Sunday, 21 September 2014

Church attendance manual (3): "Please be seated"

When attending church, it is important to understand that certain seemingly familiar liturgical instructions can have different shades of meaning in different traditions. The instruction, please be seated, is one of the most common yet also most easily understood of all liturgical formulae. You will be spared a great deal of confusion and embarrassment if you observe these guidelines when attending a service of worship in one of the following liturgical settings. Please be seated means:

Mainline protestant
Please stop standing and sit down.

Please stop kneeling and sit up.

Please stop lying on the floor and return to your seats.

Please come down from the rafters and return to your seats.

Tent revival
Now that you all have Jesus in your hearts, you may leave the altar and return to your seats.

Once you've stopped chatting among yourselves, please feel free to find a seat. Whenever you're ready, folks, whenever you're ready...

A cruel joke (there are no seats).

Fresh expressions
An ironic joke (there are nothing but seats).

Oops. I can't believe I just said that out loud.

What an insensitive thing to say. Words like this simply perpetuate cultural stereotypes and the hegemony of able-bodied discourse. The congregation's constant uncertainty about whether to stand or sit is a small price to pay for our moral superiority.
Inner city mission
For pity's sake, Johnno, could you please stop heckling the preacher and sit down!

Rural parish
You can both sit down now.

School chapel
That's my final warning, boys.

Sunday school
Oh hell – they're starting to riot – oh hell – I've completely lost control

Friday, 19 September 2014

Lord of the loo: a sermon on Graham Greene

A sermon by Kim Fabricius
Without doubt, one of the greatest 20th century novelists writing in English was Graham Greene. He was also one of the most popular: his prose was lucid, his plots were gripping, and as a “writer who happened to be Catholic” (he hated the term “Catholic writer”), he wrote compellingly about the human condition with theological insight as well as psychological depth, exploring the perennial themes of good and evil, sin and salvation, faith and doubt.

One of my favourite Greene novels is Monsignor Quixote, published in 1982 (I read it during my first month as a minister). Called “a fable for our times”, it’s an affectionate pastiche of Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece Don Quixote. It describes the exploits of a small-town priest, unexpectedly made a monsignor by the Pope (“what strange stirring of the Holy Spirit,” observes his resentful bishop), as he travels around Spain in his Seat 600, tilting at windmills, accompanied by his ex-mayor friend nicknamed “Sancho” (what else!), who happens to be a communist. As you might imagine, their conversations are, well, interesting, as the churchman and the atheist not only argue but are forced to re-examine their own beliefs.

One of the funniest scenes in the novel finds Father Quixote in a pub toilet with a man who wants to make his confession. “Never before had he heard a confession in such surroundings. He had always been seated in that box like a coffin … [So] It was almost automatically that he took refuge in the only box available and sat down on a closed lavatory.” It turns out that the man is an undertaker who has stolen the brass handles off the coffin in which he had buried a priest that morning.

“Father Quixote thought: How many times I have felt guilty as he does without knowing why. Sometimes he envied the certitude of those who were able to lay down clear rules.… Himself he lived in a mist, unable to see a path, stumbling.… He said, ‘Don’t worry about such little things. Go home and have a good sleep. Perhaps you have stolen.… Do you think God cares so much about such a small thing like that? He has created a universe.… You have stolen two brass handles – don’t feel so important. Say you are sorry for your pride and go home.’”

Then the priest goes back to the bar. “What on earth have you been up to?” asks Sancho. “Practicing my profession,” Quixote replies. “In a lavatory?” “In a lavatory, in a prison, in a church. What’s the difference?”

Good question: What’s the difference? Is there any? Is a confessional holier than a khazi? What, indeed, is “holiness”?

In the Bible, one opposite of holy is “unclean” – like a lavatory. The Pharisees in particular were sticklers about “purity”, moral as well as ritual. They had a defensive notion of sanctity: pollution is contagious. Contact with the visibly sick and the obviously immoral – with lepers, for example, or “tax-collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19) – no way! Don’t touch, don’t talk, keep your distance! Hence the fastidiousness and the fearfulness of their faith. Jesus, by contrast, had an offensive notion of sanctity: it is not stain or sin but goodness – but grace – that is catching. Hence the robustness and the fearlessness of his own faith.

The Reformer Marin Luther also had this bold and feisty faith. He once wrote to an uptight upright colleague (Philip Melanchton): “Sometimes it is necessary to drink a little more, play, joke, even commit sin in defiance and contempt of the devil, in order not to give him the opportunity to make us scrupulous about small things.” Yet does not being “scrupulous about small things” – Father Quixote’s “little thing[s]” – doesn’t this sum-up the nit-picking piety of so much church culture, so fussy, prudish, mischiefless, so downright boring – and so obstructive to mission? You’ve heard of “born-again” Christianity: this is “yawn-again” Christianity.

What is holiness? Can God be found in a lavatory? How interesting that Luther claimed that his own theological breakthrough – justification by faith alone – came to him – you guessed it – in the WC! God is Lord – Lord of the loo too!

Perhaps, then, punctilious notions of purity and probity have little to do with real holiness, the offensive holiness of Jesus. Perhaps in focussing on little sins we miss the big ones, the weightier matters of justice, the weightiest matter of grace. Perhaps such a focus leads to defensive strategies of exclusion, as contemporary Pharisees police the borders of the church to keep out “the unclean” and “the unsound”. Perhaps what we often take to be beyond the moral or doctrinal pale has less to do with God’s righteousness and more to do with our own pathologies of rectitude. Indeed one reviewer of Monsignor Quixote (Robert Towers) suggests that “The rejection of [all] dogmatic authority … is the presiding theme of the book.” Not quite: for ultimately the novel’s “presiding theme” is the kindness of God, incarnate in weakness and doubt, in this hapless little priest, yet counter-intuitively triumphant over the malice and corruption of Grand Inquisitors in church and state alike.

Monsignor Quixote will die from wounds received when, shot at by two Guardia, his little Seat crashes. Yet his atheist friend will muse that “the love he had begun to feel for Father Quixote seemed now to live in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long he wondered, with a kind of fear …?” With a kind of faith, be it the size of a mustard seed, we may answer: forever. For God is love, incarnate in Christ, stronger than death, and, yes, eternal.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Christian discipleship and institutions: three types

We've been discussing the relation between community and institution in my ecclesiology class. In this week's class I tried to summarise the issues by explaining the way institutions can be more or less aligned with the teaching of Christ – here's a 15-minute audio snippet from the lecture:
Following this account of "institutional conversion", I suggested three different types of Christian discipleship in relation to institutions:

1. Conversion through participation: attempting to align an institution more closely with the teaching of the gospel. Generally this is possible where the founding purpose of an institution was derived from the gospel. Examples: hospitals, schools, law, welfare agencies (as explained in the audio snippet above) – in fact, most major Western social institutions.

2. Contradiction through participation: working within an institution in a way that reveals the contradiction between the gospel and the values of that institution. Generally this is necessary where the founding purpose of an institution directly contradicts the teaching of the gospel. Examples: a Christian working in a casino cannot seek to align that institution to the gospel, but can embody the teaching of Christ through a life that abstains completely from gambling and the glorification of luck. Such a life bears witness to the moral world of the gospel in contradiction to the moral world of the institution. I know of pacifist Christians who serve as military chaplains in the same spirit: they seek to serve their military institution faithfully in a way that nevertheless bears witness to the contradictory values of the gospel.

3. Contradiction through coercion: using social power to coerce an institution into altering its aims or practices; here the gospel is revealed as judgment on an institution and its goals. Examples: the use of parliamentary processes in the abolition of slavery in England; or current organisations like Not for Sale and Stop the Traffik, which use combined strategies of law, lobbying, education, and corporate support to effect social change. In such cases, Christians make use of some social institutions (law, media, etc) in an attempt to constrain, or even to dismantle completely, an institution that is believed to be the cause of unequivocal social harm.

OK, I know this schematic outline is far from perfect, and I know that actual institutions are more complicated, both in their goals and in their structures, than this outline suggests. But without some differentiated account of institutions and their relationship to the Christian community, I don't see how we can even begin to reflect responsibly on Christian vocation in our world. I've come to believe that sweeping theological dismissals of institutions are a menace to Christian discipleship.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

But what about revolution? more notes on Christianity and society

1. Injustice is bad. Anarchy is worse.

2. Revolution may be divided into two main types. Fast Revolution refers to the overthrow of political authority by a popular movement. Slow Revolution refers to the deep transformation of social institutions from within. The first type of revolution can occur overnight while the second occurs over several generations.

3. It is not advisable for any social theory to stipulate the precise conditions under which Fast Revolution would be justified. When dealing with exceptions to the rule, it is best not to try to regulate them within the bounds of a theory. However, a Christian theory of society ought to have a presumptive preference for Slow Revolution over Fast Revolution, and for stability over disorder, even while allowing that Fast Revolution might be legitimate in certain exceptional circumstances.

4. Fast Revolution may further be divided into two types: a popular revolt against political authority, and the overthrow of a bad ruler by subordinate lawful authorities. The first is an act of rebellion, the second an act of political responsibility. Calvin allowed for the second type – the defeat of tyranny through, and for the sake of, law. But he believed the first type is impermissible since lawlessness is an even greater evil than injustice. Christians, he noted, are able to live faithfully within many different kinds of social orders, including very unjust ones.

5. For the most part, Christianity has been a "revolutionary" force in society only in the sense of a Slow Revolution. The Christian message has the capacity to transform a society through the gradual reform of human relationships and institutions over many successive generations.

6. Historically, Slow Revolution has proved much more lastingly transformative than popular movements of Fast Revolution. In the great modern revolutionary movements, an initial period of terror and bloodshed is generally followed by a return to pre-revolutionary structures with minor modifications. As Crane Brinton has said of the French Revolution, "The blood of the martyrs seems hardly necessary to establish decimal coinage" (Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution).

7. Distinct from all these types of revolution is civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is not rebellion against political authority but an act of political responsibility in which some particular law is broken for the sake of another (more basic or more important) law, or for the sake of some widely shared value in a society. Christians have a long and illustrious history of civil disobedience. Martyrdom involved the dual act of submission to lawful authority (i.e. submitting to a penal sentence) and disobedience to the same authority (i.e. refusing to participate in the imperial cult). Even such an extreme form of civil disobedience was carried out on behalf of, and not against, the existing social order.

8. Where Christians have refused to participate in certain institutions, they have done so not in a spirit of rebellion but as a form of deeper social solidarity. Early hellenistic critics claimed that Christians posed a threat to the social order because of their refusal to serve in the army. Origen replied: "We help the emperor in his extremities by our prayers and intercessions more effectively than do the soldiers…. In this way we overcome the real disturbers of the peace, the demons. Thus we fight for the emperor more than the others, though we do not fight with him, nor at his command" (Origen, Contra Celsum).

9. Thus throughout its history the church has proved to be an "unreliable ally" in every social order (Karl Barth). As civilisations rise and grow old and eventually sink into ruin and decay, the Christian community renews itself continually through its gospel of a transcendent order of righteousness and peace. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Migrant Jesus, at the border

A hymn by Kim

(Tune: Drakes Broughton)

Migrant Jesus, at the border,
     refugee of fear and hate,
you’re a threat to law and order,
     nightmare of the nation-state.

Child of Israel, fleeing soldiers,
     from the Jordan to the Nile,
were your parents passport-holders,
     were you welcomed with a smile?

Home from Egypt, Spirit-breathing,
     in the towns of Galilee,
how you had the people seething
     when you preached the Jubilee.

At the margins, far from centre,
     where you met the ostracised,
even friends weren’t keen to enter
     conversations that you prized.

Ease our fears, forgive our hatred
     of the other and the odd;
help us see the single-sacred:   
     face of stranger – face of God.

Migrant Jesus, at the border –
     Dover Beach or Rio Grande –
Greetings, sister! Welcome, brother!
      Make this place your promised land.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Politics, society, and institutions: a theological outline

OK, polemics aside for a moment, the outline below is an attempt to state my point of view as clearly and concisely as I can, organised around some key doctrinal themes:

Creation: The human person is created in the image and likeness of God after the pattern of Christ, the human prototype. By nature the human being stretches beyond itself in love towards God and the neighbour. Human nature was created not yet in perfection but with the capacity to attain the eschatological perfection of a society ordered wholly by love.

Fall: Only the height of our createdness can measure of the depth of our fall. Created with a capacity to love God, the fallen human being projects transcendent longing on to worldly objects. When this is done individually it leads to spiritual enslavement. When it is done collectively – when a whole social order projects transcendent longing on to some common object – then the monsters of idolatry appear on the stage of world history, and uncontrollable enslaving powers are unleashed.

Sin: The essential form of sin, therefore, is idolatry; and the fruit of idolatry is slavery. The first is a perversion of our capacity to love God; the second is a perversion of our capacity to love the neighbour.

Society: In every social order, one can glimpse something of the majestic createdness and abysmal fallenness of human nature. The problem of any given social order lies not in specific structural and institutional arrangements. The problem lies in the inscrutable depths of the disordered human heart. That is why the noblest revolutionary turns overnight into the bloodiest tyrant. It is why the most equitable social and economic arrangements are so quickly exploited by a mysterious and insatiable greed. It is why social orders prove mysteriously insusceptible to rational planning and management.

Politics: The sole rationale for politics is original sin. The principal aim of political order is not to produce justice but to restrain injustice; not to cultivate the spirit of the law but to enforce the rule of law; not to create love but to set limits to self-interest; not to bring peace but to constrain the inevitable tendencies of the human heart towards violence and war. Politics cannot bring Christ to earth. It is enough if it succeeds in holding Antichrist at bay. But while the rationale for politics is original sin, the measure of politics is eschatology. The perfect eschatological society stands as a criterion and criticism of every social order, stripping it of its pretensions to transcendence and thereby freeing it to be simply what it is: a tragic necessity for a fallen world. 

Institutions: The ordering of society through institutions reflects a real though limited good. Judged by the measure of the perfect eschatological society, institutions can be relieved of their pretensions to transcendence and can aspire to better (though always limited) approximations of truth, goodness, beauty, love, and peace – though these subtle approximations are ordinarily possible only where a society has first been adequately restrained by political authority and the rule of law.

Church: The church is not one social institution alongside others, even though the church inevitably expresses its spiritual life through institutional structures. The church is the society of Christ's followers dispersed throughout the world, permeating every institution and every stratum of social order. Christ's followers participate fully in the social and institutional life of a society, but they do so in the mode of repentance and hope. They repent as representatives of the whole social order; and their hope is likewise a representative act on behalf of the whole society. In this way the church functions not as one of the world's institutions but as a leavening of all institutions within a given social order. By pursuing the imitation of Christ through the twofold discipline of love of God and love of neighbour, Christ's followers give persistent witness not to any alternative or improved political order but to something before and beyond all political order: human sociality ordered by love. The existence of such a witness leads in some circumstances to martyrdom, in other circumstances to reforms or modest improvements within a social order. The consequences differ but the witness is the same.

Eschatology: Christian hope is directed not towards a catastrophic end of social life, but towards the revelation of a perfect sociality ordered by love. The infinite beauty of God allows for unceasing growth in love. In the life of the world to come, our growth in love will continue unceasingly, and human society will flourish under the order of love. On that day – but not till then! – the necessity of social ordering through politics, law, and institutions will be lifted.

God: The secret of human history is the patience of God. All God's dealings with humankind are marked by a patient love of growth and life and time. Not coercively but with supreme courtesy, God draws the human partner out beyond itself into loving union with God. This is an eschatological relationship, since the depths of divine love are without limit; but it is eschatology adapted to the capacities of human nature. Our nature is not violently altered from the outside but is, in Christ, creatively healed, renewed, and glorified from within. Strictly speaking, it is our love that is reordered, not our nature. The glorified human being – the human being lovingly united to God and to the neighbour – gives rise to a glorified (because fully human) sociality. A fully human society is the glory of God.

Friday, 5 September 2014

A comment from Kim Fabricius on apocalyptic

Kim intended this comment for the thread on the previous post, Does theology reflect self-interest? But he kindly agreed to run it as a separate post instead:

What St. Egregious said, both about “low-hanging fruit” (or, better, cracking red bopple nuts with a sledgehammer) – and one might add bulverism – and also about Kate Dugan’s measured yet incisive intervention.

Personally, mate, your first two posts on apocalyptic, creation, and social vision came as a bit of a shock, but so high is your stock in my theological portfolio that they forced me, urgently, to re-examine my own mind on the matter. However, I quickly concluded that your take on thinking and living apocalyptically is unrecognisable to me. (That is, if I read you rightly – I’m still not sure that I do; or, as it were, if you not only mean what you say – of course you do – but also say what you mean.) 

In my take, the auto-apocalypsis (cf. your beloved Origen!) Jesus of Nazareth – his life and teaching, his cross and resurrection – neither withdraws us from political and social practices nor tempts us to build them into the New Jerusalem. Rather the Crucified and Risen One reveals them as social ecologies of brokenness in which he is working his white magic of redemption against the black arts of Sin, the Devil, and Death, while calling and empowering us to bear public, parabolic witness to the New World hidden here in pockets but on its way in fullness.

The deal, then, is that, as Christians, we should both radically critique institutions (family, government, industry, university, etc. – and especially the church!) with the principalities-and-powers discernment and protest of a Stringfellow, and also, eschewing smug gnostic detachment and engaging the charism of agency, patiently, imaginatively, and hopefully work to remodel them with the broken-middle commitment of a Gillian Rose. There are no secular-free zones and the kosmos, not just the ecclesia, is where Christians practice the freedom of obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. I’d rather fail, fail again, and maybe fail better (Beckett) over Jesus’ “apocalyptic categories” than be a successful practitioner of Brother Reinhold’s “Christian realism”.

Go on, then – disagree with your elderly theological alter ego who has spent a lifetime in ministry, with plenty of exasperation but no resentment, and who, along the way, has also raised two kids!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Does theology reflect self-interest? (another response to critics)

My recent posts described how my understanding of the relation between God and the world has changed in the past several years. One of the recurring criticisms of these posts was that my changing views were motivated by self-interest. This view was expressed by several party members of the AUFS People's Republic, as well as by some of my politically sensitive Facebook friends. A comment on my previous post states this view with admirable clarity:
Why don't you just be entirely honest with us? The real reason why you've changed your stance is because you've realized that you have a huge vested interest in keeping the status quo. I mean, you can say it's your kids and the stockholm syndrome you've developed toiling away for the system, but really at the end of the day, it's your desire to maintain your current comfortable lifestyle. Ahh, how nice it must be!
This habit of associating intellectual convictions with personal self-interest seems to be quite widespread among leftist undergraduates and other well-meaning citizens who get their Marxist theory at two or three removes.

Marx's class theory, however, was about the way broad social changes occur in history. It was not a psychological theory about the motivations of individual persons. In fact, it is axiomatic to Marx's theory that individuals are not consciously serving the interests of their class. Marx was familiar with attempts to explain historical events by uncovering the private interests of individual persons; he regarded such tactics as beneath contempt. In a letter to Engels, Marx poured scorn on a certain German historian who had reduced "the spirit of history" to "facile anecdote-mongering and the attribution of all great events to petty and mean causes" (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, 159). Marx was emphatic about distancing his theory from "the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest" (Marx, Surveys from Exile, 176-77).

The Marxist class theory explains the way alterations occur in vast social patterns. It does not explain why the bourgeois shopkeeper sells one kind of cheese instead of another. It does not explain why intellectuals subscribe to competing views on any given topic. It does not explain why an Australian theologian might change his mind about something. Marxist class theory is a theory of historical change, not a theory of private motivations.

One of the most brilliant and influential modern revisions of Marxian theory was Foucault's theory of discourse. Like Marx, Foucault wanted to measure large historical patterns of power and interest. His work on power and discourse, so formative for contemporary critical theory, was an attempt to lay bare the vast machinery of language and institutions, not to explain why specific individuals think and act the way they do. His theory of discourse claimed to be an explanation of the whole field within which human subjectivity operates. It was not a reductionist psychological theory, as if all one's daily choices were secretly motivated by power and self-interest.

Again, it is fundamental to critical theory that the real operations of history are hidden from historical agents. (To digress for a moment, this is one aspect of what I am referring to when I compare critical theory to gnosticism: critical theory is always concerned with the acquisition of a secret knowledge that is hidden from the masses.) A theory of discourse does not imply that individual agents (or in Foucault's case, individual speakers) are motivated by power interests. To assert this would be to miss the whole significance of "discourse" as a domain that encompasses a huge diversity of competing interests and motivations. Discourse is "a space of multiple dissensions; a set of different oppositions whose levels and roles must be described" by the critical historian (Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 173).

At any rate, Foucault's concept of power has nothing to do with sentimental moral admonitions about self-interest. Power, in Foucault's vocabulary, is a morally neutral term that describes the way a particular social order is created. "We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it 'excludes', it 'represses', it 'censors', it 'abstracts', it 'masks', it 'conceals'. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth" (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 194).

Anyone who has understood this theory will perceive the absurdity of the claim that the views of a particular Australian theologian can be explained by unmasking his sinister power-interests. My interlocutors used their critical theory to explain why I had really changed my mind: they might just as well have used quantum theory or homeopathy to explain it.

I have no intention of advancing an alternative account of why people change their minds. Presumably each person's intellectual convictions depend on a unique configuration of culture, education, language, environment, temperament, and experience. A theory rich enough to explain all this would have to be as large as life itself. I will only venture to say that one should take it for granted, until proven otherwise, that other people's convictions are not the product of bad motives or a wicked heart.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

How fiction differs from film: the problem of time

For the nth time in my life, I have begun to write a children's novel. All my previous attempts have ended in failure, mostly due to certain technical problems that I have been unable to solve. One of these is the problem of representing time.

The peculiar genius of cinema is its capacity to portray the passing of time directly. One can see this with special vividness in films where the action unfolds in real time – films like Rope (1948), Bicycle Thieves (1948), High Noon (1952), and 12 Angry Men (1957). The ability of film to record time is one reason why some of the greatest directors – Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Scorsese, among others – saw the long-take shot as having an essential importance, as if cinema achieves its full effect when it shows time unfolding in a single shot.

Even a scene depicting boredom can be captivating onscreen. One of the most beautiful scenes in Journey to Italy (1954) shows a married couple driving in a car across Italy, utterly bored with each other's company. The camera shows the passing of houses, fields, and street signs. It shows the sullen boredom on the faces of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders. But it is not boring to watch. We are watching the passing of time, and that is marvellous to behold.

In his classic study on the art of cinema, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky argued that time is in fact the medium of film. The whole artistry of film, he believed, lies in the way it shows things passing through time. The director carves a film from a "lump of time". "Time [is] the very foundation of cinema: as sound is in music, colour in painting, character in drama."

With the novel, things are very different. Fiction cannot portray time directly. Events in a novel cannot unfold in real time. The novel cannot show what the passing of time looks like. Of course, the ability of fiction to portray human consciousness depends on time as a condition. But the novel is sculpted out of consciousness, not out of time. Time is hidden behind the action of the plot.

This distinction between film and fiction might sound philosophical. But it has helped me to find a solution to a technical problem that I have faced whenever I have tried to write fiction. In my attempts to write novels, I kept trying to achieve cinematic effects. If the character is going on a journey, I would describe the journey. If the character is waiting for something, I would describe the waiting. If things were developing, I would try to describe the process. The results are deadening. Process and movement are the stuff of film, but not the stuff of fiction. (Obviously there are exceptions. A novel like Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is a work of genius precisely in the way it seems to record the passing of time. A novel like this is the exception that proves the rule. Anyway, for present purposes I'm not concerned with works of genius. I'm just trying to figure out some basic techniques for creating an ordinary run-of-the-mill novel.)

It was only recently that this difference between film and fiction became clear to me, in part because I've been watching a lot of early movies from the 1920s and 30s. So I decided to try another children's novel. I've planned this novel simply as a series of scenes plotted along a timeline. I am deliberately trying to pack everything into these scenes and to leave out everything between the scenes. I have renounced (or am trying to renounce) the attempt to describe process, development, and the passage of time. 

The approach I'm trying here is also modelled partly on the theatre, where the gaps between scenes are largely responsible for the creation of suspense. Shakespeare never shows anybody going on a journey: they have either arrived or they are about to set out; or, often enough, you hear about the journey indirectly during another scene. All the action is crammed into a sequence of more or less static scenes, while the passage of time (including all sorts of major developments in character and plot) occurs between the scenes.

I don't know if I'll achieve better results this time. My earlier attempts at novels have all sunk beneath the weight of their own insufferable boredom and indigence. This one is called The Island of Lost Cats. It is modelled on a detective story. It involves a boy, his cousin named Jack, and an island on which all the cats have mysteriously disappeared. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

Christianity and social vision: once more on creation and apocalyptic

Dear reader! My recent reflections on creation and apocalyptic were so roundly repudiated, ridiculed, and rebuked that I thought a few points of response and clarification might be in order.

1. Childhood

Nothing attracted more jeering, especially in the echo chambers of Facebook, than my observation that raising children had influenced my view of the world. It was especially seminary-educated individuals who professed to be shocked by such a revelation. I was denounced for implying that childless people cannot have sound views. I was said to be promoting noxious "hetero-normative" values and to be propounding "a doctrine of the family". I was condemned, reasonably enough, for advocating "the maintenance of white supremacy". One criticism ended with the ironic comment, "But hey, I have no children" – as if to demonstrate that, in the despicable world of Ben Myers, nobody except a parent could ever be qualified to express an opinion about anything.

It is always interesting to see how much of ourselves can be projected on to what we read. (Just go back and read the offending passage in light of those readers' criticisms, and you'll see what I mean.)

When I wrote the post, I didn't advance any doctrine of the family. I didn't recommend parenthood as a universal path to truth. I didn't even claim that child rearing is necessarily a good or wholesome experience. I simply explained that, for me, it was an experience that altered my perspective on the world.

What I tried to offer was an honest autobiographical account of how my own view of society began to change several years ago. I mentioned three personal experiences that contributed to this change: the experience of raising children, the experience of working in institutions, and the experience of teaching. Given that we're discussing the relation between the Christian faith and society, I don't see why it is ridiculous to admit that experiencing some new aspects of society (these three things were all new to me at the time) might alter one's perspective. Are we meant to get all our theories out of books, and never test them against any of our own experience of what the world is like?

In the kind of critical theory currently in vogue, it is, in fact, customary to tell one's own story as part of an explanation of how one sees things. Such autobiographical material is usually treated with the greatest deference. But apparently the experience of child rearing is beneath contempt and cannot be accepted as a legitimate occasion for changing one's perspective.

Why should that be the case? When I used the hetero-normative code word – children – it triggered an automatic response of hostility and contempt, even though my use of the word was personal and autobiographical. Is this, perhaps, because seminary-educated people have imbibed a critical theory that trains them always to spot the difference between the goodies and the baddies?

2. Institutions

To my remarks on approximate justice, a number of people – not only the kindly Craig Keen but also the inimitable Adam Kotsko – responded that the New Testament points to a very different set of assumptions about God and the world. Craig summed up this objection in his lapidary style:
Ben, if you are saying that on this day you believe that the doctrine of creation, worked out particularly among the children of Abraham in praise of the God who liberated them from Babylonian bondage and then liberated Jesus from imperial slaughter, is a way of articulating the potency lying in wait in extant orders, this is a sad day, it seems to me.
One of Adam's wisecracks made the same point: "I knew I’d found authentic Christianity when I had kids and bought into the institutions – just like Jesus and Paul did."

I understand the appeal of this line of criticism. There is, in the theology of our day, a widespread nostalgia for the first-century Christian experience of marginalisation, dispossession, and persecution. But I think it's quite misleading to compare the plight of the earliest Christians to the situation of the church in western societies. A clear statement of the problem is in H. Richard Niebuhr's 1946 essay on "The Responsibility of the Church for Society". The church's responsibility for society, Niebuhr writes, has many historical roots:
But one highly important root of the sense of obligation is the Christians' recognition that they have done not a little to make the secular societies what they are. In this respect the modern church is in a wholly different position from that which the New Testament church or even the church of Augustine's time occupied. The Christian community of our time, whether or not formally united, is one of the great organizations and movements in civilization; it is one of the oldest human societies; it has been the teacher of most of the nations now in existence. It cannot compare itself with the small, weak company of the early centuries living in the midst of secular societies that had grown up independently of it…. [Modern empires and nation states] were not suckled in their infancy by wolves but nursed and baptized by the Church; it instructed them in their youth and has been the companion of their maturity.
H. Richard Niebuhr was not trying to open an American branch of Radical Orthodoxy. Writing in 1946, he was under no illusions about the legacy of western Christian social order. It is precisely because Christian influence on society has been so deeply problematic that the church cannot afford the luxury of withdrawing from social institutions.

That's broadly how I see our situation today. Triumphalist complacency, prophetic or ironic posturing, the cultivation of an ostensibly pure ecclesial zone – such stances all amount to the same thing, a tragic failure of responsibility for the world as it actually exists in our time.

Personally I think any theology today has to be able to say something about the way Christians engage with the world through institutions. A revolutionary theology that despises institutions as a matter of principle might sound exciting, but it runs the risk of marginalising Christian discipleship from the exact places where it is most sorely needed.

3. Justice

I was surprised that so many readers were disconcerted by my remarks about justice and transcendence. I have already quoted Craig's words above which understood me to be describing the "potency lying in wait in extant orders". Elsewhere, someone spoke of my "glee for existing order"; and many comments expressed shock and disgust that I would so calmly dismiss the quest for absolute justice in this world.

But an appeal to transcendent justice doesn't mean that one gives up on the world. Nor does it mean that things will automatically improve by some magic inner potency. Nor, again, does it mean that everything ought to stay the same. Rather a doctrine of transcendent justice attempts to hold two things in tension. Divine justice supplies a vision for social change; it refers to an absolute criterion against which existing social arrangements can be measured, criticised, and improved. But the transcendence of this justice destroys the presumptions of any given social order, as well as the presumptions of the revolutionary; it passes judgment on all conservative and progressive claims to ultimacy. Because there is a transcendent justice, social improvement is possible; but because it is a transcendent justice, even the best social change is partial and incomplete.

The productive tension between these two poles of justice and transcendence is, as I see it, the main contribution of the Christian faith to a social vision. It is a strange reflection on our times that any of this should require explanation. Don't they teach Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr in Protestant seminaries anymore? Original sin and eschatology? What do they teach?

So as to make it clear that such a tension does not entail family-values quietism or a mindless capitulation to existing order, let me quote the so-called Oscar Romero Prayer, a document that I hope will be considered above reproach on such matters:
It helps, now and then, to step back
And take a long view.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

It is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction

Of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.

Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying
That the kingdom always lies beyond us.


This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one
 day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted
Knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects

Far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing this.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,

A step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord's
 grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
But that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
Ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

4. Apocalyptic

I did not set out in the previous post to explain or categorise the different uses of apocalyptic in theology. I was describing my own changing views, so my concern was with the use of apocalyptic themes in some of my own writing over the years. I noted that my own version of theological resentment was heavily indebted to Marxist critical theory, and I explained why I no longer find this satisfactory. But it was not my intention to impugn every Christian scholar who makes use of apocalyptic categories. In particular, there is a whole school of New Testament scholarship devoted to excavating the apocalyptic dimensions of St Paul's thought. One can learn a great deal from the penetrating exegetical studies of writers like Käsemann, Martyn, and Gaventa; such research seeks to provide a sober picture of the world of the New Testament and of the endlessly wondrous mind of St Paul. 

The problem, for me, lies in how one applies such findings to contemporary theological questions. In my own publications in this area, I assumed that one can quite easily replicate St Paul's apocalyptic categories in a contemporary account of the church's relation to western societies. For the reasons stated under #2 above, I no longer believe this to be the case. I am not St Paul and Australia is not the Roman Empire – much as we might all wish otherwise.

In addition, it seems to me that Pauline theology suffers from distortion – and soon begins to take on a gnostic, anti-worldly colouring – when it is synthesised with Marxist critical theory. I don't think it's controversial to point out that a good deal of what is currently called apocalyptic theology involves such a synthesis, either implicitly or as a matter of principle.

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