Wednesday 17 March 2010

God and indigenous Australians: recognising or confessing?

I've been writing a paper on the Uniting Church's proposed new preamble to its constitution. I'm actually very sympathetic to the intentions of this preamble (and I'll post a more sympathetic excerpt tomorrow, on the importance of discerning God's work among indigenous peoples "outside the church"). But my main criticism is that the document speaks from a non-confessional standpoint – here's an excerpt:

This is not so much a confession of the church’s faith in Christ as an authoritative pronouncement about the specific mode of God’s self-revelation. God was at work among (presumably all) indigenous peoples ‘through law, custom and ceremony’.

The crucial question to put to this document is that of the church’s fundamental posture or position. Where does the church stand? Where is the church positioned in order to formulate such a fixed definition of the divine action in human history? Can a confessing church make such authoritative pronouncements? Or does the church first need to relinquish its confessing stance, its posture of vulnerable openness before Jesus Christ, in order to define God’s activity in this way? Can such doctrinal pronouncements really remain open to the free and surprising work of Christ in the world? Or has the eschatological untidiness of the Basis of Union been relinquished in favour of a highly determinate decision about the precise nature of divine action in history? In short, can a confessing church adopt a position of privileged insight into the mysteries of the divine will – a theological bird’s-eye view?

The language of the preamble betrays the fact that this document is indeed an authoritative, objective pronouncement rather than a confession of the church. It is spoken not from the position of obedient confession, but from a superior viewpoint. God’s activity in the world is not so much confessed as grasped and assimilated within an all-encompassing doctrinal schema.

Thus the preamble’s ten statements are said to be ‘recognised’ by the church. What does it mean for the church to ‘recognise’ the fact that God’s self-revelation in Australia has taken place through law, custom and ceremony? Surely it indicates that the church occupies a privileged position. Specific information about God’s activity – information not available in scripture – is somehow at the church’s disposal. Although the church knows God only in Christ, it now also commands knowledge of God’s action extra Christum. Instead of confessing, instead of remaining open and expectant to God’s surprising work in the world, the church is said to ‘recognise’ these facts. Not content to bear witness, the church speaks (in all ten paragraphs) with the voice of an anonymous historian, informing the world about the precise location of God – and of the Uniting Church! – in Australia’s history. Instead of standing ‘between the times’ and confessing from a position of weakness and vulnerability, the church has mastered history. It occupies a theological ‘view from nowhere’, an objective position from which even God is viewed as though from high above.


Brad East said...

This is extremely helpful, Ben. The re-orientation, and constant reminder, is necessary for all theological work not to slip into "pronouncements" but always to offer only what the church can: confession -- from the bottom. I wonder how more "academic" theology might seek to retain this stance.

Geri Russell said...


I really like what you've got in the first paragraph. However, is it possible ever for a confession to speak to what this document questions?

Does your view of only being able to offer "confession" remove even the possibility of an ad hoc declaration of the Spirit working through the means described in the document?

I've got to go get my daughter from school...but I hope to feed you a few quotes if I get a minute from Amos Yong's methodology/ pneumatology of religions that might give you a good case study for the problematic of non-fallabilistic language.

Justin said...

Interesting thoughts Ben. You may be doing this in tomorrow's post, but I would like to see how you would have phrased the same concept (even just the controversial sentence in para 3) in light of thr above.

And to ask a related question: with this criticism (but underlying support of the aim), and the constraints of an up or down vote, would you vote to accept the preamble at Presbytery and Synod?

Anonymous said...

Hey Ben,

Couple of things:

It sounds to me like the critique your making here is (in my crude terms) the disctinction between ideology and theology. Ideology, self-believing and serving, seeks to control and dictate, theology, Christ believing and serving, seeks to discern and illuminate. Is this fair? If it is, I agree completely.

Also, I think your statement, 'the church knows God only in Christ' needs some explanatory sentences around it (about the Trinitarian faith, general and specific revelation, and the finality of Christ) - perhaps 'through Christ' might be better on this score...don't know, just thinking out loud.

Mike E

Anna Blanch said...

I'll come back and comment on the substantive issues of the post, but my question for now....what is the source of the image? It's great and i'd love to know where it's from...

Ben Myers said...

Hey Anna, I'm not actually sure of where that painting comes from — but I pinched the image from here.

revgrump said...

Thanks for this helpful reflection, Ben. I think this has been my concern all along - although I've struggled to find the words that don't leave me open to that great conversation-stopper that ends in "ism".

Bruce Hamill said...

Yeah, exactly what I meant Ben, only I couldn't have put it as well.

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