Explainer
Creed
6 min read

Parliament’s floor tiles that empowered a queen

From Palace of Westminster floor tiles fit for a Queen to feminist theology, Belle Tindall takes a thought journey.
A grand highly dercorated hall in the neo-gothic style, with encaustic tiles in the foreground.
The Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament.
Houses of Parliament 360° virtual tour.

Engraved into the floor tiles of Westminster’s Royal Gallery are the words Cor Reginae in Manu Domini, which is the Latin script from the biblical book of Proverbs. However, there is one salient difference, one which has caught both my attention and imagination. In English, the original Proverb reads, 

‘in the Lord’s hand is the king’s heart’ 

But what is written on the floor of the Royal Gallery is, 

‘the Queen’s heart is in the hand of the Lord’  

Right there, on the floor of the Palace of Westminster, is a little piece of feminist theology. 

In a parliament that was the apogee of Victorian values and sentiment, the political and cultural epicentre of an Age that was (ironically) remembered in reference to a woman but was nevertheless pontificated on laws that treated women as chattels, these tiles were theological dynamite (as opposed to literal dynamite – that was a few centuries earlier).  

Female empowerment was present below the feet, if not within the hearts and minds, of the men who oversaw an era of undeniable and near-absolute patriarchy.   

Feminism: A little context 

Feminism is not an easy concept to define. It isn’t black and white, however much we wish that it were. In truth, it more accurately resembles the entirety of the grey scale. It cannot claim to be singular any more than the female experience is singular. In reality, it is brimming with nuance, complexity, and subjectivity. What’s more, I would confidently wage a bet that you have arrived at this article with an already in-tact pre-conception of the term. None of us approach feminism neutrally, be weary of anyone who claims to do so – it is simply impossible. Therefore, we are not only faced with the endless external nuances of feminism, but we’re also tasked with sifting through our differing internal understandings. Like I say, it’s about as definable as the shade of grey.  

Nevertheless, for the sake of being on the same page, allow me a moment to try. A moment to (briefly) unpack what I mean by the term feminism. For that, I will borrow the words of award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who influentially declared that feminism is the belief in ‘the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.’  

That’s it.  

To me, feminism is nothing more, and certainly nothing less than that. Of course, as a self-proclaimed feminist, it’s necessary for me to plunge the dark depths of the subjective nature of such a belief. But it is more important to ensure that I continually come back up to the surface for a deep breath of air, and I consider Chimamanda’s over-arching definition to be that air.  

With Chimamanda’s words filling our lungs, let us dive beneath the surface for a moment.  

Feminism has, and still does, get worked out in the most tangible of ways: through marches on the streets, protests outside government buildings, petitions, boycotts, legal battles and demands. All of which is advocating for the empowerment of women, the restoring of an equilibrium, and the ensuring of that all-important equality of the sexes. 

As well as the macro-examples that adorn the history books and media outlets, we must also acknowledge the micro-battles; the thousands upon thousands of non-news-worthy conversations, changes, and decisions that nudge the individuals and communities involved toward the very same goal of equality. After all, feminism is as personal as it is political. And all of these actions, past and present, whether they be macro or micro in scale, are (often imperfectly) working toward the practical, tangible, measurable flourishing of women and therefore society.  

And so, with all of that practical work going on – with the many battles won and the many more that are raging on - why on earth would we need something as abstract, as contemplative, as time-swallowingly-indulgent as feminist theology?  

I’m glad you asked.  

Feminist theology as an imaginative endeavour  

By way of an answer, I’d like to return to those words on the floor of the Palace of Westminster. Victoria was the Queen. She wore the crown, she sat on the throne, she lived in the palace, she presided over the government, she ruled over the country. All the evidence was there; it would have taken a rather large dose of delusion for anyone to have questioned it. And yet, according to the existence of those floor tiles, the tangible evidence wasn’t quite enough.  

Queen Victoria’s right to be such was ultimately held by the divine. So much so, that the intangible was made tangible, literally carved into the ground that she (and others) would walk upon. And therein lies the need for feminist theology.  

Whether one considers themselves to be Christian or not – or even religious, for that matter – we all have ‘imaginative landscapes’. Not ‘imaginative’ as in fantasy, but rather, ‘imaginative’ as in our landscapes of thought. These are the interior places where we attach meaning to our experiences, and therefore judge the significance of every waking moment. As Francis Spufford so eloquently puts it,

'we are meaning-making creatures. We cannot stop making enchantments.'

This is also the realm in which we wonder about the existence of God, the mysteries of our universe, and the significance of ourselves.  

And so, it’s in those places, as well as the practical, that work is being done toward the equality of the sexes. It’s in those places that we must grapple with the inherent value of women. Because, in many ways, those are the truest places. Those are the places where reality is crafted, ordered, and understood. It is in those places where truth is sought, viewpoints are galvanised, and actions are decided upon. Feminist Theologian, Serene Jones, writes it this way, 

‘Closely tied to the view of practical transformation is feminist theology's contention that changing society requires both changing laws and practices and challenging the categories and processes we use to think about life and to make sense of our world.’ 

In short, feminism has work to do in both the seen and the unseen. Feminist theology, therefore, is an imaginative endeavour. Which makes it a profoundly important one.  

It is the work of digging into biblical texts with an un-denied bias, a particular mission, a sole question that needs answering. We do so in order to uncover what the maker thinks of the made (the maker being God, the made being women), and from there do all other feminist inclinations flow. We find evidence of the empowerment of women in the divine agenda, so it naturally gets included in ours. We spot profound equality of the sexes present in the original blueprint of a flourishing earth, and so we work in partnership with it. We find validation of female worth, value and power in the pages of the Bible, and then work about writing it into the pages of the history books. And on it goes. We get things straight in our imaginative landscapes, and then we get them straight everywhere else.  

Did the fact that Queen Vicotria walked upon those affirming floor tiles eradicate any possibility of sexism or misogyny? I doubt it. But I like to think that it was a profound start-line, a radical piece of feminist theology that we are still running to catch up with. 

You may be thinking that this is interesting, albeit utterly irrelevant. Because we now live in a secular society, one where we don’t need any kind of God to legitimate the way we perceive anything – least of all ourselves. This is not the good old Victorian era, after all.  

And to such arguments, I may be tempted to direct you toward the work of Nick Spencer or Tom Holland and suggest that we’re not quite as secular in our values as we first appear. Or perhaps I could point you to the discography of Nick Cave, Lauryn Hill, Paul Simon or Stormzy and question whether our craving for something truer than what we can see is a craving we’ve truly progressed beyond? Or even bring to your attention the fact that the Barbie Movie is the highest grossing film of the year (you didn’t really expect me to not mention that film in an article about feminism, did you?), and argue that we’re obsessed with wondering what we’re for, what makes us who we are, what generates our value. It is an itch we cannot stop scratching.  

I could point to all those things. But oddly, I don’t feel the need to. Because I think you know, as do I, that our imaginative landscape is there, and it matters. We know it, we engage it, we feel it. 

And that’s why feminist theology matters. At least, to me.  

Gosh. All those thoughts from a few floor tiles. Maybe I need to get out more.  

 

 

All insights into the Palace of Westminster are curtesy of Richard Hall; architectural historian and author of The Palace of Westminster: Faith, Art, and Architecture: an illustrated guidebook that uncovers the Christian legacy that underpins the visual culture of the Palace of Westminster.  

 

Explainer
Belief
Creed
7 min read

The difference between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali 

How we decide what is true rests on where we start from.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A man and woman speaker on a stage greet and embrace each other.
Friends reunited.
UnHerd.

If you want a deep dive into some of the big questions of our time, and a fascinating clash of minds, just listen to the recent conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  

In case you haven’t heard the story, as a young Somali-Dutch woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was drawn into Islamist militancy, then moved out of those circles to become a poster-child of the New Atheist movement, often mentioned in the same breath as the famous ‘four horsemen’ of the movement – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. When she announced she had become a Christian (or, as she described herself, a ‘lapsed atheist’) in November 2023, it sent shock waves through atheist ranks. A public meeting with her old friend Richard Dawkins was therefore eagerly anticipated. 

As the conversation began, Ali described a period in the recent past when she experienced severe and prolonged depression, which led her even to the point of contemplating suicide. No amount of scientific-based reasoning or psychological treatment was able to help, until she went to see a therapist who diagnosed her problem as not so much mental or physical but spiritual - it was what she called a ‘spiritual bankruptcy’. She recommended that Hirsi Ali might as well try prayer. And so began her conversion. 

Of course, Dawkins was incredulous. He started out assuming that she had only had a conversion to a ‘political Christianity’, seeing the usefulness of her new faith as a bulwark against Islam, or as a comforting myth in tough times, because, surely, an intelligent person like her could not possibly believe all the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that vicars preach from the pulpit. 

He was then somewhat taken aback by Ali’s confession that she did choose to believe the reality of the incarnation, that Jesus was the divine Son of God born of a virgin and that for a God who created the world, resurrecting his Son Jesus was no big deal. With a rueful shake of the head, Dawkins had to admit she was, to his great disappointment, a proper Christian.  

Yet he was insistent he didn’t believe a word of it. The nub of the issue for Dawkins seemed to be his objection to the idea of ‘sin’. For him, all this is “obvious nonsense, theological bullshit… the idea that humanity is born in sin, and has to be cured of sin by Jesus being crucified… is a morally very unpleasant idea.”  

Of course it’s unpleasant. Crucifixions generally were. It’s where we get our word excruciating from. And from the perspective of someone who has no sense whatsoever that they need saving, it is distasteful, embarrassing, not the kind of thing that you bring up in Oxford Senior Common Rooms, precisely because it is just that – unpleasant. I too find the notion that I am sinful, stubborn, deeply flawed, in desperate need of forgiveness and change unpleasant. I would much rather think I am fine as I am. Yet there are many things that are unpleasant but necessary - like surgery. Or changing dirty nappies. Or having to admit you are addicted to something. 

And that is ultimately the difference between Dawkins and Ali. They are both as clever as each other; they have both read the same books; they both live similar lives; they know the same people. Yet Ayaan has been to a place where she knew she needed help, a help that no human being can provide, whereas Richard, it seems, has not.  

It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature. 

Dawkins responded to Ali’s story by insisting that the vital question was whether Christianity was true, not whether it was consoling, pointing out that just because something is comforting does not mean it is true. True enough, but then it doesn’t mean it is not true either. The problem is, however, how we decide whether it is true. Dawkins seems to continue to think that science - test tubes, experiments and the rest - can tell one way or the other. Yet as the great Blaise Pascal put it: 

If there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, being invisible and without limits he bears no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is. 

Science can’t really help us here. It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature.  

Whether Christianity makes sense or not cannot be determined by asking whether it is scientifically plausible or logically coherent – because that all depends on which scientific or logical scheme you are using to analyse it. It is all to do with the place from which you look at it, your ‘epistemic perspective’ to give it a fancy name. From the perspective of the strong, the super-confident, the sure-of-themselves, Christianity has never made much sense. When St Paul tried to explain it to the sophisticated first century pagans of Corinth – he concluded the same - it was ‘foolishness to the Greeks’.  

Christianity makes no sense to someone who has not the slightest sense of their own need for something beyond themselves, someone who has not yet reached the end of their own resources, someone who has never experienced that frustrating tug in the other direction, that barrier which stands in the way when trying and failing to be a better version of themselves – that thing Christians call ‘sin’.  

Why would you need a saviour if you don’t need saving? Would you even be able to recognise one when they came along? No amount of brilliant argument can convince the self-satisfied that a message centred on a man who is supposed to be God at the same, time, much less that same man hanging on a cross, is the most important news in the world. It is why Christianity continues to flourish in poorer than more affluent parts of the world, or at least in places where human need is closer to the surface. 

She found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn described what he called ‘paradigm shifts’. They happen when a big scientific theory of the way things are gets stretched to breaking point, and people increasingly feel it no longer functions adequately as an explanation of the evidence at hand. It creaks at the seams, until an entirely new paradigm comes along that better explains the phenomena you are studying. The classic example was the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, which was not a small shift within an existing paradigm, but a wholesale change to a completely new way of looking at the world.  

That is what Christians call conversion. This is what seems to have happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What marks her out from Dawkins is not that she has found a crutch to lean on, whereas he is mentally stronger, so doesn’t need one. It is that she found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her – it no longer could offer the kind of framework of mind and heart that could support her in moments of despair as well as in joy. It no longer made sense of her experience of life. It could no longer offer the kind of framework that can resist some of the great cultural challenges of the day. This was not the addition of a belief in God to an existing rationalist mindset. It was adopting a whole new starting point for looking at the world. When she first announced her conversion she wrote: “I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?” This is a classic paradigm shift.  

Of course, Dawkins can’t see this. He is still in the old paradigm, one that still makes perfect sense to him. It’s just that he thinks it must make sense to everyone. It is surely the one that all right-thinking people should take.  

As the conversation continued, Ayaan Hirsi Ali often seemed like someone trying to describe the smell of coffee to someone without a sense of smell. Dawkins in turn was like a colourblind person deriding someone for trying to describe the difference between turquoise and pink, because of course, anyone with any sense knows there is no real difference between them.  

No amount of proof or evidence will ever convince either that the other is wrong. They are using different methods to discover the truth, one more analytical and scientific, the other more personal and instinctive. The question is: which one gets you to the heart of things? It’s decision every one of us has to make.