A surprise among the ‘best-sellers’

Tikkun OlamFor everything, there’s the first.

Apparently, one of my edited books, ‘Tikkun Olam’: To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts, has made a best-sellers list, coming in just behind Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful new novel Lila. Thanks to the discerning readers at Eighth Day Books.

My wonders are new every morning, just like my sins.

Who would have thought …

John Milne: some new choral work

Siegfried SassoonJohn Milne, who is no stranger to this blog, has recently produced two new choral pieces, both anti-war in theme.

The first, ‘Soldier Boy’, is based on a Siegfried Sassoon text ‘Suicide in the Trenches’, written during WWI. Sassoon penned a number of better-known anti-war poems, but this one’s quite unusual in that it deals with suicide among the ranks (a huge problem in Iraq and Afghanistan even today with about 20 US veterans committing suicide every day, about 20% of the overall suicides in the US while only 1% of Americans have served in the military) – a manifestation of the mindlessness of war and of the vain belief in the soteriological powers of violence’s stunning machinery.

Edith SitwellThe second piece is ‘Still Falls the Rain’. The text here is provided by Edith Sitwell, and cites scripture, ‘Faust’, and all sorts of arcana. Sitwell endured a night of the Blitz in London in 1940, and it is believed that she wrote the poem as the sun rose, bringing with it life’s announcement of perseverance and graced permanence (the Germans bombed exclusively at night). While nowadays we seem to accept with little protest the faceless and mechanised bombing of civilian populations as commonplace, the Blitz marked the first time it was ever done in earnest, and it must have seemed unspeakably vile. John Milne described the closing lines of the poem  as ‘as powerful an affirmation of God’s enduring love in the face of near-infinite human evil as I’ve ever encountered’. Those interested in reading further about the poem can read the exegesis provided by Robin Bates, a professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

The Reformation Polka

lukas-cranach-martin-lutherI’ve posted before about the sense of ‘play’ that characterised the various reformations of the sixteenth century. I have been reminded of this twice recently; first, while preparing lectures on various kirk session books from Scotland during the 1570s onwards (it really is much more fun than it sounds!), and then again when I came across Robert Gebel’s song  ‘The Reformation Polka’ (sung to the tune of ‘Supercalifragilistic-expialidocious’) while clearing out my desk in anticipation of my move to Australia next month. I thought the latter worth sharing here:

When I was just ein junger Mann I studied canon law;
While Erfurt was a challenge, it was just to please my Pa.
Then came the storm, the lightning struck, I called upon Saint Anne,
I shaved my head, I took my vows, an Augustinian! Oh …

Papal bulls, indulgences, and transubstantiation
Speak your mind against them and face excommunication!
Nail your theses to the door, let’s start a Reformation!
Papal bulls, indulgences, and transubstantiation!

When Tetzel came near Wittenberg, St. Peter’s profits soared,
I wrote a little notice for the All Saints’ Bull’tin board:
‘You cannot purchase merits, for we’re justified by grace!
Here’s 95 more reasons, Brother Tetzel, in your face!’ Oh …

Papal bulls, indulgences …

They loved my tracts, adored my wit, all were exempleror;
The Pope, however, hauled me up before the Emperor.
‘Are these your books? Do you recant?’ King Charles did demand,
‘I will not change my Diet, Sir, God help me here I stand!’ Oh …

Papal bulls, indulgences …

Duke Frederick took the Wise approach, responding to my words,
By knighting ‘George’ as hostage in the Kingdom of the Birds.
Use Brother Martin’s model if the languages you seek,
Stay locked inside a castle with your Hebrew and your Greek! Oh …

Papal bulls, indulgences …

Let’s raise our steins and Concord Books while gathered in this place,
And spread the word that ‘catholic’ is spelled with lower case;
The Word remains unfettered when the Spirit gets his chance,
So come on, Katy, drop your lute, and join us in our dance! Oh …

Papal bulls, indulgences …

 

The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret

The Mumbersons and The Blood SecretSome moons ago, I posted an interview with the Dunedin author, composer, and musician, Mike Crowl, in relation to his book, Diary of a Prostate Wimp. Mike is a good friend who has, besides his literary foray on his surgical experiences, published two fantasy books this year for children. One of these was based on a really delightful musical he wrote and produced in 2012, called Grimhilda! (I posted about it here). This month, Mike released a ‘sort of sequel’ to Grimhilda! called The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret.

The Mumbersons is a ‘sort of sequel’ because here new characters take the lead, and only a very few of the people from the first book appear. It’s an approach not unlike that which C. S. Lewis adopts in his Narnia series. The Horse and the Boy, for example, has distinct connections to the earlier book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the characters driving the tale are quite new.

Mike’s fantasy world, like Lewis’s, isn’t explicitly ‘Christian’, although much of the strange new world of the Bible underpins the stories. In Grimhilda!, for example, the parents of a young boy called Toby are kidnapped by a witch, who later explains that she’s entitled to do this because they haven’t loved their son; they’ve been too busy with their own lives. After some initial reluctance, Toby sets out with some companions to rescue his parents. In the background to the story we learn of another young boy who tried to do the same thing many years before, and failed, dying in the process. This past sacrifice makes possible Toby’s new life of loving service.

And then there’s the blood. Indeed, a main thrust of the new story is about the secret of Billy’s blood, and whether it can be used for good or evil.

Both stories are adventures, with the heroes having to overcome a number of difficulties, sometimes by their own strengths, sometimes aided by the unlikeliest of gifts. In each story, the boy is accompanied by a female companion: in Grimhilda! she’s a bossy doll who’s come to life; in The Mumbersons, she’s a risk-taking girl with a rather strange family background.

Like the other two books, The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret has been published as an e-book. (It’s available on Kindle, Kobo, iTunes, and Smashwords. It’ll also soon be available at the Dunedin Public Library.) And, again, Mike has worked closely with Cherianne Parks, his co-author, whose ideas ‘permeate the story’, as he notes in the Acknowledgements. You can read more about Mike here.

It isn’t necessary to have read Grimhilda! to understand the new book. Although, of course, knowing the background of the earlier story will add to the enjoyment of the sequel.

Congratulations to Mike on this latest publication. It’s good to see that he’s relaxing in that most unbiblical of modern concepts – retirement!

How long is a piece of string?

A guest post by Libby Byrne

For many years now as I have been making art, I have been aware of the desire to do something – with string. This began almost fifteen years ago when I was trying find a way to express my experience of living as a woman who was thirty-something. String was a helpful metaphor in bringing this image to birth. String is almost universally available though it is distinctly variable in quality and quantity. String binds things together and, when tied with purpose and skill, will enable us to batten down the hatches in a storm. It does the work it was intended for. It wears over time, and ultimately breaks down. However you like to think about it, string comes to the rescue in both a metaphorical and literal sense.

It was in the printmaking studio that I was able to really make some marks that expressed this boldly and clearly. The printing press and the wet paper working together to record an image evocative of a simple yet satisfying string vest, which later formed the basis for a drawing in which the vest transformed into an elegant gown.

'The String Thing'. 2001. Monoprint on Stonehenge. 420mm x 590mm.   

‘The String Thing’, 2001. Monoprint on Stonehenge. 420mm x 590mm.

bridal dress

‘Grace’, 2001. Drawing on Stonehenge. 420mm x 590mm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'Time Spent', 2005. Oil paint and mixed media on canvas. 300mm x 900mm.

‘Time Spent’, 2005. Oil paint and mixed media on canvas. 300mm x 900mm.

Several years later I was feeling somewhat trapped in the calling to work as an artist. With so much invested already I was aware that the work actually still required me to dig in, spend time, and wait for the next thing to emerge. As I searched for a metaphor, I was reminded of the thing I did with string. Inspired Anselm Kiefer, I wrapped the work with string and included other found objects from around the studio. I hoped that the work would speak of time spent in the service of the image.

'The End of All our Exploring', 2007. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 2140mm x 920mm.

‘The End of All our Exploring’, 2007. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 2140mm x 920mm.

Over several years, I played with this metaphor and eventually developed some large scale work that was capable of reverberating strongly in large spaces. What began with the intimacy of play years earlier had become a conceptually-integrated metaphor capable of engaging me in the work of art. However, the work was no longer my own. The string that contained and held the image was a symbol for the conditions of my existence, and this spoke to others who were aware of the conditional nature of their own existence.

'Grief', 2007. Oils on canvas and mixed media, 510mm x 620mm.

‘Grief’, 2007. Oils on canvas and mixed media, 510mm x 620mm.

In 2007, I found myself back in the studio in search of a personal metaphor for my experience. The grief of injustice threatened the light that was my faith and I felt completely bound in that place. It seemed that there was nothing that could be done to clear the space and so once more I took up a ball of string, reclaiming this material to articulate my experience. Once again I was making small work and when it was complete I was satisfied. I did not have the words to articulate how I felt and thought about injustice and grief, but in the image I was able to really see the weight and the reality of my own experience. As I pondered the image in the years that followed, I sometimes wondered if the small gap where the light gets into this image was indeed a wound. In the absence of professional attention and support, I think that I resorted to using string to bind the wound … but it was interesting to note that I had allowed the wound to remain open as a rift in my conceptual thinking.

'Grief on the Altar', 2011.

‘Grief on the Altar’, 2011.

I carried this open-and-yet-contained wound for years, even allowing it to find its place for a time on the altar in the church where I had been a child. Having been absent from this place for the previous thirty years, I was stunned to see how well the proportions and the toning of the image worked with the altar. Indeed, the wire at the rear of the painting hung over the carved symbol IHS that decorated the front of the altar.

The invitation to hang this work in this way was an offering of incredible generosity and love. There was a risk that people may be offended. And yet, the courage to enter this risk meant that Christ was able to literally bear my grief in sacrificial offering. I would never be able to see the painting ‘Grief’ in the same way again.

Seven years later, my relationship with this grief had shifted along with my experience of injustice. Finding a voice to speak of these things had been slow and arduous but having taken one step at a time, seven years later I was in a different place. I knew in my bones that things had shifted, but I needed to see for myself if this was true. It was time to do some work with the painting I had known as ‘Grief’. It was time to do some more with string. This time I was not binding or winding. This time I took to the string with scissors, releasing that which had been bound in the hope that I would find a new metaphor. As I worked at cutting I collected the small pieces of string that had long since hardened with the varnish that had finished the oil paint on canvas. I worked over several weeks to open the space with care and attention. I even used some of the older string to tie back the threads that threatened to reach back into the centre and encroach on this newly-born place. Eventually, I tied some of the shorter pieces of string together and they reminded me of firewood carefully collected and waiting for the time when it would be most needed. The last thing that I did was to take to this older oil painting with white gouache and in doing so I quickly discovered marks that reminded me of a membrane as it opens toward the moment of birth.

I shared this new image with my psychotherapist free from any narrative and he saw the nest of an eagle, perched high on a rocky outcrop. I was intrigued and delighted to hear this. Is this is the gift of a new metaphor or the extension and natural development of a metaphor that has always been.

How long indeed, is a piece of string?

'Work in Progress', 2014. Mixed media on canvas, 510mm x  620mm.

‘Work in Progress’, 2014. Mixed media on canvas, 510mm x 620mm.

Libby Byrne is the current recipient of Whitley College’s Religious Art Prize.

Mary Meets Mohammed

My local Amnesty International group in Dunedin will be screening Mary Meets Mohammed at the Pioneer Hall in Port Chalmers on Friday 28 November at 7pm. This is a heart-warming movie made by AI Australia about the friendship that develops between an asylum seeker from the Middle East and a Tasmanian woman who initially thinks that such people should be ‘sent back to where they came from’. A gold coin donation for entry will go to AI Australia to support our own Mary Morwood who has committed herself to a sponsored walk in Australia, raising money to support asylum seekers in detention, and the rights of Australian Aboriginal people. There will be refreshments available after the film. All welcome.

Mary Meets Mohammad

Here’s the trailer:

AAR (additional) meeting – The Promise of Robert Jenson’s Theology: Constructive Engagements

RobertJenson 8If you are heading to AAR in San Diego this year, consider joining a rich gathering of bods engaging with the theology of Robert Jenson. With the sponsorship of Pentecostal Theological Seminary, Chris Green and Stephen Wright are hosting this exciting additional meeting. A wonderful lineup of speakers will address Jenson’s theology from a variety of perspectives:

Daniela Augustine, Lee University
Creation as Perichoretic Trinitarian Conversation: Reflections on World-making with Robert W. Jenson

The paper will engage Robert W. Jenson’s rich and sophisticated reflection on the Trinitarian act of creation as a perichoretic divine discourse that opens time and space for the existence and conversational inclusion of the other. It will highlight the “narrative” character of the world’s materiality and its liturgical essence as “created word of obedience and worship” in which humanity comes forth as the distinct creature, made to hear the direct address of God’s creative speech and to respond in prayer. This conversational communion with the creator culminates into the divine command for humanity’s deification as union with Christ – the human (and cosmic) telos manifested as the Word made flesh – the uncreated Logos redemptively-united to his creation. Echoing Jenson’s concept of “God’s roominess,” the text will depict the event of creation as an act of unconditional divine hospitality, of radical re-spacing within the Trinitarian proto-communal life as an internal act of praktike – of God’s loving askesis and kenosis in self-fasting for the sake of the other. Finally, building upon Jenson’s assertion of the created cosmos as an “omnipotent conversation that is open to us,” the paper will conclude by offering a vision of human life as a liturgical embodiment of the communion between matter and spirit while partaking in creative, in-Spirit-ed, world-making conversation with the creator.

Eugene F. Rogers, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
How does the Work of Robert Jenson Help to Answer Questions about Christian Blood-Language?

Christianity uses “the body of Christ” to unite God, believer, history, community, and physical symbol in an ineliminable pattern. On different levels, the historical body of Jesus is the body of Christ; the church is the body of Christ; the bread is the body of Christ; the believer makes up the body of Christ; the crucifix around her neck displays the body of Christ; and the body of Christ is the body of God. Closely allied to the body of Christ is his blood, appearing in the NT three times as often as his “cross” and five times as often as his “death.” The human blood of Jesus is the blood of Christ; the church lives from the blood of Christ; the wine of the eucharist is the blood of Christ; the believer drinks salvation in the blood of Christ; icons ooze the blood of Christ; and the blood of Christ is the blood of God. There is no Christianity without some version of this ordered series, which theology calls “analogy” and Durkheim “totemism.” Arguing whether “blood” means “death” or “life,” conservatives and liberals find blood a language in which to disagree. Reading blood into texts where it hardly appears (the Akedah mentions no blood, and crucifixion kills by suffocation), interpreters find blood a key to the scriptures.

One of the marks of great thinkers is that we use them to think through questions that they did not themselves address. At a time when scholars of Christianity across many disciplines were thinking about “the body”—and even before!—Robert Jenson, in his sacramentology, atonement theory, and ethics, was making profound remarks about the body: It was the “total of possibilities that I may grant myself as object for those I address,” including the availability of a person, a person’s “to-be-transcended presence,” a person’s idenfiability (Visible Words, 22-23).

Lately, scholars have moved on to focus on “blood” (Biale, The Circulation of a Metaphor; Bynum, Wonderful Blood). In particular, Gil Anidjar has made blood the basis of a Nietzchean polemic against Christian blood-language (Blood: A Critique of Christianity, 2014). Meanwhile, Bildhauer (Medieval Blood, 1-6) points out that blood marks and alarms the bounds of the body, so that it is in the languages, images, and sites of blood that society’s work to maintain the social body takes place. Can Jenson’s work also respond to or deepen this new inquiry? If Christ is restlos eingefleischt, what consequences does that bear for the analogy of blood?

In much of Jenson’s work, “blood” appears in the phrase “body and blood,” where he then goes on to interpret body without reference to blood. Does blood reduce to body in Jenson’s work? If so, is the reduction a model to follow (because the blood-critics are right), an anemia to be faulted, or an opening to be filled? Or does the Ezekiel Commentary (with a chapter called “City of Blood”) prove an exception, where “blood” says something more or other than “body”? The paper will certainly raise, although it may not yet answer, these questions about how Christians use the languages of blood to think with.

R. Kendall Soulen, Wesley Theological Seminary
People of God, Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit: The Trinitarian Being of the Church in Conversation with Robert W. Jenson

In Systematic Theology II, Robert Jenson displays the Trinitarian being of the church by structuring his ecclesiology using a triad of biblical images: People of God, Body of Christ, and Temple of the Holy Spirit. Though the triad is commonplace in contemporary ecumenical discussion, Jenson uses it in typically creative fashion to develop a post-supersessionist account of the church. In this paper, I seek to develop and extend Jenson’s insights. If, following Jenson, we thematize the church’s solidarity with the Jewish people under the theo-centric rubric “people of God,” then (I propose) “Temple of the Holy Spirit” provides a fitting, Spirit-centered way to thematize the church’s (equally fundamental) solidarity with the nations (cf. Acts 2; Eph. 2:19-21; 1 Pet 2:4-9). “Body of Christ,” then, thematizes the church as the site of messianic peace between people (Israel) and peoples (nations). We recognize the church as Christ’s body by the peaceful reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in differentiated unity.

Time and venue:
9:00–11:00am, Saturday 22nd Nov.
Hilton Bayfront – Sapphire D

‘War’, by Thomas W. Shapcott

Sidney Nolan, 'Gallipoli'

Sidney Nolan, ‘Gallipoli’

Remembrance Day. In school assemblies, talk
of manhood achieved in the trenches of World War One.
At seventeen, the boy my father ran from home
and enlisted, falsifying his age. Gallipoli had begun.
Proudly he sat for his photo in the glib slogan
of his army uniform, before he sailed.
The other side of war re-shaped that soldier,
and the later pictures stare bleakly, exiled.

Yet fifty years have silted over the scars;
impossible for me to recognize my father
in either photograph. Time’s habit of movement, event,
long before my birth, wove in him a tidy shelter
of reunion, committee, club, appeal and agenda.
The stories that I grew up with of battles, and “Winter
in ’16” were scraps and relics, toys in an old shoebox.
In the R.S.L. he became a Life Member.

But wars do not finish: it is not over. I speak
of more than personal discoveries.
Gallipoli that was a selfish blunder in high places,
a battle fought for nothing or for polluted seas
of sodden corpses, is other than a ribbon: the errors
are not the meaning, finally. My father woke
struggling, one night, an old man in warm pyjamas,
into the pillbox concussion of old darkness, and it broke

into his age and stranded him. He stumbled past us,
his grown sons, a strange dead boy choking him silent
and spitting stale blood in the safe rooms of our home,
blind for a terrible reckoning, demanding atonement.
And we, in the comfortable bedrooms
taken for granted always, innocent,
were forced among the spaces of his acts and words
to where his gains burned through like punishment.

– Thomas W. Shapcott, ‘War’, in Inwards to the Sun: Poems (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1969), 59.

Bearing the Unbearable: Trauma, Gospel and Pastoral Care

Next week, Dunedin will host Professor Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger. During her stay, she will deliver a public lecture (details below). If her books on pastoral care be any guide, this will be a ‘Do Not Miss’ event. If you are in Dunedin, I strongly encourage you to come along and, in the meantime, to help spread the word.

D van Deusen Hunsinger poster

Libby Byrne wins the Whitley College Religious Art Prize

Libby ByrneEach year, the Theological School at Whitley College hosts a Religious Art Prize, each time around a different theme (this year’s theme was ‘Love and Justice’). I am absolutely delighted to learn that this year’s prize was awarded to Libby Byrne. Libby is an art therapist and theologian who is currently working on her PhD in theology. I had the privilege of serving on her PhD confirmation panel, a context through which I learnt more about her and her work, and about what is shaping up to be a very exciting and boundary-pressing piece of doctoral study. Libby also contributed a very fine chapter to the edited volume ‘Tikkun Olam’ – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts, about which I wrote the following:

Libby Byrne’s essay explores the premise that the artist’s calling is to ‘live close to the wound’. Locating this contention within the nexus that seems to exist between art, theology and philosophy, she argues that we are able to consider the prevailing conditions required for the artist to work toward the task of mending that which is broken, and, drawing on theory from Matthew Del Nevo and Rowan Williams, Byrne helps us understand the importance of melancholy and vulnerability in the sacramental work of human making. She provides examples of how this theory may work in practice with particular reference to the work of Anselm Kiefer and finally with her own studio practice, reminding us that it takes courage to choose to live and work close to our wounds, and also that by so doing the artist not only opens themselves to the possibility of transformation but also of­fers to others gifts that reverberate within the world and that call us to healing and wholeness.

Hearty congratulations Libby!

‘Thoughts on being The Registrar’, by Catherine van Dorp

SAMSUNGA hundred jobs half-done;
And half-remembered thoughts hover just beyond recall
Of things to do.
Scribbled names on
Scraps of paper
Remind of calls
That interrupted previous attempts
To beat the chaos.
Lists bring some order
And lend respite
From sense of failure.
Resolution to complete
At least one task
Becomes today’s compulsion.
I click my mouse
Open my spreadsheet
Gather my thoughts
to task at hand
and start again.

The phone rings …

– by Catherine van Dorp, 15 October 2014.

‘Towards Global Inclusion of LGBT People Within Catholic Communities’

Acts 10. Peter in the House of CorneliusRecently, James Alison was in Rome speaking at The Ways of Love conference. He gave what was a characteristically stimulating, courageous, constructive, and timely lecture titled ‘Towards Global Inclusion of LGBT People Within Catholic Communities’. I repost it here:

I’d like to ask you to join me as we imagine ourselves as participants in a familiar scene from Scripture. The scene is from Acts 10, but imagined from a small distance: looking back a week or so after the events that are described. We are in the house of the Roman Centurion Cornelius, in Caesarea. Maybe we are family members, maybe servants or slaves. Along with Cornelius, we have long been accustomed to being second-class citizens in the house of God. When we accompany our master to the Synagogue, we are called “God-fearers” and are allowed to attend and follow the worship from a carefully separated space. This is because while we know the one God of Israel to be true, and we follow with attention the preachers of Moses, we have not fully converted. So we have not been circumcised if we are male, nor have we taken on board the full yoke of Moses’ law with its observances and commandments.

We attend, then, aware that we are considered impure, and not to be touched. We are often treated with courtesy, and even genuine friendliness by the insiders, though this is invariably tinged with a certain distance and condescension, as befits dealings with those who are not true insiders, and so can’t really be full participants in what it’s all about.

But last week something weird happened. Cornelius had sent three of us to Joppa to invite someone called Peter to visit us. Peter had accepted the invitation, and had actually come into our house, which was, in itself, an oddity, since he was religiously observant, and not a Gentile like us. It wasn’t some mistake: he was quite strong-minded about it, telling us boldly that even though we knew it to be unlawful “for a Jew to associate with, or visit a Gentile” he had become convinced that “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

When invited by Cornelius to speak, Peter began by telling us that he truly understood “that God shows no partiality, but in every people anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Then he told us about a message of peace that had been sent to Israel, one about which we had, in fact, heard some sketchy accounts before. This message had been sent through someone called Jesus, the Anointed One. It turned out that Peter was a friend of this Jesus, from Nazareth, who had been a prophet full of works of power. This man had been put to death as a seditious blasphemer, as if under a curse from God. But God, by raising Jesus from the dead, had shown that the so-called curse, which we had all heard read from the Torah of Moses, had nothing to do with Him. And Jesus had been seen since then by many of the people who had accompanied him beforehand. Indeed had eaten and drunk with them. It had become clear that he had been the long-awaited fulfilment of a series of prophecies, even though he’d fulfilled them in a way no one could possibly have expected. Having been treated by the religiously observant as someone worthy of condemnation, in fact he had turned out to be acting entirely with God’s approval. In this way, by his vindication, he up-ended much of the received way of understanding God among the religiously observant of his people.

Well, it wasn’t clear that Peter had fully grasped the bit he mentioned about God showing no partiality, since he seemed to think, at least at the beginning, that he was telling us something about Israel. And certainly the guys he’d brought with him hadn’t grasped it at all. Yet, as Peter talked, we all found ourselves on the inside of a great movement of the Spirit, praising God and talking in strange languages. We were all astounded, especially the guys who’d come with Peter, since they had seen this before, but among the circumcised. They just couldn’t believe that this was also happening among us second-class citizens.

And yet, as the scene developed, it became clear that what Peter had said about God showing no partiality among peoples, and God telling him not to call anyone impure or profane, was actually true, far truer than Peter himself had seemed to understand at first. We were finding ourselves insiders in this movement of the Spirit just as he and they were, and on absolutely the same terms of equality, without any distinction. What was even more astounding to all of us was how this then led Peter to tell his colleagues to baptize us.

We’d heard a bit about this sign: on being baptized, some among the circumcised people had found themselves sharing in some sort of being involved in Jesus’ life and death. They had discovered themselves emboldened to be sons and daughters of God, becoming part of a priestly people Jesus had inaugurated in his life and death: a priestly people that was in fact the fulfilment of what Israel had always been called to be. And Peter, there in our master´s house, suddenly recognized that the substance of what Baptism was about had evidently manifested itself among us who were Gentiles. How, then, could he withhold the sign from us? So he told his companions to baptize us with water. And we were amazed to find ourselves insiders in the life of God, sharers in God´s holiness, without any distinction based on any of Peter’s, or our own, previous understanding of what was needed to be an insider in the life of God.

Well, each one of us was as shocked as the person next to them: the first-class citizens finding themselves on the same level as us, with all their purity and sense of separateness deflated, and having to overcome a certain repugnance about dealing with people like us; and the second class citizens having to get used to taking ourselves seriously and behave as sons and daughters, rather than dirty servant children who had a sort of built in excuse for impurity.

As you can imagine, word of this got out pretty quickly. Some of Peter’s more scrupulous friends and colleagues were quite upset, and thought that Peter, who had a reputation for being impetuous, had been in some sense frivolous or cheap in having acted as he did. So Peter had to explain himself to them in Jerusalem. Luckily, he didn’t buckle. Even though there was a great pressure on him to backpedal and to apologize for what he had done (thus saving the face of those who really need there to be people like us, so that they can feel special). In fact he told them all quite clearly: “The Spirit told me to go with them and not make a distinction between them and us.” He also described how the Holy Spirit had fallen on us all while he talked, and how he had realized that “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” That gave the scrupulous cause to ponder, and little by little they began to realize that even we could be included inside the same gift of forgiveness as they, with the life that flows from it.

Well, that was a few days ago…we’re still waiting to see what the consequences are, what it’s going to look like for us all to be co-insiders in the House of God, sons and daughters with equal dignity, all sharing in a priesthood whose single purity requirement is of the heart. It’ll be interesting to see: will they drop their ritual food law for us? Will they treat our family structures as equal to theirs in terms of what counts as proper marriage? What will they make of us not having to be circumcised, not having to keep all the commandments that make up their purity code? And what will we make of the freedom of finding ourselves first class citizens, insiders, daughters and sons, not servants or outsiders in the life of God, but starting just as we are. What will be the shape of the holiness that is coming upon us?

I think this account gives a sense of where we find ourselves as LGBT Catholics at this moment, and I would like to develop with you four points that flow from it.

A Matter of Basic Christianity

First, owing to what we have been through over the last years as LGBT Catholics, it has become clearer and clearer to us what the shockwaves emanating from Jesus’ death and resurrection were really about. Jesus in his teaching and by his powerful signs had borne witness to God who had nothing to do with a purity code, no tolerance for any religious exercises, such as sacrifices, that replaced or got in the way of the reconciliation between human beings that he longed to bring about. He did, however, have a very great deal of interest in those considered unacceptable by the society of his day. Eventually he was considered blasphemous and seditious by a confluence of the religious and the civil authorities, and he was murdered. His murder was carried out in such a way as for him to fall under the officially designated curse of God.

The fact of his resurrection was much more than the demonstration of the existence of an afterlife, something many of his contemporaries believed in any case. It was the vindication from on high that the whole of the religious and political structure that had put him to death was under judgment from God. In other words, that he, Jesus, who had looked, to all extents and purposes, like a blasphemous and seditious transgressor, had been telling the truth about who God is in his teaching. This means that anyone at all, from any nation under the sun, who can perceive that he or she has been in some way involved in the sort of false and violent construction of goodness or badness which Jesus up-ended, can be forgiven for this, and so can enter into participating in the life of the Living God without any special external markings.

It is because of this that there is, formally speaking, no Christian religious law from outside us. The Image of Himself that God gave us in Jesus was not that of a Lawmaker, but that of the self-giving Victim of both civil and religious lawmakers. Given this self-definition of God, no definition of people derived from the outside of who they are, and which might make them pure or impure, sacred or profane, could stand. Instead there is only the understanding that starting exactly from where we are, exactly as we are, we are invited to become daughters and sons of God, insiders in God’s house. What God calls good is not some external definition, pleasing some lawgiver, but what is good for us. That which is human is loved, and is stretched through love into sharing in the life of God. It is not in our lopping off bits of ourselves, psychologically or physically, that we are saved: in spite of ourselves, by agreeing to jump through certain hoops, as it were. Rather, it is in our discovering and becoming who we were really meant to be all along, that we come to reflect the glory of our Creator. This, instead of the much-diminished version of ourselves that we had somehow got caught up in, and from which Jesus’ death and resurrection shocks us into freedom.

But this has been exactly our experience as LGBT Catholics over the last thirty or so years. It has become clearer and clearer, until it is now overwhelmingly clear, that what used to seem like a self-evident description of us was in fact mistaken.  We were characterized as somehow defective, pathological, or vitiated straight people; intrinsically heterosexual people who were suffering from a bizarre and extreme form of heterosexual concupiscence called “same-sex attraction.” That description, which turned us, in practice, into second-class citizens in God’s house, is quite simply false. It turns out that we are blessed to be bearers of a not particularly remarkable non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. And that our daughterhood and sonship of God comes upon us starting as we are, with this variant being a minor but significant stable characteristic of who we are. One, furthermore, which gives gracious shape to who we are to be. Of course, that daughterhood, that sonship, turns the characteristic into something more as we overcome the concupiscence that is proper to us all as humans, developing and humanizing our capacity to love so that we become ever fuller sharers in the life of God.

And this means something quite significant: the only way a teaching can genuinely be Catholic is if it is bringing to mind something that really is the case about the human beings in question. Thus, the moment it becomes clear that what used to seem like an accurate description of who we are, a description which imagined that it sought our good, is not in fact accurate, but quite simply mistaken, then at that very moment it ceases to be possible to maintain that the teaching that flows from that description is Catholic. For the Catholic teaching follows the discovery of what the Creator shows us really is.

In other words, as in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit does not wait for Peter’s permission before starting to produce sons and daughters of God. Quite the reverse. In fact Peter finds himself learning that what he had thought to be something true about God´s holiness and the necessity of abiding by the Book of Leviticus in order to enter into that holiness, was not the case. As he undergoes this learning, so the purity code becomes relativized, coming to be received as a non-binding series of taboos: ways of defining people from the outside rather than saying anything about who they are starting from themselves.

And this is exactly where we find ourselves: without it being the case that there is anything at all that Peter and his companions can do to stop it. As the Creator has made abundantly clear to us what really is the case, through the normal, Spirit-inspired human process of learning about Creation by which we enter as insiders into God’s Wisdom, so the teaching concerning us being bearers of an objective disorder inclining us to intrinsically evil acts has revealed itself to be a taboo, thus not from God, and so not a proper part of Catholic teaching.

Catholicity, Rather than Inclusion

My second point is to try and draw out some consequences of this. You asked me to speak to the title “Towards Global Inclusion of LGBT people within Catholic communities,” and yet the theological approach which I offer you is not really about inclusion of LGBT people within Catholic communities, any more than Acts 10 was about the inclusion of Gentiles within Jewish communities: a cap-in-hand exercise in which second-class citizens request, and are given humble places at a first class table. No. What we have instead is the somewhat amazing realisation that, exactly in the degree to which it has become clear that we are simply the bearers of a not particularly remarkable non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, in that moment, as we find ourselves seeking the Lord, we are found to be bearers of Catholicity on terms of equality with everyone else. Catholicity gets to be redefined, through no merits of our own, by the objective element of humanity that we bring to the table simply being present as such.

Why is this important? Because it means that it is not we who find ourselves adapting to someone else’s house-rules. All those in the house find ourselves adapting to the fact that, together with Peter, we are all learning something new about being human  And that all our understanding of good and bad, insider and outsider is going to change because of this. The process is obviously much more painful and difficult, at least initially, for those who had a strong stake in promoting a form of public goodness in which we were bit-players, as necessary examples of what was wrong. And much more joyful for those of us who are finding that after all we have been telling the truth. It is not the case, as we were so often told, that we are simply being particularly self-indulgent, or that our love is harmful to others, or that we are crazy to think that we are normal, or that we have been misled by hedonism and relativism into purely subjective, unrealistic desires that are part of some dehumanising trap.

Please notice what happens as this work of the Spirit becomes evident, as our participation as joint bearers of Catholic truth-telling becomes apparent. First of all, there is rage and hatred from those who had a strong investment in what had seemed to be from God, but turned out to be just another idolatrous taboo demanding sacrifice. These people need help and mercy, our magnanimity rather than our resentment. Above all, we should not seek to provoke them or scandalize them, tempting though it be. Next there is something rather subtler, which I think we should look at carefully. This comes from those who are not full of rage, but who have a love for the old wineskins. These people wish to say something like “Well yes, we see that there has been a problem with how the Church has handled gay people in the past. And none of us want to continue with that. However the Church has a right, in tolerant, multicultural societies not to allow itself to be defined by what is in fact true about human beings. Instead we insist on the right to be able to keep alive our own, pious ways of doing things without interference.”

But here’s the trouble: the moment people head down that path they are refusing Catholicity and creating a church in their own image. Because they are turning the Catholic Church into a group defined by certain house rules, which are independent of reality. In other words, they are recreating a form of holiness that is over against others considered to be impure or profane. This is a regression to Second-Temple Judaism. At the very moment people do this, they automatically exclude themselves from the Catholicity of the Church, for they are seeking to turn it not into God’s sign of God’s longing for all humans to be reconciled with God through Jesus, but instead into their own sign of their own longing for a particular group with a strong group identity and carefully defined boundaries concerning who is in and who is out.

So please, I beg you, don’t, out of some misguided courtesy, think that such people define what Catholicity is. Catholicity is defined by God alone, as God shocks us by breaking down all our socially and culturally constructed barriers, by leading us into truth about our being Jesus’ brothers and sisters, creating equal-heartedly a way of being human together that doesn’t call for any form of comparison, one that flows from the Crucified One who forgives us.

Another slight variant on this theme comes from those who say: “Yes, there is something wrong with the way the church has handled LGBT people, but you shouldn’t be in a hurry to change anything. Let the hierarchy organize, in a proper and peaceful manner, any change that must be made.” That is to say, those who can’t even bring themselves to recognize publicly that we have been telling the truth, and they have been binding our consciences based on a taboo, are insisting on managing a change towards truthfulness on their own schedule. They should be so lucky! This is not how the Spirit of God works, as the account from Acts makes clear. The Spirit leads us into all truth, kicking, protesting, shocked and dishevelled, by insisting on producing boldness of speech in season and out, when it is convenient and when it is not. And those who are most shocked and come running along last are those who think that any change should be managed by them on their terms, preferably without their losing face by having to admit that they too need forgiveness.

No, truthfulness does not wait for the convenience of those wedded to untruth before peeking out. Itbreaks out, as if from captivity, bearing witness to the One who sent it to run wild among us, and takes us on a giddy, and ultimately joyful ride. The Spirit does bring the peace that comes with truth, but not by following the schedule of those whose fear would hold it back. Peter was truly Petrine in listening to the Spirit and recognizing he had been wrong about what makes for holiness. It was in doing so that he became a precarious-seeming centre of unity who was in fact a Rock, while all the forces of reaction sought to buffet him about. Neither he, nor his colleagues, set the agenda or the timetable.

Preparation for Evangelization

My third point is: what does this say about our life in different cultures? One of the things people say is: “All this about LGBT people is a decadent Western value and we should defend ourselves against it.” But the people they are defending themselves against are not decadent westerners, but their own brothers and sisters, Ugandans, Nigerians, Iranians, Russians, Saudis, Jamaicans. These are our sisters and brothers who have discovered something true about themselves, and about their capacity for love, and know that what is true makes sense to them. And here is what is remarkable: this discovering of something that is true is working in exactly the way that the Gospel said it would, and following just the dynamic of the Spirit that flows upon us from Jesus. And yet bizarrely, Christian leaders of all denominations are joining together with leaders of other religious organisations, ones that not only do not know of the Holy Spirit, but are in some cases adamantly opposed to the existence and enlivening effect of any such thing. Such leaders would rather fence themselves round with all the trappings of “religion” than spread the Good News of the One who has relativized all religious formalities in order to bring us into a new humanity starting from the rejected and precarious.

But this means that we LGBT Catholics can step into the forefront of the evangelization that Pope Francis has asked us to, and we can do so as delighted and joyful recipients of this new humanity. We, as well as anyone, know how the Spirit of God humanizes us, not destroying culture, but defanging it from all that is violent and destructive of who humans are called to be. We know that thanks to Jesus there is no such thing as religiously pure or impure food, there are no such things as religiously mandated forms of mutilation, genital or otherwise. We know that only culture, and never God, has demanded the veiling and covering of the glory of the head and hair of women. We know that the same Spirit that taught us these things, making available to us what is genuinely true, has enabled us to discover the graced banality of our minority variant condition, allowing it to be the shape of our love that turns us into witnesses of God’s goodness as we are stretched out towards those who are genuinely suffering from terrible injustice and deprivation.

This does not merely mean that we are able to pass on a piece of information to others. It means that we are bearers of Catholicity in our flesh. We have found ourselves prepared to be bearers of the Gospel precisely because of this most Catholic of things: we have been intimately part of the process of self-critical correction of culture which is how the Spirit keeps the church faithful and alive. So in each culture in which we live we are thus in a great position to help our sisters and brothers undo the quite local and particular taboos, violence, and structures which masquerade as being of God, but are in fact the work of idols. Who would have thought that it would be LGBT Catholics who could bear witness to the freshness of the Gospel, the way it brings creation alive, even the value of natural law, not as a trap but as an adventure? Talk about the stone that the builders rejected!

Holiness, Speech and Witness

My final point. What is the shape of the holiness that is coming upon us? The most debilitating effect of the taboo under which we have labored is not that it prohibited certain sexual acts. That has never held many of us back. Not even, as has become abundantly clear, many of those who took on the burden of some sort of formal commitment to avoid such acts. No, the debilitating effect of the taboo, as of any infection by idolatry, is that it damages the imagination, making it impossible to imagine the good. When our concupiscence was falsely defined as an objectively disordered form of heterosexual desire, then of course all of our acts were as bad as each other, and we had no incentive to humanize them. “No snacking between meals” might be a useful instruction if it teaches people to prepare for enjoying the next meal better. But “no snacking between meals, and in your case, no meal either” is a sure recipe for binge- snacking.

But now, thank heavens, we are beginning to discover what might be the shape of the meal, or meals, towards which it might be worth ordering our appetites. So please, as part of our discovering the shape of the holiness that is coming upon us, now that we are no longer second class citizens with a resentful victimary excuse for our lack of dignity, let us allow our imaginations to be enlivened by the Spirit. We are already discovering some of the ways in which we can share in Christ’s self-giving towards others – civil marriage, adoption of children, and in some cases freely chosen singleness of life. (This latter was, of course, impossible under the teaching of the taboo – we used to be taught that we had no option but to be celibate, and thus the option was not really free, since it was not leaving a good for a good, but avoiding an evil which it was our solemn duty to avoid anyhow). In what other ways are we going to discover what we are called to become as a blessing for others?

Here is a hint: let us not allow this holy work of the enlivened imagination to be overshadowed by those who would rather have the discussion without addressing the question of whether we are in fact objectively disordered or not. In the New Testament, no one who insisted that the Gentiles needed to be circumcized in order to be saved had anything genuine to offer in the discussion concerning appropriate shapes of holiness among the baptised Gentiles. Just so, no one who is unable to concede the legitimacy, the potential for purity, of our loving flowing from who we are, is able to offer genuine help in our working out of what sort of marriage or adoption laws are appropriate for us, let alone what the appropriate forms of liturgy might be.

Many religious authorities in different countries try to hide behind the claim that in “defending Marriage” they are not doing or saying anything about or against gay and lesbian people. If they are honest in this, then let them show that their own conscience is not bound by taboo. Let them clearly renounce the notion that gay people in partnership, about whom they claim they are not talking, are ipso facto indulging an objective disorder, are impenitent practitioners of grave sin, and thus would be seeking to sanctify something that can never be approved. Once these authorities have shown that their conscience is free, and thus that there is, in their understanding, no rivalry between the form of flourishing proper to heterosexuals in marriage, and what might turn out to be the appropriate forms of flourishing for us, then, by all means, they may have something genuinely helpful to offer us all. Because they will legitimately be able to contemplate something of how, in our case, as in theirs, grace perfects nature. Something, that is, which flows from who we are, rather than in spite of what we are. However, for as long as their allegiance is to the taboo, they can be no judges of our flourishing.

No, the truthfulness and peace, the zest for the real, that come with the consciousness of being a daughter or a son: only these dare birth the imagination of the arduous good that is coming upon us. An arduous good to which we may justly aspire, and in the working out of which we hope to be found. The boldness that flows from being able to speak truthfully out of an unbound conscience is not an extrinsic add-on to being Christian. It is intrinsic to what being Christian is all about. It leads to being able to bear witness, without which there is no Christianity. For us linguistic animals, being able to talk cleanly and openly is essential to being able to live cleanly and openly. It is as we talk and share with each other the experiences of love and of becoming that we will discover in our relationships who we are called to be.

Here we are, gathered in the city of Peter. Let us ask for the prayers of Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles, who was not afraid to call Peter out for backsliding, and who taught us: “Omnia munda mundis”—all things are pure for those who are pure. St Paul the Apostle, pray for us.

[The image, ‘Peter in the House of Cornelius, Acts 10:1–48′, is taken from The Official King James Bible Online. I figured that if the KJV was good enough for the Apostle Paul, then it’s good enough for the blog too.]

Friday with Leunig: (a triple) on the ‘forces of evil’

Vasco Pyjama

The Age, 27 September 2014

Stone Age

The Age, 1 October 2014

Cult pie

3 October 2014

Called, Sent, Empowered: A Theology of Mission

Anonymous, 'Jesus the Tagger'. Berlin.
Anonymous, Jesus the Tagger. Berlin.

Some moons ago, the Global Mission Office (GMO) of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) kindly invited me to write a little theology of mission. I was very pleased to do so. The wee piece, which has since been elevated to being an official statement of the GMO, seeks to not only bear witness to the ground and end of mission in the triune life (a subject I’ve posted on before) but also to relate this history to what the PCANZ refers to as its ‘five faces of mission’ – to work with others to make Jesus Christ known:

  • Through proclamation of the gospel
  • Through the nurture and teaching of people in the Christian faith
  • Through response to human need in loving service
  • Through seeking to transform society
  • Through care for creation

You can read the statement here.

Hallowed Be Thy Name: a review by André Muller

Hallowed Be Thy NameJason A. Goroncy, Hallowed By Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). ISBN: 9780567066824; xvi + 291pp.

‘My debt of gratitude to you is not nominal, but a real thing’, the nineteenth-century Congregationalist preacher James Baldwin Brown wrote to Thomas Carlyle, recalling how the experience of reading the latter’s 1836 novel Sartor Resartus had led him to abandon his legal studies for the pulpit. ‘To the course of study and thought to which the meditations of that period have led me, I owe it that I am not a member of a purely worldly profession for which I was then educating’, Brown confessed, ‘but a preacher of the living Word, into the proclamation of which I can at any rate throw as much earnestness and life as I have in myself’. By all accounts, Brown – ‘the greatest Independent of our times’, Peter Taylor Forsyth would later declare – had a great deal of earnestness and life in him, making him a highly attractive figure to a young man whose own reputation for ‘ethical passion, spiritual insight, intellectual grasp, and personal piety’ (to quote from Forsyth’s eulogy of his former pastor) would by the end of the century eclipse his own.

Having graduated with first-class honours in Classical Literature at the University of Aberdeen, where he was known for his proclivity to grandiloquence as much as for his remarkable intellectual capability (and where also he came under the influence of the Professor of Logic, and founder of the philosophy journal Mind, Alexander Bain), Forsyth had taken up William Robertson Smith’s suggestion that he should spend a semester in Göttingen listening to Albrecht Ritschl, then at the height of his influence. As Jason Goroncy shows in his marvellous study of Forsyth’s treatment of sanctification, he would never discard the most important lesson he had learnt from that theologian, namely, that ‘Positive Christianity… is Christianity which recognizes the primacy of the moral in the shape of life, and of holy life’. Neither would he shake off his teacher’s deep suspicion of metaphysical speculation, which following Kant, both Ritschl and Forsyth treated as not only beyond our ken but as ultimately destructive of moral seriousness. A ‘metaphysic of things’, Forsyth would claim in an article published in 1914, is ‘merely shells of ruined towers that let heaven be seen through their cracks rather than their windows’. ‘God has given men feet not wings, and the order is fight not flight’, he would exclaim in a sermon on Psalm 55.6 and Jeremiah 9.2. ‘We reach heaven step by step, fighting all the way. What we need most of all for this life is the courage of the prosaic’. There was little, however, that was prosaic about Forsyth’s prose, which contemporaries described as volcanic. One declared him the ‘Ibsen of British theology’, and he would later be called, no less felicitously, theology’s Browning. ‘What a mental energy he had!’, a friend and disciple would write to Forsyth’s daughter after his death. ‘There was something demonic in it’, which helped to explain the difficulty of a style which, like Brown’s, bore indelibly the marks of ‘the man himself and his passion’.

It is no disparagement of Forsyth’s theological genius to note the extent to which his moral imagination was shaped by a nineteenth-century romantic tradition that can be traced back through Kant to Rousseau. Yet it is not the least virtue of Goroncy’s study that while he shows Forsyth drawing upon the neo-Kantianism of Ritschl and Wilhelm Windelbrand, the literature of Carlyle and Lord Tennyson, the music of Wagner, the Maurician tendencies of Brown, he also attends to the influence of quite different traditions. Forsyth’s intellectual debts are difficult to identify because he hardly ever identifies them himself, but Goroncy is surely right to suggest that the sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin, the seventeenth-century puritan Thomas Goodwin, and the late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century biblical scholar Adolf Schlatter all figure prominently in the background to his thought. Perhaps the greatest influence of all on Forsyth’s moral and theological vision was scripture itself, which he studied assiduously and with the aid of the resources of higher criticism. A third of his considerable library was in German, and much of this consisted of commentaries on scripture. As with Windelbrand and Calvin, Ritschl and Goodwin, Forsyth keeps his debts to biblical scholarship close to his chest, but the depth of his engagement with scripture can be seen indirectly – for example, in his claim that no one should talk about theology in public until they had mastered the New Testament. This was a tall order, but one that Forsyth had evidently met himself, since he often talked about theology in public, not least in the sad controversy with R. J. Campbell, during which he had to point out how theologically out of his depth Campbell was. Forsyth was also an extraordinarily good preacher who spoke to people who knew what extraordinarily good preaching looked like and so had very high expectations. Some of those best qualified to judge such matters claimed, after hearing him, that he had exceeded their expectations. Some still recalled the power of a particular sermon decades after the fact. In all of the sermons he gave he was meditating upon scripture, and he would have spent hours consulting his German commentaries in preparation.

Although Forsyth remained committed to the conviction that ‘the moral is the real’, he would come to reject Ritschl’s gospel as ‘unevangelical’. In so doing he was rejecting the liberal Protestantism which was becoming increasingly attractive to late nineteenth-century Congregationalists partly because it promised to assuage Victorian anxieties about holiness. ‘Tired of moral precepts and attitudes which represented Christianity as “just human nature at its best”, and God’s kingdom as “just our natural spirituality and altruism developed”’, Forsyth, writes Goroncy, accused ‘his generation of succumbing to cheap comforts, or muffling the moral note, of seeking a form of idealized Christianity divorced from a historic and perennial Christ and of interpreting sin “in a softer light than God’s”’. The accusations could themselves sound like a form of Victorian moralism but for the fact that they were based upon its inversion. The Victorians conceived of holiness as a human quality, and one to be construed in negative terms. For Forsyth, this negative idea of holiness, ‘cloistered and feeble’, was not something that had come from Christ. Neither was holiness, in the first instance, a property of human beings. Holiness was, he claims in The Cruciality of the Cross (1909), ‘God’s very essence and nature: changeless and inexorable’. Of course, this insight was not, according to Forsyth, one purchased by speculative thought, but was instead disclosed in ‘the central act and achievement of God and of history in the Cross of Christ’, which he calls the ‘continuous evangelical centre’. It is at that centre that sin is revealed for what it really is – not simply a transgression of an abstract law which God might in his mercy overlook, or even forgive at no cost to himself, but rather a protest against the absolute holiness of God, and so an assault upon and threat to God’s being. In the light of the cross, there can be no question of God letting sinners off the hook, as it were, because what is at stake is not a principle that God can set aside, but God himself. ‘The holy God must go out in judgment against all that mocks and flaunts holiness because God’s Godhead is at stake’, Goroncy writes, ‘and because God is committed to hallowing all things’. That God’s being is in question here is not unrelated to the divine commitment to hallow all things: in effect, these are two sides of the same coin. The very nature of God is holy love, and when God creates the world he calls into being creatures who are sustained by – and who must answer to – God’s own ‘hungering holiness’. It is this holiness that ‘constitutes and directs all being, binding a coherent universe in such a way as all remigrates to its source in God’. When human beings refuse this creative holiness, it is not some kind of abstract moral order conceived independently of God that is put at risk, but the one who is committed by virtue of his very being to hallowing all things. To pray ‘hallowed by thy name’ is to recognise that what sin places at stake is God’s being itself.

It was Hegel who had claimed in his Philosophy of Religion that ‘God cannot find satisfaction through anything other than Himself, but only through Himself’, although this was an insight that already had a long history within the Christian tradition by the time that Hegel came to it. Anselm of Canterbury, for instance, had insisted that the debt incurred by sin could only be satisfied by God himself. But while Forsyth drew upon Anselm’s account of the atonement in Cur Deus Homo, he is sceptical of what Paul Fiddes calls the eleventh-century archbishop’s ‘excessive objectivity’, preferring more ethical and personal categories to Anselmic jurisprudence. Certainly, Forsyth moves far beyond Anselm when he speaks, as he does in The Pulpit and the Age (1885), of ‘[t]he living God’ as ‘the dying God’ and of ‘the Eternal principle of Eternal life’ as ‘always and only possible even to God by Eternal Death’. As Goroncy points out, the debt to Hegel is clearly evident when Forsyth contends that in the death of Christ, God makes death part of his own eternal life, and so (to quote Hegel) ‘comes to Himself’. While it might seem as if such talk of divine ‘self-realisation’, of God finding or coming to himself, which is intrinsic to Forsyth’s reading of the cross as divine theodicy, risks reducing the atonement to an exercise in divine solipsism, one of the great strengths of Forsyth’s account of God’s ‘hungering holiness’ is that it effectively rules out such suggestions. God’s regard for the holiness of his name – for, that is, the integrity of his very being – is a regard also and at the same time for human beings. If the atonement is divine self-reconciliation, its work is not done, Goroncy notes, ‘until there is created a “reciprocal communion” between humanity and God’.

‘The great theologies are epics’, Forsyth would write in The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909). This seems as good a description of Forsyth’s own theology as any. It is usual for scholars to comment upon the unsystematic quality of his work. Nothing could be more wrong-headed. Forsyth’s writing is certainly occasional, each essay, sermon, lecture, and book called forth by some specific need. But his moral and theological – and by now it should be clear why the distinction should not be pressed too hard – vision is highly coherent. Like Calvin, Forsyth gives us ‘a gospel deep enough’ with ‘all the breadth of the world in its heart’, as must any theologian who knows what they are about. Unlike Calvin, Forsyth’s theology demands that he takes the word ‘breadth’ with a kind of ultimate – one might even say metaphysical – seriousness. In his final chapter, Goroncy shows that everything, or everything that matters, about Forsyth’s doctrine of sanctification necessitates a commitment to universalism. The cross is where ‘all things are (so to say) tied up’, Forsyth writes in his great theodicy, The Justification of God (1916). ‘All history, through his great act at its moral centre, is, in God, resolved into the harmonies of a foregone and final conquest’, he affirms in The Cruciality of the Cross. Admittedly, such claims do not themselves entail a full-blown universalism, but in their light it seems a bit churlish not to go all the way. At any rate, Forsyth holds to a ‘hopeful’ rather than ‘dogmatic’ universalism, which is certainly a respectable theological position. But Goroncy persistently pushes Forsyth on this point, and his persistence pays off. As he shows, Forsyth cannot take refuge, as others have, in the doctrine of divine freedom because for him God’s freedom is ‘already bound up in his determination to hallow all things’. And since what is at stake in this hallowing is the very being of God, the price of one everlastingly unrepentant sinner is not the existence of hell, nor even the defeat of the purposes of God, but the collapse of divine being itself. There is simply no possibility of the coexistence of divine holiness and its antithesis. While Forsyth makes this point repeatedly, he does not follow his own logic, which Goroncy shows, ‘demands either universalism or annihilationism’, to its end. As Goroncy also points out, there are serious difficulties with the idea that God might, after a suitable term of punishment, annihilate creatures that he had brought into being. Forsyth really has only one option available to him. And yet he hedges.

It is interesting to speculate – and here this is all that can be done for lack of evidence – as to why Forsyth tacitly refuses to draw the necessary consequences of his theology. The author of This Life and the Next (1918) was hardly unconcerned with the last things, so that cannot be the reason. In all likelihood, as Goroncy suggests, ecclesial and theological politics played a factor in Forsyth’s public agnosticism, which may have seemed to the principal of a congregational college and leader within the congregational community to be the most prudent course. There may have been another reason, which Goroncy does not mention. It is possible that in hedging on the question of dogmatic universalism Forsyth was, perhaps even unconsciously, questioning the Hegelian assumptions that made that universalism a necessary consequence of his theology. There is a lot of Hegeling in Forsyth’s work. Perhaps in the end he wanted to say something different.

And perhaps in the end he did. Forsyth was often tempted to ‘flirt with the mythological’, as one of the most astute of his twentieth-century admirers once remarked. This is true not least when he talks of the ‘dying God’ or construes sin as the antithesis of, and a threat to, the divine being itself. The Augustinian conception of sin as privation, along with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo on which it depends, is an attempt to rule out something like Forsyth’s account of sin (and with it, any notion that God’s being might be subject to threat). Forsyth was nervous about the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, because it seemed to him not to be ethical enough – a criticism which suggests that he was reacting against the rationalist orthodoxies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rather than Augustine or Thomas. Curiously, while he rejected the metaphysics of what he calls ‘Chalcedonianism’, and for all his Kantian objections to speculative thought, what Forsyth offers is nothing if not a profound essay in the metaphysics of divine being. Goroncy, perhaps Forsyth’s finest interpreter, captures the heights and depths of this metaphysical vision in Hallowed Be Thy Name, revealing the richness and coherence (questions about universalism aside) of Forsyth’s thought, because he knows that the metaphysics are always in the end an attempt to wrestle with the ‘evangelical centre’. But the attempt was perhaps not entirely successful. In his memorial speech for Brown, Forsyth described his early mentor as ‘more a Paul than a John’. We might wonder whether the implied distinction between the historical and the metaphysical served Forsyth all that well. As Goroncy remarks, those who object to metaphysics, tend to end up doing it badly. Had Forsyth been less eager to denounce metaphysical speculation, he may have been more critical of the highly speculative tendencies of his own thinking. Yet whatever criticisms one might want to make of Forsyth – whether of his eschatological reserve or of some of his more fundamental concerns – it is worth remembering that he was, perhaps first and foremost, a reader of scripture. When, as Europe had descended into the terrible nightmare of the Great War, Forsyth insisted that ‘[w]e have no final weal but our share in that worship and glory of the Father by the Son’, he was drawing not upon Hegel or Kant, but the New Testament. So too, when he contended that the invocation ‘hallowed be Thy name’ was one that stood over all Christian prayer and work. In his wonderful and authoritative study of Forsyth, Goroncy shows how breathtakingly audacious his metaphysical theology is in both form and scope. But perhaps in order to gain the measure of the man, we also need a comprehensive study of his engagement with the bible. One might begin with Goroncy’s recent publication of Forsyth’s sermons, Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth (Pickwick, 2013).

André Muller

University of Otago, Research Assistant

 

[A less satisfying version of this review was also published in Candour]

Some notes on Henry Reynolds’ Archibald Baxter Memorial Peace Lecture

‘No war can be called just; they all use the same machinery’. So argued Professor Henry Reynolds (University of Tasmania) at tonight’s Inaugural Archibald Baxter Memorial Peace Lecture, sponsored by the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. Reynolds opened his public lecture by making the case that pacifism need not necessarily be anti-patriotic. On the contrary, the best thing one can do for a nation, he argued – in the spirit of him whose name and witness were being honoured, the great Archibald Baxter – is to keep it from going to war. He also argued that wars beget war, and that a victory to any side only further perpetuates the violence in one form or another.

Unsurprisingly, Reynolds spent most of his time in what for him is familiar territory – Australia. He rehearsed his oft-played themes about Australia’s hidden wars (see his Black Pioneers: How Aboriginal and Islander People Helped Build Australia, Why Weren’t We Told?, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia, and Forgotten War – all which are well worth reading), noting how between 1788 and 1928 (or, according to some other historians, 1934) Australia was home to large-scale wars between European settlers and indigenous Australians, and that the frontier conflicts (most of the wars took place in isolated regions) in Queensland saw the deaths of tens of thousands (Reynolds argues for a figure of over fifty thousand people – significantly more Australians than were killed in WWII, and on par with those who died in the war to end them all). And yet, as Reynolds and many others have noted, and John Pilger has recently made most public in his film Utopia, these hidden wars remain uncommemorated at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, that ‘great emporium of white nationalism’ (Pilger) and pantheon of Australia’s most enduring and important cult – war. (On this, see What’s Wrong with ANZAC?: The Militarisation of Australian History edited by Reynolds and Marilyn Lake.) It is difficult to see how Australians will even begin to think honestly about its wars until this scandal is rectified.

Reynolds suggested that the calendar for military commemorations in Australia is fuller than the religious calendars ever were during the Middle Ages. He might be right, although there’s little at stake if he’s not. But drawing attention to the Edwardian conviction (surely it’s much older than that?) that nations are made in war, and that there can be no true nationhood without war, Reynolds is certainly right to call out the propaganda machines which publish ad infinitum the narrative that Australian involvement in overseas conflicts are the nation’s most important defining events, a fact which begs the question about what nationhood might have meant prior to 1914, and which does wonders for tourist operators arranging parties at ANZAC Cove.

Reynolds concluded with some discussion about the Boer War, noting that there were only four members of the Australian Parliament who voted against involvement, and that there was scarcely any discussion at all – either in Parliament or elsewhere – on either the legality or morality of the war. The new egalitarian democracies of Australia and New Zealand were keener to join Britain’s war than were the Brits, and the colonisers were desperate to secure the allegiance of her loyal subjects (including India), frightfully concerned that they might go the way of Canada or, God forbid, of the United States. The second half of the Boer War in particular saw numerous and widespread atrocities and human rights violations, violations which Australia felt no responsibility for – just as contemporary white Australia, ‘Team Australia’, feels no responsibility for its most costly wars, the one’s which took place upon her own soil – because this was, after all, Mother Britain’s war and not ours.

I left feeling grateful for the work of places like the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, emboldened in my own commitment to the ways of non-violence in the ‘broken middle’ (Gillian Rose), and thinking about the ongoing relevance of Desmond Tutu’s words (published in God Is Not a Christian): ‘There can be no future without forgiveness. There will be no future unless there is peace. There can be no peace unless there is reconciliation. But there can be no reconciliation before there is forgiveness. And there can be no forgiveness unless people repent’.

Migration, cultural diversity, and the church in Aotearoa New Zealand

?????My colleague, Kevin Ward, has posted a wee reflection on a recent conference that he co-organised around the themes of migration, cultural diversity, and the church in Aotearoa New Zealand. His observations have implications not only for church life in NZ but also for that in other places in the world, as these words from Phillip Jenkins suggest:

Let me suggest to you that in 30 years, there will be two sorts of church in the world. There’ll be the ones that are multi-ethnic, transnational, and multi-continental. They are constantly battling over issues of culture, lifestyle, worship, and constantly in conflict, debate and controversy. And those are the good ones. The other churches will have decided to let all these trends pass them by. They’ll live just like they’ve always done with an average age in their congregations of 80. Personally, I’d much rather be in one of the ones that is recognizing, taking account of the expansion with all the debates and controversies.

You can read the rest here.

Happy birthday to Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell enjoying Edinburgh

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell enjoying Edinburgh

… about whom I once wrote a little poem.

By the way, did you hear the apocryphal story about when Johnson was asked by a Scot what he thought of Scotland (that land ‘where there is nothing to be got’ and there exists ‘a diffusion of learning’)?

His reply: ‘That it is a very vile country, to be sure, Sir’.

To which the young Scot rejoined, ‘Well, Sir! God made it’.

‘Certainly he did’, quipped Johnson, ‘but we must always remember that he made it for Scotchmen, and comparisons are odious, Mr. S——; but God made hell’.

Ouch! Of course, the Londoner had himself made a pleasant enough journey to Scotland once, in 1773 with James Boswell, very much enjoying the women and the ‘little Highland steed[s]’, but concluding from their three-month holiday (their twin accounts were subsequently published as The Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) that ‘the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!’

Scottifying the Palate from ‘Picturesque Beauties of Boswell, Part the First’, etched by Thomas Rowlandson, 1786 (etching) Samuel Collings—Read

‘Scottifying the Palate’, from Picturesque Beauties of Boswell, Part the First. Etching by Thomas Rowlandson, 1786.