Thursday, October 27, 2016

What on earth is the Bible for?

What on earth is the Bible for?
A sermon preached in the Chapel of Queen's College, Oct 16th 2016
(Queen's is a residential college attached to the University of Melbourne)

During the week I was driving through that most tranquil of middle-to-upper class Melbourne suburbs, Ivanhoe, with its comfortable houses, trimmed gardens and tidy footpaths. Suddenly a very angry looking billboard claimed my attention. In big bold letters: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” And then below that in even bolder capital letters:  “READ YOUR BIBLE.”
During the 2013 election campaign, then PM, Kevin Rudd, was questioned on Q&A by a  ‘pastor’from Queensland who challenged Rudd on the issue of same-sex marriage. The pastor claimed that he couldn’t support Rudd since his policy was ‘contrary to what the Bible says.’
A couple of years ago, Andrew Bolt, someone who is probably not often quoted in the hallowed halls of Queen’s College, wrote a column about his discovery of the fact that there are two quite different creation myths in the Bible’s first book, Genesis.  For reasons that were not clear, Bolt was troubled by the content of this discovery, and the fact that he’d only just discovered this.
* * * *
Three little cameos that remind us that notwithstanding the decline in allegiance to Christianity in Australia in recent decades, the bible still has some vague kind of cultural presence, even some kind cultural currency.
I point this out not to gloat about the fact.
In fact I find each of these cameos quite disturbing.
I am indifferent to whether or not the bible still possesses any cultural currency.
But as a Christian minister and theologian, I am not indifferent to the way the bible is used.
The angry ‘Read Your Bible’ on the billboard assumes not only that everyone has a bible but also that you can pick it up, read it and that its meaning will be obvious.
The pastor from Queensland assumes that the Bible's words are clear and unaware that the bible is a text that needs to be interpreted before it can be used in Christian teaching.
Andrew Bolt appears to assume that the Bible should be more coherent than in it is, unaware that the bible is a collection of literature which derives much of its literary power precisely from the fact that is filled with tensions and diverse voices.
If there is confusion about how to use the bible, then Christians have to bear much of the blame.
Christians have been too quick to use the bible as a ‘rule book’, a ‘guide for living’, a kind of religious encyclopaedia, some sort of compendium of doctrine, or even as a divine oracle that conveys God’s voice directly to the reader.
More disturbingly, many have used it as a battering ram to inflict their own beliefs on others or to demand others agree with them.
Of course, during the 1700 years or so that what we recognise as the Bible has existed, it has been used and misused in all sorts of ways.
In this respect its fate has been no different than that of the authoritative literature of other communities.
Think how the American Constitution is used and misused, not least in discussions on its Second Amendment. Or listen in to Marxists making contrary appeals to Marx’s writings.  Or think how different directors instruct their respective casts to perform Shakespeare.
All authoritative literature bears its authority in the midst of disputes about its interpretation.
So can we say anything about how the Bible should be used?
Are their criteria for deciding some ways are legitimate ways of using it and some are illegitimate?
Well, what bearing does tonight’s reading from the text known as 2 Tim chapter 3 have on our questions.
This is one of the texts which has often been used as a battering ram to decide the question of what the bible is for.
All scripture is inspired (or God-breathed) by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correcting and training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
It seems rather straightforward: teaching, reproof, correction, training, being equipped.
But is it actually quite so straightforward?
In fact there are all sorts of ironies here:
What this letter was written – sometime in the second half of the first century of the Christian era, neither its author or initial readers would never have thought of this text itself as ‘scripture’. The writer wrote it and the reader read it as an exhortation to read the Israel’s own scriptures. For when this letter was written, there was no Christian bible.
It is hard to take this, therefore, as a comprehensive answer to the question of what the Christian Bible is for. 
* * * *
An answer to the question of what is the Bible must be shaped in part by our knowledge of what it is and how it came to be.
So, a few facts and figures, and a plea that you put aside Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code explanation of the  Bible as an imposition on the church by the 4th century Roman emperor Constantine.
Perhaps the most basic thing to say about the Bible is it that it is a two-volume work. The first, 37 different documents, consists of the canonical literature of the Jewish people. The second, 29 different documents, consists of the the authoritative literature of the early Christian community.
The first testament includes literature generated over perhaps a millennium, but collated in more or less its present form when Israel was held captive in Babylon during the sixth century before Christ.
This literature draws on a vast range of genres: myth, law, liturgy, proverbs, history, prophecy, apocalyptic, doctrine, tragedy, and royal ideologies.
It is held together by a cluster of convictions that God had called Israel to a special vocation for the sake of the  world, and that despite Israel’s repeatedly dire circumstances, God would be faithful to Israel, and through Israel, to the whole world.
The second testament includes literature generated over , by comparison, an incredibly short period: at most five decades in the second half of the first century. It begins to be recognised as authoritative for the later Christian community in the second and third centuries. 
This literature of the second testament draws on a much more limited range of genres:  summaries of Jesus’ life (which we called gospels), letters from various Christian leaders to various Christian communities scattered around the Mediterranean, and some sermons and apocalyptic. 
This second testament is held together by a cluster of convictions that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and risen, and that as such was Israel’s promised Messiah.
The two volumes are put together in the one collection because of the conviction that the story of Jesus told in the second testament was the climax of Israel’s story. This, of course, is a conviction that remains contested by Jews and Christians to this day.
So, the bible didn’t just fall out of heaven.
It’s diverse literature and its collation was driven – however informally – by certain convictions about God, Jesus, creation and the world.
This, I think, helps us, to answer the question ‘what is the bible for?’
* * *
When we read the bible, we are entering into a narrative of witness to diverse views about the events and ideas which generated Christianity.
And those ideas are often in tension with each other. There are debates going on within the pages of the bible about how best to be faithful to the events to which it points.
For instance, take the verse which last year Donald Trump declared as his favourite: Exodus 21: 25.
But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
According to press reports, he applied the verse to mean that the government should treat in kind those who have taken American jobs, money, and health.
Quite apart from the fact that Jesus invited his followers to turn their back on this teaching, Jewish scholars will say that even in its Jewish context this text is not actually a straightforward teaching of retribution in the first place. In fact, they take it as a rejection other texts which seem to condone outright retribution. So, the very presence of this text is itself a kind of argument for some form of proportional justice.
On the basis of Jesus’ teaching about this very text, however, Christians are called to an even more radical restorative justice. But the point about the Exodus text is, I hope, clear. It has a context and it reflects that Jews were debating amongst themselves the very character and nature of justice.
It is possible to offer similar readings of the New Testament material.
The mere fact that we have four gospels, each with clearly different interests, also points to the fact that the early Christians were exploring the tensions inherent in their generative cluster of convictions. And they were quite comfortable in holding them in tension.
The coherence and consistency in the Bible, the absence of which was such a disappointment to Andrew Bolt , is not what the Bible provides. And, more importantly, it is no less persuasive for that.
The Bible emerged because people were re-shaping,  or re-imagining, their worldviews on the basis of these core convictions about Jesus as Israel’s messiah.
* * *
That helps to tell us what the Bible is for. It is collection of literature into whose diversity and tensions we are invited to enter to see how our own imaginations might be re-shaped.
The Australian writer Margaret Wertheim, has said:: “From Homer to Asimov, one the functions of all great literature has…been to invoke believable ‘other’ worlds.  Operating purely on the power of words, books project us into utterly absorbing alternative realities.” She includes the bible as an example of such literature.
One theologian has developed a similar line of thought.
…Scripture [is] itself a body of literature that does not primarily describe the world but rather imagines a world, and by imagining it, reveals it,
Please note that I am not proposing a sacrificium intellectus by which we retreat to a biblical cosmology and psychology and pretend that they are adequate to our present day sense of science.  Just the opposite:  I suggest that we expand our minds by entering into the imaginative world of scripture.
…To live within this imaginative world is not to flee from reality but to constitute an alternative reality. (Luke Timothy Johnson)
To understand the bible in these terms invites us to come to it with the question, ‘What if…”  What if God does exist….. What if God has entered the world in Jesus of Nazareth... What if in him there is reconciliation and new life. What if……
Then to read the bible is to re-imagine the world,  God, and our lives as something of inherent value and grounded in the love which is at the heart of all reality.
So, instead of an angry 'Read your Bible', there is an invitation to imagine the world of God and creation that the Bible imagines. And to read the bible like is to begin, at least in part, to read it for what it’s for. AMEN.

Friday, June 3, 2016

What are we doing when we meet as a council of the church?

This morning, as part of an orientation session for the meeting of the UCA's Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, I presented a theological overview of the nature and purpose of meeting together as a Council of the church, specifically in the UCA with its commitment to interconciliar government. It's pretty much the same presentation as I gave at the beginning of the 2014 Synod. But there is one thing that has changed in my own thinking since 2014. The framers of the Uniting Church long argued that their work was not simply an exercise in ecclesiastical carpentry. I've never been fully persuaded that that was actually the case with respect to church government. But in thinking a bit more about comments made by Davis McCaughey and D'Arcy Wood (both of whom were involved in writing the Basis, and both of whom subsequently served as President of the national Assembly), I 've become less sceptical. It may not be quite evident in the surface of the Basis (specifically Paragraph 15), but both these framers of the church suggest that that Paragraph needs to be read as pointing us to something subtly different from what had been the practices of any of the uniting Churches or from any combination of those practices. It's worth trying to read that paragraph through the filter of that subtle nuance.

The text of the presentation is available here.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Zero Dark Thirty and the Morality of Revenge


A sermon preached in the chapel of Queen's College in the University of Melbourne as part of a Film Text series of sermons.
Film: Zero Dark Thirty
Biblical Text: Romans 12: 9-21

Theme: The Morality of Revenge

* * * * * * *

Zero Dark Thirty is a very dark film. It tells a very dark story.
Deception, torture, murder, children traumatised.

Yet the film is itself a chapter in a larger story of apparent triumph: the American killing of Osama bin Laden.

In the film, and in fact, the sheer darkness of the story was vanquished by the light that apparently came with the national – and indeed – international – celebration of bin Laden’s demise.

The film plays its own role in American patriotism – and made a lot of money for its producers in doing so.
As a Hollywood product, the film is, of course, embedded in a matrix of power, money and politics – an extension of the national matrix of  power money and politics.
Located in that matrix, Zero  Dark Thirty  is an one act in the drama of the politics of triumph – or more precisely the politics of revenge.


I lost no sleep over the death of Osama bin Laden.  Indeed, I recall responding to the news of his demise with a sense of relief and satisfaction. Although as to what exactly drove that relieve and satisfaction, I’m not quite sure.

I’ve also greatly enjoyed watching the dramatised and idealised version of the hunt for and murder of the leader of Al Qaeda. For the sheer force and the intricacies of its cloak and dagger plot, Zero Dark Thirty is riveting.
It’s the story of a young CIA operative (the character presented in the film apparently a composite character of several actual operatives) picking up the minutest of clues from a tortured Al Qaeda leader and running with it. She runs with it against suspicion, sexism and fear – all the way to the chief of the CIA – and through him to President Obama.

And I admit, I enjoyed watching it – its cloak and dagger rhythms and edge-of-the-seat plot – despite the film’s graphic presentation of deception, torture, murder and children being traumatised. I enjoyed it, also notwithstanding the fact that the director seemingly made no attempt to interrogate the morality of the deception, torture and murder. The film itself seems not to make any explicit moral statement. It simply echoes the morality of the political and patriotic decisions which produced this story.

And that, of course, raises a moral question in itself. How is it that we can find violence entertaining?

But that’s not the question I want to wrestle with tonight. In fact, there are a couple of alternative questions I’d like to put out there.

* * * *
I’ve already suggested that the film itself is a chapter in a larger story of revenge. It’s a celebration of the revenge that a nation took on one by whom it had been attacked.

Of course, for many, this was not revenge but justice. So, what is the difference between justice and revenge? Can something be an act of revenge but also just?

The other question is one that I must ask as a Christian. Even as I took that quiet satisfaction at Bin Laden’s demise, and even as I enjoyed the cloak and dagger plot of Zero Dark Thirty, I have some well-known words of Jesus echoing in my ears.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’” (Matt 5:38-39)

But also echoing in my ears are the words of the early Christian leader, Paul, in the passage we’ve heard tonight. In a teaching which surely echoes Jesus, Paul instructs his readers:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  … Never avenge yourselves.” (Rom 12:17, 19) 
How might a Christian shaped by these teachings respond to Zero Dark Thirty and the story it tells?

Well, let’s pause from these questions and watch the trailer for the film – either to jog your memory or to give you a bit of feel for the film if you haven’t seen it. (You can watch the trailer here.)
* * * *
Of course, the trailer spares us the torture which makes the mission possible in the first place. And it also spares us the film’s climax.

The moment of climax is this: Bin Laden has already been shot. His wife is screaming. One of the marines takes aim at Bin Laden again, pummelling further bullets into his body. And then this same marine declares: “For God and country.”

And this was no script writer’s embellishment. From all accounts, these are the very words which rippled through the airwaves all the way to the White House to confirm the success of the mission.

And, of course,  those four words were an echo: the cry of Allah Akbar which we can imagine the Al Qaeda pilots declared as they guided their planes into the World Trade Centre a decade before.

Those two cries – 10 years apart – each its own declaration of triumph: a triumph in the name of God. 

Each cry so contrary to Paul’s exhortation: “Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all”
Invoking God in violence is not unusual – monarchs and Generals,  presidents, patriots and priests have done it from time immemorial. To invoke God is to invoke the ultimate sanction of one’s violent cause.

Yet vast tracts of the Christian tradition are by and large deeply troubled by such invocations – and the teachings of Jesus and Paul we have already heard are the basic reasons for that.

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”

Certainly in contemporary Christian ethics, ideas of retributive justice are seen to be basically unChristian. Yes, even though that same passage of Paul says something like, ‘Leave room for the wrath of God’. (And, that sentence warrants a sermon on its own.)

But it is nevertheless, a fundamental element of early Christian conviction that the ultimate moral ordering of the universe was God’s prerogative. Christians could not play God in terms of judging others.

And the resistance to revenge, to repaying evil for evil, is not a belief unique to Christians. Long before Jesus, Plato, for instance, had departed from Homeric values and argued that vengeance was always unjust.

Yes, it is true that some modern philosophers draw a distinction between revenge and retribution – revenge being emotive and retribution being a constrained but necessary response to evil.
But most contemporary social and legal theorists regard retributive justice as problematic. It is seen to be a vehicle for perpetuating violence. And so, in matters of justice, contemporary Western societies have a developed orientation to theories and practices of restorative justice prevails.

But can restorative justice be applied to disputes carried out on a global scale? Could restorative justice ever been applied to the relationship between the US and Al Qaeda? Was there ever any hope of it after9/11? Was there any ever hope of it after the murder of Bin Laden. Is there any hope of it today between the West and ISIS?

Are there disputes so deep, so embedded in violence, that restorative justice is simply naïve? Are there disputes so deeply mutually destructive that hopes for restorative justice will simply evaporate?

And are there disputes so embedded in violence, so mutually destructive, that the Christian invocation ‘not to pay evil for evil but to take thought for what is noble in the sight of all’ is not only naïve but also an expression of  indifference to the realities of violence and destruction.

Whilst historically you could make an argument that Christian teaching has helped Western societies develop notions of restorative justice and to have put in check some ideas of retributive justice, that Christian influence has not checked the world’s history of violence

 And when some Christians have been prepared to invoke God to sanction their nation’s violence, thy only make the problem worse. The marine standing over Bin Laden declaring, ‘For God and Country’, is hardly an isolated story in the history of war and terror.
Is it not the case that humanity seems trapped in a endless cycle of violence. Indeed, even an ever ascending spiral of violence? War, domestic violence, bullying, terror, colonial and imperial dispossession. 

Every generation seems to think it has reached some threshold of violence only to see that threshold broken by some yet more terrible horror.

Perhaps films such as Zero Dark Thirty keep that spiral spinning. It whets our appetite for the story of the world’s violence.

What then of Jesus’ teaching of turning the other check? What of Pauls’ echo of that teaching with his exhortation not to repay evil with evil?

The first thing that perhaps needs to be said is that Paul wasn’t addressing leaders of nations or policy makers. He was addressing a small group of first century Christians about how they should relate to each other and to those who were giving them grief.

It’s a reminder that the Bible is a book for Christians. Only by historical accident did it assume a kind of de facto cultural authority in the history of the West. (Remember, the next time you see someone quoting the Bible on Q&A telling this or that politician how to develop policy, you can be sure they are misusing it.)

* * * *

What then is the status of this Christian teaching in a violent world, and in a world (a world that includes people like you and me) which is happy to be entertained by films about the story of the world’s violence?
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
For me, it is best understood as a dissenting voice. A voice that interrupts our dominant narrative about violence. A voice that resists the quest for revenge.  A voice that says no to soldiers and terrorists whenever they declare either ‘For God and Country’ or ‘Allah Akbar’.

It is also a realistic voice. Listen to something else in this exhortation from Paul: “If it is possible, as far as it depends you, live at peace with everyone.”  If it is possible.

Sometimes it is not possible. Perhaps this recognition explains why pacifism has never quite won over the totality of the Christian tradition – even though it is an honoured and authoritative element of that tradition.
Be that as it may, this note of realism is at least a kind of concession to forces that we can’t control.

What we can control is how we understand the use of violence in an inevitably violent world. It is a tragic consequence of whatever it is that is wrong with the human condition – what Christian call sin.

It must always be an act for which those humans who exercise it must take responsibility. No soldier, no president, no general, no priest, no terrorist can legitimately claim that God is on their side.
They can never claim that God sanctions revenge. They can never claim ‘For God and country’. That is what the Christian tradition calls blasphemy.

Zero Dark Thirty, for all its embellishments, tells a true story. It really happened. It has taken this powerful story of geo-political revenge into popular culture. It has allowed some to celebrate that story; others to be troubled by it. Christians will vary in their view of the morality of the act of killing Bin Laden. And they will vary in their view of the morality of making a film about it.

They will vary their view of how widely restorative justice can be employed in this violent world.
But, it seems to me, Christians who watch this film, and reflect on the story it tells of the world’s violence, must at least spend some time reflecting on the words of Paul: “Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with one another.”  AMEN.

Friday, April 29, 2016

What is theology? An interview with Reverend and Smith

I was recently interviewed by Reverend and Smith, a couple of Christian young guys in Brisbane who are seeking to develop a new web-based ministry of theological discussion and debate.

The interview started by exploring what theology, and systematic theology in particular, is. In the end we ranged across a quite wide range of topics about where theology is done and by whom. We also discussed why it is that theology often seems remote from the life of the church. I really enjoyed the experience, and being involved in what is my first podcast. And I even enjoyed Reverend and Smith dissecting my responses afterwards. And, full marks to Reverend and Smith for developing this series of programmes and fostering some serious cyberspace-discussion about theology.

Listen to the interview here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Books Worth Reading (7): Postliberal Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed by Ronald T. Michener

I have never been a card-carrying postliberal theologian. Nevertheless, my engagement with the postliberal theologians of the 1980s and 1990s undoubtedly shaped my approach to the study of theology and, and more enduringly, my interest in the diverse roles of doctrine in the church’s life. Central to the postliberal school was George Lindbeck’s 1986, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and theology in a Postliberal Age. I read it for the first time just as I embarked on my postgraduate studies. If I can say this without being too presumptuous, it woke me from my doctrinal slumber. It snapped me out of the dreary liberal/conservative rhetoric of the mainline protestant theology I had imbibed by being part of mainline protestant church. Lindbeck’s typology of doctrine –  experiential expressivist, propositional, and cultural-linguistic –  provided  me with quite different and more interesting ways of mapping the theology I was learning. It made me realise that to describe a theological position as liberal or conservative was to say almost nothing intellectually interesting, let alone informative, about that theological position. Moreover, reading Lindbeck made me realise that the study of doctrine and the many functions it performs in the church was at least as interesting, complex and fascinating as the study of hermeneutics or method or the various backgrounds to the biblical writings.

As a specific school of thought, postliberal theology had a relatively short life. Paul de Haart has even written about its rise and decline. The questions it raised, however, are still worth pondering. Indeed, to some extent, they are inevitable in any study of Christian theology, whether or not that study is shaped by exposure to specifically postliberal writings. So, for instance:
  • If doctrines aren’t propositions, what are they?
  • How is narrative related to truth?
  • What is the relationship between theology and practice?
  • Can theology be non-foundationalist without becoming fidestic?
  • Are the discourses of different religions incommensurable?

So the postliberal school may well have passed into history, but if you want to see how postliberal theology brought such questions to focus and how it helps address them, then Ronald T. Michener’s short 2013 book, Postliberal Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed would be a book well worth reading. As with other books in Bloomsbury’s Guide for the Perplexed series, it’s pitched at readers able to engage arguments typical of tertiary education, it provides a helpful overview of the topic without bypassing the critical questions, it is relatively short (140 pages), and it has many helpful suggestions for further reading.

The book consists of 5 chapters. The first, ‘Introduction’, does what its title says. It’s a very general overview of postliberal theology which locates it in the midst of other twentieth-century theological movements. Chapter 2, ‘Background’, provides a very useful summary of the wide range of philosophical, anthropological, sociological and theological backgrounds to the movement. (Throughout this chapter readers would glean some insight into the important contributions to postliberal theology of Augustine, Aquinas and Barth.) Chapter 3, ‘Theological exponents of postliberal theology’ provides sustained engagement with the three major voices of the movement (Frei, Lindbeck, and Hauerwas) and a quick overview of ‘other voices’ (David Kelsey, William Placher, Bruce Marshall, George Hunsinger and Kathryn Tanner). The title of Chapter 4, Problems and Criticisms of Postliberal Theology, speaks for itself as does that of Chapter 5, ‘Prospects and proposals for postliberal theology today’.

So what is 'postliberal theology'? Early on Michener offers what is less a definition and more a set of observations that help to locate this particular theology:
Postliberal theology has always been more a loose connection of narrative theological interests than it is some monolithic agenda. It represents an overarching concern for the renewal of Christian confession over theological methodology. Rather than reliance on  a notion of correlative common experience, postliberal theology moves towards the local or particular faith description of the community of the church (p.3).
As such it is a  "tertium quid solution" between the two major protestant responses to modernity: fundamentalism and liberalism. More specifically, postliberal theology rejects the identity of truth with doctrinal propositions characteristic of fundamentalism. At the same time it rejects the location of truth within a putatively pre-cognitive domain of human experience (of which doctrines are contingent ‘expressions’) typical of liberalism. In contrast postliberal theology locates truth within Christianty’s own practiced and articulated narratives: i.e.,  the narratives that shape the church’s life – creeds, liturgies, scriptures, confessions etc. And here, of course, is what is usually perceived as the major problem with postliberal theology: it so completely internalises truth, that it is essentially sectarian and fideistic.
Of course, postliberal theologians have frequently addressed this question, but the criticism persists. Michener sets out some of these response as well as his own in Chapter 4. In the response to the charge of the inevitably of isolationism which attached to postliberalism, Michener cites the example of the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to the massacre of their schoolchildren in 2006. Here was a community which prima face represents what a postliberal church might be: isolated and so formed by its own internal traditions that it was unable to relate to the world. Yet as Michener indicates, it was precisely that internal formation which enabled this community to practice forgiveness under the most extreme provocation. Michener makes this observation:
This is a remarkable example of how a commitment to one's faith, fully embedeed in the narrative and tradition of that faith, even with (what is often seen as) an extreme sectarian context may still have a radically profound impact on society. The Amish are certainly no friends to modern culture and society. ... [Nevertheless] with no regard to society's value or acts of self-aggrandizement  a faithfully devout community can still have a powereful effect on that society (p. 117).
Now, there are quite properly serious limits to this most extreme example. By itself it should not be taken as a justification for postliberal theology or as a response to a major criticism of it. Nevertheless, it does provide a lived example which calls into question the assumption made in theory that faithfulness to a tradition necessarily leads to public isolation.

The other aspect of Michener's critical discussion which is worth noting relates to the Holy Spirit. A little surprisingly, Michener draws some parallels between Postliberalism and Pentecostalism in their shared rejection of modern reductionist rationality. He quotes James K.A.Smith's reference to Pentecostalism's  "more expansive, affective understanding of what counts as knowledge and a richer understanding of how we know" (Smith, quoted by Michener, p. 136) and suggests this as an area of shared concern. It is not entirely clear where that parallel might lead, but the shared concern is at least worthy of note and any pathway to deeper mutual understanding between mainline and Pentecostal theologies is worth pursuing.

This is a good book. It would be useful to any one already interested in and familiar with postliberal theology. It would also be well worth reading for anyone keen to find out about it for the first time.
* * * *
In second semester this year I'll be teaching a unit, 'Doctrine, Truth and Pluralism'. Although postliberal theology will be only one part of this unit, questions such as those listed above will be the unit's major driving force. It will be taught as a two-part intensive, July 29-30 and Oct 7-9.  Check out this promotional video and the course outline on pp. 92-94 of Pilgrim's 2016 Handbook. The unit will also be available for on-line enrolment.
* * * *
(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.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Doctrine, Truth and Pluralism

In semester 2 this year I'll be teaching a unit, Doctrine Truth and Pluralism. We've just announced a timetabling reschedule. It will now be offered as a two-part Intensive on July 29-30 and then on October 7-9. The unit is available at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

The video below gives a quick summary of what we'll be exploring.

And you can read a more complete description with more specific details here.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Christianity and Narcissism

Last year, with my colleague Katharine Massam, I taught a new unit, Culture, Beliefs and Theology. The unit is designed as an introduction to the tasks and skills of theology. Unlike other introductory courses, however, this unit is less focused on classic texts and debates. Instead, it jumps right in to the conversations happening in Australia about God, Jesus, the Bible. More specifically, the conversations happening outside the church or at least at the edge of the church. We engaged agnostics, atheists, politicians, comedians, academics, novelists, historians, mainstream Christians, and self-designated 'fellow travellers'.

Again, unlike conventional apologetics, the aim was not to work  out what Christians could say that would 'answer' the various accounts (positive and negative) of faith located amongst this diverse range of peers, critics, and friends. Rather, the concern was to listen to them and to discern in what we heard what might or might not resonate with us. Were there things to learn? Were there things to resist? And having eavesdropped on these conversations, what theological skills, wisdom and ideas would be needed to enter the conversation?

One of the critics we studied was Tamas Pataki, specifically the argument of his 2007 book Against Religion. I included Pataki for several reasons. Firstly, Against Religion is a small book which includes a good introductory overview of the standard criticisms of religion. Secondly, he is a local; he teaches at Melbourne University and therefore is helping to shape perceptions of and approaches to Christianity amongst the current generation of tertiary students. Thirdly, he has a particular take on the persistence of religious belief. He does more than offer yet another recital of the standard arguments against religion. Pataki is especially focused on a very particular question: Why do people persist in religious belief when such powerful arguments have intellectually deconstructed all religious belief? In other words, he does not simply focus on the arguments against religion, but on why - despite the power of those seemingly well-established reasons - people go on believing.  His answer: narcissism.

Building on an 'economy of narcissism' characteristic of infancy and which involves the infant's construction of a world of 'omnibenevolence', Pataki argues that religious belief is the continuation of this desire to think that the world is constructed around oneself. Religious belief is a psychologically-driven strategy for being able to continue to live in this world beyond infancy and to 'bask in the radiance' of unlimited and unfettered devotion and affection.

Religious teachings about God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness are particularly fitted to reinvigorate desires and to gratify them for these are the very properties the child is striving more or less desperately to retain or retrieve. So, once again, he may attempt to establish a relationship in phantasy with the ideal figures, this time supernatural ones…and bask in their radiance.

It is tempting to pick holes in Pataki's argument. (At the very least it's a pretty reductionist view of why people believe what they do; and if belief can be explained away with a psychological explanation, why shouldn't unbelief be similarly explained away?) Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that that we Christians manage to provide a fair bit of justification for Pataki's argument. After all, the church's scriptural and liturgical language is rich with claims about the intense focus of God's love for, and interventions on behalf of, individuals or communities which trust him (e.g., Psalm 33:18-19; Lam 3:22-25; Rom 8:28, etc). Such claims are, of course, set within larger narratives about the people of God being set apart to be oriented to the world rather than themselves.

Often, however, that larger narrative is suppressed in the piety of the church. Let me give an example. One Sunday, last year, I  happened (largely by accident) to worship in a church whose character and style reflected  very different theological convictions to my own. It was in a major Asian city; the very large congregation was mostly expatriate Europeans, Africans and Americans. Many of them were students or lecturers at a nearby university. It was difficult to reconcile this particular demographic with the very low level of theological reflection evident in the songs, prayers and sermon. What was most disturbing, however, was the word of benediction: "Remember! God has organised the week for you."

There was no word of mission. No exhortation to serve the poor. No encouragement to care for the sick or comfort the bereaved. No reminder of the command to love our neighbours. No direction to pray for our enemies. Just an indulgent claim that God had organised the week for us. If you were looking for a connection between faith and narcissism, there it was - front and centre in the life of the church itself.

This is far from a stand-alone example. A recent feature article on one of Australia's highest-profile churches included reference to this exhortation from the chief pastor:  "Speak your faith, start seeing miracles ... Owner of your first home! Best-selling author ... Mother of handsome sons and beautiful daughters! Businessman who is prosperous and fruitful! Your brother's salvation, your sister's healing ... Speak it into being! Speak it into being! Speak it into being! Amen!" Even if this is more explicitly an example of prosperity doctrine, it's not hard to see how such a view would feed the link between faith and narcissism. (And you can watch the particular address here; go to the 36min mark.)

So, Tamas Pataki is not without insight into the connection between faith and narcissism, even if he over-reaches himself in using it as an exhaustive explanation of why everyone who  believes does so. Being aware of his critique can, however, encourage Christians to ask ourselves why we do believe in the first place, and to realise that there are indeed elements of the Christian faith which, if isolated from others, can easily feed the narcissistic propensities that seem to weave their way through the human condition which we all share.

In eavesdropping on contemporary conversations about God, Jesus and faith, we Christians will often hear things that are little more than cheap shots. But we will also hear things that rightly and properly prompt us to self-examination. Tamas Pataki's comments on faith and narcissism are a case in point.