Tag Archives: religion

Another course

Some years ago, I used to edit and typeset the course handbook for a three-year theology degree. This spelt out in detail the content, educational methods, asssessment criteria and so on for each module of the course. Or more accurately, each module or half module, a module being equivalent to a sixth of a year of full-time study. Course tutors would write their course outlines, which I then had to edit into a standard format agreed with the university before sending them off for validation.

The course had its own jargon and conventions. For example, we didn’t refer to students. They had to be participants. I was quite surprised that the tutors were still called tutors; wouldn’t learning enablers be more in the inclusive-language spirit?

Immerse yourself in this for weeks on end and it’s inevitable that the language starts to make its way into your brain. Everything you see around you begins to look like course outline material. The 30,000 words of Handbook start to look like five modules’ worth of assessed work at 6,000 words per module . . .

And so it was that when April 1st arrive, I felt obliged to leave copies of the following in certain tutors’ pigeonholes, together with a note asking whether it had been sent to the Board for Validation at the university.

I’m particularly proud of the assessment options.


Five modules (100 credits)


  • to gain a good working knowledge of desktop publishing in an educational environment
  • to apply such knowledge in a specific context


For successful completion of the course, participants will be able to

  • recognise the circumstances under which Pagemaker 6.5 is likely to crash
  •  understand why many people ask for layouts which cannot possibly work
  • interpret such requests and produce layouts which do work but which also appear to be what was asked for
  • unravel confusing long-winded sentences written without punctuation in order to
    • identify the most likely intended meaning
    • make them comprehensible through editing and/or layout
  • with due reference to contextual factors
  • apply intelligent punctuation to hasty writing from highly qualified writers
  • understand the application of desktop publishing in a specific context, viz. the Course Handbook.

Course Content

See Educational Methods.The following areas must be included:

  • printing terminology
  • detailed knowledge of Pagemaker 6.5 or another DTP package
  • characteristics of competing typographical paradigms such as
    • the Aesthetic Model: beauty before clarity
    • the Semantic Model: structure of document content determines document layout
    • the Anarchic Model: Never Use The Same Typeface Twice
    • the Anaesthetic Model: avoid visual interest since this may influence interpretation of the text
    • the Pedantic Model: footnotes should dominate the text and booklists should include authors’ dates of birth and publishers’ full postal addresses
  • aesthetic and psychological effects of different fonts, layouts etc.
  • the course taught at this institution, with particular reference to
    • course structure
    • Major Themes
    • conventions of layout and terminology
    • standard format for course outlines.

Educational Methods

The subject will be entirely self-taught, through a combination of

  • critical assessment of existing material from a variety of sources exemplifying the typographical paradigms identified above
  • analysis of the participant’s own work to determine which details contribute to or detract from the overall effect and specific requirements of a document
  • random events such as
    • computer crashes
    • inadequately thought-out layout suggestions
    • last-minute, far-reaching changes to document specifications.


One of the following:

  • Submit a document of at least 30,000 words which you have designed, edited and produced. This must be in our institution’s standard course format and of a quality suitable for offset lithographic printing; OR
  • a set of five shorter assessments chosen from the list below.

Note: for administrative reasons, at least one participant must choose the first option above.

For those who choose shorter assessments

Submit five of the following (6,000 words each; portfolio counts as two.) Equal weight will be given to content and presentation.

  • Some pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels contain decorative details too small to be easily seen by the naked eye. These raise questions as to how they were drawn, and are considered to be there for the glory of God. Discuss the application of this principle to a document such as the BA Course Handbook.
  • The full stop, the decimal point and the dot all look similar, but have distinct meanings. In your essay:
    • discuss the historical development of the form and use of these typographical symbols.
    • relate this to current semiotic theories.
    • explain their contemporary relevance.
  • (Alternatively you may consider the hyphen, the underline, the minus sign, the em and en rules and the dash.)
  • Essay: The application of Boolean logic and linguistic analysis to written descriptions of the criteria by which academic qualifications are awarded.
  • Show how differing theological positions lead to differing typographical paradigms, and discuss the implications for ecumenical ministry and interfaith dialogue.
  • Discuss the spirituality of document design with particular reference to Christian and Buddhist monastic traditions.
  • Printing terminology contains many religious terms such as font, chapel and chapter. Why?
  • A local Churches Together meeting is considering the design of an outreach leaflet for distribution to the local community. The only people to have turned up are
    • a newly converted, young Evangelical whose fundamentalist views are considered extreme even within his own church (he recently burnt his godchildren’s potato prints as examples of “graven images”), and
    • an Orthodox priest who is a world authority on icons and the history of liturgical calligraphy.
  • Submit a portfolio containing
    • three versions of the leaflet, all designed and produced by yourself:
      • one representing the priest’s idea of how it should look
      • one representing the young convert’s idea of how it should look
      • one representing a workable compromise acceptable to both parties
    • (vegetarians are not required to use parchment or vellum);
    • a detailed analysis of each design, showing how its features reflect the theological position of the designer;
    • an account of the likely dialogue, if any, which takes place at the meeting. Pay particular attention to any conflicts that are likely to arise between the two parties’ differing typographical paradigms.


  • Tim J (ed.) BA (Hons) in Theology, Undergraduate Diploma in Theology and Certificate in Theology Course Handbook, 1997
  • Mayes J, The Design of Instructional Text
  • The printed or online documentation of the DTP package studied

Aesthetic Model

Participants should own a copy of  one of the following, preferably in the original edition:

  • The Book of Kells
  • The Lindisfarne Gospels

Anarchic Model

  • Any document produced by someone who has just bought a computer
  • Church newsletters of appropriate style

Anaesthetic Model

  • IMPORTANT: Before You Open This Package, Microsoft, distributed free with all software
  • Conditions of Use, Barclaycard, 1997

Semantic Model

  • e. e. cummings, Selected Poems, Faber & Faber (also a good guide to imaginative use of punctuation)
  • John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing” in Silence.

Books I ought to finish reading

Just for fun, here’s a list of them. As it happens, they’re also books I want to finish reading but keep forgetting to, or doing something else instead. In no partcular order (actually, the order in the pile):

Books to finish

  • Miles Kington, How Shall I Tell The Dog?
  • Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of General Ignorance
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of Animal Ignorance
  • Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind and body
  • Robin Dunbar, The Trouble with Science
  • Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe: a quantum computer scientist takes on the cosmos
  • John D Barrow, Impossibility: the limits of science and the science of limits
  • Rodney Huddleston, English Grammar: an outline
  • Barry Green, The Inner Game of Music
  • Andrew George (trans.), The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Eknath Eswaran (trans.), The Upanishads
  • Stephen Fry, Stephen Fry’s Incomplete and Utter History of Music
  • Roger McGough, Collected Poems

Some of those are books I’ve started, some I’m half way through, some I’ve nearly finished . . . and maybe some aren’t exactly for finishing, since really they’re for dipping into.

Actually, one of the most interesting of those is also one of the most demanding to read: the grammar book. It’s not, as you might imagine, a guide on how to write; it’s a very concentrated analysis of how English grammar works, and I see that on the next page I have a section which starts

Constructions involving a non-finite as complement of the predicator exhibit a great deal of diversity and complexity; they present formidable problems for the analyst—and it is not surprising that widely varying accounts are to be found in the literature. One problem is this. The prototypical complement is an NP, which is why we speak of the occurrence of non-finites in complement function as involving nominalisation.

All of which does in fact make sense, but it’s not the kind of material that effortlessly goes into the brain, especially if it’s a few months since you were last reading the book and need to remind yourself what a predicator is and what is or isn’t being nominalised, i.e. being treated like a noun. Let’s just say that once we start looking at how English grammar actually works, it makes languages like German with nice, rigid, clearly-defined rules start to look a lot more straightforward than English.

Maybe I’ll focus instead on the Miles Kington book, which has stuff like this coming up (see, I can’t help reading ahead):

Dear Gill,

People are making a lot of money out of self-help books these days, and I would like you to be one of those people.

By helping to promote my new self-help book.

Which would be about self-pity.

Did you notice in my first letter that I referred to the jumble of self-pitying thoughts I first had when I was diagnosed with cancer?

My immediate response was to be apologetic for this stance, because we are always taught not to be sorry for ourselves, as if there were something dreadfully feeble about it. There are no nice words in English at all for ‘self-pity’. There are lots of disapproving ones. Whingeing, sulking, moping, etc., etc.

(Personally, I think we are entitled to indulge in a little self-pity when we are told we have cancer, as long as we disguise it as something else. Shock, a nervous breakdown, long sobbing fits. Something like that.)

But self-pity is so common that it earns no respect at all, only disapproval, as in phrases like: ‘Sitting around all day feeling sorry for herself,’ or ‘You’d think he was the only one who had ever had leukaemia.’ Which quickly leads to phrases like: ‘Why doesn’t she just pull herself together?’ and ‘Cheer up dear—it’s only bi-polar disorder!’

My brilliant idea would be to turn it all round and treat self-pity as a potentially positive force.

This certainly seems to be a brilliant book, from the 40% or so that I’ve read in its intended order. Miles Kington wrote it in the last months of his life, when he knew that he did in fact have cancer and might well die from it. It takes the form of supposed letters to his literary agent about ideas for books he might write about the situation, but is really a humorous but heartfelt look at attitudes encountered and so on. Very entertaining, but also thought-provoking.

But that’s just one list of books. Here’s another:

Books to start

The main reason I haven’t started the books in this list is that I don’t have them. They’ve been recommended, or mentioned, by other people:

  • Paul Davies, About Time
  • [I don’t know the author], The Universe is a Green Dragon
  • Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods: the remarkable story of risk
  • Daniel M Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will

Now that’s a much shorter list, but I’ve a nasty feeling that’s simply because of having forgotten to make a note of them all . . . Oh dear. I wonder what’s missing . . .

Christians and the environment

The environment as a moral issue

As you’ll know if you’ve read my About page, one of my interests is the relationship between sane religion and honest science. By that I mean religion which lives in a real world, and science which is allowed to be itself and not bent to fit some religious viewpoint.

Many current findings of science, of course, concern human impact on the environment. Christianity hasn’t always done a brilliant job environmentally. All you need do is read the beginning of Genesis for its ideas—not as as the pre-scientific science it was never intended to be—to see the difference between its vision and the role we have acquired. The Earth is meant to be “fruitful” and is “very good”. Our position of power over other living things, recognised in Genesis, gives us an obilgation to look after them, delighting in creation’s goodness and living in harmony with it.

Historically the church has largely forgotten this, seeing the Earth as being there simply for human beings to exploit as we like. So we’ve become alienated from it (another theme of the stories!), becoming agents of destruction rather than creation.

Personally I see environmental damage as a major moral issue for followers of a religion which believes in the goodness of God and sees God as the source of all existence and of all life. Harming the Earth is wrong for the same reason that harming people is: it is created and loved by God. [1] We should should be giving life to our part of creation and building it up, not destroying it.

So it’s good to know that there are Christians—and members of other religions—who are taking this seriously.

Christian Ecology Link

One organisation working to bring such people together and encourage those in the church to care about the environment is Christian Ecology Link. I’ve been a regular recipient of their email newsletter since well before the world went green (or at least, wanted to look green).

In keeping with the organisation’s name, the newlsetter is largely a collection of brief news items linking to information about organisations and events. Below are the links from the latest issue. Hopefully this will give you an idea of the breadth of material it covers. The wording is mine, not taken from the newsletter:

And I’ve not included the items which had no web address but just a person to email, or the final item which gave links for help on public speaking. Also, since it wasn’t in the newsletter, I’ve not mentioned a joint event with the London Islamic Network for the Environment . . .

If this kind of news is of interest to you, visit the CEL website and sign up for their newsletter.


[1] Creation is a word which sometimes carries misleading overtones. Not helped, in fact, by the existence of creationism. People think of a moment in time when God made everything.

As far as I’m concerned creation isn’t a moment in time. Neither is it an alternative process to the one science sees, with God bypassing the laws of physics and designing every little detail of, say, the human appendix. When I say God is creator, I mean that every part of space and time exists because God makes existence possible; the laws of physics, or any deeper laws that explain them, exist because of God; the process of evolution that produced life exists because of the way those laws are. If God controlled the process, it would no longer be a free one and the universe wouldn’t really be God’s creation, just be an extension of God. Neither would there be any room for free will, or for spiritually aware life (such as us) to respond freely to God. Back

The impossibility of silence

In Noise, distraction and caffeine? I mentioned the avant-garde composer John Cage’s assertion that silence is unattainable. The following quote comes from an article of his about “experimental music”.

In this new music nothing takes place but sounds: those that are notated and those that are not. Those that are not notated appear in the written music as silences, opening the doors of the music to the sounds that hapen to be in the environment . . . There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of a special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. when I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.

John Cage, “Experimental Music” in Silence, Marion Boyars, 1978, pp. 7-8 (originally delivered as part of a lecture in 1937)

Tangentially, just in case you’re bothered about the last sentence, here’s another quote from later in the book:

If one feels protective about the word “music”, protect it and find another word for all the rest that enters through the ears. It’s a waste of time to trouble oneself with words, noises. What it is is theatre and we are in it and like it, making it.

John Cage, “45′ for a Speaker” in Silence, p. 190

Some time I’ll try to write a review of the whole book. For now, enjoy those two quotes. John Cage was interested in Zen Buddhism, and I think that for him so-called silence served the same kind of purpose as it does in contemplative prayer traditions: silence is a space in which you give attention. Right now, I’d like more silence in this library, in which to give attention to what I’m writing . . . And I’m not sure how he would have defined music, but I suspect that “sound to which one gives attention for its own sake” might have covered it. And he introduced impossible “silence” into his music for the purpose of focusing on the sound that is always around us.

Believing in God and in science: some beginnings

I was asked a while back to say something about my religious beliefs. It’s hard to know where to start, so I thought I’d start somewhere that’s particularly important to me and which relates to things I’ve already been blogging about…

A lot of people believe there’s a fundamental incompatibility between science and religious belief. I believe that they’re fundamentally wrong 😉

Is there a conflict?

There are scientists who reject religion. I suppose the most famous of these is Richard Dawkins, who has almost made attacking religion into a religion of his own. And there are religious people who reject science: for example those who treat the Bible utterly literally and insist that the world was created in six days as (supposedly) described in Genesis 1.

Cleearly there can be a genuine conflict. Someone who believes God does not exist, and someone who believes God created the world in six days, will never agree with each other. There is a fundamental disagreement between them. But is that the only kind of believer and the only kind of scientist? No–it’s an extreme variety of religion and only one kind of scientist. In fact there is no reason why scientific thinking has to reject God, or why religious belief has to reject the scientific understanding the earth’s history and of our origins. I think the debate typically takes place between people one of whom understands science but not religion, and the other understands religion but not science. And sometimes, I fear, there are religious people who don’t understand religion… though that might be a bit more contentious.

My starting point

In my first year at university, startled by my first encounter with biblical literalists, I made a conscious decision which I’ve followed ever since: anything which I believe as a consequence of my religion must be compatible with what I believe as a consequence of science.

There is only one reality, whether you’re looking at it through religious or scientific eyes. Science and religion both try to discover some truths about it. Truth can’t contradict itself; so if they do discover truth, it must be consistent. It’s no good to believe during the week that we eveolved by natural selection, only to believe on Sundays that we were specially created out of the blue 6,000 years ago. Science and religion must both live in the same real world. Theology and science must both adapt in response to known evidence, as we make more sense of the world we are in. Otherwise we’re disconnecting ourselves from the world and our beliefs are simply attractive ideas which have nothing to do with reality.

Do we want reality, or fantasy? I think that if we’re basing our lives on it, we should go for reality. Or at least, the closest we can get to reality.

Some misconceptions…

A number of misconceptions seem to be lurking in the background whenever science and religion come into conflict. So here are some things I don’tbelieve:

… about religion

  • Religion claims infallible truth
  • Religion is a set of beliefs
  • Scripture is an infallible, divinely dictated book containing those beliefs
  • All religious people see it that way, or should do
  • All religious people reject science and rational thinking
  • Faith is intellectual acceptance of [impossible] ideas despite evidence
  • Religious ideas are arbitrary.

… about science

  • Science claims infallible truth
  • Science works by proving things true
  • All true scientists are atheists and reject religion
  • Science is merely opinion
  • Scientists seek to control the world
  • Science starts out with a particular view of things, which it then seeks to justify in a biased way.

… about both

  • Religion and science are based on conflicting “facts” (e.g. the claim that the world was made 6,000 years ago, versus the scientific evidence that it is much older).

Sometimes some of the misconceptions are agreed on by both sides, and then the trouble starts. Copnsider a scientist and a Christian fundamentalist who both think it’s essential for a Christian to believe in six-day creation. They will argue forever over whether the world was created in six days. They’ll almost certainly never question the assumption that it’s an essential part of religion. So they’re doomed never to get anywhere…

Some definitions of my own

To answer all those misconceptions properly would turn this blog post into quite a long book chapter (last time I checked it was over 1500 words long as it is), so forgive me if I don’t do that in detail just yet. Instead, here are some attempted definitions which reflect my approach to it all:

Religion is the response of human beings to the divine.
Theology is the attempt to make sense of that response and produce a logically consistent set of ideas: about the encounter, and about what we’re encountering.
Science is the attempt to make sense of the physical world by testing ideas against careful (ideally repeatable) observation.
The Bible
The Bible is a set of writings, accumulated over many centuries, providing a record of around two thousand years of religious experience and reflection on it. The experience was that of human nature encountering God and the world; the reflection is influenced by how writers at the time saw the world, and is expressed in many different genres.

It should be fairly obvious that the things on my Misconceptions List are incompatible with those ideas. I’m worried about the length of this post so I won’t go into that in detail now–maybe in another post if needed. Instead, here are

Some consequences

Religion as a response

What is a reasonable response to being loved by someone, or falling in love with them? Is it to come up with a set of rigid beliefs and theories about them, and put all your effort into intellectually accepting those theories? No–your response is “Wow!” or “I want to be with this person” or to love them back or to want to join in with their activities. Similarly with our response to God: it’s not a set of ideas, and it probably can’t even be put into words because God is so far beyond what our language can describe. But after a while we feel the need to understand what’s going on, and that’s where theology comes in, so we try to describe it anyway. The beliefs aren’t the starting point.

Similar and different

Theology and scientific theorising are in some ways very similar activities. Both try to make sense of human experience. In the case of science, this is the experience of doing certain experiments and getting certain results; in the case of religion, it’s our subjective, yet shared, experience of being conscious beings, of relating to the world, and of relating to what we perceive to be its creator. Science has a distinct advantage in its area, because it deals as much as it can with things which can be made objective and measurable and repeatable.

Yet science can’t handle God at all, for a very good reason. The only way we can experience God is subjectively, in our consciousness, within ourselves. Yet the whole idea of science is to remove everything subjective and personal as far as we can, in order to be objective and repeatable. It works by letting us stand back from what we are studying. (The physicist Schroedinger expressed this well; I’ll try to find the quote.)

I believe that good theology must behave in a similar way to good science. It must take account of the real world we live in, and the real evidence we see. Its job is to make sense of the world and our religious experience as they are, not as we say they should be. It’s not a matter of taking some pre-existing belief in, say, the infallibility of the Bible and forcing ourselves to believe all the consequences; it’s about taking what we see and experience and trying to fit it all together.

Also it seems clear to me that neither theology nor science is in a position to claim absolute knowledge of the truth. They’re each a search, hoping to get nearer to the truth as they progress. Both need humility and the willingness to change if a new piece of evidence comes in. Their “truths” are always provisional: the best we can come up with so far, but open to change and refinement.

The Bible

OK, this is the bit which you won’t like if you’re a fundamentalist…

What’s special about the Bible is not that “God wrote it”, but that it contains all those centuries of experience and reflection. Human nature is universal. God is universal. So, if the biblical writers encountered God, they encountered the same God we do. They sometimes interpreted the encounter differently from us; and sometimes had some odd ideas. For example a lot of the Old Testament assumes that God’s love for us must mean God hates our enemies and wants to wipe them out. The idea of God loving them too didn’t seem to occur to the writers. Yet even that horrible and blatantly unchristian idea came from the belief that the God they had encountered was a loving one. Just not one whose love extended to other people too… And certain aspects of the encounter are consistent through all those centuries of experience; we connect with them in our experience too.

This is all scene-setting, really. I’ve not even started on basic things like what sort of God I believe in! But I hope it helps you to see my starting point.

A plea

I know that if you’re a particular kind of atheist, or a fundamentalist Christian, you’ll disagree strongly with what I’ve written. That’s fine–but please respect what I’m doing here: I’m simply setting out my beliefs for some people who’ve asked about them, and I haven’t the energy to launch into heated debate. Gentle disagreement is OK though 🙂