Thursday 30 September 2010

Summer seminar for recent PhD graduates

If you're a recent (2006 or later) PhD graduate, you might like to apply for the Templeton-funded Purdue Summer Seminar on Perceptual, Moral, and Religious Skepticism, which will take place from 8 to 24 June 2011. The general focus is on religious belief, scepticism, and disagreement. Fifteen interdisciplinary participants will be selected (from the fields of theology, philosophy, psychology, or cognitive science); each will receive a stipend of $5,000 to cover travel and other costs. The deadline for applications is 1 December: more details available on their website.

If you'd like to mention any other upcoming events or conferences, feel free to leave a comment with the details.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Karl Barth blog conference

This year's Karl Barth blog conference is now underway, and it's bigger and better than ever. There'll be three weeks of posts around the theme of "Barth in conversation". Each post comprises a short essay plus a critical response. To keep up with the discussion each day, just follow the link at the top of my sidebar. Here are the posts so far:

The posts and comments so far are really top-notch – so head on over and check it out!

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Poetic Graffiti: clerihews on ten modern Christian poets

by Kim Fabricius

Well folks, it's been too long since our last series of clerihews. So for those of you who have trouble reading poetry (or would like to be able to talk about poets without reading them), Kim has now produced a convenient abridged version. Here are ten clerihews on modern Christian poets (five of them dead, five living):

W. H. Auden
Sure liked his Gordon’s;
Of course the intoxicated sod
Was also drunk on God.

Wendell Berry
Is very, very
And some would say barmy.

T. S. Eliot,
Just for the hell of it,
Paraded his Latin and Greek
(The pompous High Anglican geek).

Kevin Hart
Is exceedingly smart;
Writes on God, deconstruction, and sex –
With his ex.

Geoffrey Hill,
Dense and difficult; still,
His poems on our malady
Are such fun to parody.

Elizabeth Jennings
Prayerfully wrote about sinning
And shadows and terror –
Unlike the pope, without error.

D. Gwenallt Jones
Is likely unknown
To those who know little of Wales.
That’s a lot of Theology Fails.

R. S. Thomas
Was furiously famous
As a Welsh priest and poet.
But “God is love”? You wouldn’t know it.

Archbishop Rowan,
With R. S. and Euros Bowen,
Another Welsh poet and priest,
Alas now sings with Dylan “I Shall Be Released.”

Franz Wright
Sees the light
In the dark in his verse:
The headlights of a hearse.

Sunday 19 September 2010

John Henry Newman

Loads of good stuff lately at ABC Religion and Ethics, including a whole suite of posts to mark Cardinal Newman's beatification:
And speaking of Newman, Kim has written a wondrous clerihew for the occasion:

Cardinal Newman
Wasn’t at his own exhuming,
Nor does his miracle,
For all the panegyricals,
Pass muster as empirical,
So a saint
He ain’t.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Tomáš Halík: atheism and patience

The T&T Clark blog mentions that Czech theologian Tomáš Halík has been awarded the prestigious Romano Guardini Prize. Halík is a Catholic thinker steeped in Nietzsche; he sees modernity's criticism of Christianity as an indispensable resource, and as the context within which contemporary faith has to be articulated.

As you will have noticed, there is currently a whole industry of books responding to Dawkins and the new atheists – including some real gems (e.g. Terry Eagleton, David Bentley Hart), but also much that is merely boring and reactionary. I was stunned to discover that even Marilynne Robinson's book, in spite of all the rave reviews (and in spite of my huge admiration for everything else she has written), was dull and uninspired. (Actually, it raises another question: why did Robinson feel the need to write this book, when her novel Gilead had already proved the existence of God?)

In contrast, I think Tomáš Halík has produced one of the best and most beautiful responses to the new atheism, in his recent book Patience with God (Doubleday 2009). His argument is that the real difference between faith and atheism is patience. Atheists are not wrong, only impatient. They want to resolve doubt instead of enduring it. Their insistence that the natural world doesn't point to God (or to any necessary meaning) is correct. Their experience of God's absence is a truthful experience, shared also by believers. Faith is not a denial of all this: it is a patient endurance of the ambiguity of the world and the experience of God's absence. Faith is patience with God. Or as Adel Bestavros puts it (in the book's epigraph): patience with others is love, patience with self is hope, patience with God is faith.

In contrast to the overblown rhetoric of so many Christian apologists – with their drastic naivety about the ambivalence of the natural world and the intractable difficulties of believing – Halík's account strikes me as a sensitive and realistic articulation of the difference faith makes. The best thing about his book – again, in contrast to the usual apologetics – is that it's actually a Christian response to atheism. Surely anything a Christian says to an atheist ought to arise not from an invincible commitment to being right, but from an understanding of the kindness of God, an awareness that there is room in God's family even for those who doubt – those for whom the word "God" cannot easily be deciphered from the dark hieroglyphics of the world.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Two theology events

A couple of good theology events this week:

On 16 September there'll be an eConference on christology with Gerald O'Collins. The event will be streaming live all around the world. Congregational groups are encouraged to participate together, or you can join with another group (hundreds of congregations are participating), or just view it at home. It's all free, and the registration process is optional.

And if you're in Sydney, Jeremy Begbie's New College Lectures begin tonight. He'll be speaking over the next three nights on Music, Modernity and God. Unfortunately I'll miss the first two lectures, but I'll be there on Thursday night for the finale.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Repenting about repenting

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

In Matthew’s Greek the word is metanoeite (3:2). The traditional translation is “repent”. The GNB paraphrases: “Turn away from your sins.” Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message cuts to the chase: “Change your life” (today we might say, “Get a life!”).

But let’s pause for a moment and take a step back. The Greek means, literally, “change your mind” – and that’s where I want to start this morning, with where we are, with the fact that, actually, not only are we not very good at changing our minds, but indeed changing your mind is considered a weakness, and in public life a grave weakness, indeed a form of political suicide. There is even a new term for it, “flip-flopping”, though Margaret Thatcher put it best when she said, “The Lady is not for turning.” Isn’t that what politicians fear the most, the accusation of the U-turn?

Of course politicians do change their minds. But you never admit to changing your mind because, it is feared, to admit to it would make you look irresolute and weak. Which is immoral, because it is hypocritical, but even if it weren’t a deceit, it would still be an idiocy. Integrity is one thing, inflexibility quite another. Inflexibility is just plain dumb. Where would civilisation itself be without what are called “paradigm shifts”, radical, fundamental changes in the way that we think about the world? In a splendid editorial for the Independent, Boyd Tonkin once observed that “Changes of mind lie at the core of almost every breakthrough in science, art and thought. From Copernicus to Einstein, Leonardo to Picasso, James Joyce to Bob Dylan, lasting innovations rest on a rupture with the principles of the past… Ludwig Wittgenstein created one revolution in philosophy with his [first major work the] Tractatus. Later he decided it was fundamentally misconceived and created another [revolution] with the Philosophical Investigations. And if Alan Turing had never revised his view about the practicality of his highly abstract research on ‘computable numbers’, then the machine on which [I wrote this sermon] would not exist.”

Only a fool makes up his mind about something and, in principle, never changes it. The great British economist John Maynard Keynes was once accused of altering his views on monetary policy. He confronted the charge head-on: “When the facts change,” he declared, “I change my mind. What, sir, do you do?”

So that’s the first thing: repentance involves changing your mind, thinking differently about things. Why? Because you see something you hadn’t seen before. What did John the Baptist see? That the rupture of all ruptures – the kingdom of God! – is seismically shifting the plates of the universe.

This transformation of our imaginations – this seeing, by faith, the transformation of the world into the kingdom – is crucial, but because the Bible talks about repentance in connection with sin, we are talking about a moral transformation as well. Cue the classic conversion story: Once I was a thug, or a thief, or a drug-dealer – in short, I was a sinner – but now I’ve got religion, I’ve been born again, I’ve been saved, and I don’t do those terrible things anymore. Isn’t that the conventional understanding of “repentance”? And then, of course, most of us, very conveniently, are let off the hook, because most of us don’t do those terrible things, and indeed the people who did do those terrible things are also let off the hook too as long as they don't return to their wicked ways.

This is a big mistake. And the mistake is this: we presume that we know what sin is, what sins are, and that we can check our lives against the list and see how much, or how little, repenting we’ve got to do. My claim this morning, however, is this: we’ve got to re-think what sin is, sins are. To put it bluntly, we’ve got to change our minds about just what it is we need to change our minds about, we’ve got to repent about repenting.

I am referring to the mistaken idea that sin is basically about individual wrongdoing and guilt. It is not. At least it is not in the sense in which the Bible understands it. In biblical thought sin transcends the personal and includes the communal and the national, and it is fundamentally about injustice. This is quite clear from the fact that Jesus links repentance with the Jubilee, with Good News to the poor and oppressed, with human well-being and flourishing. And it is equally clear from the fact that it is precisely those who run the religious establishment, who live ostensibly righteous lives, who obey the law and keep the traditions, who thank God that they are not like the criminals and whores who are ruining the moral fabric of Israel – that it is precisely these good folk who reject the Lord’s call to repentance because, after all, what do they have to repent about?

Am I saying that Jesus calls people to accept responsibility not only for their own actions but also for the actions of others, for humanity’s acts, indeed for history’s acts? That is exactly what I am saying. On Question Time three years ago, at the time we were commemorating the ending of the slave trade in Britain, the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey criticised the present Archbishop Rowan Williams for his public apology for the church’s complicity in the buying and selling of black human flesh. That was then, he said, and now is now, that was them and this is us. Er, no, Lord Carey. For not only do white people continue to benefit today from the evils of slavery, and not only are there a lot of racists about, stoking up fear and hatred over immigration, but racism remains socially systemic. And I – I myself – as Archbishop Rowan says, “I am, willy-nilly, involved in [this] ‘structural violence’, in economic, political, religious and private systems of relationship which diminish the other”; and, moreover, “My involvement in [this] violence is most destructive when least self-aware.”

“In each the sin of all, in all the sin of each” (Schleiermacher) – that is the fact of the matter. And to deny this fact, to fail to compute it, to change our mind about changing our mind, to repent about repenting – it is quite morally corrosive. For where will it end? If I do not take responsibility for the sins of humanity, will I not also refuse to take responsibility for the sins of my nation? And if I do not take responsibility for the sins of my nation, will I not also refuse to take responsibility for the sins of my church? And then of my community? And then of my family? And then, thus isolated from the entire social network, past and present, what is left of the “me” for whom I am responsible? Thus Dietrich Bonhoeffer, offered a prestigious academic post in New York on the eve of World War II, declined it, to return to Germany, to face the coming catastrophe, for he knew that the price of acting responsibly as a Christian included solidarity with his fellow countrymen in their nation’s sin and guilt.

And what was Bonhoeffer doing – what are we all called to do – but to model ourselves on Jesus of Nazareth? At the very outset of his ministry, even before – indeed as a precondition of – his preaching repentance (Matthew 4:17), what does Jesus do but submit to John’s baptism of – what? – of repentance. And why? Why else but to show his solidarity with sinners by becoming (as Martin Luther powerfully put it) peccator pessimus, the chief of sinners.

And so, finally, paradoxically, this solidarity of sin is hopeful. For as Karl Barth said: “Precisely when we recognise that we are sinners do we perceive that we are brothers [and sisters].” For as I acknowledge my complicity in the world’s wrongs, I become part of what has been called the “solidarity of the shaken” (Jan Patocka), those who recognise the delusion of innocence, and those who refuse to scapegoat in order to maintain it; and, further, as I become sensitive to the suffering we inflict on each other, I open myself to a fellowship of compassion. Moreover, I find that I can make choices, saying Yes to this and No to that, and act in ways that make a difference: I can contribute to micro-transformations in personal relationships, and I can engage in public dissent and resistance, and thus in signs and parables of grace and goodness, I can bear witness to the coming of the kingdom of shalom.

In the very first of his revolutionary Ninety-Five Theses, Luther wrote: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when he said ‘Repent’, willed that the whole life of believers should be one of repentance.” Repenting about repenting too. Because – look! – the kingdom of God is breaking in, now.

Friday 10 September 2010

Audio talk: the risen Christ and Christian scholarship

One of my recent conference papers is available in audio (27 minutes). The paper is titled "Discerning Christ in Contemporary Thought: The Christological Basis of Christian Scholarship". It was a conference on the Uniting Church's founding confession, the Basis of Union. I talked about the way Christ's resurrection shapes the way we think about the church, and about the scholarly vocation (and I tried to criticise both liberal and conservative approaches to theological scholarship). Here's an excerpt:

Scholarship is an exercise of obedience to Jesus Christ. It helps prepare the church for fresh words and deeds. Of course, we need not imagine that scholarship will always have an immediate impact on the church’s confession. But scholarship is nevertheless vital for the continuing life of the church. It is one of the places where the church exercises its muscle of discernment – a muscle that otherwise has an alarming tendency to atrophy. Or to change metaphors: when the church grows drowsy, scholarship diffuses its caffeinating influence, helping to keep us ready, watchful and alert. So when Christian scholars engage with contemporary thought, it’s not because the church needs protecting from the world, but because Christ is already in the world and he calls us to meet him there.
This is the second paper I've written this year on the Basis of Union (which I would really encourage you to read: it's a remarkable confessional text, deeply shaped by Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Barmen Declaration). It really surprises me how much I've enjoyed these first excursions into "official" denominational theology, even though I'm always anxious to avoid this sort of thing in my classroom teaching. I'm already planning to do another couple of papers on the Basis of Union, hopefully one on scripture and another on church law.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Walter Benjamin: 13 theses on writing

One of my favourite accounts of writing is Walter Benjamin's "The Writer's Technique in Thirteen Theses", from his 1928 book One-Way Street; published in Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926 (Harvard UP 1996), 458-59. Here are his thirteen theses in full:

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.

II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this régime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

III. In your working conditions, avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an étude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.

V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.

VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

IX. Nulla dies sine linea [“no day without a line”: Pliny] — but there may well be weeks.

X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.

XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.

XII. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration; style fetters the idea; writing pays off style.

XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.

Sunday 5 September 2010

We had the experience but missed the meaning: a note on misreading

What do you think is the most terrifying work of literature ever written? It's a tough competition. But personally, I'd say The Dry Salvages (1941) from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets would have to be high on the list of finalists. The poem is absolutely relentless, suffocating, unforgiving; I find myself gasping for breath as I read it.

It's remarkable – and instructive – to see how often snippets from Dry Salvages are quoted as though they were positive, affirming sentiments, nice pieces of wisdom to live by. As though Eliot liked us; as though he wanted us to feel better about our lives.

"The river is within us." I've seen these words quoted to incite warm feelings of ecological harmony: even though the line is about our absolute insignificance and defencelessness before the implacable malevolent power of the river, not to mention the infinitely greater and more terrible gods of the sea ("the river is within us, the sea is all about us...").

But probably the most egregiously misquoted lines are the ones that mention life's "moments of happiness":

the sudden illumination –
We had the experience but missed the meaning
This is quoted very often – about 44,000 times on the web, for instance – and it's almost always (even in scholarly books) invoked as a positive sentiment. Learn from your experiences; appropriate the hidden wisdom of the past; discover the meaning of life in those special moments of illumination – that sort of bosh. But Eliot isn't talking about any of that. In this second section of the poem, he sets us up to think that we are about to receive a useful gem of wisdom:
It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence
This "pattern" of meaning is the theme of the section. And the pattern consists in seeing that the moments of "sudden illumination" are just fortuitous aberrations. It is the "moments of agony" that are "permanent". The real pattern of human experience is disclosed when we glance over our shoulders, peering back behind recorded history into "the primitive terror". It's here that we realise that the only "meaning" of time is its indifferent destructiveness. The only thing that's really stable and "permanent" in human history, the only "pattern" that orders our lives, is the "agony" of time. In other words, our lives are sustained by time's destructive power. An omnipotent malignancy has usurped the "preserving" role of Providence:
Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
The bitter apple and the bite in the apple.
This reference to the apple is often glossed as an allusion to the Fall, where death enters the world through human disobedience. But the really striking thing about this image is the way it reverses the Genesis story: the bite from the apple is not our destruction, but our preservation. The bitter apple is Time – and our preservation in time (i.e., our preservation unto destruction) is the one gift we are granted, a single consoling "bite" from this apple. The only thing keeping us alive is the poison that kills us. Time.

The section ends with a final image, even more shattering. What are our "moments of happiness" like, those experiences of "sudden illumination"? They are, the poem says, like a "ragged rock in the restless waters":
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.
The rock provides a nice piece of scenery on a fine day, and a useful point of navigation for sailors in fair weather. But only the "sudden fury" of the storm reveals its true and permanent nature – "what it always was". We are deceived when, in fair weather, the rock appears to be pleasant or useful; this is merely an aberration from the true pattern of things. Sheer boat-crushing destructiveness is what the rock "always was". If it appears benign for some extended periods, that is like the malignant river in the first section, which appears "patient to some degree" when in fact it is quietly preparing for the next outburst of implacable wanton rage.

So this, mercilessly, is the poem's answer to the question: what do those "moments of happiness" really mean? Eliot sets us up to expect some wisdom about the meaning of life: but while we are waiting for bread, he gives us a stone.

What do the moments of "sudden illumination" mean, when "we had the experience but missed the meaning"? What is that "pattern" of meaning that we missed? It's simply this: that the happy moments are an accidental anomaly, like the appearance of the rock in fine weather. The "permanence" of life is its agony, even if we only glimpse that truth occasionally, amid storms. Human life – like the ragged rock – remains "what it always was": a "primitive terror". That is the truth about life. And our moments of happiness do not reveal but only conceal this pattern, this meaning.

It's true, of course, that a "hint" of hope is introduced in the last section of Dry Salvages – a hope that blooms into the redemptive pentecostal fire of Little Gidding. And it's true that Little Gidding retroactively alters, even transfigures, our reading of the Quartets, so that Dry Salvages becomes an oblique pointer towards redemption. But by the same token, we're not in a position to receive the hope of Little Gidding until we've first passed through the wreckage and despair of Dry Salvages.

"We had the experience but missed the meaning." Taken in context, the line is as crushingly bleak as anything Eliot wrote. If it is also somehow transfigured by the illumination of Little Gidding, that is only by way of a tremendous internal irony. Looking backwards from Little Gidding, one perhaps sees that the speaker himself has also "missed the meaning". (I don't know whether that's a legitimate reading; I only mention it here as the maximal possibility of a "nice" interpretation of the line.) But even this interpretation could never compromise the earlier poem's fundamental bleakness of vision. Rather it's like the irony of the Gospel of John, when Caiaphas insists that "it's better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (Jn 11:49). An irony like that is no happy ending. It evokes no smile, only a sort of pained redemptive grimace.

There is indeed redemption from the crushing theological terrors of Dry Salvages. But we are saved – if we are saved at all – "as though by fire" (1 Cor 3:15). That is the message of Four Quartets.

Friday 3 September 2010

I tried to save the things I made

Well, it's been ages since my last link roundup – so here are some notable things from around the web:

  • James K. A. Smith with a eulogy for Clark Pinnock
  • And a eulogy for Donald Bloesch (whose books made a big impression on me when I was first getting interested in theology)
  • Stanley Fish with an incisive comment on the furor surrounding the so-called Ground Zero mosque
  • Andy has gotten me into Rev., a hilarious new TV series about an inner-city Anglican vicar. Episode 2 (about a charismatic minister) is absolutely priceless: here's an excerpt.
  • A new dissertation on Melville's theology – I'm staggered by the suggestion that there's no publisher for this. We all need more Melville in our lives! (Have you tried Baylor UP? They have a few series in religion and literature, and they've been doing good things in this area of heterodox writers.)
  • For those interested in the Uniting Church, there's a report on the recent conference where I spoke about the church's confession of Christ
  • Steve Holmes on analytic theology and conceptual clarity
  • William Cavanaugh on Christopher Hitchens and religious violence
  • Sam Wells on forgiveness and justice
  • Paul Griffiths on impotent religions and state violence
  • And Paul Griffiths on plagiarism again
  • Milbank on Christianity, Enlightenment and Islam
  • The importance of genuine argument
  • The Bonhoeffer effect in Australian politics
  • A bad liturgical invention: giant papier-mâché Calvinist puppets of doom
  • How a dead fish nearly destroyed a childhood
  • A reader informed me that this F&T post is cited in the latest New Blackfriars – that's nice to see!
  • A good review of Sufjan Stevens' beautiful new EP, All Delighted People
  • Someone has even assembled a Sufjan Stevens order of service (sounds creepy when you put it like that, but it's great stuff)
  • And, wonders never cease, there are some job openings in theology: theology at Duke; theological ethics at Duke; theology and ethics at Fuller
  • Finally, since we've been talking about drawing, I leave you with some astonishing lead pencil art
Now don't just sit there – get up and praise-r-cise!


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