Thursday, 9 November 2017

Farewell speech: what I have learned about learning

They had a farewell service for me in Sydney yesterday and I gave this short departing speech.

I came here for a job and what I got was a vocation.

When I arrived at the college nine years ago I was new to teaching. That is hard for me to imagine now. I cannot form any picture of what kind of person I would be if I was not a teacher. The discovery of a vocation to teach has been one of the great events of my life. It has become so ingrained in my identity that if you asked me why I teach I would not know how to answer. I would say that I teach because of who I am. I teach because I am alive. I teach because the things I value most in this world are all bound up with that amazing thing that happens in the classroom.

What is the classroom? It’s a place where people come together and start to learn something. Then, sometimes, they start to love what they are learning, and they are changed by that love.

Really the teacher is a kind of midwife to love. I can’t force anybody to love the doctrine of the Trinity. All I can do is help students to take a look at that doctrine for themselves. I can challenge some of their prejudices and assumptions. I can question some of their hasty conclusions. I can help them to slow down a bit, just long enough to pay attention. If they give this doctrine their attention, if they really start to look at it, then sometimes their hearts will respond spontaneously. They might start to love what they see, and then to look even more closely, and to love even more.

When this happens – when learning gives rise to love – it can be so unexpected that the teacher is more amazed than anyone. Where does that love come from?

It’s not something that can be taught. It’s not a technical skill. I can’t show you how to love something. I can remove certain obstacles. I can encourage you. I can cheer you on when I think you’re looking in the right direction. But when you see something for yourself and start to love it just because it’s there: that’s not something any teacher can impart. So where does it come from?

Some of the church’s great thinkers have puzzled over this. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine: they reached the conclusion that the only real teacher is Christ. Every time the light bulb goes on in a student’s mind, that light is Christ, the Logos “that enlightens everyone who comes into the world” (John 1:9). To open yourself to any part of reality is always to open yourself, in some measure, to the Logos. Whenever you really start to pay attention to something, to understand something and to love it just because it’s there, you are in some way inclining your heart towards Christ.

That might seem a bit overblown as an explanation of how learning happens. But you have to admire those ancient thinkers for taking learning so seriously, and for being so awed by its mystery, that they were willing to conjure up a whole theory of creation just to explain what’s going on in the classroom.

Learning – real learning – is a kind of miracle. It is a gentle, delicate, interior process by which the soul comes into contact with something beyond itself and reaches out to it in love.

That doesn’t happen every time students shuffle into the classroom at 9.30 on a Friday morning. But it does happen. I know it happens because I have witnessed it. I have seen it: right here in these classrooms, time and again, over nine years of my life. It is why I love the classroom. It is why this community, a theological college, is sacred to me. It is why the teacher-student relationship is, to me, holier than any church or temple.

We often say that theology is meant to serve the church. I have said it myself. But since I’m leaving I can tell you the truth: I don’t believe it. If theology serves the church, then it is a means to an end. But when you consider what learning is – real learning – how could it ever be a means to an end? That’s like saying that love and joy and life are means to an end. Would you say that joy serves the church? Or that life serves the church?

Sure, theological learning enriches the church; it supports the church; it challenges the church. Those are its wholesome by-products. But they are not the reasons for learning. They are not what it is for. Learning is a way of being alive. It doesn’t serve the church or the church’s mission. It serves the human heart and the glory of God.

Anyway, that is how I have come to understand my vocation and the vocation of this college. For sharing all this with me, as students and colleagues and friends, I say: thank you.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Melancholy lines upon the death of a dog

No dog lives forever but I hoped he would be the first. Kola, my Labrador. Kola, my trusted friend and confidant these 7 years. Kola who has seen my children grow, almost since they were babies, and has loved them every minute. Kola, the glory of his breed and the friendliest member of his household. Kola, bone-chewer, ball-chaser, beach-swimmer, humper of male dogs and feared destroyer of several chickens.

He was named after a teddy bear that my son had when he was two years old. The bear had come all the way from China with a tag that bore the name of Kola. I don’t know why they called it that. Maybe they were trying to spell Koala. My son loved that bear, it slept beside him and he dragged it around in the dirt wherever he went. He must have imagined that getting a dog was the same kind of thing as having a teddy bear. So the day the puppy came bounding into our lives – the first pet we ever had – my little son declared that the dog’s name henceforth would be Kola. And that is what we called him.

We soon learned that a dog is even better than a teddy bear. Because a dog is not a thing. He is not a person either, I understand that, but he dwells somewhere in the borderlands of personhood. Anyone who doubts that animals have souls has never reckoned with a Labrador. Whether the dog brings his soul with him into the world or acquires it through constant communion with the human soul is a moot point. At any rate the dog is more susceptible to humanisation than any other animal. He feels joy and doubt and affection and cunning and anticipation and contentment and shame – what human ever felt more?

The creature of whom I speak used to sneak under the covers of my son’s bed and lie there on the forbidden mattress, a huge Labrador-sized lump under the covers beside a sleeping boy, hardly daring to breathe in case I found him and banished him to the unwelcoming floor.

Once when I had taken him to the beach he saw me body-surfing and was seized by a sudden terror for my life. He snatched the leash up in his mouth – I had left it lying on the sand – and plunged into the waves and swam out to me, whimpering horribly until I consented to take the leash in my hand, whereupon he turned and swam to shore, pulling me behind him. I thanked him for rescuing me, it was a considerate gesture, and I informed him that I would now continue swimming. But he – he who loved beaches and knew them so well – was very distrustful of the waves that day and sulked mightily when I tried to get back in the water. So I trusted his instincts and lay down on the sand instead and he laid his wet head upon me in satisfaction. And I never drowned that day, so maybe he was right. Who knows how much a dog knows?

Once, when I had left a carton of eggs on the kitchen table, he crept into the room and climbed up on the chair and somehow got the carton open and removed the little unfertilised parcels one by one without cracking the shells or making any mess. One by one he smuggled the eggs outside. I saw the carton right where I had left it on the table and saw that it was empty. I searched the premises and eventually found the crime scene: a black dog, looking rather bloated, lying in an orgy of eggshells in the back yard, licking his dripping whiskers in mournful self-reproach. “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”: Shakespeare must have been thinking of Kola and the eggshells when he wrote those words.

Today he died.

He left our lives almost as suddenly as he had arrived. They said it was a cancer of the spleen, it happens sometimes they said, the invisible malignant growth advancing secretly and one day bursting and then, before you can say fetch, the Joy of Nature is lying very still and watching you with infinitely patient eyes and telling you in little whimpers that he is sorry but he cannot get up, not today, that he does not feel like playing anymore, that he will not be needing breakfast, not today, not ever again, that you should go along to the park without him and let him lie there in the shade a while with the ants and beetles creeping all around him.

By the time we got him to the vet he was nearly dead. We gathered round him, my children and me, and whispered our sweet nothings in his floppy ears and caressed his good kind face and anointed his gentle paws with our tears.

We did not lie to him. That’s not how we do things around here. We did not tell him everything would be all right. We told him that we loved him and he was dying and we would never see his face again and we would never forget him. He had walked his last walk, he had chewed his last bone, he had fetched his last slobber-filthy tennis ball. He looked me in the eyes and trusted me completely, in dying as in life. He had never died before but he knew I’d get him through it.

Apart from dying, it had been one of the great weeks of his life. For it was only a few days ago that he, Kola, the somewhat fat and lumbering Labrador, caught a young rabbit that had been grazing on the lawn. A hundred years of selective breeding came good at last. He caught it. He brought the rabbit to me. He nursed it in his mouth as gently as an unbroken egg. It hung from his jaws, alive and apprehensive, the two long bunny-ears twitching in dismay. He stood before me: Kola, catcher of rabbits. He laid the bunny at my feet as worshipfully as the Magi bringing gifts. His eyes burned with a holy pride. I paused from washing the dishes and looked at him and told him to take the goddamn thing outside this minute: which he gladly did, and with all ceremony.

I think of him now with that rabbit and I thank God for it. I am glad the dear boy finally got a little taste of heaven before he left this world. He had caught chickens before but that was years ago and it was only practice. The real thing, as everybody knows, is Rabbit. The prophet says that in the world to come “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). If that is true, then even as you read these tear-stained lines you must picture Kola curled up with his big face resting on his paws, lazy as ever, sleeping like a dog beside the tender and ever-living rabbit in that peaceable kingdom where cancers never grow, only joys, where all the leashes are lost, and where every hour of the day is breakfast time.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Leaving Sydney

After nine years in Sydney I have taught my last classes and said my prayers and am moving on.

There comes a time in a man’s life when what he really wants is to be able to teach Plato and Shakespeare as well as Calvin and Augustine. That time has come for me. So I’ve accepted a job at the Millis Institute, a liberal arts program of CHC in Brisbane. My job will be to direct the various liberal arts degree programs as well as to teach in philosophy, theology, and literature. The classes there involve no lectures and no textbooks. Each class is a Socratic-style discussion of primary sources. That, reader, is my true love and forte, and it’s the same approach that I’ve tried to bring to theological education in Sydney. The first thing I did when I got off the plane in Sydney nine years ago was to abolish all textbooks and to replace them with primary sources. Then I unpacked my bags.

Some of my happiest memories here are of the books that I’ve been able to read and discuss with my students. When I cast my mind back over the years I am astounded at the number of these books, and even more astounded that SVS Press has never paid me a commission for forcing so many students to buy them. The ones I can recall using as class texts include:
  • Melito of Sardis, On Pascha
  • Athanagoras, Resurrection of the Dead
  • Irenaeus, Against the Heresies (books 1 and 3)
  • Tertullian, Against Hermogenes
  • Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator (selections)
  • Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks
  • Origen, Commentary on John (books 1-10)
  • Origen, On Prayer
  • Origen, Exhortation to Martyrdom
  • Origen, On Pascha
  • Origen, Commentary & Homilies on the Song of Songs
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar, Spirit and Fire (Origen anthology)
  • Athanasius, On the Incarnation
  • Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus (on the Psalms)
  • Didymus the Blind, On the Holy Spirit
  • Basil, On Social Justice (selection of homilies in the SVS Popular Patristics series)
  • Basil, On the Human Condition (ditto)
  • Basil, On Fasting and Feasts (ditto)
  • Basil, On the Holy Spirit
  • Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Orations
  • Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations (selection of homilies the SVS Popular Patristics)
  • John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life (ditto)
  • Augustine, Confessions
  • Augustine, The Trinity
  • Augustine, City of God
  • Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ
  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (a few tiny selections)
  • Julian of Norwich, Revelations
  • Calvin, Institutes (in Elsie McKee’s translation of the 1541 French edition: with this edition available, no teacher can be forgiven for asking students to read so much as a page of Beveridge or McNeill)
  • Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans
  • Karl Barth, The Word of God and Theology
  • Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, §59.1
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
  • H. Richard Niebuhr, Responsibility of the Church for Society (selections)
  • James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power
  • Jürgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom
  • Jürgen Moltmann, Spirit and Life
  • Tom Smail, The Giving Gift: The Holy Spirit in Person
  • Catherine LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life
  • Elizabeth Johnson, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology
  • James H. Evans, We Have Been Believers: An African American Systematic Theology
  • Richard Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament
  • Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology
  • Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions (selections)
  • Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity
  • Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture
  • Mark McIntosh, Mystical Theology (selections)
  • Mark McIntosh, Discernment and Truth (selections)
  • Mark McIntosh, Divine Teaching
  • Eugene Rogers, After the Spirit
  • Eugene Rogers, The Holy Spirit (anthology of sources)
  • Ian McFarland, Creation and Humanity (ditto)
  • Alister McGrath, Christian Theology Reader (ditto)
  • Sam Wells, Christian Ethics (ditto)
  • Ford, Higton, Zahl, Modern Theologians Reader (ditto)
  • Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church
  • Frances Young, God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity
  • Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology
  • Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology volume 1 (selections)
I have loved these books – most of them anyway – and have loved to see the effect they have on my students. There are books that amazed me with their power to provoke meaningful disagreement and rich discussion. In this respect Augustine’s Confessions towers over all other Christian books that I have tried. That makes the Confessions a uniquely valuable thing to have in a classroom.

There are other books that I rejected after trying them once in the classroom because they seemed only to mirror back what students already thought (or worse: felt), and therefore provoked no debate and no real learning. In my experience Moltmann’s books are especially egregious for classroom use: though I admit that a different (more conservative?) student demographic might respond quite differently to Moltmann. The main rule is to avoid those books that leave a student nodding in agreement and saying: Ah yes, it’s just as I thought.

Other books have moved me deeply by their power to teach. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation and Calvin’s Institutes are, for me, the highlights in this regard. These great books seem first to alienate students by plunging them into a totally different world and a totally different way of thinking about life. I have never met a student who appreciated anything about Calvin in the first two weeks of reading him. But then, by slow degrees, these books seem to take matters into their own hands and to teach students how to read them. Without ever having to dismiss their prior understanding of the faith, students begin to integrate their own view with the wider vision of the text. They find language and concepts to describe things that before they had only dimly intuited. By a mysterious act of spiritual recognition, it dawns on me that what Calvin is talking about is my faith. Once I have had that epiphany, even my disagreements with Calvin will be meaningful disagreements based on shared commitments, very different from the arbitrary and trivial disagreements of strangers. I always feel that students have begun to think theologically – that they have become theologians – when for the first time they are able to articulate a meaningful disagreement of this kind.

So that is what I will miss the most about Sydney: these many books and the many students who have read them with me. And it’s what I’m looking forward to the most in Brisbane: more books and more of God’s friends to share them with.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Dastardly Doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

What’s the best way to find God? Set out at night – and go in the opposite direction.

Does God speak to me? It’s a question that I myself have put to the Lord. I never get an answer. The devil, however – he won’t STFU.

A word of advice: if you believe “it’s the thought that counts”, don’t get married.

Don’t you just love the expression “good behaviour”? A euphemism, of course, for “not-getting-caught” behaviour.

We know that we will die, but we figure that in my case an exception might be made.

There is a paradox to writing good sentences, namely, that by cutting out the fat, you add to their weight.

Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, but who sits on the left? The Holy Spirit, of course. Though he doesn’t actually sit, he perches.

Alternatively: Karl Barth is the Lord’s right-hand man (though Rudolf Bultmann tries to grab the seat when Barth goes for a pee).

J. W. Schopf, an American paleobiologist, claims that “for four-fifths of our history, our planet was populated by pond scum.” A cultural anthropologist, let alone a Calvinist, would beg to differ: make that five-fifths.

“You are who you’ve been.” This truth is universal, but Trump certainly makes a particularly alarming and chastening case study.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma? What hurricanes? It’s fake weather fabricated by a conspiracy of meteorological elites.

Until recently, during his morning shave Trump would look in the mirror and say, “Handsome devil!” Nowadays, with Robert Mueller and “Sheriff Joe” in mind, he says, “Pardon me.”

As for Trump’s court prophets – Falwell, Graham, Carson, et. al – if Trump makes my skin crawl, they make my blood boil. Their faith is textbook ideology and their churches – well, they’re not churches, they’re movements.

How timely: in The Handmaid’s Tale, Commander Fred Waterford combines in his character the specific misogynies of both Mike Pence and Donald Trump: from the former, that women are for fertilising; from the latter, that women are for fondling.

It is not surprising that Baby Boomer white American evangelical males love war: old men sending young men to kill and die – it expresses, confirms, and globalises their Second Amendment fetishism, their militant androcentrism, and their perverse doctrine of penal substitution.

Did you hear about the evangelical youth club leader who rented a DVD of There Will Be Blood to show to a group of 17-year-olds? She thought it was an educational film about a bride’s wedding night.

Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the Gates of Hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:26). A prophecy Bill is doing his damnedest to falsify.

“No one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.”—John Milbank. Oops, Stanley Hauerwas. Sorry, I mean Eleutherius.

What conservatives don’t get is the Bible’s unreliable narration; what liberals don’t get is the Bible’s indefectible veracity.

So “Researchers are fairly successfully uncovering an ocean of evidence to suggest that living in the ‘information ecosystem’ of smartphone, internet and social media is seriously detrimental to our mental health and cognitive capacity” (i, 6 September). What does that even mean? Researchers – the wankers are always out to get you.

BREAKING NEWS: A comprehensive examination of the ancient object recently discovered near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem demonstrates that it is not, as some archaeologists have claimed, the spear with which Jesus’ side was pierced (John 19:34): it is, rather, a first century Roman centurion’s selfie stick.

Speaking at the Labour Party Conference, Naomi Klein declaimed, “You know that horrible thing currently clogging up the London sewers. I believe they call it a fatberg [“a congealed lump of fat, sanitary napkins, wet wipes, condoms, and similar items” (Wikipedia)].  Well, Trump, he’s the political equivalent of that.” Thus another political radical goes soft in middle age.

The more I pray, the less I know what praying is – especially (cf. Augustine on time) if you ask me.

Samuel Johnson said that “people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed”, but those were the days when people didn’t suffer from the pathologies of historical amnesia and cultural presentism.

Clearly the best way to prevent mass shootings at concerts is for every concert-goer to be armed with an automatic weapon. Multiple-thousands of guns in a packed arena or stadium are bound to make it a safer place, guaranteeing music-lovers an enjoyable, fear-free evening. Indeed for complete peace of mind – because a massacre might be launched from, say, an upper floor in a hotel across the street – concert-goers should consider renting mortars or bazookas, or even portable surface-to-air missile launchers lest the killer deploy a drone – all available from on-site kiosks provided by your friendly local NRA. As President Trump comforted the families and friends of the dead and wounded in Las Vegas, “We are here for you.”

Friday, 6 October 2017

A Month Without Jenson

“Death indeed will terminate my story, but it will not conclude it; for it will make all my hopes into might-have-beens and my fears into never-minds, and so make absurd the anticipatory coherences by which I have lived. If I am to have a conclusion, it will have to be a resurrection.” 
—R. W. Jenson (Aug 2, 1930-Sept 5, 2017)

It’s been a month since Robert Jenson left us to the tasks of Christian life: the speaking and hearing of the gospel. These tasks directed all of Jenson’s theology, and press towards questions of culture and life. Jenson refused to indulge the strategy of cultural retreat that attempted theology as though all the modern philosophical movements had not occurred. All contemporary theology jostles in the wake of Kant and Hegel and Heidegger and the rest. We must ask how we can speak the gospel faithfully, but without simply capitulating to modernity. We cannot be premodern, but neither can we be simply modern. Jens’s theology rescued this student of the tradition more than once from the worst excesses of modern theology.

As a young evangelical student, all of my brightest ideas were merely stolen notions taken from the reactionary and modernising evangelicals: a full-throated endorsement of divine passibility, a commitment to divine temporality (arising from a tendency towards univocity), credulity towards the “hellenisation” thesis, and a belief that divine love required libertarian human freedom. Like the worst kind of young evangelical modernist, I sifted through the tradition cynically, believing the ancient Christians to have been enthralled by pagan philosophies.

When my masters degree led me to my first detailed study of Jens’ theology, I presumed that his raging against certain elements of the tradition was animated by the same scepticism as my own. I had always taken Jens as holding to the Athenian captivity of the Church, but I found that his approach to the hellenisation thesis was more nuanced than I had supposed. In one reflection, Jens playfully dismissed the purity of theology by asserting that the boundary between theology and any other discourse is “blessedly ill-defined”.

The task of theology, Jens shows, is not to find its own peculiar pure discourse, but to evangelise—to speak the gospel and see what difference it makes. It would later become a commonplace statement for Jens: the early Christians did not “hellenise” the gospel, they evangelised their own antecedent hellenism. This single observation completely eroded the thrall of the hellenisation thesis for me. I no longer looked to ancient Christianity to see what was uncorrupted that could be salvaged, but to see just how the gospel had shaped the thought-forms of the ancient world. Jens taught me how to see the gospel as the engine driving all Christian discourse.

Startled from my doctrinal slumbers, I decided to make Jens the object of my doctoral studies. Though his theology is undoubtedly revisionist, my study of Jens’ writings revealed to me a deep commitment to the Christian tradition. I was amazed to find that he was only partially modernising, tending to keep the architecture of the tradition in place, while putting up new signs or perhaps offering a coat of paint here and there.

Sometimes the awakenings to Jens’ subtle treatment of the tradition came slowly. Having swallowed Hart’s assertion that Jens denies simplicity, and having witnessed Jens’ vociferous critiques of Augustine, I mistakenly concluded that Hart was right. Knee-to-knee with Jens in Princeton, I tried to provoke him to some remarks on divine simplicity. Jens began, “Of course God doesn’t have parts”, and proceeded to robustly defend the necessity of simplicity for a thoroughly Christian theology. I went home to Sydney and read all of his books again and finally found my error.

The revision for which Jens is best known is his regular denial of divine timelessness, but even this bold revision is less radical (if only slightly) than perhaps even Jens realised. The event-character of divine being that seeps through his thinking from his earliest work resonates with classical arguments for God as the Being of beings. Rather than speaking of God as the Being that underwrites all being, Jens opts to speak of God as the Event that establishes all events. For Jens, God is the Act of acts, the Event of events, the Drama of dramas. His critics have suggested that with this move Jens has pulled God down into the world of creaturely causes, subjecting the divine life to the contingencies of history. But Jens did not speak of God’s life as one event among others. God’s life is the founding event of all creaturely being. The architecture of Jens’ doctrine of God is shared with so-called “classical theism”. If our language about God must be imprecise, Jens seems to conclude, let the imprecision centre on the language of God’s activity and not God’s sheer facticity.

It's been a month without Jens—a difficult month for those of us shaped and supported by him and Blanche (and there are many of us). And yet, as he affirmed again and again, we slouch not towards the grave, but towards resurrection. We are each of us drawn forward into God's enjoyable presence, roused to life by the musical harmony of the restless divine activity. Though death may take us, we are each of us remembered by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. "And to be remembered there is to live" (On Thinking the Human, 11).

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Clerihew for Robert W. Jenson (1930-2017)

Robert W. Jenson – Jens –
Saw creation through a triune lens,
And heard it in the key of Christ,
A very, very, very nice
Prelude to the fugue of Paradise,
Composed by God the Holy, Holy, Holy,
Who, of course, is roly-poly.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch,
Blessings to beloved Blanche.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

DDD (Doodlings Deficit Disorder)

Gadzooks! It’s the 4th of July,
when we boast we’re the gens Domini,
and with napalm and nukes
and a “Put up your dukes!”
we give thanks to the Lord of the Flies.

Thank God for small mercies. Large, and even medium, are out of stock.

The natural state of the human is the inhuman. Even to begin to become human takes time and practice – lots and lots of practice.

How do you begin to change the world for the better? By having no such ambition whatsoever.

Looking for a church? Narrow the field: check if it has a Mission Statement.

I’ve just read Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. It’s not bad for a first draft.

Write, write, write! You don’t need readers to write. Readers, however, do need writers to read.

Not long ago the “church in exile” was a heuristic with potential for exploring post-Christian ecclesiology. Alas, ignoring the critical element of judgment in Israel’s self-understanding of Babylonian captivity, contemporary Christians have reacted to their loss of status and privilege with bitter resentment and whinging self-pity. [Muffled sound of Jeremiah rolling in his grave.]

Don’t worry if your prayers are interrupted by dreams. It is sufficient that your dreams are interrupted by prayers.

My dear pastor, what if your congregation agrees with everything you say? Then you’re not doing it right.

I hear that progressive Christians are having a heated conversation about whether the Creeds should contain a trigger warning for left-handed people.

“Let you word be ‘Yes, Yes’, or ‘No, No’, or ‘It all depends, It all depends’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37: Jesus, on second thought).

“Sincerity”, “transparency”, “accountability” – bullshit! What are you hiding?

People who are anyone-phobic usually know fuck-all about the anyone.

Why do I love Wittgenstein? Because of the audacity with which he dives headlong into the chaotic depths of mind and soul, the tenacity with which he excavates nuggets of incandescent clarity, and the posture at once humble, disconsolate, and serene with which he bows to the intractably unsayable.

“Every cloud has a silver lining”, an adage that goes back to gloomy Milton’s Comus: “Was I deceiv'd, or did a sable cloud / Turn forth her silver lining on the night?” [ll. 221-222]. The short answer, Comus, is Yes: clouds are sable all the way down.

“Trump” is a good name for a dog. Wherever the President goes, he barks, licks his balls, and pees on the fire hydrants, right?

Who said, “We’re all in this together”? Was it (a) Emperor Nero (to a visiting delegation of Christians at the Colosseum in July 64); (b) the Commander of Abu Ghraib (at a summer fête for the residents in August 2004); (c) David Cameron (to the people of austerity Britain at the Tory Party Conference in October 2009)? Prize: a “May Contain Traces of Bullshit” tee shirt (compliments of Ben Myers).

You gotta hand it to austerity governments for their environmental friendliness: I mean the conscientious way they recycle the red tape they cut from business and industry by sticking it on the forms filled in by desperate benefit claimants.

It is, of course, good to have an interrogative mind. But asking questions is useless if, as often, you don’t really want to know the answers.

Life’s a kitsch. Then you buy.

The name “Starbucks” is a despicable aspersion on the virtuous first mate of the Pequod. Surely the coffee company should be called “Ahabs”: after all, like the ship’s captain, its product is evil.

How about a name for a nursing home that is neither saccharine nor non-descriptive but tells it like it is? For example: The Baby Powder and Urine, The Children’s Revenge, The Not-on-My Bucket List, or (for the more literary), The One Hundred Years of Hebetude, The Unbearable Nightness of Being, The Hamlet Shuffle.

“Any change?” the cadger asked my wife. “The Change?” she replied (her hearing isn’t so good now). “Been there years ago. Now I’ve got The Decay.”

Young, you sing and dance the songs of passion; older, you whistle the tunes and tap your feet.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The parable of the Good Samaritan: the unexpurgated postscript

… And Jesus concluded, “Which one of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus’ interlocutor (whose name was Monty) said, “You mean, be kind to those in trouble or need?”

“Exactly,” said Jesus, “whoever they are, whoever you are.”

“Ya think?” Monty said. “You finally land the plane, and that’s your point?”

“Don’t you think it’s rather provocative,” suggested Jesus, with a teacher’s indulgence, “that it was a Samaritan, of all people, who showed kindness?”

“And why shouldn’t a Samaritan show kindness?” Monty demanded. “You got a problem with Samaritans?”

“No, of course not,” Jesus replied, a little defensively it must be said. “Don’t you see that …”

“Next you’ll be protesting that some of your best friends are Samaritans,” Monty interrupted.

“No, I was …”

“So you don’t have any Samaritan friends?”

“Well, yes, actually, I do,” countered Jesus. “There’s a woman I met at a well.”

“What’s her name?” Monty asked.

“Er,” hesitated Jesus. “To be honest, I can’t remember. I didn’t ask.”

“You didn’t ask? But you hang out together?” Monty pressed.

“Well, no, not exactly,” Jesus conceded.

“So you met this Samaritan woman, you don’t know her name, you don’t hang out together, yet you say she’s a friend of yours?” Monty smirked.

“Well, okay then,” Jesus backtracked, “she’s an acquaintance.”

“Just as I thought,” Monty declared. “Anyone else?”

“Well,” Jesus replied, trying to regain the initiative, “I recently healed a Samaritan – of eczema, as I recall. I saw him twice.”

“Twice, is it? As a patient? I guess that makes him a bosom buddy,” said Monty, ratcheting up the sarcasm.

“Well, no, but …”

“Another ‘acquaintance’ then?” Monty was relentless.

“Well, yes, but look,” an exasperated Jesus began to explain, “what I was doing was telling a story about a Samaritan to make a point about kindness and prejudice.”

“So it never happened. It’s fake news.” Monty was merciless.

“No, no, no” Jesus said shaking his head, “you’re making a category mistake.”

“A what?”

“A category mistake,” repeated Jesus. “It’s a semantic error in which …” he continued, then paused. Looking up from the bottom of a huge hole, he decided to stop digging. “Never mind,” he said.

“Okay, okay, tell me this,” Monty asked, going for the jugular. “Are any of your disciples Samaritans?”

Now completely discombobulated, Jesus sighed, “No, but …”

“Yes-but, no-but,” mocked Monty. “So you’ve got no friends who are Samaritans, and no disciples who are Samaritans, yet you bang on about a good Samaritan in a made-up story. You’re all mouth, aren’t you, Jesus? ‘Samaritan Lives Matter’.” Not to mention that you have a go at two fellow Jews in your little fable – two Jewish clerics – low-hanging fruit, or what? I mean talk about ethnic and religious profiling. What, are you some sort of self-loathing Israelite?”

“Now hang on …” Jesus remonstrated.

But Monty stopped him again. “I suppose the next thing you’re going to tell me is that you know some Roman who, iconically, has great faith.”

“Well, now that you mention it …”

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Holy feet

I have today been required to reconsider every word I have ever spoken against natural theology. The reason? I have been reading scripture. One single verse of scripture can send shivers down the spine of any volume of dogmatics. Entire shelves of theology flee to cower in the darker corners of the library when confronted by an isolated pericope. Old Karl Barth thought that scripture upsets our inherited knowledge of God and morality, but my reading today has merely confirmed that which every Australian child knows: the perfection of bare feet.

In scripture, the highest theological idea is revealed in the lowest human extremity. The bare foot is the essence of human innocence. It is surprising to the point of embarrassment that I should even have to write this out, for the truth lies deeply embedded in our language. A shod foot is but one syllable short of being shoddy. It is only certain other Germanic languages that are confused on this matter, with the infernal similarity between the Dutch schooen (shoe) and the German schön (Is it any wonder that this was the language of Heidegger and Nietzsche?).

One could derive the entire doctrine of holiness from the unshod feet of Moses. Origen suggested that we interpret scripture allegorically when the plain sense is problematic. One may allegorise the Mountain, the Golden Calf, Moses’ shining face, but the one element of the narrative impossible to allegorise or demythologise is the perfect bareness of Moses’ feet. Calvin provides the correct interpretation: “If any prefer the deeper meaning (anagoge,) that God cannot be heard until we have put off our earthly thoughts, I object not to it; only let the natural sense stand first, that Moses was commanded to put off his shoes, as a preparation to listen with greater reverence to God.”

Moses could hear the voice of God only in his natural edenic state, unshod. This, of course, is the great scandal of humanity’s alienation from paradise: when Eve and her husband wished to hide from the garden-wandering God, they covered themselves. Genesis is silent on the precise nature of their covering only because it was so very obvious: they covered their feet.

The encased foot is humanity’s attempt to demarcate the natural from the human, to form a protective layer around the human soul. But in doing so we have trapped ourselves inside a claustrophobic space, sweaty and putrid. The evangelist goes to such lengths to describe the pavement of the heavenly city in the Apocalypse, because his hearers imagined themselves casting off their fallen footwear and running into God’s holy brightness. How else are we to enter the kingdom, after all, but as children at play?

Friday, 14 July 2017

Sydney conference on sin and grace: Theology Connect 2018

The next Theology Connect conference will be coming to Sydney in July 2018. The theme is sin and grace in Christian theology, with keynotes by Kelly Kapic, Alan Torrance, Simon Chan. There's a call for papers, so why not come visit our nice little town and give us a paper? If you bring your bicycle I will even give you a free guided tour!

If you haven't heard of Theology Connect, there's a review and some pictures of the last one, and a while back I did an interview with Chris Green about the conference series. It looks like they've traded the uber-funky industrial setting for a church venue; but apart from that I'm sure it will be an excellent event. Personally I would go just to hear Simon Chan whose work I admire very much. I'm using his book on Grassroots Asian Theology in my contextual theology seminar this semester (I reviewed it here in case you're interested).

Here's a promo video for the conference:


Thursday, 15 June 2017

Downwind Doodlings

Why is God silent? Because the tree of trust has silence for its roots.

God moves in mysterious ways, but he also moves in quite pedestrian ways.  He walks and runs, hops and skips, leaps and jumps, sashays and dances.  But God never, ever marches.

God gave himself into the hands of sinners on the cross, and God gives himself into the hands of sinners in the sacrament.

God makes sense of things. In addition, God makes nonsense of things.

Recent experiments have demonstrated that loud swearing not only boosts strength and stamina but also makes people more able to tolerate pain. Perhaps an unprintable eighth word from the cross has gone missing?

Thank God for Judas, our substitute: without betrayal, no salvation.

I have always assumed that because God forgives us, we should forgive ourselves.  But I am no longer so sure. Perhaps self-forgiveness is not-yet realised eschatology. Perhaps in a broken world, even as forgiven we must live with the affliction of self-accusation.

Christians talk a lot about God’s mercy, but not nearly enough about God’s pity.  Personally, I pray more that God will pity me than that he will have mercy on me, because having his pity, surely I will receive his mercy.

Think of something you could do that would put you beyond the saving grace and love of God.  Then think of a lifetime of futile cogitation.  But I repeat myself.

The problem is as old as Romans 14-15: traditionalists dismissing liberals with condemnation, and liberals treating traditionalists with contempt.  The solution is also the same: Romans 15:7.  Alas, even Paul didn’t practice what he preached.  And the contemporary conservative captivity to nativist populism has hardened the sneer of progressives into a rictus.  My own penitential practice now includes jaw-massage.

What do I think of Christians whose faith is mortally threatened by some terrible personal tragedy? The brutal truth? That they are egocentric and purblind. The pastoral reality? That pivoting off your own faith, you must love them back to hope.

Ministerial education or ministerial training?  Well, you educate people and you train domestic animals and business managers, so in many a modern seminary I guess it’s ministerial training.

Show me a church with a vision statement and I’ll show you a church suffering from cranial decay, linguistic corruption, and ocular degeneration.

The ice water is great, but why do waiters in America always swoop down on your table like hawks on a sparrow to refill your glass sip by sip?  I want to cry, “For Chrissake, just put me on a drip!”

Back in the day there was a rumour that “Kim Fabricius” was but a nom de plume of Ben Myers. Ben and I the same person?  Well, a plausible suggestion only as Jekyll and Hyde. To wit, on identifying with a fictional character, Ben has tweeted that he’d like to be Jayber Crow. Me – I’d settle for Olive Kitteridge.

I hear that a decomposing bat was found in a packet of Walmart’s Organic Marketside Spring Mix Salad.  This is a gargantuan Food Fail.  From Walmart I would expect better: namely, a fresh bat shot dead with one of its own AR-15s, marinated in an orange garlic cockroach dressing.

The wildebeests of Botswana are really pissed off at the editor-in-chief of National Geographic for including a photograph of ungulates of different species in a recent article on one of their herds.  A spokesbeest for their community has said that they will be suing the prestigious magazine for publishing fake gnus.

Waxing sexual attraction may lead to a wedding, but it’s waning sexual attraction that tests whether it will remain a marriage.

Jeez, is prayer boring.  Boring, boring, boring.  Until, just maybe, it isn’t.  Until, again, it is.  And so it goes.

The problem with most memoirs is that they’re about the memoirist.

What is preaching like?  Before I preach, I am scared.  After I preach, I am scared.  And while I preach – I’m preaching.

Pray that you never get used to getting used to stuff that sucks.

I feel sorry for people who approach the end of their lives with no regrets, for without regrets there can be no gratitude either.

Memorial Day is the American way of turning everything Homeric about military service into an ignoble cliché.

At a press conference on his return from the Middle East, asked about Sunni and Shia, President Trump replied, “I loved them.  One of the great pop duos of the sixties.  Sonny was also a great Republican congressman.  Too bad about Cher, a  Hillary supporter – evil, very evil.   But I thought you guys were going to ask me about my incredible trip to the Middle East…”

Friday, 2 June 2017

Filioque? A letter to Australia from TF Torrance

Speaking of the trinity, here's a letter that T. F. Torrance sent to an Australian minister back in 1984, responding to a question about the filioque. Torrance explains his criticism of the filioque and why he thinks Athanasius is better than the Cappadocians. Many thanks to Murray Earl for allowing me to post this.

(PS: I imagine it's one of the high-points of being a minister, that you can receive mail addressed to The Manse.)


Thursday, 1 June 2017

Tweeting the trinity: because heresy is meh

I spent a few days compulsively tweeting on the doctrine of the trinity. I've just come to the end of a 12-week class on this doctrine and I enjoyed having the opportunity to collect my thoughts like this at the end. Say what you like about twitter, but it can be a good exercise to try to explain yourself in such a constrained form. Anyway I've gathered all the tweets together here, with a handful of additions and minor changes. Enjoy! And have a heresy-free Trinity Sunday!


I.  HOW TO AVOID TRINITARIAN HERESY

#1. Start by abolishing Trinity Sunday, that fateful day on which preachers think they have to explain the Trinity

#2. Teach children to make the sign of the cross when they say the words "Father, Son and Holy Spirit"

#3. When someone offers to tell you the practical implications of the doctrine, just smile and move along

#4. Have you come up with a really helpful analogy of the trinity? Well done! Now please don't tell anyone about it, ever

#5. The doctrine is not a mystery. It is simple & precise. The reality it points to is the mystery

#6. Don't try to get rid of the biblical words. Don't try to stick to them exclusively either

#7. In this doctrine every word is used in a very limited way. Even the numbers 1 and 3 can't be taken literally

#8. Don't partake in meaningless debates about whether "oneness" or "threeness" is more important (see #7)


II. TRINITARIAN THEOLOGY, EAST AND WEST

#9. Don't worry about whether you prefer Augustine or the Greeks. You don't have to pick a favourite, it's not Masterchef

#10. How does Augustine differ? He takes just one principle of "Greek" theology (the inseparability of persons in action) and proves that it's not absurd or unthinkable. That's all.

#11. Cappadocians: it's a simple doctrine even though we don't know what it means. Augustine: yes, and it makes good sense to believe it!

#12. Irenaeus (Greek tradition): this doctrine is shorthand for the unity of God in OT & NT. Tertullian (Latin tradition): ditto


III. TRINITARIAN THEOLOGY, ANCIENT AND MODERN

#13. The biggest change in modern trinitarian theology was one of scale: the most minimalist & modest of all doctrines became a Theory of Everything

#14. Ancients: it's the key to scripture (which in turn shapes practice). Moderns: it's the key to practice (even though it's not scriptural)

#15. Ancients: the choice of words is easy & their meaning is restricted. Moderns: the meaning of words is vast & the choice is impossible

#16. Ancients: the word "Father" must be stripped of all connotations except mere relation. Moderns: those ancients thought God was male!

#17. Ancients: the doctrine is a tonic against idolatry (since it names an undepictable mystery). Moderns: the doctrine depicts God as an advocate of my social cause

#18. Ancients: it's the worst theory about God apart from all the other ones that have been tried. Moderns: it's the greatest theory ever!


IV.  UNDERLYING PRINCIPLES OF THE DOCTRINE

#19. The canonical principle. OT and NT are a diverse but coherent witness to one God

#20. The creation principle. The one God is creator of all things and so is not on the same plane as anything else

#21. The spirituality principle. God is spirit. God has no body and is not comprised of anything like a material substance

#22. The simplicity principle. Because God is spirit, and because the creator transcends space, time, & matter, God must be indivisible and without parts

#23. The abstraction principle. Words can be used to speak of God only if they are stripped of all connotations of space, time, & matter

#24. The revelation principle. How do we find the best words to use? We'd better stick to revelation. (These words will still need to be abstracted as per #23)

#25. The fitness principle. Language about God should be used in a way that’s fitting to God's character. (Early Christians had a special term for this: theoprepes)

#26. The fitness principle comes solely from Greek philosophy and is by far the biggest piece of "hellenisation" in this doctrine

#27. But this piece of Greek philosophy was used critically against the Greeks: it was used to distinguish monotheism from pagan anthropomorphism (where, e.g., the gods literally make love and “beget” offspring)

#28. So there is a true hellenisation at this point (and really only at this point) but it is a critical and subversive use of Greek philosophy. It distinguishes the one God of Israel from the gods of Greek culture


V.  THE CONTENT OF THE DOCTRINE

#29. The ingredients of the doctrine, supplied by revelation, are the words "one God", "Father, Son, Holy Spirit," "begotten" & "proceeding"

#30. From these words is constructed a formula that refers in shorthand to the knowledge of God revealed in OT & NT

#31. The revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is an unveiling of the incomparable and unknowable uniqueness of the one God

#32. The "oneness" of God is not a number. It refers to God's incomparable mystery. This is mysteriously revealed (not contradicted) by the "threeness"

#33. The "threeness" is not a number. It refers to the incomparable fullness of the life of the one God, who is God as Father, Son & Holy Spirit

#34. So the words "one" and "three" have to be abstracted away from their ordinary numerical meaning, and from any image of three things. The doctrine is not a mathematical puzzle

#35. God is one. The divine attributes (love, will, power, goodness, justice, mercy, freedom, etc) are attributes of the one God, not of the Father or the Son or Spirit

#36. God is one. When we say that the Son acts, we mean that the whole triune God is acting in the revelation of the Son. There is no separate act of Father or Son or Spirit

#37. God is one. When we say that God is “personal”, we are referring to the one God. In God there is one mind, one will, one act, one who says “I”. Father, Son and Spirit are not distinct personalities with distinct wills

#38. According to revelation, the Son is begotten; the Spirit proceeds; the Father is neither begotten nor proceeds

#39. "Begetting" has nothing to do with the body or passion or temporal beginning. "Proceeding" has nothing to do with spatial movement. The one God of Israel is nothing like the Greek gods

#40. Abstracted away from ordinary usage, "begetting" and "proceeding" designate relations of origin, nothing more

#41. These relations of origin are distinct (the Spirit is not begotten, the Son does not proceed) but we don't know how, or what this means

#42. "Father" & "Son" have nothing to do with gender or procreation or superiority or a temporal before and after

#43. Abstracted away from ordinary usage, the words "Father" and "Son" designate relations, nothing more. The Father is the Son's source

#44. Because “Father” is a relational word, God cannot be “Father” unless there is also “Son”. If God is eternally Father, then there is also an eternal Son

#45. Apart from a relation of origin, in what other way does the Son differ from the Father? In no other way, or none that we could ever know

#46. Son and Spirit are different relations to the same source (the Spirit is not begotten; the Son does not proceed). In what other way do they differ? In no other way, or none that we could know

#47. So we distinguish Son and Spirit with words whose meaning is unknown to us. We can only confess that the two words (“begotten”, “proceeding”) mean different things

#48. That's how the language of revelation is used in this doctrine. The doctrine is an abstract minimalism that doesn't explain God but only confesses what is found in revelation

#49. The scriptural words are indispensable. But they are a guide, not a restriction. Sometimes other words are useful to clarify what we mean

#50. Examples of useful non-scriptural words: "being", "person", "relation", "homoousion", "light from light", "mode of being", and of course "trinity" and "triune"

#51. Such words are useful for clarifying the language of revelation, but are not central or indispensable in the same way as revelation


VI. THE USEFULNESS OF THE DOCTRINE

#52. In recent theology, much has been written about the grandiose implications of the doctrine. I think its usefulness is much more limited but also more precise

#53. The doctrine is not a revelation of God. But it is a reliable framework for reading OT & NT as a coherent witness to the one God

#54. The doctrine doesn't have any adequate words for talking about God. But it's a procedure for speaking faithfully and truly with inadequate words

#55. The doctrine doesn't have special insight into God's uniqueness. But it is a refusal of projection & a constant warning against idolatry

#56. The doctrine is not a special theory of spirituality. But it explains why responding to God is more about participation than about submission, adoration, obedience etc

#57. The doctrine is not "prayerful" in any mysterious way. But it explains the coherence of prayer. Whether you address the Father, Son or Spirit (or all three), you are praying to one and the same God

#58. The doctrine explains the logic of the economy of salvation. When we see the Son acting, it is the triune God acting in the revelation of the Son

#59. The doctrine shows how the language of revelation can be used confidently and with precision to speak of unknowable mysteries

#60. The mystery is in the reality, not in the doctrine. The doctrine is not "apophatic", unless by that we mean the way it reduces words to a minimal content

#61. So can we speak of God? Yes! (because of revelation). Do we know what we mean? No! (because what's revealed is a mystery)


VII. LAST THOUGHTS AND EXHORTATIONS

#62. Practical afterword: This doctrine doesn't create communal bliss, gender equality, social liberation etc. It just helps you not to be an idolator

#63. Philosophical afterword: This doctrine conveys very minimal knowledge. But Augustine argues that we still know God better than we know ourselves. (His proof: anything we know about God is unchanging and eternal; whereas our self-knowledge is doubtful because we're always changing.)

#64. Liturgical afterword: A fitting communal response is not “Trinity Sunday” but the whole church year as a symbolic participation in the economy of God’s saving work as Father, Son and Holy Spirit

#65. Pedagogical afterword: Doctrine is there to be taught; that's what the word “doctrine” means. The doctrine of the trinity is not practical. It has no direct application. It shapes imagination & practice in the long run but only if it's studied, taught, and understood. So learn it! Teach it!

#66. Doxological afterword: Worship the one triune God! (not the doctrine) - they’re not the same thing. “What can all our Christian statements be but a serious pointing away to the One who will himself tell those who have ears to hear who he is?” (Karl Barth).

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Duodenal doodling

Nietzsche’s excellent question as to why, if Christians are redeemed, they don’t look redeemed, is more excellently answered by Evelyn Waugh: “Think what I would look like if I were not a Christian.”

Donald Trump has finally revealed his favourite Bible passage. “It’s from the Book of Job,” he told Fox & Friends (pronouncing the “o” as in “Hobbes”): “chapter 41: I see it as a kind of self-portrait.”

What’s the difference between a Wagner concert and a Trump rally? The music is better at a Trump rally.

Being born is overrated. It’s a start, that’s all.

The way of Jesus is the way of detours and digressions, following him in whatever direction he happens to stray.

What’s the difference between Jesus and a Zen master? The guy who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” – a Zen master would have whacked him with his keisaku. Come to think of it, that’s what Jesus did too. The parables of Jesus – consider them short narrative keisakus.

I just saw an episode of the cheerlessly hilarious British comedy Fleabag in which Fleabag’s boyfriend Harry says to her, “Don’t make me hate you. Love is painful enough already.” And I thought: that’ll pray.

Does any preacher – or any writer – ever really know whether they are giving their audience pearls or poop? If they do, it’s undoubtedly the latter.  

You can choose your friends but not your family – with the notable exception of your library.

Premodernity: Paranoia
Modernity: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Postmodernity: Narcissism and sociopathy
(From A Dummy’s Guide to Epochal Personality Disorders in Western Civilisation)

“My reaction to the instruction that all the dioceses in the C of E coin 3-word vision statements is identical to a modest proposal: ‘For Christ's Sake!’.” (Letter to the Church Times – needless to say, unpublished)

I have always thought that the fourth little piggy gets a raw deal, and more recently that perhaps s/he is a victim of domestic abuse, or a tragic example of free market scarcity economics. I mean, the third little piggy has roast beef while the fourth little piggy has none? Not on my watch as a grandpa! So as I wiggle her fourth digit and say “… and this little piggy had …”, my munchkin Delilah gleefully exclaims: “a pizza!”  (Obviously not pepperoni.)

The only way to write good non-fiction, particularly academic stuff, is to reads lots of good fiction.

Dogs or cats? Fool! You espouse a zoological version of double predestination. In the new creation, dogs and cats will lie down together. The cat on top of the dog.

I am a universalist-minus-one. That is to say, if hell exists, it has a population of me.

On second thought, I’m inclined to think that everlasting torment also awaits all who edit, publish, or read abridgements of Moby-Dick. (Mercifully, I will be in solitary confinement.)

My big problem with the divine omniscience is that people who think they know everything are such dicks.

Marriage is the great cure of loneliness. And the great cause.

Don’t shoot the messenger – unless, of course, it’s a cold call. Then make sure it’s a head shot.

The best way to make good use of one’s time is to waste it.

On a good day I remind me of myself. At least I think I will.

Old age is like a motorway on which you’re driving along in the slow lane while time flashes by in the fast lane.

When will I stop writing? Possibly when I am dead.

The Big Joke is that when you finally figure out that there’s nothing to figure out, it’s always too late.

The Communion of Saints – aka the Grateful Dead.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Receiving my name


I.
Recently I read a book of magic: Patrick Rothfuss’ novel, The Name of the Wind. Like many tales of arcane entanglement with the forces of darkness, Rothfuss fixates on the idea of naming. Anyone can dabble with the lower forms of sorcery, but the magic so deep and true as to have dissipated into folklore is naming. To know the True Name of a Thing is to have mastery over it. Whisper the name of the wind and you can summon a hurricane. Speak the name of fire and you could extinguish the sun.

II.
Which, of course, reminded me of academia. Academic life consists mostly in listening to questions and replying with The True Name of the Thing: “It sounds like you’re talking about Dyotheletism, no?” Naming can stun the layperson into silence, allowing the academic to have full control over the conversation. Such naming is a Dark Art.

III.
The temptation to power in theological academia lies first in the naming of heresies. “What you are saying sounds a lot like Apollinarianism”. An academic will wield these names willy-nilly to produce fear and shut down discourse, when they ought to whisper these names in the confessional. I think like Nestorius and pray like Arius, which is why I need the creeds.

IV.
The strongest argument against atonement theories is not their precision or anachronism, but their names. Ransom. Satisfaction. Recapitulation. These words are never appropriate as Names of Power, but only as marvels sung out in prayer.

V.
In the animated film, Spirited Away, Sen and Haku both forget their own names, but they remember each other’s. Our identities are only as secure as our memories, which is why we entrust them to one another and to God for safekeeping.

VI.
Intercession is the act of praying names. The names do not pass from our lips to God’s ears, but by an act of union with the divine will they pass from God’s memory to our hearts.

VII.
Sometimes our own names get a little loose, and don’t sit well anymore. So God steps in and adjusts them as he did with Sarah, Abraham, Peter, and Paul.

VIII.
Christians are welcomed into the church through a ritual of names. The child is named, God is named, and we remember our own Christian names. Without baptisms, we might forget them.

IX. 
At baptism our names are wed to God’s, so that when we greet one another in the name of the Lord, we speak our true names.

X.
In the liturgy our names are given to us, hidden under the name of Christ. I become myself in reciting the creed, praying the Lord’s Prayer, hearing absolution, receiving the benediction, holding out my hands for the bread and having the cup lifted to my lips. My name is spoken only in the acts of repentance and forgiveness.

XI.
To be forgiven is to follow Paul, speaking our names only indirectly in our proclaiming Christ's death and resurrection.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

30 Famous Opening Lines in Literature (2017 Editions)

by Kim Fabricius

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  And the waters said, “Gawd, get outta my face with your wind!”
– Moses, Genesis (c. 1445 BC)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind using techniques drawn from Yoga, Pilates, and acrobatics.
– Ovid, Metamorphoses (8 AD)

Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose terrible taste (so bad)
Brought total disaster into the world (out of control),
With loss of Eden, till one tremendous Man
Restore us, and make the world great again.
– John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

It is a truth universally acknowledged in patriarchal, misogynist cultures, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

There was no possibility of going for a run that day.  Disappointingly, the New Balance Vazee Pace v2 trainers I’d ordered from Amazon failed to arrive in the post.
– Charlotte Brontë, Jayne Eyre (1847)

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show, depending, of course, on whether or not I am a reliable narrator.
– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

Call me Ishmael.  I self-identify as bicurious.
– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

Now, what I want is Alternative Facts…  Alternative Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else.
– Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)

I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man.  I am an unpleasant man.  I am an alpha male.
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground (1864)

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any Merry Christmas cards,” grumbled Jo, bitching on her blog “BenOpticon” about political correctness during the season of Our Lord’s Nativity.
– Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1869)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but both behavioural and cognitive domestic dysfunction therapies are available on the NHS.
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hours dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon skinny lattes at Starbucks.
– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, the men looking at photos of naked servicewomen on Facebook.
– Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

All children, except two, grow up. One of them is an infantile old asshole.
– J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1911)

For a long time, I went to bed early but woke up often to check my smartphone.
– Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (1913)

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of muesli and skimmed milk from which protruded a teaspoon, another goddam boring breakfast on his low cholesterol/trans-fat diet.
– James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

Someone must have been tweeting lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.
– Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)

Elmer Gantry was drunk, a homiletical trick for enhancing coherence and lucidity that he had learned at Liberty University.
– Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (1927)

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, until one sunny day he, his wife, and two young children were blasted to death by environmentally friendly fracking.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)

It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man while he was asleep  (Lucas, not the white man).
– William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish due to stock depletion caused by global warming.
– Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

There was a wall. It did not look important. Except to the Mexicans.
– Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)

Money … in a voice that sounded like plastic.
– William Gaddis, J R (1975)

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me with three tickets for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
– Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers (1980)

The man in black fled across the desert, and the paparazzi followed.
– Stephen King, The Gunslinger (1982)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel, Fox News.
– William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.  But a casino and a golf course would eventually fix all that.
– Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990)

It was the day my grandmother exploded, one of many civilians in the impoverished Yemeni village of al Ghayil pulverised by a team of gunship-backed US Navy Seals in a “highly successful operation”.
– Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

Death is outside life but it alters it: it leaves a hole in the fabric of things which those who are left behind try to repair at the funeral by wearing bright colours, having friends read tacky poems, and listening to a CD of Robbie Williams singing “Angels”.
– Salley Vickers, Miss Garnet’s Angel (2000)

In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job, and believing the Islamophobic propaganda of the Brexiteers, he cursed the Punjabi with the beard and turban who delivered his mail.
– Anne Tyler, Noah’s Compass (2010)

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang Doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Another terrorist attack and mass murder, the brutal ending of lives and worlds, the implacably occluded futures of the wounded and grief-stricken – and the inevitable confected aftermath of political fustian, media puffery, and vox-pop cliché.

God is love. Monotonously. Or rather Trinotonously.

God is like an excellent malt whisky. Alas, liberals add ginger ale and ice to it, while evangelicals just read the label.

The church is like a cappuccino: 1/3 creedal espresso, 1/3 milk of human kindness, and 1/3 ceremonial froth.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Because if bad things happened only to bad people, we’d be in hell.

One of the best arguments for torture is belief in hell, and one of the best arguments against belief in hell is torture.

“There’s nothing worse than loving someone who’s never going to stop disappointing you,” said Hosea. (Actually, it was a character in a series 7 episode of House I watched last night.)

What was Descartes doing when he wasn’t hunched over that blazing stove cogitating? Probably checking and rechecking and checking again that he had turned it off.

Selfie, ergo sum. Indeed, Selfie, ergo mundus est.

Wow! A new iPhone that can take 3-dimensional selfies – of 1-dimensional selves.

At a recent funeral, a mourner [sic] took a selfie at the graveside as the coffin was lowered. Now if only Joseph of Arimathea had had an iPhone …

Greatest selfie of all time: Velasquez’s Las Meninas.
Runner-up: El Greco, Pentecost.

The binary social media world of Thumbs-up/Thumbs-down – it’s missing a third icon: Turd = Who Gives a Shit?

Did you see the pilot for the brilliant new sitcom set in the Brady Briefing Room?  It’s called That Was the Week That Wasn’t (subtitle: Fake You!), starring Donald Trump and co-starring a cast of discombobulated journalists.

Let’s be clear: Trump does not drive me to despair.  The reality of his presidency suddenly flashing like lightening across a clear blue sky – my reaction is always “WTF!”, not despair.  In fact, I have moments of lucid hopefulness. Trump is a compulsive fantasist, and our fantasies always fuck us in the end.

Stanley Hauerwas has recently written: “I want to suggest that one of the essential tasks of those called to the ministry in our day is to be a teacher. In particular, ministers are called to be a teacher of language.” God’s bollocks! From the fact that Hauerwas feels it is necessary to make such a “suggestion”, one can only conclude that our seminaries have become cemeteries.

To re-endorse Hauerwas: the ministerial vocation is ecclesial speech therapy.

People often say to me after worship, about the sermon, “Thanks. You really gave us something to think about.”  And I think: another Sermon Fail. Imagine someone coming up to Jesus after preaching and saying, “Thanks, Rabbi. You really gave us something to think about” (cf. Luke 4:28-29).

Every year the Times runs a “Preacher of the Year” event. Seriously. Commensurate with the theological vacuity of such a contest, I propose that the winner should be awarded their own celebrity brand of cologne, perfume, or (if High Church) incense.

So The Rt. Rev. Christopher Cocksworth [sic] has apologised after accidentally voting against the Bishops' report on marriage and same-sex relationships, confessing that the mistake had been a “moment of distraction and some confusion” (BBC, 16 February). Rather like the report itself.

Breaking News: The District Attorney of Denver has announced that the three fundamentalist Christians who were arrested for the abduction of the Lutheran minister and human fresco Nadia Bolz-Weber have pleaded guilty to the charge of artnapping.

As a Protestant I don’t have a problem with Mariology, only with mariologiae gloriae. So I guess I’ve got a problem after all.

Why biblical criticism and hermeneutics? To unsettle the text. It is to the bewildered that the Spirit speaks.

Who am I when I do not know who I am? That may seem to be the predicament of the person with Alzheimer’s. It is, in fact, the human condition. Advantage, however, to the person with Alzheimer’s: he does not lie to himself or deceive others about it.

Early Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Late Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the rain gets in.”

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Born Again? (a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent)

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Raise your hand if you’re a Christian … Now raise your hand if you’re a “born-again” Christian … Just as I thought: a disparity. Which disappoints me hugely, but doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been asking the question to congregations for 35 years and the results are always the same. Instead of being a term with which all Christians can and should identify, “born-again” has become a phrase that some Christians are hesitant to claim for themselves, while others claim it for themselves with a sense of exclusive ownership, both fervently and vehemently, in a weaponised, “Gottcha!” sort of way.

In the US, you get this phenomenon at its worst, because it is associated with evangelical Christians who have an ultra-conservative cultural and political agenda. You’ve heard of the Religious Right, with its idolatrous identification of America as “God’s own country”, its twinning of faith with patriotism, its hardly hidden racist agenda, not to mention its election-winning support for Donald Trump. Fortunately, the UK has been spared this kind of distorted nationalist, nativist faith. Unfortunately, we have not altogether been spared abuse of the term “born-again”.

Above all – yes – the way the term is used by some Christians to make themselves feel more Christian and others feel less Christian. Apparently it is not sufficient to say (as Jesus himself rephrases being “born again”) that you have been “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5), that is, that by baptism and faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit, you have been incorporated into the church. No, to be a “real” Christian, you’ve got to have a special conversion experience, usually dramatic, often dateable, and frequently expressed in public “testimonies”, punctuated with proof texts from accredited Bibles. Otherwise you’re suspect.

And then there is this: because the focus is on personal experience, our theology of mission, which includes God’s global work of reconciliation and liberation, becomes truncated. Evangelism is reduced to Christian cloning – inducing the “born-again” experience in other people and directing them to so-called “Bible-believing” churches; salvation is marketed as “fire insurance” (“Turn or Burn”, as the bumper-stickers so invitingly put it), or at least as the spiritual “equivalent to a healthy retirement fund” (Beverly Gaventa); while a commitment to justice and peace, as well to ecumenism, is completely marginalised.

The huge irony is that all this is quite unbiblical, for justice for the poor, peace among the nations, and a passion for the unity of God’s people – these are fundamental, not negligible, let alone expendable, biblical themes. Justice/Peace is the central message of all the great prophets – Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah. And the theme of the ministry of Jesus is – what? The “kingdom of God”, which is a corporate concept and refers to the establishment of shalom, not just in souls but in bodies, not just for individuals but for communities, and not just for some after-death or post-apocalyptic future but for the here-and-now. Or do we need reminding of the manifesto of Jesus, proclaimed in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth (no altar call – the congregation tried to kill him), his “mission statement”:

God’s Spirit is upon me:
God has chosen me to preach good news to the poor;
to announce pardon for prisoners and sight for the blind;
to unchain the enslaved and emancipate the oppressed;
to announce: “This is salvation! Right here! Right now!”

And St. Paul, following Jesus’ great prayer “that they may be one” – again and again the apostle fervently pleads for a common purpose among Christian communities.

That is what mission is about: not about saving my butt and getting sinners, via my church, out of the Pit because “the Bible tells me so”, but about witnessing to the fact that in Jesus Christ God is renewing, reconfiguring the whole universe, inviting people to join in his cosmic programme of reconciliation, and encouraging churches to demonstrate God’s shalom by embodying in their life what Jonathan Sacks calls the “dignity of difference”. Each of our experiences of coming to faith – these are no doubt different. But this vision of the one church and the new creation – that is what binds us to Christ, to each other, to the world.

So to be “born again” – well, let’s look – closely – at the famous text in the encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus in John 3.

First, observe how Jesus begins by pointing Nicodemus to the “kingdom of God”. Right from the get-go we’re not talking about personal salvation and getting to heaven, we’re talking about the new world that is God’s work in progress.

Second, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without” (John 3:3) – without what, exactly? In the Greek text, “without being born anothen”. Anothen may certainly mean “again”, but it more commonly means “from above”. So the question is: what does anothen mean in this context? Nicodemus obviously takes it to mean “again” – hence his bewilderment at the idea of entering a womb twice. But what if we take anothen to mean not “again” but “from above”? Then what Jesus tells Nicodemus links perfectly with what John tells us in chapter 1, where we read that Jesus, the incarnate Word, gives to all who believe in him the “power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man but” – of what? – “of the will of God” (John 1:12-13), the God who, in John’s up-and-down heaven-and-earth cosmology is “above”. And then what Jesus tells Nicodemus also links perfectly with what John tells us at the end of chapter 3, where in a single verse (31), he refers to Jesus as “the one who comes from heaven” (v. 31c) and “the one who comes from” – you guessed it! – “anothen” (v. 31a), which clearly means not “again” but “above”. Thus not “born again” but “born from above” turns out to be the better translation of anothen – as, in fact, many Bibles in English now acknowledge.

But look, I’m not the word police! By all means let us speak about being “born again”. Paul never does in his letters, but the First Letter of Peter does (“born anew”). Rebirth is actually a quite fantastic image. It speaks vividly to the point that Jesus is making to Nicodemus, namely that faith is, well – “Wow!” – like a new-born emerging from darkness into daylight, a new world alive with possibility, because (as the mysterious Mr. Smith declares on arriving from London in the small 18th-century town of New York, in the cracking Francis Spufford novel Golden Hill) – because “what I am is all in what I will be”. To speak of being “born again” is not a problem unless you make it a problem by reducing its meaning to a specific experience that all Christians must have. Being “born again” or “from above” – they are both powerful metaphors of transformative faith. But the how of faith is not important.

Only two things are important. Firstly, the that of faith, which finally demonstrates its authenticity not in our personal experiences and “testimonies”, however compelling – we are, after all, notoriously unreliable narrators of our so-called “inner lives”, and Christians have form in being rather egocentric about salvation – but in the outward, public, and often costly practices of grace and actions of love. “Only a person who obeys believes,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ.”

And, secondly, the object and the content of faith around which the that of faith orbits. The object of faith: Jesus, of course, but Jesus “my personal Saviour” only insofar as he is identical to Jesus the strange, disturbing, feral figure that stalks the pages of the New Testament, the one with a fondness for those who aren’t in my gang, otherwise he is simply the Jesus of my personal fantasies. And the content of faith: the quite specific teaching of Jesus – for an overview, that Nazareth Manifesto, and, for more detail, the radical demands of the Sermon on the Mount and those subversive tales-of-the-unexpected we call parables. It’s no good crying “Lord! Lord!” or claiming Jesus “lives in my heart” unless that Jesus and what he teaches actually matches the person and project of the Jesus of the Gospels.

Finally, remember that the new birth is just that – a birth, a beginning; but discipleship – that’s a daily departure from the safety of the neonatal unit and a lifetime of growing up, leaving home, taking risks – like old Abraham and Sarah, whose road trip from Haran to who-knew-where, further and further, is the defining journey of biblical faith.

So the next time someone asks you if you’ve been “born again”, don’t feel intimidated and don’t be shy; rather modestly but boldly say, “Of course – I’m a follower of Jesus! But following Jesus – and keeping up – that’s the arduous journey of a lifetime. Are you too on the way?”

Friday, 10 March 2017

Barth Graduate Student Colloquium

In case you hadn't noticed, the Center for Barth Studies in Princeton has been developing an exciting number of new initiatives over recent years. One of these, The Barth Graduate Student Colloquium is presently calling for applications. The colloquium is open to any doctoral student whose works touches on Barth's theology, and the meeting this year will focus on CD III/3. If you need further enticement to apply, you should note that Willie Jennings is this year's senior scholar and will deliver a paper during the colloquium. So, without any further excuses, follow the link to read more about the colloquium and apply.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

To dust

“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death / Pray for us now and at the hour of our death” - T. S. Eliot

My teeth ache as though I were biting ice-cream. The chill wind blows through my lips and circles around my incisors—it dries my eyes and freezes the condensation on my upper lip. I look down and continue to make my way along the English roadside. I notice the puddles from yesterday’s rain. No longer wet and young, they are frozen with age. Deliberately, I let my foot fall on one and relish the satisfying sound of puncturing the world’s surface. Creation, I realise, is brittle.

Remember that you are dust

I lie still, listening to the clicks and hums as I am slowly drawn up into the tube. The song of moving parts and hidden magnets plays up and down my brain and spine. I rest here in my little mound of dust.

And to dust you will return

I lean forward, keeping as still as I can. The needle goes near the spinal cord. From deep within, she drains my nervous essence into tubes and flasks for examination. Somehow, this blessed cocoon of dust holds together.

Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ

When we first arrived here, I saw the moon cover the face of the sun. It was vision of the end. The skies will darken and the ocean will recede. When the last stars fall we will see that all the lights of heaven were but the embers of a fire disturbed.

We are what you say we are, O Lord. Do not be silent.

On that day we will warm ourselves in the Lamb’s light, as the sun warms the soil. The seeds of faith will germinate, and the tree of life will stand tall amidst our beloved dirt.


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