Monday 31 August 2009

New T. F. Torrance resources

The T. F. Torrance Fellowship has released the first issue of its new journal, Participatio: The Journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship. It's available for free download, and this first issue features contributions by Ray Anderson, Paul Molnar, Alister McGrath, George Hunsinger, and others.

Meanwhile, Ashgate have released Myk Habet's new monograph on Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance; and they'll soon also be releasing Paul Molnar's much-anticipated 400-page whopper, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity.

Saturday 29 August 2009

On Calvin, Hobbes, and rights

Sorry for the slow posting lately: my Calvin paper kept me holed up all week, stressing and sweating over those huge tomes. The paper ended up with the title, “Rights, Resistance and the Common Good: Calvin’s Political Theology”. Here’s an excerpt from the conclusion:

Early modern politics took up one particular thread from Calvin’s thought – not his overarching vision of a rightly ordered society, but instead his “minor theme” of the subjective rights of citizens. In the history of political thought, this doctrine of subjective rights – rights that I possess, rights that are my entitlement – produces an increasingly individualising understanding of politics. Politics becomes more and more a contest between competing individual freedoms and rights. My relation to society is defined no longer in terms of our mutual responsibilities and obligations, but in terms of what society owes me as a private individual.

I think the extraordinary expansion in recent years of a culture of litigation in western societies is simply a further step in this direction: my place in society is defined by the rights I possess, by what the rest of society owes me. A society of litigation begins to look frighteningly like what Thomas Hobbes called the bellum omnia contra omnes, the war of everyone against everyone else. This was exactly Hobbes’s point: a society in which everyone asserts their own rights will necessarily descend into violence and chaos; what is needed, Hobbes argued, is the relinquishment of such rights for the sake of a good and peaceable common life.

Regarding subjective “human” rights, I myself think Alasdair MacIntyre is entirely correct: “The truth is plain: there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns…. Natural or human rights … are fictions.” You are not born with rights; you are born into communities and traditions that make such rights possible. Subjective rights, therefore, cannot be the foundation of politics, since these rights can only be the result of a well ordered common life.

In our time, I think a responsible theological reflection on law and politics might still have a lot to learn from Calvin’s understanding of rights. Calvin poses some uncomfortable critical questions to our liberal individualist assumptions; and he might provide a critical resource towards a contemporary theological reconfiguration of the very nature of politics.

What would a political order look like if we understood rights not as inhering naturally in individuals, but as “that which is right” for the order of a society?

In this perspective, the political order is defined in terms of virtue, duty, obligations to one another and to our collective flourishing as a people. Here, my own identity is defined not in terms of what I am owed, but in terms of my obligations and commitments to the whole social order. What I’m inviting you to do here is to re-imagine politics – not as something that arises from the need to preserve individual rights, but as an order designed to establish the basic conditions within which a community of virtue might flourish. In such a society, the fundamental political question would no longer be what are my rights?, but rather, what is right?

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Why Tony Abbott should be leader of the opposition

by Scott Stephens (An abridged version of this piece was published yesterday in Eureka Street)

Politics in Australia bears all the Darwinian traits of having been chastened by a cruel and unforgiving country. It tends toward the visceral and agonistic. Moments of genuine inspiration are fleeting, and it rarely reaches above the level of the soporific and outright banal. It is hardly surprising, then, that belief — not in the narrowly religious sense, but in the sense of a clear conception of principles, of something beyond one’s own ambitions, of the telos or ultimate purpose of one’s involvement in politics in the first place — has never been a conspicuous quality among its politicians. This is not, of course, peculiar to Australian politics. In his recent book, Political Hypocrisy, David Runciman argues that democratic politics is in a way defined by the bracketing off of personal belief:

‘Modern politics is grounded on a set of institutional arrangements that can generate security in a situation in which one can never be certain what anyone really believes, though one can be certain that some people will place undue weight on their personal beliefs. To over-personalise politics, to collapse the distinction between the mask and the person behind the mask, is either culpable hypocrisy, or self-delusion.’

But in Australia, this ambivalence toward belief has taken on a distinctly antipodean flavour. While it is true that Australians have a pathological aversion to sanctimony and cant, they are nonetheless suspicious when politicians present as a little too earnest or believe too deeply: they are branded fanatical, doctrinaire or, worst of all, ideological. Australia has thus become a kind of politico-moral wasteland, in which the public expects the cynical instrumentalization of the political process from their elected representatives, who in turn deliver cautious, small-target performances that barely conceal wanton ambition. Mutual cynicism, as Mark Latham bitterly observed, is ‘the gold standard of modern politics’.

But the ubiquity of cynicism in Australian politics, while making democracy possible, has simultaneously bastardized the political process. Just consider the erosion of the categories of Left and Right, celebrated by many as an advance on the brutal partisanship of last century: isn’t this merely the consequence of the subtraction of belief from politics? And so, when the cynicism that pervades Australian politics is combined with our compulsory voting system, elections are reduced to the pendular swinging of public whimsy (the ‘It’s Time’ factor emptied of any consequence), and principled opposition becomes craven opportunism.

It is difficult not to see Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull as the archetypal expressions of this corruption of politics. They are, as it were, political doppelgängers, each engaging in the political process — to paraphrase Clausewitz’s memorable definition of war — as an extension of egocentrism by other means. And their colossal personae and fortunes in the polls have come to occupy the place once held by a Party’s platform, what Edmund Burke described as that ‘particular principle in which they are all agreed’. What results is the anomalous existence of political parties without political properties, which is to say, without binding narratives or ‘ideologies’. This was abundantly clear during the recent ALP National Conference, at which Rudd’s rallying call to the ‘true believers’ was little more than: Labor is for being in power and against being in opposition. For his part, Turnbull can offer no counter-narrative apart from a self-serving reiteration of Menzies’ liberal creed of entrepreneurial individualism and self-reliance: ‘We believe in the individual, in his freedom, in his ambition, in his dignity’.

While the emptying-out of the political domain is currently to the advantage of the incumbent government — particularly one that has raised prevarication, spin and avoidance to an art form — it is disastrous for the Opposition. Turnbull’s stubborn determination to fight Rudd on ground that Labor has completely, if disingenuously, dominated is having no effect on the electorate, apart from confirming their implicit distrust of Turnbull himself. In fact, after just two years, we have already witnessed the return of Liberal Party to the dire situation that confronted them after their defeat at the 1993 election. In March of that same year, B. A. Santamaria lamented to Malcolm Fraser: ‘The country desperately needs a credible alternative to Labor. For years the fact that the Liberal Party has lost its way has been apparent. Today many conservatives believe it stands for nothing — a belief reinforced by the knowledge that towards the end of his life Sir Robert Menzies ceased to give the Party his automatic support.’

But, as the 1996 election demonstrated, night is always darkest before the dawn. Opposition presents the Liberal Party with a rare opportunity to recover its conservative soul and thereby abandon Labor’s vapid brand of politics which has so bewitched the electorate for a time. No politician has made this case more powerfully than Tony Abbott. His new book, Battlelines (Melbourne University Press, 2009), ought to be read as a kind of response to Santamaria’s challenge to Menzies. Indeed, one often gets the impression that Abbott is picking a fight not so much with Labor as with the libertarian and individualist tendencies within his own Party. Abbott’s determination to restore charity, belief and courage to their rightful place as the greatest of political virtues — which I’ve elsewhere described as ‘a leader’s willingness to wage war against the people’s baser instincts, to expand the public’s moral imagination rather than simply pander to avarice, to stare electoral oblivion in the face by defying popular opinion, to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of a larger cause’ — distinguishes him as the antitype of both Rudd and Turnbull.

Replacing Turnbull with Abbott as Leader of the Opposition is the only way forward for the Liberal Party, and yet it is an act which would itself require a great deal of courage. I contend that the electorate’s low regard for Abbott — demonstrated in successive opinion polls which place his support consistently around 10% — ought to be dismissed as unenlightened electoral bigotry, as an ignorant throwback to the anti-Catholic prejudice that bedeviled J.F. Kennedy in 1960s.

Reading advice: sin and the powers

A quick request for some reading suggestions: one of my students this semester is taking a guided reading course on “sin and the powers” (his own chosen topic). To start with, I’ve got him reading some of the core 19th- and 20th-century texts on sin (e.g. Kierkegaard, Niebuhr, Barth); then the next component will focus on more recent texts relating to sin, the powers, and ethics of freedom. Anyone want to offer their favourite reading recommendations on this topic?

(By the way, after all the great help I received, I’ve been meaning to post the course outlines for my current subjects on ecclesiology and pneumatology – sorry I haven’t done this yet, but I’ll try to get to it soon!)

Sunday 23 August 2009

On Calvin, rights and politics

I have now officially written the first sentence of my paper for Saturday’s Calvin conference (which means it’s time to procrastinate with a blog post). My plan is to focus on objective and subjective rights in Calvin’s thought, in relation to later ideas about rights in political philosophy. So I’ve been reading stacks of secondary literature on Calvin’s politics. Here are some of the texts that I’ve found most useful or interesting:

John Witte, Jr. The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge UP, 2007) – an absolutely wonderful piece of scholarship; it’s the sequel to Witte’s superb Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation. For me, the only problem with Witte’s work is that it’s too good. What else is there to say?

David Little, “Calvin and Natural Rights,” Political Theology 10:3 (2009), 411-430. A brilliant article, which convinced me that Witte hasn’t necessarily said everything on this topic.

Harro Höpfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge UP, 1982). For the general shape and historical context of Calvin’s ethical and political thought, I’ve found this book extremely useful.

David W. Hall, Calvin in the Public Square: Liberal Democracies, Rights and Civil Liberties (P&R, 2009). Not as original as Witte or David Little; but still a useful book which attempts a Calvinist history of the theological dimension of contemporary politics. I dislike some of his assumptions about the theological value of modern “freedoms” like democracy and so forth; but I quite like his description of Calvin’s politics as a “qualified absolutism”.

Roland Boer, Political Grace: The Revolutionary Theology of John Calvin (WJKP, 2009). Although this book is only marginally related to my paper, I found it delightfully fun to read. It’s a deeply personal, pugnacious, deliberately anachronistic reading of the revolutionary potential of Calvin’s political theology. I guess it could be read as a political thought-experiment based on Bouwsma’s idea of the “two Calvins”. Even if this has nothing to do with my paper, I certainly had a lot of fun reading it. (And it has one of the best prefaces I’ve seen in ages.)

Herman Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (IVP, 2009). Again, this isn’t related to my paper; but it’s a very nice, brisk, energetic biography, and it helped to get me back in the mood for a bit of Calvin, after neglecting his heavy tomes on my shelves for the past few years.

Erich Fuchs, “Providence and Politics: A Reflection on the Contemporary Relevance of the Political Ethics of John Calvin,” Louvain Studies 10 (1985), 231-43; reprinted in Articles on Calvin and Calvinism, ed. Richard Gamble, Volume 3. I guess this essay really has nothing to do with the topic of my paper, but I still found it to be a surprisingly vivid and moving analysis of Calvin’s political understanding of providence.

Meanwhile, on the late medieval background to the relation between theology and natural/subjective rights, I’ve been extremely grateful for the terrific studies of Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150-1625 (Scholars Press, 1997; reprinted Eerdmans, 2001); and more recently Annabel Brett, Liberty, Right and Nature: Individual Rights in Later Scholastic Thought (Cambridge UP, 2003).

And I thought my paper might also include some remarks on the Augustinian background to Calvin’s thought; so this finally gave me an excuse to read Donald Burt’s wonderful book, Friendship and Society: An Introduction to Augustine’s Practical Philosophy (Eerdmans, 1999). Reading it was a joy, and it reminded me that I’d rather be writing a paper on Augustine. But I guess it’s high time I attempted a second sentence on Calvin…

PS: Although I don’t want to procrastinate further by adding endlessly to my reading list, please let me know if there is some other top-notch work on Calvin and subjective rights that I should consult in order to avoid unnecessary public embarrassment.

Friday 21 August 2009

More from the Barth blog conference

In case you haven't been following this year's Barth blog conference, it's the best one yet – several excellent discussions of Barth's exegesis of Paul. Here are links to all the posts:

Sunday 16 August 2009

Karl Barth blog conference: natural knowledge of God

The 2009 Karl Barth Blog Conference is now up and running. In the first post, Travis provides an overview of the whole series: the theme this year is Karl Barth, Romans 1, and the Possibility of Natural Knowledge of God. Should be a great week of posts!

Saturday 15 August 2009

A note on lists and blogging

Here’s an interesting observation that I thought about developing (but ended up excising) from my paper on blogging. Walter Ong refers to “the noetic significance of tables and lists, of which the calendar is one example. Writing makes such apparatus possible. Indeed, writing was in a sense invented largely to make something like lists: by far most of the earliest writing we know” serves this purpose (Orality and Literacy, 98-99).

Lists are an important part of blogging discourse. Before I began blogging, I never used to compile lists of any kind. Nowadays, blogging has shaped my thought-patterns in such a way that I often catch myself (almost unintentionally) creating all sorts of mental lists and categorisations. I usually resist the temptation to blog such lists, since I tend to feel that mere list-making represents a regrettable trivialisation of language. But it’s interesting to reflect that technologies of writing may have originally been developed for the express purpose of making lists.

Some events in Sydney

One thing I love about the theological college where I’m now teaching is that it’s bursting at the seams with musicians, songwriters, and other creative and interesting folk. This Friday night, some of our local singers and musicians will be launching a new compilation CD with a little concert in our chapel (details can be downloaded here). Performers will include Geoff Bullock, Tashh, and ITU and the JoyStars. Should be a fun night – if you’re in the Sydney area and would like to come along, you’re very welcome!

And if (for reasons hard to fathom) you’re more interested in theology than music, then I’ve already mentioned our forthcoming Calvin conference; plus this week we’ll be having a seminar on scripture and worship with Gordon Lathrop, visiting from Yale.

Friday 14 August 2009

In which Stanley Hauerwas improves his grammar

Over at Halden’s blog, we’ve been discussing English grammar (in response to some silly sausage who disapproves of gender-neutral language). This led Halden to post the following anecdote about Hauerwas’ use of grammar:

Stanley Hauerwas was at Harvard to deliver a lecture and, being there early and still needing to do some preparation, he set out to find the library. Not finding it, he stopped a student and asked him, “Excuse me, where’s the library at?”

Incredulous, the student responded, “Sir, at Harvard we don’t end our sentences with a preposition.”

Stanley paused for a moment and then rephrased his question in a more grammatically appropriate manner: “Where’s the library at, asshole?”

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Geoffrey Bromiley, 1915-2009

Geoffrey Bromiley, the most prodigious theological translator of modern times, has died.

Many of my own formative theological experiences were mediated by Bromiley’s precise, elegant and seemingly indefatigable labours of translation. He translated the bulk of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, plus a vast number of Barth’s other works. He gave us English versions of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s three-volume Systematic Theology, as well as the three volumes of Helmut Thielicke’s Evangelical Faith. He translated the massive 10 volumes of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, as well as major works by Ernst Käsemann, Jacques Ellul, Oswald Bayer, Gerhard Sauter, Eberhard Busch, and who knows how many others. (Earlier in his career, he also translated some writings of Zwingli and Bullinger.) I learned from Michael’s post that Bromiley also recently translated the five-volume Encyclopedia of Christianity, completing the fifth volume at the age of 92!

Bromiley wrote a number of books of his own – books on infant baptism, Karl Barth, Anglican history, Reformation history, historical theology, marriage, sacraments, ecclesiology. (An extensive but incomplete bibliography has been compiled here.) But it’s his work as a translator that has left such a huge impact on the course of English-language theology over the past fifty years. If you tried to subtract Bromiley from the story of modern theology, most of our own recent history would simply become inconceivable.

I remember a conversation where a friend and I were discussing the question, “Who is the 20th century’s most important English-language theologian?” My own argument – and I meant this quite seriously – was that Geoffrey Bromiley has been the single most influential figure in modern English-language theology. Several of those European traditions that have most deeply shaped our own imaginative landscapes have been mediated primarily by Bromiley’s tireless, meticulous, and loving work of translation.

There’s a eulogy over at Fuller Seminary, where a colleague and former student says of Bromiley: “His singular dedication to Jesus Christ and his love for the church shaped us both spiritually and intellectually. His understanding of the discipline of scholarship as part of the ministry of the Word of God will continue to influence Fuller’s future.”

It was once said of St Augustine (by one of his contemporaries, I think) that if you claim to have read all that he has written, you are a liar. I’m tempted to apply the same maxim to the work of Geoffrey Bromiley: he translated more than most of us will read in a lifetime. And now, like that Old Testament patriarch, he has died “in a good old age, an old man, and full of years.” Thanks be to God.

Sunday 9 August 2009

Creating a radio played just for two

Friday 7 August 2009

Augie March and the problem with systems

So I’ve joined a cool book club that meets in the Kings Cross area of Sydney. This month, our book was Saul Bellow’s playful rambling picaresque romp, The Adventures of Augie March (1953). One of my favourite characters is Einhorn, a guy who (at least early in the story) likes to cook up elaborate plans and schemes. The narrator, Augie, describes him like this:

“He was absolutely outspoken about vital things, and he’d open his mind to me, especially when we were together in his study busy with one of his projects that got more fanciful and muddled the more notions he had about being systematic, so that in the end there’d be a super-monstrous apparatus you couldn’t set in motion either by push or crank” (pp. 74-75).
Could you say the same thing about some theological systems? Is it possible for a theology to become so perfect, so elaborately systematic, that you simply can’t do anything with it?

Tuesday 4 August 2009

On assisted suicide: the problem with choice

by Kim Fabricius

Kim had an abridged form of this letter published in yesterday’s Independent. It’s a response to the case of Debbie Purdy, the British MS sufferer who has just won a landmark decision in the Law Lords; theyve told the Director of Public Prosecutions to clarify how his department decides to prosecute in cases of those who expedite assisted suicides abroad. As a result of the ruling, pressure will inevitably mount for assisted suicide to be legalised in the UK.


On the subject of assisted suicide, let’s bracket the theology. Atheists will only sneer, not altogether unreasonably – Christianity has form on dogmatism – even though their own claim to ethical neutrality and objectivity is itself not only hopelessly doctrinaire but downright delusional, for there is no view from nowhere.

Let’s bracket too Richard Ingram’s observation (opinion, 1 August), though it’s literally right on the money, about the tempting market advantages of assisted suicide in a late capitalist economy of alleged scarcity, not to mention in a culture of youth, health and beauty. For the sake of argument, we can even bracket the idea – perish the thought – that the relatives and friends of the ill and aged might pressure them into an early self-dug grave.

But what cannot pass unchallenged is this notion of personal autonomy, as if my own desires and wishes were not themselves largely socially determined. I am who I am only in relation to others, and the view I have of myself turns largely on how others view me. If society as a whole no longer believes and affirms – unconditionally – the value of my life, if the signal it sends (not least in legislation) is that, ultimately, I am expendable, then I too will believe myself expendable.

In short, “I choose to die” may look like an assertion of freedom when in fact it is the cry of a person in chains: the chains of choice itself.

Sunday 2 August 2009

F&T 2.0

As you can see, I’ve given F&T a complete overhaul. It still needs a bit more work – so while I’m tinkering with it, please feel free to suggest any special features that you’d like to see, or any improvements in layout.

Some of the new features include a list of all categories in the sidebar; the ability to subscribe to all comments (via the menu bar at the top); a list of related posts after each post; as well as Google’s sweet tabbed search function. I also thought it would be useful to list the latest comments in the sidebar, since sometimes discussions are rekindled on older threads (for example, a couple of weeks ago we were discussing Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til on a very old thread).

I’d also be interested to know if there are any preferences for the format of the blogroll. At the moment, the list simply shows the blogs in order of the most recently updated. Should I still include a full alphabetical list as well?


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