Microfinance: Lending to mend society

A bunch of friends and I have recently been getting into microfinance through an organisation called Kiva. We’ve set up a little collective of people who lend money directly to some of the world’s poorest people to improve their outcomes.
I’ve been captured by the concept and potential for microfinance:

Offering people a hand up, not a hand out

I’m sure I’ll post more on this and explain what we are seeking to do as a group in due course. For now I’ll settle for an example that illustrates the kind of people we are seeking to help:

One such example is Mary Ayako Wambani from Majengo, Kenya who we’ve helped to raise $1,075 to extend her stock by purchasing two Friesian cows.


Mary owns a number of dairy cows which she uses to obtain milk to sell to her clients. Her clients mostly consist of the local hotels, shops and families in her neighborhood. Mary has been in KADET for a while now and has a good credit history. She hopes to obtain a loan to enable her to buy more cows due to the high demand for milk. She also hopes to buy a milk cooler for storing the milk as she transports it to her clients.

Mary’s desire is to use the profits made to educate her children and improve her family’s living standards. She longs for the day when she will open a milk factory.

I like the idea of helping Mary in this small way 😉

New stylesheet

I’ve been learning about alternate stylesheets recently from a List Apart article and have been doing some experimenting.
I’ve been unhappy for a while with the fixed width nature of my site and, especially when reading long posts, the the readability of the main body text. I’m therefore experimenting with a stylesheet that loses the sidebar. You can try this below:

Wide View image

Click on the following icon to switch to the ‘no sidebar’ stylesheet (and click again to switch back):

It’s not amazingly clear to the user from these icons that this is what will happen when clicked so am working on how to make this clear. As usual, I’m having teething problems getting this to display properly in Internet Explorer. I’ve also introduced a ‘print’ stylesheet (below). Any comments on this function (especially browser-specific problems) welcome!

Note as of April 2013: This functionality has now been superceded.

Saint Augustine: much maligned, little understood


Augustine grappled with some big questions. Following on from my last post, what follows isn’t an attempt to defend Augustine, but to understand and explore his continuing relevance as I reflect on the small amount of his writings that I have been able to engage with recently…

open quotesgrace heals us so that we have the freedom to choose rightclose quotes

Augustine’s theology of grace demands a different reading of what it means for the Christian to have freedom of action. There is a danger that, if we accept Augustine’s diagnosis of our weak human state, we become virtual puppets of God.1 Just as the sinner has no option but to sin – does not have the ‘freedom’ of manoeuvre to avoid it – does the Christian therefore have no option but to be saved? According to Rist, Augustine would respond to such a charge by arguing that grace restores, rather than takes away, free will.2 “Our delusion,” explains Rist, is that “to do ‘as we like’ is freedom.”3 However, even our free will must be restored so that it unconquerably desires the good. The function of grace, therefore, “is not to drag us, kicking and screaming, to salvation,”4 but rather to heal us so that we have the freedom to choose right. Augustine describes this in another way as God’s love breaking into our predicament with “sweet violence.”5 If Pelagius’ views freedom as the means by which humans attain their salvation, for Augustine “it is the issue, not the source, of salvation.”6

open quoteseven our free will must be restored so that it unconquerably desires the goodclose quotes

To speak in an Augustinian register about the love of God working with our free will is to use the imagery of the elect Christian as a wounded man being helped to cross a road that he wants, but is unable, to cross, unaided.7 Of course, this ‘external’ support for the morally corrupt is really internal support, and a moral cripple requires not just the healing of a limb but the restoring of the whole personality. This journey of healing is one in which the baptised Christian must “remain an invalid,” living life in a “precarious convalescence in the ‘Inn’ of the Church”8 until, in the distant future, his body is transformed.

By the 390s it is clear that Augustine’s emphasis is more and more on the darkness of human experience and that the journey to Christ-likeness would never be complete until the Christian enters peace in the ‘City of God’. The life of the Christian would always have, according to Augustine, “a streak of ugliness that seems to endure no matter how well we learn to control our speech and actions.”9 It is at this point that Augustine’s doctrine of grace seems to me to not only be morose but does not offer a sufficiently robust doctrine of sanctification in the present and seems to ignore the opportunity to know God’s (albeit partial) healing now for the human psyche. It seems that Augustine’s doctrine leaves little room for each human being, whilst corrupted by sin, to also reflect and bear the image of their maker.

open quotesGod’s love breaking into our predicament with “sweet violence.”close quotes

Such an emphasis on the struggle of the Christian life opened Augustine to significant criticism. If one still finds incoherence in Augustine’s understanding of the relationship between grace and freedom establishing, rather than violating, free will, then they “inherit the misgivings of Julian of Eclanum”10 who argued that for the sinner to have no choice but to sin was to absolve the sinner of responsibility for their actions (sine reatu). Likewise, for the saint to pursue good and so possess glory “without the bother of holiness (sine cura sanctitatis)”11 seemed equally against the grain. Room needed to be left in the human experience for human responsibility towards God and especially for the special exertions of a religious life.12 In what is sometimes somewhat misleadingly seen as a ‘semi-Pelagian’ modification of Augustine, it was proposed that God began the life of grace, but that “virtue under grace no longer expresses human self-determination.”13

Williams is unrepentant in arguing that Augustine, with his insistence on the need for conversion, is closer to the heart of the gospel than the Pelagian overstatement of humanity’s unaided spiritual resources for personal salvation. The positivist Pelagian view sees “no schism in the heart and so no need for healing and reconciliation.”14 An Augustinian picture, however, depicts “the world as unclear and the human spirit as confused and imprisoned in fantasies,”15 in which the need for reconciliation “is a basic human datum.”16

open quoteswhen God pulls taught the slack thread of desire, binding it to himself, the muddled and painful litter of experience is gathered together and given directionclose quotes

What’s increasingly clear to me, is that Augustine’s thinking gives us a clear framework, perhaps more than any of other early Christian writer, in which to understand how the complex web of human experience is subsumed by the grace of God, presenting the action of God present in the Christian in spite of mixed motives, continuing sin, confusion and doubt. To adopt the imagery of Williams, a human life is given unity and intelligibility not from within but from outside: “when God pulls taught the slack thread of desire, binding it to himself, the muddled and painful litter of experience is gathered together and given direction.”17 Augustine’s legacy was in understanding that a graced life could include within it a life of moral struggle and spiritual darkness. Augustine was able to accept the radically conditioned state of human behaviour and integrate this reality with the grace of God at work to mend the wounds in human experience. God was looking, according to Augustine, not for heroes but for lovers, “not for moral athletes but for men and women aware of their need for acceptance, ready to find their selfhood in the longing for communion with an eternal ‘other’.”18

Through the development of his theology of grace, Augustine displayed the Pelagian optimism for human agency to be “based upon a transparently inadequate view of the complexity of human motivation.”19 It is clear that Augustine’s doctrine of grace shall continue to stand as a problematic yet clearly articulated “defence of Christian mediocrity.”20

  1. The analogy here is taken from Rist, J., M. (1997), Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptised, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 133–4  ↩

  2. See Letter 157.2.10 in Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  3. Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  4. Rist (1997), p. 134  ↩

  5. See Serm. 131.2 cited in Williams, R., (1979) The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd), p. 82–3  ↩

  6. Williams (1979), p. 82–3  ↩

  7. Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  8. Brown, P. (1967), Augustine of Hippo, (London: Faber & Faber), p. 365  ↩

  9. Kent in Stump, E., and Kretzmann, N. (Eds.) (2001), The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 224  ↩

  10. Wetzel, J. (1992), Augustine and the Limits of Virtue, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 197  ↩

  11. Wetzel (1992), p. 197  ↩

  12. Markus, R. (1991), The End of Ancient Christianity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 63  ↩

  13. Wetzel (1992), p. 163–4  ↩

  14. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  15. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  16. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  17. Williams (1979), p. 81–2  ↩

  18. Williams (1979), p. 86  ↩

  19. Brown (1967), p. 371  ↩

  20. Markus (1991), p. 45  ↩

Saint Augustine: are we babies or sons of God?

It’s popular in many circles to knock and caricature Augustine’s ideas – I used to be in that camp despite having never actually read any of his writings for myself! What follows isn’t an attempt to defend Augustine, but to understand and explore his continuing relevance as I reflect on the small amount I have been able to engage with recently…

Saint Augustine of Canterbury

Augustine, even at the best of times, is a fairly morose character. He’s perhaps at his most sanguine when reflecting upon human nature, which is perhaps nowhere more shocking than in his condemnation of un-baptised babies. Seen positively, particularly in passages in the Confessions, Augustine likens man’s relation to God as like that of a baby to its mother’s breast – a relationship of intimacy and stark dependence as a result of helplessness. In bleaker passages, Augustine would concede that un-baptised infants would be punished eternally for their inherited sin “albeit ‘lightly.’”1 The emotive language and implications of Augustine’s condemnation does have profound symbolic importance to the way he viewed the Christian’s position. The warm image of a baby at the mother’s breast is intended to be directly applicable to all Christians’ position as “reliant on the sustaining love of God.”2 Just as a baby cannot speak, act or believe for themselves, so every Christian is reliant from first to last upon the divine action of God at the point of baptism and beyond. Baptism, for Augustine, launched a “lifelong process of convalescence,”3 rather than a one-off break with the past and a victorious life free from all hint of sin. Makes you want to sing for joy doesn’t it?!

open quotesBaptism launched a lifelong process of convalescenceclose quotes

Standing in opposition to this view, the Pelagian4 would hold such an image of babies in contempt. Needless to say that for Pelagians, we are born with a capacity for good and evil and that “before the activity of the individual will there is nothing in humans other than what God has placed in them.”5 Pelagius was clear that our capacity for choice has always been intended to be used for good, and that the resources to do good was therefore within each human. For Pelagius, Caesestius and the so-called ‘Sicilian Anonymous’, there could be no sin that was not willed. It was their very different aetiology of sin that “accounts for their refusal to ascribe sin to infants, whose lack of an operative will is axiomatic.”6 A more helpful way of understanding man’s relation to God at baptism, they would argue, is that of becoming a ‘son of God’. Baptism, for the Pelagian, was emancipatus a deo: just as, in Roman law, a son was ‘released’ from parental dependence into adulthood, the Christian was capable, by his own power, to go out into the world “to uphold in heroic deeds the good name of their illustrious ancestry.”7

open quotesWe are reliant on the sustaining love of Godclose quotes

The Augustinian language of dislocation within the self was intended to be seen as a reflection of, and result of, “the dislocation in the primordial community between man and God.”8 For Augustine, Christ was the definition of what it means to be human, and the trinity was the lens through which we understand the nature of selfhood. In insisting that the human will could obtain perfection outside of the trinity and Christ’s mediation, Augustine’s claim that the Pelagian view of our position before God did no less than rupture the trinitarian and christological economy.

So, are we babies or are we ‘sons of God’? Big issues. Somewhere in between? 😉

  1. Casiday, A., and Norris, F., W. (2007), The Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 2 Constantine to c. 600, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 515  ↩

  2. Casiday and Norris (2007), p. 515  ↩

  3. Markus, R. (1991), The End of Ancient Christianity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 54  ↩

  4. An amorphous grouping against whom Augustine spent the best years of his life trying to refute  ↩

  5. McGrath, A., E. (2005), The Christian Theology Reader, (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 404  ↩

  6. Casiday and Norris (2007), p. 514  ↩

  7. Brown, P. (1967), Augustine of Hippo, (London: Faber & Faber), p. 352  ↩

  8. Markus (1991), p. 61  ↩

Relationships that heal society

Lady drinking a lovely cup of tea

Lady drinking a lovely cup of tea

I’m finding it a fascinating time to be working in Local Government. Pressure on the public purse is releasing new creativity and asking fundamental questions around how to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable in society. I’ve been thinking about how these issues can be informed by my faith. What follows are some of my thoughts on how this links to relationships and, by extension, the role the church has to play in healing society.

Sir William Beveridge’s Welfare Settlement was remarkably successful at transforming society, attacking the five giant ills of ‘want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idelness.’ Yet in his third report on his developing thinking on the welfare state, Beveridge recognised that he had made a mistake in both missing and limiting the potential power of each citizen to play a part in social betterment. He felt that ‘room, opportunity and encouragement for voluntary action in seeking new ways of social advance… services of a kind which often money cannot buy’ were equally critical. He feared that his original reforms were encouraging individuals to focus passively on their needs – looking to the state to provide the answers – rather than to themselves and their immediate social networks. He was recognising that his original 1942 report missed a trick in emphasising services over voluntary action in the creation of a fairer and more socially cohesive society.

open quotes… people don’t need a more efficient service but meaningful and robust relationships.close quotes

Before the welfare state, faith communities were the major delivery arm of health in the UK, operating many of the friendly societies that provided health services to the masses before the welfare state. Into the late 1940’s and beyond, this role as a ‘social net’ had been handed over to the state, never fully to return. Beveridge recognized that the government had been left holding the whole baby of the NHS and social protection, where previously the church and other social institutions had – albeit imperfectly – undertaken this role.

I’ve been reflecting on this analysis and on two challenges that emerge from this:

Challenge 1: The state needs to re-imagine its relationship with its citizens

open quotes… it is the quality of our relationships that, more than anything else, determines our happiness, fulfilment and the sense of a life well lived.close quotes

(Dr Jonathan Sachs)

The welfare state, as it has evolved, has continued to promote a reliance upon public services being delivered to and for people, not with them. Yet the biggest challenges to the public sector in health and social care in particular, are based not on the acute problems and illnesses that more ‘LEAN‘ and efficient processes can tackle, but in the realm of chronic issues related to dementia, diabetes, getting people to stop abusing alcohol, encouraging people to go walking more often or, in a different context, start recycling their waste. For these sorts of challenges, people don’t need a more efficient service but meaningful and robust relationships. Broadly speaking – and I’m conscious of some successful counter-examples – people don’t change their behaviour because the state tells them to, but because they have found people they know and respect, through strong peer-to-peer networks, who have succeeded in, for example, giving up smoking.

If, in the public sector, we are to help people generate, rebuild and sustain relationships in society, rather than just deliver services to people, then we are not going to succeed alone. The church ought to be experts at this stuff!

open quotesYou’re worked to death, we’re bored to death.close quotes

I also think that this recognition of a need for a shift in thinking resonates with the wider issues that the current government’s approach to the public services has spawned. We do not want to be needy, with ‘things’ being done to us, we want to contribute and participate. Nor do we want to be atomised consumers, being told that it’s our responsibility to ‘get it’. We find that people want to be socially connected and to collectively make things happen. Everyone recognizes that the most important things can’t be measured by numbers and money. In Jenni Russell’s critique of New Labour, she emphasises that we judge the quality of public services not as dispassionate observers surveying cold statistics, but upon our experience and the experiences of those we know and trust. As members of society, we live what governments do to us:

Recognising that our children are bored and uninspired by rigid school curriculums that rob them of the joy of learning affects us far more profoundly than hearing that exam results are on the rise.

Whether the nurse “treats us with tenderness and a doctor with kindness and concern” (Jenni Russell, p. 82) matters far more to us than whether we lie in a hospital bed that is brand new. We aren’t automatons; we are human beings who want to be treated with respect and dignity.

The state needs to re-imagine its relationship with its citizens

Challenge 2: The Church needs rediscover its role in society

A couple of years ago I heard Steve Chalke sum up the challenge like this:

I think he’s spot on here. “You’re worked to death we’re bored to death.” The task of the church is to bring spiritual, social, physical, and emotional health to people. It’s the task of the church. What we need is a ‘health’ service, not a ‘making people better’ service and if we as a society have any chance of seeing that happen, it won’t only be because of re-imagined government. We have to stop looking to the state, who as Chalke puts it, are “worked to death” whilst the church has been “bored to death singing the same old songs” but not fully walking in its mission to bring God’s shalom to a world that needs it so badly.

We need a public sector that develops meaningful relationships with its citizens based on mutual accountability and trust.

We need a church that grapples with, and takes ownership of, issues of dysfunctionality in the community that it serves.

We need relationships that heal society.