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).

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