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Ruin and Restoration: On violence, liturgy and reconciliation — David Martin

24 February 2017

Duncan Dormor on a difficult disciplinary hybrid that can be called socio-theology

Ruin and Restoration: On violence, liturgy and reconciliation
David Martin
Routledge £30
Church Times Bookshop £27


THIS is, quite simply, a remarkable book. It is highly original and pro­vocative, while maintaining an unflinchingly empirical gaze on the brute reality of the world.

It opens with a “governing essay” on the relationship between soci­ology and theology which frames six wide-ranging commentaries. These pro­vide reflections on sin; violence and atonement; the vocabulary and grammar of Christianity; the tension between universalism and family and ethnic allegiance; peace and violence; the reconciling nature of liturgy, set within a fascinating claim for the “return of the liturgical in modernist music and poetry”; and a brief comment on the way of Peaceable Wisdom.

The almost liturgical architecture of the book is resolved through a substantial afterword.

The originality of this volume lies in the fact that it is an exercise in the “disciplinary hybrid you might call socio-theology”, of which, frankly, very few but Martin are capable; for, despite the very real differences, Martin has long seen the sociologist as “an unwitting theologian”, having many decades back mischievously defined sociology as “the documen­tation of original sin by those who believe in original virtue”.

The foundational issue at stake is violence. Violence is the “critical marker” for Martin, so fundamental that “analytically the question of God’s existence is secondary to the attitude a faith takes to violence”, because that attitude speaks of God’s nature. Martin does not, then, sub­scribe to the pious fiction that all religions are, by their nature, peace­ful, and so, “incidentally”, when “confronted by the monotheistic
God of Islam”, he confesses: “I am a devout atheist.”

In contrast, drawing on Karl Jasper’s designation of the Axial Age, Martin finds in primitive Christianity (and classical Bud­dhism) an acute “angle of transcen­dence” — that is, a significant gap or gulf between the values of the Kingdom, of non-violence, uni­versalism, and self-sacrifice, and “the grain of the world”, where “the profoundly re­­sistant realities of the social order” of power and violence so easily crush or corrupt visions for a better world. This takes us deep into the paradoxes of Christianity, and also to Martin’s naturalistic critique of certain theo­logical ideas.

Martin traces the ways in which visions of a new social order, rooted in Isaiah and the New Testament, are co-opted to bolster providential accounts of history which slip easily from their Jewish and Christian moorings into more secular and political waters, providing mythic legitimation for nationalists, Marx­ists, Whigs, Liberals, and others. Such legitimations allow new forays into violence on moral grounds. Here his account of the short­comings of liberal internationalists is excori­ating.

It is thus from his sociologically informed reading of history that Martin denounces all providential accounts of history embedded with Christian theology, and the theory of penal substitution, as morally un­­acceptable.


The Revd Duncan Dormor is the Dean of St John’s College, Cam­bridge.

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