Sunday, February 28, 2010

Babies and bathwater: abuse and use

There is an ancient and important principle of ethics: abusus non tollit usum; abuse does not abolish use. The fact that a practice or object has been or can be abused does not rule out its legitimate use. A more colloquial way of putting it is that we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. It seems a fairly obvious point, but it is often forgotten.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Barth on theological adversaries

A free theologian* works in communication with other theologians. He grants them the enjoyment of the same freedom with which he is entrusted. Maybe he listen to them and reads their books [and blog posts] with only subdued joy, but at least he listen to them and reads them. He knows that the selfsame problems with which he is preoccupied may be seen and dealt with in a way different from his own. Perhaps sincerity forbids him from following or accompanying some of his fellow theologians. Perhaps he is forced to oppose and sharply contradict many, if not most, of his co-workers. He is not afraid of the rabies theologorum. But he refuses to part company with them, not only personally and intellectually but, above all, spiritually, just as he does not want to be dropped by them. He believes in the forgiveness of both his theological sins and theirs, if they are found guilty of some. He will not pose as the detector and judge of their sins. Not yielding one iota where he cannot responsibly do so, he continues to consider the divine and human freedom in store for them. He waits for them and asks them to wait for him. Our sadly lacking yet indispensable theological co-operation depends directly or indirectly on whether or not we are willing to wait for one another, perhaps lamenting, yet smiling with tears in our eyes. Surely in such forbearance we could dispense with the hard bitter, and contemptuous thoughts and statements about each other, with the bittersweet book reviews and the mischievous footnotes [and snide blog posts] we throw at each other, and with whatever works of darkness there are! Is it clear in our minds that the concept of the "theological adversary" is profane and illegitimate?

- Karl Barth, "The Gift of Freedom" in The Humanity of God
(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 95-96.

This is the kind of communication that expresses and sustains community, whether in a local congregation, a university department or within a section of the blogosphere. This is a classic statement of what it means to love those whom we might be tempted to describe as theological enemies due to the disagreements we have with them. Barth is no starry-eyed relativist, who wants us to leave our disagreements behind and get along by being nice to one another. His account of Christian forbearance includes the possibility of opposing and sharply contradicting one another, but places such debate within the framework of Christian fellowship characterised by a refusal to part company even amidst the kind of disagreement that brings tears to the eyes.

How is this possible? By distinguishing between our theological words and the word of God. This has two aspects. First, this means acknowledging the priority of God's gracious call to all of us. None of us are saved by correct theology, only by the prior summons of God to us in Christ. This promise and command comes prior to our attempts to understand it and remains even where such attempts (inevitably) fail.

And so second, distinguishing our theological discourse from God's word to us in Christ involves acknowledging our own fallibility and need of forgiveness (even and perhaps especially for our theological failings where our words are inadequate witnesses to the work and character of God). We are never purely right, just as those we disagree with are never purely wrong.

Therefore, we are to leave each other room to repent in the freedom granted us by the very divine word to which we are both trying to attend. And the space to repent is not a hostile silence in which we condemn one another in thoughts or to third parties, but a hopeful, prayerful waiting. Waiting may be painful; it takes humility as well as patience. It involves the refusal to condemn, to become inquisitor, to write off a fellow human being addressed by the divine word. But this waiting is not without joy, because it also serves to remind us that we both wait upon the same Lord who speaks to us both with grace and truth.
*For Barth, remember that "according to truly evangelical teaching the term 'theologian' is not confined to the seminary professor, to the theological student or to the minister. It is meant for every Christian who is mindful of the theological task entrusted to the whole Christian congregation, and who is willing and able to share in the common endeavour according to his own talents." (Ibid., 89)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Two cartoons for Lent

Jason has posted two very different Lenten cartoons. An insightful Leunig (well-loved by many Australians) and an animation that was simple and yet profoundly moving.

How to write a blog post

All the advice you will ever need.
H/T Mister Tim.

Friday, February 19, 2010

What we do with what we know: a story

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. It was not an easy cancer to explain to people, because, basically, the doctors hadn’t seen any cases quite like it before and could not identify precisely where it had started or what caused it. Since it was such a rare growth, they could also not give me a meaningful prognosis. The scans indicated that it was of a significant size, in a critical location and there was good reason to think it was probably growing quite rapidly. Their recommendations were that surgery would be almost impossible (one of them told me, “I’m not into killing my patients”), but that chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy might have some effect (one oncologist spoke of “curative doses” and another simply of reducing its size).

Now at this point, I had a variety of possible responses open to me. I could go and get further oncological opinions (I had already gone to three different hospitals and had multiple scans and a variety of tests).

I could have weighed up the probable side effects of treatment (quite a long list!) and decided that it was not worth it and tried to make the most of my remaining time, however long or short that turned out to be.

I could have heeded the many voices telling me that traditional medicine doesn’t know how to deal with cancer and that I needed various alternative treatments: homeopathy, acupuncture, meditation, herbal remedies, hypnosis, miracle diets and many more that were urged upon me by well-meaning contacts, often with powerful testimonials.

I could have listened to the Christian sisters and brothers who told me that I would be healed if I had faith, that God loves miracles and would preserve my life without treatment, that they had seen or been given amazing recoveries after prayer.

I could have embraced the cynical critiques of the medical system by noting that it is in doctors’ interests to keep me thinking that I am sick, that I need them, that I need their expensive and complicated treatments.

I could have gone onto Google and attempted my own re-diagnosis on the basis of extensive reading of the most popular sites, or by consulting the most helpful discussion boards.

Each of these options were being put forward by people who apparently desired good for me. Yet deciding to go ahead with the recommended treatment was a relatively easy conclusion for me. Despite its costs, I do not at all regret the decision and suspect there is a very good chance I would not be here today without the excellent treatment I received at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Indeed, it has been three years today since I had my last radiotherapy dose, a few more days since my final round of chemo.

I’m sharing this story not for the sympathy vote, nor to celebrate an anniversary, and nor yet to ridicule the faith or intentions of those who urged me to avoid treatment. I share this story to raise the issue of the relation of knowledge to ethics. How does our knowledge of the world affect our obligations and opportunities to pursue good?

Many factors contributed to my decision to accept treatment, but significant amongst them was the considered advice of recognised experts in the field based on years of empirical research. I was not morally bound to follow this advice. The research has not been exhaustive. Not all the experts I saw recommended exactly the same treatment. My case involved some degree of novelty. Not all cancer treatment is as effective as mine has been so far. But I do believe I would have been both foolish and seriously at fault if I had simply ignored their advice, or acted as though the diagnosis must be wrong because I’ve heard of some misdiagnoses in the past, or if I had presumed that I would be alright because some tumours undergo spontaneous remission.

It would be no good to say that since the scriptures don’t tell me whether or not to trust doctors, then I have no reason to trust them. It would equally be no good to say that since the scriptures don’t tell me to have cancer treatment, then I was under no moral obligation to take the advice of the oncologists seriously.

Of course, receiving treatment in order to try to stay alive was neither my only nor my highest moral obligation. There are worse things than death. There are ways of staying alive that diminish the point of being alive. But all things considered, I believe there was a compelling moral case for me to accept the recommended treatment. I believe that not only was it possible to pursue this treatment without being distracted from more important things (like loving those around me and praising the wonders of the one who gives all life), but that the treatment was in fact a means to that end, keeping me alive for more service and song, and opening many opportunities to love and praise that I might otherwise not have had.

It may be obvious where I am going with this, but in case it is not let me spell it out. There is a large and diverse body of scientific experts with years in the field who point to widespread and growing empirical evidence of a critical diagnosis, which we cannot in good conscience ignore. They may offer a variety of different (even sometimes conflicting) advice on specific treatment, but it would be irresponsible to dismiss their warnings or to treat the situation as though it were nothing but a distraction from what is truly important.

Our knowledge of the world, though fallible and incomplete, is nonetheless sufficient to contribute to the moral deliberation of Christians. The evidence for alarming anthropogenic climate change is strong enough such that wilfully ignoring or burying the issue at this stage has become irresponsible. This is not a denial of sola scriptura nor to fall into legalism. Nor is it to say that climate change is the only or primary moral challenge of our day, or that all Christians ought to become climate change activists. And neither yet do I claim that Christians owe their allegiance to any particular mitigation strategy. But as one significant pastoral and social issue amongst others, and one linked to fears and guilt, to anger and confusion, to questions of greed and of faith, hope and love, addressing climate change Christianly is neither a luxury nor a distraction from the gospel.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dirty and dusty

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter. From Ash Wednesday, there are forty days until Easter (excluding Sundays, which are always for celebrating the resurrection, not fasting).

In most liturgical services on this day, the sign of the cross using the ash from the previous year's Palm Sunday is made upon the foreheads of worshippers. It is called a sign of penitence and mortality. That is, it symbolises that we are both broken and dying, flawed and finite, fragmented and fragile, dirty and dusty.

As the mark is made, these words are spoken:

Remember, o man/woman/mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the good news.
How to relate our mortality to our sinfulness is an important issue in Christian theology. Are we dying because we sin? Or do we sin because we are dying? Which is the more fundamental problem and how does the good news address each?

The Ash Wednesday quote above gives one way into this discussion. Notice that while both mortality and sinfulness are referenced, the appropriate response to each differs. We remember our mortality; we repent of our sins. Our mortality is not itself a fault, but part of our creaturely existence. We receive the breath of life, it is never ours to claim or secure, our life is always dependent upon a source beyond us. The call to remember this is the call to relinquish control over our deaths, to relinquish the demand that I must be kept alive at all costs, and so to discover the freedom that comes from giving space in my life to projects other than survival.

Yet we are to repent of our sins, to turn from our self-obsession and to discover joy (and pain) in meeting and loving others beyond the echo-chamber of the self. This repentance will make no sense unless it is accompanied, enabled and completed by believing the good news. Only the good news of the risen Jesus liberates us from the patterns of false behaviour that diminish our capacity for life and love. That is why the sign that is made in ash is that of a cross. The cross symbolises the good news of liberation: not liberation from being dust and ashes (the sign of the cross is itself made in ash and God's saving work amongst us in Christ was as dust and ashes), but freedom from guilt at our dirty lives, freedom from sin and its false dreams, freedom from despair and so freedom to be truly human.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians are marked as dirty and dusty, but the shame of the dirt and the frustration of the dust are placed within the hope of the cross.

Much more can be said on each of these topics, but let me finally introduce one further idea. While being exhorted to remember our mortality - that we will return to dust - we are also encouraged to remember our origin and identity- that we are dust. Like Adam, we are from and of the earth ('adamah in Hebrew). Being dusty means not only that our life is received as a gift, but that we exist as a member of the community of creation, in solidarity with the rest of the created order. Although we are often quick to lay claim to human uniqueness, part of lenten penitence is re-membering ourselves within this larger sphere. This is both dignity and frustration. Dignity because we too belong to the ordered material world over which God declared his blessing. Frustration because we share with all created things a present "bondage to decay". But our origin and destiny are bound together with the non-human world. Thus, to be smeared with cinders is to be humbled, and yet simultaneously to discover in that humility a properly human and creaturely glory.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

- T. S. Eliot, from Ash Wednesday.

Remember, mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Repent and believe the good news.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Christian perspectives on the end of life: CASE conference

Last year I mentioned that New College (the one in Sydney, not the one here in Edinburgh) held its annual lecture series on the topic of bioethics. Now CASE (the Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education) at New College is holding a day conference on medical ethics titled "Christian perspectives on the end of life". It will be held at New College, UNSW on 27th March. More information (and registration details) can be found on the CASE site.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Myers on Augustine on desire and beauty

Ben Myers has written a wonderful short post which consists of an anecdote leading into a one paragraph explanation of the heart of Augustine's take on human desire.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hope in 2010

Is it possible to hope today?

Rev Dr Michael Spence is the current Vice-Chancellor and Principal of my alma mater, the University of Sydney and he is also an ordained Anglican priest working in a voluntary capacity at St Mary's Anglican Church, Waverley (the church in which Jessica was baptised and in which we were married). He recently participated in a panel event hosted by ABC Radio National as part of the Sydney Festival titled Hope 2010: Crisis, Catharsis, Renewal. Dr Spence's contribution is worth listening to as someone in high office giving an account of the hope that is in him. To give you a taste, here are some quotes:

"Love - self-giving, self-sacrificial, unsentimental, others-oriented love - is at the centre of reality."

"Acceptance is the opposite of hope. [...] Hope claims the right to look for and struggle for a world in which all those enemies of love - hate and all its children - are defeated."

"Resurrection is possible. There can be real victory over the enemies of love, both in our own lives and more generally."

"There are just as many pathological reasons for belief as for unbelief."
The fact that he made it from ontological difference to Babe in two sentences was particularly impressive.
H/T Matt.

It's funny because it's true

By Xkcd.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Environmentalism as idolatry: why we must repent of environmentalism to be green

Some Christians are quick to identify environmentalism as a contemporary form of idolatry.

If and when it is indeed so, then like all idolatries, environmentalism takes something good and treats it as though it were God. In doing so, by trying to make some created good into the centre, it ends up distorting all of life and ultimately, failing to love even that which it tries to worship.

But the solution is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater by rejecting the object of idolatrous attention. God is worshipped not by removing ourselves from the created order, but by rightly loving it. And so rather than rejecting ecological concerns because some have made them into an idol, loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength can give us a greater capacity to love our neighbour and to respect the beauty and integrity of the living spaces of the planet. Christians are free to be more humane than the humanists, more wealthy (in the things that matter) than the capitalists, more concerned about glory than the celebrities, more free than the liberals and more green than the greenies!
Image by Brennan Jacoby.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

CPRS: Breaking the deadlock?

Disclaimer: I am no economist nor an economist's son. All opinions expressed to be taken with a pinch or three of salt.

The current debate in Australia over the Government's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) seems bogged down, and has even reached a point where it has given Kevin Rudd the necessary trigger to request a double dissolution (though he seems unlikely to use it just yet). The danger is that the CPRS may continue to be blocked or watered down by the Opposition, delaying any significant carbon policy from Australia and contributing to the broader global impasse reached at Copenhagen. The even larger danger is that it might be passed in something like its current form and pitiful targets will be locked in for decades.

Back in 2007, "Professor Ross Garnaut was commissioned by all of the governments of Australia’s federation to examine the impacts of climate change on Australia and to recommend policy frameworks to improve the prospects of sustainable prosperity."[1] The Garnaut Climate Change Review was published in late 2008. Chapter Fourteen of the Review recommended that for an initial period there ought to be a fixed price on carbon at AUS$20/tonne (in 2005 dollars) without offsets or international trading. This was to reduce uncertainty during the period in which an international agreement was being negotiated and would give businesses something firm from which to begin their necessary modifications. Such a fixed period was to start in 2010 and cover until at least the end of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012.

I think that as an interim measure, this suggestion has merit. Undoubtedly, it is not perfect, but it may be a way of breaking the current deadlock and of avoiding a situation in which Australia ties itself to weak targets. I'm pleased to hear that the Government has entered into serious negotiations with The Greens about this suggestion, since it might represent the best that it is currently possible to do, while not closing down future improvements.

UPDATE: The dangers of carbon uncertainty from a US perspective.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Sola Scriptura: use and abuse of a slogan

The Reformation slogan of sola scriptura (Latin for "the scriptures alone") is often invoked during intra-Protestant debates to rule certain claims out of court as "unbiblical". However, it is worth noting that this is often a misuse of the phrase.

Sola scriptura was one of a number of Reformation slogans beginning with the Latin term sola ("alone" or "only"). Others included "grace alone", "faith alone", "Christ alone" and the "to the glory of God alone".* These phrases were used polemically and pedagogically by Protestants to distinguish themselves theologically from Roman Catholics, whom they believed had illegitimately added to each of these crucial doctrines and thereby obscured or effaced the truth of divine salvation in Christ.
*I'd include all the Latin phrases, but then you might get the false impression that I can read Latin.

Thus sola scriptura was historically a claim about the sufficiency of the holy scriptures in teaching us all that is necessary for salvation in Christ, and was generally intended as a critique of Roman Catholic reliance on extra-biblical traditions. However, notice what is not included by this claim. While the holy scriptures contain all that is necessary for salvation in Christ, they do not necessarily contain all that is necessary for, say, conducting open heart surgery, writing a good poem, determining the age of the sun, understanding the culture of first century Palestine or accurately measuring and accounting for long term climate trends.

Christian theologians can and should expound the meaning and significance of the holy scriptures, and in so doing, help to create space for disciplines other than theology, affirming the goodness of knowledge gained in other ways. This is not a denial of sola scriptura, but part of its true meaning.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that Michael Jensen posted some thoughts along similar lines a couple of months ago (though watch out for the ensuing discussion, which gets a little lengthy and somewhat off topic...).

Saturday, February 06, 2010

If it looks like a duck...

The duck: a fable. What happens when two scientists and a journalist come across something that looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and also, by chance, happens to quack like a duck?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Baptism: public or private?

Baptism by the Book (cont)
I've posted here, here and here on baptism recently, sparked by my daughter's baptism and by re-reading the baptism services in the English and Scottish prayer books from the 16th and 17th centuries.

My final post concerns the social location of the baptism service. And on this, all the prayer books agree. Here is part of the 1662 rubric:

The Minister of every parish shall warn the people that without great cause and necessity they procure not their children to be baptized at home in their houses. But when need shall compel them so to do, then Baptism shall be administered on this fashion: [...]
And the earlier prayer books were even more explicit, offering slight variations on this somewhat lengthy introduction to the topic found in the 1552 version:
It appeareth by auncient wryters, that the Sacramente of Baptisme in the olde tyme was not commonlye ministred but at two tymes in the yeare: at Easter and Whytsontyde. At which tymes it was openly ministred in the presence of all the congregacion: whiche custome (nowe being growen out of use) althoughe it cannot for many consideracions be well restored agayne, yet it is thoughte good to folowe the same as nere as conveniently may be: wherefore the people are to be admonished, that it is most conveniente that Baptisme should not be ministred but upon Sundayes, and other holy dayes, when the moste noumbre of people maye come together as well for that the congregacion there present may testifye the receyving of them, that be newely Baptysed, into the noumbre of Christes Churche, as also because in the Baptisme of infantes, every man present may be put in remembraunce of hys owne profession made to God in hys Baptisme. For whyche cause also, it is expediente that Baptisme be ministred in the Englishe tongue. Neverthelesse (yf necessitie so requyre) chyldren maye at all tymes be Baptized at home.
I'm sure that reading that did you good and has helped your grasp of the Englishe tongue!

Note three things. First, the text recalls ancient custom and treats it as a guide to be followed. It does not feel the need to dump every practice not explicitly found in Scripture (as per the regulative principle of worship found in some versions of Protestantism). Yet neither is ancient custom to be preserved exactly for its own sake. It is able to develop over time. Some things have growen out of use and cannot easily be well restored agayne. But the principles behind it are to be understood, adopted and adapted since it is thoughte good to folowe the same as nere as conveniently may be. So, while baptisms are not to be confined to Easter and Whytsontyde [Whitsunday = Pentecost], the principle that they are best to be held in the public gathering of the church (when the moste noumbre of people maye come together) still holds. However, many baptisms today are essentially private ceremonies held before or after the main services on Sunday, or on other days of the week, where only family and perhaps some close friends are present. Why is this a problem?

Second, therefore, let us therefore consider the two reasons for public baptism offered by the text: so that the congregation present can testify to the receiving of the child into the number of Christ's church; and so that all baptised believers present might be reminded of their own baptismal vows. In other words, baptism has meaning beyond the individual candidate and his or her relationship with God. It is a sign for the church, a public welcome of the newly washed person into the household of faith. This one is now a sister or brother and to be welcomed and treated as such. And it is a reminder of each Christian's own profession of faith, a reminder that can be very powerful and encouraging, even confronting, as once again each believer has to turn to Christ and reject all that is evil (a similar thing happens at weddings, where all the married members of the congregation are reminded of the challenge and joy of their own vows). Baptism therefore has a social (or rather, ecclesial) as well as a personal meaning. To displace the baptismal service from the context of the congregation and perform it in private for a smaller circle of family and close friends obscures or misplaces this significance.

Third, however, all the prayer books have two versions of infant baptism: the normal one for public baptism in a church and a second one for use in private houses in tyme of necessity. Although it is best for baptism to occur amidst the gathered congregation, it is possible for it legitimately to be performed elsewhere in an emergency. Thus, a sick infant who is likely to die before Sunday (or an adult convert too ill to attend church) may receive an emergency baptism "on the spot". The 1604 and 1662 versions indicate this still ought to be done by a minister, but the earlier books simply say that whoever is present can perform the rite. This concession implies that the horizontal or social meanings of baptism are secondary to its primary reference, which is the relation between the candidate and God. Even if the candidate is unable to be welcomed by the full church, baptism still functions as a sign of God's cleansing and renewing love and as a pledge of the candidate's lifelong loyalty to Christ, however short that life may be. Of course, if the newly baptised candidate ends up surviving, then there is also provision for the secondary horizontal meanings of baptism to function in a service that announces and publicly recognises the baptism.
And let them not doubt, but that the Child so baptized is lawfully and sufficiently baptized, and ought not to be baptized again. Yet nevertheless, if the Child, which is after this sort baptized, do afterward live, it is expedient that it be brought into the Church, to the intent that [...] the Congregation may be certified of the true form of Baptism [...].
And if the Minister shall find by the answers of such as bring the Child, that all things were done as they ought to be; then shall not he christen the Child again, but shall receive him as one of the flock of true Christian people [...]
So don't hide the light of baptism under a basket, but put it on a stand so that it can give light to the whole house. Don't deny your brothers and sisters the blessings they receive from witnessing a baptism, or deny the candidate the blessings of a public baptism amongst the congregation.