January stations …

Reading:

Listening:

Watching:

What’s Wrong with the World: An Inkling of a Response

Last Saturday, St. George Cathedral in Wichita hosted the second annual Eighth Day Symposium on ‘What’s Wrong with the World: An Inkling of a Response’. Here are the talks:

1. Ralph Wood, What’s Wrong with the World: C.S. Lewis Offers an Inkling of a Response

2. Warren Farha, The Inklings: Friendship as a Source of Cultural Renewal

3. Stan Cox, Charles Williams: The Affirmation of Being as a Foundation of Christian Culture

4. Ralph Wood, What’s Right with the Church: G.K. Chesterton on the Sacramental Imagination

[HT: Ancient Faith Radio]

Welcome Ambrie Jordyn Goroncy

Apparently, lots of interesting things happened on 27 January: in 447, the Walls of Constantinople were severely damaged by an earthquake; in 1142, Yue Fei was executed; in 1186, Henry VI got hitched to Constance of Sicily; in 1343, Pope Clement VI issued some Bull called Unigenitus; in 1936, the BBC began its first public broadcasts; in 1974, the Brisbane River breached its banks in what was the largest flood to affect the city; in 1980, Robert Mugabe returned to Rhodesia; in 1984, Michael Jackson’s head caught fire during the filming of a Pepsi commercial; in 2010, Barack Obama made his first State of the Union address and Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad tablet. It’s also the date upon which the following people died – Rita Angus, Mahalia Jackson, John Updike, J.D. Salinger, and Howard Zinn.

Some cool stuff happened too: The trial of Guy Fawkes began; the National Geographic Society was founded; the Red Army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp; the Paris Peace Accords officially ended the Vietnam War; and Lewis Carroll, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and David Strauss celebrated their birthdays.

But by far the most interesting and cool thing was the birth of Ambrie Jordyn Goroncy. Her birth last Friday (when God ceased knitting and became a midwife), during respectable hours, was anticipated in this poem, and follows fairly swiftly on the heels of that of her awesome brother Samuel Jamieson, and some five years after that of her theologian-sister Sinéad Chloe (regulars here to PCaL will be familiar with Sinéad’s developing and prayerful theology). All occupants at our house are tired and well, including the sheep, one of whom recently gave birth too. So far, Ambrie seems perfect. That will change when she becomes a Christian at her baptism on 4 March.

Donald MacKinnon on the very stuff of human existence

In the midst of some fruitful discussion generated by the recent posts on Rowan Williams by Chris Green and Joel Daniels, a friend of mine (who also happens to be an outstanding MacKinnon scholar) shared these words with me. I’ve been meditating on them all week, and thought that they were worth sharing here not only for what they tell us about MacKinnon’s mind (and perhaps too about Williams’), but also for what they tell us about ourselves and about our being overcome, and – here playing the risk of presumptuousness – of the depths that such overcoming involves:

At its heart there lies the recognition that historical self-consciousness belongs to the very stuff of human existence, that freedom in the sense of a true autonomy is at once the foundation of our every effort to make sense of our inheritance; but that it is a freedom menaced all the time by forces, many but not all of which lie outside our control, facing us by the pressure of their ugly insistence upon our purposings with a sense of overmastering futility, defeat, even besetting cruelty. The threat is of something much more profound than that of Cartesian malin génie, it is the menace of a backlash somehow built into the heart of things that will lay our sanity itself in ruins. We are face to face not with a grisly theodicy that allows historical greatness to provide its own moral order (there are more than hints of this in Hegel) but with a cussedness which seems totally recalcitrant to the logos of any justification of the ways of God to man. And here the last word is with the cry of redemption.

– Donald M. MacKinnon, ‘Finality in Metaphysics, Ethics and Theology’ in Explorations in Theology, Volume 5 (London: SCM Press, 1979), 105–06.

Being has a memory

‘Toward the end of To the Castle and Back, [Václav Havel's] unconventional presidential memoir, in a section datelined “Hrádeček, December 5, 2005,” Havel confronts the question of his own death. “I’m running away,” he writes.

What I’m running away from is writing. But it’s more than that. I’m running away from the public, from politics, from people. Perhaps I’m even running away from the woman who saved my life. Above all, I’m probably running away from myself.

He finds himself constantly fretting about the tidiness of the house, as though he were expecting a visit from someone “who will really appreciate that everything is in its proper place and properly aligned.” Why this obsession with order?

“I have only one explanation,” he says.

I am constantly preparing for the last judgment, for the highest court from which nothing can be hidden, which will appreciate everything that should be appreciated, and which will, of course, notice anything that is not in its place. I’m obviously assuming that the supreme judge is a stickler like me. But why does this final evaluation matter so much to me? After all, at that point, I shouldn’t care. But I do care, because I’m convinced that my existence—like everything that has ever happened—has ruffled the surface of Being, and that after my little ripple, however marginal, insignificant and ephemeral it may have been, Being is and always will be different from what it was before.

“All my life,” he went on,

I have simply believed that what is once done can never be undone and that, in fact, everything remains forever. In short, Being has a memory. And thus, even my insignificance—as a bourgeois child, a laboratory assistant, a soldier, a stagehand, a playwright, a dissident, a prisoner, a president, a pensioner, a public phenomenon, and a hermit, an alleged hero but secretly a bundle of nerves—will remain here forever, or rather not here, but somewhere. But not, however, elsewhere. Somewhere here’.

[Source: The New York Review of Books]

Christ and Controversy

The good folk over at Wipf and Stock have informed me that they have just released Alan Sell’s fascinating book Christ and Controversy: The Person of Christ in Nonconformist Thought and Ecclesial Experience, 1600–2000. Professor Sell’s name is no stranger here at PCaL. I was invited to pen a wee endorsement for the back cover (it’s SO much less work to get your name on the back cover of a book than it is to have is appear on the front). Here’s what I wrote:

This encyclopedic but accessible survey stands as witness to the church’s ongoing wrestle with an ancient question—’Who do you say that I am?’ It demonstrates Professor Sell’s acumen as a meticulous researcher, his contagious devotion to the nonconformist tradition, and his aptitude for bringing the dead back to life. With wit and sober-headedness, this bold and theologically-informed study records many christological enthusiasms and ecclesiological consequences that this perduring question has birthed—its invitation lingers still.

And the book’s description reads:

What may happen when Christians take doctrine seriously? One possible answer is that the shape of churchly life “on the ground” can be significantly altered. This pioneering study is both an account of the doctrine of the person of Christ as it has been expounded by the theologians of historic English and Welsh Nonconformity, and an attempt to show that while many Nonconformists held classical orthodox views of the doctrine between 1600 and 2000, others advocated alternative understandings of Christ’s person; hence the evolution of the ecclesial landscape as we have come to know it. The traditions here under review are those of Old Dissent: the Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians and their Unitarian heirs; and the Calvinistic and Arminian Methodist bodies that owe their origin to the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century.

On Rowan Williams’ Theology

A guest post by Joel Daniels.

1) Williams exaggerates the importance of maintaining unsettledness, preventing resting, etc.

Williams shares with Donald MacKinnon a sense of the moral priority of tragedy, and one gets the sense that he sees a straight line from closure to murder. At the risk of being too flip about it, the road to genocide is paved with good intentions. Efficient systems, set up by well-meaning people, to accomplish the greatest ends, eventually justify the most atrocious horror: it is fitting that one man should die for the people. Or the shaken revolutionary Shigalyov in Dostoevsky’s Demons, who has written out the plan for the revolution, reporting that, “Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution to the social formula, there is no other.” Efficient theoretical systems (economic, political, philosophical, theological) produce victims, with the crucified Christ, one without sin, being the pure example of this fact – though the history of the last century provides ample examples by itself. I think that this really is the overarching concern of Williams’ theology.

Part of this may simply be disposition: there’s a really revealing line in WWA where he’s comparing Balthasar and Rahner, and he writes, “for Balthasar, dialogue with ‘the world’ is so much more complex a matter than it sometimes seems to be for Rahner; because [for Balthasar] the world is not a world of well-meaning agnostics but of totalitarian nightmares, of nuclear arsenals, labor camps and torture chambers” (100). If you look at the world and see harmony, you end up in one theological place; if you see torture chambers, you end up in another. I think the relentless self-criticism comes from having the second perspective as his default.

The downside of this is what Chris described; Mike Higton (in Difficult Gospel) puts it this way: “But I suspect that the tenor or atmosphere of his [Williams’] writing is too unrelentingly agonized…” Perhaps so; I remember reading that MacKinnon couldn’t order lunch without severe moral anguish.

2) For Williams, the logical outcome of good theology is the silence of frustration, not of adoration.

What prevents simple frustration supplanting the possibility of positive worship is the strong element of Anglican orthopraxis at work: while it may be the case that the Cross reveals that there is nothing we can securely know or think (frustration), the practice of worship (adoration) takes priority over the practice of theology. It would be interesting to know whether Williams would adopt Pseudo-Dionysius’ use of “hymn” as a theological category, along the lines of the “celebratory” mode of theological work he describes. If so, perhaps we could say that good theology culminates not in silence, but in the singing of the liturgy. It’s as if the Eucharistic service provides a kind of foundation from which we can work and to which we can return: our Eucharistic celebration may not be perfect; it is certainly interpreted by fallible human beings; and entails its own risks (clericalism, among many others). Nonetheless, we can identify the effect of the Eucharist over the course of history to complicate any easy answers, by returning us to the broken body of Christ.

3) Similarly, the effect Williams has is to make it too difficult to talk about God; the end result is paralysis or restlessness.

It’s not so much that we shouldn’t make attempts to talk about God (paralysis), as that we have to realize that no attempt is ever final: it’s dialectic all the way down. Is this eternal restlessness? In a sense, I think it probably is. But I hope that it’s the restlessness of two lovers’ delight in each other, not the restlessness of dissatisfaction; the kind of restlessness that is the way that the meaning of a great text (for example) is never exhausted, but always there to be plumbed for meaning, new circumstances bringing out existing aspects of the same work in a different light.Further, some attempts at talking about God are better than others, and one of the benefits of the tradition is a head start, so to speak, in identifying which ones are going to be liberating and fecund, and which will lead to dead ends, inconsistencies with the Eucharist, or something worse.

4) Williams makes anti-programmatic thinking programmatic.

I can understand a concern about a conception of theology that sees as its primary objective the destabilization of every affirmative statement about God – especially when that destabilization is being done by a professional class that isn’t explicitly or especially in relationship with a worshipping community. There is a difference between a smirking hermeneutic of suspicion and a pious refusal of idolatry, but they may look quite similar on the page. Further, an affinity for disruption can become its own security blanket.

At the very least, we can see that Williams is aware of that: I frequently return to the sermon “The Dark Night,” with its first paragraph “If I am a ‘conservative’ my circular path will be one of conventional sacramental observance… If I am a ‘radical’ my God will be the disturber of the social order… Both of these pictures as they stand are delusional.” Both of them use God to accomplish some other ends. I think he does a pretty good job at this, keeping his own perspective under interrogation also.

An End to All Endings? Reflections on Rowan Williams’ Critical Theology

A guest post by Chris Green

In his Pro Ecclesia review of Williams’ On Christian Theology, Robert Jenson observes—and calls into question—what he believes is Williams’ ‘obsessive fear of closure’. As Jenson sees it, the Archbishop is attempting at every turn to ‘enforce theology’s function as critique, and especially as self-critique’, as if ‘keeping the questions alive’ in a state of ‘indefinitely sustained puzzlement’ were the raison d’être for Christian dogmatics. Jenson suspects that such a use of theology, for all the good it might do, is finally inadequate because it is for all intents and purposes useless for the life of faith. Or, to put the same point another way, Jenson worries that Williams’ methodology is useful only for theological de(con)struction and not for ‘building up’.

I don’t quite agree with Jenson. For one thing, even assuming that Williams is obsessively afraid of ‘closure’, such interminable self-criticism is useful to the life of faith at least in this way: it helps guard against presumptive and trite God-talk—and that is no small gift. For another, Williams can and sometimes does talk in adoring, even confident ways. Nevertheless, I don’t entirely disagree with Jenson. Or, to put it another way, I think Williams at least sometimes puts himself at risk of exaggerating the obscurity of revelation and the difficulty of thinking and living Christianly. Whether he intends it or not—and I’m fairly certain he does not—the Archbishop can be taken to mean that Christian theology is a finally useless enterprise.

For example, he suggests in OCT that ‘puzzlement over “what the Church is meant to be” is the revelatory operation of God as “Spirit” insofar as it keeps the Church engaged in the exploration of what its foundational events signify’ (p. 144). Read in one way, this claim means only that the Spirit’s work is to chasten theological hubris. Read in another way, however, it effectively circumscribes the Spirit’s work, as if the Spirit’s role were merely disruptive. Such a theological mode has the effect of keeping Christian thought endlessly ‘up in the air’ and so incapable of arriving at any dogmatic stability, which, as Jenson quips, leads us to say not ‘I believe!’ but ‘I wonder…’ It’s telling, I believe, that Williams speaks of the creeds as only the ‘least inadequate’ way of talking of God.

Of course, Williams wants to make it ‘harder to talk about God’ (OCT, p. 84) precisely to protect the church and the world from destructive misunderstandings of God and misappropriations of theological justifications. Much like St John of the Cross, he refuses ‘infantile dependence on forms and words and images’ (WK, p. 189) precisely because he knows the danger of ‘premature harmonies’ (OCT, p. 50). He wants to ‘save the theologian from a captivity to trivial optimism … and lying cliché’. So far, so good. But at some point does it become too difficult to talk about God? How do we not all fall finally, everlastingly silent?

For the Archbishop, God is ‘a stranger in the most radical way possible’ so that faith is ‘the receptivity of the self before the ungraspable mysteriousness’ (WK, p. 188) of God’s ‘alien sovereignty’ (WSP, p. 114). In describing the theology of Gregory of Nyssa, Williams remarks that ‘God is what we have not yet understood: the sign of a strange and unpredictable future’ (WK, p. 66). Perhaps this is a defensible summation of Nyssa’s speculations, but it might defensibly be read as a distortive amplification of God’s otherness and unknowability.

At times, the Archbishop’s theological reflections sound quasi-masochistic. For example, he returns again and again in his work to the idea that the ‘inner readiness to come to judgment’ (OCT, p. 32) is the mark of the true disciple. In WK, he claims that ‘the greatness of the great Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked and left speechless by that which lies at the center of their faith’ (p. 11). If he means that this ‘readiness to come to judgment’ is one of the marks of genuine faithfulness, then I agree wholeheartedly. I would argue, however, that it belongs to a complex of other readinesses that together constitute the form of faithfulness. In other words, openness to judgment is genuinely Christian only insofar as it is wedded to the humble audacity—to take up the S. Bulgakov’s idiom—also to receive blessings and to offer judgments in Christ’s name.

So, in conclusion, it seems clear that Jenson’s criticisms hit near the mark. At least in some of his work, Williams seems to exaggerate the gospel’s incomprehensibility and disruptiveness. Perhaps his theologizing suffers from an overdetermined theologia crucis? But thankfully Williams does not do all of his theology with a hammer. He knows that ‘the concern is not to inscribe disruption at the heart of the Christian story’ (WSP, p. 44), and that Christ is ‘the root of our security and our insecurity alike, promise and judgment, end and beginning’ (WK, p. 77). As he himself says, the Christian life simply does not make sense ‘without some confidence in the possibility of the reality of our own transformation in Christ’ (OCT, p. 28). Even if Williams sometimes talks as if he’s forgotten it, not all confidence is trivial. Oddly, perhaps no one has said this better than Williams himself:

If the Christian way were simply an experimental spirituality loosely inspired by a dead foreigner, we should no doubt be spared a lot of trouble; we should also be spared the transformation of the human world by God’s mercy in Christ. As it is, theology remains hard, for theologians and for their public, but the fact itself indicates the occasion or unstinted gratitude, celebration and—as we have seen—wonder at the sovereign work of grace. ‘The wrath of man shall turn to thy praise’; so, too, should the complexities and the turmoil of theology (On Doing Theology).

A final, anticlimactic word: so much depends on how Williams is read. In OCT (pp. xii-xv), he speaks of three styles of theology. Accordingly, readers of Williams must be careful to always hear even his ‘critical’ theology as both ‘celebratory’ and ‘communicative’. Otherwise, we play back in monophonic mode what is necessarily heard stereophonically.

On the theology of Rowan Williams

‘The Church sees through a glass darkly; but it sees none the less. These are the two components that Catholic Christianity seeks to hold in tension. Say too little, and you may betray the costly demands of the gospel. Say too much, and you risk sounding fanciful or authoritarian. [Rowan] Williams has been charged at one time or another with straying in either direction’. So wrote Rupert Shortt in his book Rowan Williams: An Introduction (p. 5). This week here at Per Crucem ad Lucem I will be posting two guest posts that attend to this seeing and saying in the theology of Rowan Williams. Stay tuned.

On manipulative preachers and the mawkishly pious

Critical of those preachers who set out to manipulate people’s emotions, Forsyth averred that the

Gospel of a Saviour who even dies just to impress us with His love, instead of surprising us with joy as we discover Him going to the business of our case and really acting for us with God and against our enemy, captor, and accuser … must be ineffective on all but the weak. It is an æsthetic Gospel; sympathetic at best, and at worst sentimental; it is not action, it does not work; and it is part cause, part effect, of that green mould of sentimentalism which is sapping so much popular religion, and sinking adult men to read novels of mawkish piety that sell in tens of thousands and madden the manly mind to refuge in Tom Jones.

– P.T. Forsyth, ‘The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ. [VII:] The Meaning of a Sinless Christ’. The Expositor 8th Series, 25 (1923), 304.

The full text of the sermon from which these words come can be found in my forthcoming book ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth (Eugene: Pickwick Publications).

some friday link love

The biggest threat to science and scientific progress is not religion or religious believers, with our superstitious or supernatural beliefs, but the arrogance of those atheist fundamentalists among the scientific community who believe that science is the only legitimate and conceivable way to explain or understand the world – and who antagonise a sceptical public in the process.

Reformed World

The latest edition of Reformed World has landed on my desk. It contains the following articles which arose from the first consultation of the World Communion of Reformed Churches‘ Global Network of Theologians which took place last October at Karnataka Theological College in Mangalore, India:

  • ‘Reformation and the Unity of the Churches’, by Bas Plaisier
  • ‘Reformed Identity: Some Approaches’, by Michael Weinrich
  • ‘In Search of a Shared Theology: Reformed Theology between the Contextual and the Universal’, by Heleen Zorgdrager
  • ‘Reformed Theology and Mission’, by Jurgens Hendriks
  • ‘Church and Civil Society in the Reformed Tradition: An Old Relationship and a New Communion’, by Jason A. Goroncy
  • ‘The World Communion of Reformed Churches and its Office of Theology’, by Douwe Visser

BTW: I blogged a bit about my time in India here.

‘Riddles’, by Cilla McQueen

Cilla McQueen has been referred to a few times on this wee blog, not least because she is one of my favourite NZ poets. I was delighted, therefore, to see one of her offerings in this week’s ODT. And I thought ‘Riddles’ was worth re-sharing:

Who am I, with bulldozed flanks,
my hoard that rises and falls as ships gorge on me?
Resembling mountains, I contain forests.
Forest after forest they come, and are emptied.
Wind sculpts their dark gold hearts exposed.

Who am I, half-killed by chainsaw, shyly returning?
Crowds of miniature oval solar panels, a green hoard safe in my basket-case, proof against browsing moa.
Shorn by wind on the hill, you might take me for the shadow of a hunch.

Who am I now, suspended in mid-air?
I have worked all night to manifest my idea with all the means at my command.
I wait quietly at the centre of my idea.

Some news from the Stornoway Gazette

Thank goodness for the Stornoway Gazette, that virtuoso of outstanding and cutting-edge journalism. While the appearance of smoking wheelchairs and Bingo no doubt represent a sign that the end is nigh, it is always praiseworthy to read that there are currently ‘No competitions’, and about the Lord’s elect faithfully defending the truth that only hitch-hikers should be supplying the vacant pulpits of the land. Ah, truly the wheat and tares will grow together until the harvest, at which point the mockers shall fry like double-battered Mars bars, and the Revds Richard Ross and Iain D. shall rejoice in the vindication of their brethren. Please pray for A. Campbell that he finds his ‘picture power’.

A few thoughts on hospital visiting

I. ‘I am my body’.[1] This is the title of a book by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel. The anthropological – not to mention the christological and ecclesiological – implications of such a claim, ‘I am my body’, are extraordinary, and are further deepened when we take into account something like Paul Ricœur’s profound insight that ‘the selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other’.[2] In other words, only in community can one possibly exist as an individual. Who I am cannot be realised apart from the society of relationships that I am placed in, and which I create, and, indeed, apart from the race in toto. One’s essence – and, we might add, one’s salvation – is inextricably knotted into the whole, and all without loss of genuine personality. St Paul’s way of putting this is thus:

But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it … (1 Cor 12.18–26)

II. Above, it seems that St Paul lists suffering as one of the unavoidable realities of human life in the world; a fair assumption, based not on general empirical observation but rather on the shape of divine kenosis in our midst, and on faith’s claim that ‘God has so arranged’ things in a particular way. Moreover, the way that Paul’s metaphor works also speaks to a personal, and not only to a corporate, reality; namely, that it is impossible to distance ourselves from our bodies. When my foot hurts, ‘I’ hurt. And when my conscience is struck, ‘I’ ache from the very depths of my person. Suffering reminds us, among other things, that we are vulnerable and broken. To visit the sick is to visit a public and private ‘person’ and not merely a hospital’s ‘patient’. To visit the sick is also to attend to the self. To receive a visit is equally to attend to the other. Here, at the bedside, it is not uncommon for two ministers to be together. That one has pyjamas on is beside the point.

III. Amazingly, and with not a little unexpectedness, it is precisely in – and not despite of – our vulnerability and brokenness that God, in the freedom of his cauterising love, tends to be present to minister to us and through us and in spite of us. That God sometimes wears pyjamas, and at other times nothing at all, is precisely the point. Moreover, it may be, as one writer put it, ‘through the pain and suffering of the sick that we somehow see the dignity and the beauty of humanity in all its fullness’.[3] To so see is to be exposed to the image of the image of God.

IV. Like not a few other pastoral encounters, those which occur in hospitals occasion opportunities to feel humanity at a different level than what is ‘normal’, and ministers and others are graced with opportunities to witness, and to bear witness to, the deep and transforming love of God in Jesus Christ – the God for whom the experiences of sickness, visitation, fear, abandonment, vulnerability and even death are not foreign. As James Torrance taught us, God does not heal us by standing over us as a doctor does. Rather, in Jesus Christ, God becomes the patient.

V. And yet, the role of the parish minister in the modern hospital is not clear. Ministers rarely enjoy the sense of intelligible knowledge (whether perceived or real) and acceptability about their role as ministers amidst the hospital’s personnel and patients (both in-patients and out-patients[4]) than do hospital chaplains, for example, and very little literature has been concerned to bring clarity to bear on this matter.[5] Little wonder then that we are not only ‘setting out on a journey through uncharted country and without guides’[6] (as one writer overstated it some 40 years ago), but also that many ministers are felt by hospital staff to be like ‘alien bodies’. One internationally-prepared report noted that ‘the role of the religious counsellor or spiritual guide in general hospital therapy is understood by only a few people’, and spoke too of ‘embarrassment and reluctance among hospital staff’ and of ‘the failure of the religious institutions and their official representatives to communicate what it is they have to say and hope to do’.[7] The question of whether or not we’ve moved on or gone backwards in this area since this half-century-old report is not really the point. For the fact remains that there are few clear pictures of the role of the minister in the modern hospital. So Heije Faber:

We might perhaps say that while the minister is formally accepted in the hospital, he [or she] is nevertheless not ‘noticed’, and hence has no clearly defined place – often, in fact, he [or she] has no room or staff. This is partially, at any rate, because his [or her] work is little understood. For the minister himself [or herself] this raises some significant problems. He [or she] comes to realize that his [or her] place in the hospital rests on weak foundations: in the progressive secularization of society, which affects the hospital deeply, how long can he [or she] count on the place he [or she] has at present? He [or she] asks himself [or herself] whether this place is perhaps his [or hers] at present only because of a kind of ‘guilt feeling’ on the part of the medical staff, which is aware of its one-sided relationship with the patients. But how long will this last? He [or she] realizes that he [or she] must clarify his [or her] place and role in the hospital both to himself [or herself] and to the hospital staff, not only in order to keep his [or her] position, but in order to fulfil his [or her] task properly. In so doing he [or she] will also need to integrate his [or her] place and role into the whole complex of the staff through good contacts.[8]

VI. Clarify yes, but for God’s sake don’t counter this trend towards unnoticeableness by trying to be ‘professional’ or, still less, ‘successful’, or, as Faber goes on to aver, ‘credible’. Credibility is the death of Christian ministry. Or, if you prefer, in the oft-quoted words of Updike‘s Pastor Fritz Kruppenbach: ‘Do you think this is your job, to meddle in these people’s lives? I know what they teach you at seminary now: this psychology and that. But I don’t agree with it. You think now your job is to be an unpaid doctor, to run around and plug up holes and make everything smooth. I don’t think that. I don’t think that’s your job … Make no mistake. There is nothing but Christ for us. All the rest, all this decency and busyness, is nothing. It is Devil’s work’.

VII. While the context demands some different ‘rules’ (These are basically common sense. For e.g., never sit on the bed, check with the nurse first if the patient wants to go for a walk outside with you, etc), hospital visiting is at core simply a more disinfected version of any other form of pastoral ministry. In other words, it is best approached as merely another form of the ministry of the Word (Calvin is very good on this). If you are ‘the minister’, remember that you are there neither to be a friend, nor to be a collared version of a Hallmark card. The former needs to bring fruit or flowers or the iPod charger and need not necessarily witness to anything beyond the friendship itself. And the latter is nothing more than expensive and/or pretentious BS. So resist the temptation to speak only of ‘happy’ things, leave your Mr Collins impersonations in the carpark, and try something oddly different for a change – tell the truth about things. Hospital patients, like most other human beings, don’t enjoy verbal debris. And those few who do will find no shortage of such from others in the hospital setting who like to keep both reality and the outside world at bay. Even Freud and Tolstoy knew that.

VIII. Insofar as it may help when preaching on a particular topic (e.g., ‘prayer’ or ‘puberty’ or ‘bodily resurrection’) if one has actually experienced the reality first hand, so too it may help (though does not guarantee and may indeed get in the way) with ministry in a hospital if one can recall their own experience of actually being in a hospital as a patient. Henri Nouwen appropriately reminds us that ‘it is easier to lead someone out of the desert when you have been there yourself’.

IX. Of course, your task is not to lead anyone (not even yourself) out of the hospital anyway. Moreover, the food in deserts is nearly always to be preferred than what is ‘served’ up in hospitals, but Nouwen’s point reminds me of something else – a moment in the TV program The West Wing where Leo McGarry, who is the White House’s chief of staff, and a dry-alcoholic, is having a conversation with the Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman. Josh has just finished an intensive therapy session set up by Leo with a trauma therapist after Josh cut his hand on some glass. Leo suspects, rightly as it happens, that Josh has a drinking problem. They run across each other in the hallway:

Leo McGarry: How’d it go?
Josh Lyman: Did you wait around for me?
Leo McGarry: How’d it go?
Josh Lyman: He thinks I may have an eating disorder …
Leo McGarry: [bemused] Josh …
Josh Lyman: … and a fear of rectangles. That’s not weird, is it?
[pause]
Josh Lyman: I didn’t cut my hand on a glass. I broke a window in my apartment.
Leo McGarry: This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here’. The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out’.[9]

This moment in the show recalls another great moment – the moment of moments! – the movement of the Word of God from the right hand of the Father to arms of a frightened young virgin-mother in order to be Immanuel – God with us. So while such action marks the beginning of Slavoj Žižek’s critique of God – ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here’ – the reply comes from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea – ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out’.

X. Bear witness to this moments of moments. Bread and wine help here!

XI. Don’t be like Job’s ‘friends’ who missed the gift of the view from the ash heap because their words and their failure to touch – i.e., to become a voluntary pain bearer – got in the way. Bread and wine help here too, especially if you remember that you are not the host!

XII. Remember that you are present not in order to get something done. You are present to be present and to pay attention and to call attention to what is going on here – realities, to be sure, beyond your grasp or business. But prayer is always appropriate. And again, bread and wine help!

XIII. I like to think that Jesus had pastors (though not only pastors) in mind when he said, ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Matt 7.12). It’s good to keep these words in mind when engaged with all ministry to vulnerable and trapped (whether geographically, as in a hospital bed, or a prison cell, or a refugee camp, or elsewhere) persons. Simon Wilson, who has himself spent significant time in hospital as a patient, writes:

It is interesting to see the reactions of patients when visiting time is over. As the ward empties and settles down, some lie back in exhaustion. After all they are ill yet feel that they somehow have a duty to put on a brave face for the sake of the visitors and even to entertain them! Others feel loneliness as, after an afternoon of distraction and stimulation, they face the reality of another night exiled in this strange environment. When you share a ward, you cannot help noticing the dynamics going on between patients and their visitors and several people have admitted to me how much they enjoy the secret pleasure of working out how people are related to one another! One experience, which will always remain with me, relates to a man who spent several days in the bed next to me. Every day without fail, his family would arrive before 9.00 in the morning and they would stay ‘entertaining’ him until the end of visiting some eleven hours later. Eventually the ward Sister had to introduce ‘special restrictions’ on the lengths of their visits to give the poor fellow some rest and privacy. Many will testify that during spells in hospitals, visits by friends and family were a vital lifeline to the outside world. To know you are missed, worried about and prayed for helps ease the feelings of self-pity and abandonment. Without doubt, visits from my wife, parents and close friends have been the high points of hospital days. Some relationships have actually deepened due to the time spent at the hospital bedside. Indeed, that is how my wife and I first got to know each other. I have realized how in ‘normal life’ we fail to spend time just sitting and talking and sharing about what is going on in the world and in our own lives. One woman who spent several weeks in hospital was struck by how much her appreciation and ‘awareness of small kindnesses’ developed as she was touched by gifts, cards and visits from well-wishers. ‘One small thoughtful act can really make a huge difference.’ Some visits though are less helpful. In the state of illness, you have no control over who comes through that ward door and to your bedside. Your personal space is constantly open to trespassers. Most people can point to visits, which despite good and caring intentions have actually had the opposite effect.[10]

In case you missed the earlier memo: do to others as you would have them do to you. This means that the minister is present to serve the time-frame of the patient; the patient is not present to fill in the time frame of the minister.

XIV. Reflect often on Charles Causley’s poem, ‘Ten Types of Hospital Visitor’. It may even be your salvation:

1
The first enters wearing the neon armour
Of virtue.
Ceaselessly firing all-purpose smiles
At everyone present
She destroys hope
In the breasts of the sick,
Who realize instantly
That they are incapable of surmounting
Her ferocious goodwill.

Such courage she displays
In the face of human disaster!

Fortunately, she does not stay long.
After a speedy trip round the ward
In the manner of a nineteen-thirties destroyer
Showing the flag in the Mediterranean,
She returns home for a week
– With luck, longer –
Scorched by the heat of her own worthiness.

2
The second appears, a melancholy splurge
Of theological colours;
Taps heavily about like a healthy vulture
Distributing deep-frozen hope.

The patients gaze at him cautiously.
Most of them, as yet uncertain of the realities
Of heaven, hell-fire, or eternal emptiness,
Play for safety
By accepting his attentions
With just-concealed apathy,
Except one old man, who cries
With newly sharpened hatred,
`Shove off! Shove off!
`Shove … shove … shove … shove
Off!
Just you
Shove!’

3
The third skilfully deflates his weakly smiling victim
By telling him
How the lobelias are doing,
How many kittens the cat had,
How the slate came off the scullery roof,
And how no one has visited the patient for a fortnight
Because everybody
Had colds and feared to bring the jumpy germ
Into hospital.
The patient’s eyes
Ice over. He is uninterested
In lobelias, the cat, the slate, the germ.
Flat on his back, drip-fed, his face
The shade of a newly dug-up Pharaoh,
Wearing his skeleton outside his skin,
Yet his wits as bright as a lighted candle,
He is concerned only with the here, the now,
And requires to speak
Of nothing but his present predicament.

It is not permitted.

4
The fourth attempts to cheer
His aged mother with light jokes
Menacing as shell-splinters.
`They’ll soon have you jumping round
Like a gazelle,’ he says.
`Playing in the football team.’
Quite undeterred by the sight of kilos
Of plaster, chains, lifting-gear,
A pair of lethally designed crutches,
`You’ll be leap-frogging soon,’ he says.
`Swimming ten lengths of the baths.’
At these unlikely prophecies
The old lady stares fearfully
At her sick, sick offspring
Thinking he has lost his reason –
Which, alas, seems to be the case.

5
The fifth, a giant from the fields
With suit smelling of milk and hay,
Shifts uneasily from one bullock foot
To the other, as though to avoid
Settling permanently in the antiseptic landscape.
Occasionally he looses a scared glance
Sideways, as though fearful of what intimacy
He may blunder on, or that the walls
Might suddenly close in on him.

He carries flowers, held lightly in fingers
The size and shape of plantains,
Tenderly kisses his wife’s cheek
– The brush of a child’s lips –
Then balances, motionless, for thirty minutes
On the thin chair.

At the end of visiting time
He emerges breathless,
Blinking with relief, into the safe light.

He does not appear to notice
The dusk.

6
The sixth visitor says little,
Breathes reassurance,
Smiles securely.
Carries no black passport of grapes
And visa of chocolate. Has a clutch
Of clean washing.
Unobtrusively stows it
In the locker; searches out more.
Talks quietly to the Sister
Out of sight, out of earshot, of the patient.
Arrives punctually as a tide.
Does not stay the whole hour.

Even when she has gone
The patient seems to sense her there:
An upholding
Presence.

7
The seventh visitor
Smells of bar-room after-shave.
Often finds his friend
Sound asleep: whether real or feigned
Is never determined.

He does not mind; prowls the ward
In search of second-class, lost-face patients
With no visitors
And who are pretending to doze
Or read paperbacks.

He probes relentlessly the nature
Of each complaint, and is swift with such
Dilutions of confidence as,
`Ah! You’ll be worse
Before you’re better.’

Five minutes before the bell punctuates
Visiting time, his friend opens an alarm-clock eye.
The visitor checks his watch.
Market day. The Duck and Pheasant will be still open.

Courage must be refuelled.

8
The eight visitor looks infinitely
More decayed, ill and infirm than any patient.
His face is an expensive grey.

He peers about with antediluvian eyes
As though from the other end
Of time.
He appears to have risen from the grave
To make this appearance.
There is a whiff of white flowers about him;
The crumpled look of a slightly used shroud.
Slowly he passes the patient
A bag of bullet-proof
Home-made biscuits,
A strong, death-dealing cake –
`To have with your tea,’
Or a bowl of fruit so weighty
It threatens to break
His glass fingers.

The patient, encouraged beyond measure,
Thanks him with enthusiasm, not for
The oranges, the biscuits, the cake,
But for the healing sight
Of someone patently worse
Than himself. He rounds the crisis-corner;
Begins a recovery.

9
The ninth visitor is life.

10
The tenth visitor
Is not usually named.[11]

(Kenneth Gill also warns clergy of a number of pitfalls.[12] Some are too ‘busy’ to listen to the patient who is left feeling like a tick on a things-to-do list, others are too ‘austere’ arriving, praying, blessing and leaving before their feet touch the ground, as if they will somehow be tainted by the ill if they hang around too long. Many can relate to the ‘insecure’ priest and her forced jokes and recognise the ‘untidy’ one with his poor personal hygiene. The ‘loud’ priest leaves us in acute embarrassment and the ‘indiscreet’ one causes absolute confusion.)

XV. ‘So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all’ chaplains and hospital staff (Rom 12.18).

XVI. While sensitivity is a key (not every visit needs to feel like some sort of ‘pre-funeral visit!’), a robust christology bears witness to the Key upon whom all good keys are modelled. It is Jesus Christ who makes himself available in the hospital ward, and in doing so confronts and renews, puts to death and makes alive. The minister and hospital visitor would do well to stay out of the way, not only for the sake of the patient, but also for their own sake. And, as I have it on good authority, also for God’s sake; because God is literally sick to death of tripping over well-meaning messiahs.

XVII. Our witness to Christ includes a number of realties, among which is offering reminders of God’s promise to remain faithful and to provide. The Scriptures recount this promise which lies at the heart of Christian faith (e.g., Gen 26.3; Deut 31.23; Isa 41.9–10; Matt 7.7–8; 28.20, and John 4.10; 14.16–17), and the sacraments too bear tangible witness to these evangelical promises. We may rely on God because God remains faithful. Our witness to Christ is also manifest in the decision to fully embrace – rather than exclude – the sick and dying – and well as their families! – into the life of the Christian community. This ought not be odd, for the Christian community begins with the confession of sickness and dying in the act of baptism. What is out of step with the Christian confession is the acceptance of the practice of building community life around the so-called healthy, clean and ‘righteous’. Mark 2, among other passages, reminds us also of the deep relationship between sickness, healing and the forgiveness of sins, realities which tend to be neglected in much of the contemporary ‘pastoral’ literature. One outstanding exception to this trend can be found in Eduard Thurneysen’s wonderful book A Theology of Pastoral Care.

XVIII. Getting some basic advice from a serious pastor-theologian is always wise, whatever the topic. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s treatment of the subject at hand appears in his book Seelsorge (German – ‘Pastoral Care’ but translated as ‘Spiritual Care’), at least one section of which is worth citing at length (even if we may wish to challenge Bonhoeffer on some statements):

Sick visits should be regular. Bear in mind that they are there for the sake of the sick person. People never expect others to show up so much as they do when sick. It is best to schedule the visit in advance so the sick person can get presentable. Announced visits are more worthwhile than surprise visits. The pastor mustn’t ignore a scheduled visit. You can’t imagine how much damage you’ll do if you don’t show up. Scheduling regular visits pledges the pastor to be prepared and the sick person to be ready. If possible, the visits should always be scheduled at the same hour and on the same day of the week.

Regular visits are also good for the pastor. He should be present with the sick often. In such a way he will learn that sickness and health go together. This is not abnormal. Sickness and pain are a law of the fallen world. A person who happens to experience fallenness in this special way is an image of the One who bore our sickness and was so afflicted that people hid their faces from him (Isaiah 53). If Jesus came among the sick, that signifies that he bore the law of this world and fulfilled it. “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Matt. 8:17). Jesus saves in that he bears. His salvation has nothing to do with magic, which is able to make people well from a distance. In Jesus’ healings the cross is prefigured. Healing shows that Jesus receives and bears the sick in their weakness, a weakness he will bear on the cross. Only as the crucified One is he the healer.

Among the sick we learn more about the world and come closer to the pangs of Jesus’ cross than we do among the well. Guilt, sin, and decay are more recognizable where everyone participates in the subjection of those who suffer without any particular discernible reason. The same curse rests upon us all. Some, however, experience it more deeply and painfully than all the rest. Such participation helps us recognize the true condition of the world. Our health is endangered in each moment. All sickness is enclosed within our health. The law of this world calls for a cross and not health. It’s not good that the sick are shut up, concentrated in large hospitals to put them far out of sight of the well. At Bethel the sick and the healthy live with one another, sharing as a matter of course daily life and worship: a continual reminder to the sick of wholeness.

Love toward sick members should have a special place in the Christian congregation. Christ comes near to us in the sick. The pastor who neglects the visitation of the sick must ask whether or not he can exercise his office on the whole.

Sick people ask for healing. They cry for release from this body of death into a new and healthy body. They cry for the new world in which “God will wipe away every tear, and there will be no more suffering or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). Insofar as this happens, the sick inquire about Christ more than do the well. Christ fulfills this conscious or unconscious expectation through his promise, “I am the Lord, your physician” (Exod. 15:26). Nevertheless the proclamation should not be limited to this one aspect. No proper spiritual care occurs without the offer of the forgiveness of sins. The mandate to proclaim the forgiveness of sins applies here, too. Often concrete sins will come to light. Not only past sins come to light, but also those related to the sickness and those the sickness itself creates. Sickness can make one egocentric and sullen, driven to extreme resistance toward Christ, a resistance which is itself unhealthy. The sickbed then becomes burdened with great guilt. So in spiritual care compassion cannot stand alone; we must also bring the whole truth of sin and grace.

To parishioners who are faithful at worship the pastor might bring the Sunday sermon. “I come because are not able to come.” He will tell the other, “You should know that the church is particularly attentive and pledged to the sick even when they are not able to attend church.” Many people might wonder and silently suspect that someone wants something from them, perhaps is looking to use their condition toward some cheap end. It must be made clear to them that the church comes to the sick without ulterior motives simply to be with them and to help wherever help is desired. Through simple presence we show that God is with the sick and that sickness may be interpreted as a sign of God’s nearness. The presence of the church and the offer of help are never more than pointers to that Help who is God.

There are disagreeable and selfish people. They offer no apologies; after all, they have been torn from their work, they cannot go home, and they fully expect the world to revolve around them. They need to see that their pretensions are groundless; they are, in fact, dependent on the love and friendship of others, and they only do more damage to themselves by such self-seeking behavior. They live in order to receive help. They should be thankful that this is so and learn to be patient when things don’t go as fast as ‘they would like. If they abjure thanksgiving and patience, then they destroy what blessing their illness may hold.

A special problem is presented by the big wards where people are crowded together. There is a lot of bickering in these wards, especially among old women. We might gently remind people that it is undignified to carry on so when we will all soon stand before the judgment seat of Christ. A conversational opening may be to ask how long the person has been ill and, above all, how his or her patience is holding out. One has to extend the right to the sick person to talk about how things are going. Just don’t let the story become too long. Sick folks love to gab and they will go into as great detail as possible about their illness. Better information will be available from the patient’s nurse …

The sick person must not get the impression that, in his condition, he is unnecessary and useless. The pastor can give him such information and tasks that he will be able to see himself on the sickbed as if he were in the midst of the congregation. His chief task will be to intercede for the congregation as a whole and for specific needs, for the pastor and his ministry, for the life and struggle of the church, and also for the other sick people and for a good spirit of community. No one knows that as well as he does. He should know that this ministry, under the circumstances, is more important than all the hurried activities which well people are conducting outside the hospital …

Truth belongs at the sickbed. The pastor should never come with cheap and false comfort that life will soon be all right once more. How is he to know that? On the other hand he shouldn’t say that it will soon be all over. He has no certainty of that either. What the sick need to know in any event is that they are special and uniquely lodged in God’s hand, and that God is the giver of life whether in this world or the next. Vision and heart must always be made opened up to that other world. “Be at peace and let your life rest quietly in God.”

For spiritual care with the sick, it helps if the pastor knows as many Bible verses and hymn stanzas as possible by heart. The memorized Word is more effective and more easily implanted than our own. One might consider creating a booklet for the sick and dying with texts and songs.[13]

XIX. For the sake of convenience, and of good theology, let’s just assume that God got there first.

XX. Much remains unsaid. I’m OK with that.

Notes
[1] Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, I Am My Body: A Theology of Embodiment (London: SCM Press, 1974).

[2] Paul Ricœur, Oneself as Another (trans. Kathleen Blamey; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 3.

[3] Simon Wilson, When I Was In Hospital You Visited Me (Cambridge: Grove, 2001), 5.

[4] On ministry to out-patients see Herbert Anderson et al., Ministry to Outpatients: a new challenge in pastoral care (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1991).

[5] For some historical perspectives see Graham Mooney and Jonathan Reinarz, ed., Permeable Walls: historical perspectives on hospital and asylum visiting (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2009).

[6] Heije Faber, Pastoral Care in the Modern Hospital (trans. Hugo de Waal; London: SCM Press, 1971), vii.

[7] Taken from Elizabeth Barnes, People in Hospital (London: Macmillan and Co., 1961), 97. Cited in Faber, Pastoral Care in the Modern Hospital, vii.

[8] Faber, Pastoral Care in the Modern Hospitalvii–viii.

[9] The West Wing, Season Two, Episode 10, ‘Noël’.

[10] Wilson, When I Was In Hospital You Visited Me, 7.

[11] Charles Causley, ‘Ten Types of Hospital Visitor’ in Collected Poems (ed. Charles Causley; London: Macmillan, 1992), 232–37.

[12] Kenneth Gill, Sick Call (London: SPCK, 1965), 7–12.

[13] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Spiritual Care (trans. Jay C. Rochelle; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 55–9.

Congregational Studies Fellowships

The Congregational Studies Team from the American Society of Church History is pleased to announce the availability of Fellowships to support scholars who are interested in disciplined inquiry into the life of local communities of faith. Applications are encouraged from scholars in a variety of disciplines — from practical theology to the social sciences, from history to biblical studies and contextual education — for projects that involve learning from and about living communities of faith.

The application deadline is 1 February 2012, and more information is available from here.

Some book reviews you may have missed

For those who missed them, here’s a few links to some books that I reviewed last year here at Per Crucem ad Lucem:

Other reviews can be found here.