Monday, May 15, 2017

The Cracking of Christendom: Semester 2 Unit at Pilgrim

The second unit I’ll be contributing to in semester 2 is ‘The Cracking of Christendom’. This is a dual church history/systematics unit which covers both historical and theological aspects of the Reformation. It will be taught in face-to-face mode on Tuesday nights, 6-8pm, at the Centre for Theology and Ministry, Parkville as well as being available for online enrolment. There could hardly be a better year to take this unit: the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. (Indeed, the final lecture will actually be on October 31st. I’m sure we’ll find some theses to nail to some doors that night.) The unit is a chance to explore why Christendom did suffer such deep cracks, whether they have healed, or even whether, in this post-Christendom age, they still matter.

The unit was developed by Katharine Massam and me and was first taught in 2015. In Katharine’s (sabbatical) absence, the historical dimensions will be covered by Kerrie Handasyde, one of Pilgrim’s Adjunct Faculty. The balance between theological and historical elements will be pretty much 50/50.

Kerrie will focus on the lived experience of the Reformation. When we look closely at this revolutionary time we see the source of so much of our present practice. The spaces where we worship are shaped by Reformation ideas about hearing the Word. So, we will ‘read’ church buildings and study the language and rising influence of preaching. With our own vocations, spirituality, and sacramental understandings in mind, we’ll look at Reformation ideas about the individual’s relationship to God and to the body of Christ. The liturgy, art and stories of the sixteenth century will aid reflection on the continuities (and the dissonances) with our own time.

I’ll be focusing on the doctrines of justification, scripture, and the sacraments.  I’ll do so in the mode enjoined in the Basis of Union: “The Uniting Church continues to learn from… the witness of the Reformers”. In other words, the purpose of engaging with the Reformers is not to repeat their theologies, but to learn from them in ways that might illuminate our contemporary witness to the faith. Of course, John Calvin will be one of the people from whom we learn. And among those from whom we’ll learn about Calvin will be Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson and feminist theologian Serene Jones; their shared enthusiasm for Calvin is striking and a little unexpected. Particular attention will be given to the Confessions which UCA ministers promise (ahem) at their ordination to read. Unsurprisingly the roots of some enduring protestant problems surrounding the authority and inspiration of scripture lie there. Surprisingly, so too do some solutions.  Of course, for the UCA, the Reformation heritage sits alongside that of Methodism, the emergence of which played its own later part in the ‘cracking of Christendom’. Accordingly we will also explore John Wesley’s key sermons on justification, scripture and the sacraments – including an assessment of his understanding of the ‘open table’. Is it relevant to today’s communion practice?

We will also engage some of the very lively contemporary discussion about the legacy of the Reformation, not least the widespread claims that the roots of the West’s current individualism and fragmentation lie in the Reformation. This will include a critical assessment of Brad Gregory’s recent, influential and controversial The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap, 2012).

For enrolment details contact the College Registrar at study@pilgrim.edu.au .











If you intend to enrol in this unit and would like some suggestions for preliminary reading, consider the following:

Donald McKim, Reformation Questions, Reformation Answers: 95 Key Events, People and Issues (Louisville: WJKP 2016). Just over a 100 pages, this is a little gem. Its short and pithy entries on the said ‘95 events, people and issues’ provide an excellent introduction to the basics of the Reformation.

Gillian Evans, The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture  2nd ed (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012). This is a more technical and expansive book than the above, but its various chapters are good points of entry into the many different aspects of the Reformation.



Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Theological Lessons From China

I spent 10 days last month doing research and a little bit of teaching at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary in China. This element of my sabbatical was made possible by UnitingWorld as part of the UCA’s ongoing relationship with the China Christian Council.  This was my fifth visit to the Seminary. As always, the experience of just being there is striking on multiple fronts: 300+ full-time students, the overwhelming majority of whom are under 30; generous hospitality from students and faculty (who are phenomenally busy combining academic and church responsibilities); insights into the remarkable growth of the Chinese church and the complex issues it faces; the deeply embedded place of theological education in the Chinese church.


The particular focus on this visit was to develop my understanding of the interest of Chinese theologians in cosmic Christology. In the context of my present writing project I am citing this as an example of doctrinal development in the churches of the global south. (Of course it is not absent from the global north, but there are issues in the global south which give it a particular edge in that context.) The prominent Bishop K.H. Ting (1915-2012) was well known for his interest in this doctrine. Another theologian whose work touched on this theme was Wang Weifan (1927-2015).

Weifan was a colleague of Ting at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary of which he was Dean. But his academic work followed early years as a pastor. He also spent 20 years in forced farm labour after being identified as a 'rightist'. (It is worth us Western theologians pausing to take in that sentence.) Recently he has come to the attention of the international theological community through references to his work in the third edition of David Ford’s The Modern Theologians and a scholarly article on his work by Alexander Chow in a 2016 issue of the international journal Modern Theology. There is also an extended account of his theology in Brill's 2016 Yearbook of Chinese TheologyIt was Chow’s writing on Weifan which first directed me to taking up this interest.

Weifan was not quite as explicitly engaged with the discourse of ‘cosmic Christology’ as Ting, but like Ting he had little interest in the reductionist Christologies of the West’s modern liberal theology. Also like Ting, he was insistent on the universal Lordship of Christ in both creation and redemption. This led to something that overlapped strongly with more explicit‘cosmic Christologies’. He is interesting also for the way he appropriated earlier, but almost forgotten, Chinese Christian theologies from the Tang (618-907) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. He draws attention to the uniqueness of the Chinese Christian experience in that it already has these ancient Chinese Christian sources, developed independently of Western theological trajectories, on which to draw.

A reconstructed image
 of a Chinese 
'Nestorian'Christ 

What the commentators on his work most usually mention is his development of the concept of shengsheng shen. It means something like ‘ever-generating God’ or even ‘life-birthing life’. He notes that the earlier Chinese Christians had drawn on this idea of ‘change’ (sheng) from the Book of Changes (I Ching) which had emerged in the Zhou dynasty (770-256 BCE)

I am still getting my head around these concepts and their history. Nevertheless, what has interested me most in the reading I have done (regrettably dependent, as I am, on the English translations) is what Weifan perceives to be at stake in the process of this sort of contextualization. What follows is a brief section on this theme from the first draft of what I trust will eventually emerge in the book.


Weifan is clear about what he understands is at issue in thus drawing on ancient Chinese concepts. He seeks to pursue “theological thinking which can be refined into a theology with Chinese characteristics [and thus allow] Chinese theology will guide the Chinese Church and Chinese believers through the process of modernization in China”. What is just as interesting, however, is what he says next: “...and make a fitting gift to the Church worldwide”.[1] The same point is made when he articulates the hope that such a theology “will be more easily appreciated and accepted by the sons and daughters of the yellow Emperor – and welcomed and treasured by the Church ecumenical”.[2] Clearly, this is not an attempt to develop a parochial Chinese theology. Indeed, Weifan was himself wary of some Chinese influences on Chinese Christian thought, notably the pressure of Confucianism to “lower the status of Christianity to that of an ordinary ethical system, ignoring its transcendent aspects.”[3]  Rather, he was attempting develop a Chinese theology that could take its place in the whole church. This raises an important issue with regard to the relationship between this proposal and received doctrine. Weifan is not an unqualified innovator. He draws explicitly on an earlier teaching of the Chinese church which had itself grown out of a Chinese interpretation of the biblical teaching of the lordship of Christ. Moreover, the reference to the Chinese concept is not part of any foundationalist project. His point about the earlier appropriation of this term is not that the God of Jesus Christ was pre-figured in the concept of sheng. [4] It is much more the case that this concept is used to illuminate an existing Christian belief. After all, in the Book of Changes (Zhou dynasty, 770-256 BCE) the concept of sheng was part of a process of divinization which “attempted to explore the hidden patterns of change in order to predict the future”.[5]  Manifestly, Weifan is not suggesting that either he himself or the earlier writers are wanting to appropriate divinization techniques of the Zhou dynasty into contemporary Chinese Christianity. Rather, the concept is given Christian meaning whilst aspects of its original meaning are being used to illuminate an existing Christian concept. By introducing it into Christian discourse he expands the range of resonances the confession of Jesus' lordship evokes.

I find this dynamic of his work fascinating and would welcome any comments or insights from those familiar with his theology.





[1] Weifan, “Chinese Theology and its Cultural Sources”, Chinese Theological Review 11 (1995), 45
[2] Weifan, “Chinese Theology ”, p.48.
[3] Wang Weifan, “The Word was here made flesh”, Chinese Theological Review 8 (1992), p 95.
[4] Certainly there are other Chinese theologians who do make foundationalist appeals to traditional Chinese religions and traditions. Wang Weifan is more subtle. For an overview of other Chinese developments of Comsic Christology see Tang, “The Cosmic Christ the search for a Chinese theology”, Studies in World Christianity 1 (1995): 131-142 (p. 132).
[5] Joachim Gentz, Understanding Chinese Religions (Edinburgh: Dunedin, 2013), 45.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Books Worth Reading (10): Rowan Williams' Being Disciples

Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life  (London: SPCK, 2016)

This is an excellent book. It is well worth reading, or, more precisely, well worth using.

As something of a sequel to his earlier Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (also a Book Worth Reading), this latest small book (just 87 pages) is another instance of Rowan Williams addressing some of the basic issues entailed in living as Jesus' disciples.  The book distills for us 'ordinary' Christians the somewhat unique combination of scholarship, pastoral insight and ecclesiastical leadership that Williams offers the whole church.

Each chapter was originally a lecture or presentation given to lay audiences whilst he was Archbishop of Canterbury. Although those presentations spanned a six year period and were given in various locations around the world, they have been combined quite seamlessly in this volume.

After an introductory chapter on the overall theme, Being Disciples, the following chapters explore five distinct but related themes: Faith, Hope and Love; Forgiveness; Holiness; Faith in Society; and Life in the Spirit. The writing is very accessible, at times quite beautiful, always to the point, and often unsettling. Each chapter starts with a reflection on a particular New Testament passage but then opens out into wider issues. Accompanying each chapter are some discussion-starter type questions.

The most useful way of providing a taste of this book, is to offer a short quotation from each chapter.

On 'Being Disciples' 
"Awareness, expectancy - all of this is bound up with the idea of the disciple as someone who follows. This listening awareness, this expectancy, presupposes following because it assumes that we are willing to travel to where the Master is, to follow where the Master goes. And, of course, in the Gospels, where the Master goes is very frequently not where we could have thought of going or would have wanted to go... Familiar and pious language, which we need to hear afresh as the chilling and sobering summons it really is" (p. 9f).

On 'Faith, Hope and Love' 
"[In] this sense of confusion and loss where our understanding is concerned, faith grows in its true meaning. It appears not as a system, a comprehensive answer to all our problems. It appears quite simply in the form of 'dependable relationship'... You realize when the signposts and landmarks have been taken aware there is a presence that does not let you go. And that is faith, I would say, in a very deeply biblical sense" (p.25).

On 'Forgiveness'
The person who asks forgiveness has renounced the privilege of being right or safe; she has acknowledged that she is hungry for healing, for the bread of acceptance and restoration to relationship. But equally the person who forgives has renounced the safety of being locked into the position of the offended victim. ... Both the giver and receiver of forgiveness have moved out of the safety zone; they have begun to ask how to receive their humanity as a gift" (p.40).

On 'Holiness'
"[T]here is no contrast, no tension really, between holiness and involvement in the world. On the contrary, the most holy, who is Jesus, is the most involved, most at the heart of human experience. And we really misunderstand the whole thing very seriously if we think that holiness means being defended from our own humanity or other people's humanity: quite the opposite." (p.50)

On 'Faith in Society'
"Christians...are not called to impose their vision on the whole of society. If they have a role in the political realm, it is that they will argue that the voice of faith should be heard clearly in the decision-making processes of society. The Christian disciple, in other words, does not campaign for political control...but for public visibility - for the capacity to argue for and defend their vision in the public sphere, to try and persuade both government and individuals that a better moral basis exists for ordering public life." (p. 71)

On 'Life in the Spirit'
"To be opened up [by the Spirit] is to discover joy: not happiness, not a transient feeling of euphoria, or feeling it's basically all right in a kind of shoulder-shrugging way, but joy - the sense that we are connected with something so real that it will break every boundary or container we try to confine it in, a sense of something overflowing, pushing outwards." (p.85).


I said at the outset that it is more precise to speak of 'using' this book rather than 'reading' it. I hope these cameo quotes indicate why this is so. I'm sure any study or discussion group which chose to use this book would not be disappointed.


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This occasional series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.



Thursday, April 20, 2017

Blainey and Carroll as guest lecturers in Culture, Beliefs and Theology

Culture, Beliefs and Theology: Semester 2, two-part Intensive
18-20 August and 6-7 October  
Centre for Theology and Ministry, Parkville

My sabbatical has now passed the half way mark. This means that as well as being very conscious of what is yet to be done, I'm  also looking ahead to my teaching in Semester 2. I'll be teaching in 3 units. I'll devote a blog to each over the next few days. This one: Culture Belief and Theology. This is the second iteration of this unit; it was first offered in 2015 when I taught it in tandem with my colleague Katharine Massam. (Check out the video links below with recommendations from the 2015 students.)

The unit is oriented to tapping into the ways God, salvation, Jesus, faith etc are being talked about in our culture but independently of the church and outside conventional theological disciplines and institutions. At the same time, it is not an engagement with generic 'religious' or 'spiritual' trends in society. Rather, it engages  with the ways people (be they friends, allies or foes of the faith) are talking specifically about Christianity. Nor is is classical apologetics; it is aimed, instead, at learning how to begin forming a theological imagination in ways sparked by the wisdom and challenges contained in these other voices.

I'm especially pleased that this year two leading Australian intellectuals will be participating as guest lecturers. Geoffrey Blainey will be giving a lecture on his A Short History of Christianity, a book written for the historically-interested person  who has no personal investment in the faith. John Carroll, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at La Trobe university, is an agnostic who has written extensively on the significance of Jesus for contemporary Western culture. He will be lecturing about this theme, especially as he developed it in his The Existential Jesus.

Participants in this class will therefore have the opportunity to engage these two leading thinkers about their take on Christianity and be helped to engage their insights with the tools of Christian theology.

We'll also engage (albeit not in person) comedians, writers, artists, social commentators, politicians and journalists as they write, draw and joke about Christianity. Catherine Deveny, Tony Abbott and Elizabeth Farelly all get a look in.  And in another new development this year, we'll also explore Mona Siddiqui's Christians, Muslims and Jesus - an important Islamic account of the significance of Jesus. If you're interested in the theological issues at stake in the interface between Christianity and the wider culture, then this unit warrants checking out.

And be sure to watch two students from the 2015 class speak about their experience of the unit and what they learnt from it. One is a UCA chaplain at Macquarie University in New South Wales, the other a teacher in a Catholic School in rural Victoria.

For enrollment details contact Pilgrim's Registrar at study@pilgrim.edu.au


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

How is 'bullshit' the 'perfect' response?

I didn't see last night's Q&A, but it didn't take long scrolling through Facebook and Twitter this morning to know what had generated the most conversation. Professor Margaret Somerville, an anti-Euthanasia advocate, was engaged with an 81-year old proponent of euthanasia. Somerville  argued that how an individual dies is a matter for society. The 81 year-old dismissed that with the assertion that choosing how and when to die is nothing whatsoever to do with society (although it does have something to do with family) and to suggest otherwise is 'bullshit'.

Now, I reckon you could make a pretty strong argument that the fact that proponents of voluntary euthanasia are making public arguments for a change in the law is a pretty good indication that the question of how people die is a matter for society. If you want to change the law of the land, it is a matter for society because the law is a social matter. This is true regardless of whatever position you take on the legalising of euthanasia.

But what was most alarming was the celebration of the dismissive 'bullshit' comment. BuzzFeedOzPolitics headlined it as the 'perfect' response. Even Tony Jones suggested it was 'refreshing' - the word that found it's way into the headline of the The Australian's review of the programme. One Tweeter celebrated it as evidence that old people aren't stupid!! Surely, it was, instead, a classic case of refusing to engage with someone who holds a view different from your own. And that's worth celebrating?





Then as I kept watching, I discovered that later in the program there was an excellent segment about whether we were becoming less tolerant of views we disagree with. (Check it out at the 45:37 mark.) There were really sensible comments from Billy Bragg and Penny Wong about the importance of exposing ourselves to contrary views. That's the bit of last night's programme that really is worth watching and celebrating - no bullshit. 




Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Books Worth Reading (9): The Songs of Jesse Adams by Peter McKinnon


The Songs of Jesse Adams (Melbourne: Acorn, 2014)

The Songs of Jesse Adams is a contemporary allegory of the New Testament story of Jesus. Well, ‘contemporary’ inasmuch as it is set in 1960s Melbourne. We see the Jesus figure appearing at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl and meeting up with associates in Nicholson and Lygon Streets. We see the political, media and religious leaders doing their conspiring in Spring Street. Echoes of Henry Bolte and his ilk resound across the story. Readers are invited to imagine the front page of the Sun News-Pictorial – the original morning half of what has now become the Herald Sun. And AFL tragics get to be reminded of the ’Roys at the Brunswick Street Oval. There are also forays to Sydney and the moral ambiguities of King’s Cross. And Byron Bay gets included as well. Yes, something the hippie scene of 1960s Australia is part of the background to this Jesus figure, Jesse Adams.

The book is written by Melbournian, Peter McKinnon – a friend and fellow member of Brunswick Uniting Church. Peter is a trained psychologist, and this is evident in the way he develops the characters in this book. All the characters are believable and have, well, character. Peter also writes with a deft literary touch and creative flair, but the creativity is never indulged or allowed to slip into exaggeration. The allegorical parallels are teasing - obvious enough but sufficiently different to keep the reader on his or her toes. There’s a definite familiarity, but not so much so that you know exactly what the next turn in the plot will be.

But to the story. Jesse Adams is a talented musician who has grown up on a Victorian farm. As a young man he heads to the big smoke to pursue his musical dreams. But it turns out there are other dreams as well which are driving him. A certain eccentricity, or deeper calling, disorients both him and also, more deeply, those who gradually gather around him: other musicians, entrepreneurs, friends, journalists, fans and his puzzled (but not entirely surprised) mother. There is, as the saying goes, something about him. He eludes categories.

Jesse’s wilderness experience was in the dunes near Port Phillip Bay’s ‘The Rip’. He arrives there uncertain, hungry, homeless and confused. He is protected by local indigenous men who, in some deep, spiritual way, “were in touch with what was happening to him”.

He attends a teenage wedding. His mother tells him that the motel has mucked up and there is no champagne for the toasts. Jesse organises, not for water to become wine, but beer to become champagne. There’s some nodding and winking that invites you into the mystery. There’s no rationalising of how it happened.

Jesse pursues his calling, playing his music around the town. His popularity grows – but not just for his music, but also for this something else that accompanies and drives him. He gets a big gig at the Raspberry Hill music festival. Music gives way to a summons to the tens of thousands hanging on his music and his words: “The world’s a dark place…  You can be the light… Be the revolution. If the bloke beside you needs a shirt, give him yours – give him two…”  You get the drift.

He heads to King’s Cross, befriends a young girl about whom he knows more than she would like him to know. She’s trapped by the local porn movie business. Incensed by what it has done to her, he seeks out the theatre during a showing. He discovers various respectable authorities exercising their hypocrisy,  pulls the plug on the projector, turns everything and everyone upside down, runs off with the projector and heaves it into the El Alamein fountain. There were, however, too many of those respectable people with all their connections at that theatre for this not to get him into big trouble. The powers that be begin to marshal their forces against him.

Still, concerts and gigs follow. Music is the medium of his message; it’s the point of connection with the cultural ferment pervading the nation. It’s also the platform that gives him an audience. Then there’s the anti-Vietnam war Moratorium. The crowd hear that he’s at the march – they demand he be given the stage. He took it. He called the crowd to follow his way as the alternative to war. The crowd begins to demur: is this about Vietnam or about Jesse Adams? He’s the guest speaker at the Lord’s Mayor dinner, but provokes a walkout of all those finely-dressed dignitaries with his straight talking. He walks up  to  Spring Street, invites himself in to the parliamentary chamber, and predicts that "this house will be destroyed and a new one rise in its place".

The conspirators can take little more. A darkness begins to descend on the story – a climax approaches. He’s set up. Being interviewed on national television, he is presented with a photo of him offering a healing  touch to young girl. Yes, he had his hand on her leg – that was the touch of healing.  But now, before the nation, it’s evidence that he’s a paedophile.  But, at the same time, because he doesn’t have a girlfriend, he’s ‘accused’ of being gay. So, from hero to figure of scandal and suspicion.  

But Jesse and his associates also knew a thing or two about the conspiratorial authorities – too much for their own good. They knew about corruption that was rotting the core of society. And they knew who was running it. Therefore, humiliation on television wasn’t enough. He had to be eliminated, and on a dark inner-suburban street he was. He’s gone – until, though, there was a series of ‘appearances’ to those who had known him: weird, suspicious, unbelievable, disorienting but somehow real.  Jesse may have been killed but not vanquished.

This bare summary doesn’t do justice to the richness of the plot and its various subplots which weave their way through the book. The threads of the plot outlined here don’t reveal the complexity of Jesse’s own character, the depth of his relationships, or the volatility and range of the reactions he provoked. It’s an absorbing and enticing story.

What might we make of this as the allegory it seeks to be?  For me, the great value of this particular narrative is how well it captures, allegorically, the puzzling nature of Jesus. For all the familiarity (at least to Melburnians) of the setting, and even the familiarity of some of the causes (e.g. opposition of Vietnam war, or the rage against corruption), Jesse is never predictable. He consistently eludes the categories in which people try to place him: political and religious. People are no sooner drawn to him than they are confused by him.

In that regard, this is a very timely telling of the story. Christian faith has managed to domesticate Jesus in so many ways that the New Testament narratives of Jesus have often ceased to be of much interest to Christians themselves, let alone to non-Christians.  Unless we Christians allow ourselves to be puzzled by Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament, and resist the urge to stifle our questions with familiarity, we are likely to lose interest in the faith’s own central, pivotal figure. Jesse Adams supported all the right causes – but over and above that he presented himself. Yes, this self-presentation was often cryptic and disorienting. But perhaps that’s why those who were closest to him couldn’t quite let him go
.
The Australian church has had minimal success in generating much interest in Jesus. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the church itself to rediscover Jesus for his own sake and for the sake of those seeking and questing. The Songs of Jesses Adams could well be an effective conversation starter to kick start that rediscovery.  


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This (very occasional) series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.




Sunday, March 5, 2017

Books Worth Reading (8): Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri


Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of  a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)
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The very first piece of reading my PhD supervisor gave me to read – now some twenty-five years ago – was an essay from the then current issue of Modern Theology, “A Certain Politics of Speech:  Religious Pluralism in the Age of the McDonald’s Hamburger” by Kenneth Surin.  It was an exhilarating read. Political, theological, historical and philosophical arguments were mounted to deconstruct the concept of religious pluralism, and to expose it as the somewhat blunt construct of Western-based intellectual traditions that it is. His thesis was not new, but its presentation was captivating. The category of 'religion' and its plural 'religions' emerged as the West encountered and decided to classify traditions that had some overlap with Christianity. Whilst once used to demonstrate that Christianity was the 'true' or 'best' religion it gave way to proposals for the equality of all religions. Yet, the category could never be extracted from Western assumptions that had invented it. This issue has remained a side interest of mine over the years.
Maintaining this interest has involved trying to keep tabs on what is in effect a minor publishing industry. Surin himself was already drawing on Wilfred Cantwell Smith's seminal 1964 work, The Meaning and End of Religion. Australian scholars Philip Almond and Peter Harrison contributed, respectively, The British Discovery of Buddhism (1988) and 'Religion' and the Religions in the English Enlightenment  (1990). In 1998 Daniel Dubuisson published The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge and Ideology and in 2005 there appeared Tomoko Maxuzawa's The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Harrison's The Territories of Science and Religion (2015) is also relevant, although more broadly oriented (and the subject of an earlier blog post). My inclination has been to believe that this entire line of enquiry has rendered the concept of religion so fragile and intellectually compromised that its continued use is testimony to the power of intellectual and cultural convention.
One of the interesting features of Brent Nongbri's recent contribution to this area of scholarship, however, is that, whilst making his own contribution to exposing the ideologies behind the concept of 'religion', he presents a case for the continued use of the term. I'll summarise a couple of his key contributions before picking up his argument for continuing to use the term 'religion'.

He demonstrates that prior to the invention of 'religion', the various traditions and ways of life had their own concepts, strategies, and ideologies by which they described themselves and, indeed, how they assessed and categorised alternative traditions and ways of life. But Nongbri also demonstrates how these earlier and diverse ways of negotiating identity and difference have largely been obscured by the modern conceptual dominance of 'religion'. This dominance is seen very clearly in the  translation of key terms in Christian and Islamic texts. Latin's religio, Greek's threskia, and Arabic's din and umma have often been rendered as 'religion' in modern translations, thus absorbing these ancient texts into a specifically modern (and therefore Western) conceptual apparatus which flattens out their differences. He shows how in their original contexts each of these words carries a broad range of reference (variously legal, moral, ethnic, liturgical) that calls  this modern translation practice into question. In sum: "Those aspects of life covered by these  terms (social order, law, etc.) fall outside the idealized, private, interior realm associated with the modern concept of religion. Translating these terms as 'religion' or conceptualising any particular individual ancient religio, threskia or din as 'a religion' is thus bound to be a misleading practice" (p.45).
He also demonstrates with his own examples the now familiar view that a certain Christian bias enters even the attempts to resist Christian superiority. A case in point from the seventeenth century is Lord Herbert's 'common notions' of religion which tried to establish some 'original', 'natural' or 'universal' form of religion. So for Herbert, "Christianity is just another form of the original religion". But as Nongbri notes, although Herbert was "interested in showing that all religions are at a basic level good religions,...his criteria for what constitutes 'good' and what constitutes 'religion' are very much indebted to the Christianity of his day" (p.95). Moreover, this is equally the case in describing the negative aspects of religion. He refers to how Herbert takes then contemporary critiques of priesthood (drawn from particular debates internal to Western Christendom) and imposes them on other 'religions' to demonstrate their  alleged deviant forms - as if priesthood was always and everywhere what it is in Christianity (and always and everywhere corrupts in the same way it does in Christianity)! He traces the impact of such intellectual strategies on the creation of  the category and academic discipline of 'World Religions'. On this issue he quotes Jonathan Z. Smith: "It is impossible to escape the suspicion that a world religion is simply a religion like ours..." (p. 129).
A similar practice emerges when looking back to the so-called religions of antiquity (and this is Nongbri's key focus). This once again involves the imposition of a modern construct on diverse patterns of ancient life and belief. He makes this point very sharply and is worth quoting at length:
If we want to go on talking about ancient Mesopotamian religion, ancient Greek religion, or any other ancient religion, we should always bear in mind that we are talking about something modern when we do so. We are not naming something any ancient person would recognize.... Religion is a modern category. It may be able to shed light on some aspects of the ancient world when applied in certain strategic ways, but we have to be honest about the category's origins and not pretend that it somehow organically and magically arises from our sources. If we fail to make this reflexive move, we turn our ancient sources into well-polished mirrors that show us only ourselves and our own institutions (p. 153).
So, is it valid to go on using the term and indeed even to regard 'religion' as a valid field of study? In giving an affirmative answer to this question, Nongbri insists that 'religion' must be used not as a descriptive concept, but as a redescriptive concept. As such it could be used as second-order category of analysis. He suggest that so used, we would learn to ask not, 'Is X a religion?' but something like: "Can we see anything new and interesting about phenomenon X by considering it, for the purpose of study, as a religion?" (p. 155).
This is a very good book and, although dealing with some quite technical arguments, it is highly readable. I'm sure that anyone interested in the study of religion, the ideologies of religious pluralism or, more broadly, the history of ideas, would find it well worth reading.
*****
This (very occasional) series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.
*****


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Insights from India

I recently spent three weeks in India. Apart from a few days being a tourist in New Delhi, I spent my time first at the Mar Thoma Theological Seminary (MTTS) in Kottayam and then at the United Theological College (UTC) in Bangalore. At both places I was the recipient of extraordinary hospitality, both from Faculty members and students. I don't say this lightly, since I know that visiting academics always require time and effort from the locals. At both institutions this time and effort were given generously and for that I am immensely grateful. Particular mention to R.D. Sahayadhas, Shiby Varughese, Santosh Kumar, Allan Palana, George Zechariah, Prakash George, Jibu James and Lethin Joseph.

Spending time in India was a planned part of my sabbatical project, i.e.,  writing the book on Christian Doctrine in Bloomsbury's 'Guides for the Perplexed' Series. My approach is not simply to write an overview of Christian doctrines, but to address what exactly Christian doctrinal discourse is, what forms it takes, and the roles it performs in the life and witness of the church - not least in the face of the enormous theological diversity which characterises the world church. If, as conventionally understood, one of doctrine's roles is to be an identity marker of Christianity, then this diversity throws up particular challenges. Of course, doctrinal diversity and change have always been issues in the church and have received all sorts of critical reflection over the centuries. In the present context, however, the debate about diversity, change and constancy has taken on a sharper political edge in the light of the power issues at stake in the relationship between the theological traditions of the West and those of the now majority churches of the Global South. So, it was important for me personally, and for the project, to familiarise myself, even in some small way, with the conversations, issues and themes in one part of the non-Western church. (I hope to engaging in similar way with theologians in China later in the sabbatical.) What follows are just a few of my reflections - and some highlights of the reading list I have come home with!

I had long heard about the ancient presence of Christianity in India with the legend that Thomas (the apostle) brought the Christian message to the existing Jewish community in coastal south-western India as early as AD52. (Historians, suspicious of the legend's early date, nevertheless acknowledge a reliable claim to the existence of the church in India possibly as early as the end of the second century. And there is evidence (albeit disputed) of the presence of the 'Bishop of Persia and India' at the Council of Nicea in 325! For an account of the history of this church go here.) My time Mar Thoma Theological Seminary, however, was my first direct encounter with this community. I enjoyed being a welcomed participant in the services in the Seminary chapel. During one Eucharist, I was struck listening to an all-male rendition of Charles Wesley's 'O For a Thousand Tongues' in a liturgy which had already easily switched between English, Syriac and Malayalam in a liturgical structure inherited from Syriac sources!

The main entrance to MTTS
The relationship between context and tradition in this church is, unsurprisingly, fascinating. I saw this first hand at a seminar on Ecclesiology and Context held whilst I was there. The sources drawn on in this discussion ranged from contemporary Dalit Theologians, the mid-twentieth-century Indian theologians such as M.M. Thomas, and Syriac Fathers such Ephrem and Aphrahat. To a large extent the dynamics of this internal conversation were somewhat opaque to me as a visitor. But the capacity to negotiate between authoritative ancient voices and contemporary Indian ecclesiological, missional and political themes was salutary, even enviable. What was of particular interest was to hear Indian theologians entering the discussion between respective Eastern and Western  views of history and eschatology. Through their appropriation of the Syriac tradition, they occupy a space largely unfamiliar to those of who work with much blunter definitions of East and West. Moreover, this was no abstract discussion. It led directly to discussions about liturgy and mission.

The UTC logo based on Mark 10:45
UTC is a somewhat different institution. It is an ecumenical theological college, drawing faculty and students from a broad range of Indian churches. As with MTTS, it is a college of Serampore College (India's first University). It is a well-resourced institution with a large faculty (20+), a high-quality library and and a range of accommodation facilities (the college is fully residential and every year has to turn away the many applicants who exceed the 200 or so it can accept!). As at Kottayam, I had the opportunity to share two papers, "Doctrinal Change and Constancy in a Global Church" and "Baptism, Eucharist and the Kingdom". The first provided an opportunity to discuss the place of context and tradition in Indian theology. Alongside issues of Dalit Theology and Tribal Christianity which I knew would be on the agenda, I also got a sense of the impact of Hindu nationalism on the mood of the church and the task of theology. This was more significant than I had been anticipating. The latter provided the opportunity for conversations about anti-conversion laws (obviously not unrelated to the nationalist agenda) and re-baptism (which, as in the West, has become an issue with the increasing impact of charismatic and Pentecostal churches on the more 'mainline' Indian churches). I was able to attend the daily chapel services conducted by the students and got some sense of the seriousness, even intensity, of their theological engagement with the issues confronting  the Indian church and society. At UTC, too, I was struck by the ease with which faculty and students were able to move between different Christian theological traditions and the present demands of gospel proclamation. What we in Australia often experience as more defined theological fault lines seems a little more porous in India.

I am still absorbing all that this means for my project, and I have come away with some key readings to help me. Below are a few key texts:


The title of R. Sahayadas' 2016 significant work is itself tantalilsing: Hindu Nationalism and the Indian  Church: Towards an  Ecclesiology in Conversation with Martin Luther. Although I have yet to engage the book at length, it presents as a key example of the ability I noted above of moving between traditions towards a constructive proposal for the contemporary Indian church.





In both Kottayam and Bangalore I was told about the work of Y.T. Vinayaraj and advised that he is one of the emerging key figures in Indian theology. Drawing on post-colonial theory his interests appear to be focused on developing a ecclesiology of marginality and 'manyness'. In fact, he is rather dismissive of the the more usual rhetoric of unity-in-diversity as too politically neutral. He argues the the concept of 'manyness' or 'multitude' "does not mean unity-in-diversity or commonality..., rather it is shared solitude, a set of relationships without a single essence". I've already made an attempt at analysing Vinayraj's poststructuralist doctrine of God in the light of Trinitarian arguments in an article that will be published later this year in the Mar Thoma Theological Journal. This particular 2015 book, Intercessions: Theology, Liturgy and Politics is a collection of nine essays exploring postcolonial theory, radical ecclesiology and ecumenism.

This pair of volumes is produced by the Board of Theological Education of the Senate of Serampore College as texts which introduce students to Indian theological writers. The first thing to strike me about these complementary volumes is their title: Christian Theology: Indian Conversations. This embodies the issue I am working through in my own project. In this world of so many theologies, can we still speak of Christian theology? I look forward to engaging how the various contributors to these books (respectively about Dogmatic Themes and Contextual Issues) understand themselves as both Christian and Indian theologians and how they perceive the relationship between diversity and unity in theological work.

So, it was a great three weeks, I'll be working through all the issues I engaged and the lessons learn for a great many more weeks. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Task of Dogmatics: Thoughts on LATC2017

I spent Thursday and Friday of last week at Biola University, Los Angeles, attending the fifth annual LA Theology Conference. The theme was 'The Task of Dogmatics'. Here are a few observations.

  • Kevin Vanhoozer opened the conference with a very Vanhoozerian tour de force under the title, "'Can I get a witness?' Analytics, Poetics, and the Mission of Dogmatics". The paper explored the question of where dogmatics exists on the spectrum between analytics and poetics. I appreciated how he pointed out the reality of poetics (with some good historical examples) within dogmatics  and then his appeal to Charles Taylor's use of the 'social imaginary'. He spoke of the 'dogmatic imaginary' - which I think he was proposing as a kind of norm which guides the diverse work of contemporary dogmatics. I wondered whether the appeal to Taylor might have suggested a different set of imaginaries, say a 'gospel imaginary' and an 'ecclesial imaginary' to which the work of dogmatics would be accountable (rather than to its own imaginary). I realise that much depends here on the nature of the analogy drawn with Taylor's idea.

  • I know that for me, and for at least quite a few others, the highlight of the conference was Katherine Sonderegger's "A lamp unto our feet". It was one of the most compelling instances I have ever witnessed of rigorous theological thinking presented in the most gentle, gracious and inviting style. (The published conference papers will be worth purchasing for this paper alone.) Noting, with Augustine's help, the sheer strangeness of the biblical material, she noted the cultural reality that the "days when the Bible is not met with offense have gone". This allows us freshly to grasp its uniqueness: it is non-naturalised; it cannot be identified with anything else; it cannot be wholly described by any other category. So, "The Bible is strongly unique and in just this way it stands at the beginning of all our theology". And it is for this reason, i.e., that it doesn't fit any category, it demands - rather than suppresses - our intellect, our humility, and our openness to the mystery of revelation. I couldn't help but reflect on Professor Sonderegger's emphasis on the Bible's uniqueness and the use of the word 'unique' in the description of the Bible in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia. Its use in that context still invites much reflection.

  • Not far behind Sonderegger's paper in my own appreciation was Douglas Harink's (elective) paper, "The abiding power of Romans for Dogmatics". After giving a brief historical overview of how the structure of Romans has shaped the doctrinal structure of Christian dogmatics, Harink posed the question whether this history had been brought to an end by the New Perspective readings of Paul and therefore of Romans. His qualified answer was 'not necessarily'. There is still a structure to Romans that addresses the metanarrative of Christian faith, but the theological shift in the New Perspective readings has been from an anthropological to theological orientations of Romans and this must shape the dogmatic use of Romans. The challenge to systematic theologians who draw on Romans will be to read creation and redemption theocentrically and messianically. Harink suggested that he already sees this tendency in the work of John Howard Yoder. I wondered whether we also see it in Moltmann, especially his The Way of Jesus: Christology in Messianic Dimensions.

  • Another fine, and superbly-crafted, paper was that of Michael Allen, "Dogmatics as Ascetics".  The substance of the paper was a comparison of the ascetic impulses in both Sarah Coakley and the late John Webster. Allen outlined his appreciation for the way both theologians treat theology as a work of self-criticism, renunciation and destabilisation. As such, theology is properly a contemplative task, and one that itself engenders contemplation. Allen argued that the ascetic element was more strongly grounded in Webster than in Coakley. He proposed that Coakley located theological self-criticism in the human capacities of the theologian whereas Webster placed this in the reality of the Triune God who cannot be mastered. Personally, I thought there was more room for Coakley and Webster to complement each other (or to be appropriated in complementary ways) than to be contrasted as sharply as they were in Allen's account. Nevertheless, his treatment of the general theme of 'dogmatics and ascetics' was full of insight.


  • A particular highlight was to meet Josh, a Pentecostal pastor of a largely Hispanic congregation north of LA. He came to the conference because, after reading Sonderegger's Sytematic Theology last year, he wanted to hear her in person. This was not the only reading he did last year. He had also been reading Jame's Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree and a whole range of Russian novels. In conversation he relayed how he disciplines himself to such reading precisely for the sake of his ministry and for deepening his preaching. He had some fascinating - not to say inspiring - insights into the links between critical theology and pastoral ministry.

The general tenor and theological orientation of the conference was more self-consciously Reformed than I had anticipated. I was left wondering how the inclusion  of Catholic and Orthodox voices amongst the plenary speakers might have differently shaped the conversation about 'The Task of  Dogmatics'. Similar wondering was suggested by the absence of non-Western voices. To be fair, Kevin Vanhoozer pressed the claims of non-Western theologians at a couple of strategic points during the conference. These ecumenical and cultural limitations were echoed in the striking gender imbalance of both the speakers and participants. My guess would be that the male majority in the conference overall would have been around 8:1. Even as one who inhabits a male-dominated academic discipline, it was a long time since I have participated in an ecclesial or theological gathering where the gender balance was as acutely skewed as it was at this one.

Despite these concerns, I'm extremely glad I went. It was as well-organised a conference as you could hope; the standard of scholarship and discussion was very high; the general mood was very friendly. And, as usual, the lunch-time and over-coffee conversations were often as significant for one's learning as the papers themselves. I know that the conference has very helpfully fed my current project on Christian doctrine.

Judging by even the plenary speakers, next year's conference promises to be less susceptible to the gender and ecumenical limitations I mentioned above. With Frances Young, Megan DeFranza, Marc Cortez, Hans Madueme, and Ian McFarland tackling the theme of 'Theological Anthropology', it is sure to generate deep and spirited discussions. With Young and DeFranza I would imagine that the discussion of anthropology will be brought into close association with disability and sexuality. Look out for further details at the conference website.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Sabbatical Sojourns

One of the great privileges of academic life is that of sabbatical (or study) leave. The Board of my college has granted me the next six months as sabbatical. The major task is to complete the book, Christian Doctrine: A Guide for the Perplexed.  This is part of the Bloomsbury series of such guides. The contract requires me to finish the manuscript by January 31st 2018. The aim is to get the first draft completed by the end of the sabbatical.

The book won't be (yet another) introduction to Christian doctrines. Its main focus is actually on the question how doctrine functions in the church and, indeed, beyond the church (as part of the church's public witness). My short answer is that the overarching function, amidst its specific functions of teaching, apologetics, pastoral care etc, is that it helps to form the church's social imaginary.

But an equally strong focus of this particular book will be how the answer to that question is shaped by the realities of the theological and cultural diversity of the global church. This is a particularly contemporary challenge given the historical dominance of the Western tradition of doctrine shaping Christianity's social imaginary. For me this is not best addressed, however, by trading off Western traditions against non-Western traditions. I'm more interested in how these traditions are together shaped by and give shape to the church's emering doctrinal tradition - and how they find some unity around shared convictions about the living God.

To this end, I'm spending time over the next month engaging very intentionally with some particular examples  of both traditions. This week  I'm attending the LA Theology Conference at Biola University where I'll get to hear, among others, Katherine Sonderegger and Kevin Vanhoozer.  Then after a short stay back at home I'll be heading to India for several weeks where I'll be spending time at both the Mar Thoma Orthodox Seminary in Kottayam and then the United Theological College in Bangalore. I'll be given a paper to colleagues at both institutions on, 'Doctrinal Change and Constancy in a Global Church'.  Later in the sabbatical I'll be giving a similar paper to colleagues at Nanjing Theological Seminary. I'm really looking forward to the responses and insights from the Indian and Chinese colleagues.  For the outcome of all this look out for the book sometime in 2018!