Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Books Worth Reading (4): God's Advocates by Rupert Shortt

Rupert Shortt, God's Advocates: Christian Thinkers in Conversation (London: DLT, 2005).

This book has been around for over a decade. It deserves a wider reading than (at least from my observations) it appears to have had. It consists of 'conversations' (but think seminar-room conversations rather than fireside chats!) between the editor, Rupert Shortt and 18 leading Christian thinkers from largely English-speaking contexts. All are academics or scholars: "established names and newer voices - in and on the fringes of the Anglophone world" (ix). Whilst acknowledging the largely Western (both theological and cultural) provenance of his conversation partners, Shortt points out that they represent a certain diversity (and there is certainly theological, ethnic, gender, and generational-diversity among his chosen theologians). Yet he also points to a certain consensus among them: "if my collaborators have a premise in common, it is that theology has recovered its nerve notably in recent years, especially in North America and Britain, and this confidence springs from renewed esteem for Christianity's core resources rather than a thirst for simplistic certainties" (ix). They are, in other words, united by a certain kind of ressourcement - in defiance of both secularism's and modern theology's ambivalence towards, if not rejection of, ancient wisdom. Yet all are equally oriented to the contemporary challenges of faith: issues of gender, race, medical ethics, sexuality, pacificism, linguistics, epistemology, Christian-Muslim relations, and many others are the fields where the ideas of classical Christianity are brought into play.

So who are Shortt's conversation partners? The full list is as follows: Rowan Williams, Janet Martin Soskice, Alvin Plantinga, Christopher Insole, Sarah Coakley, Christoph Schwobel, John Milbank, Simon Oliver, David Burrell, Jean-Luc Marion, David Martin, Stanley Hauerwas, Samuel Wells, Tina Beattie, Miroslav Volf, J. Kameron Carter, Oliver O'Donovan and Joan Lockwood O'Donovan. The conversations are presented in 14 chapters: ten are one-on-one conversations; four have the conversationalists in pairs. My own engagement varied across the chapters - some were discussing issues beyond my immediate interests whilst others were engaged with authors whose work I try to follow as closely as I can. Yet even in the case of the theologians whose work I follow, the conversational style opens up new insights into their thoughts and, perhaps more interestingly, their motivations (often drawn out quite intentionally and cleverly by Shortt).

So whilst commending the whole book as well worth reading, I will focus in this summary on the four conversations that most engaged me.

The conversation with Rowan Williams is, unsurprisingly, very wide ranging. It's a reminder, too, of how pivotal Williams himself has been in the ressourcement highlighted in this book. In this particular chapter, Shortt presses Williams on some basic objections to Christian faith, as well as the evolution of his own thought. They also discuss the overall coherence of Christian ideas. Williams finds this coherence in something of the shared orientation to the 'dislocation' generated by Jesus' death and resurrection. This is Christocentric theology whose very specific centre is a very particular puzzle. Williams is worth quoting on this point at length:

As for the coherence of the ideas of Christianity, everything evolves like the oak from the acorn out of that sense of dislocation that comes around the death and resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus is the one who now and for ever decides, determines, who is in the company of God, who is in the favour of God, who belongs to the people of God, then the authority, the inner solidity of who Jesus is, has to be connected with the very purpose of God, what God is about. Jesus acts as if he has the right to determine who belongs to the people of God. And he does that in welcome, in forgiveness and judgement all the other things that the Gospels spell out. And therefore, if you take him seriously, you have at some point to make the connection with, as I say, what God is about, what are the purposes of God, the desires of God. And distinctively Christian theology beings to take shape when those two things are brought together: the actions and the words and the sufferings of this particular human being, and the vision of a God whose purpose is unrestricted fellowship with the human beings that he's made (p.3).
Shortt and Williams also briefly exchange some reflections on the significance to English-language theology of The Myth of God Incarnate, the publication of which in 1977 is highlighted by Williams as the turning point of  Anglophone theology away from the liberal Protestantism which had prevailed in (at least British) academic circles for several decades. If this is where "rational revisionism" (p.16) was leading then it wasn't leading to very much. Referring to conversations with colleagues in the 1980s, he writes: "We shared a sense that we needed to get ourselves out of this rather narrow and oddly cosy liberal environment into a slightly intellectually more rigorous, spiritually more challenging - and even alarming - world. So, yes, there is a move away from what I think of as that rather pale liberal Protestant consensus." (p.17).

One of Williams' contemporaries at Cambridge at that time was Sarah Coakley. Coakley reports, however, that her own frustrations with 1970s/80s theology were somewhat different than those of Williams. For her, the theology of that period wasn't 'liberal' enough, and this led to a focus on Ernst Troeltsch in her early research. Yet her engagement with Troeltsch yielded a tension-filled outcome. She found that Troeltsch's historicist revisionist Christology led nowhere: "nothing much was left" (p.69). But there was another strand to Troeltsch' theology which she found more productive: it was his emphasis on Christ mysticism (which, on her reading, Troeltsch never reconciled to his doctrinally revisionist Christology). This allowed her "to glimpse that our approach to 'Christ' really can't be restricted by this sort of historical positivism: it must be that 'Christ' is available in other ways" (p.71). Ultimately, this led her to approach to theology "starting on my knees". This has results, as readers of her subsequent work will know, in a striking integration of systematic theology and prayer. Her reflections in this interview on her first moves in this direction are crystallised in this comment:

I had therefore to rediscover a vibrant and distinct sense of the Spirit, starting on my knees, before I could return to those lost strands of Christology and the Trinity that I seemed to have utterly dismantled in my Troeltschian 'liberal' quest. First, one has to go through this passage of handing over the reins of control to the Spirit; only then does one begin to see that the theologian who tries to speak of God - stammeringly - is always already engaged in a divine process that is going on all the time (p.71).
This 'handing over the reins' has deeply influenced her approach to systematic theology, a discipline which she argues - against convention - is consistent with her feminist commitments. For Coakley, systematics is  legitimate "attempt to enunciate a coherent vision", but with this proviso: "as long as systematics is undergirded by the disciplined 'practice' of non-mastery, such that theology itself is always in via, always undergoing its own apophatic displacement" (p.76f). Coakley has, of course, gone on to produce a systematic theology oriented to issues of gender, sexuality and desire. In doing so she has engaged, through her extensive appeal to patristic theologians, in one of the more interesting exercises in ressourcement in contemporary theology.

Another of Shortt's conversation partners who brings feminism into critically constructive dialogue with classical theology is Tina Beattie. Again, it is a wide-ranging and nuanced conversation which Shortt records. To my mind the most interesting case of ressourcement to which Beattie points is around the issue of sin. She both stresses the conventional - and some not so conventional - feminist critiques of classical accounts of sin. She appears dissatisfied with the dismissal of the idea of sin by some feminists as either an anachronistic or androcentric concept. At the same time, she draws on the feminist insight that "Christian ideas of sin are heavily invested with an unexamined fear of female sexuality" (p. 200). She clearly believes that the topic of sin needs deeper reflection than either the tradition or the feminist critique has offered. "Feminists", she writes, "need to take seriously the question of sin as a mysterious but profoundly personal experience of alienation and distorted desire which does seem to be part of the human condition, and this can't simply be attributed to the effects of patriarchy" (p.200).  After a reference to Freud, she continues: "Whether you call it original sin or the Oedipus complex, there's wisdom about human nature in these terms, and it needs a deeper theological response than criticising unjust social structures" (p.201). This is not a retreat from the feminist task, but a call to enter it more deeply, a call which must be accompanied by patience:

[I]t's premature to expect feminist theology come up with adequate solutions to these vast issues that it opens up. After all it took the early Church over three centuries and much political wrangling to get around to the Council of Nicaea. We might have to wait a few centuries yet before we have a Council of Lesbos that gives doctrinal recognition to women's theological insights (p.201).
If feminist theology will strike some as an unexpected location of theological ressourcement,  black theology is likely to be even more unexpected. Yet, Shorrt's conversation with J Kameron Carterprofessor of Systematic Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke University, offers a very fertile discussion between black theology and Christian orthodoxy. Carter's claim that the "category of culture must be baptised...before [theology] makes use of it" (p. 243) captures much of his approach - and of his critique of liberal theology. On his reading, this is what liberal theology, and not least in its 'black' versions, failed to do. 'Culture' was regarded as self-evidently theologically significant. What is interesting in Carter's critique, however, is that he sees this move in liberal theology as the manifestation, not of novelty, but of a deep rooted tendency in historic Christian theology. The prioritisation of culture is a choice for one side of the binary, the ancient roots of which lie in differences Alexandrian and Antiochene Christologies. Today we describe the binary as one of 'theology from below' or 'theology from above'. Carter believes that this binary must be subverted. To do so he appeals to a theology as ancient as the binary itself: Chalcedon!   It is the classic - Chalcedonian - conviction that "in Christ there is no break between his humanity and divinity" which gives Carter critical leverage against liberal theology - and indeed, against both 'white theology' and its binary opposite, 'black theology'. He sets out this argument as follows:

[F]ormulating a 'black Christology'..., at least as typically conceived, is problematic. Put succinctly, it risks replicating the very procedures of 'white theology' namely, of operating out of a notion of 'pure nature' as culturally inflected through the notion of whiteness. ... White theology has too often functioned from a  position of pure nature, a nature that is so pure that white theology need not name itself as 'white', for it is 'natural', indicative of the 'true state and proper order of things.... [T]o formulate a 'black Christology' or  a 'black systematics' as typically conceived is to risk replicating this procedure, where 'black' comes to function in an essentialised or 'pure' manner (p. 242).

There are many steps in this argument, and the above quotation barely skims the surface (the argument is developed at length in his Race: A Theological Account (OUP, 2008)). It is theologically deeper than  a conventional critique of essentialism. There are two especially intriguing dimensions to it.  Firstly, he draws on none other than the twentieth-century Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac (quite something for a young black American Baptist theologian to do!) to make his point. He appeals to de Lubac's insistence that nature cannot be abstracted from grace. When theology appeals to culture (as something 'natural') it indulges in precisely such an abstraction. The second is the strong historical connection he makes between the tendency of classic Christianity to de-Judaising of Jesus and Christian theology's frequent blindness to race.

Carter's attempt to bring black theology and orthodoxy into conversation takes some of its force from his reference to the nineteenth-century black political activist, Maria Stewart (1803-1979). Carter points out that Stewart's activism was fuelled in part by "important scriptural-exegetical work" as well as ideas "deriving from such figures as Julian of Norwich" (p.239). He claims that this very early engagement with classic Christian traditions and theologies has been "largely discarded in the modern evolution of racial discourse" (p.239). His own approach to is to retrieve and develop that earlier tradition.

Shorrt's conversation with Carter concludes with Carter reflecting on his involvement at Mount Level Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., where he is an associate minister. One sentence alone of this section is worth quoting, and it is an important reminder of the real benchmark of theology - perhaps especially if it is an instance of ressourcement - whilst also being a reminder of why theology matters in the first place: "Theological discourse, no matter it orientation, will always have its deepest witness in the lives it is able to produce" (p.246).

This is a good book which greatly rewards a reading of even some of its chapters. To an extent it is a 'report' on some of the key theologians writing in English today. It provides fresh insights into the intellectual vibrancy of classic Christian theology.  It also offers some interesting windows into the personal and intellectual biographies of thinkers who are otherwise known only through their formal academic writing. The book would be useful to theological students and, indeed, to anyone with some background in theology who would like to get an idea of who's thinking what in the contemporary Anglophone theological world. I suspect that few readers would get through the book without having some of the prevailing caricatures about English-language theology and theologians unsettled.

* * * * *

(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.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Does this confess the 'faith of the church'?

Late last year, I began pondering what issues I would want to contribute to a contemporary statement of the church's trinitarian faith. This was prompted by several factors. Conversations in China last November with colleagues from the United Church of Canada reminded me of that church's history of writing statements of faith. The encouragement of my own church's Basis of Union to confess the church's faith in fresh words and deeds is a constant presence to my theological work. More sustained teaching in Christology and Trinity in recent semesters has led me to engage more explicitly with the continuing discussions about gender, the theological significance of the specifics of Jesus' humanity, and the eschatology of the New Testament - all issues where the classical creeds are problematic. At the same time my conviction grows that the 'faith of the church', including its trinitarian content and structure, remains a fruitful source of wisdom; it warrants critical re-articulation rather than dismissal on the grounds of either its allegedly primitiveworldview or its alleged captivity to Greek metaphysics. For that reason I believe that any contemporary statement of faith succeeds to the extent that it is a fresh confession of the faith of the church and it fails to the extent it that it is an idiosyncratic statement of individual belief. Learning to use statements of faith as confessions of who we 'trust' rather than as lists of things to 'believe' is, in my view, an important spiritual challenge for the contemporary church. 

The result of these various promptings is below. It will be evident that some of my criteria are in tension with each other (e.g., I've deliberately retained the word 'Lord' to reflect the biblical witnesses' own re-framing of the term). Specific echoes of the Basis will be very easily heard. I post the statement here for reflection and comment. It remains a work in progress and I'd value both critique and suggestions for improvement.
* * * *

We trust one God: the Love, Life and Truth who is the source and sustainer of all that was, is and will be.

We trust Jesus Christ, Love from Love, Life from Life, Truth from Truth, Eternitys Wisdom, Creations Lord, Israel's Messiah, God among us.

Sent from the very heart of God's love for the world, he became human in the womb of Mary. He came not to be served but to serve.

Hailing from Nazareth, he proclaimed the long-promised and coming reign of God; he befriended outcasts, healed the sick, forgave sinners, confronted falsehood, and showed mercy to his enemies.

Reaching Jerusalem, riding a donkey, prompting hosannas, he offered himself as the servant Lord; he was rejected, abandoned and betrayed; he was crucified on a Roman cross as a false Messiah. 

Dead in Joseph of Arimatheas tomb, God raised him; the human verdict was reversed; his mission was vindicated; his reconciliation of the world to God was declared.

Appearing, speaking and eating, his transformed body provoked fear, doubt, joy and hope; his resurrection announced the defeat of death; he reassured his confused followers and commissioned them as witnesses to his way, truth and life.

Returning, now scarred and bruised, to the One who sent him, he shares in Loves rule and receives the worship of his sisters and brothers from every culture, class and nation.

We trust the Holy Spirit, the loving and lively breath of God, who flows in, around and within the whole creation.

This same Spirit spoke through Israel's prophets, inspired Jesus' ministry, and gathers a community, the church, through which Christ bears witness to himself.

Sent by the Spirit, the church, like Jesus, is called to serve; in ever-fresh words and deeds, it is to proclaim the risen crucified Jesus Christ; its vocation is to witness to God's renewal of all creation, for which it waits with an impatient but sure and active hope.

This is the churchs faith. In this Triune God we trust. God grant us so to live. Amen.

* * * *
My thanks to Jason Goroncy, Katharine Massam and Rachel Kronberger for responses to earlier versions of this statement. None of these colleagues should, however, be taken to endorse this version or any part of it.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Audio Links to Lectures by Williams and McFarland from Cambridge Divinity

The Divinity Faculty at Cambridge has posted audio files of the first two of Rowan Williams' Hulsean Lectures. Both are available via this link. Subsequent lectures will be posted as the series continues. There are four more to go. The Series is entitled Christ and the Logic of Creation.

Ian McFarland's inaugural lecture as the Regius Professor of Divinity has also been made available. Go to this link.  McFarland's topic: The Crucial Difference: For a Chalcedonianism Without Reserve.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The 'Same God?' Controversy: Some Other Questions

The 'Same God?' controversy at Wheaton College rages on.  An issue of evangelical loyalty and identity has opened up into an issue of interest to a much wider range of Christians. Probably unsurprisingly, a discussion about Christian-Muslim relations has exposed some of the contemporary fault lines internal to Christianity.
I have nothing to add to the theological discussion directly, but there are a few things about the discussion that strike me as being slightly askew. Or, more specifically, I wonder if we are trying to force one theological question to do more theological work than it is reasonable to expect it to do. What follows, therefore, consists of an observation, some other questions, a concern, and a personal reflection.
An observation

Both the content and the tone of much of the discussion seems to suggest a background assumption that if we have our doctrine of God right, then our worship will be true and faithful. But the various theological traditions of Christianity, and I’m sure those of Islam also, have long taught otherwise. Wisely taught and used, doctrines are, in Nicholas Lash’s felicitous words, 'protocols against idolatry'. But taught and used without wisdom, they are as prone to becoming idols as is any material object or hidden ambition. Trinitarian doctrine may well be a true guide to true worship (something I definitely affirm), but in no way does adherence to Trinitarian doctrine guarantee true worship. Christians are called to worship in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24) and to make their lives their worship (Rom 12:1). Such worship requires an orientation of body, soul and mind to a range of practices and convictions, not simply to a particular doctrine of God. So it seems to me that the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God can’t actually be answered by comparing respective doctrines of God (even if that comparison will be one element informing the answer).
Some other questions
The above issues have led me to wonder whether some of the various theological expositions which have emerged in recent weeks have unwittingly been answering a question quite different to the one they think they are answering. They are actually answers to the question of whether Christian monotheism and Islamic monotheism are the same. Regardless of how that question is answered, it is a different question to whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Both questions are perfectly legitimate and properly warrant deep theological reflection. Perhaps, however, an equally fruitful question would be to ask what each tradition means by worship and how it is practiced. For it seems to me that practices of worship will tell us at least as much - and arguably even more - about the object of our worship as will a doctrine of God. From that question a couple of others also flow. What are the teachings of Islam which are reflected in Islam’s various worship practices? Are there aspects of both the worship practices and their underlying theologies from which Christians and Muslims might learn from each other? It seems to me that each of these questions is logically distinct (if not completely unrelated) to the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
A concern
The current controversy has not arisen out of an abstract doctrinal dispute. When Larycia Hawkins affirmed her belief that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, she did so as one of several justifications of her hijab-wearing act of solidarity with Muslims, a solidarity intended to counter the loud anti-Muslim voices emerging from North American Christianity. The intention is exemplary. The hijab-wearing act is of immense symbolic power, and one that I personally find very moving (whilst acknowledging that the response from Muslims is not unanimous). But there is, I think, a risk in justifying such solidarity on the basis of "religious solidarity" based, in turn, on the belief that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Even if both do worship the same God, Christian solidarity with Muslims against those who would demonise them is properly justified (as it was by Professor Hawkins) by a concern for such matters as love of neighbour, befriending the stranger, respect for the dignity of all humans, and not bearing false witness. Professor Hawkins’ act of solidarity would be perfectly justified and no less exemplary even if it was unequivocally the case that Muslims and Christians did not worship the same God.
A personal reflection
At a personal level, the controversy has brought to the surface some long dormant memories of issues that first emerged for me when I worked for several years in Pakistan back in the 1980s. Then an Agronomist, I was theologically very naïve (in hindsight, embarrassingly so) and I satisfied myself with what were some pretty unsophisticated understandings of Islam. But the question now provoked by the Wheaton controversy is one that I could not help but ask as I daily woke to the call of the minaret from the adjacent mosque, or as I observed faithful Muslims pausing from their work and bowing towards Mecca as I busily drove along the highway to and from my work, or as I would walk around the truly sublime seventeenth-century Badshahi Mosque, just a couple of kilometres from where I lived. In fact, it is the architecture of that remarkable mosque which still stirs a theological question for me. The capacious welcome of its vast open spaces, its smooth sweeping arches, its gently curved domes, and its starkly simple minarets – features it shares with the other grand mosques of Moghul India - managed to point me to God’s grandeur and simplicity more eloquently than the often-cluttered naves, the dark-vaulted rooves and  the jagged, intrusive spires of Christendom's gothic cathedrals. Can such reactions be legitimate prompts to ask a different question than the one generating the current controversy? For instance: What is the theological insight in Islam that has generated such beauty and is there wisdom in that insight from which Christians can learn?  Again, it seems to me that such questions are independent of the answer to the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

* * * * *
 My thanks to Jason Goroncy for some helpful responses to an earlier draft of this blog. Jason's own reflections on the issue can be found here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What the (theological) willy wonka?

"What the willy wonka was that all about?" So asked my friend and colleague, Jason Goroncy, in response to the Hillsong London version of Silent Night that's been doing the rounds on the web in recent days. Jason's question prompted a good conversation on his blog, and he himself has now responded with his own typically thoughtful comments. Jason encourages some searching questions about how to interpret this performance in a way that's theologically serious and fair. He also points out that the discomfort many of us (and I count myself in this number) experience watching this might properly be transferred to other Christian 'performances' and 'symbols' which don't cause the discomfort which they perhaps should. So, an extract:

Watching the performance of this single song, online, nearly 17,000 kilometres from where it was performed, I have the same kind of confusion I experience whenever I worship in a building with a national flag in it; or an Honour Roll commemorating those who gave their lives in ‘the service of freedom’ and ‘for God, King and Country’, some of whom, it is noted (sometimes with the sign of a little cross!), ‘paid the supreme sacrifice’; or whenever I see a reference, in my ecclesiological territory, to ‘senior pastor’; or when I hear that a qualification for being a bishop (in some other ecclesiological territories) is proof of a penis; or whenever I see an innocent bunch of carnations perched on a baptismal font;....

Check out Jason's first post and the ensuing conversation here.

Jason's own comments here.

And if you haven't seen what everyone's talking about, here's the video in question:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Canada, China, Church: An Observer's Observations

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of being an 'observer' at a forum between the China Christian Council and the United Church of Canada.  It was held at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. My presence there was part of growing partnership between the CCC and the Uniting Church in Australia. We had held a similar joint forum with the CCC in 2013 and hope another one might eventuate in the near future.

Here are a few highlights and learnings:

  • Since I had a gap in my diary, I arrived at the Seminary a few days in advance of the conference. This gave me the chance to work in the library as well as to have conversations with staff and students as opportunities arose. As I've reported in blogs following previous visits, the Seminary is the focus of a very different world of theological education than ours in Australia: 350 residential students, nearly all of whom are under 30, some straight out of school. Within a few years, all these students will be pastors in churches with 100s and even 1000s of members. Still, even this number of students - together with the smaller numbers at the regional seminaries - it is going to take a while to change the present ratio of 1 theologically-trained ordained minster: 18,000 Protestant Christians. The enthusiasm and dedication of both students and faculty is exemplary and inspiring. A cohort of about 25 graduate students sat in on the conference for its duration and often asked very probing questions.
  • The Canadian delegation was made up of 22 people, including the Assembly Moderator, the General Secretary, and a range of other leaders and members; the delegation also reflected the cultural and ethnic diversity of the UCC. An indigenous elder among the delegation opened the Canadian presentation with an indigenous ritual used when starting communication with new friends. It also included a retired UCC theologian who had spent 2002-2007 teaching at the seminary. He was warmly welcomed back to Nanjing.
  • Listening in to the various presentations and the interactions which they produced,  I was struck at how often the conversations replayed the dialogue the UCA and CCC had undertaken in 2013. It didn't take long for questions such as these to emerge: How is the unity of the church articulated theologically? What is the relationship between gospel and culture? What are the demands and opportunities of being
    post-denominational and post-Christendom churches in both China and Canada? How does the church co-operate with the state in the provision of community services (a new possibility for the Chinese church which was prevented from doing so until 2011). I think that united and uniting churches work, at least implicitly, with ecclesiologies that are not easily mapped on to the ecclesiologies of Christendom. I think that in exploring these questions the UCA, the CCC and UCC are fellow-travellers.

  • For me a real highlight among the presentations was a paper, "Gospel and Culture: A Chinese Christian's Understanding" by Rev Dr Yongtao Chen from the Nanjing faculty. It was a very illuminating perspective from within the Chinese context of how Christianity appropriates elements of Chinese culture and what it is that Chinese Christianity can contribute to Chinese culture. He offered a very interesting reading of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 as a paradigm for the encounter between Jesus and another culture. A fuller version of Dr.  Chen's paper is available in Christianity and Chinese Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) edited by Mikka Ruokanen and Paulos Huang.  
  • Both before and during the visit I took the opportunity to delve more than I have in the past into the truly vast and rapidly expanding body of contemporary scholarly writing on Chinese Christianity. I would simply mention the following as a fairly random sample of the literature which I myself have only skimmed and which others might also find helpful:
Daniel H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
Jason Kindopp and Caroll Lee Hamrin, God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tension (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution 2004).
Justin Tan,  "Chinese Protestant Christianity" in The Church in China (Adelaide: ATF Theology, 2010) 83-120.
Yang Huilin, China Christianity and the Question of Culture  (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014). 
Gloria S. Tseng, "Revival Preaching and the Indigenization of Christianity in  Republican China", International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39 (2014): 177-182. 
Alan Hunter and Kim Kwong Chan, Protestantism in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 
Several themes emerges from even a rapid engagement with these works: the sheer complexity of the history (ancient and recent) of Christianity in China; the immense diversity of Christianity in China, a diversity which extends from the impact of contemporary Pentecostalism to alliances between Christianity and folk religion; and the challenges of being the Christian community in a one-party state (a challenge which is not reducible to the status respectively held by the registered and unregistered churches); and the need for Westerners to recognise that 'state' oversight of religious activities has been part of Chinese culture and society for over a millennium. I would also draw particular attention to the work by Yang Huilin mentioned above. Huilin is a leading Chinese academic, presently the Vice-President of Renmin University in Beijing. Huilin is among a group of Chinese intellectuals - only some of whom are Christian - who engage with Christian theology as an intellectual discipline in its own right. In this particular book Huilin engages Christian ethics, the place of theology in the humanities, Zizek's post-secular appropriation of Christianity, and even a chapter on Scriptural Reasoning, as tools for dialogue between China and the West. Whilst I understand there is some ambivalence from the church theologians towards this enterprise, it is fascinating - and perhaps salutary- that intellectuals outside the church find Christian ideas interesting precisely as ideas which have contributions to make to the welfare of Chinese culture.

Once again, I returned from a visit to China deeply grateful for the opportunity to be exposed to this growing church, and on this occasion also to learn about another united/uniting church, i.e., the United Church of Canada. The blog which the UCC delegation produced throughout its visit can be found here. I'm grateful to both delegations for letting me eavesdrop on their conversation.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Job Opportunity in Theological/Ministerial Education

The Western Australian Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia is currently seeking a Director of Education and Formation to join their leadership group. The core purpose of the role is to provide leadership in the achievements of a culture in which faith formation for discipleship and leadership is prized, appreciated and seeks to build an informed and integrated learning community directed to the mission of God. For position description contact Monica Pettersen on 9260 9800 or email> . Please send your CV and cover letter (for the attention of Rosemary Hudson Miller, Acting General Secretary), by e-mail to Human Resources Advisor>. Applications close at 5.00pm on 16 December 2015.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Homosexuality, Gentile Inclusion, and Appealing to Scripture

Last weekend I participated in the Ethos event, A Civil Conversation on Homosexuality. I was one of eight panellists. We presented in groups of two or three around, respectively, biblical/theological issues, the local church, pastoral and counselling challenges, and legal matters. A wide diversity of convictions, expertise and experiences was included. The ensuing conversation was rich and challenging.

Each of us on the panel had 5 minutes to make an initial contribution to the discussion. Mine is included below. Clearly, there is significant risk is posting this brief overview. With such a skeletal outline of the argument, its weaker points are easily exposed and the methodological strategies it employs are identified but left unexplained.

A full version (10,000+ words) of my argument will be published as the Summer Zadok Paper next month. An even slightly longer version of the argument, specifically oriented to debates within the Uniting Church in Australia, will be included in my book Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology Provoked by the Basis of Union to be published in the New Year.
In supporting a revision of the church’s historical rejection of homosexual practice, my argument does not consist of a generic appeal to ‘inclusion’, nor to an application of the political discourses of ‘rights’ or ‘liberation’, nor even to a theological endorsement of ‘homosexual experience’, however that might be defined.
My argument weaves together reflections on what it means to appeal to scripture in the face of novel experiences of the Spirit. The novel experience I’m seeking to bring into conversation with Scripture is not an abstract ‘homosexual experience’, but the church’s experience of having gay disciples within it.
In other words, the experience which presses itself upon the church is the experience of Christian men and women who, through mutual attraction, friendship and affection have formed a relationship with a partner of the same gender. These relationships display and practise fidelity and mutual nurture, and allow each partner to develop as disciples of Jesus Christ by loving God and neighbour, befriending strangers, praying for enemies, and otherwise contributing to and building up the life and witness of the church.
It is with this experience in mind that I believe the experience of the inclusion of the Gentiles becomes a significant biblical paradigm for our contemporary theological reflections.
But I am not appealing to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the way that it is often appealed to in this issue. The argument is often presented like this: the inclusion of the Gentiles is a paradigm of the church accepting, on the basis of their evidence of the Spirit’s work, those who have previously been deemed outsiders.
Instead, my appeal to the inclusion of the Gentiles goes like this:
The appeal to the Bible which was prompted by the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles is itself a paradigm for our appeal to Scripture in our reflections on the place of homosexuals in the church. 
Inclusion of the Spirit-filled Gentiles was ultimately justified by novel ways of reading scripture.
Crucial here is the reference by James to the prophets, principally Amos 9, in the deliberations at Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15.  Time does not permit a full engagement with this text, other than to say that James – or Luke – manifestly tinkers with this text. It is not a direct quote form the Septuagint, a fragment is added from Isaiah, and another from Zechariah. Even in the use of Amos, the image of redemption is altered.
In other words, James – or Luke – has not discovered or revealed ‘the meaning’ of Amos or the other prophets; he has produced what one commentator has described as “a pastiche of fragments” (1).
What we see here is the kind of freedom, imagination and creativity which the writers of the New Testament characteristically exercised in their use of and appeal to their Scriptures.  Scripture was used, under the intense pressure of spiritual novelty, to reimagine the purposes of God.
How might we appeal to Scripture to reimagine the purposes of God under the pressure – or, as I would prefer to say,  the gift – which the presence of openly gay disciples in the church is to the church.
I suggest that there are voices in Scripture which help us reimagine the nexus of creation, nature and order in ways which are alternatives to the very tight nexus of creation, nature and order evident in Romans 1 and which has been so pivotal for sustaining the classical Christian rejection of homosexual practice. There, Paul argues God’s creative act produces a natural order to which corresponds a moral order, a moral order which is violated by homosexual acts.
Job 39  and Ecclesiastes 7 tell a different story – not about homosexual acts, to which they do not refer – but about the prior relationship between creation, nature and order.
In his response from within the whirlwind to Job’s protests, God points Job to those dimensions of the good creation which lie beyond the human perception of order. Strikingly, this includes the flightless ostrich.
These creatures appear ‘disordered’. The ostrich has wings but cannot fly; in careless abandonment it fails to protect its eggs; it treats its children with cruelty, as if they were not even its own. Yet God declares these creatures with these features to be his work. Job is not invited to see some otherwise hidden order, nor to understand this apparent 'disordering' as the result of a universal fall. Rather Job is summoned simply to acknowledge that these creatures with these features belong to God’s wise creative work and thus play their role in the integrity of creation. In the words of one commentator: “God confronts Job with things that his…categories cannot possibly comprehend.” (2) 
Similarly, Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, repeatedly queries whether there is any justice or order in the world, and is unable to find it (e.g., 1:16-17; 2:17; 8:14). So, Qohelet declares: “Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked” (Eccl 7:13). In commentary on this verse it has been said, the “universe has wrinkles”, some of which are simply part of the “act of creation itself”. (3)  As with the book of Job, the point at issue is the difference between the integrity of God’s wise creation and the limited human perception of order.
I suggest that by linking these texts to other biblical texts on, specifically, ‘desire’ and ‘the body’, we can envisage a biblically and theologically coherent “pastiche of fragments” which invite us to reimagine the place of homosexuality within the integrity of God’s wise creation.

(1) Robert W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, ed. Leander E. Keck et al., (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 10:218.
(2) Carol A. Newson, Job: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck et al., (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 4:625.
(3) James L Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes (Louisville: WJKP, 1987), 139.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Jesus: A Case of Mistaken Identity - A Sermon

This sermon is one that I've preached several times this year in different contexts. It picks up some of the ideas of the 'strangeness' of Jesus Christ - one of the themes of this blog. In this case, the theme is developed through an engagement with Mark 8: 27-38. It's been fine-tuned by responses from the congregations of Wesley Uniting Church (inner-city Melbourne), Clarence Uniting Church (suburban Hobart) and East Doncaster Uniting Church (suburban Melbourne).

From Mark 8, I take the themes of curiosity, confession and confusion and build the sermon around that.

The text of the sermon is available here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Church, State and Culture

A further episode in the conversation between Ben Myers and me following Tony Abbot's Thatcher Lecture: "The Welfare of the City: Re-thinking Church and State". Prompted to think a bit more about a theological understanding of the state and its relationship to culture, I conclude the article with these suggestions:

I suggest that rather than repeat received theologies of the state, or even develop new ones, for this new context, Christian theological energy could be invested in theologies of citizenship in the midst of cultural diversity. For much of the Western theological tradition, cultural diversity has been a problem to be solved. Might it be that it is itself a good of creation, and one that invites a level of theological engagement which would match that which has previously been devoted to theologies of the state? Power and authority will weave their way through such diversity in ways that both help and hinder human flourishing. 
For that reason, and many others, Christians are called to learn to live, think and imagine in ways that will allow them, in the words of Jeremiah, to "seek the welfare of the city" - this strange and unfamiliar "city" in which God has presently placed the Western church.

The earlier pieces can be found as follows: