On the Reply to the Courtier

Some of the internet’s atheists seem to think that they’ve come discovered a new kind of informal fallacy, which they call the courtier’s reply. It was originally defined by means of a fable, and the best foundation for discussion of it would be to give that fable here:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins* with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics. *

So, what is the story saying? Here are two perfectly reasonable complaints that seem to be being made here.

First, it’s objecting to what we might call an argument from the absence of authority. Richard Dawkins has not studied philosophy and theology under Bill Wood at Oriel, therefore Richard Dawkins is wrong. Obviously, this is a terrible argument. You don’t need a degree in theology, or to have read a set list of books, to be able to defend a particular philosophico-theological position (though of course, it doesn’t hurt to have done so). If you do defend such a position, then the appropriate way for someone to criticise your position is to attend to your arguments, and not to point out that you lack such and such a qualification. Of course, ‘attending to your arguments’ might fairly involve pointing out ignorance of an established literature relevant to your arguments, or criticism of your interpretation of some thinker or theory. Might. I for one am forced to wonder how many of Dawkins’ critics have really relied upon a crude argument from the absence of authority, rather than, say, attending to Dawkins’ arguments in one or other of the ways mentioned above.

Alternatively, one could be making a relevancy objection. Suppose you’ve critiqued Aquinas’ five ways, and I complain that you haven’t discussed Moltmann on hope. My complaint, you are perfectly justified in supposing, is completely off-base. What Moltmann says about hope just isn’t relevant to a discussion of Aquinas’ five ways, or if it is relevant, that’s surprising, and the relevance would have to be carefully demonstrated by me, the complainer.

In practice, when applied to the question of Dawkins the objection is usually this. Dawkins is criticising the view that there is a deity. People often complain that he doesn’t take into account very specific debates about a putative deity’s nature, will, and interactions with humanity, but those debates are irrelevant to his critique, which simply concerns the existence of some deity or other. I would simply note, as I have already suggested, that questions of relevance are not particularly straightforward. The five ways example is a very specific one. But the project of Dawkins et al is very broad. A lot of the time Dawkins is saying that religion is inherently silly, or a cause of great evil, or a virus of the mind etc etc. If you’re making accusations at that level of generality, almost anything vaguely theological turns out to be relevant.

Finally, we come to the unreasonable complaint that is being made. Suppose we suspect that many of Dawkins critics aren’t making the crude argument from the absence of authority, and that given the breadth of Dawkins’ project, Moltmann’s theology of hope and much else besides really is relevant to his argument. Then, what is the of crying ‘Courtier’s reply!’? I’m afraid to say that what it’s doing, in that case, is simply begging the question. Return to the fable. Whoever cries ‘courtier’s reply’ has assumed that the emperor has no clothes. But this is just the point at issue. For example, I think that some versions of the cosmological argument constitute items of clothing, in this sense. Terry Eagleton seems to think that Moltmann’s theology of hope constitutes an item of clothing (I suspect that Mr. Moltmann himself may be rather scantily clad, but that’s another matter, and in truth I know little about his work on hope). If they are not items of clothing, it is up to Dawkins and his defenders to show that they are not, rather than simply assert (or, perhaps worse, imply) that they are not.

*The name of Richard Dawkins is, in effect, used by synecdoche for the whole New Atheist movement throughout.

*P.Z. Myers – http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/12/24/the-courtiers-reply/


Sketch of a Potential Doctoral Plan – On the Knowledge of God: a Philosophical, Historical, and Systematic Stufy


Discussion of the distinction between knowledge that and knowledge of. Review of the specific problems posed by the knowledge of God, leading on to consideration of these issues in specific theologians.


Gregory Nyssan. Predominantly the anti-Eunomian writings, probably in conjunction with the more ‘mystical’ writings, e.g. Life of Moses.

Pseudo-Dionysius. Mostly On the Divine Names and Mystical Theology, but probably including the whole corpus as there isn’t that much of it.

Barth. Specifically the rejection of natural theology, and directly attendant issues.


Flowing from previous discussion (or at least from the Barth and Gregory discussions), a consideration of the relationship between the knowledge of God and Christology and soteriology.


Kingdon Clifford and Christ’s Kingdom

‘He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart’. So wrote William Kingdon Clifford in The Ethics of Belief. What Clifford argues in that essay is that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’. Who does Clifford believe to be in the wrong? Well, during his last days rumours circulated that he had converted to Christianity. The doctor may have certified that he was ill, Clifford quipped, but ‘twas not mental derangement’. So why the Biblical language quoted above? Perhaps he did not begrudge Jesus a striking phrase. More likely, as van Inwagen argues, the unusual frequency of Biblical allusions in this essay is calculated to reveal the true target of his polemic. Whether the active intention of Clifford or not, however, I think there is a further meaning we may properly read into those words. With its stark call to the rigorous practice of cognitive virtue, it’s fair to say that The Ethics of Belief is nothing less than the epistemological counterpart of the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Be epistemically perfect, as it is reprehensible to believe that your Father in heaven is perfect’.


If that’s so, then far from being anti-Christian polemic, the essay is at some level a Christian ascetic treatise in disguise. For, whether reprehensibly or not, Christians believe that their heavenly Father is epistemically perfect, and Christ enjoins his followers to imitate all the perfections of that Father. So the Christian is called to epistemic perfection. This is especially important if you believe (and this it is sinful not to believe!) that the Fall was to a significant extent a cognitive fall, a fall into duplicity (as one infallible authority has it).


  Of course Clifford would have been appalled at such a suggestion. As Christian faith is epistemically reprehensible, so a Christian reading of The Ethics of Belief is reprehensible. This, I think, is a problem for Clifford. For imagine a sect which holds that the Sermon on the Mount, and nothing else, is the infallible word of God (presumably the sect would also have to attribute a derivative authority to the Jewish law). Beautiful and moving as the Sermon may be, the idea that a community of ordinary fallen folk might band together and try living out that teaching in all of its undiluted rigour is truly horrifying. Within a day or so, the whole sect would be reduced to limbless despair. (This, incidentally, is why those who like to hint that the Pelagianism was a morally ennobling humanism which ought never to have been anathematised are dead wrong).


Fortunately, Christianity is not just the Sermon on the Mount. God does not demand that we be perfect right now. Instead, God demands that we set aside all the barriers that we ourselves have placed between Him and us; that we sincerely strive to follow His commandments, and sincerely seek forgiveness when (not if) we fail; that we hear the Word throughout the Scriptures; and that we participate in the Christian community, not least though the sacraments. If we are lucky, we may steadily approach towards perfection. But for any ordinary person, in the midst of an ordinary life, to let the expectation of perfection govern their practical reasoning is mental derangement indeed.


  What goes for perfection in general goes for epistemic perfection in particular, and this is Clifford’s problem. We cannot expect to produce a rigorous demonstration that we are not dreaming before we get out of bed every morning. Of course Clifford doesn’t think that we have to do that; the issue is rather that, given his premisses, it’s unclear why he shouldn’t think that. No human being can go through life scrutinising every proposition to the same degree of rigour that, in Clifford’s famous example, the shipowner ought to employ in checking that his vessel is seaworthy. We have to start from some epistemological first principles; we have to accept most of what we’re told, especially when young; and we have to adopt some kind of stance on what really matters in this life, whether it be the scientific method or economic freedom or artistic self-expression or even Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, if someone cleaves to their own world-stance without seeking to understand those of others, accepts a limited portion of what they’re told uncritically, and doesn’t consider at even the most rudimentary level what makes for a good epistemological principle and whether their practice is really governed by such principles, then that person is epistemically vicious.


    I rather suspect that Clifford, in his rush to equate religious belief with mental derangement, has fallen into epistemic vice. The reflective Christian, who has considered at some level the intellectual foundations of her faith, and the potential objections to it, and who also strives to understand other world-stances, is epistemically virtuous (assuming that Christianity is not without intellectual foundation. Some, like Clifford, do believe this, but it is a very strong claim, and usually believed without much foundation). If the Christian world-stance is fundamentally correct, moreover, then it is only by following the path of Christian perfection outlined above that we can ever approach Clifford’s high epistemic ideals. Only then will we be employing our rational faculties as God intended them to be employed, and only then will our many moral flaws stop distorting our epistemic practices: for after all, ethics and epistemology are inseparable, just as Clifford argues.


Some more philosophy. Some actions are p-sensitive, that is, they are such that if some proposition p is false, then they will have bad consequences (e.g. the sending to sea of Clifford’s ship, which will have bad consequences if ‘the ship is seaworthy’ is false). It is wrong to perform any p-sensitive action without sufficient evidence that p is true. So far, so good.

How does Clifford get from here to ‘it is wrong….to believe anything on insufficient evidence’?  He considers the view that we discharge our moral responsibilities by giving a thorough examination of the evidence before performing the action, and responds that a lack of belief one way or the other is necessary for a fair examination of the evidence. It is here that things start to go wrong.

To perform a p-sensitive action responsibly requires giving an extremely thorough examination of the evidence  (much as it may read like wanky philosophese, it really is easier if I dub this kind of examination, say, an A-examination. Why A? For ‘appropriate’) . If believing that p disqualifies  a person from undertaking an A-examination, then we can only believe that p after we have undertaken an A examination. Since we can’t be sure in advance which propositions our future actions might be sensitive too, we can’t believe anything without undertaking an A-examination. But, as I argue above, the demand that we subject every proposition to an A-examination before assenting to it simply cannot be fulfilled. Clifford is quite fanatical:

“But,” says one, “I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study
which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain
questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments.”

Then he should have no time to believe.

It’s as if Jesus were to say to the typical red-blooded male, never look at women. We all know what the fruit of that sort of injunction is…

Surely it is enough for a fair A-examination simply to acknowledge the enormous gulf between the state of a person’s evidence before conducting an A-examination and the state of their evidence after. The examination is only compromised if we go into it with a reckless disregard for evidence in the first place. Most people are more epistemically virtuous than that. Of course, some people aren’t, but the problem is not that they believed some propositions without A-examining them, but rather that they have a reckless disregard for evidence. And in fact Clifford ignores the real problem in his shipowner case:

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old,
and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had
needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy.
These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he
ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him
to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these
melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many
voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come
safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly
fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for
better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about
the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and
comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her
departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their
strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down
in mid-ocean and told no tales.


The problem with the shipowner is most decisively not that he believed before he A-examined, but rather that he cares more for the money of his passengers than their lives. The shipowner is a paradigm of Pascalian self-deception who could have walked off the pages of Bill Wood’s doctoral dissertation. Suppose that he had undertaken an A-examination before he sent off the ship. Is Clifford seriously suggesting that the shipowner’s commitment to his prior belief, qua prior belief of his, would influence the examination more than his greed? Would the examination go any differently if he had, like a good Cliffordian, withheld assent from the proposition, despite his lusting after its truth? One wonders about the epistemic virtue of Clifford’s leaving that bit out of his analysis….

One last poke at the pinata. A declaration of war is about as p-sensitive an action as can be conceived. The burden of evidence required for war is so high, moreover, that it takes all the resources of state power to discharge it. It would be outrageous to reach such a decision without, for example, extensive consultation with the intelligence services. In this case, then, only the state can conduct an A-examination. On Clifford’s principles, however, that implies that it is morally wrong for any but the state to hold an opinion on the legitimacy of a war. Insisting on that, however, is an obvious recipe for docility and disaster. The citizenry should examine the evidence as best as they can with the resources available to them, and if after careful examination they reach a different conclusion from the state, they ought to protest, never mind that they have not conducted a true A-examination.

On Salvation

The second part of my sin-salvation double essay.


The question of what Jesus saves us from is not, I think, a particularly useful one. This is because I do not regard salvation, as such, to be a fundamental theological category. There is one unified divine economy, in which creatures are raised from nothing into the divine life. It makes little sense, however, to think of us as being saved from nothing – we are created from nothing in the image and likeness of God. To think of salvation is really to think of the divine economy from a particular perspective: that of either longing for, or thankfulness for, the fulfillment of some temporal aspect of the divine economy. Accordingly, I will concentrate on the question of how the earthly life and death of Jesus contributes to the fulfillment of the divine economy. The simplest answer to this question, I will argue, is two-fold: firstly, Jesus’ death offers us a sacrifice the appropriation of which enables us to restore our divinising relationship with God; and secondly, the life and death of Jesus is at the heart of God’s work in the divinising relationship, because it offers us the knowledge of God. This view is best seen as using a teacher/exemplar model as an explanatory gloss on a robustly Patristic incarnation-divinisation model.

Christ the Perfect Sacrifice

Sin ruptures the relationship by which God means to complete the divine plan of creating us in His true image and likeness. This relationship must be restored if the divine economy is to be fulfilled. In the previous essay, I discussed the potential of sacrifice as a means of repairing that relationship. In fact, Christ’s death has traditionally been seen in terms of sacrifice: ‘Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sin’ (Hebrews 10:12). Thus I suggest it would be appropriate to view Christ’s death in the terms laid out in the previous essay. A decisive rejection of our sinful, false selves requires bodily destruction. In place of such a high penalty, we can, by accepting that Christ died for our sins, let Christ’s death enact the destruction of our own false selves. Thus we can firmly seize hold of God as our ultimate end, and restore the divinising relationship.

Once this basic mechanism is granted, it remains to be seen in what sense Christ’s death can be a uniquely perfect sacrifice: that is, what is special about Christ’s death such that everyone can appropriate it as a sacrifice sufficient to abolish their whole false self? I think we can identify three relevant aspects. Firstly, Christ was sinless, ‘without blemish or spot’ (1 Peter 1:19). No ordinary human death could as easily be appropriated for ourselves, for ordinary human beings already have false selves that are destroyed at death. Because Christ had no false self of his own to destroy, each one us is able to read into his death the destruction of our false self. A second, related, consideration is that Christ’s will is perfect. However sincere our desire for repentance may be, as long as we have grown accustomed to our false self, and, as inevitably occurs, come to love it, we will never be able wholly and unreservedly to will the false self’s destruction. It has made itself too precious to our warped imaginations. Try as we might to appropriate other deaths, we can never use them to abandon our false selves completely. The will of Christ, however, is not distorted by the same forces that our wills are. He is able wholly and unreservedly to will the destruction of everyone’s false self. We can therefore trust in him to will the destruction of our false selves on our behalves, without relying on our own imperfect efforts. A final point, related to the second, is that Christ is a sacrifice that God has provided. We need not fear, therefore, that the sacrifice will not cleanse us deeply enough, or that it will not repair our relationship with God enough to ensure the possibility of our continuing divinisation: God has vouchsafed that the one sacrifice of Christ is sufficient for all human need.

Before turning to the second aspect of Christ’s saving work, we should note the relationship between Christ’s sacrifice in death and the sacraments of the Church. Our discussion of sacrifice was originally stimulated by the idea that our false self is embedded not just in our minds but in our bodies. Though appropriating Christ’s sacrifice in faith may better enable us to abandon our false self than exerting our will, it remains a mental rather than a bodily process. For the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice to flow through our whole being, we require a more bodily means of appropriating it. Hence the significance of baptism: ‘all those who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death’ (Romans 6:3). Baptism unites us bodily with Christ’s sacrifice. Because, however, baptism is not enough to destroy every trace of sin within us, we need continually to be renewed in Christ’s sacrifice. Hence the eucharist: ‘Drink it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’. Appropriating Christ’s death as a sacrifice, both psychologically in trust and bodily in sacrament, helps us to relinquish our false selves and so restore our divinising relationship with God.

Divinisation Through Knowledge

The earthly life and death of Jesus, however, does more than enable us to repair our relationship with God: it is the basis of that relationship’s fulfillment. This returns us the thought of Irenaeus: to accomplish the divine economy God sent ‘His Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, who in the last times was made a man among men, that He might join the end to the beginning, that is, man to God’ (Against the Heresies, IV, 20, 4) . For Irenaeus, the incarnation of the Word was an essential aspect of the divine economy, insofar as the Word had been ‘foretelling from the beginning’ that He should be ‘present to His own creation, saving it’ (Against the Heresies, IV, 20, 4). As the forgers of orthodoxy insisted through centuries of controversy, the Word ‘became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself’ (Against the Heresies, V, prologue).

This leaves an important question unanswered. How exactly does God’s becoming human help humans become God? Now I can’t pretend to give a comprehensive answer to this question, and indeed it seems that one appropriate and correct answer is simply ‘it’s a mystery’. I believe, however, that one vital part that the earthly life and death of Jesus plays is to provide teaching and example. This view, though defended by Abelard and revived by Paul Fiddes, has not generally been held in high regard. Phillip Quinn, in discussing Abelard, notes that the charge of examplarism is ‘often thought devastating’. There seem to be related objections to the position. One is that the position is Pelagian. Since Pelagianism is primarily a doctrine concerned with grace and sin, some work needs to be done to explicate the connection between the ideas. The argument, I think, is this: if it is the case that we can be saved by good teaching and example, then human beings must be able to live without sin by their own will and unassisted by grace. Only if our will were already good could we seize upon a good example and follow it. But our wills are not good, but distorted by sin. So a good example avails us nothing. In short, this account of salvation entails Pelagianism. The second objection is more or less continuous with the first, except that it doesn’t refer to Pelagius. The idea here is that salvation is ontological and not merely epistemic. Gaining new knowledge does not change our nature fundamentally, but a fundamental change in our nature is what divinisation requires. The single basic objection is that no good example or instruction can influence us deeply enough to effect the change God seeks.

My main response to these objections will be by way of example: that is, I will simply try to construct an account of salvation which is not vulnerable on these scores. But first, I will try to undermine the prima facie plausibility of the objections by consulting scripture and tradition. My first point is that Irenaeus himself, despite the association of his name with ‘physical’ theories of salvation, laid great emphasis on the role of knowledge. Returning to a passage already quoted, we should consider in detail what role Ireneaus thought the Word had foretold for Himself:‘God should be seen by men, and hold converse with them upon earth, should confer with them’, become ‘capable of being perceived’ by His creation, with the ultimate end of ‘causing us to serve Him in holiness and righteousness all our days’ (Against the Heresies, IV, 20, 4). The crucial change that the Incarnation brings about, it seems, is that our relationship with God becomes more concrete: we see and speak to Him. In Christ we enjoy fellowship with God, and ‘fellowship with God is to know God’ (Against the Heresies, IV, 20, 5). This theme is worked and reworked to a pitch of mystical fervour: ‘For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendour. But His splendour vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life.’ (Against the Heresies, IV, 20, 5). God became human in order to allow Himself to be comprehended by humans, and our comprehending God brings us immortal life and a share in the divine nature.

These ideas of Irenaeus, moreover, are thoroughly Scriptural. His equation between the sight of God, the sight of Christ, light, and life is already present in the Gospel of John. ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men’ (1:4); ‘I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life’ (8:12); ‘Whoever sees me sees him that sent me. I have come to the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness’ (12:45-6). John is similarly emphatic about the power of Christ’s words: ‘already you are clean because of the word which I have spoken to you’ (15:3), ‘you have the words of eternal life’ (6:68). Finally, we should note what John says explicitly about knowledge: ‘you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’ (8:32). He is equally clear about what the truth frees us from: ‘whoever commits sin is a slave of sin’ (8:34). According to John, the knowledge Jesus offers really does bring about the change God seeks for His creation. The final goal of this change is indicated in 1 John: ‘when He is revealed, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is’ (3:2). Paul also testifies to the power of knowledge to transform: in 2 Corinthians he discusses the importance of reading the Old Testament in the light of Christ, saying that in this way ‘all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’ (3:18). Here Paul is referring back to a tradition from Exodus, which relates that when Moses came down from Sinai, he was visibly marked by the the divine glory ‘because he had been talking with God’ (34:29). The idea that the knowledge can conform us to God is wholly Biblical.

How Truth Frees

Still, this falls someway short of a theoretical account of how divinisation through knowledge works. First, let us consider the content of divinising knowledge. Here, ethics and doctrine are inseparable. We know what the life of Jesus was like, what Jesus taught that human life in general should be like, and who Jesus was. Saving knowledge, therefore, is not simply a matter of good moral precepts. Because Jesus is fully divine, we know that his example is a manifestation of God’s perfection, and that his teaching is the will of God for human life. And because Jesus was fully man, we know that his life was a genuine human life, and so that trying to follow his example and his teaching will not take us beyond the limits of our human nature. Even more specifically, knowing that Jesus had both a divine and a human will shows that it is possible for a human will to be in perfect harmony with the divine. Truly following Christ’s example requires that we imitate Christ’s inner life. Thus we know not to trust our own unaided will to do what pleases God, but rather cultivate a perfect and perpetual harmony between our own will and the divine, as occurred in Christ through the hypostatic union. Finally, the fundamental inadequacy of our own unaided will is revealed still more fully by Christ’s death. It directly demonstrates the power of sin, insofar as it shows that humankind have become capable, not merely of destroying a righteous man, but killing our creator; and it indirectly demonstrates the same, insofar as the lengths to which God was prepared to go to address the problem show how grave the problem really is. The knowledge that saves us combines both ethics and doctrine.

No matter how valuable the content of our knowledge may be, the charge can still be pressed that we cannot apply it unless a change has already been wrought within us. This is why the character of our knowledge, and not just the content, matters. What if God had simply handed down to us the sum of Christ’s moral instruction along with the ethical application just derived from Christological orthodoxy? The difference is that being told that a certain way of life is possible, even by God, is not the same as being shown that something is possible by a concrete instance. The content of saving knowledge, because revealed in the actual person of Christ, is grasped with greater assurance. Only this kind of assurance truly opens up the Christlike life as a possibility for all, such that ‘other other people can make it their own, repeating it and reliving the experience’ (Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation, 136). Apart from the degree of assurance, the human response to an example is simply different from our response to instruction. Thus the instinctive revulsion to hypocrisy, and the importance of the demand to practice as one preaches. It is not just moral censure; we cannot take the teaching of a known hypocrite seriously on its own terms, despite many of us being rationally cognisant of the fact that this response involves the informal ad hominem fallacy. Consider also the thrust of Paul’s discussion of the law: ‘but now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter’ (Romans 7:6). Paul seems to suggest that the many ordinances of the law are experienced as oppressive, from which oppression we are liberated by turning to the human being Christ, in whom the law is spiritually fulfilled. This seems phenomenologically true: we experience a command as an imposition, and are inclined to resent and perhaps resist it. An example, however, when recognised as right, tends more to encourage us towards the right. Further, as Abelard and his modern followers have urged, Christ’s example is uniquely attractive insofar as everyone can construe it at as an act of love directed towards them personally. Any act of human love directed towards us naturally provokes a response of loving gratitude on our own part. How much the more so, as Phillip Quinn argues, an act of divine love, which is a supernatural power tending to work supernatural effect. Thus does Christ ‘draw our minds away from the will to sin and enkindle in them the highest love of himself’ (Abelard, Commentary on Romans).

Let us review. The knowledge of Christ is uniquely salutary because it is at once the knowledge of God, the knowledge of humanity’s potential for godliness, and the knowledge of humanity’s actual sinfulness. It is uniquely attractive, because of the supernatural power of divine love to provoke human love. Finally, we should not forget our earlier conclusion that Christ’s death is uniquely poised to enable us to abandon our false selves and return to God. Christ thus establishes certain conditions that must obtain if we are to serve God ‘in holiness and righteousness all our days’. For human beings in fact to do so, we must still respond rightly to all that Christ offers. Explaining how this response is made would involve a general account of the human will and its relation to grace, which I cannot provide. The view of Christ’s work here defended, however, does not presuppose the details of any such account. It is thus entirely consisted with all I have said to maintain that we are firmly dependent on grace in appropriating Christ’s work. The important point is that the life and death of Christ is decisive, for it uniquely reveals indispensable truth and attracts us towards that truth.There remains one final question, however: can knowing the truth induce any change so radical as divinisation?

From Knowledge to Mystery

Consideration of the supernatural power of Christ’s example leads us on to the climax of the divinising process. Though John and Irenaeus both seem to start from the quite ordinary knowledge of Christ’s words and deeds, they quickly move on to the importance of receiving such knowledge in faith, and finally to the theme of mystical fellowship. ‘If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’ (John 15:23). I believe that such language is not irreducibly mysterious, and can be furnished with the rudiments of an explanation. This explanation begins with our knowledge of Christ, and more particular from the form of that knowledge. It is a common and natural phenomenon that a well constructed narrative will, in some sense, make its characters ‘come alive’ to those who receive the narrative attentively. We all have favourite fictional characters, with whom we enjoy a personal relationship of sorts, and a good biography can draw us equally close to real personages. How much more so with the Gospels, which are the word of God. Thus the knowledge of God in the Gospels is the foundation of our fellowship with Christ.

This fellowship, moreover, can be enhanced in numerous ways. Firstly, we can read the rest of Scripture Christocentrically, and thus let God’s word shape our relationship with Christ beyond the four narratives of his life. Secondly, we can go further than the written words through devotional meditation on Christ’s life, enabling us to identify ever more deeply with him in our imaginations. Thirdly, we can maintain a continuing relationship with him, responsive to our own changing circumstances, through prayer. Fourthly, we can consciously strive to imitate Christ and obey his commandments, allowing us to abide in Christ’s love, as promised in John 15:10. Fifthly, we can unite ourselves to Christ through membership of his body, that is, by participating in the Christian community. Sixthly, there are many ways by which we can enrich our relationship with Christ intellectually, paradigmatically by hearing God’s word preached, but also through scholarly exegesis and even theology. Seventhly, we can encounter Christ in body and spirit through the sacraments. And last of all the means that I can identify, and not the least even of those, we can try to discern the image of God and presence of Christ in the people around us. All told, the resources available to us allow a rich relationship with Christ.

This fellowship changes us in much the way that ordinary human fellowship does. The more closely we get to know a person, the more we understand their attitudes and their thought processes, and the easier it is for us to enter into their perspective. Of course, we are not passive in this process, but must adopt Christ’s perspective as our own. It is only possible to do so systematically, however, on the basis of a deep fellowship. And the deeper the fellowship is, the more attractive will become the prospect of doing so, as we love Christ better. Thus we come consistently to see ourselves, the world, and all our interactions through a Christological lens. We decide, in effect, to let Christ make all our decisions for us, so that we may say with Paul that ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2.20). By aligning our perspective with that of Christ’s in thought and deed, we are increasingly conformed to Christ, and thus are ‘in God, and partake of His splendour’. By appropriating Christ’s death as a sacrifice, we are able to put aside our false selves, and restore our relationship with God. This relationship restored, we can turn to the knowledge Christ offers us, which is uniquely salutary because of who Christ is, and uniquely attractive because of how deeply Christ loves. This knowledge becomes increasingly salutary and increasingly attractive as we enter into increasingly rich relationship with Christ, until we let it conform us entirely into the image and likeness of God.

On Sin

 At the heart of the classical doctrine of sin stood a narrative. God created all the world, including humanity in His own image, and saw that it was very good. Yet the first man and woman chose to disobey the commandment of their Creator, and thus were accursed. God, seeking to break the curse on humankind, enacted the only effective remedy against a curse so great – He sent His only-begotten Son to live and die as as creature. The classical doctrine of sin, from the writings of Paul onwards, was an attempt to spell out the implications of this story. In the 20th Century, however, the doctrine came to be questioned because the narrative behind it was questioned. In particular, the story’s second act – the transgression of the first human couple – became incredible to many. Our best scientific theories of human origin clearly indicated that, rather than a unique first human couple, there had been a continuum of primates bearing increasingly greater genetic similarity to the average human alive today. The question of sin then became, what sense can be made of the Church’s teaching here once this element of the underlying story is relinquished. 


Spiritual Consciousness and the Divinising Relationship


    It is my contention that nothing theologically important is lost from the Biblical narrative once we construe the Paradise story as wholly mythical. What follows is an inevitably speculative attempt to translate that narrative into terms consistent with our current understanding of human origins, thus to ground a contemporary understanding of sin. At some point during the evolutionary process, there arose a spiritually conscious creature – which, for our purposes, means to say that there arose a creature directed towards an ultimate end. Instead of simply acting instinctively to achieve obvious short term goals, our ancestors began to see their whole pattern of life and action as conforming to a definite shape and serving more general, long term purposes. At first, the long term goals would presumably have been no more than generaliations of the short term goals – e.g. stave off hunger throughout the cold months rather than merely through the night. Eventually, however, some will have come to reflect on what grounded the longer term goals. Why keep self and kin fed at all? For what purpose is anyone here? As soon as such questions were asked, in whatever rudimentary form, spiritual consciousness had been achieved. 


   The true ultimate end of our ancestors, the correct answer to their questions, was of course the service of God. Initially, moreover, God enabled our ancestors to give some rudimentary form of the correct answer. God so revealed Himself to them that they could take God as their ultimate end. Thus a relationship between God and humankind was established: humans trusted in God as their ultimate end, and so humans could receive from God both instruction in what service to Him entailed, and incitement to the various gifts (wisdom, courage, strength of will) such service required. We might say that in this relationship humanity offers faith, God offers grace and truth, and the ultimate end is divinisation – the perfection of humanity in the full image and likeness of God. 


    This account is essentially that of Irenaeus, albeit without mention of a historical first couple. ‘Now it was necessary that humanity should in the first instance be created; and having been created, should receive growth; and having received growth, should be strengthened’ with the ultimate goal of ‘ascending towards the perfect, that is, the uncreated One’. (Against the Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 38, Section 3). Human beings were initially created in a state of spiritual weakness, but God intended that, by entering into relationship with Him, we should grow to be ‘at length gods’ (Against the Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 38, Section 4). 


   One of the important points to make here is that mere spiritual immaturity is not itself sin. If sin is viewed as the failure to love God properly or to do His will in some unrestricted sense, then it is natural to assimilate spiritual immaturity to sin. This is problematic, because spiritual immaturity seems to have been inherent in our creation. We each come into the world meeting our own basic needs by instinct, and learning only later, and with difficulty, how to regulate our actions with the interests of others, or indeed, our own long-term interests, in mind. If we accept  our best scientific theories of human origins, then we cannot assume that our ancestors differed significantly in this respect.  Indeed,  this view is supported by the Paradise story: Adam and Eve must initially lack the knowledge of good and evil, because the acquisition of such knowledge is a temptation to them. The Biblical narrative also insists, however,  that sin was not inherent to creation: creation was itself ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:36), while sin entered later through human free choice. So spiritual immaturity is not sin. 


Sin as Turning Away from God


   So what is sin? Sin is turning away from God, construed as the refusal to acknowledge that the service of God is our ultimate end, and more generally as any action on our part that disrupts the divinising relationship. One consequence of this account is that the scope of sin various according to the extent of God’s revelation to a given subject. If we know that mocking a disabled person is a violation of God’s will, then to mock such a person is of itself a rejection of God as our ultimate end and a disruption in our divinising relationship.  This is so even if the action is entirely spontaneous and unreflective, and not at all related back to any conscious conception of what our ultimate end might be: in that moment, we implicitly reject God’s claim on us by contravening what we know to be His will. At an earlier stage in the divinising relationship, however, when God’s will was less well known, things were otherwise. The mockery would not of itself have constituted a rejection of God as our ultimate end, and so would only have been a spiritually immature act and not a sin.  This idea that those who have received greater revelation are thereby answerable to higher standard is well-supported by Scripture. ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities’ the Lord oracles through Amos (3:2); though Paul’s argument is dense and difficult to interpret, it may be that he is making a similar point in Romans 7:7, that the law ‘provides sin with a more effective leverage on man’ (Dunn, 381). 


    It  accords with the Biblical narrative, and is independently plausible (in that under such conditions sin would have been easier), to suppose that humankind first sinned very early in the divinsing relationship, during the initial period of moral immaturity when our ancestors still lacked the knowledge of good and evil. Thus the first sin is not likely to have been a failure to uphold an established moral ordinance so much as a fundamental change of orientation, a rejection of God as such, or at least God under whatever guise He was first known to our ancestors. This too is borne out by the Biblical narrative. Though the story of the Fall reaches its climax in the transgression of a specific commandment, there is clearly a more complex process at work. Adam and Eve only transgress God’s command because they put their trust in the serpent rather than God, while the serpent only succeeds in gaining their trust by appealing to their sense of their own glory: they would rather ‘be like God’ than serve Him as well as their weakness allows. By the time they have digested the serpent’s rhetoric, they no longer accept the service of God as their ultimate end, and are in sin. 


   Of course it is fruitless now to speculate on the precise nature of the first human sin, but we may presume that its character was similar to that portrayed in the Genesis account. One point bearing emphasis, however, is that it need not have involved the same self-glorification as enticed Adam and Eve. Any rejection of God as an ultimate end, for whatever reason, and in favour of whatever alternative, would have done just as well. There is little reason to think that pride is the purest or most basic form of sin. 


    Sin may not always be a turning away from God to self, but it does always involve the self in a special way. Concomitant with the turn away from God is a turning from a true to a false conception of self, for our self-conception is intimately connected with what we take our ultimate end to be. The true self is essentially related to God as its ultimate end. To reject God as our ultimate end, therefore, is to replace a true conception of ourselves with a false one. The importance of this point will become clear later, in discussing the relationship between sin and death  (and it will become clearer still in the next essay!)


Sin as Original and Enslaving


       Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the traditional account of us sin for us to accept today is the idea that ever since, and because of, the first sin, we have all been in bondage to sin. The basic idea is present in Paul: ‘by one man’s (i.e. Adam’s) disobedience many were made sinners (Romans 5:19), ‘you were slaves to sin’ (Romans 6:20) and was fully elaborated in Augustine’s polemic against Pelagius. The mechanism by which one man (or even several people) could corrupt the wills of his descendants many generations later is, at least initially, mysterious. 


      Fortunately, however, it is not utterly obscure.  If we can explain how sin perpetuates itself within an individual person, and how a sinful community can perpetuate sin in members newly born into it, then we need only posit a critical mass of enough initial sins in enough people for a community thereby to be bound to an inheritance of sin from generation to generation. Both of these explanatory resources are provided by Pascal.  At the centre of Pascal’s account if sin is the faculty of imagination.  Pascal understands the imagination as a general faculty of mental representation. It is relevant to sin because part of its role is to represent the value of things: ‘the imagination determines the subjective value of objects and situations by shaping the way we construe and interpret them’ (Wood, Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall, p 124). Accordingly, if the imagination construes a sinful course action in the right (or rather, wrong) way, it will seem valuable to us, and we will be likely to follow that course of action.  Our imagination might, for example, represent with particular clarity the inconvenience involved in accommodating to another’s disability, without representing with equal clarity the continual inconvenience endured by the disabled person, and consequently suggest that mocking such a person might, in fact, be appropriate. Our evaluative attitudes so ordered by imagination, we are naturally prompted to action – in this case, sinful action. More fundamentally, the ways in which the imagination habitually represents the world to us can obscure the fact that God is our ultimate end and the true source of all value. 


     This helps us to explain original sin because of the way the imagination is shaped. The whole human being, imagination included, develops within a particular social context, and that social context influences our development. Whenever the values of our society are enacted around us, in word or deed, our imagination is affected, and slowly the imagination comes to represent the world in accordance with the values to which it has been exposed. Our imagination is thus socially constructed. And if the society constructing our imagination does not recognise the God as its ultimate end, we will not recognise God as our ultimate end, either. A sinful society distorts the imagination, which in turn represents the world in a distorted and sinful way. 


   Consider, for example, a society in which religious observance is primarily construed as an expression of national identity. We will be used to hearing others say ‘he goes to church; he’s a good citizen’. We will be used to praying for the state and its ministers and singing the national anthem in church. Perhaps church services are typically followed by a procession to the town hall or a monument or some other symbol of the state, before which everyone bows. When they retire, people usually talk about politics or sing nationalist songs.  As the imagination absorbs all this, it will internalise the idea that the display of identity is primary and the content of faith is secondary. Thus we will accept that our ultimate end is service to the nation rather than to God. Without a radical change in the mechanisms of imagination, moreover, we will likely continue in sin. Should state decree ever conflict with the commandments of God, the imagination oriented towards the state will represent following the state as the more favourable course, and we will obey the state. The more often we side with the state, the deeper our imaginative allegiance to the state becomes, and the more tenuous our relationship with God. Thus can the past sins of others bind us to sin. 


The Wages of Sin 


    A last point I would like to consider is the relationship, often attested in the Bible, between sin and death. One way to interpret this idea is to see sin, as the disruption of our relationship with the living God, as a kind of spiritual death. But one puzzling point is that it is not merely continuing in sin that results in death, but also the very process of  turning away from sin is involves death. According to Paul, ‘he who has died is free from sin’ (Romans 6:7), while Jesus claims that ‘whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Matthew 10:39). The Bible seems to suggest that, with sin, we’re dead if we do and we’re dead if we don’t. 


   The natural way to interpret this death is with recourse to the false conception of the sinful self. The false self that denies its essential relation to God is what dies. This thought, however, can be construed in more than metaphorical (albeit highly speculative) terms, in accordance with the very concrete ideas of destruction associated with sin elsewhere in the Bible. First, note that is very difficult to get rid of a false self. It cannot simply be willed away. The false self, as we have already seen, is rooted deep in our imaginations. In fact, it is rooted deeper still. Our false self is ‘inscribed on the body’ (Wood, Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall, p 65), something realised physically every time we perform a sinful act and abiding after the act has been performed. For, as every glutton knows, once habituated into sin the body retains a propensity towards sin. It follows that the false self can only be decisively abandoned through the destruction of the body. The restoration of our relationship with God, however, requires nothing less than the decisive abandonment of our false selves. So the restoration of our relationship requires the destruction of our bodies. 


    Naturally, however, we cannot endure the destruction of our bodies, and so have developed various approximations to fulfill a similar role. One such proxy, I suggest, is the practice of sacrifice. Sacrifices enable us to realise the death of our false selves through the death of the victim. It may not quite grant the glutton freedom from his bodily greed, but it allows a far greater separation from our false selves than it would be possible to attain all at once otherwise.  It is for this reason that sacrifice can repair our relationship with God. 


   In conclusion, sin is turning away from God as our ultimate end, and severing ourselves from the divinising relationship He offers us. Original sin is the process of being socialised into an already sinful world, such that our evaluating faculties are sufficiently warped that we do not recognise God as our ultimate end and actions that defy God’s will appear attractive to us. Because our sin penetrates into the whole of human being, body included, rejection of sin naturally involves the rejection of our sinful bodies. Hence the traditional association of sin with death, and the institution of sacrifice. 

Religion and Morality

I think that this is is an interesting issue which often get mishandled. Usually religious apologists who discuss it take a strong meta-ethical line, that is, they make claims about the nature of value and moral truth. The issues at stake are complex, however, and people plunge in without the requisite philosophical sophistication to say anything sensible. The argumentative atheist, on the other hand, often thinks in terms of moral motivation, imagining that the only special motivation religion brings is the fear of hell and hope of heaven, from which assumption he reasonably concludes that the supposed connection between religion and morality is a sham because it’s all self-interest anyway. Additionally, no one likes to be told ‘I’m morally superior to you’, which it is very natural for the atheist to hear once this subject is broached. I will focus on the modest claim that, for any given person, that person would probably be morally better if they were a Christian than if they were an atheist. I will be arguing from presuppositions that (I hope) an atheist can easily accept, but paying attention to what Christianity is actually like rather than what some argumentative atheists seem to think it’s like. I will be focussing on Christianity because that’s what I know; I daresay that some points I make can be transferred to other religions, but others are more specific.

1. Love and Gratitude.

If you like me, you’re more likely to do me a favour. If I’ve done you favours in the past, you’re even more likely to do me a favour. If you love me, and are confident that I love you and would do anything for you, then there’s very little you wouldn’t do for me either. This last is the relationship that a Christian takes herself to have with God. The Christian believes that the love of God is the very reason for her own existence, that God suffered death for her sake, and that, yes, God will bring her peace, joy, and life eternal. This quite naturally disposes her to do what God asks, and what God asks is that we ‘love one another, as I  have loved you’. It’s all very well to read ‘Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,  and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house;when you see the naked, to cover him,and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?’ and think that it represents an admirable ideal, but it’s something else entirely to be convinced that the Creator of the universe, who loves you with an unimaginable love, is calling on you personally to do this for His sake. 

2. Christian Paradoxes

Christianity is riddled and replete with paradox. Fully God and fully man, the first will be last and the last will be first, my burden is light//take up your cross, a person is justified by faith apart from works/faith without works is dead, I am a worm/you are gods, service is perfect freedom, what is impossible with man is possible with God, etc etc. The force of many of these paradoxes, rightly understood, is partly this: not even the greatest saint will ever do all that God asks, and yet what God asks is not beyond the capacity of the meanest sinner. The basis of our relationship with God is not a set quotient of good works, which one person may already have exceeded and another cannot dream of attaining, but an attitude: trust in God, sincere regret for our failures, and sincere striving to do better in His sight. However good or bad we are, then, God calls us to become better by a realistic margin.  Christianity can be for anyone a continual encouragement to self-improvement. More than this, Christianity insists that improvement of the self is never truly improvement by the self: it is always improvement by God. We rely not on our own strength, but on a strength much greater. The effect of this should be a re-valuation of our perceived limits: whatever we think is the best we can do unaided, we should be confident that in faith, with God’s help, we can do better. And if we are confident that we can do better, then we will be able to do better. That’s simply a truism. We will take on more demanding tasks and apply ourselves to them with greater resolve, and so do better than we would have done otherwise, even if no divine interruptions in the order of nature are in fact forthcoming to assist us.

3. Prayer

Argumentative atheists will often dismiss prayer. I’ve always found this puzzling. I suppose people are so focussed on the issue of whether intercession is effective in the double-blind trial sense that they forget the banal but still practically significant ways in which the act of prayer affects the one who prays. First of all, there’s my very first point. Praying daily is a daily reminder of God’s love for us and our reasons for loving Him. It thus naturally increases our inclination to serve others in His name. Then there’s confession and repentance. If we regularly take time to call to mind our failings, and then humbly and sincerely beg forgiveness, we will be more aware of our faults, and give into them less easily, than we would otherwise. Also, there’s petition for virtue. At the very least, this is a continual reminder of our resolve to practice virtue. Moreover, the more firmly we believe that prayer for virtue increases virtue, the more our virtue will be increased. That requires no more than the placebo effect. Finally, I would like to put in a good word for intercession itself. As such cynics as Ricky Gervais delight in pointing out, intercession is not an act of charity in the modern sense. But it is an exercise of charity in the traditional sense. That is, making an effort to bring others to mind, enter their perspective, make their concerns our own, and sincerely will their good, is likely to make us more considerate and more compassionate in our daily life. The heart is a muscle. I don’t dispute that an hour spent feeding the homeless is on balance better than an hour spent praying for them, but setting one against the other misses the point. If the choice is simply between praying and not praying, better to pray. Also, volunteering is difficult, not merely in that actually being in a soup kitchen poses a range of physical, emotional, and psychological demands, but in the trivial sense that you have to be in the right place at the right time and it’s just a hassle to organise. Anyone can pray at any time. If it works, you’ll be more motivated to take on the hassle of active service than you would have been otherwise.