Friday, 27 November 2015

Know-it-all heretics

Eunomius has everything figured out. Which pretty much summarises everything that is wrong with his theology. Divinity is, Eunomius claims, unbegottenness (which is why he thinks that the Son cannot be divine). Basil is aghast: “How much arrogance and pride would it take for someone to think that he has discovered the very substance of God?” (Against Eunomius, 1.12). Eunomius is like every other heretic: an aggravating know-it-all.

Arius is certain that the Son is not co-eternal with the Father. Apollinaris, agreeing that Arius must be wrong, knows that Christ can be fully divine so long as he is not fully human. Nestorius, going with the dismissal of Apollinaris, figures out how the divine and the human natures interact in Jesus (even in Mary’s womb!). Eutyches, standing with the church in rejecting Nestorius, solves the metaphysical problem of two natures (or one or three—the numbers all blend together). The early christological heretics all claim to understand the relation of the divine to the human in Christ. Each heretic solves the problem with confidence, but the church confidently keeps the problems and so keeps the faith.

The orthodox tradition maintains the tension between the knowable and the unknowable in its affirmations. We cannot know what divinity is in itself, just as we hardly understand the nature of humanity, but it seems necessary to say—if salvation is real—that Christ is fully divine and fully human and that these two “natures” are not merely pressed up against each other or mixed together, but are somehow united in the person of Jesus Christ. But orthodox theology rarely attempts to specify that “somehow”.

The heretics prefer to iron out the creases in their doctrines of God and Christ, leaving a smooth surface where everything is laid bare. But the orthodox tradition leaves the bedsheets in a crumpled pile, with hidden and mysterious crevices. Ironing the divine linen is an impossible task, for God is like a fitted sheet—accomodating yet unwieldy. Talk about God will always have hidden depths and untidy corners. “Heretics were too clever by half, thinking they could know God precisely so as to define the divine Being in all exactitude” (Frances Young, God’s Presence, 253).

Rowan Williams points out that the word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairesis, which connotes making a choice that creates division—“a heresy in St Paul is… choosing to belong to this little group rather than the whole fellowship” (“What is Heresy Today?”). The heretic is the one who looks at the doctrine of God and says “I understand this” or “I can prove that this is so” in such a way as to exclude all other understandings. The creeds, by contrast, were written to establish unity within the church through prayer, contemplation, and interpretation. To riff on Robert Jenson, there is nothing as capacious as a creed.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Tweet review of Edwin Hatch, The organization of the early Christian churches

It is a rare thing to come across such a hair style, or such a book. Edwin Hatch's 1880 Bampton Lectures gave a groundbreaking economic and institutional history of early Christianity. The lectures were published in 1881 as The Organization of the Early Christian Churches. The book was considered so important that it was promptly translated into German by no less a person than Adolf von Harnack. The book was recommended to me by one of my PhD students, and I'm very glad I read it. I was lucky enough to get a copy with uncut pages so I had the added pleasure of cutting the pages with my breakfast knife (following the revered example of Dr Johnson). I reviewed the book with a series of tweets, compiled here for posterity:

Lecture 1. Early Christian institutions have survived. This gives them a false air of familiarity and makes historical work bloody hard.

Lecture 2. The church was one of many civil clubs. Its special mark was almsgiving. This required financial administrators ("bishops") as well as distributors ("deacons").

Lecture 3. Early Christian governance was a continuation of the Sanhedrin: a court of collegial elders ("presbyters"), mostly for purposes of moral discipline.

Lecture 4. The apostles were succeeded by these councils of presbyters, but divisions soon led to the elevation of bishops as symbols of unity.

Lecture 5. Early Christian ordination was appointment to office, the same as in civil institutions. It did not confer spiritual powers. (Tertullian and the Montanists were defenders of tradition in the face of rapid institutional change.)

Lecture 6. So how did the clergy become a spiritually distinct class? Through state exemptions, they first became a civilly distinct class. The spiritualisation of this distinctiveness came later.

Lecture 7. Imperial power helped to weld the churches together until "church" came to mean a confederation ruled by councils.

Lecture 8. The medieval divide between parish clergy and cathedral clergy came from the way differing forms of civil organisation were adapted to urban and regional settings.

Conclusion: Every aspect of church order can be explained by external influences. Institutional forms are not fixed but elastic. They can and should be modified today. Attempts to rehabilitate the forms of earlier ages (he is thinking of the Oxford Movement) are misguided.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

A letter from a church to local mosques

Here is a letter I drafted for the church I attend in Swansea (UK), Uniting Church Sketty (a Local Ecumenical Partnership, born in May, of the former Bethel United Reformed Church and Sketty Methodist Church). Signed by our minister the Revd. Leslie Noon on behalf of the church and sent to the imams of the three mosques in Swansea – Sunni, Shia, and the University mosque – it is the kind of letter that I pray you might bring to the attention of your own church if you live in a Muslim-Christian context. In the aftermath of the Paris massacre, in Europe, the US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, no one is more at risk than Muslims themselves, from local xenophobic abuse and assault as well as from the pseudo-Islamic apocalyptic death cult known as IS, which is, after all, an equal-opportunity destroyer.

In the name of the One God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, we greet you on behalf of Uniting Church Sketty. In the wake of the horrific events in Paris, we write to express our concern about their impact in the UK, particularly on the Muslim community.

The BBC has recently reported that hate crimes against Muslims in London have risen by 70% in the past year. Since the terrorist attacks, there have been disturbing reports of verbal and physical abuse against Muslims around Britain, and such incidents will no doubt increase in the weeks ahead. The toxic combination of panic and fear, religious ignorance, and xenophobic scapegoating suggests that we should not be complacent about Islamophobic violence occurring in Swansea.

In this ominous context we, as a church, reaffirm our solidarity with Islam in the fundamental principles of love of God and neighbour, and in our common search for peace and justice. We also express an especial concern for the safety and wellbeing of Muslims in Swansea during these troubled times. We will, of course, remember you in our prayers, but if there is any practical support that we can give you, please let us know. Both the Qur’an and the Bible say that God is able, and we are ready to work with you opposing what is evil and defending what is good.

May God unite us in purpose and peace.

In friendship, &c.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Tweet review of Christoph Markschies, Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire

The book is Christoph Markschies, Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire: Prolegomena to a History of Early Christian Theology, newly translated by fellow blogger Wayne Coppins (Baylor University Press 2015). I reviewed it on Twitter as I was reading it over the last couple of days. I've pasted all the tweets below – first a summary of the book and then some general thoughts.

Summary of each section

1.1 Christian history is not a one-way street of development or decline.

1.2 New ideas have to take root in new social forms. A history of theology is a history of institutions and their guiding norms.

2.1a Early Christians generally participated in the pagan education system with very little fuss.

2.1b Christian teachers adopted diverse educational institutions. This helps to explain the diversity of early Christian theology.

2.1c While some Christian teachers (e.g. Justin) were free-wheeling philosophers, Origen's school was more like a formal university.

2.2 The Montanists sought to recover the power of primitive Christianity by adopting the institution of the pagan oracle cult.

2.3a A third new institution: the Christian worship service. This absorbed elements of both pagan and Jewish cults.

2.3b School-theology was urban; prophetic-theology was rustic; liturgical-theology was universally accessible.

2.3c Early eucharistic prayers show a high degree of adaptation to local contexts. Liturgy was a vehicle of theology.

2.4 When Christianity transformed institutions, the old forms remained recognisable; that was part of the attraction.

3.1a The development of fixed norms isn't a power-play or a theological regression. It's necessary for the formation of new institutions.

3.1b Normative lists of a NT canon weren't only used in ecclesial institutions but also in the free-wheeling schools.

3.1c Marcion's institutional setting was Alexandrian philology. He wasn't trying to create a new canon but to edit an existing one.

3.1d Powerful bishops and free-wheeling teachers both used a NT canon in exactly the same way.

3.1e The Gnostics, free-wheelers par excellence, presupposed the same normative canon but interpreted it differently.

3.1f The point of this is that the canon was not an authoritarian construct used to suppress dissident voices.

3.1g But the canon wasn't monolithic either. Different communities had slightly different canons with a common centre.

3.2 This (amazing) section on the canon has been a case study in the way norms functioned in the new Christian institutions.

4.1 Walter Bauer's thesis of early Christian plurality and of orthodoxy as power remains dominant, even though it can be seen now as a piece of liberal protestant apologetics.

4.2 If Bauer's basic thesis of early Christian plurality is correct, is there nevertheless a deeper unity of Christian identity amid the plurality?

4.3 In opposition to Bauer, the inculturation view argues for a deeper unity by positing an original (culturally pure) gospel embedded in diverse cultures.

4.3b If Bauer's model is an apologetic for liberal protestantism, the inculturation model is an apologetic for Catholicism. Both models impose too much on the sources.

4.4 Plurality and identity go together. Early Christians forged a coherent and bounded identity out of plurality.

4.5 Early Christianity was a pluralism centred on an identity-forming centre articulated in theological institutions.

Bibliography: 100 pages. Small font. German encyclopedic erudition. Anglo-American scholarship well represented too.

General thoughts

Best part is the very rich and very important section on the NT canon. The book is worth getting for this alone.

Other highlights: the account of Origen's school, and the surprising demonstration of local improvisation in early eucharistic prayers.

I see this as a revitalised history-of-ideas approach. It doesn't see ideas as the products of social struggle.

Nor are ideas timeless truths. Nor do they unfold teleologically. Ideas belong to the engine of social life.

The book argues that early Christian plurality is best explained by the diversity of its institutions.

It includes research from ritual studies and material culture (e.g. a nice little section on ancient libraries) but also shows the validity of the "great authors" for early Christian history.

After all, individual talents like Origen weren't just products of institutions but were creative agents of institutional formation.

Compared to the rest of the book, the theoretical basis of the plurality/identity thesis (sections 4.4 – 4.5) seemed a bit thin.

The three institutions studied here are selective and illustrative. But it got me thinking about the theological function of other institutions like baptism, burial, martyrdom, etc.

I wish there'd also been a section on early Christian preaching (especially since Markschies has done top work on preaching elsewhere, e.g. in his book on Origen). But I'm not complaining. 

Also really useful is the way the book maps out the field of early Christian studies. Great section on Walter Bauer and his reception.

All in all, I don't think I've learned so much about early Christianity since reading Peter Brown or Elizabeth Clark.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Stages of grief following a terrorist attack

The Six Stages of Public and Political Grief Following a Terrorist Attack

  1. Shock
  2. Panic and paranoia
  3. Twitter storm
  4. Selective fury, ideological posturing, scapegoating, expressed in Manichaean and apocalyptic discourse
  5. Knee-jerk clampdowns and counter-violence
  6. Shopping and self-beautification

Six Factors Which Inhibit the Grief Process and Suggest the Need for Counselling
  1. Pausing and taking a deep breath
  2. Self-examination
  3. Attentiveness and joined-up thinking
  4. Abjuring demonization and xenophobia
  5. Looking for political solutions rather than relentlessly bombing the barbarians “back to the Stone Age” (Curtis LeMay)
  6. Cultivating empathy (not fashionable feelings), imagination (not the same-old same-old), hope (not liberal optimism) – and prayer (not as withdrawal or escape from world but as Karl Barth’s “beginning of the uprising against the world”)

Monday, 16 November 2015

Hot diggidy doodlings

One Word is worth a thousand strictures.

As quarks and gluons are to matter, so Word and Sacrament are to the church – its two elementary constituents.

The church has too many ministers who use prayer as a form of preaching, and too few who practice preaching as a form of prayer.

All the best things happen in the dark. Observing the evening star or the silver sliver of the moon. Watching fireflies or fireworks. Roasting marshmallows by a campfire. Sleepovers. Canoodling in bed. Dreaming that dream, old man, you’ve been dreaming since you were a child. Oh yes – and Christ’s death (Mark 15:33) and resurrection (John 20:1). There are, of course, exceptions. For example, Dracula and Ann Coulter are nocturnal creatures.

“The Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson, in New Zealand, the Very Revd Nick Kirk, has refused to host a concert that includes Karl Jenkins’s Mass for Peace, because the work refers to the Muslim call to prayer” (Church Times, 18 September). Hang on a minute. The Mass is, er, a Mass, and incorporates texts from the Psalms and Revelation. It was dedicated to victims of the Kosovo War (1998-99), most of whom were Muslims – Muslim civilians – wounded, raped, killed by Christians. It has been performed in cathedrals all over the world – including Christ Church Cathedral itself (in 2007). Not to mention that the composer was born and raised in the Swansea village of Penclawdd! In defending his decision, the Dean insisted: “Jesus said there is no other way to salvation except through him. If we start to say any other way is OK, that’s not true.” Well, as a Kiwi might translate Proverbs 26:9: “To ask a drongo to cite a saying of Jesus is like handing an axe to a pisshead.”

We call works of fiction “great” insofar as they save us from the self-fictionalisations that constitute the ego. Thus great drama delivers us from self-dramatisation, great comedy delivers us from self-seriousness, and so on. Reading great literature is a spiritual exercise, an askesis, an assault on the self-deceit with which even prayer can collude. Were I a Catholic taking the sacrament of penance, to the question “When did you make your last confession?” I would reply, “First, tell me, Father, when did you read your last novel?”

After the service, I thanked the minister, particularly for his fine sense of irony in giving a PowerPoint presentation of the Sermon on the Mount – particularly the Beatitudes in bullet points. All that was missing were Like/Don’t-Like thumbs.

At a recent Sunday service, the visiting minister (“I’m keen on interactive worship”) had us break into groups and share our “faith experiences” with each other, i.e., engage in autobiographical idolatry. At such times I think bringing firearms to church isn’t such a bad idea.

And then there is the worship screen, with the words “Prayer Time” and an image of folded hands on a pale blue background. What a godsend! Ten seconds into praying I often forget what I’m doing; now, however, I can look up and say to myself, “Oh yeah …”, and then close my eyes again.

Imagine a Calvinist, hyper,
more pity you’ll find in a viper,
so full of elation
at hell and damnation –
no need to imagine – it’s Piper!

How do you answer the idiotic question, “What car would Jesus drive?” You roll your eyes and sigh, “Christ on a bike!”

It is not that people today are more stupid than they used to be, but we are, I’m sure, less patient, more slow-averse, and so less likely to take the time to make sure that our thinking is joined-up and our arguments are coherent, and more likely to break the speed limits of reason and crash our cogitations into unwarranted conclusions. Which I guess is pretty stupid of us after all.

As an expat, here, in acronyms, is what I miss about the US: NRA, GOP, KKK, SBC, NYPD, ADX, CIA, and NHS (oops, sorry, the US doesn’t have an NHS).

What is a Republican-controlled Congress but a form of Capitol punishment?

Why does the Right persist in climate change denial? Because it is in the interests of big business, of course. But also because climate change is the perfect weapon of mass destruction, as it not only makes no demands on the defence budget, it also targets the enemy, i.e., the poor, with the precision of a drone.

If you had actors speaking the lines of the Republican candidates at the presidential debates, you’d think it was political satire, wouldn’t you? They make the blah, blah, blah of inebriants sound like intelligent speech.

So who does one support as the Republican presidential candidate? Throw in Cheney as Carson’s VP and I’d go for the Ben-and-Dick Option. It’s the perfect combination of buffoonery and barbarity.

Another suggestion for a First Things name-change after its intellectually and morally cringe-worthy Buycott blitzkrieg in the first skirmish in this year’s Christmas kulturkampf, the Battle of Starbucks: The Exceedingly Light Brigade.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
                   Someone had blundered.

I used to have immense respect for the theological acumen of William Stringfellow and Marilynne Robinson, but no longer. After all, neither has a degree in theology.

A recent report in the journal Current Biology, based on the research of 7 universities which studied almost 1200 children in countries including the US, Turkey, and China, concludes: “Children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions – Christianity and Islam – were less altruistic than children from non-religious households.” Which I should think is neither surprising nor unsurprising, nor is the consistency with which religious parents overestimate how nice their children are. Book dedications like “… and to my awesome kids Deodatus and Dorcas ...” – what a chortle they bring to the cynical reader.

What’s the difference between Fort Hood, Texas, the largest US military installation in the world, and AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys?  On any given game-day, you will find a greater military presence at AT&T Stadium.

I suffer terribly from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and it’s just begun to kick in: from November until April, no baseball. Apathy, lethargy, tearfulness – it’s time to re-read Smith, Giamatti, and Will, and to re-watch Bull Durham, Major League, and Field of Dreams.  That, and with Rogers Hornsby, “stare out the window and wait for spring.” Easter gives you some idea of the joy of Opening Day.

The human is a bewilderedbeast. What faith does is to transform bewilderment from a burden into a blessing.

“It is the problem of our age: hatred against Germans poisons everyone’s mind…. To sum up, this is what I really want to say: Nazi barbarism evokes the same kind of barbarism in ourselves.… We have to reject that barbarism within us, we must not fan the hatred within us, because if we do, the world will not be able to pull itself one inch further out of the mire” (Etty Hillesum, from Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 2002). For “Germans” and “Nazi”, read “ISIS”, and after the sorrow and the sense of helplessness bordering on hopelessness, you have my reaction to the Paris massacre.

The Sermon on the Mount is an ethical promissory note addressed to people who would only begin to exist after Easter.

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