Monday, 4 May 2015

Four talks on Calvin as a social reformer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Notes from Anzac Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Teaching theodicy: a sketch

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

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

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

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

Monday, 20 April 2015

The New Testament in Bob Dylan song titles

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

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Calvin's genius for wretchedness

“It has been said – and I admit that it’s a perfectly legitimate assessment – that the best thing is not to be born, while the second best is to die early” (Institutes 3.9.4).

Calvin did not live in happy times, and he was not a happy theologian. He was, like many of the greatest thinkers of our tradition, a troubled soul. Over all the pages of his works there is something of the hospital waiting room, a lingering air of grief and wretchedness. Some people don’t like that about Calvin. They want to see their theologians smile. But for me Calvin’s unhappiness is one of the things that makes him worth reading. Not that mere wretchedness is good for anyone. But wretchedness translated into art is a balm for the spirit. That is why we love Greek tragedy and Homer and the Book of Job – and why we ought to love reading Calvin.

I do not mean to say that Calvin’s theology is joyless. How could it be? It’s a theology of predestinating grace, of Christ and all his benefits, of the Holy Spirit poured out in human community. Theologically speaking, there’s joy around every corner. Calvin believes in joy and blessedness: he believes it by the skin of his teeth. He is a pastor of refugees. He lives and works and prays among the wretched of the earth.

As a general rule, when Calvin wants to describe the life of blessedness he resorts to theological clichés. It is when he takes up the theme of misery that he speaks in his own voice – and what a voice! He is not like Shakespeare who can write comedy with the right hand and tragedy with the left. Calvin’s genius is all for tragedy. His greatest preaching was the mighty series on the Book of Job. I know a fellow who converted to Christianity after reading Calvin’s sermons on Job: a reminder that happy thoughts are not always the best medicine.

Few writers in western tradition can depict human misery with such original power and freshness. I will give you one example. The 1541 edition of the Institutes has a chapter on the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Calvin produces an array of arguments to prove that grace, faith, and blessedness are essentially the same in the Old Testament and the New. The most characteristically Calvinian of these arguments is that believers in the Old Testament were just as miserable and dissatisfied with life as we are today: proof that they could not have been looking to God for rewards in this life, but were passing through this world as strangers and pilgrims on the way to a heavenly home. Calvin surveys the great heroes of the Old Testament and shows that each of them was an utterly miserable wretch. He calls Jacob “a patron and model of the greatest wretchedness one could say” (1541 Institutes, trans. Elsie Anne McKee, p. 393). And here is his depiction of Noah (pp. 391-92):

“Noah spent a great part of his life constructing the ark with great inconvenience and suffering, while all the world rejoiced in delights and pleasures. The fact that he escaped from death turned into a greater misery than if he had died a hundred times. For besides the fact that the ark was like his tomb for ten months, is there anything more difficult or unpalatable than to be kept so long plunged into the dung and filth of the animals in a place without air? After having escaped so many difficulties, he fell into cause for new sadness…” – and so on!
Noah always seems pretty cheerful in the rainbow-coloured illustrations of children’s Bibles. He is pictured as a congenial zoo-keeper. We take for granted that he liked the animals. It takes the genius of Calvin to make us smell the dung and breathe the stifling air and see a poor man cringing in the darkness of a floating tomb, his sad heart filled with loathing for all beasts and fowls and everything that creeps upon the earth.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Audio lecture: early trinitarian theology

Here's an audio snippet from this week's class on the Trinity. It's a 20-minute summary of the past few weeks of the course, which have focused on trinitarian theology in the second and third centuries. This summary is pretty sketchy, but I try to identify four general themes in early trinitarian theology:

1. Historical theme (Irenaeus)
2. Psychological theme (Tertullian)
3. Educational theme (Clement)
4. Participatory theme (Origen)

At the end of the clip I try to explain how the two most important themes (1 and 4) can go together, as I think they do in Athanasius.



Incidentally, I also wonder if these four themes might be helpful for explaining Augustine's theology of the Trinity. The significance of Augustine isn't that he represents a monolithic western approach, nor that he is simply a speculative innovator. Instead I think Augustine takes the least significant pre-Nicene theme, the psychological, and synthesises all the other themes around it. Thus Augustine still has a strong salvation-historical emphasis (De Trin. books 2-4) as well as a large preoccupation with the educational and participatory themes (De Trin. books 13-15); but these major pre-Nicene themes are subsumed within the vast architecture of what had until then been only a minor experimental theme, the psychological.

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