Thursday, June 29, 2006

Laugh at the devil and he will flee from you...

“How can we make clear the victory of Christ? In this way: when speaking of sin, demons, darkness, by not speaking of them in too tragic a manner—like the German theologians, all so serious! The further north you go in Germany, the more they are concerned with the realm of darkness. And if you move to the Scandinavian countries, all is darkness: God against Satan, and vice versa! ... It is not wise to be too serious.”

—Karl Barth’s Table Talk, ed. John D. Godsey (Edinburgh: 1963), pp. 16-17.

I am particularly frustrated at the moment by Christians who find a demon behind every bush - and in every book or exercise of the imagination! The 'Christian' opposition to the fantasy genre holus-bolus is a grave mistake and an attenuation of both Christ's victory over the evil one and the God who delights in his creative creation - a creation that itself brings forth new things (e.g. Gen 1.11: not all of creation is ex nihilo...). Reading Lewis doesn't lead to the occult!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Why I love Nietzsche

Ben Myers over at Faith and Theology has been conducting a series of guests posts called For the love of God: why I love... in which a variety of his friends and enemies have been sharing autobiographically about formative theological influences: theologians who float one's boat. Ben very kindly invited me to post on Augustine, since I'm working on a project on his eschatology and politics (at least in theory: the lack of work indicated by lack of posts on the wonderful bishop of Hippo). Said lack of progress prompted me to reach back a little to an earlier theological influence: Friedrich Nietzsche, aka 'The Antichrist'. Here is my attenpt...

‘Is not every unbeliever who has a reason for his atheism and his decision not to believe a theologian too? Atheists who have something against God and against faith in God usually know very well whom and what they are rejecting, and have their reasons. Nietzsche’s book The Antichrist has a lot to teach us about true Christianity.’
-Jürgen Moltmann, Godless Theology.

My early years as a Christian were spent in a fairly dualistic Christian culture. Creation and redemption were frequently opposed: salvation meant redemption from the world, from worldliness, from distractions and secondary things. Explicitly and implicitly I received the message that anything not a gospel-matter didn’t matter.

Friedrich Nietzsche awoke me from my Platonic slumber. I began with Beyond Good and Evil: ‘Christianity is Platonism for “the people”’. Nietzsche’s humorous, vigorous, irreverent and megalomanic take on Western culture and thought helped me to see the world-denying resentment behind much that passed for Christian thought. Reading Zarathustra and the Bible, I rediscovered a world-affirming faith. Not a naïve optimism, nor Nietzsche’s heroic Übermensch, but a realisation that the author of salvation is none other than the creator who declared everything ‘good, very good’. The God who raises the dead brings not redemption from the world, but the redemption of the world.

Nietzsche seeks to vanquish the shadows of god that linger on in Western culture after it has rejected Christianity. The god he banishes is one to whom I’d also like to bid good-riddance. Nieztsche, a self-styled anti-Christ(ian), does Christians a great service through his iconoclasm. Although usually pegged as a philosopher (he briefly held a university position as a philologist), he is also able to ‘theologize with a hammer’, sounding out the hollow idols and ideals of the Western tradition. This task is integral to any Christian theology worthy of the name.

‘I beseech you my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.’

- Nieztsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue, §3.

Image in public domain.

Theodicy & eschatology: Links

I've had a few comments from people who have rued the scattered nature of my recent series on theodicy and eschatology (also known as: why it is wicked to solve the problem of evil). So here are links to all the posts in one place.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI

Monday, June 26, 2006

Rahner the Calvinist? Or Calvin: the good Catholic

'Christ and his salvation are not simply one of two possibilities offering themselves to man's free choice; they are the deed of God which bursts open and redeems the false choice of man by overtaking it. In Christ God not only gives the possibility of salvation, which in that case would still have to be effected by man himself, but the actual salvation itself, however much this includes also the right decision of human freedom which is itself a gift from God. Where sin already existed, grace came in superabundance.'

- Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations V, 124

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Rahner on mystery

"[...] precisely the believer actively engaged in theology knows better than anyone else that every theological statement is only truly and authentically such at that point at which man [sic] willingly suffers it to extend beyond his [sic] comprehension into the silent mystery of God..."

- K. Rahner, 'Reflections on Metholodology in Theology',
Theological Investigations XI, 103.

Rahner goes to claim that the mystery of God remains - indeed, is perfected - in the eschaton. The beatific vision is not the cessation of mystery, but the point where we finally grasp the blessedness of it.
"Now we see as in mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.' (1 Corinthians 13.12)
What is the relationship between our present knowledge of God and our hoped for knowledge? Do we desire mystery to depart in vision? Is mystery a negative thing, an aspect of our present fallen imperfections, or does it relate to our very createdness? Even if the latter is also as true as the former (i.e. if both are true: that God is still experienced, at least in some sense, as hidden due to both our sin and our finitude), will this particular creaturely limitation be overcome? Do we want it to?

Saturday, June 24, 2006


Those easily offended should ignore this link. Pontificator has started a huge list of suggestions for trinitarian alternatives - a light-hearted response to moves within some US churches to 'supplement' the 'traditional' language about Father-Son-Holy Spirit with alternatives (e.g. Mother-Child-Womb).

UPDATE: Having been rightly rebuked by Joshua over at Theologoumenon for mocking without having read, here is the document from PCUSA in question. Read and appreciate its strengths, and consider with Joshua the different functions of language. But then keep enjoying the exercise...

Ghosts at cockcrow

"The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more, and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them . . . The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow."

- G. M. Trevelyan

Friday, June 23, 2006

World Cups update

I'm sure many will be pleased to know (though of course, you would have already heard and don't need me to say so!) that Colin Gunton, Jürgen Moltmann, T. F. Torrence, Robert Jenson, and Eberhard Jüngel have all survived their various pool games and are through to the round of sixteen. For those who haven't been following the Theologians World Cup over on Patrik's blog, this may make little sense. Go and support some quality names in 20thC theology and experience all the thrill the masses get from the round-ball game but without the hooliganism.
Round of 16 starts Monday (Finland time).

(And in the other World Cup, Australia are of course through to the round of 16, where they will face, and unfortunately, lose to the Italian team that knocked the US out).

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Barneys and bulldozers

Here is the latest on the future of the burned out Barneys.

For those too lazy to follow the link, here's the relevant quote from the Barneys media spokesperson: There are no plans to demolish what remains of the church at this stage. What has been discussed is the safety of the building.

Notice what is not said. This is no promise to not bulldoze, but simply saying that it hasn't been decided yet. There are not "at this stage" any plans, because "what has been discussed" remains the more immediate issue of public safety.

I'm sure there are many more stakeholders to have their $0.02 worth before we see a definite outcome.

Up, up and away!

Julia Baird in today's SMH has an interesting take on the new Superman movie and christology.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

More Barneys photos

I just found this, with more photos of the burned out St Barnabas' Broadway (my home church). See also various earlier posts.

Thanks to Eb for the photos!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Publishing congratulations

I'd like to publish my congratulations at some friends' entries into publishing.

First Matheson Russell's first book is now out in the UK (and will be in Oz in August). A great little intro to the thought of Edmund Husserl, the early 20thC German philosopher and father of phenomenology. Well done Matt, may there be many more to come!

And while Matheson has shown admirable self-restraint in avoiding the headlong blogrush, the same is not true of Paget and Annette. Thus publishing congrats to both. My money is on Paget never posting again...

Islam and violence

Alastair continues to post some very thought-provoking pieces. Have a read of his latest one on Islam and violence. He argues that while the right is self-righteously confident of the goodness of the West's cause, the left masocistically accepts and projects all guilt onto Western imperialism (in its various forms). He then has some very interesting thoughts on how the gospel is a subversion of the shame/honour culture in which it originated and is then a resource for moving beyond violence.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Theodicy & eschatology VI

This will be the final post in this series (unless I have more thoughts...) on why any attempt to speak of God in the face of evil must be both evangelical - focused on God's action in Christ that is truly good news to those who walk in the valley of the shadow - and eschatological - leaving space for more to come in God's response. We yearn and wait and groan because (i) the cross and resurrection display God's settled opposition to all that opposes life in his good world (and not just display, but are the decisive step in turning the tide) and (ii) because we do not yet see the conclusion of these divine actions. Without (i) we would be without hope; without (ii) we would no longer need to hope: who hopes for what is seen? We groan because we know something of the future of Christ, but it remains future.

BUT in Christ, in the Spirit: the future has begun. Thus the believer is not left merely groaning; we groan with God’s Spirit. The disciples were not left orphaned, with simply the knowledge of God’s decisive victory and the promise of its completion. For once Jesus departed, the Spirit arrived (John 14:16-18). Since Jesus pours out this Spirit, and it was this Spirit who raised him from the dead, this Spirit also connects us to the risen Jesus. In his Spirit, we are ‘in Christ’. That bit of the world that has been raised and created anew, is now the location of our hidden identity (Colossians 3:1-4).

So it is now that we can trust, love and hope in the face of evil, but since God has not yet ultimately solved the problem of evil, we still grieve and groan. In Christ by the Spirit we have the down payment, the pledge, the guarantee of God’s promised future, but we do not yet have that future. Or at least not in its fullness: the Spirit as first fruits (Romans 8:23) is more like a kiss than an engagement ring. Both promise the future, but while a ring is a somewhat arbitrary sign, a kiss is an actual taste of what is coming.

Hope for the resurrection of the dead is in one sense a comfort, but it is also an intensification of the problem. It is because we have hope that the world will be different that we can’t stand to see it as it now is. It is because we know that God will rid the world of evil that we can live in the light of that future: trusting, loving, hoping.

This is an intensely practical and personal problem for each and every human. Rather than seeing it as an apologetics ‘issue’ that needs to be ‘solved’ (or sidestepped) so that people will listen to the gospel, I propose that it is itself the very problem to which the gospel is such good news. The problem of evil is the primary reason I am a Christian. Or rather, I am a Christian due to the fact that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, in which I see the destiny of the world and my own destiny, I can hope that one day there will be a real, existential, moral, social, cosmological, theological more-than-intellectual solution. Come Lord Jesus. Amen.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Alastair has a fascinating post on liturgy. He links liturgical language with a belief in justification by faith, since even the words we use to approach God are not our own. An articulate and thought-provoking post.

UPDATE: Here is another interesting rant about liturgy.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Theodicy & eschatology V

I have been claiming that any theodicy worth the name must abandon three common features of most 'answers to the problem of evil':
(a) the belief that explanation is solution. We need more than a conceptual reshuffling of divine attributes. Any solution to evil must not be simply re-interpretation, but transformation.
(b) the belief that we are the ones to solve the problem. The answer to the problem of evil is found in God's decisive action through and in Jesus.
(c) the belief that the solution must be completed now. Either as an a-temporal (or at least synchronic) account of God's present providential rule, or as an over-realised eschatology in which there is nothing more to happen other than the unveiling of what is already the case.

Instead, any specifically Christian theodicy must be evangelical and eschatological. Evangelical: it must be focused on the good news of what God has done in Christ. And eschatological: it must leave room for more to come, for the ultimate solution to still be in the future.

I have already discussed the evangelical necessity. Jesus on the cross defeats evil through refusing to fight fire with fire, and the cycle of violence is buried with him. The resurrection is a demonstration that God will not abandon his perishing creation. Easter is a promise, a first down payment, of God’s intention to remove evil, root and branch, from his entire world, to hand it over to eternal destruction, to ultimate and irreversible exclusion. The gospel, the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, is God's solution to the problem of evil. In short, the gospel is theodicy. (To borrow a phrase from my good friend Matheson).

But we find ourselves in the midst of the gospel narrative, not yet at its ultimate conclusion. There is more to come. My contention from the start has been that only an eschatological theodicy will do. As long as evil continues to have the dominant hand, any attempt to account for its presence and influence is mere reinterpretation. As Marx famously said, philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world, the point is to change it. Or rather, the point is that God will change it. That change began with Jesus’ death and resurrection; there is now one piece of the world that is an evil-free zone, namely, Jesus’ resurrected body. Death no longer has dominion over him (Romans 6.16).

But it does over us. Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28.18), including authority over the evil forces and powers and multinational corporations and corrupt governments and globalisation and the capitalist system and disease and decay and death. But we do not yet see all things in subjection to him (Hebrews 2.8).

There is more to come: the resurrection of the dead, the final triumph over the last enemy. This is not to add something to the achievement of Jesus or replace it with something else, because it is Jesus’ own future that we are looking forward to. But Jesus’ final victory over death – that great last enemy of God and humanity (1 Corinthians 15:20-28) – is not simply the unveiling of what is already the case. For Jesus’ resurrection is only the first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:20), and while he is the firstborn (Rev 1:5), the harvest, the great family, is not yet here. ‘The Christ event cannot then itself be understood as fulfilling all promises, so that after this event there remains only the sequel of its being unveiled for all to see.’* Therefore, the believer’s present experience of an unredeemed groaning world is not to be downplayed as mere appearance awaiting the exposure of its hidden redemption.

* Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 214.

Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Theodicy & eschatology IV

In earlier posts, I have claimed that theodicy must be eschatological, that any attempt to solve the problem of evil prior to the eschaton is a futile and even wicked collusion with the deadly status quo of suffering and death. We must not look for an explanation of evil, of how it arose, or why it remains (the arrival and survival of evil). I suggest that to answer either of those questions in more than tangential ways is to have given the game away. Yes, we need pastoral responses for hurting people (indeed, are there any other kinds?) and even sometimes yes it is useful to clarify what we mean by some of the key terms in the discussion. But unless our response centres on the gospel, it is no longer a Christian response.

Christianity doesn't offer a philosophical (or sophical) response to evil. The gospel is not simply information, but event. God doesn't explain why evil has a useful role in society, or how in his master sceme it makes a cameo appearance. He does something. His response is to limit it, to condemn it, to restrain it, to oppose it, to undo it. And this is what we are seeing in the cross and empty tomb. Here I am taking the Christus Victor reading of the atonement, not as the only sign pointing into the Calvary mist, but as the most relevant to this discussion. Because on the cross, the full extent of evil doing its worst is manifest and exhausted. Though betrayed, scorned, violated, and ignored, Jesus never replied in kind. He was not overcome by evil, but overcame evil with good. He broke the vicious cycle, or spiral, of blood for blood, curse for curse. Trusting in the justice of God, he gave up his breath in blessing. He never pretended his situation was less than blackness; his godforsaken cry must not be read as a pantomime. He died in agony, the absent Father his only hope. Despair? Yes. Because he knew God - the God who hates evil. And he was located in the heart of darkness.

Holy Saturday is the Father's grief over the world. Died; was buried. This is not a theodicy - yet.

Easter is the theodicy of God, or at least its first dawning. For here, the injustice is righted, the scorned one glorifed. Here is the firstfruits of the defeat of death, the tasting of life beyond the deadliness of decay: death no longer has dominion over him.

But this 'over him', is our hope, our grief. For it does over us. We still die: in shame, in pain, outside justice, without peace. God has not redeemed his creation. Or not enough of it. The achievement of the cross can be overstated. It is finished? Not yet.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.

Explaining evil?

‘What the gospels offer is not a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why it’s there, nor a set of suggestions for how we might adjust our lifestyles somewhat so that evil will mysteriously disappear from the world, but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it.’

- N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, 58

‘The question of why evil exists is not a theological question, for it assumes that it is possible to go behind the existence forced upon us as sinners. If we could answer it then we would not be sinners. We could make something else responsible. Therefore the ‘question of why’ can always only be answered with the ‘that’, which burdens man completely.
'The theological question does not arise about the origin of evil but about the real overcoming of evil on the Cross; it asks for the forgiveness of guilt, for the reconciliation of the fallen world.’

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Temptation, 77

[DB image in public domain (to the best of my knowledge)]

Sub solar novelty is a null set...

...Catchy, no?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Two good posts on the differences between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Here and here.

Saving 'evangelical' from the evangelicals?

A few days ago, I started a discussion on what the term 'evangelicalism' means.

Earlier this year I was chatting with a certain well-known high profile evangelical (I'll avoid giving you the name and the tenous circumstances so that you can all get the impression that I'm really in the loop), and he said in various contexts* he thinks 'evangelical' is so misunderstood that he avoids the term altogether and 'translates' it using other language.

What do people think? How hard is it worth fighting for this term? Is there any reason not to also be fighting as hard to recover something of other great historical terms like catholic or othodox or liberal? Or is all such fighting a misguided attempt to conquer sociology with theology, and we should just use the labels we've inherited without further muddying of the waters? Is 'evangelical' worth saving from the 'evangelicals'?
* I suspect he was thinking primarily of contexts within the US, though can't guarantee what he might think about Australian versions of evangelicalism.
UPDATE: See also here.

The Inner Ring

C. S. Lewis has a wonderful sermon called 'The Inner Ring' about the tendency in the human heart to want to be 'in the know', 'one of them', to be welcomed inside by a thousand little glances and gestures. Inside: into the inner ring, some little group of 'you and me and Matt and Steve - us...' The desire for acceptance is insatiable, for there are always more rings to get inside, and while outside I am filled with that yearning expectation that as long as I fit in and learn to speak just so, and pass over those topics in the silence of disdain, and chuckle approvingly at those comments, then maybe, perhaps, I just might get the nod.

Most inner rings are relatively small and informal. Today I think I experienced one of thirty-eight.

Monday, June 12, 2006

When all else fails...

...try honesty.


What does evangelicalism mean to you? Everyone wants to be evangelical (just like we all want to be catholic, orthodox, liberal, pentecostal and so on), but what are your thoughts on the historical movement, on evangelicalism? Definitions or connotations, or even just the first thing that pops into your head: there are no right answers, so especially if you've been hanging back just reading (you know who you are), have a go at writing a comment.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

World Cup for Theologians II

If you've been slow off the mark to post your nominations, may you ever live in regret. No Australians made the final 32 and German speakers continue to dominate the line-up. However, the first round of matches has already begun. Vote here, here, and here. And here are the results from the first three games. Go Moltmann, Torrance, Gunton, Jüngel and Jenson!

UPDATE: More results here. Latest games/results always here.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A whole new world

[Photo by Adrian Smith]
What will be new about the new heavens and earth? Where is the discontinuity? What will not last?

The short answer is: death. The long answer is death and mourning and crying and pain, the bonds of futility: in sum, the old order of things. It will be a new world order for a renewed world. No longer will God be absent, no longer will mortality loom and pronounce doom. What is hidden will be revealed. Injustice and half justice will be banished; things will be right.

But of course, all I am doing here is quoting the Bible. What does it mean?

Theologically, the problem with this world is neither physicality nor transience, nor temporality, nor humanity per se. It is evil, and its partner, death: the chaotic destruction and convoluting of life, of God's good world. Where did it come from? See my coming post on the origin of evil (and here). What is it like? See my coming post on the nature of evil. What is God doing about it? The gospel: the life, death and resurrection of his Son. Why is it still around? Because the gospel continues: the cross and resurrection were promise as well as achievement; there is a chapter yet to come in which the resurrection is applied to the entire world. What is its destiny? Exclusion from the new world. Whatever we make of the images of eternal destruction, they are complemented by images of exclusion: there is no symmetry between the new creation and what is not in it.

However, this raises the question of whether good things will be excluded. I have often stressed the continuity between creation and its redemption through the language of release (as in Rom 8) or of renewal. But is it true that no good thing will be lost? That not a hair of creation's head will perish?

Now, of course, one piece of scriptural witness I haven't yet mentioned is marriage. Specifically, 'in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.' (Matt 22.30) Is this a good part of this creation that misses out on renewal? No: though like everything else, it must 'die' in order to be raised/transformed. Marriage will remain: the new Jerusalem is 'prepared as a bride adorned for her husband'. The wedding feast of the Lamb and his Church affirms, liberates and restores marriage. What does this mean for those presently married? I am not entirely sure; but the good gift of marriage is not excluded.

Have I here undermined all my previous confidence in continuity? If marriage can be so transformed as to possibly mean the end of all present human marriages (remember, our vows are until parted by death), is anything really 'safe'? Of course not, if by safe we want to retain them as they are. But absolutely, they are secure in the transformative power of God to become truly themselves. The risen Jesus was not at first recognised by even his closest followers. But it was truly him.

Towards the end of The Great Divorce (and despite other problems I have with this text), Lewis captures this dynamic with a beautiful image. One man's lust, a sneering whispering slimy lizard on his shoulder, is killed so that he can 'go on to the Mountains' (an image of new life). As it dies, it becomes an enormous stallion that then carries him on his journey. The narrator reflects upon this with his guide (the Teacher, who is meant to have a Scottish accent. Don't ask):

‘Do ye understand all this, my Son?’ said the Teacher.
I don’t know about all, Sir,’ said I. ‘Am I right in thinking the Lizard really turned into the Horse?’
‘Aye. But it was killed first. Ye’ll not forget that part of the story?’
‘I’ll try not to, Sir. But does it mean that everything – everything – that is in us can go on to the Mountains?’
‘Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it now is. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death.’

- C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 95.

Friday, June 09, 2006

In today's news...

The Barneys fire (see various previous posts, such as this) has been investigated and declared accidental. Either sighs of relief or congratulations to the arsonist are in order.

Patrik and Chris are starting a conversation about the Christian hope of resurrection: symbol or something more?

And another lecturer has joined the rush to be famous before it becomes popular. Here's the opening of Mark Thompson's new blog Theology for the Brave.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

And the poets lie too much

'God is a thought that makes crooked all that is straight, and makes turn whatever stands. How? Should time be gone, and all that is impermanent a mere lie? To think this is a dizzy whirl for human bones, and a vomit for the stomach; verily, I call it the turning sickness to conjecture thus. Evil I call it, and misanthropic - all this teaching of the One and the Plenum and the Unmoved and the Sated and the Permanent. All the permanent - that is only a parable. And the poets lie too much.'

- Zarathustra, Upon the Blessed Isles

Palingenesia and futility

I have usually arranged my eschatological thought under three headings: (i) the return of Christ, (ii) the resurrection of the dead, and (iii) the last judgement. However, I'm becoming more convinced that there is a fourth heading: (iv) the renewal of all things, or palingenesia (Matt 19.28). I used to consider this as a sub-point under resurrection (since the revelation of the children of God is the condition for the creation's own liberation in Rom 8), or perhaps as a consequence of the judgement in which that which is evil is finally repudiated and brought to an end, while that which is good is affirmed and released and revealed and vindicated. But illustrating intersecting themes does not itself justify their conflation.

Corresponding to this hope for universal restoration is a fourth fundamental aspect of our present situation. Not only is (i) divine presence hidden or absent, not only do (ii) all the living die, not only does (iii) evil infect every good thing, but (iv) the entire created order is subject to futility. In each case, the solution is found in the inbreaking of the kingdom of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and in his pouring out his Spirit upon all flesh. The solution is Christ and the Spirit: (i) God with us, (ii) new life to the dying, (iii) forgiveness and vindication - and (iv) liberation. These have each begun, but the problems remain until the end. This is often called 'inaugurated eschatology'. Neither side of this dialectic can be safely neglected. The kingdom is geniunely at hand, but not yet established beyond dispute. It appears as the mustard seed, the field shot through with weeds (seedy and weedy): holding out the promise of great things and purity, but presently small and ambiguous.

So 'now and not yet': perhaps nothing particularly new here. But my point is that futility must also be placed within this dynamic. Christians too continue to find life frustrating and thwarted. The good gifts of the earth are filled with - vanity. Even as we give thanks for them we groan and yearn for what they are yet to be (just as we give thanks for health even as we waste away, just as we give thanks for forgiveness even as find ourselves once again sinning, just as we grasp the promise of Emmanuel in Word and Spirit even as we await the coming of God). Without this, Christian interaction with our physical context becomes either a gnostic hostily (in both active and apathetic varieties) or a triumphalist presumption. The former is found in endless world denying dualisms that justify the marginalisation of environmental considerations; the latter in prosperity gospels (found in both pentecostal and bourgeois comfortably complacent varieties). Admitting futility doesn't come easily.

Biblically, this theme, apparent in the 'thorns and thistles' of Genesis 3, is also evident in the life of Cain, marked as a wanderer (as suggested by Andrew Shead in a sermon today). Futility and exile belong together. For the rootless existence of the wanderer is also fruitless. It is the child of Cain who first builds a city, an attempt at civilisation, at a lasting legacy. But the mark that lasts is the one that God inscribed upon Cain. The very soil recoils from his touch. Adam, taken from the ground, given to it as its servant (Gen 2.15), begets a son to whom the ground no longer yields. The ground cries out with his brother's blood. This chthonic cry remains (Heb 12.24); the earth groans at being thwarted (Rom 8.18ff).

But the blood of Christ speaks a better word, a word of hope for spilled blood, untilled earth, fruitless labour.

I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.

- Friedrich Nieztsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue §3

In the end: the beginning

Moltmann on "the end"
In the end is the beginning: Eschatology is generally held to be the doctrine of ‘the Last Things’, or of ‘the end of all things’. To think this is to think in good apocalyptic terms, but it is not understanding eschatology in the Christian sense. To think apocalyptically means thinking things through to their end: the ambiguities of history must sometime become unambiguous; the time of transience must sometime pass away; the unanswerable questions of existence must sometimes cease. The question about the end bursts out of the torment of history and the intolerableness of historical existence. To echo a German proverb: better a terrifying end than this endless terror.

Eschatology seems to search for the ‘final solution’ of all the insoluble problems, as Isaiah Berlin indignantly remarked, playing on the phrase used at the Wannsee conference in 1942, where the SS decided for a ‘final solution’ of the Jewish question in the camps of mass annihilation. Theological eschatology seems to present the ‘Endgame’ of the theodrama World History. This was Hans Urs von Balthasar’s view, when he took over this title as a legacy from Samuel Beckett. If we look back to the history of eschatology, we see it pictorially represented as God’s great final judgement of the good and the wicked, with heaven for the one and hell for the other. Is the Last Judgement God’s final solution for human history? Other people have dreamed about Armageddon, the final duel in the struggle between Christ and Antichrist, or God and the Devil – whether the duel be fought out with divine fire or modern nuclear armaments.

Eschatology is always thought to deal with the end, the last day, the last word, the last act: God has the last word. But if eschatology were that and only that, it would be better to turn one’s back on it altogether; for ‘the last things’ spoil one’s taste for the penultimate ones, and the dreamed of, or hoped for, end of history robs us of our freedom among history’s many possibilities, and our tolerance for all the things in history that are unfinished and provisional. We can no longer put up with earthly, limited and vulnerable life, and in our eschatological finality we destroy life’s fragile beauty. The person who presses forward to the end of life misses life itself. If eschatology were no more than religion’s ‘final solution’ to all the questions, a solution allowing it to have the last word, it would undoubtedly be a particularly unpleasant form of theological dogmatism, if not psychological terrorism. And it has in fact been used in just this way by a number of apocalyptic arm-twisters among our contemporaries.

But Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic ‘final solutions’ of this kind, for its subject is not ‘the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. Christian eschatology is the remembered hope of the raising of the crucified Christ, so it talks about beginning afresh in the deadly end. ‘The end of Christ – after all that was his true beginning’, said Ernst Bloch. Christian eschatology follows this christological pattern in all its personal, historical and cosmic dimensions: in the end is the beginning.

That is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer took leave of his fellow prisoner, Payne Best, in Flossenbürg concentration camp, as he went to his execution: ‘This is the end – for me the beginning of life.’ That is how John on Patmos saw the Last Judgment of the world – not as annihilation, a universal conflagration, or death in a cosmic winter. He saw it as the first day of the new creation of all things: ‘See, I am making all things new’ (Rev 21.5). If we perceive it in remembrance of the hope of Christ, what is called the end of history is also simply the end of temporal history and the beginning of the eternal history of life. Christ can only be called ‘the end of history’ in the sense that he is the pioneer and leader of the life that lives eternally. Wherever life is perceived and lived in community and fellowship with Christ, a new beginning is discovered hidden in every end. What it is I do not know, but I have confidence that the new beginning will find me and raise me up.

Because of this, I have deliberately avoided calling this book about Christian eschatology ‘The Last Things’ or ‘The End of All Things’, but have given it the title: The Coming of God. In God’s creative future, the end will become the beginning, and the true creation is still to come and ahead of us.

- Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, Preface.

Barth's final advice

Karl Barth refused to salute or sign allegiance to the Führer. He was a founding member of the Confessing Church in Germany, which refused to join the majority of Christians in support for Hitler. Barth singlehandedly drafted most of the famous Barmen declaration. Knowing he would not be popular with the authorities, he drafted a farewell speech to his students. The SS arrived before he could deliver it:

We have been studying cheerfully and seriously. As far as I was concerned it could have continued in that way and I had already resigned myself to having my grave here by the Rhine! I had plans for the future with other colleagues who are either no longer here or have been away for a long time - but there has been a frost on our spring night! And now the end has come. So listen to my last piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given us.

- Karl Barth, 'Das Evangelium in der Gegenwart', Theologische Existenz heute 25 (1935), 16ff.

World Cup for Theologians

Patrik has hit on a way of simultaneously avoiding the 'I don't have a TV during the World Cup' blues (for all you who, like me, suffer under this terrible condition) and maximising his blog hits with a nifty idea: a Theologians' World Cup. The idea is simple, go and vote now to ensure the starting line-up includes at least a few English-speaking names. Then keep voting for your favourite theologian until the winner takes all.

PS Patrik's idea has certain similarities with a suggestion I made on Ben's blog about holding a 'Theological Idol' series in which contestants were progressively voted off. Ah well, too slow once again. Well done, Patrik for inhaling the Zeitgeist.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Faith and place

My old friend Meredith, like thousands before her, has submitted to the benign reign of blogdom. Will blogs eventually go the way of the dodo, being loved to death, or of the yoyo, being quietly put away in virtual drawers for our children to rediscover and astound us with their 'new' tricks? Either way, Meredith is working on a PhD in Australian religious history and has started a blog called 'Faith and Place' on spirituality and space: what it means to believe in a particular place and culture. Although the space still feels a little empty, I'm sure it will quickly fill with interesting stuff. Check it out before the rush.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Theodicy and eschatology III

Weeks ago, I raised the question of theodicy: defending God against the problem of evil. I suggested that the Bible contains a variety of insights and claims that can contextualise and provide comfort for the sufferer. I also claimed (despite some dispute, I'll come back to this issue) that free-will defenses failed to account for evil, since they (more or less) make evil (or the possibility of evil) the necessary condition for a greater good.

My contention from the start has been that only an eschatological theodicy will do. Put briefly, my point is that as long as evil continues to have the dominant hand, any attempt to account for its presence and influence is mere (re)interpretation. As Marx famously said, philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world, the point is to change it. As long as death is deadly, as long as pain hurts, God has a problem, indeed God is a problem.

At this point, a little digression to clarify what my rhetoric has probably obscured. There is not one single problem of evil. It is really a cluster of issues at a number of levels. To pick just three (there may be more, any suggestions welcome):

(a) Mortality and suffering are a problem for me, for every 'me'. The futility and frustrations of a world in which my efforts do not tarry long, in which my best achievements can still detract from the happiness of others, in which there is something wrong with everything, means that life is thwarted, or at least diminished. Capacities go unrealised, joys untasted. Life and possibility and freedom are cut tragically short. And not only are positives less than they could be, but the awareness of ubiquitous negative experiences speaks louder yet of evil as a problem for life.

(b) Such a world as we daily experience makes believing in a good and powerful lord problematic. If God is there and he loves his creation, and has the authority to command and execute justice: where is it? Can we trust him? The apparent rule of fear, failure and frustration makes believing difficult. Seeing in the sufferings of Christ the sufferings of God may help us think he is good. Seeing him soverignly bring good for Joseph out of fraternal evil may help us think he is powerful. But if God so sympathises with us, if he can indeed bring his plans to pass despite, even though, opposition, this only magnifies the question: why don't we see it? Why is life still so hard?

(c) Where God is God, what possibility is there of fault, loss, grief, neglect or hurt? The extent of such things in human experience across the ages, or at any single point, is a problem for God. Who is the God reflected the cracked mirror of this suffering world? Not just the reputation but the very identity of God is tarnished by his tattered world.

We can call evil good* and lose our soul.
We can call God the devil, and lose our hope.
Or we can groan with a groaning world: 'how long, O Lord?' - and lose our comfort in easy resolutions.
*(or at least the condition of possibility for greater good)

PS There's still more to come on this (which, of course, is the point of the whole series. Indeed, it could be called Theodicy: there's still more to come).
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.

Atheism for God's sake

Kim thanks God for atheists, and I say 'amen'. The early Christians were called atheists for failing to honour the Roman gods, specifically for failing to worship the emperor. In a world that in many ways is reverting to our Roman cultural roots, can Christians learn once more to say 'no' to the gods of our culture and western tradition in order to say 'yes' to the Father of Jesus Christ? Can we be atheists for God's sake?

Which gods don't you believe in?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Wrath of God

'Wrath is the experience of humans when they come to know the yearning jealousy of God.'

- Scot McKnight

The elves are leaving Middle Earth: Nostalgia

MPJ has a fascinating post on nostalgia. Of course, I always think of Lord of the Rings when I think of nostalgia: the elves are leaving Middle Earth. But does this romantic bittersweetness come at the cost of paralysing present action? How can memory be productively tied to praxis?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Will Newtown be in Heaven?

I heard a great issues paper today from Evan McFarlane called 'Will Newtown be in Heaven?'* His answer, roughly speaking, was 'of course not - because heaven is not the eschatological goal. But Newtown will (in some form) be radically renewed in the eschaton, along with the rest of God's creation.'

This conclusion, though familiar to some, is for many others still something of a shock. The belief in 'heaven when you die' as the Christian hope runs deep and dies hard. I was leading a Bible study discussion recently on the Christian hope based on 1 Corinthians 15 and the idea of something awaiting us other than flight to an otherworldly bliss seemed novel to the entire group (hi guys if you're reading this!). I was asked what I called my newfangled theological position. I could think of no other name than 'the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come'.

The worst culprits on this matter are generally our songs. One of my favourites has this clanger:
When from the dust of death I arise
To claim my home beyond the skies...

Simply substituting beneath for beyond would be sufficient. At least this song has a resurrection (from the dust of death I arise), which puts it streets ahead of so many others in which death is simply the doorway to a heavenly bliss beyond.
* Newtown is a suburb of Sydney and was the location for the delivery of Evan's paper.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Augustine: searching

'Where was I when I was seeking for you? You were there before me, but I had departed from myself. I could not even find myself, much less you.'

- Augustine, Confessions V.ii

The search for God is impossible for us because we have departed from ourselves. Until we know ourselves, we will not know God. Until we know God, we will not know ourselves.