Thursday 30 May 2013

Karl Barth's theological method: some analytic notes and queries

A post dedicated to Oliver Crisp, to celebrate the launch of his new open access Journal of Analytic Theology.
One of Karl Barth's most characteristic patterns of thinking – you'll find it everywhere in the Church Dogmatics – goes something like this:

(1) God has done x
(2) Therefore God can do x
(3) But God doesn't have to do x
(4) Therefore x is an act of God's freedom (the Can) and God's love (the Doesn't-have-to)
(5) By recognising God's Can and God's Doesn't-have-to in x, we understand x as revelation (i.e., a revelation of the God who loves in freedom).

Some observations and queries about this pattern of thought:

a. This might be called a theological method, but it is the furthest thing in the world from a generic method for producing knowledge. It would be more accurate to call it a distillation of Barth's doctrine of God, which is organised around the two mega-attributes of love and freedom (see Barth's definition in CD II/1: God is "the one who loves in freedom"). The content of theology is already written into the theologian's method.

b. This method of thinking would not get anywhere without (1) – that is, without God doing something. Method alone does not generate information about God. Method generates information only as it is applied to (1), to the fact of God's having done something. Specifically, in any given instance of God doing something, method is used to infer from that instance certain things about God's freedom (the Can) and God's love (the Doesn't-have-to). These inferences supply the content of theology. It is in this sense that Barth understands all theology as obedience, as thought following after God. His method is inferential abstraction from the facts of revelation.

c. Yet in (1) – "God has done x" – the word "God" already has content. The God who does something in this instance is already assumed to have a particular character, to be "the one who loves in freedom". It is only this assumption that gives the ensuing method any traction. For example, if God were not already assumed to be free, then instead of (3) we might simply posit that "God must have needed to do x", and the rest of the chain of reasoning would be aborted.

d. Does this mean that the method is incoherent? That in fact the Can and the Doesn't-have-to are supplied not by revelation itself but by the theologian? If so, it would mean that the method is in fact functioning as a revelation, since God's freedom and love are prescribed in the method and not derived from God's doing x.

e. Or does this reflect a recursive pattern that is proper to theological knowing? That the theologian's reflection on God's doing x will be a means of participating in the reality that x itself has brought into being? If so, then the method of theological knowing is itself one of the effects produced by revelation. The theologian does not initiate a process of knowing, but begins to think out of a participation in the God who has been revealed in x as the one who loves in freedom. In that case, what happens to the knower in the event of revelation supplies the method by which the knower begins to appropriate revelation as knowledge.

Monday 27 May 2013

Edward J. Edwards: a biography of the founder of our civilisation


Though no one would deny that Edward J. Edwards is the founder of civilisation as we know it today, the story of his life, his career, and his untimely death has until now never been told in a complete and satisfying way. Many are the books, the journal articles, the conference papers, the postgraduate dissertations on Edwards' work. But they are partial; they consider the minutest details but miss the great outlines. They sever the man from his work, and on that account even their most satisfying conclusions have about them something cold and unpersuasive. I have studied the literature; I have attended the conferences where Edwards' ideas are parcelled out like items at a yard sale. I have seen how his thoughts are bought and sold. I have watched the scholars haggling over prices. But Edwards – Edwards himself, Edwards the personality, Edwards the man behind the work – where is he in all this? Who is he?

Naturally it would be impossible for any writer to give a comprehensive account of such a mighty subject. To present Edwards adequately would require another polymath, another Edwards. Who among us could even begin to take the measure of Edwards' contributions not only to theology, philosophy, psychiatry, theosophy, but also to chemistry, neurobiology, art history, philology, Egyptology? And that is to leave aside his stranger, harder to evaluate experiments in poetry, music, sculpture, as well as the anatomical sculpture of plastination. Yet without some idea of how and why Edwards spread his genius across these far-flung continents of learning and inquiry, how can we ever hope to fathom that one great all-consuming labour toward which he bent the full power of his mind: I speak, of course, of anastology. We will, I believe, never fathom the depths of the science of anastology until we come to terms – somehow – with its discoverer, its pioneer, its architect and priest. 

That is why I have resolved to write this book. Not merely to uncover some isolated aspects of Edwards' thought, nor to unravel some of the complex strands of his legacy, but to uncover the person himself – the Man behind the Work.

I do not, of course, presume to be able to explain the mind of Edward J. Edwards. One does not explain a thing like that, any more than one explains poetry or hatred or the immense blank beauty of our poisoned seas. I do, however, intend to take a wide view, abandoning the safe limitations of the specialised monograph and seizing as my theme the man himself – his childhood, his studies, his travels, his career, his work habits, his relationships, as well as the tangled circumstances surrounding his death. Only then, I believe, will it be possible to provide a clear and (as far as possible) comprehensive view of what Edwards' work was fundamentally about.

To speak of his achievement is hardly necessary. But to say what that achievement was for – that is the aim that I have set myself in this book. How far I may succeed is for the reader to judge.

It is not hard to see why no one until now has attempted a comprehensive study of Edwards' life. For one thing, there is the whole history of the heresy trials and the Anastological Wars – with all that this entailed for the freedom and limits of scholarly inquiry into anastological science, especially in Europe and North America. Then there is the destruction of so many of Edwards' writings and personal papers at the time of his death – a melancholy obstacle for the would-be biographer, notwithstanding scholars' careful reconstruction of several writings from the fragments that survived. To these challenges must be added the peculiarities of Edwards' working habits. A person whose research was carried out in libraries, universities, and laboratories might indeed have left behind a colourful trail of documentary evidence. But a life such as Edwards' leaves for posterity precious few institutional traces, given his tendency to pursue his research in slums, factories, brothels, insane asylums, not to mention of course the many morgues and cemeteries where Edwards laboured in his final years.

All this has prevented earlier scholars even from contemplating the audacity of a comprehensive biography. But our frustrating reliance on partial and piecemeal interpretations of Edwards' thought has emboldened me to attempt this work, in spite of its obvious limitations. It is my hope that this biography will enable a fuller appreciation of the huge and multiple dimensions of Edwards' legacy, and will inspire a more penetrating insight into the science (what some, before the Wars, falsely called the miracle) of anastology. 

This work is dedicated to my grandfather, a first-generation anastological subject (born 2 April 2011, died 28 December 2073, resurrected 3 January 2074), and a constant source of inspiration and encouragement in my work.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Teaching the Apostles' Creed: videos

This year I'm trying to devote as much of my energy as possible to teaching (i.e. learning!) the Apostles' Creed. I've been teaching an undergraduate class on the Apostles' Creed, leading retreats and seminars on the creed, writing about the creed (starting soon I hope to do a monthly magazine column on the creed), and I've just finished teaching an intensive course for lay preachers on the Apostles' Creed. 

You'd think it might get boring after a while, or that you'd run out of ideas, but actually I've found it very refreshing and stimulating. Theologians can easily give the impression that they're building castles in the sky – developing a completely abstract conceptual system that long ago lost contact with ordinary reality – so there is something impressively sober and concrete about sticking to the creed in all its objective plainness and clearness. The Apostles' Creed is just there – and theology, as reflection on the creed, isn't guesswork or speculation but a description of something that's actually there.

Anyway on Sundays I'm also doing a series of sermons on the Apostles' Creed. Videos of the first few are available, and if you're interested I'll add links to the rest of the series in the coming weeks. Here are the first three:

1.  I Believe

Monday 13 May 2013

A funeral homily

Preached last week in Swansea by Kim Fabricius

The historian Professor Gareth Elwyn Jones, MBE, MA, MEd, PhD, DLitt, FRHistS died on April 20th. He was a universally respected figure in Welsh academic life, and the pre-eminent authority on the history of education in Wales. In 1992, at the age of 53, Gareth was severely injured in a car accident, and subsequently confined to a wheelchair – which didn’t stop this teacher’s teacher from teaching, nor interrupt the steady stream of rigorously researched and elegantly written articles and books, nor dampen his deeply Christian courage and joie de vivre.

Though Gareth and Kim did not know each other well, it was Gareth’s wish that Kim take his funeral, which took place on May 7th at Tabernacle United Reformed Church, Swansea. Professor David Howell gave the eulogy for his friend and colleague. Then Gareth’s wife Kath, herself a formidable teacher and writer, and his two children, Bethan, a university lecturer in English, and Matthew, a musician, paid wonderful tribute to Gareth as husband and father. Bethan (on clarinet) and Matthew (on violin) also played two pieces of music intimately connected to life with father. Then Kim preached the homily.

Kath, Bethan, Matthew, family, friends:

In January 1939, Donald Bradman hit his fourth consecutive century, Superman made his debut in the comics – and Hitler called for the extermination of the Jews.

Later that year, in Wales, for the first time ever, both chair and crown were withheld at the National Eisteddfod – and the first wartime civilian evacuees arrived from across the border.

And there were some notable births in Wales: Donald Anderson, Rhodri Morgan – it was a good year for the Labour Party – and, rewinding to January – the 30th – in Abergavenny, to a father who was a local Congregationalist minister and a mother who had trained as a nurse, one Gareth Elwyn Jones.

Dates and facts. Dates and facts.

Via Morriston, Swansea, the family settled in Whitland, Carmarthenshire. To improve his educational prospects, little Gareth was sent to Caterham, a Congregationalist school in south London. But Surrey is not exactly Carmarthenshire: Gareth hated it. He returned to Whitland to excel at the local grammar school; then on to Swansea to read history.

During his time in Swansea, Gareth worshipped at Walter Road Congregational Church. So did another Swansea student, a philosopher in a department world-renown as a centre of Wittgenstein studies. Perhaps she cited the great Austrian philosopher to the lad sitting next to her in the pew – “If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done” – because in 1963 Kath and Gareth were married in Newport.

Dates and facts. Dates and facts.

Then off to Croydon – ironically, a town just a few miles from Caterham – where the newlyweds began to teach. But only for two years. Hiraeth: back to Wales, to Cardiff, then to Swansea, Pennard, where Gareth and Kath settled – and then, as we’ve heard, the CV takes off. Jones the lecturer; Jones the professor; Jones the dean; Jones the article and Jones the book; Jones the distinguished man of letters – eventually there would be over 20 of them following his name. In short, Jones the teacher and Jones the learner – and the terrific teacher precisely because the lifelong learner. Meanwhile, Jones the husband had also become Jones the dad: Bethan born in 1971, Matthew in 1973.

Date and facts. Dates and facts.
And then there were church commitments, community responsibilities, and even some time for leisure. Gareth worshipped here, at Tabernacle, where he became a deacon and elder. He served on the governing bodies at Bishopston Comprehensive School and Pentrechwyth Primary School. And the camping, the cricket, and – yes – the cars ... the collision, on July 3rd, 1992 ... and then the chair...

Dates and facts. Dates and facts. It’s time to move on from dates and facts. Gareth spent his professional life contending against the Gradgrindian – and, alas, Govean – notion that history is reducible to dates and facts. Dates and facts are just data. Things only begin to get interesting, and the real work of the historian only begins, with the conversion of dates and facts into evidence, and the deployment of evidence in the intellectual venture of reconstruction and interpretation, which while partial and provisional might just turn out to be “true”. Why study history? “There are only two good reasons,” observes Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: “to enhance life and prepare for death.”
So the date and fact of Gareth’s accident – fine. But what did his disability do to him, and more, what did Gareth do with it? Hemingway said that life breaks everyone, but some grow strong at the broken places. Gareth grew strong at his broken place. His can-do mindset and professionalism – unabated. His cheerful, generous spirit and lofty idealism – undaunted. His devotion to his family, eventually as a delighted tad-cu – unreserved. Not dates and facts, here we are talking about character, shaped by a story. And as a student of John Fines, Gareth knew the crucial importance of story in fashioning human identity. Who am I? I am my story.
Or rather, I am the one who is the intersection of stories. My personal history intersects with contemporary history – the present is simply what the past is doing now; intersects with various narratives, domestic, national, and global; cultural narratives that colonise our lives and give them direction: narratives of money and power, health and beauty, and an obsession with denying death at all costs. Bewitching narratives, but narratives that are quite unable to deliver the purpose they promise, and narratives that finally shape grotesquely distorted characters.
The good news is that we meet here today in the context of a bigger narrative, a cosmic narrative, an eternal narrative that yet intersects with time. It is, of course, the narrative of Jesus – his life, death, resurrection – and his continuing story – Christ reigns as Lord of history, hidden in it: human history is his-story. It is the story that informs and transforms us in an altogether different way from the stories of our time. It is the story that in our doubts gives us faith, in our despair gives us hope, and in our fears gives us peace. It is the love-story of God’s passionate embrace of the world in Jesus, the story in which Gareth has played his part so well – and now moves on to play other roles in the chronicles of heaven. And it is an endlessly unfolding story, the story – as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the story “that goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
It is my belief that we are all characters in this story, though some of us may have lost the plot. Perhaps on an occasion like this, in which we celebrate Gareth’s earthly life, grieve its end, and celebrate its final integration into God’s never-ending story – perhaps this is a good time to begin to find the plot again – find faith again – and play our own parts with commitment, imagination, gratitude, and joy.    

Friday 10 May 2013

Bonhoeffer on the magical powers of leadership

Thanks for the interest in my paper on Bonhoeffer's critique of leadership. This should eventually be published in a collection of essays resulting from the colloquium, so I'll let you know when it's available. In the mean time, here's another excerpt from the first part of the paper (before it gets into a detailed reading of Life Together – “God hates visionaries” and all that):
Bonhoeffer spent much of his life opposing leadership. When Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer was one of the first voices in Germany to urge for caution. Just two days after Hitler’s installation, 26-year-old Bonhoeffer gave a radio broadcast on “The Younger Generation’s Altered View of the Concept of Leader [Führer].” Bonhoeffer acknowledged that leadership is a normal and necessary part of life. “Naturally, there have always been leaders. Where there is community there is leadership.” But he argued that the concept of political leadership had been transformed in modern Germany; the German Youth Movement had dangerously projected all its longings and aspirations on to the concept of the Leader. Thus, Bonhoeffer said, “the originally prosaic idea of political authority is transformed into the political-messianic idea of leader that we see today.” Authentic leadership, in Bonhoeffer’s view, is the administration of an objective office. “The leader points to the office.” Where political leadership fuses with quasi-religious functions – giving people hope, investing their lives with meaning, awakening their spiritual yearnings – it becomes a dangerous and potentially unlimited power. Leadership becomes “personal and not objective.” In such circumstances, the leader (Führer) can very easily become the misleader (Verführer) – not so much because of anything innately bad in the leader, but because of the powerful illusory longings projected on to the leader. As a sort of definition of authentic leadership, Bonhoeffer remarks: “The true leader must always be able to disappoint.” Though the radio address was cut off before it finished, Bonhoeffer’s text concluded with the somber warning that all leaders are only “penultimate authorities” under the authority of God; the “leader and office that turn themselves into gods mock God.”

In the years that followed, Bonhoeffer applied his critique of political leadership to the question of leadership in Christian communities. In the 1933 Bethel Confession, drafted by Bonhoeffer and Hermann Sasse, the nature of Christian ministry is defined in explicit contrast to leadership. “The power of the ministry,” the confession states, does not depend “on the powers with which a human soul may be gifted.” Hence “we … protest against the attempt to apply the modern leadership principle to the preaching ministry.” Christian ministry, as “service to the Word,” is indeed “the opposite of any magical powers of leadership.” Here the point seems to be that Christian ministry consists in responsibility to an objective office and an objective word that God has given; it does not depend on influence, charisma, or what Bonhoeffer elsewhere called the “melting together” of souls. 

Thursday 9 May 2013

Bonhoeffer's critique of leadership

On the weekend I'll be presenting a paper at a colloquium on interfaith persepectives on leadership. My paper (representing the Protestant tradition) is on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theological critique of leadership in Life Together. Here's an excerpt from the conclusion:
Eight decades later, Bonhoeffer’s dark warnings about the dangers of leadership sound eccentric to a culture marked by a seemingly boundless enthusiasm for leadership, charisma, and influence. The current neglect of a more cautionary perspective on leadership is hard to account for, given that the greatest and most charismatic leaders of the past century have also been responsible for the greatest wickedness. Bonhoeffer’s warnings – written before the beginning of the Second World War – sound today like prophecies. His critical perspective on leadership, informed by Protestant tradition and by keen observation of the political culture of 1930s Germany, remains a prophetic challenge to any account in which leadership as such is regarded as an unequivocal or unambiguous good. For Bonhoeffer, the good to which we ought to aspire is participation in an ordinary, flawed human community. What such a community needs is not vision or influence or psychological management, but “the one word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.”

Thursday 2 May 2013

Banishing Falstaff: Shakespeare and the moral vision of comedy

I wrote this piece for ABC Religion & Ethics, and have reposted it here.

Falstaff is Shakespeare's greatest comic figure. He is one of those characters who seems too big for his own play. But Falstaff is not merely a comic character: the very principle of comedy seems incarnate in him, just as the principle of tragedy seems incarnate in the spectacle of King Lear howling at the storm. In Lear, tragedy assumes cosmic dimensions; it is as if the whole mad universe were raging in the mad king’s cries. In Falstaff, comedy likewise takes on gigantic proportions, as if the foundations of the world were shaken with laughter at Falstaff's wit.

Yet the paradox of Falstaff is that he is not the kind of person we would ordinarily like. The great challenge of performing Falstaff on stage is to portray a character who is at once morally reprehensible and irresistibly loveable. Falstaff cannot be a villain; he cannot be a mere rogue; he cannot be a clown; he cannot be (not for a second) a tragic figure. We have to feel huge revulsion and huge love all at the same time, and for all the same reasons.

John Bell's performance of Falstaff in the Bell Shakespeare production of Henry 4 is a triumph, precisely because Bell's Falstaff is so repulsive and so loveable.

In Bell’s hands, Falstaff becomes a beer-bellied Australian bogan. He spends his time carousing on a set that seems a cross between a brothel and a backyard shed. He wears denim and leather with chains, a grungy biker. He slumps on a vinyl sofa with a hooker on his knee, swigging Jim Beam from the bottle. With his red nose, scraggly white beard, and twinkling eye, he looks for all the world like a degenerate Santa Claus.

And yet we love – no, we adore – that Falstaff.

What Falstaff represents is nothing more or less than life. Life itself, life as such, the sheer indomitable fact of being alive. That is why Falstaff is so fat. He is larger than life, more human and more alive than ordinary mortals. When Hal points out that the grave gapes for Falstaff “thrice wider than for other men,” it is true symbolically as well as literally. No ordinary grave could hold Jack Falstaff, for he is no ordinary mortal. He is large, he contains multitudes. When old Falstaff condescendingly tells the Lord Chief Justice, “You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young,” we feel the truth of it in our very bones. Falstaff's body might be “blasted with antiquity,” as the Chief Justice alleges, yet nobody is younger than he. He is young because he is youthfulness itself, the very energy and drive of life.

Yet in the final scene, a scene that has scandalised generations of playgoers and critics, Hal banishes his friend Jack Falstaff. Our minds recoil from the thought of it – even though, objectively speaking, Falstaff deserves whatever he gets. It is not just that we like Falstaff and want things to turn out well for him. It is that a rejection of Falstaff seems the same as a rejection of life – an incomprehensible, nonsensical act. As Falstaff himself has intimated, to reject him is to reject everything: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

But perhaps the point of this difficult scene is just to show that Falstaff can be rejected. For all his irresistible charm, it is still possible to turn him away. The significance of the last scene is that it makes comedy more vivid by revealing its limits. Falstaff can be banished; life can be refused. We'd never have believed it if we didn't see it played out before our eyes. When we see it happen, we are agitated. We are disquieted. We are moved. We are ready to rush to Falstaff’s defence. His rejection moves the audience to accept him all the more, to say Yes to life by saying Yes to sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff.

Falstaff’s banishment reveals something of the central mystery of his character. For all his irrepressible wit, for all his invincible ingenuity, for all his boundless capacity to extricate himself from difficulties, to catapult his corpulent person over every obstacle – for all that, there is a strange vulnerability at the core of Falstaff's being. There is, indeed, a sense in which he is the most elementally vulnerable character in the play, vulnerable in a way that reminds us of Shakespeare's great tragic figures.

Falstaff's invincibility, after all, really just lies in the way others open their hearts to him. He has – or is – “the spirit of persuasion.” We feel moved to love him even when we know he is bad. We find ourselves believing in him even when we know he is lying. To the extent that we cannot help but love him – to that extent, but no further – he is an impregnable castle. When Mistress Quickly accuses Falstaff before the Lord Chief Justice – “he hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his” – she ends her wild litany of accusations, in one of the finest moments of the Bell production, by running to Falstaff, embracing him, and sobbing the rest of her speech into his shoulder, while he comforts her forgivingly.

That is the form that every moral objection to Falstaff has to take. We begin, quite properly, by reproaching him, and end up embracing him and begging his forgiveness. When, earlier, Mistress Quickly berates Falstaff for evading his debts, he starts out on the defensive but ends with a triumphant show of magnanimity: “Hostess, I forgive thee. Go, make ready breakfast. Love thy husband, look to thy servants, cherish thy guests. Thou shalt find me tractable to any honest reason; thou seest I am pacified still. Nay, prithee, begone.”

Yet we are confronted, at the end of the story, with a person who knows Falstaff, understands him, loves him – and rejects him. This person has just become king. In Henry IV, it is power that refuses life by refusing Falstaff.

At the Bell Shakespeare production last night, we were scandalised by this monstrous wrongness, this insult against the human spirit, this denial of life and joy. Seething with indignation in our seats, we were compelled to make the better choice. We despised the king and all his pomp, and our hearts went out to Falstaff. To the extent that it opens our hearts to Falstaff, Henry IV is a deeply moral play – not a moralising play, God help us, but a grand hilarious demonstration of the absolute, unqualified, unbounded goodness of life. By moving us to say Yes to Falstaff, the play makes us participants in a moral world where life is more important than power and joy is stronger than death.

But if we prize power above joy, we will find prostitutes and tax collectors – yes, even old Jack Falstaff – entering the kingdom ahead of us. If, like Hal, we banish Falstaff from our hearts, we will wake up one day to discover that we have really only banished ourselves.


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