Thursday, February 28, 2008

No safety

"We belong to a community doubly vulnerable: to self-deceit, and to the unremitting leavening of the truth proclaimed in word and sacrament."

- Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, 59.

This double vulnerability is very important for Williams. There is no safe church; no possibility of a community secure from self-destruction, or from divine redemption. No individual is safe from either sin or grace. If you think you are standing firm, beware lest you fall. If you think you are fallen, beware lest God raise you from the dead.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The opposite of faith, hope and love

Eric Meyer over at A Few Words asks us to clarify what we mean by the central virtues of faith, hope and love by suggesting a word to express the opposite of each:

The opposite of faith is _______.
The opposite of hope is ________.
The opposite of love is _______.
How would you finish each sentence?

Eric offers his suggested answers.

It seems to me that there are at least three ways we could think about these virtues "going wrong": misdirection, inversion or absence. That is, faith, hope and love can be placed in the wrong thing, can turn sour, or can wither away.

First, they can have the wrong object and in each case, become idolatry (or at least find their centre in the wrong object, since trusting, hoping in and loving God does not compete with or destroy similar orientations towards our neighbour). However, this is not so much the opposite of the virtues as a perversion of them.

Second, we might think of the feisty opposites of each, that do battle directly against them. In this sense, the opposite of love is hate, of hope is despair, of faith is mistrust. In each case, there is still a good desire at the heart of each of these mirror-virtues. They are what often results when passionate but unformed virtue meets bitter disappointment. The one who hates still cares enough to put his heart into it; the one who despairs has not, in one sense, given up on the desire for things to be different, she has just come to think that nothing in reality corresponds to that desire; the one who is filled with cynicism still desires trustworthiness, but has never met it. In each case, I think such a person is close to the kingdom of God.

But I think the most common and most pernicious opponent of the central theological virtues is not when they are multiplied by -1, but by 0, not when they explode into protest, but when they fade into silence, muffled by fear. And so the true opponent of love is not hate, but indifference or apathy - the belief that others simply don't matter anymore. The true opponent of hope is not despair but resignation or complacency - the belief that another world is neither possible nor desirable. The true opponent of faith is not mistrust but isolation or independence - the belief that I am self-sufficient.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ecclesial dirt and reputational purity

I have had a number of conversations in the last year or so with new or aspiring Anglican clergy that have revolved around the question of which parish to work in. This in itself is quite unsurprising. I studied at Moore College for four years and so spent much of my time with men and women preparing for a lifetime of service in various Protestant churches, mainly Anglican. At the end of a degree, the question of future ministry looms large: where will I serve God and his people? To talk with one's colleagues and friends while discerning an answer is common sense. Even for those who have decided not to pursue service further afield, the sheer number of churches in Sydney makes for a bewildering variety of options. A range of factors could be taken into account in determining an outcome: the ability to use one's particular gifts in the job description, existing relational ties to a congregation or significant individual, the chance to receive further training, the needs and opportunities of the local area, proximity to family, cultural familiarity, respect for the senior minister, confluence of ministry approach and personality, and many others.

What concerned, irritated and ultimately alarmed me was the extent to which one particular aspect seemed to dominate or feature prominently amongst the selection criteria in more than a few discussions. It wasn't "how much will I be paid?" or "will I get a comfortable house?" If such considerations were functioning consciously or unconsciously, they were rarely admitted. No, the criteria in question was: "will serving at this church damage my reputation and make it more difficult for me to get another position in future?"

The thinking, as best as I can reconstruct it, goes something like this. Some parishes in Sydney are seen by the dominant mindset as "tainted" in various ways. They might be a little more charismatic in worship and tone, a little higher in churchmanship (e.g. they might still celebrate Communion regularly), a little broader in the role of women in ministry, a little more open to certain thinkers (such as He Who Must Not Be Named (let the reader understand)), a little more into eating babies and Satan worship. OK, so maybe not the last one. In any case, and more seriously, such parishes depart from what is perceived to be "Sydney orthodoxy" in one or more respects. For those contemplating future employment opportunities, they represent a dangerous possibility of guilt by association. If I accept a position as catechist (student minister) or assistant there, I will gain a reputation for being charismatic/high church/liberal/soft - better to keep my head down and my name pure.

This is, of course, a caricature, but only just. Such reasoning disturbs me for at least three reasons.

(a) It assumes the world can be divided fairly neatly into white hats and black hats. The former are teachers or churches who are solid, reliable, trustworthy, orthodox, "gospel-centred". The latter are teachers or churches that are dangerously wrong, beyond the pale and from whom nothing ought to be learned lest I endanger my soul (not to mention my future ministry opportunities). Of course, everyone is actually a shade of grey: there is none so pure that I can safely accept her every word; there is none so wicked that in God's grace I have nothing to learn from him. We are all always doubly vulnerable: to sin and to grace.

(b) It assumes that I am passive in the interaction, that I will be infected by their "contagion", rather than their being infected by my "holiness". Jesus was contagiously holy; he touched lepers and made them clean instead of himself becoming unclean (Mark 1.40-42). If I think a certain parish is heading in the wrong direction, might not my presence – my prayer, listening, teaching, sharing, love – in God's grace exert some positive influence?

(c) It is based on fear. This fear is not simply that I might lose my way spiritually or theologically by falling under an unwise influence (a concern which may have some small place in healthy thinking), but a fear that others will think less of me, that I will lose honour by associating with the "dishonourable". And each individual who acts based on this fear feeds it in others by implicitly affirming it as a real fear. Although some interlocutors have claimed that they are "simply being realistic", I can't help feeling there are some parallels to a situation in which a man is being beaten by a small group of thugs and a large crowd watches, each individually using the "realistic" reasoning: "if I were the first to go to the victim's assistance, they would turn on me." What each doesn't realise is that all are waiting for someone to initiate action so they can join in.

I'm not saying that such differences between parishes in theology and practice are irrelevant. But the service of God, his people and his world is too important for us to be distracted by anxiety over reputation.
Fifteen points for each of the buildings.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Jesus: friend of sinners

Church: a place for broken people

Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus? Thus, the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together--the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 15-17.

Jesus was not ashamed to share company with tax collectors and prostitutes; he was called "the friend of sinners" and invited national traitors to join his renewal movement (Mark 2.13-17). If we would eat with Jesus, we too become friends with the friend of sinners and are revealed as those who are sick, in need of a physician. The company Jesus keeps is not with those who believe themselves perfect, or superior, or pure, but with those who know they need such a friend. The church is a place for broken people.

With whom do you eat?
Ten points for guessing the Sydney church building.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Reformation and the Bible: against individualism

Having enjoyed that last post and returned to work, I thought I'd give the 123 thing a go on the next book I picked up. Again, a typical statement from a frequent source of quotes on this blog. It was also no surprise, given the small size of the volume and the infamous verbosity of the author, that by the 10th sentence of page 123, you're on page 124.

Initially, the Reformation was an attempt to put the Bible at the heart of the Church again – to give it into the hands of private readers. The Bible was to be seen as a public document, the charter of the Church's life; all believers should have access to it because all would need to know the common language of the Church and the standards by which the Church argued about theology and behaviour. The huge Bibles that were chained up in English churches in the sixteenth century were there as a sign of this. It was only as the rapid development of cheap printing advanced that the Bible as a single affordable volume came to be within everyone's reach as something for individuals to possess and study in private. The leaders of the Reformation would have been surprised to be associated with any move to encourage anyone and everyone to form their own conclusions about the Bible. For them, it was once again a text to be struggled with in the context of prayer and shared reflection.
Eight points for guessing the author; ten for the book.

Grief and love (Book tag)

Benjamin tagged me in a game with the following rules:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five other people.
Here is my quote, see if you can guess the author:
"The person who mourns deeply has loved greatly. The person who cannot mourn has never loved. It is true that at the present time and in our present culture we are so conditioned that we want to have happiness without pain, and love without grief. We flee the grief and seek a painless happiness. What is on offer in modern society, culturally and medically, is designed to meet this personal wish. But if it is true that mourning is not the farewell to love but love's reverse side, then we can explore the mystery of mourning without fear, and surrender ourselves to mourning without being afraid of losing ourselves."
I included a few extra sentences at the start so that it made more sense, but I think it is quite a typical quote from this author, who is no stranger to this blog.

Having enjoyed that so much, I thought I'd try it again with the second closest book at hand. Again, I scored a very typical point from a much imitated and much parodied author.
"All this leads in conclusion to the area that, it seems to me, is just as vital a part of the contemporary christological task as learning to speak truly about the earthly Jesus and his sense of vocation. We must learn to speak biblically, in the light of this Jesus, about the identity of the one true God. There can be no more central task within our learning to follow Jesus and to transform our world with his gospel."
I was then about to try it with the third closest book, the Concise OED, but it came out at the entry on "behave", so I thought I'd better get back to work.

I tag Justin, Rory, Rev Sam, Meredith and æ (and you, if you feel like it).
Twelve points for the first to correctly guess either of the authors; twenty if you can pick the book.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Metaphors: or why we should avoid being too clear

Metaphor is often seen as an inferior means of communication, used by poets and others (= theologians?) who are hesitant about being 'precise', and in need of a more 'literal' or 'direct' paraphrase. But to think so is to misunderstand how language works. There is no 'pure' metaphor-free language behind the images of the poets (and theologians). We don't need to get behind or beyond metaphor (an aim at once impoverishing and impossible), but to enter into them more imaginatively, more carefully, more attentively. Very often, what passes for 'clear' communication is simply a collection of the dried carcasses of old metaphors. An obsessive desire for clarity can sometimes arise from an unwillingness to hear anything new, a desire to be told only what I already know, a fear of opening my eyes.

"[W]hen the New Testament speaks of the life, and particularly the cross, of Jesus as a sacrifice, a victory and the justification of the sinner, may it not be that we encounter no ‘mere’ metaphors but linguistic usages which demand a new way of thinking about and living in the world? Here is real sacrifice, victory and justice, so that what we thought the words meant is shown to be inadequate and in need of reshaping by that to which the language refers.”

– Colin Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement, 51-52.

The worst mistake in the history of the human race

According to Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel, the worst mistake in human history was the adoption of agriculture. According to Diamond, it would have been better if we'd kept on gathering and hunting.

Confused? Ready to pick up a pitchfork or hoe and join a mob of angry farmers in protest? Give this a read.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Wright on Williams on Sharia

N. T. Wright has written a short piece for the Washington Post offering what seems to be quite a sensible take on the recent controversy.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Eliot on memory

And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

- T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding II.138-42.

An act of harm done with good intentions is still an act of harm. This too, is part of the human condition: the inability to secure our desires through our limited capacity for action. And so all our actions must be committed to God in hope and open to repentance.

Williams on racism

"[...] racism is not evil because its victims are good, it is evil because its victims are human. They share a common humanity, complete with its failings as well as its beauties, with their oppressors. If I do not grasp this, I am not really open to the possibility of ordinary human relationship with the victimized group. I 'atone' for my primal sin of oppression by according a superior instead of an inferior place to my victims, placing a moral scourge in their hands to beat me as I once beat them; and this is a travesty of the human reconciliation and restoration: my imagination is still trapped in the illusion that the basic and ultimate form of human relation is between the powerful and the powerless."

- Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel
(Darton, Longman + Todd, 1982), 11.

I thought this quote was particularly relevant this week as Australia faces its own history of government-sanctioned racism. That opposition leader Brendon Nelson thought it necessary to dwell upon the ongoing failings of indigenous people and the noble achievements of previous generations of European Australians as part of an apology displayed the fear that apologizing might simply reverse the previous moral polarity: black becomes white and white, black, so to speak. Some of the outraged reaction to his speech also betrayed a similar lack of imagination.

The good news is that Jesus opens a different way of relating between perpetrator and victim in which the hurt of both can begin to be healed without merely exchanging one kind of abuse for another.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Moltmann on escapism

“To believe means to cross in hope and anticipation the bounds that have been penetrated by the raising of the crucified. If we bear that in mind, then this faith can have nothing to do with fleeing the world, with resignation and with escapism. In this hope the soul does not soar above our vale of tears to some imagined heavenly bliss, nor does it sever itself from the earth. … It sees in the resurrection of Christ not the eternity of heaven, but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands.”

- Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (SCM, 2002 [1967]), 6.

Too often, Christians use bad theology to justify bad politics. Salvation is not a get out of gaol free card that enables the bearer to ignore the concrete situation in which she finds herself. What we do with our lives, our bodies, our communities and our ecosystems matters.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Apology: full text

Here is the text of the motion of apology to the Stolen Generations that Kevin Rudd will deliver at 9 am AEDT this morning as the first act of the new federal Australian parliament:

Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.
H/T Jason, who has posted the full text of Kevin Rudd's speech (not just the actual motion).

Seasoned with salt: grace-filled conversations I

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.     - Colossians 4.6.

A new series
I thought I'd start a new series about "salty" conversations, the kind that are tasty and keep people coming back for more. Too often, I seem to meet Christians who think that discussing matters of faith, hope and love involves being obnoxious, pulling out a tract, trapping people, monologising or desperately cramming everything that "must be said" into this exchange. Sadly, even more often I meet Christians who keep their heads down and mouths shut out of fear of falling into one of the categories just mentioned.

Instead, I hope to start some conversations about what makes for good conversation. Obviously, insights into this rare and delightful phenomenon are not limited to believers. I'll post real situations I've been in (with a few details changed to keep it anonymous) and ask for your advice on how you might have handled them.

Situation: You have an acquaintance you've gradually got to know in irregular meetings over a couple of years. He is of Roman Catholic background and goes to mass regularly - every single Easter and Christmas. You are catching up a week after Christmas and when asked how it was, he somewhat indignantly reveals that when he went to mass this Christmas the priest laid a guilt trip on those who only show twice a year.

How might you respond?
Eight points for the first to correctly name the salty conversation pictured.

Monday, February 11, 2008

What is the church?

Have you ever paused to think how strange a thing church is? Over the weekend, I found myself trying to explain the concept to someone without much experience of a Christian community before. These were some of my attempts in a long rambling conversation that spanned a few hours in a pub.

We’re an open-ended experiment testing the words of Jesus.

We’re an alternative society based not on money or beauty or usefulness, but on grace, on God’s free gift.

We’re a community who recognise the need to continually confess our failures, repent of them and forgive one another if we are to live together in anything more than polite superficiality.

We’re a global peace network suspicious of both bland globalisation and violent tribalism.

We’re a bunch of people who find it impossible to not talk about God. And who find it impossible to talk about God without speaking of Jesus. And who find it impossible to talk about God without ending up talking to God, often with laughter or tears.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Confused about the apology?

This Wednesday, Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, will apologise to the "Stolen Generations" on behalf of the Australian parliament for policies implemented until the 1970s in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians were forcibly removed from their families and placed into institutional or foster-family care simply on the basis of race. This has been a controversial and highly politicised issue in Australia for many years. As a result, there is much confusion over what the apology will and will not mean. Although the specific wording to be used will not be released until tomorrow, it is worth addressing some of the common questions about this event.

#1 I didn't do it, why should I apologise?
The apology on Wednesday is being made by Kevin Rudd on behalf of the Australian parliament, not the Australian people. The apology is for specific government policies relating to the removal of children, not generally for all mistreatment of indigenous people. As a parallel example, a few years ago John Howard apologised to Vietnam veterans for how they were mistreated upon their return from the war.

#2 Why bring up ancient history?
Not only do such traumatic actions have repercussions extending beyond a single generation, but these policies were still being implemented into the 1960s and early 70s. Many of those directly affected as children and family members are still alive today.

#3 Saying sorry won't change anything
An apology is a necessary but not sufficient step in the path to healing and reconciliation. In this case, it ought not to be a distraction from or alternative to seeking better results in health, education and housing. It will not change what happened in the past, but it is the only way to seek a better future.

#4 The policies were executed with good intentions
Intentions are not irrelevant, but by themselves are insufficient when evaluating an event. The majority of indigenous children were removed from their families purely on the basis of the colour of their skin, not the level of their care. Many were abused physically, sexually or emotionally as a result. It is difficult to find a member of the Stolen Generations who is happy about being denied the love of their parents and extended family.
Modified from The Stolen Generations’ Apology – 7 Handy Mythbusters published by GetUp.

If you want to watch the apology on Wednesday, here is a list of locations. It will be screened live on ABC at 9 am EST. Here are some FAQs answered by Reconciliation Australia. I also gave some more recommended links on the topic back here.

Williams on Augustine's Confessions

"The Confessions provide a unique testimony to the fact that it is God and God alone who can give shape and meaning to a human life. The struggles of men and women to make their own lives and build their own securities end in despair, and this is equally true for the believer and the unbeliever. Conversion does not signify an end to the chaos of human experience, it does not make self-understanding easy or guarantee an ordered or intelligible life. What is changed in conversion is the set of determinants within which the spirit moves; and there may be as inaccessible to the mind as they were before. Thus the confidence of the believer never rests upon either his intellectual grasp or his intellectual control of his experience, but on the fidelity of the heart's longing to what has been revealed as the only satisfying object of its desire."

- Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, 84.

This is an important point that Williams highlights in Augustine. Christians can often give the (false) impression that the good life of obedience and trust to which we are called is an easier, simpler one, as though the painful ambiguities and frustrations of life could be exchanged for uncomplicated simplicity. The evangelist then appears as a shonky car dealer offering an unbelievable product at discount prices. The desperate are taken in; the discerning, suspicious.

But the desire to build our own securities - whether we pursue it in a militant atheism safely unruffled by rumours of God, in an isolated individualism sheltered from the demands of real relationship or in a shallow Christianity that thinks all the answers are written down in the back of the book - will "end in despair". Life is not safe. There is no escape from this fact either in God or in flight from him.

The eager expectation associated with Christian belief does not come from discovering an exhaustive explanation of life's mysteries, a satiating of desire in ultimate answers, but from an encounter that deepens, affirms and subverts our desires.
For those confused, concerned or cross at reports of comments made by Williams about sharia law in the UK, check out Faith and Theology for some intelligent comment and discussion.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The cruciality of the cross

The cross of Christ is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and foolishness. Today, too, it is considered old-fashioned to put him in the centre of Christian faith and of theology. Yet only when men [sic] are reminded of him, however untimely this may be, can they be set free from the power of the facts of the present time, and from the laws and compulsions of history, and be offered a future which will never grow dark again. Today the church and theology must turn to the crucified Christ in order to show the world the freedom he offers. This is essential if they wish to become what they assert they are: the church of Christ, and Christian theology. […] Whether or not Christianity, in an alienated, divided and oppressive society, itself becomes alienated, divided and an accomplice of oppression, is ultimately decided only by whether the crucified Christ is a stranger to it or the Lord who determines the form of its existence. […] In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian.”

– Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The cross of Christ as the foundation and criticism of Christian Theology, 1, 3, 7.

The cross (or better, as Moltmann says, the Crucified) is rightly the centre and focus of Christian theology. Many theologies, however, are content to discuss this event (indeed, this person) in terms of atonement or salvation. Christ died for our sins - for us - thus defeating evil, atoning for our transgressions, cleansing us from stain, putting us to death that we may live, redeeming us from slavery to nothingness, reconciling us to his Father - and a whole range of other images used in the scriptures. This is indeed the foundation, but not the extent, of any theology of the cross. The crucifixion of Christ is not just atonement, but also revelation and way of life: it doesn't just bring peace between us and the Father, it also reveals the Father's heart of love and humility and summons us to true life in the way of the cross.
Title of post stolen from a P. T. Forsyth book title. I thought I'd better acknowledge this debt before the avatar of Forsyth turns up to enforce it!

On talking with atheists

Rev Sam has started a series (here, here and here) reflecting on his extensive experiences talking with atheists about the Christian faith. He distinguishes between two kinds of athesist: (a) humourless atheists and (b) sophisticated atheists. The former are "humourless" in the sense that they just don't get the "joke" of theology, they think it entirely a waste of time and simply nonsense. They have a kind of aspect blindness. They often base their criticisms on stereotypes, populist or fundamentalist understandings of Christianity (which often deserve to be criticised!), but have little or not familiarity with the more significant, rigorous and creative figures in the Christian theological tradition. The latter "get" it much more, and probably feel the attractiveness of Christ, but are perhaps unconvinced by some point: the resurrection, the problem of evil, or something else. I think this is a useful distinction and the series has sparked some very interesting responses, with many of Sam's points being illustrated within the discussion of them.

This double classification of atheisms reminds me of a somewhat similar one by Merold Westphal in his excellent little book on Nietzsche, Marx and Freud called Suspicion and Faith: the religious uses of modern atheism. He very usefully distinguishes between an atheism of scepticism (à la Hume), which finds the claims of Christianity to be untrue, and an atheism of suspicion (as in Nietzsche and co.), in which Christian belief is found to be immoral.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Gardening and faith 101

Postprandial ruminations
As I mentioned back here, Jessica and I have taken up gardening - at least as much as it is possible to do so on a small, south-facing, third-floor balcony. For the last few months, we've been enjoying quite a harvest: scores of cherry tomatoes, handfuls of capsicums and chillis, dozens of beans and snow peas, even some carrots, corn and potatoes, as well as a constant supply of basil, thyme, sage and mint.*

One of the most fun bits has been our worm farm, which takes nearly all our kitchen scraps and peelings (not to mention a little paper and even hair clippings) and turns them into high quality fertiliser. I think part of the delight for hardened urbanites like us has been to witness the full cycle of growth, production, consumption and decomposition. Living in a city, it is easy to forget the connections between all these things, especially the truth that there is no "away" to which we can throw things. "Garbage" is just something that belongs somewhere else - often in the worm farm!

Perhaps even more thrilling than watching worms gorge themselves has been the experience of seeing seeds grow and turn into recognisable and edible produce. Although I studied agriculture from year 7 until the HSC, this remains a surprising delight. A simple pleasure, but it's true that there's something special about eating what you've grown yourself. Could it be that part of what's special about growing your own food is that this experience powerfully brings home the reality that you didn't grow it yourself?

Let me explain. So much of our urban environment is the result of human manufacturing and ingenuity. From pixels to plates to polystyrene, we constantly and subtly receive the message that we are the fashioners of our own space and the makers of our own destiny. But the mystery of a growing seed explodes the myth of self-sufficiency, either individual or human. We rely on others all the time: not least to grow, harvest, transport, store, (often) cook and dispose of our food; we rely on the non-human all the time: the rains in season, the sunlight that freely bombards our planet twenty-four seven, the soils ground up or belched forth from the earth. Growing food yourself reveals that we don't grow our own food.

Jesus once told a story:

"This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come."             – Mark 4.26-29
What is true of our lives and basic sustenance is also true of our hope in God's kingdom: we are primarily audience, recipients, beneficiaries. In the life of faith we are simply surprised and delighted farmers, dole bludgers on God's grace, children receiving his fatherly care. And thank God for that!
*If you compare this list to the one back here, you'll be able to work out all the things that sadly didn't make it.

Æ on Moltmann on theodicy

Andrew Errington (or "Æ", as he now calls himself; I'm jealous - I want a grapheme designed for my initials too) has started a series of posts discussing Jürgen Moltmann's take on theodicy in The Trinity and the Kingdom of God. As a topic close to my heart, I urge you to go and read some great quotes.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Obama: hope and false hope

Bob the Builder and the politics of promise
This is a somewhat lengthy post and not simply about American politics, though this is where I begin.


If you missed Barack Obama's stirring concession speech in New Hampshire a few weeks ago, make sure you check out this music video by Black Eyed Peas, directed by Jessie Dylan (son of Bob), which will give you the vibe (H/T Benjamin):
For a video of the actual speech, try here. It concluded like this:
We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks to come. We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we've been told that we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation. Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights. Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness. Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land. Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.

And so tomorrow, as we take this campaign South and West; as we learn that the struggles of the textile worker in Spartanburg are not so different than the plight of the dishwasher in Las Vegas; that the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA; we will remember that there is something happening in America; that we are not as divided as our politics suggests; that we are one people; we are one nation; and together, we will begin the next great chapter in America's story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea: Yes - we - can.


Now I am a fan of Obama, at least more so than any of the other remaining likely candidates. And despite facing possible litigation from Bob the Builder over intellectual property, this speech exemplifies the future-looking politics of "hope" and "change" (the two key buzz words in the Obama campaign) that are drawing thousands, especially young people, to the senator's bandwagon.

This is a politics of dissatisfaction with the present. Indeed, Obama might have been reading some Jürgen Moltmann on this point; true hope, far from being a sedative, an opiate for the masses, is correlated with frustration towards the status quo.

Politics that trades on hope, as Obama's does, works by noticing the points of tension in society, the places where there are problems and offering an alternative, a possibility of change, something new and previously untried. For Moltmann, however, the movement between hope and dissatisfaction is the reverse: hope is generated by a divine promise of an inbreaking future that undermines our unthinking acceptance of the present. Something more is possible.

The problem with starting from the problem is that the more the present can be demonised, the more the politician offering something – anything – new is necessary. Change is made attractive in the abstract. The fear of the ongoing disaster overrules our default conservatism until we are ready to say "better the devil we don't know".

Now Obama doesn't simply offer change; there is content to his agenda, which can be compared with alternatives. But I am speaking about a mode of politics, a tone that arises most often in his campaign. For example, take these sentences: We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. There is a subtle shift in the meaning of "false hope" between the first and second sentences. The first speaks of particular hopes that may end up proving dangerously unfounded; the second of whether hope itself is misleading. By making this shift, the former possibility is obscured behind the noble sentiment of the latter. If we are simply discontent with how things are now to the point where we are willing to try almost anything else, then we would do well to reflect on which particular hopes may prove false, but these lines subtly discourage such reflection in an undifferentiated call for "change".

In contrast, for Moltmann, the content of hope is given in the gospel of Christ, particularly his resurrection from the dead. The new life of the crucified is a promise to a godless and godforsaken world that what God did for Christ he will one day do for his entire groaning creation. The deadly powers that destroy relationships will not last forever. The guilt of those who have collaborated with those powers will not hold back God's new order, nor will it disqualify the repentant from enjoying that order. It is this vision of a resurrection world gathered together and healed by the Spirit of the living Jesus that makes those who hold this hope dissatisfied with all that undermines life and love today. This is a healthier direction: from a specific promise to hope to dissatisfaction and action, rather than dissatisfaction generating a hope for any change that is then manipulated by politicians through their promises of action.

Against this divine great promise the human little promises of the politicians can be (at least provisionally) evaluated. The sure hope for this divinely-achieved future frees the present political system from the ultimately destructive burden of having to repair the world itself. Liberated from this impossible task, it can begin the smaller, actually possible one of taking one step in this direction. Not in hope that with enough steps we will climb our way to a heavenly existence, but in hope that such steps are possible as signs of trust in a God who will one day cause heaven to dwell on earth.

As I said, I still hope Obama wins, but this is a little hope, not a great one. He is not the messiah; neither he, or even we, can heal a nation or repair a world. Change is indeed necessary, but not any change, not at any price. Change is necessary because being too scared to love our neighbour as best as we can would be a demonstration of our unbelief in the God who will raise the dead.

Rory discusses Hart's The Doors of the Sea

For the many who have read D. B. Hart's little book The Doors of the Sea: where was God in the tsunami?, you might be interested to join the discussion over on Rory's blog. He's just finished this fascinating little tome and has begun a series of chapter summaries.

The problem of evil - and the problem with theodicies - was an early theme of this blog (especially in this series), and Hart's book has been a source of further reflection.

In praise of... (series links)

Yes, series links are good things and so here are the links to all the posts in this eclectic and open-ended "series".

In praise of...

blog interviews
a bright idea
a brighter idea
government regulation
more humane immigration policy
new delights
praise (series intro)
public repentance
short engagements
tag clouds

Sunday, February 03, 2008

February points table

January was very slow month all round: fewer posts, fewer visitors, fewer points. Thus, the only bonus points awarded are ten to Meredith and five each to Mister Tim and One Salient Oversight. For those with a sharp eye, creative wit, solid Googling skills or lots of time, there are still around 632 points available.

February points table

42: Anthony
16: Matt Lemieux
5: Moffitt the Prophet
Five points for the first to correctly name the city. Eight for the first to correctly name the main building in the background. Twelve for the name of the ceremony taking place. No person to claim more than one set of points.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Word became flesh

Reflections upon John 1.1-14

“Thus the reality of Jesus Christ is that God Himself in person is actively present in the flesh. God Himself in person is the Subject of a real human being and acting. And just because God is the Subject of it, this being and acting are real. They are genuinely and truly human and acting. Jesus Christ is not a demigod. He is not an angel. Nor is He an ideal man. He is a man as we are, equal to us as a creature, as a human individual, but also equal to us in the state and condition into which our disobedience has brought us. And in being what we are He is God’s Word. Thus as one of us, yet the one of us who is Himself God’s Word in person, He represents God to us and He represents us to God. In this way He is God’s revelation to us and our reconciliation with God.”

- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, 151.

God surprises us by speaking a word that is far less alien than we might have expected. And yet its very familiarity - its human face, ten fingers and forty-six chromosomes - makes it quite possible to disregard. The light of the world shines in our darkness and we overlook it. The Word became flesh and moved into our neighbourhood and we treat it like any other neighbour: with polite inattention. We have learned to not be too inquisitive, to limit our hospitality to the surface so all we see is our own lives mirrored back. We are so easily bored with ourselves that when one comes who is flesh like us, we assume he too is boring.

Have you looked again at your neighbour? Are they worth a second look? Have you written yourself off? If the light that enlightens everyone became flesh like us, can we afford to ignore one another?

If we are not to be bored with ourselves, we have to learn to look at Jesus in such a way that we can say with the Evangelist: "we have seen his glory" (John 1.14). If we open our eyes, beware, the glare may be dazzling.
Jesus said, "I have come into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind."             - John 9.39
Eight points for guessing the English city in the picture.

Friday, February 01, 2008

In praise of... tag clouds

Many thanks to Benjamin Ady for putting together my new and very groovy tag cloud. If you haven't seen it yet, scroll down the sidebar. I'd been jealous of his for months. Go and check out his blog oxymoronredundancyparadoxtrap for the latest on the US primaries (esp anything to do with Barak Obama), US foreign policy (esp what's happening in Iraq for Iraqis), fun videos (e.g. WWJD?) and lots more.

OOPS - I forgot to point out he also co-hosts a second blog called Justice and Compassion that is even more worth a look or three.