Thursday 28 February 2008

Richard Rorty on liberal theology

In an interview, Richard Rorty has offered a very memorable assessment of liberal theology:

“I’m delighted that liberal theologians do their best to do what Pio Nono said shouldn’t be done – try to accommodate Christianity to modern science, modern culture, and democratic society. If I were a fundamentalist Christian, I’d be appalled by the wishy-washiness of [the liberal] version of the Christian faith. But since I am a non-believer who is frightened of the barbarity of many fundamentalist Christians (e.g. their homophobia), I welcome theological liberalism. Maybe liberal theologians will eventually produce a version of Christianity so wishy-washy that nobody will be interested in being a Christian anymore. If so, something will have been lost, but probably more will have been gained.”

I can hardly imagine a more acute commentary on certain forms of contemporary Protestant theology. Is this not, in fact, the precise goal of many theologians (e.g. Cupitt, Spong) – “to produce a version of Christianity so wishy-washy that nobody will be interested in being a Christian anymore”?

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Of the displaying of many books, there is no end

Matt Selman (of The Simpsons fame) has a delightful post on the rules of bookshelf etiquette, including the rule that “it is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it.” Then Ezra Klein responded with a humorous rejoinder: “Bookshelves are not for displaying books you’ve read. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be.”

And now Scott McLemee responds by insisting that bookshelves exist simply for storage rather than for performance-of-self. And he makes this nice point: “My experience (which can’t be unique) is that some books end up accumulating out of a misguided attempt to win the approval of authors already well-entrenched on my shelves.”

In my home right now, we’re trying to build a new study, since we’ve run out of room. So in my present circumstances – crammed into a corner of a noisy living room, hunched nervously at my desk between tottering piles of books – I’ve discovered that there is only one essential rule of library management: Don’t bump the books with your elbow, or they will topple down and crush you.

Monday 25 February 2008

Time to doubt your salvation

Halden has posted this little gem from Stanley Hauerwas – some questions which he asked a group of trainee youth pastors in Princeton:

  • How many of you worship in a church with an American flag? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
  • How many of you worship in a church in which the fourth of July is celebrated? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
  • How many of you worship in a church that recognizes Thanksgiving? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
  • How many of you worship in a church that celebrates January 1 as the “New Year”? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
  • How many of you worship in a church that recognizes “Mother’s Day”? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
Of course, things are a little different here in Australia – we never bother much with patriotic gestures, except perhaps at a football game. But I did once visit a church where they prayed solemnly for God's blessing on “our Queen” and for “the success of our troops” – at which point, I felt pretty sure that the odds on my salvation were getting longer...

John Zizioulas and George Hunsinger

This new work by Zizioulas will definitely be something to look out for later in the year. You can see the table of contents here.

And in other happy news, it looks as though George Hunsinger's long-awaited book on the eucharist should also be out before too long.

Saturday 23 February 2008

Rowan Williams on F&T

Recently here at F&T we had a poll to determine the world’s best theologian – and you might remember that Rowan Williams won by a decisive margin.

Anyway, David Williamson was recently interviewing the Archbishop, and towards the end of the interview he mentioned this blog-poll. When Rowan Williams heard that he had won the poll, he guffawed in astonishment and replied: “Did I? Good grief! Well, some people need to get out more.”

So there you have it, folks: an official (and very accurate) pronouncement on this blog, straight from the Chair of St Augustine…

Friday 22 February 2008

Theology and disability

Elizabeth Lynch reviews a new book on theology and down syndrome. Which reminds me: in a local bookstore, I recently met a chap who is very interested in exploring theologies of disability. He asked me for some reading suggestions, but it’s not an area that I know much about. So if anyone wants to offer some good reading tips, I’d be glad to pass them on to him.

Wednesday 20 February 2008

Metaphysics and the God of Israel: Neil MacDonald replies

Note: Last week I posted a critical review of Neil MacDonald’s new book, and I invited him to respond. So he has kindly written this detailed reply.


I would like to thank you very much for your review of my Metaphysics and the God of Israel, and for the responses to the review and the book. Having now seen the stream of responses, I should say from the outset that I have absolutely no problem with the kind of criticism directed toward what I have written! It would be kind of hypocritical to write a book of this kind and not expect – indeed, not want – its fundamental hypotheses to be subjected to criticism Popperian-style. If the main claims of the book are deficient then we must come up with something better.

I would rather think in terms of defending my little book rather than defending myself. I don’t mind being criticized at all (my wife does it frequently), but when it comes to my little book I feel I must step in. So when I reached the point in your review where you speak of finding the book “a little disappointing and a little unconvincing,” I felt its honour should be defended. Interestingly, it was the very same matter that seemed to worry Professor Stephen Webb most in a recent review (so you are in good company).

You say that concepts in dogmatic theology ought to have “real explanatory power” (material explanation) rather than operate in the realm of “tautology.” I couldn’t agree more. So let us look again at what I say. Let me take up one of my central examples of divine self-determination at work: God determined himself to be the one who created all things; therefore he is the one who created all things; therefore, the (this) world was created by God. Is this a tautology? I don’t think it is. I don’t think this can be said to be a tautology or not to satisfy the criterion of material explanation.

There is a simple reason for this. The initial proposition involves a verb describing an action: (a) God determining himself, and (b) determining himself in a particular way, usually an action described by a uniquely identifying description. It certainly would have been something more akin to tautology had it not involved an action-descriptor. Suppose I had said “Jones is six feet tall; therefore he is over five feet nine inches tall” – or better: “God is the creator of the world; therefore, the world was created by God”; then we would be in the realm of mere logical consistency. That our language here is elevated to the level of verbs rather than adjectives makes a fundamental difference here.

I agree with your example – “All men are cabbages; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is a cabbage” – but I don’t think it is relevant. We know it is not true that all men are cabbages (because we know some that are not) – so none of us would wish seriously to discuss this argument, whether or not it is valid. On the other hand: if the premise of my book’s particular argument in Part I is true then the ensuing inferences, implications, and conclusions are I think interesting.

The point is this: if my argument is logically consistent then clearly divine self-determination would be an explanation of the world – if divine self-determination as regards satisfying the action descriptor “the one who created [verb: always look for the action!] the world” is true. And it seems to me it is worth considering whether it is true, because then it would be the explanation of, e.g., the world (but only if the argument is logically consistent of course!).


Another way of putting the same point is: supposing that the very world in which I breathe, eat, sleep and so forth had come into existence by God determining himself to be its creator – what follows from this claim? Initial answer: I can say that the world in which I breathe, eat, sleep, etc, was created by God (Israel’s God). I can say it. And I can say it rationally and without any kind of timidity in the face of non-Christian intellectuals! (I can say more of course, and I will come to this). To paraphrase something Hans Frei said in a review of Eberhard Busch’s biography of Barth: a theologian is about imaginatively re-describing the biblical world in such a way that it comes to be recognized or at least taken seriously as the very same world in which we live.

As I said, Stephen Webb’s review makes a similar criticism when speaking of the argument: God determined himself to be in our time; therefore he is in our time; therefore our time has God in it. He says this is a tautology. It isn’t. “God is in our time; therefore God is in time” – this is a tautology. What I have above is a material explanation. If God is in our time, how did he get there? Possible answer: he determined himself to be in our time (here we have an action sentence).


But there is another issue. We have to decide whether this is divine self-determination without natural theology or divine self-determination with natural theology. Granted that God determined himself, which specific instance of self-determination took place? I ask this because I don’t think we can say that divine self-determination necessarily excludes natural theology: “God determines himself to be the creator of the world” is clearly compatible with natural theology (e.g. “God determined himself to be the creator of all things in accord with his nature”).

Divine self-determination is basic and sufficient in itself for the truth of God creating the world. This means that divine self-divine determination can take place in such a way that renders natural theology false (and therefore conditionally impossible as it were – in the world in which we live). I put it this way in the book:

“If we were to represent the world in terms of a package, we could imagine it to be stamped with the words ‘created by God’. But note well: the stamp itself tells us nothing about the package itself other than the fact that it was created by God. It tells us nothing about the package itself, regarding its contents, for example. In other words, the stamp tells us nothing about the natural properties of the package. The stamp acts simply as a designator, not a description” (p. 33).

“Crucially then: we cannot infer from the natural properties of the package to the claim that it was created by God. The natural properties of the package are not the reason that the package is stamped with the words ‘created by God’. What explains the stamp is that God determined himself to be the creator of the package. Nothing more and nothing less” (p. 33).

In order to explain this concept, in Part I of the book I invoked a thought experiment of two identical worlds – identical in terms of natural processes and laws – only one of which God has created. If this was possible, and if it turned out that our world is the one created by God (as it is obviously in the book), then our world is a world in which any kind of natural theology – be it based on motion, cause and effect, gravitational constants, etc. – is impossible.

Our answer to the question, whether “all things” is truly designated by the predicate “created by God” can only be based on the answer to the question, whether God has determined himself to be the creator of all things. This and this alone. It is creation “from above” rather than “from below.” Moreover: according to this account, God does not act through his nature (if he has one), but he acts as a divine self-determining person. It is a kind of “neo-Chalcedonian” account of divine action, and of creation in particular.


But if natural theology is possible in our world, then this world cannot have an identical world not made by God. I follow Brian Davies’ excellent book, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (pp. 62-64). Davies quotes Herbert McCabe on Aquinas’s conception of cause: a cause is “a thing exerting itself, having its influence or imposing its character on the world.” He continues: “On this account, to know that A caused B is to understand B as something that flows from the nature of A, something brought about by A insofar as it is acting in its characteristic way.” This means that, for Aquinas, “a cause and its effect are intimately connected. They are not simply instances of objects or events which we observe to be constantly conjoined as the philosopher David Hume suggested. In what way are cause and effect intimately connected? An effect, for Aquinas, can be said to flow from (or even: participate in) its cause because the cause is a thing of a certain kind with a definite way of being or working.”

To quote McCabe on Aquinas: “When you know what something is, you know what it is likely to do – indeed it is the same thing fully to understand the nature of a thing and to know what it will naturally do. Thus a causal explanation is one in terms of the natural behaviour of things. When you have found the cause there is no further question about why this cause should naturally produce this effect, to understand the cause is just to understand that it naturally produces this effect” (McCabe, God Matters, p. 101). This, in essence, is Aquinas’s analysis of causation. For Davies, this is no less relevant to Aquinas’s view of God’s relation to the natural world: “Things in the world reflect or reveal something of what [God] is because they come from him, because he is their cause or that from which they flow.”

Now from the point of view of this analysis, the reason there cannot be an identical world not created by God is that this world created as it was by God has God’s character flowing through it, in the sense that it is the effect that the cause would naturally produce were it to produce a world. And since God’s nature has a sui generis character, there can only be one such world. For Aquinas, then: no identical world not created by God. Nevertheless, we can see how natural theology is entirely plausible: God’s nature continues to function as a description of the nature of the world in virtue of Aquinas’s analysis of causation. It is not a mere designator!

Of course, I am inclined to think I cannot accept Aquinas’s analysis of causation because it presupposes natural theology. So my analysis of divine self-determination without natural theology does not presuppose Aquinas’s analysis of causation! In fact it really only presupposes that God is a person, not that he has a nature. That is, even if God has a nature, it is not relevant to the nature of the world. God does not require a nature to act. As to the question whether God has a nature, I will only point out that Claus Westermann makes it clear that, in creation, the people of Israel only identify God in his acts and do not presuppose a being as it were behind the acts.


But let me end, Ben, on your fascinating thematic point of departure from which you launched your review. You say that you have been “thinking a lot lately about the relation between nature and grace.” If I were asked to say where the historical precedent for my view of divine action lies, I would say it lies with Luther. Think of Luther’s claim on God as the promising divine identity who promises us forgiveness of sins and, by extension, the gift of eternal life. Without going into the details of Luther’s thought on this matter: suppose I believe myself to be precisely the one who has been promised eternal life in this way. If this is true, then God has promised me the gift of eternal life – which means that my belief is true. But now suppose an identical world in which I exist but God does not. In this world, I also believe that I have been promised the gift of eternal life. But it is not true, I am wrong. But of course the two worlds are identical in this regard. There is no difference as regards my “ontic” status between one world and the other.

This is of course not true in Aquinas’s world as regards grace. For Aquinas, in the world which God created and in which I believe I have received grace, I receive an “ontic” infusion of grace. In the world which God didn’t create (and which doesn’t exist) and in which I believe I have received grace, I do not receive an “ontic” infusion of grace. So for Aquinas, the worlds are not identical.

Daphne Hampson’s book, Christian Contradictions, speaks of a distinction between Catholic (Thomist) and Protestant (Lutheran) approaches to grace in terms of an “ontic” model and a “status of relations” model. What I have to say corresponds to these two different kinds of models. I found her book very illuminating and, after I had finished the Metaphysics book, it made me think of writing a kind of sequel, placing the work in the historical context of the contrasts between the Thomistic and Lutheran visions.

So there are these two great – perhaps irreducible – theological traditions, and I belong to the tradition of Luther, Bultmann (think of his undemythologisable analogical understanding of divine action), and Barth.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Ask Rowan Williams a question

Got a question for Rowan Williams? Maggi Dawn will be interviewing him (together with the Archbishop of York) in a special “interview for the blog-world.” So if you’ve got a question you’d like to ask, just tell Maggi.

Monday 18 February 2008

Hearing God

This morning, I overheard this conversation between my two daughters (aged 5 and 3):

Older sister: You know, we can never hear God.
Younger sister: Yes we can!
Older sister: No, we can never hear him.
Younger sister: But I hear God every time I say the word God. You watch: God. See, I just heard “God”!

I don’t know about you, but I was impressed – there’s an entire theory of language here which deftly and elegantly resolves the hotly debated question of whether human beings can hear God. Perhaps my little daughter has been reading the pre-Socratics – it was Zeno who said, “If you say cart, a cart passes through your mouth.”

Ideology, predestination, and the stories we tell

In one of his fascinating little fragments, the Jesuit thinker Michel de Certeau describes the social function of narratives: “Information, a private code, innervates and saturates the social body. From morning till evening, unceasingly, streets and buildings are haunted by narratives. [The narratives] articulate our existences by teaching us what they should be…. Seized from the moment of awakening by the radio (the voice of the law), the listener walks all day through a forest of narrativities, journalistic, advertising and televised, which, at night, slip a few final messages under the door of sleep. More than the God recounted to us by the theologians of the past, these tales have a function of providence and predestination: they organize our work, our celebrations – even our dreams – in advance” (The Certeau Reader, p. 125).

I rather like this connection between cultural narratives and predestination. Certeau’s “more than” here is not mere rhetoric, but it seems exactly right. The classical Christian belief in an all-determining providence was at the same time a belief in the hiddenness of the divine determination. True, you interpreted all your daily circumstances through a specific theological lens, but in this very act of interpretation you were presupposing a gap between “appearance” and “reality” – or rather, your consciousness itself was this gap.

In contrast, the “forest of narrativities” of which Certeau speaks is much more predestining, since here the gap between appearance and reality collapses. The cluster of narratives which organises our consciousness and even our dreams – that is “reality”; reality is that representation. This disappearance of the gap between reality and appearance is close to Slavoj Žižek’s definition of ideology: “ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ideological” (The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 21). Or as Žižek memorably puts it in his marvellous film, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the illusion of the cinema screen is more real – it has more material “density”, more effectivity – than reality itself.

There is nothing “more real” than the stories we tell ourselves; it’s stories all the way down. And the church exists to tell a different story – to create spaces, for instance, “in which alternative stories about material goods are told” (William Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, p. 94), so that a different kind of social order can emerge. Or to return to Certeau’s remarkable insight – “even our dreams” are organised by ideology – perhaps, as Christians, we need to ask ourselves whether we dream differently.

A spare laptop, anyone?

Poor Joey has had a bad week. Anyone got a spare laptop?

Sunday 17 February 2008

Here and there

Friday 15 February 2008

A dash of Beckett

My favourite 20th-century writer is Samuel Beckett. No writer makes me laugh more; no writer (except Milton) fills me with more dread.

At the moment I’m filling my leisure time with Alan Badiou’s book on Beckett, together with Andrew Gibson’s new study, Beckett and Badiou: The Pathos of Intermittency (Oxford UP, 2007). And I’ve also been watching some of the performances in the flawed but lovable Beckett on Film series. As one of Beckett’s own characters puts it: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.” Oh, how I love it!

So anyway, in this Beckettian mood, I was delighted to come across this hilarious piece of spoof journalism in The Onion: “archivists analyzing papers from [Beckett’s] Paris estate uncovered a small stack of blank paper that scholars are calling ‘the latest example of the late Irish-born writer’s genius’. The 23 blank pages, which literary experts presume is a two-act play composed some time between 1973 and 1975, are already being heralded as one of the most ambitious works by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Waiting for Godot…”

On a more theological note, one of my favourite moments in Waiting for Godot is Lucky’s thinking scene, which you can see on YouTube. It’s a great speech, and it includes some important doctrinal elucidations about “the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattman of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell…”

Thursday 14 February 2008

Some nice prizes

Hooray, we’ve won a competition! As mentioned earlier, these prizes will go to a couple of F&T readers. So the Amazon gift voucher is going out to Chris from Disruptive Grace. And if you’d like the Greek New Testament, just leave a quick comment here, and tomorrow I’ll randomly/arbitrarily choose one commenter as the winner. Many thanks to Going to Seminary for these great prizes!

Update: Congratulations to our winner, Tia.

Wednesday 13 February 2008

The apology and the moral significance of guilt

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

Like many Australians, I watched today’s carefully staged media drama unfold. From the unprecedented “welcome to country” that marked the commencement of Parliament on Tuesday, to Kevin Rudd’s delivery of the “historic” apology, and his subsequent interaction with a number of invited guests – the whole ordeal reeked of kitsch, empty ceremony and pretence. Quite frankly, I thought it was an overblown PR exercise for the new Federal Government, and that it verged on pandering to latent racist feeling in this nation.

And so, while there are many leaders, elders, politicians, academics, journalists and clergy who have welcomed the events of today with fanfare and enthusiasm, I’m afraid I can’t join their number. Because, in the immortal words of The Princess Bride, I don’t think this apology means what they think it means.

Let me be clear. There is no denying the inherent rightness of apologising to those generations of Aboriginal families whose lives have been destroyed by the ignorance and bigotry of white Australia. There is no question that this apology will be received as a long-overdue official show of respect after the prolonged and disgraceful humiliation of “a proud people and a proud culture” (to use Rudd’s own language). And there is no alternative but to hope and pray that this “sorry” acts as a catalyst for the grieving and healing process – the beginning of the cathartic “sorry business” for which indigenous Australians have waited for so long.

Nevertheless, this apology (like so much of the moral tokenism we perform today, superficial acts of charity designed to make us feel better about ourselves) seems to me to have been internally corrupted by wanton self-interest and political expedience. In this instance, it is particularly important to remember Immanuel Kant’s assertion that the moral worth of an act lies not in its commission but in its intention.

So, what was the motivation behind the apology? Or, to put this question another way: for whom was this apology intended? Throughout the coverage of the apology, I couldn’t shake the sense that the indigenous Australians included in the televised spectacle – whether invited guests in Parliament House or the dozens of emotion-filled faces from around the country – were little more than props. Their role was to express and register the emotional content of the event. But the apology was not intended for them. The true recipients of the apology were those white Australians who watched and wanted to be made to feel as if they had taken part in something good. Rather than being left to listen and grieve and celebrate in private, these indigenous Australians were made to take part in a kind of emotional pornography for the benefit of thousands of white Australian viewers who wanted to feel, as Noel Pearson rightly put it, “the warm inner glow that will come from having said sorry.”

For me, this leads to an inescapable conclusion. The reason that Kevin Rudd had to reiterate that this apology “does not attribute guilt to the current generation of Australian people” is not because we don’t believe we are complicit in the misery of indigenous Australians, but because we know that we are and don’t want to have to admit as much. As a nation, we have a pathological aversion to guilt precisely because of the objective guilt we all share.

In his recent essay in The Australian, Noel Pearson made the stunning claim that “Aboriginal people’s lives were stolen by history.” It wasn’t simply that children were taken from their families, but the very capacity of Aboriginal people to “to pursue any form of sustainable and decent life” was taken from them “in the wake of European occupation and indigenous dispossession.” It is as if indigenous Australians are systemically excluded from the very cultural and economic way of life that was brought to this land with the occupation.

Pearson here points to a kind of objective guilt that goes far deeper than the bare acknowledgment of past injustices, however brutal. It is a guilt that we can neither admit nor address without acknowledging the unjustifiability of our very existence as a nation, as well as the inherent inequity of the global economy in which we participate and through which we prosper. It is not simply that crimes have been committed by our forebears; it is we ourselves, in our very Antipodean and capitalist existence, that are wrong.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Success alone justifies injustice done. Guilt is scarred over, or cicatrized, by success.” Our prosperity as a nation, aided and abetted by tokenistic acts of penance – such as Rudd’s apology – have enabled us to repress and ultimately deny our guilt as white Australians. But there can be no turning of the page, no meaningful advance toward genuine reconciliation, without a willingness to tell the truth about ourselves, to lay bare and accept our guilt.

This sort of national repentance would demand language far closer to Paul Keating’s Redfern address, with its overtly collective language and devastating litany of white crimes (“we took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life … we committed the murders … we practised discrimination and exclusion … it was our ignorance and our prejudice”), rather than Rudd’s languid prose.

And because our culpability is not simply past, but is now being repeated in the exclusionary logic of the Australian economy, such national repentance would have to include the provision of tax-payer funded compensation to indigenous Australians.

Kevin Rudd knew that if either of these measures – accepting our guilt and providing compensation – were adopted in the apology, the groundswell of popular support would evaporate. Perhaps this is the final proof that the apology was little more than a spectacle for white Australians and a vanity exercise for a fledgling Prime Minister who needs people to love him.

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Three poems: a guest-post by John Milbank

In response to my recent post, John Milbank was kind enough to send me his unpublished poetry, some of which is quite extraordinary (including a magnificent epic on the mythic history of England). And he has kindly allowed me to reproduce a few of his shorter poems here – so here are three of my favourites.

Three Revelations in Gloucestershire

Crimped oak-tree
by the centuries set
with slow lightning,
whose zigzags are as sure
as they are sudden.

The shock of endurance.
Pure gold pours gift
of the sun’s cornlight
through the slatternly opening
of the slanting gateposts.

The bold of the evening.
Broad original shadow
extends the wood’s domain
over the golden stubble
in the passing twilight.

A rare, a ravishing most secret.

Considering Lilies

Looking for rain,
celestial water
above all ponds,
the weed-lilies of convulvulus
in September foregather in the hedgerows
like white bells for a late marriage
of a still beautiful virgin,
their pure glamour disparaged,
as gypsy-women are the tares of queendom,
more savagely still in their darkness
and more blowingly resplendent
through its untamed virtue.

Returning on the train in hope
after many years
of a better consummation, he
recalled the school bell’s autumn sound
which once confirmed yet interrupted
his childhood rural pasturage.
It had reached attractively and insidiously
across all fields and past them,
suspending forever nature’s mute
untimetabled instruction.
So we probe the stars with signals,
travel anywhere in lines and pay
in numbers if we get them right
for anything available.

While nature lost still stays our course,
like a vast golden shadow of background,
ever forgotten, ever present
to accuse us of a wholly inadequate answer
to her perennial welcome.
Why do the skies alter, the seas surge and yet
the earth stays firm on which we are planted
in order to till, walk ever onwards,
look upwards that we might re-consider always?
Shifting the soils like a horde of phantoms
has got us nowhere.
Gridding the earth with waves and networks
has communicated to us nothing.

The road bends: he longs to linger
by the gate’s opening perchance
to greet her. Lone winds leave
the fascinating clouds from which
the dark birds also swarm. The willowherb
grows in this season more freely than the grasses.

One Green Day

One green day
        with you above
the valley deep
                with promises
to market now
                        the road
                                so steep
a gradient of dreams
so light
        we rise
together and the vertiginous is wanted
for its near verticality
                        which is you for me
eased just enough from the precipice
for us to glide upwards thrilled
by the terror
                and yet the ease
before the plunge sideways
by the green sheltering deviation
that lies still higher yet before us
                                        you beside me.

Bonhoeffer blog conference

Halden is hosting a Bonhoeffer blog conference, focusing on “Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Contemporary Theology.” So if you enjoy a bit of Bonhoeffering, you might like to submit a proposal.

Sunday 10 February 2008

Mike Higton on Rowan Williams and sharia

Mike Higton, the world’s leading expert on Rowan Williams’ theology, has posted an extremely helpful analysis of Williams’ lecture. It’s a lengthy piece, but it’s well worth reading the whole thing carefully – you won’t find a better account anywhere of what Williams was really driving at in his lecture. Here are a few excerpts from Higton’s post:

“Despite everything you’ve heard and read, the most striking thing about Rowan Williams’ lecture is that he mounts a serious and impassioned defence of ‘Enlightenment values’…. He takes it for granted that we live in a largely secular, liberal, pluralist state. And his question is about the place that religion appropriately has in such a state.”

“Williams’ point is not really (I think) about what happens once someone has apparently broken the law and has appeared before the courts…. His point is rather broader. When we as a state are sorting out how things should run – when we are framing laws, when we are deliberating about how laws should actually be put into effect, when we are thinking about exceptional and borderline cases, when we are designing systems and procedures – we should do so in a way that takes account of the plurality of voices and identities that our state includes. That’s what it means to be a liberal, pluralist state…. So, in Williams’ view, it is proper that the state recognise that I am a Christian, and that the Christian church is one of my defining communities – and it should recognize that this fact does make some public difference.”

Be sure to read the whole post.

Rowan Williams and sharia: time for some satire

Kim has written a nice satirical piece about why St Paul should resign from his position; and he’s also written a song for the occasion, “Sharia!” (to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story).

This inspired me to write a limerick of my own:

        An archbishop once gave an oration
        On religion and law in our nation;
        When we heard what he said
        We all stoned him down dead,
        To protect our great civilisation.

Friday 8 February 2008

On sharia and hysteria: or, why Rowan Williams is right

It has been fascinating to observe all the hullabaloo over Rowan Williams’ recent lecture on sharia law. The press’s infallible capacity for misunderstanding is matched only by the politicians’ spectacular ignorance of jurisprudence – an ignorance best encapsulated in the Home Office minister’s response to Williams: “To ask us to fundamentally change the rule of law and to adopt Sharia law … is fundamentally wrong.” As though Williams had been calling for an overthrow of British law!

To be honest, I reckon the Archbishop’s biggest problem is simply that he’s so much smarter than anyone else in the Church, and of course infinitely smarter than the poor news media, who haven’t the faintest idea what he’s actually talking about. The result is a public spectacle of stunning, breathtaking misunderstanding. (Today, some outraged nincompoop in the English Church was even calling for Williams’ resignation...)

For a voice of reason, however, you can now hear our own Kim Fabricius going head-to-head on BBC radio with Peter Hitchens (editor of the Sunday Mail) – the best moment is where Kim forces Hitchens to confess that he hasn’t even read the lecture for himself! (Kim’s segment begins at 5:40 into the programme.)

Anyway, you can read Rowan Williams’ entire lecture for yourself here: it’s a dense, thoughtful, informed, and highly nuanced reflection (prepared for an audience of lawyers and jurists) on the complex relation between law, citizenship, and the identity of religious communities. Williams rightly critiques “a damagingly inadequate account of common life,” in which “particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities.” And he rightly critiques the tendency of a hegemonic rights-based philosophy to construe legal universality in such a way that “a person [is] defined primarily as the possessor of a set of abstract liberties, and the law’s function [is] accordingly seen as nothing but the securing of those liberties irrespective of the custom and conscience of those groups which concretely compose a plural modern society.” Is it true that wherever a right or liberty is granted, “there is a corresponding duty upon every individual to ‘activate’ this whenever called upon”?

In short, Rowan Williams wants us “to think a little harder about the role and rule of law in a plural society,” and to think more generally about the character of law itself. But thinking is hard work – and it’s neither as enjoyable as a good lynching, nor as satisfying as a posture of moral indignation.

Thursday 7 February 2008

Essential digitised texts for theologians

A publisher recently got in touch with me with a query about creating a digitised library of key theological texts. If you could have a digitised collection of about 30 key theological works (multi-volume works are fine), which books would you choose? (This can include historical theology, practical theology, etc – but no biblical studies, commentaries, etc).

Anyway, here’s a rough list of some of my suggestions – please add your own ideas as well, and I’ll pass all this on to the publisher. Thanks!

  • Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (3 vols)
  • J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines
  • Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma (7 vols)
  • Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition (5 vols)
  • Augustine, Works
  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae
  • Calvin, Institutes
  • Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics
  • Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (new edition, 14 vols)
  • Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics (2 vols)
  • Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God
  • Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith
  • Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World
  • David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order
  • George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine
  • Hans Frei, Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar, Trilogy (15 vols): Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, Theo-Logic
  • John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory
  • Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (3 vols)
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church
  • Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom
  • Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology
  • David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite
  • Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology (2 vols)
  • Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity
  • John Webster, Confessing God
  • Bruce McCormack, Orthodox and Modern (forthcoming)

Around the traps

Christian critiques Jeffrey Stout’s “subordination of the Christian narrative to the narrative of the state,” and Mark C. Taylor suggests that “we come closest to the gods in moments of play.” Halden offers a brilliant one-two punch on non-violence, including the memorable observation: “I can’t imagine a more minimalistic ethic than one that says we shouldn’t kill each other. Not killing people is easy.”

Meanwhile, I’ve started reading a very cool philosophy blog called Larval Subjects. And I’ve also been listening to Quentin Skinner’s marvellous public lecture on Milton and freedom: you can hear it as a podcast.

There are some forthcoming theology conferences which look very good: John Owen Today (with speakers like George Hunsinger, Stephen Holmes, Carl Trueman and Kelly Kapic), and Christology and Ethics (with speakers like John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, Wentzel van Huyssteen, Bernd Wannenwetsch and LeRon Shults).

And, best of all, Continuum’s popular “Guides for the Perplexed” series has now been taken up by T&T Clark, with an impressive lineup of planned theological titles (their first volume was on de Lubac) – you can check out their planned titles, and you might also like to suggest some additional perplexing topics for the series.

Wednesday 6 February 2008

A global silence

“As we now go about Americanizing the globe – excuse me – as we now go about extending the benefits of universal human rights that have been discovered by a universally valid procedure of rational communication, perhaps we ought to be aware of which differences we silently obliterate, and perhaps we ought to remember that the universality of a cosmopolitan language is necessarily also accompanied by the universality of a global silence.”

—William Rasch, Sovereignty and Its Discontents: On the Primacy of Conflict and the Structure of the Political (London: Birkbeck Law Press, 2004), p. 129.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Neil MacDonald: Metaphysics and the God of Israel

Neil B. MacDonald, Metaphysics and the God of Israel: Systematic Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 248 pp. (review copy courtesy of Baker Academic)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relation between nature and grace – a relation which is of fundamental significance for the whole structure of dogmatic theology. And Neil MacDonald’s book, Metaphysics and the God of Israel, is a remarkably creative and provocative attempt to rethink this relation – indeed, to rethink metaphysics as a whole – from the standpoint of divine self-determination.

MacDonald’s central thesis is simple enough: the mode of all divine action is self-determination. God acts by determining himself to be the one who acts. In other words, God acts by directing his own identity, by acting on his own being. According to MacDonald, all divine action can be understood along these lines. God is creator, for example, simply because he determines himself to be the world’s creator. This determination is strictly something God does to himself.

The book’s most insightful – and most challenging – thesis arises at this point: if God had not determined himself to be this world’s creator, the world would nevertheless be exactly the same, except that it would not be identified as God’s creature. “We are not saying this world … would be a different world in terms of its natural properties, were it not created by God,” MacDonald insists; indeed, “there could well have been … a world identical to the one we inhabit that was not created by God” (p. 34).

If we ask, then, how the predicate “created by God” can be true of the world “without it being the case that anything is said or implied about the natural or material properties of the world,” MacDonald replies that the predicate “created by God” simply describes something God does to himself. It “does not imply anything at all” about the nature of the world (p. 35).

This line of argument is, of course, an extremely radical reassertion of Barth’s critique of natural theology. Here, there is no inherent connection between creator and creature, nature and grace. The only point of contact lies in God’s own self-determining act – an act which is itself the wholly contingent, wholly unnecessary relation between God and world.

This understanding of creation, MacDonald notes, “minimizes the importance of any … interaction between theology and science,” since “one could have two identical worlds one of which it would be true to say that God determined himself to be the creator of it and the other not” (p. 40). In a nutshell, what this means is: no natural theology!

MacDonald also argues that his concept of self-determination can lay the basis for a new “biblical metaphysics” which can account for the way God acts in relation to the world. Just as God becomes the world’s creator through an act of self-determination, so God “gets himself into the world” by determining himself to be in a personal space-time relationship with his creature (p. 67). Against the classical conception of God as acting providentially in history “from eternity,” MacDonald insists that God has a place in the world, and that God acts from within the world’s history. God determines himself to be part of his creation, to remain in our time after the act of creation (this, MacDonald says, is the meaning of the seventh day of creation in Gen. 2:2-3). God therefore “has time,” he “has a history.” In contrast to a classical metaphysical construction in which God eternally determines what will happen in time, MacDonald thus argues that God simply “determines himself to be within our time,” so that God “comes along with us” in personal relationship (p. 79).

Further, God determines himself to be infinitely temporal and infinitely spatial, so that he has a time and place within the world which is nevertheless “peculiar and exclusive to him … as one of the divine perfections” (p. 86). And if we want to understand the nature of this peculiar divine (ad intra!) space, we must point to the resurrection: “to say Jesus has been raised is to say that he is in God’s space, the space peculiar and exclusive to God” (p. 89). On this basis, MacDonald also sketches a christological reformulation, according to which “human history [is] ... present to God ad intra,” so that (following Richard Bauckham) the human identity of Jesus is the divine identity (p. 239).

This whole book bristles with vigorous insights, surprising possibilities, and explosive ideas (for just one remarkable example, see the penetrating interpretation of das Nichtige, in a footnote on p. 217) – and each stage of the argument is developed through skirmishes into Old Testament exegesis, historical theology, modern philosophy, and Barthian dogmatics. In the end, however, I must admit I found the book a little disappointing and a little unconvincing. The problem, I think, is that MacDonald’s concept of self-determination remains too narrowly formalistic and analytical, so that one is left with the feeling that this concept just doesn’t do very much after all.

MacDonald has a lot to say about logic and rationality, and he suggests that the “litmus test” for his thesis is whether it is “logically consistent” (p. 133). But logical consistency is hardly an adequate litmus test for a theological proposal of this scope. When the problem of God’s spatiality is raised, for example – in what sense can God said to be spatial if his location cannot be defined by geometrical description? – MacDonald merely assures us: “it is enough that ‘God determines himself to be in a place in this world’ … is a logically consistent claim” (p. 117). But this is clearly not enough – not by half – since there’s all the difference in the world between the (minimal) formal requirement of logical consistency and the material requirement of a convincing explanation. Concepts in dogmatic theology ought to have real explanatory power; even if they can’t clear up every problem, they should certainly “prove themselves” by reaching explanatorily beyond the safe circle of tautology (after all, any tautology is logically invincible – but that doesn’t mean it explains very much!).

It seems to me that MacDonald could thus refine his proposal, not by altering its fundamental thesis – that the mode of divine action is self-determination – but by allowing the formal questions of “rationality” and “logical consistency” to recede into the background, and by concentrating explicitly on the development of a more expansive, more differentiated, and more discursive account of self-determination. Of course, Karl Barth’s doctrine of election is itself precisely such an attempt to develop an expansive christological conception of divine being as self-determining being – and Barth’s own ontological construction (cf. also the interpretive work of Robert Jenson and Bruce McCormack) clearly indicates that the concept of self-determination need not be reduced to tautology, but can exercise extraordinary explanatory power which makes itself felt in every corner of the dogmatic loci.

I voice these criticisms, then, as a friend and ally of MacDonald’s proposal. I think a new ontological vision of divine action as divine self-determination is precisely the way forwards for contemporary dogmatics; and I believe one of the resources for this ontological thinking is a radical recovery of Barth’s critique of natural theology (as a corollary of Barth’s christological actualism). So I think MacDonald’s proposal is of tremendous value, even if the concept of self-determination needs to be developed in a much more refined and more expansive way than it is here.

One final note: in my opinion, MacDonald’s radical critique of natural theology – “the world would be the same even if God didn’t create it!” – is a stunning intervention in contemporary theology (where, in most quarters, “creation” has become an axiom which wholly determines the structure of christology, reconciliation, eschatology, etc). Nevertheless, I don’t think I agree with MacDonald’s suggestion that this stance eliminates the significance of dialogue with the natural sciences.

On the contrary, dialogue with science may play a crucial role in interpreting the “site” or “situation” (to borrow Badiou’s terminology) in which the event of God’s self-determining action takes place. If God interrupts the natural order in a new event of self-relation to the world (thus constituting the world as “creature”), then it is of great significance to understand what kind of world this is which God interrupts and reconfigures. For example: the core event on which theology reflects is the resurrection of Jesus; and although this event is unthinkable for natural science, the site of this event (i.e. a dead human body) is an object of scientific knowledge, and it is precisely this site which the resurrection interrupts and reconfigures (i.e. without this corpse, there could be no resurrection).

In other words, although there is no direct trajectory from scientific knowledge to a knowledge of divine action, science may nevertheless help us to understand the situation in which the divine action takes place, and the kind of reconfiguring which this action produces. And if this is the case, might it also be possible that a profoundly atheistic interpretation of the natural world is in fact more useful for theological reflection than any explicitly religious reading of nature?

Sunday 3 February 2008

Yoder on Barth on Christendom

Commenting on Karl Barth’s section on church law (CD IV/2, §67.4), John Howard Yoder writes: “Barth is affirming for the first time in mainstream … theology since Constantine the theological legitimacy of admitting about a set of social structures, that those who participate in them cannot be presumed to be addressable from the perspective of Christian confession.”

—John Howard Yoder, “Why Ecclesiology Is Social Ethics: Gospel Ethics Versus the Wider Wisdom,” in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 108.

Saturday 2 February 2008

Foreign-language book reviews

The excellent review journal, Reviews in Religion and Theology, has now launched a new section of foreign-language book reviews. In his March 2008 editorial, Philip McCosker writes: “The aim is to provide accurate and engaging reviews of significant foreign books, not only to increase awareness of what is going on in these other linguistically hidden discourses, … but also perhaps to counteract some of the apparent hegemony of the English language in theology and religious studies.”

If you’re interested in reviewing books for this new section of the journal, you can contact Philip McCosker with a list of your interests and reading languages.

Encountering the Word of God: against effective preaching

A guest-post by Ray S. Anderson

The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. It is an event in which speaker and listener surrender control to the other; it is like an act of love.

When the event of Word of God occurs, the blind can see what is often hidden from the eyes of the sighted – mere human words ignite the burning bush that draws both to the terrible truth of holy ground. One does not take notes when God speaks. When God speaks, a Word is worth a thousand pictures.

The effect of the Word of God is the Word of God (Isa. 55:11). When Jesus stooped to draw in the sand (John 8:6-8) he did not write something to be remembered but used the tactic to disarm and disturb the cynical power of his critics, and to assume authority for Word of God. No one remembered what he had drawn in the sand but all knew that his words to the woman were words of grace rather than judgment. A picture, a symbol, an icon, a melody can only enhance the event when they are consumed by the fire rather than extinguishing it, as they are sure to do when they become a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Every attraction is also a detraction.

“The call to worship God can mean the temptation to idolatry,” wrote Karl Barth, but this is a call that cannot be avoided (CD II/1, p. 55). The very thing that is intended to serve the Word of God – including the voice and demeanor of the preacher – can detract or deflect from it. If we imagine that by using some kind of visual or audio aid the preaching of Word of God can be more edifying or even more believable, we may be indulging in cheap magic rather than encountering divine mystery. This is the fascination of idolatry – it is delightful but never dangerous. The idol is safe and even satisfying, but not transforming

“I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed,” wrote Annie Dillard. “In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger” (Holy the Firm, p. 59).

When we move from preaching Word of God to teaching Word of God, we move away from the mutual surrender of control (as in an act of love), to an active/passive situation where the one who teaches seeks to engage and activate a passive listener. But the passive can be engaged only through distraction, as the listener is invited to add his or her own interpretation and interest in the symbol, image, or figure. The difference here is like the difference between a lecture on love and an act of love.

For this reason, Jesus was more often frustrated than fulfilled in his role as teacher with his disciples. This is the pain of even the Master Teacher; being misunderstood is the ironic conclusion of being too quickly understood. Most sermons are misunderstood when they attempt to teach. Everyone’s notes are in a different dialect.

If one should dare to preach Word of God, be prepared to be exposed to the “naked” event of proclamation – just in case the computer for the power point slides goes down. But this might become a transforming event for all. Lord, deliver the Word of God from the technology and tricks that we use to make our preaching so effective!


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