The Bampton Lectures

The Bampton Lectures, founded by the will of the Revd John Bampton (1690-1751), first took place at the University Church in 1780. Over the centuries, these prestigious lectures - sometimes courting controversy, always intellectually stimulating - have covered a range of theological subjects. It is a condition of the Bampton Bequest that the lectures are published by the Lecturer. These lectures are delivered in the Trinity Term every year.

2022: The Age of Hitler, and how we can escape it
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Bampton 2022

The age of Hitler is not the 1930s and 1940s: it is our own lifetimes. It is the period in which Western culture has come to define its values not by Christianity, but by the narrative of the Second World War. It is the period in which our most potent moral figure has been Adolf Hitler, and in which our only truly fixed moral reference point has been our shared rejection of Nazism. 

Which is good: but it’s not enough. And even if defining our values this way was wise, it’s clear that this postwar, anti-Nazi moral consensus is unravelling, and our whole system of values coming under pressure. What is going to come next? These lectures will give an account of how the ‘secular’ values of the postwar world came about, and what will happen now that the age of Hitler seems to be passing. They will show that for a new shared system of values to emerge from our current turmoil, we will need to draw creatively both on the newer, secular, anti-Nazi value system and on the older Christian value systems which remain powerfully present in European and Western culture. And they will show that such a creative synthesis is not only desirable, but also possible – perhaps even likely. 

These lectures will be live-streamed and recorded. Graduate Seminars will also take place in the Old Library in the afternoons. 

About the Lecturer

Professor Alec Ryrie FBA is Professor of the History of Christianity in the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Durham.

 

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Tuesday 10 May at 10.00am in the University Church

This lecture will trace the moral transition of British and certain other western cultures from the Victorian period to the 1960s: of how it was that the most potent moral figure in those cultures ceased to be Jesus Christ and came to be Adolf Hitler. The moral authority of Jesus and of Christian ethics was broadly accepted as normative even by agnostics or atheists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a moral authority that explains the insistent self-understanding of western societies in that era as ‘Christian’, for all their apparent secularisation. The lecture will consider how that value system fared during the era of the World Wars. In brief, it weathered the First World War and even the opening of the Second better than we might imagine; but the eventual moral impact of the Second World War and the accompanying global reordering left traditional Christian ethics looking wholly inadequate to the scale of the challenge, and indeed badly compromised by association with what now appeared as intolerable evils. Christian and non-Christian alike had their confidence in Christian values badly shaken. The lecture will end by considering how, in this context, the centuries-old concept of ‘human rights’ came into its own, quite suddenly appearing to be the self-evident, intuitive and secular truth on which a new age must be built. The experience and memory of the Second World War was fundamental to that widely-shared intuition. By the 1960s, despite the famous cinematic white elephant, the ‘greatest story’ in western culture was no longer the story of Jesus, but of the struggle against Nazism.

The Age of Hitler

Tuesday 10 May at 11.30am in the University Church

This lecture will show how, during the lifetime from the 1940s to the present, British, American and many European cultures have (in revealingly different ways) rebased their moral currency on the secular narrative of the anti-Nazi struggle. The story has played out differently in the Anglophone world and in formerly occupied Europe, and differently again in Germany’s far more painful and sophisticated reckoning with its past. And yet across the western world, the Second World War has become our Trojan War and our Paradise Lost: a shared cultural point of reference; the source of the only moral absolutes which pluralist societies recognise; a rich and complex set of events which have an unparalleled grip on our collective imaginations and emotions, and which we find ourselves perpetually retelling and reinventing (and, often, trivialising). In the Anglophone world, in particular, the war and its moral lessons have become pervasive in the fictional narratives on which generations of children have been raised, from Tolkien to Star Wars and Harry Potter. The practical foundation of post-1960s secularism is that we may still believe that God is good, but not with the same ironclad certainty with which we know that Nazism and all it stands for is evil.

The lecture will conclude by arguing that this western moral consensus is now unravelling. The war itself is falling off the edge of living memory; new crises are disrupting old certainties; a war between professedly Christian European powers no longer resonates so powerfully in plural societies and in a postcolonial world. Or perhaps it is simply that the inherent tensions of a value- system built on the anti-Nazi narrative can no longer be contained. In recent years it has become plain that our age’s moral consensus is fracturing, with old truisms being questioned and new ones being asserted. Even anti-Semitism, the old horror that the anti-Nazi era defined itself against, is re-emerging on both the Left and the Right. The postwar moral world is coming to an end: the question is what will come next.

 

Heroes and Villains

Tuesday 17 May at 10.00am in the University Church

For those of us who have grown up formed by its certainties, the fracturing of the postwar moral consensus is unnerving. This lecture will offer some cold comfort, by examining the weaknesses and inadequacies of the Second World War and of the mythology of anti-Nazism as a basis for our value systems. It will argue that for those weaknesses and inadequacies to be addressed, we will need to draw on deeper resources, which in the western world must mean principally theChristian moral frameworks that are still buried deep in our culture’s foundations. It remains to be seen whether this will be done well or badly.

The inadequacy of the Second World War as a basis for our ethics is not a matter merely of the moral messiness of the struggle itself (the Bengal famine, Dresden, Hiroshima); nor of the problematic lessons the war has taught us (the phobia of ‘appeasement’ almost annihilated the planet during the Cuban missile crisis). More fundamentally, the very fact of replacing a positive moral exemplar with a negative one has left us with a social consensus that knows what is evil but has no agreement on what is good, and indeed with a severely impoverished notion of the good. One result is a worsening shortage of those pragmatic moral lubricants, repentance and forgiveness. Another is an almost comical tendency, especially in Britain, to read complex problems, from the COVID pandemic to the climate emergency, through the lens of the Second World War – as if all true evils have villains at their heart. A third is a persistent inability to find a cultural place for religion, especially for religions that do not feel the need to emulate postwar European Christianity’s tamed social role. The lecture will argue that these inadequacies are amongst the reasons why our postwar value system is failing, and why we ought to be glad of the fact. It will also argue that, while Christianity cannot be the only set of moral resources drawn on to address these problems, it can and should play a distinctive and decisive part in doing so. And it will draw on examples from around the world that suggest this is already beginning to happen.

A Crossroads

Tuesday 17 May at 11.30am in the University Church

As the postwar moral era comes to an end, Christians find themselves divided as to how to respond. With the assertively secular values of the post-1960s era beginning to feel brittle, it is unsurprising that many Christians across the world have sensed an opportunity. The result is an acceleration of culture wars, with certain kinds of Christianity positioning themselves in opposition to particular forms of secular modernism. The instinct to turn back the clock and to return to the old certainties of Christendom’s value systems is very understandable. This final lecture will argue that it would nevertheless be a grave error; that even (or especially) doctrinally or socially conservative Christians ought to seek a constructive engagement with the anti-Nazi values of the postwar age, which are much less antagonistic to Christianity than their construction as ‘secular humanism’ suggests. This is partly because, in such a culture war, assertive Christendom-Christianity will lose. Indeed, it emboldens its secularist ‘enemies’ by giving them precisely the kind of opposition they crave. Yet this approach is flawed theologically as well as tactically, based as it is on a hollowed-out Christian identity politics as brittle as any secular alternative. The lecture will suggest some alternative, subtler ways in which Christians can engage with fracturing secular values, breathing life into those values’ inadequacies but while also learning from them. As numerous commentators involved in the revival of virtue ethics have suggested, deploying and modelling unfashionable but essential practices such as humility and repentance both makes it possible to learn the very hard-won moral lessons of the modern era, and to demonstrate that, essential as those lessons are, they are not enough. The lecture will conclude by pointing to signs of an emergent Christian politics, especially but not only in parts of the global South, which suggest that such a constructive synthesis between Christian and secular values is not only necessary, but already happening.

2021: Four-Dimensional Eucharist
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Canon Dr Jessica Martin

In these lectures, the Revd Canon Dr Jessica Martin presented a series of reflections on the Eucharist in four dimensions. Construing the eucharist both as sacrament and as ritual theatre, she considered its physicality in a time of increasing online presence, the abiding Christian tension between presence and absence it already contains, and its efficacy in a modern culture which veers unstably between scepticism and enchantment.  With a wide range of reference, the lectures ranged from fantasy genres and virtual reality to Eucharistic theology and the anthropology of ritual.

The lecture series was structured by the metaphor of geometrical ‘dimensions’: from the point (or line) to the flat shape, to the three dimensions of situated theatre, to the layerings of personal and sacred time. These lectures were delivered on Tuesday 11 May and Tuesday 18 May 2021.

About the Lecturer

The Revd Canon Dr Jessica Martin has been Residentiary Canon for Learning and Outreach at Ely Cathedral since 2016, following six years as priest-in-charge of a multi-parish benefice in South Cambridgeshire.  Before that, she was Fellow in English at Trinity College, Cambridge, where her research focus was on early modern piety and the early history of literary biography.  Her most recent book is Holiness and Desire (2020), which considers the roots of human desire and the consequences of its modern commodification.

The Point of the Eucharist

A point situates perspective; it gives a focus. This lecture asks how the concept of ‘sacrament’ can work in a culture which may choose to strip symbols of their power on a more or less arbitrary basis. It goes on to ponder the story behind Eucharist as one which anticipates such stripping in the divine value it assigns to the weak, the broken and the doomed.

Flat Eucharist: Schemes and Screens

This session thinks about the different 2D modes and conventions upon which we rely for our access to the Eucharist.  It considers the linear nature of ‘argument’ for making Eucharistic meaning, and its limitations.  It looks at the conventions of written, printed liturgy, at how the technology of the page filters, orders and confines what happens.  Informed by the recent experience of the pandemic, it discusses screened Eucharists as technologically-enabled representations which may - or may not - falter on the threshold between communion and its simulation.

The Eucharist as Theatre: Place and Space

This session thinks about ‘place’ as it plays out in a piece of ritual theatre constructed partly around absence – how vital physical gathering and genuine communal eating might (or might not) be for the realised Eucharistic drama of communal feast and remembered loss.  It considers the ways that liturgy makes things happen, as an event in a particular space with particular performers. It asks how ‘real’ representation can become if we are physically absent from one another, and what influence the deniability of symbolic acts has on our ambivalent relationship to acts of communion. 

The Eucharist in Time

This session asks about the nature of memory in Eucharistic action - not only in its bringing together of Jesus’s fleshly present with our own, but in the smaller and more particular meetings of personal past and present which happen for worshippers.  It thinks about the meetings and partings, the presences and absences, of private lives and loves, which are part of the power of liturgical reiteration. It finishes by pondering what is different, and what the same, between the connections of love set up in non-eucharistic memorials or records of the vanished past and the relationship which Eucharistic liturgy establishes between loss and meeting. 

2019: Rethinking Relations between Science and Religion
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Peter Harrison

The contemporary relations between science and religion are often thought of in terms of competing factual claims or ways of knowing—evolution vs creation, reason vs faith.  On this understanding, apparent conflicts between science and religion are to be resolved by argument. But such arguments rarely turn out to be persuasive to those not already committed to their conclusions.  

Professor Harrison's suggestion will be that this is because these arguments are not doing much real work, but are the outward expression of implicit commitments to narratives about science and religion that have a historical form:  "The most common of these stories is the ‘conflict narrative’, which proposes an enduring historical conflict between science and religion.  While historians have debunked this narrative, it still exercises a pervasive influence on science-religion discussions. Less commonly remarked upon is a ‘naturalism narrative’, according to which the successes of science have shown us that there is nothing in the universe but physical forces and entities.  This narrative operates less by opposing specific arguments than by simply making traditional understandings of divine action unthinkable.  In these lectures I will trace the historical emergence of these powerful narratives about science and religion, with a particular focus on the rise of modern naturalism.  I will then turn to the specific ways in which these narratives have unhelpfully shaped contemporary arguments about divine action and purpose."

The lectures took place on 12th February and 19th February 2019. They were followed by seminars in the Old Library. The first seminar was on 'Evidence and Religious Belief' and the second seminar was on 'Divine Action in a Disenchanted World'.

About the Lecturer

Professor Peter Harrison is a past Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.  He is now an Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He has written numerous books and articles on the historical and contemporary relations between science and religion. In 2011 he delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, now published as The Territories of Science and Religion (2015).  His most recent book is Narratives of Secularization (2017). 

Supernatural Belief in a Secular Age

Science and the Disenchantment of Nature

Nature and the Idea of the Supernatural

Religious Belief and the Myth of Scientific Naturalism