Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The root of freedom: experience and repentance in politics

...the freedom at the root of all freedoms [is] the freedom to repent."

- Oliver O'Donovan, The Desire of the Nations (CUP, 1996), 14.

A new article in Southern Cross by Jeremy Halcrow reflects upon the US Presidential Election and the apparent preference of voters for political newcomers (Obama, Palin, also Premier Rees in NSW politics), who arrive untainted by any experience in power. Experience is here seen as a negative, rather than as the possibility of having learned from previous mistakes.

Does this preference for the newcomer amount to an expression of mistrust in politicians' ability to learn? Or simply in their willingness to repent? The media and political opposition usually paint any repentance in negative terms as a 'flip-flop' (or in Oz, as a 'backflip'). Our leaders, like the rest of us, must be allowed to change their mind when they become convinced through good reasons (not simply through populist pressure) that the common good lies elsewhere. Consistency in unpopular policies can be a virtue when there is no good reason to change (just a popular mood). Conversely, fear of being branded "indecisive" ought not prevent policy change in light of superior evidence or arguments.

I have reflected previously on the "politics of change", in which the present must be painted in terms of crisis in order to justify (any) change. It is this devaluing of the concept of crisis (crying "wolf!") for political gain that leaves us more exposed to the arrival of a real lupous predator.

Palin on Foreign Policy

Given America's present position of influence in the world, I sometimes wonder whether US foreign policy* has a more significant cumulative effect on humanity than all their domestic policies put together. This is why much the rest of the world follows American politics and the current presidential race gets almost as much coverage as a local election in some places. It is also why hearing Sarah Palin speak on the matter leaves me cold.
*And environmental policy, at least the aspects that respect no national boundaries.
More of the interview can be found here and here ("America [is] a beacon of light in the world").

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Word became flesh: looking again at Jesus IV

A sermon from John 1.1-14: Part IV
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. From the start, before anything else, God is vocal. He is expressive. He relates to one other than himself, and yet one who is so intimately tied to him as we are to words we breathe out. Sometimes we can say that we are our words; when my words threaten, or promise, or apologise, I threaten, promise, apologise. This Word is God himself in action. Yet this action is happening even before there is anything made to act upon. God in himself is dynamic, is expressive, is communicative. He is relational from the start.

Now already, one verse in, we face a threat to our comfortable ideas of God. We like to think of God as beyond words, as indescribable, as so great and mysterious and other and beyond, that he is safely unknowable. But in the beginning God put himself into words, he articulates himself. He is not silent. He is not beyond speech. He is dangerously discussable.

Yet this is also generosity. We come to know someone else primarily through their words. Tim will look at this in more depth next week, but from the start, even right back in the beginning, God gives himself in his Logos, his Word. He opens himself up for relationship, for a conversation. In the beginning was the Word. We are being invited into a conversation we did not begin. We are being invited, individually, communally and as the human race, into a conversation we did not begin - a conversation with the one who made us, who made all things, who made us and all things by speaking, and now invites us to converse with him.

And here is another shock to our idea of God. God is on the front foot; he takes the initiative; he takes the first step towards us. He starts the conversation, before we were even around, in the beginning was the Word. We might sometimes think of him like the teacher in a busy classroom, whose attention can only be gained by our being either exceptionally good, or exceptionally bad. We might think of him as the distant father, working into the night in his study. If we want to talk with him, we need to gather up our courage, marshall our excuses, thicken up our skin, creep to the door and knock, hoping our interruption will not be too much of an annoyance. But no, he’s not the overstretched teacher in a chaotic classroom or the distant father locked working in the study. He starts the conversation. In the beginning was the Word – before we’ve had a chance to make up our minds, to do anything good or bad to get his attention, before we can draw breath, in the beginning was the Word. This is a gift, a free gift we couldn’t earn and which we have no right to ignore as though God were merely a unwanted phone call to offer us a new mobile deal, or a piece of spam email promising to unbelievably enlarge our wallets or body parts. What a gift: God speaks to us. Are we listening?
Fifteen points for guessing the Sydney location.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Augustine on xenophobia

...the diversity of tongues now divides man from man. For if two men, each ignorant of the other's language, meet, and are compelled by some necessity not to pass on but to remain with one another, it is easier for dumb animals, even of different kinds, to associate together than these men, even though both are human beings. For when men cannot communicate their thoughts to each other, they are completely unable to associate with one another despite the similarity of their natures; and this is imply because of the diversity of tongues. So true is this that a man would more readily hold a conversation with his dog than with another man who is a foreigner.

- Augustine, City of God, XIX.7.

It is passages like this that make reading Augustine such a joy. I am amazed at how many of the postgraduate students in Edinburgh are working in English as a second (or third or fourth or fifth) language. I guess they forgot to bring their dogs with them.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Studying ethics

What do you think of when you hear the word "ethics"? What are the connotations?

As a postgraduate student who is currently meeting a lot of other postgraduate students, after "where are you from?" (which usually means they spoke before I did. If I speak first, then the first question is "are you from Australia?" (or "are you from Australasia?" for the more cautious ones)), the next question is almost always "what are you studying/researching?"

I have experimented with a variety of answers to this question: Divinity, Theology, Theological Ethics, Christian Ethics, Political Theology, Social Ethics, Moral Theology and more. But the only answer that seems to generate further discussion (and nearly always does so) is when I simply say "Ethics". Perhaps the others are too intimidating or simply incomprehensible, but ethics is something that people have an opinion about. And that opinion is frequently: "Why bother?" The study of ethics is seen as superfluous, with little claim to focused attention as a serious intellectual discipline.

Even putting aside a militant scientism that assumes only the natural sciences are genuine forms of knowledge, there seem to be two assumptions that lie behind this common response. The first is that ethics is simply personal: "Isn't it all just a matter of opinion?" In this case the questioner has swallowed the liberal paradigm in which "values" are a matter of personal preference and as such rational discussion or evaluation of one choice as better or worse than another is either trivial (on a par with criticising a preference for chocolate ice-cream) or even mildly offensive (like disparaging someone's fashion sense). As a long-term student (and occasional teacher) of literature, philosophy and theology, this objection and at least a few strategies to answer it are quite familiar: "It's not just opinion, but whether one's opinions are justified."

However, the second assumption has been a little more surprising (though perhaps it ought not to be). A few interlocutors have been audacious enough to claim or imply (and all this within seconds of meeting me) that ethics is peripheral to life: "I put in my ethics reports for my research, and then I have fulfilled my ethical requirements." Ethics is seen as simply a baseline minimum standard of behaviour, which, once satisfied, can be ignored so that life may proceed. I think this too is a result of liberalism. In a liberal society we conceive of ethical responsibilities through the language of rights. These rights are owned by each individual and some/all of them may be traded, exercised or waived by myself and threatened, broken or defended by others. However, such rights only relate to certain areas of life, leaving the rest of existence as an arena of "freedom" (or, to say what amounts to the same thing in other words: of the market).

In this view, most of our decisions have little or nothing to do with ethics, as long as we're not actively hurting someone else. Most of life is amoral. This also means that most of life is off-limits for rational deliberation. We can't decide which is a better or worse option because each option is simply a matter of personal preference (notice the link here with the first response). For whom are you going to vote? Well that's a private matter. Notice how only some political issues are called "moral issues", and they are ones in which someone's rights are at stake. I have discussed the limited range of this kind of rights-language at more length back here.

But this approach leaves ethics on the margins of our daily lives, only relevant in an emergency, like the fire extinguisher on the wall. Someone has to make sure it still works from time to time, and so ethicists are given a grudging acceptance for this basic maintenance. Or perhaps there is also a peripheral role to play in adjudicating line-ball cases, or areas of life that are particularly complex. The proliferation of ethics committees at hospitals is a symptom of this.

However, by reducing the ethical to observing the rights of others, morality is pushed to the margins, and life is lived in an ethical desert, with only an occasional cactus breaking the surface of a vast and featureless "freedom". In frustration, some attempt to plant more cacti, multiplying rights until they are trivialised into the right to do what I want any old time. By speaking only in a single tone of voice, an unconditional demand that my rights be respected, the rights-discourse is unable to resolve claims between competing rights: my right to bear arms vs your right not to be shot; your right to be born vs my right to avoid the complications a baby brings.

One serious challenge to the liberal consensus comes from natural law ethics, most pressingly represented in recent discussion by various streams of environmental ethics. There are simply ways of living that are against nature, and when you live contrary to nature long enough, nature fights back. This approach has the great advantage of irrigating the desert, bringing the life-giving waters of moral responsibility into every area of life so that all kinds of growth flourish until there is a veritable jungle of obligations. Soon we find that everywhere we step is squashing something.

Without denigrating the place of (a certain qualified form of) natural law ethics, my response in these conversations over the last few weeks has been to reach instead for virtue theory: ethics isn't just "do no harm", "violate no rights", but instead keeps asking questions like "who am I becoming?" In the jungle of life, where am I going and how I am getting there?

The Word became flesh: looking again at Jesus III

A sermon from John 1.1-14: Part III
1. WORD – a conversation we did not begin
John begins with the famous passage read for us earlier. In the beginning, John takes us back, all the way back. For any reader of the Bible, you can not help but hear the echoes of Genesis: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But our first surprise comes when we read not In the beginning God, but In the beginning was the Word. The Word, the "logos" - in Greek philosophy, the basic organising principle of rationality that holds back chaos and brings order. In the Old Testament, the personal message of the Israel’s God, usually expressed through the prophets: Hear the word of the LORD. In Genesis 1, God creates by speaking: Let there be light. And it was so. And for all these reasons, perhaps we’re not surprised to hear verse 3: Through the Word/Logos all things were made; without the Logos nothing was made that has been made. Indeed, so closely associated with God’s creative and originating power is this Logos that it was there in the beginning with God. And yet, the Word was God. The Word is both something else, another with God right from the start, and yet also identified as God.

Perhaps John has already lost you. Right from this opening verse, we’ve been warned that his simple statements will be confusingly and even explosively complex once we start to put them together. But why would we expect God to be easily understood?

Here already we have something profound, if we will give John the time and respect to ponder it. Unless we are ready to receive, we will stare frustrated at the dots on the page.
Eight points for guessing the country.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X.


"It's extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can't find $25 billion dollars to saved 25,000 children who die every day from preventable diseases."

- Bono

The full story is, of course, more complex. But sometimes such blunt juxtaposotion throws new light on our assumptions and priorities.

UPDATE: Here's three.
UPDATE #2: And the other side of the equation is no longer looking like a given either.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

In search of a guiding virtue

This is an interesting piece comparing the primary virtues of McCain and Obama (honour and empathy), analysing their limits and pondering their implications for foreign policy. H/T Sam.*

This piece illustrates an interesting feature of ethics: the interdependence of the virtues. Is it possible for one virtue to interpret all the others? The article argues that honour and empathy are both insufficient as guiding principles in a complex world and each could lead to bad decisions as president. What then is a sufficient principle? Is there a better virtue than honour, a greater one than empathy?

"Love binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Colossians 3.14). Here is a candidate for the position of guiding principle. Yet might it not also face a similar critique to those levelled against honour and empathy? Might love be but a partial grasping of the picture that obscures as it reveals?

It all depends how we understand the "binding" to which the verse refers. Importantly, the context is one rich with all kinds of ethical language - honesty, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance and forgiveness all appearing in quick succession. Apparently this is not the kind of binding that destroys all distinction, such that no more needs to be said than the imperative "love!". There is still a place for reflection upon the relation of honesty to kindness, or of compassion to forbearance. Yet it is love that prevents these discussions from becoming wars of attrition in which the champions of truth seek to dominate the defenders of mercy or vice versa. The primacy of love does not consist of demanding that we prefer being loving to being truthful or being meek. It consists in the faith that these demands are not ultimately in conflict. "Ultimately", since the unification of the moral life in love is not simply revelation of what is, but a promise of what is to come.
*NB Sam has also posted a link to a good little piece introducing virtue ethics for those unfamiliar with the phrase.
Twelve points for picking the location of this Sydney shot.

The Word became flesh: looking again at Jesus II

A sermon from John 1.1-14: Part II
Introduction: What do you see?

Image from here
Do you remember those 3D Magic Eye pictures that were all the rage a few years ago? If you held the book at the right angle and squinted your eyes and looked into the middle distance and thought about nothing and stood on one foot, then you still couldn’t see the image? Or maybe you were one of those frustrating people who could always see it without trying. Or maybe you pretended you were, because you didn’t want to look stupid when everyone else could see it.

Maybe Christianity feels a bit like that to you. Everyone seems to get it, or pretends they do. They speak as if God were real, they act as if it’s normal to think some guy came back from the dead, they tell you they feel God’s love, forgiveness or presence. But you just don’t get it and you’re faced with the choice. Do you admit your blindness and call it all a hoax, or do you go along with the crowd, saying the right words, doing the right things, in order to fit in? Is this a familiar feeling?

Of course, there’s a third option. To keep looking. To look again.

This series on John’s gospel over the next few weeks is an invitation to look again at Jesus. Perhaps it’s never ‘clicked’ for you, the stories of Jesus seem so many coloured dots on a page. Or maybe church seems too familiar, these services feel dull and lifeless, the readings say what you expect and you’ve stopped really looking. Jesus is like a piece of furniture you no longer even notice. Your spiritual life feels like you’re simply going through the motions. Look again. Whether you’re puzzled by him or have simply grown too used to hearing his name, Mary’s son from Nazareth is worth a second look.

And John will be our guide. Most readers notice that the fourth Gospel is somewhat different to the other three. It is at once more straightforward, and yet contains hidden depths. Perhaps John had reflected for longer on the overwhelming and life-changing experience of living with Jesus. He has thought carefully about how to invite us to look at Jesus, and then look at him again. John is book not only worth reading, but re-reading. Our passage has three key terms and we’ll look at each in turn: the word, the light, and flesh.
Ten points for the first to see the magic eye puzzle.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Obama meets Bartlet

If you have ever seen The West Wing, then you need to read this (H/T Matt). If you have never seen The West Wing, then you need to get out less.

BARTLET What can I do for you, kid?
OBAMA I’m interested in your advice.
BARTLET I can’t give it to you.
OBAMA Why not?
BARTLET I’m supporting McCain.
BARTLET He’s promised to eradicate evil and that was always on my “to do” list.

Questions for political theology

"The questions that confront the Northern democracies require detailed attention to the structures of authority which undergird their unruly democratic culture: can democracy avoid corruption by mass communication? Can individual liberty be protected from technological manipulation? Can civil rights be safeguarded without surrendering democratic control to arbitrarily appointed courts? Or stable market-conditions without surrending control to arbitrarily appointed bankers? Can punishment be humane and still satisfy the social conscience? Can international justice be protected by threat of nuclear devastation? Can ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities assert their identities without oppressing individual freedoms? Can a democracy contain the urge to excessive consumption of natural resources? Can the handicapped, the elderly and the unborn be protected against the exercise of liberty demanded by the strong, the articulate and the middle-aged? Should the nation-state yield place to large, market-defined governmental conglomerates? These are the questions that political theology, in its self-conscious forms, is most notable for never addressing."

Oliver O'Donovan, The Desire of the Nations (CUP, 1996), 14.

Putting to one side the typical northern bias in calling these "Northern" issues, O'Donovan seems to have identified a number of the key pressure points in contemporary politics. I doubt this list is intended to be exhaustive, but it is certainly exhausting to consider them all. Are there particular questions that grab your attention and hold your interest?

For me, one abiding interest of the last few years has been the question of over-consumption of "natural resources", a.k.a "food" (and water and shelter and the means of producing them). This question - the sustainability of the material bases of society - is part of what has led me to Edinburgh to study.

What is the relationship between surviving and thriving? Bertold Brecht once said "food first, then ethics", thereby prioritising survival over lesser ethical concerns. Everything is justified in order to stay alive. Is this true? Is it true for individuals? For groups? For nation-states? When the chips are down, is it every man for himself? Is the Joker right: when the chips are down, will civilised people eat each other?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Word became flesh: looking again at Jesus I

A sermon from John 1.1-14: Part I

How do you like to think of Jesus? Maybe you’re not quite so crass as the guys in this clip. Your preferred picture has a bit more class, a bit more nuance. You like to think of Jesus as a left-leaning activist who stood up for the poor, but still liked his wine. A reformer who exposed the religious hypocrisy of the establishment, while including the marginalised. He certainly would have read the Herald, not the Tele. Perhaps our Jesus is a bit less Midwest and a bit more Inner West.

But how can we see a Jesus who not simply a composite of our desires or fears? A good place to start is to pray.

Save us from Jesus. Save us from the Jesus we imagine. Rescue us from the Jesus we want or fear. May your Son hurtle into our lives and explode all the imposters. For his sake and ours, Amen.

There are plenty of new posts coming, but I thought I'd also include this sermon from earlier in the year. Not sure how many more sermons I'll be writing in Edinburgh.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X.

PhD proposal: the church in social crisis

I have been asked by a few people to post my PhD proposal, if for no other reason than for a good laugh when it morphs into something completely different. I thought this might be an apt way of un-pausing this blog and getting people talking again. Feel free to comment, question, critique, suggest, laugh or award me an honorary doctorate as you see fit.

First, the one paragraph version for those who are time-starved.

“In view of the present distress”
The role of the church in a society in crisis
How does an experience of severe social stress affect the possibilities and dangers faced by the Christian community in its relationship to broader society? Via historical case studies and in dialogue with significant contemporary thinkers, this project will develop a theological perspective integrating insights from ecclesiology, ethics, eschatology and political theology in order to provide suggestions to the contemporary church in its service of and opposition to a society that appears to be entering a time of heightened ecological, economic and cultural distress.
For those with a little more stamina, here is the full proposal (700 words):
“In view of the present distress”
The role of the church in a society in crisis
The church is not immune from the troubles of the various societies amongst which it exists. How does an experience of extreme social stress affect the possibilities and dangers faced by the Christian community? What does it mean for followers of Jesus to be faithful together when the broader society is under dire threat? What scriptural, theological, ethical, emotional or historical resources can the church draw upon at such times?

The scriptural tradition of both testaments records a number of catastrophes for the people of God and the series of social worlds they inhabited. What was the nature and basis of hope-filled response at such times? How did the structure, practices and beliefs of these communities function to sustain or undermine patterns of human social existence?

These questions are of more than idle interest in our own time. One of the defining features of recent decades has been, at least amongst some groups, a growing awareness of the depth and breadth of a range of ecological, social and resource crises facing an increasingly globalised human society. Numerous interconnected factors cumulatively present a grave and urgent threat to society as it currently exists.

While the global extent and technologically-enhanced degree of environmental degradation are a novelty historically speaking, ours is certainly not the first society to face a crisis that threatens the basis of its continued existence. Over the centuries, Christian communities have found themselves amidst societies undergoing rapid change, foreign invasion, sustained economic and cultural decline or even sudden collapse.

And so I would like to pursue my question through a historical lens in order to see what might be gained from a critical investigation into how the church has responded to instances of social crisis and decline in the past. Possible case studies could include one or more of the following: the response of Augustine and others to the fall of Rome in 410 (and/or the broader pattern of decline in the Western empire around this time); the Eastern response to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (and/or the broader pattern of decline in the Eastern empire); various patterns of ecclesiastical response to the Black Death in fourteenth century Europe; or the trajectories of State and Confessing churches in Nazi Germany. In all these instances, although the nature and origin of the threat varied, the Christian community found itself with the opportunity and responsibility to adopt a variety of functions with respect to the ailing society, from palliative care to armed dissent.

A selection of these case studies will provide material for critical reflection, in order to develop a theological perspective on possibilities open to the contemporary church. This theological perspective will be formed and enriched by integrating insights from ecclesiology, eschatology, ethics and political theology. To complement the various historical theologians associated with the case studies (e.g. Augustine, Gregory Palamas, medieval and reformation advice on dealing with plague, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), this project will also interact with a selection of contemporary writers with significant contributions to discussions of the role of the church in society. Potentially fruitful interlocutors with whom I am already familiar include: Oliver O’Donovan, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, Rowan Williams, Jürgen Moltmann, N. T. Wright, John Milbank, William Cavanaugh and Bernd Wannenwetsch.

The theological perspective orienting this proposal may be briefly outlined as follows. The gospel of Christ finds its most faithful expression today in hope-filled communities that subvert the idolatry of our cultural obsession with consumption, as well as the growing panic over ecological doom that is its increasingly likely result. Although there may be no divine promise of cultural continuity or even civilizational survival, a community founded upon belief in a divine word and driven by an eschatological hope of resurrection for human life and its entire created environment is able to engage in open-eyed loving service without fear. Christian hope is not otherworldly, yet by giving an origin to hope that transcends the present ecological and social order, believers are liberated to admire, care for, critique and enrich this order as a sign of trust that God’s purposes for his good world are not thwarted by decay.

The practical outcome of this study will include suggestions to the contemporary church in its service, witness and opposition to a society that appears to be entering a time of heightened ecological, economic and cultural distress.
Obviously, this needs quite a bit more narrowing down, since at the moment I've basically said "I'd like to talk about Jesus and stuff, you know, looking at most of church history and anyone I can think of who's still around and talking about what happens when there's a problem."

Since writing the proposal, three further thoughts have helped give it a little more shape. First, I am interested not simply in any old crisis in society (war, famine, pandemic, interest rate rise, celebrity gaining a few kilos), but in a crisis of society, that is, a crisis in sociality, situations in which the fabric of social life is undermined. Second, I think I'd like to look at collective deliberation and resolution, how society discerns and pursues the common good. How is that impeded by the kind of crisis of society I just mentioned and (how) does the gospel (and/or the practices of the church in response to the gospel) shape the possibilities of constructive and creative collective deliberation and resolution? Not that I'm saying that the this is the primary function or purpose of the gospel, but might it be a blessed side-effect? Finally, a few people have expanded my possible case studies, especially with historical and contemporary scenarios from the two-thirds world.

I realise I need to define "crisis" (not to mention "society" and "church"!). I'd love to hear suggestions of books to read, especially if someone has already answered this question.
If you are going to mention the latter, please also supply a replacement topic. Thanks!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Review and restart

It has been a few weeks since the last post. And before that, posts were thin on the ground for some time. Where have I been? What have I been doing?

Packing and preparing to leave our beloved home in Sydney;
Travelling in India, visiting old friends and meeting some locals;
Moving into Edinburgh, staying first with a friend of a friend and then moving into longer term accommodation;
Conferencing in Rome, concerning which I might post a few thoughts in the coming days;
Helping Jess start a new blog;
Conferencing again, this time in Dunblane on a more intimate scale with my supervisor, two other academics (including his wife) and a few PhD students from Edinburgh and Oxford;
Enrolling and being oriented at New College for my PhD studies in the School of Divinity at Edinburgh University;
Adjusting to a new city, its geography, topography, demography and public transport; and
Waiting for a reliable broadband connection to be set up.
Thus, I haven't had much space or opportunity to blog, and the little time I have been able to grab on the net has largely consisted of writing emails and Skyping. Hopefully, I will now have a little more space and things can get rolling once more. Enough of the excuses; time to re-start.