Thursday, July 2, 2015

ANZATS 2015: A Life Worth Living

The theme, A Life Worth Living, stimulated lots of diverse reflections at this week's annual ANZATS conference. In his keynote addresses Scott Stephens addressed the complex history of the ideological intersections of political theory, communication, media, and the body. Electives provided opportunities to explore the theme from the perspectives of biblical studies, philosophy, ethics, doctrine. Below are some of the tweets which emerged during the week.  It's a pretty random collection, but it gives an insight into the various lines of discussion and debate. Most are reporting what was said either in the keynotes or the electives.

  • Scott Stephens  beginning with refs to Lord of the Rings. 'A Life Worth Living'. Tolkein as catechetist (@mlindsay_mark)
  • Devaluing of religions symbols does not build better societies, but removes quest for meaning (@edutheol)
  • 'The greatest critic of Twitter was Soren Kierkegaard' - Scott Stephens. Can't wait to unpack that one! (@mlindsay_mark)
  • Media is as susceptible to vainglory as it is resistant to criticism (@gtsystheol)
  • Moral difference between being silent, and reflecting and deliberating. Because when one speaks they become responsible.(@garagetakai)
  • Australians generally have shown a lack of interest in theology (and theological education) in their own country” Geoff Treloar (@edutheol)
  • 'What has the Trinity ever done for us?' Margaret Campbell, on Tanner, with apologies to Monty Python (@mlindsay_mark)
  • Our value systems are not static but dynamic and is intended for community - Peter Laughlin (@ChristyCapper)
  • It's the abnormal and grotesque that make other countries newsworthy. Scott Stephens  (@Centressrs)
  • The gym as sweaty Pelagianism - Theologian Sarah Coakley via Scott Stephens (@Centressrs)
  • The Levinasian face doesn't mean anything. You can't love the other unless you can smell them - Zizek quoted by Stephens
  • Athanasius: Christ comes to re-sit as the life model for the portrait of humanity. Quoted by Christy Capper (@edutheol)
  • Modern mind is made of 3 parts: pride ignorance and sloth; & joined by 1 principle: the blind acceptance of unreasoned authority (@garagetakai)
  • Lynne Taylor investigates what new Xns say about the process of becoming Xns. Welcome move to listen to their voice.(@gtsystheol)
With thanks to @mlindsay_mark,@edutheol, @garagetakai, @Centress, @ChristyCapper .

And note the final #ANZATS2015 tweet: @mlindsay_mark Introduces ANZATS2016 -- Melbourne @ @ Theme: Atonement. Start Sunday night.(@edutheol). The keynote speaker will be Serene Jones from Union Theological Seminary.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Learning from UCA Origins: Survival strategy or God's will for unity and mission?

Recently I was preparing a short chapter on the tradition of Reformed Theology in Australia and New Zealand for a forthcoming book. In my background reading I came across a chapter on Presbyterianism in Australia in the book, Engaging with Calvin (2009). It included the following explanation of the roots of the Uniting Church.

By the 1960s it was clear that the Presbyterian Church, along with all the major Protestant denominations, was in decline. The number of Presbyterians in Australia had slipped from a high of 11.72% in 1921 to 9.29% of the population in 1961. This would drop to 6.64% in 1976. Decreasing numbers of migrants from Scotland intensified the problem, but the influence of liberal theology was also a factor.  ... The answer for many in the Presbyterian Church was for the denomination to unite with the  Congregationalist and Methodist. Thus the Uniting Church came into being in 1977. (1)

The 'Thus' of the last sentence is deeply problematic. In fact, it badly misrepresents the story of union. No doubt, people supported union for all sorts of reasons. It would be naïve to think that all who entered union did so for the neatly argued theological reasons proposed by the Joint Commission on Church Union. Undoubtedly some people supported union because they perceived it as a means of survival. (In fact, as in all elections, there were probably some people who voted for union by ticking the wrong box!) So, yes, there were multiple reasons for union. But whatever the reasons, it is important to note the 'official' arguments and their social context, and the relation between them. One of the authors of the Basis of Union, Norman Young, did this in an article published in Pacifica in 2012He compares the social location of the churches now with what it was when union was being planned.

Norman Young
 Given the decline of membership in all Australian mainline churches in recent decades, one of the motives for union could have been to join forces in the face of dwindling recourses. However, this was not the case in the 1950s, for then the churches were in a period of expansion (short-lived at it turned out to be), due in some measure to the response to a Billy Graham campaign and to 'planned-giving' programmes that led to expanding existing church buildings, and erecting new ones. Thus the move toward union did not arise from any perceived weakness in membership, but at least on the part of most, simply from the need to obey God's will that followers of Christ should be one, ...(2)

Of course, these arguments for union were developed during the late 1950s and into the 1960s. And the quest for unity was inseparable from a commitment to mission (as made so clear in the Basis). And, in turn, the commitment to mission was inseparable from a prior commitment to the gospel.

By the time union actually happened (1977), the social context had changed and it had changed in ways the impact of which reaches deeply into the present. John Evans captures the issue very well:
Unfortunately for the new church the perception soon arose that it was formed out of weakness and begrudging necessity rather than being a vital and enthusiastic expression of the unity of the church in Australia. It came at a time when church attendance showed a marked decline and the role and place of the church itself was being questioned. (3)
It is that dramatic 1970s shift in the place of Christianity in Australia that has, potentially, obscured from us the arguments for union and its link to mission. Union was not survival strategy.  Nor was it the cause of declining numbers and changing role.

A danger in our present context of marginality is that local unions or amalgamations will be overwhelmed by the impulse for survival. Survival is good if it sustains and nurtures the church's proclamation of the gospel. But on its own it not a sound theological basis for bringing congregations together. And if a church has got to the point of thinking about its survival apart from a concern for mission, it might, in fact, have reached the point of no return. As Steve Taylor recently commented on Facebook (and quoted here with permission): "The church in the West is increasingly interested in mission. If this is related to its decline, it results in tragic distortions." 

Survival. Decline. Amalgamations. Mission. Unity. Gospel. The narratives around these various terms are often entangled in very unhelpful ways. Can we disentangle them so that a new discourse emerges that relates gospel, unity, and mission in a coherent and fruitful way?

* * * * * *
(1) Colin Bale, "Calvinism in Australia 1788-2009: A Historical Assessment" in M. D. Thompson (ed), Engaging With Calvin: Aspects of the Reformer’s Legacy for Today (Nottingham: Apollos, 2009), 286.
(3) John Evans, "Globalization and the Uniting Church", Uniting Church Studies, 7:2 (2001), 20.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Cornell West and 'institutional' Christianity

American superstar academic (as he was billed by the Sydney Morning Herald), Cornell West recently appeared on the ABC's Q&A.  Responding to a question about Gay Marriage and the Catholic church, West staked out his own credentials. His reply was prefaced as follows.

"I am a revolutionary Christian, which means I have a deep suspicion of institutional Christianity."

This comment drew one of the largest cheers of the evening. The cheering was both surprising and unsurprising. Surprising - because it was a reminder that Christianity still has enough cultural purchase for the distinction even to register in what could be assumed to be a relatively randomly constructed audience. Unsurprising - because once such a distinction is made, no one is going to stand up and cheer for institutional Christianity. The very phrase, 'institutional Christianity', presents to many, both within and beyond the church, as some kind of oxymoronic mutual contradiction, the error of which will be self-evident to anyone whose eyes are only half open to the manifest failings of Christian institutions. So the argument goes.

What exactly, however, is wrong with Christianity being 'institutional', or least with having institutional aspects? Are the manifest recent failings of the churches due to their institutional character? Are there substantial theological reasons for treating 'institutional Christianity' as an oxymoron. Is there something about the Christian gospel which is inherently anti-institutional?

It is possible to lament the recent failures of the churches, to share in their necessary repentance and be committed to their institutional reform without rejecting the role of institutions as somehow non-Christian.

Indeed, what is it that actually drives this wedge between 'institution' and 'Christianity'? What is it that leads many to argue that Christianity is a 'movement' and not an 'institution'? Certainly, Jesus never laid out a constitution or a set of regulations for running an organisation. Yet the very impulse of his preaching, and of the later preaching about him, was to call together a new people, a new community. And a 'community' is different from a 'movement' - at least the two words suggest different kinds of allusions and resonances. 'Movement' seems to suggest freedom, spontaneity and heroism. 'Community' suggests accountability, mutuality and a degree of order. So defined, I think 'community' is much closer than 'movement' to the forms of life to which the gospel calls us.

More generally, beyond the church, 'community' has been pitted against 'institution' - and with some serious costs. Indeed, there is a certain romance about 'community' and its alleged capacity to save us from the ills of institutions. The American sociologist, Richard Sennett, puts his finger on this romance quite brilliantly in his The Culture of the New Capitalism.

The insurgents of [the 1960s] believed that by dismantling institutions they could produce communities: face to face relations of trust and solidarity, relations constantly negotiated and renewed, a communal realm in which people became sensitive to one another's' needs. This has certainly not happened. The fragmenting of big institutions has left many people's lives in a fragmented state: the places they work more resembling train stations rather than villages.... Taking institutions apart has not produced more community. (1)

Sennett goes on: "Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions." (2)

I think this is salutary for our thinking about the extent to which Christianity is, isn't, should be or shouldn't be 'institutional'. There is certainly an argument for developing more nuanced rhetoric than Cornell West employed on Q&A - much as I loved just about everything else he said. Christians, of all people, need to remember (as if they needed reminding) that 'movements' and 'communities' can sin as much as individuals and institutions. The challenge for the church is not to find a way of being a movement at the expense of being a community or institution. Rather, our challenge is to find ways of being flexibly institutional without becoming institutionalised.

(1) Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.2.
(2) Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism, p.3.

* * * * * *

Some of these ideas were worked out at greater length in relation to the Uniting Church in some reflections I offered at the 2014 meeting of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania which can be read here.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

An Outsider's First Impressions of the UCA

Earlier this year, missiologist John Flett joined my colleagues and me on the Faculty of Pilgrim Theological College. It was his turn this month to contribute the regular Faculty column to Crosslight, the magazine of the Victorian/Tasmanian Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. John offers his first impressions of the UCA. They are challenging and energising. Take the following as a couple of tasters and then read the whole article in Crosslight.

"...the UCA appears to be in the middle of a sustained panic-attack. Nor does this appear benign; it seems to direct much of our thinking and acting." 
"Argument is a skill that can be learnt. It belongs to theology as a sustained historical investigation, a living economy, a wrestling, all governed by the common table. This is all basic to theological creativity. Anxiety is killing off the very discourse that is part of the church’s historical continuity."  
"The gospel is explosive, a public doxology. It is resurrection, not death and dying. Joy. Hope. Love. Peace. Patience." 

Read the whole article here, and check out John's important book, The Witness of God (Eerdmans, 2010).

Friday, June 5, 2015

Colin Williams, Secularism, the Church and UCA Origins

 Recalling Colin Williams
An Evening Seminar
7pm, Wednesday 24th June
(6pm for optional dinner)
Centre for Theology and Ministry,
29 College Crescent, Parkville  3052
Speakers: Brian Howe, Ian Weeks and Damian Palmer
Colin Williams was a significant Australian theologian in the Methodist tradition who spent most of his career in the United States. Before leaving for the US, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at Queen's College in Melbourne and was a member of the Joint Commission on Church Union. I understand he played a leading role in the writing of the Commission's second report, The Church: Its Nature, Function and Ordering. His most notable scholarly work was John Wesley's Theology Today: A Study of the Wesleyan Tradition in the Light of Current Theological Dialogue (1960). Half a century on, it remains available for purchase and it still gets quoted in critical studies of Wesley's thought. After leaving Australia he became a major figure in America's ecumenical and theological circles from the mid-1960s through to the 1980s, including a decade-long stint as Dean of Yale Divinity School. The United Methodist Church maintains a significant archive of his papers.
 * * * * *
Last year I had reason to read Williams' 1965 book, Faith in a Secular Age. The book, as the title implies, explores the roots and contours of the rise of the secular, and canvasses alternative reactions of the churches to it. He offers this description of the secular which at the time was pressing itself upon the consciousness of the American church.
We are witnessing…the rise of secular man (sic). It is not suggested that this secular attitude is the product of a sudden change in man’s way of thinking. On the contrary, the change has been brewing for centuries and behind it there lies factors such as the rise of the scientific attitude, the successful bid for the autonomy of increasing areas of human thought from ecclesiastical tutelage, the subsequent flight of institutions from the church’s direct control…., and the spread of an attitude of this-worldly confidence. … With this increasing dependence upon the new things that man can create ‘from below’, there has come also a continuing diminution of the wisdom that comes down into our life through religion and revealed truth. (.p.20)
Obviously, this is a very much a description of the secular rooted in the discourses and assumptions of the 1960s. Reading Williams, you don't have to scratch too far to realise that he was writing in an environment informed by demythologising, the death of God, and various 'secular' theologies.
Like others at the time, Williams offers a positive assessment of this rise of the secular. It is not so much to be resisted by the church but as a new condition in which faith can be reformed and fine-tuned for the sake of the church's mission.  
The rise of the secular attitude to life must be interpreted positively as the fruit of the gospel and…religion must be interpreted not as the cause we are called to defend, but as the mythical, metaphysical, ontocratic clothing of our childhood that we must now learn to put off if we are to be for true faith in the living God as he is working in the events of our time.
There is an impulse to cross the interface between the church and the world, to move out from the church and its insularity and into the world and its only apparent secularity. ‘Only apparent’ because God has not given up on the secular world, even if the secular world has given up on God. The theological rationale for this is not simply frustration with the insularity of the church and the confines of ‘religion’.

The reason why this openness to the world has precisely that the church is learning again to turn its eyes to Christ. ... And it is in him that this openness to the world is seen (p.108).

I guess that among the issues which might come up at the seminar would be these: Has the church actually learn that lesson (of turning its eyes to Christ) or is it still learning it? Can the confidence in the 'secular' be transferred to the present context, half a century later? Can this christologically-driven 'openness to the world' be extended to multiple definitions of 'secular' and a church/world interface which seems irreducibly complex? How do William's insights help us address the contemporary situation.
Come along and engage with Ian Weeks and Brian Howe, both of whom knew Williams, as well as Damian Palmer who has been pursuing research on Williams as part of a wider project on twentieth-century ecumenism.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Pathways to Union and Beyond

I'm looking forward to participating in this special event next month It will feature leaders who helped to lead the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches into union speaking at the churches of those traditions in the Melbourne CBD. Watch the promotional video here. Registration details here.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Resurrection: Interpretation and Impatience

This is a substantially extended version of an article originally published in the April 2015 edition of Crosslight, the monthly newspaper of the Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania

As always, Easter is an opportunity to engage with the meaning and credibility of the church’s claims about the resurrection. We self-styled ‘modern’ middle-class Westerners have somehow convinced ourselves that we are the first to question them. In fact the claims have always been contested and Christians have always had to argue for them. In the modern context, those arguments have produced highly disputed interpretations of the resurrection narratives. Appeals are often made to the distinction between ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’. I have often wondered why this distinction, which illuminates so little, carries so much currency in the UCA and other mainline denominations.
Certainly, the distinction will be helpful to those anxious about fundamentalism, and my observation is that it especially resonates with ex-fundamentalists. Nevertheless, I suggest another reason for its deep resonance. It is a by-product of a view of the relationship between language and reality embedded in the intellectual currents of the 1960s. This, of course, was a pivotal period for the UCA’s demographic and has deeply shaped the UCA’s culture. A rhetoric was fostered of something being only a metaphor, and as such one step removed from the truth. The idea grew that this was the appropriate category for theological language: it’s only metaphorical and therefore having only a tentative or tenuous connection to the truth.
Contemporary reflection on language and truth offers quite different options. For starters, language does not divide neatly between literal and metaphorical. Even if it did, the distinction between literal and metaphorical language is not between more and less certain ways of telling the truth. As one writer has put it: “The difference between literal and metaphorical is a difference between different ways of using a word in discourse.”[1] They are simply two ways – among many others – of using language to depict reality, each with its own possibilities and limitations.
Metaphors are a particular way of telling the truth, not of avoiding it. The fact that biblical and theological language happily employs metaphor, analogy, parable, and narrative should never be used as a reason for Christians to hesitate to make truth claims. Conversely, the literalness of literal language does not guarantee its truthfulness. After all, it is possible to use language literally, but in order to tell lies.
What then of the resurrection narratives? If the binary between literal and metaphorical breaks down anywhere, it is there. They are a mixture of history, imagination, speculation, literary artistry, and doctrine. The truth they tell cannot be isolated by distilling the supposedly more reliable element. It lies in the narratives themselves.
So, what is being affirmed in the claim that Jesus was raised? Uniting the multiplicity of the narratives is the conviction that Jesus had been vindicated by God. This meaning is articulated across the New Testament. It is evident at the various points where the human judgement on Jesus was understood to have been reversed by God: human execution was trumped by divine resurrection (e.g., Luke 24:21-35; Rom 6:1-11; Phil 2:5-11; implicitly in Mark 8:31; Matt 16:21; Luke 9: 22; 1 Cor 1:18-25).  Perhaps the most striking presentation of the resurrection as God’s reversal of the human rejection of Jesus is found in Peter’s Pentecost sermon: “this man…you crucified and killed…. But God raised him up” (Acts 2: 23-24 and closely echoed in v.36 and 4:10).
Many dismiss early resurrection belief as wish fulfilment or as a ‘metaphor’ for the disciples’ ‘spiritual’ experience. The arguments and counter-arguments are well-trodden. The modern Western preoccupation with the alleged credulity of belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection has obscured two other serious challenges to Christianity’s credibility stemming from its resurrection claims.
First, if Jesus was not raised and therefore vindicated, a question is placed over Jesus’ life. At the time of his death Jesus had changed nothing. The temple was still in place. The Romans still ruled. The poor were still poor. He had strikingly failed to foster a resilient faith amongst his disciples. When he set out for Jerusalem he was not pursuing a deeper experience of the ‘Sacred’; nor was he anxiously wondering whether the ‘Divine’ or ‘G*D’ ‘existed’. He proceeded with a deeply rooted trust in the God of Israel whom he addressed as ‘Father’, and from whom he hoped for vindication (Mark 8: 31, Matt 16:21; Luke 9:22). If he was not vindicated, then it is not just, as Paul says, our faith which is in vain (1 Cor 15:14), but also that Jesus’ life was in vain. His teaching would have been just another messianic stab in the dark. His healings those of just another faith-healer but not the kingdom breaking in. The God whose overturning of the world’s injustices he had confidently predicted and with whom he singularly identified (e.g. Luke 4: 16:21) was silent.
Secondly, even if we accept the resurrection as the vindication of Jesus, does there not remain a pressing question about the credibility of Jesus’ God? The problem is that the resurrection is all God did. In the face of the kind of hope that Jesus placed in God, the resurrection is actually a fairly modest act. Did Jesus not point to a reign of God involving something more comprehensive than his own resurrection? Did he not point to a new age and an overturning of the world’s disorder?
Convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, this tension was not lost on the first Christians: they spoke of the first fruits of a salvation awaiting fulfilment (Rom 8:23). Within the world of Christian piety, this often translates into a frustration with our own sin and a corresponding impatience for our own personal salvation. But should it not also produce an agitation and impatience for God’s promised reign so that the injustices and evils of history are overturned? New Testament scholar, Dale Allison, makes the point sharply: “God cannot be thought good in any authentic sense of that word if the world as it is, this desert in which so many briefly live, suffer, die and are forgotten, is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.”[2] Allison goes on to quote the even more poignant words of William Placher: “Does God treat some people like garbage, casting them aside into nothingness without anything good ever happening to them?”[3]
The extent to which we feel the force of that question will reflect the extent to which our use of the word ‘God’ (or its various contemporary substitutes) is morally credible. There are many worthy things that Christianity has been and is. For many it has eased existential anxiety in a  seemingly meaningless world. For others, it has fostered successful and well-intentioned middle-class movements for social justice and transformation.It gives voice in some places to subaltern movements of liberation. Yet if it cannot extend from these to a universal and cosmic dimension, then it would be more morally credible to endorse those projects for their own immediate value without the theological or religious layer. If God is worth talking about and if the claim that God is love is not to be trivialised, there must be good reasons for extending the Christian discourse about salvation in Christ to a cosmic level. There must be some reasons for speaking about a reconciliation and transformation comprehensive enough to bring justice to the injustices of all times and places. And this requires eschatology, an eschatology of the sort that accompanied the proclamation of Jesus' resurrection. With this is mind, let me turn briefly to the work of Marcus Borg who also talks about God’s vindication of Jesus, but for whom the work of vindication is understood quite differently.
In his book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary,[4] Borg explicitly interprets the resurrection as God’s vindication of Jesus.[5] Indeed, in a move which distances him from some of his fellow revisionist scholars, Borg declares that “Easter is not simply about people experiencing a person who has died”. The resurrection narratives, he says, “are stories of vindication, of God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus”.[6] Accordingly, “Easter means that the powers of this world do not have the last word.”[7] This seems to echo the argument above, but there is a subtle and very significant difference, and it all hinges on how Borg understands the eschatology of the Kingdom of God.
Borg distinguishes between an ‘imminent’ and a ‘participatory’ eschatology. The former is focused on Jesus’ imminent return. The later on “following Jesus on the way of personal transformation of which he spoke”[8] in his teaching about the Kingdom. He does not deny that Jesus himself held to an imminent eschatology, but he insists that this was a matter of secondary importance to him (and that ultimately Jesus got this wrong anyway).[9] Of primary importance to Jesus, says Borg, was the participatory eschatology according to which his teaching about the coming kingdom was a summons to participate in God's transformation of society away from the kingdoms of domination.[10] And because the resurrection is understood as the vindication of this primary (and not the secondary) message of Jesus, the proclamation of Easter is a summons to “oppose the imperial domination system”[11] 

This is a significant corrective to some understandings of the kingdom of God. But it is methodologically problematic. The downplaying of the imminent eschatology on the grounds of a distinction between primary and secondary matters of concern to Jesus is dubious, quite apart from whether the claim about the secondary status of the imminent eschatology is sustainable in the first place. And if Jesus was mistaken about the imminent eschatology why should we accept that he was correct about the participatory eschatology? But more than that, by relegating, and effectively excising, the imminent eschatology from Jesus' teaching and the resurrection, Borg has whittled away the only aspect of Christian faith that can truly speak of the past, future and cosmic dimensions of the kingdom. It precisely this broader eschatology which, for instance, allows Paul to move from the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection to the hope that God will eventually be ‘all in all’ and that ‘death’ in its broadest sense will be defeated (1 Cor 15:1-55). It is reflected in the hope for the 'universal restoration' of which Peter spoke in Solomon's Portico (Acts 3:21)  Yes, Borg can move from his understanding of the resurrection to a mandate for costly and radical political discipleship. He can speak of Jesus being Lord in contrast to the world’s lords. But he cannot, on his own premises, speak with any confidence of a renewal and transformation of all creation. The justice of which he speaks risks being parochial both in time and space, and ultimately, it does not require either belief in God, let alone claims about the vindication of Jesus.
As the vindication of Jesus in its fullest sense, the resurrection certainly includes a summons to a resistance to the prevailing powers of domination, but it is even more than that, much more. It points to a hope that all disorder and injustice will be reversed, not simply those produced by the evils of empire. Yes, we might wish that God had done more than raise Jesus. But nor should we diminish the resurrection by reducing it to a metaphor of spiritual experience or to the security of our place in heaven or to a potentially parochial political mandate. It is the revelation of God’s cosmic justice. It is what allows Christians, at the deepest and most fundamental level, to say that God is good. We can fully enter the hope it fosters. But if it is this hope in this God, then alongside the joy of Easter Day will be a deeply Christian agitation and impatience especially attuned to the cries of the neighbours, strangers and enemies across history with whom we share this disordered world. And hearing those cries, our lives, in both word and deed, will echo Paul, “Maranatha”: Come Lord Jesus (1 Cor 16:22).

[1] Colin Gunton, Actuality and Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 35.  Emphasis added.
[2] Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 218
[3] William C. Placher, Jesus the Saviour: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith (Louisville: WJKP, 2001), p. 159 cited in Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, 218.
[4] Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
[5] To be precise, what he actually says is that the disciples’ experiences of the risen Jesus “carried with them the conviction that God had vindicated Jesus” (Borg, Jesus, 289). This, of course, is one remove from an affirmation of Jesus’ bodily resurrection being a demonstration of God’s vindication of Jesus. To engage this distinction would take more time and space than is necessary for present purposes.
[6] Borg, Jesus, 289.
[7] Borg, Jesus, 289.
[8] Borg, Jesus, 259.
[9] Borg, Jesus, 254.
[10] See Borg, Jesus¸225-260.
[11] Borg, Jesus, 289.

Friday, February 13, 2015

New website for Pilgrim Theological College, Melbourne

Last year the College at which I work was re-launched as Pilgrim Theological College, a member college of the University of Divinity. It has provided the opportunity for significant curriculum re-development and various institutional changes. You can read all about who we are, what we do, courses available, timetable and enrolment details, and much more on our new website which went live today. The lead story is an interview about our newest Faculty member, missiologist Dr John Flett, author of the acclaimed The Witness of God.

Access the website here: Pilgrim Theological College

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

125 words about the Word: Paragraph 5 of the Basis of Union

I presented this piece on Paragraph 5 of the Basis of Union at a special meeting of the Queensland Synod held in 2003. Some recent conversations about this topic have prompted me to give it another airing. Yes, it's over 10 years old and there are some things I'd now nuance more carefully. Also, the theme clearly invites a conversation between this Paragraph and Paragraph 10's reference to 'the need for a constant appeal to Holy Scripture' as well as Paragraph 11's commitment to the work of 'faithful and scholarly interpreters'. Nevertheless, in general terms, I would still want to say similar things to what I said in 2003 in any new exposition of this important fifth paragraph. So, here it is:

Monday, February 2, 2015

Books Worth Reading (2): Christopher Morse's The Difference Heaven Makes

Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News (London: T&T Clark, 2010).

This book is rather short, a mere 122 pages. It is complex and closely-argued. It is also highly stimulating. The author, Christopher Morse, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Theology and Ethics at New York's Union Seminary. Although the book is mostly engaged with scholarly discussions, Morse's enquiries overlap with questions which Christian faith and life inevitably bring to the surface. For instance: Just what is heaven? A superficial answer to this question is to refer to the three-tiered universe of the first century, and therefore explain heaven away as a component of an outmoded cosmology. Yet Morse explores what Jesus' reference to it meant even within that cosmology. If the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus comes from heaven, how does its origin determine what it is? Why was Jesus' proclamation about it heard as good news? Why was it proclaimed as being something 'at hand', something 'to come' (and not, therefore, as a place to go to when you die)?

To address such questions, however, he has to break through the literal/metaphorical options that those of us enculturated into modernity's habits of thought have laid over this theme. Morse argues that the idea of heaven should not be dismissed out of embarrassment at an outmoded cosmology, but neither should it be reinterpreted as a myth simply bearing existential significance. The real scholarly debate, he suggests, lies somewhere between cynicism and credulity.
Clearing away the growth of conventional underbrush serves a critical function in allowing for the recognition of things otherwise obscured. Such may be the case with respect to conventions of modern thought insofar as they erroneously take for granted that the only options for making current sense of the biblical news of heaven would be to treat it as empirically verifiable, as objectively cosmological, as existentially or morally anthropological, or as a social construction of reality. On the other hand merely proposing as counterpoints the labels 'eschatological' or 'apocalyptic' does not in itself provide an account for the hope of heaven either. Theological clearing is necessary, even it not alone a sufficient, step in dogmatics. Cynicism is shown to be as unwarranted and untrustworthy as credulity. (p 50)
Christopher Morse
As this quote indicates, Morse's writing is dense and, as I already noted above, the argument takes some time to absorb. Morse is cutting through some of the received conventions for discussing this topic. You have to think a bit tangentially to enter each new step in the argument.

Nevertheless, I think there are three issues which are worth noting in this brief summary and which might serve as tasters for others.

First, Morse makes much of the kingdom of heaven being 'at hand' (e.g. Mark 1:15, Matt 3:2; Luke 10:9). In fact, it is the dominant theme of the book. Heaven is one part of creation which comes to another part of creation, i.e., earth. In Jesus' preaching heaven and earth are brought into proximity to each other. So, Morse argues: "The new heaven or than sky, the hereafter, or a feeling of bliss. It sounds like nothing less than God taking a new course of action in coming events to make the kind of home with us that will ever prove to be the right home for us." (p.13). (This reference to  proximity of heaven to earth also helps to correct the conventional juxtaposition of heaven and hell. Morse notes of the gospel witness: "Unlike earth, we do not hear of hell as a counterpart of heaven. While earth is overarched by heaven, hell is depicted as overtaken" (p. 21).)

Secondly, heaven is a place of doing (e.g. 'thy will be done on earth as in heaven'), so what kind of doing occurs in the kingdom which comes from heaven? Morse argues that the heaven which overarches the earth "is a dominion...directed toward countering every impediment to the right of love and freedom with its justice now on this earth" (p.72). But this is not simply a mandate for a reign of justice which we can control and which we might recognise by criteria we construct and apply. There is something properly 'unreal' about this kingdom which comes from heaven. "...the coming of heaven at hand is not so much the end of the real world as its beginning, ...the source of an ability-to-respond to what the present calls for beyond all human powers of control that are, so to speak, 'in hand'" (p.72). In other words, trying to place the 'doing of heaven' into our usual constructs of anthropology, justice, wisdom or cosmology etc., will always risk resisting the genuine 'news' of this kingdom. We need to listen "without the usual modernist earplugs" (p.72) that not all reality is factuality.

The third theme I mention is also related to the unplugging of our modernist earplugs, specifically in relation to the eschatology within which Jesus places his proclamation of this kingdom which comes from heaven. Here Morse deconstructs some of the prohibitions on eschatology announced by nineteenth-century biblical scholarship. Morse certainly resists the attempts to distil a non-eschatological or non-apocalyptic Jesus. That is not to say, however, that he provides some key that neatly unlocks this complex issue. His suggestion (and 'suggestiveness' is very much the mode of the book) is to propose juxtaposition of 'now' and 'then' which parallels the more familiar 'here' and 'there' juxtaposition of heaven and earth. Just as the kingdom comes to earth, so Jesus' future comes to the present. To some extent this is standard twentieth-century theological fare. Nevertheless, it allows him to play (my term) with the eschatology of the New Testament, rather than either accept, excise or demythologise it. The presence of the kingdom is always a movement; it is "taking place and newly coming to pass" (p. 107). The future kingdom does not come in order to stabilise the present: it creates a new previously unimaginable present. An eschatology shaped by the idea of heaven coming to earth needs a different imagining than our standard past, present, future timelines.

As Morse develops this idea, the book can be read as a summons to give full theological - and spiritual - attention to the reality of Christ's dynamic presence. As he writes on the book's final page: "[W]e are called to be on hand for that which is at hand, but not in hand, an unprecedented glory of not being left orphaned but of being loved in a community of new creation beyond all that we can ask or imagine" (p.122.). In some ways the book is an exploration - unusual in contemporary theology - of the theme of Christus praesens. And it is this because he bothers to explore the idea of heaven.

There is much more that could be said about this book: Morse's engagements with Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Paul Lehmann; his various exegetical proposals; his reflections on imagination and hermeneutics; and his considerations of the 'ethics of heaven'. It also forms something of a bridge between some current debates in systematic theology and those in New Testament studies about eschatology and apocalyptic. There are some sections on recent theological history which offer succinct and pithy summaries of some very complex debates. Again, it is not the easiest of reads. But for those already familiar with theological discussion it is an engaging way into a study of Christian existence informed by the biblical witness to heaven and its coming.  

(This 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.)