Thursday, September 14, 2017

Does this confess 'the faith of the church'? An Easter Reprise

Easter seems a good time to return to the Confession of  Faith I drafted some months ago. I am grateful for the responses from many and various people to the earlier version. There have been many conversations which have made me think a bit more carefully and be clearer about what I was trying to communicate. I won't explain the detail of all the changes that ensued from those responses. Nevertheless, I doubt it will take long  to recognise the following as the key issues which I've addressed: the relationship between historical an doctrinal claims, the emphasis on the unity of  God as the starting point, gendered language in the second article, more care in the claims made for the church, and a few others.

I've had several requests to use this in various contexts. I'm very glad for it to be used. It's a public document intended for use in the church. If it is used, I would always be interested to know how it is received and/or adapted.

We trust the one God.

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

We trust Jesus Christ, Loves Beloved, Life's Light, Eternal Wisdom, Israel's Messiah, God with us.
Sent from the very heart of God's love for the world, coming not to be served but to serve, Jesus became human in the womb of Mary.

Hailing from Nazareth, befriending outcasts, healing the sick, forgiving sinners, confronting falsehood, and showing mercy to enemies, Jesus proclaimed the long-promised reign of God.

Reaching Jerusalem, prompting hosannas, trusting the one he named Abba, he offered himself as the servant Lord; he was rejected, abandoned and betrayed, and then crucified on a Roman cross as a false Messiah.

Lying dead and buried in a tomb, God raised this Jesus to new life: the human verdict was reversed; violence was rejected; the earthly mission was vindicated; death was defeated, the reconciliation of the world to God was manifest

Appearing, speaking and eating, this transformed body provoked fear, doubt, joy and hope. With words of peace the risen Jesus empowered these confused followers, sending them as witnesses to the way, truth and life.

Returning, scarred and bruised, to the One who sent him, Jesus now 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 blows where she wills: in, around and through the whole creation.

This same Spirit spoke through Israel's prophets, animated Jesus' ministry, and gathers a community, the church, which, like Jesus, is called to serve; it is an instrument through which Christ continues to command attention and awaken faith.

Sent by the Spirit, the church is to proclaim the risen, crucified Jesus Christ in ever-fresh words and deeds; it 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. It is the faith we confess. In this Triune God we trust. God grant us so to live and hope. Amen.

Monday, September 4, 2017

What is the Bible?

In the midst of the current public use of the bible in Australia's same-sex marriage debates, I've written some thoughts on what the Bible is and argued that the 'what' and 'why' questions about it take theological precedence over the 'how to read it' question.

There's some Kevin Rudd, Walter Brueggemann, Rowan Williams, Augustine and also this rather beautiful paragraph from the First Helvetic Confession of 1536.
The entire Biblical Scripture is solely concerned that man understand that God is kind and gracious to him and that He has publicly exhibited and demonstrated this His kindness to the whole human race through Christ his Son. However, it comes to us and is received by faith alone, and is manifested and demonstrated by love for our neighbour.  
The whole piece has been published on the ABC Religion and Ethics website. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A UCA Book of Confessions?

Calls are often made to 'update' the Basis of Union or to develop a contemporary statement or confession of faith. Such calls are prompted by various concerns - some concerning the status of the Basis, some concerning its content, some concerning the call within the Basis itself for 'fresh words and deeds'. The Uniting Church has already developed its own contemporary statements of faith. Uniting in Worship 2 includes a contemporary Statement of Faith built upon the Basis itself. Following the adoption of the Revised Preamble to the UCA's constitution, the Worship Working Group developed an Affirmation of Faith (in two forms) which includes themes suggested by the Preamble. All these carry some de facto authority, even if the nature of that authority has not been formally articulated.

Another possible way of enriching our theology would be to follow the example of other churches in the Reformed tradition and formally adopt, for authoritative reference and consultation, one or more of the confessions or statements of faith developed by other Churches. To cite just two examples, both the Presbyterian Church of the USA and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand have formally acknowledged contemporary confessions of other Churches as points of reference for their own theological guidance. Both have also developed contemporary statements of faith of their own. Perhaps, on this fortieth anniversary of the Uniting Church, it is timely to ponder the possibility of a UCA 'Book of Confessions'.

The Basis of Union already commits the Uniting Church – in very particular ways – to use, and learn from, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as well as various documents produced during the Reformation and Evangelical Revival, namely the Scots and Westminster Confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Savoy Declaration and John Wesley’s Forty-Four Sermons (see Basis #10). The Basis also recognizes that the “Uniting Church lives within a world-wide fellowship of Churches in which it will learn to sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought” (Basis #11). Engaging with other churches' contemporary confessions is one way of sharpening that understanding.  Of course, Uniting in Worship 2 has already done something like this by its inclusion of the much-used ‘We are not alone’ produced by the United Church of Canada. There is no reason, so it seems to me, that we could not formally expand this list of authorised resources from which we might intentionally learn. 

This would  not simply be a matter of receiving and endorsing this or that statement that emerges from time to time. The genre of 'confessions of faith' is much discussed in the Reformed tradition. They are usually the result of much deliberation. Key to their genre and function is that they emerge from a particular set of circumstances but do so in such a way that they can speak beyond those circumstances. The members of the Joint Commission on Church Union put it like this:
The great Confessions of the reformation period were brought into being…to serve the particular needs of the Church of that day. They, too, have their limitations; limits set by time and place and original occasion which called them forth. But such limitations do not invalidate the universal significance of such documents. They share with all great Christian utterances the scandal of particularity; but what is rooted in a particular act of obedience or confession may have universal significance. 
If we were to go down this path, my suggestions for consideration are the following four confessions or statements of faith. I'm sure there would be others to be considered, but this is where I'd start. 

In 1983 the  United Presbyterian Church in the USA and the Presbyterian Church in the United States united to form the Presbyterian Church (USA). This Brief Statement of Faith  was produced as part of the process of union and was included in the new church's Book of Confessions. It is trinitarian, but unlike the Nicene Creed it begins with a confession of Jesus and gives significant weight to the details of his earthly ministry. God's fatherhood is defined in terms of Jesus' Abba-relation to him. Also significant is that the confession of God's creative work gives particular focus to the creation of a single human community equally reflecting the image of God across boundaries of race and culture. The person of the Spirit is linked to works of justice, freedom and peace.

The Belhar Confession was developed by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa in the early 1980s. The DRMC was the church established by the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa (DRCSA) in 1881 for 'people of color'. The DRMC adopted the Confession in 1986 and it is now among the confessions of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) which was formed in 1994. Strikingly, whilst a theologically penetrating critique of racism, apartheid itself is never mentioned. This, together with the richness of its theological framework, may make it a prime example of a confession that is highly particular yet speaks beyond its particular circumstances. Already several other churches have adopted it, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2016.  (I've been unable to find a active website for the URCSA. Hence the link above is to the English translation of the Confession on the PC (USA) website from where I've also drawn the details of the Confession's history. The confession was originally written in Afrikaans.)

In 2010 the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand adopted Kupu Whakapono (Confession of Faith). This too is a trinitarian confession. With regard to that tradition of confessions its most interesting emphasis and correction (to my mind) is the way its article on the Holy Spirit moves beyond the classical and formulaic 'marks' of the church to a summary description of the character and purpose of the church. It is also notable that as well as being available in both English and Maori, the English version includes Maori language not only in the title but also, significantly, in the specific confession of the church as 'one people'.

Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical,Laudato si', might be the most contentious of these four suggestions and not only because of its Roman Catholic provenance. Obviously, as a papal encyclical it does not set out to be a confession in the Reformed tradition. But is there any reason why the UCA (with its commitment to the "world-wide fellowship of churches") could  not accept it as a confession of faith? One of the striking things about this document is not only its content (especially its attention to and interweaving of theology, ecology, technology and economics) but the warm reception it has already received in both wider Christian and secular contexts. Obviously, the UCA would have issues with its affirmation of Mary as Queen of Creation. But could we not adopt the same posture towards this (or any of the other three confessions suggested here) as the Basis enjoins us to adopt towards the Reformation Confessions? We are not asked to endorse them but to be intentional about learning from them.

Such, then, is my suggestion for a UCA Book of Confessions and some possible candidates for inclusion.

NB: The reference to the work of the Joint Commission is from The Faith of the Church in Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia edited by Rob Bos and Geoff Thompson (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2008), 24.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Disturbing Much Disturbing Many: Chapter 10 Audio Files

To acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia (June 22nd) I've produced audio files of the six sections of the final chapter of Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology Provoked by the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Academic Press, 2016). This book engages with the theology of the Basis of Union (the UCA's foundational document) and brings it into conversation with a range of contemporary issues of theological interest.

The final chapter is entitled "No longer an addendum": ecclesiological fragments provoked by the Basis". 'No other addendum' is part of a quote from the first report of the Joint Commission on Church Union in its discussion of the ecclesiologies of the New Testament. I use it as a springboard to comment upon what I think are some important features of the ecclesiology in the Basis itself. After an introduction there five further sections which are headed as per the list below. As June proceeds, each of these headings will be linked to its respective audio file.

References to quotations used in the readings will be on this blog page.

#1 Introduction 

  • Joint Commission on Church Union, 'The Faith of the Church' in Robert Bos and Geoff Thompson (eds), Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church. (Sydney: Uniting Church Assembly, 2008), 35.
  • Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: Ecclesiology in Messianic Dimensions 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 1992), 64. 

#2 Church: a community which preaches

  • Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2006), 32. 

#3 Church: a community which listens


  • Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: Ecclesiology in Messianic Dimensions 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 1992), 225.
  • Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), xiv.
  • Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual (London: Penguin, 2014), 11.

#4 Church: a gifted community


  • Andrew Dutney, “A Worldly Calling: The Uniting Church Begins a Second Decade,” St. Mark’s Review No. 135 (1988): 15-21 (p.15)

#5 Church: organised pilgrims


  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.x.27 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2: 1205.
  • J. Davis McCaughey, Commentary on the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1980), 87f.
  • D’Arcy Wood, Building On A Solid Basis: A Guide to the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1986), 52f.
  • Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 2-3

#6 Church: a constantly corrected community


Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology Provoked by the Basis of Union is available for purchase via CTM Resourcing and Morning Star Publishing.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Books Worth Reading (11): Rachael Keefe's Barefoot Theology: A Dictionary for Pilgrims, Priests and Poets

Raechael A. Keefe, Barefoot Theology: A Dictionary for Pilgrims, Priests and Poets (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2013),

Notwithstanding its title this is not the usual sort of theological dictionary. In fact, it's not really the kind of theological book that academic theologians are terribly comfortable with. There are no long historical, exegetical, doctrinal or philosophical discussions. The entry on 'hemenueutics' extends to only four lines. On the other hand, the entry on 'questions' runs to three pages. And, gosh, there is no entry whatsoever for homoousious! Still, I think many theological students would profit from having this book sitting beside their more usual dictionaries, encyclopedias, and textbooks. This dictionary defines through poetry.

Theology is necessarily discursive, analytical, exegetical and historical. But theology is ultimately an imaginative discipline. Precisely as a technical discipline - or set of disciplines - it shapes and reshapes our imagination. In other words, it shapes and reshapes how we imagine God, creation, salvation, Jesus, the Spirit etc. Sadly this is not always immediately apparent to theology students as they engage the technical disciplines required of them. But I think it is one of the responsibilities of a theology teacher to help students grasps the imaginative functions of theology. And that requires providing diverse points of entry into theological work to match the diverse ways that people cultivate their imagination. I know that my imagination is actively engaged and stimulated by engaging with ideas, concepts and texts. But I recognise that this is not the case for many others. That does not mean, however, that we obliged to set aside the conceptual and analytical. It does mean that multiple points of entry into them need to be developed. This is not to deny that the poetic and the artistic do not have an integrity of their own. But as well as that they can helpfully open the imagination to the technical discourses of theology.

If pressed, I would ultimately place this book in the genre of the devotional, but it is devotional in a way that is intentional about speaking to the mind as well as the heart. Let me cite just two examples.

The entry on 'kerygma' is actually built around a mediation on Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman. The last stanza of the 'definition' runs as follows:
If we really want that early church preaching
then maybe we should get ourselves to the well
with all the sinners who thirst for Living Water
and are afraid to drink in the presence
of the Word who comes to us
in the fullness of grace and truth
until our testimony pours our
new life
And on 'redaction', after several lines  reminding readers of form and grammar, and original languages, the poem, written in a chiastic structure, concludes
These are good to tools to use lest we forget that
every writer has an agenda, a goal, a reason
to spin a story in a certain direction,
especially when politics and
religion are twisted together
lie they were in the
church's very
early days
as they

Not all the 'definitions' sit comfortably with me, but the approach Keefe pursues does. Whilst this book could only accompany and not replace other more conventional theological dictionaries, I think for a theological student (regardless of how right- or left-brain they are) to have the meanings of some key theological words expanded by poetry is important. After all, it involves the same kind of imaginative shifts involved when we move from doctrine to prayer and hymns in worship.


This (very occasional) 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.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Visionary Orthodoxy

"Visionary orthodoxy" is a term Marilynne Robinson uses to describe the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in her essay about him in her The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. It's a lovely phrase that captures the imaginative dimension of classical Christian theology. As she continues in the essay, Robinson goes on to give something of a definition (although that word is too technical) of what she specifies as 'great theology'. Clearly what she writes here is shaped by her engagement with Bonhoeffer, but this seems to be a more personal understanding of theology. It invites extended reflection and meditation. And it requires no commentary other than to say if this is what 'great theology' is, it is indeed a 'visionary' task that warrants our attention and energy.

Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and the dying words, and who attend to its retelling with a special alertness, because the story has a claim on them and they on it. Theology is also close to the spoken voice. It evokes sermon, sacrament, and liturgy, and, of course Scripture itself, with all its echoes of song and legend and prayer. It earns its authority by winning assent and recognition, in the manner of poetry but with the difference that the assent seems to be to ultimate truth, however oblique or fragmentary the suggestion of it. Theology is written for the small community of those who would think of reading it. So it need not define freighted words like 'faith' or 'grace' but may instead reveal what they contain. To the degree that it does them any justice, its community of readers will say yes, enjoying the insight as their own and affirming it in that way.

Marilynne Robinson, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer" in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Picador, 2005). The reference to 'visionary orthodoxy' is on p. 115 and the description of 'great theology' is on p. 117.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Cracking of Christendom: Semester 2 Unit at Pilgrim

The second unit I’ll be contributing to in semester 2 is ‘The Cracking of Christendom’. This is a dual church history/systematics unit which covers both historical and theological aspects of the Reformation. It will be taught in face-to-face mode on Tuesday nights, 6-8pm, at the Centre for Theology and Ministry, Parkville as well as being available for online enrolment. There could hardly be a better year to take this unit: the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. (Indeed, the final lecture will actually be on October 31st. I’m sure we’ll find some theses to nail to some doors that night.) The unit is a chance to explore why Christendom did suffer such deep cracks, whether they have healed, or even whether, in this post-Christendom age, they still matter.

The unit was developed by Katharine Massam and me and was first taught in 2015. In Katharine’s (sabbatical) absence, the historical dimensions will be covered by Kerrie Handasyde, one of Pilgrim’s Adjunct Faculty. The balance between theological and historical elements will be pretty much 50/50.

Kerrie will focus on the lived experience of the Reformation. When we look closely at this revolutionary time we see the source of so much of our present practice. The spaces where we worship are shaped by Reformation ideas about hearing the Word. So, we will ‘read’ church buildings and study the language and rising influence of preaching. With our own vocations, spirituality, and sacramental understandings in mind, we’ll look at Reformation ideas about the individual’s relationship to God and to the body of Christ. The liturgy, art and stories of the sixteenth century will aid reflection on the continuities (and the dissonances) with our own time.

I’ll be focusing on the doctrines of justification, scripture, and the sacraments.  I’ll do so in the mode enjoined in the Basis of Union: “The Uniting Church continues to learn from… the witness of the Reformers”. In other words, the purpose of engaging with the Reformers is not to repeat their theologies, but to learn from them in ways that might illuminate our contemporary witness to the faith. Of course, John Calvin will be one of the people from whom we learn. And among those from whom we’ll learn about Calvin will be Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson and feminist theologian Serene Jones; their shared enthusiasm for Calvin is striking and a little unexpected. Particular attention will be given to the Confessions which UCA ministers promise (ahem) at their ordination to read. Unsurprisingly the roots of some enduring protestant problems surrounding the authority and inspiration of scripture lie there. Surprisingly, so too do some solutions.  Of course, for the UCA, the Reformation heritage sits alongside that of Methodism, the emergence of which played its own later part in the ‘cracking of Christendom’. Accordingly we will also explore John Wesley’s key sermons on justification, scripture and the sacraments – including an assessment of his understanding of the ‘open table’. Is it relevant to today’s communion practice?

We will also engage some of the very lively contemporary discussion about the legacy of the Reformation, not least the widespread claims that the roots of the West’s current individualism and fragmentation lie in the Reformation. This will include a critical assessment of Brad Gregory’s recent, influential and controversial The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap, 2012).

For enrolment details contact the College Registrar at .

If you intend to enrol in this unit and would like some suggestions for preliminary reading, consider the following:

Donald McKim, Reformation Questions, Reformation Answers: 95 Key Events, People and Issues (Louisville: WJKP 2016). Just over a 100 pages, this is a little gem. Its short and pithy entries on the said ‘95 events, people and issues’ provide an excellent introduction to the basics of the Reformation.

Gillian Evans, The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture  2nd ed (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012). This is a more technical and expansive book than the above, but its various chapters are good points of entry into the many different aspects of the Reformation.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Theological Lessons From China

I spent 10 days last month doing research and a little bit of teaching at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary in China. This element of my sabbatical was made possible by UnitingWorld as part of the UCA’s ongoing relationship with the China Christian Council.  This was my fifth visit to the Seminary. As always, the experience of just being there is striking on multiple fronts: 300+ full-time students, the overwhelming majority of whom are under 30; generous hospitality from students and faculty (who are phenomenally busy combining academic and church responsibilities); insights into the remarkable growth of the Chinese church and the complex issues it faces; the deeply embedded place of theological education in the Chinese church.

The particular focus on this visit was to develop my understanding of the interest of Chinese theologians in cosmic Christology. In the context of my present writing project I am citing this as an example of doctrinal development in the churches of the global south. (Of course it is not absent from the global north, but there are issues in the global south which give it a particular edge in that context.) The prominent Bishop K.H. Ting (1915-2012) was well known for his interest in this doctrine. Another theologian whose work touched on this theme was Wang Weifan (1927-2015).

Weifan was a colleague of Ting at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary of which he was Dean. But his academic work followed early years as a pastor. He also spent 20 years in forced farm labour after being identified as a 'rightist'. (It is worth us Western theologians pausing to take in that sentence.) Recently he has come to the attention of the international theological community through references to his work in the third edition of David Ford’s The Modern Theologians and a scholarly article on his work by Alexander Chow in a 2016 issue of the international journal Modern Theology. There is also an extended account of his theology in Brill's 2016 Yearbook of Chinese TheologyIt was Chow’s writing on Weifan which first directed me to taking up this interest.

Weifan was not quite as explicitly engaged with the discourse of ‘cosmic Christology’ as Ting, but like Ting he had little interest in the reductionist Christologies of the West’s modern liberal theology. Also like Ting, he was insistent on the universal Lordship of Christ in both creation and redemption. This led to something that overlapped strongly with more explicit‘cosmic Christologies’. He is interesting also for the way he appropriated earlier, but almost forgotten, Chinese Christian theologies from the Tang (618-907) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. He draws attention to the uniqueness of the Chinese Christian experience in that it already has these ancient Chinese Christian sources, developed independently of Western theological trajectories, on which to draw.

A reconstructed image
 of a Chinese 

What the commentators on his work most usually mention is his development of the concept of shengsheng shen. It means something like ‘ever-generating God’ or even ‘life-birthing life’. He notes that the earlier Chinese Christians had drawn on this idea of ‘change’ (sheng) from the Book of Changes (I Ching) which had emerged in the Zhou dynasty (770-256 BCE)

I am still getting my head around these concepts and their history. Nevertheless, what has interested me most in the reading I have done (regrettably dependent, as I am, on the English translations) is what Weifan perceives to be at stake in the process of this sort of contextualization. What follows is a brief section on this theme from the first draft of what I trust will eventually emerge in the book.

Weifan is clear about what he understands is at issue in thus drawing on ancient Chinese concepts. He seeks to pursue “theological thinking which can be refined into a theology with Chinese characteristics [and thus allow] Chinese theology will guide the Chinese Church and Chinese believers through the process of modernization in China”. What is just as interesting, however, is what he says next: “...and make a fitting gift to the Church worldwide”.[1] The same point is made when he articulates the hope that such a theology “will be more easily appreciated and accepted by the sons and daughters of the yellow Emperor – and welcomed and treasured by the Church ecumenical”.[2] Clearly, this is not an attempt to develop a parochial Chinese theology. Indeed, Weifan was himself wary of some Chinese influences on Chinese Christian thought, notably the pressure of Confucianism to “lower the status of Christianity to that of an ordinary ethical system, ignoring its transcendent aspects.”[3]  Rather, he was attempting develop a Chinese theology that could take its place in the whole church. This raises an important issue with regard to the relationship between this proposal and received doctrine. Weifan is not an unqualified innovator. He draws explicitly on an earlier teaching of the Chinese church which had itself grown out of a Chinese interpretation of the biblical teaching of the lordship of Christ. Moreover, the reference to the Chinese concept is not part of any foundationalist project. His point about the earlier appropriation of this term is not that the God of Jesus Christ was pre-figured in the concept of sheng. [4] It is much more the case that this concept is used to illuminate an existing Christian belief. After all, in the Book of Changes (Zhou dynasty, 770-256 BCE) the concept of sheng was part of a process of divinization which “attempted to explore the hidden patterns of change in order to predict the future”.[5]  Manifestly, Weifan is not suggesting that either he himself or the earlier writers are wanting to appropriate divinization techniques of the Zhou dynasty into contemporary Chinese Christianity. Rather, the concept is given Christian meaning whilst aspects of its original meaning are being used to illuminate an existing Christian concept. By introducing it into Christian discourse he expands the range of resonances the confession of Jesus' lordship evokes.

I find this dynamic of his work fascinating and would welcome any comments or insights from those familiar with his theology.

[1] Weifan, “Chinese Theology and its Cultural Sources”, Chinese Theological Review 11 (1995), 45
[2] Weifan, “Chinese Theology ”, p.48.
[3] Wang Weifan, “The Word was here made flesh”, Chinese Theological Review 8 (1992), p 95.
[4] Certainly there are other Chinese theologians who do make foundationalist appeals to traditional Chinese religions and traditions. Wang Weifan is more subtle. For an overview of other Chinese developments of Comsic Christology see Tang, “The Cosmic Christ the search for a Chinese theology”, Studies in World Christianity 1 (1995): 131-142 (p. 132).
[5] Joachim Gentz, Understanding Chinese Religions (Edinburgh: Dunedin, 2013), 45.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Books Worth Reading (10): Rowan Williams' Being Disciples

Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life  (London: SPCK, 2016)

This is an excellent book. It is well worth reading, or, more precisely, well worth using.

As something of a sequel to his earlier Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (also a Book Worth Reading), this latest small book (just 87 pages) is another instance of Rowan Williams addressing some of the basic issues entailed in living as Jesus' disciples.  The book distills for us 'ordinary' Christians the somewhat unique combination of scholarship, pastoral insight and ecclesiastical leadership that Williams offers the whole church.

Each chapter was originally a lecture or presentation given to lay audiences whilst he was Archbishop of Canterbury. Although those presentations spanned a six year period and were given in various locations around the world, they have been combined quite seamlessly in this volume.

After an introductory chapter on the overall theme, Being Disciples, the following chapters explore five distinct but related themes: Faith, Hope and Love; Forgiveness; Holiness; Faith in Society; and Life in the Spirit. The writing is very accessible, at times quite beautiful, always to the point, and often unsettling. Each chapter starts with a reflection on a particular New Testament passage but then opens out into wider issues. Accompanying each chapter are some discussion-starter type questions.

The most useful way of providing a taste of this book, is to offer a short quotation from each chapter.

On 'Being Disciples' 
"Awareness, expectancy - all of this is bound up with the idea of the disciple as someone who follows. This listening awareness, this expectancy, presupposes following because it assumes that we are willing to travel to where the Master is, to follow where the Master goes. And, of course, in the Gospels, where the Master goes is very frequently not where we could have thought of going or would have wanted to go... Familiar and pious language, which we need to hear afresh as the chilling and sobering summons it really is" (p. 9f).

On 'Faith, Hope and Love' 
"[In] this sense of confusion and loss where our understanding is concerned, faith grows in its true meaning. It appears not as a system, a comprehensive answer to all our problems. It appears quite simply in the form of 'dependable relationship'... You realize when the signposts and landmarks have been taken aware there is a presence that does not let you go. And that is faith, I would say, in a very deeply biblical sense" (p.25).

On 'Forgiveness'
The person who asks forgiveness has renounced the privilege of being right or safe; she has acknowledged that she is hungry for healing, for the bread of acceptance and restoration to relationship. But equally the person who forgives has renounced the safety of being locked into the position of the offended victim. ... Both the giver and receiver of forgiveness have moved out of the safety zone; they have begun to ask how to receive their humanity as a gift" (p.40).

On 'Holiness'
"[T]here is no contrast, no tension really, between holiness and involvement in the world. On the contrary, the most holy, who is Jesus, is the most involved, most at the heart of human experience. And we really misunderstand the whole thing very seriously if we think that holiness means being defended from our own humanity or other people's humanity: quite the opposite." (p.50)

On 'Faith in Society'
"Christians...are not called to impose their vision on the whole of society. If they have a role in the political realm, it is that they will argue that the voice of faith should be heard clearly in the decision-making processes of society. The Christian disciple, in other words, does not campaign for political control...but for public visibility - for the capacity to argue for and defend their vision in the public sphere, to try and persuade both government and individuals that a better moral basis exists for ordering public life." (p. 71)

On 'Life in the Spirit'
"To be opened up [by the Spirit] is to discover joy: not happiness, not a transient feeling of euphoria, or feeling it's basically all right in a kind of shoulder-shrugging way, but joy - the sense that we are connected with something so real that it will break every boundary or container we try to confine it in, a sense of something overflowing, pushing outwards." (p.85).

I said at the outset that it is more precise to speak of 'using' this book rather than 'reading' it. I hope these cameo quotes indicate why this is so. I'm sure any study or discussion group which chose to use this book would not be disappointed.


This occasional 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.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Blainey and Carroll as guest lecturers in Culture, Beliefs and Theology

Culture, Beliefs and Theology: Semester 2, two-part Intensive
18-20 August and 6-7 October  
Centre for Theology and Ministry, Parkville

UPDATE June 30th 2017

Processions, Upper Hunter Valley (Reg Mombassa)
Reproduced with artist's permission.
Included in this upcoming unit, Culture, Beliefs and Theology, will be input from Christina Rowntree, Artfull Faith Co-ordinator at the Centre for Theology and Ministry.  Christina will be introducing us to some ways art reflects and opens up wider discussions about faith, spirituality and religion. One artwork she will introduce is Reg Mombassa’s 2015 work, Processions, Upper Hunter Valley, which was a finalist in the 2016 Blake Prize. Mombassa’s comments on the Blake Prize are a helpful beginning point for reflection at this point of cultural reflection. He writes:  “The Blake Prize is important because its subject matter is religion and spirituality. Religion has been a central part of human life from prehistoric times. The religion of the western world is Christianity, and whether you believe in it or not, it is still a large part of our cultural heritage. The established churches have bullied and tormented millions of innocent people, caused wars, suppressed and excluded women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities, demonised sexual pleasure …. They have also inspired and commissioned great works of art, undertaken charitable works and provided a sense of comfort, community and stability for many people…. All aspects of religious belief and spirituality provide a deep and varied well of subject matter for artistic interpretation, reflection and commentary.”  Christina’s session at Culture, Beliefs and Theology will provide an opportunity to engage that ‘artistic interpretation, reflection and commentary’.  


My sabbatical has now passed the half way mark. This means that as well as being very conscious of what is yet to be done, I'm  also looking ahead to my teaching in Semester 2. I'll be teaching in 3 units. I'll devote a blog to each over the next few days. This one: Culture Belief and Theology. This is the second iteration of this unit; it was first offered in 2015 when I taught it in tandem with my colleague Katharine Massam. (Check out the video links below with recommendations from the 2015 students.)

The unit is oriented to tapping into the ways God, salvation, Jesus, faith etc are being talked about in our culture but independently of the church and outside conventional theological disciplines and institutions. At the same time, it is not an engagement with generic 'religious' or 'spiritual' trends in society. Rather, it engages  with the ways people (be they friends, allies or foes of the faith) are talking specifically about Christianity. Nor is is classical apologetics; it is aimed, instead, at learning how to begin forming a theological imagination in ways sparked by the wisdom and challenges contained in these other voices.

I'm especially pleased that this year two leading Australian intellectuals will be participating as guest lecturers. Geoffrey Blainey will be giving a lecture on his A Short History of Christianity, a book written for the historically-interested person  who has no personal investment in the faith. John Carroll, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at La Trobe university, is an agnostic who has written extensively on the significance of Jesus for contemporary Western culture. He will be lecturing about this theme, especially as he developed it in his The Existential Jesus.

Participants in this class will therefore have the opportunity to engage these two leading thinkers about their take on Christianity and be helped to engage their insights with the tools of Christian theology.

We'll also engage (albeit not in person) comedians, writers, artists, social commentators, politicians and journalists as they write, draw and joke about Christianity. Catherine Deveny, Tony Abbott and Elizabeth Farelly all get a look in.  And in another new development this year, we'll also explore Mona Siddiqui's Christians, Muslims and Jesus - an important Islamic account of the significance of Jesus. If you're interested in the theological issues at stake in the interface between Christianity and the wider culture, then this unit warrants checking out.

And be sure to watch two students from the 2015 class speak about their experience of the unit and what they learnt from it. One is a UCA chaplain at Macquarie University in New South Wales, the other a teacher in a Catholic School in rural Victoria.

For enrollment details contact Pilgrim's Registrar at

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

How is 'bullshit' the 'perfect' response?

I didn't see last night's Q&A, but it didn't take long scrolling through Facebook and Twitter this morning to know what had generated the most conversation. Professor Margaret Somerville, an anti-Euthanasia advocate, was engaged with an 81-year old proponent of euthanasia. Somerville  argued that how an individual dies is a matter for society. The 81 year-old dismissed that with the assertion that choosing how and when to die is nothing whatsoever to do with society (although it does have something to do with family) and to suggest otherwise is 'bullshit'.

Now, I reckon you could make a pretty strong argument that the fact that proponents of voluntary euthanasia are making public arguments for a change in the law is a pretty good indication that the question of how people die is a matter for society. If you want to change the law of the land, it is a matter for society because the law is a social matter. This is true regardless of whatever position you take on the legalising of euthanasia.

But what was most alarming was the celebration of the dismissive 'bullshit' comment. BuzzFeedOzPolitics headlined it as the 'perfect' response. Even Tony Jones suggested it was 'refreshing' - the word that found it's way into the headline of the The Australian's review of the programme. One Tweeter celebrated it as evidence that old people aren't stupid!! Surely, it was, instead, a classic case of refusing to engage with someone who holds a view different from your own. And that's worth celebrating?

Then as I kept watching, I discovered that later in the program there was an excellent segment about whether we were becoming less tolerant of views we disagree with. (Check it out at the 45:37 mark.) There were really sensible comments from Billy Bragg and Penny Wong about the importance of exposing ourselves to contrary views. That's the bit of last night's programme that really is worth watching and celebrating - no bullshit. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Books Worth Reading (9): The Songs of Jesse Adams by Peter McKinnon

The Songs of Jesse Adams (Melbourne: Acorn, 2014)

The Songs of Jesse Adams is a contemporary allegory of the New Testament story of Jesus. Well, ‘contemporary’ inasmuch as it is set in 1960s Melbourne. We see the Jesus figure appearing at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl and meeting up with associates in Nicholson and Lygon Streets. We see the political, media and religious leaders doing their conspiring in Spring Street. Echoes of Henry Bolte and his ilk resound across the story. Readers are invited to imagine the front page of the Sun News-Pictorial – the original morning half of what has now become the Herald Sun. And AFL tragics get to be reminded of the ’Roys at the Brunswick Street Oval. There are also forays to Sydney and the moral ambiguities of King’s Cross. And Byron Bay gets included as well. Yes, something the hippie scene of 1960s Australia is part of the background to this Jesus figure, Jesse Adams.

The book is written by Melbournian, Peter McKinnon – a friend and fellow member of Brunswick Uniting Church. Peter is a trained psychologist, and this is evident in the way he develops the characters in this book. All the characters are believable and have, well, character. Peter also writes with a deft literary touch and creative flair, but the creativity is never indulged or allowed to slip into exaggeration. The allegorical parallels are teasing - obvious enough but sufficiently different to keep the reader on his or her toes. There’s a definite familiarity, but not so much so that you know exactly what the next turn in the plot will be.

But to the story. Jesse Adams is a talented musician who has grown up on a Victorian farm. As a young man he heads to the big smoke to pursue his musical dreams. But it turns out there are other dreams as well which are driving him. A certain eccentricity, or deeper calling, disorients both him and also, more deeply, those who gradually gather around him: other musicians, entrepreneurs, friends, journalists, fans and his puzzled (but not entirely surprised) mother. There is, as the saying goes, something about him. He eludes categories.

Jesse’s wilderness experience was in the dunes near Port Phillip Bay’s ‘The Rip’. He arrives there uncertain, hungry, homeless and confused. He is protected by local indigenous men who, in some deep, spiritual way, “were in touch with what was happening to him”.

He attends a teenage wedding. His mother tells him that the motel has mucked up and there is no champagne for the toasts. Jesse organises, not for water to become wine, but beer to become champagne. There’s some nodding and winking that invites you into the mystery. There’s no rationalising of how it happened.

Jesse pursues his calling, playing his music around the town. His popularity grows – but not just for his music, but also for this something else that accompanies and drives him. He gets a big gig at the Raspberry Hill music festival. Music gives way to a summons to the tens of thousands hanging on his music and his words: “The world’s a dark place…  You can be the light… Be the revolution. If the bloke beside you needs a shirt, give him yours – give him two…”  You get the drift.

He heads to King’s Cross, befriends a young girl about whom he knows more than she would like him to know. She’s trapped by the local porn movie business. Incensed by what it has done to her, he seeks out the theatre during a showing. He discovers various respectable authorities exercising their hypocrisy,  pulls the plug on the projector, turns everything and everyone upside down, runs off with the projector and heaves it into the El Alamein fountain. There were, however, too many of those respectable people with all their connections at that theatre for this not to get him into big trouble. The powers that be begin to marshal their forces against him.

Still, concerts and gigs follow. Music is the medium of his message; it’s the point of connection with the cultural ferment pervading the nation. It’s also the platform that gives him an audience. Then there’s the anti-Vietnam war Moratorium. The crowd hear that he’s at the march – they demand he be given the stage. He took it. He called the crowd to follow his way as the alternative to war. The crowd begins to demur: is this about Vietnam or about Jesse Adams? He’s the guest speaker at the Lord’s Mayor dinner, but provokes a walkout of all those finely-dressed dignitaries with his straight talking. He walks up  to  Spring Street, invites himself in to the parliamentary chamber, and predicts that "this house will be destroyed and a new one rise in its place".

The conspirators can take little more. A darkness begins to descend on the story – a climax approaches. He’s set up. Being interviewed on national television, he is presented with a photo of him offering a healing  touch to young girl. Yes, he had his hand on her leg – that was the touch of healing.  But now, before the nation, it’s evidence that he’s a paedophile.  But, at the same time, because he doesn’t have a girlfriend, he’s ‘accused’ of being gay. So, from hero to figure of scandal and suspicion.  

But Jesse and his associates also knew a thing or two about the conspiratorial authorities – too much for their own good. They knew about corruption that was rotting the core of society. And they knew who was running it. Therefore, humiliation on television wasn’t enough. He had to be eliminated, and on a dark inner-suburban street he was. He’s gone – until, though, there was a series of ‘appearances’ to those who had known him: weird, suspicious, unbelievable, disorienting but somehow real.  Jesse may have been killed but not vanquished.

This bare summary doesn’t do justice to the richness of the plot and its various subplots which weave their way through the book. The threads of the plot outlined here don’t reveal the complexity of Jesse’s own character, the depth of his relationships, or the volatility and range of the reactions he provoked. It’s an absorbing and enticing story.

What might we make of this as the allegory it seeks to be?  For me, the great value of this particular narrative is how well it captures, allegorically, the puzzling nature of Jesus. For all the familiarity (at least to Melburnians) of the setting, and even the familiarity of some of the causes (e.g. opposition of Vietnam war, or the rage against corruption), Jesse is never predictable. He consistently eludes the categories in which people try to place him: political and religious. People are no sooner drawn to him than they are confused by him.

In that regard, this is a very timely telling of the story. Christian faith has managed to domesticate Jesus in so many ways that the New Testament narratives of Jesus have often ceased to be of much interest to Christians themselves, let alone to non-Christians.  Unless we Christians allow ourselves to be puzzled by Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament, and resist the urge to stifle our questions with familiarity, we are likely to lose interest in the faith’s own central, pivotal figure. Jesse Adams supported all the right causes – but over and above that he presented himself. Yes, this self-presentation was often cryptic and disorienting. But perhaps that’s why those who were closest to him couldn’t quite let him go
The Australian church has had minimal success in generating much interest in Jesus. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the church itself to rediscover Jesus for his own sake and for the sake of those seeking and questing. The Songs of Jesses Adams could well be an effective conversation starter to kick start that rediscovery.  

* * * *

This (very occasional) series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Books Worth Reading (8): Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri

Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of  a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)
The very first piece of reading my PhD supervisor gave me to read – now some twenty-five years ago – was an essay from the then current issue of Modern Theology, “A Certain Politics of Speech:  Religious Pluralism in the Age of the McDonald’s Hamburger” by Kenneth Surin.  It was an exhilarating read. Political, theological, historical and philosophical arguments were mounted to deconstruct the concept of religious pluralism, and to expose it as the somewhat blunt construct of Western-based intellectual traditions that it is. His thesis was not new, but its presentation was captivating. The category of 'religion' and its plural 'religions' emerged as the West encountered and decided to classify traditions that had some overlap with Christianity. Whilst once used to demonstrate that Christianity was the 'true' or 'best' religion it gave way to proposals for the equality of all religions. Yet, the category could never be extracted from Western assumptions that had invented it. This issue has remained a side interest of mine over the years.
Maintaining this interest has involved trying to keep tabs on what is in effect a minor publishing industry. Surin himself was already drawing on Wilfred Cantwell Smith's seminal 1964 work, The Meaning and End of Religion. Australian scholars Philip Almond and Peter Harrison contributed, respectively, The British Discovery of Buddhism (1988) and 'Religion' and the Religions in the English Enlightenment  (1990). In 1998 Daniel Dubuisson published The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge and Ideology and in 2005 there appeared Tomoko Maxuzawa's The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Harrison's The Territories of Science and Religion (2015) is also relevant, although more broadly oriented (and the subject of an earlier blog post). My inclination has been to believe that this entire line of enquiry has rendered the concept of religion so fragile and intellectually compromised that its continued use is testimony to the power of intellectual and cultural convention.
One of the interesting features of Brent Nongbri's recent contribution to this area of scholarship, however, is that, whilst making his own contribution to exposing the ideologies behind the concept of 'religion', he presents a case for the continued use of the term. I'll summarise a couple of his key contributions before picking up his argument for continuing to use the term 'religion'.

He demonstrates that prior to the invention of 'religion', the various traditions and ways of life had their own concepts, strategies, and ideologies by which they described themselves and, indeed, how they assessed and categorised alternative traditions and ways of life. But Nongbri also demonstrates how these earlier and diverse ways of negotiating identity and difference have largely been obscured by the modern conceptual dominance of 'religion'. This dominance is seen very clearly in the  translation of key terms in Christian and Islamic texts. Latin's religio, Greek's threskia, and Arabic's din and umma have often been rendered as 'religion' in modern translations, thus absorbing these ancient texts into a specifically modern (and therefore Western) conceptual apparatus which flattens out their differences. He shows how in their original contexts each of these words carries a broad range of reference (variously legal, moral, ethnic, liturgical) that calls  this modern translation practice into question. In sum: "Those aspects of life covered by these  terms (social order, law, etc.) fall outside the idealized, private, interior realm associated with the modern concept of religion. Translating these terms as 'religion' or conceptualising any particular individual ancient religio, threskia or din as 'a religion' is thus bound to be a misleading practice" (p.45).
He also demonstrates with his own examples the now familiar view that a certain Christian bias enters even the attempts to resist Christian superiority. A case in point from the seventeenth century is Lord Herbert's 'common notions' of religion which tried to establish some 'original', 'natural' or 'universal' form of religion. So for Herbert, "Christianity is just another form of the original religion". But as Nongbri notes, although Herbert was "interested in showing that all religions are at a basic level good religions,...his criteria for what constitutes 'good' and what constitutes 'religion' are very much indebted to the Christianity of his day" (p.95). Moreover, this is equally the case in describing the negative aspects of religion. He refers to how Herbert takes then contemporary critiques of priesthood (drawn from particular debates internal to Western Christendom) and imposes them on other 'religions' to demonstrate their  alleged deviant forms - as if priesthood was always and everywhere what it is in Christianity (and always and everywhere corrupts in the same way it does in Christianity)! He traces the impact of such intellectual strategies on the creation of  the category and academic discipline of 'World Religions'. On this issue he quotes Jonathan Z. Smith: "It is impossible to escape the suspicion that a world religion is simply a religion like ours..." (p. 129).
A similar practice emerges when looking back to the so-called religions of antiquity (and this is Nongbri's key focus). This once again involves the imposition of a modern construct on diverse patterns of ancient life and belief. He makes this point very sharply and is worth quoting at length:
If we want to go on talking about ancient Mesopotamian religion, ancient Greek religion, or any other ancient religion, we should always bear in mind that we are talking about something modern when we do so. We are not naming something any ancient person would recognize.... Religion is a modern category. It may be able to shed light on some aspects of the ancient world when applied in certain strategic ways, but we have to be honest about the category's origins and not pretend that it somehow organically and magically arises from our sources. If we fail to make this reflexive move, we turn our ancient sources into well-polished mirrors that show us only ourselves and our own institutions (p. 153).
So, is it valid to go on using the term and indeed even to regard 'religion' as a valid field of study? In giving an affirmative answer to this question, Nongbri insists that 'religion' must be used not as a descriptive concept, but as a redescriptive concept. As such it could be used as second-order category of analysis. He suggest that so used, we would learn to ask not, 'Is X a religion?' but something like: "Can we see anything new and interesting about phenomenon X by considering it, for the purpose of study, as a religion?" (p. 155).
This is a very good book and, although dealing with some quite technical arguments, it is highly readable. I'm sure that anyone interested in the study of religion, the ideologies of religious pluralism or, more broadly, the history of ideas, would find it well worth reading.
This (very occasional) 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.