Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The parable of the Good Samaritan: the unexpurgated postscript

… And Jesus concluded, “Which one of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus’ interlocutor (whose name was Monty) said, “You mean, be kind to those in trouble or need?”

“Exactly,” said Jesus, “whoever they are, whoever you are.”

“Ya think?” Monty said. “You finally land the plane, and that’s your point?”

“Don’t you think it’s rather provocative,” suggested Jesus, with a teacher’s indulgence, “that it was a Samaritan, of all people, who showed kindness?”

“And why shouldn’t a Samaritan show kindness?” Monty demanded. “You got a problem with Samaritans?”

“No, of course not,” Jesus replied, a little defensively it must be said. “Don’t you see that …”

“Next you’ll be protesting that some of your best friends are Samaritans,” Monty interrupted.

“No, I was …”

“So you don’t have any Samaritan friends?”

“Well, yes, actually, I do,” countered Jesus. “There’s a woman I met at a well.”

“What’s her name?” Monty asked.

“Er,” hesitated Jesus. “To be honest, I can’t remember. I didn’t ask.”

“You didn’t ask? But you hang out together?” Monty pressed.

“Well, no, not exactly,” Jesus conceded.

“So you met this Samaritan woman, you don’t know her name, you don’t hang out together, yet you say she’s a friend of yours?” Monty smirked.

“Well, okay then,” Jesus backtracked, “she’s an acquaintance.”

“Just as I thought,” Monty declared. “Anyone else?”

“Well,” Jesus replied, trying to regain the initiative, “I recently healed a Samaritan – of eczema, as I recall. I saw him twice.”

“Twice, is it? As a patient? I guess that makes him a bosom buddy,” said Monty, ratcheting up the sarcasm.

“Well, no, but …”

“Another ‘acquaintance’ then?” Monty was relentless.

“Well, yes, but look,” an exasperated Jesus began to explain, “what I was doing was telling a story about a Samaritan to make a point about kindness and prejudice.”

“So it never happened. It’s fake news.” Monty was merciless.

“No, no, no” Jesus said shaking his head, “you’re making a category mistake.”

“A what?”

“A category mistake,” repeated Jesus. “It’s a semantic error in which …” he continued, then paused. Looking up from the bottom of a huge hole, he decided to stop digging. “Never mind,” he said.

“Okay, okay, tell me this,” Monty asked, going for the jugular. “Are any of your disciples Samaritans?”

Now completely discombobulated, Jesus sighed, “No, but …”

“Yes-but, no-but,” mocked Monty. “So you’ve got no friends who are Samaritans, and no disciples who are Samaritans, yet you bang on about a good Samaritan in a made-up story. You’re all mouth, aren’t you, Jesus? ‘Samaritan Lives Matter’.” Not to mention that you have a go at two fellow Jews in your little fable – two Jewish clerics – low-hanging fruit, or what? I mean talk about ethnic and religious profiling. What, are you some sort of self-loathing Israelite?”

“Now hang on …” Jesus remonstrated.

But Monty stopped him again. “I suppose the next thing you’re going to tell me is that you know some Roman who, iconically, has great faith.”

“Well, now that you mention it …”

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Holy feet

I have today been required to reconsider every word I have ever spoken against natural theology. The reason? I have been reading scripture. One single verse of scripture can send shivers down the spine of any volume of dogmatics. Entire shelves of theology flee to cower in the darker corners of the library when confronted by an isolated pericope. Old Karl Barth thought that scripture upsets our inherited knowledge of God and morality, but my reading today has merely confirmed that which every Australian child knows: the perfection of bare feet.

In scripture, the highest theological idea is revealed in the lowest human extremity. The bare foot is the essence of human innocence. It is surprising to the point of embarrassment that I should even have to write this out, for the truth lies deeply embedded in our language. A shod foot is but one syllable short of being shoddy. It is only certain other Germanic languages that are confused on this matter, with the infernal similarity between the Dutch schooen (shoe) and the German schön (Is it any wonder that this was the language of Heidegger and Nietzsche?).

One could derive the entire doctrine of holiness from the unshod feet of Moses. Origen suggested that we interpret scripture allegorically when the plain sense is problematic. One may allegorise the Mountain, the Golden Calf, Moses’ shining face, but the one element of the narrative impossible to allegorise or demythologise is the perfect bareness of Moses’ feet. Calvin provides the correct interpretation: “If any prefer the deeper meaning (anagoge,) that God cannot be heard until we have put off our earthly thoughts, I object not to it; only let the natural sense stand first, that Moses was commanded to put off his shoes, as a preparation to listen with greater reverence to God.”

Moses could hear the voice of God only in his natural edenic state, unshod. This, of course, is the great scandal of humanity’s alienation from paradise: when Eve and her husband wished to hide from the garden-wandering God, they covered themselves. Genesis is silent on the precise nature of their covering only because it was so very obvious: they covered their feet.

The encased foot is humanity’s attempt to demarcate the natural from the human, to form a protective layer around the human soul. But in doing so we have trapped ourselves inside a claustrophobic space, sweaty and putrid. The evangelist goes to such lengths to describe the pavement of the heavenly city in the Apocalypse, because his hearers imagined themselves casting off their fallen footwear and running into God’s holy brightness. How else are we to enter the kingdom, after all, but as children at play?

Friday, 14 July 2017

Sydney conference on sin and grace: Theology Connect 2018

The next Theology Connect conference will be coming to Sydney in July 2018. The theme is sin and grace in Christian theology, with keynotes by Kelly Kapic, Alan Torrance, Simon Chan. There's a call for papers, so why not come visit our nice little town and give us a paper? If you bring your bicycle I will even give you a free guided tour!

If you haven't heard of Theology Connect, there's a review and some pictures of the last one, and a while back I did an interview with Chris Green about the conference series. It looks like they've traded the uber-funky industrial setting for a church venue; but apart from that I'm sure it will be an excellent event. Personally I would go just to hear Simon Chan whose work I admire very much. I'm using his book on Grassroots Asian Theology in my contextual theology seminar this semester (I reviewed it here in case you're interested).

Here's a promo video for the conference:


Thursday, 15 June 2017

Downwind Doodlings

Why is God silent? Because the tree of trust has silence for its roots.

God moves in mysterious ways, but he also moves in quite pedestrian ways.  He walks and runs, hops and skips, leaps and jumps, sashays and dances.  But God never, ever marches.

God gave himself into the hands of sinners on the cross, and God gives himself into the hands of sinners in the sacrament.

God makes sense of things. In addition, God makes nonsense of things.

Recent experiments have demonstrated that loud swearing not only boosts strength and stamina but also makes people more able to tolerate pain. Perhaps an unprintable eighth word from the cross has gone missing?

Thank God for Judas, our substitute: without betrayal, no salvation.

I have always assumed that because God forgives us, we should forgive ourselves.  But I am no longer so sure. Perhaps self-forgiveness is not-yet realised eschatology. Perhaps in a broken world, even as forgiven we must live with the affliction of self-accusation.

Christians talk a lot about God’s mercy, but not nearly enough about God’s pity.  Personally, I pray more that God will pity me than that he will have mercy on me, because having his pity, surely I will receive his mercy.

Think of something you could do that would put you beyond the saving grace and love of God.  Then think of a lifetime of futile cogitation.  But I repeat myself.

The problem is as old as Romans 14-15: traditionalists dismissing liberals with condemnation, and liberals treating traditionalists with contempt.  The solution is also the same: Romans 15:7.  Alas, even Paul didn’t practice what he preached.  And the contemporary conservative captivity to nativist populism has hardened the sneer of progressives into a rictus.  My own penitential practice now includes jaw-massage.

What do I think of Christians whose faith is mortally threatened by some terrible personal tragedy? The brutal truth? That they are egocentric and purblind. The pastoral reality? That pivoting off your own faith, you must love them back to hope.

Ministerial education or ministerial training?  Well, you educate people and you train domestic animals and business managers, so in many a modern seminary I guess it’s ministerial training.

Show me a church with a vision statement and I’ll show you a church suffering from cranial decay, linguistic corruption, and ocular degeneration.

The ice water is great, but why do waiters in America always swoop down on your table like hawks on a sparrow to refill your glass sip by sip?  I want to cry, “For Chrissake, just put me on a drip!”

Back in the day there was a rumour that “Kim Fabricius” was but a nom de plume of Ben Myers. Ben and I the same person?  Well, a plausible suggestion only as Jekyll and Hyde. To wit, on identifying with a fictional character, Ben has tweeted that he’d like to be Jayber Crow. Me – I’d settle for Olive Kitteridge.

I hear that a decomposing bat was found in a packet of Walmart’s Organic Marketside Spring Mix Salad.  This is a gargantuan Food Fail.  From Walmart I would expect better: namely, a fresh bat shot dead with one of its own AR-15s, marinated in an orange garlic cockroach dressing.

The wildebeests of Botswana are really pissed off at the editor-in-chief of National Geographic for including a photograph of ungulates of different species in a recent article on one of their herds.  A spokesbeest for their community has said that they will be suing the prestigious magazine for publishing fake gnus.

Waxing sexual attraction may lead to a wedding, but it’s waning sexual attraction that tests whether it will remain a marriage.

Jeez, is prayer boring.  Boring, boring, boring.  Until, just maybe, it isn’t.  Until, again, it is.  And so it goes.

The problem with most memoirs is that they’re about the memoirist.

What is preaching like?  Before I preach, I am scared.  After I preach, I am scared.  And while I preach – I’m preaching.

Pray that you never get used to getting used to stuff that sucks.

I feel sorry for people who approach the end of their lives with no regrets, for without regrets there can be no gratitude either.

Memorial Day is the American way of turning everything Homeric about military service into an ignoble cliché.

At a press conference on his return from the Middle East, asked about Sunni and Shia, President Trump replied, “I loved them.  One of the great pop duos of the sixties.  Sonny was also a great Republican congressman.  Too bad about Cher, a  Hillary supporter – evil, very evil.   But I thought you guys were going to ask me about my incredible trip to the Middle East…”

Friday, 2 June 2017

Filioque? A letter to Australia from TF Torrance

Speaking of the trinity, here's a letter that T. F. Torrance sent to an Australian minister back in 1984, responding to a question about the filioque. Torrance explains his criticism of the filioque and why he thinks Athanasius is better than the Cappadocians. Many thanks to Murray Earl for allowing me to post this.

(PS: I imagine it's one of the high-points of being a minister, that you can receive mail addressed to The Manse.)


Thursday, 1 June 2017

Tweeting the trinity: because heresy is meh

I spent a few days compulsively tweeting on the doctrine of the trinity. I've just come to the end of a 12-week class on this doctrine and I enjoyed having the opportunity to collect my thoughts like this at the end. Say what you like about twitter, but it can be a good exercise to try to explain yourself in such a constrained form. Anyway I've gathered all the tweets together here, with a handful of additions and minor changes. Enjoy! And have a heresy-free Trinity Sunday!


I.  HOW TO AVOID TRINITARIAN HERESY

#1. Start by abolishing Trinity Sunday, that fateful day on which preachers think they have to explain the Trinity

#2. Teach children to make the sign of the cross when they say the words "Father, Son and Holy Spirit"

#3. When someone offers to tell you the practical implications of the doctrine, just smile and move along

#4. Have you come up with a really helpful analogy of the trinity? Well done! Now please don't tell anyone about it, ever

#5. The doctrine is not a mystery. It is simple & precise. The reality it points to is the mystery

#6. Don't try to get rid of the biblical words. Don't try to stick to them exclusively either

#7. In this doctrine every word is used in a very limited way. Even the numbers 1 and 3 can't be taken literally

#8. Don't partake in meaningless debates about whether "oneness" or "threeness" is more important (see #7)


II. TRINITARIAN THEOLOGY, EAST AND WEST

#9. Don't worry about whether you prefer Augustine or the Greeks. You don't have to pick a favourite, it's not Masterchef

#10. How does Augustine differ? He takes just one principle of "Greek" theology (the inseparability of persons in action) and proves that it's not absurd or unthinkable. That's all.

#11. Cappadocians: it's a simple doctrine even though we don't know what it means. Augustine: yes, and it makes good sense to believe it!

#12. Irenaeus (Greek tradition): this doctrine is shorthand for the unity of God in OT & NT. Tertullian (Latin tradition): ditto


III. TRINITARIAN THEOLOGY, ANCIENT AND MODERN

#13. The biggest change in modern trinitarian theology was one of scale: the most minimalist & modest of all doctrines became a Theory of Everything

#14. Ancients: it's the key to scripture (which in turn shapes practice). Moderns: it's the key to practice (even though it's not scriptural)

#15. Ancients: the choice of words is easy & their meaning is restricted. Moderns: the meaning of words is vast & the choice is impossible

#16. Ancients: the word "Father" must be stripped of all connotations except mere relation. Moderns: those ancients thought God was male!

#17. Ancients: the doctrine is a tonic against idolatry (since it names an undepictable mystery). Moderns: the doctrine depicts God as an advocate of my social cause

#18. Ancients: it's the worst theory about God apart from all the other ones that have been tried. Moderns: it's the greatest theory ever!


IV.  UNDERLYING PRINCIPLES OF THE DOCTRINE

#19. The canonical principle. OT and NT are a diverse but coherent witness to one God

#20. The creation principle. The one God is creator of all things and so is not on the same plane as anything else

#21. The spirituality principle. God is spirit. God has no body and is not comprised of anything like a material substance

#22. The simplicity principle. Because God is spirit, and because the creator transcends space, time, & matter, God must be indivisible and without parts

#23. The abstraction principle. Words can be used to speak of God only if they are stripped of all connotations of space, time, & matter

#24. The revelation principle. How do we find the best words to use? We'd better stick to revelation. (These words will still need to be abstracted as per #23)

#25. The fitness principle. Language about God should be used in a way that’s fitting to God's character. (Early Christians had a special term for this: theoprepes)

#26. The fitness principle comes solely from Greek philosophy and is by far the biggest piece of "hellenisation" in this doctrine

#27. But this piece of Greek philosophy was used critically against the Greeks: it was used to distinguish monotheism from pagan anthropomorphism (where, e.g., the gods literally make love and “beget” offspring)

#28. So there is a true hellenisation at this point (and really only at this point) but it is a critical and subversive use of Greek philosophy. It distinguishes the one God of Israel from the gods of Greek culture


V.  THE CONTENT OF THE DOCTRINE

#29. The ingredients of the doctrine, supplied by revelation, are the words "one God", "Father, Son, Holy Spirit," "begotten" & "proceeding"

#30. From these words is constructed a formula that refers in shorthand to the knowledge of God revealed in OT & NT

#31. The revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is an unveiling of the incomparable and unknowable uniqueness of the one God

#32. The "oneness" of God is not a number. It refers to God's incomparable mystery. This is mysteriously revealed (not contradicted) by the "threeness"

#33. The "threeness" is not a number. It refers to the incomparable fullness of the life of the one God, who is God as Father, Son & Holy Spirit

#34. So the words "one" and "three" have to be abstracted away from their ordinary numerical meaning, and from any image of three things. The doctrine is not a mathematical puzzle

#35. God is one. The divine attributes (love, will, power, goodness, justice, mercy, freedom, etc) are attributes of the one God, not of the Father or the Son or Spirit

#36. God is one. When we say that the Son acts, we mean that the whole triune God is acting in the revelation of the Son. There is no separate act of Father or Son or Spirit

#37. God is one. When we say that God is “personal”, we are referring to the one God. In God there is one mind, one will, one act, one who says “I”. Father, Son and Spirit are not distinct personalities with distinct wills

#38. According to revelation, the Son is begotten; the Spirit proceeds; the Father is neither begotten nor proceeds

#39. "Begetting" has nothing to do with the body or passion or temporal beginning. "Proceeding" has nothing to do with spatial movement. The one God of Israel is nothing like the Greek gods

#40. Abstracted away from ordinary usage, "begetting" and "proceeding" designate relations of origin, nothing more

#41. These relations of origin are distinct (the Spirit is not begotten, the Son does not proceed) but we don't know how, or what this means

#42. "Father" & "Son" have nothing to do with gender or procreation or superiority or a temporal before and after

#43. Abstracted away from ordinary usage, the words "Father" and "Son" designate relations, nothing more. The Father is the Son's source

#44. Because “Father” is a relational word, God cannot be “Father” unless there is also “Son”. If God is eternally Father, then there is also an eternal Son

#45. Apart from a relation of origin, in what other way does the Son differ from the Father? In no other way, or none that we could ever know

#46. Son and Spirit are different relations to the same source (the Spirit is not begotten; the Son does not proceed). In what other way do they differ? In no other way, or none that we could know

#47. So we distinguish Son and Spirit with words whose meaning is unknown to us. We can only confess that the two words (“begotten”, “proceeding”) mean different things

#48. That's how the language of revelation is used in this doctrine. The doctrine is an abstract minimalism that doesn't explain God but only confesses what is found in revelation

#49. The scriptural words are indispensable. But they are a guide, not a restriction. Sometimes other words are useful to clarify what we mean

#50. Examples of useful non-scriptural words: "being", "person", "relation", "homoousion", "light from light", "mode of being", and of course "trinity" and "triune"

#51. Such words are useful for clarifying the language of revelation, but are not central or indispensable in the same way as revelation


VI. THE USEFULNESS OF THE DOCTRINE

#52. In recent theology, much has been written about the grandiose implications of the doctrine. I think its usefulness is much more limited but also more precise

#53. The doctrine is not a revelation of God. But it is a reliable framework for reading OT & NT as a coherent witness to the one God

#54. The doctrine doesn't have any adequate words for talking about God. But it's a procedure for speaking faithfully and truly with inadequate words

#55. The doctrine doesn't have special insight into God's uniqueness. But it is a refusal of projection & a constant warning against idolatry

#56. The doctrine is not a special theory of spirituality. But it explains why responding to God is more about participation than about submission, adoration, obedience etc

#57. The doctrine is not "prayerful" in any mysterious way. But it explains the coherence of prayer. Whether you address the Father, Son or Spirit (or all three), you are praying to one and the same God

#58. The doctrine explains the logic of the economy of salvation. When we see the Son acting, it is the triune God acting in the revelation of the Son

#59. The doctrine shows how the language of revelation can be used confidently and with precision to speak of unknowable mysteries

#60. The mystery is in the reality, not in the doctrine. The doctrine is not "apophatic", unless by that we mean the way it reduces words to a minimal content

#61. So can we speak of God? Yes! (because of revelation). Do we know what we mean? No! (because what's revealed is a mystery)


VII. LAST THOUGHTS AND EXHORTATIONS

#62. Practical afterword: This doctrine doesn't create communal bliss, gender equality, social liberation etc. It just helps you not to be an idolator

#63. Philosophical afterword: This doctrine conveys very minimal knowledge. But Augustine argues that we still know God better than we know ourselves. (His proof: anything we know about God is unchanging and eternal; whereas our self-knowledge is doubtful because we're always changing.)

#64. Liturgical afterword: A fitting communal response is not “Trinity Sunday” but the whole church year as a symbolic participation in the economy of God’s saving work as Father, Son and Holy Spirit

#65. Pedagogical afterword: Doctrine is there to be taught; that's what the word “doctrine” means. The doctrine of the trinity is not practical. It has no direct application. It shapes imagination & practice in the long run but only if it's studied, taught, and understood. So learn it! Teach it!

#66. Doxological afterword: Worship the one triune God! (not the doctrine) - they’re not the same thing. “What can all our Christian statements be but a serious pointing away to the One who will himself tell those who have ears to hear who he is?” (Karl Barth).

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