Wednesday, 19 February 2014

CHF Day Conference: Christianity and National Identity (Saturday 15th April 2014)

In April 2014 CHF is holding a day conference at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, North Wales. As before, it is possible to stay a night either before or after the conference, but this has to be arranged directly with Gladstone’s Library. The cost of the conference will be announced soon, but will be quite small, to cover conference expenses but not drinks or lunch, which delegates will buy themselves during the day.

We are using the opportunity of the 1914 anniversary to explore wider issues of Christianity, the State and National identity, and have a selection of papers from different perspectives which relate to this topic, all given by top scholars in the field.

10.30 Arrival and registration

11.00 Sion Aled Owen: 'Christianity and national identity in Wales'

12.00 Scott Spurlock: 'Religion and national identity in early modern Scotland'

1.00 Lunch

2.00 Round table discussion on issues relating to history, Christianity and National Identity.

3.00 John Maiden: 'National Conspiracy: the Protestant Truth Society and Fundamentalist Anxieties in the Twentieth Century'

4.00 Tea and depart.


To register, please contact Iain Taylor at taylor.comm@tiscali.co.uk


If you would like to stay a night before or after the conference, please contact Gladstone’s Library directly to make arrangements, via http://www.gladstoneslibrary.org or phone them on 01244 532350

Thursday, 31 January 2013

CHF Conference (2-4 April 2013) - History & Theology in a "Secular Age"

For many years, CHF has held a biennial residential conference at Offa House, nr Coventry. In 2013, our speakers will focus on the relationship between theology, history and secular modernity. Members and non-members are welcome, and there is a call for short papers on work in progress.

SPEAKERS
Eugenio Biagini (Sidney Sussex, Cambridge), In What Ways can Christians make a Distinctive Contribution to the Writing of ‘Secular’ History?

John Coffey (University of Leicester), The Theological Origins of Modernity

Stan Rosenberg (Director, Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford), Getting Beyond the Books: The Historical and Oral Context of Early Christian Theology

Stephen Tuck (Pembroke College, Oxford) Black Churches, Racism, and a ‘Secular Age’ in the Post-Civil War United States

Martin Wellings (Superintendent Minister, Oxford Methodist Circuit), Paddling in the ‘Ugly Ditch’: Reflections on the Relationship between Theology and History

Roundtable discussion of Mark Hutchinson and John Wolffe, A Short History of Global Evangelicalism (Cambridge University Press, 2012), led by John Coffey (University of Leicester), with response from John Wolffe (The Open University).
Roundtable discussion, led by John Wolffe (The Open University) History and Theology, the Academy and the Churches in a ‘Secular’ Age (Short contributions welcome – see below)

Offers of short papers, presentations and reports are very welcome, either for the Wednesday evening round table session, if relevant to its themes, or for Thursday morning, if concerned with any other research or activity likely to be of interest to other participants. Please send offers of such contributions to John Wolffe (john.wolffe@open.ac.uk) by 28 February.

This conference is dedicated to the memory of our longstanding member Professor Eric Ives OBE (1931-2012), a distinguished historian of Tudor England who was a regular attender at Offa House conferences. Eric was always concerned that CHF should not retreat into a narrow preoccupation with ‘church’ history, but rather encourage Christian historians to engage much more widely in a theologically-informed manner with the study of the past. His own reflections on the relationship between theology and history were published as God and History (1979).


VENUE AND BOOKING DETAILS
The Christianity and History Forum has used Offa House (http://offahouseretreat.co.uk) for residential conferences for many years. It is the Anglican Diocese of Coventry retreat and conference centre in an attractive Georgian building in its own grounds next to the church in the village of Offchurch, two miles east of Leamington Spa. There are frequent trains for Leamington Spa from London (Marylebone) and Birmingham (Moor Street or New Street), Coventry and Oxford. Take a taxi from the station to reach Offa House. Offa House Ltd, Village Street, Offchurch,Warwickshire CV33 9AS


We are pleased to be able to hold prices at the same level as for the last residential conference in 2010. The standard price for the full conference is £150, with a reduced rate of £120 for postgraduate students. In order to support this reduction, we invite others who are able to make an additional voluntary contribution of £20. Ensuite rooms can be pre-booked at a supplement of £6 per night.
Part residents (Tuesday tea to Wednesday lunch or Wednesday tea to Thursday lunch) costs £75 standard rate £60 for postgraduates.
Non residents (including all meals except breakfast) – full conference £75; Wednesday only £40; Tuesday or Thursday only £20. There is no postgraduate concession on non-resident rates.


Booking forms available from Dr Linda Wilson, 24 Stanbury Road, Victoria Park, Bristol, BS3 4QG.

Email (for pre-booking enquiries): linda.wilson@blueyonder.co.uk

Deadline Monday 12 March

(Cancellation charges: up to Friday 16 March £10; between 16 and 28 March 50%; after 28 March or ‘no shows’ 100%)

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Tom Holland on Islam, Christianity and empire

Tom Holland is the author of bestselling histories of the ancient and medieval world - Persian Fire (on the Greeks and the Persians), Rubicon (on the fall of the Roman republic), and Millennium (on what used to be called 'the Dark Ages'). His narratives manage to distil the best current scholarship while being compulsively readable.

His latest book is his most ambitious yet. Entitled In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World, it situates the rise of Islam in the 7th century against the backdrop of plague, war and the dramatic emergence of an Arab empire. Instead of depicting a militaristic religion driving Arab expansion, Holland shows a new empire forging Islam in order to bolster its own authority. The result is a thoroughly revisionist take on early Islamic history, one that draws on specialist scholarship to undercut the official story.

Holland begins his book with a striking quotation from Salman Rushdie: 'The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammed, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time'.

Yet as Holland points out, the earliest surviving biography of Muhammed dates from the early 9th century, almost two centuries after his lifetime (traditionally dated AD 570-632). By contrast, our sources for the life of Jesus are much closer to the events in question. Paul's letters were largely written in the 50s, while the synoptic Gospels are usually dated to between the late 60s and the 80s of the first century. Indeed, a raft of recent scholarship, by figures like Richard Bauckham, James Dunn, Craig Evans, Craig Keener, J.P. Meier and N.T. Wright has made a compelling case for the historical credibility of the Gospel accounts. Rushdie may have got things the wrong way round.

Besides raising questions of historicity, Holland's book reflects the current vogue for studying the relationship between religion and empire. He suggests that Christianity and Islam were both powerfully shaped (or reshaped) by mighty emperors: Constantine (306-37) and Abd al-Malik (685-705). Indeed, on his account, the emperors emerge almost as the real founders of the two religions, putting Jesus and Muhammed 'in the shadow of the sword'. In the case of Christianity, at least, there is an irony here, since some recent New Testament scholars have been keen to uncover the allegedly anti-imperial thrust of early Christianity (e.g. N.T. Wright, J.D. Crossan and Kavin Rowe). Holland's point, however, is a persuasive one: late antiquity was not the exhausted fag end of the ancient world, it was an extraordinarily creative and formative era in which empire and monotheism were fused together. For good and ill, we are still living with the consequences. And in the end, he suggests, the greatest shapers of the future were not the emperors and caliphs, but the bishops who forged Christian doctrine, the rabbis who compiled the Talmud, and the scholars who established the Islamic tradition. As he concludes, 'the pen, it seems, is indeed mightier than the sword'.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation

Brad Gregory's new book on the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation is generating a fair bit of online discussion, and has already been reviewed in the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Times Higher. It's a brave book. It breaks out of chronological and disciplinary comfort zones in a way that few historians dare in these days of ever increasing specialisation. It's brave in another way too. Historians are typically inclined to sidestep normative debates about the true, the good and the beautiful. Gregory does not. This is a moral (and theological) history of Western modernity, which ends with a call for the desecularization of the university. It's already being compared with two other bracing works by Catholic thinkers, Macintyre's After Virtue, and Taylor's A Secular Age.

Of course, Protestants are likely to have some significant reservations about aspects of the argument. For a thoughtful engagement along these lines see Dale van Kley's review in Books and Culture:
http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2012/marapr/rotstarted.html

The book's homepage is here:
http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674045637

Jonathan Israel's Enlightenment

Over the past decade, Jonathan Israel has been remapping the Enlightenment in a massive trilogy of books published by OUP: Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and finally Democratic Enlightenment (2011). Together they amount to 2500 pages, and take us from Spinoza to the French Revolution, from the Americas to Greece and Eastern Europe, with fascinating chapters on European perceptions of China and India.

Reviewers have consistently praised Israel's extraordinary energy and resourcefulness, his facility in a variety of languages and his researches in dozens of archives. Yet many have also expressed serious misgivings about his vision of the Enlightenment. He discerns a three way struggle in the eighteenth-century between a materialist Radical Enlightenment, a compromised Moderate Enlightenment, and a traditionalist Counter-Enlightenment. Israel's sympathies lie wholeheartedly with the Radical version, and he aims to uncover the Enlightenment foundations of modern secularism and liberalism. But numerous reviewers have suggested that the analysis is far too schematic. Thinkers are assigned to ideological blocs, and each bloc is associated with a package of ideas or values. But on closer inspection, ideologies and alignments prove to be more complex, and Radical Enlightenment does not have all the best tunes.

The dispute is perhaps best followed through Israel's exchange with Samuel Moyn, following the latter's highly critical review in The Nation:
http://www.thenation.com/article/mind-enlightenment
http://hnn.us/articles/128361.html

The current debate over the Enlightenment illustrates Croce's point that 'All history is contemporary history'. The issues debated in the eighteenth century have risen to the surface once again, above all the place of religion in public life. For all its faults, Israel's project does help us to understand how the Enlightenment has always been contested. Despite his affinity with the new atheists, his work reveals the persistent power of religion in Enlightenment Europe. He admits that secular materialists were only a radical fringe, nearly always outflanked and outnumbered by advocates of Christian Enlightenment or Counter-Enlightenment. These unresolved controversies of the eighteenth-century are being played out in the twenty-first.

Secularization revisited

The classic secularization paradigm has gone into decline over the past couple of decades. Many sociologists are no longer convinced that modernity is 'the engine dragging the gods into retirement' (as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke once put it). The current issue of the Historical Journal carries two historiographical reviews which further qualify modernist assumptions. The most ambitious and wide ranging is Jonathan Clark's essay, 'Secularization and modernization: the failure of a "grand narrative"'. Clark surveys a very wide range of historical research and is characteristically learned and provocative. Jeffrey Morris focusses on modern Britain in his piece on 'Secularization and religious experience'.

Both are worth reading alongside David Martin's latest book, The Future of Christianity (Ashgate, 2011). Martin was one of the earliest and most persistent critics of the traditional paradigm, but he has been careful to retain a modified theory of secularization, one that avoids strong teleology. He is wary of the bald claim that secularization has 'gone into reverse'. The book distils a lifetime of learning and reflection on topics like Pentecostalism, Eastern Europe, master narratives and religious violence.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Difficult Atheism, or Beyond the New Atheism

As many have pointed out, the New Atheism is remarkably old-fashioned. It shares the touching faith of 19thC 'infidels' that secular intellectuals can make a clean break with the religious past, erecting a new philosophy that owes nothing to faith and everything to Reason.

The New Atheists have made plenty of converts among the general reading public, but they are failing to convince secular intellectuals. We are seeing the emergence of more conflicted styles of atheism that frankly acknowledge the religious roots of modern thought. Examples abound. Germany's leading philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, has argued that many of the values of European liberal democracy have Christian sources. The English philosophers, John Gray and Simon Critchley, maintain that post-Enlightenment political ideals owe much to Christian doctrines like original sin, millennialism, providence. Within contemporary French philosophy, as Chris Watkins shows in his book, Difficult Atheism (2011), there is an ongoing debate about what a genuinely post-theological atheism would look like, or whether it's even possible. The literary critic, James Wood (who was raised among Anglican charismatics in Oxford) has written in the New Yorker that ‘What is needed is a theologically engaged atheism, that resembles disappointed belief.’ At a more populist level, writers like Alain de Botton are thinking about how to create Religion for Atheists (2012).

What separates these writers from the New Atheists is a strong sense of history - an appreciation that religion is a constitutive element of human cultures across history, and that it has continued to flow into the values of a 'secular' age. When atheists get history, they get religion.