10 April 2015

I must indeed watch Mr. Giles Fraser…

The Guardian editorialist certainly has some interesting thoughts on theology. His editorial piece on Christianity being ‘a religion of losers’ (meant in the best possible sense) certainly got my attention in a positive way. I am not entirely sure I agree with Mr. Fraser’s conclusions; in fact, I’m fairly sure I’d have to reject a couple of them. It strikes me firstly that it would be as much a mistake to measure the Church by the yardstick of earthly failure as it would be to measure her by the yardstick of earthly success; the Church has a mission of meeting and treating people in their sins and in their brokenness, of preparing them for the life to come as best as she is able, and of advocating for justice on their behalf for the salvation of the powerful. Along these lines her success is measured, not by how many or how few nominal adherents she has, or how deep her coffers are. But Mr. Fraser is very much on the right track with some of his premises: when ‘success’ in its usual materialistic, capitalist dimension is taken as an end in itself, the holy mystery of the Cross is lost, and therefore also that of the Resurrection. Fraser is right that it is impossible for a Church which prides itself on attracting the ‘successful’ (so defined) to successfully preach the Gospel.

Likewise, I have some mixed-to-positive reactions to his most recent piece on the Orthodox Church, and, in light of the Paschal season, how the theological differences in how the atonement of Christ is treated are reflected in modern debates over Greek debt to Europe. There is much in the piece that is true. For example, though a couple of shades of nuance might be helpful here, he has the Orthodox view of the atonement mostly correct. We don’t subscribe to the one-sided ‘iron logic of cosmic necessity’ that characterises the satisfaction, governmental and penal substitution theories which flowed from Anselm’s conception of the Crucifixion; for us the wages of sin is not the judgement of a wrathful God, because that judgement is always already present in the ontological reality of death (Romans 6:23). It is from the power of death, introduced into the world by the first sin, that we must be and are saved by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection - an act which completely inverts the logic of the fallen world which we have inherited! Perhaps Mr. Fraser overstates his case slightly when he says that the Orthodox view isn’t about repaying a debt; certainly the Holy Church Fathers still had much to say about the debt that is owing to the flesh. And this idea that the Orthodox do not take sin seriously is a highly misguided one. What good doctor would not be concerned about a life-threatening illness in her patient, even to the point of obsession? But Mr. Fraser is certainly right that the vision of Christ battering and trampling down the doors of Hell in a ‘prison break’ is very much an Orthodox motif!

As a personal aside, this is one of those instances where I find myself particularly indebted to my Anabaptist upbringing. In reaching back toward the praxis of the Early Church, albeit from a highly-attenuated 16th-Century German perspective which necessarily carried with it its own historical hangups, the Anabaptists somehow successfully retrieved the Patristic Christus Victor theory of the Atonement, which even when I was still attending Lutheran and Episcopal services had always struck me as the one understanding of what happened on the Cross that corresponded most closely with the personality of Christ. As a former Protestant I find myself still a very long ways off from having acquired the mind of the Church, but I am indeed thankful to my parents and to my Anabaptist teachers that they helped me to clear this particular intellectual hurdle early on.

But getting back to Mr. Fraser’s piece, he is also right that the Crucifixion is not thought of in the Orthodox Church as being an act of ‘bloody cosmic accountancy’. The Orthodox Church’s understanding of it is not juridicial; again, the coherent personality of Christ is a guide. Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses, but He was very emphatically not a legalist. He dined with tax collectors, but He spent his life forgiving poor people debts and sins, and healing the sick of their diseases; and the sin which is common to us all is a sickness unto death. It is tempting indeed, and I can certainly see where Fraser is coming from on this, to read the argument over Greek debt - which itself is also causing massive sickness and death there - as an argument rooted in differing theologies. There certainly is something true in Fraser’s idea that the current Greek leadership sees the problem as a problem of bondage that needs breaking, or a problem of sickness that needs relief and healing; and the idea that the German leadership sees the problem as one of a legal obligation for debts that simply have to be paid.

But the one-to-one theological mapping, tracing a direct line of intellectual descent from Anselm down to Merkel, seems slightly naïve to me. (And thankfully, Mr. Fraser deftly dodges it in Tsipras’s case!) I take it as granted that all ideological formations will be influenced by certain theological positions; it certainly does not follow that the two are identical. The question raises itself: who exactly is the one doing the healing, the exacting or the repaying here? And what is our appropriate response? Naturally theologies will have political implications, but in this day and age when politics have practically usurped all public space and secularised all possible public theological discourse, it isn’t difficult to see how attaching a heretically-political significance to a particular manifestation of classical Christian theology may backfire badly.

Likewise, maybe this is me being a romantic, and certainly I’m not holding out any particular hopes for the IMF or the ECB, but I’m not convinced that either the entirety of Western Christendom generally (or even Germany in particular) is entirely deaf to the idea of debt-forgiveness, however intractable they are proving themselves in the Greek case. At any rate, interesting article by Mr. Fraser; I shall have to read his work more often!


  1. He is an interesting man. Dean of St Paul's cathedral, I think. Left over the cathedral's treatment of the occupy protesters.

  2. Cheers, Thomas! Very good to know.

    So he is - or was - an Anglican priest? Kudos to him for taking a stand on Occupy in favour of the protesters!

  3. Yes he is an Anglican priest and now serves as a vicar in a rough parish in London. The terms are never quite adequate of course, but he is one of the most prominent 'liberal' clerics in the uk today. A guardian columnist, as you know, who chaired the paper's debate about their response to Charlie hebdoe.
    Keep up the good work, it is very much appreciated. And enjoy your first Pascha (when it comes)