Saturday 31 October 2009

Some not-to-miss AAR sessions

I've already mentioned the apocalyptic theology sessions at AAR next week. If you're lucky enough to be in Montreal, here are some other not-to-be-missed sessions:

Sacramental Poetics (chaired by Monica Miller). Like liturgy, sacramental poetry signifies more than it says, through image, sound, and time, in language that takes the hearer beyond each of these elements. Rather than being lost in secularization, this sacramental function survives through poetic evocations of transcendence. Papers by John Milbank, Kevin Hart, Virgil Brower, Hent de Vries, and Regina Schwartz. (I'm also listed in the programme, but unfortunately I had to pull out: especially disappointing since Kevin Hart is my favourite contemporary poet, and I would have loved to meet him.) For more on "sacramental poetics", see Regina Schwartz's new post at the Immanent Frame.

Karl Barth Society: Panel Discussion of Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, by Bruce L. McCormack. Papers by Nicholas M. Healy and Garrett Green, with a response by Bruce McCormack. (For more on this book, see my review, and the new review by Matthias Gockel.)

Disenchantment and Reenchantment in Political Theology: Diagnosing the Crisis of Liberalism. With the following papers: Benjamin Lazier, "Miracles and the Crisis of Liberalism between the Wars and Beyond"; Kurt Anders Richardson, "Legislation and Affection: On the Anthropological Dimensions of a Political Theology"; Bruce Rosenstock, "Hegel and Modern Political Theology"; Robert Yelle, "Liberalism Has No Charisma: Critiques of the Political Theology of Modernity in Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and Philip Rieff"; response by John Milbank.

Creation and Negation: Apophasis and the Theology of Creation (chaired by Denys Turner). This panel advances constructive insights regarding a paradox in the theology of creation — precisely in virtue of being created, every existing being that we encounter flows from an infinite abyss of inexhaustible unknowability. This corollary of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo suggests that on the “other side” of every creature lies sheer nonexistence. And this itself is worthy of elucidation, for it underscores the vulnerability and graciousness inherent in the existence of each creature. But the panel pushes more deeply into the apophasis at the heart of creaturely existence. On the one hand, we develop a theology of the creatures by uncovering their apophatic depths as they flow from the inexhaustible mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation; and we also display the fruitfulness of this apophatic vision by unfolding its significance for our understandings of creaturely being, human flourishing, and the critical understanding of nature today. Papers by Sarah Coakley, Kevin L. Hughes, Mark A. McIntosh and Willemien Otten.

Theological Interventions: Love and Kenosis (chaired by Christine E. Gudorf). With a paper by Dennis King Keenan, "On the Genealogy of Love"; and Jodi Belcher, "Subversion through Subjection: A Feminist Reconsideration of Kenosis in Christology and Christian Discipleship". This one sounds like a terrific paper (h/t AUFS) – here's the abstract:

This paper reformulates Christological kenosis and its implications for Christian discipleship in light of the confusion surrounding “self-emptying” language and the painful ramifications of its prescription in Christianity, particularly for women. The central thesis claims that understanding kenosis in terms of subjection not only subverts the traditional, simplistic construal of self-emptying as loss of self, but also provides a recapitulation of kenosis as a transformative and empowering re-identification in God that feminist theology can plausibly engage and affirm. To develop this argument, the paper adopts an interdisciplinary approach, initially giving a constructive critique of Sarah Coakley’s conception of Christ’s kenosis as the concurrence of divine power and human vulnerability. This evaluation of Coakley is then supplemented with Judith Butler’s philosophical account of power and subject formation in the process of subjection. The argument concludes by proposing a constructive contemporary retrieval of kenosis as subversive subjection.
The Promise of Scripture and Phenomenology (chaired by Kevin Hart). How does scripture give itself? What would it mean to treat scripture as a phenomenon? Is anything lost by thinking of scripture as an historical or literary object? This panel will explore the possibility of a phenomenological approach to scripture. Papers by Chris Hackett, Petra Turner Harvey, Adam Wells, H. Peter Kang, Martin Kavka and Nicholas Adams.

The Church in Post-Christian Society. Papers by Thomas Hughson, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, David Anderman, Steffen Lösel and Gilles Routhier. Also this paper by Mark Chapman, which sounds very good:
This paper discusses theological implications for the English churches as they recognise their minority status. By analysing reports from the 1960s to the present on the Church’s response to changing religious demography, I outline two responses to religious decline. The first amounts to a nostalgic longing for establishment. However, the assumption that all people were really Christian, whether they liked it or not, is nothing more than a piece of wishful thinking. The second solution promotes a pluralism which emerges from the recognition of minority status. This model was advocated by a number of more radical writers and theologians including Valerie Pitt and Donald Mackinnon. It has recently been revitalised by Rowan Williams. Becoming a minority is part of obedience to the Gospel: the roughness and complexity of Christian discipleship are hardly likely to appeal to the majority.
Whither the "Death of God": A Continuing Currency? (chaired by Lissa McCullough). Papers by Thomas Altizer and Slavoj Žižek, plus audience discussion.

The Apocalyptic Turn in Theology (chaired by Damon McGraw). Papers by Thomas Altizer, Catherine Keller, Graham Ward and Cyril O'Regan.

OK, I'm sure there'll be other good sessions too – these are the ones that stood out to me. If you know of any other interesting papers or panels, feel free to leave the details in a comment.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Theology and apocalyptic at AAR

Next week at AAR in Montreal, there'll be two sessions on “Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic” (they have their own website).

The Saturday session is titled “Whither Apocalyptic? Critical Reflections in the Wake of Nathan R. Kerr’s Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission; it features Douglas Harink, Travis Kroeker and Cyril O’Regan, with a response by Nate.

The Sunday session is on “The Apocalyptic Gospel: Theological Responses to the Work of J. Louis Martyn”. This is chaired by Douglas Harink, with papers by David Belcher, Walter Lowe and Philip G. Ziegler. It also includes my own paper, “God who Acts: The Work of J. Louis Martyn as a Critique of Contemporary Theology”. Sadly, I won't be able to attend in person – Halden Doerge will kindly be presenting my paper.

So if you're in Montreal next week, get along for the apocalyptic action!

Saturday 24 October 2009

Why I (still) confess the filioque

In theology, Eastern Orthodoxy is the new black. These days it's harder and harder to find any serious Protestant commitment to the western confession of filioque. The denomination in which I'm teaching, for instance, omits the filioque from liturgical confessions of the Nicene Creed.

In recent Protestant theology, reluctance to confess the filioque seems to arise mainly from a general ecumenical sentiment on the one hand (as though such a confession would be impolite), and from an ill-informed and stereotyped criticism of Augustine on the other (as one finds everywhere in Colin Gunton's works, for example).

In one of my recent pneumatology classes, I tried to argue for the contemporary importance of the filioque. My argument was roughly as follows: In the preaching and worship of liberal Protestant churches, there is a good deal of emphasis on the autonomy of the Spirit. The Spirit is often invoked without reference to Christ, or to the biblical narrative, or to the events of salvation-history. We have hymns and prayers that celebrate "the Spirit" as a kind of generic Spirit of creation, a benevolent life-force that is universally active and available. The role of this Spirit, presumably, is to grant unmediated religious access to God – a kind of second saviour, an alternative to Christ. I once attended a particularly ghastly eucharist service, where the bread and wine were not once related to Christ, but simply to "the Spirit" who is at work in all the gifts of creation. Such a Spirit clearly could not be said to proceed "from the Son"!

It's precisely here that the filioque could function to safeguard the church's confession of the gospel. The role of the filioque is to tie the Spirit's work indissolubly to God's act in Christ; to confess that the action of the Spirit is part of the story of salvation-history, and not some independent avenue of God's presence in the world. A Spirit who proceeds simply "from the Father" can very easily be understood as a second way of salvation, operating remoto Christo and floating free of the events of salvation-history.

Karl Barth's defence of the filioque was partly motivated by this kind of concern. He wondered whether the Eastern church's refusal of the filioque is "a reflection of the very mystically oriented piety of the East, which, bypassing the revelation in the Son, would relate human beings directly to the original Revealer, the principium or fount of deity" (Göttingen Dogmatics, 1:129-30). (I look forward to learning much more about this when Ashgate releases David Guretzki's new book on Karl Barth and the Filioque – due out next month.)

This week I've also been immersed in Volumes 12 (Berlin, 1932-1933) and 13 (London, 1933-1935) of Bonhoeffer's Works. And I've been struck by the importance of the filioque in the struggle of the Confessing Church against the Deutsche Christen. The 1933 Bethel Confession (Bonhoeffer was one of its main writers) includes a section on the Holy Spirit which foregrounds the filioque:

"The church teaches that the Holy Spirit, true God for all eternity, is not created, not made, but proceeds from the Father and the Son.... We reject the false doctrine that the Holy Spirit can be recognized without Christ in the creation and its orders. For it is always as proceeding from the Son that the Holy Spirit judges this fallen world and establishes the new order, above all nations, of the church as the people of God. Only because the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son does the church receive its mission to all nations" (Bonhoeffer, Berlin, 1932-1933, p. 399).

The notes from a 1933 pastors' conference records a discussion of this confession between Bonhoeffer and others:
In National Socialism, it is "first nature's grace, then Christ's grace. First creation, then redemption. This goes back to liberal theology. What is decisive is that the filioque is missing. The filioque means that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The German Christians want to introduce a nature spirit, a folk [Volk] spirit, into the church, which is not judged by Christ but rather justifies itself." This is "German paganism" (Bonhoeffer, London, 1933-1935, p. 48).

As I've suggested before, liberal Protestant worship can easily degenerate into similar kinds of "paganism". A rediscovery of the theological significance of the filioque may be one way, in our time, of resisting this tendency and of preserving the christological shape of Christian confession of the Trinity.

Friday 23 October 2009

Eternity: a free Christian newspaper

Some guys here in Sydney decided to create a new independent Christian newspaper, and they've just launched the first issue. It's called Eternity, and it looks very promising. This first issue includes articles on theology, Twitter, church planting, mission, music, books, film, and more. Greg Clarke writes about music, Michael Jensen writes about Calvin's 500th birthday, while Jim Wallace and Angus McLeay debate the question, "Does Australia need a charter of rights?" The paper even includes, with due acknowledgment, Oliver Crisp's painting of the young Calvin. (Which reminds me: I've seen that painting used all over the place, on blogs and websites, without any kind of permission or acknowledgment. For shame.)

The whole paper has a nice contemporary, ecumenical flavour, and it's a great deal more interesting and informative than most of those Australian denominational rags (with their parochial content and retirement-village style).

If you'd like free copies of the paper to be delivered to your church, you can sign up online. And some of us might also like to consider writing something for the paper – the Sydney Anglicans have been very keen contributors to this first issue, but the paper is keen to represent the whole gamut of Australian church life. And the fact that it's also interested in publishing theological content is a very welcome sign!

Wednesday 21 October 2009

The unpayable debt that I owed you

Sunday 18 October 2009

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in New York

Over the past few days I had a delightful time reading Volume 10 of the new edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's works, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931 (Fortress 2008), 764 pp. – a remarkable collection of letters, sermons, essays and lectures from his time as a vicar in Spain, a postdoctoral student in Berlin, and a visiting fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

After working as a pastor in Barcelona (where he even acquired what may have been an original Picasso!), Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to complete his postdoctoral dissertation, Act and Being, which presented a kind of Barthian-Kantian approach to theological anthropology, grounded in the empirical reality of the church. The ensuing American period is especially fascinating: 1930-31 was a hell of a time to be in New York City!

The young Bonhoeffer was taking courses with Reinhold Niebuhr and John Baillie, going to hear sermons by Harry Emerson Fosdick, studying pragmatism and American literature (he "read almost the entire philosophical works of William James, which really captivated me, then Dewey, Perry, Russell, and finally also J. B. Watson and the behaviorist literature"), worshipping in black churches, and corresponding with former teachers like Harnack and Seeberg.

His impressions of liberal American church life are generally quite scathing: "In New York, they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ.... So what stands in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that – who knows how? – claims the right to call itself 'Christian'. And in the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation. Anyone who has seen the weekly program of one of the large New York churches, with their daily, indeed almost hourly events, teas, lectures, concerts, charity events, opportunities for sports, games, bowling, dancing for every age group, anyone who has become acquainted with the embarrassing nervousness with which the pastor lobbies for membership – that person can well assess the character of such a church.... In order to balance out the feeling of inner emptiness that arises now and then (and partly also to refill the church's treasury), some congregations will if possible engage an evangelist for a 'revival' once a year" (pp. 313-14).

In this ecclesial ethos, "the church is really no longer the place where the congregation hears and preaches God's word, but rather the place where one acquires secondary significance as a social entity for this or that purpose" (p. 317).

Bonhoeffer was similarly dismayed by the students at Union Theological Seminary. The students "are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, are amused at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.... In contrast to our own [German] liberalism, which in its better representatives doubtless was a genuinely vigorous phenomenon, here all that has been frightfully sentimentalised, and with an almost naive know-it-all attitude" (pp. 265-66). Again, referring to Union Seminary: "A seminary in which numerous students openly laugh during a public lecture because they find it amusing when a passage on sin and forgiveness from Luther's de servo arbitrio is cited has obviously, despite its many advantages, forgotten what Christian theology in its very essence stands for" (pp. 309-10).

Bonhoeffer also encountered the fundamentalist theology of J. Gresham Machen and his followers, especially in the Southern Baptist Church. This kind of theology, he remarked, revealed "a different side of the American character", namely, "an unrelenting harshness in holding on to one's possessions, possessions either of this or of the other world. I acquired this possession with trust in God, God made my success happen, so whoever infringes upon this possession is infringing upon God" (p. 317).

It was of course the black churches that won his warmest praise and admiration: "In contrast to the often lecturelike character of the 'white' sermon, the 'black Christ' is preached with captivating passion and vividness. Anyone who has heard and understood the Negro spirituals knows about [this] strange mixture of reserved melancholy and eruptive joy" (p. 315). Bonhoeffer would later introduce some of the Negro spirituals to the worship services at the illegal seminary in Finkenwalde (possibly one of the first places in Europe to introduce such songs).

The volume also contains the remarkable student papers that Bonhoeffer wrote for classes and seminars in New York – papers on William James, ethics, determinism, dogmatics. His paper on "the Christian idea of God" draws a sharp distinction between "history" and "decision": "Within the world of ideas there is no such thing as decision because I always bear already within myself the possibilities of understanding these ideas. They fit into my system but they do not challenge my whole existence" (p. 458).

A similar Kantian point is elaborated in his paper (written for Baillie) on Barth's use of neo-Kantian philosophy. Here, he argues that "the deepest antinomy" is "the antinomy between pure act and reflection"; God does not enter the realm of reflection, but "tears man out of this reflection into an actus directus toward God" (p. 474).

In sum, this is a wonderful, invigorating book, documenting an exciting and formative period of Bonhoeffer's life. We find him learning new languages, encountering new traditions and ideas, adapting to radically different ways of life – and returning again and again, with remarkable consistency, to the deep wellspring of the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith. As Bonhoeffer remarks in one of his letters to Seeberg: "there can be no doubt that only through active contact with other ways of thought is one led to the formation and comprehension of that which is unique to oneself" (p. 119). In the same way, even in some of his most negative assessments of American church life, one catches a glimpse of Bonhoeffer's own profound and developing ecclesiological and ethical commitments.

Thursday 15 October 2009

Theologians (still) talking to one another about themselves

Following our recent discussions, Evan talks about theologians talking to one another about themselves, while Erin posts on theologians and their crazy talk. On the topic of theology as a university discipline, Samuel also has a post on theology as a (deservedly?) marginalised science, while Jason discusses doing theology in the university.

Update: Erin now has another very extensive post, Theologians and their crazy talk, Part 2.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Theology conferences in 2010

Here are some upcoming conferences that might be of interest (thanks to Evan for highlighting some of these). If you know of any other noteworthy conferences for 2010, feel free to leave a comment with the link.

Evan also notes that the recent "Sacred Modernities" conference (Aristotle Kallis, Graham Ward) was recorded in full as a podcast. And he points to the creation of 50 new humanities postdoctoral fellowships in the States.

Monday 12 October 2009

Ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome

Responding to Halden on doing theology against ourselves, Adam suggests that many theologians have Ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome: "the twin tendency to idealize and fetishize local church life and to denigrate their own role".

Saturday 10 October 2009

Doing theology against ourselves

Halden has two posts on "doing theology against ourselves", with some interesting ensuing discussion. He writes:

The frequent discord between theology and theologians isn’t actually such a bad thing.... If theologians could only write in accordance with their moral achievements, no one could ever write in a way that called herself into question. Theology would merely be an exercise in self-congratulation if we only recommended our own achievements. That our attempts to talk about God often end up condemning us is, you might say, far better than the alternative.
Or to put it another way: the brokenness of the theologian can also be taken up in the service of theology's witness to a reality that utterly transcends it.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

I wish I had a suntan; I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Pet hate #162: quasi-legal email disclaimers

We've all seen it: the seemingly friendly and innocent email that ends with a sudden outburst of quasi-legal rhetoric – a strange and often random mix of disclaimers, requests, threats and proscriptions. I've even seen some disclaimers framed as contractual statements, as though the person receiving the email had entered (without knowing it) into a legal contract with the sender. Other disclaimers offer politically correct threats and assurances ("employees of this company must not use this email for abusive or vilifying or inappropriate purposes blah blah; any opinions expressed are not those of the company or its affiliates, blah").

We've all seen this sort of thing. We all assumed it was just a fad. But the continuing prevalence of such email disclaimers may well be one of the surest signs that the end of Western Civilisation is at hand.

But anyway, after careful legal advice, I realised that I needed my own email disclaimer – so I've gone ahead and composed one. I'll be using this from now on in all my emails, and you're also welcome to use it as a footer to your own emails. It can add an impressive sense of gravitas when you're forwarding YouTube clips or pictures of cats to your friends.


The message that you have just read might possibly be legally privileged and/or confidential and is intended only for the use of those to whom it is intended. We hope and insist that no recipient will ever forward, print, copy, scan, read aloud, film, choreograph, broadcast via radio or other media, podcast, vodcast, tweet, blog, translate into foreign languages, transcribe in crayon, versify in iambic pentameter, or otherwise reproduce this message in any manner that would allow any of the message to be viewed by any individual not originally intended as an intended recipient. If you are not the intended recipient, STOP IN THE NAME OF THE LAW. We beseech you in the name of the law: please don't ever copy, forward, disclose, speak of, print, report, joke about, or otherwise use this message or any part of it in any way whatsoever, never ever. If you received this e-mail by mistake, please read this disclaimer IMMEDIATELY, then advise the sender immediately, then delete this message, then empty the trash on your computer, then YOU MUST also use an appropriate software program to permanently erase all traces of the file from your computer's hard drive (and from any other hard drive or portable storage device where the information may be stored). Afterwards, it is strictly prohibited ever to mention, discuss, think of, or remember any of the contents of this message. If you do so, YOU MAY BE LIABLE for litigation or prosecution or indefinite detainment. If you were the intended recipient of this e-mail, you have entered into a BINDING CONTRACT with the sender, allowing you to be imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, exiled, lobotomised, forced to read Dan Brown, deprived of all human rights, and other possible measures that may be introduced from time to time. Thank you.

Sunday 4 October 2009

Who am I? Bonhoeffer's theology through his poetry

Bernd Wannenwetsch, ed., Who Am I? Bonhoeffer's Theology Through His Poetry (T&T Clark 2009), 259 pp. (thanks to T&T Clark for a copy)

I've been waiting eagerly for this book, and I wasn't disappointed. An impressive range of scholars – including Oliver O'Donovan, Stanley Hauerwas, Bernd Wannenwetsch, Hans Ulrich, Brian Brock, Philip Ziegler, and others – offer theological readings of Bonhoeffer's poetry.

The ten poems that Bonhoeffer wrote in Tegel prison in 1944 were among his last works. This book includes the text of the poems (German and English on facing pages), together with an essay on each poem. The kind of close reading modelled in these essays is unfortunately rare in contemporary theology; and the essays show that our own theological horizons can be extended through such a discipline of slow, attentive reading.

Of course, Bonhoeffer was scarcely a first-rate poet. Yet as Marilynne Robinson has observed, poetic language for Bonhoeffer "functions not as ornament but as ontology"; or as Philip Ziegler puts it, "even at its most stylized – as in the prison poems – [Bonhoeffer's] writing advances nothing less than decisive claims about reality" (p. 142). This does not mean that the poems should be regarded merely as "versified theology", as though they could be translated without remainder into prose. The contributors to the volume are aware of this, and so their aim is not so much to explain or interpret the poems as to think along with them and to see what theological possibilities they might open. Indeed, as Hauerwas very aptly remarks: "I do not, however, want to give the impression that the poem is an explanation.... For I assume that one of the tasks of poetry is to teach why 'explanations' are not all that interesting" (p. 101).

Three of the essays here really stand out. Hauerwas offers some incisive reflections on the poem "The Friend". This poem was written for Bonhoeffer's friend Eberhard Bethge; some early readers mistakenly took it to be a poem about a homosexual partnership. "Such an assumption," Hauerwas notes, betrays our own "impoverished understanding of friendship" (p. 100). For Bonhoeffer, friendship belongs not to the sphere of the orders of creation (work, marriage, government). It belongs instead to the sphere of freedom; it is grounded in nothing and has no necessity. It is not divinely mandated, nor is it a matter of ethics and obedience. But since friendship stands outside the mandates of creation, it is also able to transform these mandates, turning them from law to gospel. Marriage, for example, is divinely ordained; it requires obedience and responsibility. But marriage can be "given life by the realm of freedom in which friendship flourishes" (p. 106). It is thus friendship that "saves the mandates from their potential to be repressive" (p. 108). On this basis, Hauerwas goes on to argue that this poem evokes an alternative politics: "'The Friend' is Bonhoeffer's attempt not only to say, but to enact in a world of terror, that God's church exists making friendships possible" (p. 111).

Michael Northcott's essay explores the relation between human identity and spiritual disciplines in the poem "Who am I?" In a brilliant reading of the poem, he critiques the way Rowan Williams and Bernd Wannenwetsch (he might also have mentioned Hauerwas) have "enlisted Bonhoeffer ... in the post-liberal attempt to recover the moral self through the public worship and the politics of the body of Christ" (p. 15). In Northcott's view, Bonhoeffer is not trying to overturn the modern quest for interiority or authentic selfhood. He is comfortable using language of inwardness and individuality; but against modern narratives of the self, he argues "that moral responsibility is the mark of true personhood" (p. 17).

Another critique of postliberal ecclesiology appears in Hans Ulrich's remarkable essay on the poem "Stations on the Way to Freedom" – far and away the most powerful and compelling contribution to the book. Ulrich argues that Bonhoeffer's whole theology is pervaded by the theme of God's acting, God's presence. The poem indicates "the places of God's acting", the stations of God's presence in our lives: God is present where our lives are structured by the disciplines of discipleship; God is present where we act rightly; and God is present where we suffer because of our dedication to God. In ecclesiological terms, this means the church does not represent God's action, but is instead "the place holder for God's acting in the world". As a place holder, the church "does not become the new polis"; it is "the place of transformation, the place of change, the place of giving oneself over to God" (p. 165).

Ulrich thus argues that Bonhoeffer's political theology must be understood as a distinctively Lutheran theology of the cross: not a political theology in which the church represents God's gifts or action, but one in which "God stands in our place – and there happens our suffering because we cannot act any more" (p. 162). And it is only in this way that true freedom appears in our lives: not a freedom consisting in a plurality of options, but a kind of cruciform freedom, the suffering experience of God's presence, guidance and action.

I've highlighted just three of the essays here: but this whole collection is an exciting, creative, tightly focused exploration of Bonhoeffer's poetry and theology. It's not only an invaluable contribution to Bonhoeffer studies; it also contributes significantly to contemporary conversations about ecclesiology, ethics, politics, and human identity.

A poem by Geoffrey Hill: the minor prophets

Today's Sunday poem is from Geoffrey Hill's recent collection, A Treatise of Civil Power (Penguin 2007).

The Minor Prophets

Joel in particular; between the Porch
and the Altar – something about dancing
or not dancing. No, weeping; but in the Bible
there's so much about dance; often of ill omen;
the threats of scorched earth and someone who resembles
the Scorpion King. They should film Joel:
A fire devoureth before them; and behind
them a flame burneth

Friday 2 October 2009

Outside the box

A university sermon by Kim Fabricius

Reading: II Corinthians 5:11-21

At the beginning of a new academic year, I thought it would be good to begin at the beginning with – with faith: with suggesting that an essential dimension of faith, which is not foregrounded nearly as much as it should be, is that faith is an imaginative vision of reality, that faith begins with seeing, with seeing the world differently, sub specie aeternitatis – “from the perspective of the eternal” – which, for Christians, means from the perspective of the future of which the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the apocalypse now.

Or, in the jargon, faith entails thinking (and feeling and acting) “outside the box” of what has been called the contemporary “social imaginary” – of democratic liberalism, consumerist capitalism, and scientific fundamentalism – those construals of reality that purport to define reality, and amount to the default human ecology in which we all live and move and have our being. Faith is the habit of the heart and mind of Christ that re-construes, re-configures the world in the light of our new creation in Christ.

For the rest, I simply tell you a parable of “thinking outside the box”. One day Scot Ernest (Lord) Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, received a phone call. It was from a colleague who was about to fail a student in an exam but for the fact that the student himself claimed a perfect paper. The colleague and the student agreed to ask if Rutherford would be the deciding examiner.

The exam question was: “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.” The student had answered: “Attach a long rope to it, lower it to the street, and then pull it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.” And the answer works. However it wasn’t the expected answer, the conventional answer: namely, that you use the barometer to measure the atmospheric pressure at the bottom and the top of the building; the pressure is less at the top, and factoring in the weight of the air, you calculate the height of the building.

So the student was offered another try. He was given six minutes to provide an answer that demonstrated some knowledge of physics. After five minutes, the student’s paper was still blank. Asked if he wished to give up, he said, “No, I’ve got several answers, I’m just thinking of the best one.”

In the next minute he dashed off the answer: “Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula for the rate of the fall of a body, calculate the height of the building.” The student was given almost full credit.

As he was leaving the room, the examiners called him back. They were curious: what were the other answers he had to the problem? “Well,” the student said, “there are many ways to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the length of the building’s shadow, and the height of the barometer itself and the length of its shadow, and then by using simple proportion, you calculate the height of the building.

“Or,” he said, “there is a more direct method. Take the barometer and walk up the stairs of the building. As you climb the stairs, mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer-units.

“Or,” he said, “you could take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to just above the street, then swing it like a pendulum. You then calculate the height of the building by the period of the swing.

“There are still other ways of solving the problem,” the student continued. “But probably the best way is to take the barometer to the basement of the building and knock on the superintendent’s door. When he answers, say, ‘My dear Mr. Superintendent, I have here an excellent barometer. If you tell me the height of your building, I will give you the barometer as a gift.’”

Well, the examiners were gobsmacked. When they recovered their composure, they asked the student if he knew the standard answer to the question. “Of course,” he replied. “But I am fed up with high school and university teachers trying to tell me how to think.”

And the name of the student of this perhaps apocryphal story? Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to quantum theory.

Finally, from a physicist to a poet. Williams Blake said: “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” Yes, and a Christian sees not the same world that a non-Christian sees. We see “Easter in ordinary” (Nicholas Lash), the world transformed by grace, generously sprinkled with signs of God’s coming kingdom. It is on the basis of this imaginative vision that we are called to think differently and act differently, called to radical discipleship in which we begin to live tomorrow’s life today.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Caption contest winner

Well, the caption contest has been won by a clean sweep. The commenter identified as "Fat" received an overwhelming majority of votes for the caption: "I got it from the toilet - it's the only water I can reach." Congratulations!

For a prize, "Fat" may choose one of the following books, courtesy of IVP Academic, T&T Clark, and Brazos Press:

Douglas A. Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought (IVP 2009)

Jason E. Vickers, Wesley: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark 2009)

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Brazos 2009)


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