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.)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

How did we get the Basis of Union?

I was asked to write a very brief reflection on the origins of the Basis of Union for this month's Crosslight, the monthly magazine of the Victorian/Tasmanian Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. You can read it here. It's the first in a series of 'Did you know...?' articles which Crosslight will be running this year. The current issue also carries articles on the UAICC national conference, reviews of both Birdman and The Water Diviner, and information about UnitingJourneys (a programme of responsible travel to learn and share with partner churches), plus much else.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Davis McCaughey: little substance?

Recently when browsing the newly-arrived journals at my college library I opened up a recent issue of The Reformed Theological Review (73:2, August 2014).  I was interested to see that it contained (pp. 142-43) a review of Sarah Martin’s Davis McCaughey: A Life (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2012). McCaughey was, among other things, New Testament scholar, Master of Ormond College, inaugural President of the Uniting Church in Australia, and Governor of Victoria. The review focused mostly on Martin’s account of McCaughey’s theological and ecclesiastical work. Although this was at the expense of Martin’s engagement with the other areas of McCaughey’s life, within the compass of a brief book review in a theological journal, this limitation is fair enough.
What is not fair enough, however, is the conclusion the reviewer draws. I quote the final paragraph in full:
McCaughey’s earthly pilgrimage came to an end on Good Friday, 2005. He was not without insights and eloquence, but having rejected what he saw as the narrow creed of Irish Presbyterianism, he was left with little of any substance to put in its place. In the end, this is a sad book – and all the sadder because it is not altogether evident that many involved in its telling realise how sad it is.
In fact, to describe this conclusion as unfair doesn’t quite capture my concern. It’s more that this is a quite unscholarly conclusion and, at least in my view, below the standard expected in a peer-reviewed journal. In concluding that this is a ‘sad book’, the author appeals to some deeply personal criterion, to which, apparently, Martin and her sources were simply blind.  And, devoid of this criterion, Martin was unable – so the reviewer suggests – to understand, or provide an informed judgement on, McCaughey’s life. 
Yes, of course, reviewers are perfectly entitled – and expected – to expose an author’s prejudices, failures and errors. But any successful critique on those grounds needs to be backed up by relevant information and data. And the conclusion would be along the lines that the author had failed in his/her own objectives, or neglected to take into account relevant scholarship, or, in the case of a biography, omitted critical moments in the subject’s life.  Nothing like that applies here.  This is an arbitrary claim that Martin didn’t know how to judge her own material: she didn’t know – but apparently should have known – how sad the story was she was telling. So, the conclusion is a judgement on Martin’s inability fully to understand her subject matter. But – and this is my interest – it is also a judgement on Davis McCaughey’s theology.
The reviewer’s reason for making this judgement is his own claim that McCaughey’s journey was one of departure from earlier theological convictions to a position “with little of any substance”. The only apparent basis provided in the review for this journey consists of two quotes from Martin’s book. The first is McCaughey’s comment at Princeton in 1967 that the church “must be prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church”. The second is from McCaughey’s 1987 Boyer Lectures in which he quoted Niebuhr’s comment that “we must be saved by love” which the reviewer glosses with the comment, “by which he meant love of one’s neighbour”.
Neither these quotes nor anything else in the review can justify the claim that McCaughey’s constructive theological view had little substance to it. To make that judgement in an intellectually responsible way, it would be necessary to study and analyse the corpus of McCaughey’s theological writings. Even Martin’s biography is not the source material for such a judgement. 
The reviewer is perfectly entitled to disagree with McCaughey’s theological views, and to disagree strongly. But to suggest that McCaughey’s theology had “little of any substance” is simply wrong. McCaughey was far from the most prolific or influential theologian; by contemporary academic standards his literary output was significant, but modest. Nevertheless, judging from the body of his theological writings – many of which are readily accessible in various publications – McCaughey was an informed, thoughtful and creative interpreter not only of New Testament texts (his particular area of expertise), but also of the creedal orthodoxy which nurtured the Church catholic and into which he sought to draw the sectarian Protestantism of both his native Northern Ireland and his adopted Australia. It is also seems that in one area he was likely well ahead of most of his theological peers: his deep appreciation of the relationship between literature, imagination and theology. Some of his – admittedly brief – proposals in this area measure up very well alongside the best writings on this now important theme in contemporary Christian theology. Remarks he made to the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his ordination (see below) provide an insight into the personal faith which both nurtured and was nurtured by his developed theology.
There are others far better placed than I am to defend McCaughey’s theological reputation. I can only say that whenever I have read his theological writings, I have found them illuminating, faithful to the gospel, creatively engaged with the classic traditions of Christian thought, and worthy of considered engagement. The RTR’s review makes a quite contrary claim – but does so without fully attending to the criteria of accuracy and fairness to which scholarly discussion, not least scholarship pursued as a Christian ministry, is summoned.
Some readily available examples of McCaughey’s sermons and theological writings:
Address to the 2002 meeting of the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. The text of this speech was distributed widely throughout the synod following the meeting.
Davis McCaughey, "If I had known then what I know now" in William W. Emilsen and Susan Emilsen (eds), Marking Twenty Years: the Uniting Church in Australia: 1977-1997 (Sydney: UTC Publications, 1997).
J. Davis McCaughey, Commentary on the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1980).

J. D. McCaughey, "Church Union in Australia" The Ecumenical Review 17(1), 1965, pp. 38-53.

J. D. McCaughey, "Confession of Faith in Church Union Negotiations" Mid Stream 6(3) 1967, pp. 24-46.
J.D. McCaughey, "Language About the Church", Reformed Theological Review 15(1), 1956, pp. 1-17.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Books Worth Reading (1): Being Christian by Rowan Williams

I hope occasionally to post brief summaries of books that I think are worth reading. It will be an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. The summaries will be just that: summaries. I won't be offering technical book reviews, but simply highlighting books that I think are either useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate. This is the first.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (London: SPCK, 2014).

I am often  surprised  by the success Rowan Williams appears to have as a popular writer. Such books as Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (1982), Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (2000), Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (2003), Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (2007), and are clearly pitched beyond the academy for more general audiences. They are not, however, light reads and they clearly demand of their readers a patient willingness to follow Williams’ nuanced and often slowly-developed arguments.

Obviously Williams' audience and marketability owe much to the profile he gained whilst serving as Archbishop of Canterbury. The position itself made his ideas important and interesting and gave him a visibility not usually enjoyed by theologians of his calibre. Yet I would suggest one feature of these writings which might be a further explanation of their success. Williams writes about the Christian faith with obvious authenticity and out of conspicuous personal involvement in that faith. His wisdom comes not just from his erudition or intellect, but from a deep prayerful engagement with God, the life of faith, the Christian community, and the wider world.

This is certainly true of one of several of his books to be published in 2014: Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer (London: SPCK, 2014). The book (of less than 100 pages) consists of lectures given in Canterbury Cathedral during Holy Week (in an unspecified year) and addresses “the essential elements of the Christian life” which he defines not “in terms of individuals leading wonderful lives, but just in terms of those simple and recognizable things that make you realise you are part of a Christian community”, i.e., baptism, Bible, Eucharist and prayer. (p.ix)
Whilst accepting baptism as clear identity-marker, he also warns against treating it as a mark of segregation; it does not “confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else”. He continues:

To be able to say, ‘I’m baptised’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected – you might even say – contaminated – by the mess of humanity. This is very paradoxical. Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created. It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave untouched or unsullied. (p.5f)

Williams adopts the hermeneutically unfashionable view that the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the controlling centre of the Bible. This does not mean, however, that Williams executes a christological flattening of either Testament. He shows how different biblical writers offer commentary – and negative judgement – on other parts of the bible. He gives the example of Hosea’s reading of Jehu’s massacre of the house of Ahab. As recorded in 2 Kings the massacre is “presented as a triumph of God’s righteousness”. 
Now, that clearly, is a rather problematic story because of all the random bloodshed in it. But it did not take twenty Christian centuries for people to notice that. For in the book of the prophet Hosea (1:4) you will find, just a few generations later, a prophet of Israel looking  back on that very story and saying that Jezreel is a name of shame in history, not of triumph, and that Jehu’s atrocities deserve to be punished. Something has happened to shift the perspective. (p.37)

In exploring that changed perspective, Williams engaged in some imaginative, but not implausible, reconstruction:

And I imagine that if asked what he meant, Hosea would have said, ‘I’m sure my prophetic forebears were absolutely certain that they were doing the will of God and I’m sure the tyranny and idolatry of the royal house of Ahab was a scandal and need to be ended. But, human beings being what they are, the clear word of God calling Israel to faithfulness and to resistance was so easily turned into an excuse for yet another turn of the screw in human atrocity and violence. And we’re right to shed tears for that memory. (p.38)

In his discussion of the Eucharist, Williams does not get bogged down in the metaphysics of sacraments. He places it against the background of Jesus’ own hospitality. With the story of Zacheus in mind he states that “Jesus is not only someone who exercises hospitality; he draws out hospitality from others. By his welcome he makes other people capable of welcoming”(p.42). Thus we see something essential about the Eucharist:
We are the guests of Jesus. We are there because he asks us, and because he wants our company. At the same time we are set free to invite Jesus into our lives and literally to receive him into our bodies in the Eucharist. His welcome gives us courage to open up to him… We are welcomed and we welcome; we welcome God and we welcome our unexpected neighbours. (p42)
The chapter on prayer proceeds by way of an engagement with the respective views of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Cassian on the Lord’s Prayer. He discerns three themes common in each of these writers: prayer is God’s work in us; there is a deep connection between praying and living justly in the world; and prayer is about faithfulness or ‘sticking to it’. There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, echoes between how Williams summarises the second theme about prayer and what he said earlier about baptism and Eucharist: “Prayer is the life of Jesus coming alive in you, so it is hardly surprising if it is absolutely bound up with a certain way of being human which is about reconciliation, mercy, and freely extending the welcome and love of God to others”. (p.81)

Perhaps more so than Williams' other popular books, Being Christian is highly accessible, both in terms of content and style. The book would be a great conversation starter for any small group wanting to explore some of the basics of Christian existence. I could also imagine it would be very useful in an adult confirmation class. It could also richly reward – as it did in my case – a solitary reading.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Teaching Theology in Nanjing


From 22nd-29th of November I was teaching at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary – the national seminary of the Chinese Protestant Church. This stint of teaching was part of the unfolding relationship between the Uniting Church and the China Christian Council (CCC). Despite the name, the CCC is not so much a Council of Churches as we in Australia understand that term, but more the federation of Chinese Protestant Churches. Below are a few observations, reflections, learnings etc.,  prompted by the experience.

Facts and figures: CCC The growth of the Protestant church post the Cultural Revolution is staggering. The conventional estimate is that there are as many as 30 million Protestant Christians in China. It is believed that there were perhaps 1 million Christians at the end of the Cultural Revolution. So, the growth rate of the church far exceeds that of the population at large.  Another figure that is widely-quoted is that there are 400,000 baptisms a year.  I was struck on this and two previous (non-teaching) visits to the CCC how little triumphalism there is  in the Chinese accounts of this growth. It is as if this has happened independently of them, and that the response is to care for and encourage the new Christians.

Facts and Figures: Nanjing Seminary The CCC oversees 17 seminaries throughout the nation: 16 of them regional, and the one national seminary in Nanjing. The Nanjing seminary is the only one which teaches for postgraduate degrees - although only to Masters level. There are 400 students at the Nanjing seminary, all of them residential, and nearly all of them aged in their twenties. Some are in their late teens having come to theological study straight from school. Of course, the age profile of the student body reflects that of the church at large: it is a young church which is generating and attracting committed and energetic leaders. Nevertheless, there is an acute shortage of theologically trained pastors: present figures suggest that on average there is only one theologically-trained pastor for every 18,000 Christians. Accordingly the CCC is deeply committed to developing high-quality theological and ministerial education.

The campus at Nanjing is spacious and comfortable. Watch the video below to get a sense of the size of the buildings; watch right through because it finishes focused on a sculpture of the crucified Christ whose arms are stretched over world. It is an interpretation of Gal 6:14 and was created by a recent graduate.
My course and the students My teaching was part of a four week-intensive for 45 pastors doing Continuing Education (their second such intensive for the year). They hailed from all parts of China, including Mongolia and a city on the border with Vietnam. In the previous weeks they'd studied, among other things, the Old Testament prophets (with another visiting Australian scholar) and Luther's doctrine of Justification (with a Chinese theologian from Hong Kong). In this final week it was my lectures on Doctrine and Pastoral Ministry in the mornings and in the afternoon a course on the history of Chinese Christianity  (starting in the 8th century) with my UCA Colleague Rev Dr Ji Zhang. My own topic was worked out in consultation with the Faculty. The Chinese church is exercised by its lack of a common confession of faith as well as by both the pastoral and regulatory roles of doctrine in church life. The pastors were very engaged and I learnt much from them about some of the doctrinal discussions and disputes presently at play in the Chinese Church. (Whilst I didn't do an exact count, my conversations with the various members of the class suggested that this group of pastors had responsibility for something approaching 40,000 Christians.)
At work with my host, translator and
super-smart systematic theologian,
Dr Wen Ge.
Chinese Theology I was interested to see how the discipline of contextual theology was being appropriated. I was struck by the nuanced attitude towards the relationship between developing Chinese theological traditions and those of the West. This is a complex but also fascinating issue. The Chinese church desires to present itself as an indigenous church, free from divisions of Western Christendom. It speaks of itself as a postdenominational church. At the same time, it wants to learn from the great theological figures of Christendom: the Chinese church knows it is not starting from scratch. Then, on another flank, contemporary China is otherwise being Westernised in so many ways. At least as I heard the theologians and students speaking, they were wanting to nurture a Chinese Christian identity  shaped but not determined by Western Christianity whilst simultaneously wanting to keep their distance from the more negative westernising trends in China.  I was intrigued to learn of many Christian scholars teaching Christian thought and history in many of China's universities. This is the way many Chinese are actually introduced to Christianity.

A final comment The suffering of the Chinese church during the Cultural Revolution is well-known and much honoured in the West. In one conversation about this experience, one of my Chinese colleagues quickly deflected the discussion away from any sense of martyrdom. Instead, he pointed out that Christians were far from the only group to suffer during that period. The present significance of that experience of suffering is not that it allows Chinese Christians to think of themselves as more virtuous, but that it allows them to share in the suffering shared by so many of their fellow Chinese.

The word privilege can be too easily used, but this week was a privilege.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Multi-Age Advent Resource

The Centre for Theology and Ministry has produced the following resources for the season of Advent. They are built around daily bible readings followed by reflections, questions to ponder, and a suggested brief prayer. There are also weekly suggestions for multi-age activities. You can download the material from these links:

2014 CTM Advent Resources

2014 CTM Multi-Age Advent Resource

Friday, October 17, 2014

Symposium: Religion and Continental Philosophy

Later this month a one-day symposium, The Return of Religion in Continental Philosophy, is being held in Melbourne and sponsored by the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy and The Committee for the Study of Religion in the University of Melbourne.

Wednesday October 29th, 9.30-5.00
The 1888 Building, University of Melbourne

Full programme and contact details here.