In this the sixth blog about my forthcoming book, God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions , let me share with you what some of the first readers of the book have written.

First of all, this is what Publishers Weekly in the US had to say.

Readable and illuminating

In this short meditation on the meaning and importance of the theological quest, psychologist Cherry frames the discussion in a helpful way, viewing study as “fun, fascinating, and important.” Cherry peeks into the many corners of the questioning world (both religious and not), from Socrates to Richard Dawkins, to flesh out his thesis. This approach works well as he paints a picture of an all-encompassing approach to the contemplation of religious ideas. Chapter 8 cleverly presents the study to a modern audience with “A History of Christian Theology in Fewer than Twenty Tweets.” Drawing from the Bible and other texts, Cherry distills the theological quest into bite-sized units, focusing on ideas that relate to a contemporary audience seeking answers to their highest questions. “Theology today has a huge and complex agenda, which can perhaps be boiled down to one very short, eternal question: What really matters?” This nicely sums up Cherry’s thesis in this very readable, illuminating work. (Feb.)

And from Mike Higton, Professor of Theology at Durham University.

Brevity, clarity and cheerful honesty

This book is an invitation to ask deep questions. With brevity, clarity, and cheerful honesty Stephen Cherry explains how he came to be captivated by these questions – questions about God, about the purpose of life, about the nature of love – and beckons his readers to join him. Even if you have never before considered studying theology, this may well be the book that will persuade you to dive in

This is what Mark Oakley of St Paul’s Cathedral, author of The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry,  thinks.

Cherry characteristically makes us think again

In the 21st century, theology might appear to be some historical residue left over from out-of-date worldviews, and studying it as quirky as trying to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics – but less interesting. Stephen Cherry characteristically makes us think again, pointing to theology as the disciplined, human and holistic way in which we explore the eternal questions that hover over every century. The rumour of God that circles the book, implying that reality might be worthy of trust, is compelling and unignorable. I hope this work will entice a new generation of theologians fit for purpose, imaginative in language, engagement and prayer.

Malcolm Guite, poet, preset and author of Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge  has written this:

An accessible, passionate and entertaining introduction

In a world of glib sound-bites, a world that sneers at ‘experts’, it has never been more important to encourage people to read and think for themselves. Stephen Cherry’s accessible, passionate and entertaining introduction to the key ideas of Christian Theology does just that. Vital ideas are explained lucidly and powerfully, old ideas are brought to life in new contexts, and Stephen Cherry not only makes the case for theology, but stimulates a new enthusiasm for it.

And finally Stephen Prickett, Regius Professor Emeritus of English, University of Glasgow, and Honorary Professor, University of Kent at Canterbury a former Regius Professor of Literature at Glasgow has commented in this way:

An unusual and original book

This is an unusual and original book designed to interest and encourage those thinking of studying theology or religious studies as an academic discipline – more specifically, those thinking of reading it at university. Unlike many academic subjects, Cherry argues, theology is more a matter of the questions you ask, than any traditional certainties: ‘as an enterprise [it] only makes sense if you know that you don’t know all the answers already.’ Supporting his thesis by a sweeping history of Christianity in 20 Tweets, the Dean of Kings College, Cambridge, gives an interesting and thoughtful introduction to a subject that has increasingly come to fascinate him the more he has studied it.

God-Curious is published on 21st February, meanwhile, do have a look at it on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

This is the fifth blog about my forthcoming book, God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions.

As I worked on the book last summer it became clear to me that if theology is going to have future it will have to take into account the intuition that there is more to knowing than words alone can  encapsulate. Indeed it will also have to take into account the point that if theology is about the transcendent nothing is ever going to be to encapsulate it at all.

This is how I conclude the ninth chapter, ‘Pictures, Poetry and God’.

It seems inevitable to me that theology is going to be
increasingly contemplative in the future, and that the visual
and the poetic will become ever more important to theologians.
Among the factors that I believe will push this process along
will be our increasingly broad, sophisticated and sympathetic
understanding of the beliefs and claims of other religious systems
and an ever clearer understanding that a merely ‘scientific’
approach to life, while splendid at forging breakthroughs in
understanding that translate into astonishing applications
in terms of technology and medicine, do not actually answer
all our questions or deliver the sort of long-term answers and
perspectives that satisfy our deepest longings. To deal adequately
with those issues we need to engage with something that can
properly be called ‘theology’ and for theology to be itself it must
not only be wise enough to learn from its own great history
of reflection but bold enough to engage with the realities that
press upon people in today’s world. Moreover, it must be a
discipline that uses to the full the intellectual capacities of the
whole human brain, and neither disparages nor fears the power
of imagination and imagery or the poetic uses of language.

And to me this is very exciting and very positive future indeed, because theology is a very big subject indeed.

Tomorrow I will share a few pre-publication comments that others have made about the book.  Meanwhile, do have a look at it on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

 

This is the fourth blog about my forthcoming book, God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions.

Philosophy is becoming ever more and more interesting to curious young people. How does it relate to Theology?  This is how I begin my discussion of that fascinating relationship. Skip to the last quote below if you are impatient.

There are some people who would argue that philosophy is
theology’s best friend. But there are several different ways of
thinking about the relationship. One is that philosophy is the
tool-maker and theology is the person that uses the tools. This is
the sort of approach that came to its height in the twelfth century
and in the writing of Thomas Aquinas. His method was very
philosophical and to this day he is studied by both philosophers
and theologians. There are plenty of other theologians who have
used philosophical tools in an explicit way – though they do not
always make it clear why they have used one particular set of
tools rather than another.

On the other hand …

Another way of thinking about the relationship between
philosophy and theology is that theology is a more practical
subject and that philosophy is dry and analytical. Theology
might help you to live better or make political decisions, but
philosophy will only inform you as to how logical you are being
– which isn’t always as much real help as very rationally minded
people might think. In this relationship it is not that philosophy
is supplying tools and standing in judgement over theology,
deciding whether or not its arguments are good and whether
its propositions make sense. This view was very strong in the
period known as the Enlightenment, when some of the biggest
names in philosophy wrote the books that have done so much
to shape the way in which people in the Western world think
and live. I am thinking of Frenchman René Descartes, who
wrote that ‘I think therefore I am’ – finding his existence not in
his body or his soul but in his thinking mind. Then there was a
group of philosophers who espoused the idea that you can only
really know the things that you learn though your senses. These
empiricists set the foundations for science – though it should
be noted that for many of the great scientists of this era, like
Isaac Newton, science and religion were not understood to be in
competition with each other. However, this strand of thinking,
that philosophy can judge theology while theology has to
passively accept whatever the clever clogs philosophers come up
with, is not one that is very congenial to theology at all. I should
be honest here and say that there were strands of philosophy in
the twentieth century, such as logical positivism, an extreme
form of empiricism, that convinced many people that talk about
God was necessarily nonsense. This wasn’t philosophy as judge
but philosophy as ‘god’, so to speak, deciding what people may
or may not talk about.

But …

The way in which I prefer to think about the relationship
between philosophy and theology, however, is as two explorers
who have been travelling together for a very long time. One
of them has a map, the other has a compass. One of them has
a good sense of humour to keep them going when the terrain
gets tough, the other has excellent eyesight to be able to see the
route ahead when the rain stops and the mist lifts. One of them
has a first aid kit, the other has a tent and some matches. One
of them has some food, the other carries the water. You get the
idea – one of complementarity. This is theology and philosophy
as the yin and yang of intellectual and spiritual progress.

More tomorrow.  Meanwhile, do have a look at the book on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

 

This is the third blog about my forthcoming book, God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions.

In the book I argue that the study of theology is actually and potentially important.  Here’s an extract from towards the end of chapter 5.

The study of theology is … of great importance because,
unless at least some members of the human family are seriously
trying to understand religion and beliefs about God and to hold
constructive and critical conversations about it, then this will be
the one part of life that no one understands. And you don’t need
to look at the newspaper headlines for long to realize that this
might prove to be a very costly mistake to make. Certainly the
lack of general religious knowledge and understanding among
people in senior positions in local and national government, as
well as in civic and commercial institutions, is already cause
for concern. It would be extraordinary if in the twenty-first
century we developed a good understanding of the universe
and produced super-intelligent machines, discovered cures for
cancer and Alzheimer’s but did not have any way of knowing
what different people meant when they referred to God or what
was driving them when they acted on their faith.

And I go on to argue that:

It may just be that there are some problems that we will
not be able to solve by scientific and secular thinking. Maybe
there are some completely brilliant ideas locked up inside the
religions that if let free could help solve some of the major
problems that face us today. For instance, there may be ideas
in Islam that help us think about money in such a way as to
create a more stable and just economic system. Hinduism and
the religions of aboriginal and native peoples may have things
to teach us that would make life more sustainable ecologically.
Christianity and Judaism might teach us about how forgiveness
and reconciliation in the aftermath of harmful or cruel behaviour
might work in practice. And Buddhism may have the antidote
to the stress of modern life in aspects of the eightfold path –
indeed, the value of ‘mindfulness’ is an increasingly important
example of this. Who would have imagined this a generation
or two ago? Just about no one – which is why John Lennon’s
‘Imagine’ has become the anthem of the generation that thought
religion would die. It hasn’t died. It isn’t going to die. And so
we ought, perhaps, to think about it with at least as much effort
and energy as we think about anything else; we ought, in other
words, to study theology.

More tomorrow.  Meanwhile, do have a look at the book on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

 

This is the second blog about my forthcoming book, God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions.

The book starts not with an ‘Introduction’ but with a ‘Welcome’. And this is how it kicks off.

This little book is a personal invitation to explore theology. I sat down to write it in the hope that it would helpful to people who are considering what to read at University. But as the writing continued, I came to feel it could be intriguing to people at any stage of life. Theology is such a huge and hugely interesting subject.

Actually theology is much more than a ‘subject’. It’s more like form of seeking, a quest; and that is why for me theology is not so much about answers, as about questions; not so much about knowing, as about wondering; not so much about gaining knowledge, as enriching your perspective on experiences that make you wonder.

In universities today the subject of theology is being challenged and reshaped, but the quest of theology is much older than any of our educational institutions. It is a seeking after wisdom that is based on the intuition that there is more to life than we can ever know. I suspect that such seeking is as old as language itself – or at least as old as the capacity to ask questions about the meaning and purpose of life, and to wonder about what might be just beyond the realms of our ordinary experience and common sense.

One way to ‘define’ theology might be as the quest to understand God.  However, in the tradition to which the book seeks to introduce you, such a quest is deeply intertwined with the quest to understand other people and the quest to understand yourself; three projects that are integrated in in the ancient religious teaching that you should love God, love your neighbour and love yourself.

More tomorrow.  Meanwhile, do have a look at the book on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

 

One of my jobs is to direct the studies of the theology students at King’s College. Cambridge.  About a year ago I began to review what we said on our webpages for prospective students. And while doing so I had a good look at the books that are recommended to people thinking of studying theology at University.

Then, slowly, slowly, it dawned on me: the introductory books about theology are not as interesting or attractive as the subject itself.

This troubled me deeply and I set myself a challenge – write something that expresses what a great subject theology is.

So I started writing some webpages that put forward the idea that theology is fascinating, fun and important. I was aware, as I wrote, that there are those who think that theology is only possibly of interest to people who follow one religion or another. So I also wrote some material that made the point that even if you think religion is absurd it’s not going to go away any time soon, so it might be good idea to discover a bit more about how it all hangs together.

I hadn’t been writing for long when I realised that I had more than a few webpages on my hands and so – partly because I had just broken my ankle – I decided to see what happened if I tried to write something more extensive. It wasn’t long before I had the first draft of a little book that claimed – no, proved –  that theology is  – well, fascinating, fun and important.

During the course of the  summer I found in Jessica Kingsley a great editor, and in JKP – the amazing publishing house she founded thirty years ago while sitting at her kitchen table – a tremendously enthusiastic and professional publisher.

The result is God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions which is published a week today, 21 February.  It is, I really believe this, an engaging book to put into the hands of a young person who is  yet to decide what to do at University. But it’s also much more than that, thanks in good part to Jessica’s skillful editorial interventions and nudges. ‘Say more about this’, ‘What do you think about that?’, ‘Yes, that is a good idea – can you expand it?’, Why haven’t you said anything about …’  and so on.

My plan now is to post a short blog every day for the next week as a countdown to publication day. Meanwhile, do have a look at the book on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

 

A sermon preached in King’s College Chapel, Sunday 29 January 2017

Etty Hillesum lived from 1914 to 1943. A Dutch Jew, she died like so many in the Holocaust. She is known today because her diaries and letters from the last two years of her life, which run to over 400 pages, were published in 1981 (in English in 1999 by Persephone Books) as ‘An Interrupted Life’. It is a book that offers profound insights, not only for the historian of the period, but also to anyone who is interested in spirituality.

Etty was fascinated by the question of how to live a good and balanced life, whatever the circumstances. In 1941, she began to practice meditation – though confessing herself ‘wary’ of the word. She soon found that it was ‘not so simple’ and that before one can be peaceful, ‘A lot of unimportant inner litter and bits and pieces have to be swept out. Even a small head can be piled high inside with irrelevant distractions’ (p33). She writes about the aim of meditation being ‘to turn one’s innermost being into a vast empty plain, with none of that treacherous undergrowth to impede the view. So that something of ‘God’ can enter you, and something of ‘Love’ too’ (p33).

She occasionally felt drawn to a cloistered life, but recognised that it was not right for her.

Sometimes I long for a convent cell, with the sublime wisdom of centuries set out on bookshelves all along the wall and a view across the cornfields … and there I would immerse myself in the wisdom of the ages and in myself. Then I might perhaps find peace and clarity. But that would be no great feat. It is right here, in this very place, in the here and now, that I must find them. But it is all so terribly difficult, and I feel so heavy-hearted (p44).

Alongside what you might call this spiritual planning and longing, her experience of prayer is that it has a surprising and spontaneous quality. Catching herself making an unkind observation she prays, ‘Lord, free me from all these petty vanities. They take up too much of my inner life, and I know only too well that other things matter much more than being thought nice and charming by one’s fellows.’ (p141).

Although candid, Etty is rather uncomfortable about aspects of her spiritual longing and desire. Like many modern people she found the word ‘God’ a difficult one to know how to use. But if the existence and nature of God were a puzzle to her so too was the question of how to relate to God – and this expressed itself in a curious bodily form; in particular in her feelings about kneeling. Indeed she came to see learning to kneel as a hugely significant part of her life-journey, writing of herself as ‘the girl who could not kneel but learnt to do so on the rough coconut matting in an untidy bathroom’ (p74). Six months later, on Good Friday 1942, she wrote that, ‘A desire to kneel down sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if my body had been meant and made for the act of kneeling. Sometimes, in moments of deep gratitude, kneeling down becomes an overwhelming urge, head deeply bowed, hands before my face’ (p129).

This is an intriguing theme for us to come across in the season of Epiphany when the story of the magi who travelled to worship the Christ-Child is our guiding spiritual light, and our eyes naturally drift to Ruben’s great painting for inspiration. Perhaps we should allow ourselves a moment to reflect on our use of gestures of reverence – pausing, bowing our heads or bending our knees, and recognising in an unhurried moment God’s transcendent loving-kindness made known in the person of Jesus Christ, and entering into some kind of communion with God through an act of obeisance.

It is obvious that Etty’s journals were written under the shadow of occupation and fear, and the increasingly overt and brutal persecution of her community. Her prayer-life and spirituality developed as things got worse and she struggled to cope with life in the Westerbork concentration camp.

In fact, as time went by there rose up within her a conviction that, despite all the squalid horror and cruelty around her, life is always good and beautiful. In both her diaries and her letters she is a profoundly articulate witness to the capacity of the human spirit to transcend the snares of gloom and to be refreshed and renewed. ‘God is not accountable to us, but we are to him!’, she asserts with the surprise of a spiritual Eureka moment (p183). ‘I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps. I know about everything and am no longer appalled by the latest reports. In one way or another I know it all. And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful. From minute to minute.’ (p184). Later she records saying to a friend with whom she has been discussing ‘all the ultimate questions’: ‘But you know … like a child I still feel life is beautiful, and this helps me bear everything… You see, I believe in God.’

It would be wrong to suggest that Etty was an orthodox Jewish woman or to appropriate her as an ‘anonymous Christian’; her faith-status, so to speak, is deeply ambiguous. And yet it is perhaps this ambiguity, together with the honesty of her writing about the relational tangles of her life, and her acute and pressing awareness of what she calls ‘the ocean of human suffering’ (p158) that make her an especially helpful guide to spiritual seekers today. And we, in this Chapel, might well ask ourselves what it means to ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’ when we cannot help but be aware of the ocean of contemporary suffering, and when we are so unsettled about the way on which the political structures are reforming themselves in our time; and doing so largely, it seems, on principles that are a long way from those inspired by love, justice, truth and peace. These are values that Christians and Jews and many others would attribute to God and, as Provost Whichote so memorably put it in the seventeenth century, they are qualities that we should propose to ourselves as matters of ‘practice and imitation’.

And the question of spirituality, the question with which Etty Hillesum so articulately wrestles, is this: how do we do that? How do we make justice, truth, mercy and peace both the core of our inner being and the hallmarks of our actions?

The quest to live in this way is what we rightly call spirituality, and in Etty’s book we can see the progress of one young woman along just this journey. Let me conclude this brief introduction to this fascinating and illuminating character by quoting in part the words in her diary that summarise a prayer that, as she puts it, she babbled out the previous evening while cycling home through the cold and dark.

God take me by Your hand, I shall follow You dutifully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. But now and then grant me a short respite. I shall never again assume, in my innocence, that any peace that comes my way will be eternal. I shall accept all the inevitable tumult and struggle. I delight in warmth and security, but I shall not rebel if I have to suffer cold, should You so decree. I shall follow you wherever Your hand leads me and shall try not to be afraid. (p77)

Etty died in Auschwitz on 23rd November 1943, but through her writing her spirit lives on to encourage and console us as we prepare ourselves to face whatever challenges and trials may unfold; she was not a perfect person by any means, but she was thoughtful, deep, articulate and courageous, and her testimony shines out as transfiguring light from a time of deep, deep darkness.