Monday, January 26, 2009

Becoming a theologian: the ten step program

Ben Myers offers his advice for theological students. Compulsory reading for all theologians, theologians-in-training and those who dream of one day being theologians. As the great poet Homer says, "It's funny because it's true."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Scarcity is not the problem

"The conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us at the turn of the millennium. The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal service declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. In the words of St. Paul, neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor things -- nothing can separate us from God.

"What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then, creates a different kind of present tense for us. We can live according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for."

- Walter Brueggemann, "The Liturgy of Abundance and the Myth of Scarcity"

My ethics lecturer at Moore College, Andrew Cameron, would often say "scarcity is not the problem". At first, I thought he was crazy. Of course scarcity is a problem. There are people starving for lack of food or ill from lack of clean water, others who sell themselves into slavery for lack of money, or who go without medical care and suffer apparently unnecessary pain, farmers whose crops fail due to drought and changing weather patterns. All these people cry "we do not have enough!"

But that is not what he was saying. He was saying (I think) that scarcity is not the problem. Scarcity only becomes a problem due to other, deeper problems: our unwillingness to share, our ignorance (willful or otherwise) of the needs of our neighbours, our confusion of wants and needs, our fear that unless we hoard all we can then we might miss out, our delusion that endless economic growth is necessary for a healthy society or that boundless consumption will make us happy. These are the real problems. Scarcity is the symptom of a world out of joint. And lives based on the assumption of scarcity compound other problems. If I fear that there will not be enough to go around, I will be more reluctant to share.

The quote with which I began is from this article by well known Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. It is worth reading in full (it is not too long) as a great articulation of the fundamental Christian belief in God's generosity. God is not stingy. He has not shortchanged us. He provides abundantly (though not infinitely as our childish dreams desires). There is enough. There will be enough. Be not afraid.

Give us this day our daily bread. Amen.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

One thousand

This is my 1,000th post. What are the chances of making it to 2,000?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Atheist: what Africa needs is more Christianity

This Times Online article by Matthew Parris is worth a look. He argues that Africa's biggest problem is a traditional belief system that encourages passivity and is forced to admit, despite his own atheist beliefs, that Christianity makes a difference.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


To celebrate the end of eight years, I thought remembering a few of the highlights might make us all a little nostalgic. I doubt we're going to get much material of this quality during the next four, so make sure you savour these.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

N. T. Wright reads Humpty Dumpty

Here is further confirmation that the Bishop of Durham unlocks the true meaning of the New Testament. Or at least a good laugh for a particular species of geek.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Faith's daring

"Only a Christian who does not allow himself to be infected by modern humanity's neurotic anxiety [...] has any hope of exercising a Christian influence on this age. He will not haughtily turn away from the anxiety of his fellow men and fellow Christians but will show them how to extricate themselves from their fruitless withdrawal into themselves and will point out the paths by which they can step out into the open, into faith's daring."

- Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian and Anxiety (trans. Dennis D. Martin and Michael J. Miller; San Francisco: Igatius Press, 2000), 88.

What are these paths? How can a Christian discover and share these paths from fearful fruitlessness to faithful daring today?

Friday, January 09, 2009

On leaving the dying in the dark

I'm dying.

Let's face it: we all are. There's no avoiding it and denial can only get you so far. Although I was quite sick a year or two ago, and there are no new developments (which would be posted here if there were any), I have been reminded of my mortality again recently when I was bedridden by a nasty 'flu while travelling. It was not fun. But while I lay there alternatively shivering and sweating, I thought about hospitals and sickness, doctors and families, diagnoses and prognoses. And about how the patient is often the last one to know that he is dying. Or so everyone thinks and so everyone conspires to keep it thus.

But I think that's a profound disservice. Why do we think that it would be such a bad thing to know that your own death is imminent? It assumes that the worst thing would be to be dying and to know it. It assumes that the patient is unwilling or incapable of facing his own death and must be treated again like a child whose parents spell out words over his head. Except in this case, rather than the parents spelling L-O-L-L-Y or B-E-D-T-I-M-E, it is the children spelling T-E-R-M-I-N-A-L or T-H-R-E-E-M-O-N-T-H-S.

Although death is not a party, not a cause for celebration or an irrelevance, neither is death the worst possible thing. There are things worse than death. In fact, since Christ has defeated death, we can now face death without fear. Not just the knowledge that one day I, like everyone else, will die, but even the news that death is imminent need not destroy our enjoyment of life or the pursuit of delight in service. Death, the defeated enemy, can be faced and even accepted. Its sting has been removed.

And so there is no need to keep for a conspiracy of the healthy in order to keep the dying in the dark about the their own death. All of us who live in the shadow of death can open our eyes and see the glow of the coming dawn.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Crucifix or cross?

This was an interesting debate. Make sure you also watch the video. I'd love to hear other reflections on this.

The story in brief: a church in England has removed a 45 year old large crucifix which had hung prominently on the exterior of its building and plan to replace it with a empty cross. The reasons? One negative: the crucifix was too scary, especially to children. One positive: the empty cross is a symbol of hope and resurrection.

The critics say that it is an attempt to sanitise the Christian message, to downplay the reality of human suffering and that only a suffering God can help (to quote Bonhoeffer). The supporters say that they are not removing the cross or denying its centrality, but affirming that the cross must be understood in the light of the resurrection. Jesus' redemptive suffering was not simply that God has entered into our pain and so knows it from the inside, but in the resurrection, has won a victory over it. The narrative of the good news about Jesus does not end with a cross. Thus, the symbol of an empty cross points beyond the moment of pain to that of vindication and so is an image of hope. While I think there is a place for images of Jesus' death and reflecting upon his suffering - and that of a crucified world - I also think that the empty cross is an important witness to the healing of the nations promised by the risen Christ.

But there is a second issue: that the crucifix, depicting Jesus obviously in excruciating* pain was a scary and off-putting image. In feedback from church members, all the comments about it were negative. While I'm with the previously mentioned argument for the theological import of the empty cross, here I think the church members just need to be better educated. "I don't like it" or "It makes me feel uncomfortable" are not sufficient reasons for turning our gaze away. Some images must be faced. The crucified Christ is an accusation. His very refusal to fight back, to vindicate himself, is an accusation against not only the violent oppression of the powerless, and not only against the human rejection of God, but also against our turning away from what makes us squirm. We love the darkness and run from the light. The dying Christ, though not accusing and not defending himself, is even an accusation against our self-righteous desire for moral self-preservation. His is the kind of accusation that wins over those who will lower their guard to look at him, who allow themselves to be scandalised at such an image but who move on to being scandalised at their own scandalisation. His accusation is that we spend too long accusing others or defending ourselves and do not simply accept God's verdict upon us. The God who says "no" to all our self-destructive self-obsession in order to "yes" to our very selves.
*Describing the cross as "excruciating" is as tautological as saying it is "crucial".

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Habitual thinking and the fragility of new ideas

I have often had a thought, say, in the middle of the night or in the shower (that most productive of thinking time) and tell myself "I should write that down". Being unable to, I then usually think, "If it's a good enough thought it will stay with me. It will soak into my consciousness and come back to me at a relevant moment."

But it never does.

I realised recently just how frequently this occurs and how many thoughts were dissolving in the quotidian grind. Old familiar thoughts have the inertia of repetition to make them normal, and so they easily recur when one faces a similar situation again. Thought gets into habits, follows grooves worn by the drip of previous thoughts. But new thoughts are fragile. They have to be nurtured or lost.

Moral: write it down.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Something fishy about the free market?

I am no economist nor an economist's son, so correct my faulty thinking here please.

The free market is frequently trumpeted as the best thing since sliced bread, bringing wealth and happiness to millions through the wonders of the invisible hand that guides producers to make just what consumers desire. It's so efficient: rather than the farmer or factory owner or politician having to guess how many litres of semi-skimmed organic milk to produce, demand will set the right price. Consumers happily buy just as much as producers are bottling. This is because the market signals shifts in demand to the producer. Not enough milk coming through? The competition for milk will push the price up, giving the farmers incentive (and capital) to produce more and the consumers incentive to cut back until there is equilibrium once more.

But there is a certain situation in which this mechanism might actually be the worst possible one. Think about fish. The rivers, lakes and oceans have long been an important source of food for all kinds of cultures. And fish are a renewable resource; so long as we don't take all the fish out of the water, some will reproduce to ensure tomorrow's meal as well. But under free market conditions, a finite renewable resource will inevitably be overexploited. If a certain kind of fish is being fished faster than its natural rate of reproduction, fairly soon the fishing boats will return with smaller catches. This reduction in supply will push prices up, reducing consumer demand. Yet higher prices also justify further exploitation of the resource. If it can be sold for a higher price, it makes sense to put more resources into catching that species of (now rarer) fish. Although this higher price is a warning signal that the limits of the resource's ability to renew itself are being reached, the market actually rewards those who keep exploiting it if they can.

This is why regulation is important to avoid killing the goose that lays the golden egg. But of course, fishing is perhaps the classic case in which regulation is very difficult to enforce as it involves many countries and the tragedy of the commons. Also, since no country wants to be the first to cut down its industry, fishing is actually massively subsidised around the world, making the problem worse.*

There is, of course, a deeper problem than the free market, and that is our belief in the possibility and desirability of infinite growth. We need to learn that finitude is a gift.
*From Wikipedia:

"A major international scientific study released in November 2006 in the journal Science found that about one-third of all fishing stocks worldwide have collapsed (with a collapse being defined as a decline to less than 10% of their maximum observed abundance), and that if current trends continue all fish stocks currently fished will collapse within fifty years. However, they also conclude that "available data suggest that at this point, these trends are still reversible"."
For those worried about the effects of their consumer choices on overexploited fisheries, here is a pocket guide giving information about which species are under threat.

The church of Apple

Dave Walker reflects on going to the Apple Store.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Moltmann on apocalypse

"Human beings were to blame for earlier catastrophes, but the catastrophes themselves were brought about by God the Judge; here, however, [in modern ecological and nuclear threats] human beings are guilty of actually bringing about the end itself. Earlier, people expected the end to come from God, and hope that from God the new beginning would come. But today we have to do with self-made apocalypses, for which human beings have to take responsibility, not God. Consequently these are End-times without hope. [...] Modern exterminism with the methods of mass annihilation therefore does not deserve the name of apocalypse. The 'exterminator' in the science-fiction horror films has nothing in common with the Son of man and judge of the biblical apocalypses. The one comes to cut down, the other to raise up. [...]

"The biblical apocalypses are not pessimistic scenarios of a global catastrophe which merely disseminate fear and terror so that human beings are paralysed by the corresponding belief in their doom. These apocalypses are messages of hope in danger, an encouragement to see the danger clearly and to resist it. They keep alive hope in the faithfulness of God: 'But when all these terrors of the End-time begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.' [...]

"The apocalypses inculcate a realistic awareness of the dangers that threaten: 'Be afraid!' Anyone who is incapable of fear becomes blind, blind to catastrophe. But they also depict what can be seen if we 'look through the horizon', as the Indonesian word for hope puts it. 'He who endures to the end will be saved.'"

- Jürgen Moltmann, In the End - The Beginning, 49-51.

Can self-caused catastrophes also be seen as the judgement of God? In Romans 1, Paul speaks about God 'handing people over' to their destructive desires. Is this a way of saying that divine punishment sometimes (usually? for the moment?) takes the form of God stepping back and allowing us to experience the consequences of our own choices? Might not even this punishment then include mercy?

Father, save us from ourselves.

Ten worst habits of preachers

Michael explains. Perhaps we can add a 12th: going on for longer than you said you would.

Friday, January 02, 2009

All rules have their exceptions...

...except this one.