Next week, Dunedin will host Professor Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger. During her stay, she will deliver a public lecture (details below). If her books on pastoral care be any guide, this will be a ‘Do Not Miss’ event. If you are in Dunedin, I strongly encourage you to come along and, in the meantime, to help spread the word.
Each year, the Theological School at Whitley College hosts a Religious Art Prize, each time around a different theme (this year’s theme was ‘Love and Justice’). I am absolutely delighted to learn that this year’s prize was awarded to Libby Byrne. Libby is an art therapist and theologian who is currently working on her PhD in theology. I had the privilege of serving on her PhD confirmation panel, a context through which I learnt more about her and her work, and about what is shaping up to be a very exciting and boundary-pressing piece of doctoral study. Libby also contributed a very fine chapter to the edited volume ‘Tikkun Olam’ – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts, about which I wrote the following:
Libby Byrne’s essay explores the premise that the artist’s calling is to ‘live close to the wound’. Locating this contention within the nexus that seems to exist between art, theology and philosophy, she argues that we are able to consider the prevailing conditions required for the artist to work toward the task of mending that which is broken, and, drawing on theory from Matthew Del Nevo and Rowan Williams, Byrne helps us understand the importance of melancholy and vulnerability in the sacramental work of human making. She provides examples of how this theory may work in practice with particular reference to the work of Anselm Kiefer and finally with her own studio practice, reminding us that it takes courage to choose to live and work close to our wounds, and also that by so doing the artist not only opens themselves to the possibility of transformation but also offers to others gifts that reverberate within the world and that call us to healing and wholeness.
Hearty congratulations Libby!
A hundred jobs half-done;
And half-remembered thoughts hover just beyond recall
Of things to do.
Scribbled names on
Scraps of paper
Remind of calls
That interrupted previous attempts
To beat the chaos.
Lists bring some order
And lend respite
From sense of failure.
Resolution to complete
At least one task
Becomes today’s compulsion.
I click my mouse
Open my spreadsheet
Gather my thoughts
to task at hand
and start again.
The phone rings …
– by Catherine van Dorp, 15 October 2014.
Recently, James Alison was in Rome speaking at The Ways of Love conference. He gave what was a characteristically stimulating, courageous, constructive, and timely lecture titled ‘Towards Global Inclusion of LGBT People Within Catholic Communities’. I repost it here:
I’d like to ask you to join me as we imagine ourselves as participants in a familiar scene from Scripture. The scene is from Acts 10, but imagined from a small distance: looking back a week or so after the events that are described. We are in the house of the Roman Centurion Cornelius, in Caesarea. Maybe we are family members, maybe servants or slaves. Along with Cornelius, we have long been accustomed to being second-class citizens in the house of God. When we accompany our master to the Synagogue, we are called “God-fearers” and are allowed to attend and follow the worship from a carefully separated space. This is because while we know the one God of Israel to be true, and we follow with attention the preachers of Moses, we have not fully converted. So we have not been circumcised if we are male, nor have we taken on board the full yoke of Moses’ law with its observances and commandments.
We attend, then, aware that we are considered impure, and not to be touched. We are often treated with courtesy, and even genuine friendliness by the insiders, though this is invariably tinged with a certain distance and condescension, as befits dealings with those who are not true insiders, and so can’t really be full participants in what it’s all about.
But last week something weird happened. Cornelius had sent three of us to Joppa to invite someone called Peter to visit us. Peter had accepted the invitation, and had actually come into our house, which was, in itself, an oddity, since he was religiously observant, and not a Gentile like us. It wasn’t some mistake: he was quite strong-minded about it, telling us boldly that even though we knew it to be unlawful “for a Jew to associate with, or visit a Gentile” he had become convinced that “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
When invited by Cornelius to speak, Peter began by telling us that he truly understood “that God shows no partiality, but in every people anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Then he told us about a message of peace that had been sent to Israel, one about which we had, in fact, heard some sketchy accounts before. This message had been sent through someone called Jesus, the Anointed One. It turned out that Peter was a friend of this Jesus, from Nazareth, who had been a prophet full of works of power. This man had been put to death as a seditious blasphemer, as if under a curse from God. But God, by raising Jesus from the dead, had shown that the so-called curse, which we had all heard read from the Torah of Moses, had nothing to do with Him. And Jesus had been seen since then by many of the people who had accompanied him beforehand. Indeed had eaten and drunk with them. It had become clear that he had been the long-awaited fulfilment of a series of prophecies, even though he’d fulfilled them in a way no one could possibly have expected. Having been treated by the religiously observant as someone worthy of condemnation, in fact he had turned out to be acting entirely with God’s approval. In this way, by his vindication, he up-ended much of the received way of understanding God among the religiously observant of his people.
Well, it wasn’t clear that Peter had fully grasped the bit he mentioned about God showing no partiality, since he seemed to think, at least at the beginning, that he was telling us something about Israel. And certainly the guys he’d brought with him hadn’t grasped it at all. Yet, as Peter talked, we all found ourselves on the inside of a great movement of the Spirit, praising God and talking in strange languages. We were all astounded, especially the guys who’d come with Peter, since they had seen this before, but among the circumcised. They just couldn’t believe that this was also happening among us second-class citizens.
And yet, as the scene developed, it became clear that what Peter had said about God showing no partiality among peoples, and God telling him not to call anyone impure or profane, was actually true, far truer than Peter himself had seemed to understand at first. We were finding ourselves insiders in this movement of the Spirit just as he and they were, and on absolutely the same terms of equality, without any distinction. What was even more astounding to all of us was how this then led Peter to tell his colleagues to baptize us.
We’d heard a bit about this sign: on being baptized, some among the circumcised people had found themselves sharing in some sort of being involved in Jesus’ life and death. They had discovered themselves emboldened to be sons and daughters of God, becoming part of a priestly people Jesus had inaugurated in his life and death: a priestly people that was in fact the fulfilment of what Israel had always been called to be. And Peter, there in our master´s house, suddenly recognized that the substance of what Baptism was about had evidently manifested itself among us who were Gentiles. How, then, could he withhold the sign from us? So he told his companions to baptize us with water. And we were amazed to find ourselves insiders in the life of God, sharers in God´s holiness, without any distinction based on any of Peter’s, or our own, previous understanding of what was needed to be an insider in the life of God.
Well, each one of us was as shocked as the person next to them: the first-class citizens finding themselves on the same level as us, with all their purity and sense of separateness deflated, and having to overcome a certain repugnance about dealing with people like us; and the second class citizens having to get used to taking ourselves seriously and behave as sons and daughters, rather than dirty servant children who had a sort of built in excuse for impurity.
As you can imagine, word of this got out pretty quickly. Some of Peter’s more scrupulous friends and colleagues were quite upset, and thought that Peter, who had a reputation for being impetuous, had been in some sense frivolous or cheap in having acted as he did. So Peter had to explain himself to them in Jerusalem. Luckily, he didn’t buckle. Even though there was a great pressure on him to backpedal and to apologize for what he had done (thus saving the face of those who really need there to be people like us, so that they can feel special). In fact he told them all quite clearly: “The Spirit told me to go with them and not make a distinction between them and us.” He also described how the Holy Spirit had fallen on us all while he talked, and how he had realized that “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” That gave the scrupulous cause to ponder, and little by little they began to realize that even we could be included inside the same gift of forgiveness as they, with the life that flows from it.
Well, that was a few days ago…we’re still waiting to see what the consequences are, what it’s going to look like for us all to be co-insiders in the House of God, sons and daughters with equal dignity, all sharing in a priesthood whose single purity requirement is of the heart. It’ll be interesting to see: will they drop their ritual food law for us? Will they treat our family structures as equal to theirs in terms of what counts as proper marriage? What will they make of us not having to be circumcised, not having to keep all the commandments that make up their purity code? And what will we make of the freedom of finding ourselves first class citizens, insiders, daughters and sons, not servants or outsiders in the life of God, but starting just as we are. What will be the shape of the holiness that is coming upon us?
I think this account gives a sense of where we find ourselves as LGBT Catholics at this moment, and I would like to develop with you four points that flow from it.
A Matter of Basic Christianity
First, owing to what we have been through over the last years as LGBT Catholics, it has become clearer and clearer to us what the shockwaves emanating from Jesus’ death and resurrection were really about. Jesus in his teaching and by his powerful signs had borne witness to God who had nothing to do with a purity code, no tolerance for any religious exercises, such as sacrifices, that replaced or got in the way of the reconciliation between human beings that he longed to bring about. He did, however, have a very great deal of interest in those considered unacceptable by the society of his day. Eventually he was considered blasphemous and seditious by a confluence of the religious and the civil authorities, and he was murdered. His murder was carried out in such a way as for him to fall under the officially designated curse of God.
The fact of his resurrection was much more than the demonstration of the existence of an afterlife, something many of his contemporaries believed in any case. It was the vindication from on high that the whole of the religious and political structure that had put him to death was under judgment from God. In other words, that he, Jesus, who had looked, to all extents and purposes, like a blasphemous and seditious transgressor, had been telling the truth about who God is in his teaching. This means that anyone at all, from any nation under the sun, who can perceive that he or she has been in some way involved in the sort of false and violent construction of goodness or badness which Jesus up-ended, can be forgiven for this, and so can enter into participating in the life of the Living God without any special external markings.
It is because of this that there is, formally speaking, no Christian religious law from outside us. The Image of Himself that God gave us in Jesus was not that of a Lawmaker, but that of the self-giving Victim of both civil and religious lawmakers. Given this self-definition of God, no definition of people derived from the outside of who they are, and which might make them pure or impure, sacred or profane, could stand. Instead there is only the understanding that starting exactly from where we are, exactly as we are, we are invited to become daughters and sons of God, insiders in God’s house. What God calls good is not some external definition, pleasing some lawgiver, but what is good for us. That which is human is loved, and is stretched through love into sharing in the life of God. It is not in our lopping off bits of ourselves, psychologically or physically, that we are saved: in spite of ourselves, by agreeing to jump through certain hoops, as it were. Rather, it is in our discovering and becoming who we were really meant to be all along, that we come to reflect the glory of our Creator. This, instead of the much-diminished version of ourselves that we had somehow got caught up in, and from which Jesus’ death and resurrection shocks us into freedom.
But this has been exactly our experience as LGBT Catholics over the last thirty or so years. It has become clearer and clearer, until it is now overwhelmingly clear, that what used to seem like a self-evident description of us was in fact mistaken. We were characterized as somehow defective, pathological, or vitiated straight people; intrinsically heterosexual people who were suffering from a bizarre and extreme form of heterosexual concupiscence called “same-sex attraction.” That description, which turned us, in practice, into second-class citizens in God’s house, is quite simply false. It turns out that we are blessed to be bearers of a not particularly remarkable non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. And that our daughterhood and sonship of God comes upon us starting as we are, with this variant being a minor but significant stable characteristic of who we are. One, furthermore, which gives gracious shape to who we are to be. Of course, that daughterhood, that sonship, turns the characteristic into something more as we overcome the concupiscence that is proper to us all as humans, developing and humanizing our capacity to love so that we become ever fuller sharers in the life of God.
And this means something quite significant: the only way a teaching can genuinely be Catholic is if it is bringing to mind something that really is the case about the human beings in question. Thus, the moment it becomes clear that what used to seem like an accurate description of who we are, a description which imagined that it sought our good, is not in fact accurate, but quite simply mistaken, then at that very moment it ceases to be possible to maintain that the teaching that flows from that description is Catholic. For the Catholic teaching follows the discovery of what the Creator shows us really is.
In other words, as in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit does not wait for Peter’s permission before starting to produce sons and daughters of God. Quite the reverse. In fact Peter finds himself learning that what he had thought to be something true about God´s holiness and the necessity of abiding by the Book of Leviticus in order to enter into that holiness, was not the case. As he undergoes this learning, so the purity code becomes relativized, coming to be received as a non-binding series of taboos: ways of defining people from the outside rather than saying anything about who they are starting from themselves.
And this is exactly where we find ourselves: without it being the case that there is anything at all that Peter and his companions can do to stop it. As the Creator has made abundantly clear to us what really is the case, through the normal, Spirit-inspired human process of learning about Creation by which we enter as insiders into God’s Wisdom, so the teaching concerning us being bearers of an objective disorder inclining us to intrinsically evil acts has revealed itself to be a taboo, thus not from God, and so not a proper part of Catholic teaching.
Catholicity, Rather than Inclusion
My second point is to try and draw out some consequences of this. You asked me to speak to the title “Towards Global Inclusion of LGBT people within Catholic communities,” and yet the theological approach which I offer you is not really about inclusion of LGBT people within Catholic communities, any more than Acts 10 was about the inclusion of Gentiles within Jewish communities: a cap-in-hand exercise in which second-class citizens request, and are given humble places at a first class table. No. What we have instead is the somewhat amazing realisation that, exactly in the degree to which it has become clear that we are simply the bearers of a not particularly remarkable non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, in that moment, as we find ourselves seeking the Lord, we are found to be bearers of Catholicity on terms of equality with everyone else. Catholicity gets to be redefined, through no merits of our own, by the objective element of humanity that we bring to the table simply being present as such.
Why is this important? Because it means that it is not we who find ourselves adapting to someone else’s house-rules. All those in the house find ourselves adapting to the fact that, together with Peter, we are all learning something new about being human And that all our understanding of good and bad, insider and outsider is going to change because of this. The process is obviously much more painful and difficult, at least initially, for those who had a strong stake in promoting a form of public goodness in which we were bit-players, as necessary examples of what was wrong. And much more joyful for those of us who are finding that after all we have been telling the truth. It is not the case, as we were so often told, that we are simply being particularly self-indulgent, or that our love is harmful to others, or that we are crazy to think that we are normal, or that we have been misled by hedonism and relativism into purely subjective, unrealistic desires that are part of some dehumanising trap.
Please notice what happens as this work of the Spirit becomes evident, as our participation as joint bearers of Catholic truth-telling becomes apparent. First of all, there is rage and hatred from those who had a strong investment in what had seemed to be from God, but turned out to be just another idolatrous taboo demanding sacrifice. These people need help and mercy, our magnanimity rather than our resentment. Above all, we should not seek to provoke them or scandalize them, tempting though it be. Next there is something rather subtler, which I think we should look at carefully. This comes from those who are not full of rage, but who have a love for the old wineskins. These people wish to say something like “Well yes, we see that there has been a problem with how the Church has handled gay people in the past. And none of us want to continue with that. However the Church has a right, in tolerant, multicultural societies not to allow itself to be defined by what is in fact true about human beings. Instead we insist on the right to be able to keep alive our own, pious ways of doing things without interference.”
But here’s the trouble: the moment people head down that path they are refusing Catholicity and creating a church in their own image. Because they are turning the Catholic Church into a group defined by certain house rules, which are independent of reality. In other words, they are recreating a form of holiness that is over against others considered to be impure or profane. This is a regression to Second-Temple Judaism. At the very moment people do this, they automatically exclude themselves from the Catholicity of the Church, for they are seeking to turn it not into God’s sign of God’s longing for all humans to be reconciled with God through Jesus, but instead into their own sign of their own longing for a particular group with a strong group identity and carefully defined boundaries concerning who is in and who is out.
So please, I beg you, don’t, out of some misguided courtesy, think that such people define what Catholicity is. Catholicity is defined by God alone, as God shocks us by breaking down all our socially and culturally constructed barriers, by leading us into truth about our being Jesus’ brothers and sisters, creating equal-heartedly a way of being human together that doesn’t call for any form of comparison, one that flows from the Crucified One who forgives us.
Another slight variant on this theme comes from those who say: “Yes, there is something wrong with the way the church has handled LGBT people, but you shouldn’t be in a hurry to change anything. Let the hierarchy organize, in a proper and peaceful manner, any change that must be made.” That is to say, those who can’t even bring themselves to recognize publicly that we have been telling the truth, and they have been binding our consciences based on a taboo, are insisting on managing a change towards truthfulness on their own schedule. They should be so lucky! This is not how the Spirit of God works, as the account from Acts makes clear. The Spirit leads us into all truth, kicking, protesting, shocked and dishevelled, by insisting on producing boldness of speech in season and out, when it is convenient and when it is not. And those who are most shocked and come running along last are those who think that any change should be managed by them on their terms, preferably without their losing face by having to admit that they too need forgiveness.
No, truthfulness does not wait for the convenience of those wedded to untruth before peeking out. Itbreaks out, as if from captivity, bearing witness to the One who sent it to run wild among us, and takes us on a giddy, and ultimately joyful ride. The Spirit does bring the peace that comes with truth, but not by following the schedule of those whose fear would hold it back. Peter was truly Petrine in listening to the Spirit and recognizing he had been wrong about what makes for holiness. It was in doing so that he became a precarious-seeming centre of unity who was in fact a Rock, while all the forces of reaction sought to buffet him about. Neither he, nor his colleagues, set the agenda or the timetable.
Preparation for Evangelization
My third point is: what does this say about our life in different cultures? One of the things people say is: “All this about LGBT people is a decadent Western value and we should defend ourselves against it.” But the people they are defending themselves against are not decadent westerners, but their own brothers and sisters, Ugandans, Nigerians, Iranians, Russians, Saudis, Jamaicans. These are our sisters and brothers who have discovered something true about themselves, and about their capacity for love, and know that what is true makes sense to them. And here is what is remarkable: this discovering of something that is true is working in exactly the way that the Gospel said it would, and following just the dynamic of the Spirit that flows upon us from Jesus. And yet bizarrely, Christian leaders of all denominations are joining together with leaders of other religious organisations, ones that not only do not know of the Holy Spirit, but are in some cases adamantly opposed to the existence and enlivening effect of any such thing. Such leaders would rather fence themselves round with all the trappings of “religion” than spread the Good News of the One who has relativized all religious formalities in order to bring us into a new humanity starting from the rejected and precarious.
But this means that we LGBT Catholics can step into the forefront of the evangelization that Pope Francis has asked us to, and we can do so as delighted and joyful recipients of this new humanity. We, as well as anyone, know how the Spirit of God humanizes us, not destroying culture, but defanging it from all that is violent and destructive of who humans are called to be. We know that thanks to Jesus there is no such thing as religiously pure or impure food, there are no such things as religiously mandated forms of mutilation, genital or otherwise. We know that only culture, and never God, has demanded the veiling and covering of the glory of the head and hair of women. We know that the same Spirit that taught us these things, making available to us what is genuinely true, has enabled us to discover the graced banality of our minority variant condition, allowing it to be the shape of our love that turns us into witnesses of God’s goodness as we are stretched out towards those who are genuinely suffering from terrible injustice and deprivation.
This does not merely mean that we are able to pass on a piece of information to others. It means that we are bearers of Catholicity in our flesh. We have found ourselves prepared to be bearers of the Gospel precisely because of this most Catholic of things: we have been intimately part of the process of self-critical correction of culture which is how the Spirit keeps the church faithful and alive. So in each culture in which we live we are thus in a great position to help our sisters and brothers undo the quite local and particular taboos, violence, and structures which masquerade as being of God, but are in fact the work of idols. Who would have thought that it would be LGBT Catholics who could bear witness to the freshness of the Gospel, the way it brings creation alive, even the value of natural law, not as a trap but as an adventure? Talk about the stone that the builders rejected!
Holiness, Speech and Witness
My final point. What is the shape of the holiness that is coming upon us? The most debilitating effect of the taboo under which we have labored is not that it prohibited certain sexual acts. That has never held many of us back. Not even, as has become abundantly clear, many of those who took on the burden of some sort of formal commitment to avoid such acts. No, the debilitating effect of the taboo, as of any infection by idolatry, is that it damages the imagination, making it impossible to imagine the good. When our concupiscence was falsely defined as an objectively disordered form of heterosexual desire, then of course all of our acts were as bad as each other, and we had no incentive to humanize them. “No snacking between meals” might be a useful instruction if it teaches people to prepare for enjoying the next meal better. But “no snacking between meals, and in your case, no meal either” is a sure recipe for binge- snacking.
But now, thank heavens, we are beginning to discover what might be the shape of the meal, or meals, towards which it might be worth ordering our appetites. So please, as part of our discovering the shape of the holiness that is coming upon us, now that we are no longer second class citizens with a resentful victimary excuse for our lack of dignity, let us allow our imaginations to be enlivened by the Spirit. We are already discovering some of the ways in which we can share in Christ’s self-giving towards others – civil marriage, adoption of children, and in some cases freely chosen singleness of life. (This latter was, of course, impossible under the teaching of the taboo – we used to be taught that we had no option but to be celibate, and thus the option was not really free, since it was not leaving a good for a good, but avoiding an evil which it was our solemn duty to avoid anyhow). In what other ways are we going to discover what we are called to become as a blessing for others?
Here is a hint: let us not allow this holy work of the enlivened imagination to be overshadowed by those who would rather have the discussion without addressing the question of whether we are in fact objectively disordered or not. In the New Testament, no one who insisted that the Gentiles needed to be circumcized in order to be saved had anything genuine to offer in the discussion concerning appropriate shapes of holiness among the baptised Gentiles. Just so, no one who is unable to concede the legitimacy, the potential for purity, of our loving flowing from who we are, is able to offer genuine help in our working out of what sort of marriage or adoption laws are appropriate for us, let alone what the appropriate forms of liturgy might be.
Many religious authorities in different countries try to hide behind the claim that in “defending Marriage” they are not doing or saying anything about or against gay and lesbian people. If they are honest in this, then let them show that their own conscience is not bound by taboo. Let them clearly renounce the notion that gay people in partnership, about whom they claim they are not talking, are ipso facto indulging an objective disorder, are impenitent practitioners of grave sin, and thus would be seeking to sanctify something that can never be approved. Once these authorities have shown that their conscience is free, and thus that there is, in their understanding, no rivalry between the form of flourishing proper to heterosexuals in marriage, and what might turn out to be the appropriate forms of flourishing for us, then, by all means, they may have something genuinely helpful to offer us all. Because they will legitimately be able to contemplate something of how, in our case, as in theirs, grace perfects nature. Something, that is, which flows from who we are, rather than in spite of what we are. However, for as long as their allegiance is to the taboo, they can be no judges of our flourishing.
No, the truthfulness and peace, the zest for the real, that come with the consciousness of being a daughter or a son: only these dare birth the imagination of the arduous good that is coming upon us. An arduous good to which we may justly aspire, and in the working out of which we hope to be found. The boldness that flows from being able to speak truthfully out of an unbound conscience is not an extrinsic add-on to being Christian. It is intrinsic to what being Christian is all about. It leads to being able to bear witness, without which there is no Christianity. For us linguistic animals, being able to talk cleanly and openly is essential to being able to live cleanly and openly. It is as we talk and share with each other the experiences of love and of becoming that we will discover in our relationships who we are called to be.
Here we are, gathered in the city of Peter. Let us ask for the prayers of Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles, who was not afraid to call Peter out for backsliding, and who taught us: “Omnia munda mundis”—all things are pure for those who are pure. St Paul the Apostle, pray for us.
[The image, ‘Peter in the House of Cornelius, Acts 10:1–48′, is taken from The Official King James Bible Online. I figured that if the KJV was good enough for the Apostle Paul, then it’s good enough for the blog too.]
Some moons ago, the Global Mission Office (GMO) of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) kindly invited me to write a little theology of mission. I was very pleased to do so. The wee piece, which has since been elevated to being an official statement of the GMO, seeks to not only bear witness to the ground and end of mission in the triune life (a subject I’ve posted on before) but also to relate this history to what the PCANZ refers to as its ‘five faces of mission’ – to work with others to make Jesus Christ known:
- Through proclamation of the gospel
- Through the nurture and teaching of people in the Christian faith
- Through response to human need in loving service
- Through seeking to transform society
- Through care for creation
You can read the statement here.
Jason A. Goroncy, Hallowed By Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). ISBN: 9780567066824; xvi + 291pp.
‘My debt of gratitude to you is not nominal, but a real thing’, the nineteenth-century Congregationalist preacher James Baldwin Brown wrote to Thomas Carlyle, recalling how the experience of reading the latter’s 1836 novel Sartor Resartus had led him to abandon his legal studies for the pulpit. ‘To the course of study and thought to which the meditations of that period have led me, I owe it that I am not a member of a purely worldly profession for which I was then educating’, Brown confessed, ‘but a preacher of the living Word, into the proclamation of which I can at any rate throw as much earnestness and life as I have in myself’. By all accounts, Brown – ‘the greatest Independent of our times’, Peter Taylor Forsyth would later declare – had a great deal of earnestness and life in him, making him a highly attractive figure to a young man whose own reputation for ‘ethical passion, spiritual insight, intellectual grasp, and personal piety’ (to quote from Forsyth’s eulogy of his former pastor) would by the end of the century eclipse his own.
Having graduated with first-class honours in Classical Literature at the University of Aberdeen, where he was known for his proclivity to grandiloquence as much as for his remarkable intellectual capability (and where also he came under the influence of the Professor of Logic, and founder of the philosophy journal Mind, Alexander Bain), Forsyth had taken up William Robertson Smith’s suggestion that he should spend a semester in Göttingen listening to Albrecht Ritschl, then at the height of his influence. As Jason Goroncy shows in his marvellous study of Forsyth’s treatment of sanctification, he would never discard the most important lesson he had learnt from that theologian, namely, that ‘Positive Christianity… is Christianity which recognizes the primacy of the moral in the shape of life, and of holy life’. Neither would he shake off his teacher’s deep suspicion of metaphysical speculation, which following Kant, both Ritschl and Forsyth treated as not only beyond our ken but as ultimately destructive of moral seriousness. A ‘metaphysic of things’, Forsyth would claim in an article published in 1914, is ‘merely shells of ruined towers that let heaven be seen through their cracks rather than their windows’. ‘God has given men feet not wings, and the order is fight not flight’, he would exclaim in a sermon on Psalm 55.6 and Jeremiah 9.2. ‘We reach heaven step by step, fighting all the way. What we need most of all for this life is the courage of the prosaic’. There was little, however, that was prosaic about Forsyth’s prose, which contemporaries described as volcanic. One declared him the ‘Ibsen of British theology’, and he would later be called, no less felicitously, theology’s Browning. ‘What a mental energy he had!’, a friend and disciple would write to Forsyth’s daughter after his death. ‘There was something demonic in it’, which helped to explain the difficulty of a style which, like Brown’s, bore indelibly the marks of ‘the man himself and his passion’.
It is no disparagement of Forsyth’s theological genius to note the extent to which his moral imagination was shaped by a nineteenth-century romantic tradition that can be traced back through Kant to Rousseau. Yet it is not the least virtue of Goroncy’s study that while he shows Forsyth drawing upon the neo-Kantianism of Ritschl and Wilhelm Windelbrand, the literature of Carlyle and Lord Tennyson, the music of Wagner, the Maurician tendencies of Brown, he also attends to the influence of quite different traditions. Forsyth’s intellectual debts are difficult to identify because he hardly ever identifies them himself, but Goroncy is surely right to suggest that the sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin, the seventeenth-century puritan Thomas Goodwin, and the late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century biblical scholar Adolf Schlatter all figure prominently in the background to his thought. Perhaps the greatest influence of all on Forsyth’s moral and theological vision was scripture itself, which he studied assiduously and with the aid of the resources of higher criticism. A third of his considerable library was in German, and much of this consisted of commentaries on scripture. As with Windelbrand and Calvin, Ritschl and Goodwin, Forsyth keeps his debts to biblical scholarship close to his chest, but the depth of his engagement with scripture can be seen indirectly – for example, in his claim that no one should talk about theology in public until they had mastered the New Testament. This was a tall order, but one that Forsyth had evidently met himself, since he often talked about theology in public, not least in the sad controversy with R. J. Campbell, during which he had to point out how theologically out of his depth Campbell was. Forsyth was also an extraordinarily good preacher who spoke to people who knew what extraordinarily good preaching looked like and so had very high expectations. Some of those best qualified to judge such matters claimed, after hearing him, that he had exceeded their expectations. Some still recalled the power of a particular sermon decades after the fact. In all of the sermons he gave he was meditating upon scripture, and he would have spent hours consulting his German commentaries in preparation.
Although Forsyth remained committed to the conviction that ‘the moral is the real’, he would come to reject Ritschl’s gospel as ‘unevangelical’. In so doing he was rejecting the liberal Protestantism which was becoming increasingly attractive to late nineteenth-century Congregationalists partly because it promised to assuage Victorian anxieties about holiness. ‘Tired of moral precepts and attitudes which represented Christianity as “just human nature at its best”, and God’s kingdom as “just our natural spirituality and altruism developed”’, Forsyth, writes Goroncy, accused ‘his generation of succumbing to cheap comforts, or muffling the moral note, of seeking a form of idealized Christianity divorced from a historic and perennial Christ and of interpreting sin “in a softer light than God’s”’. The accusations could themselves sound like a form of Victorian moralism but for the fact that they were based upon its inversion. The Victorians conceived of holiness as a human quality, and one to be construed in negative terms. For Forsyth, this negative idea of holiness, ‘cloistered and feeble’, was not something that had come from Christ. Neither was holiness, in the first instance, a property of human beings. Holiness was, he claims in The Cruciality of the Cross (1909), ‘God’s very essence and nature: changeless and inexorable’. Of course, this insight was not, according to Forsyth, one purchased by speculative thought, but was instead disclosed in ‘the central act and achievement of God and of history in the Cross of Christ’, which he calls the ‘continuous evangelical centre’. It is at that centre that sin is revealed for what it really is – not simply a transgression of an abstract law which God might in his mercy overlook, or even forgive at no cost to himself, but rather a protest against the absolute holiness of God, and so an assault upon and threat to God’s being. In the light of the cross, there can be no question of God letting sinners off the hook, as it were, because what is at stake is not a principle that God can set aside, but God himself. ‘The holy God must go out in judgment against all that mocks and flaunts holiness because God’s Godhead is at stake’, Goroncy writes, ‘and because God is committed to hallowing all things’. That God’s being is in question here is not unrelated to the divine commitment to hallow all things: in effect, these are two sides of the same coin. The very nature of God is holy love, and when God creates the world he calls into being creatures who are sustained by – and who must answer to – God’s own ‘hungering holiness’. It is this holiness that ‘constitutes and directs all being, binding a coherent universe in such a way as all remigrates to its source in God’. When human beings refuse this creative holiness, it is not some kind of abstract moral order conceived independently of God that is put at risk, but the one who is committed by virtue of his very being to hallowing all things. To pray ‘hallowed by thy name’ is to recognise that what sin places at stake is God’s being itself.
It was Hegel who had claimed in his Philosophy of Religion that ‘God cannot find satisfaction through anything other than Himself, but only through Himself’, although this was an insight that already had a long history within the Christian tradition by the time that Hegel came to it. Anselm of Canterbury, for instance, had insisted that the debt incurred by sin could only be satisfied by God himself. But while Forsyth drew upon Anselm’s account of the atonement in Cur Deus Homo, he is sceptical of what Paul Fiddes calls the eleventh-century archbishop’s ‘excessive objectivity’, preferring more ethical and personal categories to Anselmic jurisprudence. Certainly, Forsyth moves far beyond Anselm when he speaks, as he does in The Pulpit and the Age (1885), of ‘[t]he living God’ as ‘the dying God’ and of ‘the Eternal principle of Eternal life’ as ‘always and only possible even to God by Eternal Death’. As Goroncy points out, the debt to Hegel is clearly evident when Forsyth contends that in the death of Christ, God makes death part of his own eternal life, and so (to quote Hegel) ‘comes to Himself’. While it might seem as if such talk of divine ‘self-realisation’, of God finding or coming to himself, which is intrinsic to Forsyth’s reading of the cross as divine theodicy, risks reducing the atonement to an exercise in divine solipsism, one of the great strengths of Forsyth’s account of God’s ‘hungering holiness’ is that it effectively rules out such suggestions. God’s regard for the holiness of his name – for, that is, the integrity of his very being – is a regard also and at the same time for human beings. If the atonement is divine self-reconciliation, its work is not done, Goroncy notes, ‘until there is created a “reciprocal communion” between humanity and God’.
‘The great theologies are epics’, Forsyth would write in The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909). This seems as good a description of Forsyth’s own theology as any. It is usual for scholars to comment upon the unsystematic quality of his work. Nothing could be more wrong-headed. Forsyth’s writing is certainly occasional, each essay, sermon, lecture, and book called forth by some specific need. But his moral and theological – and by now it should be clear why the distinction should not be pressed too hard – vision is highly coherent. Like Calvin, Forsyth gives us ‘a gospel deep enough’ with ‘all the breadth of the world in its heart’, as must any theologian who knows what they are about. Unlike Calvin, Forsyth’s theology demands that he takes the word ‘breadth’ with a kind of ultimate – one might even say metaphysical – seriousness. In his final chapter, Goroncy shows that everything, or everything that matters, about Forsyth’s doctrine of sanctification necessitates a commitment to universalism. The cross is where ‘all things are (so to say) tied up’, Forsyth writes in his great theodicy, The Justification of God (1916). ‘All history, through his great act at its moral centre, is, in God, resolved into the harmonies of a foregone and final conquest’, he affirms in The Cruciality of the Cross. Admittedly, such claims do not themselves entail a full-blown universalism, but in their light it seems a bit churlish not to go all the way. At any rate, Forsyth holds to a ‘hopeful’ rather than ‘dogmatic’ universalism, which is certainly a respectable theological position. But Goroncy persistently pushes Forsyth on this point, and his persistence pays off. As he shows, Forsyth cannot take refuge, as others have, in the doctrine of divine freedom because for him God’s freedom is ‘already bound up in his determination to hallow all things’. And since what is at stake in this hallowing is the very being of God, the price of one everlastingly unrepentant sinner is not the existence of hell, nor even the defeat of the purposes of God, but the collapse of divine being itself. There is simply no possibility of the coexistence of divine holiness and its antithesis. While Forsyth makes this point repeatedly, he does not follow his own logic, which Goroncy shows, ‘demands either universalism or annihilationism’, to its end. As Goroncy also points out, there are serious difficulties with the idea that God might, after a suitable term of punishment, annihilate creatures that he had brought into being. Forsyth really has only one option available to him. And yet he hedges.
It is interesting to speculate – and here this is all that can be done for lack of evidence – as to why Forsyth tacitly refuses to draw the necessary consequences of his theology. The author of This Life and the Next (1918) was hardly unconcerned with the last things, so that cannot be the reason. In all likelihood, as Goroncy suggests, ecclesial and theological politics played a factor in Forsyth’s public agnosticism, which may have seemed to the principal of a congregational college and leader within the congregational community to be the most prudent course. There may have been another reason, which Goroncy does not mention. It is possible that in hedging on the question of dogmatic universalism Forsyth was, perhaps even unconsciously, questioning the Hegelian assumptions that made that universalism a necessary consequence of his theology. There is a lot of Hegeling in Forsyth’s work. Perhaps in the end he wanted to say something different.
And perhaps in the end he did. Forsyth was often tempted to ‘flirt with the mythological’, as one of the most astute of his twentieth-century admirers once remarked. This is true not least when he talks of the ‘dying God’ or construes sin as the antithesis of, and a threat to, the divine being itself. The Augustinian conception of sin as privation, along with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo on which it depends, is an attempt to rule out something like Forsyth’s account of sin (and with it, any notion that God’s being might be subject to threat). Forsyth was nervous about the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, because it seemed to him not to be ethical enough – a criticism which suggests that he was reacting against the rationalist orthodoxies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rather than Augustine or Thomas. Curiously, while he rejected the metaphysics of what he calls ‘Chalcedonianism’, and for all his Kantian objections to speculative thought, what Forsyth offers is nothing if not a profound essay in the metaphysics of divine being. Goroncy, perhaps Forsyth’s finest interpreter, captures the heights and depths of this metaphysical vision in Hallowed Be Thy Name, revealing the richness and coherence (questions about universalism aside) of Forsyth’s thought, because he knows that the metaphysics are always in the end an attempt to wrestle with the ‘evangelical centre’. But the attempt was perhaps not entirely successful. In his memorial speech for Brown, Forsyth described his early mentor as ‘more a Paul than a John’. We might wonder whether the implied distinction between the historical and the metaphysical served Forsyth all that well. As Goroncy remarks, those who object to metaphysics, tend to end up doing it badly. Had Forsyth been less eager to denounce metaphysical speculation, he may have been more critical of the highly speculative tendencies of his own thinking. Yet whatever criticisms one might want to make of Forsyth – whether of his eschatological reserve or of some of his more fundamental concerns – it is worth remembering that he was, perhaps first and foremost, a reader of scripture. When, as Europe had descended into the terrible nightmare of the Great War, Forsyth insisted that ‘[w]e have no final weal but our share in that worship and glory of the Father by the Son’, he was drawing not upon Hegel or Kant, but the New Testament. So too, when he contended that the invocation ‘hallowed be Thy name’ was one that stood over all Christian prayer and work. In his wonderful and authoritative study of Forsyth, Goroncy shows how breathtakingly audacious his metaphysical theology is in both form and scope. But perhaps in order to gain the measure of the man, we also need a comprehensive study of his engagement with the bible. One might begin with Goroncy’s recent publication of Forsyth’s sermons, Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth (Pickwick, 2013).
University of Otago, Research Assistant
[A less satisfying version of this review was also published in Candour]
‘No war can be called just; they all use the same machinery’. So argued Professor Henry Reynolds (University of Tasmania) at tonight’s Inaugural Archibald Baxter Memorial Peace Lecture, sponsored by the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. Reynolds opened his public lecture by making the case that pacifism need not necessarily be anti-patriotic. On the contrary, the best thing one can do for a nation, he argued – in the spirit of him whose name and witness were being honoured, the great Archibald Baxter – is to keep it from going to war. He also argued that wars beget war, and that a victory to any side only further perpetuates the violence in one form or another.
Unsurprisingly, Reynolds spent most of his time in what for him is familiar territory – Australia. He rehearsed his oft-played themes about Australia’s hidden wars (see his Black Pioneers: How Aboriginal and Islander People Helped Build Australia, Why Weren’t We Told?, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia, and Forgotten War – all which are well worth reading), noting how between 1788 and 1928 (or, according to some other historians, 1934) Australia was home to large-scale wars between European settlers and indigenous Australians, and that the frontier conflicts (most of the wars took place in isolated regions) in Queensland saw the deaths of tens of thousands (Reynolds argues for a figure of over fifty thousand people – significantly more Australians than were killed in WWII, and on par with those who died in the war to end them all). And yet, as Reynolds and many others have noted, and John Pilger has recently made most public in his film Utopia, these hidden wars remain uncommemorated at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, that ‘great emporium of white nationalism’ (Pilger) and pantheon of Australia’s most enduring and important cult – war. (On this, see What’s Wrong with ANZAC?: The Militarisation of Australian History edited by Reynolds and Marilyn Lake.) It is difficult to see how Australians will even begin to think honestly about its wars until this scandal is rectified.
Reynolds suggested that the calendar for military commemorations in Australia is fuller than the religious calendars ever were during the Middle Ages. He might be right, although there’s little at stake if he’s not. But drawing attention to the Edwardian conviction (surely it’s much older than that?) that nations are made in war, and that there can be no true nationhood without war, Reynolds is certainly right to call out the propaganda machines which publish ad infinitum the narrative that Australian involvement in overseas conflicts are the nation’s most important defining events, a fact which begs the question about what nationhood might have meant prior to 1914, and which does wonders for tourist operators arranging parties at ANZAC Cove.
Reynolds concluded with some discussion about the Boer War, noting that there were only four members of the Australian Parliament who voted against involvement, and that there was scarcely any discussion at all – either in Parliament or elsewhere – on either the legality or morality of the war. The new egalitarian democracies of Australia and New Zealand were keener to join Britain’s war than were the Brits, and the colonisers were desperate to secure the allegiance of her loyal subjects (including India), frightfully concerned that they might go the way of Canada or, God forbid, of the United States. The second half of the Boer War in particular saw numerous and widespread atrocities and human rights violations, violations which Australia felt no responsibility for – just as contemporary white Australia, ‘Team Australia’, feels no responsibility for its most costly wars, the one’s which took place upon her own soil – because this was, after all, Mother Britain’s war and not ours.
I left feeling grateful for the work of places like the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, emboldened in my own commitment to the ways of non-violence in the ‘broken middle’ (Gillian Rose), and thinking about the ongoing relevance of Desmond Tutu’s words (published in God Is Not a Christian): ‘There can be no future without forgiveness. There will be no future unless there is peace. There can be no peace unless there is reconciliation. But there can be no reconciliation before there is forgiveness. And there can be no forgiveness unless people repent’.
My colleague, Kevin Ward, has posted a wee reflection on a recent conference that he co-organised around the themes of migration, cultural diversity, and the church in Aotearoa New Zealand. His observations have implications not only for church life in NZ but also for that in other places in the world, as these words from Phillip Jenkins suggest:
Let me suggest to you that in 30 years, there will be two sorts of church in the world. There’ll be the ones that are multi-ethnic, transnational, and multi-continental. They are constantly battling over issues of culture, lifestyle, worship, and constantly in conflict, debate and controversy. And those are the good ones. The other churches will have decided to let all these trends pass them by. They’ll live just like they’ve always done with an average age in their congregations of 80. Personally, I’d much rather be in one of the ones that is recognizing, taking account of the expansion with all the debates and controversies.
You can read the rest here.
… about whom I once wrote a little poem.
By the way, did you hear the apocryphal story about when Johnson was asked by a Scot what he thought of Scotland (that land ‘where there is nothing to be got’ and there exists ‘a diffusion of learning’)?
His reply: ‘That it is a very vile country, to be sure, Sir’.
To which the young Scot rejoined, ‘Well, Sir! God made it’.
‘Certainly he did’, quipped Johnson, ‘but we must always remember that he made it for Scotchmen, and comparisons are odious, Mr. S——; but God made hell’.
Ouch! Of course, the Londoner had himself made a pleasant enough journey to Scotland once, in 1773 with James Boswell, very much enjoying the women and the ‘little Highland steed[s]’, but concluding from their three-month holiday (their twin accounts were subsequently published as The Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) that ‘the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!’
A few weeks ago, I drew attention to Catherine Keller’s very creative and provocative book Face of the Deep – a reflection on Genesis 1.2 (‘… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep …’). Keller’s work is a profound and unsettling reminder that ever since the beginning there have been untamed elements which threaten to pull creation apart. And as much as we try to find in Holy Scripture an explanation for such a situation, there is, at the end of the day, none forthcoming.
The Book of Job, more than any other in holy writ, attends to the problems of suffering in the most prolonged and existential way. (One recalls, with some gratitude, what Jean-Paul Sartre made of the book.) But if one approaches that ancient book seeking answers to such problems, one will invariably be disappointed. Indeed, what one encounters there is a kind of gallows humour, what Germans call Galgenhumor. Chapter after chapter feeds a pregnant sense that at any moment now one will become more acquainted not only with Job and his comforters – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite – but also with Terry (Jones), John (Cleese), and Michael (Palin). Even the structure of book is a kind of mocking of the deep suffering of one described in the prologue as ‘blameless and upright’, although clearly lacking some discernment in the area of supportive spouse selection. Actually, the prologue is quite outrageous. It might even be ‘the most brutal scene’ in literature – God and Satan playing poker with Job’s life and with that of his family. And the book’s epilogue is equally ridiculous: it reads like a Hollywood script, a crude and tacked-on happy ending which ‘simply ignores all the questions that the rest of the book poses’ (Susan Neiman). It all seems dishonest. It all reads like one big comedy, and it offers no consolation at all for those who wish to find meaning in suffering.
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is, quite simply, the best commentary I know on the Book of Job. Melville has, I think, an astonishing sense of what Job is about, and he refuses the pretty ending as if the end might justify the cost of the game. He writes:
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke.
Of course, one of the ways that the Book of Job challenges the sense of life’s meaninglessness – even while adding to such – is by lifting our attention to God’s rhetorical questions recorded in the eleventh-hour chapters, an onslaught of questions which themselves seem only to add to the sense of torment that Job experiences. But what this barrage of questions does accomplish, I think, is to remind us of just how ‘inscrutable’ (to borrow St Paul’s words in Romans 11) the ways of the Lord finally are to us, an inscrutability which ought to give us considerable pause when we ponder life’s apparent meaninglessness.
A sculpture by Japanese artist Keiji Kosaka reminds us that nowhere is such inscrutability and sense of meaninglessness more apparent than in God’s work of reconciliation wherein God experiences in God’s own life the very questions of isolation and meaninglessness which threaten us, which threaten the cosmos, and which perhaps are a threat to God’s existence too – a God who seems to be in danger of being either crushed under the weight of chaos or squeezed out of the world entirely. In no way at all does the cross resolve the problem of evil. Rather, it deepens it, makes it even more confounding, more leviathanic.
The deep work of the cross – central to the church’s proclamation – remains ever a mystery to us. We proclaim it in faith, confident only of our inability to understand its totality and of the promise that accompanies its action – that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’, holding at bay those untamed elements in creation, and holding all things together.
Doll’s faces are rosier but these were children
their eyes not glass but gleaming gristle
dark lenses in whose quicksilvery glances
the sunlight quivered. These blanched lips
were warm once and bright with blood
held in a moist blob of flesh
not split and spatter’d in tousled hair.
In these shadowy tresses
red petals did not always
thus clot and blacken to a scar.
These are dead faces:
wasps’ nests are not more wanly waxen
wood embers not so greyly ashen.
They are laid out in ranks
like paper lanterns that have fallen
after a night of riot
extinct in the dry morning air.
– Herbert Read, ‘Bombing Casualties: Spain’, in Poems of Protest Old and New: A Selection of Poetry, ed. Arnold Kenseth (London: The Macmillan Company, 1968), 64.
These words were written in the 1930s, in response to a photograph accompanying a newspaper article on the Spanish Civil War. Like much of Read’s writing, they could have been written this week or, indeed, in any week since the third century BCE, when the first paper lanterns were created. This is part of their enduring power. But what most strikes me about Read’s poem is the contrast between the violence and loss described in the first three stanzas and the order and reclamation – the being ‘laid out in ranks’ – spoken of in the final one: the mocking plastering-over of violence blasphemously championed under the pretext of bringing order to chaos.
Such efforts to bring about order like this are not necessarily wasted or misguided; indeed, they are a requisite part of the responsibility laid upon us as creatures made in the image of one who is himself set against those parasites in the cosmos which threaten life. However, and to state the obvious, not all that promotes itself as doing that work is, in fact, doing that work. And so the hard and patient and ceaseless work of discernment, the drawing of a line (one not necessarily straight or entirely clear) which steers us away from those Forsyth calls ‘the facile hierophant and the sweet exalté’ and towards a world made new, transformed not by the invasion of a foreign power or by the ascension of a paladin self-made but from within the very bastille of the human condition, charged with Spirit.
A guest post by Cate Burton
In July 2014 I had the opportunity to attend the Global Institute of Theology (GIT) offered by the World Communion of Reformed Churches and hosted by the Universidad Biblica Latinoamerica in San Jose, Costa Rica. There were 30 participants from 15 different countries, as well as administration and academic staff. We came from Europe, Asia, Africa, the America’s and the Middle East. I was the only one from Oceania, Australasia and Pasifika and found myself as the unofficial representative from our part of the world.
The catch phrase which emerged from our three and a half weeks together was ‘Many Cultures, One Family.’ It was this sense of cross-cultural community which has marked me most. I am truly privileged and blessed to have experienced something of the beauty of the Universal Church (well, the Reformed part of it anyway).
On the academic side, the GIT included one core course and six elective courses, all taught in English. The theme of the core course was Transforming Church, Community and Mission, with one week of morning lectures dedicated to each of the three components. The elective courses took place in the afternoons with the first three electives held during the first week and a half while the remaining electives were held during the last week and a half. These classes were mixed according to gender and nationality with 10 students in each elective. The electives I attended were Eco Theology and Feminism and Masculinity.
The content of the core course and the elective courses has both broadened and deepened my theology. I now have a fuller understanding the theological, ecological, sociological, political and economic issues faced in other parts of the world. With this comes an increased desire to be mindful of and engaged in these issues globally, as well as encouraging the church in Aotearoa New Zealand to respond faithfully to these concerns as they present themselves in our context.
To the class room and coffee break discussions we each brought our own perspectives and experiences, and we shared these freely with one another. Contextual theology became very important for us, with many statements beginning, ‘in my context…’ and many questions being answered, ‘well, it depends on your context…’ This was freeing as well as frustrating.
There was a chapel service every morning and evening during the week, which was another opportunity for us share songs and liturgy from our own context as well as develop our own sense of corporate worship as a gathered community. One day I led worship with Rabih from Lebanon; we prayed in Te Reo Maori and we sang in Arabic. On another occasion I led with Jacoline from the Netherlands and I taught everyone how to hongi as a way of Passing the Peace. We sang in a variety of languages and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer in our mother tongues.
Once a week we visited local projects such as childcare centres for families of impoverished neighbourhoods and churches running support clinics for women with HIV and Aids. On Saturdays we would go sightseeing in San Jose or other parts of the country from the Central Valley to the Pacific Coast. On Sunday mornings we also attended local Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches, which were all in Spanish and were translated when possible.
My experience at the GIT has contributed for my formation as a disciple of Christ and as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I will continue to be shaped by the relationships which developed and the way of life we shared together.
I am grateful to St Peters in the City for allowing me to take an extended period of leave when I was so new to my ministry role there and to the Kaimai Presbytery for endorsing my application for the Best Travel Fund which made a significant contribution to my travel costs.
Muchas gracias! Tena rawa atu koe!
The Age, 3 September 2014
For more on Australia’s seasons, check out Timothy Entwisle’s fascinating new book Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia’s Changing Seasons, or listen to him chatting about its thesis here.
‘It is true that morality has been often enough a way of ducking hard political questions by reducing them to the personal. In the so-called war against terrorism, for example, the word “evil” really means: Don’t look for a political explanation. It is a wonderfully time-saving device. If terrorists are simply Satanic, then you do not need to investigate what lies behind their atrocious acts of violence. You can ignore the plight of the Palestinian people, or of those Arabs who have suffered under squalid right-wing autocracies supported by the West for its own selfish, oil-hungry purposes.
The word “evil” transfers the question from this mundane realm to a sinisterly metaphysical one. You cannot acknowledge that the terrible crimes which terrorists commit have a purpose behind them, since to ascribe purposes to such people is to recognize them as rational creatures, however desperately wrongheaded. It is easier to caricature your enemy as a bunch of blood-crazed beasts – a deeply dangerous move, since to defeat an opponent you have first to understand him. The British tabloid press may have seen the IRA as gorillas rather than guerrillas, savages with no rationale for their actions, but British Intelligence knew better. They understood that Republican murders and massacres were not without a purpose. Indeed, to label your enemy as mad is to let him, morally speaking, off the hook, absolving him of responsibility for his crimes’.
– Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic, 2003), 141–42.
Jason A. Goroncy, ed. Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-60899-070-2. 396pp.
A guest review by Kim Fabricius
Somehow, I’m ashamed to say, P. T. Forsyth flew under my radar during the three years (1979–1982) I studied at Mansfield College, Oxford. I vaguely remember hearing about this former College Pastor and ‘Barthian before Barth’ – an epithet as complimentary to Barth as it is to Forsyth – but as I’d already been nurtured in the faith by Uncle Karl, why bother with a distant relative? Then, shortly after my ordination, a retired Old Testament professor who was downsizing his library offered me some of his books. Among them was Forsyth’s The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909). It was seriously impressive. Forsyth’s relentless Christocentrism, theologia crucis, and kenotic soteriology were an inspiration and encouragement to my own early theological formation. Over thirty years later – far too long – it’s been a pleasure to renew my acquaintance with the great Congregationalist scholar-pastor through this generous collection of sermons and addresses. A thousand thanks to Jason Goroncy for arranging the meet, and for his superb introduction, which not only reminded me of what I’ve been missing but also, with both affection and erudition, wondrously surveys it.
Every preacher should buy this book. It won’t tell you anything about sermons – for as Forsyth insists, ‘your duty as preachers is not to preach sermons, but to preach the Gospel’ – but it will indeed draw you more deeply into the Gospel you are called to proclaim. If, that is, you pay attention and persevere. These sermons are not an easy read (though they were surely an even harder hear!). They begin with no winsome appeal, they proceed with thick thought and lengthy exploration, they range with polymathic breadth, but they have a passion and energy that sweep you along like a river in flood, and they repeatedly stun you with powerful and memorable phrases. And while the sermons are based on texts, they proceed less by exegesis and more by focussing on the res, the heart of the matter.
My marginal notes on the sermon ‘Mercy and the True and Only Justice’ and ‘The Bible Doctrine of Hell and the Unseen’ read, respectively, ‘Wow!’ and ‘Wow x 2!’. Refusing a competitive understanding of the divine love and justice (God’s love is holy love and God’s justice is his ‘love in action’); denying the endlessness of the wrath of God (‘you offer men a devil to worship’) as well as the ‘miserable doctrine of annihilation’; dismissing the ‘whole immoral’ theory of (penal) substitution and – the hermeneutical key – declaring that ‘if Christ’s cross means anything, it means the destruction of evil everywhere and for ever’: here Forsyth gestures towards (without arriving at) a doctrine of universal salvation. He also anticipates and funds, by well over a century, the so-called new evangelical universalism.
These two sermons are, for me, the diamonds in the pack, but there are many gems. ‘The Pulpit and the Age’ should be required reading for ministers thinking of answering – and for churches thinking of issuing – a ‘call’. At a time when congregations have the attention span of a mayfly and the PowerPoint image threatens to turn the spoken word into a sound bite, one hears with an ‘Ouch!’ Forsyth’s deadpan declaration: ‘I believe myself that short sermons are mostly themselves too long.’
‘Dumb Creatures and Christmas: A Little Sermon to Little Folk’ is a delightful ecological plea for recognising that Christmas is not only ‘All Children’s Day’, it is also – because in becoming creaturely flesh, the Word hallows all animate creation – ‘All Creatures’ Day’.
One more favourite: ‘The Problem of Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer’. Here Forsyth exhibits a truly evangelical understanding of forgiveness and repentance. Not only are we reminded that God forgives us before we repent, that God’s forgiveness provides both the power to repent and the motive – thanksgiving – for forgiving, we are also astounded to learn that ‘The love of God forgave sin before we sinned, and slew the Lamb before the world was.’ Because the heart of God is cruciform, it is also omnibenevolent.
Nobody, however, is perfect. In the midst of First Wave Feminism, Forsyth can be disconcertingly patriarchal. His take on colonialism is rather blithely Kiplingesque. He addresses the moral but not the material conditions of society; he was interested in socialism, but too suspicious of it to endorse a Social Gospel. It is not good enough just to say that Forsyth was ‘a man of his times’, but notwithstanding these deficits, his theology is lucratively in the Bible-black.
Finally: it is a largely unexamined cliché that you can’t judge a book by its cover: often, I think, you can. Certainly the thoughtful aesthetic of the cover of Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History is marvellously expressive of the formidable intelligence and fine sensibility of the person whose sermons it adorns and announces. There is a photograph of Forsyth – terrific moustache! – leaning his head on his arm. The pose is conventional, but so capacious is the man’s brain that one wonders whether the head is resting on the arm, or the arm is propping up the head. And beneath the photograph – the image of a painting: a trellis of colourful crosses, a perspicuous small white cross, and a lovely blue flower with a yellow pistil. On the back cover, in fine print, we learn that the artist is Sinead Goroncy.
Fascinated by a recent film by J. T. Singh and Rob Whitworth called ‘Enter Pyongyang’, but at a loss at how to interpret it, I invited one of my students to offer a comment on it. Here’s the film, and his two reactions:
1. The below reflects a perspective of a 1.5 generation (south) Korean-New Zealander, who seeks to be authentic to both cultures as a genuine expression of who I am. Though I do not know for certain, I see myself not as an expression of a blended mixture of the two, rather as in Jesus’ mystical hypostatic communion of the two natures, somehow an hypostatic expression of the two cultures. At least, I want to explore this dimension. Technologically, the video clip is stunning and the city landscape of Pyongyang does indeed provide an insight into the country that has continued to be shrouded by interpretations of probabilities and propaganda for the last 50–60 years. I am neither an expert nor an intentional follower of North Korean politics. I am likely to be biased and tend to mistrust and to be cynical. Any talk of North Korea brings with it a historical baggage that cannot be readily put aside. But how do I perceive what Dr. Parag Khanna (Director of Hybrid Reality) is trying to do? I agree with Dr. Khanna (in his Foreword) that what the video does is a ‘multi-media contribution to transcending cliches about North Korea as a society defined by reclusiveness and destitution’. But I am concerned that he too readily interprets the video of Pyongyang to be equated with a North Korean change, in fact a change as he says is ‘an organic society that wants to be a normal country’. What does he mean by organic and normal, I wonder? Why would the tourists be strictly guided within the bounds of Pyongyang? North Korean reclusiveness and destitution must be rescued from its ahistorical cliche but these mustn’t be replaced with an agenda and naive thought of positive progress. I agree with Dr. Khanna that we mustn’t predispose ourselves to judge North Korea. Just as any other geo-political nation, North Korea is a living social dynamic. As any geo-political nation, it has a beginning but a beginning that is quite recent in history and emotionally charged with all the biases and influences of Cold War for the wider-world as well as civil war for Koreans. It would be important to recognise and change the frame of mind to see North Korea as a sovereign nation as we do ourselves. However, I doubt the approach of largely appealing to its technological advancement as the controlling framework to understand the social and political climate is a particularly helpful contribution. It requires to be watched through a critical eye and a filtering mind. Technological advancement neither necessitates nor equate to ethical progress. So, I am grateful to the people who made the video. It gives an insight to the people of Pyongyang. It is a privilege to see at least how some small number of my uncles and aunties and cousins and nephews and nieces are living in the city of Pyongyang. I am joyous that some are able to smile in that city. Especially, seeing the nephews and nieces in the skate park interacting with the camera as any kid would with curiosity and surprise brings some sense of comfort. Yet the discrepancy and paradox is too apparent to me – the grandeur of the city of Pyongyang like the rest of our cities but despite our densely populated cities how sparsely populated Pyongyang is. Some may say that is how we want our cities to be like. To have all the technological advancements yet having enough personal space. For me such is a mere utopian dream of the modernist, capitalist, individualistic western mind, which can only be made possible in a dictatorial religiously fanatic world like Pyongyang. No, I cannot see hope as some tend to in the façade of technological progress. If it is sad to see too many churches and too many red lit crosses in the night sky of most cities of South Korea, it is sad to see none in Pyongyang – the city that was once the epicenter of pneumatological cruciformation of Korea, now a sign of dictatorial religious rule of a self-made god-descent family. I only pray that the rumours of underground church still existing in North Korea is a fact, for here is the hope of change.
2. Recently, on 15 August, Korea celebrated 69th annual freedom day that we call ‘The Return of the Light’ day (광복절 – kwang bok jeol). It is a day of remembering and celebrating freedom from a half-a-century-long Japanese tyranny. I am particularly concerned of the tendency of the west to mourn the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without celebrating Korean and, in fact, Asian freedom. Yes, the dead who have been murdered senselessly, we remember and mourn. Yes, Japan was going to lose anyway and the tragedy could have been avoided. But I see the individualistic ignorance of the many western mourners forgetful of those who suffered and still suffer from the pain of the Japanese imperial tyranny – the systematic eradication of a culture, systematic sex slavery of women, and rape of land for imperial ambitions. What does it mean for the West to mourn for Japan’s innocent without at the same time bringing Japan’s war criminals to justice? Many Asians, including Koreans, still have living victims of Japan’s atrocity. There has been no national apology officiated by the Japanese government. Yet on the same day, while Korea celebrates its freedom, Japan solemnly remembers and pays tribute to their fallen soldiers. To mourn the dead of Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August) without celebrating Korea’s freedom (15 August) is injustice. To celebrate Korea’s freedom without mourning the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is injustice.