Thursday, 26 February 2009

Ten propositions on Darwin and the deity

by Kim Fabricius

1. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) finally lost his faith in God. Not that he had ever been a committed Nicene Christian. Forced by his free-thinking father to study for the Anglican priesthood at Cambridge after a false start in medicine at the University of Edinburgh (dissection and surgery made him physically sick), young Charles plodded his way through the set theological texts – only Evidences of Christianity by William Paley (1743-1805) really grabbed him – more interested in beetles than the Bible – and a girl named Fanny Owen. Within the year of his graduation (1831), his belief theistic rather than Trinitarian, Darwin was aboard the Beagle, beginning the enthralling five-year expedition on which he would wave goodbye to the clerical vocation. Darwin died an agnostic (a term coined by his “bulldog” Thomas Huxley), yet he was buried in Westminster Abbey, the most hallowed church in England – at the end of the month that begins with Fool’s Day.

2. Should it be of concern to Christians that Darwin was never more than a nominal believer? Only if, rejecting universalism, you are concerned about the destiny of his immortal soul. Otherwise – well, are you concerned whether your surgeon, mechanic, or hair stylist goes to church? Of course not. Your only concern is that she wields a scalpel, wrench, or scissors with know-how and dexterity. So too with a scientist: one’s only concern should be that he is an honest and skilled practitioner of his craft. And Darwin wasn’t just an able and meticulous biologist, he was a bloody genius. If his theory of evolution by natural selection is the best theory in town that explains the evidence (palaeontological, morphological/taxonomical, molecular/genetic) – and it is – deal with it. Of course refute it on empirical grounds if you can, but don’t rubbish it because you don’t like its theological or moral implications, or because you have a political agenda. Fight science with science – not with the pseudo-science of creationism or the bad science of ID (not to mention the bad theology of both). On the other hand, is it not a sad but salient observation that as Darwin’s faith receded, so did his finer feelings for art?

        Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
        Our meddling intellect
        Misshapes the beauteous forms of things –
        We murder to dissect.
         (William Wordsworth)

3. Of course Darwinism had its scientific detractors – as well as its religious supporters – from the get-go of The Origin of Species (published in 1859, but its thesis adumbrated, if sat on, since the early 1840s), and it remained seriously deficient until Gregor Mendel’s work on genetics (completed in the 1860s, but unrecognised until the early twentieth century) led to the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Indeed Darwinian civil wars rage today on the detail and scope of natural selection and adaptation, with the scientific arguments further befuddled by the philosophical and ideological disagreements, not to mention the temperamental differences, of the antagonists (Stephen Jay Gould floated like a butterfly, Richard Dawkins stings like a flea). But it is a good start to know exactly what Darwin did and didn’t say: he never claimed to account for the origins of life from inorganic matter, let alone ex nihilo; rather he argued that his theory explained how present-day species evolved from earlier ones. Even the later Darwin could speak of life being “breathed by the Creator”.

4. The venerable argument from design, to which Paley added biological spin, is, observes Herbert McCabe, “a silly one…. You can no more say, ‘This sort of world must have been made by God,’ than you can say, ‘This sort of world must exist’.” Only causes within creation make the world what it is; therefore the argument is self-defeating because, assuming a competitive understanding of divine and human activity, it effectively turns the Creator into a creature. When the Scottish hit man David Hume (1711-76) (whom Darwin read) whacked the argument from design in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he actually did faith a favour. ID’s exhumation of the corpse, a blatant example of the god of the gaps, is a gruesome sight. Nor, following Michael Buckley, should one miss the irony that by trying to demonstrate the existence of a designer-deity independent of revelation, advocates of physico-theology actually advanced the development of modern atheism.

5. Darwin himself finally found the ecological cheerfulness (not to mention the ideological conservatism) of Paley’s natural philosophy quite untenable, in utter denial of the zoological carnage observable even in an English country garden. Nevertheless, the younger Darwin did not dismiss the idea of design, because the only alternative seemed to be chance, which could not explain nature’s order; he believed in a deistic design of the laws of nature. However, with the development of his theory, observes Diogenes Allen, “Darwin supplied what Hume lacked”: in contrast to the prevailing Aristotelian view of the fixity of species, “an account of present-day life forms arising by natural processes from earlier ones. The argument for a designer, which moves directly from present-day life forms to a designer, can no longer be employed because the only alternative to chance is not design.” Allen correctly continues: “the fundamental issue nature’s order poses is whether it is intended, not whether it is designed.” Darwin finally found the idea of divine design surplus to biological, if not cosmological, requirements; while the more he thought about the issue of divine intention, the more inscrutable he found it.

6. For those who would still insist, confounding the biblical Creator with Paley’s watchmaker, that Darwin remains the implacable enemy of Moses, I cannot resist referring to a lovely little letter Karl Barth wrote to his grandniece Christine, who had become disconcerted by a classroom discussion. “Has no one explained to you in your seminar,” Barth wrote, “that one can as little compare the biblical creation story and a scientific theory like that of evolution as one can compare, shall we say, an organ and a vacuum-cleaner – that there can be as little question of harmony between them as of contradiction?… The creation story deals only with the becoming of all things, and therefore with the revelation of God, which is inaccessible to science as such. The theory of evolution deals with what has become, as it appears to human observation and research and as it invites human interpretation… So tell the teacher concerned that she should distinguish what is to be distinguished and not shut herself off completely from either side.”

7. Scientific theory and philosophical considerations, however, were relatively light loads in the cumulative burden that eventually flattened Darwin’s faith. One heavier weight was specifically moral: the doctrine of hell and everlasting punishment. Public recoil from this traditional teaching of the church was hardly unique in Victorian culture, such that from the 1860s many revivalist preachers themselves dowsed the fire and brimstone. For Darwin the brutalities of the struggle for survival on earth were harsh enough without the divine supplement of an eternal slaughterhouse for unbelieving Homo sapiens. In his Autobiography Darwin wrote: “I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”

8. But the straw – or rather the bale – that finally broke the back of the biologist’s belief was suffering: in the titles of two famous works by C. S. Lewis, not The Problem of Pain, which had always vexed Darwin, but A Grief Observed. In the summer of 1850 his nine-year-old daughter Annie became ill, and as spring sprung in 1851 Darwin took her to Malvern for the popular water cure. After a short period of convalescence, Annie’s condition rapidly deteriorated and, with her father at her bedside, she died three days after Easter. The death of his favourite girl, made all the more poignant by the birth of his ninth child Horace just three weeks later, left Darwin inconsolable, and although (as he wrote to his friend and collaborator Joseph Hooker on the death of his own six-year-old daughter in 1863) his tears eventually “lost that unutterable bitterness of former days,” he could hardly ever speak of Annie again. From his home in Downe, Kent, the only sound of faith that Darwin would henceforth hear was its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” echoing, seventy miles southeast, from Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach.

9. From the beginning, it was moral panic more than scientific scruple that drove Christians to jump on the bandwagon of anti-Darwinism. But it wasn’t just driven by the ignominy of the common biological ancestry of all hominids (captured by the joke of caged apes asking, “Am I my keeper’s brother?”); even more significant was the elimination of teleology from the study of nature and its implication for social ethics. But this is actually exceptionally good news. Because the fact that “the causal heart of Darwinian theorizing is against the idea of progress” (Michael Ruse) clears an intellectual space for biblical eschatology: more precisely, for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the world’s apocalyptic counter-evolutionary moment in which the weakest kata sarka turn out to be the “fittest” kata pneuma. John Howard Yoder famously said that “those who bear crosses are walking with the grain of the universe.” Strictly speaking, that should be: against the grain of “nature, red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson; cf. Romans 8:22), and with the grain of the new creation, where babies play with sidewinders (cf. Isaiah 11:8).

10. It is important, if trivial, to remember that Darwin was a man of his age. If The Descent of Man (1871) contains rather repugnant passages on “the savage races”, even the libertarian Walt Whitman could speak of Africans as a “superstitious, ignorant, and thievish race”. In fact, Darwin too was an ardent abolitionist, and he resisted the Social Darwinism of zealots like Herbert Spencer. Nor should we project the truculent scientism of the son Richard Dawkins back onto the ambivalent, even confused, religious views of the father who immersed himself in Paradise Lost during the voyage of the Beagle, who had actually studied the theology he finally rejected, and who consistently denied that The Origin of Species was inherently atheistic. Darwin was ever a humble thinker, keenly aware (in good Augustinian fashion!) of the dangers of intellectual self-deceit. John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor, reflecting on how Darwin’s theory has influenced our understanding of the deity, suggest that “two images of God took a beating”: “the artisan or mechanic”, and “the magician” of special creation. Which perhaps invites us to re-imagine the Creator more as an improvising artist or musician. John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, anyone?

Monday, 23 February 2009

Some autobiography from John Webster

I know I’m a latecomer here, but last night I finally read Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, edited by Darren Marks (Ashgate 2002). It’s a fascinating collection of autobiographical reflections by leading theologians (e.g. James Cone, Colin Gunton, Jürgen Moltmann, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Kathryn Tanner).

There are some really nice moments – such as Alister McGrath’s observation: “Why do theologians not write novels, aiming to express theological notions in a narrative manner? … There are many theologians who have written about novels; why not write novels instead?” (p. 43). Or Moltmann’s observation, which could serve as a perfect summary of the history of 20th-century theology: “Looking back, it is a curious thing about theology that problems come up, are discussed to the point of personal recrimination (at least in Germany) and then, still unresolved, quietly disappear again, pensioned off, so to speak” (p. 92).

But the best part of the book is John Webster’s wonderful autobiographical narrative, “Discovering Dogmatics.” This is a great introduction to Webster’s theology, as well as an insightful polemical history of British theology since the 1970s. Even if I’m ambivalent about Webster’s current emphasis on divine aseity, it’s very impressive to hear him articulating the contexts within which this emphasis has become so important to him, and to hear of the very deliberate way in which he has set out to “reinvent for myself the office of theologian.” Webster’s theological style (like his doctrine of God!) is typically marked by balance, poise, invincible serenity – so it’s especially good in this essay to glimpse something of the polemical background to his work. Here’s an excerpt:

“I have found that commitment [to Christian dogmatics] has sometimes entailed a measure of academic isolation. In view of the widespread view that English language doctrinal theology is in a much healthier condition than it has been for many years, this isolation may seem odd. But as I read a great deal of contemporary systematic theology, I am struck by a sense that the centre of gravity is in the wrong place – usually it is heavily ecclesial, strongly invested in the Gospel as social and moral reality, overly invested in the language of habit, practice and virtue, underdetermined by a theology of divine aseity. It is not yet Ritschl; but, without a seriously operative eschatology, it has little protection against slipping into social and cultural immanentism…. And so I find myself at odds with those of my British colleagues who are more confident of the state of systematic theology: where they see an invigorated and invigorating discipline engaged in lively conversation in the academy, I tend to see a soft revisionism chastened by bits of Barth, or over-clever Anglo-Catholicism with precious little Christology, soteriology or pneumatology” (p. 133).

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Three books on global theology

William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, eds. Global Dictionary of Theology (IVP 2008), 996 pp.

Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World (IVP 2008), 296 pp.

Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri, eds. Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today’s Economy (Eerdmans 2008), 276 pp.


For several years now, IVP has been raising the bar for theological and biblical reference works – most notably with their remarkable series of black dictionaries. Their latest offering, the Global Dictionary of Theology, is another exemplary reference work and a first-rate resource for students and teachers of theology. The book provides an up-to-date picture of how theology is being practised today on every continent and in numerous different national and ethnic contexts.

Generally speaking, the editors have avoided smaller entries, and have devoted the volume to extended, substantive articles on major themes. In many cases, there are multiple authors for a single entry, so that the volume represents some lively debate and discussion. For example, the entry on “Capitalism” (pp. 127-33) includes a critical section written by a Spanish theologian (and it’s good stuff too: “capitalism does not merely represent a structural sin, but the global and imperial configuration of the basic structures of Adamic sin…. This then means that all authentic proclamation of the gospel is always a direct challenge to capitalism”), coupled with a somewhat more sympathetic treatment written by an American. Again, the excellent entry on “Christology” (pp. 167-86) features an wide-ranging introductory section by Kärkkäinen, followed by an extended account of the new contextual christologies by J. Levison and P. Pope-Levison. And although most African nations are grouped together as “African theologies,” there are excellent separate entries on evangelical, Protestant and Catholic African theologies, as well as on traditional African religions.

In addition to the many national and ethnic entries, one also finds fascinating perspectives on themes as diverse as aesthetics, human rights, healing and deliverance, music, missionary movements, theological education, theology of work, and relief and development.

Of course, “global theology” is an unwieldy topic, and the book reflects some interesting methodological decisions about what counts as “global.” For example, the entry on “Australian theology” (written by a very promising young Pentecostal theologian) discusses the theological importance of Aboriginal history and spirituality in Australia, as well as the function of (mythical) Aussie identity-markers like “mateship” and “the fair go.” It may be true that “various scholars have sought to theologize … the broader metaphorical meanings” of such identity-markers – but such theologising would hardly represent the daily concerns of most practising Australian theologians; and this focus on the idiosyncratic features of Australian theology hardly gives the reader an impression of the broad landscape of theological work in this country, or of the main lines of division between the country’s dominant theological styles.

Don’t misunderstand me: the entry on Australia is interesting and informative, and I’m drawing attention to it only because of my own familiarity with this particular “global” context. But I think the questions raised here are important methodological questions for any account of global theology. Even if such an account is motivated by postcolonial sensitivities and by a desire to move beyond the narrow dominance of European theologies, one might also ask whether a certain (more refined) imperialism is at work in the endeavour to isolate and analyse the most exotic and idiosyncratic features of a particular theological context. 


I once heard of a Karl Barth conference that was held in Germany several years ago. The conference organisers had invited a Japanese theologian to participate, but they were somewhat dismayed to find that their Japanese scholar had no interest in theologising his own national context – he was entirely preoccupied with the questions and problems of modern German thought! Presumably the conference organisers had expected their guest to provide a more exotic “oriental” perspective.

The editors of this volume report a similar problem, where contributors had failed to provide adequately idiosyncratic accounts of their particular contexts: “A further challenge that was in some ways surprising was the number of scholars from the Global South who tended to do theology in the manner of their Northern teachers. Occasionally, entries drafted by theologians from Asia, Africa and Latin America did not differ significantly from entries that would have been written by their European or North American counterparts…. Who is going to do authentically Asian, African or Hispanic theology if not theologians from those particular locations?” (p. xi). Here, the norm of theological “authenticity” has apparently already been settled in advance; an African theologian who wants to talk about European intellectual problems is simply not African enough!

These observations are intended more as broad methodological questions than as a critique of the Global Dictionary of Theology. On the whole, the volume is in fact exemplary in this respect: the editors have tried to avoid an imperialistic tyranny of the exotic, especially by representing not only liberal/progressive voices, but also evangelical, Pentecostal and conservative Catholic perspectives. For example, the entry on Korean theology rightly emphasises the central importance of Calvinist and Reformed traditions, so that a Princeton theologian like Sang Hyan Lee should be viewed as a major representative of contemporary Korean theology.

The broader methodological questions which I’ve been raising are taken up very ably in Subverting Global Myths, by the Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra. The book offers a series of critical theological interventions in a range of contemporary public issues, such as terrorism, religious violence, human rights and multiculturalism. Underpinning the book is an analysis of the function of myth and idolatry in contemporary public life: “What frightens a people serves as a reliable guide to their idolatries. Idols are sustained by myths – public, large-scale narratives that engage our imaginations and shape the way we experience the world” (p. 12). The chapters on multiculturalism and postcolonialism are especially good; since it connects with my earlier remarks, let me just focus here on Ramachandra’s analysis of postcolonialism.

Ramachandra notes that, ironically, postcolonial criticism often mirrors the hermeneutical violence of colonialism: the scholar exercises theological judgment according to a set of preconceived liberal norms, and then “paradoxically wields the secularist liberal worldview of the academy (itself part of the colonial legacy) to outlaw all other theological voices” (p. 256). Further, he notes the “curious selectivity” with which “Third World theology” is represented in scholarly work – here’s an extended quote:

“Asian theologies are taken to be theologies addressing what is called, in typical Orientalist fashion, the Asian context; and the latter is reduced to poverty, women’s empowerment and the presence of ancient world religions…. Western theologians feel free to write on such ‘Asian issues,’ but Asian theologians who address other issues within their churches (e.g. healing, ethnic fragmentation, ecclesiastical politics, responding to persecution) or global issues (e.g. postmodernism, genetic technology, evolutionism, the internet) tend to be marginalized…. Moreover, only if one were to espouse the typical Western secular liberal agenda … can one acquire the status of being a ‘progressive’ theologian. Hence the huge gulf between those who profess to speak for the Third World church and the Third World church itself” (pp. 255-56).

Ramachandra’s incisive critique deserves sober reflection. His book is a serious and passionate piece of public theology, and it makes for gripping and compelling reading.

Finally, let me also point out Eerdmans’ new collection of essays, Global Neighbours. The essays here offer theological and ethical reflections on the shape of Christian life within a global economy. One of the book’s central points is
that a free-market economy is not a morally neutral system; it is itself underpinned by a cluster of moral and theological assumptions. That’s not to say that the authors provide any deep critique of capitalist economy – their aim is to contribute to public debate, so the result is a very practical and pragmatic book about the complexity of moral decisions in a global economy. 

The contributors even include business experts: this immediately raised my suspicions, but I’m happy to report that one of the book’s most interesting and engaging essays (Chapter 6, “Free Markets and the Reign of God”) is by a business expert rather than a theologian. (Unlike some theologians, this author is very honest about the moral conflicts involved in seemingly simple business decisions.)

I suppose it is the book’s “public” and pragmatic tone that leaves me finally feeling unsatisfied with its proposals. For example, I scarcely feel that the theological critique runs deep enough when an essay on U2’s activism concludes: “Bono as celebrity leader makes a notable contribution that stands as a challenge to citizens to press our political leaders into doing their part” (p. 62); or when another author remarks: “If our government is failing us, it is because we are failing as citizens to shape a government that expresses these values” (p. 247).

It seems to me that both these quotes point to a significant gap in the volume’s theological agenda: the absence of ecclesiology, of a Christian community whose own practices might open up an alternative economic space. Such a community would function not as a political lobby aiming to implement particular moral-economic “values”, but as a public witness to the economy of grace that has appeared in Jesus Christ and that is given in the eucharist.

So on that note, I should end this long and meandering review by pointing you to still one more book – William Cavanaugh’s delightful work, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Eerdmans, 2008). Although I think some of Cavanaugh’s practical suggestions are too simple, his book nevertheless models the best kind of response to our global free-market economy: not an attempt to lobby or influence existing political structures, but an exercise in theological imagination, in which the world and the church are re-imagined together under the light of the gospel.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The bus caption winner

The people have spoken! And Andrew is the winner of our bus sign contest. His caption won a decisive victory, with 29% of the votes. Here’s the winning bus sign:


And I think Dan deserves a runner-up prize for his wonderful sign (which came in second, with 15% of the votes):


The prizes come courtesy of the kind folks at IVP Academic – so Andrew and Dan can each email me to choose one of the following books:

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Worshipping onscreen: a megachurch meditation

Sorry for the long silence – we’ve been in transit to Sydney all week, and I haven’t had much internet access.

This morning, out of curiosity, I went along to a service at a famous Sydney megachurch. It was quite an experience. They had it all: the hustle and bustle of important people; the man with a torch and walkie-talkie who met us at the door and briskly ushered us to our seats; the dimly lit auditorium with its brightly coloured stage; the use of words like “vision” and “awesome”; the advertising segments (last week’s sermon was available on DVD for only $14.95); the slick businessmen with their Rolexes and their glamorous wives; the exuberant music performed by handsome musicians and voluptuous singers (I confessed to my wife that I had committed adultery in my heart all the way through “All I Need Is You”); the give-your-life-to-Jesus altar call; and throughout all this, the ubiquity of what Peter Berger has called “the Protestant smile.”

There were no limits to the professionalism of this worship service. There was even a bit of product placement: the lobby was adorned with a lovely suite of iMacs; and the sermon was delivered from behind a lectern with an open MacBook on top, its illuminated Apple icon gleaming at the cameras. (It was like watching BBC television – I was waiting for someone to arrive at any moment in a shining new Audi.)

As for the preaching, it was motivating and highly inspirational: the sermon’s title (sorry, I’m not kidding) was “Ten Kinds of People That God Can’t Help.” The main idea was that you should “invest” your time in positive happy friends, instead of making bad investments in friendships with hopeless, unhappy people: “Why are you trying to help people like that when even God can’t help them?” The sermon’s best one-liner: “The Bible isn’t a book about God’s love for man; it’s a book about man’s love for God.”

But for me, the most interesting aspect of the service was the dominance of the screen. Every moment of the service, from start to finish, was broadcast on to huge screens around the auditorium. When the pastor spoke, he would address one of the many cameras. When the worship-leader spoke to the congregation, he would speak into the camera. Even the heartfelt altar call at the end of the service was addressed to the camera. During the worship songs, the screens would be filled with the faces of those gorgeously happy singers and musicians; then a camera would pan across the crowd of raised hands before cutting back to a shot of the worship-leader’s face, full of adoration and passionate sincerity.

What made this so interesting was that the songs’ lyrics were also superimposed over these images; so if you wanted to join in singing, you had no choice but to turn your face away from the altar (if there had been an altar), away from the congregation, even away from the flesh-and-blood performers on stage. In short, participation in worship was possible only through the mediation of the screen. The entire worship service was orchestrated primarily as an event of the screen, so that one could take part only by turning towards the screen and participating in its projected images of worship.

The Protestant reformers used to complain that the Roman Catholic priest was “doing worship” for the whole congregation, standing in their place and performing everything on their behalf – and a similar complaint is often made about today’s Pentecostal megachurches. But I think the function of the screen raises a much more interesting problem: not merely that the congregation is worshipping vicariously through the onstage performers, but that the entire worship event is actually taking place onscreen.

At this morning’s service, even the worship leader himself was not a direct participant in the worship event – the real worshipping subject was his onscreen image. The flesh-and-blood performer participates in this worship only indirectly, through a vicarious participation in his own projected image – a larger-than-life image which becomes the bearer of transcendence. Similarly, the congregation is involved in worship only vicariously, through the mediation of the screen. This is an instance in which the screen comes to possess more ontological depth than the flesh-and-blood world itself; the projected image becomes “more real” than reality.

Visitors to Manhattan are often struck by the uncanny familiarity of their surroundings: the city has been so frequently and so meticulously presented onscreen that the “real” physical environment seems a remarkable copy of the much-more-real world of the screen. “Oh look,” tourists exclaim: “It’s just like in The Godfather!”

In the same way, towards the end of the church service I glanced down from the vast screen, and for a moment I glimpsed the flesh-and-blood pastor speaking passionately into the camera. It was strange to see the man standing there like this: a miniature version – touchingly flimsy and remote and insubstantial – of the real preacher whom I’d been watching on the screen. I felt embarrassed to have seen him like this – like the embarrassment of visitors at a hospital, who don’t know where to look – so I quickly averted my eyes, and returned my gaze to the big reassuring smile on the screen high above.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The best bus sign: cast your vote

Well, it’s hard to pick a winner – there were so many great entries in the bus sign caption contest. So I’ve chosen seven finalists, and you can now vote for your favourite in the poll at the top of the sidebar.

Meanwhile, here’s one that didn’t quite make it into the list of finalists – but it did give me a great laugh:

Friday, 6 February 2009

Atheist bus signs: a caption contest

Over in the UK, the atheist bus campaign has been attracting a lot of media interest. Some Christian groups have chimed in with their own (predictably humourless) rival ads, and there have been various theological responses as well.

So anyway, I reckon it’s time to settle this dispute once and for all – and what better way to resolve age-old metaphysical questions than with a caption contest? I’ll send a free book to the person who invents the best bus sign. (You get bonus points if your sign persuades someone to change their deepest beliefs.)

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Leonard Cohen in Brisbane 2009

It’s 1.30 in the morning, and I’ve just arrived home from Leonard Cohen’s concert here in Brisbane – a breathtaking four-hour extravaganza (with a wonderful opening set by the Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly). Cohen was accompanied by some extraordinary singers and musicians – it would have been worth going just to see Javier Mas play his heart out on that bandurria.

The concert was a revelation. I laughed and I cried; I roared and thundered; I leapt to my feet; I sat wrapped in silence. It was the greatest show I’ve ever seen. Filled with heartbreak and humour, desolation and hope, sex and seduction and light and darkness and prayer. Cohen is often described as a depressing singer; but the real core of his poetic vision is a fragile yet all-pervasive hope, a hope that springs – unexpectedly, miraculously – from the ruins of a shattered world. “There is a crack, a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”

There may not be many prophets left in our churches. But from time to time, at a show like this, you might get lucky enough to see a true prophet, to hear words of truth from the lips of another human being. Ours is a world of lies and falsehoods – and of what Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit”, mere nonsense-talk in which questions of truth and falsehood are irrelevant. Indeed, we are terrified of the truth (this was one of Freud’s great insights); we shrink from it, we spend our lives concealing it and evading it and shielding our eyes from its piercing glare. From ancient times, we have stoned and imprisoned and crucified those who told us the truth.

So when Leonard Cohen takes to the stage and sings “Anthem” or “The Future” or “Everybody Knows” or “First We Take Manhattan,” it is an astonishing thing to be confronted suddenly by words of truth – words that are “as bare as knives and forks on a white tablecloth” (to borrow a phrase from Peter Carey’s novel Oscar and Lucinda). Words like this:

       Everybody knows the deal is rotten
       Old black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton
       For your ribbons and bows
       Everybody knows.

Or this:

       Give me back the Berlin wall
       Give me Stalin and St Paul
       Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima
       Destroy another foetus now
       We don’t like children anyhow
       I’ve seen the future, baby:
       It is murder.

All day long we lie to ourselves, we lie to each other: but here, amidst a crowd of ten thousand, one lonely man stands beneath the lights and tells us the truth.

In a humorous moment, 74-year-old Cohen offered this autobiographical remark: “It’s been 15 years since I was on stage – I was 60 then, just a young kid with a crazy dream. Then I took a lot of Prozac. And Zoloft. And Wellbutrin, Ritalin, Effexor… I studied all the religions and philosophies of the world too – but somehow, cheerfulness just kept breaking through.”

Anyway, I’ll leave you with this clip. This was one of the concert’s greatest highlights – an exquisitely beautiful performance of “If It Be Your Will” by the Webb sisters (the clip is actually from an earlier concert, but it’s the same arrangement):



       If it be your will that I speak no more
       And my voice be still as it was before
       I will speak no more, I shall abide until
       I am spoken for
       If it be your will

       If it be your will that a voice be true
       From this broken hill I will sing to you
       From this broken hill all your praises they shall ring
       If it be your will
       To let me sing

       If it be your will, if there is a choice
       Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice
       Let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in hell
       If it be your will
       To make us well

       And draw us near and bind us tight
       All your children here in their rags of light
       In our rags of light, all dressed to kill
       And end this night
       If it be your will

Monday, 2 February 2009

Ten virtues for theological students

The ancients understood education as inculturation (παιδεια) into a life of virtue (αρετη). The main point of my recent satirical post was to suggest that theological education should similarly be understood as formation in virtue, rather than (as is too often the case) an inculturation into the vices of academia. In that post, I highlighted ten vices of theological education. And due to the number of emails I’ve received in response (partly from students who felt a little chastened or disillusioned, or that I was being too cynical), I’ve tried here to sketch out a contrasting list of ten virtues. Obviously this isn’t meant as a complete list (much less an autobiographical list!) – it’s just a parallel which makes explicit what was implicit in the earlier post:

1. Patience: In theological education, the process of learning is more important than the specific opinions you might acquire as a result. You can’t learn everything at once; just relax and enjoy the ride.

2. Breadth: In theological education, the connections between disciplines are often more important than the content of any single discipline in isolation. The development of wide-ranging interests – and the capacity to engage in wide-ranging discussions – is more valuable than the selection of any narrow specialisation.

3. Curiosity: One of the goals of theological education is to cultivate a lively sense of curiosity; the student who sticks only to the curriculum will not learn much. So resist the temptation to become too disciplined – and be sure to “waste” plenty of time reading novels, listening to music, and aimlessly enjoying the company of friends.

4. Clarity: In theological discourse, a single lapidary statement is better (and more difficult to achieve) than twenty pages of jargon.

5. Attentiveness: In theological education, even the most brash and opinionated among us are given the opportunity to cultivate a childlike fascination with the views of other people. Without attentive fascination, one’s capacity for surprise is diminished; and the essence of theology is surprise.

6. Love: Theological formation should be driven by a love for truth, not by animosity towards untruth. Truthful theology always involves polemics – but since truth takes form as love, it can never be used as a weapon to wound another person. Where this occurs, truth becomes a falsehood.

7. Friendship: Education is always competitive to some extent; but your peers should be viewed as friends and companions rather than competitors. In theological education, friends are your best unofficial teachers: one often learns more from them than from any of the curricular activities, or any of the professors.

8. Simplicity: The goal of theological education is Christian proclamation. Students sweat and labour for years through difficult texts and languages and ideas – only so that their preaching can one day seem easy and effortless and spontaneous. Preaching is not like mathematics: you do not “show your steps.”

9. Truth: Ambition for the comfort and respectability of a career is a deadly temptation which the theological student must resist. One can serve the idol of career only by compromising the call to speak the truth – that is, by sacrificing one’s entire theological vocation. Theological education is not about garnering academic favour, nor about treading the eggshells of correctness and respectability; it is about loving the truth and speaking the truth faithfully, while “taking no thought for tomorrow” (Matt. 6:34).

10. Prayer: Prayer is the theologian’s most fitting and most distinctive activity. A theologian who does not pray is a grotesque aberration – like a literary scholar who doesn’t read, or a music teacher who cannot play an instrument. Above all else, “the theologian is the one who prays” (St Evagrius).

Two conferences and a journal

Aberdeen will be hosting another great conference this year, on Theology and the Humanities. Speakers include John Webster, Gavin D’Costa, Laurence Hemming and David Jasper. And the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology is hosting a conference on Vatican II: Its Continuing Challenge
 to All Churches. Speakers include George Lindbeck, Nicholas Healy, Michael Root and Amy Laura Hall.

On another note, the latest issue of American Theological Inquiry is available now, with articles on Augustine, Lutheran orthodoxy, cinema, and much more. Their next issue will be coming out later in the year – so you might like to think about submitting a manuscript.

Update: I’ve also just been reminded that Alister McGrath is presenting his Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen this week.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Artful is God, creation is his canvas

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Som Stranden)

Artful is God, creation is his canvas
on which he paints his cosmic masterpiece:
brushstrokes both broad and delicate in detail,
colours and shapes composed in perfect peace.

Artful is God, creation is his canvas
on which he paints his cosmic masterpiece.


Zillions of stars, exploding out of nothing,
dance for the Lord, delightful in his eye;
billions of years it takes for sketching planets,
time to design an earth to occupy.

Dazzling the sun, and silver-soft the moonlight,
fruitful the land, and fathomless the sea;
wondrous is life, from single cell to primate,
awesome is death, the final mystery.

What then of man, the end of evolution,
image divine defaced by sin and vice?
Artful is God, producing from his palette
Adam restored: self-portrait Jesus Christ!

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