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.
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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.

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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.

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 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.