Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The best of 2008

Well, the year is drawing to a close: we left Princeton yesterday, and we’re spending the week in snow-white Vancouver before heading back to red-hot Australia. So if you’ll allow me another moment of nostalgia, here are some of my highlights from 2008:

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

It's a Boy! A Christmas eve homily

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

It’s a boy! A tiny mite of a creature with slick black hair, swarthy face, dark brown eyes, squinting, adjusting to the light in the shock and wonder at suddenly being thrown into the back of beyond, and – what always gets you the most – those perfectly formed little fingers and toes. He’s crying. But what’s the matter? Cold? Hunger? Wind? Wet? You hug him and, by trial and error, you try to find out. He is certainly helpless but he is hardly passive, and he demands your attention, shamelessly.

Does this little one care about who you are, about your sex, sexuality, politics, or even whether you believe in God, or what God you believe in? No, he reaches out, unquestioningly, to you in your elemental humanity. He wants only your tenderness, moist like cattle breath, warm like straw.

This baby happens to be Jewish, but he is not bothered if you are Roman or Samaritan, would not be bothered if you are Palestinian, Welsh, or even American, and he will soon be visited by three pagan strangers from what is present-day Iraq. Some shepherds will also pop in to see him, but their lowly occupation and status are of no concern to him either. His mother happens to be an unmarried teenaged peasant, but it would make no difference if she’d been wed in a temple and had more silver than sense. And all the people attendant on his birth – they have their own backgrounds and social standing, and they bring to the stable their own complicated personal histories. They also, no doubt, have questions on their minds, unresolved issues in their lives, and they certainly have their share of muddles, hang-ups, self-deceptions, and sins. But he doesn’t mind. Their cuddles are all that he requires.

Soon this baby will begin to grow up. A king will try to kill him, and he will become an unwelcome asylum seeker and refugee on the run. At the age of twelve he will run away from home. He will be a constant worry to his parents. He will have radical and disturbing ideas about his identity, vocation, and destiny. He will quit the family business and hang out with an odd circle of friends. He will mix with very dubious characters, including prostitutes and terrorists, and he will get into big, big trouble. He will challenge received readings of his own scriptures and traditions. He will confront the powerful with an unyielding will, a fierce tongue, and a turn of the cheek. His family will as much as disown him, his friends will desert him, his foes will finally destroy him. But all that lies in the future. Today, like all babies, he’s an innocent and a sign of hope, and he “penetrates my deafness”, not with his message, but “with his loud crying” (Augustine).

In the more distant future he will spawn a new religion, and this religion will spread and encompass the globe. It will also divide into denominations and sects, parties and wings, with pompous leaders and petty followers, and his name will be deployed as a shibboleth to condemn and exclude, and brandished as a weapon to wage wars and crusades, quite out of keeping with the disarming child who bears it. But not today. Today the boy is neither the focus of a faith nor a justification for violence, and his name is as common as Gareth in Wales. He is just like any other infant, both nothing special and seven pounds of miracle. Today he cannot be used for anything, particularly to endorse our own agenda. Today he just lies there, wiggling.

As for me, today I bring you good news about the God disclosed in this child, who happens to be the Word made flesh, the “little Word,” as St. Bernard called him. He has no time for religious fuss, he gives no points for moral rectitude, he is oblivious to all our other divisive cultural constructions, and he would not know theological correctness if it pulled down his nappy and smacked him on the bum. All – all – are welcome at the manger. He simply wants you to come as you are and to be there with him. All very natural, because although there is another world, you will find it nowhere else but hidden in this one.

Yet if you feel moved to worship, and if you really want to bless this child’s little heart, let your praise be your deepest longings, your prayer unselfconscious attention, your hymn the simplest of lullabies, and your offering – whoever you happen to be.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Best albums of 2008

Here’s my list of the top 15 albums of 2008:

15. Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs
14. Female Tribute to Tom Waits (bootleg compilation)
13. She & Him, Volume One
12. Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts I-IV
11. Blind Pilot, 3 Rounds and a Sound
10. Welcome Wagon, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon
9. Sigur Rós, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
8. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
7. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend
6. Cat Power, Jukebox
5. Sun Kil Moon, April
4. TV on the Radio, Dear Science,
3. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
2. Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs

(Drumroll...) and the best album of the year is...

1. Juno: Music from the Motion Picture – a perfect album in every way; the true apotheosis of the soundtrack genre.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Rowan Williams: Christmas with Karl Barth

Today’s Telegraph features a Christmas meditation by Rowan Williams, focusing on Karl Barth’s critique of “principle”:

“What [Barth] was warning against was the temptation of unconditional loyalty to a system, a programme, a ‘cause’ which was essentially about ‘me and people like me’…. Christmas is supremely the story of a God who is not interested in telling us about principles…. Christmas doesn’t offer an alternative set of economic theories or even a social programme. It’s a story – the record of an event that began to change the entire framework in which we think about human life, so that the unique value of every life came to be affirmed and assumed…. That’s one reason why we tell this story repeatedly, the story of the ‘unprincipled’ God who values what others don’t notice, who relates to people we’d all rather forget, whose appeal is to everyone because he has made everyone capable of loving response.”

Saturday, 20 December 2008

George Hunsinger: why T. F. Torrance was a Barthian

A guest-post by George Hunsinger (responding to the recent exchange between me, Travis and David – you can find all the links here)

Without attempting to address all the points raised in the recent discussion, I would like to offer the following reflections.

1. There is a difference between theological journalism and theological scholarship. The latter makes measured judgments and works closely with texts. The former traffics in sweeping generalizations and big fuzzy ideas like “substance metaphysics” and “actualistic ontology.” Such notions are of little use for understanding either Torrance or Barth.

2. No theologian in recent times has made a clearer connection than Torrance between the Incarnation and the Cross, and between Christ’s bodily Resurrection and his Ascension. Torrance states repeatedly that the Incarnation is the precondition of the Atonement as completed in the Cross, and that the Cross is the inner fulfillment of the Incarnation. Neither can be had without the other. Moreover, the Cross of Christ, for Torrance, as grounded in the Incarnation, necessarily carries intercessory and vicarious significance for the world’s salvation. Finally, Christ’s Resurrection not only serves uniquely to reveal him as the Incarnate Son, but also to elevate him into eternal life, where he intercedes perpetually for the church and the world until the end of all things.

3. No Reformed theologian since John Owen has had a firmer grasp than Torrance of Christ’s priestly mediation. His contribution here, which I believe surpasses Barth, is of inestimable significance. Barth was arguably less solid than Torrance about how to grant proper centrality to the New Testament’s cultic metaphors – blood, sacrifice, access, intercession, vicarious representation, expiation, etc. – in a way that rightly displaced the forensic metaphors dominant in the West, while still affirming and preserving them. Torrance’s grasp of the eucharist was therefore of greater ecumenical promise than anything in Barth.

4. The mediation of Christ, as understood by Torrance, was essentially an elaboration of passages like this from Barth: “But what does it mean to take the place of man, to be Himself a man, to be born of a woman? It means for Him, too, God’s Son, God Himself, that He came under the Law …, that He stepped into the heart of the inevitable conflict between the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of man. He took this conflict into His own being. He bore it in Himself to the bitter end. He took part in it from both sides. He endured it from both sides. He was not only the God who is offended by man. He was also the man whom God threatens with death, who falls a victim to death in face of God’s judgment. If He really entered into solidarity with us – and that is just what He did do – it meant necessarily that He took upon Himself, in likeness to us, … the ‘flesh of sin’ (Rom 8:3). He shared in the status, constitution and situation of man in which man resists God and cannot stand before Him but must die” (II/1, p. 397). Like Barth, Torrance stressed that there is no system (no ontology) by which such affirmations can be explained. They are either understood out of themselves or not at all.

5. Torrance’s idea about “ontological healing” was an attempt to re-think the doctrine of sanctification. It attempted to place it within the frame of Christ’s incarnational mediation, in which our Lord “took this conflict into his own being” and “took part in it from both sides,” including therefore from the human side. Like Barth, only more so, Torrance explained both our justification and our sanctification by means of Christ’s obedient humanity. For sanctification this meant that regeneration took place in Christ before it took place in us. For Torrance there was one sanctification common to Christ and the church, and it was ours only by virtue of our participation in him (unio mystica).

6. I think Torrance would have done better to describe this regeneration of fallen humanity in Christ by resorting to Calvin’s terms of “mortification” and “vivification.” Instead he used the metaphor of “healing,” taken from Nazianzen’s famous saying that “the unassumed is the unhealed.” Torrance’s proposal was arguably better than the metaphor used to advance it. But his grasp of sanctification’s objective pole as anchored in the Incarnation was simply an elaboration (not a contradiction) of sanctification as developed by Barth. Admittedly the actualistic motif was sharper in Barth than in Torrance, but it was by no means absent from Torrance, and more than actualism is to be found in Barth.

7. Like Hans W. Frei and Eberhard Jüngel, Torrance thought with Barth and beyond Barth, while also sometimes against him. Barth himself had occasion to insist: “Ich bin kein Barthianer!” Torrance shows himself to be a true “Barthian,” because Barth would have had it no other way.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Paradise Lost: parallel prose edition

Continuing our celebratory Milton theme, let me tell you about this very unusual – and quite remarkable – new book. Dennis Danielson, one of the world’s most distinguished interpreters of Milton (and a brilliant interpreter of Milton’s theology), has translated the whole of Paradise Lost into prose!

Paradise Lost: Parallel Prose Edition (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2008), 559 pp. (thanks to Regent College for a copy)

Milton’s poetry is notoriously difficult. T. S. Eliot famously remarked that Milton “invent[s] his own poetic language.” Every linguistic idiosyncrasy, Eliot said, “is a particular act of violence which Milton has been the first to commit”; his poetic style is “a perpetual sequence of original acts of lawlessness.” Milton’s verse is therefore “poetry at the farthest possible remove from prose” – thus explaining both its sheer difficulty and the extraordinary capacity of the language to captivate and beguile.

I must admit, I was at first skeptical when I heard about Danielson’s new edition. Sure, everyone admits that Paradise Lost is difficult. But conventional scholarship tries to meet this difficulty by arming students with annotations, introductions, and various other scholarly aids. In contrast, Danielson’s approach is startlingly unorthodox: he simply translates the poetry into prose. And after perusing this edition – once I had recovered from the initial shock – I have to say I’m very impressed.

Danielson’s edition contains no scholarly apparatus. You simply have the full text of the poem on one page, with a prose translation on the facing page. The translation is not a substitute for the text, then – but it’s an easy, enjoyable way for readers to interpret a given passage and to follow the larger movement of the narrative. In a poem like this, difficult interpretive decisions lurk around every corner (or behind every bush); so Danielson’s prose can also be profitably read as an extended interpretive commentary on the poem – albeit a commentary which artfully conceals its own immense learning and scholarly sophistication.

Of course, reading a prose translation like this will still introduce a regrettable distance between the reader and the poetry; but I suspect such distancing is even more pronounced where one’s reading is mediated by textual commentary and elaborate footnotes “in terrible array / Of hideous length.” A prose interpretation like Danielson’s at least encourages the reader to enjoy the poem, not merely to work at it; to become absorbed in the poem’s own peculiar world and in its strange, compelling narrative.

Let me give a few examples of Danielson’s translation. From the poem’s famous opening passage, here is Milton describing Satan’s fall from heaven:

Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,

Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.

And here is Danielson’s rendering on the facing page: “But Omnipotence hurled him, flaming, from the dizzy height of heaven into the lost and fathomless depths, there, ruined and burnt out yet still on fire, to wear the unbreakable chains he earned by daring the Almighty to take up arms.”

For another example, here’s Milton describing the animals in Eden – the animals play together while Adam and Eve rest after a day’s work:

About them frisking playd
All Beasts of th’ Earth, since wilde, and of all chase
In Wood or Wilderness, Forrest or Den;

Sporting the Lion rampd, and in his paw

Dandl'd the Kid; Bears, Tygers, Ounces, Pards
Gambold before them, th’ unwieldy Elephant
To make them mirth us’d all his might, and wreathd
His Lithe Proboscis; close the Serpent sly
Insinuating, wove with Gordian twine

His breaded train, and of his fatal guile

Gave proof unheeded; others on the grass
Coucht, and now fild with pasture gazing sat,

Or Bedward ruminating: for the Sun

Declin’d was hasting now with prone carreer

To th’ Ocean Iles, and in th’ ascending Scale

Of Heav’n the Starrs that usher Evening rose.

And here’s Danielson: “All the animals of the earth (since become wild) and of every terrain, whether wood, wilderness, jungle or plain, frisked and played about with them. The lion reared up in sport, and in his paw he dandled a young goat as one might a small child. Bears, tigers, lynxes, and leopards frolicked in front of them. The unwieldy elephant used all his might to make them laugh and coiled his limber trunk. Nearby the sly snake, twisting and turning, wove his sinuous length into subtle knots, unheeded evidence of fateful cunning. Others reposed on the grass and, having grazed their fill, sat merely observing or sleepily chewing their cud. For the sinking sun was hastening now on its course toward the horizon and the islands of the west; and ascending the staircase of the heavens rose the stars that usher in the evening.”

Or, once more, here is Milton describing the world’s creation:

Darkness profound
Cover’d th’ Abyss: but on the watrie calme
His brooding wings the Spirit of God outspred,
And vital vertue infus’d, and vital warmth
Throughout the fluid Mass, but downward purg’d

The black tartareous cold Infernal dregs
Adverse to life: then founded, then conglob’d

Like things to like, the rest to several place
Disparted, and between spun out the Air,

And Earth self ballanc’t on her Center hung.

And here is Danielson: “Profound darkness obscured the abyss; but the Spirit of God stretched out his brooding wings upon the watery stillness, infusing that fluid mass with the power and warmth of life, flushing downward the dark abysmal cold infernal dregs, life’s antithesis. Then he fused like things with like, molding them into a sphere; and to the rest he assigned separate regions. Between them he spun out the air, and in its midst he hung the earth, balanced on nothing but itself.”

You can see what I mean when I say that this prose translation may actually help readers to stay closer to the text than they would when their reading is mediated by a clutter of scholarly footnotes and interpretive comments. In spite of the inherent limitations of prose, and in spite of the ways in which Milton’s style eludes any single rendering, Danielson nevertheless succeeds remarkably in drawing your attention back to the shape of the narrative action and to the structure of Milton’s own language.

Those with an expert knowledge of Paradise Lost will find Danielson’s prose to be a fascinating and engaging interpretation of the text. And those reading the poem for the first time – or teaching it – will find this edition to be an elegant and surefooted help, an aid which is delightful in its own right, and which “timely interposes” in those moments of poetic difficulty.

Here, there and everywhere

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Alternative theses on art

Thanks for all the very interesting comments on my theses on art – the discussion gave me lots to think about, and certainly caused me to rethink some of the theses. (I don’t think anyone agreed with my remarks about “didactic” art, which may be a pretty good indication that I’m wrong…)

Anyway, a couple of people have also posted alternative sets of theses, with some fundamental criticisms of my post: Ten Alternative Theses on Art, and Parsing Ten Theological Thesis on Art.

Update: In addition, see Theses on Art and Ten (Theological) Theses on Art.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Ten theological theses on art

I was talking the other day about art with the delightful and incomparable Oliver Crisp (who went to art school before he studied theology). So here’s my attempt at ten brief theses on art (with a picture below of one of my favourite paintings in New York – Picasso’s 1936 Girl Asleep at a Table):

  1. Art is not a representation of the world or an expression of feeling, but a construction of form
  2. Nature is flawed; art is more perfect than nature
  3. Art is therefore a parable of the redemption of the world
  4. Art is tradition; it opens the future by renewing the past
  5. Art is the occurrence of the new; metaphysics trails in art’s wake
  6. Art may be true or good to the extent that it seeks only the beautiful
  7. Didacticism is therefore the enemy of art. Bad art is not harmless; it is a betrayal of the world, violence against beauty
  8. Beauty in art can take form as grotesqueness, fragmentation and dissonance
  9. The beauty of grotesqueness, fragmentation and dissonance has a special proximity to a Christian theology of the cross
  10. God is beauty; the crucified Christ is the beauty of God

Avery Cardinal Dulles, 1918-2008

One of the world’s leading Catholic theologians, Avery Cardinal Dulles, died yesterday in New York, aged 90. There’s a good obituary in the New York Times, and a nice piece at First Things.

Friday, 12 December 2008

On Satan, cigarettes, and Leonard Cohen

They’ve let Leonard Cohen out of his tower for a while, so he’ll be touring Australia in February – and I’ll be going to see him at his Brisbane show! As far as I can tell, he’s someone who only gets better the older and bleaker he gets. He might complain: “Well my friends are gone, my hair is grey, I ache in the places where I used to play” – but our response is to hope that he just keeps on aching: pain this beautiful ought to go on and on. (Kurt Cobain was right to notice this: “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld, so I can sigh eternally.”)

Anyway, the prospect of seeing Leonard Cohen reminds me of something I was reading recently: Glen Duncan’s deliciously funny and perverse novel, I, Lucifer (Grove Press, 2002). In the novel, Satan is given the chance to re-enter heaven if he can live a well-behaved life in a human body for one month. He enjoys the experience of fleshiness, and he promptly gives himself up to all manner of debauchery. At one point, he also takes up smoking cigarettes: “I started smoking, too. I’m looking forward to stopping, obviously, since the real pleasure is starting again, but in the meantime I’ve found my rhythm at about fifty a day” (pp. 67-68).

It’s a splendid piece of Satanic reasoning: to start smoking for the sake of quitting, simply so that you’ll be able to enjoy the rasping rabid pleasure of starting again!

In the same way, Leonard Cohen makes you want to find religion just so you can undergo the exquisite pain of losing it again. Or if you’ve already got religion, perhaps he can help you to lose it just a little, so that you can find it again one day “by the rivers dark,
in a wounded dawn.”

        I did my best, it wasn’t much
        I couldn’t feel so I learned to touch
        I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
        And even though it all went wrong
        I’ll stand before the Lord of song
        With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

On Blake and the Bible (and Milton)

A post by Kim Fabricius (This was Kim’s “vote of thanks” after Christopher Rowland’s lecture yesterday for the Theological Society in Swansea. Rowland spoke on “William Blake and the Bible” – if you’re interested, you can download the lecture as a PowerPoint presentation from the Oxford website.)

William Blake was my first true literary love. (Before Blake I’d merely slept around.) We met when I majored in English. I still have my copy of Northrop Frye’s magnificent study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry. And after I’d graduated and hit the road to Europe and Asia in 1971, along with Shakespeare the only other book I carried in my rucksack was a one-volume collection of the works of Blake and John Donne. (And if that seems an unlikely pairing, you obviously don’t see the connection between the two most interesting things in life: God – and sex!)

And then, homeless and broke in London a few years later, crashing and sponging at a friend’s flat in Pimlico, I used to spend many a day blowing my mind on Blake’s visual art in the Tate Gallery just down the road.

And when I became a Christian in the late 1970s, this prophet who so accurately pinpointed the pernicious social consequences of the empiricist and utilitarian philosophies of the Enlightenment, and who exposed with searing indignation the fatal link between the church’s moral teaching, repressed human sexuality, and a culture of death – well, for me, Blake’s heroic status only grew the greater.

The word is vision. Chesterton declared: “Critics say his [Blake’s] visions were false because he was mad. I say he was mad because his visions were true.” Absolutely! “Mad” in the way St. John the Divine was mad (no coincidence, then, that Professor Rowland has written a brilliant commentary on the book of Revelation). “Mad” in a way that neither the legalism of conservative Christians, nor the reasonableness of the liberals, can comprehend. Such is the impoverishment of the contemporary Christian imagination for which the Bible is either an inerrant rulebook or a religious resource book, but not, as it was for Blake, an inspired and inspiring narrative for re-configuring the world.

So thank you, Professor Rowland, for so profoundly and pictorially riveting us tonight with a fabulous lecture. And what a providential evening on which to give it: Milton, whose company Blake often kept (he said that Milton had left heaven and entered his foot in the form of a comet) – it is, this very day, the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth. Finally, perhaps the highest compliment that I, as a minister in the URC, can pay you: I shall henceforth regard you, with Milton and Blake, as an “honorary” Nonconformist!

Is T. F. Torrance a Barthian?

Last month, I made a short (impromptu) video for the Sydney discussion group, Theology & Praxis. My talk was entitled “Why I Think T. F. Torrance is Not a Barthian.” Although the video is no longer available online, Travis has provided a summary of my talk, together with a very thoughtful, detailed response. When I can find a few spare moments, I might try to write a brief response to Travis as well – but in the meantime, be sure to check out his excellent post: Why I think Ben Myers is not quite right about Torrance.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Celebrating Milton's birthday: on Milton and politics

Four hundred years ago today, England’s great poet was born: John Milton. I celebrated privately this morning by solemnly reciting the opening 50 or 60 lines of Paradise Lost. So why don’t you pause for a moment to read it as well. To read this poem is to participate in a miracle.

By way of celebration, the New Zealand journal, The Turnbull Library Record has devoted a special issue to Milton, including the public lecture which I presented in Wellington earlier this year: “Milton and the Theology of Secular Politics,” The Turnbull Library Record 41 (2008), 3-15. The article discusses Milton’s political thought in the context of contemporary political theory (with special reference to Rowan Williams’ lecture on sharia law). Here’s an excerpt:

“If Milton’s work discloses contradictions inherent in rights-based political doctrines, it would be a complete misunderstanding to imagine that we could somehow “fix” these contradictions simply by being still more tolerant and still more inclusive. But it would perhaps be a step in the right direction if we recognised – in contrast to liberal thinkers like Rawls – that there is no metaphysical foundation for any political order, no “mere nature” which could authorise or establish that order, no value-free “reason” by which competing comprehensive doctrines could be adjudicated. Instead of searching for ideal speech-conditions or universal criteria of justice and rationality, perhaps what’s needed today is a political sphere where contests of values can be staged openly, and where political exclusions can be recognised for what they are – exclusions arising from political decision, not from any neutral “reasonableness,” much less from any “natural” or metaphysical foundation. The search for political foundations and for a rational consensus is precisely an attempt to naturalise the contingent decisions and power relations by which every political order is established. […]

“To return to Rawlsian language, whether a specific comprehensive doctrine can exist legitimately in the political sphere is determined not by whether it measures up to some universal standard of reasonableness; instead, this can be decided only in the process of political debate itself. The political is precisely the sphere in which confrontation between rival values can be staged openly. It is the sphere in which solutions can be negotiated without recourse to metaphysical foundations, or universal reason, or the righteous violence of the regenerate few.”

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The church and Britain: a homily for Christ the King Sunday

A guest-post by Andrew Brower Latz (Ben’s note: Sorry, I’m a couple of weeks behind with this – but I still wanted to post this excellent sermon, which Andrew Brower Latz, an F&T-reader, preached recently for Christ the King Sunday)

Today is the feast of Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ, the last Sunday of the Christian year. It was established by the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century in response to the rise of fascism. It proclaims, in the words of Paul, that Christ is ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named.’ Powerful stuff, but what does it mean for us today, living in a 21st-century liberal democracy?

Let me begin with two examples from the media, one recent and one not so recent. The first, on Thursday on Radio 3, was a discussion with Trevor Philips, director of the Commission for Racial Equality; someone towards the left of the political spectrum, who describes himself as progressive and libertarian. I should point out that I’m not criticizing Philips; I think Philips’ views are intelligent and well informed and that he deserves to have more influence on the politics of our country. He was asked: what do we do at points of irreconcilable difference? For instance, what do Catholic adoption agencies do when faced with a law that compels them to act against their beliefs and adopt children out to homosexual couples? (Whatever we may think about adopting children to homosexual couples is irrelevant to the point I’m making.) His answer: they must do what the law says and act against their beliefs (as the law will in fact force them to in a couple of months’ time). In the end, the law is the ultimate authority and arbiter of actions, and therefore of ethics. In saying that, Philips is simply repeating a central tenet of liberal democracy, one espoused clearly by John Stuart Mill, the founder of much of the theory of our society and government. The nation-state of liberal democracy, at points of irreconcilable difference, demands obedience to itself.

Liberal democracies prize autonomy, in the form of freedom from constraint, above almost everything else. We are free to do whatever we want as long as we do not harm others or impede them in their projects. Again, that is straight out of Mill: not being harmed is the most important feature of our life together, and harming others is what justifies state intervention in our lives. That seems sensible as far as it goes, but notice that in order to secure our freedom, the state takes on an absolutist form. The state is justified in limiting absolutely the freedom of any of us in order to ensure the safety of others.

This is the paradox and irony of liberal politics. Hence my not-so-recent media item. After Rowan Williams made his much misunderstood speech on Sharia law, one of the commentators in the Times newspaper, completely in keeping with the ethos of liberal democracies, said that if it comes down to it and we need to choose, we must obey the state rather than religion. This is because the state keeps us safe from the violence of religion. He gave an example of an English army Major in the 19th century in India, encountering some people who wanted to practice suttee, the ritual in which a Hindu widow throws herself on her husband’s funeral pyre to burn to death. The Major did not approve of this and commanded it must not take place. When the people protested that this was their custom he responded, with characteristic 19th-century wit: ‘And in my country it is our custom to hang those who kill widows. You may follow your custom; we will follow ours.’

The irony of the commentator’s example, completely unnoticed by him, is not only that the English Major was in India as a colonialist, but that it is the nation-state that demands we kill others, whereas the church prohibits killing. Yet such nationalist acts do not count as religious violence; instead, religion is somehow violent, and it is that from which the state saves us.

What do our Scriptures have to say about all of this? They say, in short, as Paul liked to suggest, that Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not; or, as we might say, Christ is Prime Minister, Brown is not. Christ is King of his own people, of his own city. There are two cities, that of whatever governments exist, and that of the church. The church is not one group amongst others in civil society, all of which must submit to and be unified by the nation-state; it is its own public, an alternative society, on a par with the nation-state.

We might even say, there is not ‘the church within Britain’ but ‘the church and Britain’. There are two cities, two spaces, two publics, two politics. It is helpful to think of them not as two institutions but as two performances, two sets of practices; the one based on the desire for domination, the other based on love; the sort of love taught in Mt 25.31-46 and lived out in Jesus’ death and resurrection, in God’s self-giving for the church. What the church’s way of life together, or its ‘politics’, shows, is a way of living in community based on love rather than the myth of inevitable violence. And that shows up the state as not a real public at all; it shows up the state’s politics as a poor second. As God’s people, our first allegiance is to Christ and the church, and only secondly to the state. As Ephesians tells us, God placed Jesus above all rule and authority whatsoever; we obey Jesus first.

So we have two publics or societies, each with its distinctive performance and practices. What does this look like in real life? Allow me three examples.

The UK government enacts an immigration policy that is hostile, inhospitable and regularly violates people’s human rights; repeatedly sending people back to danger of torture and death, based on a system that is systematically stacked against the asylum seeker. And the government does not allow asylum seekers to work or be active citizens whilst their claims are being assessed. All of us here have seen that in the lives of members of our own church. It seems appropriate that the word Matthew uses for ‘stranger’ in v.35 of our reading is ξένος, from which we derive our word xenophobia. The church, by contrast, should enact practices of hospitality, welcome, and help towards asylum seekers. The church should welcome asylum seekers as active citizens in her own public life.

Second example. The UK is engaged in two wars at the moment. The church, rather than supporting the wars, should enact practices of peace and reconciliation, perhaps by supporting peacemakers, and through links with churches in Iraq and Afghanistan; showing itself to be a universal, catholic public, wider than national borders, thinking of the common good rather than national interests.

Third, the government says it is our responsibility as citizens to spend money in order to stimulate the economy – because the economy must grow, it cannot stay the same size or decrease. The church should ask itself whether it treats the accumulation of capital as an end in itself or whether it uses money as a means to an end. Does the church need to perform differently with its money? We could do worse in looking for clues than to read the Matthew passage we read today.

Jesus, in that passage, is not only the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s prophecy of God himself ruling his people, but Jesus is identified with the poor, weak, sick, needy and imprisoned. God’s politics is exercised through Jesus’ self-emptying, and ultimately the cross. Matthew teaches that every time we encounter another person we encounter Christ, our judge and our King. As we share the Eucharist together we once again encounter Christ giving himself to us; and it too is a judgement, it proclaims Christ’s death until he comes.

We have gathered together to open ourselves to that judgement, and so we have already confessed and will again ask for God’s mercy. But let us remember that while our need to repent is real, the Holy Spirit has gathered us here to cleanse us from our sin – and that the purpose of God’s judgement is always to open our life to his, to give us true life. That is why we call this the Eucharist, the ‘giving thanks’. And, Ephesians says, God ‘has put all things under [Jesus’] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.’

Monday, 8 December 2008

On children and technology

My six-year-old daughter told me that she is old enough now for her own laptop. I explained that we didn’t even have computers when I was growing up. “Wow,” she replied. “So how did you send your emails?”

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Walk the plank

Halden has posted a brief review of Kim’s new book of propositions – and if you’re looking for Christmas ideas, I notice the book is now 28% less at Amazon

Here’s another quote from Mike Higton’s delightful preface: “Proposition by proposition, aphorism by aphorism, this book provides a solid training in how to think theologically – how to break and remake your thought in the light of God’s grace…. Think of each proposition as a hammer blow – and realize that you would do well to pause after each, just to check whether anything is broken.”

New Zealand conference: trinitarian theology after Barth

Next year’s conference on Trinitarian Theology after Barth is now open for registration. The conference will take place in the lovely city of Auckland, 14-15 May 2009. Speakers will include Bruce McCormack, Paul Molnar, John McDowell, Ivor Davidson, Murray Rae, and several others (including myself).

You can get a registration form by contacting Myk Habets.

Friday, 5 December 2008

William Stringfellow: career vs. vocation

“I had elected then [in my early student years] to pursue no career. To put it theologically, I died to the idea of career and to the whole typical array of mundane calculations, grandiose goals and appropriate schemes to reach them…. I do not say this haughtily; this was an aspect of my conversion to the gospel….

“[Later] my renunciation of ambition in favor of vocation became resolute; I suppose some would think, eccentric. When I began law studies, I consider that I had few, if any, romantic illusions about becoming a lawyer, and I most certainly did not indulge any fantasies that God had called me, by some specific instruction, to be an attorney or, for that matter, to be a member of any profession or any occupation. I had come to understand the meaning of vocation more simply and quite differently.

“I believed then, as I do now, that I am called in the Word of God … to the vocation of being human, nothing more and nothing less…. Within the scope of the calling to be merely but truly human, any work, including that of any profession, can be rendered a sacrament of that vocation. On the other hand, no profession, discipline or employment, as such, is a vocation.”

—William Stringfellow, A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 30-31.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

William Placher

I was sad to hear that William Placher died this week, aged 60. There are reports here, here and here. Placher was an important Reformed theologian and a leading representative of Yale-school “postliberal” theology. He once said: “The way we best show our love to the whole world is to love with a particular passion some little part of it.”

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Have yourselves a conservative Christmas!

A guest-post by Scott Stephens (originally written for an Australian newspaper)

Conservative politics is now everywhere in retreat. Or rather, it has been routed. Across the Western world, conservative parties are in disarray after suffering a catastrophic series of electoral defeats. Just think of the fate of the Liberal Party after Howard, or the Republicans after Bush, or New Labor in these final, dying gasps of the Blair-Brown regime (which has been overtly Thatcherite in its approach to economic policy).

Conservatism’s now dismal outlook is due, in large part, to the rather fickle affections of the free-market economy to which it has wedded itself. Even during the bad times, it finds itself in a position where it has to keep talking up the benefits of capitalism for fear of losing its political pedigree – that of being the best at managing the economy and generating massive surpluses.

But while political conservatism is everywhere being rolled back, many commentators and even economists find themselves looking to the likes of President-elect Obama for a different kind of conservatism: domestic or economic (in the traditional Greek sense of oikonomia, or ‘household management’) conservatism. Take Chris Patten, former Tory and now Chancellor of Oxford University, who has recently written that ‘the new president’s first task will be … to restore the real family values of saving, thrift, responsibility, and fair reward.’ Fareed Zakaria has expressed the same sentiment. ‘This crisis – dramatically, vengefully – forced the United States to confront the bad habits it has developed over the past few decades. If we can kick those habits, today’s pain will translate into gains in the long run.’

In other words, the new conservative hope is that the current credit contraction will force people to begin living within reasonable means once again, and thus will begin rectifying nearly three decades of fiscal insanity. The figures that measure the extent of our madness over this period are truly terrifying. In the United States, the ratio of private debt to income is 290%. In Australia, it is 165%. Admittedly, these ratios include people’s mortgages. But far from ameliorating these figures, it is the mortgages themselves that prove to be the problem.

One of the most notable trends over the past decade – on the back of the dramatic escalation in home equity due to the housing bubble – is people’s willingness to convert their mortgages into yet another line of credit for spending on luxury items and retail. And so, while under relatively normal economic conditions, the escalating prices of certain staples like food and fuel and clothing would cause a downturn in domestic economic growth, and thus a slowing in the retail sector, in the United States and Australia ‘consumer confidence’ and retail spending has gone through the roof!

And this brings us to perhaps the most obscene political decision made by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in his first year in office. Rudd inherited a $17.3 billion budget surplus from the Howard-Costello decade, a surplus that already had been amassed by paying down public debt (and thus ignoring social infrastructure) and by converting public debt into private or household debt, which now exceeds $150 billion.

In order to bolster his credentials as an ‘economic conservative’, Rudd-Swan then presented the Australian public with $21.7 billion budget surplus for the 2008-2009 financial year – again, money that could have been invested toward the future in the form of infrastructure, schools, universities, clean energy, and research and development, or money that could even have been used to honour our commitment to the UN’s Millenium Goals!

But instead, at the first sign of a drop in consumer confidence and a slackening off of retail-mania in September, the Federal Government promised to pump $10.4 billion into the pockets of the Australian public at a time of the year when they are guaranteed to spend up big and not pay down debt. Merry Christmas, indeed!

But before you spend it up and thus deepen our present addiction to an unsustainable and self-centred way of life, try reflecting on how we got here. Think, just for a moment, about having yourselves a conservative Christmas, in which we decide that we probably have spent more than enough on tat and trinkets, on leisure and gadgets, most often to the neglect of the common good and our moral obligation to care for one another. And think about what it says about our government, that at the very time when we should begin reshaping our habits and practices, orienting them toward others and toward the future, we are given just what we need to deepen our addiction to unrestrained spending.

Wendell Berry put it beautifully when he lamented that, in the United States, ‘the most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and less wasteful.’

The last President to do that was Jimmy Carter, just before he was voted out of office in a landslide. His replacement? Ronald Reagan. And there began our present malaise.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Tom Waits: Silent Night

Here’s some nice music for Advent: a rare recording of Tom Waits singing “Silent Night.” Click here to listen online.

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