Thursday, 30 July 2015

Ten glimpses of Alexandria

“To any vision must be brought an eye adapted to what is to be seen” (Plotinus, Enneads, 1.6.9).

Once again I dreamed of Alexandria. I woke as if from fever with memories of crooked streets, an empty Mediterranean sky, a woman with black eyes, pitiless and beautiful. Although it is a place I have never visited, although the true Alexandria no longer exists, I remembered the city and winced from the memory as though from fire. Alexandria, the cradle of Egyptian and Hellenistic civilisation. Alexandria, the city created ex nihilo by a Mesopotamian boy who wanted to be Greek, who saw in Greece a universal spirit that could unite the far-flung peoples of a conquered empire. He never saw the city built. Having mastered the world, Alexander gave up his spirit and was laid to rest in glass at the crossroads of the city that bears his name, a city he had never seen except in dreams.

Alexandria, city of Cleopatra, in whom nature’s infinite variety became wildly, ravishingly articulate. Even her dying was a triumph, not so much a death as a work of art. Cleopatra has immortal longings in her: she sheds her life as easily as a garment: by an act of will and passion she turns herself freely into fire and air (Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, act 5). She was “the last of a secluded and subtle race, a flower that Alexandria had taken three hundred years to produce and that eternity cannot wither” (E. M. Forster, Alexandria, 31).

Alexandria, where many worlds converged. Egypt and Greece, philosophy and Christianity, the library and the mystery cults, magic and exegesis. You can keep the pompous pretensions of Rome; you can have the sun-scorched fanaticisms of Jerusalem – only give me Alexandria with its milder climate, its unassuming airs, its “smooth and waveless harbours” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 7.21).

At the University of Western Sydney the old convict buildings rest sedately on the banks of the Parramatta River. I take coffee in the courtyard and remember Alexandria. The student clubs are peddling their varied ideologies under a rainbow of pop-up marquees. A DJ is pumping music into the drowsy heavens. I am adrift on a sea of students. European faces, Aboriginal faces, faces from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands. The Lebanese girls go by with their phones held high, proud and beautiful with their shimmering scarves and big designer handbags. There goes the chaplain, a cassocked Irish Catholic priest, head bent in conversation with a Latin American boy who looks very lost in the way that only the very devout can ever be. A girl in blue jeans meets my eye. Do I know her? Have I seen her before? No, it is only that she has Balkan eyes, like mine. I remember her without ever having known her, as I remember Alexandria.

In the university courtyard I drink my coffee, sitting still while the whole world moves around me. There is a magic here: it is another Alexandria. Just now it would not surprise me to see Plotinus and Origen go by, locked in conversation about the soul with their teacher Ammonius. It would not surprise me to see Philo coming out of the library with Greek scrolls tucked under his arm, or Hypatia sitting at the cafe eating olives and discussing mathematics and astronomy with a huddle of her star-struck pupils.

Today, I am told, there is little reason to visit Alexandria, there is nothing there to see. It is a big industrial city, homogeneously commercial, modern, monotheistic. Its cosmopolitan history is erased. Once a place of many languages, now the signs are all in Arabic. The Jewish population, once 50,000 strong, is said to be less than 50 now. In 2002 the Egyptian government opened a huge new library, big enough to hold 8 million books. They did not blush to dub this monument the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, though the acquisitions funding was paltry compared to the spectacular building costs. The novelist Lawrence Durrell lived in the city in the 1940s and wrote his Alexandrian Quartet about the people there. When he visited again decades later he called the experience “depressing beyond endurance.” Of the old Alexandria nothing was left except the rubble of minor antiquities propped up in museums.

“Only the climate, only the north wind and the sea remain as pure as when Menelaus, the first visitor, landed upon Ras-el-Tin three thousand years ago” (E. M. Forster, Alexandria, 120).

But a city is more than buildings. A city is a spiritual thing. When Rome was sacked, Augustine consoled his bewildered compatriots: “Perhaps Rome isn’t destroyed. What is Rome, after all, but Romans?” (Augustine, Sermon 81.9). Though Alexandria is gone, though I will never see the streets that I have wandered in my dreams, the true city is not lost. Sometimes I have glimpsed it. Today I saw it, if only for a moment, in a courtyard in western Sydney on the bank of the Parramatta River. The girl with Balkan eyes had a silver anklet. It tapped her sandalled foot as she went by.

From the great Alexandrian poet, C. P. Cavafy:
“As you set out for Ithaka,
hope the voyage is a long one. […]
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
—C. P. Cavafy, “Ithaka”

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Downright doodlings

By all means remove Confederate flags from government buildings to send a message about racism. It’s a start. Next, send a message about the fusion of faith and nationalism by removing American flags from churches.

Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they’re doing.” And the Father replied, “Screw that, Son. I’m thinking eternal damnation. And fire. Lots of fire.”
(Luke 23:34f., Original Autograph)

Do I believe in hell? Only the devil in me.

Who said, “A butter knife in marmalade is a hanging offence”? Was it (a) TV chef Nigella Lawson, or (b) Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.

The line “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter” refers (a) to gunsel Wilmer Cook, object of Sam Spade’s derision in The Maltese Falcon, or (b) to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump?

Jesus said, “You will see ‘The Awful Horror’ standing in a place where he should not be.” (Note to the reader: be sure to understand what this means: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy!) Then those who live in Texas, Kentucky, and Alabama must run away to the hills…. For the trouble of those days will be far worse than any the world has ever known from the very beginning when God created the world to the present time. Nor will there ever be anything like it again.”
(Mark 13:14ff., Original Autograph)

The “Benedict Option”? Rather, for post-Obergefell v. Hodges religious conservatives, surveying the liberal lowlands from the moral high ground, driven by ressentiment and superciliousness, insinuating a scenario of “The Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness” – well, more like the “Qumran Option”. First Things has become Last Things.

Did you hear about the biblical literalist who, on the 78th occasion that a fellow-Christian said, “I’m sorry about that, please forgive me,” thought “WWJD?” – and then replied, “Go fuck yourself!”?

According to the BBC, doctors are now warning that skinny jeans can seriously damage muscles and nerves. A survey of hipster pastors would suggest that the damage may extend to the cerebrum.

Then the Devil came to him and said, “If you are God’s Son, order these stones to turn into bread.” But Jesus answered, “The scripture says, ‘Man cannot live on bread alone.’ “True,” the Devil replied, “I forgot the circuses.” “And Twitter,” Jesus added.
(The first temptation of Jesus according to Matthew 4:3ff., Original Autograph)

The church has often been seriously hostile to the theatre, both actors and audiences, and with good biblical support. As Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Broadway leads to destruction.”
(Matthew 7:13, Original Autograph)

The strategic thinking behind the war on terrorism can be summarised in 4 words: “Fight fire with gasoline.”

Luther was wrong about the Letter of James: it is certainly not an “epistle of straw”. That, with its strategic accommodation to empire, would be I Timothy.

I’ve just managed to finish reading, before the eschaton, Joseph Frank’s monumental biography Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (a 932 page abridgement of a 5 volume work). Not for the first time, a writer whose work has deeply informed my literary and religious imagination – in particular, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and, of course, The Brothers Karamazov – turns out to have been a maniac as well as a genius: a xenophobic nationalist, militarist, and imperialist, and an odious anti-Semite who blamed the “Yids”, with an animus otherwise reserved for the “Westernizers”, for all the ills of Russia. How ironic: no other novelist has ever characterised the inner battle between the sublime and the malignant with such psychological insight and spiritual depth.

Which leads me to suggest that Americans, of all people, should understand what makes the Russians tick. After all, with respect to a pathological belief in a nation’s moral superiority as well as in its messianic destiny, there is no exceptionalism like American exceptionalism except Russian exceptionalism.

Why do Christians lose their faith in the face of horrendous personal suffering? Because they don’t look at the world Ivan-eyed before they come to faith and/or Zosima-eyed after.

It is, to be sure, frustrating that the world does not make sense; on the other hand, it would be hopelessly intolerable if it did.

The 2nd and 6th beatitudes are related as cause to effect: nothing clears the heart of crap and clutter like inconsolable grief.

Parents who say that they want to let their children make up their own minds about whether or not to believe in God have already made up their minds for them. (Cf. Wittgenstein: “If someone does not believe in fairies, he does not have to teach his children ‘There are no fairies’; he can omit to teach them the word ‘fairy’.”)

Spot the typo: “To conclude that the austere sexology of St. Augustine can be dismissed due to its origins in obsessive guilt about his long-term relationship with, not to mention dumping of, his mistress, or to the pathology of paracusia – the tolle lege episode in his garden in Milan – would be to commit the genital fallacy.”

The main problems with the Westminster Confession might have been fixed if only the drafters had gone out together and got pissed before producing the authorised version. Alternatively, but less fun, they might have had a laxative punch.

Famously, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The word “enjoy” is, of course, a typo: that should be “annoy”.

The Green Report (C of E) suggests a new version of the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Chief Executive, Chairman of Heaven Plc,
hallowed be thy exalted office;
thy cosmic corporation come,
thy organisational decisions be done
in church as it is in Wal-Mart (and its franchises).
Give us today our 24/7 targets,
and forgive us our failures to manage and motivate,
as we forgive those who fail to execute and achieve;
and (heaven forbid!) lead us not into theology and prayer,
but deliver us from inefficiency and zero-growth;
for thine is the performance, the productivity, and the profit –
at least until the next ecclesial panic and marketing panacea come along.
What do I do when I find it hard to pray? Turn to the spiritual classics for direction. For example, to the ecumenical and devotional jazz of John Coltrane. St. John died in July 1967, at the time I was first transfixed by A Love Supreme, in (I later learned) Huntington Hospital, Long Island, just a couple of miles from my home. Uncanny.

You know the good cop/bad cop? That’s me.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

A tale of two daughters

A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (text: Mark 5:21-43)

Mark has just given us a master class in storytelling – and in the radically subversive message of Jesus. It’s the story of two healings, and of the shocking irrelevance of conventional notions of greatness and goodness in the kingdom of God. Let’s follow the narrative – closely.

It begins with Jesus and his disciples back on the other side of Lake Galilee, on Jewish soil, after their brief excursion into the Gentile territory of Gerasa, where Jesus cured a pig-herder possessed by a “legion” of demons – a man, that is (if you follow the code – a “legion” is a Roman military division) – a man suffering from severe trauma due to the daily humiliations of imperial occupation. (Witness the deterioration of the mental health of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.) So we are back beside the seaside, and by the seaside Jesus does some of his best work.

He is approached by a man named Jairus, a member of the Jewish ruling class, a leader in the local synagogue. Jairus kneels, respectfully, and, man to man, begs a favour: “I have heard that you are a healer; my daughter is very sick; come, please, make her well.” And off they go, accompanied by a huge crowd, which, for Mark, is a term suggesting the social location of the poor. The word “crowd” appears five times within just ten verses. Remember, the gospel is, above all, good news to the poor, the lost and the losers, people who are always being told – by the wealthy and the winners – “We’re all in this together.” (Yeah, right.)

On the way to Jairus’ house, however, there is a delay. From under the cover of the crowd a woman sneaks up on Jesus. Who is this woman? We are not told. Unlike the bigwig Jairus, she is unnamed, she is anonymous. She is, after all, a woman in a man’s world. Worse still, she is a sick woman – she suffers from chronic menstrual haemorrhaging. And this illness is not only physical, it is social – her bleeding makes her outcast. She is an “untouchable”. According to the purity code in the book of Leviticus, she is unholy, and if she touches anyone, or anyone touches her, they become unholy too. She will be living in extreme isolation; she will be very, very lonely. And she is penniless, having spent what little she has on quack remedies (snake oil salesmen, like loan sharks, are ever around to exploit the poor). That her condition demands rigorous segregation, but that she has joined the crowd – this is an extremely dangerous situation for her, and shows just how desperate she is.

And now how terrified: she touches Jesus – a woman a man, a “contaminated” woman a “clean” man. Oh no! Jesus realises that she has touched him: her cover blown, she can expect the worst. Like Jairus, she kneels at Jesus’ feet, but not so much to show respect as to beg for mercy. And Jesus? He calls her “daughter”. Daughter! But haven’t we just heard that word? Yes, Jairus’ daughter. But this woman – she is a nobody, and not young and pure but old and defiled. And Jesus calls her daughter! And more, in the presence of the disciples whom he is constantly calling faithless, he says, “Your faith has made you well.” This is scandalous behaviour in a holy man.

Touch – the word occurs four times in five verses. Contact with the unholy is supposed to make you unholy too. But Jesus – Jesus both violates and subverts the culturally accepted understanding of contagion: purity, he demonstrates, he teaches – purity, not impurity, is catching. In moral terms, goodness, not badness, is contagious, and acceptance trumps rejection.

Is this primitive anthropology? Don’t kid yourself! What sociologists call “social disgust” continues to inform the contemporary: think of racism, nationalism, and gender-biased attitudes. And sociologists further observe how social disgust takes on a moral dimension. Think of the odious social and moral “zoology” (if you like) ever exploited by those pursuing agenda of fear and hatred, deploying for their propaganda animals, animals that make our stomachs turn, our flesh crawl. For the Nazis, the Jews were rats, flea-ridden, disease-bearing; for bigots from Northern Europe and America, people from Italy, Spain, Latin America are slimy creatures, greaseballs, low-life. And, most recently, for the media personality Katie Hopkins, migrants and asylum seekers are “cockroaches”, filthy, scuttling insects. Rats, snakes, cockroaches – vermin, not people, with a corresponding zero moral status that allows us, even obliges us, to detest them, and, to isolate and marginalise them: they are dangerous and therefore dispensable.

And observe that we’re talking feelings here, hot, visceral, more powerful than cool intellect. Speaking of the white jury that unjustly condemned to death the black Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his 12-year-old son Jem that “you saw something come between them and reason … something in our world that makes men lose their heads.” Which is why reason alone, though reason we must, will never turn people from their racism, xenophobia, homophobia. It takes experience – knowing, befriending, eating and drinking, laughing and crying with black people, foreign people, gay and lesbian people. It takes contact – touch – the touch of Jesus. It takes love, a love which is the “suspension of disgust” (Richard Beck).

But the story as Mark tells it is not over. Imagine how Jairus must be feeling, this VIP suddenly backgrounded by a menstrual nobody – and while his child is gravely ill, with not a moment to lose. Hurry, Jesus! Alas, too late. Word comes that the child has died. But Jesus is undeterred. Like that desperate daughter of Israel, “You gotta believe!” He strides to Jairus’ home, taking Peter, James, and John, the Big Three, with him. (Hint: something momentous is going to happen.) They arrive to the tumult of weeping and wailing of family and neighbours. Jesus insists that the child is not dead, merely sleeping; the mourners respond with derisive laughter. Jesus, of course, knows the child is dead (“sleeping” then, as now, a euphemism). Nevertheless, impatient with the mourning party, Jesus clears the house, and with his disciples and her parents watching, he – what? – he touches this daughter of Israel too; and because she is physically dead, she, like the haemorrhaging woman, who was socially dead, is also – even more so – unclean, unholy. But again, oblivious to religious convention, he takes her hand and lifts her up. Not one but two resurrections: not bad for a day’s work! Give the girl some chicken soup!

End of story? Almost. But observe one final detail. Both the older woman and the little girl have been called “daughters”. They also have a number in common. (Numbers are very significant in the Bible.) Mark has told us that the woman had been ill for twelve years; now he tells us that the girl is twelve years-old. Twelve – ring a bell? Twelve as in the twelve tribes of Israel? The twelve disciples, symbolically representing Israel, are male. Here the representatives are female, and particularly insignificant females at that, a sick outlier and a mere child. In both stories in our master class of a narrative, Mark is pointing to the new social order and, indeed the new kind of human being that Jesus has in mind when he speaks of the “kingdom of God”: an egalitarian community in which insider and outsider sit at table side-by-side, the one relieved of pride, the other of despair, each discovering their own good in the common good, each encountering Christ in the other. For now, it remains a work in progress, the work of church, what Rowan Williams calls the “pilot project for the human race”.

It’s a project that – back in To Kill a Mockingbird – that same night, shortly after his conversation with Atticus, Jem tries to puzzle out with his sister Scout. Jem himself is pessimistic, not only about what we would call racism and classism but about human hierarchies as such. He says he’s “got it figured out. There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods [second class people], the kind like the Ewells down at the dump [“white trash”], and [at the bottom of the heap] the Negroes ”. Upstairs and downstairs, insiders and outsiders – and the hardly human – there is, Jem thinks, a pecking order among folks, built into the nature of things. But Scout disagrees. “Naw, Jem,” she says, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

Scout is 9-years-old. Who was it that said something about having to look at the world like a child, about being “young at heart”, before you can see the kingdom of God? Yep, there’s just folks.

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.

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