Wednesday, February 28, 2007

In praise of... a brighter idea

"Buying a gas-guzzling 4x4 vehicle is an 'individual choice' but it creates carbon emissions that contribute to global warming and harm everyone. It should be no more socially acceptable than to claim the right to dump rubbish in the street."

-Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London

Mr Livingstone has recently unveiled plans to cut London's carbon emissions by 60% in 20 years. A slightly brighter idea.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X.

Jesus' Family Tomb?

New documentary
If you haven't already heard, a new documentary is being released called The Lost Tomb of Jesus (see trailer here* and extensive support website here) in which it is claimed that an ancient family tomb discovered outside Jerusalem in 1980 contains the ossuaries** of Jesus, his mother Mary, his brothers Joseph and Matthew, his wife Mary Magdalene and his son Judah. The documentary is produced by James Cameron (yes, the guy who did Titanic) with a significant budget and a huge splash of publicity. Of course, if true, these claims significantly undermine historic biblical Christianity. Not so much the idea that Jesus might have had a wife and child, but that he stayed dead long enough for his body to have decayed and his bones be put in a box. Paul says: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile." (1 Corinthians 15.17)
*For some reason they are using the defunct Google Video.
**An ossurary is a box used to store the bones of a corpse once it has decomposed. They were in common use in 1st century Palestine and thousands of them have been unearthed from this period. About 20% bear inscriptions of whose bones are inside.


Is this another Da Vinci Code? No, since there is no pretence of a fictional narrative in order to smuggle in dubious historical claims, with the resulting escape clause: 'it's only a novel!' The claims made are presented as straightforward attempts to tell the historical truth. Of course, I suspect that part of the reason this film has been made now is because of the huge success of DVC and the popularity of the idea that the historical Jesus (and the historical Mary Magdalene) might be very different from what has been traditionally thought.

The significance of the claims means that many people have a deep vested interest in wanting them to be true or false in order to support their pre-existing beliefs. For this reason alone, I'm sure the film will make Cameron and others a lot of money.

Speaking as one with such vested interests, the film nonetheless appears to have some significant problems. They are summarised very well in this post by well-known New Testament scholar Ben Witherington.
I resisted the temptation to title this post using a bad pun, such as "God in a box", "Empty Tomb Theory" or some reference to the Titanic sinking. Photo by HCS.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Greens on Scripture

After stirring the pot a little with this post a while ago, I thought I'd just point out that it seems that the NSW Greens are not quite so anti-Scripture in schools as they are sometimes made out to be by some right-leaning Christian politicians. Here is a quote from a recent press release:

"The Greens support the right of parents to send their children to scripture lessons and the strong system of values taught in NSW public schools."
For the full release, see here. I stumbled across this while doing some research for a State Election Forum that our church will be hosting with some local candidates on Friday 16th March. More details soon.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Will God Keep Gumtrees?

A poem by Andrew Errington

Will God keep gumtrees
When he makes the world again,
Count ironbarks and wattles
Worth enough to mend?
And will I feel the wide warm light,
And hear cicadas hum,
As lazy evenings fall upon
The new Jerusalem?

A childhood here has filled my head
With creek beds, paperbarks,
Red space, and milky stars,
their colours in my heart.
So, I dream smooth stones to skip,
Long grass, and cockies’ shrieking,
Will also line the river’s banks,
And be the nations’ healing.

Perhaps it cannot be.
Groans betray the earth’s hard curse:
Dry land turns to dust and night.
Is our hope brand new day,
When we shall wake to our new life,
New trees drunk on new rain,
And all that’s dying, old and parched,
Will come to memory?

Must I learn to bear this loss,
sad cost of our sad pride,
and watch the country drift away
on hope’s transforming tide?
Or may I, greeting that new world
Far past this old one’s end,
Feel a smile of recognition,
At reunion with a long-absent, much-changed friend?
Andrew has started his own blog, named after this poem, which was the initial post, though he has gone on to discuss discipline and the Lord's supper and to start a series (up to six posts so far) on the New Testament and the Word of God.
Twenty points for the first to correctly name this famous river. Hint: it has not always been flanked by gum trees. Photo by HCS.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Aquinas on Law and Gospel

There is a twofold element in the Law of the Gospel. There is the chief element, namely, the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed inwardly. And as to this, the New Law justifies. Hence Augustine says "There (that is, in the Old Testament) the Law was set forth in an outward fashion, that the ungodly might be afraid; here (in the New Testament) it is given in an inward manner, that they might be justified." The other element of the Evangelical Law is secondary; namely, the teachings of faith, and those commandments which direct human affections and human actions. And as to this, the New Law does not justify. Hence the Apostle says: "The letter killeth, but the spirit quickeneth" (2 Cor 3.6), and Augustine explains this by saying that the letter denotes any writing that is external to man, even that of the moral precepts such as are contained in the Gospel. Therefore the letter, even of the Gospel, would kill, unless there were the inward presence of the healing grace of faith.

- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II.106.2
Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: 1946)

Many associate Aquinas with natural law ethics, in which humanity is to do that which conforms to the law of nature and which can be known naturally. However, notice that here Aquinas 'assumes that an adequate theological ethics could not be limited to or based on an analogy with law.'*

I'd love to hear what people think of this quote. Do you agree? Is this what Paul is getting at in 2 Corinthians 3 when he speaks about the letter and the S/spirit?
*Stanley Hauerwas, "On Keeping Theological Ethics Theological" in The Hauerwas Reader, eds. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: 2001), 71. The earlier Kant quote was also cited in this essay. Please don't get the impression that my recent enforced convalesence is being hugely productive in terms of reading. This is the final essay we're reading for the reading group I mentioned a while ago. We'll try to decide this morning what to read next.

Kant on true religion

...because the common man especially has an enduring propensity within him to sink into passive belief, it must be inculcated painstakingly and repeatedly that true religion is to consist not in the knowing or considering of what God does or has done for our salvation, but in what we must do to become worthy of it.

-Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone,
trans. Theodore Greene and Hoyt Hudson (New York: 1960), 123.

One of the most brilliant and influential minds the human race has ever received and yet he managed to get some basic things so thoroughly upside-down.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Apology

Posting has been less regular recently, as I have been very tired and also had a brief stay in hospital. I have many posts planned and a few guest posts to write. I hope to get to them all in due time.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

In praise of... blog interviews

Since everyone seems to be doing it these days, I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon. I've kindly been asked to be interviewed by The Exiled Preacher (Guy Davies) and the result is over here.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

In praise of... a bright idea

It's not everyday you hear 'Australian government' and 'environmental responsibility' in a sentence, but bravo to the federal government for announcing that incandescent light bulbs will be phased out in Australia by 2010, to be replaced by energy-efficient bulbs that use 80% less power. Australia is first in the world to do this (California has talked about it). Of course, this is only a small step and I'm sure they'll milk it for all its worth in an increasingly environmentally-sensitive electorate, but nonetheless, a step in the right direction. May there be many more.

UPDATE: It seems I was wrong. Australia was not first. Castro beat us to it.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X.

Full yet? II: The problem

The problem: Population Growth and Resource Depletion
Since Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, warnings about overpopulation have been added to the list of dire catastrophes faced by humanity. Malthus' predictions (and those of many others) have proved wrong; indeed, the Industrial Revolution in Malthus' day and Green Revolution of the middle of last century have yielded a more or less unbroken increase in the amount of food per person in the world each year since the 19th century. Furthermore, birth rates in the developed world are generally below replacement levels and many parts of the two-thirds world are considered underpopulated by some experts. So why the fuss?

At one level, it is a matter of simple mathematics: our planet is finite and contains finite resources. It is not possible to sustain indefinite population growth (particularly when much of the world assumes we can and should also be sustaining indefinite economic growth). Human ingenuity can and has impressively expanded our resource base. Yet human greed, short-sightedness and ignorance has not only led to unnecessary suffering through inequitable resource distribution (the world produces enough food each year to feed everyone, yet 850 million people are malnourished or starving), but has depleted, polluted, consumed or destroyed significant portions of key non-renewable resources.

Here are a few of the problems associated with or exacerbated by human overpopulation:

• Inadequate fresh water for drinking water use as well as sewage treatment, industry and agriculture.
• Depletion of natural resources, especially fossil fuels, upon which so much of contemporary agriculture depends to sustain the huge food yields achieved since the Green Revolution.
• Increased levels of air pollution, water pollution and soil contamination pollution.
• Deforestation and loss of ecosystems that sustain global atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide balance; about eight million hectares of forest are lost each year.
• Changes in atmospheric composition and consequent global warming.
• Irreversible loss of arable land and increases in desertification: a quarter of the world's topsoil and a fifth of its agricultural land has been lost in the last fifty years.
• Mass species extinctions. from reduced habitat in tropical forests due to slash-and-burn techniques that sometimes are practiced by shifting cultivators, especially in countries with rapidly expanding rural populations; present extinction rates may be as high as 140,000 species lost per year.
• High infant and child mortality.
• Increased incidence of hemorrhagic fevers, HIV and other infectious diseases from crowding, disturbance of ecological systems and scarcity of available medical resources.
• Starvation, malnutrition or poor diet with ill health and diet-deficiency diseases (e.g. rickets).
• Poverty coupled with inflation in some regions and a resulting low level of capital formation.
• Low birth weight due to the inability of mothers to get enough resources to sustain a baby from fertilization to birth.
• Low life expectancy in countries with fastest growing populations.
• Unhygienic living conditions for many based upon water resource depletion, discharge of raw sewage and solid waste disposal.
• High rate of unemployment in urban areas (leading to social problems).
• Elevated crime rate due to people stealing resources to survive.
• Conflict over scarce resources and crowding, leading to increased levels of warfare.
List edited from Wikipedia article on Overpopulation. References can be chased up from there.
Five points each to link to previous posts with very similar pictures.
Series so far: Series so far: 0; I; II; III; IV.

Monday, February 19, 2007

In praise of... endings

All good things must come to to end.

It's a lie, of course. The Father's steadfast love endures forever; Jesus' blood never fails; the new age of the Spirit will never wear out.

But it is good that some things do come to an end, even where they were good. For me, I'm thankful that this morning was my final session of radiotherapy. After 33 days of treatment, it's great to have reached the end of this treatment cycle and get a chance to recover before having more scans in a month or two to see how it's all gone. For more details and some pictures, see here.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Worse than death? VI

Death be not proud.
This series has reflected on the secondary nature of death as an opponent of God and humanity. Death is part of the problem with the world and will not last into God's coming age. Through Christ's death, we are freed from slavery to the fear of death (Hebrews 2.14-15) and so can face the reality of our own mortality with confidence in the God who raises the dead. It is this eschatological confidence in God's future that is so famously and so well expressed by Donne:

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

- John Donne

Series: I, II, III, IV, V, VI.
Ten points for most creative theory on what prompted the stone age constructions that have featured in this series .

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hart on doctrine as winsome apologetics

I presume that a credible defense of Christian rhetoric can be undertaken only from within Christian doctrine: because the church makes its appeal to the world first by pursuing its own dogmatics, by narrating and renarrating itself with ever greater fullness, hoping all the while that the intrinsic delightfulness (and of course, truthfulness) of this practice will draw others into its circle of discourse.

-David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans: 2003), 30.

Today, I started reading this fascinating book (a lovely gift). It will be heavy going, but looks very stimulating. His basic question is "Is the beauty to whose persuasive power the Christian rhetoric of evangelism inevitably appeals, and upon which it depends, theologically defensible?" By taking 'beauty' as his theme, a whole way into theology (and evangelism, and philosophy) is opened up that is often overlooked, particularly by Protestants. One of his main points in the introduction is that beauty is not abstract, but is irreducibly associated with particular things in their contingency; the Christian gospel is not a set of timeless truths of universal reason, but is a historical story of such particularity that a modernist is embarrassed.

Anyway, I'd love to hear what people think of the first quote, which comes at the end of the introduction. Is there an intrinsic attractiveness to the good news as it is narrated? Do we believe the good news will strike hearers as good? Is this a repudiation of an apologetics of cultural translation (at least as a first strategy) in which we try to first connect with where people are at and answer the questions they are asking?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Kierkegaard on the origin of sin

The unexplainability of evil

Sin came into the world by a sin. Were this not so, sin would have come into the world as something accidental, which one would do well not to explain. The difficulty for the understanding is precisely the triumph of the explanation and its profound consequence, namely, that sin presupposes itself, that sin comes into the world in such a way that by the fact that it is, it is presupposed. Thus sin comes into the world as the sudden, i.e., by a leap; but this leap also posits the quality, and since the quality is posited, the leap in that very moment is turned into the quality and is presupposed by the quality and the quality by the leap. To the understanding, this is an offense; ergo it is a myth. As a compensation, the understanding invents its own myth, which denies the leap and explains the circle as a straight line, and now everything proceeds quite naturally. ...To want to give a logical explanation of the coming of sin into the world is a stupidity that can occur only to people who are comically worried about finding an explanation.

-Søren Kierkegaard (Vigilius Haufniensis),
The Concept of Anxiety, 32, 49-50.

I have posted on this idea a number of times before (see especially this whole series): we must not find an explanation for sin and evil. It is always a sad and shocking interruption, an alien intrusion into God's good world. Its existence is a puzzle, since it apparently pulls itself into being* by its own bootstraps. This is what Haufniensis seems to be getting at with his talk about the quality and the leap - it is a closed circle with no natural entrance: sin presupposes its own existence. To explain it, to find a natural line of development from non-sin to sin, is to change its character as sin, to make it logical, even necessary and useful and thus - good!**
*Or into non-being, if we take Augustine's view of sin as privation - as lack of being.
**Of course, the Bible affirms that God can bring good out of evil, but this is a secondary move and must not become a justification for evil.
Ten points for guessing what kind of structure this picture is of.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Immanuel

If Jesus is more than an inspired human teacher, more than a rough approximation of God, if in Jesus we see the very heart of God, then this is wonderful news. We are no longer left guessing what God might be like. We are freed from projecting our own fears and wishes onto an unknown God. We can actually know what God is like.

And what is he like? John 1.14 gives the answer: full of grace and truth. And verse 16: From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. This is what God, our Father in heaven, is like. He is not cold and distant. He is like Jesus. If you want to know the heart of God, keep reading the Gospels and seeing the heart of Jesus. He is the kind of God who welcomes little children, the kind of God who hates religious hypocrisy, the kind of God who throws parties for the outsider, who opens the eyes of the blind, who feeds the hungry, heals the sick and raises the dead, who brings good news for the poor. In Jesus, we discover that God’s yoke is easy and his burden is light; he is gentle and humble in heart. He is the kind of God who, like Jesus, is easily misunderstood, but not easily ignored. He is a God who knows our suffering and temptations from the inside, who can sympathise with our weaknesses. He washes smelly feet and weeps over death. He is a God who would rather die than live without you. He is the kind of God who won’t let death stand in the way of his plans.

And all that is good news. Because left to ourselves, we generally assume that being divine is the opposite of being human. But we need to let God show us what God is like and stop imposing our ideas on him. We think God couldn’t become human because that wouldn’t threaten his holiness and perfection. The good news is that in Jesus, that is simply not true. God’s perfection is seen in his coming to live in our messiness; his holiness consists of making us clean.

And so in Jesus, Immanuel, we know that God is with us. Not just any god, not the god of our nightmares, yet neither the god of our fantasies. Instead, the God and Father of Jesus is with us. What wonderful news!
A couple of paragraphs from my sermon today.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Kierkegaard on hermeneutical thrombosis

How many no longer want to read this post because of the offputting title? Would it make a difference if I had said 'Kierkegaard on how not to read the Bible'? Thrombosis is where circulation of the blood is slowed or stopped by a local hardening/coagulation of the blood flow.
How not to read the Bible

...the Bible has often had a harmful effect. In beginning a deliberation, a person has certain classical passages fixed in his mind, and now his explanation and knowledge consist in an arrangement of these passages, as if the whole matter were something foreign. The more natural the better, [however, particularly] if he is willing with all deference to refer the explanation to the verdict of the Bible, and, if it is not in accord with the Bible, to try over again. Thus a person does not bring himself into the awkward position of having to understand the explanation before he has understood what it should explain, nor into the subtle position of using Scripture passages as the Persian king in the war against the Egyptians used their sacred animals, that is, in order to shield himself.

-Søren Kierkegaard (or rather, his pseudonym: Vigilius Haufniensis), The Concept of Anxiety: A simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin, 40.

This is a great image: in the siege of Pelusium, Cambyses, the Persian king, placed animals sacred to the Egyptians in the front of his army. Sometimes, we take key biblical passages hostage as sacred animals in order to thwart attacks on a cherished theological position. Haufniensis wants instead a more 'natural' reading, where we submit even our long-established beliefs to 'the verdict of the Bible' time and time again. This means looking at problem passages and letting them loosen our grip on those we feel we know and love. This seems to be the complement to the usual hermeneutical principle of reading difficult passages in light of easy ones: re-reading familiar passages in light of difficult ones.
Ten points for the name of this famous ancient copy of the Bible. And ten for being able to pick the passage.
I've joined a new reading group attempting to tackle Kierkegaard/Haufniensis' Concept of Anxiety. We've set up a blog for the group to discuss the text here.
In other news, Barth CD II/2 arrived today.

Full yet? I: series outline

A tentative new series
My recent question about whether we might have fulfilled the divine command/mandate/blessing/invitation to our original parents to 'fill the earth' generated such an interesting discussion that I found I had too many things to say just in comments, or in a single post of 300-400 words. The quality and quantity of comments means I've decided to start a whole new series on the topic (largely brainstormed early this morning when I couldn't sleep after my big dose of steroids at chemotherapy yesterday).

For the first time, I've planned a series in advance. Things may change, but here is the current outline:

0. The question
I. Series outline (this post)
II. The problem: Population growth and resource depletion
III. Christ: the fullness of God
IV. Be filled with the Spirit
V. God will be all in all
VI. Church: the body of him who fills all in all
      VI.i. The Church and childlessness
      VI.ii. The Church and singleness
      VI.iii. The Church and the family
      VI.iv. The Church and freedom
VII. Population and women's education: some uninformed opinions
VIII. Population growth and the New Jerusalem
IX. Conclusion
Here is some interesting discussion on Sydney Anglicans on a similar theme. H/T Anonymous (I assume Dave Lankshear?).
Series so far: 0; I; II; III; IV.
Ten points for the first to guess the photo theme for this series (you might need to wait for future pics). Five for the location of the camera. Five more for putting a link back to a very similar vista taken over nine months ago (this one was taken last night).

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Second last chemo

Yesterday, I had my second last chemotherapy (if you didn't realise I had cancer, see here for the story). Things seem to be going quite well although definitive scans won't happen for about another six weeks in order to give radiotherapy more time to work. My main side-effect continues to be tiredness. I have posted a few more updates (and pictures) over here, and hope to continue answering FAQs, although this has been slow.

In other news, Lindbeck arrived yesterday - a heartwarming gift upon my return from hospital!
Photo by JKS.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Pannenberg on Christology

   Jesus possesses significance “for us” only to the extent that this significance is inherent in himself, in his history, in his person constituted by this history. Only when this can be shown may we be sure that we are not merely attaching our questions, wishes, and thoughts to this figure.
   Therefore, Christology, the question about Jesus himself, … must remain prior to all questions about his significance, to all soteriology. Soteriology must follow from Christology, not vice versa. Otherwise, faith in salvation itself loses any real foundation.

- Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man (London: SCM, 1968 [1964]), 48.

I'm preparing a sermon this Sunday on the two natures of Christ as part of a short theological series on the creed (mainly Apostles, though with reference to Nicene as well). I'd love to hear any questions or comments or quotes or insights people have (particularly since I'm feeling especially tired this week). What do you think are the important things to say? My passages are John 1.1-18 and Hebrews 1.1-4, 2.5-18.

Pop-ups

In the fascinating discussion generated by my previous post, Michael mentioned in passing that he gets pop-up advertisements when he comes to this blog. Some others said they also experienced this, while yet others said they didn't. I am very sorry if you experience these, as they are annoying (like spam). Please be assured that I have not invited such consumerism and am trying to work out how to get rid of them. Anyone know how to do this?

Some web browsers have a function that blocks pop-ups. You might like to turn yours on if you have it and if they are a problem for you.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Full yet?

Adam and Eve (and later Noah) are commanded to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" (Genesis 1.28; 9.1).

At what point can we say that, at least in terms of population, this commandment has been fulfilled? When is the earth full of us? I realise that we must never fail to consider children to be a precious gift, however, we live on a finite planet and cannot believe in the myth of infinite growth (including infinite population growth) so beloved of free market capitalism. So many of our environmental problems can be linked fairly directly (though not exclusively) to population growth. I know others may have cried 'wolf' too early in centuries past, but is there a limit? How are we to think about this?

UPDATE: In response to the huge and fasctination response to this question in comments, I am starting a new series on this topic. See here for the summary and links.