Theology for ministry

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Untitled, 1972

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Untitled, 1972

Alister McGrath’s very good and timely comment on the Church of England’s Resourcing Ministerial Education document echoes observations made by many others. John de Gruchy, for example, in his excellent little book, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, writes:

In Germany the title ‘theologian’ refers in the first place not to the academic theologian but to the pastor. It is the primary designation within the Protestant churches of an ordained minister. Yet few priests or pastors would regard themselves as such, especially within the Anglo-Saxon world. In his book Ferment in the Ministry, the north American pastoral psychologist Seward Hiltner imagined the possible responses which ordained ministers would give to a Gallup Poll which asked the question: ‘Do you regard yourself as a theologian?’

  • 31% said, ‘Well, I am a minister, but you could hardly call me a theologian.’
  • 22% said, ‘It is true I have studied theology, but I am not really a theologian.’
  • 17% replied, ‘Brother, I sure ain’t. I’m only a simple parson, not one of those highpowered book guys.’
  • 8% admitted, ‘Well, I guess I am, in a way, but I am more interested in serving people than in theology.’
  • 7% said, ‘Where did you get that idea? And don’t do it again.’
  • 4% replied, ‘I am about twice a year, when I go back to the alumni lectures.’
  • 2% said, ‘Pardon me, I have to rush to a funeral.’
  • 1% snorted, ‘I wonder who thought up that question?’
  • 0.9% said, ‘Yes.’

Why is there this reluctance on the part of ordained ministers, to regard themselves as theologians, and, on the part of some, especially Anglo-Saxons and their heirs, why is there such antipathy towards theology? In the Germanic world the traditional tendency and temptation is precisely the opposite, to glory in the title ‘theologian’, and to create theologies remote from Christian praxis and existence in the world. Helmut Thielicke has a German audience in mind when, in his A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, he writes about the ‘pathology of the young theologian’s conceit’. Yet even in Germany the idea that the ordained minister’s self-perception is that of a theologian cannot be assumed. At Christmas in 1939 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his former students:

How superficial and flippant, especially of theologians, to send theology to the knacker’s yard, to make out that one is not a theologian and doesn’t want to be, and in so doing to ridicule one’s own ministry and ordination and in the end to have, and to advocate, a bad theology instead of a good one!

This attitude parallels the tendency within the church generally to disparage theology in the interests of ‘practical Christianity’.

Theology has a bad name amongst many theological students and ordained ministers, not primarily because of their modesty but because they fail to grasp its vital necessity and relevance to their vocation. Indeed, they may even regard it as something detrimental to their calling and the life and mission of the church. There are theological students who regard the study of theology as an unfortunate requirement for ordination, rather than as that which should provide the focus for their work. The image of a theologian is academic, intellectual, and far-removed from the everyday tasks of the parish minister. Much of the blame for this must be laid at the door of university departments of theology, theological colleges and seminaries, and those of us who teach in them. Theology has too often been taught in ways which reduce it to idealistic abstractions, and result in its rejection as a useful, indeed, essential part of the mission of the church and therefore of the ordained ministry. After all, the value of theology taught as a series of independent academic disciplines lacking both coherence or direction and unrelated to biblical vision or faith, is not self-evident for the Christian community struggling to be faithful in the midst of the world. This situation needs to be radically transformed if theology is to become the vocation of the ordained minister, and central to the total ministry of the church, and not simply be regarded as the peculiar province of scholars.

In John T. McNeill’s magnificent A History of the Cure of Souls, there is what we might call a ‘give-away’ comment which reinforces my argument that the ordained minister, is primarily a theologian. McNeill refers to the fact that ‘Jean Daniel Benoit, the expert on Calvin’s work in the cure of souls, states boldly that the Genevan Reformer was more a pastor than theologian’, but he then continues, ‘to be exact, he was a theologian in order to be a better pastor’. Conversely, in his introduction to Karl Barth’s essays, Against the Stream, Alec Vidler has this perceptive comment about the theologian’s theologian, Karl Barth: ‘I was aware of a quality or style about him which is hard to define. It may perhaps best be called pastoral, so long as this is not understood as a limitation.’ Christian pastors are called to be theologians, and those whom we normally designate theologians may well be pastors …

The primary task of the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is to enable the upbuilding of the church in such a way that it is always pointed beyond itself to the reign of God in Jesus Christ in the midst of the world. Its task is to keep the People of God mindful of the tradition of Jesus, crucified and risen, and what this means for their lives and the praxis of the church today. Its task is to enable the church to be faithful to its identity as the People of God in the world, discerning who God is and what God requires of them. In this way the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is, literally speaking, church leadership because it provides theological direction for the mission of the People of God in the world.

The matter is also taken up directly by Karl Barth. In his Evangelical Theology, written in part to speak to ‘the present-day younger generation’ and clearly with an eye on encouraging budding preachers, Barth raises issues that remain relevant to our own time, and aims his challenge not at the feet of pastors alone but also at the feet of the entire Christian community, and of those who consider themselves to be ‘Christian':

Since the Christian life is consciously or unconsciously also a witness, the question of truth concerns not only the community but the individual Christian. He too is responsible for the quest for truth in this witness. Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian. How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term! It is always a suspicious phenomenon when leading churchmen [and churchwomen] (whether or not they are adorned with a bishop’s silver cross), along with certain fiery evangelists, preachers, or well-meaning warriors for this or that practical Christian cause, are heard to affirm, cheerfully and no doubt also a bit disdainfully, that theology is after all not their business. “I am not a theologian; I am an administrator!” a high-ranking English churchman once said to me. And just as bad is the fact that not a few preachers, after they have exchanged their student years for the routine of practical service, seem to think that they are allowed to leave theology behind them as the butterfly does its caterpillar existence, as if it were an exertion over and done with for them. This will not do at all. Christian witness must always be forged anew in the fire of the question of truth. Otherwise it can in no case and at no time be a witness that is substantial and responsible, and consequently trustworthy and forceful. Theology is no undertaking that can be blithely surrendered to others by anyone engaged in the ministry of God’s Word. It is no hobby of some especially interested and gifted individuals. A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community. This holds true in still greater measure for those members of the community who are specially commissioned …

A little later on Barth says that all theology ought to be undertaken for the sake of the Community and its witness to the Word of God; neither of which, by the way, are served particularly well by the high levels of egotistical testosterone that characterise much academia:

Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be concerned only with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community. Like the pendulum which regulates the movements of a clock, so theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community. It reminds all its members, especially those who have greater responsibilities, how serious is their situation and task. In this way it opens for them the way to freedom and joy in their service.

(One of the things highlighted (some 17 times!) in the C of E report is the focus on so-called ‘lay’ ministry (still an ugly, clumsy, and theologically-preposterous concept. Can’t Anglicans, who might still, even in these darkened years, be the champions of theo-speak in the Anglophone world, find a better word?). Interpreted kindly, it’s a nod to the fact that the church in toto is a theological community, and an expression of the fact that theological education is on the way to being liberated from its clergy-centric shackles, even if many of the pressures for such a move have principally not been theological in nature.)

Whenever I think about the strange place of a pastor as a member and resident theologian of a theo-hermeneutical community, I remember one of my favourite passages in Jürgen Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place:

With my doctorate, I at first felt a fool standing in the pulpit in front of this farming congregation. But earlier I had lived with workers and farmers in ‘the hard school of life’, and it was out of these experiences that I preached, not from my Göttingen lecture notes. This congregation taught me ‘the shared theology of all believers’, the theology of the people. Unless academic theology continually turns back to this theology of the people, it becomes abstract and irrelevant. For the fact is that theology is not just something for theological specialists; it is a task laid on the whole people of God, all congregations and every believer. I only got into difficulties when I used the same sermon for the student congregation in Bremen and the farmers in Wasserhorst. The farmers were not interested in questions about the meaning of life and were not going through any adolescent orientation crises. They trusted in God and loved the Ten Commandments. When my elders rolled their eyes, I knew that I had lost them. So they guided me and preached to me.

My own personal theology developed as I went from house to house and visited the sick. If things went well, on Monday I learnt the text for the following Sunday’s sermon, took it with me as I visited the congregation, and then knew what I had to say in my sermon. Here a ‘hermeneutical circle’ developed, not the one between textual interpretation and one’s own private interpretation, as in Bultmann, but the one between textual interpretation and the experience of a community of people, in their families, among their neighbours, and in their work. In conversations, in teaching, and in preaching I came to believe that this was a shared theology of believers and doubters, the downcast and the consoled.

So McGrath: ‘It’s the theology, stupid’.

On Adorno’s anti-theodicy

theodor-adorno-youngFor the culturally-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno, the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we can no longer affirm the immutability of truth and the transience of materiality’. It’s not, he insists, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

It was this conviction too which led Adorno to state famously that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’, and that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’.

Our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of what Jay Bernstein referred to as Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance was possible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing ‘how the camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. There can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘“we did it”, that it was done by people whose lives and culture is so proximate to our own that the attempt to make “them” somehow wildly different from us can be accomplished only by self-deception’.

To go on with business as usual in the aftermath of Auschwitz would be not only an affront to the victims but also ‘to conceal the full extent of our inhumanity and to suppose, absurdly, that we could make amends’. Whatever else we might attempt saying about evil and suffering, we cannot and must not bypass the brute fact that we are responsible. But that responsibility is not, however, Adorno’s final word on the matter. In his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, Adorno argues that

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects ­– this alone is the task of thought.

Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. And that exposure serves as a judgement upon all forms of institutionalized and ‘normalized’ violence; and, more critically, it serves as a critique of the Enlightenment itself apart from which theodicy would be a largely unsponsored project.

The Feast of the Annunciation

Johann Christian Schröder - The AnnunciationThis day in the church calendar marks The Feast of the Annunciation – the church’s answer to those who refute the humanity of God. It might strike one as a little odd that this ‘feast’ and its attendant Gospel reading (Luke 1.26–38) should appear in the final week of Lent. But there is, it seems to me, a deep connection at work here.

I was reminded of this in two ways yesterday. The first was reading a couple of brief reflections by Joan Chittister:

Mary was not used … Mary was asked a question to which she had the right to say no. Mary was made a participant in the initiatives of God … She was made an equal partner in the process. (In Search of Belief, 98).

The feast of the Annunciation [is] the moment when doing the will of God brought Mary into total solitude, outside the understanding of her society, beyond the support of her family. It is the practice of solitude that enables us to stand alone in life against the ruthless tide. Simone Weil wrote, ‘Absolute attention is prayer’. Have you known the solitude that brings absolute attention to the thought of God? Then you have known the Annunciation. (The Radical Christian Life: A Year with Saint Benedict, 32)

‘Absolute attention’. What a wonderful invitation to engage Lent!

It is possible, of course, as Chittister observes elsewhere, and as many artworks encourage, to allow the word ‘annunciation’ to conjure up less exhausting, less cataclysmic images. But ‘this, after all, was no routine summons. This was an earth-shattering, life-changing, revolutionary call. This was what happens when life is completely turned around, when the house burns down or the job disappears or the stock market crashes’. If most of the images of divine encounter that we carry are too passive, too gentle, too quiet, too lacking in interruption, too hyper-predestinarian, too naïve about the kinds of material which with God chooses to work, then the problem lies not with the word ‘annunciation’ but with us and our romanticized and sanitized – and let’s just name it, docetic or nestorian! – readings of the Gospel narrative.

And this leads me to the second gift that aided my seeing this week; namely, happening across Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Weary in Well-doing’ (1864), words that bear witness to a different manner of gentleness, work, and rest:

I would have gone; God bade me stay:
I would have worked; God bade me rest.
He broke my will from day to day,
He read my yearnings unexpressed
And said them nay.

Now I would stay; God bids me go:
Now I would rest; God bids me work.
He breaks my heart tossed to and fro,
My soul is wrung with doubts that lurk
And vex it so.

I go, Lord, where thou sendest me;
Day after day I plod and moil:
But, Christ my God, when will it be
That I may let alone my toil
And rest with Thee?

I reflected more on these things as I put together a little video presentation of images depicting the Annunciation, set to J. S. Bach’s ‘Himmelskönig, sei willkommen’ (King of Heaven, welcome), BWV 182. The piece was first performed on The Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1714. I now share it with you.

Ontology and History Conference

Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, Christos Yannaras, Alan Torrance, and John Panteleimon Manoussakis will be the main speakers at what sounds like an extraordinary conference on ontology and history to be held between 29–31 May in Delphi, Greece. A call for papers has been issued, and number of thematic workshops/panels planned. These are:

  • Human and divine personhood: how does the ontological fit with the historical?
  • Ontology and History between German Idealism and Maximus the Confessor
  • Politics and Theology at ‘the End of History’
  • History, Ontology, and the Apocalyptic: Proposals and Critiques
  • History and Ontology ‘Performed':  A Liturgical Perspective

Ontology and History

Theology in Melbourne

I am pleased to be teaching four units at Whitley College (University of Divinity) this year.

In Semester 1:

And in Semester 2:

ClassroomIf you are within cooee of Melbourne, and these subjects interest you, then I’d love to chat with you.* I’m equally happy to chat with prospective postgrad students about possible research projects in theology. Contact Whitley College (by email or phone 03 9340 8100) for more information.

* Note: They tell me that I’m really not as serious or as intense as I sound, or as bald as I look, in the videos (filming on a 40° day didn’t help). They also tell me that I respond very well to loose leaf tea and that I am way too enamoured with subcontinental cuisine. They’re wrong about (at least) one of these things.

 

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 …

 

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

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

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.

Paul Fiddes in Dunedin

In addition to the seminar on ‘God and Story in Church and Doctrine’, Professor Paul Fiddes will also be giving a public lecture at the University of Otago. Details below:

Fiddes Open Lec Aug26

God and Story in Church and Doctrine: a seminar with Paul Fiddes

Fiddes seminar

From Luke to Acts: free open lectures in Korean

I’m excited to learn that Dr Oh-Young Kwon, of Whitley College, will soon be teaching a New Testament course for Korean pastors, Church leaders and anybody else who is interested in studying theology in Korean.

When: On Monday nights (5:30 to 8:30 PM) for 10 weeks, beginning on 28 July 2014.

Where: Whitley College, in Melbourne.

Cost: Free!

For more information, or to enrol, email or phone (03 9340 8021) Whitley College.

Korean course

 

another discussion paper on marriage

leunig-if-you-see-anything-unusualIt seems like lots of people are doing it these days. Sometimes they are doing it without the express invitation of the wider assembly, and sometimes with the expressed request of such bodies. But in each case their doing of it represents a defiant expression of the conviction that nothing in life is a settled matter, and that theology, like other responsible sciences, remains an enterprise which opens up space for deeper engagement and reflection on things which matter deeply to us.

So, earlier this year, the Doctrine Core Group of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand prepared a discussion paper called Christian Perspectives on Marriage: A Discussion Document.

And now the  Doctrine Working Group of the Uniting Church in Australia has prepared their own discussion paper on marriage and same-gender relationships in the form of a commentary on the marriage service in Uniting in Worship 2.

The two documents take different approaches, but both are accompanied by an invitation to respond in some way. More importantly, I think, both are an invitation to a form of prayer – an invitation to think, to listen, to confess, to say ‘Thank you’, to say ‘But I don’t understand, although I want to’, to together hear the Word of the patient Lord.

I commend them to you.

A Review of Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, by John Swinton

John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), pp. x + 298, ISBN 978-0-8028-6716-2 (pbk).

‘Somewhere out there right now, a man is wiping the drool from an 85-year-old woman who flinches because she thinks he’s a stranger’ (p. 287).

Dementia directly affects some 800,000 people in the UK alone, two thirds of whom are women, and 17,000 of whom are young persons, plus some 670,000 carers; and the numbers are growing. Consequently, it is a subject of increasing interest to medical research, bearing significant implications for government and other funding and care bodies; and accompanied by a growing anxiety amongst a public still largely ignorant of its medical and social realities. John Swinton’s informed, intelligent, accessible, and honest engagement with this subject seeks to speak into and to earth these realities, and to specifically remind us that dementia is as much a relational and spiritual condition as it is neurological. At core, he argues that a relationality characterised by real presence and by the promise of a God whose memories of us are constitutive for our full humanity offer a much-needed antithesis to the malignant narratives often provided by some social psychology and theology. He challenges the inference that to live meaningfully in the present requires the cognitive ability to remember, to recall our past, and to imagine. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in his prison letters, more than is understood is present.

Among the book’s many strengths is the care that its author takes to explain and introduce difficult concepts – whether medical, theological, psychological, or philosophical – that are indispensable for thinking constructively about dementia. It also offers many (perhaps too many?) lived examples of how our relationships with those who have become strangers to us can be honoured and sustained in meaningful ways. Insofar as it does this, Swinton’s study serves as a helpful introduction to this troubled subject. Its foremost strength, however, is to champion the claim that this subject might be something that Christian theology, theologians, and communities could be interested in, might learn from engaging with, and about which they might have something valuable to contribute.

Swinton’s stated intention to offer a specifically Christian ‘theological perspective on dementia’ (p. 6) is, however, finally unsatisfying. Specifically, his twin claims that ‘memory is first and foremost something that is done for us, rather than something that we achieve on our own’ (p. 198) and that our being remembered by God is ‘our only real source of identity and hope’ (p. 217) is offered with insufficient regard for the foundation and centre of Christian theology itself; namely, God’s personal entrance into our estranged humanity in Jesus Christ. Had he explored beyond mere paradigm, for example, the ways that the divine journey into memory’s tomb in Holy Saturday – that ‘non event’ and ‘time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs, and of which there is little to be said’ about which Alan Lewis writes in his extraordinary book Between Cross and Resurrection – might transform and deepen and provide the theological grammar for our understanding of his claim about the divine memory, and had he attended more critically to the ways in which his articulation of social trinitarianism (on pp. 158–60) might actually undermine his claims about the relational ontology of human personhood, the book might have offered a more robust witness to the deep resources within the Christian tradition that speak most acutely to the subject at hand.

With these reservations aside, the book is good news for those who embark upon love’s costly journey of remembering and caring for those who, in Andrea Gillies’ words, ‘are no longer able to make memory’. It is also a welcome contribution to theological conversations about the radically-contingent nature of human personhood.

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A version of this review will appear, in due course, in the International Journal of Public Theology.

Learning from Calvin

Young Calvin, woodcut from library in TurinI’ve just finished teaching an intensive on John Calvin. Some of this has involved dispelling myths (ones both positive and negative), and some has been about first introductions to the life and thought of one whom I consider (notwithstanding those nasty words about ‘perverting’ Anabaptists) to be the greatest catholic theologian the church has produced in the past millennia. (The extraordinary study on The Young Calvin by the Roman Catholic theologian and historian Alexandre Ganoczy, for example, points out the astonishing degree to which the Second Vatican Council came to agree with much that was decisive for Calvin – a Christ-centred ecclesiology, constitutional pluralism, a return to biblical and patristic sources, liturgical reforms, Eucharistic renewal, the ministry of the so-called ‘laity’, etc.) It’s been exciting to see students engage with the ideas of, and have their minds changed about, one that some of them had previously thought to be pure rogue, pure saint, embarrassment, and/or simply irrelevant for doing theology and church today. (No one quite followed Barth and called him ‘a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, [or] mythological’.)

We concluded the intensive by reflecting on Calvin’s deeply inclusive vision of humanity, and by returning again to the opening paragraph in Book I of the final edition of his Institutes which articulates the conviction that our knowledge of self and our knowledge of God are inextricably related. Regarding the first of these, some might find it odd or even mistaken, given the way his doctrine of election has sometimes been articulated, to consider Calvin’s vision of humanity to be a deeply inclusive one but it seems to me that Calvin’s vision of the God-given dignity of the human person – broken by recalcitrance and restored in Christ – celebrates the sheer giftedness and mystery and freedom of being a human creature in such a way that all other identifying markers – such as religion, race, culture, social class, or gender – are secondary. And this means that love of God is inseparable from love for others; that faith and discipleship belong together; that theology and ethics are part of the same enterprise; that the renewal of church life and public life are intrinsically connected; that justice, good governance, ecological responsibility and global well-being above national and sectarian interests are part of what makes human life valuable and good and beautiful.

Regarding the second, the personal, theological, and pastoral instincts behind Calvin’s claim (in Inst. I.1.1) that ‘nearly all the wisdom we possess … consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves’ are, it seems to me, extremely important. Those who claim to know God but display very little self-awareness ought to send off as many alarm bells in us as those who claim to know themselves really well but have little or no interest in God. If Calvin is right, then the two cannot so easily be disentangled, if at all. This is what it means to be a creature.To be human is to be a person-in-relation, with creation and with the Creator.

This twin reality – the interdependence between our knowledge of God and our knowledge of self – is powerfully articulated some 400 years later in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The question which throbs at the centre of Bonhoeffer’s theology is ‘Who is Christ actually for us today?’ But this question could not be considered in isolation from the question he asked from his Tegel Prison cell in July 1944 – ‘Who Am I?’. ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’, and ‘Who am I?’ – for both Calvin and Bonhoeffer, these questions are inextricably linked.

I’m already looking forward to teaching on Calvin again …

A little Updike (and a little Monty Python) for Trinity Sunday

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event* a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

– John Updike, ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’, in Telephone Poles and Other Poems (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964), 72.

* A little note: ‘The event’, of course, to which Updike here refers is, principally, ‘Jesus’ resurrection'; but because this particular resurrection is the event which is the Triune life itself, I see no reason to not allow these words to inform our ‘God-talk’. That thousands of sermons will be preached today that mock Updike’s critical and weighty point – and echo a word more like that of Monty Python’s Three-Headed Knight met by the brave Sir Robin – seems a good reason to repeat Updike’s point today. If, however, you happen to be one of those disoriented souls who happened to land on this post in search of a Pythonesque sermon on ‘the trinity’, and because you figure that Trinity Sunday is the day you better say something about this neglected ‘topic’, then here’s what you were looking for (and your congregation would be most grateful if you looked no further!):

Still, my recommendation is that you go with Updike, even if – and perhaps especially if – you dinnae hay a scoobie what he is trying to say. Happy Trinity Sunday.

An interview with Diarmaid MacCulloch

Diarmaid MacCulloch

Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of the recently-published Silence: A Christian History, was in Australia a few months ago as a guest of The Adelaide Writers’ Week. While visiting that ‘distant and barbarous’ outpost of the Empire where the colonists ‘grow indifferent [and] go on from bad to worse until they have shaken off all moral restraint’ (as Mansfield Silverthorpe once described those blessed enough to be given free passage to Terra Australis Incognita), he was snatched up by the ABC for an interview with Barney Zwartz on Radio National’s ‘Big Ideas’ program. In this lively discussion, they discuss silence, Christianity’s intolerant nature, Apophatic theology, Nicodemites old and new, child abuse in the church, and Anglicanism … and some other stuff too. It’s well worth a listen.

T. F. Torrance on getting one’s ordos and analogias around the right way

Torrance 5‘There can be no true ordo cognoscendi (order of knowing) which is not based upon an ordo essendi (order of being) conceived entirely as grace, and the ordo essendi reaches its true destiny in the ordo cognoscendi. This is the problem of analogy as Reformed theology sees it today. The analogia entis is entirely grounded upon the analogia gratiae, and only in an analogia fidei corresponding to the analogia gratiae does the analogia entis have any truth or reality. Outside of that, the truth of God is inevitably turned into a lie’.

– Thomas F. Torrance, ‘The Word of God and the Nature of Man’, in Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM, 1965), 116.

After Crucifixion: A Symposium on the Theology of Craig Keen

After CrucifixionUnited Theological College and the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology (PaCT) are hosting a symposium on the patient and provocative work of Craig Keen. Keen’s work is described by Bruce McCormack as “animated by a deep personal desire for an authentically kenotic existence, and a longing for the coming of a community of women and men who understand that they cannot live until they die.” Keen’s sensitivity to issues of embodiment, existence, and faith marry with the constellation of thinkers that he has lived with since his youth to produce his subtle, surprising, and prayerful writings. This symposium will focus on his latest book, After Crucifixion: The Promise of Theology, and the questions about faith and life that it impels the reader to consider.

Date: 2728 June, 2014.

Venue: United Theological College, Sydney.

Speakers: Craig Keen, Anita Monro, Benjamin Myers, Janice Rees, Peter Kline, and others.

You can download the Registration Form here, and queries can be directed to here.

Two conferences Down Under

In addition to the conference on sovereignty mentioned in my previous post, Antipodeans are organising two further gigs:

anzats 20141. The annual ANZATS Conference, on the theme The Eclipse of God: Theology after Christendom.

Dates: 29 June to 2 July 2014
Where: University of Notre Dame, Fremantle WA
Keynote speaker: Graham Ward
Short papers: submissions have now closed. This is probably just as well for there is already a massive line up of papers on a diverse range of topics.

 

Nietzsche religion2. The Religious History Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (RHAANZ), the Religious History Association of Australia (THERHA), and the Christian Research Association of Aotearoa New Zealand are conspiring to organise a conference on Religion in Conflict and Collaboration with the Modern World.

Dates: 2628 November 2014
Where: Albany Campus, Massey University, Auckland
Keynote speaker: Brad Gregory
Short papers: Abstracts for short paper proposals (due on 31 July 2014) should be emailed to the Registrar, Professor Peter Lineham.
Proposed panels for whole sessions (three papers or the equivalent) are also welcome.