Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Theological click-bait: number 7 will shock you!


Too many theology blogs are stuck in the past. Descriptive post titles are no longer adequate in today's world of social media sharing. I have compiled this list of theological click-bait to help my fellow bloggers increase their traffic. Please use them as you see fit.

Welcome to the future of online theology.


Ruether: This woman’s critique of patriarchy will change the way you see the world.

Hippolytus: He saw an early church baptism. What they wore will shock you.

Ignatius: This man wants to be eaten by lions. The reason brought me to tears.

Cyril of Alexandria: He says that Christ has two natures. How he joins them will blow your mind.

Athanasius: See why homoiousians HATE him!

Augustine: Can’t stop sinning? He’ll tell you why.

Pelagius: Want to stop sinning? He shares the secret.

Barth: He found the only good reason for not becoming a Roman Catholic. You won’t believe what it is.

Przywara: Find out why the works one of Catholicism’s greatest modern thinkers were never translated into English.

Gregory of Nyssa: He saw God in the darkness, but that was just the beginning.

Nestorius: His civil reform will make you dislike him. By the time he preaches you’ll hate him.

Luther: He wrote ninety-five theses. Number ninety-four will change your life.

Irenaeus: He says that this has happened before. See why it’s all better this time around.

Tanner: She calls Christ a key. You’ll never guess what he unlocks.

Basil: They wanted to leave their money to the poor in their wills. What he said in response will trouble you deeply.

Coakley: Kenosis is back. You'll never stop contemplating her critique of the critics.

Williams: They want to describe reality, but he wants to represent it. You can’t know what he’ll say next.

Keller: Life too orderly? Let her introduce you to the beauty of chaos.

Girard: He’s got his critics whipped up into a frenzy. Will they let him stay?

Bonhoeffer: He’s a pacifist in prison. You’ll never guess why.

Monday, 29 June 2015

What is the opposite of faith?

Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost (text: Mark 4:35-41)

What is the opposite of faith?

Let’s start with the Protestant no-no: works. We are justified, put right with God not by works but by faith, faith alone – sola fide – isn’t that, as Luther put it, the doctrine by which the church stands or falls? And wouldn’t Calvin and Wesley agree? Well, yes, but … Luther was citing Paul, but during the last half century – through a better understanding of the thought-world of first century Judaism – it’s now become pretty clear that what Paul meant by “works” and what Luther meant by “works” are not identical.

For Luther, troubled by the question “How can I find a gracious God?”, works were the pious efforts he made as a scrupulous monk to make himself acceptable to God. Driven to despair by the inevitable could-do-better inadequacy of these efforts, Luther finally discovered that God accepts the unacceptable, that grace is unmerited, unearnable, a free gift, received by faith alone.

Paul, however, was troubled by a different question. Unlike Luther, he did not suffer from a guilty conscience before an angry God, nor was he driven to despair by any perceived failure of religious rectitude. Just the opposite, in fact. Paul was a rigorously observant Jew quite convinced not only of the adequacy of his own righteousness but also of the loving-kindness of God, who, after all, had given Israel the blessed Torah, “the law”, which included not only moral guidance but also ritual practices like circumcision and keeping kosher. For Paul, now taking the gospel to Gentiles, the burning question was, “Do Gentiles have to become Jews in order to be Christians?” – that is, are circumcision and keeping kosher still a requirement, in addition to faith, for belonging to the people of God? And the answer that was disclosed to Paul in the Christ-event was that, no, Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to be Christians, they only have to trust in Christ as Saviour. In terms of inclusiveness and equality, for Paul, “Jew” and “Gentile” are now obsolete ethnic/religious categories. And the same goes for the social category of slave and free, and the gender category of male and female: all are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). (And following the trajectory, we might ask a radical contemporary question: How big is your “all”? Is your “all” perhaps too small?)

In short, for Luther, the doctrine of justification by faith addressed the nature of salvation; for Paul it addressed the nature of the church. Which is not to knock Luther. Mind, Luther’s re-interpretation of Paul’s law-free gospel was not only brilliant but, especially in his own decadent medieval context, true: no pious practice or moral activity can get us right with God. The problem is that Luther’s teaching has suffered from the abuse of thinking (a) that it is our faith that saves – it isn’t, it is Christ's faith that saves; and (b) that our faith is something that happens in our heads or our hearts, and not also in our hands. This is a horrendous misreading of faith. And it has led to the catastrophic idea that faith is a private matter, that it entails no public commitments; faith as a kind of personal fire insurance for the afterlife, while the world goes to hell in a handcart. Bonhoeffer derided such faith as “salvation egoism” relying on “cheap grace”. So, yes, a certain kind of “works” is the opposite of faith, the kind that we do to earn salvation, but faith itself is never works-less, rather faith issues in works as night follows day, with immense social and political implications.

So we’ll have to look elsewhere for the opposite of faith. I know – how about doubt? But, no, I don’t think doubt will do either. There is, for sure, as with works, a kind of doubt which is entirely negative, which puts faith in jeopardy. But I suspect that the main kind of doubt with which we are familiar is the inquisitive kind, the kind that asks good and hard questions – and that won’t be fobbed off with shallow and unconvincing answers. This kind of doubt is essential to a robust faith. This kind of questioning is actually sacred. A faith that doesn’t ask questions, including questions about itself, to keep itself honest, free from hypocrisy, cliché, and guff is an unworthy faith. And a faith that won’t engage in dialogue with other Christians, with people of other faiths, with people with no faith at all – this kind of faith is either pathetically insecure or it’s hiding something.  And a church that doesn’t encourage such open, probing conversations will be a dumbed-down and finally ignorant church and not the culture of listening and learning it is called to be.

Perhaps, then, we could say – a third possibility – that the opposite of faith is certainty? And if we understand certainty on the model of, say, mathematics, that is true. Faith is certainly (!) not certain like 2 + 2 = 4 is certain. Faith wouldn’t be faith with that kind of certainty. But there are other models of certainty on which we might draw. Friendship, for example. I think most of us would want to say that the faith – the trust – I have in my best friend, my soul-mate, is certain. And Jesus calls his disciples his friends (John 15:15). The certainty of faith is not mathematical, but neither is it a He-loves-me/He-loves-me-not sort of uncertainty. Here the martyrs are our mentors. Perhaps we should rephrase this kind of certainty as the assurance of faith – and what a blessed assurance it is!

I suppose I must mention a fourth possibility, namely that the opposite of faith is reason, because the New Atheists continue to swagger that Christians are a bunch of morons, that faith is irrational, that it is belief without evidence. Which in one sense is true, because God is not a member of the world who offers himself for observation and inspection, nor is God one more big and powerful thing, even the biggest and most powerful thing, in the universe. But in another sense it is patently false that faith is evidence-less, for faith is dependent on witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, dependent on the reliability and truthfulness of the gospels. And as for the rationality of faith, when the great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth was asked how reason fits into his theology, he replied, “I use it.” So does any sensible Christian. In Through the Looking Glass, the Queen says to Alice, “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” The Queen could not have been a Christian.

Now: here is a fifth alternative for the opposite of faith. It’s one you don’t usually hear: fear. On this reading, faith is courage. My text: Mark 4:35ff. A storm suddenly bursts and overwhelms the boat in which Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee. While Jesus naps, his friends panic. They shake Jesus – “Wake up! Don’t you care that we’re sinking?” Jesus yawns, stretches, and says to the wind and waves, “Pipe down! Be still! Can’t a man get any sleep around here?” Then he turns to the twelve: “What a bunch! Why are you such cowards? Don’t you have any faith at all?” Cowards – faith – the contrast between the two is explicit.

There is a lot of fear around in the church today. Fundamentalists are afraid of scholarship and science. Traditionalists are afraid of change and newness. Many of us are anxious about secularism or alarmed by militant Islam. And a lot of Christians are seeking safety by demanding our rights, defending our territory, acting like victims, whinging and blaming and shouting the odds. It’s unseemly, it’s unchristian. Fear makes us act in these faithless ways, makes us shrink, turns us in ourselves. But faith – real faith – expands us, turns us outwards to others, doesn’t circle the wagons but lays out the welcome mat to the different and strange and tries to engage even the enemy. Not easy. But whoever said that faith is easy? Yes, “sheep among wolves” is the image Jesus used of mission. Thus over 365 times, one for each day of the year, scripture counsels us: “Do not be afraid!” So the risen Christ, whenever he meets his friends, says: “Shalom. Peace be with you.”

God is with us. We are never alone. Jesus is not only risen, he reigns. He has conquered death, the ultimate fear. Nothing can separate us from his love. That is why we need not, should not, cannot be afraid. So in these tumultuous times, take courage, and keep the faith!

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The future of angelology

I love a theologian who loves angels, but few today seem to know what to say about the angels. “How are we to steer a way… between the far too interesting mythology of the ancients and the far too uninteresting demythologisation of most of the moderns?”, Barth asks (CD III/3:369).

The angels present us with a fixed epistemological barrier to theological enquiry. Claus Westermann, with surprising certainty, claims that “angels are as inaccessible as God himself” (God’s Angels Need no Wings, 19). In the angels we see the limits of our knowledge. They are a startling reminder of the impossibility of human comprehension—a sign of the outer vistas of knowledge. We simply don’t know what to do with angels—which doesn’t matter so much I suppose, so long as they know what to do with us.

Angels are creatures who do not fit in the world. It is clear that their world is not our world, which is why those who speak with their language require an interpreter. Every theological interaction with the angels, Robert Jenson observes, involves some at least minimal amount of demythologising—while scripture tells of their “spatial coming and going, the main tradition has conceptualized them as disembodied subjectivities” (ST 2:119).

Dionysius the Areopagite extends the stories of scripture to fill out an entire hierarchy of celestial beings. According to Gregory of Nazianzus, angels are incorporeal (Oration 29), and so transcend material creation (cf Aquinas ST 1.51.2). They are, Ian McFarland writes, creatures of the invisible creation referred to in the Nicene Creed. They are a reminder that “creation is not limited to the phenomenal world that is subject to scientific observation” (From Nothing, 75).

Nevertheless, scripture speaks of them primarily as material agents—travelling, singing, eating, killing. Even in these corporeal manifestations, Jenson argues, the angels function as a sign of the impossibility of the coming of God’s kingdom according to the usual patterns of historical causality. Angels enter the scene only when virgins fall pregnant or hungry lions pretend to be sated. This is why, Jenson reasons, “the Revelation is one long display of angels” (ST 2:125). They are the creaturely excess that is a sign of divine activity in creation, but they are as ineffable as that very activity. Even when met by angels, “the gate of heaven mercifully does not open” to us (Jenson, ST 2:127). Despite our best attempts to demythologise the angels, or to translate them into theological principles, they persist in scripture as agents. The angelic narratives defy reduction.

Every redefinition of angels is a claim to know the deep structure of the world—a denial that the reality of the world, and God’s way with it, is impenetrably dark. The biblical stories preserve the mystery of angels in a way that our typologies and reductions do not: “we may trust them as we dare not trust our conceptual explanations” (Jenson, ST 2:127).

Rowan Williams once argued that to reword a poem is to change its meaning. A poem enters into the world to expose the strangeness of language and the mystery of reality. Angels are the poems of scripture. They enter into a situation to expose the strangeness of God’s activity and the mystery of creation. We cannot remove them from the narratives without the internal sense of the story breaking down. To demythologise them is to destroy their meaning.

The future of angelology, then, must be in attentiveness to scripture, and the way that angels interrupt the linkages of immanent historical causality. We can speak of them only as we speak of any mystery: as pure poetry.

Friday, 19 June 2015

The stripping of the cross: the cosmic cross of early Christianity and the naked cross of modern theology

One of the strangest tactics of the early Christian apologists was the habit of attaching symbolic and allegorical meanings to the cross.

The early third-century dialogue by Minucius Felix gives voice to the Roman revulsion towards anyone who would venerate “a criminal put to death for his crimes, and the wood of the death-dealing cross” (Octavius 9). The Christian speaker replies that Christ’s followers do not worship the cross; it is only pagans who worship bits of wood. Yet he adds that the cross is not only a symbol of death. The Roman military signa and victory trophies are also designed in the form of the cross. And one sees “the sign of the cross” inscribed on nature and culture: the mast of a ship, the spread oars, a worshipper with outstretched arms. “In this way the order of nature [ratio naturalis] leans on the sign of the cross” (Octavius 29).

Minucius Felix borrowed these examples from Justin Martyr, who around the middle of the second century had offered a fulsome account of the cosmic significance of the cross. The form (schēma) of the cross, Justin says, is written into the order of nature and of Roman culture alike:
For consider everything in the cosmos. Without this form they could not be governed or interrelated. The sea is not traversed unless this token of victory – a sail – remains safe in the ship. The land is not ploughed without it. Diggers and craftsmen do not do their work except from tools which have this form. And the human form differs from that of the irrational animals only in the way it stands erect with hands stretched out – and also in the way the nose extends from the forehead, providing breath for the living creature, and showing no other form than that of the cross…. And the power of this form is shown by your own symbols on what are called standards and trophies…. Without realising it, you use these [crosses] as the signs of your rule and power. (First Apology 55)
Not long afterwards, Tertullian used the same arguments to point out the irony of Roman contempt for the cross. “All those rows of images on the standards are ornaments hung on crosses. Those hangings on your standards and banners are robes upon crosses. I commend you for your thoughtfulness! You didn’t want to consecrate crosses naked and unadorned” (Apology 16).

By the fourth century, the instinctive revulsion for the cross had begun to recede in Greco-Roman culture, and Christian apologists took more freedom than ever in adorning the cross with symbolic meanings. When Athanasius wants to prove that death by crucifixion was “fitting” for God’s plan, he produces an impressive array of cross-symbols. The outstretched arms show that Christ has united Jews and Gentiles in himself. It shows that Christ has opened the way to heaven. It shows his triumph over the demonic powers of the air: “only the one who ends his life on the cross dies in the air” (On the Incarnation 26).

Gregory of Nyssa disregarded Athansius’ arguments and preferred the earlier cosmic reflections of Justin Martyr. The cross, Gregory says, is a symbol of the way the Logos unites the disparate elements of creation. Gregory suggests that St Paul was imagining a cosmic cross when he said that every knee would bow “in heaven” and “on earth” and “under the earth” (Phil 2.10), and when he prayed that the Ephesians would come to understand the “depth” and “height” and “breadth” and “length” (Eph 3.18). “In shape [the cross] is divided into four parts in which a way that the four arms converge in the middle. He who was extended on it at the time God’s plan was fulfilled in his death is the one who binds all things to himself and makes them one” (Catechetical Oration 32).

Though Gregory seems only half-persuaded by his own arguments – he notes that he is only repeating what he has heard from other Christians – he makes a clear statement of the reason for attaching such symbolic meanings to the cross. It is because of christology: “In the death we should see the human element; but from the manner of the death we should seek to penetrate its divine significance” (Catechetical Oration 32).

It is true that the cross was a brute fact in history. It was wood planted in the earth. But a merely wooden cross would be a half-truth. It would show the fact of Jesus’ death without conveying its meaning. Gregory’s references to St Paul are admittedly fanciful, but he is nevertheless quite right to assume that there was never a stage of early Christianity in which the cross was not already a theological symbol.

Neither St Paul nor the writers of the Gospels regard the cross as a brute fact. The cross could not at any rate have been a brute fact for anybody in the first century. Crucifixion was never just an unpleasant way to die. It was a symbol of Roman power. That symbol was every bit as public and as well-understood as the military standards borne by legions of soldiers. The first Christians had to think symbolically about the cross, since their Messiah had already been forcefully absorbed into the symbolic system of imperial power. One way or another the death of Jesus meant something, and what it meant was symbolised by a cross.

The tactics of the early Christian apologists are strange to us now. Nobody today would explain the significance of the cross by comparing it to a ship’s mast or the unity of the four cosmic elements or the shape of a person’s nose. But even at their most fanciful, these apologetic experiments contain an important half-truth: the cross is more than a brute fact in history; it is part of a system of meaning involving God and creation and everything.

If one strand of the history of early Christianity is the story of the transformation of the cross from a Roman symbol into a Christian symbol, then a strand of the history of modern theology is the story of a concerted effort to strip the cross of its accumulated layers of meaning. What modern theologians want is a naked cross, the brute fact of wood planted in earth and soaked with human blood. If it is to be a symbol at all, let it be a symbol not of life and religion and culture but of power and oppression.

The Romans invented the cross and the Christians stole it from them. Modern theologians have returned it to its original owners.

This stripping of the cross was a valid and necessary exercise in a world whose systems of power had been so thoroughly Christianised that the cross had come to resemble, more than ever, a standard raised before a marching army. The transformation of the cross into a Christian symbol had been a half-truth. But the stripping of the cross in modern theology is a half-truth too. If we see the cross only as a symbol of power and oppression, we should ask whether we have gone so far as to turn ourselves into Romans instead of Christians.

It is good that modern theology has taught us again to see the cross as “foolishness” (1 Cor 1.18). But we also need eyes to perceive “God’s might and God’s wisdom” (1 Cor 1.24) in the brute and foolish fact of the cross. To see the human element, as Gregory of Nyssa said, while also “penetrating its divine significance.”

Monday, 15 June 2015

ABC doodlings

Good writing begins with a bold lack of self-confidence.

If reading is power, writing is kenosis.

Nothing scares the shit out of a writer like the next sentence.

Many wicked actions proceed not from people doing wrong but from people being afraid of doing wrong.

The best antidote to the sin of pride is self-memory. 

Who is my favourite comic book Christ figure? That’s easy: Alfred E. Neuman. “What, me worry?” (Matthew 6:34).

US racism is a lock: carceral lockdown, conservative lockstep, and collective lockjaw.

Are white people devils, as Elijah Muhammad suggested? No, white men. Which is particularly evident in war (particularly colonial wars – if that isn’t a tautology): “war is a man’s game – … the killing machine has a gender, and it is male” (Susan Sontag, citing Virginia Woolf).

American Sniper Is Officially the Highest-Grossing [Out] Movie of 2014” (Huffington Post, 8 March).

Of course, we have moved on, morally, from destroying indigenous peoples. Now we have migrant populations in our sights.

Poor old Just War Theory. All those theological cosmetic surgeons trying to save it from terminal ugly.

The thing to remember about empires is that they all eventually become expires.

If the denizens of Rivendell had smartphones, they’d take elfies.

If there were cameras at Calvary, Christianity would be a cliché.

That “God is dead” doesn’t worry me. What worries me is that, synecdochically, Shakespeare is next on the hit list of our terminally techno-consumerist culture.

“Those who are destitute of wisdom and goodness … are carried on the downward path, it seems, and wander thus throughout their life.  They never look upwards to the truth, nor do they lift their heads, nor enjoy any pure and lasting pleasure, but like cattle they have their eyes ever cast downwards …”
 – Plato in the Republic, anticipating the smart-phone crowd at Starbucks 

Whereof one lacks imagination, thereof one postures and shouts.

Reflecting on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (the Carroll classic is 150 years-old in 2015), Amanda Craig observes that in Wonderland, “almost everyone is offended, rude, patronising or angry.” And I thought, New York or what!

Robert Oppenheimer said of the “Manhattan Declaration” that he felt “I have blood on my hands.” Oops, sorry – that should be “Manhattan Project”.

A new dating app in the US is providing a service called “The Invisible Boyfriend”, which lets you text an imaginary partner. It should immensely enrich the prayer-life of teenage girls in conservative churches.

Parishes seeking a new vicar are sometimes told by their bishop that only the Archangel Gabriel would meet their expectations. Right, so biblically speaking, they’re looking for a priest with a habit of appearing unannounced in the room of a teenage virgin … 

The saints are like baseball’s greatest hitters: they too no doubt fail more than two-thirds of the time. So if, Christian, you’re batting a buck-and-half, relax and remember that “without heroes … [we] don’t know how far we could go” (Bernard Malamud, The Natural).

So, praying against a gay-friendly Russian win in the Eurovision Song Contest (which would entail Moscow hosting the event in 2016), the head of the Russian Orthodox Church inveighed at the thought of “all of those bearded singers” converging on the Motherland (yeah, beards – sick), piously adding that what she now needs is “patriotic songs” (and more tanks, please). Nice one, (Patriarch) Cyril.

When you’re 20, being 30 is a joke, 40 a rumour, 60 a myth, and over 70 Grandma.

How is it that I’ve travelled my whole life hoping to meet myself only now to see him in the rear view mirror waving good bye?

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Theology events in Manchester

Our summer research programme is kicking off here at Nazarene Theological College. If you are in the Manchester area, you might want to consider dropping by one of our research events:

13th of June: One Day Theology Conference 
Keynote: Paul Avis “Communion and Mission: an agenda for the church”

I’ll be presenting the first paper of the day, “Speaking of the Living God: The language of divine encounter”. In this paper I'll be featuring my first sketches of a Wesleyan doctrine of God. I’ll be strolling through passages of Dionysius, Aquinas, Wesley, Williams, Tanner and others to argue that theological language is underwritten by divine presence or encounter—even if experienced as absence—and is aimed at transformation.

Details of other papers are here.

13th of June: Book launches
In the afternoon we’ll be launching three books: 



16th June: Manchester Wesley Research Centre annual lecture
This year’s lecturer is my retiring forerunner, David Rainey. He will be delivering a paper on John Wesley’s natural philosophy: “Beauty in Creation”.
Event details here.


17th June: MWRC Colloquium

Paper descriptions here. (Comes with a free lunch!)

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