Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Exciting new archaeological discovery

A similar ditch in Austria
A chance archaeological discovery made during earthworks in the area of Brunswick, Germany, is generating heated debate in theological circles. Construction workers were preparing the earth to lay foundations for a new apartment block when the ground fell away revealing, in the words of the foreman, “an ugly great ditch”. Archaeologists and philosophers were quickly brought in to examine the hole. While they are still awaiting the results from soil tests, most agree that it is indeed the ditch written about by Gotthold Lessing in his 1777 essay.

When the workers noticed the ditch, the foreman put a stop to all work until experts could examine it. “It’s not the first time we’ve made a philosophical discovery during earthworks. On a previous job a bloke came across the pillow that Kant used during his dogmatic slumbers.”

Others, however, are sceptical about the significance of the ditch. Ava Klein, a lawyer representing the construction firm building the apartments, released a statement criticising the decision to halt work to examine the controversial pit: “There is no reason why the reports of the appearance of this ditch should compel us to accept the truth of its historical or philosophical significance.”

A tutor of religion at a local seminary, Jules Roth, believes that the discovery is of great importance for theologians and philosophers. “This beautiful and massive fissure in the ground is a godsend. It’s true that it is difficult to see what’s on the other side from here, but the ditch itself is quite magnificent and should keep the academic community occupied for many years to come.”

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Do we have a church? (a sermon for Lent 2)

In the early 1950s a man named Clarence Jordan founded an interracial farm in Georgia called the Koinonia Community, which at the time was a very foolish and dangerous thing to do. He asked his brother Robert, a lawyer, to act as counsel for the farm. “Clarence,” Robert said, “I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. If I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

We might lose everything too,” Clarence replied.

“It’s different for you,” Robert said.

“Why is it different?” And Clarence went on to remind his brother how, when they were baptised, they were asked: “Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?” “What did you say, Robert?”

Robert paused, and then said, “I follow Jesus – up to a point.”

“Could that point by any chance be – the cross?” his brother challenged him.

“That’s right. I follow Jesus to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

“Then,” Clarence said, “I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple.”

“Well now,” Robert said, “if everyone who felt like I do did what you do, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”

“The question,” Clarence concluded, “is: ‘Do you have a church?’”

Robert Jordan went on to become a state senator, and a judge on the Georgia Supreme Court. So I guess his answer was a “No”.

What about us? Are we followers or admirers of Jesus? Is our church a community of disciples or a fan club? When we “take Jesus as our Lord and Saviour” – language sometimes used, I’m afraid, in an “I’m-a-real-Christian, are you?” kind of way – but if we do use that language, what do we mean by it? What do we mean by discipleship? What do we mean by being church, the church of Jesus?

These are the questions that today’s reading from Mark 8 puts to us. Where are we? We’re in the far north of Palestine, at the heart of pagan culture – the name of the region gives it away: Caesarea Philippi – Roman, Greek. Jesus has withdrawn there with his disciples. What happens there is the hinge event on which the entire gospel narrative turns.

Jesus begins (just before our passage) by asking the twelve what the vox-pop is on him: “Who do people say I am?” They answer: “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say one of the prophets.” Dead guys, but guys who, when they were alive, got into trouble by speaking truth to power – Elijah to Ahab, John to Herod Antipas, the other prophets to one king or priest or another. The table is set. Jesus serves the main course. “And you – who do you think I am?” The disciples look at each other, and Peter, thinking nothing ventured, nothing gained, speaks for them all: “The Messiah” – in another word, “You da King.”

And then Jesus begins to teach, in what is the first of three passion predictions. Tellingly, however, Jesus drops the term “Messiah” and speaks instead of the “Son of Man”, which is better rendered the “Human Being”, meaning the Human Being as human beings are meant to be. And he spells out what’s going to happen to the Human Being, to this proper human being that he is: he’s going to march to Jerusalem, the very centre of Jewish and Roman power, and there, in a highly charged political atmosphere – what? – Caiaphas and Pilate will roll out the red carpet for a coronation? No, there he will be rejected by the holy and the mighty and executed. And Mark adds: “He made this very clear to them.”

Peter’s reaction to Jesus? “No way!” And then Jesus’ reaction to Peter: “Get away from me, Satan!” Satan? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it? I mean, Peter, in protective mode, is only watching out for Jesus. Satan? Bells? Remember the temptation of Jesus? Mark is not specific about the nature of the satanic suggestions that filled Jesus’ head in the wilderness, but Matthew and Luke are: rule by worldly power and popular acclaim, and power and acclaim underwritten by what? By violence. Peter reasons: If Jesus is the Messiah, then of course he will rule with royal power – he’ll go to Jerusalem, kick butt, the people will love him – so whence this defeatist talk about suffering and death? That’s why his “No Way!” And that’s also why the “Get away from me, Satan!” That kind of power is not the kind of power that this Messiah, this Human Being wields.

Of course, we know better now. After all, we’ve had hundreds of years of experience as church exercising power properly, haven’t we? Crusades, witch-hunts, slavery, pogroms, the church as cheerleader to empires and states in whatever colonial venture or war they decide to undertake for land or gold or oil or geopolitical influence. So we know exactly, as Jesus goes on say, what it means to be disciples: “deny self” and “take up the cross”. The historical evidence suggests it means being loyal citizens. Moreover, we not only nationalise discipleship, to complete its domestication we also privatise it, as if by “self-denial” Jesus were talking about ascetically relinquishing the enjoyment of certain things, and by “cross-taking” stoically putting up with one’s troubles, a chronic illness or an insufferable colleague perhaps – the “crosses we have to bear,” as we say.    

But, really, is this what Jesus is saying? Come on! Like temple and state are going to combine to murder a man for teaching that the good life comes from being religious, patriotic, neighbourly, and living an uncomplaining life? Say your prayers, do your duty, be “nice”, don’t grumble – that’s it? That’s going to get a guy crucified? But crucifixion was a punishment reserved for the enemies of society, the ultimate sanction for the way all states operate, by moral policing and social control and doing whatever it takes in the way of lies, fear, and finally violence to maintain order and control. And what did Jesus do if not get in power’s face, live fearlessly in the presence of hostile authority, and practice nonviolence in the face of official aggression? That’s why he had to go, because he refused to accept the world as it is, the way the world works. He disrupted this business as usual, called it all into question – “The kingdom of Shalom is among you!” was his message – a manifesto that no earthly ruler can allow to go unchallenged. The execution of Jesus was, to be sure, a miscarriage of justice, but it was not a case of mistaken identity. They got the right guy alright. When Love appears, power has got to kill it. End of.
So the cross Jesus asks his followers to bear – it is this cross, determined by the way he lived and died, subversively, counter-intuitively, crazily foolishly. How do we live? Do we live by the truth of Jesus, or do we fall for the deceit that infuses the speeches of movers and shakers? Do we live without fear, or do bigshots scare us, scare us into the self-protection racket euphemistically known as “homeland security”? Do we live without violence and balk at collusion in exclusion, or do we shrug our shoulders and accept the demonization of enemies and the dehumanisation of the different in our own communities, in our own churches? In short, do we live by “realism” and “pragmatism”, are we “purpose driven” by “outcomes” and “results”, do we think that being church is about “winning” and “success”, or do we live as if Jesus is indeed our Lord and Saviour, but this Jesus, carrying his cross?
This month we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery freedom marches for African American voting rights, led, of course, by Martin Luther King Jr, whose monumental biography by David Garrow is entitled – yes, Bearing the Cross (1988). “The battle is in our hands,” King intoned from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol at the completion of the (third) march (in his now-called “How Long? Not Long!” speech). “And we can answer,” King continued, “with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summon us. The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.” As King would keep going from Montgomery until his murder in Memphis a few years later. As Jesus kept going from Caesarea Philippi until his murder in Jerusalem a few months later. “The cross of Jesus,” James Cone observes, “is the key to King’s willingness to sacrifice his life, not only for the freedom of black people … but also for the souls of whites and the redemption of America.”
One final point. That little phrase that goes with carrying the cross – “deny oneself” – how interesting that the Greek word translated “deny” (aparnesastho) is found in only two other places in Mark: both in the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus. Like Peter, Clarence Jordan’s brother Robert was in denial of Jesus because he wouldn’t buck the fierce pressure of opposition that goes with discipleship. What about us? Are we followers or fans? Do we have a church? Do we have a church?

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Types of Christian theology: a drafted typology

My introduction to theology class this semester will end with a lecture on “types of Christian theology.” I’ve been digging around among the available typologies (e.g. Hans Frei, Justo González), but haven’t felt that they’re sufficiently useful for an undergraduate introduction. So I’m trying to come up with a way of categorising several different theological types. Here’s my attempt so far, with a classic and modern example of each type. Any ideas for improvement? Or anyone know of a good alternative typology? (What I really need is a theologygrams chart!)

Types of Christian theology

With three main audiences: theology addressed to the believer (B), theology addressed to the church (C), and theology addressed to the world (W).

  • (B) Catechetical exposition of the faith (e.g. Origen, First Principles; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics)
  • (C) Polemical exposition of the faith (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies; Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is)
  • (W) Apologetic exposition of the faith (e.g. Origen, Contra Celsum; John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory)
  • (B) Template of a converted life (e.g. Clement of Alexandria, The Educator; Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self)
  • (C) Template of a converted community (e.g. Calvin, Institutes; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)
  • (W) Template of a converted society (e.g. Augustine, City of God; Reinhold Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny of Man)
  • (W) Protest against society (e.g. Tertullian, On Spectacles; Gustavo Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation)
  • (C) Protest against the church (e.g. Luther, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church; Kierkegaard, Attack upon Christendom)
  • (B) Protest against the self (e.g. Pascal, Pensées; Simone Weil, Waiting for God)

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Course syllabus: Doctrine of the Trinity

Starting next week, I'll be teaching an undergraduate course on the doctrine of the Trinity. I've pasted below the outline/syllabus for the course. If anyone in the Sydney area would like to sit in on the class, auditors are always welcome!


Welcome! In this subject, you are invited to explore the central teaching of the Christian faith: the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is the belief – shared by all the main historic Christian traditions – that within God there is a living threefold movement from the Father to the Son in the Holy Spirit. This movement of divine life supplies the grammar for the way Christians speak about the world’s creation, redemption, and final restoration.

It was the experience of salvation in Christ that led early Christian thinkers towards a doctrine of the Trinity. From the earliest days, Christians were convinced that in Christ they had experienced God’s saving self-revelation. And if Christ reveals God – if, looking at Jesus, you find yourself looking at God – then Christ must somehow be said to share in God’s divinity. Otherwise, you wouldn’t really have met God in Christ, and God would remain hidden and unknown. The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated as a way of safeguarding these basic convictions about salvation and revelation.

In its briefest form, the doctrine of the Trinity can be summarised with the statement that God is “one being, three persons.” In the more elaborate language of the Nicene Creed, the doctrine of the Trinity affirms that “Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, [is] eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.”

How exactly does this language about the Trinity relate to the ordinary Christian experience of salvation? How does it relate to the spiritual life? How does it relate to the way Christians read the Bible? Is language really an adequate means of expressing truth about God? How can we be sure that we really know anything about God at all?

These are some of the key questions that we’ll be exploring throughout the semester. You'll get to sample some of the richest spiritual and theological writing in the Christian tradition. And you'll see that those two aspects – the theological and the spiritual; knowing and loving; dogma and mysticism – are very closely connected in our tradition.

In the weekly tutorials we will be reading and studying three major Christian thinkers: two Greek-speaking theologians from fourth-century Cappadocia, Basil the Great (330-379 CE) and Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389 CE); as well as the modern Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Basil and Gregory were key figures in the formation of Christian orthodoxy. Gregory presided over the Council of Constantinople (381 CE), which produced the version of the Nicene Creed that is still used in churches today. In the twentieth century, Karl Barth provoked a "trinitarian revival," leading to widespread interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. Under Barth's influence, the doctrine of the Trinity remains one of the major themes of contemporary theology.

By the time we have worked through our lectures and tutorials, you will have an understanding of the major issues in contemporary trinitarian theology, and you will have the tools to make your own informed contribution to the contemporary discussion. Your final essay will give you the opportunity to put those tools to work.

But the real fruit of studying the doctrine of the Trinity isn't just the ability to write a good essay. The fruit is seen in the way Christians love, pray, preach, sing, contemplate, read scripture, form community, make moral decisions, create art – and so on. The doctrine of the Trinity is the grammar of the Christian life.

Weekly schedule

Each week's lecture focuses on one or two main historical figures, and works towards clarifying some aspect of contemporary theology. So for example, the week 10 lecture will focus on Julian of Norwich, but will eventually arrive at the contemporary discussion surrounding Moltmann.
  1. Naming God in the Hebrew Bible 
  2. The Identity of God: The Pauline Letters 
    • tutorial: Basil, On the Holy Spirit, pp. 52-75
  3. Dwelling in God: The Gospel of John 
    • tutorial: Basil, On the Holy Spirit, pp. 76-95
  4. Trinitarian Monotheism (Tertullian and Irenaeus) 
    • tutorial: Basil, On the Holy Spirit, pp. 96-122
  5. Trinitarian Spirituality (Origen) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 27
  6. Trinitarian Exegesis (Athanasius and Arius) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 28
  7. Trinitarian Piety and Liturgy (the Cappadocians) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 29
  8. The Image of the Trinity (Augustine) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31
  9. The Transcendent Trinity: Christianity and Islam (8th-century Arabic theology) 
  10. The Cross and the Trinity (Julian of Norwich) 
    • tutorial: Barth, CD IV/1, pp. 169-86
  11. Synthesis I: Heresy and Orthodoxy; Language and Limits; Doctrine and Exegesis 
    • tutorial: Barth, CD IV/1, pp. 186-98 
  12. Synthesis II: Persons and Community; Knowing and Loving; Dogma and Mysticism 
    • tutorial: Barth, CD IV/1, pp. 198-204
  1. Short Cappadocian research paper (on Basil, Macrina, or Gregory of Nazianzus)
  2. Theological essay

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Dozy doodlings

What is theology? Theology is talk about God, often slanderous.

Perhaps the most hilarious of self-deceptions is thinking that you know what you’re doing. Human beings really do run on stupid, and we never run out of gas.

Some people say “Jesus saved me!” like they won the lottery. And you know what happens to a lot of lottery-winners…

On the preacher: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress [congregation] information of the state of the union [Romans 6:5ff.], and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” [From the Constitution of the United States, Article II, Section 3] 

Sermons are like basketball games: everything is won or lost in the last five minutes.

All you need to know about an Aaron Sorkin script:
[Allegro and staccato] Character A says: “Hi.” Character B says: “Hi.” Character A says: “Blah.” Character B says: “Sure.” Character A says: “Yeah?” Character B says: “Yeah.” Character A says: “Okay.” Character B says: “Okay.” Characters A says: “I gotta go.” Character B says: “Sure.” Character A says: “Right.” Character B says: “Okay.” Character A says: “Okay.” [Cut]

Anti-Clinton media moguls are already planning to produce a TV series on Hilary if she becomes the 44th President. The working title is The West Witch; the central set will be called the Ova Office.

You might say that in Jesus God learned to speak the language of humans. Fluency, however, failed him: he never did get the grammar of violence.

Consider American Sniper:
a point that’s been lost in the hyper –
tackled neither by Clint
nor by those of his bent –
is “Who, friend or foe, is the viper?”

If movie marketers had imagination …
American Sniper – Now showing in a coliseum near you!
Fifty Shades of Grey – Now showing in a dungeon near you!

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” Then Jesus paused, consulted his Father, and added, “With one exceptionalism.”
—Matthew 28:18-19 (Original Autograph)

Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” I think he meant “doggerel” and “drivel”. 

In the Church of the Good Coffee, Starbucks is the equivalent of Arianism.

Did you hear about the Seattle Seahawk fan who declared that the Boston blizzard was God’s judgment on the Deflategate scandal, and then at the Super Bowl stood behind the Patriots’ bench holding a placard reading “Ephesians 2:2 (KJ)”?

Pilate went back into the palace and called Jesus (aka Lamb Mode). “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asked him. Jesus answered, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” Pilate asked him, “Do you think I am a Jew?” Jesus answered, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” Pilate asked him, “Are you a king, then?” Jesus answered, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.” Then Pilate went back outside to the people and said to them, “I cannot find any reason to fine him.” Then he handed Jesus over to them. Jesus said to them “What are y’all here for?” They shouted, “Lynch him!”
—John 18:33ff. (Original Autograph)

In the wake of Wolf Hall (the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), critically acclaimed as “close to perfect television”, the BBC website has run a little iWonder called How could you survive in Tudor England? In section 2, “Stay out of trouble”, it describes the draconian treatment of law-breakers during the reign of Henry VIII, when “estimates of the number of executions range from 54,000 to 72,000.” “A good start,” declares a spokesman for D-PE (Death-Penalty Evangelicals), “but this is America; surely we can get that number up to six figures. Meanwhile, in consultation with the steel and pharmaceutical industries, we will be considering the advantages of the axe over lethal injection.”

Satan in the wilderness – what a mug. Stones into bread, a death-defying leap from the Temple, all the kingdoms of the world – big deal. If he were really serious, the devil would have taken Jesus to the Bronx and offered the lad a Major League baseball contract. How could the Messiah resist playing in The Show, even wearing pinstripes?

What Jesus learned in the wilderness is that nothing fails like success.

According to creationists, there are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damned lies, and cladistics.

How would I define “contemporary worship”? As a form of liturgical hazing.

Creatio ex nihilo or ordo ab chao? The former. The latter is too tough an ask. I think of my 2 ½-year-old granddaughter moving from room to room leaving a trail of ground zeros, and then multiply it by a universe – yep, too tough an ask, even for God.

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has come to the defence of Stephen Fry who infuriated Christians by denouncing God as ‘utterly evil’, ‘capricious, mean-minded, stupid’ and ‘monstrous’” (Telegraph 5 February). Absolutely (apart, maybe, from the “stupid”: it seems to me that there’s a genius to this deity’s creative malevolence). I look forward to the MPA of the C of E distributing Je suis Ivan badges to every parish.

So the pope told a gathering at the Vatican, “One time I heard a father say, ‘At times I have to hit my children a bit, but never in the face lest someone report me to social services so as not to humiliate them.’ That’s great,” continued His Holiness. “He had a sense of dignity. He should punish, do the right thing, and then move on to his wife.”

At the 1973 National Prayer Breakfast, which occurred two weeks after President Nixon had ordered a ceasefire in Vietnam, Senator Mark Hatfield said, “Today our prayers must begin with repentance…. We must turn in repentance from the sin that scarred our national soul.” That was truth speaking to power. This year, judging from conservative reaction to Obama’s speech, power spoke truth to stupid.

Conversation at the Last Supper: Peter said, jokingly, “Hey Jesus, I got one for you: what do you call a leader with no followers?” Jesus replied, sombrely, “A guy taking a walk.”

Friday, 13 February 2015

When God was everything: A review of Ian McFarland's From Nothing

We theologians are often accused of writing a lot of nothing about God, which occasionally may be the case. But it takes a careful hand to write a lot about God and nothing. “Nothing” is an undeniably slippery concept. As soon as you make a statement about it, you’ve gone and turned it into something! But, if Ian McFarland is to be believed, we can’t just let the nothing be. It simply won’t do to go about life carelessly ontologising nothing. Theology must grapple with nothing, which is to say, it must cease trying to grapple with nothing as though it were something (because it looks rather silly to wrestle with the air).

McFarland has called his book From Nothing. I often berate my students for beginning their essays with clichés, such as “Since the beginning of time…” However, after reading From Nothing, I think that I have been mistaken. I should be praising my students and their clichés. After all, they have demonstrated that they have the theological sense to discern that time has a beginning. This is a fine point to make, as long as one doesn’t make it too finely. Once the theologian starts discussing what existed “before” creation, the language can get rather muddled—since the whole discussion employs a creaturely temporal framework. Of course, some theologians claim that an awful lot existed before creation, even if the things that did exist were the wrong shape and all the bits were in the wrong place.

The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is sometimes accused of being alien to the Bible—a downright unscriptural philosophical intrusion into the theological purity of the Christian tradition. The students of Whitehead continue to tell us that ex nihilo—if nihil really means nihil—makes God responsible for the evils of the world. The creation narrative presented by process theism provides a tidy solution to the problem of evil: a God whose creative activity is limited to the persuasion of pre-existent matter cannot be held accountable when that obstinate matter shapes itself into unpleasant things like lawsuits and fire-ants. 

McFarland is aware of the critiques of ex nihilo, and addresses them by looking at the history of the doctrine. Our first written expression of ex nihilo seems to appear in Theophilus’ letter to Autolycus. “While the gnostics used the doctrine of creation as a theodicy, for Theophilus it no longer plays this role. Evil cannot be explained as a natural consequence of creation… Theophilus turns [the doctrine of creation] to the service of soteriology”. Theophilus saw that salvation of the material world hinges on God’s transcendence of the same.

This little history uncovers the principal theme of the book: it is because God transcends the world that God has an interest in the future of the world. Without transcendence, God would be subject the fate of the world, but the transcendent God is the subject of the fate of the world. The affirmation that God creates from nothing is simply another way of saying that “nothing limits God”. God’s creative activity is not conditioned by any environment or matter or circumstance. The Gnostics share with the process theists a disappointingly timid notion of divine transcendence. A truly transcendent God doesn’t need a demiurge. “God’s transcendence does not imply distance from creatures but is rather the ground for God’s engagement with them”.

Unlike this blog post, McFarland’s book does not degenerate into doctrinal polemics. Instead, he puts the doctrine of creation to use—he reveals its problems and promises. When examining an ancient doctrine such as this, one can be either an archaeologist or an engineer. The archaeologist attempts to uncover the ancient use of the doctrine, and perhaps argue for its continuity up until today. The engineer, on the other hand, attempts to build something on the doctrine. McFarland plays the engineer. The strongest case for the doctrine is made, he argues, when one can “identify its dogmatic function” rather than merely establishing “its grounding in Scripture or tradition”. McFarland builds his case upon topics such as evil and providence, glory and light, Christ and icons. McFarland is a fine engineer. He understands how the structure works, and shows that divine transcendence and creatio ex nihilo support and strengthen each other.

It might be possible to compare this book to Kathryn Tanner's God and Creation in Christian Theology, but I cannot think of another volume that treats the topic of creatio ex nihilo as well as McFarland does here. McFarland shows that when theologians talk about God, they talk about nothing. They just need to find a way to do it that allows God to be everything before there is anything else.

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