Posts Tagged ‘theology’

Daphne Hampson: After Christianity

February 11, 2021

     Feminist theology is not part of my normal reading agenda, but I think it was Richard Holloway’s recent book that pointed me at Daphne Hampson’s very difficult and challenging read. Her approach, as one might expect, is very radical: is Christianity truthful? is it ethical? Hampson repeatedly emphasises that she does not consider herself a Christian, and at times her manner seems aggressive or angry, as well as inevitably reflecting a rationalist approach to spiritual matters which necessarily must completely exclude the notion of faith.

She structures her arguments and presents her case very clearly and logically, in the manner of a Spinoza or a Robert Barclay, which is helpful; she spends considerable time debunking the ‘specialness’ or particularity of the ‘Christ event’ as she calls it, as well as locating the significance and importance of feminist theory for the future of theology as she understands it. I repeat, it was not an easy read, although I was very glad I persevered. There is a good deal of dense psychoanalytical and structuralist theory (in the manner of Lacan and Derrida) and at times I felt we had lost sight of religion, spirituality and Christianity. However, the centuries of structuring and conditioning which all feminists are challenging must be acknowledged, and her case is cogently presented and convincing, as well as connecting with what has gone before in fields other than theology. She establishes her parameters, and then sets about demolishing. As a feminist she rejects the submissiveness required in Christianity, Judaism and Islam; her lengthy unpicking of the implications of Abraham’s agreement to sacrifice Isaac is quite shocking. She shows how the Trinitarian God as male in all three aspects sidelines, marginalises, excludes or seeks to annex women.

So much of this work is about defining the terms of the debate and unpicking implications which have been intentionally and unintentionally glossed over through the ages, and I found this very refreshing. When the actual meaning of the Creed and the Trinity are laid bare, so much does seem utterly defiant of logic and common-sense: true Christian believers will of course speak of their faith, as they have the right to do, whereas I found myself following her argument and thinking, do we actually need all/ any of this? I had thought of myself as pretty liberal in matters spiritual – deluded male that I am – until I read this eye-opening book. Her arguments about the nature of God draw much from an 18th century German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, of whom I’d never heard, but who is now on my ‘interested’ list. I suppose what I have really derived from this book is much matter for further reflection and contemplation, as well as what feels like a long-needed shaking-up of complacency.

But, for all her constant urging and wishing for a new, feminist, individual-centred spirituality which acknowledges one’s autonomy and the idea that God lies within, I found the concluding chapter curiously empty and unsatisfying; what is not satisfactory is very clear indeed, what must come to replace it, not so much…

A tour of my library – part four

August 12, 2019

The travel writing section is the largest new one in my library, growing over the last fifteen or twenty years as my interest in travel writing has developed. It’s not systematic: there are areas I have deliberately explored and others I ignore completely. Deserts and the ancient Silk Roads both fascinate me. So, there is much on the Near East, the Middle East and Central Asia, lots on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but little on Africa unless it’s the Sahara, and very little on the United States. The colder parts of the world don’t figure much, either. And, as I have explained in other, more detailed posts on travel writing, I have by and large tended to avoid recent writing because travel has become tourism, too easy relatively speaking: I like to read about exploration and travel where rather more effort and difficulty is involved. For this reason, I have collected a fair number of accounts of travel from several centuries ago, and also accounts by non-Westerners, for their different perspective on the world. I think my most interesting discovery was probably Ibn Battutah, a traveller from the Arab world who travelled in the early fourteenth century and far more widely than did Marco Polo

I’m gradually disposing of my reference section, which, to put it bluntly, has pretty much been made redundant by the internet: there will be an article, invariably reliable, well-referenced and usually with numerous links, in Wikipedia. My local library now offers me the OED online for nothing. I have one or two literature reference books, and quite a few atlases, and they will now suffice. Maps on the internet do not cut the mustard for me. I have the large Times Comprehensive Atlas which I love, and various historical atlases and collections of old maps. I did, however, recently splash out on Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies translated into English. He was a seventh century encyclopaedist who put together and wrote down everything that was known in his time, and is now rightly the patron saint of the internet. It is fascinating to contemplate how others viewed the world and interpreted it in the past, and to realise that at some future date, our world-view may seem just as quaint to our successors.

Some readers of this blog will also know of my love of JS Bach’s music, and there is a small section of the library consisting of biographies, guides to his world and the places he lived and worked, and some reference books which I use when listening to his church cantatas. The most useful of these was the first book I ever acquired from Amazon in the days before it became the behemoth I now strive to avoid Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts. It contains texts of all the cantatas, in German, word-for-word translated and then a proper English version, set out in the manner of a classics ‘crib’ from many years ago. It also has all the relevant biblical readings to go with the texts, so that everything I need as I listen is on a single page.

There’s a sizeable religion and theology section, with bibles and other church service books, books on the history of religion, Christianity and Islam, which I have developed an interest in over the years; this joins up with my fascination with travel in those parts of the world. There’s also a reasonable number of books on Quakerism. The oddest book in the collection is probably a fine copy of the Liber Usualis which I acquired secondhand for a song when I was a student in Liverpool, and recently discovered was worth quite a lot. It’s basically a monastic service book with music, for the masses of every day of the church year; the music is four-stave plainchant, and the rubrics are all in church Latin too.

On philosophy

February 7, 2016

When I was a language assistant in France, many years ago, I borrowed a school philosophy textbook and read it. It was an eye-opener, a revelation: sixth-formers were expected to follow a basic outline course in philosophy! The book was a great help with the remainder of my university studies, and I still occasionally go back to the notes I made from it, as a basic starting-point. Why didn’t we get to do this in England?

I’ve never made any systematic study of philosophy; some aspects still give me a headache when I try to think about them. And yet it’s fascinating stuff, and for me it has always, inevitably been linked with a spiritual journey, and has therefore overlapped with a more than passing interest in theology; aspects of theology are also capable of making my brain hurt…

As humans, we are uniquely conscious of our eventual and inevitable mortality; the question of how to face this bravely, with awareness, is surely the key to much of our species’ thinking through the ages. How do we seek to live well, to feel satisfied and even contented in what we do and achieve in our limited allocation of mortal time? How do we accept our approaching end? What is there to think and believe about the nature of the world, the universe and its purpose – if there is one?

My limited acquaintance with various thinkers hasn’t produced any magic answers. The wisdom of different cultures has varied through time: the Greeks and Romans seem to have sought to accept and become resigned to our lot; the Chinese look at how to live a good and virtuous life (which I find helpful most of the time). Christianity and Islam, being more religious than merely philosophical belief systems, urge followers to think of the possible hereafter and its rewards or punishments, and have ended up creating temporal systems with enormous amounts of power over both followers and non-followers. And more recently, as our scientific knowledge has advanced by leaps and bounds (though perhaps further in the minds of non-scientists than with scientists themselves) has emerged a tendency to shrink God and the religious or spiritual, or even to seek to eliminate them completely; science becomes the god instead… and yet, such an approach has just as many limitations as what it seeks to replace, if not more, as well as apparently permitting the pillaging of the planet along the way.

Having long had a very logical and rational streak in me, I have striven to understand a solely material world and failed: there is, for me a higher plane which for need of a better word I call spiritual; there are higher things and more complex questions than our limited intellects can fathom.

Philosophy also posits the possibility of perfectibility, which brings us back to the utopian yearnings I wrote of a few days ago. There is a very powerful drive to individual fulfilment, which is inevitably at cross-purposes with our social nature which seeks to co-operate with our fellow-creatures for our greater good. It appears to me that sometimes Western philosophy is very limited in its outlook, in the sense that it originates from, and reflects that currently very powerful part of the world that calls the shots for everyone on the planet; the individualist strand is justified (justifies itself) and achieves a hegemonic position, as supposedly leading to the greatest wealth and profit, determining the political, social and economic lives of everyone. Where that leaves me is – are we asking ourselves the right questions?

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