Mr Bigg's Blog A blog about politics, theology, education and the rest…


Christianity, Method and Doctrine

Posted by Mike

For Christmas I was given Brian McLaren's new book The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World's Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. I'm only 1/3 of the way through it but I'm enjoying the opportunity to read the efforts of a prominent "progressive Christian" (not a great term, I know) to articulate a "progressive" vision for Christianity in positive terms rather than simply defining themselves against conservative evangelicalism.

Method: Scientific and Christian

This may be old hat for many, but McLaren makes an instructive parallel between Christian "method" and the scientific method. I'd like to summarise something of what McLaren says about this parallel, and then draw out some of the implications of what he says.

McLaren's general theme is that Christianity needs to make a shift. Christians need to move from defining their faith in terms of assent to a set of particular beliefs (which no-one can quite agree on) to defining themselves in terms of practising the way of love demonstrated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is where the instructive parallel emerges. McLaren notes that scientists are deeply interested in facts and understanding those facts. They make use of observations about the world to develop theories and they test those theories in order to validate them. Similarly, Christians are interested in beliefs. They use sources of information (Scripture, reason, experience and tradition) to develop beliefs (or doctrines) that help them understand the world. There is a fair similarity between the function of scientific theory within science and the function of doctrine in Christian faith (more on this later). So far, so parallel.

Where the parallel breaks down is the primary commitment of both groups. Scientists are deeply committed to facts. Their observations about the world are the lifeblood of their work. However, their ultimate commitment is not to a particular set of facts, or to particular scientific theories, but to the scientific method. A basic premise of the method is that no theory is final and conclusive. If the evidence is there, then established ways of thinking are discarded in favour of theories that better fit the facts. I recall a story related by Richard Dawkins of an eminent and elderly scientist attending a conference at which a younger colleague delivered a paper. This paper presented new evidence, and a new interpretation of established evidence, that thoroughly undermined the life's work of the older, senior scholar. As the applause died down all eyes were upon the old man. Slowly, he stood up and wiped a tear from his eye. He approached the young scientist with a steely look in his eye. As the old man reached the younger woman he held out his hand to her and shook her hand warmly as he said: "For all these years I have been wrong and you have put me right. Thank you." The standing ovation lasted for several minutes.

The point here is that the prior commitment is to the method over the results. Results are important, but no result is beyond the probing of the method.

By contrast, says McLaren, Christians tend to cling to cherished beliefs. The beliefs are the essence of the faith. Evidence to the contrary tends to be explained away or avoided (indeed, it is often regarded as a badge of honour to keep faith in spite of evidence to the contrary). His argument is that Christians need to prioritise the Christian method over any particular set of beliefs. By "method" I think he means the conscious wrestling with God and his purposes through the lenses of Scripture, reason, tradition and experience, all in the name of seeking to walk in the way of Jesus. Christianity is not a series of beliefs, but a way of life, a method for living fully in the light of God in Christ.

Of course, a cursory skim through Christian history demonstrates that the Christian "method" has always been in operation. Teaching has developed and changed in the light of new experience or new understanding of Scripture. Christians have (largely) changed teaching about women, about slavery or about the nature of Jesus (certainly in the early church). However, McLaren's concern is that the method is not consciously applied in Christianity. While the scientific method is actively employed to grow and develop, the Christian "method" often seeks to deliberately hold back change. Perhaps we ought to be more conscious of being methodical Christians rather than doctrinal Christians.

Some implications and comments...

McLaren doesn't expand his analogy between scientific method and Christian "method" in any great detail but I'm going to try to fill in some gaps.

Firstly, in case it needed saying, it's only an analogy and all analogies are flawed. Scientific and Christian "data" are very different beasts. It's important to go with the spirit of what McLaren is saying rather than the letter.

St Nick punches Arius

St Nick punches Arius

Secondly, I don't think McLaren would therefore conclude that doctrines and beliefs are unimportant. Far from it. McLaren and other progressives would affirm the divinity of Christ and the centrality of his atoning sacrifice. Just as in science, the beliefs (or theories) we currently hold are crucial to how we interpret future data. Our doctrine shapes our worldview and we cannot and should not discard it lightly. Many doctrines are ones we can hold with confidence and it is good for us to do. Such doctrines are hard-won and argued-for. If you think current debates about sexuality are bitter then go back and look at Christological debates in the early church. Saint Nicholas is even depicted as punching Arius in the face. (This event almost certainly never actually happened, but it gives a flavour of how hard-fought these controversies were). The point is that doctrine should never reach the status of untouchability.

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that scientists often go out of their way to seek out new data. Actively thinking about what might disprove a theory is encouraged. Do Christians follow suit? Do we make an effort to hear uncomfortable voices? I know I don't. If we're committed to wrestling with God then perhaps we should be committed to hearing voices from the margin; to hearing voices from the secular world. Some may consider this to be an accommodation to worldliness. I see it as dealing with the world as it actually is, not as our doctrine would like it to be. This doesn't just refer to "experience" of the world. We should also be committed to seeking out more data on how best to interpret scripture.

I wonder what Christianity would look like if we were committed to its core method above its doctrinal formulations?


“Good enough” never is

Posted by Mike

I had an hour or so to kill yesterday and so I took a wander around Hinchingbrooke Hospital. As I was leaving I noticed the Circle Partnership Credo emblazoned on the wall. I'll reproduce the Principles from it here:

Our Principles
We are above all the agents of our patients. We aim to exceed their expectations every time so that we earn their trust and loyalty. We strive to continuously improve the quality and the value of the care we give our patients.
We empower our people to do their best. Our people are our greatest asset. We should select them attentively and invest in them passionately. As everyone matters, everyone who contributes should be a Partner in all that we do. In return, we expect them to give their patients all that they can.
We are unrelenting in the pursuit of excellence. We embrace innovation and learn from our mistakes. We measure everything we do and we share the data with all to judge. Pursuing our ambition to be the best healthcare provider is a never-ending process. 'Good enough' never is.

As you can see, it is full of laudable ideas that are hard to disagree with. But look again at that last sentence:

"Good enough" never is.

I'll be 33 tomorrow and I'm tired. I'm not just tired because I have a slightly off colour child at home; I'm tired, in part, because of the well-intentioned but damaging "Good enough never is" (GENI) culture that has developed recently.

I'm tired for the staff in hospitals like Hinchingbrooke who are faced every days with words and phrases like "unrelenting", "continuously improve" and "never-ending process". There's an exhausting feeling that nothing is ever good enough, no amount of honest effort and good practice is acceptable, no quality of patient care is high enough. GENI.

I'm tired for teachers. Teachers face a constant sense that if you're not getting better you're getting worse. If your results aren't improving year on year there's a problem. If you're not constantly developing your practice then you are letting the students down. Hit that target? Here's another one to keep you busy. What are you doing to help FSM students? SEND students? G&T students? EAL students? Perfectly average middle-of-the-road students? GENI.

I'm tired for schools. When I was younger satisfactory meant neither laudable nor culpable, neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. A satisfactory school was precisely that. Not great, not terrible. No-one thought that "satisfactory" was great and people worked to improve things. Now satisfactory means "requires improvement". What an exhausting phrase (with all of the inspection and oversight that goes with it). Even "good" schools must be constantly striving and relentlessly pursuing outstanding status (even though only a few schools can be "outstanding" by definition). GENI

I'm tired for pupils in schools. I suspect that there are plenty of students in our schools who have almost never had a piece of work that simply says: "Well done! This is a great piece of work!" If teachers don't set targets for improvement (however minuscule) then we are "enemies of progress". Poor kids! Nothing they do is ever quite enough! I'm sure many teachers will attest an increase in mental health concerns, often among bright and well-motivated girls, because of that feeling. GENI.

Good enough for what?

If we say that "good enough" never is, then the obvious question that arises is "good enough for what?" What's this "good enough" not good enough for? I'm not suggesting for a moment that we should all put our feet up, do the bare minimum and say "it'll do" every day. There are thousands of things that can (and should) get better. However, we need to be careful of the messages we give out. If someone has genuinely and honestly done their job as well as they can, is developing and getting better in some way, and is committed to what they are doing then we can and must say: "GOOD ENOUGH!" In the early days of my career (when I noticed less GENI language) I wanted to improve and grow as a teacher. I read things to improve my practice, I tried new ideas, I put effort into my own development. Not because I was told to, but because I wanted to. Most human beings want to be good at stuff. Most of us recognise areas for development and seek (within reason) to act on them. The moment GENI-type language comes in (even implicitly) the incentive for self-development goes out of the window. Why bother trying to get better if it'll never be good enough?

All of this is to say that I'm worried about GENI-language. It's laudable intentions can often be counter-productive. While I'm sure that there are some for whom "good enough" means a vague attempt in the right kind of direction, I'd hope that for the majority "good enough" means exactly that and we should acknowledge it as such.

And so, some practical suggestions (first 3 for teachers):

  1. The next time you mark some work make a point of identifying students who have really worked hard and made progress. Set them the following target: "Enjoy a night off school work and tell your mum that Mr X says you deserve something special for dinner".
  2. The next time you observe a colleague teaching a really great lesson make a point of identifying all of the good things you can. If students enjoy their learning and are making progress make it clear that you were pleased with the lesson, mention all of the good points and leave it at that. Only identify areas for improvement if specifically asked.
  3. Challenge nit-picking targets once in a while. Ask the person setting the target: "Was this work good enough?" If they say yes, then suggest that they leave it at that.
  4. The next time you are tempted to complain about something ask yourself, "Was what I'm complaining about good enough?" If it was just a mistake or someone having a bad day rather than representing a systemic failure then perhaps just leave your complaint unvoiced.
  5. Be kind to yourself! If something you've done is genuinely good enough and you can't reasonably do any more, then let it be just that.

Let's try to put the GENI back in the bottle. (Sorry, I couldn't resist).


5 things I’ve learned about healthcare chaplaincy

Posted by Mike

I was very fortunate to have spent a week with the chaplaincy team at Hinchingbrooke Hospital over the summer. I got to spend some time with Scott, the lead chaplain (and cracking good bloke), visiting patients and exploring the nature of chaplaincy in a healthcare setting. Here are some of the things I've learned. They don't all necessarily link into each other and they certainly don't form a coherent theology of healthcare chaplaincy but they are there as food for thought!

(Any names used are made up, but the stories are all real.)

1. Wholeness in healthcare

It's easy to treat illness as a purely physical phenomenon. Disease can be caused by bacteria, or we might break a bone, or have a chemical imbalance somewhere. We can therefore assume that these should all be treated in physical terms and nothing more. Of course the physical aspects of illness must be treated in appropriate medical ways but it is a mistake to suppose that medical treatment is (or should be) the only aspect of treatment. Human beings are complex psycho-physical beings and we inhabit influential social contexts, it is therefore important to consider psychological and social (and yes, perhaps even spiritual) aspects of life when looking for healing in the fullest sense.

Yes, we need our bodies patched up, but it helps when our minds and spirits are patched up too. Chaplaincy has much to offer here as a means of healing the person as a whole.

2. A ministry of presence

Glenda was an elderly lady. She'd been in hospital for some weeks. When I first went to see her she told me not to waste my time on her. Why are the hospital expending so much time, energy and money on looking after her when there were many more worthy patients. She'd had her time - what a waste to treat her at her age! Frankly, she felt like a bed-blocking waste of space. After chatting to her for several minutes it became clear that she was far from being a waste of space; she had a loving family, was good-humoured, had an interesting story to tell and had plenty of life in her yet. It was really difficult for the hard-pressed nurses to give her the time and reassurance that she needed but I, from the chaplaincy context, wasn't there to take her pulse or give her medication. Chaplains are there because they are there, simply to be a presence with people and to hear their voice.

Maud was also elderly and a little confused. When I saw her she was fed up and absolutely determined that she was going home. She was worried about her dogs back at home and swore blind that if her husband and son weren't looking after them then she was going give them an earful. I didn't doubt her for a second! It didn't take long to work out that her family didn't visit her as often as they might and this was clearly a source of great pain for her. A chaplain can be there as a simple presence. I couldn't be her husband but she was heard and valued (and wasn't quite so keen to go home).

3. Back to the roots of religion (aka. healing is more than physical)

I'll never forget the moment of revelation that came when the wonderful Mary Earl told me the etymology of the word "religion": re-ligio. The "re" bit means "again" and "ligio" is the same root as "ligament" (that which holds things together). Thus the word "religion" means something like "that which binds together again". At the heart of Christianity is the recognition that we are all broken and fragmented and we all need to be patched up and bound together again. In a hospital there is often a very obvious physical component to being bound back together and most Christians (rightly) leave this to medical professionals. However, it is often the case that our minds, souls, relationships and attitudes need to be bound back together just as much as our physical selves. Times of physical suffering can, perhaps, be triggers to reconsidering other aspects of our lives and chaplaincy work can be central on looking at this. However, there are also times when the physical is simply beyond binding. Some illnesses cannot be healed. Some wounds cannot be mended. For the bereaved death cannot be undone. At these times (more than ever) re-ligion offers a very different kind of healing and chaplaincy should be there to help that process along. (Michael Arditti's novel Jubilate explores this theme better than I could).

4. Our language can betray us

We (or I do, anyway) often use language carelessly, without really thinking through the implications. The example Scott gave was the use of the term "miscarriage". It's a word in common usage and it's fairly clear to all what it means - what's wrong with it? In most contexts, there's nothing wrong with it at all. However, when used with a woman who has recently lost her child it has the potential to have all sorts of connotations of failure or culpability. In that situation, pastoral sensitivity demands that we are aware of the possible implications of the words we use. It doesn't follow that the term "miscarriage" should be removed from regular usage (can anyone think of a better term?); however, a good pastor needs to be aware that such a word has the potential to bring to the surface those thoughts and feelings that may be underneath.

There are further implications here. I am persuaded that the way in which we use language is shaped by our context and serves to shape our future context. Consider the use of language in ethics: take euthanasia as a starting point. The term "euthanasia" itself means "good death" and the immediate implication is that the alternative is something less than a "good death". We could call it "mercy killing", the implication being that to oppose it would be merciless. We could call it "assisted suicide"; of course the term "suicide" has its own unhelpful baggage. None of these phrases are perfect, and that is precisely the point. Language is rarely value-neutral, particularly when related to sensitive subjects. This is not an excuse for ridiculous political correctness in which "failure" becomes "deferred success", but it is a call to awareness and sensitivity to the implications of the language we choose to use.

5. Being real

One final thing I picked up is the importance of acknowledging reality in the chaplain's role. There are times when it is both important and appropriate to offer hope of physical healing; there are also times when perhaps the chaplain needs to encourage the patient to accept that they are not going to get better. The healing of acceptance can be vital (in every sense), but it cannot necessarily happen unless someone is willing to call out the reality of the situation.

In a similar way, when someone has died there are times at which what has happened needs to be named as death. It's easy to use euphemisms to avoid the reality of death; sometimes these are appropriate and helpful, but at other times a chaplain may need to use the D-word in order to help friends and relatives move forward. There is a finely balanced pastoral challenge here: it is easy to talk of resurrection, but without dwelling in Good Friday for a little while the reality of Easter Sunday is just a white-wash. We can't jump the gun and trivialise death by skipping straight to talk of heaven - a good pastor knows how to be with someone in the darkness of Good Friday, naming it as such and supporting them through it.

To conclude...

One particular privilege of my time at Hinchingbrooke was to join Scott in distributing bedside communion. The gentleman in question was in critical care and he had made the decision to discharge himself so that he could return home to die with his loved ones around him. Before he was discharged he requested bedside communion and it was clear to everyone present that the short service (just 10 minutes) was likely to be the final time this man received communion. Scott didn't explicitly say so, but in his manner and inflection of some of the liturgy made the significance and poignancy of the occasion quite clear. At the end the man's wife was in tears and the man was at peace.

This encapsulated the privilege and importance of hospital chaplaincy for me. There was genuine wholeness and healing in the encounter, even though this wasn't externally visible. The man was bound back together as best as he could be this side of death's curtain; the language used was sensitive but profoundly real; at its root it was a simple act of being present and honest about what was going on. Not as easy as it sounds, and incredibly important.


Reframing KS3 – Critically real religion,  philosophy and ethics for inclusion and  progression

Posted by Mike

Zach Beamish-Cook and I were awarded a Farmington Fellowship last year and developed a piece of work around the theoretical underpinnings of our more critically real approach to KS3 RPE (or RS, RE, Beliefs and Values). It never really occurred to me until yesterday that anyone might read it or find it useful.

However, yesterday I received an email from a HoD in Norwich thanking us for the work and so I thought I'd post the work here for anyone else who might find it helpful. If you're trying to develop your RPE to make it more rigorous and inclusive I'd encourage you to have a read. Hope it's of some use to people! We've also found it useful for justifying and explaining the subject to those in senior leadership. (On that note, if anyone is going to this year's Farmington Conference you might like to hear my colleague Richard Kueh, whose fellowship has been looking at exactly the way we explain the rationale for the subject to senior leaders, governors, other departments and parents).

You'll find our full report here: Reframing KS3 – Critically real religion,  philosophy and ethics for inclusion and  progression


OCR A2 Philosophy of Religion Notes

Posted by Mike

Attached below are some revision notes for OCR A2 Philosophy of Religion. Most of these are written be me and colleagues at Comberton Village College.

There are also some topic summary sheets:

You may also find helpful:


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OCR AS Philosophy Revision Notes

Posted by Mike

I've recently been writing some one-page revision notes for my AS Philosophy students (based around the OCR specification). They are included here for the reference of anyone who might find them useful!

You might also find AS Past Questions by Year and Topic (1697 downloads) useful.

There are also lots of useful videos outlining key topics from Philosvids.

Comments welcome!