Thursday, 15 November 2012

Friends from my Bookshelf ~ 3

Book: H. Cunliffe-Jones. (1970) Christian Theology since 1600. Studies in Theology. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.

Bought for £1 in G. David (Bookshop), St. Edward's Passage, Cambridge in 1991.

  • Bright citrus-yellow, thin, cardboard cover that somehow reminds me of the lids off old Jigsaw boxes.
  • Creased with dog-eared pages and spidery margnalia
  • Thick slightly rough pages, like school cartridge paper
  • Smells of old libraries
  • Compact feel, that whispers (siren-like) how good it would be to slip it into one's coat pocket for those idle 20 minutes in a coffee shop.
  • Published in the delightful named 'Old Piano Factory, 43 Gloucester Crescent'

I found Christian Theology since 1600 in a remainder bin at G. David's bookshop in Cambridge. It cost me just one pound ~ which I judged to be extremely good value (considering it covered four centuries!). It was the last day of a vacation school that I had been attending. It had ended in the early afternoon. The sun was out and I had wandered along the Backs beside the river Cam and I was loathe to leave, so, for an hour or two, I roamed the shadowed back streets of Cambridge, feeling its pulse and drinking in the atmosphere. Nearby the bookshop was a dark, studenty-type coffee bar. For an hour I sat among the thrill of new worlds in the thick aroma of coffee and voices. I read the first paragraph over and over again.

I was entering my forties and my world was changing. I had enrolled on a four day 'vacation school' that was run by a Social Reform think-tank that was trying to establish (what they called) an 'economic system built upon biblical values.' I had completed their correspondence course and here was my first taste of proper theological thought in a real-life college setting. I could not believe that I was there. Driving in each day from my sister's I could barely contain my excitement. I was also hopelessly out of my depth. Everyone was desperately clever. They were mostly Oxbridge graduates who had studied law or economics. They used words that I had never heard before and confidently talked about books I had never seen. I barely spoke a word (even during the breaks). The few comments I did offer still make me cringe. At the end we had an 'exam.' Graciously, those running the school omitted disclosing to me my mark - although one of my assignments did come back with an exasperated remark about my appalling spelling.

But there was a fire in me to learn and I was thrilled to have been there. I was a puppy dog, who smiled and said 'hello' to everyone, and I walked the quads and corridors as tall as Nelson. I laughed too loudly and I wrote everything down in a sprawling, tangled, web of notes. Everything in me ached to study; to understand what drove these people who grappled with the big issues of life, to see and to touch the stars that soared in their minds. It was a dream that, at times, almost ripped me apart - for I knew (as this course yet again amply demonstrated) that intellectually I was below average. I had to keep a dictionary beside me as I read which made reading a slow, slooow and laborious work. I had no stomach for argument and I could be swayed by almost any point of view! Nevertheless I still longed to study.

This was really my first proper theology book. Previously I owned a number of fairly serious books that looked at fairly serious subjects in a fairly serious manner, but all of them were from (what academics call) a 'committed' position. This was a book written dispassionately for the study of theology, rather than an apologetic for a particular theological position - although glancing through it again, one can detect some of Mr Cunliffe-Jones' sympathies.

A year later I began to dare to think about the possibility of studying in a college - nothing fancy just an evening class; I did not have enough qualifications to go to university. I can remember standing in the middle of the library of a local bible college (it was their open day), breathing in that heady atmosphere of words and dust and sun-cracked, old bindings. The light fell through the window onto shelves of uniformly bound volumes. Their spines carried names I faintly recognised and many more that I had never encountered. I longed to open my arms and sink into each shelf assimilating the mass of words and thoughts they contained. A few of the lecturers were on hand to talk to prospective students. I stood in the shadows, mute, unable to say a word. In hind sight it would not have been the place for me. I needed somewhere that taught me the skills to ask the questions that burned within me but which I could not articulate. I did not need to be presented with answers that I already knew in neatly-tied dogma but in which I no longer had confidence. Nevertheless, when I got home I cried; that ache hurt so much and the possibility of study seemed so remote.  

H. Cunliffe-Jones (and a few others) got me through those bitter-sweet days of my growing. Slowly I read each page (though understanding little), spidering the margins with notes, underlining passages I thought might be important. I don't think I ever finished it, but that does not matter to me, neither does it diminish my love for Mr Cunliffe-Jones. His "modest attempt towards establishing a trust-worthy perspective of the recent centuries that lie behind us" gave me the first fingerholds in a mountain that I was to later climb. In the watery sun of that summer Cambridge afternoon, feeling self-conscious and out of place (yet with heart racing), I first opened his book and slowly read, "[t]ransitions to the modern world may be found in many places, for example in the disjunction yet close interweaving between faith and reason in the thought of Thomas Aquinas..." With that, I began my transition from one world to another.
My climb had begun.


  1. Awesome post and so revealing too! I studied, briefly, Thomas Aquinas and found him to be rather interesting the way he interpreted Aristotle from a Christian perspective.

    Aquinas stated:
    "You cannot prove that God exists, merely by considering the word God, as the ontological argument in effect supposes. For that strategy to work, you would have to presume to know God's essence. The proposition "God exists," inlike a square has four sides, is not selfevident to us mere mortals. Although you can prove God's existence in several ways, you cannot do it just by examing the concept of God. You have to consider what it is about nature that makes it manifest that it requires God as its original source." He goes on about the five ways he says you can prove God exists,but regardless, it comes down to amatter of one's beliefs, and where they are Spiritually. Aquinas drew between theology and philosophy, and having studies philosophy, I discovered other points of view that are more in line with my beliefs. Great post! Never stop searching~

    1. Thank you.
      Ah yes, Aquinas' 5 proofs!! :D I have to say I love his ontological argument - it's so neat and is everything that is brillaint and bad about philosophy at the same time. It always makes me smile with a kind of delight - like seeing a conjurer's sleight of hand; subtle manipulations of semantics. You are absolutely correct, it (and all the other attempts to 'prove' God's existence through rational thought) presupposes God's existence. They are really exercises in attempting to demonstrate that rational thought has its place in a theocentric universe rather than determining the place of God in a rational universe. Attempts to rationally prove God's existence or his non-existence always seem to me to be doomed to fail because they both miss the point... though I am often hard pressed to articulate quite what that point is.

  2. the are so many reasons i adore you, mister g

  3. oh, I know these feeling well. after years of self-study, at 35 I finally took the leap to study formally in a structured program. I'm now surrounded by people that have been in this field for 10, 20, even 30 and 40 years. I feel intimidated and out of my element, and like I don't know what the hell I'm doing! But, I love learning, and I'm passionate about the subjects and areas of study. It's a constant reminder that no one was born with this knowledge. And even if you know a lot, there is always something more to learn. Life is learning.

    I read with a dictionary by my side, too. Even if I'm reading a novel for enjoyment. I love words too much to see one I'm not familiar with and just keep reading without stopping to learn all about that word.

    Have a fantastic weekend.

    1. Thank you so much, Amanda.
      Yes you are absolutely right studying is so scary and SO exiting. No matter how many letters one accumulates after one's name (or even before it) those feelings of being a little out of one's depth and intimidated never really leave. I still get a thrill when entering a college library or sitting with a group of students - even if now they are expecting me to teach them!
      It is so true that the more you learn, the more you realise how much you don't know.
      I know exactly what you mean by loving words too much to let one slip by just because you're not familiar with it.

  4. Oooops Hahaha - just realised that I've aged myself by a decade!!
    I was entering my 30s and NOT my 40s!!!

    Wow, I feel so much younger now ;D

  5. Hello astound me with your intriguing posts and sharings....such fascinating writing and energy and movement inside them....your words always alive and flowing for me..I love that! I love your last climb had begun!
    yes...there is always so much to learn and is immeasurable discovery..just the way I like it!

    1. Thank you so much, Victoria, for all your encouraging words. Yes it is just the way I like it too!! :D


For your voice is important... and words that are shared grow wings.