Monday 25 July 2016

God, save us from a silent spring

(Tune: Gonfalon Royal)

God, save us from a silent spring*,
when sparrows are too sick to sing:
no hymns of praise announcing dawn
but muted cries as nature mourns.

When pesticides have done their worst,
when seed and soil, once blessed, are cursed,
when deserts creep where forests grew,
how can we plead we never knew?

When coral reefs all disappear,
as waters warm and acid sears,
and whales no longer sound and breach,
will seas forgive our overreach?

And what of beasts we hunt and kill
for pelts and tusks or passing thrill;
the animals that Adam named,
will they absolve us of our shame?

God, help us to apologise
for desecrating earth and skies;
for sins of pride and thanklessness,
have mercy, Lord, as we confess.

Then raise us up with Christ, we pray,
and send the dove to show the way
to know the peace of wildest things**
and celebrate a songful spring.

* Silent Spring (1962), by Rachel Carson, documents the disastrous effects of pesticides on American agriculture, and is often cited as the book that launched the modern environmental movement.

** “The Peace of Wild Things” is a poem by Wendell Berry. It depicts the poet, unable to sleep for his “despair for the world”, going to a nearby pond or lake where “I come into the peace of wild things…. For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Thursday 21 July 2016

2 reviews: Cortez and Volf/McAnnally-Linz

The new book by Marc Cortez, Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective, offers
interesting snapshots of the interaction of christology and anthropology in the history of Christian thought.  Cortez constructs his argument on the assumption that Christ reveals both natures of the hypostatic union: Christ discloses humanity to us.

Cortez orders the book around thematic expositions of the christologies of select figures from Christian history. He assembles a solid cast of theologians from history to probe the question of Christ’s humanity and ours. The inclusions and topics are select but pertinent: Gregory of Nyssa and gender, Julian of Norwich and suffering, Luther and justification as the foundation of humanity, Schleiermacher and ecclesially mediated humanity, Barth and embodiment, Zizioulas and personhood, and Cone and liberation. Each chapter offers a coherent and focussed reading designed to illuminate the impact of christology on the considered topic of theological anthropology. The figures are utilised more as models of thinking through the issues of humanity rather than as offering settled conclusions.

For instance, his discussion of gender through a reading of Gregory of Nyssa works its way right into the heart of contemporary questions about biological sexuality and constructed gender. But rather than argue that Gregory’s theology furthers (or hinders) arguments for gender fluidity, Cortez hones in on the way that Gregory’s discussion of gender pivots on the resurrection. It is to the author’s credit that he pulls back from proclamatory judgements. Cortez’s mostly noncommittal stance invites the reader to reflection.

However, the curation of topics and authors does not escape a sense of arbitrary judgement. Why does the book avoid Augustine, Irenaeus, Kathryn Tanner, and the many others who meet the book’s guiding criterion of developing a christology that sheds light on humanity? The selection criteria are obscure. 

Further to this, the rendering of the human developed here is fragmentary and incomplete, which seems to be an accident of design, rather than a deliberate constructive proposal. Expected topics were omitted without explanation—sin, the human and the environment, culture, etc. The conclusion attempts to tie the readings together, but this serves primarily comparative purposes, rather than offering a unique vision of the human through the lens of Christology.

The main contribution of the book lies in its offering of these models of thinking, rather than in any proposal of a christological anthropology. This is a fine end in itself, and the book would be at home on any undergraduate reading list in theological anthropology.


This decade seems to be marked by a gradual escalation of Christian concern for public issues. A new book co-authored by Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz,  Public Faith in Action: How to think carefully, engage wisely, and vote with integrity, addresses these concerns directly. Born from a series of Facebook posts, the book contains short digestible chapters arranged by topic. Volf and McAnnally-Linz aim to equip Christians to reflect on public issues. The authors attempt to avoid needlessly adopting stances that would only limit discussion, and instead aim to provoke questions that might lead to healthy dialogue and debate. Each chapter closes with an excellent list of introductory and advanced readings (Quite a number of ABC Religion and Ethics pieces appear in these lists).

The authors have aimed their book at the church, hiding much of the theological reasoning behind the text. Most of the time this method proceeds without difficulty. For instance, the authors outline four possible approaches to the question of same-sex marriage, and comment that each stance has compelling theological reasons, without delving into the theologic itself. On other occasions, however, they advocate a settled “Christian stance” on a particular issue. Can opposition to the death penalty, for instance, be argued to be the only (note the italics) option available to Christians? I fear that only a very limited definition of “Christian” would enable such a claim. Similarly, the authors present opposition to euthanasia as the Christian stance, and then back this up with social rather than theological argumentation. The authors would have been better served at these points to put forward such positions as compelling rather than exclusive.

Despite this limitation, Volf and McAnnally-Linz have produced a very fine book that will ignite some healthy discussion in the churches about our common life. Kathryn Tanner once wrote that fruitful theological discussion emerges as we are drawn to the controversial edges of belief and thought. This book is all about such edges, and invites every Christian to reflection and disputation.

Saturday 16 July 2016

Dumdum doodlings

Brexit: well, so much for plebis*ites.

“What the fuck just happened?” exclaimed one observer. “Inept, embarrassing, horrible, clueless,” said another. And a third: “It’s a sad time to be English.” But were they speaking about losing to Iceland – or to Brexit?

So The Three Stooges (Boris, Michael, and Nigel) and have gotten us into another fine mess on the model of Laurel and Hardy (Tony and Dubya): no (Br)exit strategy.

Shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are stages in the grief process. We have just learned that they are also stages in the Brexit process. Except that with Brexit, the bargaining comes last; in fact, it’s just about to begin.

Let’s ditch the highfalutin language of “pilgrimage”: we’re a mass of migrants, (in ecclesial imagery) a bunch of boat people, an ethnic salmagundi. God help us if St. Peter is a Brexite or a Trumpeteer.

You’ve got to hand it to Trump on his cunning necropolitical disguise: an angel of darkness impersonating an angel of darkness.

“Why, some people might lose their faith looking at that picture” (Prince Myshkin, in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, on seeing a photograph of The Donald). Unless, of course, you’re an American evangelical.

Why should we doubt Trump’s religious convictions? If asked for a faith-statement, I’m sure he’d say, “I like crucifixion a lot. I don’t think it’s tough enough.”

There’s a lot of celebrity gossip in both the UK and Hollywood about Idris Elba being the next James Bond. And I’m thinking: if Bond, why not Superman? Why not an African American embodying the struggle for “truth, justice, and the American way”? Well, two out of three.

Why, of course racism is a pathology for whites to resolve, not blacks, just as domestic violence is an issue for men to resolve, not women. Oh yes, and an issue for the church to resolve too, for it has been – and still is – complicit in both.

Yes, Jesus spoke truth to power, but first he spoke truth to ordinary people. After all, the powerful get away with telling lies only because ordinary people like hearing them.

“Jesus said, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’” (Revelation 3:20a). No he didn’t. With respect, allow me to correct John’s Pelagianism: “Jesus said, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock it down.’”

What makes God laugh? Eulogies.

As soon as Judas took the bread, Nike entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Just Do It!” (John 13:27, Original Autograph)

If you’ve ever wondered about the way Jesus called the first disciples with an imperious “Follow me!”, taking them from their families, then ran them ragged, constantly hounding, intimidating, and rebuking them, indeed risking their lives, yet still they stayed with him, defended him, identified with him – what is the explanation for the disciples’ behaviour? Stockholm syndrome.

Listening to a bad preacher is like listening to a good umpire when the pitcher can’t find the plate: what you hear is mostly balls, with perhaps the occasional strike.

As far as the 18th-century political debate between Right and Left goes, you’re either a Berk or a Pain.

Some mothers are matriarchs, others nags, others my “best friend”. The church too – for conservatives, legalists, and liberals respectively.

God is not needy. Certainly God does not need me or my love. Which is precisely why I can trust him and his.

“We are not enough. We are none of us enough! Including the man who does everything right!” Thus screams the character Jerry Levov to his brother Seymour (the Swede) in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. I would have said, “Especially the man who does everything right!”, but otherwise it’s as good a description of the person “sold into slavery under sin” (Romans 7:14) as you are likely to find. And from the pen of a ferocious atheist.

Why are young people leaving conservative evangelical churches? Here’s a theory: it’s due to the stiff competition that their virtual Jesuses now face from the multitude of virtual presences in social media.

Of course I wouldn’t say that the theology of Karl Barth has any normative authority. Nevertheless, tolle, lege.

I recommend reading great theology aloud. Just make sure you stutter.

Everything important you try to say is like the first two bowls of porridge that Goldilocks tastes: it’s either too hot (you say more than you intended to say) or too cold (you say less than you intended to say). Alas, there is no third bowl.

The last words of the Wicked Duck of the West: “I’m molting! molting!”

Sunday 10 July 2016

The Parable of the Two Good Guys

A young man who knew his Bible, could cite chapter and verse, was sent by his pastor to question this new teacher in town, name of Jesus, to see if he was “sound”. “Jesus,” the lad was told to ask, “how do I get eternal life?”

“That looks like a Bible you’ve got there, young fella” Jesus said.

Waving the black book to which Jesus had pointed, the lad declared, “Yep, it’s the inspired and inerrant Word of God, infallible and perfect in every way.”

“Sorry?” Jesus said.

“It’s the inerrant Word of God,” the lad repeated.

“Let me see,” said Jesus.

The lad handed the Bible to Jesus, who took it, opened it, shook it, smelled it, then returned it to the youngster. “Who says it’s inerrant?” he asked.

“God says,” the youngster replied.

“Where does God say that?” asked Jesus.

“In the Bible,” the youngster replied.

“But that doesn’t answer the question,” Jesus said, “it begs the question. It’s circular reasoning to say that the Bible is inerrant because in the Bible God says that the Bible is inerrant. What you claim to be true you’re assuming rather than proving. Which is a logical fallacy, which is bad apologetics, which shames our faith.”

“You what?” said the lad, completely discombobulated. “Are you trying to trick me?”

“Of course not,” said Jesus. “It’s just that you’re brandishing that book like it’s an assault weapon rather than a surgeon’s scalpel, and I suspect that you read it rather unimaginatively, one-dimensionally, as if it were a cook book rather than a love story, and listen to it as if it were a collection of notes rather than a magnificent symphony. You search it for answers, but you don’t allow it to probe you with questions. You look for closure when you should pray for critique. God certainly speaks to us through the scriptures, but interpreting the Bible is rarely a simple matter, let alone an open-and-shut case. We should expect to be surprised and disturbed, to have our fixed views challenged – and our settled selves changed.”

But the young man had that impatient, I’m-not-listening-to-a-thing-you-say look on his face. “Just answer the question,” he demanded: “How do I get eternal life?”

“Ahem,” sighed Jesus (not “Amen”). “Let’s turn to the Bible then. What do you say it says?”

“It’s obvious,” replied the youngster (rather smugly, it must be said): “You must love the Lord with all your heart and soul, mind and strength, and you must love your neighbour as yourself. Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5. End of.”

“Excellent. So all you need is love,” said Jesus, pretending to be impressed and persuaded. For he suspected that the lad had an agenda, that he would try to embarrass and expose Jesus as an unreliable teacher. And Jesus was right.

“Ah,” the lad said, “but who is this neighbour I must love?” Of course he knew the answer: according to Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the neighbour is my fellow believer. But rumour had it that Jesus was mixing with all sorts, pervs and quislings and folk of other faiths, so how would he answer the question?

But Jesus didn’t answer the question, or at least he didn’t give a straight answer. Instead he told a story. “One night a man was walking to town when he was attacked by some thugs. They beat him up, took his wallet and iPhone, then ran off, leaving him half-dead. A minister happened to be walking along the same road, but when he saw the man, he checked his watch and hurried past him. A priest followed a few minutes later (he and the minister had been at a conference on theological ethics). He also saw the man, left some change, but stepped around him. Then two strangers to the area, oddly dressed, came upon the man, and when they saw the state of him they were overwhelmed with pity and compassion. They held him in their arms, stopped the bleeding, called a cab, took him to a local public house, and stayed with him all night. The next morning, they gave the landlord £100. ‘Look after him,’ they said. ‘Call a chemist and get some bandages, Savlon, and Ibuprofen. We’ll be back in a few days and reimburse you for any extra expense.’ Now,” concluded Jesus, “who were the good guys?”

The youngster was nonplussed. “The ‘good guys’? What’s that got to do with getting eternal life?”

“I’ll get to that,” Jesus replied. “But first, answer my question.”

“Well, the minister and the priest – what denominations were they?”

“Who cares?” said Jesus.

“And were they born again?”

“Does it matter?” asked Jesus

“And those two other guys – are you sure they weren’t gay?”

“And if they were?” said Jesus.

“And why didn’t they call 999 for the cops and the paramedics?” the youngster continued his third degree. “Had they been drinking? Were they on drugs? They sound like foreigners. Were they migrants, even illegals?”

“What is this, a sketch from Life of Brian?” suggested Jesus.

“And the man who was mugged – where was he going, what was he doing? It all sounds very suspicious to me.”

“I …” began Jesus, quite flabbergasted.

“And …” interrupted the youngster.

“Look,” counter-interrupted Jesus, “Leviticus and Deuteronomy don’t have the last word on defining ‘neighbour’, and eternal life isn’t a matter of your church, theology, or religious experience, nor do you ‘get’ it, you live it, starting now, with simple human decency: being truthful and thoughtful, kind and generous, acting justly, practicing mercy – and not just to your own, to fellow citizens and co-religionists, but to anyone in need, especially strangers, whatever their ethnicity, faith, or sexuality. If they’re hurting, they’re your neighbour, and if you help them, you’re their neighbour. We are called to help even those who hate us, and one day you might find someone you hate helping you. Eternal life is another life, but it’s hidden in this life.”

“Well,” harrumphed the youngster, “I’ve heard enough. You’ve said nothing about getting saved. You’re clearly unsound.” But feeling sorry for Jesus, he added, “I’ll pray for you.” Then he handed Jesus a leaflet and started to walk away.

Suddenly, however, he stopped, as if struck by lightning. But the sky was blue, though a cottony cumulus cloud had just passed the sun, which winked, flashed, then glowed benignly, like a huge egg yolk, on the two people below. The young man turned around: “I’ll think about what you said.”
Jesus waved and picked up his fishing rod.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Sacrifice and atonement in Origen

Yesterday at the ANZATS conference in Melbourne I gave a paper on sacrifice and atonement in Origen (focusing on Origen's Homilies on Leviticus). This was an attempt to develop some of the ideas sketched out in my earlier paper on the patristic atonement model. It was a special pleasure to have O̶r̶i̶g̶e̶n̶ ̶h̶i̶m̶s̶e̶l̶f̶ John Behr in the audience. At the same conference Behr gave an amazing paper discussing his new critical edition and translation of Origen's First Principles (forthcoming from OUP – it includes a 40,000 word introduction!). Anyway here's an excerpt from the end of my paper on sacrifice:

So to return to Gustaf Aulén’s alternatives: was Christ’s sacrifice the propitiation of an angry God, or was it a ransom offered to the devil? Is Origen’s model proto-Anselmian, or is it proto-Lutheran (i.e. christus victor)? Generations of theologians have addressed patristic authors with this kind of anachronistic and untheological question. Once the question is posed in those terms any answer will be false and uninteresting, because the alternatives are both wrong. Both options assume that sacrifice has a predominantly negative function: it averts the wrath, or satisfies the demands, of higher powers. It is an unfortunate solution to an otherwise insoluble cosmic dilemma. But for Origen sacrifice is a matter of joy. It is done for the sake of God’s delight. It is a festive offering in which the whole of humanity acts with one heart and one mind through the agency of one high priest, Jesus Christ. The logic of sacrifice is not fear but love.

I admit that this does not look very much like a theory of salvation. But that is my point. Sacrificial language in early Christian theology tends to serve other purposes. It is not primarily soteriological. It is used not so much to answer the question, “How does Jesus save?”, but a different question: “What does the proper response to God look like?” Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus give an answer: the response to God looks like joy, like a holiday, like the transformation of all things into one enormous festival offered up for the delight of God.


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