Saturday, 6 December 2014


Vic Van Den Bergh More than ‘Just a service’ - Funerals

Michael Sadgrove Cathedrals: a success story?

Giles Fraser The Guardian The whole point of Christianity is to create a deeper form of humanism

Madeleine Davies Church Times The Maasai – a tradition in transition

Posted by Peter Owen on Saturday, 6 December 2014 at 11:00am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Opinion

The one thing Unitarians do well is funerals. It avoids the flat repetitions of the humanist life-story and adds context, but without the unrelated beliefs that the dead and still living do not share. And as for Giles Fraser, one doesn't make a better humanism by references to a myth of birth and its manner that doesn't stand up to the first efforts of historical investigation. It ends up being gooey sentimentalism.

Posted by: Pluralist on Saturday, 6 December 2014 at 5:52pm GMT

Dear Pluralist. It is easy to see why you prefer your particular Pseudonym. However, I don't think many Anglicans would share your theological speculation.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Saturday, 6 December 2014 at 6:25pm GMT

Pluralist, I see Giles Fraser's comments as more along the lines of "Christians are better than humanists." And, although I believe in God, I reject the thought.


"God is not to be discovered beyond Orion’s belt, but down on Earth." – Giles Fraser

If you really look at non-Christian monotheistic religions, I bet you find similar sentiments. I bet Judaism and Islam preach a similar message. God is to be found within oneself, God is to be found in one's neighbor. God is to be found by serving others, by caring for the Earth (God’s creation), etc. While simultaneously, Christianity and other monotheistic religions proclaim God’s majesty, God’s infiniteness, God’s power.

Years ago, a dean of a cathedral, who shall remain anonymous, gave a Christmas sermon, in which he stated, that since God became Incarnate in the form of a human baby, people could see God, touch God, hold God. And I thought, "My God! The dean just turned Christianity’s Incarnation story into idolatry!" There must be ways of relating the Incarnation, without turning it into potentially heretical sentimental mush.

Posted by: peterpi - Peter Gross on Saturday, 6 December 2014 at 7:51pm GMT

I found Giles Fraser's premise to be a bit anthropocentric. Yes, God displayed his vulnerability by becoming the most helpless human being but the divinity is still there. And the stable with the animals - very important witnesses.

Posted by: Pam on Saturday, 6 December 2014 at 9:00pm GMT

Re the Maasai (and every other culture that practices FGM): female genital mutilation will never end w/ a negative "Don't Do It!"

It must be a POSITIVE campaign: the clitoris is BEAUTIFUL. The vulva is BEAUTIFUL. The labia are BEAUTIFUL. They function for women WONDERFULLY . . . just the way ***God created them!***

You overcome taboo w/ *celebration*, not shame.

Posted by: JCF on Saturday, 6 December 2014 at 9:51pm GMT

Surely Giles Fraser's reasoning would suggest that Greco-Roman mythology (plenty of divine/human birth events) would produce even better humanists.

Posted by: Dennis on Sunday, 7 December 2014 at 12:10am GMT

@ Pluralist, "And as for Giles Fraser, one doesn't make a better humanism by references to a myth of birth and its manner that doesn't stand up to the first efforts of historical investigation. It ends up being gooey sentimentalism."

I think we could place alongside your statement, one by the late Raymond Brown, who argued that whether or not the infancy narratives are historical, "the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke are just as profoundly Christian and as dramatically persuasive as the last two chapters, the passion and resurrection" ( The Birth of The Messiah [First Edition], p. 38).

Personally I don't think there is very much historical about them; but they do provide, by way of commentary, important Christological insights, not the least of which is, that if there is any value to the notion of atonement its ground is the complete solidarity of God with the human experience. The message is that we should do likewise. Nothing gooey about that, just a lot of commitment.

Surely,you know the old one liner, " a humanist is someone who loves humanity, but isn't all that keen on individual humans." The gospel wants us to be committed to both.

Giles Fraser has it exactly right in his article.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Sunday, 7 December 2014 at 2:41am GMT

"In a whole range of debates from abortion to assisted dying, the moral category of choice is often regarded as trumping the moral category of humanity."

False dichotomy, Giles. It's our very ability to CHOOSE---and to disagree about the morality of various said choices!---which makes us human (and the Image of God: God said "Let there be Light" because S/He had the choice to remain in darkness---so also God's Image).

Posted by: JCF on Sunday, 7 December 2014 at 4:48am GMT

@ Dennis, "Surely Giles Fraser's reasoning would suggest that Greco-Roman mythology (plenty of divine/human birth events) would produce even better humanists." Not necessarily.

While the infancy narratives have affinities with the lore you reference,'Christianizing' such lore to some extent, one needs to take care about comparisons. For one thing, Greco-Roman mythology tends to divinize the human rather than humanize the divine. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, even imperial Japanese, notions of the human as divine or quasi-deivine figure tend to express the divine man in terms of kingship, status, power. "I think I am becoming a god now"

Ian Macquarrie notes in The Humility of God that in Christian terms its about God's love. Jean Vanier (L'Arche) also talks in profoundly caring terms about the humility of God and the fundamental nature of community--contrasted with Augustus, imperial Rome, and the pax Romana

Rabbinical scholar Peter Shafer in The Jewish Jesus discusses the issue as well. Interestingly, while he analyzes the influence of Roman imperial government models on the development of the Trinity, he also compares the significant differences between Christian mythology and the Jewish phenomena of Metatron and the very "from the ground up" divine status of Enoch.

Fully human and fully divine is in the details.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Sunday, 7 December 2014 at 2:51pm GMT

Rod Gillis,

Whilst some notions of the human as divine have a tendency to equate divine status with kingship, that is not the only model. There were the public, state religions which may divinise the head of state. And alongside those were the esoteric mystery cults, and it is those mystery cults which have the affinities with Christian narrative and lore.

We look to Jewish history to find precursors to Christianity, yet ignore Dionysus, a child with a God for a father and a human mother, a divine /human being who is killed and comes back to life again, and whose mysteries were celebrated in Spring with rituals of bread and wine.

Many scholars look to the Greeks as the first humanists, and I would argue that there is a trajectory of much of this thought from Greece through the Hellenistic mysteries into very early Christianity.


Posted by: Simon Dawson on Sunday, 7 December 2014 at 5:54pm GMT

JCF - are you saying that those who do not have the ability to choose are no longer human? What a dangerous suggestion.

Posted by: Giles Fraser on Sunday, 7 December 2014 at 6:40pm GMT

@ Simon Dawson, Well, in one sense, what doesn't go back to the Greeks? However, I think one looks in vain to find a strong lineage between the anthropology of Greek antiquity and the notion of humanism, itself a very general term, of the type that is under discussion here with a cue from Fraser's article.

A number of scholars ( D. Crossan et al) have helpfully in pointed out how to "read" Christian mythology by contextualizing it within the Greco-Roman World. When one looks at the site at St. Clemente in Rome, for example,
one sees something of the historical and cultural stream. So, in a very general sense, no great argument.

However, the substantive links between Christianity and esoteric cults is pretty tenuous. See, for example, Pheme Perkin's article on John's Gospel in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. The comparative example of Dionysus is particularly circumstantial.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Sunday, 7 December 2014 at 8:08pm GMT

I realise that you are all posh and probablly sneer at soaps, but what about the new gay vicar plot line in Coronation street..which we are told will lead to a wedding!
Coronation Street actually changes opinion much more effectively than this blog!

Posted by: robert ian williams on Sunday, 7 December 2014 at 9:26pm GMT

Bravo, Giles Fraser. How humanity needs to be understood in the light of Christ's incarnation is pivotal, surely, to the whole Christian enterprise. If 'the glory of God is best seen in humanity fully alive', then Jesus really is to be reckoned both 'truly God and truly human'. If this is not the case then it leaves one wondering what was the purpose?

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Sunday, 7 December 2014 at 11:14pm GMT

What else is there, Giles? Homo sapiens DNA? Really?

I praise the *privileging* w/ life & dignity for those who cannot choose, Giles (i.e., ALL animals, regardless DNA), but my point stands.

Posted by: JCF on Monday, 8 December 2014 at 2:15am GMT

Finally, those who want to deny the Imago Dei divinity of HUMAN CHOICE, have a "dangerous" tendency to exert Power-Over other human beings' choices, in favor of their own. Consider!

Posted by: JCF on Monday, 8 December 2014 at 2:28am GMT

And yet as Jung and Joseph Campbell (among many others) remind us, the similarities among incarnate and dying / rising gods (Mithras, Osiris, Dionysius / Bacchus, Addonis, Tammuz, Persephone, and many others) (Jesus, too?) aren't just circumstantial. There is something at the heart of this similarity that gets to the very core of human psychology.

Posted by: Dennis on Monday, 8 December 2014 at 2:49am GMT

Giles Fraser's piece is full of opinion with not much evidence. Like much in the Guardian, it seems designed to get people upset enough that they will write in.

Christians are not better than other people.

His sexism is showing when he mentions abortion.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Posted by: Gary Paul Gilbert on Monday, 8 December 2014 at 6:49am GMT

"In a whole range of debates from abortion to assisted dying, the moral category of choice is often regarded as trumping the moral category of humanity."

I confess I do not understand this sentence.
It seems to assume that choices based on something called "choice" tend to be immoral whereas choices based on something called "humanity" tend to be moral.

But both categories can result in morally monstrous choices and both can result in humane and just choices.
And deeply Christian and intelligent people can support abortion and assisted dying.

What makes us human is the capability of active and considered choosing and that is what gives a moral component to our actions, whatever philosophy we then apply to arrive at our choices, and whatever actual choices we end up making.

Or have I misunderstood the sentence completely?

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 8 December 2014 at 12:43pm GMT

I would like to thank Robert Ian Williams for describing me as 'posh'.

Posted by: FrDavidH on Monday, 8 December 2014 at 2:01pm GMT

@ Dennis, There is no doubt Joseph Campbell's work is extremely helpful in encouraging Christians to read scripture as mythology. For example,in The Hero With A Thousand Faces (The Keys), he discusses (the old) Roman Catholic rite for Holy Saturday,reminding the reader that the believer's rising and dying with Christ in baptism is prior to the notion of washing away original sin. He notes that myth is impoverished when read as history or science. Agreed. However, one must be careful. From the get go Christian proclamation is about an historical person (Jesus) proclaimed in mythic terms (as an eschatalogical Christ).

Giles Fraser's article references the gospel story of the birth of Jesus. Here we have a story about an historical person cast in (I believe) non historical myth, with cues from Greco-Roman culture about what this may mean.

The birth of Jesus in Luke has specific affinities with Augustus for the specific purpose of showing how Jesus is not the kind of savior Augustus was, and that the kingdom of God is not the pax Romana. Raymond Brown,among others, maps this out in detailed reference to the text. Hence my initial rejoinder, that we do not have here the status of a divinized emperor but a humanized Divinity. It's a reversal of roles that serves Fraser's point (and St. Luke's) but contests your own.

Campbell's generalization of cross cultural motifs must be placed alongside the specific meaning of the biblical text,mythological though the latter is. Similarities are important, but no more so than differences.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Monday, 8 December 2014 at 2:56pm GMT

Hi Erika: I think Giles simply meant that exercising a right to choose is not always a moral act unless moral criteria are used in the decision-making (his category of humanity). I suspect this is where the confusion arises: I can choose to make an arbitrary decision, I can even choose to do something I think is wrong -- the rightness (or not) is not in my choosing or having a right to choose, but in my deliberation and in my reasons for choosing. Re abortion or assisted dying, claiming a right to choose is arguably the beginning not the end of a moral discussion about what to choose. I doubt that he was saying more than that, though he was suggesting that there has been a problem with how we sometimes conduct such debates. When I read the sentences following your 'But both categories...' I think you and Giles are saying much the same thing -- unless I, in turn, don't understand your sentences....

Posted by: Joe on Monday, 8 December 2014 at 3:22pm GMT

but on what credible basis could anyone suggest that people "chose" a view about abortion or assisted dying without weighing up the morals their view? That their decision is either arbitrary or purely utilitarian?

Are we supposed to entertain the idea that that is how many people make their decisions?

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 8 December 2014 at 4:02pm GMT

I think the concern about choice as a criterion for being fully human is to do with the risk that people unable to make informed choices because of profound learning disabilities, advanced dementia or other reasons may be assumed to be of less worth. But I believe we experience being human in community, and someone barely conscious at the end of her life can be as much loved and loving as the brightest maker of choices.

Posted by: Savi Hensman on Tuesday, 9 December 2014 at 12:42pm GMT

Today's Reith lecture (Radio 4) spoke in favour of assisted dying, among things.

The entire audience was said to have agreed with him.

Posted by: Laurie on Tuesday, 9 December 2014 at 12:55pm GMT
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