Friday, 22 May 2015

How to mark essays: the practical application of the doctrine of divine simplicity

Every academic is a surgeon. I am, you see, a Doctor of the Academy and the red pen is my scalpel. It is my Duty to perform surgery on student essays to safeguard the future of the English Language. Sometimes the surgery is cosmetic, but quite often I am called upon to perform a coronary bypass or an amputation. Occasionally, after working on an essay for some time, I am required to pronounce the time of death.

Most frequently, however, my scalpel cuts down capital letters in the essays that come to my operating theatre. In theology essays, words such as “Omnipotent”, “He”, and “Love” are often piously capitalised. These essays are littered with little impudent letters standing taller than they should, like a beggar who presumes to lift his head in the presence of the King. Such unnecessary capitalisations fill my eyes with red, which I gleefully spill onto the page.

You must understand, I quite enjoy wielding the knife—slicing comma splices, maligning malaprops, abrogating apostrophes. It’s a thoroughly Religious Experience, if you know what I mean. In fact, today, I had a Revelation. 

While marking an essay saying something about baptism, I was caught up—whether in the body or out of the body, I know not—to heaven. A voice spoke to me and asked, “Why do you persecute Me?” I replied, “Lord, I have done nothing but serve you.” The voice spoke again, “Then why do you disrespect My Name?”

At that moment, a choir of angels descended singing a hymn of singular glory. While they seemed to be singing in parts, there were no parts. Somehow, each angel sang the whole song. The plurality of voices added nothing to the music, but each voice was true and necessary. Every angel sang but a single word—“Love”, or “Just”, or “Omnipotent”—and with this word every angel sang the name of God. While they sang, all the essays I had ever marked came up to greet me. I wept as I saw the Names of God shining brightly from their pages, the beautiful capital letters standing tall and glorious. Each capitalised word was a complete and robust description of the divine essence: “Grace”, “Mercy”, “Wrath”.


I startled back to my senses in my study, paper in hand. Putting the paper down, I sent an email to the receptionist to let her know that we will need less red ink in future.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Divine Unity: Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology

The first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s new Systematic Theology is nearing release, and the curious can sample the preface and first chapter of the book on Fortress’ website. 

It looks like an unmissable volume—if only because she resolutely refuses to begin with Christology or the doctrine of the Trinity. “This theology is neither Christomorphic nor Christocentric” (p. xvii). 

In her preface, Sonderegger observes that “Modern Christian theology has shown an allergy to questions about Deity—what God is” (p. xi). She sets out in this volume to explore the perfections of God through the foundational perfection: divine oneness—“oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God” (p. xiv). 

While some modern theologians have depicted the renewed emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity as the victory of scripture over philosophy, Sonderegger points to the priority of divine oneness in scripture. There is nothing more scriptural, she observes, than monotheism. This marks a departure from the modern trend of beginning with the Trinity. The beloved doctrine of the modern West will have to wait until volume 2.

The sample from the first chapter is rich and interesting. Sonderegger enters into extended engagement with Jenson as a prime example of a doctrine of God that “conjoins divine identity, narrative, Trinity, philo-Judaism, and anti-Hellenism” (p. 7). Jenson’s theology is worth examining, she argues, because Jenson insists that “its defiant starting point in the doctrine of the Trinity moves it not away [from], … but closer to the law, observance, and piety of rabbinic Judaism” (p. 7). However, she finds the sidelining of oneness in his treatment dissatisfying. Against Jenson and his comrades Sonderegger argues that the foundational form of the Old Testament is not “narrative” or “story”, but Torah (p. 11). Israel’s scripture teaches divine oneness as a metaphysical commitment.

Whereas Barth, Jenson, and others have suggested that a purely monadic God would be an idol, Sonderegger argues that according to scripture a visible God would be more idolatrous. God’s invisibility is what sets the true God apart from idols (pp. 17-21). How she will reconcile this with christology and the iconoclast controversy remains to be seen.

While it is questionable to offer a critique based on a short sample—a bit like reviewing a movie after having watched only the trailer—a question did keep coming to mind. Sonderegger has decided to avoid treating God as triune in this volume in order to redress the oversight of the unity of God in modern theology. However, I am not quite convinced that the unity of God has been overlooked in the modern renewal of the doctrine of the Trinity. It seems to me that for Jenson (and perhaps for Barth and others), the unity of the divine being is a presupposition that needs to be converted by an encounter with divine revelation. That certain theologians prefer to begin with the doctrine of the Trinity does not necessarily mean, as Sonderegger argues, “that the Oneness of God comes under heavy threat” (p. 9). However, she is right that the current theological climate makes it difficult to know what we can/should say about the oneness of God.

Sonderegger’s prose is alive with scriptural allusions and spiritual insights. Most compelling is her reflection on the spiritual and theological importance of God’s humility: “So humble is this God that He will lay Himself down in our knowledge, making our paths straight, illumining our darkness, raising up the creature in His own ineffable Light… This is the exceeding Goodness of our God, His Lowliness, that He will come to us, and make His dwelling there” (p. xx).


I look forward to reading the full volume. It seems to me that her attentiveness to scripture and to spiritual practices is to be celebrated and emulated. If doing so problematises received models or methods for theology, so be it.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Four talks on Calvin as a social reformer

Starting this Wednesday I’ll be giving a series of talks on “John Calvin, Social Reformer.” Here’s a quick sketch of what I hope to do in each of the talks:

1. Education
– the challenge of educational reform – the Institutes and Commentaries as educational books – catechesis as the foundation of protestant culture

2. Piety
– the challenge of reforming popular piety – reorienting piety around the Word – Calvin’s recovery of monastic psalmody as a practice for all believers – psalm-singing unites Word and Spirit – singing as the energy of protestant culture

3. Society
– the challenge of reforming politics and civil society – the Institutes as a manual for Christian freedom – freedom of conscience in relation to God – freedom in relation to the political order – freedom in relation to the church – tensions between individual freedom and God-given structures – freedom as the basic mode of relating in protestant culture

4. Theology
– Calvin’s social reform derived from his theology of grace – paradoxically, grace provides the impetus to strive for social change – the loss of a theology of grace in later protestant culture, and the subsequent spiritual exhaustion of protestant culture – recap: the symptoms in Western culture of education without grace, piety without grace, and social freedom without grace – recovering a theology of grace today.

The talks are at 10 a.m. each Wednesday over the next four weeks at United Theological College, 16 Masons Drive, North Parramatta. They’re open to anyone who would like to come along, so please come and join us if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Notes from Anzac Day

5.10 a.m.
In the dark I struggle with my phone, infernal gadget, to try to make it stop beeping and blinging. Bewildered, I stand there trying to remember why I have made myself wake so early. What do I have against myself anyway? Then I hear the children moving in the kitchen and I remember that it is Anzac Day. I make the coffee and pull on my shoes and stumble out on to the street. Our friends have arrived. We go down to the corner near the train station and follow the crowds streaming from every direction into the park. We are early, well before dawn, but thousands have already filled the park before us. The ground is still muddy from all the rain this week. When the service starts we cannot hear anything, we cannot see what is going on, so we slosh through the mud to find a better spot. We still cannot see anything but now we can hear what they are saying. The Anglican minister is talking about one of the boys from our neighbourhood who enlisted and went to Gallipoli and disappeared there a hundred years ago. Then his brother enlisted and went to Gallipoli to try to find him, and he died there too. Now we are singing a hymn and somebody reads a poem and the bugler plays the Last Post. He plays it well, very sad and slow. Soldiers and school children and old ladies come down and lay wreaths around the war memorial in the middle of the park. Some of them cannot get through the crowd to lay their wreaths. Afterwards we press through the crush of people, our neighbours, to see the wreath that my daughter helped to make. She spent a whole day and then another day making red poppies with her knitting needles and a lot of red wool. We tell her that it is the finest of all the wreaths, which is true.

6.10 a.m.
Someone said it was the biggest Anzac Day gathering in our neighbourhood since the end of World War II. Nothing gets people together like a war and the end of a war. There is a video I saw once of a man dancing in the streets of Sydney the day the war ended. He takes his hat in his hand and dances down George Street, just like that. Fred Astaire in all his glory never looked so good.

7.00 a.m.
Now we have changed clothes, my friends and I, and filled our water bottles, and gone out to salute the cold glad morning on our bicycles. There is no better way to make the most of a morning. It is a national holiday. I do not know if a military day of remembrance can truly be holy, I have my doubts, but if anything can sacralise a day it is three hours in the saddle of a gliding, swooping bicycle. With our wheels close, almost touching, we ride as fast as we can until it hurts, and then we ride faster. We ride in the joy of the day, me and two friends, a German and an Austrian. I warn them that I do not want to hear any German-speaking today, that would be unheimlich and quite unacceptable. But really, what are a couple of world wars between friends on bicycles?

11.30 a.m.
On the way home we go to see a hockey game. My friend’s son is playing. He is a tall boy and he plays well, a good defender, and we cheer for him. When the clock is down to two minutes, one–nil, he turns and looks and sees his father. All day long I keep thinking about it, the way he turned, the way he saw his father.

2.00 p.m.  
Storm Boy is previewing at the theatre on Sydney Harbour. It is the story of a boy named Storm Boy who lives with his father in a shack on a beach in South Australia. After a bad storm the boy nurses three baby pelicans back to health and one of them, a very fine pelican named Mr Percival, becomes his friend. In a storm at sea Mr Percival saves three sailors from shipwreck, and after that some hunters shoot him down. Because he was such a clever pelican, the sailors want to have him stuffed and put in the museum with a plaque describing how the pelican and the boy saved three men from a shipwreck. But the boy knows that Mr Percival does not belong behind cold glass in a museum, he belongs with the wind and the sea. So the boy and his father bury Mr Percival in the sand beneath the wooden post near the shack. It is a good play, my children love it and I love it even more. The pelicans are brought to life by puppeteers who make them waddle around the stage and snap their beaks at fish and spread their wings in flight and die in the arms of a boy.

4.00 p.m.
One of our friends was in the play so afterwards he takes my children backstage and shows them the puppets. Outside a heap of clouds is gathering, another storm, just like the one in Storm Boy. We walk out on the pier and watch the lightning flashing. We wait until we feel the first drops of rain and then we hurry to the car. There is laundry on the clothesline at home and we debate about whether we will make it back in time to get the clothes inside. As always I am optimistic; as usual my optimism is unfounded. By the time we get home the rain has swept the streets clean and all the clothes are dripping on the line.

5.15 p.m.
We got the rain but other parts of the city were struck by heavy hail, as heavy as the hail that fell on the Egyptians. In the pictures on the news the hail looks like snow on the ground. We are disappointed that we got no hail from the storm. We feel that we have missed the best part.

6.00 p.m.
Earlier this week I read Storm Boy to my son because he had never read the book and I wanted him to know the story before he saw the play. “Storm Boy couldn’t bear to be inside. He loved the whip of the wind too much, and the salty sting of the spray on his cheek like a slap across the face, and the endless hiss of the dying ripples at his feet. For Storm Boy was a storm boy.”

7.30 p.m.
Since the beginning of this year four people whom I know have died. This morning we marked the deaths of many thousands. I mean no disrespect to their memories when I say that I cried the most for Mr Percival and felt his death the most acutely, the death of a gentle pelican, a puppet on a stage.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Teaching theodicy: a sketch

Tomorrow I will be guest-lecturing on theodicy for a colleague’s class on pastoral care and theology. Knowing the problem of evil to be one of those prevalent digressions in the theology classroom, I agreed to teach a whole unit on theodicy some years ago with great reluctance. But it has since emerged as one of my favourite topics to teach, blending the theological and the pastoral as it does. Particular suffering of the sort encountered in pastoral ministry problematises theology’s preference for neat answers.

The best resource I have found for teaching theodicy is Rowan Williams’ essay “Redeeming Sorrows” (found in Wrestling with Angels). While I have only once set this essay as reading for a class, I always keep it in mind while teaching on suffering. In the background of tomorrow’s class will be his line from the essay, “I suspect that it is more religiously imperative to be worried by evil than to put it into a satisfactory theoretical context, if only because such a worry keeps obstinately open the perspective of the sufferer” (p. 272). Throughout, Williams is attentive to the “uncomfortable question of who theodicy is being done for” (p. 271).

Together with Williams, my classes on theodicy tend to be a mix of Simone Weil, Marilyn McCord Adams, John Hick, James Cone, Sarah Coakley, G. K. Chesterton, and lots and lots of Augustine. A serious theological discussion about theodicy will always dip into Dostoyevsky, reckon with memories of tsunamis, and include the silence of unspoken personal horrors, but I find that the emerging discussion always tends towards certain important emphases. I’ve attempted to lay them out here:

  • Suffering is mysterious, which is why we should pay attention to it and talk about it as much as possible
  • Evil is [sic] actually evil, which is why it is never covertly good
  • God is not a finite agent, which is why we cannot expect God to respond to suffering the way we would
  • Christ’s suffering is real and particular, which is why it does not provide a general principle that confers meaning upon all experiences of suffering
  • In theodicy, the temptation is to justify God to ourselves, which is why we need to question our motives in attempting to provide a theodicy
  • Christianity does not provide a theoretical answer to the problem of evil,  but particular responses to the experience of suffering
  • The life of prayer is the best stimulant of compassion, which is why Christians pray “deliver us from evil”

Monday, 20 April 2015

The New Testament in Bob Dylan song titles

  • Matthew: “Narrow Way”
  • Mark: “Marchin’ to the City”
  • Luke: “Man of Peace”
  • John: “Born in Time”
  • Acts: “Hurricane”
  • Romans: “With God on Our Side”
  • I Corinthians: “We Better Talk This Over”
  • II Corinthians: “Man of Constant Sorrow”
  • Galatians: “Chimes of Freedom”
  • Ephesians: “It’s All Good”
  • Philippians: “Emotionally Yours”
  • Colossians: “Final Theme”
  • I Thessalonians: “Lo and Behold!”
  • II Thessalonians: “All Along the Watchtower”
  • I Timothy: “Clean Cut Kid”
  • II Timothy: “Lord, Protect My Child”
  • Titus: “Handle with Care”
  • Philemon: “Ballad for a Friend”
  • Hebrews: “Changing of the Guards”
  • James: “Dignity”
  • I Peter: “Living the Blues”
  • II Peter: “Someday Baby”
  • I John: “Make You Feel My Love”
  • II John: “Is Your Love in Vain?”
  • III John: “Odds and Ends”
  • Jude: “The Devil’s Been Busy”
  • Revelations: “Going, Going, Gone”
* Songs from Slow Train Coming and Saved excepted (too easy)

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