Thursday 31 July 2008

Bruce McCormack: Engaging the doctrine of God

Bruce L. McCormack, ed., Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 271 pp. (review copy courtesy of Baker Academic)

This new volume brings together the essays from the 2005 Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference. The quality and diversity of contributors are impressive: there are essays by biblical scholars (N. T. Wright, Pierre Berthoud, Don Carson), scholars of historical theology (Paul Helm, Oliver Crisp), Barthian dogmaticians (John Webster, Bruce McCormack), and leading British and European theologians (Henri Blocher, Stephen Williams, David Wright, Donald Macleod). All of them are engaged in thinking or re-thinking specific aspects of the doctrine of God’s being and attributes.

With such a range of contributors and topics, the book will have something for everyone. But the real centrepiece of the volume is Bruce McCormack’s masterful and wide-ranging essay on “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism” (pp. 185-242). At nearly 30,000 words, this is virtually a monograph in its own right – and the book is well worth its price-tag for this essay alone.

The essay is a stunning intervention in the North American debate over open theism. McCormack sees exactly what is at stake in the debate, but he refuses to allow the debate to be conducted along the usual lines. He acknowledges that open theists (Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, et al.) have identified a real problem in the classical theistic doctrine of God, but then he transposes this problematic into an entirely different register, insisting that what it is really needed is a properly christological approach to the doctrine of God.

The problem with open theism is that it is not nearly radical enough; it critiques certain features of the classical-theistic doctrine of God, but never risks a fundamental break with the metaphysical apparatus of classical theism. This is why open theists finally prove incapable of resolving the doctrinal problems which they themselves have (rightly) identified: in spite of all their criticisms of “classical theism,” they continue to play the same game and to abide by the same metaphysical rules.

In contrast, McCormack argues that Karl Barth had already identified the same basic problems, but that Barth produced a fundamental break with the whole metaphysical structure of the classical doctrine of God’s being and attributes. For McCormack, the crystallising moment at the core of Barth’s theological project is the revision of the doctrine of election. Here, Barth advances the thesis that God’s own primal decision “stands at the root of God’s being or ‘essence’” (p. 210). The event in which God chooses to be “God for us” is identical with the event in which God “gives himself his own being.” And this event of election is not located in any timeless eternity. God’s eternal decision coincides with the temporal event in which this decision reaches its goal. This coincidence – this event of utter singularity – is God’s being. Time, then, “is not alien to the innermost being of God” (p. 222). The time of Jesus Christ is the time of God’s decision – it is the primal time, the time of God’s eternal movement into history. There is no still-more-primal divine being which lurks behind this movement into history; God’s being is this movement, this effectual decision. In a nutshell (if I can put it rather crudely): it is because of the man Jesus that God is God.

McCormack’s reading of Barth, and his response to open theism, unfolds as a gripping and commanding piece of theological reflection. McCormack is not merely repeating Barth in all this; he probes Barth’s thought sensitively but relentlessly, thinking with Barth and engaging him in critical dispute. In McCormack’s view, there are internal inconsistencies within Barth’s work, and the task for contemporary dogmatics is to carry forward Barth’s own best insights in order to produce a radically revised and re-imagined theological ontology.

McCormack’s metaphysical proposal has, of course, met with considerable criticism in recent years (for example, here and here). Indeed, a curious feature of this book is the fact that the editor comes under fire even from one of his contributors! Paul Helm’s chapter on “Calvin and the Hiddenness of God” aims to critique Barth and McCormack from the standpoint of Calvin’s theology. But when Helm counters McCormack’s theological ontology with the argument that “the act of electing is the act of a someone; it cannot be an act of no one which, upon its occurrence, constitutes a someone” (p. 79) – an argument like this reminds us how deeply ingrained, how apparently self-evident, these metaphysical assumptions are.

In a debate about the relation between being and decision, it is of course merely question-begging to insist that a “being” necessarily pre-exists its own decision. But the fact that such metaphysical assumptions run so deep – strictly regulating what counts as reasonable and coherent in Christian talk about God – indicates the extraordinary importance and drastic implications of Bruce McCormack’s proposal. Even those who finally disagree with McCormack should not fail to see that his work represents one of the most searching, creative and doctrinally far-reaching projects in contemporary theology.

Tuesday 29 July 2008

God's politics? A response to Jim Wallis (Part Two)

A guest-series by Douglas Harink

Part 2: Whither “God’s Politics”?

As I noted in the last post, in Wallis’s vision the churches do have an important role to play, a contribution to make, an influence to have among the people of God known as America: “The politics of God is often not the same as the politics of the people of God [i.e., America]. The real question is not whether religious faith should influence a society and its politics, but how” (p. 56). “Our religious congregations are not meant to be social organizations that merely reflect the wider culture’s values, but dynamic countercultural communities whose purpose it is to reshape both lives and societies” (p. 7, emphasis added).

As those statements reveal, one of the most remarkable characteristics of Wallis’s vision, obvious on nearly every page, is the thoroughly instrumentalized understanding of religion. God, church, faith, and prophetic religion are all parts of the greater whole which is America, completely absorbed into the discourse of American politics, taken up for use in the cause of the American nation – of a just, compassionate and democratic American nation to be sure, but it is the nation that religious discourse is made to serve as its proper end.

Not only that, but religious discourse must be policed by the discourse of national social and political life. Wallis writes: “We bring faith into the public square when our moral convictions demand it. But to influence a democratic society, you must win the public debate about why the policies you advocate are better for the common good. That’s the democratic discipline religion has to be under [my emphasis] when it brings its faith to the public square… Religious people shouldn’t be told just to be quiet, they should be invited to participate as citizens… [in] the democratic discourse on the most important values and directions that will shape our society” (p. 71).

It becomes clear here and throughout the book that the proposals Wallis makes under the guise of “God’s politics” are in fact all proposals from within the system, for the system, and by the system of a so called democratic society. All discourse about God, faith, and the church is so thoroughly co-opted into the project of making America a better nation, that it is never allowed to fundamentally disrupt the solipsistic discourse of the American social and political project. In other words, there is something fundamentally idolatrous about Wallis’s theological discourse; it is certainly no less idolatrous than the discourse of the Religious Right which Wallis is very good at exposing. Unless Christian discourse about God, faith and the church is allowed in the first place to be absolutely free of its usefulness for Americanism, it will always be idolatrous.

The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is God’s radical and decisive invasion of our humanly constructed worlds, and God’s deliverance from and destruction of the powers that hold us in bondage. The American nation, or the Canadian nation, or any other nation for that matter, is a humanly constructed world; it is a power that enslaves human beings and makes us serve its ends. Every nation is in the first place an idolatrous regime to which God comes in the Gospel to set his people free. Before the church and its discourse can be of any use to American people, it must learn that it does not exist in the first place as America, or to be of use to America, but it exists as the church, constituted in its worship and service of the one true God.

In other words, whether America as such stands or falls – and it will surely one day fall – should not be a matter of primary interest to the churches in America. Indeed, paraphrasing 1 Thess. 1:9-10, the church in America must learn to “turn from the idol America, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven whom he raised from the dead, that is, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath.” The problem with the church in North America is not primarily that it has been co-opted by the Right or Left. It is that it has failed to be the ekklesia, a people called out by God from the nations, to be a loyal citizenship of the peaceable regime of the one true God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am more likely to agree than disagree with Wallis on his social and political goals, many of which are already realized in Canada in some measure. I also agree when he argues against privatized faith, and therefore I disagree with the consciousness of many Canadian Christians for whom the privacy of religion is a basic creed. But in fact an understanding of faith or religion as in the first instance precisely personal and private is at the very foundation of Wallis’s vision. He does not question that assumption; he argues instead that faith or religion should not stay private. It should always in one way or another, he says, make the transition through “values” into the public and the political realm. In other words “religious” discourse about God, faith and the church is not in itself intrinsically and immediately political; it gets political by going out of itself, as it were, and translating itself into the political discourses and performances which are always already going on “out there” in the places of worldly power.

Here we come to the heart of Wallis’s failure to resist American idolatry. For he fails to see that the eternal life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God revealed in the Gospel, is the original and true politics. He fails to see that Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, in his life, passion, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension, as narrated in the gospels and in such texts as Phil 2:6-11, is the original and true politics of God on earth, in the flesh, publicly performed for all to see. Wallis fails to see that the chosen people of God, in whom the Spirit works to bring about a faithful political life, is not America but Israel and the church. He fails to see that the first and primary and normative political performance is exclusive worship of the one God revealed in Israel and in Jesus Christ. That is divine politics in the true sense, and one need not and must not go to Ottawa or Washington DC or London to “get political” in the true sense. For, as St Augustine has taught us, in light of the divine politics revealed in the gospel, what goes on as political in those places of worldly power is a parody of politics at best, and a dangerous and deadly illusion at worst.

How then do people get truly political? They believe the Gospel, they are baptized into the body of Christ, they worship the triune God, and they participate in the eucharistic life of the congregation. Only out of this primary and constitutive political performance will the people of God be capable of interrupting, even if only among themselves, the idolatrous and destructive discourses and performances in our nations which go by the name of “politics,” and of speaking the word of truth to the nations for their judgment and healing.

Monday 28 July 2008

God's politics? A response to Jim Wallis (Part One)

A guest-series by Douglas Harink

Part 1: The Ecclesia Called America

As a Canadian, I have asked myself whether a Canadian Christian would be likely ever to write such a book as this for the Canadian political context. It seems very unlikely indeed, for at least a couple of reasons.

In the first place, the very phrase “God’s politics” would strike many or most Canadians either as ridiculous – because “religion,” which is where God belongs, is its own thing and politics is quite another; or it would strike us as dangerous – because look what happens when people with strong religious convictions make them operative in the realm of politics: you get the likes of Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush. Canadians by and large studiously observe the separation of religion and politics. Just ask Canadian politicians, even the conservative ones, who have tried to get votes by playing the God-card. It might win them some votes from a few conservative Christians, but it is more likely to lose them the election.

On the other hand, Jim Wallis shouldn’t worry too much about that for Canada’s sake, because in Canada we have a social and political landscape that is much closer to the vision that Wallis holds dear than in the United States. And we don’t need to have faith, religion or God to get us there. We have no need of that hypothesis. If God and faith are good for American politics, as Wallis is convinced they are, in Canada we know better than that. Maybe a lot of Democrats have a hunch that we are right, in which case, rather than “getting it” from Jim Wallis, they are more likely to tell him to get lost.

Here’s another odd Canadian phenomenon. It seems that many evangelical Christians in Canada are not too worried about the godless politics of our nation. You do not often hear them clamouring for more God-talk from Canadian politicians. What’s wrong with these Canadian evangelical Christians anyway? Are they simply good examples of the privatization of religion that Wallis decries? Well, there may be some truth to that. The idea that religion is a matter of strictly private conviction and practice is deeply ingrained in the Canadian psyche. The very idea that God and politics might be jammed together as in Wallis’s title, makes most Canadians, including evangelicals Christians, nervous. And I want to come back to that point in a minute, because if that is the case, I think it is a problem. But I think there is something else going on here which makes a book like God’s Politics inconceivable in a Canadian context.

Imagine Jim Wallis, as he presents himself in this book, as a Christian preacher, preaching to a congregation, the people of God. Now ask, who is that congregation? It is not in fact a congregation of the sanctorum communio, nor is it a denomination, nor is it even all the Christians in America. The assembly or congregation which Wallis addresses in the book is the American people itself, the nation. That is clear throughout the book. For example, after Sept 11, 2001, he writes, “the future of politics must become a discourse about values, which includes moral and religious ones. We should talk less about the ideological categories of Left and Right, and more about what kind of people we want to be, what kind of community, what kind of world” (p. 68, emphasis added).

Or, consider this example: “Most of the biblical prophets (whom we pass over week after week in our congregations) would offer a quite searing indictment of contemporary American society. Specifically, that we have become a nation of endangered souls and that our society and politics are governed by values quite foreign to the heart of our religious traditions…. How does a nation of endangered souls recover an authentic faith that is true to the gospel, the example of Jesus, the witness of the prophets, and the crushing needs of our time?” (p. 36, emphases added).

The assembly of the people of God whom Wallis addresses here, and whom he assumes the prophets and Jesus would be addressing, is America, a society and a nation of “endangered souls.” It is about this assembly that Wallis asks how it can “recover an authentic faith that is true to the gospel.” It is more than a little interesting, by the way, that actual congregations and churches are not mentioned as the locus of this recovery of authentic faith, but are in fact included as groups within the larger assembly of God’s people, America.

As we discover in many places in the book, actual church congregations are presented as making a contribution to the larger assembly. For example, Wallis writes, “When either party [Republicans or Democrats] tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake” (p. xiv). But the terrible mistake is not that the political parties expect “religious communities” to make a useful contribution to the nation, but that they expect that usefulness to be merely partisan. Instead, Wallis writes, “The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both right and left from a consistent moral ground” (p. xiv). The message of Isaiah and Amos must be heard in the ecclesia of God’s American people because these prophets proclaim, Wallis writes, “the kind of talk we don’t want to hear much these days in America. But we need it” (p. 247). When preacher Jim says “we” he invariably means, not the church of Jesus Christ, but the assembly of his fellow Americans.

Two decades or so ago, Stanley Hauerwas complained that “the subject of Christian ethics in America is America,” that is, “the first subject of Christian ethics is how to sustain the moral resources of American society” (Against the Nations, p. 36). It would be hard to find a better example of that than Jim Wallis’s book, God’s Politics. One of the subtitles of the book makes it explicit: the book is “A New Vision for Faith and Politics in America.” The subject of this book on Christian politics is indeed American politics. Old habits die hard, it seems.

Doug Harink will conclude this series tomorrow.

Blog of the week: theopolitical

Our blog of the week is Davey Henreckson’s terrific new blog, Theopolitical.

Is fashion a demonic power?

In Karl Barth’s discussion of the “lordless powers” (published in the Church Dogmatics lecture fragments, The Christian Life), there is a delightfully funny analysis of the way “fashion” operates as a demonic power. Here, fashion is placed alongside other humorous principalities such as sport, transport, and technology. Here’s what he has to say about fashion (p. 229):

“Who or what really determines fashion – the fashion to which man thinks he must obediently subject clothes, headgear, and hairstyle, the alternation of assurance and then of exposure first to the rather sympathetic astonishment and then to the horror and amusement of those who think they must follow the new fashion? How is it that women’s fashions change so much more quickly and solemnly and intensively than men’s? Why does it seem to be to even the most sensible women, if not an act of lese majesty, at least an impossibility to be old-fashioned?

“Who wants it this way? The particular industry that tirelessly makes money out of it and whose kings, we are told, reside especially in Paris? But who has made these people the kings? What is it that has always made this industry so lucrative? How has it come about that since the end of the eighteenth century men’s clothing has become so monotonous and uninteresting? Conversely, how has it come about that world history might be presented from the standpoint of the sequence in which men have thought that they should shave or not shave their faces or adorn them with the boldest or most hideous arrangements of hair? Who inspires and directs these processes, which are not a matter of indifference to the feeling for life and all that it implies? If it is a matter of rapidly changing taste, what released spirit of the earth pulls the strings so that this fancy passes, another which is anxiously watched by millions comes and prevails, and then after a while it too departs?”

Sunday 27 July 2008

Caption contest winner

Congratulations to Sally, who has won the caption contest with 42% of the votes. You can see a map of all the votes here. Here’s her excellent winning caption: “By George! I’ve finally got it! A cunning plan! I shall become an alternative healer in a slightly tacky clinic in suburbia. No one will ever find me.” Congrats to Sally – and please email me, Sally, to tell me which book you’d like to receive.

I think Ken also deserves special mention for his caption, which was a convincing second place (20% of the votes). “The bag of toys slung over his right shoulder, the sobbing of children resounding in his ears, the grinch surveyed his ruin and grinned.” Since I’m a sucker for Dr Seuss, I’ll also send Ken a book as a runner-up prize. (So please email me, Ken, with your preferred title.)

Thanks to everyone who participated in the contest!

Saturday 26 July 2008

The grandeur of airfares

Our friend Dave Belcher has organised a panel on “Scripture and Reason: The Wisdom and Folly of the Cross” for the grand Rome conference – together with Dave, the panel features John Milbank, Jodi Belcher, Peter Candler, Joshua Davis and Craig Keen. Unfortunately, three of these speakers (all of them grad students) haven’t quite been able to come up with the necessary travel funds. So Dave is now appealing for some additional support – if you’d like to help him out, there are full details at his blog.

It’d be interesting to know who else is planning to go to Rome – there’ll no doubt be loads of interesting papers to hear and people to meet. I’ll be there for the week with my family, and my own paper is on Rowan Williams’ concept of tradition.

Friday 25 July 2008

The body's grace

Mike Higton has just started a new series, engaging with the theology of Rowan Williams’ great essay on “The Body’s Grace.” You can check out the first two posts here and here. Oh, and if you’ve never read Mike’s excellent book on Williams, you should really do yourself a favour.

Caption contest: cast your vote

Thanks for all the delightful entries in the Rowan Williams caption contest. There were so many good entries, I’ve found it hard to pick a winner. So I’ve chosen my five favourite captions, and I’ll let you vote for the winner in the poll below:

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Rowan Williams caption contest

Okay, I stole this idea from Mike Bird. But let’s see who can come up with the best caption for this photo:

The winner of the contest will receive their choice of one of the following books:

Around the traps

Bonhoeffer on the space of the church

Well, I finally decided to bite the bullet and update my library with the new edition of Bonhoeffer’s works. So I’ve now got a pile of these lovely volumes on my desk, and I’m gradually working my way down the stack. I must say, I’m very impressed with this edition, and with the new English translations. It’s an editorial achievement of enormous scope and astonishing exactitude, and the publishers have produced the series beautifully. Right now, I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s magnificent Ethics – so here’s an excerpt from the opening section:

“When God in Jesus Christ claims space in the world – even space in a stable because ‘there was no other place in the inn’ – God embraces the whole reality of the world in this narrow space and reveals its ultimate foundation. So also the church of Jesus Christ is the place [Ort] – that is, the space [Raum] – in the world where the reign of Jesus Christ over the whole world is to be demonstrated and proclaimed. This space of the church does not, therefore, exist just for itself, but its existence is already always something that reaches far beyond it…. The space of the church is not there in order to fight with the world for a piece of its territory, but precisely to testify to the world that it is still the world, namely, the world that is loved and reconciled by God. It is not true that the church intends to or must spread its space out over the space of the world. It desires no more space than its needs to serve the world with its witness to Jesus Christ and to the world’s reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ” (pp. 63-64).

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Milton, heresy, toleration

The latest issue of the Journal of the History Ideas includes my article on Milton and toleration: “‘Following the Way Which Is Called heresy’: Milton and the Heretical Imperative,” JHI 69:3 (2008), 375-93. (If you’d like a copy, just email me.) This is part of a larger project I’m currently working on, exploring the theological basis of the secularisation of politics in the 17th century. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“If the underlying basis of a free society is the practice of individual religious choice, what then becomes of those who refuse to engage in this practice? What becomes of Roman Catholics, who simply refuse to become heretics in Milton’s (positive) sense – that is, they refuse to make the individual conscience the locus of religious authority? In Milton’s conception of English society, such persons are clearly excluded: their refusal of individualistic choice is tantamount to a repudiation of the entire social order, so that the possibility of their toleration by the state cannot even be entertained. In other words, Milton’s relativization of heresy, if carried out as a social program, would lead to precisely the same impasse as Locke’s theory of toleration: the practice of subjective Protestant piety gives rise to the right to toleration, but the resulting construction necessarily excludes those who do not practice such piety, or who practice the wrong kind….

“I am not suggesting that Milton’s conception of toleration is merely ‘inconsistent,’ or that his otherwise rational theory of toleration is hampered by an unfortunate remainder of religious prejudice. On the contrary, Milton’s theory of toleration is theological through and through. The right to toleration is grounded on a specific Protestant understanding of the nature of faith; and the exception to this right is inextricably connected to the whole logic of toleration. Indeed, the normative ‘centre’ of Milton’s theory is constituted precisely by its exception, by its exclusion of certain groups who are declared incapable of moral participation in the sphere of politics, and who thus forfeit the right to toleration.”

Blog of the week: flying farther

Our new blog of the week is the delightful and always stimulating Flying Farther. A lifetime flies, but we’ll fly farther.

Monday 21 July 2008

Adam Kotsko: Žižek and theology

Adam Kotsko, Žižek and Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2008), 174 pp. (review copy courtesy of T&T Clark)

“Protestantism … posits the relationship [between Christ and humanity] as real, conceiving Christ as a God who, in his act of Incarnation, freely identified himself with his own shit, with the excremental Real that is man – and it is only at this level that the properly Christian notion of divine love can be apprehended.” —Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 187.

Slavoj Žižek is hardly a conventional theological thinker. But he has been talking about Christian theology for several years now, so it’s only fitting that theologians should start to return the favour. In this new book, Adam Kotsko (who blogs here and here) tries to discover what has led Žižek into the unlikely territory of Christian theology, and what Žižek’s work might mean for theologians today.

The book is mainly organised as an account of Žižek’s development. Kotsko rejects the idea that Žižek’s work forms a static system or that it is merely eclectic and incoherent; instead, he tries to map out a trajectory leading from Žižek’s earlier work to his “theological turn.” This trajectory is presented as a kind of Hegelian dialectic: Žižek’s early stage culminates in the renunciation of liberalism; in his middle stage, he retreats into theory in search of a new political option; and in his later stage, he presents this renunciation itself as the new political option. The trajectory of Žižek’s political thought is thus presented as a repetition of failed gesture, a Hegelian “negation of negation” (pp. 124-25).

Kotsko focuses mainly on Žižek’s overtly theological texts, and he provides some illuminating insights into why theology matters for Žižek. For instance, in one of the book’s most interesting passages, Kotsko discusses Žižek’s understanding of nature and creation: “Žižek claims that the universe originated in some disruption that interrupted the harmonious balance of the abyss of pure potentiality, which is to say that existence itself emerged out of a fundamental imbalance…. To understand humanity properly, then, one must not follow the typical procedure of reducing all human behaviour to some ‘natural’ explanation. Instead, one must throw out the customary idea of nature as internally consistent and harmonious” (pp. 116-17). And the real importance of Žižek’s work emerges when Kotsko turns (unfortunately only briefly) to the question of ethics: “The key question in Žižek’s context is …, within what ontology are we ethically playing for keeps?” (p. 120).

Further, Kotsko rightly draws attention to the fundamental and intrinsic atheism of Žižek’s theology: “Just as Kierkegaard’s God must be understood as the lack of an overarching guarantee of life’s meaningfulness, so also the properly ‘theological’ level is that which exposes the human subject as self-legislating, with no master – meaning that for Žižek, ‘theology’, properly understood, refers to the most radical atheism” (p. 123).

But when it comes to exploring Žižek’s importance for contemporary theology, Kotsko’s analysis is, unfortunately, less convincing. He suggests that Žižek’s atheistic theology is an “independent discovery” of Bonhoeffer’s remarks about “religionless Christianity,” and of Thomas J. J. Altizer’s – fleetingly fashionable, but now rather tiresome – ruminations on the death of God. Žižek himself probably deserves better than to be compared to the catch-phrases of 1960s faux radicalism. In any case, Kotsko argues that Christianity can regain its subversive kernel only by “tak[ing] the risk of an authentic Žižekian ethical act, in the sense of a self-directed choice for the worst, by abandoning the shell of its institutional organization” (p. 99). The institutional shell must be discarded, so that Christianity can return to its founding moment as a religion of atheism.

The fact that this is bad theology scarcely needs to be pointed out. But it’s doubtful whether this anti-institutional proposal even represents a legitimate interpretation of Žižek himself. One of the striking things about Žižek – one of the reasons why he is really not at home among contemporary leftists – is his radical commitment to institutions and bureaucracy (see, for example, his essay “Heiner Muller Out of Joint,” in The Universal Exception, pp. 42-61). For Žižek, revolution becomes possible only as revolutionary passion is sublated into the cold machinations of institutional organisation. In this sense, revolution is nothing but bureaucracy. Or to make the same point in ecclesiological terms: for Hegel, the “Holy Spirit” designates not the private enthusiasm of individual believers, but the corporate life of the church as such. The typical leftist dream of a revolution without institutions – a dream upon which the “death of God” theology of the 60s was also based – has little to do with Žižek’s politics, and it has even less to do with sound christology and ecclesiology.

In sum, then, this book is a useful introduction to Žižek’s theological writing – and it will be especially useful for those who’ve been wanting to read Žižek, but don’t know where to start. But I think the book’s attempt at a constructive theological engagement with Žižek is disappointing. Nevertheless, Kotsko is certainly not trying to have the last word here: he’s simply trying to whet our appetite, and to start a conversation about why Žižek is interested in theology, and why this might matter. (For a full theological engagement with Žižek’s work, we’ll have to wait for the publication of John Milbank’s magisterial 65,000-word essay, “The Double Glory, or Paradox versus Dialectics: On Not Quite Agreeing with Slavoj Žižek” – an astonishingly rich and penetrating analysis of Žižek’s Hegelianism, which argues that the problem with Žižek is that he is far too Protestant!)

All criticisms aside, I think Kotsko’s concluding point is very apposite for contemporary theology. While “a certain humourlessness could be said to dominate the entire Christian tradition,” Kotsko suggests that theologians might need to encounter Žižek’s work as a fundamental critique of such humourlessness: “they have somehow managed to miss the joke of Christianity.”

Saturday 19 July 2008

A miracle on World Youth Day

When Benedict XVI addressed an inner-Sydney congregation on Friday night, he spoke against the worship of the “false gods” of “material possessions, possessive love, or power.” And he asked: “How many voices in our materialist society tell us that happiness is to be found by acquiring as many possessions and luxuries as we can? But this is to make possessions into a false god. Instead of bringing life, they bring death.”

And according to a report in The Weekend Australian, the hundreds of thousands of Catholic pilgrims have been a major economic disappointment: “The deathly retail silence contrasts with optimistic predictions of a ‘bumper week’ of trade by the state Government and the local chambers of commerce. A jewellery shop reported one sale in the week: a cross. New South Wales Business Chamber chief executive Kevin MacDonald had predicted a $231 million boost for business, or $1155 per expected visitor. But traders reported pilgrims unwilling to spend, even haggling over the price of one banana. Clothing store John Serafino said the Pope’s visit was ‘a disaster’.”

Here in Australia, talk about the economy tends to be the only talk that is taken seriously; the sound of the cash register is the only sound we really respond to. Our public life revolves around the assumption that everything is finally reducible to economic considerations. So thanks be to God for the strange miracle of a “deathly retail silence” in Sydney this week.

Friday 18 July 2008

Thy neighbour's wife

Here’s a little dialogue about morality from Tim Winton’s superb new novel, Breath (Penguin, 2008), pp. 207-9. The narrator is a paramedic:

When I was on the ward there was a tall, reedy bloke who carried a bible with him all day. He had a habit of fixing on things you said during group work and hitting you later with a few pithy verses to be going on with. He had me down as some kind of compulsive – not miles off the mark – but I wanted to pull his ears off when he told me that a man who even thinks about having his neighbour’s wife is already an adulterer.

No, Desmond, I told him. Bullshit.

Can’t deny it!

You get ideas. We all get ideas. Thoughts. And most of them come and go without causing anybody grief.

Desmond shook his head and I wanted to get him by the hair, squeeze the poison from his head. Wanted to, but didn’t. I told him he was sad and dangerous, that he shouldn’t say such things, especially not to vulnerable people like us. I was well and truly wigged out at the time, but still sane enough to know there’s a world of difference between thinking things and doing them.

You lack morality, he said mildly enough.

You call that morality? I said, trying not to shout. Robbing people of the distinction between thoughts and actions?

Sport, said Desmond, I tell you this out of love. You are a captive of evil.

Talk like that frightened me because in an unsteady moment you could believe it. I was tired and sad and fucked up but I wasn’t going to give in to bullshit. I’d been prey to false convictions aplenty and I’d had enough. It is possible to believe that as an idea comes into your mind, an act has been born and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s as if thinking something causes it to happen, makes an action inevitable, even necessary. Sometimes it’s good to remind yourself it isn’t so.

A captive of evil, said Desmond.

No, I said. I’m a voluntary patient. […]

All about there were others watching Desmond and me, waiting for a blow-up. There were people in our midst who believed that babies had died and cities burnt because of thoughts they’d had.

Do you lust after your neighbour’s wife? asked the girl with the slashed arms. Really, she said drolly, you can tell us.

My wife, I said. My wife is now my neighbour’s wife. And my old neighbour’s wife is dead.

Man, that’s fucked up, said someone.

No lust?

Not much, I said. Not now.

Richard Hays and Oliver O'Donovan on same-sex relationships

Sticking to this week’s theme, Michael offers a critical response to Richard Hays’ views on same-sex relationships; and Halden alerts us to Oliver O’Donovan’s forthcoming book on the gay controversy in the Anglican Church – it sounds like a promising book, and it comes with endorsements from John Milbank and Rowan Williams.

And in case you missed it last year, I should also remind you of Kim Fabricius’ much-discussed 12 propositions on same-sex relationships and the church.

Homosexuality and the church: a meditation on the tragic (Part Three)

A guest-series by Ray S. Anderson

A Pastor and a Homosexual Christian: A Dialogue

“You spoke earlier of two gay men who acknowledged that same-sex relations were part of the tragic aspect of human sexuality and not what God intended. They accepted the biblical teaching on this point but nonetheless desired fellowship as Christians with other Christians. On this basis they were accepted into the church. But I do not feel that a same-sex relation such as I experience with my partner is contrary to biblical teaching. Our relationship is not promiscuous and we are as faithful and fully committed to each other as any heterosexual married couple. I do not see our situation as tragic. Does this disqualify me from being a member of your church?”

“I understand. If I had only experienced my sexuality as oriented toward the same sex, and if I had felt the same rejection and even hostility directed toward you by society and even the church I would feel the same way. But the two men we are talking about were welcomed into the body of Christ not because their view of the teaching of Scripture conformed to ours, but simply as persons who confessed Christ as Lord and savior. The Kingdom of God places no conditions upon humans in the invitation to enter. Children enter the Kingdom without knowledge of the tragic according to Jesus (Matt 18:2-3). Let me turn your question around. It is not whether or not your sexual orientation and practice disqualifies you from belonging to the body of Christ – but are you willing to enter the Kingdom of God based solely upon the grace of Christ who has already reconciled you to God? (2 Cor 5:19).”

“Suppose I am willing, and become a member of your church on that basis. How do you think I will feel when I am confronted with the biblical teaching that my sexual partner and I are ‘living in sin,’ to go back to the quotation you used from the newspaper?”

“I understand that. Each one of us is confronted by the fact that when the Bible calls us to love our enemies, give to whomever asks of us, set aside filial responsibility for the sake of the Kingdom of God, take up our cross and follow Christ, we enter the realm of the tragic. The demands of the Kingdom of God are not hostile to our humanity, but call us to what it is to be truly human. We seek a truth beyond our own. We are searching for the teaching that calls us out of our sin and places our lives under the promise of redemption.”

“So then, you do say that homosexuality is a sin?”

“Each of us must discover for ourselves what it means to be a sinner. And we cannot discover that nor find redemption from sin apart from a relationship with God. That is the irony of the Kingdom of God. The same grace that welcomes us into the Kingdom, as though we were children, places us under the rule of grace, that is, it exposes what is lacking in our humanity and brings us more and more into conformity with the humanity of Christ. That is the ministry of the body of Christ to one another.”

“Will your church recognize and affirm my ministry to the body? Suppose that I feel a calling to be ordained to pastoral ministry. Will my sexual orientation and practice disqualify me?”

“It is not our responsibility to decide who receives the gift of ministry within the Body of Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote that ‘a spiritual gift is given to each of us so that we can help each other.’ He then added, ‘It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have’ (1 Cor 12:7, 11). There is no one qualified by their own life to receive the gift of the Spirit for ministry, and there is no one disqualified.”

“But I asked about ordination. If that is true, does this mean that if I become a member of your church I could be a candidate for ordination?”

“Ordination, as we commonly speak of it today, was not known by the early Church, even though they later began to set apart Bishops and Elders for the sake of doctrinal continuity and pastoral oversight. Actually, each person baptized into Christ is baptized into his ministry and this can be understood as the basis for what we call ordination. We assume that those set apart by the church for full-time ministry through ordination have the gift of the Spirit. In one sense ordination can simply be understood as the way each church (denomination) sets apart some within the body of Christ, ordinarily a full-time vocation, to teach, lead and minister to the body in accordance with the authority of Scripture. While only members are qualified to be set apart through ordination, being a member does not in itself qualify one for this office. There are other requirements.”

“That’s what I was afraid of. If every member who is baptized into Christ is called into the ministry of Christ, and if every member has the gift of the Spirit for ministry, what are these other requirements?”

“It is kind of like the saying, ‘If it’s everyone’s responsibility to do the work, it often ends up with no one doing it.’ Because the church is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God through a human institution, it suffers from the limitations and weakness of all human organizations. The church in its teaching and ministry based on the authority of Scripture brings Kingdom truths to bear through an institution that is fallible, provisional and often failing to live by the very truths it proclaims. Thus the relation between the church and the Kingdom is also tragic. In recognition of this, the church established a polity and structure by which certain members could be set apart as those most responsible to hold the body of Christ accountable to the Kingdom truths as revealed in Scripture. Those who are ordained to this office are really servants of the Body of Christ, not superior to it.”

“You still have not told me what some of these ‘other requirements’ are.”

“Let me try. For example, because we hold that Scripture teaches that sexual cohabitation outside of marriage is not what God intended, a member of the body who is living with someone not their husband or wife would not be qualified to be ordained. In the same way, a member of the body who is known to be abusive to other family members, including children, would not be qualified. Those who are set apart for the office of teaching and leading others in the body are expected not only to uphold by conviction the truths of Scripture that are taught, but to demonstrate maturity and responsibility in their own lives and relationships with others. ‘They must be committed to the mystery of the faith now revealed and must live with a clear conscience,’ the Apostle Paul wrote (1 Tim 3:9). ‘Do not ordain anyone hastily,’ cautioned Paul (1 Tim 5:22). While the church must embrace the tragic in its ministry of the Kingdom of God, excluding no one who has experienced the grace of salvation in Christ, those set apart for ordination must be able, by knowledge and conviction, to uphold and teach Kingdom truth and to hold the body of Christ in conformity to it. Apart from commitment to celibacy, our church holds that a member of the body whose lifestyle is homosexual would not be qualified.”

“That is very interesting. In a recent newspaper article there was a report of the General Assembly of your denomination voting to remove the restriction upon the ordination of homosexuals. Do I assume that your church will follow this ruling?”

“Didn’t I say that the relation between the church and the Kingdom of God is tragic? Well, this may be one instance of that. We feel that our position regarding ordination is biblical and in accordance with Kingdom truth under biblical authority. The denomination cannot force us to change our belief and practice. At the same time, we bear the ‘name brand’ of the national church body, and will be in the awkward position of not being able to support a denominational policy while at the same time holding fast to our view of what the Bible teaches. While there are a variety of views regarding biblical authority and what the Bible teaches within the denomination regarding many issues relating to social, personal and sexual ethics, there is a steadfast commitment to the Apostolic faith as represented in the ancient Creeds. We hold denominational leaders accountable to the confession of faith rooted in these creeds. If they fail at this point, then it becomes a matter of Kingdom truth rather than merely unbiblical practice. Is this not part of our own Protestant tradition? The denomination is our spiritual home, it connects us to each other, though often with pain, and to those who went before us in the faith. It is our family, and to leave would make us orphans.”

“I didn’t realize that belonging to a church is so complicated! I am tempted to find one that conforms more to my own belief and lifestyle. But I have read enough of the Bible to know that Jesus was always on the side of Kingdom truth. That seemed to be what attracted people to him. And I must confess, I’m not sure I want a church that looks just like me. One more question, I have a friend who does belong to your denomination and is considering being ordained. She was quite dismayed at the recent ruling by the General Assembly as she feels that the ordination of homosexuals is not based on biblical truth and questions whether or not she should go ahead with ordination. What would you say to her?”

“Ordination is part of the church culture; it gives access to ministry that might not otherwise be possible. When Timothy, who had a Greek father but a Jewish mother, wanted to accompany Paul on his mission, ‘in deference to the Jews of the area, he arranged for Timothy to be circumcised before they left’ (Acts 16:3). Paul had earlier refused to circumcise Titus arguing that this would appear to make circumcision a requirement of the gospel. Ordination is something like that. In a sense, it is like an admission ticket to the institutional church’s culture of ministry. It is part of the tragic connection between the church and the Kingdom of God. Jesus embraces the tragic for the sake of bringing redemption and hope. If ordination enables you to follow Jesus, and if you understand the tragic, you can make this concession with clear conscience and a peaceful heart.”

Family idolatry, bisexual penguins, and more

In relation to this week's theme of sex, you should be sure to check out a couple of brilliant posts by Halden: Mark Driscoll, the church, and family idolatry, and Nature, grace, and the prevenience of the apocalypse. Man, I love Halden's blog – I tend to agree with him even more than I agree with myself.

For a critical response to Halden and me, IndieFaith also has some thoughtful and honest reflections. And for a bit of light relief, check out David's post on bisexual penguins.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Homosexuality and the church: a meditation on the tragic (Part Two)

A guest-series by Ray S. Anderson

The Tragic and Human Sexuality

If love is intrinsically tragic because it offers possibilities of fulfillment to human desire, hopes and needs that can never be met in even the most perfect human relationship, then sexuality itself is intrinsically tragic. The sexual nature of humanity perhaps lies nearest to the core of the self in terms of human intimacy. This is why sexuality is such a profound and yet complicated – and yes, tragic – component of the structure of humanity.

Sexuality itself is tragic because it is a component of the very structure of humanity that is woven through with the tragic. We do not understand what it is to be a human person until we understand that. And we cannot understand the struggle to integrate unfulfilled, sometimes chaotic, and often self-defeating sexual experience into authentic human personhood until we understand that.

When a man in his late 40s tells me, “I always wanted to have children, but after getting married when I was 25 I discovered that my wife could not and would never be able to conceive a child. Yes, adoption was one possibility, but my dream of having a child of my own well never be realized.” I respond: “Yes, I understand that, it is tragic.”

When a single woman in her late 50s tells me, “When I was in my 20s I thought for sure that I would be married. All of my friends found someone, I never did. I have lived all these years hoping for someone to love me in a special way. It never happened.” I respond: “Yes, I understand that, it is tragic.”

When a homosexual person tells me, “I knew that I was homosexual from the time I was a teenager. I tried to deny it, but finally accepted it, and though it is against what the Bible teaches, I have someone to love me and to live in a relationship that I could never have otherwise.” I respond: “Yes, I understand that, it is tragic.”

What each person in these situations has in common is an experience of the tragic as a component of their human experience. We must first understand that before considering the moral implications of their behavior. When Jesus confronted the woman at the well (John 4) he drew forth the truth that she had lived a life of promiscuity. “You have had several husbands and the man you are living with is not your husband.” Jesus perceived the tragic component of a woman’s life lived under these circumstances. The moral issue with regard to living with a man not her husband was never brought up. Jesus did not label her a sinner, but empowered her to confess that he was truly the Messiah sent from God. My point is that to label the sexual orientation and practice of a person as “sinful” fails to understand the tragic construct of that person’s life.

The Tragic and the Kingdom of God

Sin is not a condition that precedes grace. For until one is welcomed into the Kingdom of God through grace, the tragic only is a condition to be overcome, sometimes by religion, rather than by a relationship in which the tragic is brought under the promise of redemption. Until we each have discovered our own sin, always through grace, to be called a sinner by others is not only graceless, it is tragic. It breaks the common bond that makes us human. Saul of Tarsus would never have accepted the accusation that he was a sinner until he experienced the grace of God through his encounter with the risen Christ. Until the tragic nature of sin is revealed though grace, it lies untouched and unredeemed, hidden like a deadly virus that thrives on self-affirmation only to emerge in self-condemnation.

Jesus did not label persons whom he encountered as sinners, but rather offered them the power of his own person and inclusion in the Kingdom of God as an eschatological promise of redemption of the tragic. Looking over the crowd who followed him, he had compassion on them because “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:7). Later that day he instructed his disciples to feed them and, as a result, more than 5,000 were fed. This “miraculous meal” was an eschatological sign and promise of redemption from the tragic. For a meal only lasts one day and holds back the tragic for a time; then hunger again rises up to remind humans that their existence is fragile and weak.

Redemption from sin begins with understanding, not with condemnation. Does this mean that sin is disregarded? Not at all. But then we should understand that we are bound to each other not only by virtue of the tragic, but also by sin. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church with regard to sexual sin, he placed that particular sin in the same category as greed, worship of idols, and being abusive, a drunkard or a cheat (1 Cor 5:11). Paul only discovered that he was a sinner following his experience of grace through Jesus Christ. It is of no benefit to the Kingdom of God to call someone a sinner; instead, offer the grace of God so that they discover this for themselves.

The Kingdom and the Church

Jesus proclaimed the coming and the actual presence of the Kingdom of God in his own life and ministry. “But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has arrived among you” (Matt 12:28 NLT). But the Kingdom, while bringing redemption within the tragic, did not promise redemption from the tragic until the end of this temporal order and the coming of the Kingdom of God in glory. At the same time, Jesus said that his Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Paul taught that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of living by religious rules and regulations, but of “living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17 NLT).

The Kingdom of God confronts the world with the reality of what God intended for humanity and the way it is supposed to be, calling what is into a redemptive relation with God as Creator and Redeemer. The church is a sign of the Kingdom and acquires its identity and role in relation to the Kingdom. As such, the church is not the Kingdom of God, but an eschatological extension of the Kingdom into the present world order. In the end, it is not the church but the Kingdom of God that is presented to the Father by the Son in its fullness and completeness (1 Cor 15:17).

The church in its teaching and life, under biblical authority, is not only a place where we can come “just as we are,” but a place where we can experience the redemptive grace of God to become and live as God intended. This is the tragic aspect of the Kingdom of God and the form of the church in the world. It embraces what is tragic in the form of the failure of humanity to be and live in accordance with what God intended. At the same time in its teaching and practice it brings the tragic under the redemptive promise of healing, hope and ultimate overcoming of the tragic. For the church to exclude its neighbor, the homosexual person, is to forsake its own relation to the Kingdom of God and its authentic mission on earth.

Homosexuality and the church: a meditation on the tragic (Part One)

A guest-series by Ray S. Anderson

Following the recent ruling by the California Supreme Court permitting the marriage of same-sex couples, a newspaper report included a comment by two men following their marriage, “Now we are not living in sin.” The comment sounded somewhat sarcastic and was probably aimed more at the religious community rather than a description of their own spiritual condition. Nonetheless, it reminded me of the impasse created in the discussion of homosexuality when the label “sin” is used to portray same-sex cohabitation as unacceptable to many in the Christian community. It is not that homosexual persons are not sinners, as are all humans. “No one is righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:9 NLT). But to label homosexual orientation and practice as sin in order to justify exclusion from the church and its ministry is too simple. The issue is more complex than that. Is there an alternative?

During the 1960s when I was pastor of a small conservative church congregation, two men living together in a homosexual relationship, both graduates of a Bible school and with a clear Christian testimony, became friends of some in the church and eventually asked me if they could join. They both knew what the Bible taught concerning homosexuality and knew that my position and that of the church was based on this biblical teaching. My response was: of course you can join. This is not a church for those who are perfect but for those seeking Christian fellowship and a place to worship and grow in Christ.

The word “sin” was not mentioned, by them nor by me. If they had asked me if I considered homosexual practice a sin, I don’t know what I would have said. I hope that I would have said something like this. Do you believe that a same sex relation is what God intended when he created humans as sexual persons? They would have answered, “No, but this is the only way that we have found it possible to live and love. While others may say that we have a choice, for our part we feel that this relationship is the only one that fulfills our life and meets our needs.” In several other ways, they had communicated much the same to me.

The Tragic as a Human Condition

It was my former colleague, Lewis Smedes, who reminded me that in the area of human sexuality we should not ignore the tragic as a component of all and every human sexual experience. In the discussion of homosexuality, he said, don’t forget the tragic. Not that a same-sex relation is tragic as opposed to heterosexual relations, but that it is tragic because all human sexuality must be understood as necessarily an experience of the tragic. The key word here is “understood.” The difficulty for many heterosexual persons with regard to homosexuality is that they have no way of “understanding” how such a practice and relationship can be part of an authentic human experience, much less one that is Christian. The concept of the tragic may be one way of understanding the complex experience of human sexuality that underlies both heterosexual and homosexual tendencies and practice.

When I am able to understand what motivates a rebellious child to act out in anti-social ways, I gain insight in how to relate to that child rather than simply use labels to describe their behavior. In somewhat the same way, if homosexual behavior is simply labeled as “deviant” or a “perversion,” one is not only free from attempting to understand, but one makes no attempt. What is needed is an underlying structure of human existence rather than a practice of human behavior to begin to understand and then engage in discussion with homosexual persons with regard to the church and its ministry.

The tragic is not something that happens to humans following their creation out of the dust of the ground and endowed with the divine image – but to exist as that particular human person is tragic. Thus the tragic is not the result of the fall, as though humanity as originally created did not experience the tragic. Rather, the tragic exists precisely because human persons experience the freedom of self-conscious existence with virtually unlimited possibilities while, at the same time, remaining bound by necessity to the dust out of which they are created. The tragic is the result of the fact that humans cannot be in more than one place at a time, and they are aware of that.

When caught in a dilemma in which responsibility to help another is the most important, a decision has to be made. Failure to be able to meet both demands is tragic. Even the first humans were confronted with the tragic. Not everything that is possible, not everything that is good, can be chosen or accomplished or experienced. Being aware of that constitutes the tragic.

Søren Kierkegaard called this irreconcilable tension between possibility and necessity Dread. I prefer to call it the tragic. Dread became for him simply the psychological/spiritual moment of absolute self-awareness. The tragic is more a construct of human existence that underlies all human life, not merely a moment of awareness. As a construct of human existence, the tragic cannot be avoided though it can be denied, as Ernest Becker profoundly described in his book, The Denial of Death (Simon and Schuster, 1973).

True, there is an existential experience of dread, as Kierkegaard argued, that can only be overcome by faith. But if faith can overcome dread, it cannot overcome the tragic. The most significant human relation that Kierkegaard experienced was his engagement to Regina Olsen, an “instant love affair” that lasted for several years until he ended it by his own decision – for her own good, as he put it, even though he continued to love her. In the end, while he could apparently surrender everything to the infinite for the sake of faith, he did not have the kind of faith that permitted him to enact a finite relation of love without losing his own self. “Had I had faith I would have remained with Regina” (Journals, Harper Torch, 1958, p. 86). In the end, I would argue, what kept him from marriage with Regina was not lack of faith, but failure to understand the category of the tragic. Faith cannot overcome the tragic, as if marriage (as an act of faith) would remove the relationship from the category of the tragic.

The Tragic and Redemptive Grace

The tragic cannot be overcome and eliminated without destroying human life as we know it. Redemption of the tragic is an eschatological event. That is, it will only occur when the “new heavens and the new earth” emerge with the end of this temporal order. It is only then that “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4 NLT). Until that time, redemption of the tragic will be provisional and partial with intimations of that eschatological reality illuminating the landscape of the tragic while calling us to embrace the tragic with redemptive grace.

Redemption is always within the tragic, but not from the tragic. Redemption from one instance of the tragic leads to an expansion of the tragic, not the elimination of it. When Jesus healed the paralytic who had been unable to work and had lain by the pool of Bethesda for 38 years, this was a miracle of release from his tragic situation (John 5:1-8). But we are not told what happened to him nor how he was able to make a living, having lived by the charity of others for all those years. If he ended up healed but without the means of making a living for himself, that too is tragic.

When I come upon an apparently homeless person with a sign requesting money for food, I ordinarily pass by. Some would point to that person as a tragic person, an object of pity if not compassion. But the tragic is not an object but a relation. It is my relation to that person that constitutes the tragic. I recognize the demand placed upon me in our common humanity and his uncommon need. If I were to take that demand as an absolute moral demand and respond out of my own means as a way of overcoming the tragic, I have only magnified the tragic in the form of other humans who place their demand upon me and my resources as well. To give everything that I possess in response to the tragic situation of the needy, would be to compound the tragic with regard to my own children. Stanley Hauerwas reminds us of this when he says, “Marriage and family require time and energy that could be used to make the world better. To take the time to love one person rather than many, to have these children rather than helping the many in need, requires patience and a sense of the tragic” (A Community of Character, U of Notre Dame P, 1981, p. 172).

Theologian Wendy Farley says that “Created perfection is fragile, tragically structured” (Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion, WJKP, 1990, p. 127). She goes on to say: “The tragic structure of finitude and the human capacity for deception and cruelty together account for the possibility and actuality of suffering and evil.” Humans are finite beings, they possess awareness of the infinite but cannot fully realize it. In this sense, the tragic is not something from which humans can be redeemed and still be human, but redemption itself must take hold of and suffer the tragic if it is to approach and take hold of humans. Farley puts it this way: “But to overcome the tragic structure of finitude, to be free animate beings from all suffering, to determine finite freedom so that it will always love the good and have the courage to pursue it – these things are not possible. The potential for suffering and evil lie in the tragic structure of finitude and cannot be overcome without destroying creation” (p. 125).

Perhaps Farley would be better to speak of the fragility of humankind rather than the fragility of creation, for the kind of fragility I have described as tragic is peculiar to human beings. We may think it tragic to watch our nonhuman pets suffer and die, but this is a projection of the human tragic sense onto and into the created order. Evil, then, is the intensification of the tragic measured by its power to attack and destroy the good that God intended.

Following Farley’s insightful analysis, I would say that the freedom of creation in its own authentic nature – as differentiated ontologically from the Creator – is only tragic from the perspective of human beings who are endowed with a spiritual nature (imago Dei) which promises a destiny beyond that of its own creaturely nature. For all creatures but the human, their nature determines their destiny. For humans, their destiny lies beyond the power of a creaturely nature, though humans “suffer” from the exigencies of a creaturely nature. In this way, because love is a possibility of human existence which is in itself tragic, love is “intrinsically tragic,” for it is an investment of the self (the power of personal, spiritual being) in the face of the powers of nature, over which it is, at times, powerless.

One cannot consciously live with full awareness of the tragic, as Ernest Becker reminded us. Denial of the tragic may seem to be the only way to survive without losing one’s own existence. Nonetheless, the tragic continues to underlie human existence. Faith will not overcome it as an existential movement of the spirit, as Kierkegaard hoped. Faith itself is an eschatological point of reference that is grounded in the promise of God rather than in an immediate release from the tragic.

This is one reason why understanding homosexuality as part of the tragic construct of human sexuality may offer a more redemptive approach than simply to label it as “sin” in order to deny its right to exist.

Monday 14 July 2008

Ten propositions on marriage

by Kim Fabricius

1. Marriage, Edward Schillebeeckx writes, is “a reality secular by origin”; yet, as he continues, it “has acquired a deeper meaning in the order of salvation in which we live.” Because creation is in and for Christ, and because the apocalyptic shockwaves of the resurrection of Christ radiate both backwards and forwards, marriage must finally be understood Christologically. Although Jesus relativised marriage (e.g. Luke 18:29, Matthew 19:12), and although in the consummation there will be no marriage (Matthew 22:30), in his patience and grace God gives us marriage between-the-times as an intimate space for two people to be good and let be, and, for Christians, to bear witness to the new creation. At the marriage in Cana, Jesus turned water to wine – lots of wine! – his first and programmatic sign of the dawning new age (John 2:1-11). In the imagery of Ephesians 5:31-33, Christian marriage reflects the eschatological marriage of Christ and his church (cf. Revelation 19:7). With Bonhoeffer, the ultimate frames but does not negate the penultimate. It is therefore appropriate to speak of marriage as a covenant. To call it a sacrament, however, begs too many questions.

2. A marriage is not to be confused with a wedding. “A wedding is only the regulative confirmation and legitimation of a marriage before and by society. It does not constitute a marriage” (Karl Barth). A ceremony does not make a marriage, consent makes a marriage. And even in the ceremony, and even in the Roman Catholic Church, the ministers of the marriage are the bride and bridegroom, not the minister. Indeed it was only with the Council of Trent in 1563 that the Roman Catholic Church insisted on an ecclesial occasion, and mainly to ensure, through the presence of witnesses, that the marriage was, in fact, consensual. In short, a church wedding does not create a marriage, it recognises and blesses a marriage that already exists. Nor should consent itself be taken as a punctiliar act but as part of an ongoing project of mutual discovery and affirmation. It is always sad to hear a couple say that their wedding day was the happiest day of their lives.

3. If the heart of faith is friendship with God through Christ, active in the love of neighbour, the heart of marriage is maxima amicitia humana, the most intimate form of neighbour-love. This pre-eminent human friendship is normally both expressed and confirmed as a sexual relationship. While eros and agape are certainly to be distinguished (as Beethoven to Mozart, according to Barth – though, as Eberhard Jüngel winks, “We won’t ask what Mozart would say about that”), they must not be opposed (as Anders Nygren argued); nor is sex to be ruefully indulged (as Augustine held) but enthusiastically enjoyed (as Solomon sang). By the way, we should exercise word-care when we speak of “pre-marital sex”: what we usually mean is pre-ceremonial sex.

4. Yet corruptio optimi pessima: sex as the sphere of supreme tenderness and joy is also the sphere of desire at its most distorted (concupiscentia), indeed an arena of violence, as eros morphs into thanatos. In fact the libido dominandi is the regnant Pauline “principality and power” in contemporary western culture. Sex and the City is the iconic text of an age in which sex is everything – there are even parodic Virgilian tours of its virtual Manhattan Inferno – as we amuse ourselves to death-by-serial-fucking. Yet while we must speak of the body’s abuse, we may, in Christ, speak of “the body’s grace”. “The moral question,” writes Rowan Williams, “ought to be how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects.” If there is the civitas diaboli of Carrie and company, there is also the civitas Dei of Jesus and his friends.

5. Although marriage is complete without procreation (Genesis 2:24) and remains complete after the kids have left home, marriage is the God-given unit for the birth and nurture of children (Genesis 1:28). There is, however, a teleology to raising children, namely that they may grow up to experience the joy and freedom of faith. “This means,” as Bonhoeffer says, “that marriage is not only a matter of producing children, but also of educating them to be obedient to Jesus Christ,” so that they too might become friends of God. The obedience course begins by telling your children that Jesus loves them – even when they are disobedient. As for the learning curve (or slider!), I recommend a Hauerwasian pedagogy: “Start with baseball and also teach them to read. Don’t teach kids a bunch of rules. Help them submit their lives to something that they find to be a wonderful activity that transforms them.”

6. What about divorce? And remarriage? Reviewing the New Testament texts, Richard B. Hays concludes that “the fundamental concern in all of them is to affirm marriage as a permanently binding commitment in which man and woman become one…. At the same time, there are complex differences…. Mark and Luke categorically prohibit divorce, but Matthew and Paul both entertain the necessity of exceptions to the rule, situations in which pastoral discernment is required.” To be sure, mired as they are in the cult of feelings, the myth of sexual fulfilment, and the language of rights, the modern motives for divorce are usually hopelessly un-Christian. However the notion of “indissolubility” smuggles in a metaphysic quite alien to the Bible; divorce is not an ontological impossibility. Nor can or should remarriage be rejected tout court. “Indeed, ”with Hays, “if one purpose of marriage is to serve as a sign of God’s love in the world …, how can we reject the possibility that a second marriage after a divorce could serve as a sign of grace and redemption from the sin and brokenness of the past?”

7. Tina Turner puts the problem – and the question I always put to dumfounded couples whom I prepare for marriage: “What’s love got to do with it?” Stanley Hauerwas: “Christians have far too readily underwritten the romantic assumption that people ‘fall’ in love and then get married. We would be much better advised to suggest that love does not create marriage; rather, marriage provides a good training ground to teach us what love involves.” Thus, most provocatively, to disabuse us of conventional notions of Mr or Miss Right, Hauerwas’s Law: “You always marry the wrong person.” (As Henny Youngman jested: I married Miss Right. I just didn’t know her first name was Always.) Thus does marriage become Luther’s “school of character”, or, better, a “class of character” in the school of the church. Of course a relationship begins with the chemistry of attraction, but unless it does graduate work in the art of loving, it shouldn’t be surprising if it ends in an explosion.

8. Colin Gunton observed that marriage “is at once the most private and the most public of our institutions,” and we may expect marriage to contribute to the enrichment of society and the strengthening of community. The church, after all, exists for the world. Yet in much Protestant thought that takes marriage to belong to an “order of nature”, the conclusion has been drawn that marriage is a purely civil affair, a matter of state for which the church provides the altar. This Constantinian understanding of marriage is a disaster, the collateral damage of which includes the apotheosis of “family values” and the raising of children to be loyal citizens, not faithful Christians. Divorce itself becomes, not a personal tragedy or a failure of witness, but a threat to the “fabric of society”, i.e. the status quo. The church must certainly cease to be Caesar’s chaplain, but not by abandoning its ceremonies, rather by reclaiming them for Christ. Follow the trajectory to a status confessionis and the state would not sanction and regulate church weddings but declare them to be illegal.

9. Am I suggesting that the church restrict weddings only to committed Christians, or to “nominal” Christians only after thorough catechesis? That would seem to be the drift of the argument – except for one thing. John Wesley spoke of the eucharist as a “converting ordinance”, as a means of grace that may bring the baptised (back) to Christ. In my own experience as a minister, church weddings, on a not insignificant number of occasions, have performed a similar function – and not only for the couple but for members of the congregation. In fact, they have been, indirectly, evangelistic events through which some people have been drawn into the body of Christ. They may even be prophetic events. Of course marriage preparation is essential, and that will include catechesis as well as counsel, but I have always seen it fundamentally as an act of hospitality and care. Some may chastise me with Matthew 7:6. I take consolation in Matthew 5:45.

10. Finally, if the heart of marriage is friendship, if marriage is for procreation in a gratuitous rather than an instrumental sense, as overflow rather than essence, then do we not open the way for the blessing of same-sex relationships? I think we do, though I think the term “marriage” is unhelpful. (And by the way, whatever the social and legal conventions, homosexual Christians, like heterosexual Christians, may have a vocation as parents in the church.) This view presupposes that natural law arguments against same-sex relationships are otiose – but then I think that the concept of natural law is otiose in a theology of marriage too! The point is this: if Luke Timothy Johnson is right to suggest that “If sexual virtue and vice are defined covenantally rather than biologically, then it is possible to place homosexual and heterosexual activity in the same context,” it is also possible to see same-sex relationships, blessed by the church, as an analogue of the relationship between God and his people, and a model of the church’s own proper economy of grace. In short, nihil obstat.

Postscript: two clean jokes and a dirty one

  • Why did Adam and Eve have the perfect marriage? He didn’t have to listen to her talk about all the other men she could have married, and she didn’t have to put up with his mother.
  • A minister sent a tele-message to his goddaughter for her wedding day: “I John 4:18. Love, Uncle Jack”. Unfortunately, the telephonist omitted the “I”, so that the reference was to John’s Gospel. Check it out!
  • Finally, as an illustration that (pace von Clausewitz) marriage is the continuation of war by other means, an “order of militarisation”: Reviewing their marriage vows on the eve of their thirtieth anniversary, a couple had a furious row when they came to “as long as we both shall live”. He was so angry that in the morning he went out and bought her a tombstone bearing the inscription: “Here lies my wife – cold as ever.” In retaliation she went out and bought him a tombstone too. The inscription? “Here lies my husband – stiff at last.”


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