Wednesday 30 November 2011

James-ism: the doctrine of the Fall

When I came into Jamie's room he was staring at his hand in disgust, saying: "Eeew. I just spat in my hand – on purpose!"

There's enough material there for a whole Dostoevsky character.

A Sydney psalm

Tonight's psalm from Sydney (loosely based on Psalms 148 and 150):

Praise the Lord!
Praise him, all you trees on my street;
Praise him you TV aerials bending in the wind;
Praise him, parked cars glistening with rain;
Praise him, screeching hissing trains;
Praise him, bright clouds reflecting Sydney's lights;
Praise him you possums fighting on the roof;
Praise him, noisy M2 traffic;
Praise him from the streets and from the station,
Praise him high and low.
Let everything that makes noise praise the Lord:
Praise the Lord!

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Princeton research fellowships: evolution and human nature

This year at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, twelve resident scholars will be exploring the theme of evolution and human nature. The program will be launched by theological genius Sarah Coakley together with Melvin Konner, author of the massive new work on The Evolution of Childhood.

With support from the Templeton Foundation, CTI is also offering eight Research Fellowships of $70,000 and two Postdoctoral Fellowships of $40,000 – the deadline for applications is 30 November (sorry for the late notice – I've been away from computers lately!).

We welcome proposals to explore how the explosion of new research in evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology is challenging and changing our understanding of human nature and development, not least in relation to religion and theological accounts of the human condition. Our field of inquiry encompasses these evolutionary and human sciences, theological anthropology, practical theology, psychology of religion, religious studies, and the history and philosophy of science.

Thursday 17 November 2011

AAR in San Francisco: some theology panels

So I'm off tomorrow for the AAR meeting in San Francisco – I look forward to seeing some of you there. My own paper explores the problem of time and history in Walter Benjamin, Jacob Taubes and early Christian asceticism – it's part of the following panel:

Explorations in Theology and the Apocalyptic: Jacob Taubes and Christian Theology
Sunday - 6:30 pm-9:00 pm
Room: MM-Sierra C
Christopher Morse, Union Theological Seminary, presiding

  • Sam V. Adams: The Apocalyptic Cosmic Imaginary: Time and Space in Taubes, Moltmann, and Barth
  • Ben Myers: Jacob Taubes: Apocalyptic Time and the Retreat from History
  • David Congdon: Eschatologizing Apocalyptic: A Reconsideration of the Messianic Event
  • Virgil Bower: Embodied Eschatology: Jacob Taubes on Paul, Marx and Kierkegaard

Here are some other panels that look promising. I hope at least to get along to some of these! If you know about any other interesting panels, or if you're presenting something yourself, let us know in the comments:

Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection Group and Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements Group: Holy Spirit, Power, and Feminist Subjectivity in Pentecostalism
Monday - 9:00 am-11:30 am
Room: CC-3016
Sammy Alfaro, Grand Canyon University, presiding
  • Janice Rees: Subject to Spirit: The Promise of Pentecostal Feminist Pneumatology and Its Witness to Systematics
  • Saunia Powell: Pentecostal Articulations of Feminist Theory
  • Lisa Stephenson: An Emerging Pentecostal–Feminist Theological Anthropology: North America and Beyond
  • Pamela Holmes: Towards Useable Categories of “Women’s Experiences” and “Power”: A Canadian Pentecostal Feminist Considers the Work of Margaret Kamitsuka and Kwok Pui Lan
Mysticism Group: Screening of the Documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil by Julia Haslett 
Friday - 7:00 pm-9:00 pm

Room: MM-Sierra H

Eastern Orthodox Studies Group: Syriac Patristic Literature and Spirituality
Saturday - 1:00 pm-3:30 pm
Room: MM-Golden Gate C1
Paul Gavrilyuk, University of Saint Thomas, presiding
  • Thomas Cattoi: A Garment of Metaphors? Incarnation as “Borrowed Speech” in the Poetry of Ephrem the Syrian
  • David Belcher: The Veiled Mysteries in the Testamentum Domini
  • Liza Anderson: The Interpretation of Dionysius the Areopagite in the Works of John of Dara
  • Christopher Johnson: "Base, but Nevertheless Holy": Lessons in Liminality from Symeon of Emessa
Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic Working Group
Friday - 1:30 pm-3:30 pm
Room: IC-Pacific Terrace 
This meeting of the Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic working group will feature a paper presented by Peter Kline and Nathan Kerr, entitled "God." The presentation will be followed by a response from Phil Ziegler and open discussion.

Augustine and Augustinianisms Group: Lewis Ayres's Augustine and the Trinity and the History of Our Shifting Understandings of the Christian Trinity
Saturday - 4:00 pm-6:30 pm
Room: CC-3003
Paul R. Kolbet, Wellesley, MA, presiding
  • Michel Rene Barnes, Marquette University
  • John Slotemaker, Boston College
  • Sarah Coakley, University of Cambridge
  • Responding: Lewis Ayres, Durham University
Sarah Coakley's God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay On the Trinity
Saturday - 10:00 am-12:00 pm
Room: HI-Golden Gate 1
Therese Lysaught, Marquette University, presiding
  • Alan Padgett, Luther Seminary
  • Danielle Nussberger, Marquette University
  • Responding: Sarah Coakley, Cambridge University
Explorations in Theology and the Apocalyptic: The Gospel of Mark
Saturday - 6:30 pm-9:00 pm
Room: PW-Sutro
Doug Harink, King’s University College, presiding
  • Joel Marcus, Duke University
  • Ched Myers, Bartemaeus Co-operative Ministries
  • Craig Keen, Azusa Pacific University
  • Laura C. Sweat, Seattle Pacific University
Augustine and Augustinianisms Group and Platonism and Neoplatonism Group: From Middle Platonism to Neoplatonism
Sunday - 1:00 pm-2:30 pm
Room: MM-Yerba Buena 10
Douglas Hedley, University of Cambridge, presiding
  • John Dillon, Trinity College, Dublin
  • John Kenney, Saint Michael's College
  • John Bussanich, University of New Mexico
  • Sara Rappe, University of Michigan
Karl Barth Society Of North America
Friday - 4:00 pm-6:30 pm
Room: CC-2011
George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary, Presiding
  • Matthew Puffer: Revisiting Karth Barth's Ethics of War
  • Jessica De Cou: “Serious” Questions about “True Words” in Culture: Against Dogmatics IV/3 as the Source for Barth's Theology of Culture
Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship: Thomas F. Torrance and the Problem of Universalism (Paul Molnar)
Friday - 1:00 pm-3:00 pm
Room: MM-Pacific H

Karl Barth Society Of North America
Book Panel Discussion: Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity
Saturday - 9:00 am-11:30 am
Room: CC-3005
George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary, presiding
  • Gary Deddo, InterVarsity Press
  • Ivor Davidson, University of St. Andrews
  • Alan J. Torrance, University of St. Andrews
  • Responding: Paul D. Molnar, St. John's University, New York
Augustine and Augustinianisms Group: Decentered Readings of Augustine
Tuesday - 9:00 am-11:30 am
Room: MM-Sierra K
Paul R. Kolbet, presiding
  • Stephanie Frank: Using Theology to Undo Theology: Mauss's Subversion of Augustinian Moral Psychology in The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies
  • Matthew Drever: Reassessing Augustine’s Anthropology in Light of Recent Scholarly Trends
  • Jeffrey McCurry: De- and Re-centering Augustine: A Nietzschean Reading of Confessions beyond Platonism
  • Sean Larsen: Augustine for Denaturalized Societies: Two Types of Decentered Augustinianisms
Christian Theological Research Fellowship: Peter Leithart's Defending Constantine   
Sunday - 1:00 pm-3:00 pm

Room: HI-Continental Ballroom 2
Joel Scandrett, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, presiding
  • Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University
  • Vigen Gurioian, University of Virginia
  • Respondent: 
Peter Leithart, New Saint Andrews College

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Another pile of doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Only someone who doesn’t know the least thing about religion could think that the answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” is either informative or interesting.

Enough is enough. Attacking the New Atheists is like shooting a man giving himself a lethal injection.

I guess some inerrantists figure they’ve got an inerrant doctrine of inerrancy. Hence the hilarious more-inerrantist-than-thou level of some of their common-room disputes.

Did you hear about the Texan fundamentalist who, in view of Matthew 18:21-22, always packs a pocket calculator in his holster?

Rob Bell is a slick communicator. Peter Rollins tells great stories. I’ve read several of their books and enjoyed them. Then, at the back of Rollins’ recent Insurrection, I saw the photo of the pair of them in conversation before an audience. They are sitting on stools. How can you take theologians who are sitting on stools seriously? Especially the wooden kind.

The discussion on children at the Table continues in the Church of England. One vicar, relentlessly pursuing the muddle way, gives the kids grapes when they come to the table. Presumably red grapes; and seedless (Health & Safety). Does the vicar eat all the unconsumed grapes? That will give you wind, so perhaps there is a Reserved Cluster? Or you could give the kids raisins, vintage grapes. But why Communion only in one kind? Why not add a Weetabix Mini? Or, in ECUSA, a Wheaties flake? Or indeed Raisin Bran: you could get both elements in one mouthful. Hell, why not give the kids a bowl of cereal with the added eucharistic symbolism of milk and honey? This side of Offa’s Dyke you could give them a Welsh Cake. Check that – Welsh Cakes are made with sultanas, which are dried green grapes. Yes, we have the makings of a good old scholastic debate here. Heaven forbid offering children Bread and Wine.

“I share your pain” is not the Eighth Word of the Cross. Said to the bereaved, this cliché of condolence carries about the same weight of sincerity and conviction as “I know just how you feel: I lost my iPod last week.” 

What’s the difference between a contemporary funeral and a major defeat for a sports team you support? Public expressions of grief are acceptable in the latter; the former have to be “celebrations”.

It is as sacrilegious to listen to music while you’re running as it is to chew gum while you’re praying. Conversely, it is as deeply spiritual to run while you’re listening to music as it is to pray while you’re chewing gum. 

It will soon come to pass that before the sermon, preachers will say: “If you have a mobile phone please turn it on. Your text for this morning is …”

I give it another couple of generations before the ubiquity of IT has pretty much destroyed our ability to pray. For spiritual direction, people will go on retweets.

Of course the British government wants to hand over schools to the private sector, to venture capitalists and managers of manners, to turn out capable professionals and supine consumers, to oil the economy. Perish the thought of thought, of education as the midwifery of an interrogative citizenry. Whitehall and the City live by deceit; the last thing they want to encourage is bullshit detection. Dumbing-down is not a tragedy, it’s a strategy.

First, the free-marketeers told us that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. Then we discovered that it lifts all yachts. Not to mention the battleships. 

Patriotism has moved up in the housing market since the days of Dr Johnson: it is now the second refuge of the scoundrel. After Wall Street, which is transnational.

The protest camp outside St. Paul’s Cathedral: tents next to the Temple. The biblical symbolism is resonant, is it not?

Some churches do debt counselling. Fine. As long as you love the usurer too: set up a Bankers Anonymous.

This year in the UK, in the lead-up to Remembrance Day/Sunday, the wearing of the red poppy has been de rigueur for every public figure and performer, from Members of Parliament to football players. There has not been a single exception on television, from Newsnight to The X Factor (with poppies ranging from the classic to the ostentatious). I suspect it’s a largely subconscious collective attempt to deny or repress the reality of the shameful war being fought in Afghanistan. With such apt irony: the poppy, after all, is an opiate.

Certainly a Christian may enter the ministry of armed forces chaplaincy – as long as he leaves it with a dishonourable discharge.

Sarkozy calls Netanyahu a liar, and Obama responds, “You may be sick of him, but I have to deal with him every day.” Yeah, like I deal with my wife when I have to deal with my wife: “Yes, dear.”

Advice to a discerning heterosexual male: If you find a nubile woman, rare as rubies, who rates Moby-Dick, propose at once. (BTW, I see from her pics that Catherine Keller doesn’t wear a wedding band…)

Birth order, sibling rivalry, maternal inattention, inferiority complex, over-compensation and the “striving for significance”: for a little psycho-hermeneutical fun, you can go to Adler as well as Moses to explain the behaviour of little Jimmy in the early church.

Ventriloquism is the key to understanding the prayer-life of young Christians. They will either grow out of it or become the CEOs of mega-churches.

Some Protestants are concerned that when the ban on monarchs marrying Roman Catholics is lifted, Rome will devour Britain. Too late: to judge from the size of him, Chesterton already did it.

There is an earthly object, at once small and huge, that is irrefutable evidence that God so orders the world that even in the hell of anguish one may yet howl with laughter: the common haemorrhoid.

Writing is like a trip to the dentist for a root canal: you hate going but you’re glad you’ve been. 

Friday 11 November 2011

The icon of the Holy Cross: 15 glances


The icon portrays revelation: the crucifixion of the human Jesus as the appearance of the eternal God. The divine being is eternally cruciform, even as it is eternally radiant.

The crucifixion of Christ is the secret of eternity, the true and only glory that shines forever from the abyss of nothingness.

At the centre of Christian devotion is not a revealed doctrine, a religious ideal, or even a right way of life, but an embodied human person. Christianity began not with beliefs about Jesus, but with people who had known Jesus. They were affected by Jesus as we are affected by a powerful friendship, not as we are affected by reading a powerful book or encountering a new idea. "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled…" (1 John 1:1). The heartbeat of Christian faith is embodied encounter.

The crucifixion is depicted here as realistically as is possible within the bounds of iconographic form. The human Jesus stretches out his arms across a rough-hewn wooden beam. His body is bent, his feet twisted, his hands pierced, his head turned down in sorrow.

Around this earthly historical cross shines an eternal heavenly cross. This budded cross is clean and perfect and unbloodied; its form is untouched by the harsh lines and distorted perspectives of the small internal cross. Its form is light itself, the light of eternity. Everything contingent, historical, earthly is suspended amid this timeless light, absorbed into the serene balance of perfect form. The budded cross is the true essential form, the Platonic reality, that projects the earthly crucifixion like a black shadow on to the wall of the cave of time.

The eternal cross is a theodicy. Death and hell are safely circumscribed within its shining frame.

At the top of the icon, the glorious divine face of Christ peers through the curtains, high above the earthly historical cross of Jesus. Unlike the face of the crucified one, this Christ-face looks straight ahead, reminding us that its own impassive glory is the ultimate truth of the crucifixion. On either side, the saints gather reassuringly, springing like flowers from the barren wood of the cross. The saints model for us our own proper response to the spectacle of the crucified one. We are to respond with adoring humility and reverent submission. The presence of the saints makes the cross safe, familiar, and accessible. There is, the icon assures us, a proper human posture that corresponds to the event of the cross. The cross stands not merely over and against us but alongside us, in uninterrupted continuity with our religious piety.

Is not history – the history of Jesus – completely fixed and immobilised in this representation? Is it not suspended in eternity like a beautiful figure inside a glass ball?

Are we not left with the impression that the icon is wholly right in what it shows, yet somehow also wholly wrong? Its sole aim is to set forth Christ as the truth of eternity, the truth that shines forever, the truth of God. But by the very act of showing this, the icon allows the impassive majesty of eternal truth to eclipse the brute fact of the cross of history. 

When I was a little boy, I lived in a vast sprawling mansion beside the sea on a tropical island in North Queensland. When I was grown up, I went back one day to the island and saw my childhood home: a little dilapidated fibro beach shack with a tin roof and cracked concrete floors, scarcely bigger than a backyard shed. All my life, the real earthly house had been eclipsed by the fantasy house which my memory had built for me as, year after year, I silently venerated my childhood. The fantasy house was beautiful: but it was fantasy.

As though we cannot venerate Christ without immediately turning him into an idol, an eternal idea instead of an embodied person. As though religious piety produces an immediate and inevitable transformation of the cross into a smooth, perfectly balanced object, something easily grasped and held in the hand, an instrument not of judgment but of consolation.

Theological truth and spiritual fantasy are thus bound together in the icon, as closely related as wheat and tares or light and day. 

You can see why Karl Barth so loved Grünewald's great and terrible painting of the crucifixion. In Grünewald, one finds a complete repudiation of Christian Platonism: a theology of the cross stripped bare of all theology of glory. Yet Grünewald's Protestant aesthetic has its own perils. Without something like a Platonic anchoring, are we not right on the brink of a steep descent into theological nihilism? In beholding the earthly historical cross devoid of all religious mediation, do we not find ourselves at the very doorstep of hell?

Or is that, perhaps, where we are meant to find ourselves when we behold the cross?

The truth of the icon – a truth that Grünewald all but obliterates – is that there is, for us, no means of access to Christ accept through religious veneration. Our only contact with Christ is through worship in the company of the living tradition of the saints – even if our worship immediately becomes indistinguishable from idolatry. We cannot have Christ without religion: that is the truth that the icon teaches. But – this is what the icon forgets – we can speak of "true religion" only as we speak of a "justified sinner" (Karl Barth).

Sunday 6 November 2011

The St Paul's Cathedral hornet's nest

At the ABC site, Scott has run a triptych of pieces on the St Paul's Cathedral crisis:
  • Rowan Williams: "The Church of England and the Church Universal have a proper interest in the ethics of the financial world and in the question of whether our financial practices serve those who need to be served - or have simply become idols that themselves demand uncritical service." 
  • John Milbank: "And while very many London clerics over the years have made an honourable social witness, the fact is that the higher echelons of the London diocese have tended to be complicit with just this flummery and too much in love with a power that they can only touch through its trappings. Indeed, it is this sham ritual that has frequently blinded them to genuine symbolic resonance. And now this inherited blindness is exposed for the world to see – a most spectacular blindness. 
  • Luke Bretherton: "For what is a Cathedral meant to be but a place where people can come and experience a different time and space, and can live, if only for a moment, in a vision of a different future, and thereby have reality re-framed?"

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Robert W. Jenson, Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse

A guest-review by Steve Wright

This year I spent Reformation Day with Robert Jenson’s latest book: Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse (sample chapter here). At only eighty pages, I had expected to spend an hour with it. But like his previous publication with the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, A Large Catechism, it took me longer to read than expected because of the urgent need to pray or giggle.

My wife commented that these ten slogans sound like “Protestant slogans”. She may be right. The exception is finitum capax infiniti, which is “exclusively Lutheran... because nobody else has agreed with it” (p. 55).

The subtitle is misleading. Jenson frequently gestures to the ambiguity or confusion of certain slogans, not simply to their “use” or “abuse”. This ambiguity is sometimes terminal (as seems to be the case for sola Scriptura). Slogans, we are told, are a necessary shorthand that emerges over time to signify a complex of propositions and practises. Despite the word’s stigma, slogans have a positive function. The problem with slogans is that they tend to develop a certain independence as they age, becoming untethered and paddling to foreign shores.

An example of this untethering is the frequent attempts by some Lutheran theologians to categorise all reality under the rubrics “law” or “gospel”. Jenson argues that it should be clear that this use of “gospel” has drifted from the story of Jesus. What was a history is now a generalised concept. Reframing the dialectic as “death” and “resurrection” does not help. Death and resurrection are not a dialectical pair, but moments in the history of Christ’s life (pp. 35-36).

This book is delightful for many reasons. Jenson takes almost every opportunity afforded him to disagree with Melanchthon. Although on one occasion he finds himself required begrudgingly to give Melanchthon his “partial due” for identifying the Spirit with the gift the Spirit brings (p. 46).

Jenson has been described as the perfecter of the footnote; clearly this was a reference to the dynamic perfection of the East. Like our Lord’s wine, he has brought out his finest well after the guests have gotten a little tipsy from his systematics. Whether he is confessing his enduring awe for Augustine, comparing the proliferation of trendy religion in the second century with California, or denying that Lutherans have ever taught anything that could be called consubstantiation, his footnotes always delight. He even works in a reference to a theology blog (sorry Ben, not this one).

Throughout Jenson maintains his career-long argument that the object of theology must be “God himself in his own visibility and disgrace” (p.39). That is, Christ destroyed on the cross and raised again. Though internalised through faith, we will always encounter this God through an external Word. So much for subjective faith. Faith is “a strange kind of knowledge, more like a dark cloud around its object than a bright transparency.” If we look inward to find Christ “we will only enter a cloud of unknowing” (p. 20).

What then, must we do to keep theological slogans moored? If the only legitimate use of slogans is when they are tethered to God in Christ, then the imperative is clear. We must immerse ourselves in the narrative of the triune God. We are to “fill the church with Scripture” (p. 80). 

Tuesday 1 November 2011

The Melbourne Cup and animal ethics: just a bloody punt

Today is one of the most sacred events in the Australian liturgical year: Melbourne Cup day. Pretty much everyone in the country stops to watch the race and to have a punt. Even school children are encouraged to join in the fun of betting on the horses. Though I don't mean to come across as the cranky old Christian spoil-sport, I wrote a piece for the ABC site today, drawing on Karl Barth's animal ethics – Melbourne Cup: the race that tramples creation: "The Melbourne Cup is the climax of a cruel and bloody practice, exhibiting what Karl Barth called our 'astonishing indifference and thoughtlessness' regarding animals."

As for the question of Australia's pathological predilection for gambling, here's a great video with a couple of excellent satirical TV ads. The second ad is especially good – I think this pretty much says it all:


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