Monday 12 November 2018


Our next event, on December 9th, is a talk entitled 'GOD OF THE GULAG - IS ANY CAUSE WORTH DYING FOR?' which will consider martyrdom both in Eastern Europe and in our own wider context - not least the theme of this year's events: What matters most? 

We are delighted to welcome Charlbury resident Jonathan Luxmoore to address this topic, the subject of his much-acclaimed two-volume study published in 2016. 

JONATHAN LUXMOORE has been Europe correspondent in Oxford and Warsaw for Catholic News Service (Washington/Rome), Ecumenical News International (Geneva) and The Tablet (London) since 1988, as well as a staff commentator for Polish Radio's First Programme and freelance writer for newspapers and news agencies in Europe and the US. 

He was based in Poland full-time from 1988 to 2001, and his coverage of religious affairs during the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe won five Catholic Press Association awards, and the Silver Award from Worldfest Houston for the ABC TV film "A Time to Build" (ABC and PBS TV 1992). More below. 

He read Modern History at the University of Oxford (1976-1979) and studied International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (1986-1989), and has been a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), the Churches East-West European Relations Network (CEWERN) and the International Editorial Board of the journal Religion, State and Society. He was also a co-founder in 1996-98 of the Polish chapter of Transparency International, the world's largest anti-corruption NGO.     

His books include The Vatican and the Red Flag: The Struggle for the Soul of Eastern Europe (London/New York 1999), Rethinking Christendom: Europe's Struggle for Christianity (London 2005), and Szepty Boga (Krakow 2016 - in Polish). His two-volume study of communist-era religious persecution - The God of the Gulag: Martyrs in an Age of Revolution, and The God of the Gulag: Martyrs in an Age of Secularism - was published in 2016 by Gracewing. 

Please join us at Wychwood Library on Sunday 9th December for this special event. 

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Ugly populism, and rationality threatened by emotion? THE POST-TRUTH ERA

The subject of Evan Davis' book on Post-Truth came up earlier this year on this blog and on November 11th we will explore his ideas more fully.  Not everyone will have read the book but it will be presented to the group prior to a discussion.

The expression 'post-truth' seems to have arisen in 1992, though George Orwell would tell you that there was a strong premonition of the phenomenon as far back as the 1930s ('Looking back on the Spanish Civil War', 1942). According to Matthew D'Ancona, 2016 was the year which definitively launched the post-truth era. The word was Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year in 2016, defined as short-hand for 'circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief'.  

The Victoria and Albert Museum has an exhibition "The Future Starts Here" and among the exhibits is a leaflet produced for the 2016 referendum.  It carried the NHS logo - though it was neither produced nor sanctioned by the NHS - and it encouraged people to vote Leave "to help protect your local hospital".  The curators of the exhibition have headed the leaflet as 'post-truth propaganda'. 

Hot on its heels seems to be the concept of 'fake news', which handy term seems to allow anyone to say anything for political ends without fear of being shown to be wrong: the facts will just be dismissed as 'alternative'.  Lord Hall of the BBC said recently that the expression has "given street cred to mass disbelief".  He said: "It threatens people everywhere.  For democratic government to be legitimate, it needs not just the consent of the people, but their informed consent." 

Another scary word is 'disinformation', which Pope Francis has described as 'snake-tactics' (referring to the serpent in the garden of Eden), "that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments".  Not just in politics or on social media but even at the heart of academe, fears have been raised that the quest for truth is being undermined.  Earlier this year, British universities were challenged by a pro-Brexit MP to reveal the content of their lectures, lest a good word might have been said for the anti-Brexit case.  George Orwell must have felt distinctly restless in his grave. 

Matthew D'Ancona, a former editor of The Spectator who beat Evan Davis to it with his own 2017 book, Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back is worth quoting in this context: 
We have entered a new phase of political and intellectual combat, in which democratic orthodoxies and institutions are being shaken to their foundations by a wave of ugly populism. Rationality is threatened by emotion, diversity by nativism, liberty by a drift towards autocracy.  
What this all adds up to is a basic mistrust across our society and D'Ancona argues that 'powerful counter-narratives' will be required to defend the truth. Some  have hoped that these false narratives will be counteracted by a deeper, powerful narrative (Bishop Michael Curry offered one such at the royal wedding in May) so that we can somehow counter the destructive culture of post-truth.  What would be your counter-narrative? 

Do join us on November 11th at Wychwood Library as we discuss this topic along with two others suggested by books which participants will bring along and introduce (see previous post, below). 

Sunday 7 October 2018



Wychwood Circle started out as a monthly discussion based on some agreed reading and occasionally we return to that format. This time, as a departure from the norm, we are selecting several books and inviting people to come and present them - which we hope will nevertheless give rise to some interesting discussion. For those who prefer to come forearmed the 3 books under discussion will be the following - click on the title for a description and/or review: 

The author is Franciscan priest (with more than a passing knowledge of psychologist Carl Jung) and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation Richard Rohr.
Described by Huffington Post as 'timely, riveting, enlightening and necessary', the book is by American-Iranian Reza Aslan

by economist, journalist and broadcaster Evan Davis.

Intimate knowledge of these texts will NOT be required.  Someone will describe the main ideas.  But you may wish to dip in ahead of November 11th in order to be as well informed as possible. 

Wychwood Library 7pm - 9pm November 11th 2018

Friday 10 August 2018


We are delighted to welcome Mark Vernon again - he spoke last time to an enthralled audience about Plato and Freud.
More about writer, philosopher and psychotherapist Mark Vernon here

Monday 9 July 2018


Hello, sun in my face,
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

This was one of the poems which was read at our July meeting. It is by American poet Mary Oliver and seems particularly appropriate in the UK just at the moment. 

We resume our calendar of events at Wychwood Circle on September 9th with a second visit from Mark Vernon, writer, philosopher and psychotherapist. 

Friday 1 June 2018


This month we welcome Sally Welch, who as well as Area Dean for Chipping Norton and the vicar of St Mary's Charlbury is the Diocesan Labyrinth Advisor.  She is the author of two books on the labyrinth and its use in a Christian context.  

Sally will speak about the history and development of the labyrinth from ancient symbol to contemporary meditation aid.  She will bring an example of a labyrinth which can be unfolded on the village hall floor and there will be opportunities to view and maybe even try it out...  

Thursday 10 May 2018



There was a query recently on social media as to whether someone who identified as an ‘atheist Quaker’ was any different from what is commonly called a ‘humanist’.  To which one response was to suggest that, to coin a phrase, ‘All Quakers are humanists but not all humanists are Quakers’.  It is up to self-identifying Quakers and humanists to speak for themselves but a further post which stated that ‘Humanism is an alternative to a god’ certainly needs challenging, even if the supposedly reputable source was the website

The definition of humanism is an intriguing one.  Secular humanists have tended to appropriate it to themselves, viz the website quoted.  People like Polly Toynbee are often referred to as humanists and the implication is that it is more than her humaneness or her belief in humanity which distinguish her.  Yet if we look at Christian humanism (itself a worthy tradition), humanity, humane-ness, and being (fully) human are arguably precisely what Christianity is about.  As an excitable theologian might cry out, What else is ‘incarnation’ about, for Christ’s sake?!

Humanism – alternative or essence?
What is meant when referring to the admirable Polly Toynbee is that she is a secular humanist. So one response to’s claim is that humanism may well be an alternative to ‘a god’ – after all there are so many gods to choose from in contemporary culture and politics, take your pick... But when it comes to any sophisticated look at theology, certainly of the Christian variety, humanism is on the contrary the essence of God. 

Someone once said that there are so many gods out there (even taking only the religious interpretations) that we are all atheists in the sense that we reject one or probably most of them.  That was perhaps a rather facile point to make.  But no-one can accuse British philosopher John Gray of being facile or glib. And in his most recent book Seven Types of Atheism, (published by Penguin), he analyses just what atheism has meant over the years and how different thinkers (including secular humanists) have understood their view of God (or ‘a god’) and how it has affected their approach to life and their view of the world.  For obvious reasons it is a book which we are considering taking as our launchpad for once-a-term discussions on Sunday nights at Wychwood Circle.

Man, his dignity and his life
In an interesting and informative review of the book*, Nick Spencer, Director of Research at thinktank Theos and himself the author of Atheists, the Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury 2014), compares John Gray to Pope John Paul II. Gray claims that 
'humanity’ does not exist.  All that can actually be observed is the multifarious human animal, with its intractable enemies and divisions.
Spencer recalls the then Pope in a 1993 Encyclical on the value and inviolability of life saying that, 
when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, his dignity and his life
Which is an interesting debating point for any class of ‘humanist’. Spencer suggests that the only thing which separates the language used by the two of them is ‘a sigh of liberation in the first; a sigh of desperation in the second.’

Gray dismisses (don’t we all) the so-called New Atheists as ‘little more than a sideshow – albeit a noisy one’ and they only get a very short opening chapter.  But the other types of atheism include:
  • Secular humanism
  • Scientific atheism
  • Political atheism
  • Anti-theism, and
  • Mystical atheism
Gray himself may be an atheist but he doesn't have much time for some of the others. Or as Nick Spencer puts it:

What seems to infuriate Gray, as it did Nietzsche before him, is the inability of those who dispose of the divine to follow their logic through. Judging by the reaction he sometimes elicits among secular humanists, he clearly touches a nerve.

Cherry picking anthropological and ethical fruit
Gray has form on this, as his previous books have shown. He believes that much of the modern Western thinking which your secular humanist might boast of is really just a newly dressed up ‘bastardised and degenerated version of Christianity, cherry picking the anthropological and ethical fruit while hacking away at its metaphysical roots’ (Spencer).

As we debate whether to embark on Seven Types of Atheism (one reviewer called it ‘depressing’), it may be to its advantage that it will tell us something about Bertrand Russell, William Empson (a ‘misotheist’ or god-hater), the Marquis de Sade, Spinoza and Ayn Rand.  And if Spencer is to be believed (or maybe read more extensively – his own writing looks awfully tempting*), Gray’s prose is ‘never anything less than bracing and witty’.

The atheism of silence
The Guardian newspaper, home of liberalism and humanism and of astute political commentary, not least that of Polly Toynbee, chose two well-known names to review Gray’s book.  Richard Harries (April 15th) was once Bishop of Oxford – so we know where he’s coming from.  Harries picks up on Gray’s belief that most forms of atheism are a form of repressed religion. He is interested in the final chapter of the book, The atheism of silence. This includes a discussion of a ‘godless mysticism’ which seems to parallel the traditionally more mystical emphasis of eastern Christianity (and indeed much western Christian practice too, as Harries points out).  Gray suggests an affinity between the two: “A godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity and the difference between the two may be less than you think.”

‘Hear hear’ to that – as those of us, Quaker, Christian or otherwise, who meditate in Ascott once a month will probably bear witness, and as eye-opening books like The Wilderness Within and many others testify.  Harries’ conclusion is:
This is a highly readable, fascinating book that jerks the debate on religion versus atheism right out of its crusted rut into the light of serious intellectual scrutiny.  
Optimists and pessimists
The other review was by literary scholar and cultural theorist, Professor Terry Eagleton (April 11th), with the provocative headline:  'Is every atheist an inverted believer?' Eagleton is tremendously learned and not in the habit of pulling his punches. He places the debate within the context of whether the human race is 'getting nicer and nicer' - drawing comparisons with recent books by Pinker, Matt Ridley and Sam Harris, whom he calls 'rational humanists' - and within the historical context of philosophers and thinkers from Locke to Schopenhauer and the contemporary George Steiner. 

Maybe (dare one say), like Brexit turning out to be rather less straightforward or promising than its advocates thought, abandoning religion will also turn out to be a fool's paradise, or even a dead end, only one played out over centuries. Certainly Eagleton is (characteristically) scathing of Gray and specifically of his choice of what Eagleton calls 'a kind of transcendence without content': 
Gray condemns secular humanism as the continuation of religion by other means, but his own faith in some vague, inexplicable enigma beyond the material is open to exactly the same charge. 
From Gnostics to Bertrand Russell
However, to return to our choice of reading matter at Wychwood Circle, Eagleton's conclusion may be damning with faint praise, or it may be taken as a recommendation. To encourage anyone who likes the idea of a broad survey of those - and there are so many - who have been this way before, he sums Gray's book up as 'an impressively erudite work, ranging from the Gnostics to Joseph Conrad, St Augustine to Bertrand Russell'.  Those of us who are not so erudite but would like to be may welcome both the information and the range of views contained here, as well as the chance to debate our own reactions and opinion. 

*There is much more in Nick Spencer’s very full review, which bears reading either as an alternative or an invitation to John Gray’s book, and his own list of books including The Evolution of the West (2016) and the very recent The Political Samaritan could also furnish us at Wychwood Circle with some thought-provoking material. 

Our current reading is How Then Shall We Live? by Sam Wells and on Sunday 13th May we reach Part 3, Facing Mortality, which tackles - from a mainstream Christian angle - such thorny issues as Ageing, Dementia, and Assisted Dying. Anyone who has read some of the relevant chapters is welcome to join us at Wychwood Library at 7pm. 

Monday 12 February 2018



The talk on March 11th will offer us a practical experience with Shipton resident Ruth White on how we can change our attitudes, re-looking at our so-called problems and turning them to our advantage, or as Shakespeare put it: 
Sweet are the uses of adversity
The audience may choose to try a few simple stretches which Ruth will demonstrate and which can have an effect on both energy levels and attitude. 

RUTH WHITE has been an international yoga teacher for some 40 years and has taught in 25 countries. She recently held seminars in Europe and Australia and has published a book entitled 'The Truth of Yoga'.  In 2004 ten Ishaya monks came to live in Lane House Farm, Ruth's home, and both she and her husband John became Ishayas too.  Their philosophy is based on A Course In Miracles. There is much more about Ruth and her courses on her website here

Tuesday 6 February 2018


We're all out of shape

Most of us probably know the facts, that obesity is the greatest public health crisis facing the USA and the UK (how embarrassing to be put in the same bracket...) and Sam Wells thinks it affects us all to some degree: he is interested in 'what obesity symbolises in our society'. Broadening out from the church (which is where his professional interest lies), he makes a powerful point about what obesity means for society as a whole, beyond the public health epidemic: 
Our culture isn't at all sure what it's necessary to get in shape for, what it's worth making sacrifices for, what it's so important to get ready for.  Our culture is obese. 

One direction? 

Referring to what the Greeks called telos, or ultimate direction, he wonders whether our society actually knows 'what all this education and wealth creation and health provision and military protection is actually for'.  And, addressing his Christian audience with its tradition from Abraham and Moses onwards: 
 Jesus' purpose is really no different.  He wants the church to be ready to stand before God and to be a channel by which all the world can be ready to stand before God and be with God forever. ... This is what I'm for.  This is what you're for. 
For those with a different affiliation he still has a point: does our society, do we, have any sense of 'such an overarching purpose that it's worth getting in shape for'? Is there anything our society is shaped around, besides money and choice - which Wells here castigates 'as mere holding areas leading to multiple goals that our society is reluctant to name'. 

What do you want? 

It is hard to resist this - at times emotional because heartfelt - challenge to our deepest motivations. We may not be St Paul, whom he sets up as someone who really knows what he wants, nor even church-goers, or 'religious' in any way. But his final words in this chapter bear thinking about for at least the length of a Wychwood Circle discussion: 
Look at your life. Is it easy to see what you want? What do you want? 
Maybe that's a first requirement for answering the overall question: How then Shall we Live? 

Join us, having read Part Two of Wells' book (see earlier posts), to discuss this and other issues about 'Being Human', at Wychwood Library on February 11th.  Please email in advance to signal your participation.  

Friday 2 February 2018



From the seven-scene drama of the chapter on Disability, we move to what may well be the core of Sam Wells' approach to faith, his vision of the five-act human drama, narrated in this context to find a place for both Christian identity (not before time?) and then alongside it and within it for LGBT identity.  Whatever our reservations about Wells' essentially biblical faith and the importance he gives to Act 5 as the 'full realisation of the kingdom of God', there is no doubting the power of this drama.

Act 1 is the creation, from the beginnings of the whole 'cosmic canvas' to the emergence of consciousness and 'creatureliness as a companion to and reflection of God'.  Act 2 is the long and convoluted Old Testament story of the Jewish people through enslavement, liberation, exile etc etc. Act 3 is obviously the story of Christ, the central act (for the Christian) of God's incarnation in our little world.
In Act 4 our vocation is not to look to a template of spotless purity or obedient citizenry but to allow ourselves to be swept up in the adventure of the kingdom, inaugurated in Jesus and completed on the last day; and our relationships are evaluated not by looking them up in the owner's manual but by communal discernment as to whether they strengthen the community in its daunting challenges to embody God's glorious future in an often hostile present.

Christian Identity

To be a Christian, says Wells, is to switch (whether dramatically or gradually - dare one say? - or even imperceptibly) from seeing ourselves in a one-act play to this context of a five-act play and in particular to this 4th Act in which we have our existence, suspended between Acts 3 and 5. Since we only live in our own time we must take both what we believe about Act 3 and what we expect or hope for in Act 5 on faith, but as we have seen before at Wychwood Circle that is not to dismiss either as unreasonable or even improbable.  What this vision does provide is an understanding of Christian identity. one where no single Act makes sense on its own or provides the definitions or rules that some may yearn for.  And in Act 4, says Wells, there is both liberation and discipline, the latter being essentially the desire to be 'faithful to the character of God revealed in the first three acts' and anticipated in Act 5:
[B]eing a Christian in Act 4 doesn't mean keeping one's nose clean and holding one's distance from anyone who looks suspiciously like they might end up in the wrong queue on judgement day. On the contrary, it means finding ways to be with those with whom one will be spending eternity ...

Sexual Identity

And so to three judgement calls which we may be reluctant to make but which are essential to understanding sexual identity, both socially and theologically: 'The first call is whether sexuality is something you do or something you are'. The second is the relationship between LGBT people and the largely heterosexual society at large, particularly if sexual identity is integral to human identity. Wells gives three extended answers to this question, including this point, comparing humanity to a football team or a newspaper editorial process where there are many roles and many kinds of people are needed:
A narrow binary gender distinction between male and female impoverishes human life by assuming there are a very limited number of key activities and roles, focused around reproduction, security of shelter, food and clothing, and nurture of children. But in most of the world today the understanding of human flourishing goes beyond these narrow Darwinian contours of personal and species survival. 
If we all have roles to play in this world this leads back to the idea of vocation, which Wells has touched on in earlier chapters and which he now names as the third judgement call for Christians:  'How significant is sexuality for the whole of our lives before God?'  In the same way as he wants people to see their lives 'located between Act 3 and Act 5 of the five-act play', he now says that vocation 'requires the whole of one's identity'.

So for Wells, while the church should be asking itself what kind of people it needs to fulfill its mission in Act 4 - by implication, all sorts, obviously, all of whom bring unique strenghts and insights - individual Christians may also ask themselves (in words resonant of the Book of Common Prayer), 'what kind of a life do I need to live if I am going to support such a community and in its service find perfect freedom?'

'In the front seat of the van'

And the role of LGBT people? Well, they should know about being marginalised and scapegoated, rather like 'those people closest to Jesus' heart, Jesus' company and Jesus' ministry'. They also by their very nature 'break the assumption that human existence is indelibly tied to reproduction'. And his third point is perhaps uniquely perceptive and relates back to the first chapter in Part Two, on Family and the breakdown of the so-called nuclear, or industrial, family 'which no longer reflects the social and economic reality of a critical mass of the population' (p 68):
LGBT people are ahead of the majority population in exploring the longevity and sustainability of desire and tenderness that is neither upheld by the sanction of social endorsement nor cemented by the responsibility of offspring and nurture.

Redefining marriage and the shape of the post-industrial family?

Nothing pious or specifically for Christians or people of faith there: it's a social issue that we could all do with pondering.  And on marriage, such a preoccupation of the poor old Church of England if not for the rest of us, (and the theme of a separate chapter):
[P]erhaps the question in our generation should not be 'Have LGBT people any right to be married?', but rather 'Can the church begin to redefine marriage for a very different era without the wisdom and experience LGBT people can bring?'  
In a book that bravely tackles a whole range of issues, mostly in chapters of five or six pages, this chapter is unique, as well as central, in occupying nearly 17 pages.  It is almost as if the rest of the book has been constructed around it - but that is a wild guess if ever there was one.  Relevant as 'identity' is in our culture, it could nevertheless be the one topic which we should recommend to others who may not want to read the remaining 26.  But that is to prejudge what gems may yet emerge in later, denser chapters.

Saturday 27 January 2018


From disability and domestic violence to retirement and vocation

Whatever the topic that Dr Samuel Wells alights on, you can be sure that, having stated the problem (if that is what it is), he will turn to a carefully chosen Bible story to find a framework within which to discuss it.  That will irritate some and reassure others.  A positive response is to sit back and let him choose his ethical framework - probably as good as any - and then join in with his examination of the themes which arise.  After all Sam Wells is too intelligent and worldly to resort to Old Testament commandments or even New Testament injunctions.  These are stories as illustrations and, whatever one makes of the person of Jesus Christ, a thoughtful twenty-first century application of them to very contemporary problems can be a useful springboard to a moral discussion - as we do at Wychwood Circle. 

A soap opera ... with everything at stake 

In his chapter on Disability, Wells turns to the story of a blind man whom Jesus heals - but he calls it a 'seven-scene drama of healing, controversy and reversal', and seen in this light it is not too far-fetched to then compare it to 'a soap opera; except with life, the universe and everything at stake'.  There are important, everyday themes about how the blind man is seen by his community as a nuisance, about prejudice and stereotyping, about personal responsibility versus structural injustice, about empowerment.  Then there is the deeper metaphor of what it is 'to see' and to know and the whole discussion - as we have touched on several times in recent months - as to what reality is and how to discover it.  As the author says in his three-part analysis:
[And] the third level is a journey that makes sense of why many disabled people see their lives as more fulfilling than a conventional life.  It's about empowerment and vocation, about subversion and wisdom, about what only the blind can see and only the intellectually impaired can know. 

Being human in retirement

Sam Wells comes at Retirement from his own experience of management studies and the Four Stages of Work. In essence he wants to empathise with those who don't know when it's time to go - or if they do know they are reluctant to make the move: 
'If I don't come to work I don't know who I am - all I have left is the unresolved issues in my home, the mirror of my own mortality, and rather less money coming in to make either more palatable.'
He also makes the point that the whole concept of retirement is still quite a new phenomenon in our human history.  No wonder it is something that can be an awkward transition, if not a source of serious depression.  How nice, you might think, to find that his biblical illustration this time is 'the story and doctrine of Jesus' ascension'!  The starting point is: 'Jesus stopped because he'd finished'.  Or had he? Well, for the Christian, according to Wells:
Salvation remains today what it was on Ascension Day.  Not a life without disappointment, a life without discomfort, a life without disillusionment; but a life with a faith to look back on, a hope to look forward to, and a love to live. 

Entering fully into the more mundane aspects of life 

For Christians and non-Christians alike, though, there are some useful and applicable points:  you, as a human, 'don't have to get it all done, you don't have to leave it all tidy, you don't have to ensure it for ever remains just the way it is now.'  After all, the incarnation is about (amongst other things) being more fully human and therefore 'entering fully into the more mundane aspects of human life'.  And this, he says, is what retirement is about: 
You haven't got a mask to put on each day to protect yourself from your fragile reflection in the mirror.  But you are as fully alive as you ever were, as fully human as a young graduate starting out on a career. 
So it could mean a whole new beginning; it must be about the future, not about looking back. In fact there is a Japanese tradition that sees a whole new cycle of life beginning at 61! The question, asked by the two men in white robes when Jesus could no longer be seen, is a good one and a challenge, sooner or later, for all of us:  'Why do you stand looking upward towards heaven?'  There are new discoveries to be made, the world is full of needs to be met, and there may yet be possibilities of transformation, for us and for the communities around us. 

To join us on Sunday February 11th as we discuss Part 2, 'Being Human', of Sam Wells' book, please email for details. 

Wednesday 24 January 2018

BEING HUMAN - book discussion

PART TWO: 'BEING HUMAN' - a discussion based on the 9 short chapters of this second of three parts in Sam Wells' book  

Our February event takes the form of an informal discussion on the themes aired in this book by Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin in the Fields in London, academic and theologian.  His approach is that of an experienced Christian pastor and preacher, but our own discussions can range far and wide.  

Attendance does require a commitment to read the relevant chapters.  Please email to be included. 

Tuesday 9 January 2018



A not very nice word usefully describes the verbal malaise which we are living through.  Evan Davis of BBC2's Newsnight and formerly of the Radio 4 Today programme wrote a book last year called 'POST-TRUTH - Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It'.  

One possible source for this infelicitous phrase is a former speechwriter for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who in turn may have got it - in this context - from the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurter in the 1980s, who later wrote 'On Bullshit' (2005). The speechwriter, John Lovett, describes it as 'one of the greatest threats we face' and one is inclined to agree. It may have been common for some years but in the UK it certainly reached its peak in the 2016 referendum lies, counter-lies, widely disseminated misinformation and (consequent?) distrust of experts. Now anyone from presidents to prime ministers is routinely expected to mouth at best half-truths and at worst blatant verifiable untruths. 

Economical with the truth?

The 'common but simplistic' definition of bullshit, as Davis has it, is 'to talk nonsense to someone, typically in an attempt to deceive them'. As someone who, having started out as an academic economist, has now for several years interviewed politicians and other public figures as part of his job as a journalist, Davis is well-placed to go on, as he does in his book, to examine the concept further and in a number of contexts. Examples include the defense in the Soham murder trial in 2002, claims by scientists about CFC gases and the ozone layer, statements made by paid public figures to advertise products, the Spycatcher case (1986) where Sir Robert Armstrong was 'economical with the truth', and, much more recently, predictions of the effect of Brexit on the UK economy. 

A key point Davis makes early on is that, while there are undoubtedly facts - and falsehoods - which may or may not appear straightforward, we do in fact very often have to make a judgement in deciding what is a fact and what to believe. We may weigh up the probabilities, the evidence, the source or speaker, their motivation, the scope for interpretation, and so on, but things are rarely as straightforward as banal facts, such as 'the sun is shining'. 

Non-factual, post-factual or afactual

'The essence of bullshit', according to Frankfurter, 'is not that it is false but that it is phony.'  If he got here in the 20th century, says Davis, he was ahead of his time in 'capturing some of the silliness of twenty-first century public discourse'. Davis' book is illuminating for the light it sheds on a broad variety of 'non-factual (or post-factual or afactual) discourse': he identifies a number of different forms in which we have got used to statements - and sometimes actions - which are factually misleading, including:
  • the near-lie: using the right words to give a wrong impressions
  • selective facts
  • spin: a favourable interpretation of the facts
  • deception through delusion
And then the numerous examples of plausible statement where facts are actually irrelevant:
  • empty assertion (not false but meaningless)
  • obfuscation (true but irrelevant)
  • gibberish and gratuitously complex language

What about experts?

The more one considers these multiplying examples the more it is tempting to think that nothing has changed.  People have always exaggerated, obfuscated, twisted the truth - from conversations in the pub to advertisers and politicians. But has it in fact got worse, and does it matter?  And what about that notorious phrase used by Michael Gove in the EU Referendum in the UK: 'people have had enough of experts'? 

Truth and trust - and do they matter?

We are lucky in the Wychwoods to have ex-Marine and Oxford philosopher Tom Simpson on hand on Sunday 14th January to help us think through this maze or malaise, and consider in depth the issue on which he has specialised in his research: that of Trust.  Join us at Wychwood Library at 7pm.  Free entry - retiring collection to cover expenses. 

Tuesday 2 January 2018



Mark Oakley (who we were lucky once to entertain at Wychwood Circle) wrote an end-of-year piece about what he looks back on after nearly 25 years of ministry.  It included, amongst much else that he modestly said he owed to his many teachers and colleagues, the following wise words about words and our contemporary culture :
This is not an easy time for words. We are living at a time when we are spending money we don't have on things we don't want in order to impress people we don't like.  Consumerism makes words seductive rather than truthful, as they lure us towards our wallets. Technology, for all its brilliance, now also give us too many words; we trip over them as they come at us from every direction, and the danger is that our care for words decreases as the words proliferate. We make them as disposable as anything else. 


Then there are our political leaders who, in many parts of the word, now campaign in graffiti, and govern in tweets.  The way that words are currently being used by some influential communicators - with continual talk of "individuals" rather than "people"; or "losers", "swarms", and "sad" failures - all makes a world where we see ourselves as competitors not citizens, consumers not communities.  It leads to a world in which, as has been observed, if you are not at the table you are probably on the menu. 


In the end, nations are largely the stories that they feed themselves: if fed lies, they will, in time, suffer the consequences.  That is the other Christmas truth that I want to live out better in 2018: words become flesh; so use them with care. If words are not respected as carriers of truth and meaning, this quickly leads to human beings' not being respected, either.  


The same ears as listen to politicians, salespeople, and news commentators are listening to the person who is trying to point to the rumour of God, to the transcendent sense that, ultimately, reality is trustworthy. Sadly, the language with which we do this as a Church can reflect the superficial or clinical vocabularies of the hectic newsroom or the droning boardroom, the Church at the moment occasionally sounding as if it simply offers us the choice - in Brian McLaren's words - between "ignorance on fire or intelligence on ice". 
The full article from which these paragraphs are taken can be found in the Church Times dated 21st December 2017.  

Join us at Wychwood Library on January 14th as philosopher Dr Tom Simpson from the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University addresses questions about truth and trust.