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 monica.pettersen@wa.uca.org.au> . Please send your CV and cover letter (for the attention of Rosemary Hudson Miller, Acting General Secretary), by e-mail to Human Resources Advisor monica.pettersen@wa.uca.org.au>. 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:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Civil Conversation on Homosexuality

On Saturday Nov 21st, I'll be part of a panel discussing homosexuality. The event is being organised by Ethos, the Evangelical Alliance's Centre for Christianity and Society. A panel, representing a wide range of denominational and theological commitments, has been convened. The panel is also notable for the inclusion of various domains of expertise. My particular contribution will be to discuss the biblical and theological issues with Gordon Preece and Mark Lindsay.

Other panellists include: Kevin Giles, Denise Cooper-Clarke, Carolyn Francis, Matt Glover, Rich Phan and Matt Glover.

All details can be located here, but in summary:

Date: Nov 21st
Time: 1-6pm
Location: St. Thomas' Anglican Church, Burwood

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Tony Abbott's Thatcher Lecture

I've written a response to a response to Tony Abbott's Thatcher lecture. It's been published on the ABC Religion and Ethics website. Using Ben Myer's earlier response as a point of departure, I argue that Abbott is running with an inadequate understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Culture and that his calls to limit hospitality, on the grounds that it risks change to Europe, is misguided.  You can read the article here: Love Your Enemy: What Tony Abbott Gets Wrong about Christianity - A Response to Myers

And now Ben has responded to my response: "On Not Confusing Church and State: Response to Geoff Thompson"  

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Books Worth Reading (3): David Ford's The Future of Christian Theology

David F. Ford, The Future of Christian Theology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

This book is part of the Blackwell Manifesto series. In fact, if you go to this video (and below), you can watch Ford explain how, in the process of writing it, he was in dialogue with the authors of the parallel manifestos for Jewish and Islamic theology. Such dialogue is typical of David Ford's writings and  this Manifesto reflects these and other conversations. There are theological engagements with the state of the 'secular'; he studies how Christian theology can be 'blessed' by other faiths; he explores the multiple communities in which theology is performed; he writes of the need for theological apprenticeship; he addresses institutional and funding issues on which the future of theology will depend. Although written from the heart of British academic theology (Ford is Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge), the book reflects Ford's interest in global theology and the diverse communities from which theology emerges and which it serves. For all these reasons the book is worth reading. Nevertheless, I will specify two particular aspects of his argument which make this book an especially worthwhile read.

The first relates to the openness of Christian theology and the grounds of that openness. I am frequently drawn into conversations about the systematic nature of systematic theology and the criticism that precisely by being systematic the discipline over-organises the material of Christian theology. Just recently I was in a meeting where systematic theology was summarily dismissed as 'too rigid'. This is not an unfair criticism of some strands of systematic theology, but not, however, of its best exponents. (See my earlier post discussing Sarah Coakley's reponse to such criticisms). Ford is not preoccupied with this criticism, nor is the book an apology for systematic theology. Nevertheless he has some useful ways of exploring the openness of the Christian theological task. With echoes of von Balthasar, and before him, Hegel,  Ford uses a typology of 'epic', 'lyric' and 'drama' to distinguish different theological styles. The "epic mindset", he writes, "likes clarity completeness, and objectivity, systems, overviews and comprehensive structures" (p.25). Lyric theology concerns itself with "inwardness, self-expression and the present moment" and embraces "messiness and loose ends" (p.25). As such, lyric theology can be a corrective to epic theology. Yet, the danger with the lyric style is that it can "give up on a coherent plot, an overarching meaning" (p.26). Drama, on the other hand, "is able to embrace the objective and the subjective, to maintain a sense of plot and purpose without supressing individuality [or] diversity" (p.26). It can "have epic detachment and lyric intensity, and enable a sense of coherence without assuming one overview" (p.26).

Ford prefers the dramatic because he believes that it is characteristic of the biblical testimony itself, and for that reason has a particular claim on the work of theological reflection. The Bible, he writes,
testifies to a real drama of love and freedom, and the most serious matters are at stake in the interactions of God, humanity, and creation. ... Human freedom is fulfilled in involvement with God and God's purposes, and this means constant discernment of vocation and responsibility within an unfolding drama whose central act is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (p.27). 
David Ford
Of course, the appeal to the dramatic is not uncommon in contemporary theology. What makes Ford's approach especially interesting is the way he deepens the biblical foundation for it. Theology will maintain this dramatic posture if it attends to the different 'theological moods' present in the bible and reflects them in its constructive work. Too much theology, he says, is in the imperative and indicative moods. Christian theology must also develop its discourses in the subjunctive and interrogative moods. He refers to the conventional "deadening lack of recognition of the complex interplay of moods across a range of biblical books" (p.71) and argues that a greater recognition of those moods and their 'ecology' will generate theological styles reflective of the biblical witness itself.

The second aspect of his argument which makes this book worth reading is his discussion of the 'elements' of wise and creative theology. Ford suggests that such theology is characterised by these four elements: retrieving the past; engaging with God, community and world; thinking; and communication. These are spelled out in the book, but their suggestiveness should be immediately apparent. Perhaps the most striking feature of this discussion is Ford's emphasis on 'communication'. Here too he finds precedent and mandate in the Bible itself. He suggests that, historically, theological fruitfulness is linked to theological creativity. "For theology to do what the Bible did, as well as to interpret what the Bible said, means that it should pursue creativity in expression and performance in many modes" (p. 203).

To my mind, this approach to 'wise and creative' theology is a more artful and interesting approach to theological judgement than the much invoked, but somewhat flatfooted, quadrilateral (Wesleyan or otherwise) of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. I have used this quadrilateral as a very basic resource for introducing new theological students to the sources of theology. As an introductory resource it is useful. Nevertheless, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with way it often gets taken up. It is treated as an unstructured quartet which any of the other three can displace the Bible from its primary place rather than operate as hermeneutical aids in the reading of the Bible. Secondly, it too easily creates an impression that once you arrange these sources in a particular way you have a theological method which guarantees a 'correct' answer. It thereby tempts the theologian to the wrong sort of confidence. In contrast, Ford's 'wise and creative' theology keeps theologians on their toes, bringing them into a more dynamic, unpredictable, and humble approach to their task.

I think this book would be especially helpful to those in the middle of a theological degree and to those theological graduates who want to acquaint themselves with some important current trends in the task of theology. For both groups it would be well worth reading.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

ANZATS 2015: A Life Worth Living

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

Cornell West and 'institutional' Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * *

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

Thursday, June 11, 2015

An Outsider's First Impressions of the UCA

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

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

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

Friday, June 5, 2015

Colin Williams, Secularism, the Church and UCA Origins

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

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

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

Friday, May 22, 2015

Pathways to Union and Beyond

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

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Resurrection: Interpretation and Impatience

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

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

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

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