Sunday 30 December 2007

Tom Waits: theologian of the dysangelion

To my delight (and my wife’s dismay), my collection of Tom Waits CDs has grown nicely this Christmas. I’ve been absolutely addicted to Tom Waits all year – I can hardly bear to hear anything else.

I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to describe Tom Waits as a “theologian” – as long as we add that he’s a theologian of the dys-angelion, the “bad news.” His songs conjure up a swirling chaos of monsters and madness, devils and despair – and on the horizon of this dark world we glimpse the first faint glow of dawn, the surprising appearance of grace “de profundis” (Psalm 130:1).

God himself suddenly breaks into these songs as a strange and threatening – even monstrous – presence, as an unaccountable interruption of the world’s (dis-)order. One of Waits’ most astonishing theological pronouncements, for example, is the gleeful hiss: “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil / That’s just God when he’s drunk.” Or on another occasion he wonders: “Did the devil make the world while God was sleeping?”

In such songs, God bursts onto the stage not as a benevolent projection of our own wishes and desires, but as the one who overturns our expectations and shatters our projections of deity. God appears not as a supreme being who calmly “completes” and “perfects” nature, but as the one who interrupts nature in the apocalyptic newness of grace. Divine grace, for Waits, is thus a kind of unnatural incursion, a perversity, a disruption of the way things are. Grace interrupts, it shatters and strips things bare to the bone. And so Waits portrays grace in a way that is uncompromisingly – often shockingly – menacing and grotesque.

Even in Waits’ more “orthodox” gospel songs – and there are many of them, such as “Way Down in the Hole”, “All Stripped Down”, “Down There by the Train”, “Never Let Go”, “Make It Rain”, “Take Care of All of My Children”, “Come on Up to the House” – even here, grace appears as a perverse interruption of a world of murder and brutality and Satanic seduction. Grace breaks open this world like a nightmare or an earthquake – wholly unexpected, unconditional, presuppositionless; impossible to be tamed or assimilated. As Rowan Williams remarks in his study of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, “the actuality of grace is uncovered in the moment of excess – which may be in a deliberately intensified gracelessness” (Grace and Necessity, p. 105). A “deliberately intensified gracelessness” – that is the world of Tom Waits’ lyrical theology. And it’s in this way that Waits articulates the euangelion through a startlingly brutal and disturbing declaration of the dysangelion.

Grace shines from the abyss. It appears in the mode of the grotesque. And if grace is itself dysangelion, it is “bad news” precisely for those of us who are already complacent in our own religion and our own righteousness (our own ready-made “Chocolate Jesus”). It is “bad news” because tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of us (Matt. 21:31), because (as Waits puts it) those who “never asked forgiveness, never said a prayer” are nevertheless grasped and held by grace. It is “bad news” because God – if he is really the God of grace! – is not the God we want, not the God we think we need. He is the God who does not “fit”, but interrupts. He is the God whose Yes is hidden in a shattering No.

But this “bad news” is indeed “good news” – the best and happiest news! – for the undeserving, the criminals, those riddled and rotten with shame and doubt. As Waits puts it in one of his more conventional gospel songs: “Does life seem nasty, brutish and short? / Come on up to the house!” At the world’s dark end, all that remains is grace – grace for the ungodly, which is therefore the grace of God.

Anyway, I’ve gotten carried away with this prelude – but the real point of this post is to list some of my favourite theological lines from Tom Waits’ songs. Here are a few (you can read all his lyrics here):

“I’m close to heaven
Crushed at the gate.”

“Hell is boiling over and heaven is full
We’re chained to the world and we all gotta pull.”

“God used me as a hammer, boys
To beat his weary drum today.”

“The devil knows the Bible like the back of his hand.”

“God builds a church
The devil builds a chapel
Like the thistles that are growing round the trunk of a tree.”

“I left my Bible by the side of the road
Carved my initials in an old dead tree.”

“You can drive out nature with a pitch fork
But it always comes roaring back again.”

“Did the devil make the world
While God was sleeping?”

“I swang out wide with her
On hell’s iron gate.”

“Well, you say that it’s gospel, but I know
It’s only a church.”

“Well, I got to keep myself, keep myself faithful
And you know I’ve been so good
Except for drinking
But He knew that I would...”

“Goddamn there’s always such a big temptation
To be good, to be good
There’s always free Cheddar in a mousetrap, baby…”

“Well they’ve stopped trying to hold him
With mortar, stone and chain
He broke out of every prison
The boots mount the staircase
The door is flung back open
He’s not there for he has risen…”

“Don’t you know there ain’t no devil
That’s just God when he’s drunk.”

“Well, you leave me hanging by the skin of my teeth
I’ve only got one leg to stand
You can send me to hell
But I’ll never let go of your hand.”

Thursday 27 December 2007

A funeral homily on Christmas Eve

by Kim Fabricius, Christmas Eve 2007

This is the homily Kim preached on Christmas Eve at the funeral of a young woman, not yet fifty, extremely talented but deeply troubled, who died of alcohol-related illnesses. The chief mourners were her father and brother; her uncle gave the personal tribute. The woman’s name has, of course, been changed.

I’ve got two children. They are both thirty next year. One is a lawyer – to her parent’s shame, I kid her (lawyer jokes!) – the other is trying to make it as a writer. Someone recently said to me, “You did a good job there.” Did we? I’ve always subscribed to Philip Larkin’s more cynical take on child rearing: that your mum and dad are as likely to fill you with their faults as their virtues.

I also believe that, generally, parents can take neither the credit nor the blame for how their children turn out. There is nature as well as nurture, and there are so many worldly contingencies beyond our control. Children from seemingly model homes hit the skids; kids raised in dire circumstances win Booker prizes. The talented self-destruct; the ordinary achieve the exceptional. Who can fathom the souls of others? Who knows the demons with which they wrestle? Who knows their own soul? Who escapes fantasy and self-deceit? And relationships – I ache for you, yet I am always getting in your way. We are mysteries to ourselves and to each other.

The fact is that only God sees the heart, and in spite of what he sees, accepts us just as we are. Julian of Norwich went so far as to say that God does not need to forgive us, because God cannot be offended, God just gives and gives – and waits patiently for his own wayward children to return home.

That is why in the end, at a funeral, when we commend the dead – as we commend Louise – into God’s keeping, we must not despair that, despite such promise and determination, such warmth and generosity – and while poignantly remembering times of fulfilment at work and joy with family and friends – that she finally lost the plot. In fact, Jesus said that it is precisely those who seem to have life all worked out who will find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven, while the fragile and the fraught, those whom, finally, the world breaks, because they must ultimately trust in God’s grace alone, they will find themselves part of a larger plot, a narrative that ultimately makes sense, the love story of God and his people, the divine comedy.

For what it’s worth, here is my vision of death and judgement. You find yourself sitting on God’s knee. He embraces you. And then he shows you what your life was really all about. A terrifying prospect, for sure – except for one thing: it is the Father’s lap, the Father’s arms, and the Father who looks at you with the same besotted love with which he looks at his only Son Jesus, who was born and lived and died and lives forever, for each and every one of us.

In his little book The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom writes: “This is the greatest gift God can give you: to understand what happened in your life. To have it explained. It is the peace you have been searching for.” It is the peace we must believe that Louise has now found.

A crematorium is hardly the place to be on Christmas Eve, but exactly the place to end with the words of the Calypso Carol:

        Trumpets sound, the angels sing,
        listen to what they say:
        that we will live forevermore
        because of Christmas Day.

Sunday 23 December 2007

Dates: a Christmas sermon

by Kim Fabricius, Christmas 2007

Are you good at dates? When I studied history at school – and that itself is now ancient history! – it was all presidents and kings and queens and battles – and dates. Are you good at dates? Let’s test you. And I’ll keep it pretty modern.

Probably the most famous date since the turn of the millennium is indicated by just two numbers. Any guesses? Yes, 9/11 – 11 September 2001, the date of the Al Qaeda suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Go back five years to 31 August 1997, in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. That’s right, it’s the day Diana, the “people’s Princess” (in Tony Blair’s famous phrase), died in a car crash in Paris. I remember Angie waking me up early to tell me the sad news so I could prepare something to say to you.

Most of us were in bed when Diana died, but along with 9/11, there is another date forever etched in the memories of those of us who go back to the 1960s, a day everybody remembers exactly where they were when they first heard the breaking news. Yes, 22 November 1963, that Friday in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was shot. I was in Mr. Borowicz’s math class when suddenly the tannoy went on. We all expected it to be the school principal with some guff; instead, it was a radio broadcaster, his voice shaking, telling us that the President had been shot. And before the day ended, JFK was dead.

In my father’s generation the date that everyone remembered was 7 December 1941. The next day, a Sunday, the American people, many at table, were glued to their radios as President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the Congress and the nation. At just six-and-a-half minutes long, it’s probably the most famous American political speech of the twentieth century. “Yesterday,” Roosevelt declared with due gravitas, “a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Every American knows that phrase: “a date which will live in infamy”.

I could go further back in history, but as far as memories go, that would probably pre-date everyone here! But did you notice one glaring thing about all the dates I’ve mentioned? They are all unhappy dates, they are times of tragedy: the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington; the sudden death of a vivacious young royal; the assassination of a leader who brought a sense of energy and optimism to a nation stuck in the doldrums; the treacherous assault on a country that felt impregnable even as civilization itself was in danger of collapse from totalitarian aggression in Europe and Asia. Times of shock and disbelief, death and fear, a sense of irretrievable loss, the eclipse of hope.

Of course there are dates we associate with uplifting events that inspire the human spirit. Since I have been in Swansea, there was 11 February 1990, when in South Africa Nelson Mandela was released from prison to the tumultuous acclamation of the crowds, or 9 November 1989, when tens of thousands of East Berliners gathered at the hateful Wall that divided the city – and the world – and began to dismantle it brick by prison brick. Golly, talk about uplift, about the bells of freedom ringing! And, of course, there are dates in our own personal histories – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and the like – that we remember – that if you’re married you had better remember! – that speak of joy and blessing. But today – there is no date like this date!

On this date – a day so important, so unforgettable, so life-changing, so world-changing, that angels bring the news – today we celebrate the birth of Jesus the Saviour. It was a day set in truly horrific times, in a nation under occupation by an empire of terror, with an economy of massive poverty and social dislocation. We hear of a working class family, with a young woman pregnant, that has to shift itself hundreds of miles to the south – why? – to be taxed! And then of the girl’s waters breaking – where? – in a stable!

To be honest, we don’t actually know the actual day, or even the actual year. December 25th the western church nicked from the pagans, the day they celebrated the winter solstice, the day of the returning sun. And, frankly, personally, I find it inconceivable that our Lord was a Capricorn: a Libra, surely! Nevertheless, as people in the Middle Ages used to date their documents – “counting from the birth of God” – today is the day we celebrate (as Karl Barth put it in a lovely little essay) “the secret that is also the secret of our age, our history, and our life. Christmas is where we come from; it is where everything ‘counts’ from. It is the source from which everything – and I mean everything – not just the personal and the religious, but the political, economic, and social – derives its meaning, ordering, purpose, and goal. For it pleased God in his majesty, indeed it pleased him well, to be born a human, to dwell in a child, to be a little baby boy” [much adapted].

And that means – and this is the heart of the matter – that from that date we can no longer speak about God without at the same time speaking about people, and we can no longer speak about people without at the same time speaking about God. This date in history – the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth – means that throughout all dates in history our humanity is God’s humanity, and God’s humanity is ours. Come shock and terror, sudden death and mass destruction, pain, heartache, grief, despair, we are in God and God is in us: we are loved and held, safe and free.

Christmas isn’t just another date, Christmas is the date, the date of the start of the New Creation. Enjoy it today. Take it with you into the New Year. And – a couple more dates – watch for its climax on a weekend in spring.

Six things

        “Feed us, friend Jesus.
        Our stomachs are empty.
        You are the one our hearts hope for.

        Heal us who are sick.
        We ache and we suffer.
        Save us in death.
        We are dying in darkness.
        Savior Jesus, our hope at life’s end.”

Saturday 22 December 2007

Pannenberg's eschatological ontology

The new issue of the Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie includes my article on Pannenberg, entitled: “The Difference Totality Makes: Reconsidering Pannenberg’s Eschatological Ontology” NZSTh 49:2 (2007), 141-55. (If you’d like a copy, just email me.)

In the essay, I try to bring Pannenberg’s eschatological thought into conversation with the work of David Bentley Hart and Robert W. Jenson. Here’s the abstract:

“Wolfhart Pannenberg’s eschatological ontology has been criticised for undermining the goodness and reality of finite creaturely differentiation. Drawing on David Bentley Hart’s recent ontological proposal, this article explores the critique of Pannenberg’s ontology, and offers a defence of Pannenberg’s depiction of the relation between difference and totality, especially as it is presented in his 1988 work, Metaphysics and the Idea of God. In this work, Pannenberg articulates a structured relation between difference and totality in which individual finite particularities are preserved and affirmed within a coherent semantic whole. Creaturely differences are not sublated or eliminated in the eschatological totality, but are integrated into a harmonious totality of meaning. This view of the semantic function of totality can be further clarified by connecting Pannenberg’s ontological vision with Robert W. Jenson’s model of the eschatological consummation as a narrative conclusion to the drama of finite reality.”

The same issue of NZSTh also includes Paul Molnar’s critical response to Bruce McCormack: “Can the Electing God Be God without Us? Some Implications of Bruce McCormack’s Understanding of Barth’s Doctrine of Election for the Doctrine of the Trinity” (pp. 199-222).

Friday 21 December 2007

Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie

The latest issue of the European Barth-studies journal, Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie, includes my article on Barth’s historiography: “Karl Barth as Historian: Historical Method in the Göttingen Lectures on Calvin, Zwingli and Schleiermacher,” ZDTh 23:1 (2007), 96-109. (If you’d like a copy, just send me an email.) It also features articles by Ernstpeter Maurer, Dietrich Ritschl, Rinse Reeling Brouwer, Ulrike Link Wieczorek, Dick Boer and Karl-Friedrich Wiggermann; as well as reviews by Matthias Freudenberg, Christophe Chalamet and others.

The most interesting part looks like the exchange between Ernstpeter Maurer and Dietrich Ritschl on the question of “narrative theology.” While Maurer’s article (“Narrative Strukturen im theologischen Denken Karl Barths”) presents a narrative interpretation of the structure of Barth’s thought, Ritschl critiques this approach in an article with the polemical title: “Theologie ist explikativ und argumentativ, nicht narrativ.”

I might post something more on this exchange later (perhaps in connection with this book, which I finally hope to review shortly). For now, here’s a pointed remark from Dietrich Ritschl (p. 23): “My thesis is as follows: ‘narrative theology’ is a misnomer, a false concept, because theology – from first to last – is reflecting, testing, interpreting, arguing, analysing and constructing, even if all this leads to doxology, to prayer and preaching.”

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Steve Holmes on Bruce McCormack

The British theologian Steve Holmes has started his own blog, with the lovely title Shored Fragments. And he has started a series of posts discussing Bruce McCormack’s recent lectures on kenotic christology. So far, he has discussed Bruce’s first and second lectures. And he suggests that Bruce’s christological proposal is “more weighty and serious than any similar reconstruction that I am aware of in recent English-language theology.”

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Climate change and the new global morality

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

In early 2004, Tony Abbott delivered a couple of remarkable papers – “The Moral Case for the Howard Government” and “The Ethical Responsibilities of a Christian Politician” – in an attempt to regain the moral ground seemingly lost by the Australian Government.

As he saw it, two potentially devastating trends were at work within the electorate. The first was the fickle but inevitable sense that the time had come for a change of Government. But it was the second trend that Abbott regarded as even more foreboding. There was a strong popular perception that the Government had lost its moral credibility due to the controversial “Work for the Dole” program, its intractably hard-line against asylum-seekers and, of course, the calamitous decision to join the American-led invasion of Iraq. Despite the fact that each of the Government’s positions palpably demonstrated a moral courage of its own, Abbott recognized that the “resentment of the moral guardians whose orthodoxies have been debunked and whose values have been usurped poses as big a threat to its re-election as the ‘it’s time’ factor.”

Time has vindicated Abbott’s analysis. For although the Howard Government won comfortably in 2004 – due more to a visceral suspicion of Mark Latham than any bump in Howard’s moral stocks – the 2007 election saw it caught in a perfect electoral storm. Boredom disconnected the Coalition from the electorate, effectively muting any further policy initiatives or repackaging of their message, while WorkChoices and the refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol left the Government stranded in a kind of moral no man’s land without any recourse to some higher agenda or greater moral cause. (In the final days of the campaign, Howard was left with the pathetically empty assertion: “Like me or loathe me, people know what I stand for.”)

But what we have witnessed over this election year is not simply the predicable demise of an increasingly sclerotic Government which had fallen out of step with the modern sensibilities and values of the electorate. Instead, the Howard Government was a casualty of one of the more pronounced trends in global politics today: the simultaneous banalization of domestic politics and globalization of public morality. To put it simply, as the role of national governments is dwarfed by the enormity of trans-national economic flows and the unfolding environmental crisis, and as people’s habits are more and more enmeshed in the libidinal matrix of consumerism, any immediate sense of morality or common purpose becomes de-localised and cast onto the global stage.

The core imperatives of this global morality are obvious, having been championed in the popular media and taken root in the zeitgeist through such slogans as “Fair trade not free trade” and “Green is the new Black,” and through the “Make Poverty History” campaign. These imperatives are: to mitigate the ravages of free market capitalism on the disadvantaged by means of domestic (grouped under the umbrella term, “welfare-state”) and international (fair trade, debt relief and foreign aid) measures, and to arrest the devastating effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gases on our lived environment through the restriction of carbon and methane emissions, sustainable growth and clean energy alternatives.

Needless to say, the Howard Government’s WorkChoices legislation and failure to repent of its “sins of emission” by signing up to the Kyoto Protocol were unforgivable in view of these imperatives. By contrast, Kevin Rudd shrewdly aligned himself with the prevailing moral sentiment by revamping his social democratic façade, all the while pledging his allegiance to strong economic growth:

“Neo-liberals speak of the self-regarding values of security, liberty and prosperity. To these, social democrats would add other-regarding values of equity, solidarity and sustainability. For social democrats, these additional values are seen as mutually reinforcing, because the allocation of resources in pursuit of equity …, solidarity and sustainability assist in creating the human, social and environmental capital necessary to make a market economy function effectively.”

But this statement also points to the substance of our moral crisis today. The supplementary social democratic values that Rudd here espouses merely grease the skids of the capitalist machine, as it were, “creating the human, social and environmental capital necessary to make a market economy function effectively.” Similarly, for Rudd, Al Gore and most other climate change centrists, the solution to our current environmental woes lies not in any radical curtailing of our industrial or consumerist habits, but rather in some supplemental technology that will neutralize the global economy’s addiction to high emissions – such as carbon geo-sequestration, limited use of renewable energy, or perhaps a gigantic solar disc that will block a portion of the sun’s heat.

The problematic core belief in both instances is that the answer to our global environmental/economic problems lies further down the road on which we are already travelling. In other words, capitalism is the cure for the disease that it itself unleashed on the world – to use a line from Wagner’s Parsifal: “The wound is healed only by the spear that smote you.” (A nod toward Slavoj Žižek on this point.)

I would insist, however, that this moral zeitgeist, fuelled by an inherent faith in capitalism’s capacity to get us out of this mess, is not just impotent. It is positively harmful because it gives off the appearance of genuine activity and conveys a false sense of morality, even while we neglect our most fundamental moral obligations. I think of the way, for instance, that James Lovelock has ruthlessly condemned the half-measures self-righteously paraded by Kyoto signatories as little more than “each nation [trying] to gain brownie points for its diligence in meeting the Kyoto limits”; whereas in fact they are just “playing for time.” The reality of our situation demands more serious measures for, as Lovelock maintained in his recent response to the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, contiguous yet sustainable development is no longer an option:

“I see our predicament as like that faced by any nation that is about to be invaded by a powerful enemy; now we are at war with the Earth and as in a blitzkrieg events proceed faster than we can respond. We are in the strange position of living on a planet where climate and compositional change is now so rapid that it happens too fast for us to react to it. For this reason alone, it is probably too late for sustainable development. Enlightened living of this kind might have worked 200 years ago in Malthus’s time but not now.”

While Lovelock’s “Earth-at-war” stands for the absolute limit of global capitalism, pressing on capitalism’s certainties from the outside, as it were, it is imperative that we also recognize the internal or local limitations of capitalism. Noel Pearson has been rightly critical of Rudd’s reduction of the plight of Indigenous Australians to the disparity between the “privileged” and the “disadvantaged”, insisting that both terms already presume some degree of integration in the economic-cultural dynamic of capitalism. But Indigenous Australians are systemically excluded from the benefits of the free market economy, a state which no mere application of social democratic values can rectify.

“Aboriginal disadvantage,” Pearson says, “has become entrenched during the decades when social democrats, small-l liberals and conservatives influenced policy; many policies for Indigenous Australians have been liberal and progressive.” Here too, we are forced to recognize capitalism’s structural incapacity to embrace everyone within its sphere of beneficence, its inherent moral deficiency.

It is as if this vacuous brand of global morality that I’ve been describing has been spontaneously generated by capitalism itself as a kind of palliative, a way of softening the harshness of its insatiable growth and assuaging our own guilt. If so, then the almost evangelical fervour with which people confess themselves to be climate change “true-believers” might function rather like Marx’s “opiate of the masses” – a way of numbing our economic culpability, and of divesting us of our domestic responsibilities. Against this temptation to “globalize” our sense of morality, it has never been more important to insist on the concreteness of local ethical commitments. I would even go so far as to say that Australia has but one moral crisis on its hands – and that is the ongoing tragedy of Indigenous Australia.

The irony, of course, is that for all of Kevin Rudd’s self-righteous posturing on Australia’s Kyoto obligations, it was John Howard that proved his moral worth by committing his next term in Government to a constitutional referendum on reconciliation.

Some vintage Hauerwas

Let’s face it: there’s no one quite like Stanley Hauerwas. In a discussion of Milbank’s view of the relation between theology and the university, Hauerwas remarks:

“I confess I am tempted to side with Milbank if for no other reason than that his position is so offensive. Moreover, that such a position does not have a ‘snowball’s chance in hell’ of being realized in the university as we know it makes it all the more attractive” (The State of the University [Oxford: Blackwell, 2007], p. 23).

Monday 17 December 2007

Three must-read articles: Kevin Hector, Michael Welker, Hugh Nicholson

Kevin W. Hector, “The Mediation of Christ’s Normative Spirit: A Constructive Reading of Schleiermacher’s Pneumatology,” Modern Theology 24:1 (2008), 1-22

This is a remarkably creative and provocative proposal for understanding the work of the Spirit as the mediation to believers of the norms of judgment which are required to know what constitutes following Christ. According to Hector, the Spirit’s work is immanent in human subjectivity – just as there are “no gaps” between the eternal Son and the man Jesus, so there are “no gaps between the Spirit’s activity and human activity.” We can thus understand the Spirit’s work “without having to appeal to shadowy substances, God’s inexplicable power …, or any other pseudo-explanations.” Among other things, I think this important proposal opens the way to a reconfiguration of the subject/object and God/world distinctions – distinctions which are misunderstood and misused in much contemporary Barthian theology. (Pardon the self-advertising, but my own forthcoming IJST paper on Bultmann is also aimed at a reconfiguration of these distinctions.)

Michael Welker, “Wright on the Resurrection,” Scottish Journal of Theology 60:4 (2007), 458-75

This is an excellent, incisive and wholly necessary critique of N. T. Wright’s understanding of the resurrection body. Welker questions Wright’s claim that the disciples witnessed Christ’s “still physical body.” He points out that Wright tends to collapse resurrection into mere resuscitation, and that he emphasises continuity between Jesus’ body and the resurrection body at the expense of the radical newness which pervades the NT witness to Christ. Welker’s sensitive reading of the NT texts leads him to observe: “It is characteristic of the resurrection appearances that they ‘establish a reality’. Or more precisely, there is a transformation of existence and reality which stems from them.” Jesus does not merely return to his physical body (“alive again,” as Wright puts it): “The pre-Easter life and body continues in a new way, extends far beyond itself, yet remains faithful to itself.” Whether or not you agree with Welker’s specific interpretation of the resurrection body, I think his critical questions to Wright are right on target. As I’ve occasionally complained in the past, the problem with Wright’s big book is that it says too much about Jewish traditions, empty tombs, physical bodies, etc, and too little about resurrection!

Hugh Nicholson, “The Political Nature of Doctrine: A Critique of Lindbeck in Light of Recent Scholarship,” Heythrop Journal 48:6 (2007), 858-77

I was talking with someone recently about Yale-School theology, and we agreed that its basic problem is its rationalism – its vision of Christian doctrine as a benign process in which grammatical rules are calmly and rationally expounded. Instead, perhaps theology is more like a power struggle, a (sometimes friendly!) contest between irreducibly different sets of passions and commitments. In this exceptional analysis, Hugh Nicholson (taking Talal Asad and Carl Schmitt as his points of departure) presents just such a critique of Lindbeck. His argument is that church doctrines “resemble the mobilizing slogans of political discourse more than … the grammatical rules governing Wittgensteinian language games.” Doctrine is thus a function of the social and relational antagonism through which Christian communities are constituted. In a very deft argument, he observes that even Lindbeck’s own linguistic analogy exposes the power-relations of doctrine: since we now know that the “standard form” of a language is simply the form which happened to achieve cultural dominance, a purely cultural-linguistic model of religion should lead us to conclude “that the religious mainstream is simply the faction that managed to establish hegemony over its proximate rivals” – i.e., that doctrinal “grammar” is never politically neutral, and is always structured by antagonistic relations. This is a brilliant and important essay which deserves a wide reading.

Saturday 15 December 2007

Here and there

In the best Christmas post of the year, Kim argues that, instead of boycotting Philip Pullman, Christians should be boycotting nativity plays. And Dave Belcher relates a comically absurd incident of editorial intervention in a certain big religion journal (it’s even more absurd if you read the book review in question, which is utterly harmless and uninteresting).

Meanwhile, Jean-Marc was lucky enough to pay a visit to Karl Barth’s house in Basel. And in a bizarre news story here in Australia, a heated argument over creation and evolution led to the fatal stabbing of a scientist (note to self: never argue with a creationist – unless you’re as clever as Ali G).

In happier news, Halden gives us a sneak preview of his remarkable dissertation, which will argue that “the nation-state, global capitalism, and mass media function as simulacra of the body of Christ, embodying in themselves a perverse instantiation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Can’t wait to see this one in print!

And in one of the many brilliants posts over at The Immanent Frame, Hans Joas discusses the relation between Charles Taylor’s Catholic faith and his analysis of modernity.

Friday 14 December 2007

Nothing much

I’ve been laid up all day with a fever, so I took the opportunity to read Iain Pears’ novel, The Dream of Scipio (which is delightful), and to watch the remarkable film about the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls. The film includes Arenas’ famous observation about capitalism and communism: “The difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream.”

Reading a bit of Agamben yesterday, I also came across a delightfully enigmatic quotation from Kafka’s notebooks: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary, he will come only after his arrival, he will come not on the last day, but on the very last day.”

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Ten propositions on Richard Dawkins and the new atheists

by Kim Fabricius

1. Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists do not like Christians. They like Muslims even less. We are like people who believe in leprechauns, only worse, because people who believe in leprechauns, while ignoramuses, are not warmongers and terrorists (unless they also happen to be Irish Catholics or Presbyterians). So the New Atheists are our enemies. But remember, Jesus said that we should love our enemies, forgive them, and pray for them. Besides, nothing will piss them off more.

2. But Professor Dawkins is not just angry with Christians, with particular dismay at scientists who are Christians, who, of course, are huge flies in his ointment (at the word “Polkinghorne” he grinds his teeth). Dawkins also gets angry with fellow scientists on scientific matters. One of his most bitter and public altercations was with the late Stephen Jay Gould, the famous Harvard palaeontologist. The religious affairs correspondent Andrew Brown wrote a book documenting this rabies biologorum: it’s called The Darwin Wars. So you’ve got to be fair to Dawkins, he is evenly balanced: he has a chip on both shoulders.

3. I should point out that the word “wars” in The Darwin Wars is (I think) a metaphor. Professor Dawkins himself has a knack for the memorable metaphor. His great book The Selfish Gene is a case in point. People can be literally selfish, but not genes. Indeed Dawkins does not even think that there are genes for selfishness. Okay, he wrote: “The gene is the basic unit of selfishness.” But he didn’t really mean it. Not literally. The author of Genesis said that the universe was created in six days. But who would take that literally except some crazy fundamentalists? Oops – and Dawkins.

4. In The God Delusion Professor Dawkins suggests (no, states, Dawkins doesn’t do “suggests”) that “the Christian focus is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin.” No commas, unrelenting. And count them: that’s sin x 7. Perhaps this is a clever allusion to Matthew 18:21. After all, even the devil quotes scripture. The self-proclaimed Devil’s Chaplain continues: “What a nasty little preoccupation to have dominating your life.” Yes, we Christians think of little else. But here’s a thought. All those wars like the one in Iraq that Christopher Hitchens is so keen on, or the practice of torture that Sam Harris says is necessary – that couldn’t have anything to do with our “focus”, could it? But, hey, aren’t Hitchens and Harris New Atheists?

5. Their teaching on sin shows the New Atheists to be true children of the Enlightenment – that and their belief in religionless “progress”. Now Professor Dawkins’ case against faith is that it is “belief without evidence”. (For the sake of argument, never mind that this definition itself is belief against the evidence.) So on his own terms we may be permitted to ask Dawkins, “Where is the evidence for this progress?” Forgive me, dear reader, for wearying you with the obvious: the names of such progressive statesmen and harbingers of world peace as the atheists Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Pol Pot. Oh, and isn’t there the little matter that teleology has no place in evolutionary theory? Progress? My money is on the leprechauns.

6. “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” After this now famous first-line knockdown punch by Terry Eagleton it would be unsportsmanlike to bully the bully. Professor Dawkins does not enter the ring with the intellectual heavyweights of the Christian tradition, though he occasionally throws a bottle at them from the seats. Is he ignorant, hubristic, or just plain chicken? Whatever. The irony is that Dawkins thereby again betrays the very Enlightenment he represents (as Tina Beattie records a comment Keith Ward made to her, with sadness), “everything that the Western intellectual tradition stands for, with its privileging of informed scholarship based on the study of texts.”

7. If Professor Dawkins is the “bad cop” of the New Atheists, the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee is probably the “good cop”, while Christopher Hitchens is undoubtedly the “corrupt cop”. I saw him on the British TV programme Question Time, contemptuously holding court like Jabba the Hutt. And I sat for half-an-hour at Waterstone’s dipping into the over-priced God Is Not Great as if it were dishwater, a highly flattering simile. Hitchens’ penetrating scholarly appraisals include descriptions of Augustine the “ignoramus”, Aquinas the “stupid”, and Calvin the “sadist”; while Niemöller and Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazis was motivated by a “nebulous humanism”, and Martin Luther King’s faith was Christian only in a “nominal sense”. Enough said. It is all rather embarrassing.

8. There are two reactions to this sort of illiteracy that must be avoided. The first is the response of the right, which, when not hysterical, simply confirms the unquestioned assumption of the New Atheists that God is a huge and powerful supernatural being whose ways with the world are, in principle, open to empirical discovery and verification. This is the God of Intelligent Design. If ID is science, it is either bad science or dead science. “Bring it on!” cries Professor Dawkins, gleefully rubbing his hands together. But even if it were good science (and, by the way, weren’t driven by a political agenda), it would be dreadful, indeed suicidal theology, for the god of ID is but a version of the “god of the gaps”, a god deployed as an explanation of natural phenomena, a hostage to scientific fortune, in short, an idol. The operation of ID can be successful only at the cost of the patient.

9. The second response is the response of the left, the liberals. On this Enlightenment view, science is given its due in the realm of “facts”, while religion is cordoned off from the New Atheists in the realm of “values”. There is a superficial attractiveness to this division of territory – Stephen Jay Gould called it “NOMA”, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria, separate but equal – but in the end it amounts to theological appeasement. For the realm of “facts” includes not only the empirical, natural world but also the embodied, public, political world, while religion becomes the sphere of the “spiritual”, the interior, and the private. The church cannot accept this partition for Leviathan, the nation state, is a violent and voracious beast. Nor, however, is the church called to become the state: theocracies are inevitably gross distortions of power, whether the flag bears a cross or a crescent. Rather the church is called to be a distinctive polis forming citizens for the kingdom of God and sending them into the kingdoms of the world as truth-tellers and peacemakers.

10. The New Atheists don’t only have a dashing if reckless officer leading an army of grunts, they also have their aesthetes, a brilliant novelist in Ian McEwan, a master fantasist in Philip Pullman. Are they dangerous? Of course! Yet if the Russian expressionist painter Alexei Jawlensky was right that “all art is nostalgia for God”, there is nothing to fear and something to gain from them, their didacticism notwithstanding. Unlike atheist writers such as Camus or Beckett who (if you like) have been to the altar but cannot kneel, McEwan and Pullman are unacquainted with the God of Jesus. Nevertheless, McEwan, in novels like Enduring Love, Atonement, and Saturday (titles freighted with theological irony), so elegantly probes the human shadows, and Pullman, in the His Dark Materials trilogy (the title drawn from Paradise Lost), so imaginatively narrates the themes of innocence and experience and exposes the corruptions of false religion, that we feel at least that we have been in the outer courts of the temple. It is certainly better to read this outstanding literature and be disturbed by it than not to read it at all.

Playing the texts: call for contributors

Here’s another interesting book series from T&T Clark: “Playing the Texts”.

The editors say: “We are currently on the prowl for scholars who are willing to take on the challenge to ‘play’ with Biblical texts. Media studies, pop culture, literary theory, all of it.” Writers in the series should be “exploring creative and sometimes risky juxtapositions of texts,” or “applying techniques previously untried in biblical studies.” You can find out more about the series here.

Aberdeen conference on providence

The Aberdeen conference on the doctrine of providence is now taking registrations. As I’ve said before, this one promises to be an exceptional conference.

Monday 10 December 2007

T. F. Torrance and Richard Dawkins

by Kim Fabricius

The Independent features an obituary of T. F. Torrance, who was undoubtedly the greatest British theologian of the 20th century.

The obituarist David Fergusson rightly points to the immense contribution that Professor Torrance made to the dialogue between theology and science – or rather between the science of theology and the science of nature. Only in the English-speaking world do we find the ideological reductionism that cedes the natural sciences hegemony over the rational and critical investigation of reality and allows the likes of Richard Dawkins fraudulently to prosper.

David Fergusson remarks on the conflict between Torrance and his colleague James Barr, citing Torrance’s stinging remark that “Barr had been a brilliant tailgunner in the RAF and had carried on shooting throughout his academic life.” At least Barr shot at moving targets. Dawkins prefers shooting fish in a barrel to taking on the great whales like Torrance who would have him for breakfast.

St Mary’s Parish Church Whitekirk, where Torrance was buried last week.

Saturday 8 December 2007

Žižek and theology

Our friends at T&T Clark announce an exciting new book series on “Philosopy and Theology.” There are books in preparation on Nietzsche, Badiou, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Hegel, Kant and Kierkegaard.

The series is opening with Adam Kotsko’s book, Žižek and Theology. Adam describes this book in a guest-post at the T&T Clark blog.

Churchly terrors

Byron asks: “Does church terrify you? Do you get shivers down your spine when you arrive each week? Do you wake up early on a Sunday morning in a cold sweat? You should.”

Reminds me of Annie Dillard’s memorable observation about church.

Markus Zusak on radio

I’ve told you on an earlier occasion about Markus Zusak’s beautiful novel, The Book Thief. On tonight’s excellent ABC radio programme, The Lyric Voice, you can hear an excerpt from Zusak’s novel, accompanied by a very moving performance of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. You can listen to the programme here (in Real Player) or here (in Windows Media). The Zusak reading begins at 28:20 into the programme.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Five quotes on language

“We live in our language like blind men walking on the edge of an abyss.” —Gershom Scholem to Franz Rosenzweig, 26 December 1926.

“Language is the language of Being as clouds are the clouds of the sky. In what it says, thought leaves inconspicuous furrows in language. They are even more inconspicuous than the furrows that the farmer, slow of step, draws through the field.” —Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Pathmarks (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), p. 276.

“The origin lies at a place of inevitable loss, the point where the truth of things corresponded to a truthful discourse, the site of a fleeting articulation that discourse has obscured and finally lost.” —Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 143.

“The Wittgensteinian definition of the mystic as the appearing of what cannot be said is literally a definition of the gag. And every great philosophical text is the gag exhibiting language itself, being-in-language itself as a gigantic loss of memory, as an incurable speech defect.” —Giorgio Agamben, Means without End: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2000), p. 60.

“In the beginning was the Speech.” —John 1:1.

A few things I never could believe

In his delightfully pessimistic song, “Everything Goes To Hell” (2002), Tom Waits sings:

    There’s a few things that I never could believe:
    A woman when she weeps
    A merchant when he swears
    A thief who says he’ll pay
    A lawyer when he cares
    A snake when he is sleeping
    A drunkard when he prays…

So that got me thinking. And here are a few things that I never can believe:

  • A telemarketer who wants “just a few moments.”
  • A politician who talks about “our way of life.”
  • A church which describes itself as “Bible-based.”
  • A record company which produces “Christian music.”
  • A theologian who uses the word “tolerance.”
  • A TV preacher who says “glory to God!”

Ontology and argument

This is an interesting claim – do you think it’s true?

“One cannot argue for one ontological view of the world over another, because one’s ontology, even if it is uttered as the rejection of ontology, is the basis for, not the result of, one’s arguments.” —William Rasch, Sovereignty and Its Discontents: On the Primacy of Conflict and the Structure of the Political (London: Birkbeck Law Press, 2004), p. 103.

Wednesday 5 December 2007

Benedict XVI: spe salvi

Benedict XVI’s new encyclical on Christian hope is now available online: Spe Salvi (30 November 2007). You gotta like a pope who can quote Kant, Dostoevsky, Adorno, de Lubac, and an obscure Vietnamese martyr – all in a single encyclical! The writer of a recent Telegraph article related this anecdote: “A colleague, staring at the Pope’s latest encyclical, remarked, ‘There’s no news here. It’s all about God’.” One can scarcely imagine a higher compliment for this theologian-pope.

Here are a couple of excerpts on the relation between faith and the future:

“[T]he Christian message was not only ‘informative’ but ‘performative’. That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known – it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open [Obscura porta temporis, venturi temporis, aperta est].” (2)

“Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for…. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet’. The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future.” (7)

And I especially appreciate what Benedict has to say about hell and purgation:

“Christ descended into ‘Hell’ and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light.” (37)

“Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.” (47)

The eternal book meme

Amazingly, the one book meme (started here at F&T back in July 2006) is still circulating through cyberspace! There are a lot of recent examples all over the place....

Monday 3 December 2007

Christians and The Golden Compass

by Kim Fabricius

While Richard Dawkins and his crack troops are busy shooting fundamentalist fish in a barrel, the Catholic League in the US, up in arms over the celluloid version of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (the first instalment of the trilogy, His Dark Materials), is now taking steady aim at its own foot by calling for a mass boycott on this “atheism for kids.”

Hey, objects this kid, where are the Presbyterians and the Anglicans? In the novel the head of the wicked Magisterium is Pope John Calvin, while Pullman has called St Lewis’ The Narnia Chronicles “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I have ever read.” Let’s at least be ecumenical in our vilification of the film. I should be careful: the ultra-evangelical Christian Voice in the UK, infamous for its attacks on Jerry Springer: The Opera, doesn’t do irony.

Of course Pullman does have the church in his sights. Indeed he is on record as saying that “My books are about killing God.” I just hope that The Golden Compass faithfully executes the deicide that the author so imaginatively conceived and elegantly crafted in the novel.

For the death of this God would actually do the church a great service. He is the god Pullman’s mentor and fellow iconoclast William Blake, whose 250th birthday we celebrated last Wednesday, called Old Nobodaddy, who bears as little relation to the God Jesus called Abba as the straw deity that the New Atheists so tediously torch. This god, who is finally defeated in the third book of the trilogy, is a bearded old fart “of terrifying decrepitude, of a face sunken in wrinkles, of trembling hands and a mumbling mouth and rheumy eyes.” He is the object more of ridicule than indignation (one thinks of the satire on idolatry in Isaiah 44).

The real target of Pullman’s animus is not this impotent wretch but his grand inquisitors who deploy religion in the (dis)service of control and repression, the ecclesiastical authority so savagely pilloried by Blake in “The Garden of Love”:

    And I saw it was filled with graves,
    And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
    And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
    And binding with briars my joys & desires.

As Rowan Williams, a great fan of Pullman, has written: “What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety – and so with violence. In a sense, you could say that a mortal God needs to be killed.”

But the narrative does more than smash empty idols, expose institutional hypocrisy, and condemn vice – “cruelty, intolerance, zealotry, fanaticism … well, who could quarrel with that?” asks Pullman – it inculcates what are decidedly Christian values. Pullman’s coming-of-age story is articulated in terms of growth in wisdom. Here is the winsome heroine, Lyra, reflecting at the very end of the trilogy on selflessness and truthfulness, the virtues it takes to create anything good, beautiful, and enduring: “We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard, all of us, in our different worlds, and then we’ll build.” If such values are indicative of a “pernicious atheist agenda,” bring on the AOB.

Okay, Pullman’s onslaught is unrelenting, his didacticism can get the better of his art, and for a writer so knowledgeable about a literary tradition steeped in Christian faith – not only Blake and, of course, Milton (“his dark materials” comes from Paradise Lost), but also, among others, Edmund Spenser, George Herbert, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson – he can be theologically quite obtuse, if not without flashes of insight.

But that’s not the point. The point, for the church, is the embarrassing mini Magisterium of Christian Pharisees and Philistines who prove the point Pullman is making. And the ultimate irony: there is nothing like a good boycott to market a product. Popcorn, anyone?

Sunday 2 December 2007

T. F. Torrance: a eulogy

A guest-post by George Hunsinger

Thomas Forsyth Torrance (1913-2007), who died peaceably in Edinburgh on December 2nd, was arguably the greatest Reformed theologian since Karl Barth, with whom he studied, and an eminent 20th century ecumenist. Having served for 27 years as Professor of Christian Dogmatics at New College, he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1976; and in 1978, he was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion for his contributions to the emerging field of theology and science.

In theology he generally placed himself somewhere between Calvin and Barth, though also moving well beyond them. An accomplished patristics scholar, he devoted himself to Eastern Orthodox–Reformed dialogue, being highly esteemed among the Orthodox for his ecumenical spirit and his grasp of primary sources in the original languages. He once surprised me by saying that his favorite theologian was Athanasius, whom he placed in illuminating relationship with Barth. An icon of the great Alexandrian appears as the frontispiece to his The Trinitarian Faith (1988), an exposition of the Nicene Creed which remains perhaps the most accessible of his numerous learned works.

Besides the theologian, the ecumenist, and the church leader, there were at least three other Torrances: the translator, the interdisciplinary theologian, and the historian of doctrine. English-speaking theology stands greatly in his debt for his monumental efforts in editing and translating not only Calvin’s New Testament commentaries but also Barth’s voluminous dogmatics. His interest in Einstein and modern physics from the standpoint of Nicene Christianity has yet to be adequately assessed. Least well known, perhaps, is his work as an intellectual historian. Scattered throughout many journals is a series of essays on virtually every major figure in the history of doctrine, though alongside Athanasius he had a special fondness for Gregory Nazianzen and Hilary of Poitiers.

In breadth of learning, depth of scholarship, quality of output, ecumenical conviction, and devotion to the Nicene faith, theology and church will not soon see another like him.

Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007)

I’ve just heard the sad news that Thomas F. Torrance died today, 2 December 2007, at 2:45 am. Torrance’s work has profoundly shaped and influenced the contemporary theological landscape; Alister McGrath was right to describe him as “the greatest British theologian of the twentieth century.”

Torrance’s contributions to theology have included editing the English translation of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, founding the Scottish Journal of Theology, pioneering Reformed–Eastern Orthodox ecumenical dialogue, and authoring dozens of works on constructive theology. His most significant dogmatic works focused on the doctrine of the Trinity and on the relation between theology and science.

In an earlier post, Ray Anderson has spoken of Torrance’s deep personal faith – a faith which resonates through all his theological endeavours: “Born in China of Scottish missionary parents, Torrance was as comfortable talking about his personal relationship with Jesus as he was lecturing to an assembly of world class physicists.”


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.