Theologies of marriage

arnolfini-weddingA couple of years ago, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (the denomination in which I was serving at the time) asked the church’s Doctrine Core Group to provide the church with a discussion paper on marriage. That group decided to approach the task by inviting a select and representative number to write a brief response to the following question:

‘What do you believe lies at the heart of a Christian doctrine of marriage, and what are the key biblical and theological considerations that inform your position?’

The full discussion paper can be downloaded here. It was offered in the hope that the statements therein might provoke deeper engagement with the complex issues about marriage in church and society. The contributions – of which there are seven – were published anonymously to encourage readers to hear and judge each case on its own merits. I reproduce them here, in part because the denomination in which I currently serve, the Baptist Union of Victoria, is engaged – or at least ought to be engaged! – in some theological reflection on the questions (one assumption here, among others, is that the Church, including its Baptist tribe, might have some unique things to say about marriage, things which the State can’t say) and I hope that these contributions might assist to that end.

Contribution 1

We believe the Presbyterian Church’s approach to marriage must faithfully reflect the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures, regardless of whatever society or the State may do. The Church is not at liberty to put aside the teachings of its Head. As a denomination derived from the Reformation, we are meant to be subject not to human ideas but to Scripture. Constitutionally, the Presbyterian Church recognises the Word of God in the Scriptures as the ‘supreme rule of faith and life’. We need to take that seriously. We shouldn’t try to reinterpret the teachings of Jesus and Scripture to make them mean something else.

The 2012 General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand strongly declared “that it upholds the historic Christian understanding of marriage as the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman (reflecting the complementarity of male and female created in God’s image), which is grounded in nature and in Scripture, is supremely revealed in Jesus’ teaching about marriage, and is given by God for the well-being of human society…”. General Assembly also resolved that it “does not support same-sex ‘marriage’”.

We believe the 2012 General Assembly got it right. Christian understanding of marriage reflects the profound truth that God made us both male and female in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27) – with both genders necessary to reflect the image of God. Marriage is grounded in God-given nature, in basic male-female physiology. Marriage is the good and purposeful gift of God (Genesis 2:18, 24). In marriage, God intends that male and female come together in love and mutuality, trust and faithfulness, and the two became one – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. No other type of contractual, covenantal or legal sexual relationship – no matter how loving, stable or sincere – can ever be regarded by the Christian Church as marriage in the true biblical sense.

Out of that unique male-female union, God brings new life (Genesis 1:28). We are to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”. Male-female complementarity is therefore foundational – not only to bearing the image of God, but to human flourishing. It is at the heart of what it means to be human. Right across the biblical narrative, marriage is endorsed – and is central to human life.

Jesus’ teaching on marriage reinforces the indispensable core of the Bible’s understanding of marriage: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4–5). Jesus also rejects sexual immorality (Mark 7:21–22) and lust (Matthew 5:28).

Some claim there is no one model of marriage in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, for instance, we see many examples of polygamy, a defective form of marriage which was common in Ancient Near Eastern culture. But while polygamy is tolerated in the Old Testament, it is never endorsed by God or by Scripture, and it plays no part in the teaching of Jesus or the New Testament.

The reality of marriage, in Scripture and in human experience generally, includes not only blessing but also an inevitable falling short of what God intended – sometimes in major ways such as cruelty, adultery, neglect or divorce. In our sinfulness, we all need God’s forgiveness and grace.

Some argue that marriage is just a human arrangement, a largely secular matter. Certainly, marriage is a “civil contract”, but it is also much more than that. For followers of Christ, prayerfully entering into a marital covenant and making solemn promises before God, marriage is also sacred. The sexual union of a husband and wife in marriage is more than just physical, and can also have something of a “sacramental” character.

The idea of recognising homosexual relationships as “marriage” is completely foreign to Scripture. While some disagree with what the Bible teaches, there can be no question that the Bible consistently forbids the practice of homosexuality (eg Romans 1:22–28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, Jude 7). Like all other sexual immorality, homosexuality reflects humanity’s fallenness.

Same-sex “marriage” finds no place in the historic Christian doctrine of marriage, or in the teaching of our Subordinate Standards. The Church’s classic Reformed standard, the Westminster Confession, devotes a whole chapter to marriage. This begins: “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman …for the mutual help of husband and wife [and] for the increase of mankind.” The Presbyterian Church’s Directory of Worship (1995) states that Christian marriage is “a commitment for life made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed before God and acknowledged by the community of faith”.

We must be guided by the resolutions of General Assembly that “God’s intention for sexual relationships, as affirmed by Jesus Christ, is loving, mutual and faithful marriage between a man and a woman, and that intimate sexual expressions outside of that context fall short of God’s standard” (1991), and that marriage is “the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman” (2012).

The Bible’s teaching on marriage is not the absolute core of the Gospel, like the Cross and Resurrection, but it is still very important. It is not optional. Three of the Ten Commandments, for instance, are related to marriage.

The Word of God is the “supreme rule” of both “faith and life”. Some argue that the Church should just proclaim salvation in Christ, and allow freedom (diversity) in all other matters of belief and life – including matters relating to marriage and morality. But such a view is a distortion of New Testament teaching. Christ is both Saviour and Lord. The gospel is not just about salvation. It is also about following Christ, and about transformation. Having received salvation by grace, we should then honour God in how we live (eg Matthew 7:17–23, Romans 6:13, 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, Ephesians 4:1, Colossians 1:10). Grace does not abrogate truth, or the call to holiness.

The Church is not able to dictate the beliefs and laws of society at large. But we must also insist that the Church cannot be dictated to by society. In all matters, including marriage, we believe the Holy Spirit calls the Church to remain authentically faithful to the teachings of Jesus and Scripture.

Contribution 2

Whatever else marriage may be, it is at its most fundamental level a relationship between two parties. It is a relationship established in virtue of God’s pronouncement that it is not good that man should be alone (Genesis 2:18). We human beings have need of companionship. According to the Genesis account (Genesis 2:18–25), marriage is a divinely instituted provision for that need. While the Genesis text indicates a complementarity in the companionship of male and female, it becomes clear as the biblical story unfolds that the need for companionship may also be met by other means, above all in the fellowship of the Body of Christ. The Church, in fact, is set forth in the New Testament as the paramount form of community in which all should expect to find, whether married or not, the unconditional love, forgiveness, and companionship to which the marriage relationship also aspires.

A secondary feature of marriage occurring between a man and a woman is the procreation of children. Genesis 1:28 and 3:16 are commonly taken as biblical warrant for this procreative function of marriage. The Old Testament, however, records numerous instances in which the fathering of children is thought to be more important than the maintenance of a monogamous relationship (eg Genesis 16:1–2, Deuteronomy 25:5–6). A husband may take additional wives or engage the childbearing services of a slave in the household in order to secure progeny. Adultery, however, is condemned (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 22:22). Whether or not the arrangements seen in the Old Testament for the procreation of children outside of marriage should be approved of, they do suggest that procreation is a secondary good associated with marriage rather than its primary purpose. In accordance with the view that procreation does not belong to the essence of marriage, the absence of offspring does not undermine the good of marriage and so provides no justification for divorce (Matthew 5:32, Mark 10:6–9).

What then does constitute the good of marriage? In formulating a response to this question, it is helpful to attend to the fact that the language of marital relationships is often used in the Bible to speak of the relationship that God has established, first with Israel (eg Ezekiel 16: 8–14, Jeremiah 2:2, 31:32, Isaiah 54:5), and then with the Church (eg John 3:29, Matthew 9:15, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Revelation 19:7–9). Although it is commonly supposed that the term “marriage” applies primarily to the covenant commitment made between a man and a woman and only secondarily, by way of analogy, to the relationship God establishes with Israel and the Church, we may learn better about the essence of marriage by attending first to the marriage God establishes with his people, before then considering what this may imply for our understanding of human marriage.

The first thing to notice about the relationship between God and Israel, and between Christ and the Church is that it is a covenant not a contract. Talk of marriage as a covenant rather than a contract is derived from this divine precedent. A covenant is “a promise binding two people or two parties to love one another unconditionally.” This accounts for the steadfastness of God’s commitment to Israel in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Leviticus 26:44). We observe, secondly, that the covenant God makes is grounded in love. Again, we learn best what love is by attending to the divine love, especially as it is revealed to us in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because the true nature of love is revealed in Christ, Paul enjoins husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). It is in this context too, that Paul speaks of a man and his wife becoming one flesh just as Christ unites the Church in his body and tenderly nourishes and cares for it (Ephesians 5:28–32).

Further explanation of what love consists of is found 1 Corinthians 13. A third characteristic of the divine covenant is that it operates according to grace rather on the basis of deserts. God loves Israel and Christ loves the Church, not because they deserve to be loved, but simply because it is love’s way to embrace the other in spite of the other’s weakness and imperfection — even in spite of the other’s sin. Marriage is an act of gracious hospitality, of unconditional openness to the other, and of self-giving. The operations of divine grace in the marriage God establishes with his people should discourage us, I think, from conceiving the marriage relationship in terms of rights. Marriage is established in virtue of the unconditional gift of oneself to the other, not on the basis of rights held over against one another.

These theological observations suggest that marriage is a covenant relationship that is motivated by love and operates according to grace. It is, furthermore, a form of human relationship that mirrors, however imperfectly, the relationship that God desires to have with us.

We should take note, however, that spousal relationships are listed in Luke 14:26 among various forms of kinship that take second place to the disciples’ relationships with Christ. Marriage between one human being and another is good, but it is not the ultimate good. The ultimate good is the fellowship with God and neighbour that is being perfected by the Spirit in the Body of Christ. Marriage, and, by extension, the life of the family, is an important and divinely instituted means by which people may be formed for the kind of relationship that is ultimately to be perfected in the communion that Christ establishes with his people. Despite their many failings, and despite the tragic dysfunction that sometimes afflicts them, marriage and family relationships remain the place, subordinate only to the Church, where we are most likely to learn the gestures of unconditional love, of forgiveness, and of grace that, under divine command and enabling, are to be extended to all.

With respect to the question of whether marriage may be entered into by partners of the same gender, it seems to me that the precedent of God’s relationship to Israel and of Christ to the Church yields insight into the nature of marriage that does not preclude such a relationship being established between partners of the same gender. It remains an open question however, whether the complementarity of male and female indicated in Genesis, should be taken as normative for the marriage relationship between two human partners. That is the question that is now before the Church.

Contribution 3

In the following paper I offer my reflections on what I believe lies at the heart of a doctrine of Christian marriage. As a woman in her mid-fifties who recently married for the first time, I have found myself engaging with this question on a very personal level. Marriage, as revealed in both Scripture and Jesus’ teaching, is initiated by God as an expression of love in community. Sacred and permanent, it offers protection and exclusivity for the expression of fidelity and conjugal love between a man and a woman. It is fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage that it be a union between a man and a woman, as both are made in God’s image, therefore it is their complementary, but different natures, that reflect most authentically the mystery of the divine nature.

The divine nature is presented in the Scriptures as both feminine and masculine. God speaks of her conception, nurture, and birth in the continuing story of Israel. Yet God is also warrior, king, and father. God’s nature transcends gender, but by creating both male and female and joining them together as one God’s nature is “captured”, so to speak. Therefore when man and woman become one, it is their union (their becoming one) that reflects the complete/divine nature.

The physical/biological differences of men and women are obvious, but there is also a spiritual/emotional difference between them that is well attested in our churches, marriages, and relationships in general.

The “complete” nature of God, as expressed by both man and woman becoming one, finds its roots in the Genesis account of creation: Man (Adam) was created in the image of God, but finding him incomplete in/by himself, God created a specific helper/companion (ezer; Eve). Out of the one species, but creating a separate, distinctive and complementary being, God created the ideal reflection of the divine nature. Creativity, procreation, and abiding companionship all find their expression on the two beings becoming one. My reading of the creation account is that humanity was the pinnacle of creation. When the two complementary beings become one, their unity creates and perpetuates the image of the divine. I believe that it was God’s desire for the creative, spiritual and physical cycle of creation to continue through the mystery and sanctity of marriage.

Jesus also affirmed marriage as a divine institution laid down by God at the very beginning of creation. United by God two (man and woman) become one, and remain so until death (Mark 10.6–7, 9; Genesis 1.27; 2.24). The mystery of this sacred union between man and woman is that it offers a reflection of the image of God in community; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By this I mean that God is more than one, yet the same essence. The three persons of the trinity are separate, yet one. Each person of the trinity has a different expression, but they are the same! For me that means that in the Genesis account of creation the trinity was already present, and reflected in the creation of man and woman. Therefore marriage, at its heart, is an expression of God’s love/nature lived out in action for creation to be witness to, and benefit from.

The starting point for my position on a Christian doctrine of marriage is the concept of covenant. Biblically the marriage relationship was used as a distinctive metaphor for the covenantal relationship God had with Israel (Ezekiel 16.8). Permanence, faithfulness and self-sacrificing love are the pillars of God’s covenant relationship. Marriage, as a covenant relationship between two complementary natures made in God’s image, reflects the ideal of God’s relationship of love and fidelity with his/her people.

Pauline material develops this tradition by proclaiming that the sacred and permanent status of marriage is an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5.32). Marriage, in New Testament terms, is portrayed as the perfect example of covenantal oneness; a union created between a man and a woman by the unifying power of love.

The commitment to love unconditionally, as Christ loved the Church, implies self-sacrifice. Christ’s love led him to the cross, so biblically marriage becomes a vehicle for living out Christ’s self-sacrificing love. For me the concepts of obedience and discipleship are fundamental to my understanding of Christian marriage. God’s covenant love and Christ’s self-sacrificing love fit within a context of relationship. Marriage cannot be removed from this setting; it finds its expression only in relationship with God’s revelation (Jesus and Scripture).

The biblical vision for marriage, as a reflection of God’s love and unbreakable faithfulness, lies at the heart of my understanding of Christian marriage. Creator God created two complementary beings in his/her image to become one flesh. The purpose for such a union is, I believe, not only to offer human companionship, or produce children, but also to reveal the divine nature and character of an unseen God. Love by its very nature can only be authentically expressed in community, therefore marriage becomes the most complete expression of divine love.

Contribution 4

Being both Māori and Christian my starting point on any subject is always my beloved wharenui, Te Maungarongo. On the taraiti side of the whare is our cultural side that captures our histories, genealogies, stories, songs, proverbs and everything that constitutes being Māori. On the opposite tarawhanui side of the whare are the biblical equivalents of those same stories. The backbone of the whare is the tahuhu where both culture and Scripture come together under watchful eye of God. Neither side of the whare can be separated as they interpret and inform each other. To separate the two would divide the whare and result in cultural and biblical amnesia.

The second pair of poupou in Te Maungarongo depict Rangi and Papatuanuku the primodial parents. Opposite is the biblical equivalent of Adam and Eve. This theme of cultural and biblical equivalents facing each other is consistent throughout the whare. The tenth poupou depicts the celebrated love story of Tutanekai and Hinemoa. The Biblical equivalent opposite is the Book of Psalms as the story focuses at this level upon the sweet music of the Putourino that encouraged Hinemoa to swim Lake Rotorua to Tutanekai upon Mokoia Island. At other levels the story deals with issues of politically arranged marriage, social status, tribal responsibility of procreation and of male affection and relationship towards another male. These are real stories that we still encounter today and are not simple fables or myths.

The back and front walls of the whare tell the story of the early church. At the apex of the exterior of the whare is the ancestor, in this case Jesus, holding the cross inviting you to take up the cross. On the interior of the inside back wall is the cross of Calvary. Both crosses challenge us to view those same stories through the cross of Christ and gain a new understanding of how things are done consistent with how they are lived in the Kingdom of God.

The hermeneutical question is not which side of the whare we start from, but how do both sides of Te Maungarongo come together in us, the living embodiment of those stories. The hermeneutical starting point is me, the mokopuna. Whakapapa works backwards. It starts with me and what I bring to this story.

Marriage was a stumbling block to Māori being baptised by the early Presbyterian Māori missions with their doctrine of one man and one woman in marriage. Iwi practised polgamy and this was non-negotiable to the missionaries. The pressures of government and Church eventually saw the demise of polygamy. Today polygamy has been replaced with defacto relationships and solo-parenting that has lead to a fatherless generation of children. These people are unfairly sterotyped as beneficiaries who spend their benefit on alcohol, smokes and drugs and substitute their income with illegal activities. Yet for the majority this is totally untrue. The Bible gives the imperative to look after the least in society and names them as the widow, the orphan and the unemployed. In my context that is about 80 percent of my whanau.

The context above is the taraiti side of the whare which is brought into conversation with the biblical that has many similar stories of political arranged marriages, marriage and social status, affairs, liasons, incest, rape, unemployment, poverty, adoption and single parenting. This conversation gives me a further reference point, and what new insights I may have are lifted up to be viewed through the cross of Jesus at Calvary. Jesus dealt with similar issues of human existence and gives new understandings and insights into how things are lived in the Kingdom of God. This is Te Maungarongo that moves me in the direction of the cross where I am given a new blueprint for the future.

No story is complete without the architects of my Presbyterian whare: Rua Kenana, prophet of Maungapohatu; Tu Rakuraku of Waimana; the Rt Rev Eru Tumutara; Bishop of the Ringatu Church; and the Presbyterian missionary the Very Rev J G Laughton CMG or Hoani. These architects of Te Maungarongo provide the overarching hermeneutical princple with their covenanted relationships with Hoani providing a safe and sound Christian future for their children and grandchildren.

Rua Kenana said to Hoani: “There is your Church, the children. You have the children, leave the old people to me.”

In a similar fashion, Tu Rakuraku said to Hoani: “Leave the old world to us, you have the children so they may have a better life than what we have experienced”.

The Rt Rev Eru Tumutara said to Hoani: “Teach my children the wisdom of the world but most importantly teach them the wisdom of God.”

These covenants are translated as Ōhākī, a gift that arises from within you and is binding on all future generations and can never be broken. All three gentlemen had experienced at a personal level the poverty of the New Zealand Wars, but they saw in the Presbyterian Church an opportunity for their children to have a better life, safe from what they witnessed.

In conclusion, the hermeutical process begins with me, the mokopuna, the blueprint of the future. The hermeneutical reference points are a conversation between the pillars of Te Maungarongo, cultural, context, Scripture and Christian tradition. These are held up to the apex of the whare where I view them through the cross of Jesus Christ. The overarching principle in the hermeneutical process is Te Ōhākī, the gift that is my salvation in the new world free from anything that separates me from the love of God.

Contribution 5

Theological Method

The question of marriage, as with any theological reflection, does not come to the Church in a vacuum. Society now understands marriage as a relationship between two people, committed to each other, irrespective of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Marriage is seen as an intimate and yet public commitment between two adults that is recognised in law. The theological issue has arisen because on the one hand we have Assembly decisions that restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples and, on the other hand, ministers and congregations who wish to be able to celebrate marriage in the full, inclusive sense in which it is now understood.

From an ethical perspective, an evolving theology of marriage must include the voices of same-sex couples and transgendered people who wish to marry, because it is the lives of these people who will be directly affected by
the Church’s decision-making. Christian same-sex couples speak about their desire to express their love and commitment to one another in the context of their faith community. They want to belong to each other in love and to their congregations in ministry. Like couples who access civil marriage, they value the social recognition and support that comes with marriage. They also acknowledge the spiritual aspect of marriage to which law and secular society pay little attention. They are “claiming the blessing” that the Church has come to understand that marriage can be, a blessing of communion and community. And they wish to teach their children about the social and spiritual value of deep commitment to a life partner in a loving and just relationship.

Children of gay and lesbian parents are expressing the hope that their parents could marry. Approximately 24 percent of same-sex couples are raising children. Social research has overwhelmingly established that these children have outcomes that are as good or better than children raised by opposite-sex couples. The one thing that makes their lives difficult is discrimination against their families. In changing the marriage law, society has removed one source of discrimination, but the Church continues to perpetuate it.

The Bible

The Bible on its own cannot provide the answers to the question of whether the Church should allow ministers to marry same sex couples because it is simply not a question that the Bible addresses. The Biblical writers had no knowledge of the continuum of human sexual orientation. Throughout the biblical record, different kinds of unions are accepted in different places and times, evolving and changing with culture and circumstance.

New Testament teachings about marriage are included with other teachings which are generally accepted as being time and culture bound. For example prohibitions against women teaching, or braiding their hair, are found alongside the imperative that a church leader should be “the husband of one wife”. (1 Timothy 2:9 – 3:2).

Biblical marriage includes polygamy, marriage within the family, reproduction with a deceased husband’s closest relative and prohibitions against marriage with people of other faiths or ethnicities. At times these patterns were normative and at other times they were considered less relevant.

The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is often cited as evidence that marriage can only be heterosexual because Jesus cited it in Mark 10:1–12. Context is crucial. Jesus was asked a question about the lawfulness of divorce. He responded by referencing the Genesis story and saying that “what God has joined together, let no one separate”. He concluded unequivocally that remarriage after divorce is adultery. It is disingenuous to extrapolate this teaching addressed to heterosexual couples to exclude same-sex marriage. Especially when the Church has significantly reinterpreted Jesus’s clear teaching on divorce.

The History of Marriage

It is impossible to give adequate consideration here to the way marriage has evolved over the past two millennia except to note that it has changed dramatically. Until the modern period, marriage was primarily based on political alliances for the elite and economic survival for the masses. Women were regarded as property transferred from father to husband, thus connecting families for political or economic benefits.

The diverse forms of familial relationships that many people think are unprecedented changes in family life, are mostly not new at all. Human beings have been creatively constructing families for a very long time. There have been times in the past when it was more common for children to be born out of wedlock than it is now. Step-families were very common in the past because of the high rates of death and remarriage. And even same-sex marriage, though relatively rare, has been sanctioned in some cultures.

Similarly, arrangements that are presented as “traditional marriage” in popular culture have a relatively recent history. The involvement of Church or state in marriage is a more recent “tradition” in human history. For centuries of Christian tradition, a couple were considered married when privately they said to each other the words of intent: “I take you to be my husband or wife”. Neither judge nor clergy were involved.

Marriage, shaped by political or economic considerations, began to change in the 18th century, five thousand years after it first took shape in the ancient tribes and kingdoms of the Middle East. Only then did love begin to dominate marriage discourse. Marriage began to be seen as a private relationship between two people rather than as part of a system of political or economic alliances. While there have always been loving marriages, the purpose of marriage for much of human history was more mundane.

Relational Ethics

What marks us as humans is our capacity for intelligent moral judgement. We cannot base our decisions about marriage solely on appeals to Scripture, tradition/history or on an unexamined understanding of biological or psychological complementarity of the sexes. The idea of male and female duality is frequently an unexamined assumption in theological conversation about marriage. It must be considered in light of contemporary science and social theory.

The freedom given to us in Christ includes the freedom to discern God’s will and the ways that God continues to speak to us through the Spirit. In limiting human sexual expression to heterosexual marriage, the Church has lost its place in the human community of ethical discernment. The public has heard us say that heterosexual intercourse within marriage is the requirement for God’s blessing. They have not heard us say that relationships that are mutual, equal, loving, committed and grounded, are relationships that reflect God’s faithfulness and grace. Moving beyond requiring humans to choose between heterosexual marriage and celibacy would create a space for the Church to talk about what makes a relationship good and therefore to invite people into the spiritual depth and commitment that good marriage can provide.

Contribution 6

It has taken some time to canvas the views of members of the Pacific community that I am involved with, however I present a view that is shared in common by every person that has contributed to the question: “What is the Pacific Christian’s perspective of the doctrine of marriage?”

Primarily, we strongly believe that marriage is the bond between a man and a woman as blessed by Jesus Christ the head of the Church. The general belief is a call for the Presbyterian Church to hold strictly to biblical teachings about Christian marriage as a necessary step to the formation and beginning of a family.

I would like to also include extracts from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission entitled Statements on the Doctrine of Marriage which reflect the thinking of the Pacific community I am representing in this statement.

Marriage in Christ

As is easily shown in the New Testament, Jesus confirmed this institution which existed “from the very beginning”, and cured it of its previous defects (Mark 10:2–9, 10–12) by restoring all its dignity and its original requirements. He sanctified this state of life (Gaudium et Spes 48, 2) by including it within the mystery of love, which unites him as Redeemer to his Church. This is the reason why the task of regulating Christian marriage (1 Corinthians 7:10) has been entrusted to the Church.

The Apostles

The Epistles of the New Testament say that marriage should be honoured in every way (Hebrews 13:4) and, in response to certain attacks, they present it as a good work of the Creator (1 Timothy 4:1–5). Rather, they exalt matrimony among the faithful because it is included in the mystery of Covenant and love that unites Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22–23; Gaudium et Spes 48, 2).

They ask, therefore, that marriage be contracted “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39) and that matrimonial life be lived in accordance with the dignity of a new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), “in Christ” (Ephesians 5:21–33), putting Christians on guard against the pagans’ habits (1 Corinthians 6:12–20; 6:9–10).

On the basis of a “right deriving from faith” and in their desire to assure its permanence, the Churches of apostolic times formulated certain moral orientations (Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Peter 3:1–7) and juridical dispositions that would help people live matrimony “according to the faith” in different human situations and conditions.

Real Symbol and Sacramental Sign

Jesus Christ disclosed in a prophetic way the reality of matrimony as it was intended by God at man’s beginnings (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Mark 10:6, 7–8; Matthew 19:4, 5) and restored it through his death and Resurrection. For this reason Christian marriage is lived “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39) and is also determined by elements of the saving action performed by Christ.

Already in the Old Testament the matrimonial union was a figure of the Covenant between God and the people of Israel (Hosea 2; Jeremiah 3:6–13; Ezekiel 16 and 23; Isaiah 54). In the New Testament, Christian marriage rises to a new dignity as a representation of the mystery that unites Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21–33). Theological interpretation illuminates this analogy more profoundly: the supreme love and gift of the Lord who shed his blood and the faithful and irrevocable attachment of his Spouse the Church, become models and examples for Christian matrimony.

This resemblance is a relationship of real sharing in the Covenant of love between Christ and the Church. From its own standpoint, Christian marriage, as a real symbol and sacramental sign, represents the Church of Christ concretely in the world and, especially under its family aspect, it is called rightly the “domestic Church” (Lumen Gentium 11).

Sacrament in a Real Sense

In such a way matrimony takes on the likeness of the mystery of the union between Jesus Christ and his Church. This inclusion of Christian marriage in the economy of salvation is enough to justify the title “sacrament” in a broad sense.

But it is also at once the concrete condensation and the real actualization of this primordial sacrament. It follows from this that Christian marriage is in itself a real and true sign of salvation, which confers the grace of God. For this reason the Catholic Church numbers it among the seven sacraments (Denzinger-A Schönmetzer, 1327, 1801).

A unique bond exists between the indissolubility of marriage and its sacramentality, that is, a reciprocal, constitutive relationship. Indissolubility makes one’s grasp of the sacramental nature of Christian matrimony easier, and from the theological point of view, its sacramental nature constitutes the final grounds, although not the only grounds, for its indissolubility.

Conclusion

It is fair to say that all of the above points of view resonate with the thinking of Pacific Christians in the Presbyterian Church. However the question that is in the news items lately has been the same-sex marriage question. There is a strong “No” from the Pacific community that have responded to me on this point.

I pass on the blessings from those I represent to the doctrine committee for this important task you are charged with.

Contribution 7

I. Foundation. “For … all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1.16). Jesus Christ is the one Word of God in, by and for whom humanity is constituted. He alone reveals God’s will for human life and flourishing. Consequently, marriage ought primarily to be understood christologically. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to ground its doctrine and ethics in sources apart from and besides this one Word of God. Such efforts threaten to turn an institution or relationship into an idol, an anti-Christ.

II. Eschatology. “ ‘… and the two will become one flesh’. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5.31–32). Like every gift from God, marriage is good and fitting – not only for individual persons and families, but also for the flourishing of human society. But its goodness is closely associated with its provisionality – with its being bound to the creation which is passing away (eg. Luke 18.29; Matthew 19.12; 22.30) – and with it, as with celibacy, bearing prophetic witness to the coming new creation. Its ultimate meaning is eschatological and so it is called to be characterised by the transforming of old markers and the reconstituting of human relationality in the light of God’s coming. The Church therefore rejects efforts to explain the mystery of marriage solely in terms of the old creation. Furthermore, because Holy Scripture speaks of marriage in terms of Christ’s relation to the Church unbound by gender, we reject the claim that marriage’s signalling of Christ’s relationship with his bride must be gender specific.

III. Discipleship. “Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9.23). Jesus Christ calls and the Holy Spirit empowers persons to leave behind all that has the appearance of certainty, and to become his disciples. This call precedes and exists uncompetitively with all other claims that may be made. God’s provision (marriage is a “gift” rather than a “right”) of marriage during this time-between-the-times is a particular vocation given to some so that they might be trained in the way of discipleship; learn how to recognise the otherness of the other (i.e., as a being not under their power); be taught love of neighbour; celebrate the mystery of friendship; be schooled in embodied witness, repentance and virtue; practice the meaning of sacrifice, the risk of hospitality and the formation of community and be ready to accept the challenges of new life which love creates – the disciplines of denial and restraint that liberate human persons for sanctification. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to understand marriage (and all other human relationships) independently of the call to discipleship.

IV. Desire. “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22.19). Marriage occasions a social context to commit oneself to being where one’s body is, to make one’s body available for the other – “for better, for worse … for as long as you live” (Book of Common Order) – and for desire to mean more than meeting emotional and physical needs. While it is beyond the creature’s power to make sex spiritually or sacramentally significant (indeed, all such attempts are idolatrous), it is entirely commensurate with God’s character to do so; ie. to make good on the promise that human beings are more than material. “The moral question, at this point, ought to be how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects,” says Rowan Williams. The Church therefore rejects as illegitimate all expressions of desire for other persons unbridled and undirected by commitment to the relationship in which the blessing of the other is not a foremost concern.

V. Election and covenant. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” (Hosea 11.8). Marriage serves as an analogue to, and a reflection of the electing love of God (however imperfect). Marriage exists because God loves Israel, in whom God also makes space for gentiles. This is God’s counter word to the fear many couples experience; namely, the threat to the security of their own marriages from the “other”. The Word of God brings persons into covenant communion with God and with each other, the character of which is holy, loving, and unbreakable. The Church therefore rejects all theological justification for divorce. That said, lest we turn God’s gracious provision into an ideology, the Church equally rejects all notions of indissolubility which smuggle in a metaphysic whereby divorce and remarriage are made authentic impossibilities. “Indeed, if one purpose of marriage is to serve as a sign of God’s love in the world … how can we reject the possibility that a second marriage after a divorce could serve as a sign of grace and redemption from the sin and brokenness of the past?” (Richard Hays).

VI. Responsible freedom. “You were called to freedom; do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5.13). Marriage is an expression of the freedom granted to God’s human creatures and to the societies they form. So, “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgement to give their consent” (The Westminster Confession of Faith). Marriage, in other words, is created not by a ceremony per se but by an act of responsible freedom. Where possible, a public ceremony – wherein the “I do” confessed by the couple and heard by a public serves as both creative and performative utterance – might also represent such an act and so ought to be the norm. Still, “there are many marriages, true though incomplete, which the Church has never blessed or the State ratified” (James K. Baxter). If a couple “cannot or will not have one another in this freedom, it is far better for them not to want to have one another at all” (Karl Barth). The Church therefore rejects all pre-determined images (whether understood in terms of roles, or contractual obligations, or any other matters decided in advance) of what any particular marriage might look like as being fundamentally at odds with the loving promise of covenant freedom in God. “Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing, this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being” (Micheal O’Siadhail).

‘Aitch-Two-Double O’: A poem by Geoffrey Bingham

Peroxide

In July 1994, I invited my father to hear someone who I considered to be one of Australia’s greatest theologians and preachers, Geoffrey Bingham. My father is someone who is always seeking redemption via the ‘new’ (like every human being, my father is ‘a believer’; he attends faithfully to the altars of the Enlightenment), and in 1994 the panacea of the day was hydrogen peroxide – the blessed H2O2! My father, with all of the enthusiasm of a new convert, shared this alternative ‘good news’ with Geoffrey who then went away and wrote this delightful little poem for him:

‘Oxygenate or perish!’ was his cry,
And I who heard it didn’t care to die;
I listened to his song of therapy
And thought, ‘Maybe he sings this all for me.’

We huff, we puff, we make intake
Of breath – our lungs enlarge to make
Sufficient air or wind or breeze
To give full life to arteries.

‘Alas!’ he said, ‘that air is not enough
To depollute the toxic stuff
That lies along our various veins
Infecting flesh and heart and brains.

‘You need to oxify the lot
To purify each tittle, and each jot
And all the flowing bright red stream
Until it’s fresh and new and clean.’

‘Enough!’ I cried, ‘Dear expert tell
How I can save me from this hell
Of inner sludge and darkest stains
And thus renew my hopeless veins

‘And purify my flesh and mind
Until my blood perfection find,
And I can breathe the wholesome air
When blood is pure and life is fair?’

‘Aitch two double O,’ he said,
‘Will like as raise you from the dead,
Its name is easy – “per-ox-ide”
That cleanses all your blood inside.

‘You put it in your drinks or food,
Or take in tablets – they are good –
Whatever means you use you gain
Fresh flow in artery or vein,

‘So oxygen will purify
And you will live until you die
And folk will cry ‘Until he died
His life was wholly per-ox-ide.’

Ah, blessed gas! Ah glorious mix
Of elements that quickly fix
The sluggish flow and give a wealth
Of glorious life and glowing health,
That we who might so soon have died
Live on through packaged per-ox-ide!

My father, who has a good sense of humour, seemed to appreciate the poem at the time. I hope he still does.

‘Gathering’

And so they gathered, threatening
to hasten ‘the kingdom’ and
to ‘discern’ god knows what.
And so they watched lots of TV
and politely endured

a repetitious sales pitch no one was
buying the first time. One or two braved
another word above the background
noise of marking small circles on
small bits of coloured paper.

And the wine had long run out
and the TV channel was stuck, and
amid brief fireworks in the fog
a choir hinted that it all

might be otherwise, and the strange
god who might know what, and which
wandered lost-like into the gathering, now
wandered hastily out past the loos into the night.

Jason Goroncy, 30 May 2015

Donald McKim reviews Hallowed be Thy Name

Hallowed be thy nameDonald McKim (Academic and Reference Editor for Westminster John Knox Press) has penned a short review (pdf) my book, Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth for Religious Studies Review.

I am grateful to Professor McKim for his kind review, and for his assessment of Forsyth as ‘undervalued’.

‘Amish Economy’

Charles Warren Mundy, 'Raking The Fields', 2011.

The best thing about a lecture is always what gets left behind after class. Good teachers hope that what gets left behind keeps being discovered (and corrected and discarded and developed and etc.) for many decades yet, but today it just happened to be this poem, ‘Amish Economy’, from Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems that got left behind:

We live by mercy if we live.
To that we have no fit reply
But working well and giving thanks,
Loving God, loving one another,
To keep Creation’s neighborhood.

And my friend David Kline told me,
“It falls strangely on Amish ears,
This talk of how you find yourself.
We Amish, after all, don’t try
To find ourselves. We try to lose
Ourselves” – and thus are lost within
The found world of sunlight and rain
Where fields are green and then are ripe,
And the people eat together by
The charity of God, who is kind
Even to those who give no thanks.

In morning light, men in dark clothes
Go out among the beasts and fields.
Lest the community be lost,
Each day they must work out the bond
Between goods and their price: the garden
Weeded by sweat is flowerbright;
The wheat shocked in shorn fields, clover
Is growing where wheat grew; the crib
ls golden with the gathered corn,

While in the world of the found selves,
Lost to the sunlit, rainy world,
The motor-driven cannot stop.
This is the world where value is
Abstract, and preys on things, and things
Are changed to thoughts that have a price.

Cost + greed – fear = price:
Maury Telleen thus laid it out.
The need to balance greed and fear
Affords no stopping place, no rest,
And need increases as we fail.

But now, in summer dusk, a man
Whose hair and beard curl like spring ferns
Sits under the yard trees, at rest,
His smallest daughter on his lap.
This is because he rose at dawn,
Cared for his own, helped his neighbors,
Worked much, spent little, kept his peace.

[Image: Charles Warren Mundy, ‘Raking The Fields’, 2011. Source]

We Can Pay For It

We can pay for it

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’.

‘The Muddy Trench’

In the dream, Clarrie Dunn
sits naked with many thousands
in the muddy trench. He is saying
The true god gives his flesh and blood.
Idols demand yours off you.

– Les Murray, ‘The Muddy Trench’, in Collected Poems (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006), 554.

Lest We Forget

Lest We Forget

Anzac Epitaph

Anzac Epitaph

On war commemorations

So, Leunig on its first casualty:

Truth is the first casualty of war commemorationjpg

And some good thoughts here on the costs of war and peace from Laurencia Grant, a cyclist in Alice Springs, published in the Alice Springs News.

Marilynne Robinson on providence, joy, and sorrow

Lila“‘Then the reasons that things happen are still hidden, but they are hidden in the mystery of God.’ I can’t read my own writing. No matter. ‘Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent. The future always finds us changed.’ So then it is part of the providence of God, as I see it, that blessing or happiness can have very different meanings from one time to another. ‘This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its “parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy.’ Because I don’t mean to suggest that experience is random or accidental, you see. ‘When I say that much the greater part of our existence is unknowable by us because it rests with God, who is unknowable, I acknowledge His grace in allowing us to feel that we know any slightest part of it. Therefore we have no way to reconcile its elements, because they are what we are given out of no necessity at all except God’s grace in sustaining us as creatures we can recognize as ourselves.’ That’s always seemed remarkable to me, that we can do that. That we can’t help but do it. ‘So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.’” – Marilynne Robinson, Lila (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 223–24.

ANZAC DAY 2015: An Ecumenical Service of Lament, Repentance and Hope

ANZAC Day service INVITE2015

For more on ANZAC Day, you might like to check out some of my other posts.

Surrender: a reflection by Paul Toms

SurrenderA guest post by Paul Toms

I recently attended a gathering called Surrender. It gathers around a common Christian faith that calls us to seek justice in our world. The host partners put it on each year, and each of them have their own understanding of what this means and how it is done. A range of denominations, theological positions, cultures, and speakers make up this diverse community. I have a number of friends that have been instrumental in pulling together this unlikely coalition of people and know it is at times a challenge holding these differences together. I’m sure it would be tempting, in our economically-rational society, to reign this in and restrict it to a group that was more ‘on message’, particularly if this voice was willing to bankroll the event, but Surrender has worked hard to keep these differing voices in conversation. In doing so this gathering is a rich, diverse, and passionate meeting of people that, for me, is a unique practical expression of the Body of Christ that I have not experienced in many other expressions of Christian community.

One significant aspect of this expression is the way they take the words of St Paul seriously, that ‘the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable’ (1 Cor 12.22). This is embodied in their commitment, ensuring that many of the voices that are ignored or silenced in our society are heard.

Each year the majority of the people leading sessions over the weekend are on the ground practitioners who are part of small local communities. Room is made for people who are struggling with a range of challenges with their physical and mental health to not only be included in what is happening but are also given opportunities to lead. Stories are shared from communities in the developing world that encourage and challenge my western understandings of faith. And, critically, there is also a significant effort to engage indigenous Australians in respectful ways. This is much more than a tokenistic acknowledgement of country but a commitment to sit at the feet of the elders of this country to learn what it means to be a person of faith in our land. This is done through bible studies led by indigenous elders, a welcome to country which includes responses that last for over an hour (and routinely reduce me to tears), and the Saturday night programme dedicated to hearing from Australia’s first people as they lead us in worship and teaching.

What Surrender is able to achieve with a lot of hard work and persistence is something that I deeply value as both a community development worker as well as a Baptist. It is the creation of an inclusive community that is able to hold together a variety of expressions and ideas. This is not in a narrow, politically-correct ideal but a hard fought practical glimpse of the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of. I am convinced that it is only when we struggle with the complexities, and at times the pain, of the holding together of differences within groups like this that we are indeed able to ‘have the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2.16).

My invitation to participate in the Body of Christ calls me to discover and express my own gifts within the community but it also requires me to ensure there is space for the unique offerings of my brothers and sisters. This at times requires the relinquishing of my comfort or control to allow those whose voices are often overlooked to be present and heard.

It is when I commit to working with others in this way that I resonate with the sentiments of Douglas Adams’ character, Dirk Gently, when he says, ‘I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere I needed to be’.

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.

On losing your soul: Tim Winton’s speech at the Palm Sunday Walk

Tim WintonLast Sunday, my daughter and I marched, together with a reported 15,000, in Melbourne’s Palm Sunday Walk for Justice4Refugees. Many thousands of others across the country were doing likewise. For a number of reasons I won’t name here, it was at once emboldening and disheartening.

And over in Perth, Tim Winton offered a great speech. It bears reposting, both in its written and spoken forms:

 

Palm Sunday commemorates the day an itinerant prophet spoke truth to power. Jesus of Nazareth arrived at the gates of Jerusalem in a parody of imperial pomp. But he was a nobody. Instead of a stallion, he rode up on a borrowed donkey. In place of an army, he had a bunch of lily-livered misfits throwing down their cloaks and palm branches as if he was a big shot.  Street theatre, if you like. And a week later he was dead. He was there to challenge the commonsense of the day. Armed with only an idea.

Jesus used to say things like this. If a child asks you for bread, will you give him a stone? Awkward things like that.

His followers called his idea The Way. Many of us are here today because the idea has stuck. We try to follow the Way of Peace and Love. Just another bunch of lily-livered misfits.

For generations, in communities all over the globe, Palm Sunday has been a day when people walk for peace and reconciliation. And not just Christians. People of every faith and of no faith at all come together as we have today in solidarity. To express our communal values and yearnings, the things that bind us rather than those that separate us.

We belong to a prosperous country, a place where prosperity and good fortune have made us powerful. Yes, whether we feel it or not, we are exceptionally powerful as individuals and as a community. We have the power of safety. We’re richer, more mobile, with more choices than most of our fellow citizens worldwide. Not because we’re virtuous, but because we’re lucky. But we don’t come here to gloat. We’re here to reflect. To hold ourselves to account. We didn’t come here today to celebrate power or to hide in its privileged shadow. We’re here to speak for the powerless. We’re not here to praise the conventions of the day, but to examine them and expose them to the truth. We’re not here to reinforce the status quo. We gather to dissent from it. To register our dismay at it. We’re here to call a spade a spade, to declare that what has become political common sense in Australia over the past 15 years is actually nonsense. And not just harmless nonsense; it’s vicious, despicable nonsense. For something foul is festering in the heart of our community, something shameful and rotten.

It’s a secret we don’t want to acknowledge. We hide it from ourselves. At times, it seems we’re content to have others hide it from us and for us. But we hide this dark secret at great cost. To faceless strangers. To innocent people. To powerless children.  We hide this dirty secret at a terrible cost to ourselves as individuals and as a community.

What secret are we hiding? Well, it’s awkward, and kind of embarrassing. You see, we’re afraid. Terrified. This big, brash wealthy country. We have an irrational phobia. We’re afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We’re even scared of their traumatised children. And if they flee their war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they’re twice as threatening. They send us into wild-eyed conniptions. As if they’re armed invaders. But these people arrive with nothing but the sweat on their backs and a crying need for safe refuge. Yet, they terrify us. So great and so wild is our fear, we can no longer see them as people, as fellow humans. First, we criminalised them. Then, we turned them into faceless objects. Cattle. Well, maybe that’s not quite right. You see we’re sentimental about cattle. Especially cattle on boats. We have values, you see, standards of decency. We hate to see suffering. We’re moved to pity.

But for someone seeking asylum, someone arriving by boat, this special species of creature called a “boat person”, the pity isn’t there. Pity is forbidden. All the usual standards are overturned. Their legal right to seek asylum is denied. They’re vilified as “illegals”. And their suffering is denied. As if they’re not our brothers and sisters. Yes, we hate suffering. But apparently their kind of suffering is no longer legitimate. And therefore, it’s no longer our problem. Our moral and legal obligations to help them are null and void.

Since August 2001, Australians have gradually let themselves be convinced that asylum seekers have brought their suffering and persecution and homelessness and poverty on themselves. Our leaders have taught us we need to harden our hearts against them. And how obedient we’ve been, how compliant we are, this free-thinking, high-minded egalitarian people.

We’re afraid. But the government has made them go away. They have stopped the boats. And spirited the victims away. Now, we don’t have to see their suffering. In fact, we’re not allowed to see it. They’re out of sight, and out of mind. And here at home, all is well, all is calm again. For the past few years, as traumatised people have fled towards safety, towards what they believed was a civilised and compassionate haven, our national peace of mind has been built upon the hidden, silent suffering of others.

And that, my friends, is what our elected representatives have done. Using the military, using warships. Using spin and deception in Parliament. Shielding its deeds from media scrutiny.  With the collusion of our poorer neighbours, the client states of Nauru and PNG. The political slogans have ground their way into our hearts and minds. The mantras of fear have been internalised. We can sleep at night because these creatures are gone. It wasn’t enough to turn these people away. We had to make them disappear.

So. All is well. Nothing to be afraid of any more. Until we find other poor people to be afraid of. Folks who are here already. Australians who are poor and powerless and, therefore, somehow troublesome, embarrassing, even dangerous. Because that’s the thing. Once you start the cycle of fear, there’s always someone new and different to be afraid of, some new group to crack down on.

But will we ever sleep easy? I wonder. Because there’ll always be the creeping suspicion that some poor person could be white-anting our prosperity, our privilege, our Australian specialness. Or maybe we won’t sleep because, deep in the back of our heads, somewhere in our spirit, we’ll feel a flicker of shame, a twinge of conscience. Maybe I caught a glimpse of a child’s face behind the wire. For a second, I saw a resemblance. Could have been my kid, my grandkid, the little girl next door. Just a kid. A face behind the wire.

My friends, we weren’t always this scared. We used to be better than this. I remember because I was a young man when we opened our arms and hearts to tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Australians were poorer then, more awkward, less well travelled as a people. And yet, we took pity on suffering humans. No cages, no secret gulags. We had these people in our homes and hostels and halls and community centres. They became our neighbours, our schoolmates, our colleagues at work. I was proud of my country, then, proud of the man who made it happen, Malcolm Fraser, whose greatness shames those who’ve followed him in the job. Those were the days when a leader drew the people up and asked the best of them and despite their misgivings, Australians rose to the challenge. And I want to honour his memory today.

It breaks my heart to say it, but fear has turned us. In the past 15 years, it’s eaten into our public spirit and made a travesty of our most sacred values, the very things we thought we stood for as a society: our sense of decency, fairness, justice, compassion, openness. In our own time, we have seen what is plainly wrong, what is demonstrably immoral, celebrated as not simply pragmatic but right and fair. It’s no accident that both mainstream political parties have pursued asylum seeker policies based on cruelty and secrecy. First, pandering to irrational public fear and then at the mercy of it. Because these policies are popular. I don’t deny it. It hurts me to acknowledge it. But it’s a fact. A hard-hearted response to the suffering of others has calcified and  become the common sense of our day.

We used to be better than this. I still believe we’re better than this.

So what’s happened to this country? I’m confused. I read the news. But as events unfold, I don’t always recognise my own people. This still looks like the country I was brought up in but it doesn’t always feel like it. You think mining royalties have had a dip? Well, spare a thought for the Fair Go. Because that currency has taken a flogging. There’s a punitive spirit abroad, something closer to Victorian England than the modern, secular, egalitarian country I love.

In the days of Charles Dickens, child labour was acceptable, respectable. It was common sense. So was the routine degradation of impoverished women. Charity was punitive. Until Victorian reformers like Dickens exposed the common sense of his era as brutal nonsense, the suffering of children was inconsequential. The poor were human garbage. They were fuel. Victorian England extracted energy and sexual pleasure from the faceless bodies of the poor. When they became a nuisance, they were exported, “offshored”. In chains. Some of these faceless, degraded people were our ancestors. Mine was an unaccompanied minor, a little boy. A boy consigned to oblivion. A boy without a face. I’ve been thinking of him lately. Public events have made it unavoidable.

And yet from this brutish convention, this hellish common sense, we made something new here in this country, something better. Where Jack was as good as his master. We turned away from the callous feudalism of the Old World and made this place a haven for decency. We granted everyone a face. Some, to our shame, later than others.

The face is the window of the soul. It’s the means by which we make ourselves known. To those of us of religious faith, it’s the means by which we recognise the Divine spark in each other, the presence of God. To those who aren’t religious, it’s the way we apprehend the sacred dignity of the individual. We present ourselves to one another face-to-face, as equals. When you rob someone of their face, of their humanity, you render them an object.

In this country, a nation built upon people fleeing brutes and brutality for 200 years, we have a tradition of fairness and decency and openness of which we’re rightly proud. Whether we’re inspired by the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan, the universal dignity of humankind, or the sanctity of the individual, we’ve always thought it low and cowardly to avert our gaze from someone in trouble or need, to turn our face from them as though they did not exist. When I was a kid, there were a few salty names for people like that. You didn’t want to be called out as one of those. That’s where our tradition of mateship comes from. Not from closing ranks against the outsider, but from lifting someone else up, helping them out, resisting the cowardly urge to walk by. It distinguished this country from the feudalism and patronage of the Old World. When the first boat people arrived in the late ’70s, we looked into their traumatised faces on the TV and took pity despite our misgivings.

Now, of course, we don’t see faces. And that’s no accident. The government hides them from us. In case we feel the pity that’s only natural. Asylum seekers are rendered as objects, creatures, cargo, contraband, and criminals. And so, quite deliberately, the old common sense of human decency is supplanted by a new consensus. Built on hidden suffering, maintained by secrecy. Cordoned at every turn by institutional deception. This, my friends, is the new common sense. According to this new dispensation, Australia does not belong to the wider world. We’re nobody’s fool. We have no obligations to our fellow suffering humans. Unless it suits us. Because we are exceptional. And beyond reproach. It seems we are set to distinguish ourselves by our callousness, by our unwavering hardness of heart. We will not be lectured to by outsiders. Or, come to think of it, by insiders, either. Not about human rights, not about torture, not about the incarceration of children. We will bully critics and whistleblowers into silence. We will smear them. We will shirtfront them.

Which is to say that we live now as hostages to our lowest fears. But to assent to this newly manufactured common sense is to surrender things that are sacred: our human decency, our moral right, our self-respect, our inner peace. To passively assent to this is to set out together on a road that leads to horrors, a path from which we must turn back before we lose our way entirely.

To those in power who say they’re exiling and caging children for their own good, I say we’ve heard that nonsense before. So, don’t do it in my name.

To those who say they’re prolonging misery to save life, I say I’ve heard that nonsense before. You don’t speak for me; I don’t recognise your perverse accountancy.

To those in power who say the means will justify the end, I say I’ve heard that nonsense before. It’s the tyrant’s lie. Don’t you dare utter it in my name.

To those who say this matter is resolved, I say no. For pity’s sake, no. For the love of God, no. A settlement built on suffering will never be settled. An economy built on cruelty is a swindle. A sense of comfort built upon the crushed spirits of children is but a delusion that feeds ghosts and unleashes fresh terrors.

If current refugee policy is common sense, then I refuse to accept it. I dissent. And many of my countrymen and women dissent alongside me. I don’t pretend to have a geopolitical answer to the worldwide problem of asylum seekers. Fifty million people are currently displaced by war and famine and persecution. I don’t envy those who make the decisions in these matters, those who’ve sought and gained the power to make decisions in this matter. I’m no expert, no politician. But I know when something’s wrong. And what my country is doing is wrong.

Prime Minister, forget the boats for a moment. Turn back your heart. Turn back from this path to brutality. Turn back from piling trauma upon the traumatised. Because it shames us. It grinds innocent people to despair and self-harm and suicide. It ruins the lives of children. Give these people back their faces, their humanity. Don’t avert your gaze and don’t hide them from us.

Because the secret won’t hold. It’s out already. There are witnesses. There will be testimony. We will remember. In another time, and very soon, I think, our common sense will be nonsense. And you’ll have to ask yourself, was it worth it? This false piece of mind, this stopping of the boats. Was it worth the price paid in human suffering? You’re not alone; the rest of us will have to face it, too.

Jesus said: “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world only to lose his soul?” And I wonder: What does it profit a people to do likewise, to shun the weak and punish the oppressed, to cage children, and make criminals out of refugees? What about our soul as a people?

We’re losing our way. We have hardened our hearts. I fear we have devalued the currency of mercy. Children have asked for bread and we gave them stones. So turn back. I beg you.  For the children’s sake. For the sake of this nation’s spirit. Raise us back up to our best selves. Turn back while there’s still time.

[Image: Marziya Mohammedali]

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.

‘Assembly’: a little poem

The good crew over at Grouch have published another one of my little poems. This one’s called ‘Assembly’, and you can check it out here.

Scripture’s reckoning with the tragic

Pete Cramblit, 'Cain slaying Abel'

Pete Cramblit, ‘Cain slaying Abel’

The Bible makes no effort at all to shy away from the tragic. From the story of creation’s genesis against the backdrop of primordial chaos to the seemingly-indiscriminate annihilation of life caused by a global flood, from the narratives of the primal couple’s decline into deathliness to the violent end of their son Abel, from the anamnesis of Job to Abraham’s near infanticide of Isaac, from the promise of a nation’s birth out of Sarah’s barren womb to Israel’s brutal creation from the bowels of cruel bondage in Egypt, from the violence that marked the retelling of Israel’s establishment in Canaan and their disestablishment at the time of the Babylonian exile to their life in Roman-occupied Palestine, from the murder of Israel’s prophets to the suicide of guilt-ridden Judas, from the despairing poetry of the psalmists and prophets to Herod’s most unpoetic massacre of the innocents, from the state-sanctioned murder of a blameless Christ to the cries of faithful martyrs hiding under the altar desperate for their blood to be avenged ‘on the inhabitants of the earth’ (Rev 6.10), the Bible’s narratives are inextricably and unavoidably bound up with suffering and faith and evil and death.

And its pages, rich in tragic tropes, offer no univocal attitude to suffering and evil (see, for example, the massive ­– nearly 900 pages! ­– volume edited by Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor, Theodicy in the World of the Bible: The Goodness of God and the Problem of Evil (Brill, 2003), nor consensus about their causes and purposes. Indeed, the various authors and redactors of its texts betray a smorgasbord of theologies and interpretations on this subject, as on most others.

While many modern believers seem to conclude that the greatest threat to life lies in sin, the Bible suggests that one of the most enduring threats to life is entirely out of our hands. It is the threat of the sea, the home of the great leviathan, and the perpetual menace of abyss that exists, as it were, on the edges of all that we can know and gain some semblance of control over. The Jews, a land-based people, were terrified by the sea, avoided travelling on it at all costs, especially if it meant sailing out of land’s sight. And they were mesmerised by the thought that anyone – let alone an unregistered rabbi with some shady character references – might be able to calm the chaos with mere speech. The promise in Revelation 21 of a new heaven and new earth bereft of sea is indeed good news for those who see in the sea abysmal and godless chaos threatening all that is good in God’s creation. I must confess, however, that being a fisherman I find the thought of a sea-less new creation to be gravely depressing, and any consideration that such a vision may represent a failure of creation’s God to bring into shalom all that God has made is to me an impasse beyond words. But then I wasn’t living on the coast of Japan on 11 March 2011 when a tsunami claimed the lives of nearly 16,000 people.

Part of the creation once described as ‘very good’ (Gen 1.31) ­– the seas and the ‘swarms of living creatures’ (Gen 1.20) in them – are, plainly, at least according to the account in Genesis, Elohim’s work. And ‘a wind (or breath or spirit) from Elohim’ (Gen 1.2) sweeps over them. Is this to hold back the mysterious threat, and to remind an ancient people that even the source of their greatest fears exists under the sovereign governance of God? Of course, God can also unleash this threat. Noah’s neighbours knew that, as did an Egyptian army in pursuit of slaves. And then there’s that extraordinary vision in Daniel 7, a passage very influential in early Christianity, a vision of ‘the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts [coming] up out of the sea’ to make war upon God’s people. Here, the sea has become again the dark, formidable, and belligerent place from which evil emerges, threatening the destruction of Yahweh’s covenant people as a tidal wave threatens those who live near the coast.

There is indeed mystery here – the ‘earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24.1) and ‘the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ (1 Jn 5.19) – and responsible theology proceeds in awareness of this antithetical texture of the Bible’s witness, finding there both the revelation of good and the enduring mystery of evil, and resisting there the temptation to iron out the rough sections or to reconcile them into an easy whole free of paradox. It is that which corresponds in some way to the three-day journey of Golgotha, Holy Saturday, and Easter.

We live ‘betwixt and between’. Our experience of this world, as Scripture testifies, is one marked by ambiguity, by inconsistency, by lives lived well and lives lived poorly in what the philosopher Gillian Rose famously referred to as ‘the broken middle’. We are ‘lost’, like Dante, ‘in a dark wood’ of sin, and waiting for grace. We live, as George Steiner puts it in his remarkable book Real Presences, in ‘the longest of days’, on Holy Saturday – in the space between the memory, trauma, and despair of Good Friday, and the expectant hope of Easter. So Kevin Taylor and Giles Waller: ‘The experience is neither one of nihilism, nor one of bland optimism. It is one in which we learn the difference between optimism and hope, in which we are only able to hope for the best by confronting the worst. As [Thomas] Hardy enjoined, “Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst” (‘In Tenebris II’)’.

[Image: Pete Cramblit, ‘Cain slaying Abel’]

Dorothee Sölle on apathy

Solle - YoungSome more on apathy, this time from Dorothee Sölle:

One wonders what will become of a society in which certain forms of suffering are avoided gratuitously, in keeping with middle-class ideals. I have in mind a society in which: a marriage that is perceived as unbearable quickly and smoothly ends in divorce; after divorce no scars remain; relationships between generations are dissolved as quickly as possible, without a struggle, without a trace; periods of mourning are ‘sensibly’ short; with haste the handicapped and sick are removed from the house and the dead from the mind. If changing marriage partners happens as readily as trading in an old car on a new one, then the experiences that one had in the unsuccessful relationship remain unproductive. From suffering nothing is learned and nothing is to be learned.

Such blindness is possible in a society in which a banal optimism prevails, in which it is self-evident that suffering doesn’t occur. It is part of this self-evident societal apathy that the suffering workers experience is not public, that the problems workers have do not attain the level of public awareness their frequency warrants. Then an inability to perceive suffering develops, not only one’s own, through indifference, but especially the suffering of others. The apathy that exists over against the Third World is to be attributed not only to manipulation by the mass media, which can latch on to the prevailing fear of communism and a latent approval of the exploitation of these ‘lazy’ countries. It is also to be seen as part of middle-class apathy in general, which does not even perceive its own pains.

People stand before suffering like those who are color-blind, incapable of perception and without any sensibility. The consequence of this suffering-free state of well-being is that people’s lives become frozen solid. Nothing threatens any longer, nothing grows any longer, with the characteristic pains that all growth involves, nothing changes. The painless satisfaction of many needs guarantees the attainment of a quiet stagnation. Boredom spreads if the attainment of that for which one hoped no longer drives one on to a newer, greater hope. Swedish socialism, a pragmatic kind of social system without a utopian vision impelling it on, represents a state of built-in freedom from suffering, which nevertheless produces the highest suicide rate in the world.

In the equilibrium of a suffering-free state the life curve flattens out completely so that even joy and happiness can no longer be experienced intensely. But more important than this consequence of apathy is the desensitization that freedom from suffering involves, the inability to perceive reality. Freedom from suffering is nothing other than a blindness that does not perceive suffering. It is the no longer perceived numbness to suffering. Then the person and his circumstances are accepted as natural, which even on the technological level signifies nothing but blind worship of the status-quo: no disruptions, no involvement, no sweat.

Then walls are erected between the experiencing subject I and reality. One learns about the suffering of others only indirectly – one sees starving children on TV – and this kind of relationship to the suffering of others is characteristic of our entire perception. We seldom experience even the suffering and death of friends and relatives physically and directly. We no longer hear the death rattle and the moaning. We no longer touch the warmth and coldness of the sick body. The person who seeks this kind of freedom from suffering quarantines himself in a germ free location where dirt and bacteria cannot touch him, where he is by himself, even if this ‘by himself’ includes a little family. The desire to remain free from suffering, the retreat into apathy, can be a kind of fear of contact. One doesn’t want to be touched, infected, defiled, drawn in. One remains aloof to the greatest possible extent, concerns himself with his own affairs, isolates himself to the point of dull-wittedness.