Monday 31 May 2010

Calvin's opera omnia online

As Jim West recently pointed out, the complete set of Calvin's Opera Omnia is now freely available online, thanks to the wonderful Hekman Library. This is really invaluable – for some time now, these volumes have been all but impossible to get hold of. While you're over there, be sure to check out some of the Hekman Library's other great resources – the site is an absolute treasure trove. They have patristics, medieval theology, reformation theology (including stacks of Luther), early modern theology, early modern philosophy, theological encyclopedias, and a lot more. (In fact, I just noticed that they also have the complete set of the Parker Society English reformation volumes: magnificent!)

Friday 28 May 2010

Theological Graffiti: A poetic guide to modern theology

by Kim Fabricius and Ben Myers

Kim and I were talking the other day about W. H. Auden’s Academic Graffiti (1972), a delightfully funny series of clerihews (four-line biographical poems). So we decided to come up with our own Theological Graffiti, a sequence of clerihews on modern theologians. Here they are: forty theologians, in alphabetical order.

Karl Barth
Had to hire a cart
Having no other tactics
To transport his dogmatics.

Phillip Blond
Lives in beau monde,
Which explains the fantastical hunky-dory
Red Tory.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
Theological cartographer,
From Tegel, in fetters,
Wrote the Lord letters.

Geoffrey Bromiley
Never tired easily,
But felt a tad weary
After translating a whole German library.

Rudolf Bultmann
One day began
To study the Gospel of John; and found, to his satisfaction,
That pretty much every word was redaction.

Sarah Coakley
Doesn’t care for logomachy,
But waits silently (you can hear it)
For the Spirit.

Don Cupitt
Bid farewell to all stupid
Believers; then with a bow and a nod
He took leave of God.

Mary Daly
Didn’t write gaily
About her bother:
The Father.

Hans Frei
Replied with a sigh
To the liberal lot:
“You’ve lost the plot.”

Wayne Grudem
Had a stratagem
To define the role of women; but neglected to mention
Whether men, too, are allowed in the kitchen.

Colin Gunton
Detected dysfunction
In St Augustine, his nemesis,
Who didn’t have quite enough perichoresis.

David B. Hart
Is not terribly fond of Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Tillich or Barth,
Crucially not to mention
Balthasar, Jüngel, Lash, Moltmann, MacKinnon …

Stan the Man
Is more peaceful than
A quiet Christmas night.
But he loves a fuckin’ fight.

Robert Jenson,
Lively and fun,
Is known to enjoy a good Barthian feud
And to talk about God as Hegelian fugue.

Eberhard Jüngel
Is king of the jungle
On the being and becoming of God –
Und sein Tod.

Hans Küng,
When he was young,
Rose to the top. Almost.
Now he is toast.

Nicholas Lash
Packs polemical panache:
To the atheist, a bloody pain;
Also to the ultramontane.

C. S. Lewis
Must have smoked cannabis
With Narnia creatures to write the banality
Of Mere Christianity.

Bernard Lonergan,
Lectured on and on;
His critical realism might have seemed boring
To anyone present who was not yet snoring.

Herbert McCabe:
Wise as an asp, pure as a babe.
But he had one fortunate fault:

Bruce McCormack,
As big as a lumberjack:
Felling, with ease,
A whole forest of big metaphysical trees.

Donald MacKinnon:
“His sanity’s thinning,”
Some said. But whom God saves, he first drives mad:
And makes sad.

John Macquarrie
Was awfully sorry
When people lost interest
In all of that blather ’bout human existence.

John Milbank
Some think a crank,
Others well worth citing –
Those who can read his writing.

Paul Molnar
Bid au revoir
To his Princetonian foe, apropos
Of ho logos asarkos.

“Jürgen Moltmann,
The world,” we ask, “live without hope?”

Reinhold Niebuhr,
Bowing to Thor, argued just war
Against Yoder, who, in a different class,
Kicked his ass.

Wolfhart Pannenberg,
Who studied in Heidelberg,
Is quite a stickler
For all things empirical, scientific, geschichtliche.

Karl Rahner,
The top banana,
Wrote hundreds of essays with never a failure:
Cocktails of theologoumena and transcendentalia.

Joseph Ratzinger,
Roman inquisitor,
Cries, with the church in a mess,
“Deus caritas est!”

Rosemary Ruether,
An ecofeminist Luther,
Rails against a male Messiah,
Worships Gaia.

Edward Schillebeeckx
Made some mistakes:
He said, “The church has a human face!” –
Then went home to pack his suitcase.

Jack Spong
Is so very long
That it’s hard for him to kneel.
But then to whom to appeal?

William Stringfellow,
His heart soft as marshmallow,
Fought with each breath
Against powers and death.

Paul Tillich
Had an incurable itch
For God and being and demons and dirt
(And skirt).

Thomas Torrance
A triune alliance:
God, Karl and science.

Simone Weil
Malheureuse, très outrée,
And so severe it hurt:
The Categorical Imperative in a skirt.

Bishop Rowan,
All-knowing, ho-ho-hoing
Like Santa, he’s weird:
Maybe it’s the beard.

Bishop Tom Wright
Stays up all night
Writing and writing (and writing) books about the apostle to the nations.
And a resignation.

John Howard Yoder
Grew sick from the odour
Of Christendom, with its violent caprice
Against peace.

A final note: we tried to talk Oliver Crisp into doing some sketches to go with the post. Alas, he's too busy running a department – so here's one last clerihew to cheer him up:

Crisply Oliver
Decided to follow a
Clean analytical method. But something still seemed left unsaid
So he took up his paintbrush instead.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Moby-Dick: a drawing a day

I recently started following the awesome blog of Matt Kish, One Drawing for Every Page of Moby-Dick. Yep, you heard that right: this guy is working through Melville's Moby-Dick one page at a time, creating a picture for each of the 552 pages. A project of cetological proportions! And he has produced some very striking and unusual interpretations of the story. (I must confess, I've started collecting illustrated editions of Moby-Dick – so I'm a bit obsessed with this sort of thing. I haven't quite managed to get a first edition though...)

If you're interested in this greatest of all novels, there's also a reading group blogging their way through Moby-Dick at the moment. Anyway, here are some examples of the daily pictures (click to enlarge):

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Philosophy at Middlesex: Boethius and the barbarians revisited

A guest-post by Paul Tyson, Australian Catholic University

How did it happen? How did it come to pass that our universities employ more administrators than academics and that many academics are now powerless in the decision making processes that directly impact the intellectual standards and scholarly viability of their own faculties? How did it happen that the university became a business interested in growing its market share by strategic plans that entail the sacrifice of any school not central to what the administration determines is the university’s corporate brand? How did it come to pass that academics in a university are merely human resources that the administration uses, or dispenses with, or abuses, at will, and students are merely consumers, not even of the intellectual products the academic human resources deliver, but of the corporate brand image of the university?

The “reality” imposed on academics and students by “their” administrations is often this: academics exist to facilitate the corporate goals of university administrations and students are merely the paying consumers of the vocationally useful brand image which the “university” sells. It now seems fabulously old fashion to believe that university administrations exist in order to facilitate the work of academics in the education of students. Gone, it seems, are the days when a university was at core a place interested in learning for the sake of learning, for the sake of the pursuit of truth, for the sake of the humanizing value of being educated. The passing of that pedagogic vision means that the soul of the Western university is now in its death throws; and it is being killed not by barbarians from the outside, but by barbarians from within.

What is going on at Middlesex University is a revolt. This revolt is an attempt to cast off the shackles of administrative barbarianism and to remind us all what the heritage of the Western university is really all about. This is not simply an ideological matter, it is also a matter that has very tangible consequences for universities themselves. For the reality is, barbarian-managed universities are living off the non-renewable capital of past reputation. Such ransacking of what makes a university a university, without any re-investment into the academic health of the institution today, can only kill the successful corporate university in the medium to long term.

But those sorts of horizons do not worry high-level administrators. They get a very nice corporate lifestyle in the meantime, as they drive “their” university into the dirt. The large corporate management culture cares nothing for the intrinsic value of learning or for the sustainable health of a learning institution: its brief is only to market the short term effectively. To this end the administration must always be cutting costs (never corporate), in order to produce a greater financial return for less capital outlay. Hence, “our” administrators are leaches sucking the lifeblood out of our learning institutions, bloating themselves at our expense. And they expect us to thank them for this.

The staff and students of the Philosophy Department at Middlesex are telling the world that the killing of the Western university at the hands of its own administration is a great cultural evil, and they are endeavouring to stop this evil. If precedent is anything to go by, the Philosophy Department does not have a high chance of success. Many Western university administrations have already killed off or permanently crippled their humanities programs in recent years. While there is often a bit of a rough patch while academics lose their jobs, and a few students get thrown in the paddy wagon for being a nuisance, the deed is simply done, and things go on as usual (for the administration) once the dust settles. But it is vital that the staff and students of Middlesex triumph over their administrative barbarians. The trajectory of precedent must be turned around.

So, to the real university at Middlesex – the academics and the students who seek truth and love learning – stand together and fight on! To the barbarians who run that university: repent! To the rest of us around the world watching as the shadows of a new dark age gather, let us support the real university at Middlesex however we can. They must win, or the past 800 years of Western university tradition are in peril of being lost.

To follow the Middlesex debacle, you can get regular updates here.

Monday 24 May 2010

Ten propositions on the God hypothesis

by Kim Fabricius

1. The story, possibly apocryphal, is both famous and paradigmatic. Summoned by Napoleon to give an account of his recently published Mécanique Céleste, the mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) was asked by the emperor why, unlike Isaac Newton, he had not mentioned God in his treatise on the gravitational forces of the solar system. “Sire,” replied Laplace, unmoved by Newton’s divine designer, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

2. Apparently, however, many contemporary scientists and philosophers do. After a century or more, the “God hypothesis” is making a comeback – and not just by the champions of ID – as an apologetic response to the “God delusion” of Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists. But what if the God hypothesis is itself a delusion? I think that it is. Picturing them as dark, frozen stars, Laplace was one of the first physicists to postulate the existence of black holes. A collapse into intellectual oblivion would be a fitting destiny for the God hypothesis.

3. Of course proponents of the God hypothesis do not offer it as a demonstration or proof of the existence of God. However, rejecting not only the conflict model (Dawkins) but also the neutrality model (Gould) of the relationship between science and religion, they argue that the empirical evidence of both physics and biology actually points to the existence of God, and therefore that in the “war of the worldviews” (Francis Collins), theism is more rational than naturalism.

4. I share with these thinkers their rejection of both the conflict model (based, pathologically, on a metaphysical prejudice) and the neutrality model (based, epistemologically, on the fact/value dichotomy). I also applaud some of the philosophical and historical points they make: e.g., that science no less than religion presumes a fiduciary framework, and that belief in a rational God who creates an orderly universe looks to be a foundation stone in the edifice of modern science. But after the curtain falls, and before they can take their bows, I head towards to exit.

5. To put it simply: the God hypothesis cannot be the God hypothesis – at least if this God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ. In fact, apart from the gloating of the godly laity at the scientific episcopate beating up Dawkins in his own cathedral, the thing I find most objectionable in “modern attempts to relate the observed cosmos to traditional religion,” as Professor Roger Lambert puts it to the precocious evangelical and computer scientist Dale Kohler in John Updike’s Roger’s Version, is “the sheer, sickening extravagance of it.” The God hypothesis – it is “churning the void in the hope of making butter.”

6. A hypothesis is an explanation – but God is not an explanation. Nicholas Lash proposes a declension narrative: “During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the word ‘God’ came to be used, for the first time, to name the ultimate explanation of the world. And, when it was in due time realized that the system of the world was such as not to require any such single, overarching, independent explanatory principle, the word ‘god’ was dispensed with, and modern atheism was born.” Ironic, or what? Christianity is, in the title of an early book by D. Z. Phillips, Religion without Explanation (1976).

7. A hypothesis is either probable or improbable – but the existence of God is neither probable nor improbable; indeed the non-existence of God is inconceivable. A deity who might not exist is contingent and therefore not worth the name of Yahweh (Exodus 3:14). Kierkegaard drives the point home: “God does not exist, he is eternal.” That is the truth behind the unfortunately named ontological argument (Anselm’s “proof” is, in fact, a prayer). At least it is for believers, who, if they engage atheists on the field of probabilities, are acting in bad faith, i.e., in either a fraudulent or downright idolatrous manner. The Creed does not begin “On balance, we believe …”

8. Or again, a hypothesis is provisional: it always concludes with the words “Until Further Notice”. A hypothesis issues from the facts as they are known. But quite apart from the fact that God is not a fact, new facts may always be discovered that suggest that a hypothesis is mistaken, and has to be discarded or reframed. Can we have faith in a god the evidence for whom we must ever be checking and rechecking? There I am, perusing the science section in Waterstones, when suddenly I cry, “O shit!” and, faith shattered, run screaming from the shop. The tentative do not say, “Here I stand.”

9. In short, advocates of the God hypothesis mistake the nature of God and the grammar of faith. At best you get a designer god who is not the Creator, let alone the Trinity. And while the argument for a designer god is buoyant when it directs us to the wonder, beauty, and intricacy of the world, it sinks without trace before the inexplicable and intractable reality of evil. It is telling, revealing that John Lennox, the author of God’s Undertaker (2007), who while burying Dawkins builds the most persuasive case I know for the God hypothesis, is completely silent on the problem of theodicy. Come to think of it, I would direct those who sincerely seek God to suffering, not science; and finally to the cross, not the computer.

10. As for the grammar of faith, one can know God only in practice, not in theory, with commitment, not disinterestedly. One can only know God by confessing, praising, and loving God. Science can only stand at the bus stop, checking Paley’s watch (now digital), and telescopically peering at the corner which Godot never turns. R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet of the Deus absconditus, who grappled with science and the philosophy of science – and jotted ratty comments in his copy of Paul Davies’ God and the New Physics (1983) – knew better:

    I have waited for him
    under the tree of science,
    and he has not come.

One can only wait for God under the tree of prayer: “Veni, Creator Spiritus!”

Sunday 23 May 2010


The other day, a woman told me the following story. One evening she gave an address to a church congregation. After the talk, a stern-faced member of the congregation came up and said, "You're a liberal, aren't you – but with none of the doubt." It's a nice way of putting it. If I'd been there, I suppose I would have been told that I'm an evangelical, but with all of the doubts.

Friday 21 May 2010

Hannah's child: Stanley Hauerwas's memoir

Our friend Dan Morehead has interviewed Stanley Hauerwas for Wunderkammer Magazine. Among other things, they discuss his new memoir, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir (Eerdmans 2010). You can also check out a review of the memoir at Englewood Reviews.

Monday 17 May 2010

On Korean theology, and Karl Barth's reception in Korea

Since moving to Sydney last year, one of the highlights has been my involvement with a number of Korean theology students. While my Korean students tend to be interested in studying the great western traditions – Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer – they have in turn sparked my own interest in the traditions of Korea. The deep reception of neo-Calvinist theology in Korea; the astonishing reverence for European traditions; the vehement debates over Barthian thought; the momentous efforts at theological indigenisation; the fierce struggle sparked by the suicide of Chun Tae-il (a devout Christian labourer who committed political suicide in 1970, setting himself on fire with the cry, “We are not machines!”) – all this I find profoundly absorbing, disorienting and affecting.

I’m especially fascinated by the relation between Karl Barth and Korean theology. Sung-Bum Yun (1916-1980), the only Korean theologian to study under Barth, became the leading advocate of theological indigenisation, and one of the country’s most controversial Christian figures. I’ve been reading about him lately, and trying to track down all his works that were translated into English. (I haven’t yet been able to find English copies of his Sung Theology or Korean Culture, Religion and Christianity – if anyone has access to these, please let me know!)

By all accounts, Sung-Bum Yun was a prodigiously energetic scholar: he translated a huge amount of German philosophy and theology into Korean, including Kant’s critiques (he was regarded as one of the country’s leading Kant authorities); he wrote books on Barth, St Paul, Confucianism, ethics, theological anthropology, and above all on Korean religion and culture. All his work appears to have been driven by an immense and highly creative commitment to Barthian christology.

In one of his books available in English, Ethics East and West (trans. Michael C. Kalton, 1977), he advances a stinging critique of western (Kantian) ethics, arguing instead that Korea’s deep Confucian heritage provides a better context for interpreting the distinctiveness of Christian ethics. Observing that Barth’s doctrine of freedom marks a decisive break with the western ethical tradition, he also argues for a striking resonance between Barthian ethics and a Confucian view of the communal, familial context of freedom. All of which leads Yun to his remarkable Barthian-Confucian theology of “filial piety”, where the relation between parent and child provides a frame for understanding all other human relationships and all human action.

There’s an extremely valuable analysis of all this in the excellent study by Young-Gwan Kim, Karl Barth’s Reception in Korea: Focusing on Ecclesiology in Relation to Korean Christian Thought (Peter Lang 2003). Kim provides a broad account of the institutional and denominational contexts of Barth’s reception in Korea. He argues that the distinctiveness of Korean Barth-reception has much to do with the culture’s deep Confucian heritage, and with the intimate connection between Confucianism and the rise of Christianity in Korea. (It was Confucian scholars who first translated the Bible into Korean: Confucianism is already entwined with the roots of Korean Christianity.) After tracing the broad history of Barth’s reception in Korea, Kim provides an extensive analysis (pp. 225-324) of the work of Sung-Bum Yun. Although he is critical of Yun’s tendency towards philosophical abstraction (it becomes hard to see where the salvation-event fits into his elaborate system of Tao, jen, and filial piety), he concludes: “we cannot deny Yun’s insistence that Korean Christianity is strikingly a Confucian-influenced Christianity and that therefore the indigenization of Karl Barth’s theology within the Korean Confucian context is a viable theological enterprise” (p. 324).

Of course none of this is as easy as it sounds, since even today a huge number of Korean pastors and theologians view Barth’s theology as a dangerous “liberal” deviation from Calvinist orthodoxy. Young-Gwan Kim’s study doesn’t go into much detail about this Calvinist context of Korean theology; but I think it’s one of the most fascinating aspects of Korean Barth-reception. Protestant liberalism has never taken root in Korea, and this fact alone has a decisive influence on the way Barth’s work is read and received. It helps to explain why Barth’s avowedly anti-liberal theology could be condemned as a “liberal” threat by so many Korean theologians and institutions. (For a fascinating study of this, see the online dissertation by Jung Suck Rhee, which focuses on Barth’s polarising effects in Korean theology.) It also helps to explain the importance of Sung-Bum Yun’s insistence on indigenisation: where the questions and problems that Barth himself was addressing are simply absent from an entire cultural milieu, it becomes impossible to adhere to Barth’s intentions or to the letter of his text. Instead one can only wrest his work from its original setting, in order to use it selectively as part of one's own cultural and theological excavations.

But this interpretive freedom comes with its own considerable risks: one sees this in Japan, where an ostensibly Barthian theology of revelation was used not to critique but to justify nationalism and the imperial cult (see Thomas Hastings, Practical Theology and the One Body of Christ). And one also sees the risk when Yun's philosophico-cultural theology seems to eliminate any need for a saving event in history – or, to put it another way, to eliminate the theological significance of Jesus' Jewishness.

OK, since I'm rounding up my own recent reading, here's a few more quick notes on Korean theology:

I haven’t said much here about minjung theology, surely the most celebrated development in recent Korean theology. But it’s worth noting in passing that minjung theology also takes Barthian theology as one of its points of departure. Paul S. Chung has done a lot of good work in this area. In his recent book, Karl Barth: God's Word in Action (James Clarke, 2008), Chung closes with a valuable chapter on Barth’s “unfinished project for religious pluralism”, including a discussion of Barth’s relation to Buddhism and to Korean minjung theology. And there’s plenty more to be learned about minjung theology in Volker Küster’s new book, A Protestant Theology of Passion: Korean Minjung Theology Revisited (Brill 2010).

For some recent developments in the indigenisation of theology, I’d also recommend Jung Sun Oh’s book, A Korean Theology of Human Nature: With Special Attention to the Works of Robert Cummings Neville and Tu Wei-ming (2005), which develops a Confucian theology of filial piety – it's not as arresting or original as Sung-Bum Yun's theology, but an interesting proposal nonethelesss. And Andrew Sung Park’s new book, Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation (WJK 2009) weaves together classical atonement theology with the Korean concept of han, arguing that Christ’s atonement also includes the redemption of nature and animals from human oppression.

On a broader note, I also enjoyed Mark Noll’s broad sketch of Korean evangelical history in The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (IVP 2009). Noll draws attention to a number of striking parallels between American and Korean church history. Amidst many similarities (revivalism, individualism, openness to modernisation, involvement in mission, etc.), he observes in passing that “the American churches have never known a diaspora such as the Korean churches have experienced over the last fifty years” (p. 162). It's a good point – and I wonder whether this difference is far more crucial, more formative of Korean Christian identity, than Noll seems to credit.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Sermon at the service of death and resurrection of a suicide

A sermon by Kim Fabricius (the names have been changed)

Emptiness inside, or if there is anything there, chaos. A sense not only of loss but of waste. Anger, perhaps. Second-guessing for sure, despite your utter helplessness to rescue Susan from the waves of withdrawal and depression, and probably a nagging feeling of guilt. Some recriminations directed at some one or some thing to blame, an understandable but futile rearguard response to frustration. And not to forget the social stigma of – let’s say the word: suicide (naming the demon will help pull its sting). But there it is: that is now the mess that is every stricken soul who knew and loved Susan.

So let me give you a few of faith’s convictions to hang on to at this time, a lifeline in your spiritual floundering. The love of God for Susan, and the care of God for those who mourn, are not diminished one jot by what has happened. And that’s because God is love and care all the way down, because there is nothing that we can ever do to make God love and care for us any less, or any more, than he eternally loves and cares for us. There is no divine judgement here, for Susan or for you, and do not for a moment be tempted to think that the seemingly inexorable disintegration of Susan’s self, her sense of homelessness and hopelessness, or your own sense of perplexity and powerlessness, have been for anything, as payback or testing. No! For though I cannot answer the inevitable, agonising question “Why?”, nor offer any explanation of events as they unfolded, I can tell you this: that God is not behind these events, nor above them, but in, with, and under them, sharing your pain and bearing your burden.

Remember, this is not a funeral. Christians don’t have funerals, we have services of death and resurrection. We meet, we worship, in the name of Christ, crucified and risen. We proclaim that Christ died for us, and that Christ lives for us, and that because Christ lives, no one is beyond redemption. We do not deny death, or the manner of its coming, but we insist that love is stronger than death. We affirm that Susan was, is, and always will be a child of God. And we commemorate, we celebrate, that despite all the darkness, there was light in this life too.

Susan was a Swansea girl. (Don’t we “wish that they all could be Abertawe girls”?) She was born in Waun Wen in 1937. Her father was a steelworker, but the war quickly took him away, leaving mum on her own with the little one. It was hard, and from her early childhood Susan was afraid of being alone. Loneliness …

At fifteen Susan was working in company, in a sewing factory. A few years later she wed her childhood sweetheart Simon, who worked for Birdseye. Their two children, Christine and Martin, recall that the freezer was never empty (and I imagine that fish fingers are either their most, or least, favourite food). Like Susan herself, however, the marriage was a rollercoaster, up and down, down and up, but more or less managing to stay on the tracks through the years. When she was up, Susan was glamorous and outgoing. She kept a tidy house, very tidy, and when Coronation Street was on you knew where she would be; but then you also knew where she would be when the soap’s credits rolled – at the social. Loneliness … and company …

Most of all, Susan loved her kids, and her kids’ kids – they kept her going. But beyond friends and family, sensitive soul that she was, Susan kept company with others who might themselves be alone, latterly working as a warden in sheltered accommodation. She also helped out here, at church, at social events. Susan was a hard worker. But then there were medical problems, they slowed Susan down, and then when Simon finally died after a long illness, she stalled: she couldn’t move on, couldn’t fit in, and, feeling forsaken, finally couldn’t bear her own company. A keen knitter, Susan unravelled; an avid flower-arranger, she wilted. Finally, death broke into the house, and she mistook the robber for a friend.

A sad story? So sad. But end of story? One final time, no! Because although she may not have known it, Susan was never alone. And though she may have felt, finally, like the only actor in a tragic tale produced by an idiot, she was, in fact – and remains – one of a cast of characters in the love story of God for his people, and though they wander about the stage like lost sheep, the Director is always there, shepherding them to the end. Home – and not “home alone”! – there, we pray, Susan is now. And however benighted she often felt, or however bright she sometimes sparkled, now, we trust, perpetual light shines upon her, and she is safe in the company of the angels and the saints.

As for us, let us weep indeed, let us mourn and miss, but not as those without hope, rather as those more than ever resolved to treasure each other as the people God gives us as precious gifts, to enjoy and to love.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Younger than that now

It's been ages since my last link round-up – so some of these posts are getting a bit long in the tooth, but they're still well worth checking out:

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Writing and truth-telling

When it comes to writing, all the immense problems, obstacles and difficulties are finally reducible to the problem of truth. As Samuel Beckett loved to point out, writers are liars by nature – or rather, writers are simply those who have discovered the unbearable difficulty of truth-telling, the tragic disjunction between truth and language. All men are liars. But writers aim to lie their way into the truth, to vaccinate themselves against falsehood by injecting it right into the bloodstream.

Margaret Atwood's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Blind Assassin (2000), is an exquisite reflection on the deceitfulness of fiction. The narrator, Iris Chase, describes this curious relation between writing and truth-telling: "The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course" (p. 345).

Reading a selection of the latest theological books, you'd have to wonder whether Atwood is on to something: whether we too easily "excuse ourselves"; whether we are obsessed with writing new or fashionable or – worst of all – correct books, instead of true books.

If anything separates the great Christian thinkers – Kierkegaard, Barth, Aquinas, Augustine – from the rest, it is surely their refusal to excuse themselves from the painful struggle of truth-telling, the enormous labour with which they extract a single hard bright truth from the slurry of language.

Sunday 9 May 2010

Death in the 21st century

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

There was an old minister who, on his deathbed, asked to see the local MP and a prestigious lawyer who were both members of his congregation. They were puzzled, because they both knew the minister didn’t like them, but, out of courtesy, they came, and sat on either side of the bed. The dying minister, however, said not a word. Getting very uncomfortable, the MP and the lawyer finally asked him, “Why have you asked to see us?” “Well,” replied the minister, “I thought it would be a good idea to die as our Saviour did – between two thieves.”

We joke about death. Some of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard are funeral anecdotes recounted by the drivers of hearses on the way to and from Morriston Crematorium. People have always joked about death, because people have always feared death, and jokes and laughter are a way of whistling in the dark on the way to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns”. But things have changed. When people believed in God, they had a godly fear of “meeting their Maker”, even if the church sometimes exploited that fear in unconscionable ways. But now that most people don’t believe in God, but rather, with John Lennon, “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky” – now the common fear is not godly, it’s atheistic. You might say that whereas once people were afraid of meeting their Maker, now they’re afraid of there being no meeting at all; not afraid of going to hell, but of going nowhere at all.

Another seismic shift in the landscape of death in the 21st century has to do with dying as much as death itself. How do people want to die? Almost unanimously people will say that, above all, they want to die quickly – in their sleep would be ideal, next best a stroke that kills you before you hit the floor. Traditionally, however, Christians have prayed to be delivered (in the words of the Great Litany) “from dying suddenly and unprepared”. “Unprepared”? Unprepared for what? Again, for “meeting their Maker”. But, again, no Maker, no meeting – and so no need for preparation: no need for repenting and amending, for cleaning up the clutter in our souls, for repairing broken relationships, for letting go. But how can it be that Christians themselves have slipped into this cultural attitude of indifference? Could it be that, for all intents and purposes, we have become practical atheists? Nowadays people don’t talk about preparations before they die, but they might talk about arrangements after they die. Simon Cowell, him of the X Factor, the richest man on television, said in an interview that “Medical science is bound to work out a way of bringing us back to life in the next century or so, so I want to be available when they do.” Thus has “eternal life” morphed into “unending life”, the resurrection of the body into the resuscitation of a corpse. Thus have the heights of the Christian hope been reduced to an abyss of morbid designer banality.

How ironic: we live in what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of death” – war, abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide – and yet it is a culture in denial of death. We live in a culture of youth and beauty, with the chemicals and the cosmetic surgery to keep us artificially young and beautiful (actually, more like grotesque). Of course when you’re young, you think you’re immortal – it’s called being immature – but now so childish are adults that people spare no expense pretending that they are Peter Pan right into manufactured old age, “living the dream”. And when reality finally, inexorable strikes, well, freeze-dry me today and thaw me out tomorrow.

And with our changing attitudes to death and dying there goes – what else? –the changing face of funerals. Because it’s all about me and mine, funerals are now becoming customised “celebrations”, upbeat, nothing sad, no grief, no frank recognition of the grim reality of death – this is what ministers are hearing more and more when we meet the families of the “deceased”. Coffins are as likely to be draped with photos, flags, or sports memorabilia as with Christian symbols. One minute you’re singing “Amazing Grace”, and the next (never mind the inconsistency!) you’re hearing a CD of Frank Sinatra belting out “I Did It My Way”. And poems are read that are not only – let’s face it – mawkish and banal, but also completely untruthful: “Do not stand at my grave and cry: / I am not there, / I did not die” – but you did, you know. There is mounting pressure on ministers to collude in this make-believe, to direct and choreograph it.

And then there is the committal. Once the committal was the public climax of the service, now it is fast becoming a private affair, a family-only ceremony, in the US even an undertaker-and-minister-only ceremony. Sometimes the committal is no longer even a committal, rather the coffin is left on the catafol for discreet disposal after the people depart. Thus too “services of thanksgiving” are as likely as not to take place after the committal and so without the presence of the body at all. Reasons of convenience are usually given – so we don’t have to watch the clock, so we can take our time with the tributes – but I do wonder that there is a subtext here and it’s got to do, again, with the sub-Christian change of focus in the contemporary funeral. Ministers of course – me too – collude in this cover-up.

As the American theologian Thomas Long observes: “The assumptions here are that the funeral is not about theology but psychology, not primarily about the grand drama of the gospel but about the smaller tale of grief, not about the story of the resurrection but the story of us. The goal of the committal is ‘closure’, and that is best done as a more private matter …, freeing up the public memorial service to be about the business of enhancing grieving without the clutter of the body …” These are unprecedented developments in the history of Christian funerals. Imagine, if you will, a baptism without the baby, a confirmation without a new member, an ordination without a new minister, a wedding without the couple. I am concerned that these are not healthy developments at all. They are signs that not only is society becoming post-Christian, which we know, but also that even the church itself is becoming post-Christian – and we are not even aware of it.

I have often introduced funerals by saying that Christian don’t have funerals, we have services of death and resurrection, the death and resurrection of Christ as the basis of all we say and pray and sing, the death and resurrection of believers for sure, and the death and resurrection of non-believers in the trust that there are no limits to the grace and mercy of God. We do not deny death. We recognise that everyone is mortal, that death is natural, and we pray, with the Psalmist, that the good Lord will “teach us to count our days / that we may become wise” (Psalm 90:12). On the other hand, the New Testament is quite clear that death is, finally, an alien and brutal force, not a friend but an enemy, indeed the “last enemy” (I Corinthians 15:26), who steals our loved ones, breaks our hearts, and shatters our families and communities. “Death is nothing at all”? No one really believes that – and Christians least of all.

So no denial! Comfort and consolation? Yes, certainly. But what kind of comfort and consolation? – that is the question. And the answer to that question turns on the recognition that, fundamentally, our services of death and resurrection are not about us, they are about this particular person who has been a part of our lives and, if a fellow Christian, a part of the life of the church. Which is why of course the service of Christians should take place in the church, and why of course the body should be there. Christians do not believe that the body it is just a “shell”, a quite pagan idea, which is why Christians have always treated the dead not only with respect but with tenderness. Have you ever loved a “soul”? Of course not! You have loved this embodied person. In heaven, when we meet again, will it be as ectoplasm? Of course not! It will be as what St. Paul calls a “spiritual body”, which means that, while unimaginably transformed, we will still recognisably be the people we were. Here in church the dead was baptised, indeed baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ. Here in church the dead was made a member, and perhaps married. Here to church the dead came to worship week by week, to celebrate Communion month by month, to hear the Easter message.

And here, I conclude, in church the dead should be brought on the last stage of his or her earthly journey, that the church family may mourn, yes, but more, that our mourning may be transformed, not just by memory but by hope, as in worship we accompany the dead as God draws them through the thin space between time and eternity. Funerals may be for the living, but they are about the dead, and they are in and through the dead yet living Jesus Christ. If we ever forget that Christian services of death and resurrection are about the management of our mourning only insofar as they are about the meaning of the message, then we of all people, in self-pity, are most to be pitied.

The world is in denial and confusion about death, dying, and the afterlife. The Christian Church should not be. Our teaching is clear: in the words of the Nicene Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” The church is not a public service industry. We are not here to meet people’s felt needs, to give their Jack or Jill a “good send-off”. We are here to proclaim the gospel that “Christ has died! Christ is risen! In Christ shall all be made alive!” – to show the world the way out of its fear and muddle and into the truth. The truth is often hard and always odd, but only the truth will set people free.

Saturday 8 May 2010

Red Tory and the UK election

In an ABC piece, Scott Stephens discusses Philip Blond's Red Tory proposals in the context of the UK general election:

Blond's solution to the ever-deepening British malaise comes in the form of four imperatives: we must restore virtue to public life and discourse (calling for a new "high mass culture" in place of the inane mediocrity of the commercial media, and a recovery of John Reith's understanding of the BBC's vocation as providing "equal access to all things great"); we must re-moralise the market (placing capitalism at the service of the common good by embedding it in society); we must re-localise the economy (through such things as community land trusts and cooperatives); and we must re-capitalise the poor (through the provision, not simply of welfare, but of increasing scales of property ownership).
In response to Scott's post, several commenters worried that such ideas are an attempt to undermine the separation of church and state: Australians tend to be very sensitive on this point, especially when they have no idea what "the separation of church and state" actually means. So I offered a comment in reply:
The "separation of church and state" designates the state's monopoly on coercive violence. This is quite distinct from the question of the relation between theology and politics. Every coherent political philosophy already presupposes a theology, since it embodies a particular vision of what constitutes a good society. If these "theological" questions became explicit instead of covert – i.e., if we could actually have a debate about what a good society ought to look like – so much the better.

Thursday 6 May 2010

On motives for writing

A few days ago, our friend IndieFaith posted an open letter to the guys at AUFS. He's intrigued by the fact that they are contributing to Christian scholarship without professing any attachment to the church – so he invites them "to speak about your motivation and your hopes, the end to which your overall striving is aimed".

I think it's always good to ask ourselves what theological scholarship is really for – what are we trying to do with all this scholarship? That should be a question-mark that stands outside the whole discourse of academic theology. But we can be self-critical in this way without trying to judge the work of other scholars according to their personal motives.

All of us have complex (often inscrutable) motivations for writing. Whenever I publish something, there are numerous motivations at play – just to take a few examples:

  • I'm trying to acquire intellectual capital for my own future use in teaching and scholarship – i.e., I'm writing to educate myself;
  • I'm also literally trying to acquire capital, since my institution rewards my publications with money for more research (Dr Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money");
  • I usually have some polemical motivation, a desire to attack particular persons or intellectual positions;
  • I'm always hoping to have some small influence on my own specialised domain of discourse – perhaps my main ambition is to leave some small imprint on discourse, so that other scholars will speak and write differently as a result of my work;
  • this previous motivation can easily mask my secret longings for a writerly immortality, the desire to write something which (as Milton put it) the world "should not willingly let die"; I'm sure this is as characteristic of theologians as it is of other writers, even though it is a form of idolatry and a denial of the resurrection;
  • if I'm lonely (and how many writers are not profoundly lonely?), I might also write to win admiration and friendship, maybe even to get laid (presumably Tillich's books helped him to get laid – and he was clearly aware of this problematic relationship between his scholarship and his sexuality);
  • there might also be quite practical motivations, for instance where writing is a way to escape from the difficulties of my domestic affairs (take it from me, it's easier to write a few paragraphs than it is to get the kids ready for bed at the end of a long day; and it's more than a coincidence that so many writers cultivate a persona of bumbling domestic incompetence);
  • if Freud is to be believed, I'm probably also trying to placate an internalised father-figure who drives me to go on writing;
  • of course, as a theologian, I'm always aspiring to exert some influence on the thinking and practice of the church;
  • and I might also see writing as a kind of spiritual discipline, a self-forming practice, an attempt to make myself better (even if this motivation exists in an uneasy tension with all the other ones I've listed).
But however fascinating this writhing snake pit of motives might be, I don't think any of this should become a standard by which another person's writing is judged. A piece of scholarship is judged according to how good or how bad it is. (The fourth motivation above is something of an exception here, since part of the "goodness" or "badness" of a particular text is the imprint that it leaves on wider discourse – in other words, whether a particular writing has become "important".) Good writing has a self-validating quality; it is its own justification. That is one of the most (if not the most) distinctive characteristics of the phenomenon of writing.

So I think we should always be ready to engage in a penitent scrutiny of our own motivations for writing; but it's impossible and undesirable to assess another person's writing in this way. Where the value of writing is concerned, we should be as quick to acquit others as we are to condemn ourselves – not vice versa.

Besides, if we really wanted all writing to pass through the fire of purity-of-motives, I doubt that anything – not even the world's great literature, much less our own meagre scribblings – would survive the conflagration.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Jacob Taubes, Karl Barth, and St Paul

For this year's Karl Barth blog conference (coming up in July) I'll be doing a piece on Barth and Jacob Taubes – I'm also writing up a full version for publication. Here's the extended abstract:

Karl Barth and Jacob Taubes: apocalyptic theology and political nihilism

The Jewish intellectual Jacob Taubes (1923-87) is surely one of the most eccentric figures of twentieth-century philosophy. A political thinker of the far left, Taubes’ greatest intellectual debt was to the arch-conservative German jurist Carl Schmitt. An ordained rabbi, his work was driven by a penetrating engagement with Christian theology, in an attempt to lay bare the roots of modern political power. With Schmitt, Taubes believed that in today’s world everything is theological (except perhaps the chatter of theologians). He began his career with a doctoral dissertation on the secularisation of Christian apocalyptic – a vigorous response to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work on the same theme – and ended his career, just weeks before his death, with lectures on the explosive political impact of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

At the centre of all Taubes’ work is an attempt to rehabilitate radical Paulinism in the interests of a Jewish apocalyptic politics. In this connection, he returns again and again to Karl Barth, and his reading of Barth is as profound as it is idiosyncratic. In Taubes’ view, Barth’s interpretation of Paul is ‘perhaps the most significant contribution to the general consciousness of our age’; like Luther, Kierkegaard and Marcion, Barth is a true interpreter of Paul who unflinchingly pursues the ‘heretical’ implications of Paul’s dialectic of law and grace. In Barth’s interpretation of Paul, Taubes finds a recovery of the ‘nihilistic’ impulse of apocalyptic politics. The illegitimate nomos of the world is passing away. Neither quietism nor revolutionary zeal counts for anything; what the world needs is neither conservation nor reform, but annihilation and recreation.

But although Taubes appropriates much of Barth’s political theology, he argues that Barth’s thought finally remains snared in the tragic aporia of all Christian theology. Dogmatics presupposes the existence of a Christian tradition, and the church’s institutional tradition necessarily erases the footprints of its own apocalyptic origins. There can be no theological resolution (since theology is itself the symptom) of the conflict between apocalyptic event and ‘the brute fact of a continuing history’. Although Taubes’ critique rightly describes the judgment under which all theology is carried out, Barth’s entire theological project can be read as an attempt to destabilise the self-evidence of the church’s existence, and to suspend the Christian community in a precarious apocalyptic moment ‘between the times’.

Taubes’ political appropriation of Barth/Paul should therefore also be modified: what his political nihilism lacks is a good dose of ecclesiological nihilism – or in Barthian terms, the (politically charged, but never secularised) concept of witness. The church’s witness to divine action is always simultaneously a gesture to its own provisional status, an acknowledgment of the abyss of judgment over which it is suspended – and thus also a witness to that strange anarchic grace by which God’s people are gathered into being out of nothingness.

Sunday 2 May 2010

Readings in theological ethics?

Next semester I'll be teaching an undergraduate class in theological ethics. So I'd welcome your thoughts about good texts in this area.

At the moment, I'm thinking of using Richard Hays's The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996) as the tutorial text. (My preferred approach is to assign a single book for the tutorial discussions; then the students also have a range of additional short readings on each weekly topic.) One of the advantages of Hays's book is that it models the whole process whereby ethical thinking springs from an immersion in the moral world of the New Testament – otherwise, class discussions could easily degenerate into free-floating expressions of opinion and sentiment.

I'm also very impressed with the new Blackwell introduction by Samuel Wells and Ben Quash, Introducing Christian Ethics (2010). Their typology of ethics (universal, subversive, ecclesial) is a remarkably elegant heuristic device, and the book's structure is perfectly geared towards this kind of undergraduate class. But at the moment, I'm just thinking of introducing some of this material in the lectures, rather than assigning the book for tutorials – I'm always worried that these ready-made textbooks are too smooth and too "objective" for class discussions. I'd prefer to get students discussing a first-rate work of theology: something that's completely partisan, committed, theologically engaged. (For this reason, I also love the Hauerwas/Wells Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics – an absurdly partisan introduction!)

So anyway, I've started developing a list of various books and essays to use for shorter readings – I'd love to hear your own suggestions. And if anyone out there has used Richard Hays in an ethics class, I'd love to know if it worked well, or if you have alternative suggestions for class discussions.


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.