Porous and Buffered: Reading A Secular Age

David Russell Mosley


31 March 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

So I’ve recently taken the plunge and started reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. For those unfamiliar with Taylor and/or this work, Taylor is a Canadian philosopher and is professor emeritus at McGill University. He has written numerous works on political philosophy, history of philosophy, intellectual history and more. A Secular Age is Taylor’s attempt at putting a narrative to the transition that happens between, essentially, pre- and post-Enlightenment thinking and living. Specifically, Taylor wants to answer, narratively, “why as it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”⁠1 This book fits, to a certain extent, within the same realm as John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory or Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing, and other such intellectual histories that seek to describe how we arrived at our modern understandings of reality and society. Taylor’s book is massive and to help me engage more fully with it, I’ve decided to blog my way through it. I intend to take it a chapter at a time and so this first post will cover, to an extent, the Introduction and Chapter 1. However, I want to be clear, I am more giving my thoughts on this book as I work my way through it rather than reviewing or intentionally critiquing it. My plan is just to highlight what I found interesting or problematic about the book as I move through it, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. If you’ve read the book, feel free to correct me when I’m wrong. If you haven’t, feel free to take it up with me and comment as you read the sections on which I am commenting. Now, to the thing!

In the Introduction, Taylor is laying out what he intends to do in this book, specifically, to describe how we moved from a porous self in an enchanted cosmos to a buffered self in a secular age. I’ll tackle porous/enchanted and buffered in a moment, but first, I want to address Taylor’s understanding of secular. Taylor describes three different kinds of secularity but wants to focus on the third kind, “which [he] could perhaps encapsulate in this way: the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.”⁠2 This third sense of “secular” is in essence where religious belief becomes one option among others and no longer the guiding principle by which life is lived. Taylor, however, does make it clear that religion is tied to all three kinds of secularity, ” as that which is retreating in public space (1), or as a type of belief and practice which is or is not in regression (2), and as a certain kind of belief or commitment whose conditions in this age are being examined (3).”⁠3 This is interesting because Taylor is here arguing that secularity in general cannot cut its ties with religion, it cannot escape transcendence. It can only define itself in contradistinction from religion. Nevertheless, what Taylor wants to do is understand and narrate how we moved from what he will call the porous self to the buffered.

In Chapter 1, then, titled “The Bulwarks of Belief,” Taylor begins to define his terms, particularly porous/enchanted and buffered/disenchanted or secular. The enchanted world (which term Taylor takes up as the antonym to Weber’s disenchantment) is the world in which our pre-modern ancestors lived. For Taylor, “The enchanted world in this sense is the world of spirits, demons, and moral forces which our ancestors lived in.”⁠4 I’m really quite intrigued by Taylor’s use of enchantment and his understanding of the premodern self. For readers of these letters, you’ll know I have an intense interest in enchantment (which I often equate with sacramental and liturgical). It seems to me that Taylor means something similar, however, he is far less interested than I am, for instance, in developing a theology of enchantment or premodern understanding. This is largely because Taylor is offering a narrative and not explicitly arguing for one position over another (or at least not yet).

Taylor understands the person living in the enchanted cosmos as porous, that is open to these spirits, demons, and moral forces not as two minds (or more) that can work together or against one another, but as porous, capable of being internally affected by them. For the porous self, meaning is not primarily in the mind as they are for the buffered self. Taylor describes the buffered understanding of meaning this way,

“On the former view meanings are “in the mind” in the sense that things only the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us, and this has to do with our nature as creatures who are thus capable of such responses, which means creatures with feelings, with desires, aversions, i.e. beings endowed with minds, in the broader sense.”⁠5

An object only has meaning insofar as I, as a being with intellect, imbue it with such. A tree is beautiful or menacing precisely because I feel it to be so, not because the tree itself has beauty or menace. But for our porous ancestors this was not the case. Meaning existed in things. Taylor describes this through the cult of the saints:

“But seeing things this way understates the strangeness of the enchanted world. Thus precisely in this cult of the saints, we can see how the forces here were not all agents, subjectivities, who could decide to confer a favour. But power also resided in things. For the curative actions of saints was often linked to centres where their relics resided; either some piece of their body (supposedly), or some object which had been connected with them in life, like (in the case of Christ) pieces of the true Cross, or the sweat-cloth which Saint Veronica had used to wipe his face, and which was on display on certain occasions in Rome. And we can add to this other objects which had been endowed with sacramental power, like the Host, or candles which had been blessed at Candlemas, and the like. These objects were loci of spiritual power; which is why they had to be treated with care, and if abused could wreak terrible damage.”⁠6

Taylor gets more precise and notes that these meaningful (in the true sense of that word) objects relate on a cosmic level, “So in the pre-modern world, meanings are not only in minds, but can reside in things, or in various kinds of extra-human but intra-cosmic subjects. We can bring out the contrast with today in to dimensions, by looking at two kinds of peers that these things/subjects posses.”⁠7 I am reminded here of John Milbank’s article “Fictioning Things” where writes that the objects in fairy-tales often function as the movers of the plot:

“Fairy-tale yields up a symmetrically opposite paradox: the circulation of objects in the basic plot is shadowed by the operations at a meta-narrative level of misty personages––senders and helpers, preternaturally “other” fairy figures and giants or else legendary human persons. Moreover, though the human heroes and heroines of the main plot are ciphers, who simply receive gifts as well as performing impossible tasks, etc. these ciphers, unlike the more strongly characterized gods or heroes, do in the end triumph, thanks to the mediations of the magical objects and a series of exchanges at the meta-narrative level with the “other” fairy realms.⁠”8

What Milbank describes, it seems to me, is the same kind of relationship between the saint and the relic as described by Taylor. These meaningful objects filled with power and thus cause an affect whether one intends them to or not (one might think of Uzzah and the ark, the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, or other similar examples). Taylor describes the good objects as capable of good or ill depending on how one uses them, though he never describes whether or not an object imbued with evil power could be used for good if used inappropriately. What Taylor is missing here, so far as I can see, is an extra level of connectivity. The relic of a saint is imbued with power from the saint, but the saint herself is imbued with power from God. Thus the grace mediated through a physical object ultimately receives its power from God. So while meaning is not simply in the mind, that is in the human or even angelic mind, it is ultimately founded in the mind of God. Why Taylor does not, in this chapter at least, make this point, I cannot say.

Another key to the porous self and the “charged” objects is that the effects of the charged object often function on multiple levels. When describing the healing that is given by such an object, Taylor notes that this healing is often not limited to the physical:

“That is, the same force that healed you could also make a better, or more holy person; and that in one act, so to speak. For the two disabilities were often seen as not really distinct. This shows that in, for instance, the healing at and by shrines, relics, sacred objects, etc., we are dealing with something different from modern medicine, even where the analogy seems closest.”⁠9

Without being explicit, Taylor recalls two, almost contrary ideas. On the one hand, I, at least, am reminded of the healings effected by Jesus. Often is the physical healing accompanied by a forgiveness of sin. However, and here is where either Taylor himself, or, possibly, our premodern ancestors, could  (or did) go wrong, which is to suggest that there is a direct connection between the physical ailment and particular unholiness. Christ himself denounces this when asked by his disciples who sinned in the case of the man born blind. However, it is clear that there is a connection (from Genesis 3 onward) between our physical ailments (that we die) and our sinfulness.

Taylor’s description of the enchanted cosmos is one that is inherently social. “But living in the enchanted, porous world of our ancestors was inherently living socially. It was not just that the spiritual forces which impinged on me often emanated from people around me, e.g., the spell cast by my enemy, or the protection afforded by a candle which has been blessed in the parish church. Much more fundamental, these forces often impinged on us as a society, and were defended against by us as a society.”⁠10

The buffered self, it would seem, though Taylor has not made this argument explicit as of yet, is one that not only puts up boundaries between me and creation (whether spiritual or physical) but also between me and other selves. If the porous self is inherently social, the buffered self is inherently individual.

Taylor is clearly not, at present, arguing for a return to the porous or enchanted. I’m not sure he believes this possible. Problematic for me is that Taylor does not seem even to be interested to ask whether or not it is true. I understand that his purpose is to narrate, to describe, and he is doing that. So I cannot fault him for doing what he set out to do; I just wish he were doing something a little different, but that’s my problem, not his.

Well thanks for enduring this long post, if you have. If you’ve read this book, let me know if I’m wrong (or right) and what I might have missed.



1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 25.

2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 3.

3 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 15.

4 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 26.

5 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 31.

6 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 32.

7 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 33.

8 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 15.

9 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 39.

10 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 42.

What I’m Reading: December 2015 Edition

David Russell Mosley

16 December 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I’ve written these sporadically, but I’m going to try to write them a bit more regularly, at least once a month.

On the Incarnation by Athanasius of Alexandria

15106299This is one of my annual Advent/Christmas reads. If you’ve never read it, or if you’ve never read a book by an ancient Christian, then I recommend it, especially this translation. The Popular Patristics Series (patristic means relating to the early Christian theologians, often called the Church Fathers) by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press is a great series for getting translations of ancient texts in understandable English. However, it’s also a great series for the scholars out there. If you are a scholar or are interested in getting into the original languages then I’d recommend picking up this edition which has the Greek on page and English on the other. This book has been formative for me as a theologian. It’s one of the foundational pieces for understanding deification and it helps situate the Incarnation as the central cosmic event. It’s a must read for me every Advent to help prepare me for the coming of our Lord.

Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being by Anne Michelle Carpenter

25434467This is the other theological book I’m reading right now. I picked up at the recent AAR/SBL and have become acquaintances with the author. Now, my reading of Hans Urs von Balthasar has been fairly limited, but that’s not an issue with Carpenter’s book. She explains Balthasar’s thought very clearly so that you get a sense of what he’s saying without having read all the books and essays Carpenter has. That said, this is a definitely an important book in Balthasarian scholarship. Carpenter, so far anyway, is doing an excellent job explaining the importance of art and poetics to Balthasar’s theology. While she uses the word theo-poetics differently than I do in my thesis, her use is, I think still connected. For Carpenter, theo-poetics is about a poetic theology, poetic logic and images that help undergird and connect theological reflections (whereas my own use is to connect it directly theopoiesis or deification). So far the only glaring problem with this book is that it is making me want to buy more Balthasar books than I can presently afford.

Letters from Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien

593985This is another of my annual Advent/Christmas reads. Tolkien, that wonderful sub-creator, began writing his children letters from Father Christmas in 1920 when his eldest son, John, was three years old. From that first simple letter comes many more with more and more characters and events each year for the next 26 years (he stopped when his daughter Priscilla was 17). These letters are full of wonderful stories, as you can well imagine, but also wonderful pictures. Tolkien was a rather good artist in his own way and the pictures as well as samples of the handwritten letters that adorn this book are wonderful in the truest sense of the word.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

5175x9z9v8LYet another of my annual Advent/Christmas reads, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is really a book everyone should read, full stop. In this book both the meanness, the grotesque, the worst of human nature and the best are on display. Dickens perhaps knew people, and possibly even humanity in general, better than almost any other author (Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Tolkien, and a few others would perhaps also vie for this honor). In this book we get a glimpse into dark recesses of fallen human nature and even a reminder that we cannot crawl out of those recesses completely on our own. The story has, it’s true, become perhaps a bit too familiar to us with umpteen different versions of it in existence on the big and small screen. Still, if you can, try to read the story with fresh eyes and I will be much surprised if you don’t come away having been changed by the story.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

27402335For the last few years when I decided I wanted to read through the Sherlock Holmes stories, I would pull out a single-volume edition of the complete stories that I have (it’s a facsimile edition from the originals in the Strand Magazine) and attempt to read them. I say attempt because the book is massive and the pages fragile. So, this year, after reading half of A Study in Scarlet in this format I decided enough was enough, popped over to the library, and picked up several smaller volumes in order to read all the stories without the pain of using my beautiful, but unwieldy single-volume edition. If you’ve never read Holmes, I highly recommend it. These stories are witty, interesting, full of life. I will give a warning however, the majority of the second half of A Study in Scarlet is generally uncharacteristic for the rest of the Holmes stories, taking place in America and having nothing directly to do with the primary protagonists, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson.

On the Back Burner

Advent is a funny time of year for me when it comes to reading. I usually have, as you’ve seen above, several books that I like to read during Advent and Christmas time. In fact, all the books listed above as Advent/Christmas reads, are really books I’d prefer to read during Christmastide (from roughly Christmas Eve to Epiphany eve). But I’m also usually finishing books during this time and don’t like to wait before picking up a new book. But then I have to try and find books that I can actually read during Advent so that I’m done with them before Christmas, but not too much before so that I’m not just waiting around bookless for Christmas to come. For that reason, and others that make even less sense. I also have two other books that I’ve begun in the recent past but not finished and may not get back to until after Christmas.

543164The first of those books is The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang. This is the first in a series of books that are collections of fairy-tales and folk stories from around the world. When I first started writing my novel 8 years ago, it was to this series of books that I turned reading every story about dwarves, goblins, elves, brownies, and more to try and ground my characters and creatures in the stories we have told ourselves about them.

1063075The second book on the back burner is The Shaping of Middle-earth by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is the fourth book in the History of Middle-earth Series put out by Christopher Tolkien. This particular volume takes through the stories as things begin to shift from Book of Lost Tales version of them to The Silmarillion version. This isn’t a great book (nor are any in the series) to serve as your “fiction read” if you divide up your reading like I do. That said, the stories in them are always fascinating, as is the insight we’re given into how Tolkien wrote and how his stories developed over time.

Well, that’s it, that’s everything I’m reading right now. What are you reading?


What I’m Reading- Fransiscans, Analogies, Bears, and Elves

David Russell Mosley

Holy Week
Maundy Thursday
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I’m in the midst of some intense thesis writing/editing which, alongside caring for twins, one of whom has been sick lately, has left me little time for blogging. Still, I thought I would do a quick post on what I’m reading these days.

To my children: A Bear Called Paddington
Having finished the Narniad (also known as the Chronicles of Narnia), I decided to read Michael Bond’s classic A Bear Called Paddington. I never read any of the Paddington books when I was a child. Reading the first one now I must say that I am rather enjoying it, more than Theodore and Edwyn are, no doubt. A talking bear who has recently emigrated from darkest Peru to England is taken in by the kindhearted Brown family. I’m not far into it yet, but the story seems delightful as normal human (and British) activities are rendered strange for us when we view them through the eyes of a child-high bear.

For devotional/spiritual purposes: Bonaventure from the Classics of Western Spirituality Series
Not unlike with Paddington, this is my first time reading the Franciscan spiritual master. I’m still in The Soul’s Journey into God. I’m afraid I’m not giving it quite the thought or reflection I should. However, I do love Bonaventure’s approach to the world, namely that every created thing can work to take us to God, starting with the external and moving evermore internally. Bonaventure reminds us of the sacramental nature of the cosmos and the spiritual effects of this.

For the thesis: Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm
This is Erich Pryzwara’s magnun opus finally made available for English audiences (who are too lazy not to learn theologically dense, but beautiful, German) by translators John Betz and David Bentley Hart. I haven’t time to read the whole thing right now (it’s over 500 pages long), but have read probably half of it. It is a masterful explanation of the analogia entis as “finalised” (I can’t think of a better term right now) by Thomas Aquinas, primarily. If you have any interest in Thomas Aquinas, 20th century Catholic theology, metaphysics, or the analogy of being more generally, you need to read this book. It is beautiful in its use of Aquinas and other sources, including some instances of poetry. I have found it very useful both for explaining the relationship of the analogy of being to deification and the role human creativity plays in deification.

For fun: The Lord of the Rings
827764-2Lastly, I’m doing my annual read of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve already re-read The Hobbit and intend to move on to The Silmarillion after. This book has had a profound impact on my life. It has done the most to shape my imagination as well as my vision of the cosmos. It is has influenced my theology and my spirituality (as well as my economics, politics, poetry, and more). I cannot say enough good things about this book. Read it, read it with fresh eyes, and let it render the world around you strange so you may see it anew.

That’s what I’m reading. What are you reading these days?

Sincerely yours,


What I’m Reading II: Mary, Aquinas, the Devil, Snape, and the Birth of Narnia

David Russell Mosley

St Polycarp
23 February 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Well, as often happens, the books I read have changed since the last time I updated you on what I’m reading. Here’s the new list.

Handmaid of the Lord by Adrienne von Speyr

Speyr is a new author for me. I’ve read so much about her in the works of Stratford Caldecott. She’s a Catholic Convert and a mystic whose confessor was Hans Urs von Balthasar, another person whose had a profound impact on me. This book is a series of reflections on the Virgin Mary. I’m not very far in since I’m just reading a chapter a day for Lent. Already there is some real beauty in the way she expresses herself and describes the Mother of our Lord, but there are some parts I struggle with. I love Mary, and covet her prayers, but I am not settled on some of the titles ascribed to her, like Mediatrix. This will be a profound and provocative read for me, challenging both my Protestant presuppositions, and my Catholic leanings.

The Prayers and Hymns of St Thomas Aquinas by Thomas Aquinas 

I started looking for something like this when I first came across the prayer for Scholars by Thomas Aquinas. So I was quite pleased when I found a Latin and English edition of some of the prayers and songs of the angelic doctor. This book is fairly simple, each prayer is in Latin on one page and English on the adjacent. The prayers themselves are beautiful and the editors have laid them out like poetry. I’ve also been using this text in my Lenten devotions. I have decided to say one prayer a day for each day in Lent, first in English and then again in Latin.

On the Fall of the Devil by Anselm

I’ve been enjoying my reading of Anselm. It was great to read the Monologion and the Proslogion together, something I’d never done before. I haven’t started reading this one yet, but it comes in a little semi-related trilogy with On Truth and On the Free Will. Anselm’s dialogs are masterful and I look forward to reading this one as well.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

How many times have I read this book? Multiple times a year since it came out; so some might say too many. Still, I love the Harry Potter series. It has its flaws, Rowling is not the theologian that say Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, Chesterton, or O’Connor are. Even in presenting a world that is meant, in some ways, to be Faërie, yet it is plagued with all the same problems our world is. Nevertheless, this story of hope and salvation is one that I am constantly drawn to. Half-Blood Prince is in weird place for me. Order of the Phoenix is somewhat of transitional book. In the previous four it’s all about keeping Voldemort from coming back or fighting against his effects (Tom Riddle from the diary, Peter Pettigrew, or Death Eater at Hogwarts). Then, once he returns at the end of Goblet of Fire each book is about defeating him outright, but Order of the Phoenix is only the beginning of that story and is the beginning of the darkness. Therefore, Half-Blood Prince sees the real preparation of Harry by Dumbledore for ultimately defeating Voldemort. This can make it feel like its simply build-up for book 7. The first three are absolutely stand-alones, most of book 4 is as well. This book cannot stand on its own. It is pure preparation for the final battle.

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis

I’ve decided to read Lewis’s books in the order he wrote them, roughly. This means I’m finishing with The Magician’s Nephew. It’s a really interesting experience. In The Last Battle, we see the end of Narnia, or the shadowlands Narnia anyway. Now, however, after Narnia’s death, I get to visit Narnia one last time. I get to visit it at the very beginning. In a way, it feels like reading Genesis after reading Revelation. Doing that would change how one reads Genesis, for the better, I think. However, at least as regards Narnia, I think you can or should only do this after you’ve read the books once before. Getting them in intended order first allows for one to then read them in a new order and see how that changes one’s perspective from the original reading.

Anyway, this is what I’m reading now. What are you reading?

Sincerely yours,

What I’m Reading: Heaven, Mary, God’s Existence, Dragons, and the End of the World

David Russell Mosley

2 February 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Well, we’re experiencing yet another snow storm here in New England, and while not a blizzard this time it is still keeping me and my family inside. Snow and ice are beautiful but perilous. I think it no coincidence that we tend to associate snow with Faërie. But more on that another day.

I wanted to write to you about what I’m reading right now. It’s a new theme I’ll be coming back to from time to time as the books I’m reading change. The hope is to interest you to read new, or old, books that you haven’t read, or haven’t read in a long while. Also, it should hopefully help me engage more fully with the books I’m reading by writing about them from time to time as I read them.

All Things Made New by Stratford Caldecott

Stratford Caldecott has increasingly become one of my favourite authors. I have, to date, read his The Power of the Ring, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, and The Radiance of Being. I am immensely saddened that I had not met him before he went further on his pilgrimage to the Patria than I can currently follow. Still, I have the comfort of his words and his book All Things Made New is just that, a comfort.

The book begins with a spiritual commentary on the book of Revelation, noting the important theological, symbolical, and even numerological meanings in the text. From there it moves to a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, the Rosary, and the Stations of the Cross. In a way, the whole book is concerned with the Rosary, which is to say that it is concerned with the life of Christ as partially mediated through the eyes of His mother.

The Major Works of Anselm of Canterbury: The Monologion

While I will read the whole book, I am currently working my way through the Monologion of Anselm. It is an attempt to come at some knowledge of God by way of reason alone. I decided to read this book because my background in Anselm is rather weak. I have read about his famous “ontological argument” for God’s existence: namely, that God is that-than-which-no-greater-thing-can-be-thought. This argument has often been dismissed, but I hope to come to a better understanding of it. I have also read Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo or Why God Became Man, which I found both interesting and insightful. Reading this book is my chance to go deeper into the good doctor’s writings.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

Every year I re-read the entire Harry Potter Series. I have done so since the seventh book came out (actually, I re-read the entire series as soon as I had finished reading the seventh book for the first time). Goblet of Fire is not, perhaps, my favourite book. It can often get bogged down with all the side stories: Hermione and Rita Skeeter; Hermione, Ron, and Krum; Harry and Cho; Fred, George, and Ludo Bagman (and the goblins); Hagrid the Half-Giant; S.P.E.W.; Crouch and Winky and Crouch; etc. However, what is perhaps stranger, is how necessary each of these side stories is to get us to the end. While the film attempted to streamline the story, it failed (rather miserable, in my opinion). Each one seems almost necessary to get us into the graveyard with Harry. Still, the book often seems overfull, perhaps because it is, I believe, the second longest of the series.

The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis

The Chronicles of Narnia are another septology I read every year. While this reading technically belongs to 2014, I’ve had to stretch it out as I’ve been reading the book aloud to my twin sons. Every night, we put them in pyjamas, I sing them a lullaby (The Road Goes Ever On and On by J. R. R. Tolkien), put them in their cribs, turn out the lights, except for a book light, and read to them. Something I’ve noticed in reading them aloud this year are the parts that choke me up. Sometimes reading can be difficult because I’m trying to fight back tears and do voices. Another interesting aspect of reading them this year is that I’ve been reading them in the order in which they were written. This means I’m only on the second to last book with The Magician’s Nephew still to go. It makes it different since I’m reading references to The Magician’s Nephew without having read it yet.

Well, that’s all the books I’m currently reading and a little about them. What are you reading?

Sincerely yours,

Review of “Poetry” by David Constantine

Dear Friends and Family,
First, if you haven’t checked out the articles on Christ and University, make sure you do so. Second, here is a review I recently did for them. Let me know what you think.


Christ & University

9780199698479Constantine, David. Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Reviewed by David Russell Mosley

Christ & University desires to emphasise the theological nature of education. Education seeks to help make women and men more like Christ through the various disciplines. The Literary Agenda series, begun by Oxford University Press, has a related goal in exhorting that closer attention be paid to the humanities in general and literature in particular. Poetry by David Constantine fits within the themes and desires of Christ & University, its call to return to reading and writing poetry as essential to society and as belonging to every person, not simply the elite few. Poetry is ultimately about human expression and formation. While not explicitly theological or Christ centred, this book serves as a reminder of the place of poetry within society and therefore within education, which is to make it implicitly about the conformation of the reader of…

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Mini-Book Review: Beyond Secular Order by John Milbank

David Russell Mosley

11 February 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Here is a book review I’ve written for John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013.


The most recent work from theologian, philosopher, social commentator, and poet, John Milbank, is his book Beyond Secular Order. This book, not unlike others written by Milbank, is in two sequences. The first sequence, On Modern Ontology, is primarily a helpful re-hashing of much of what Milbank has done and said before, here in a smaller, and relatively more easily digested size. Essentially, Milbank is seeking to critique modern philosophy first by evidencing its history in theology (which Milbank traces from late medieval neo-scholasticism, primarily through John Duns Scotus and other, for Milbank primarily Franciscan, neo-scholastic theologians.

This is the portion of the book that is most likely to cause readers to take sides. There are those who will say that Milbank is, knowingly or unknowingly, misrepresenting Scotus and later Scotists (as opposed to Thomas Aquinas and some, though not all, later Thomists); there are those who will say that Milbank’s assessment of Scotus, et al., is correct; and there are those who will say that whether Milbank is right or wrong about the genealogy of modern philosophy he is right (or wrong) in his assessment of modern theology today. This is, perhaps, where I would recommend readers focus their attention, not so much on whether Scotus’ notion of univocity of being is as Milbank portrays it, but whether or not univocity so defined (primarily as saying that God and humanity have the same kind of being but in different quantities, this is admittedly putting it far too glibly), as well as the other three pillars of modern philosophy (Representation, Possibilism, Concurrence) are a correct understanding of the place of modern philosophy/ontology. Milbank develops this theme as well as others, such as a theological critique of modern philosophy. One final note on this sequence, footnote 140 is labeled in the text (pg 79), but not on the note itself causing footnote 141 and every footnote following to be mislabeled by one. Update: I have been informed that the issue is one of typesetting, having taken place after the copyediting and has been corrected for the Kindle edition and the forthcoming reprint.

In the second sequence is where John begins to do something new. Here John begins to outline more systematically than he has anywhere else, to my knowledge, his political ontology. The key points of this seem to be that politics/culture/the arts, etc., are a gift to the human animal from God, they are not natural to us in the sense that we have them by our own power, but they are gifts given to humanity from the beginning. With this as the foundation, Milbank goes on to argue not simply for a theology of politics but that politics is inherently theological (as it is a gift). The implications of this are manifold, but two points which Milbank brings out rather poignantly are these: first, politics, et al., is tied to deification. That is, politics, by virtue of being concerned with the human person, body and soul, and being a gift from God to humanity, is thus immediately related to the telos or end for which God has created humanity. This end Milbank equates, rightly in my opinion, with the theological notion/doctrine of deification or theosis. Second, the further implication for this works in political and church leadership. Milbank argues that since political life (that is culture, the arts, society, etc.) in many ways is a foreshadowing of the resurrection, there is a sense in which we can talk about the politic leader as having a role higher than that of the spiritual (king and priest/Pope in Milbank’s language). This is again because while the priest prepares and cares for the souls of the people, the king foreshadows the reign of Christ in the heavenly Jerusalem by caring for the people’s (or perhaps person’s) ‘spirit’ that resurrected unified whole of body and soul united to the Triune God in deification.

There is so much more I could say about Milbank’s new book (for instance my disagreements with him on the issues of Incarnation without Fall, Milbank sides with Aquinas on this issue, I do not; or his mistreatment of poor John Cassian; or the implications of his understanding of culture/creation as a gift and its relationship to deification). However, my words will pale in comparison with reading the book for yourself. This is something I highly recommend for both Milbank’s critics, detractors, friends, and fans. As Milbank continues to write (he has already mentioned a sequel for this book within the book itself) this book will be the starting place for understanding his thought, both as he critiques modern philosophy and as he understands the theological nature of politics/culture. I highly recommend this book.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

Mini-Book Review: The Legend of Death by John Milbank

David Russell Mosley

10 February 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Here’s a relatively brief book review I’ve written for John Milbank’s The Legend of Death: Two Poetic Sequences. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2008.


Readers familiar with John Milbank’s work, particularly essays he has written but also books like The Word Made Strange and Beyond Secular Order (which I’ll be reviewing in the next few days), will not be surprised that John desires poetry and desires that it be written to express metaphysical and theological truths. What readers may be unaware of, however, is that John is a poet himself.

The Legend of Death is John’s second published book of poetry, that I know of, his first being The Mercurial Wood (which I haven’t read, yet). This book is written, like much of John’s work nowadays, in two sequences. The first sequence, On the Diagonal: Metaphysical Landscapes, is a series of what appear to be primarily occasional poems about the Nottinghamshire and Virginia landscapes. These poems, however, are not mere descriptions (though I’m sure they would be lovely if they were) but also reflections on the metaphysical. John writes poems with titles such as ‘Hymn to Iamblichus on May Morning’, ‘Cosmos’, and ‘On the Lizard’. This collection is both and fun and profound, often within the same poem.

In the second sequence, The Legend of Death, which gives the book its title, Milbank fuses together bits of mythology, theology, and geography taking his readers on trip beginning in the other Britain, Brittany, and working his way into Britain itself in a relatively northward moving pattern. Thus the poems here collected shift from the Celtic and Arthurian to the Nordic/Anglo-Saxon world of Woden. In these poems John gives us what I can almost describe as death as life. A single reading is not enough to plum the depths.

Accompanying each sequence are two essays wherein Milbank lays out the theoretical and theory of poetics behind the poems in each sequence.

In the end, Milbank has proven himself to this reader not simply a poetical person, but a poet. True, Milbank is not, perhaps a perfect poet, but I am not a good critic to tell you why. For my own tastes, I tend to prefer poetry with more structure, more intentional rhythm, meter, and rhyme, but can attest that this is terribly difficult poetry to write well. What Milbank does very well in these poems, however, is to dare theologians and philosophers to poetise, that is to write poetry. Oh this may not have been even remotely a goal of his (though I intend to ask him), but nevertheless, Milbank here reminds us implicitly that Christianity (and Judaism) is the the religion of the Psalms, the religion of Poets (like Gregory of Nazianzus, Ephrem the Syrian, Dante, the Pearl Poet, Milton, Donne and so many others). Milbank reminds us that the best theology and best theologians ought often, though not always, also be poets. Even should you hate the poetry contained within these pages, if you call yourself a theologian or a philosopher, let this book remind you that we are a poetical people, that we are poems ourselves, created by the Poet of the Cosmos (though not in the Whiteheadian sense).


Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

My Three Books: Gabrielle Thomas Edition

Gabrielle Thomas 

22 January 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

*This is a guest post from Gabrielle Thomas on the three books that have influenced her theology.


I happened upon Gregory whilst writing a graduate essay and was utterly inspired by his vision of the Christian life. His theology is beautifully interwoven with his practice, resulting in a holistic approach. Whilst this collection hosts some of my favourites, I will happily read anything he wrote.


Bob’s book is an inspiring tool for reading complicated texts with people on the margins, many of whom have not had the luxury of an education. Having put it into practice myself whilst working alongside those who live on the streets, I can confidently say that his approach works. He has used his PhD and various languages to serve in innovative ways, so I would say that he is an author whose lifestyle has inspired me as much as his book.


This is a fascinating project in which Rybarczyk compares two traditions close to his heart in order to encourage them to engage in conversations pertaining to unity. He is realistic in highlighting their differences, but overall brings to light some crucial similarities in their respective theologies (albeit not practice). As someone who is passionate about the unity of the Church, I found this a useful and memorable study from which to consider some of my own work.


Sincerely yours,

Having completed ordination training in the Church of England, Gabby has embarked upon a PhD before moving onto her curacy. Motivated by the challenge of evangelizing in a post-Christendom context, her research is concerned with exploring new ways of expressing the gospel by reconsidering the inspiring vision of human identity as seen through the eyes of Gregory Nazianzen.

My Three Books: Philip Whitehead Edition

Philip Whitehead 

20 January 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

*This is a guest post by Philip Whitehead on the three books that have influenced his theology.

1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

Growing up in a Reformed (Baptist) church, Calvin was often mentioned extremely positively but never someone I read. Coming to University as an undergraduate, Calvin was often mentioned extremely negatively, but again, never someone I read. During my MA I set aside some time to read the first two books of the Institutes and I got hooked. Calvin combines a true gift of exegesis with a fearless theological and logical boldness and expresses the insights of the Reformation as a rejuvenation of the Church’s ancient and biblical faith. Max Weber was almost completely wrong about Calvin and Calvinism, as is Lord Acton’s portrait of him as a grim dictator – what motivates Calvin is a conviction of the sovereignty of God and the finiteness and provisionality of human wisdom and capacity; leading to a theological method which is surprisingly (for many of us!) humble and reliant upon the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and the Scriptures which testify of him.

2. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament

I think I found this book influential not only for its clear and wide-ranging presentation of the New Testament’s teaching on moral and ethical issues, but also as an excellent example of how to do New Testament Theology well. Hays approaches the New Testament informed by the best exegetical scholarship, but doesn’t fall into atomistic treatment of texts. Rather, he looks, author-by-author, at texts as part of an NT author’s bigger picture and message, before attempting a theological synthesis. The result is faithful to the texts and to the canon, and demonstrates the coherence and unity in the NT’s diversity. I find Hays’ specific conclusions on some of the more controversial “moral” issues prophetic in their challenge to some of our present cultural assumptions, and encounter both encouragement and rebuke in this book.

3. D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition

This is quite a slim volume, which I read in my third year as a theology undergraduate. Karen Kilby recommended it to her Protestant students on the reading list for the module on The Trinity. It really helped finish the process, which began in my Christmas holidays of first year with reading C.S. Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation”, of convincing me that Church history was my history as an evangelical, and that there was a great deal to learn from those who were in Christ before me. Karl Barth writes somewhere of his discovery that “Church history no longer begins for me in 1517” and reading Williams’ book helped cement that realisation for me. Williams clarifies (and I paraphrase) that ‘sola scriptura’ need not mean ‘nuda scriptura’; not should an enthusiastic and open retrieval of tradition be taken as endangering one’s commitment to evangelicalism. It also means, as Williams points out, that evangelicals can deepen their appreciation of their place in the story of the church and find that Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and yes, even Aquinas, are brothers in the faith.

Sincerely yours,

Philip is in his second year of full-time PhD study at the University of Nottingham. He was born in Manchester and grew up in Oxfordshire before moving to Nottingham. He studied BA German and History before switching courses to BA Theology at the University of Nottingham, followed by an MA in Biblical Interpretation and Theology, writing a thesis on the imagery used of Israel and the Church in the letter to the Ephesians. He then worked at CapitalOne before returning to full-time study, undertaking doctoral research on a Pauline approach to the Theology of Religions.