From Monk to Modernity: The Challenge of Modern Thinking by Dominic Kirkham

Review by Beverley Smith

In 1993, Clive James wrote “if President Clinton is a better speechmaker than President Bush it is because he steals better stuff”. Clinton not only had a better personal library than Bush, but he knew how to research.
Dominic Kirkham’s book From Monk to Modernity: The Challenge of Modern Thinking is a gift to clergy, ordained and lay, of the Progressive kind looking for a topic for their Sunday services.
Dominic Kirkham is a member of the UK Sea of Faith and has been a regular contributor of worthy articles. After spending many years in a religious order, he describes how he was driven to meet the challenge of modern thinking, an exercise which has proved both freeing and frightening. In a broad sweep from Neolithic times to the twenty-first century, he considers our human quest for meaning and a good life, and how we can engage in it today.
Dominic’s hope that people who read his book will respond in the sort of dialogue envisaged by John XXIII over fifty years ago. He writes “one of the things of which I am most aware in looking back over my life is that virtually everything I have been taught or believed of any importance I have now found to be wrong. As an example I quoted how the discovery of the ancient megalith ‘temples’ at Gobekli Tepe had totally changed our understanding of the origins of civilisation’" (C. Mann, The Birth of Religion: The World’s First Temple’ (National Geographic, vol. 219, no 6 June 2011.). He describes how we fabricated a creation myth and why it is no longer credible. Words are powerful, especially the opening passages from the Bible, leading us to believe that there must be a creator of everything.
For me, the chapter ‘Changing Time’ — how clocks changed our lives and created a secular world, is the créme de la créme of his research. I am looking forward to sharing this aspect as part of the next service I take for St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Gisborne.
I quote ‘One of my favourite pieces of spiritual reading has long been the opening passage of Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s treatise, Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, also known as The Sacrament of the Present Moment. This classic text of eighteenth century Quietism urges not only an acceptance of what life throws at us seen then from the perspective of a divinely preordained purpose — but also of our ‘duty’ to grasp the opportunities presented in the present moment. In passing he refers to, “the hand of a clock which marks each moment of the hour” as the model for fixing our attention on the possibilities of “each successive moment”.
In England, the first clocks were beginning to appear in the fourteenth century. By 1350 Richard of Wallingford was constructing a complex astronomical clock at the monastery of St. Albans and a clock tower was installed in Norwich cathedral. Soon this useful spiritual accessory was moving beyond the confines of the cloister to the market place.
Our understanding of space and time has now been transformed, and with it our understanding of ourselves.
“Life’s mystery and how modern thought is challenging our understanding of life” is Dominic Kirkham’s closing wisdom, this book is certainly a gift for his readers. Like President Clinton we have the opportunity to steal ‘better stuff’.



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