Thursday, December 23, 2021

 

SOMETHING TO DO WITH SPACE...

(compleat]

I am going to talk about the first science fiction book I ever read; possibly the first real book I ever read. I am going to try to explain why it was my favourite book when I was a child, and what it was like coming back to it after very nearly fifty years. 

When I was four or five the grown-ups asked me what present I would like for my birthday. "Something to do with SPACE" I replied. I got a magnificent plastic space helmet, one size fits all, with a NASA logo and a visor you could raise and lower. It echoed, slightly, when you put it on your head so your voice seemed to be coming from the moon itself. I got a space suit to go with it: a silver pair of P.Js, really, with moon-shot patches and Stars and Stripes sewed into them. I can't remember wearing the suit, but I can remember sadly realising that I was getting too big for it.

I was born in 1965 so I would have been just about conscious of the moon landings. I think I was just barely aware of the Apollo 13 near disaster; I think my mum shielded me from watching the TV news in case it became too sad.

I suppose the choice is arbitrary. I decided I liked Space. I might just as well have decided that I liked Unicorns.

It is not hard to explain why, at the age of eight I went crazy for Spider-Man and at the age of twelve I went crazy for Star Wars. Maybe you went crazy for Pirates of the Caribbean or Toy Story or Jurassic Park. Spider-Man and Star Wars are texts. I was crazy about the stories that Steve Ditko and George Lucas were telling me.

But very small children know that they like Pirates or Dinosaurs long before they have encountered any actual texts. They don't like particular stories. They certainly don't care about letters of marque or paleontology. But they do know that Pirates and Dinosaurs are cool.

Space-rockets were cool. Daleks were cool, too, long before I knew that they came from Skaro or contained a disgusting mutant or wanted to rule the universe or even that they appeared in a TV series called Doctor Who. 

Children become obsessed with the oddest things: lifts or trucks or teapots or the colour pink. It's almost a form of imprinting. How many serious grown up interests started with pointless childhood fixations, I wonder? See a pony at the age of three; develop a serious interest in dressage and the Grand National at the age of sixteen. Get a toy turtle at two; get a junior black belt in Judo at the age of eleven.  

The overwhelming majority of grown-ups read stories about businessmen and lawyers and vets and village school teachers and middle class Italians and narcissistic Norwegians. They say that they literally cannot understand why any grown-up would want to read "all those crazy space stories". And crazy space story readers can't work out why anyone in their right mind would want to read a story about ordinary things happening to ordinary people in an ordinary world. Perhaps the grown-up majority just never fixated on space rockets or dinosaurs? 

Didn't Freud think that most kinks were perfectly normal elements of infantile sexuality that particular people never grew out of?

Some of the unpleasant far-right science fictions fans who called themselves Puppies believed that no-one really liked mainstream fiction: it was being forcibly imposed on a docile population by a feminist-academic cult, to make America more vulnerable to the communist take-over. Or something. Guardian cartoonist Tom Gaud drew a celebrated cartoon in which a science fiction reader imagined that mainstream fiction readers were dull sourpusses who were secretly jealous of all the fun he was having. 

Two mutually uncomprehending sub-cultures. Two people for whom "books" mean different things.

Yes; I know. There are dog people and cat people, but Mrs Smith down the road dotes on her poodle and her siamese.

We like Doctor Who because, when we were too young to know what Doctor Who was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting Ex! Term! In! Ate! in a silly voice.

We like Pirates of the Caribbean because when we were too young to know what a sailing ship was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting "Arrrr!" in a silly voice.

We are interested in equestrian sport because when we were too young to know what a horse was we thought it was fun to gallop around the room making clip-clop noises with our tongues.

It really was that simple. That was why I decided I liked Space. 

Not because of the adventure.

Not because I liked the idea of different worlds and aliens.

Because a rocket ship is a great, big, tall, willy-shaped firework.

And mostly because it is fun to run around the room shouting FIVE FOUR THREE TWO ONE BLAST OFF.

Not the real reason. Not the only reason. But the point of origin.


*


My first school was split between Infants and Juniors. The Infants were segregated off in their own corridor. I don't think there was ever an Infants Library. I suppose there must have been books, but I can't remember any particular ones. We were taught to read from Janet and John, of course. At home I had a fine collection of Ladybirds. I remember Magic Roundabout Annuals and a very dog-eared Disney Storybook. Doctor Seuss was disapproved of because he rhymed Zed with Bee and couldn't spell "colour". 

I think that Picture Books are a slightly more recent publishing phenomenon. I can recall Infant teachers reading to us from quite text-heavy books: Winnie the Pooh and Noddy and Alice in Wonderland and the Song of Hiawatha. I remember Miss Ward reading us Hans Andersen's Tinder Box and Miss Heinze reading us Jason and the Argonauts, both unexpurgated. The romance of human sacrifice and public execution kicked in quite early.

The rest of the school was the province of the Juniors, and the Juniors had their own library -- a tiny little cubby hole lined with what we would now call Chapter Books in A-B-C order of the writer's last name. We were presented with one of those old fashioned blue ticket-pockets which allowed us to take out (and take home) one book a week. Miss Beale allowed some of us more voracious readers to have two. I read the obvious: Doctor Doolittle, Mary Plane, Paddington Bear, the Wombles, Enid Blyton, who I never really took to, and Willard Price, a kind of entry-level Clive Cussler. But I gravitated to the very small section of Space Books; what I knew, at the ripe old age of seven or eight, to refer to as Science Fiction. 

I think that the publishers were commissioning big-name writers to write juvenile material, or scouring back-catalogues for kid-friendly material. I remember titles like Have Space Suit Will Travel (Heinlein); A Life for the Stars (Blish) and Islands in the Sky (Clarke.) I don't think Asimov wrote anything for for children.

I can date my Spider-Man infatuation precisely; the second week of February, 1973. (The Wombles came on TV the same week.) I don't have any reference point, but I suppose it was about the same time when I walked into the Junior library and pulled down a little tome, with small print, no pictures, and an abstract cover. 

A cover perfectly suited to fixation on five-four-three-two-one-blast-off. It was old fashioned and perhaps out of print when I read it. Libraries seemed to have copies; I never saw a paperback in a bookshop. For years I would have said it was my favourite book. I only read it once, and it's been out of print for decades. 

But the Internet is the Internet; and Orion Publishing has decreed that every science fiction novel ever written, however obscure, can be dowloaded into my Pocket Computer at the touch of button....

*


As a matter of fact, you can go home again. But home looks different. Unless you have been away for too long. Then it looks exactly the same.

So: Blast Off At Woomera by Hugh Walters. 

If you are close to my age and frequented libraries, you certainly read it; if you are any younger you won't even have heard of it. I don't know what I thought re-reading it was going to feel like: embarrassing, I suppose, a vague nostalgic cringe. I have watched a lot of old children's TV recently, thank you Brit Box. Thunderbirds is as wonderful as ever, but I wouldn't want to watch very much of it. Catweazle stands on its own two feet as a charming piece of comedy-farce with both a heart and an historical head. The Tomorrow People makes me squirm in my seat. 

I've talked about what it was like to read Stan Lee's prose for the first time, or see one of Jack Kirby's cosmic spreads. But that experience is unrecoverable. I can't go back to Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer because they never left me. I can't compare "reading them at fifty" and "reading them at twelve" because memories of reading them and thirty five and twenty seven and sixteen rush in to fill in the gap. I believe that I have seen Star Wars at least once a year for the past forty five years. I could have a very good go at reproducing the script from memory. I had forgotten every single thing about Blast Off At Woomera, except that it is about a rocket, which blasts off, presumably from Woomera.

I read through it in a single sitting, pretty much glued to my chair; the word "unputdownable" (unputtable down?) never truer. I am not a fast reader: I got through the Dune series and Ulysses by setting myself targets -- this many pages today, this many pages before I am allowed a coffee break. But this ancient kid's book dragged me in and refused to let me go. (As an adult, I mean. I think I found it quite hard-going as a kid, but liked things which were A Bit Too Old For Me.) 

Do not, whatever you do, go away and read the thing on my recommendation. In the cold light of day it is really not very good at all. It clearly the work of a very good amateur, one Walter Hughes who sold metal beds and ran the Rotary Club. Hugh Walters was a cunning pen name. He tried his hand at writing science fiction because he thought the existing stuff wasn't sciency enough. Blast Off at Woomera was published in 1957: four years before Yuri Gargarin; nine years before James T Kirk; twelve years before Neil Armstrong. It comes from a time when Dan Dare was still in his pomp on the front page of the Eagle. Like Dan Dare, Hughs' hero, has to confront strange, alien life-forms; savage creatures, strangely dressed, with deadly weapons who hate for no reason and kill without purpose. In the Eagle it was the Treens from Venus. In Blast Off at Woomera it is the Teddy Boys, and they come from Battersea Funfair.

He had read about the exploits of some of these young hooligans in the papers. Wolverton had, happily, been without them, and this was the first time he had seen any in the flesh. What he saw did not reassure him. About eighteen or twenty years old, they each had “sideboards”, gaudy ties and suits with velvet lapels.

It was more than a decade old when I found it, and already quite old-fashioned. Now it seems to speak to us from another world. 1950s England is very nearly as alien as the planet Venus.

Walter Hughes was a member of Arthur C Clarke's interplanetary society, but the story is as unlike Clarke as any book could be. Clarke likes his hardware and he cares about his science; but he is also full of romanticism and awe and childish wonder. 

H.G Wells was also in the Junior Library. I got to the end of  War of the Worlds but First Men "In" The Moon defeated me. My father rather approved: H.G Wells was a proper author. He never did quite persuade me to have a go at Kipps. I remember the fugitives seeing a tripod on a hill near East Barnet. East Barnet was where my school was. My secondary school was at the top of Cat Hill, where John Betjamen had disastrously failed to teach cricket. I imagined that was the Hill H.G Wells had in mind. Wells is not as romantic as Arthur C Clark, but he makes you aware that the universe is big and strange and terrifying and awesome. Hughes' heroes wouldn't recognise the Cosmos if it bit them on the nose while they were munching their bacon and eggs. Blast Off At Woomera is singularly uninterested in the Cosmos. 

War of the Worlds begins:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

2001: A Space Odyssey Begins

Behind every man living there stand thirty ghosts: that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living... Please remember this is only a work of fiction: the truth, as always, will be far stranger.

Blast of at Woomera begins (and I promise I am not making this up)

Sports Day at Wolverton Grammar School is the social event of the year. Held traditionally on the third Saturday in July, it falls in that delightful period between the end of all exams and the start of the longest holiday. It is then that the masters become human beings for a brief spell and even the Head is known to quote an occasional humorous Latin tag.

It sits halfway between Biggles (unlikely yarns about the RAF by someone who had actually flown a plane) and Jennings (unlikely yarns about schoolboys by someone who had actually been a teacher). It starts in a school; and it it never quite leaves the ethos of the school. In that way the hero, Chris Godfrey, has something in common with Harry Potter.

I loved it unreservedly. I can fully understand why it became so big when I was little.

*

So, it is 1957. England has its own space-programme. It has sent unmanned probes and monkeys into space; but the time has come to send up a human being. A full-grown man wouldn't fit in the capsule, so Sir George Benson recruits a seventeen year old schoolboy, who is so small he could pass for 12. The boy is trained for some weeks, and an Englishman duly becomes the first human being in space.

"Boy volunteers; boy is trained; boy goes up; boy comes down." That's very nearly all there is to it. 

The boy hero, Chris Godfrey, is the most transparent of Mary Sues. He has very little personality or interior life; he's brave and clever and shy and not much else. We follow him on trips to a scuba-diving company to get his experimental space-suit fitted; to a centrifuge where he experiences artificial G-force and to an RAF base where he experiences weightlessness in a supersonic jet. We also follow him on an R&R trip to Battersea funfair (where he has the unfortunate encounter with the Teds); to a music-hall where he sees the Crazy Gang; and on a pre-launch picnic in one of the prettier parts of the Australian outback.

Hughes keeps our feet on terra firma. We get a blow by blow account of Chris's experience: how well he slept each night, what he had for breakfast each morning and at what time. (Come to think of it, "eating a lot" is another personality trait.) Hughes shares with Enid Blyton and J.K Rowling a habit which drives grown-ups mad but which often grips kids. He never skips over a piece of action or offers a summary of what is going on. Anything which can be expanded into a scene, is expanded into a scene: characters often provide a running commentary about what is happening next. Nothing is shown which cannot be told. When Chris is driven from his home in Wolverton to London in a military vehicle, the tension reaches fever pitch:

The Royal Air Force corporal who was driving the car turned to Chris and asked if he would like to pull up for a coffee. Chris replied that he didn’t mind and would leave it to the corporal, who, after cogitation, volunteered that coffee wasn’t much in his line—so they continued their drive to London.

The scene in which he changes his underwear before putting on his space suit is very nearly as thrilling:

Following the white coated man into a small side room, the boy saw that he was to strip and put on one of the light cotton garments placed ready for him. This covered the whole of his body except for his hands and his head, and was secured by a long slim zip fastener up the front. A pair of special socks were pulled on, and he walked a little self-consciously into the larger room where the others were still examining the suit.

I don't know how much Hughes actually knew about aeronautics but it all feels convincing to me. The premise takes a little bit of swallowing -- are there really no adults of restricted growth? couldn't they have recruited a jockey? -- but it is treated with logic and conviction, and followed through to its logical conclusion. The manned space flight has to happen right now because the boffins have spotted possibly artificial constructions on the moon and need photographs of them. The test rockets have capsules in them, because they have been launching monkeys into space. The capsules are monkey-sized, and can't be made grown-up sized in the time-frame. There has to be a human occupant, because there is no way of training a monkey to operate a camera. 

The space agency takes sensible steps to cover their tracks: when Chris is whisked off to London without a cup of coffee, it provides a sensible cover story that he has gone on holiday. When Chris arrives at Woomera, the crew of the base are told that he is Sir George's nephew. When the truth leaks out -- the government is putting children in experimental rockets! -- the media backlash is wholly plausible. We really feel that if the English government had put a grammar school boy in space in the 1950s, this is how it would have happened. 

Why did I find the book so hard to put down? I knew perfectly well -- and I must have known perfectly well when I was in Miss Beale's class -- that the launch was going to be a success. Hughes was hardly going to make us plough through a hundred and fifty page chapter book (with no pictures) only for the rocket to explode on the launch pad or for Chris to chicken out at the last minute. But I found myself racing through the final chapters to get to the denouement. Not because I wanted to know what happened: but because I wanted to imagine that it was happening to me. 

And even when the twelve minute adventure finally takes place, Hughes dials it down. Chris's message from orbit is not "one giant leap" or "my god, it's full of stars" but "Moon....big....clear".

So. In some ways, quite a dull book. It renders space-travel prosaic and unromantic and even ordinary. And for precisely that reason, the most exciting book I ever read. It feels real. It feels like you are there. I went from shouting five, four, three, two, one in a toy space helmet to knowing I definitely wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. This book told me truthfully what it would be like. Reading it was as close to being an astronaut as I am ever likely to get. 

However "Boy goes up. Boy comes down" is not quite enough plot to sustain a novella. So Hughes adds a subplot. It orbits the margins of the main story: just sufficiently to add some tension and some jeopardy to the narrative. And to provide a punchline and a sub-text that I didn't quite see coming.

*


It's the damn Russians, of course.

The English believe that the mysterious domes that have appeared on the moon were built by the Russians: that's why the mission is so urgent. But one of the Woomera scientists is a Russian spy. (It is rather hard to tell one scientist from another, so the spot-the-traitor whodunnit falls a bit flat.) The spy sabotages the mission; the rocket crashes on re-entry...and Chris is killed! The photos are saved (the plucky lad hugged them to his body on the way down) and it turns out that the domes are not created by the Russians after all, but possibly alien. As a result, the British and the Russians end their rivalry and pledge to work together. Our hero's self-sacrificial pluck has ended the the Cold War and secured the future of the space programme.

Ronald Reagan reportedly told Gorbachov that if the earth were invaded by aliens, then the Americans and the Russians would bury their differences and come together as fellow members of the humans race. In Clarke's disappointing sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, America and Russia step back from the brink because the Black Slab turns Jupiter into a second sun. And, of course, it is the ending of Watchmen: Ozymandias's faked squid incursion averts World War III at the eleventh hour. It is nice to think that a furniture salesman and part-time boffin had the same thought twenty five years earlier. It is quite possible that Alan Moore has read Blast Off at Woomera: Alan Moore has read everything.

Fortunately, Chris turns out to only have been mostly dead. Not only does he miraculously recover, but the cosmic radiation has given him a growth-spurt! So Hughes gets to have it both days: a death scene of monumental sentimentality in Chapter 20, and a happy ending in Chapter 21. In a way, it would have been a better story if he had stayed dead: but you don't kill off heroes in kids fiction, and anyway, it would have been a shame to have missed out on sequels with names like Passage to Pluto, Mission to Mars and Something to Saturn.

But there is another reason why our hero survives his near-certain death. Astute readers will have spotted it already. The book doesn't only have a plot and a sub-plot. It has a sub-text. A huge, massive, in your-face subtext that I was totally unaware of for 50 years.

*

The book starts with Sir George Benson, visiting his old school on sports-day, and noticing that one young lad, an academic high flyer with an interest in rockets and astronomy, would be small enough to fit into his rocket.

They have a jolly good chin-wag in the headmaster's study. Chris isn't allowed to make a decision straight away:

"No grand heroic decision please. I’m sure Sir George won’t accept an answer one way or the other until tomorrow morning. Isn’t that so, Benson?”

“Absolutely,” came the reply. “Run along now, Chris, and think about it very carefully.”

“And pray,” added the headmaster.


Pray? Well, it's an old fashioned book; and headmasters are generally very old fashioned characters. Mr Berry was very probably born when Victoria still occupied the throne. One might suppose that Hughes is drawing a contrast between the old-world religious authority of the head of a grammar school, and the modern scientific authority of the head of the space programme.

On the day before Chris boards the Hogwarts Express, it is mentioned in passing that he and his Aunt go to evening service at their local church. Well, most people did. Hughes probably wants us to see that Chris is leaving the old world of family, shop, school and parish behind him and going to join the modern outward looking world in That London and eventually Space.

On his first Sunday in the Metropolis Sir George asks Chris if he wants to go to church, and Chris says that he does. But everything stays decorously C of E: Chris's sentiments are humanistic and nationalistic rather than spiritual.

Here, indeed, was written in metal and stone the record of our history. Here were recorded the lives and achievements of the great, each—be he poet or politician, scientist or explorer, king or commoner—had made his contribution to the advancement of our race. Each had helped to take a tiny step forward down the long corridor of human progress.

But as the big day draws close, some serious piety sets in. A few days before the launch, Chris gives up counting sheep to send himself to sleep and starts to think about theology instead:

What after all, he thought, am I? Why should I be concerned about myself when I’m only a scrap of animated matter in a universe of infinite variety and mystery? Surely we are all of utter and complete insignificance—unless God has chosen us for some purpose of His own.

And just before Chris goes out to face his fate, comes this wholly remarkable passage:

“Chris, lad,” [said Sir George] “we can only stay a few minutes. I thought perhaps you and I might spend just a few moments together in silent prayer. No matter how perfect man may try and make a machine, it’s God who has the last say as to whether or not it will function. Your life will soon be in His hands, and I know you’ll be all right if such is His purpose.”

“Thanks, Uncle George. It would be a comfort to say a prayer with you. I’m a bit shy with other people, but I’d like us to do it together.”

The man’s arm round the boy’s shoulder, they knelt on the dusty concrete floor.

Chris is an orphan, raised by his Aunt (as all good heroes are): and by this point in the story he is calling the man who is going to blast him into space "Uncle". Which is not creepy at all.

I remember being given Lord of the Flies to read, around the age of twelve or thirteen.It came from the same post-war schoolboy universe as Hugh Walters; and it had once been a shocking book. Mr Wallis the English teacher who gave it to us he thought it was important for us to learn about the Evil in Men's Hearts before World War Three kicked off. Like most grown-ups he seemed to believe that a nuclear holocaust was more or less inevitable. But no-one who had been in the boys changing rooms of a north London comprehensive would have been remotely shocked by the idea that, sans parental authority, teenaged males would start to bash each others brains out. If he had really wanted to shock us, Mr Wallis would have given us Coral Island, which took it for granted that shipwrecked boys would do the decent Christian thing, buck up and civilise the natives. People educated at English public schools in the 1910s might possibly have been shocked that Wilfred Owen thought that dulce at decorum est was a big lie: what shocked us in Mr Wallis's English class was that people in the olden days could possibly have believed in anything so silly. But there is something genuinely shocking about an old man and boy kneeling down to pray before the the five-four-three-two-one thing happens. Reed Richards didn't ask Johnny Storm to say a prayer before launching himself into the cosmic ray storm. Perhaps things would have gone better if he had. Dan Dare was known to get a service-book out in his capacity as a ship's captain, but it is hard to imagine him kneeling down with Digby and squeezing his arm. 

Blast of at Woomera  looks forward to a future of British-led space exploration, international co-operation and (by volume six)  peaceful contact with benevolent space aliens. But it simultaneously looks back at a passing 1950s worlds of good manners, decency and Christian certainties. Our hero may be the first Space Man, but he is not part of the new world of teddy boys and teenagers.

Did we cringe? Did we think "Oh, this is a Christian book, I hadn't realised?" I think that, in 1972, we hardly noticed. Americans and people under the age of thirty five will hardly believe how ubiquitous the Church of England was in English schools in the 1970s. Compulsory religious studies; a hymn and prayer every morning; nativity plays; visits from the local vicar. Prayers and church and morals were just part of the dull roughage that grown-ups liked to put into books. We looked straight through them. I am endlessly astonished by the people who tell me that they read the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and didn't particularly notice that the dying-and-rising god-lion was A Bit Like Jesus.

*

Chris Godfrey is an almost completely passive protagonist. He has no agency whatsoever. His heroism consists being subjected to the discomfort of g-force, the nausea of zero-gravity, the indignity of endless medicals and injections and changes of underwear and Taking It Like A Man. He puts himself in a position where he is quite likely to be killed, and he doesn't chicken out, even though it is made clear to him that he could.

The English are proud of the stiffness of their upper lips. There are no terms of endearment when Chris takes leave of his Aunt. On the day before the mission everyone keeps saying "see you in a few minutes" even though they know he is likely to die. There is a queasy sense of male closeness: Greatrex, the whiskered battle of Britain veteran who takes him under his wing refers to Chris as "young feller-me-lad" to his face and "that kid" out of earshot.

The Battersea Park Teddy Boys demand that Chris literally licks their boots, and Chris acquiesces. Sir George and Greatrex are shocked that Chris allowed himself to be humiliated rather than fighting back.  “If the kid really has a yellow streak, he’ll start squealing when the time gets near for the blast-off." But then they realise that Chris would have liked to have punched one of the group of bigger men with knives who outnumbered him. But he held back, because he knew that his getting hurt would jeopardise the mission. "In some circumstances it takes a great deal of courage to be a coward" says Sir George. Much manly squeezing of hands and gruff clearing of throats ensues. 

And on the final day, after Chris has said his prayers and refused a hearty breakfast, it's Sir George who starts to have second thoughts 

With every yard that they covered, Benson had to fight the thought that he was sending this lad to his death, that he was accompanying him to his execution.

Everyone is conscious, but no-one quite says, that what they are engaging in is child sacrifice. We overhear a conversation among the scientists about the ethics of sending monkeys into space: some think that it is wrong to kill dumb beasts who can't possibly understand what is happening; others think that killing a few animals for advancement of human knowledge is justifiable. When the monkeys survive, the families on the base make a great fuss of them and give then names. Hughes does not draw the obvious conclusion -- that Chris is somewhere between and experimental subject and a pet: but the thought must have occurred to many of his brighter readers. 

We see the launch twice, once from Sir George's point of view, and once from Chris's. In mission control, we hear Chris sobbing; in the claustrophobia of the rocket, we hear all the doubts that are going through his mind.

Would he be seeing any of them again? Of course he could if he wanted to. He had only to call out that he was too scared to carry on, and Sir George wouldn’t press the switch. Or would he? It wasn’t fair of them to ask him to undergo this mental agony, let alone the physical torture that would probably follow.

Uncle, if it be possible, save me from this hour. In case we miss the point, as the rocket falls to earth, God makes a brief, on-stage appearance.

Nearer grew the brightness at the end and all Christopher knew was that he wanted to reach it more than anything he had ever wanted before, for somehow he was sure that in that bright glow lay happiness and peace and rest. With a half-formed prayer in his mind he came to the end of the tunnel or corridor and all about him was the light.

English literature has also involved an element of sentimentality which borders on the sadomasochistic. From the sacrifice of Isaac to the Prioress's Tale, via Little Nell and Babes in the Wood, right through to tabloid salivation over "Maddie" and "Jamie", there is nothing we like better than blubbing about dead kids. The language when Chris is apparently killed is completely over-the-top:

Would to God young Chris had been spared, [Sir George] breathed to himself in silent anxiety. With a choking in his throat he admitted to himself how much this youngster had come to mean to him.

And weeks later, in the hospital:

Two large, dark eyes like miniature pools in a thin, white face. For a second or two Benson stared, too full of emotion to speak. Then the incredible boy, still too ill to speak, slowly winked an eye. In spite of himself and to his eternal chagrin Sir George felt the tears smart in his eyes. Again that slow movement of Christopher’s eyelid—so full of meaning, so very precious. Silently Benson left the ward, a prayer of gratitude singing in his heart.

So: a scientific procedural, told very much in the language of a school story, conceals a clear Christian metaphor. Virtual death and virtual resurrection. He is lead like a monkey to slaughter. He is humiliated and bears his suffering cheerfully. He is betrayed by one of his own. His suffering brings the world together.

The Russian spy, we are told, is not doing it for the money: he is a completely sincere Communist. We don't find out what Communism is all about, but we do find out that the spy had a difficult childhood which set him on the wrong track. I don't know if this is supposed to be a redeeming feature -- he kills one of his friends because of an honest political conviction -- or if it makes him more of a monster. He politely arranges to be shot in the head in the final scene, and ends up in a mental hospital, saving everyone the embarrassment of a real execution. His communism is described as a faith; more oddly, as a kink. It is the language that relatively tolerant people in 1957 might have used about gay men: it's not really their fault and they can't help it. But it's the act of a godless commie that brings Chris back from the Light and indirectly causes peace to break out. How, if nothing else, ironic. 

Blast Off At Woomera is not an allegory. It's a space story about a boy astronaut by an amateur boffin; beloved by junior library geeks who wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. Hughes puts Christian morals into story in the same way he puts in thermal underwear and cooked breakfast: they are the kinds of things that go into stories of this kind. 

And yet. Hughes wasn't above playing around with names. His pen-name is a kind of pun: Walter Hughes the furniture salesman became Hugh Walters the science fiction writer. (A science fiction writer named Wally Hughes appears in one of the later volumes.) I doubt that he consciously intended the symbolism, but it is hard to avoid noticing syllables of the main character's name. Chris Godfrey. Chris/God. The story of how Chris sacrificed himself for the world. 

And it would be remiss of me not to mention that Christopher Godfrey literally means "Christ-Bearer Peace-of-God."






71 comments:

  1. There is a sort of tradition in Science Fiction, of the nuts and bolts kind, of being coupled with fairly conventional religion. Jules Verne falls into that tradition and so does Anthony Coburn, the first Doctor Who writer. Coburn was another Roman Catholic who used to preach on street corners. In his unused Doctor Who script The Mastors of Luxor the Doctor talks about the compatibility of religion and science. Walters seems to slot into that tradition. There is no speculation about the nature of God and it is all a bit short on specifics but it kind of works.

    I can remember reading science fiction that did God back in the seventies. I read something that suggested that human beings are evolving to become God and the idea intrigued me. I now think it is seems to have been based on a rather mystical and not very true to science understanding of evolution. I have no idea about who the author was or what the book was. I wanted to discuss with our vicar but my mum said he was only an ordinary clergyman and would not understand. As he was a Canon and an Anglo-Catholic I am sure he could have told me all about Teilhard de Chardin. Not that I would have understood. Later I read some seriously mystical science fiction such as that of Cordwainer Smith, an Anglo-Catholic who incorporated aspects of his faith into astoundingly imaginative speculations.

    But there is nothing like that in Walters as far as I can remember. I think God fades out from the later stories. But there is a Christian influenced heroism.

    Also, since I have mentioned Doctor Who Walters may have been in influence on a seventies Doctor Who adventure. Inferno was based on the Mohole project which also inspired Walters' book The Mohole Mystery.

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  2. There's lots of God in sci-fi: whether we are talking Jesuits worrying about the theology of the fall; of telepathic Marians reflecting the image of Jesus back at pious human priests; or the universe forming a single consciousness that can contact the Star Maker. Or, indeed, Galactus. But I was surprised to find straight-forward Anglican piety just taken for granted.

    I have just started reading volume two, and in the first 20 pages we have had: steam trains, coal fires, railway compartments, Early Closing Day and the expression "play the game". Different world...

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  3. I remember as a child watching an episode of Star Trek where they meet the alien beings who were the basis for the Greek gods. They want to set up shop and be worshiped again. Kirk says something like, "We have no need of gods. One is quite enough." At he time I thought, so God is in Star Trek, they kept that quiet. Now I realise that the refence was put in to tone down the implied atheism of the first statement and so avoid complaints.

    I think, in spite of the humanist ethos of Star Trek, the God of American culture was getting in on the act because he is part of the wallpaper in a way. The Anglican God in Walters seems to be there for the same reason. For a child from a Christian background it can be reassuring. God and Science hand in hand. What God in Walters, or Star Trek, is not going to do is join in the fun. He can inspire but he cannot act.

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  4. I think Ray Bradbury would have been improved by a telepathic Marian, but I did in fact mean Martian.

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  5. Andrew, where can I read Blast-off at Woomera?

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  6. Early Closing Day now seems about as alien as domes on the moon.

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  7. Yes, I wasn't sure if that was Martians or something to do with the BVM. Bradbury wrote a story where some space men just miss meeting Jesus on anther planet. They follow him but never catch him and miss finding him in the people who have found him. It's a very Christian kind of idea.

    I have a distinct memory of finding Operation Columbus some years ago and re-reading it as an adult. Can't find a copy around the house though. I think I quite enjoyed the re-read.

    Given Walter's was trying to make accurate predictions interesting to see what he got wrong. NASA never used telepathy as a means of communication in space. It is alleged that the American military tried to use psychic powers for other purposes, but mainly because they were a bit bonkers not because these things ever became part of science. In the sixties and seventies it did seem to some people as if it might. Remember Arthur C. Clarke being very impressed with Uri Geller?

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  8. Mike:

    https://www.sfgateway.com/titles/hugh-walters/blast-off-at-woomera/9781473229778/

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  9. Some of the unpleasant far-right science fictions fans who called themselves Puppies believed that no-one really liked mainstream fiction

    They are of course right about that; to a first approximation zero per cent of the adult population read mainstream fiction out of choice.

    Though of course the same is true of science fiction, too. Almost no adults read novels; those who do are overwhelmingly women and what they mostly read is psychological thrillers, which is what that Nicci French pair are dong so well for themselves.

    Adults who read are very similar to people who are interested in politics, in that they are deeply, deeply weird and also find it impossible to understand how far from normal they are, or how little the average person knows or cares about their weird little obsession. The fights between science fiction fans and mainstream fiction fans are so bitter just because the stakes are so incredibly minuscule.

    As for the story of the hero who sacrifices him or herself to save either their friends, or others who they will never meet… that shows up all through history, doesn't it? In recent terms I can think of, just off the top of my head, Optimus Prime, the Super-Man, Man of La Mancha, and the climax of the works be She Who Can Not Be Cancelled. Didn't C.S. Lewis say he thought it was the second-best story ever, and distinguished from the best only be the fact that it actually happened?

    The Anglican God in Walters […] What God in Walters, or Star Trek, is not going to do is join in the fun. He can inspire but he cannot act.

    When was it the Church of England became de facto Deist? Was it as recent as the Sea of Faith nonsense? Or was it the sixties and the permissive society? Or does it go back to the abject retreat from even attempting to answer the question of theodicy in the face of the Holocaust — or going back further, in the face of the slaughter of the Somme?

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  10. About two hundred million books were sold in the Uk last year; the adult population is about fifty million.

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  11. About two hundred million books were sold in the Uk last year; the adult population is about fifty million.

    The tiny number who do read buy a lot of books each.

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  12. (Plus, you know, a lot of those are cookbooks or celebrity autobiographies; I was referring to novels.)

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  13. The Anglican God in Walters […] What God in Walters, or Star Trek, is not going to do is join in the fun. He can inspire but he cannot act.

    When was it the Church of England became de facto Deist? Was it as recent as the Sea of Faith nonsense? Or was it the sixties and the permissive society? Or does it go back to the abject retreat from even attempting to answer the question of theodicy in the face of the Holocaust — or going back further, in the face of the slaughter of the Somme?

    The Sea of Faith movement was not deist. It advocated an antirealist concept of God. Of course an antirealist God will no more join in the fun than a deist one. In the sixties the C of E was offering a range of responses to the societal changes. Some people did think they were going along with the permissive society too much, other that they were not apposing it too much.

    Not sure what you mean about theodicy. One response to that following the Somme was Studdert Kennedy. His teachings have been seen as theopaschite, so in some ways a forerunner of Maltmann. An C. S Lewis was an Anglican who often wrested with the problem of suffering. But if an Anglican had produced a major work, akin to say John Hick's Evil and the God of Love, would that have somehow prevented the deist tendencies in others?

    I was more saying that it is difficult to write God into fiction in a convincing way other than as a background figure of the kind one finds in Walters. But it can be done. Lewis manages it in places, so does Susan Howatch in her novels about the C of E.

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  14. The Sea of Faith movement was not deist.

    No, indeed, it was atheist. But it was certainly embraced by the Church of England, and a Deist god and a non-existent god are obviously compatible with each other (because they both have exactly the same impact on the material world) in the way neither is with the Christian God. So it was easier for the Church of England to go with the Sea of Faith guff due to its embrace of Deism, whereas if it had still held to a Christian idea of God it would have been locked out of the movement.

    Having said that, you're probably right that it was pre-existing Deism which allowed the Chruch of England to jump on that bandwagon, rather than it adopting Deism in order to do so (the timescale was too short) so that moves the point of departure earlier.

    Not sure what you mean about theodicy.

    Well, I mean that I have seen an actual real-life Anglican cleric back up his denial of anything miraculous in the Bible by pointing out that a God who could influence the outworking of natural forces, such as would be required to, eg, still a storm, could have prevented the rise of Hitler; and he refused to believe in a God who had the ability to prevent the rise of Hitler, but did not do so.

    He refused to answer whether he thought that his god was actually incapable of influencing the material world*, or whether his god was capable of doing so but merely refrained from ever doing so in order to preserve free will**, but either way it seems to me clear that this is an instance of a refusal to engage seriously with theodicy has led to the adoption of de factoDeism.

    I was more saying that it is difficult to write God into fiction in a convincing way other than as a background figure of the kind one finds in Walters.

    This is true, as it does tend to sideline the protagonists somewhat if an offstage character like God is acting in any substantial way. But again, as you point out, difficult is not impossible. But it is difficult.

    However I thought that the unstated implication of your paragraph, that an 'Anglican god' is an essentially ineffectual one, was interesting given that the Church of England is, as noted, largely de facto Deist. I thought it betrayed an implicit premise and I like it when implicit premises are made explicit and interrogated, so I picked up on that.

    * which would make his 'god' hardly worthy of the name

    ** but C.S. Lewis has pointed out that a God who sometimes interferes in the material world is perfectly compatible with free will

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  15. telepathy […] these things [n]ever became part of science. In the sixties and seventies it did seem to some people as if it might.

    While we were all confined to quarters I watched all the vintage television I had acquired cheap in multiple sales over the last decade. One of those was Ace of Wands, a children's programme from the early seventies; the most fascinating aspect of which was the very very seventies attitude to various fantastical elements.

    The set-up, for those not aware, is of a stage magician who gets involved in various mysterious adventures — sort of Jonathan Creek, but with slightly bigger hair and much bigger trousers. The tone can't quite seem to decide whether to come down firmly on the side of fantasy or realism — of the four surviving adventures, one features a poltergeist which turns out to be vibrations from an underground mining operation to find a hidden treasure (and he would have gotten away with it to, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids); one (widely considered the best) features Foggy from Last of the Summer Wine as a possibly-not-human antagonist who can mind-control his victims into seeing illusions; one has the stage magician's erstwhile assistant returning to take revenge on him using the magical powers of a long-dead Egyptian wizard (wonderful shots of a Doctor Who quarry standing in for the Valley of the Kings); and the other is confusing but involves possible time-travellers, one of whom communicates telepathically with the stage magician.

    As, yes, the telepathy. That's the rub. Because no matter which side of the line the programme wavers on — the Egyptian story, for example, has the stage magician totally pooh-poohing the idea of real magic even as statues are coming alive around him — the one thing that is never treated as even the least bit fantastical is the stage magician's telepathic powers. They are just seen as perfectly normal: some people are receptive to the thoughts of others, that's just a thing, part of real life in the dawning age of Aquarius; the kind of thing that only an odd person would even question.

    It kind of makes you wonder what sort of mad ideas that are taken for granted in the current culture those who look back on us in half a century's time will shake their heads at us for ever entertaining, amiright? eh? eh?

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  16. Embraced here has a technical meaning of "did not actually excommunicate".

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  17. I remember Ace of Wands though I have not re-watched it since those original broadcasts. As I recall, the telepathy was seen as tentative, present only in moments of crisis and something occult, as you say part of the dawning age of Aquarius. In Walters, telepathy is seen as science, something which can be empirically investigated. This was a common view in the wake of Rhine's experiments. The experiments seemed genuine to many people, but the results have not been replicated.

    Personally, I do not regard telepathy as a mad idea. I have known several people who claimed to have psychic powers, some of whom were very orthodox Christians, including one clergyperson. I don't embrace the idea but I don't reject it either. I don't think that if it is there it has responded well to experimental investigation.

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  18. No, indeed, it was atheist. But it was certainly embraced by the Church of England, and a Deist god and a non-existent god are obviously compatible with each other (because they both have exactly the same impact on the material world) in the way neither is with the Christian God. So it was easier for the Church of England to go with the Sea of Faith guff due to its embrace of Deism, whereas if it had still held to a Christian idea of God it would have been locked out of the movement.

    The C of E, as Andrew points out, did not embrace the Sea of Faith movement. Keith Ward wrote a book systematically refuting Cupitt's Taking Leave of God which was used as a text book in some Anglican theological colleges. I recall he also had a letter published in one of the paper's defending the right of members of the movement to remain in the Church. At least one member was expelled for his views. And it was a tiny movement. I don't think it ever had more than 2,000 members worldwide.

    Well, I mean that I have seen an actual real-life Anglican cleric back up his denial of anything miraculous in the Bible by pointing out that a God who could influence the outworking of natural forces, such as would be required to, eg, still a storm, could have prevented the rise of Hitler; and he refused to believe in a God who had the ability to prevent the rise of Hitler, but did not do so.

    He refused to answer whether he thought that his god was actually incapable of influencing the material world*, or whether his god was capable of doing so but merely refrained from ever doing so in order to preserve free will**, but either way it seems to me clear that this is an instance of a refusal to engage seriously with theodicy has led to the adoption of de facto Deism.


    Yes, it looks like that. The argument seems weak to me since preventing the rise of Hitler and calming a storm don't seem like the same kind of thing.

    There are many reasons for not engaging in theodicy, Anders Nygren in his commentary on Romans says every theodicy is a blasphemy, and when he says this he is standing in the tradition of Luther, Kierkegaard and all those others who have refused to rationalise about ultimate mysteries. When theodicy is done, even when it is done well, it can end up making God look rather Machiavellian. Is there a work of theodicy you feel gets round this problem?

    This is true, as it does tend to sideline the protagonists somewhat if an offstage character like God is acting in any substantial way. But again, as you point out, difficult is not impossible. But it is difficult.

    However I thought that the unstated implication of your paragraph, that an 'Anglican god' is an essentially ineffectual one, was interesting given that the Church of England is, as noted, largely de facto Deist. I thought it betrayed an implicit premise and I like it when implicit premises are made explicit and interrogated, so I picked up on that.


    So in a novel we have to see God influencing human beings and that is not very different from the idea of God influencing human beings. But you can also have people sense God's presence or see him through the shaping of events. What is more difficult is to have God step in and do supernatural miracles.

    I do not think the Church of England is de facto deist. You could say anyone who does not believe God is churning out supernatural events on a regular basis is de facto deist. And believing God supernaturally intervened long ago but does not do them now is not in practice different from believing God does not supernaturally intervene.

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  19. I think SK is remembering a quote from David Jenkins — a God who was prepared to work a physical miracle to provide his followers with proof of the incarnation but not to liberate Auschwitz or overthrow apartheid would be at best a cultic idol and at worst the very devil. Jenkins was unquestionably a modernist and (at times one suspected) a contrarian, but he was anything but a deist. He famously thought that the in accounts of the Resurrection in the Gospels were mythical, not historical, but he thought the mattered because he really believed in the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the Atonement and felt that “Who Moved The Stone” literalism cheapened them.

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  20. Theism = Belief that God created the Universe and continues to be involved in the day today running of it
    Deism = Belief that God created and wound up the universe, but the went away and left it running without further intervention.

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  21. Deism = Belief that God created and wound up the universe, but the went away and left it running without further intervention.

    Yep, that’s what I meant by it.

    I think SK is remembering a quote from David Jenkins — a God who was prepared to work a physical miracle to provide his followers with proof of the incarnation but not to liberate Auschwitz or overthrow apartheid would be at best a cultic idol and at worst the very devil.

    Nope, I’m thinking of an actual exchange I witnessed, but I certainly suspect that there cleric in question had been heavily influenced by Jenkins.


    Jenkins was unquestionably a modernist and (at times one suspected) a contrarian, but he was anything but a deist. He famously thought that the in accounts of the Resurrection in the Gospels were mythical, not historical, but he thought the mattered because he really believed in the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the Atonement and felt that “Who Moved The Stone” literalism cheapened them.

    I’m not sure in what sense one can be said to ‘believe in […] the Resurrection’ if you don’t believe in, um, the Resurrection. As John Updike put it:

    ‘Make no mistake: if he rose at all
    It was as His body;
    If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
    The amino acids rekindle,
    The Church will fall.’
    [from ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’]

    The C of E, as Andrew points out, did not embrace the Sea of Faith movement.

    It could have fooled me, then.

    And it was a tiny movement. I don't think it ever had more than 2,000 members worldwide.

    Ah; I meant the movement in terms of philosophy, not in terms of a subscription-paying membership. For instance if I said, hypothetically, ‘the Church of England embraced Communism’ [which, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t think it did, quite] I wouldn’t mean that there was a union between the memberships and the membership of the CPGB(M-L) but that the Church had adopted the same philosophy.

    Yes, it looks like that. The argument seems weak to me since preventing the rise of Hitler and calming a storm don't seem like the same kind of thing.

    Not quite, but a God who is capable of stilling a storm (or, the other side of the coin, of causing one in order to force a Maltese landing) would certainly be capable of altering the trajectory of a piece of thigh-bound shrapnel on a certain day in 1916, to ensure that it nicked a certain femoral artery, no? That is, while they may be different kinds of things, the capability to do one implies the capability to do the other.

    There are many reasons for not engaging in theodicy, Anders Nygren in his commentary on Romans says every theodicy is a blasphemy, and when he says this he is standing in the tradition of Luther, Kierkegaard and all those others who have refused to rationalise about ultimate mysteries. When theodicy is done, even when it is done well, it can end up making God look rather Machiavellian. Is there a work of theodicy you feel gets round this problem?

    Surely the problem is in declaring that we know better than God what God should be doing, and therefore that if we can’t explain His actions so that they are acceptable to us without Him appearing Machiavellian, then it is God who is the problem, not our limited understanding?

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  22. So in a novel we have to see God influencing human beings and that is not very different from the idea of God influencing human beings. But you can also have people sense God's presence or see him through the shaping of events. What is more difficult is to have God step in and do supernatural miracles.

    God’s providence doesn’t have to mean supernatural miracles, of course. C.S. Lewis pointed out that God is acting just as much in creating, through the entirely natural operation of atmospheric air currents, favourable weather conditions for landing on an enemy’s beaches, as He is in stopping the sun in the sky.

    I do not think the Church of England is de facto deist. You could say anyone who does not believe God is churning out supernatural events on a regular basis is de facto deist. And believing God supernaturally intervened long ago but does not do them now is not in practice different from believing God does not supernaturally intervene.

    Believing that God is not able to cause events in the material world — through natural as well as supernatural means — is Deism, and it seems to me that that is the position of much of the Church of England (it fails to be the official position only insofar as the Church of England seems unable to have an official position on anything). See, for example, the conniptions many Anglican clergy went into over that wall of answered prayers that went up in the summer. While the object itself may be rather gauche, the objections were not on aesthetic grounds so much as attacks on the very idea that God answers prayer, concretised as tragic stories of desperate prayers for sick children etc that went unanswered. The ontology revealled by the protests was basically a refusal to believe that a God who was capable of answering prayers would ever not answer a prayer that the objector thought He ought to have answered, and therefore god must be incapable of interacting with the ongoing material world — that is, he must have wound it up and stepped back and left it to go, his only interactions with it being to put ideas in people's heads — ie, Deism.

    I remember Ace of Wands though I have not re-watched it since those original broadcasts. As I recall, the telepathy was seen as tentative, present only in moments of crisis and something occult, as you say part of the dawning age of Aquarius.

    I didn’t see the episodes on first broadcast — I would have found it difficult — and so I can’t speak of the ones that have been wiped in the intervening decades, but in the surviving ones the telephony is certainly not presented that way, but rather as something entirely normal, if uncommon — it distinct contrast to the presentation of other occult elements (for instance, the Egyptian wizardry).

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  23. Theism = Belief that God created the Universe and continues to be involved in the day today running of it
    Deism = Belief that God created and wound up the universe, but the went away and left it running without further intervention.

    It depends, though, what is meant by intervention. God could be sustaining and guiding the universe without stepping in on a regular basis. I think a lot of Anglicans would sense God in their life in this way. I can't remember who it was who said God's occasional presence implies his ordinary absence.

    And so when novelists want to do God they have to communicate that sense of God that many believers have. The pagan gods on the other hand can, in sci fi or fantasy contexts, step in.

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  24. I’m not sure in what sense one can be said to ‘believe in […] the Resurrection’ if you don’t believe in, um, the Resurrection. As John Updike put it:

    ‘Make no mistake: if he rose at all
    It was as His body;
    If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
    The amino acids rekindle,
    The Church will fall.’
    [from ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’]

    Well, the problem with Updike's approach is that he is interpreting ancient texts through concepts derived from modern science. Behind that is the idea that, 'if they said that then, this is what it would mean now' Jenkins is doing the same thing but coming to a different conclusion about what it would mean now. Jenkins is saying in resurrection the total person is preserved. Updike is saying the person is not preserved in the correct sense unless his biological structure is made of the same components. Both are going along way beyond anything the ancient texts actually say. You can say Updike's claim is the correct one but you cannot do that and also condemn Jenkins for doing essentially the same thing.

    Ah; I meant the movement in terms of philosophy, not in terms of a subscription-paying membership. For instance if I said, hypothetically, ‘the Church of England embraced Communism’ [which, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t think it did, quite] I wouldn’t mean that there was a union between the memberships and the membership of the CPGB(M-L) but that the Church had adopted the same philosophy.
    Okay, well the C of E has not come close to accepting the Sea of Faith philosophy. A survey a few years ago found something like 2% of clergy holding those views.

    Not quite, but a God who is capable of stilling a storm (or, the other side of the coin, of causing one in order to force a Maltese landing) would certainly be capable of altering the trajectory of a piece of thigh-bound shrapnel on a certain day in 1916, to ensure that it nicked a certain femoral artery, no? That is, while they may be different kinds of things, the capability to do one implies the capability to do the other.

    No. It would be quite plausible that a being could be capable of one and not the other. To know if one implied the other you would need to know how the storm was stilled. And I am not even sure killing Hitler would have prevented the rise of Nazism. That is what they call Big Man History isn't it?

    Surely the problem is in declaring that we know better than God what God should be doing, and therefore that if we can’t explain His actions so that they are acceptable to us without Him appearing Machiavellian, then it is God who is the problem, not our limited understanding?

    Isn't this the same thing as abandoning theodicy. How can we justify the ways of God to man without explaining his actions so they are acceptable to us? And how can we understand that explanation except through our limited understanding?

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  25. Jenkins position was that the Resurrection was a unique supernatural event that changed the way life and death worked in the universe and the way that humans related to God BUT that the stories of earthquakes, eclipses, zombies, angels and giant crosses emerging from tombs were fictionalised intended to convey historical truths. I don't necessarily agree with him, but I see his point, and think it is well within the bounds of what you can call Christianity.

    I have heard evangelicals make an argument that it is impossible that a victim of crucifixion could have gone into a coma and then revived; it is impossible that Mary Magdala could have mistaken the tomb; impossible that anyone could have mistaken James the Just for his more famous brother; impossible that either the Romans, the Judean or the disciples could have moved Jesus body; and that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains however improbable must be the truth. In fact I may once have made such an argument myself. I grok why the former Bish might have heard those kinds of arguments and said "But the Resurrection is not just some conjuring trick with bones..."

    I love it that I write about an old children's book and we end up talking about Marxism and theology. What do you think will happen when I move onto the Wombles.

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  26. Are the majority of Clergymen non-theists? No.
    Are the majority of active anglican church-goers non-theists? No.
    Are the majority of passive C of E members non-theists? No.
    Is the official doctrine of the Church of England non-theistic? No.
    Is it possible to find some Clergymen who have adopted the essentially non-theistic theology of Don Cupitt, J.A.T Robinson and others? Certainly.
    Does the fact that the Church of England tolerates this kind of non-theism mean that it has "embraced"? Only in so far as it has also embraced charismatic speaking-in-tongues slain-in-the-spirit hyper-evangelicalism and also full on smells-and-bells oral-confession, BVM and all the saints Anglo Catholicism. Broad church and all that.

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  27. I probably told this story before. Don Cupitt gave a talk at my old university. Quite a lot of people went 'cos he sometimes came on the telly. In the discussion which followed the talk, my friend who would have been leader of the anarchist society if the anarchist society believed in having leaders, said "I agree with nearly everything you have said, but I don't understand why you want to express it in terms of this reactionary Christian bullshit." Answer came there none.

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  28. God could be sustaining and guiding the universe without stepping in on a regular basis.

    It’s that ‘and guiding’ which is the heart of the matter, though, isn’t it? In a Christian perspective, everything that happens in the material universe must happen because God, if not actively causing it, at least tacitly allows it to happen. That’s what providence means. It doesn’t mean that God is constantly interfering. It means that God can and does interfere, either through supernatural or (more often) natural means, to ensure that all things work together for His glory. And if God can interfere, that means there are instances when God could have interfered — when we wish he had interfered — when we think He should have interfered — when He manifestly did not interfere.

    And those instances are, well, they are the hard cases. How do we respond? Do we declare that obviously God would not do something that, to us, seems so obviously evil as to not interfere to prevent the Holodomor; therefore that means that god must have been unable to interfere to prevent the Holodomor, and therefore reshape our theology around a god who is unable to intervene in the material world — in other words, a Deist god?

    It seems to me, now, this is the route a lot of Anglican clergy have taken.

    Or do we accept that God is beyond our limited understanding and that what seems evil to us might in fact not be so, from His perspective?

    Discussion of the tasks of novelists deferred.

    Well, the problem with Updike's approach is that he is interpreting ancient texts through concepts derived from modern science.

    How on Earth is that a ‘problem’? The concepts derived from modern science were just as true in first-century Judea as they are now. The Earth orbited the sun in the first century, just as it does now. The resurrection took place in a world of the same equations of quantum physics as today’s world. Whatever happened at passover two millennia ago, it involved the same biochemistry as is at work in our bodies today.


    Updike is saying the person is not preserved in the correct sense unless his biological structure is made of the same components.

    No, he’s not. Or at least that’s not what I think the poem is saying. I think the point of the poem is not that the components are the same, but that the resurrection did not happen unless it was an actual resurrection, ie, an overriding of the normal laws of physics, that produced actual, material, physical results in the material world. The stuff about ‘amino acids’ is there because that is the way the Christian God works: He does not do miracles that are mere magic, like pagan gods, but works with and in the framework He has established in the world. So Jesus refuses to turn stones into bread, because it is not in the nature of stones to turn into bread; but he will turn water into wine, because every year vineyards throughout the world turn many millions of gallons of water into wine. All Jesus does is accelerate the process a little. A resurrection that involved Jesus’s body evaporating into the air, and molecules of nitrogen and oxygen and carbon being reconfigured into a new, physical, body, would have satisfied Updike’s criteria of a material resurrection just as well; but it would have been as out of character for God as turning stones into bread.

    The difference between Updike and Jenkins is surely that Updike insists that the resurrection was a material thing, something that, as soon put it, could have been recorded by a video camera, if one had been available.


    Okay, well the C of E has not come close to accepting the Sea of Faith philosophy. A survey a few years ago found something like 2% of clergy holding those views.

    That sounds like a fascinating survey that I would love to read the dataset for; I don’t suppose you can remember where it appeared?

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  29. No. It would be quite plausible that a being could be capable of one and not the other. To know if one implied the other you would need to know how the storm was stilled.

    Okay, accepted, but I can’t think of a single way in which the storm could have been stilled which wouldn’t also imply the other. I stand ready to be corrected if you can posit such a plausible explanation. Please do so.

    And I am not even sure killing Hitler would have prevented the rise of Nazism. That is what they call Big Man History isn't it?

    No, I think it’s more an issue of whether you think history is the outworking of inevitable forces, or as the combination of a billion billion choices and chance vents at every moment. I guess the Marxist view of history is the former; what will be will be, history moves through inevitable stages, and if you try to stop it, say you kill Hitler, then someone else will just emerge to take his place. The first world war didn’t happen because of Gavrilo Princip; it happened because a massive European war was inevitable at that time, and if he hadn’t succeeded in his assassination in 1914, then some other thing would have kicked the war off in 1916, maybe, with much the same results. And if that hadn’t happened in 1916 then it would have happened in 1917.

    Whereas the other, and it seems to me much more plausible, view, is that history is chaotic, and tiny causes can lead to massive results — butterflies in the Amazon, and all that — so similarly, just as with the weather, a small change in the initial conditions can lead to a massive change in outcomes.

    But then, I did play Valentine Coverly on the old am-dram stage a few years ago.

    Isn't this the same thing as abandoning theodicy. How can we justify the ways of God to man without explaining his actions so they are acceptable to us? And how can we understand that explanation except through our limited understanding?

    I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘abandoning theodicy’. By ‘abandoning theodicy’ I mean abandoning the attempt to explain why God would do, or allow, things that seem to us to be either less than totally good, or even evil, by instead simply redefining ‘god’ as an ineffectual, powerless being, and therefore absolving him of all responsibility.

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  30. Jenkins position was that the Resurrection was a unique supernatural event that changed the way life and death worked in the universe and the way that humans related to God BUT that the stories of earthquakes, eclipses, zombies, angels and giant crosses emerging from tombs were fictionalised intended to convey historical truths. I don't necessarily agree with him, but I see his point, and think it is well within the bounds of what you can call Christianity.

    It think that depends entirely on what ‘historical truths’ he thinks they were intended to convey. That a resurrected Jesus appeared materially, spoke and ate with his disciples, and then left them to go to Heaven, but that stories of many resurrections, eclipses, and earthquakes were made up? Yes, that’s within the bounds of Christianity. Just within the bounds, I’d say, rather than well within the bounds (and I think denying angels, given the large role they play throughout the Bible, might well push it just outside the bounds), but okay, within the bounds.

    But if he thinks that the historical truth is that the disciples in a very real sense felt that Jesus was still with them… then no. That is not within the bounds of Christianity at all. That is way way way outside the bounds. Christianity is not and cannot be founded on subjective feelings. Christianity is a religion that makes certain objective historical truth claims, and if those claims are false, then Christianity falls.

    Are the majority of Clergymen non-theists? No.

    See this is where I disagree. I think that if not a majority, at least a substantial minority — say 40% — of Church of England clerics are non-theists, and I’d stake a token bet — say twenty quid? — on it, if we can find a mutually acceptable way to decide the question.

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  31. I love it that I write about an old children's book and we end up talking about Marxism and theology.

    I honestly can't tell (a problem I have had before) whether this is sarcastic.

    What do you think will happen when I move onto the Wombles.

    And a Wombling Merry Christmas to all of you at home.

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  32. I love it that I write about an old children's book and we end up talking about Marxism and theology. What do you think will happen when I move onto the Wombles.
    Well, you were expressing surprise at the theological content and somehow that led us down the rabbit hole of, pretty dated, Anglican theology. I'm quite interested in pretty dated Anglican theology.

    I even had a vague hope SK would want to talk about Studdert Kennedy and patripassionism since that really was a brave attempt to do theodicy in the face of an incredible first hand encounter with suffering.

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  33. I probably told this story before. Don Cupitt gave a talk at my old university. Quite a lot of people went 'cos he sometimes came on the telly. In the discussion which followed the talk, my friend who would have been leader of the anarchist society if the anarchist society believed in having leaders, said "I agree with nearly everything you have said, but I don't understand why you want to express it in terms of this reactionary Christian bullshit." Answer came there none.
    I'd started to wonder if this story was an urban myth. I've hear versions of it where the person challenging Cupitt is some well known atheist. My spiritual director studied under Cupitt. He challenged him over what his philosophy had to say to someone dying of cancer.

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  34. It’s that ‘and guiding’ which is the heart of the matter, though, isn’t it? In a Christian perspective, everything that happens in the material universe must happen because God, if not actively causing it, at least tacitly allows it to happen. That’s what providence means. It doesn’t mean that God is constantly interfering. It means that God can and does interfere, either through supernatural or (more often) natural means, to ensure that all things work together for His glory. And if God can interfere, that means there are instances when God could have interfered — when we wish he had interfered — when we think He should have interfered — when He manifestly did not interfere.

    I think we may need to say intervene or interact rather than interfere, but yes. I think saying it is metaphysically impossible for God to influence things is a bit of a non-starter.

    And those instances are, well, they are the hard cases. How do we respond? Do we declare that obviously God would not do something that, to us, seems so obviously evil as to not interfere to prevent the Holodomor; therefore that means that god must have been unable to interfere to prevent the Holodomor, and therefore reshape our theology around a god who is unable to intervene in the material world — in other words, a Deist god?

    It seems to me, now, this is the route a lot of Anglican clergy have taken.


    If you take the route you suggest in the first paragraph then I would say that is a theodicy. It is an attempt to show God is good, but does not intervene because he cannot. I think there are huge problems with that, not least that it is hard to see on what grounds a being that never does anything could be called good. But if he is restraining from acting in order to preserve free will, as your clergyman may have thought, that is more developed and more plausible theodicy because it is arguing that God allows evil to preserve a greater good. I do think there are better options though.

    Or do we accept that God is beyond our limited understanding and that what seems evil to us might in fact not be so, from His perspective?
    But this I would say is not a theodicy at all. In fact it's barely an argument as it stands. Theodicy is meant to be showing that, in spite of appearances, God is good. This just says what looks evil to us may be good. So the word good is robbed of any actual meaning.

    Well, the problem with Updike's approach is that he is interpreting ancient texts through concepts derived from modern science.

    How on Earth is that a ‘problem’? The concepts derived from modern science were just as true in first-century Judea as they are now. The Earth orbited the sun in the first century, just as it does now. The resurrection took place in a world of the same equations of quantum physics as today’s world. Whatever happened at passover two millennia ago, it involved the same biochemistry as is at work in our bodies today.


    We do not know, in terms of modern science, what happened at the resurrection. Any attempt to say so is speculation. John Updike does not know what really happened anymore than David Jenkins does. Whatever happened involves the same states of affairs as currently exist but to jump from that to, 'so the resurrection body must have been made of molecules and cells' is a jump too far. It is just presupposing what cannot be proved.

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  35. Updike is saying the person is not preserved in the correct sense unless his biological structure is made of the same components.

    No, he’s not. Or at least that’s not what I think the poem is saying. I think the point of the poem is not that the components are the same, but that the resurrection did not happen unless it was an actual resurrection, ie, an overriding of the normal laws of physics, that produced actual, material, physical results in the material world.

    If the writers of the NT had wanted to say the resurrection was material that option was open to them; they did not take it. This is not surprising since the concept of matter is a Hellenic idea the first century Jews seem not to have adopted (open to correction on this). They also did not think in terms of laws of physics. They certainly knew this was an unusual event but there is no suggestion that a law is being overridden. If anything the opposite, they talk as if some kind of law is being fulfilled, 'death could not hold him'.

    ,The stuff about ‘amino acids’ is there because that is the way the Christian God works: He does not do miracles that are mere magic, like pagan gods, but works with and in the framework He has established in the world. So Jesus refuses to turn stones into bread, because it is not in the nature of stones to turn into bread; but he will turn water into wine, because every year vineyards throughout the world turn many millions of gallons of water into wine. All Jesus does is accelerate the process a little.

    I always think this is a duff argument. Water is one of the components of wine but in the normal course of things it does not turn into wine either suddenly or over a long period. I don't think Athanasius thought this either; I think Lewis is misreading him.

    The difference between Updike and Jenkins is surely that Updike insists that the resurrection was a material thing, something that, as soon put it, could have been recorded by a video camera, if one had been available.
    As I said if the NT writers thought the resurrection being material was important they could easily have said so. As to whether it could have been recorded, I very much doubt that a video could have shown what was important about it. If we saw on video that Jesus got up and walked about, would that show that this was a unique, cosmos changing event. Or would it just look like a conjuring trick with bones?

    ,That sounds like a fascinating survey that I would love to read the dataset for; I don’t suppose you can remember where it appeared?,
    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/survey-finds-2-of-anglican-priests-are-not-believers-9821899.html

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  36. No. It would be quite plausible that a being could be capable of one and not the other. To know if one implied the other you would need to know how the storm was stilled.

    Okay, accepted, but I can’t think of a single way in which the storm could have been stilled which wouldn’t also imply the other. I stand ready to be corrected if you can posit such a plausible explanation. Please do so.

    If you ask a meteorologist about ways of stopping a storm he suggest several but if you ask whether any of them could ensure a particular person died in a particular battle the answer is likely to be no.

    But I think the real issue is to do with the thing you have been talking about where God does certain kinds of things and not others. I may be metaphysically possible for God to do something and yet not be the kind of thing he would do. I think the most plausible approach to theodicy is to add to the free will deffence what John Polkinghorne calls the free process deffence. The processes of the universe need to be free in order for things like life and history to happen.

    I do think there are broad trends in history rather than completed chaos. I suspect that to stop Nazism you would have to do more than kill one person. But I don't know.

    I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘abandoning theodicy’. By ‘abandoning theodicy’ I mean abandoning the attempt to explain why God would do, or allow, things that seem to us to be either less than totally good, or even evil, by instead simply redefining ‘god’ as an ineffectual, powerless being, and therefore absolving him of all responsibility.

    There is more than one way of abandoning theodicy, and I don't necessarily think abandoning theodicy is a bad thing. It's just that I think what this guy has is a weak theodicy because to free God of the charge of doing evil he has him incapable of doing anything, which means he can't do good either. But you can also abandon theodicy by saying maybe what we see as evil is really good. Here you have not presented an argument to show God is good despite appearances, you have just decided that you will call what is normally called evil good.

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  37. The anarchist fella certainly asked the question about reactionary Christian bullshit at the meeting I went to in 1986 or 87. I don't remember what Cupitt actually said.

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  38. It is unclear what Rilstone had in mind when he said that he thought Jenkins believed that the resurrection narratives were intended to convey historical truths.

    He may have meant that Jenkins thought that God really was actively and supernaturally involved in history (despite the admitted contradictory and mythical character of the resurrection narratives.) But it might equally be that he intended to type "the stories of the resurrection were fictionalised accounts intending to convey theological truths as opposed to historical ones". On the third hand "theological truths" (about how God interacts with history) an "historical truths" (about God's interaction with history) may boil down to the same thing.

    Some New Atheists of the Sky Fairy persuasion think that when Christians talk about the Resurrection, they are merely talking about a quite interesting phenomenon of a corpse coming back to life. They don't think it happened, but they also don't see why it would be that big a deal if it had happened. They think it real funny to talk about Floating Jewish Zombies. Conversely, some Vicars with columns in the Guardian think that when Christians talk about the Resurrection, they mean something like "Spock's not dead as long as we remember him" and "John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave but his soul goes marching on." They use a theological lexicon in which "Resurrection" means "the very surprising fact that despite losing their leader, Jesus followers for some reason all suddenly pulled together, became re-motivated about his teachings, and created a social movement which is still running to the present day." I am afraid that some of the people who said that Jenkins was not merely wrong, but so completely wrong that he didn't count as a Christian any more, either believed in the Resuscitation of the Corpse theory, or were using a language that laid them open to New Atheists accusing them of believing that. The resurrection, to coin a phrase, was far more than a conjuring trick with bones. But the idea that "the resurrection means the revival and survival of the Christian movement, which certainly is an historical fact" is even sillier.

    In 1977 (that year again) the National Theatre staged a now legendary production of the Wakefield Mystery plays, as translated by Tony Harrison. In the third part, the tomb of Jesus is represented as a large wooden cabinet. Jesus' body is placed in it; and after some conversation between Pilate and the High Priests, two Roman soldiers put chains around it and padlock them. The cabinet is spun round so the audience can see it from all directions. (It was a promenade production, in which the actors mingle with the audience.) Gabriel comes onto the stage, with Home Service's wonderful folk music playing in the background, and taps the side of the box, which collapses, revealing itself to be empty. Simultaneously, Jesus re-enters from the back of the auditorium. I often wonder if Jenkins had this play in mind when he made his remark.



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  39. Well, you were expressing surprise at the theological content and somehow that led us down the rabbit hole of, pretty dated, Anglican theology.

    Not complaining, just amused. I am reminded of when Melvyn Bragg appeared on the Parkinson show to plug his new book. "How is it that I came here to talk about the Renaissance and you've got me onto Barnsley Football Club?"

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  40. Not complaining, just amused. I am reminded of when Melvyn Bragg appeared on the Parkinson show to plug his new book. "How is it that I came here to talk about the Renaissance and you've got me onto Barnsley Football Club?"
    If we are still talking Hugh Walters then the main thing that puzzles me is this. When I was about 11 we used to have library lessons at school. This was to encourage us to read and to read good stuff. I knew by that time that I liked science fiction and so I wanted to take out a book called Blast Off: Science Fiction for Boys chosen by Harry Harrison. Harry Harrison is a middle level important sci fi writer. The writers he had chosen were ones I would now recognise as first rank: Arthur C Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Robert Silverberg, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Isaac Asimov and so on. The teacher looked at the book with what I remember as mild disapproval. And said, if you like Science Fiction try this, and gave me a copy of Walters' Operation Columbus.
    What puzzles me is that he seemed to think the Walters book was better than what I had chosen. Now he started me reading Walters and I read his books avidly, so I am grateful, but there is no way Walters is a better writer than the guys in that book. So what was my teacher thinking? A couple of years later I asked him if he could recommend any science fiction and he pointed me to some collections by Ray Bradbury so he did seem to think at least one of the sci fi classic writers was okay. Was it that Walters was British and therefore culturally superior to a brash Yank like Harrison. I don't know.

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  41. Deferred discussion of the task of novelists.

    It depends, though, what is meant by intervention. God could be sustaining and guiding the universe without stepping in on a regular basis. I think a lot of Anglicans would sense God in their life in this way. I can't remember who it was who said God's occasional presence implies his ordinary absence.

    And so when novelists want to do God they have to communicate that sense of God that many believers have. The pagan gods on the other hand can, in sci fi or fantasy contexts, step in.


    Depends on how you define ‘stepping in’. I hesitate to opine in present company on the works of Tolkien — I have only read The Lord of the Rings once, rather than once for ever year I have been alive — but I think it’s clear that Tolkien definitely tries to convey a sense in which God is acting in the narrative in a way which is neither the ‘Anglican god’ of Walters who ‘can inspire but […] cannot act’, nor is like a pagan god ‘stepping in’. For example, it is by God’s providence that Sméagol shows up at the climax; but Tolkien manages to do this — and this is tricky bit — without God’s providence thereby robbing his human (or humanish) characters of agency, because he’s only alive to do that due to Sam’s decisions earlier n the narrative.

    That’s the balance that is hard to get write: to convey God’s acting within the narrative in order to bring events about, without such acting seeming to render the actions of the human characters irrelevant.

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  42. But this I would say is not a theodicy at all. In fact it's barely an argument as it stands. Theodicy is meant to be showing that, in spite of appearances, God is good. This just says what looks evil to us may be good. So the word good is robbed of any actual meaning.

    But it’s trivially true that sometimes what looks evil to us may be good. Say you see me run up to a closed shop, smash the window, go inside, and run off with a ladder. That definitely looks evil to you: I’ve just committed criminal damage and theft. But what you don’t know is that around the corner a car has skidded into a deep ditch and the fuel is leaking out of its tank, endangering the occupants, who cannot climb out; but one of whom is the shop’s owner, who shouted to me, a bystander, to fetch a ladder from his shop so they can get out of the ditch. So what looks evil to you is in fact good.

    Theodicy is asking exactly this question: when God does something that looks evil to us, what context are we missing that shows that it was in fact good? Obviously we can never know the full context because our limited minds couldn’t handle such an overload of information; but the aim is to try to understand God’s actions better.

    We do not know, in terms of modern science, what happened at the resurrection. Any attempt to say so is speculation. John Updike does not know what really happened anymore than David Jenkins does. Whatever happened involves the same states of affairs as currently exist but to jump from that to, 'so the resurrection body must have been made of molecules and cells' is a jump too far. It is just presupposing what cannot be proved.

    We do not know what happened, but we know that something happened; and that that something happened at least in the material world (but not only in the material world), which is what, as I understand it, Jenkins denies.

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  43. If the writers of the NT had wanted to say the resurrection was material that option was open to them; they did not take it.

    But they did take it! Or at least Luke and John did, because I can’t see what the point of recording that Jesus ate with the disciples would be other than to emphasise that His resurrected body was a material body.

    This is not surprising since the concept of matter is a Hellenic idea the first century Jews seem not to have adopted (open to correction on this).

    ‘They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”’

    What on Earth is that but an explicit distinction between matter and a non-material apparition, or ‘ghost’? Of course that is Luke, so I guess if you want to claim it’s a ‘Hellenic idea’ then that’s your out. But whatever the provenance of the idea of the distinction between ‘ghost’ and ‘materially resurrected body’, it’s certainly right there in the gospels and the ‘ghost’ option is explicitly ruled out.

    I always think this is a duff argument. Water is one of the components of wine but in the normal course of things it does not turn into wine either suddenly or over a long period.

    That’s what makes it a miracle, yes. The point is it’s a question of style. There is a distinct difference in style between turning water into wine and turning stones into bread, and it’s significant that Jesus does one (albeit reluctantly) but refuses absolutely to do the other.

    As I said if the NT writers thought the resurrection being material was important they could easily have said so.

    They did! And they did!

    As to whether it could have been recorded, I very much doubt that a video could have shown what was important about it.

    Well, no, obviously a video couldn’t have shown what was important about it. But it could have shown Jesus walking, talking, and eating boiled fish, is the point.

    If we saw on video that Jesus got up and walked about, would that show that this was a unique, cosmos changing event.

    No, obviously not. but the point is that if we couldn’t see on video Jesus getting up and walking about, then that would prove that it wasn’t a cosmos changing event. A => B means if not B then not A, but not A doesn’t prove anything about B one way or the other (here A = ‘the resurrection was a cosmos changing event’ & B = ‘Jesus would have shown up on a video camera’).

    (And on a point of order, the resurrection wasn’t a unique event. All Christians will be resurrected. Jesus’s resurrection was merely the first fruits; the rest of the harvest is yet to come, but it will come)

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/survey-finds-2-of-anglican-priests-are-not-believers-9821899.html

    Thank you. From that I found the cross-tabs at: http://cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/5f5s31fk47/Results-for-Anglican-Clergy-Survey-08092014.pdf

    Unfortunately the wording of the question is less than helpful. It seems to have been:

    ‘Which of these statements, if any, comes closest to your beliefs?

    There is a personal God 83%
    There is some sort of spirit or life force 3%
    No-one can know what God is like 9%
    I am not sure ‘God’ is more than a human construct 2%
    None of these 2%
    Prefer not to answer 1%’

    and therefore subject to a lot of interpretation in how one interprets the question, especially for someone as well-versed in constructive ambiguity and creative interpretation as a liberal Anglican cleric following in the tradition of Cardinal ‘If I try hard enough I can make out the 39 articles support transubstantiation’ Newman. For instance my Deist cleric, I’m fairly sure, could have justified ticking ‘there is a personal God’ despite being a Deist rather than a Christian.

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  44. If you ask a meteorologist about ways of stopping a storm he suggest several but if you ask whether any of them could ensure a particular person died in a particular battle the answer is likely to be no.

    The way of stopping a storm I can think of involve ensuring that particular patches of pressure and air currents flow in certain ways. Any being capable of both setting up air currents that precisely; and of understanding the chaotic processes involved sufficiently to obtain the desired result; would also be capable of ensuring that a particular person died in a particular battle.

    Unless, that is, you can come up with a concrete example of a way in which God could have sailed a particular storm on a particular day, using techniques which could not also be used to ensure that a particular person died in a particular battle. Again I await your concrete example.

    But I think the real issue is to do with the thing you have been talking about where God does certain kinds of things and not others. I may be metaphysically possible for God to do something and yet not be the kind of thing he would do. I think the most plausible approach to theodicy is to add to the free will deffence what John Polkinghorne calls the free process deffence. The processes of the universe need to be free in order for things like life and history to happen.

    I think that is fairly obviously true, but it doesn’t solve the problem, because, as Lewis showed, it is possible to have both free will and free processes and also for God’s providence to intervene in the outcomes of events, so you can’t get God off the hook for not acting when you wish He had in that way.

    There is more than one way of abandoning theodicy, and I don't necessarily think abandoning theodicy is a bad thing. It's just that I think what this guy has is a weak theodicy because to free God of the charge of doing evil he has him incapable of doing anything, which means he can't do good either. But you can also abandon theodicy by saying maybe what we see as evil is really good. Here you have not presented an argument to show God is good despite appearances, you have just decided that you will call what is normally called evil good.

    I haven’t, no; I have pointed out that our limited perspective misses out context available to God, which, if we were capable of seeing, would enable us to understand that what seems to us to be evil, because we see only partially and not in total, is in fact good.

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  45. The resurrection, to coin a phrase, was far more than a conjuring trick with bones.

    Of course the resurrection was far more than a physical body coming back to life; but it was at least a physical body coming back to life, or it was nothing at all.

    I quite like the New Atheists. Far more than I like the kind of wishy-washing liberals who praise ‘faith’, anyway, because at least the New Atheists did Christians the credit of actually understanding and believing what they claim to believe. The New Atheists are far less patronising than truly awful people like, say, Karen ‘religion isn't about believing things’ Armstrong.

    For instance, I often get the impression that when people get angry at Christians for not changing their doctrine about That Thing or That Other Thing, that what they really want to say is, ‘Look, there’s no god, we know there’s know god, you must know at some level there’s no god, you’re engaged in a big game of make-believe that gives your lives meaning and you know that’s fine! That’s great! Everybody needs to tell themselves a story to give their lives meaning and yours happens to be about a guy in the sky who came down to Earth and was killed for telling people to be nice to each other, which is actually a really great meaning-given story, and the world would probably be a better place if more people gave their lives meaning in that way and I wish I could buy into it to, but, you know, just like we know, it is just a story that somebody made up so why can’t you just change the rules of your game of make-believe to be a bit more inclusive? It would be so simple to do, that the only reason you don’t must be because you hate X people!’

    They seem to be totally incapable of comprehending that Christian are Christians not because they like the story, or because it gives their lives meaning, but because they are convinced that it is, objectively, true, and that therefore they are not just free to change ‘the rules of the game’. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t.

    I guess once again we come back to Jack:

    ‘The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realise that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort. Now a clearly maintained distinction between what the Faith actually says and what you would like it to have said or what you understand or what you personally find helpful or think probable, forces your audience to realise that you are tied to your data just as the scientist is tied by the results of the experiments; that you are not just saying what you like. This immediately helps them realise that what is being discussed is a question about objective fact — not gas about ideals and points of view.’

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  46. But it’s trivially true that sometimes what looks evil to us may be good. Say you see me run up to a closed shop, smash the window, go inside, and run off with a ladder. That definitely looks evil to you: I’ve just committed criminal damage and theft. But what you don’t know is that around the corner a car has skidded into a deep ditch and the fuel is leaking out of its tank, endangering the occupants, who cannot climb out; but one of whom is the shop’s owner, who shouted to me, a bystander, to fetch a ladder from his shop so they can get out of the ditch. So what looks evil to you is in fact good.

    Theodicy is asking exactly this question: when God does something that looks evil to us, what context are we missing that shows that it was in fact good? Obviously we can never know the full context because our limited minds couldn’t handle such an overload of information; but the aim is to try to understand God’s actions better.


    I would say this is still an anti-theodicy or denial of theodicy position. It says events that appear evil may be good so we just have to trust God that they are. It's a non-explanation masquerading as an explanation.

    We do not know what happened, but we know that something happened; and that that something happened at least in the material world (but not only in the material world), which is what, as I understand it, Jenkins denies.

    Saying the resurrection happened in the material word is not the same thing as saying the resurrection body must have been made of matter. I think there is a problem that people don't realise that matter is a theoretical concept. I've certainly found that many materialists don't. The idea of matter is currently a scientific theory, but until fairly recently, and at the time the NT was written, it was a metaphysical theory. Once you are convinced that a body must be made of matter and can only be made of matter then it follows that a bodily resurrection must be material. There is no reason to think the NT writers held this view regarding matter and therefore no reason to think that their portrayal of a bodily resurrection was meant to imply a material resurrection.

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  47. I would say this is still an anti-theodicy or denial of theodicy position. It says events that appear evil may be good so we just have to trust God that they are. It's a non-explanation masquerading as an explanation.

    Theodicy is the field of explaining why God allows things to happen that seem to us to be evil, isn’t it? So I’m not sure how what I wrote, which is precisely that the aim of theodicy is to try to understand more of the context which God has, but we don’t, in order to explain why God allows things to happen which seem to us to be evil, can be a ‘denial of theodicy’ when… that’s just what theodicy is?


    Saying the resurrection happened in the material word is not the same thing as saying the resurrection body must have been made of matter. I think there is a problem that people don't realise that matter is a theoretical concept. I've certainly found that many materialists don't. The idea of matter is currently a scientific theory, but until fairly recently, and at the time the NT was written, it was a metaphysical theory. Once you are convinced that a body must be made of matter and can only be made of matter then it follows that a bodily resurrection must be material.

    I’m sorry, you’ve totally lost me here. What, other than matter, can a body be made of? I mean assuming you’re not positing some kind of Berkleyist monist idealism.

    There is no reason to think the NT writers held this view regarding matter and therefore no reason to think that their portrayal of a bodily resurrection was meant to imply a material resurrection.

    Well, okay, let’s get rid of the word ‘material’ then and say: can we agree that the Evangelists (or two of four anyway) were explicit that whatever the resurrected Jesus’s body was made of, it was:

    (a) the same sort of stuff as normal human bodies are made of; and

    2. the same sort of stuff as his body was made of before the resurrection?

    Otherwise, what is the point of recording the whole ‘not a ghost’ dialogue, and specifically pointing out that the resurrected Jesus ate boiled fish, other than to drive home the point that this body was the same kind of substance (whether or not it was the exact same substance) as His pre-resurrection body, and the same kind of substance as their own bodies?

    Whether or not they understood that substance as ‘matter’, the point is that whatever the resurrected Jesus was made of, it was the same stuff they were made of, and the same stuff Jesus had been made of all the time they’d known Him.

    We can agree on that, yes?

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  48. Also forgive me but you seem to have contradicted yourself. From above:

    If the writers of the NT had wanted to say the resurrection was material that option was open to them;


    And then:

    There is no reason to think the NT writers held this view regarding matter and therefore no reason to think that their portrayal of a bodily resurrection was meant to imply a material resurrection.

    Perhaps I'm being dumb but I can't fit these two together. It seems to me that if the writers of the gospels didn't have a view regarding matter then the option of saying that the resurrection was in fact not open to them, as they lacked the conceptual framework to make that statement.

    I assume I am being dim. Could you explain, as if to a very stupid person, how, without having a concept of bodies being made of matter, the Evangelists could have said that the resurrection was material?

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  49. I would say this is still an anti-theodicy or denial of theodicy position. It says events that appear evil may be good so we just have to trust God that they are. It's a non-explanation masquerading as an explanation.

    Theodicy is the field of explaining why God allows things to happen that seem to us to be evil, isn’t it? So I’m not sure how what I wrote, which is precisely that the aim of theodicy is to try to understand more of the context which God has, but we don’t, in order to explain why God allows things to happen which seem to us to be evil, can be a ‘denial of theodicy’ when… that’s just what theodicy is?

    Because all you have done, with the aid of an analogy, is to say maybe God does things that appear evil but are really good. You are not explaining anything. You are saying there may be a context where this can be the case but are not giving that context. It's a non-argument pretending to be an argument. There is no case made, nothing, just this hollow and unexamined speculation that maybe God can do things that seem evil but are really good.

    I’m sorry, you’ve totally lost me here. What, other than matter, can a body be made of? I mean assuming you’re not positing some kind of Berkleyist monist idealism.
    I'm not positing anything.

    There is no reason to think the NT writers held this view regarding matter and therefore no reason to think that their portrayal of a bodily resurrection was meant to imply a material resurrection.

    Well, okay, let’s get rid of the word ‘material’ then and say: can we agree that the Evangelists (or two of four anyway) were explicit that whatever the resurrected Jesus’s body was made of, it was:

    (a) the same sort of stuff as normal human bodies are made of; and

    2. the same sort of stuff as his body was made of before the resurrection?

    Nope. The texts make it pretty clear that the resurrection body, as they describe it, has some properties that are different to those of a material body. It can pass through a locked door for example. A solid material object cannot pass through another solid material object. From the perspective of modern physics, since you have brought that in, to say something is material but has different properties to matter is nonsense.

    Otherwise, what is the point of recording the whole ‘not a ghost’ dialogue, and specifically pointing out that the resurrected Jesus ate boiled fish, other than to drive home the point that this body was the same kind of substance (whether or not it was the exact same substance) as His pre-resurrection body, and the same kind of substance as their own bodies?
    It is suggesting there is more going on than mere disembodied survival.

    Whether or not they understood that substance as ‘matter’, the point is that whatever the resurrected Jesus was made of, it was the same stuff they were made of, and the same stuff Jesus had been made of all the time they’d known Him.

    We can agree on that, yes?

    Nope. It clearly has different properties. There is some kind of continuity implied but also some difference.

    When Paul talks about this he says quite explicitly that the two are not the same. He says the former body was psychical and the latter is spiritual. I don't think he means the latter body is made out of spirit, and so insubstantial, any more than he thinks the former is made out of soul. He seems to be saying that the former was a body suited to the expression of soul and the latter of spirit. He does not seem to be interested in the question of what kind of stuff they are made of.

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  50. Also forgive me but you seem to have contradicted yourself. From above:

    If the writers of the NT had wanted to say the resurrection was material that option was open to them;


    And then:

    There is no reason to think the NT writers held this view regarding matter and therefore no reason to think that their portrayal of a bodily resurrection was meant to imply a material resurrection.

    Perhaps I'm being dumb but I can't fit these two together. It seems to me that if the writers of the gospels didn't have a view regarding matter then the option of saying that the resurrection was in fact not open to them, as they lacked the conceptual framework to make that statement.

    I assume I am being dim. Could you explain, as if to a very stupid person, how, without having a concept of bodies being made of matter, the Evangelists could have said that the resurrection was material?

    If the NT writers were familiar with Greek culture then they could use terms derived from that culture, terms with specific philosophical meanings. Matter would be one such term. Although they use other terms from Greek philosophy they never, as far as I am aware, use that term. When Paul said the earthly body is psychical and the heavenly body is spiritual, he could have added, and both are material, but he doesn't. I don't think he is trying to tell us what kind of stuff these bodies are made of.

    If the concept of a material body was there for Paul he could have made it explicit. The fact he does not suggests he is not talking about that. Similarly the gospel writers do seem to want to convey the idea of a bodily resurrection but the idea of everything in the cosmos being made of some common stuff is really a pagan idea. In fact those who hold that idea, like Democritus, tend to think of the stuff as being self existent which the Jews would not see as a property of the cosmos.

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  51. Because all you have done, with the aid of an analogy, is to say maybe God does things that appear evil but are really good. You are not explaining anything. You are saying there may be a context where this can be the case but are not giving that context. It's a non-argument pretending to be an argument. There is no case made, nothing, just this hollow and unexamined speculation that maybe God can do things that seem evil but are really good.

    I'm afraid I'm lost. You write 'a non-argument pretending to be an argument' but… I wasn't pretending to make an argument? I don't understand what argument you think I am pretending to make? 'You are not explaining anything' — well, no? I'm not trying to make an explanation, simply pointing out what properties an explanation must have, that is, it must explain the context we are missing. I don't myself know what that context is. In an analogy with science, I'm not coming up with a theory: I'm simply pointing out the experimental evidence with which any theory must be compatible.

    So again that's not a 'denial of theodicy'. It's, rather, simply pointing out the evidence that any valid theodicy must explain.

    The texts make it pretty clear that the resurrection body, as they describe it, has some properties that are different to those of a material body. It can pass through a locked door for example. A solid material object cannot pass through another solid material object. From the perspective of modern physics, since you have brought that in, to say something is material but has different properties to matter is nonsense.

    An electron can. And electrons are definitely matter. But that's probably not relevant. More relevant is that as far as I know you're not claiming that Jesus' pre-resurrection body was not made of matter (that would be docetism); and yet that body was able to walk on water, something that is not a property of solid material objects with a density greater than water. So we already have an instance of Jesus' body, at a point when it was uncontroversially material, exhibiting different properties to matter. This proves that it is possible for Jesus' body to both be material, and at the same time to exhibit different properties to matter.

    It is suggesting there is more going on than mere disembodied survival.

    Okay, but that's the point, and where they disagree with Jenkins, who did — at least as far as I can make sense of what he thought — think that Jesus' survival was disembodied.

    When Paul talks about this he says quite explicitly that the two are not the same. He says the former body was psychical and the latter is spiritual. I don't think he means the latter body is made out of spirit, and so insubstantial, any more than he thinks the former is made out of soul. He seems to be saying that the former was a body suited to the expression of soul and the latter of spirit. He does not seem to be interested in the question of what kind of stuff they are made of.

    He was, however, very clear that Jesus was actually raised with a body; again, in complete contradiction to Jenkins.

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  52. When Paul said the earthly body is psychical and the heavenly body is spiritual, he could have added, and both are material, but he doesn't. I don't think he is trying to tell us what kind of stuff these bodies are made of.

    Okay, I think this has got sidetracked into a finer ontological distinction than I was really trying to make. My point was that the Evangelists, and Paul, explicitly rule out the Jenkins idea that the resurrection was an event of cosmic significance that, somehow, had no effect in the, shall we say, bodily world — the world of things that we can see and hear and touch and smell. Whether or not they gave any thought to the stuff of which Jesus’ resurrected body was made, they are quite clear that whatever stuff it was, it could be physically touched: it was not insubstantial, it was not a vision, it was not a subjective experience, it was not a sense that somehow Jesus was still with them in spirit.

    And therefore it is not compatible with the Jenkins view, which was my actual point.

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  53. Okay, I think this has got sidetracked into a finer ontological distinction than I was really trying to make. My point was that the Evangelists, and Paul, explicitly rule out the Jenkins idea that the resurrection was an event of cosmic significance that, somehow, had no effect in the, shall we say, bodily world — the world of things that we can see and hear and touch and smell. Whether or not they gave any thought to the stuff of which Jesus’ resurrected body was made, they are quite clear that whatever stuff it was, it could be physically touched: it was not insubstantial, it was not a vision, it was not a subjective experience, it was not a sense that somehow Jesus was still with them in spirit.

    And therefore it is not compatible with the Jenkins view, which was my actual point.

    I think the ontological distinctions point to something important. It is quite possible that Updike was trying, as you have suggested, to stress the reality of the resurrection, and not really concerned with the issue of what the resurrection body was made of. This would then be a poetic way of pointing to that reality the details of which were not meant literally. In a culture where materialism is the dominant outlook, then if you want to imply that something is real then it makes sense to do that by saying it is made of matter, or molecules and cells.

    The stories about Jesus seem to have there origins in a Jewish peasant culture. In such a culture if you want an image to say something is real, you would not use those kinds of images, but you might use images of someone taking part in the daily activities of life such as eating and drinking. Jenkins would say that is what those stories were.

    It is also possible to say that if you wanted to communicate the reality of a resurrection to people in that culture, you would do it in this kind of way, eating and drinking, touch and so on. Just as if you want to communicate the idea of a transfer to heaven in that culture you would do it by moving physically upwards. We know heaven is not literally just above the clouds but those Ancient Jewish peasants would not.

    So while what Jenkins was saying may not be compatible with a literal interpretation of the New Testament texts, such an interpretation has become increasingly implausible given what we now know, or if you like given how we now think.

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  54. I'm afraid I'm lost. You write 'a non-argument pretending to be an argument' but… I wasn't pretending to make an argument? I don't understand what argument you think I am pretending to make? 'You are not explaining anything' — well, no? I'm not trying to make an explanation, simply pointing out what properties an explanation must have, that is, it must explain the context we are missing. I don't myself know what that context is. In an analogy with science, I'm not coming up with a theory: I'm simply pointing out the experimental evidence with which any theory must be compatible.

    So again that's not a 'denial of theodicy'. It's, rather, simply pointing out the evidence that any valid theodicy must explain


    Well then, the person you said was abandoning theodicy was offering more of a theodicy than you are. He tries to conserve the goodness of God against the appearance of evil by saying God cannot or does, act and gives a reason for thinking this. You say God, at least sometimes does not act and do not give a reason, but instead use an analogy to suggest that it is sometimes possible for what is good to appear evil. He gives an argument (in my view a poor one), you give none. You can't not give an argument and then charge someone else with not giving an argument.

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  55. Well then, the person you said was abandoning theodicy was offering more of a theodicy than you are

    Except no, because the whole question of theodicy boils down to ‘how can both A and B be true, when they seem to be contradictory?’

    It is no answer at all to say, ‘well, in fact A is not true at all, so there’s no question to answer!’ Which was the cleric’s position: to deny one of the premises. It doesn’t answer the question; it abandons even the attempt to answer it.

    To truly engage with the issue you have to accept the premises, and show how though they appear to be incompatible they in fact are not. I don’t have an answer (if I did I would be God); I am simply pointing that out.

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  56. In a culture where materialism is the dominant outlook, then if you want to imply that something is real then it makes sense to do that by saying it is made of matter, or molecules and cells.

    The stories about Jesus seem to have there origins in a Jewish peasant culture. In such a culture if you want an image to say something is real, you would not use those kinds of images, but you might use images of someone taking part in the daily activities of life such as eating and drinking. Jenkins would say that is what those stories were.


    Haven’t you rather missed the quite important distinction that Updike’s poem is merely a piece of writing of human origin, and the gospels, well, are not? They can therefore not be set aside as lightly as the poem.

    More to the point, there are clearly more ways of saying something is real in the Bible than ‘images of […] eating and drinking’. Indeed there are different ways used even by the same author: Luke records Paul’s vision of Christ, in exactly the same reportage style, and as just as real. So we have the same author, Luke, recording, in the exact same style:

    (A) Jesus bodily present, eating, being touched

    Ii. Jesus speaking from a vision, intangible, insubstantial, yet definitely really there

    Why the discrepancy? If the aim of both was to convey the same thing, why so different? Surely the only difference is that the two occasions were, in fact, different, and that they occured in the ways described, as reported to Luke by the witnesses he interviewed when compiling his report?

    So while what Jenkins was saying may not be compatible with a literal interpretation of the New Testament texts, such an interpretation has become increasingly implausible given what we now know, or if you like given how we now think.

    Explain please? What ‘has become increasingly implausible’ and why?

    It is also possible to say that if you wanted to communicate the reality of a resurrection to people in that culture, you would do it in this kind of way, eating and drinking, touch and so on. Just as if you want to communicate the idea of a transfer to heaven in that culture you would do it by moving physically upwards. We know heaven is not literally just above the clouds but those Ancient Jewish peasants would not.

    So while what Jenkins was saying may not be compatible with a literal interpretation of the New Testament texts, such an interpretation has become increasingly implausible given what we now know, or if you like given how we now think.

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  57. Guys, get a room.

    I think perhaps you should direct your complaints to whoever is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to read.

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  58. I think perhaps you should direct your complaints to whoever is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to read.

    Yellow card.

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  59. If people are feeling this comments section is getting a bit bogged down by SK and I having a theological debate that is very tangential to what was originally being discussed we had better call it to a close. I have found it interesting and it could continue, but there is the problem, it could continue for a very long time without reaching any conclusion. SK, it has been interesting to talk with you.

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  60. Sorry, @postodave, I didn't mean to shut anything down. I just found it amusing how intensely the two of you were going at it. Please, continue. Or, if you choose not to, don't let it be because of anything I said.

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  61. Sorry, @postodave, I didn't mean to shut anything down. I just found it amusing how intensely the two of you were going at it. Please, continue. Or, if you choose not to, don't let it be because of anything I said.

    Thanks Mike. It has got very intense and very diversified. I can't respond to it all but I may add a few more bits. I don't know why these discussions get like this.

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  62. Okay here we go:

    Except no, because the whole question of theodicy boils down to ‘how can both A and B be true, when they seem to be contradictory?’

    It is no answer at all to say, ‘well, in fact A is not true at all, so there’s no question to answer!’ Which was the cleric’s position: to deny one of the premises. It doesn’t answer the question; it abandons even the attempt to answer it.


    It's perfectly acceptable to resolve a contradiction in this way. Logically it is the only way to resolve an actual contradiction. For example suppose you want to solve the mind body problem: how can an immaterial mind interact with a material body. It is valid to say that there is no immaterial mind. In doing this the problem is uncovered as a pseudo problem caused by positing something non-existent.

    An apparent contradiction can be resolved by showing there is no actual contradiction, which means qualifying what is meant by one or both of the terms. There are positions on theodicy, and well developed ones, which resolve the problems by qualifying what is meant by divine sovereignty. So for example Kennedy challenges the idea of God as cosmic dictator and instead posits a God who suffers with and inspires human beings to good but does not sit behind the scenes pulling the strings.

    To truly engage with the issue you have to accept the premises, and show how though they appear to be incompatible they in fact are not. I don’t have an answer (if I did I would be God); I am simply pointing that out.
    No. It is perfectly rational to question the premises of a claim rather than accepting them, as I illustrate above. Saying you do not have the answer to the questions raised in theodicy, on the other hand, is abandoning theodicy. There is a very noble tradition of doing this. If you look at the arguments on free will between Luther and Erasmus, you will see that Erasmus insistence that human beings have free will stems from a desire to do what would later be called theodicy. Luther simply refuses to engage with this. God is in charge and saves who he will, human beings have no free will and we cannot as mere human beings question that. This approach is developed and continued by later thinkers in the same tradition. It is not until the enlightenment, specifically with Leibnitz, that Protestant views change and theodicy becomes a concern.

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  63. Haven’t you rather missed the quite important distinction that Updike’s poem is merely a piece of writing of human origin, and the gospels, well, are not? They can therefore not be set aside as lightly as the poem.
    I am not setting either aside. I am suggesting that the hermeneutic approach you advocate for one will also work with the other i.e. that we focus on the core concern and not literalise the peripheral details.

    More to the point, there are clearly more ways of saying something is real in the Bible than ‘images of […] eating and drinking’. Indeed there are different ways used even by the same author: Luke records Paul’s vision of Christ, in exactly the same reportage style, and as just as real. So we have the same author, Luke, recording, in the exact same style:

    (A) Jesus bodily present, eating, being touched

    Ii. Jesus speaking from a vision, intangible, insubstantial, yet definitely really there

    Why the discrepancy? If the aim of both was to convey the same thing, why so different? Surely the only difference is that the two occasions were, in fact, different, and that they occured in the ways described, as reported to Luke by the witnesses he interviewed when compiling his report?

    I was not suggesting that in that culture there would be only one possible way of indicating reality; sorry if I gave that impression. In fact whatever Paul's account of his encounter with the risen Christ is, it cannot be strict reportage because the details in each of the three accounts he gives are different.
    Explain please? What ‘has become increasingly implausible’ and why?
    An interpretation of the NT narratives which treats every detail as literally is implausible. To take up again the example I was using at the ascension Christ Luke says he was carried up into heaven. The idea that heaven was literally above earth may well have been exactly what the apostles thought. No one saw this as an issue a few centuries later when most educated Christians accepted Ptolemaic astronomy, a spherical world and heaven a long way away outside the cosmos, in part this is because Jesus was still in some quasi literal sense going up to heaven. In the cosmos as understood by relativity theory there just is no sense in which heaven could be spatially upward from earth. But most people who believe have no problem in understanding this as Jesus going to be with God. We do not need to take the details literally.

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  64. Re theodicy. You could just argue that God has a self-imposed rule: he prioritises the free will of his creations over his right to intercede. Which is fair enough. What would be the point otherwise? He either lets great evil be committed by his creations or he turns into a dictator who punishes every infraction.

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  65. Sort of like running a safari park? You got to let nature take its course. Lions will devour impalas, animals will get sick and die etc.

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  66. Re theodicy. You could just argue that God has a self-imposed rule: he prioritises the free will of his creations over his right to intercede. Which is fair enough. What would be the point otherwise? He either lets great evil be committed by his creations or he turns into a dictator who punishes every infraction.
    It's a good starting place. But a lot of suffering is not caused by human free-will. What John Hick calls the Augustinian theodicy does trace things like sickness or the painful causing acts of non-human creatures back to a choice by two early humans, but that is implausible given what we now know about how these things came about. So I agree with Polkinghorne that this notion of freedom needs to be extended to the non-human processes.

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  67. Sort of like running a safari park? You got to let nature take its course. Lions will devour impalas, animals will get sick and die etc.
    Yes that.

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  68. described, as reported to Luke by the witnesses he interviewed when compiling his report?

    And there, I think is the substance of the disagreement.

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  69. It's perfectly acceptable to resolve a contradiction in this way. Logically it is the only way to resolve an actual contradiction.

    Okay, yes, that's true. But just because it's an acceptable way to resolve the contradiction doesn't mean that it actually addresses the question.

    Let me put it this way. You can quite easily resolve the contradiction of theodicy by saying, 'well, of course, God doesn't actually exist'.

    But I hope you would agree with me that although that resolves the contradiction, it does not actually answer, or even address, the question. In fact it denies the question, by denying one of the premises

    The cleric's position, to deny that God has one of the attributes that He must have if He really were God, is basically the same as avoiding the question by just saying that God doesn't exist.

    To take up again the example I was using at the ascension Christ Luke says he was carried up into heaven. The idea that heaven was literally above earth may well have been exactly what the apostles thought.

    Or equally it may not; they may have thought of heaven as being 'above' the Earth in the sense of being greater than, superior to, it. And that may have been what they meant when they said they saw Jesus 'taken up' into Heaven. Who knows what they actually saw? Whether Jesus blinked out of sight, or gradually faded from view, or perhaps appeared to fold in on Himself or that His body seemed to expand until it took up the whole universe; it's highly doubtful that the experience of seeing someone remove themselves entirely from the world of time and space would be comprehensible to human senses, but what they did did know for sure what was He went from our realm to a superior one, from the lower world to the higher one: he went, in other words, up.

    But a lot of suffering is not caused by human free-will.

    What's more, it would be possible to stop a lot of the suffering that is caused by human free will in ways that do not directly impact on the free will of humans; a gust of wind that blows the bullet off course doesn't negate the free will of the would-be murderer. I suppose you could argue that this would negate human free will if it happens consistently, so that no bullets ever struck their targets; but if God were to intervene in such a way not every time a gun was fired but only occasionally, that wouldn't at all negate free will, because we all accept that external factors thwarting our intentions do not negate our exercise of free will.

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