temporal”, as opposed to the “spiritual”: the realm of “the butcher, baker and candlestick maker”. “Secular₂” refers to the post-Enlightenment notion of the nonsectarian, religiously “neutral” public square. Both of these meanings are ones with which most of us will be familiar.

“Secular₃”, by contrast, is Taylor’s own distinctive contribution. Secular₃ refers not so much to what a society believes (or doesn’t believe), but to what is believable within that society; to what Taylor calls the “conditions of belief”. A secular₃ society is one in which:

religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested). (How (Not) To Be Secular, pp.21f.)

It is a society in which an “exclusive humanism” becomes a viable option, indeed the default option for many. This is a new development in human history, asserts Taylor:

For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true. (A Secular Age, p.18, quoted in HNTBS, p.23).

It’s important to note that (in contrast to the “secular₂” understanding of secularism) “secular₃” is not merely the “neutral” residue left by the removal of religious belief:

The “secular” is not just the neutral, rational, areligious world that is left over once we throw off superstition, ritual, and belief in the gods. […] The emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option — the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. (HNTBS, p.26)

In other words, the “exclusive humanism” of secular₃, with its “purely immanent sense of universal solidarity,” is an achievement; “a milestone in human history,” in Taylor’s words, providing a way for people to find “fullness and meaning” without reference to any divine or transcendent reality.

As Smith observes, an age dominated by secular₃ thinking is one in which not only non-belief, but also belief, will be significantly different from that of previous eras:

A secular₃ society could undergo religious revival where vast swaths of the populace embrace religious belief. But that could never turn back the clock on secularization₃; we would always know we used to believe something else, that there are plausible visions of meaning and significance on offer. (HNTBS, p.23)

This reminds me a lot of Peter Berger’s argument as to why (in sociological terms) we are all now “heretics”, as I discussed in a blog post back in 2004. Berger observes that the word “heresy” has its roots in the Greek for “choose”: a heretic is one who chooses what they believe, rather than just accepting the received beliefs of their society. But in a pluralistic society, Berger continues:

individuals now must pick and choose. Having done so, it is very difficult to forget the fact. There remains the memory of the deliberate construction of a community of consent, and with this a haunting sense of the constructedness of that which the community affirms. Inevitably, the affirmations will be fragile and this fragility will not be very far from consciousness.

Hence there is no escape for us from secular₃. Much has been written of how Christians today are exploring earlier models of piety and worship, whether that’s the “ancient-future” movement among US evangelicals, or the growth of interest in the traditional Latin Mass among some younger Catholics. All these things may be good and valid, but they do not get us out of the secular₃ conundrum:

[B]elief is contested and contestable in our secular age. There’s no going back. Even seeking enchantment will always and only be reenchantment after disenchantment. […] Elsewhere Taylor emphasizes that “the process of disenchantment is irreversible. The aspiration to reenchant … points to a different process, which may indeed reproduce features analogous to the enchanted world, but does not in any simple sense restore it.” (HNTBS, p.61 (and footnote))

Our instinctive response may be one of dismay at this idea of the inescapability of secular thinking. But there is also something liberating to it.

To explain this in personal terms: I am an adult convert to Lutheranism, becoming (in 2004) a member of a church body that is small and fragile, whose active membership (in the UK) numbers perhaps only in the hundreds. Since then, I’ve been repeatedly haunted, tempted, distracted by church traditions that (in the UK context at least) seem to offer a “wholer” vision of (and framework for) the Christian life than a small and poor collection of small and poor congregations can provide.

To put it in Taylor’s terms, I’ve been seeking “enchantment”, but have often found only “disenchantment” in my own tradition. To realise, though, that even these “wholer” traditions would only be (at least for me) another form of “reenchantment”, haunted by the awareness that other options are available, is an encouragement to find more contentment with where I am. It’s not that some true form of “enchantment” – of an uncontested, whole way of life that is “given” rather than “constructed” – still survives which I have somehow missed and must wander about attempting to find. Which means that maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop trying to do so.

2014: the year of big books

British Library Big Books bagIt’s the end of the year, so it’s time for my annual summary of the books I’ve read during 2014 (see 2013’s entry).

Here are the books I’ve completed during 2014, broken down into categories (fiction, non-fiction, theology) and listed in order of completion. I’ve also identified my two favourite books from each category. Each title links to my comments about the book on Tumblr. Books marked with a * are books I’d read before.

Fiction 

Favourites: Daniel Deronda, Parade’s End.

Currently reading: Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.

Comments: I’ve not read a huge number of novels this year – though arguably Parade’s End should count as four, and Daniel Deronda is even longer than Ford’s tetralogy. Greatly enjoyed finishing off the Smiley trilogy (especially Smiley’s People). My clear favourite for the year, though, was Daniel Deronda, which is (as I said at the time) probably in the top three novels I’ve ever read.

Looking ahead: Having only just broken into double figures this year, I must try to read more novels next year. My wife has bought me Pat Barker’s Regeneration (having been recommending it to me for ages), so maybe I’ll end up doing the whole trilogy. I also have War and Peace sitting on my Kindle…

Non-fiction 

Favourites: Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Shock of the New.

Comments: A very satisfying set of books. Tom Holland’s Rubicon and Persian Fire were both hugely enjoyable works of ancient history. Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace is, to my mind, the definitive book on the underlying causes of the First World War. Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory is a remarkable book, and was only narrowly pipped to the post by Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New.

Clear winner, though, is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s book has, of course, been widely read and commented on, with people arguing strongly for and against his thesis. As for me, I feel similarly to the FT’s literary editor (£):

No one is going to turn to the literary editor for a decisive ruling on all of this but it seems fair to conclude that, while Piketty may not have settled the inequality debate, he has taken it into new territory: his opponents will be obliged to follow.

But the real impact for me was not Piketty’s analysis of the current position or his predictions for the future, but the insights his book provides into the nature of wealth, and its changing distribution, in the past: especially the dominance of income from capital until the First World War and its (temporary?) eclipse by income from labour during the mid-twentieth century. This has illuminated my reading of books as diverse as Daniel Deronda, Parade’s End and The War That Ended Peace.

Looking ahead: The biggest book currently looming on my to-read shelf is David Hackett Fischer’s “magisterial” (read: enormous) Albion’s Seed. And who knows: maybe 2014 will be the year I finally get round to reading E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. I’m also hoping to read William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain – described by Tom Holland as the Christian equivalent of Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See.

Theology/spirituality

Favourites: Lutheran Theology, God’s Philosophers.

Currently reading: Being Christian, by Rowan Williams.

Comments: A tricky one, this. There’s no doubt which was my favourite theology book this year: Steven Paulson’s Lutheran Theology blew my mind and made me fall in love all over again with, well, Lutheran theology – to an extent that rather overshadows the rather different material I’d been reading for the rest of the year. However, James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers deserves a mention, not least because its thesis – that medieval science was far more sophisticated than is generally assumed, and indeed was foundational to modern science – is one that needs constant repetition in order to counteract the Protestant and Enlightenment propaganda that still governs most people’s assumptions on the subject.

This is also the one category in which my favourite belies the title to this post, with Steven Paulson coming in at a svelte 272 pages (plus notes). James Hannam clocks up a respectable 448 pages, but this still falls short of Thomas Piketty (577 pages plus lots of notes), Parade’s End and Daniel Deronda (each more than 800 pages). The Shock of the New is a mere 412 pages, but they’re big and glossy, so the book ends up weighing an impressive 1.66 kg.

Looking ahead: Oswald Bayer’s Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Reinterpretation is one I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into. I may also give Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil a go. Basically the plan (“if you want to make God laugh…”) is to read more Lutheran theology this year than has been the case until recently.

Other

I could have included graphic novels in the fiction list, but I’m too much of a snob:

It feels insulting to bury “poetry” under “other”, but poetry books are not always the sort that you read from start to finish. Hence a “books completed” list leaves most of the poetry I’ve read (e.g. Geoffrey Hill and Paul Celan) unrecorded. But here goes, anyway:

Graham Greene’s last “priest errant”

Imonsignorquixote‘ve just finished reading Graham Greene’s 1982 novel, Monsignor Quixote.

On one level, it’s The Power and the Glory played for laughs – the parallel being evidenced most clearly by this exchange:

“Have another glass of wine, father.”

“In your company I fear if I’m not careful I shall become what I’ve heard called a whisky priest”. (p.82)

Indeed, I laughed out loud on several occasions, which isn’t typical for a Greene novel. But I burst into tears at the end.

Set in post-Franco Spain, it’s the story of a parish priest, Father Quixote, descendant of the great Don Quixote. Father Quixote – having been promoted unexpectedly (and unwillingly) to the rank of monsignor – departs his parish and embarks on a chaotic road trip in his battered old Seat, Rocinante, with the deposed Communist mayor, “Sancho”, for company.

Quixote and Sancho spend most of their trip drinking wine and debating Catholicism and Communism, and it’s hard not to read their dialogue as Greene working through his own issues with faith and the Church. See also, of course: every other Graham Greene novel ever. But the veil between author and creation seems thinner here – perhaps because Greene was in his mid-70s as he wrote. For example:

“I know I’m a poor priest errant, travelling God knows where. I know that there are absurdities in some of my books as there were in the books of chivalry my ancestor collected. That didn’t mean that all chivalry was absurd. Whatever absurdities you can dig out of my books I still have faith…”

“In what?”

“In a historic fact. That Christ died and rose again.”

“The greatest absurdity of all.”

“It’s an absurd world or we wouldn’t be here together.” (pp.77f.)

But in the end, what gives this book its heart (and prevents it from being nothing more than an entertaining but light curiosity of Greene’s later years) is that it is a book about love. This is made abundantly clear in the closing pages (hence my tears), though I’m not going to spoiler it by quoting them. But a hint is given earlier in the novel, as Father Quixote addresses Sancho about the work of the pernickety moral theologian Fr Heribert Jone, whose book of casuistry Quixote had brought with him:

You may laugh at Father Jone and I have laughed with you, God forgive me. But, Sancho, Moral Theology is not the Church. And Father Jone is not among my old books of chivalry. His book is only like a book of military regulations. St Francis de Sales wrote a book of eight hundred pages called The Love of God. The word love doesn’t come into Father Jone’s rules and I think, perhaps I am wrong, that you won’t find the phrase “mortal sin” in St Francis’s book. (p.83)

“Moral Theology is not the Church.” And there, ladies and gentlemen, we have the entire works of Graham Greene summarised for us in a sentence.

Getting medieval on the history of science

God's Philosophers, by James HannamFollowing my previous post referring to  God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, I’ve now finished reading this book and can recommend it without reservation.

Hannam sets out to restore, for a popular audience, the reputations of medieval scientists – or “natural philosophers”, as they are more properly called (and as Hannam refers to them throughout). In doing so he systematically dismantles the standard narrative of the development of modern science that still tends to dominate our assumptions.

The standard narrative goes something like this:

  • The Greeks and Romans had developed remarkably advanced science and mathematics.
  • Then Christianity and the Dark Ages happened, and scientific development ceased as the Catholic Church clamped down on any rival systems of thought.
  • In the fourteenth century, the Renaissance happened, Greek and Roman culture was rediscovered.
  • As a result – and despite the best efforts of the Church, burning Giordano Bruno and prosecuting Galileo as a heretic – science resumed, pretty much where the Greeks and Romans had left off.

Hannam sets out a radically different story, which can be summarised very roughly as follows (with any mistakes or over-simplifications being mine rather than Hannam’s):

  • Medieval Europe made some remarkable technological advances, but the fall of the western Roman empire caused great political instability and  cut off western Europe from the Greek-speaking East, and thus from the heritage of Greek philosophical works.
  • From the twelfth century, western Europe began to rediscover Greek philosophy (particularly that of Aristotle) in Latin translation, leading to a revolution in philosophy (not least natural philosophy) and theology.
  • Between 1200 and 1500, medieval natural philosophers made many advances on Aristotle, including discoveries which were later attributed solely to post-Renaissance scientists such as Galileo.
  • From the late 1400s, the “humanist” movement rejected medieval philosophy in favour of a return to what they considered the superior, “pure” learning of classical Greece and Rome. In doing so they discarded many of the advances made by medieval thinkers (the University of Oxford, for example, lost its entire collection of medieval manuscripts between 1535 and 1558). Providentially, however, the invention of printing meant that many medieval scientific works survived even after they became unfashionable.
  • Early “modern scientists” such as Copernicus and Galileo were thus not reacting against medieval ignorance, but against reactionary humanism which had sought to discard the discoveries of medieval natural philosophy, and which often resisted attempts to correct Aristotle. Early modern science stood in continuity with medieval natural philosophy, rather than picking up where classical civilisation had left off.

Here are some sample quotations from Hannam’s book. First, on how printing saved medieval natural philosophy from destruction:

In traditional histories, the rise of humanism is usually portrayed as ‘a good thing’, but the truth is that the humanists almost managed to destroy 300 years of progress in natural philosophy. By discarding the advances made by medieval scholars together with so many of the manuscripts that contained them, they could have set back the advance of science by centuries. Einstein might have had to do the work of Newton. The reason that progress in science was not so held back (although it arguably didn’t move forward as quickly as it might have done) was that the invention of printing had guaranteed that, if nothing else, the old books were preserved. Most people forgot about them but a few, like Galileo, used the knowledge found within.

On Copernicus:

Thus, Copernicus was not a lone genius who rediscovered ancient wisdom. He was part of the long-running European school of natural philosophy that went back to William of Conches and Adelard of Bath, cross-fertilised by the parallel occult and Arabic traditions. That is not to say that heliocentricism was not radical and new, but Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres is written in the language of medieval thinkers and uses their arguments.

On Kepler:

Kepler died in 1630. He had solved two of the greatest scientific problems of the Middle Ages – how the planets moved and how we can see. He did so driven by a relentless Christian faith and working in the medieval traditions of the universities. In putting Witelo’s name in the title of his book on optics, Kepler was not afraid to admit to his sources. The same cannot be said for his contemporary Galileo Galilei. His achievements were just as great as Kepler’s, but Galileo was a great deal more circumspect about where he was getting his ideas from.

On Galileo:

Galileo’s scientific achievement was solidly based on the natural philosophy that came before him. Appreciating that fact should not diminish our admiration of his genius. While almost all his theories can be traced back to earlier sources, he was the first to mould them into a coherent whole and the first to show how they could be experimentally demonstrated. In that sense, the long road to modern science really does start with him. […]

Galileo’s early doubts about Aristotle’s account of motion were not the thoughts of a lone radical, but part of a scientific milieu where experimentation and criticism of Greek natural philosophy were becoming increasingly common.

And from Hannam’s conclusion:

The most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable. They made science safe in a Christian context, showed how it could be useful and constructed a worldview where it made sense. Their central belief that nature was created by God and so worthy of their attention was one that Galileo wholeheartedly endorsed. Without that awareness, modern science would simply not have happened.

I hope that Hannam’s book will have a significant impact. It’s about time that our culture finally rid itself of the remarkably durable (at least on a popular level) myth of ignorant medievals, an anti-intellectual Catholic Church, and the triumphant resumption of scientific advance after a thousand years of unrelieved darkness.

Books! Books! And additional books! (2013 edition)

2013 recommended booksIt must be the end of the year, because here’s one of those navel-gazing, end-of-year-list blog posts.

These are the books I completed during 2013, broken down into three categories (fiction, non-fiction other than theology, and theology), and listed within each category in approximate order of completion. I’ve also identified the two books from each category that I would particularly recommend. Each book title links to my comments (if any) on the book as posted on my Tumblr.

Novels/fiction: 

Recommendations: Anna Karenina, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Currently reading: Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, by James Baldwin.

Comments: Given that I tend to read more non-fiction that fiction, this has been a pretty good year by my standards. In particular I finally got round to reading three novels that I’ve been wanting to read (and that my wife has been recommending to me) for ages: Anna Karenina, The Handmaid’s Tale and Possession. None of them disappointed. A Canticle for Leibowitz is less “literary”, but will stay with me a long time.

Non-fiction/other: 

Recommendations: Cultural Amnesia, My Traitor’s Heart.

Currently reading: God’s Philosophers, by James Hannam.

Comments: Some really good stuff in there. Vanished Kingdoms, The Fatal Shore, Iron Curtain and The Tragedy of Liberation could also have made it into my recommendations. But the standout book of the year for me – the one that has done most to change how I think, I suspect (and hope) permanently – was Clive James’s love letter to humanism, Cultural Amnesia.

Theology:

Recommendations: The Cloister Walk, Unapologetic.

Currently reading: Evangelii Gaudium, by Pope Francis; The Birth of the Messiah, by Raymond E. Brown.

Comments: A bit of a mixed bag, this. I should probably resolve to be a little more focused and disciplined next year (“Good luck with that…”). The first half dozen books reflect the Lutheran/Benedictine crossover that is probably the most accurate location for where my spiritual tent is currently pitched.

Overall, the really big hole this year across all categories is the absence of any poetry. It’s not that I didn’t read any, but that I didn’t “finish” any poetry books. Still, something to rectify next year, perhaps.