Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

A little something for the Catholic cats and pigeons to have fun with:

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit. “God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers” (Heb 1:1), “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” (Dei Verbum, 8). We are called to make this voice our own by “reverently hearing the word of God” (ibid., 1), so that our life as a Church may progress with the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, towards those new horizons to which the Lord wishes to guide us.

– Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

Peter Brown on Sarah Ruden’s translation of St Augustine’s Confessions

confessions-88.jpgWhile some reviewers have found Sarah Ruden’s recent translation of St Augustine’s Confessions unnecessary, ‘jarring’, and marked by too many ‘aesthetic costs’, many, it seems, have welcomed it, and that not least because of the ‘vivid, personal prose’ that characterises its pages. Among the latter we might now add the brilliant Augustine scholar Peter Brown who, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, notes that one of the things that he most appreciates about Ruden’s work is its presentation of God’s lively personhood, a liveliness that makes Augustine more alive also. Here’s a taster:

So what is the correct reaction when we open the Confessions? It should, perhaps, be one of acute embarrassment. For we have stumbled upon a human being at a primal moment – standing in prayer before God. Having intruded on Augustine at his prayers, we are expected to find ourselves pulled into them, as we listen to a flow of words spoken, as if on the edge of an abyss, to a God on the far side – to a being, to all appearances, vertiginously separate from ourselves.

The measure of the success of [Sarah] Ruden’s translation is that she has managed to give as rich and as diverse a profile to the God on the far side as she does to the irrepressible and magnetically articulate Latin author who cries across the abyss to Him. Most translations of the Confessions fail to do this. We are usually left with the feeling that one character in the story has not fully come alive. We meet an ever-so-human Augustine, with whom it is easy to identify even when we most deplore him. But we meet him perched in front of an immense Baroque canvas called “God” – suitably grand, of course, suitably florid, but flat as the wall.

How does Ruden remedy this lack of life in God? She takes God in hand. She renames Him. He is not a “Lord.” That is too grand a word. Its sharpness has been blunted by pious usage. Augustine’s God was a dominus – a master. And a Roman dominus was a master of slaves. Unlike “Lord,” the Latin word dominus implied, in Augustine’s time, no distant majesty, muffled in fur and velvet. It conjured up life in the raw – life lived face to face in a Roman household, lived to the sound of the crack of the whip and punctuated by bursts of rage ….

To make God more of a person, by making Him a master, does not at first sight, make Him very nice. But at least it frees Him up. It also brings Augustine to life. In relation to God, Augustine experiences all the ups and downs of a household slave in relation to his master. He jumps to the whip. He tries out the life of a runaway. He attempts to argue back. Altogether, “Augustine’s humorously self-deprecating, submissive, but boldly hopeful portrait of himself in relation to God echoes the rogue slaves of the Roman stage” [Ruden]. (Indeed, the thought of the bishop of Hippo as having once been the slippery slave of God – like Zero Mostel as the plump and bouncy Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – somehow lightens the impression of a seemingly inextricable roller coaster of sin and punishment that we usually derive from reading the first part of the Confessions.)

For God can change His mood. Like any other free person, He can show a different side. The Confessions is about the marvelous emergence of new sides of God as Augustine himself changes in his relation to God, over the years, from slave to repentant son to lover. Ruden may have to defend her re-translation of the name of God from “Lord” to “Master.” But her approach is a thoughtful one. It is governed by a determination to present Augustine’s relations with his God as endowed with the full emotional weight of a confrontation between two real persons. She takes no shortcuts. Small departures from conventional translations show her constant effort to capture an unexpected dimension of tenderness (very different from that of the slave owner) in God’s relation to Augustine and in Augustine’s to God.

To take small examples: Ruden does not have Augustine “embrace” Jesus as if He were a proposition. He takes Him in his arms. When Augustine looks back at his first mystical awakening, he cries: Sero te amavi: “Late have I loved you!” It is a famous cry. But it is a little grand. You and I would say: “I took too long to fall in love.” And this – the less dramatic but more human turn of phrase – is what Ruden opts for. Repeated small acts of attention to the humble, human roots of Augustine’s imagery of his relations to God enable Ruden to convey a living sense of the Being before Whom we find him transfixed in prayer: “Silent, long-suffering and with so much mercy in your heart.”

So far, I’ve very much enjoyed reading Ruden’s translation, and it will sit happily alongside my copy of Chadwick’s translation of the same. The latter remains my go-to translation, but Ruden certainly helps me to notice things that I have otherwise missed while reading Chadwick and others. I can also imagine setting some of its chapters as readings for my students, precisely because of the reasons Brown names. For both of these reasons, I am grateful for Ruden’s work.

And how perfect is that cover!

What to do with your Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey form: a 5-step guide

Step 1. Draw a pretty picture of yourself on the form. Claim it as ‘yours’.

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Step 2. Add some style.

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Step 3. Create a little jigsaw. Be sure to ‘lose’ a couple of pieces too. That way, your form can serve as a kind of parody of the process itself.

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Step 4. Help the little bastard find its way to the recycle bin. The ‘lost’ pieces should be placed in the regular rubbish.

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Step 5. Brew yourself a nice cup of tea.

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Note: I am already on the record of being in favour of a change of law on the matter before the Australian public, but the ends here do not, in my view, justify the means. On this, I agree with Michael Kirby v.1.

Theological ‘bush camps’

20170701.jpgThere is a wonderful little documentary here on the Hermannsburg Mission and the work of the theological ‘bush camps’ organised by the Finke River Mission as part their commitment to the continuing education of pastors.

Philosophising: 13 questions with Michael Leunig

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1. What is the biggest threat to our minds?
Our minds.

2. What is freedom?
Non-compliance and creativity.

3. What illusion do you suffer from?
Other peoples’ illusions.

4. Where are humans heading?
To hell, as always – but you have to go through hell and survive it in order to get to heaven. So in the unlikely event that you do get to heaven, you’ll be in a pretty bad shape and then things are not so heavenly after all.

5. The most important part of your education?
My failure.narcissist

6. Which “thinker” has had the greatest influence on your life?
For all I know it may have been the butcher who employed me to clean up his shop every Saturday morning when I was a kid. He was a thinker in the ordinary sense – as most people are. The heart thinks too. The early primal unconscious or semi-conscious influences may have been as important to my developments as the writings of Lao Tzu or D. W. Winnicott.

7. What do you doubt most?
Humanity.

8. Your favourite word?
Hello.

9. If you could change one thing about the world, what would that be?
Myself – obviously.

10. The question you’d most like to ask others?
I wouldn’t like to ask anyone a question unless they inspired a particular curiosity.

11. What is a good death?
I’m not sure what the choices are but I’d like to doze off smiling after lunch  in a quiet, sunny paddock near the forest, listening to the birds and not wake up; a death where the coroner’s report says ’cause of death: unknown’.

12. What do people accuse you of?
I have been accused of many things and they all amount to a nicely balanced and hugely varied array of offences, shortcomings and failures. Pretty much the full spectrum. I regard many of these accusations as compliments or testimony to my more interesting nature.

13. What is the meaning of life?
For humans as for all the plants and creatures: know yourself, grow yourself, feel yourself, heal yourself, grow yourself, be yourself, express yourself.

[Source]

On Tolkien’s vision of sorrowful joy

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Ralph Wood has written another excellent piece on J. R. R. Tolkien’s assessment of history, evil, being a company, eucatastrophe, impatience, joy, Beowulf, mercy, patience, pity, providence, sympathy, and ‘sorrowful joy’. Here’s a taster:

For Tolkien, the chief question – and thus the real quest – concerns the proper means for “redeeming the time.” The great temptation is to take short-cuts, to follow the easy way, to arrive quickly. In the antique world of Middle-earth, magic offers the surest escape from slowness and suffering. It is the equivalent of our machines. Both ancient and modern magic provide what Tolkien called immediacy: “speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect.”

The magic of haste is the method chosen by those who are in a hurry, who lack patience, who cannot wait. Sauron wins converts because he provides his followers the necromancy to achieve such instant results by coercing the wills of others, giving them brute strength to accomplish allegedly grand ends by cursory means.

The noble who refuse such haste prove, alas, to be most nobly tempted. Gandalf, the Christ-like wizard who quite literally lays down his life for his friends, knows that he is an unworthy bearer of the Ring – not because he has evil designs that he wants secretly to accomplish, but rather because his desire to do good is so great. Gandalf’s native pity, when combined with the omnipotent strength of the Ring, would transform him into an all-forgiving, justice-denying magus, not a figure befitting the origins of his wizard-name in the Anglo-Saxon word wys (“wise”).

You can read the full essay here.

[Image: ‘Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg’, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Source.]

Calling Bullshit

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Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West, from the University of Washington, have developed a course called ‘Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning for the Digital Age’.

The lectures and readings might be crap, but they are at least easily accessible online, and the little assignment looks fun. But what I think I most like about the look of the course is the format, and the refreshing use of Benny Bloom’s silly taxonomy:

Learning Objectives

Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:

  • Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.
  • Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.
  • Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.
  • Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
  • Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.

That said, would it not be considerably more interesting – and manifestly more important – to take (and to teach) a course on the possibility, nature, and habits of ‘truth’ and its relationship to the cardinal virtues, rather than one on ‘bullshit’?

Pontius Pilate, in his greatest moment, probably thought so too: Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια; It’s a pity he ‘would not stay for an answer’ and so risk having his ‘mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth’ (Francis Bacon).

[Image: Chen Wenling, ‘What You See Might Not Be Real’, Beijing Art Gallery, 2009. Photo credit: Ng Han Guan/AP]

On euthanasia for Alzheimer’s patients

‘If only euthanasia advocates could be sued for false advocacy. For years, they have soothingly assured wary societies that only those with the capacity to choose to be killed would have access to facilitated death. That promise was always highly questionable. “Choice” has never been the point of euthanasia—otherwise euthanasia should be available to anyone, sick or well, who wants to die. Rather, the goal is to normalize killing as an acceptable remedy to suffering, even—as we are seeing with the Alzheimer’s policy—when the patient is incapable of making a rational decision’.

– Wesley J. Smith, ‘Euthanasia for Alzheimer’s patients?’

Jeremy Begbie and Joseph Jordania on human musicality: a public lecture [kind of] in Melbourne

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Rethinking the Roles of Church and State in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

The ABC Religion and Ethics site has posted some of my thoughts around Australia’s same-sex marriage debate [sic] here.

‘What kind of resistance is possible against a world without mercy?’

Hannah ArendtThe LARB has published an interesting essay by Wen Stephenson that draws upon wisdom from Hannah Arendt for those living at the dawn of a new ‘era of increasing global instability, ripe for all the varieties of political and social evil’.

The essay includes reflections on subjects such as totalitarianism, human rights, making judgements, collective guilt, conscience, evil, making moral choices, nonviolence, civil disobedience, and crimes against humanity.

And on empathy:

[Em]pathy, though much celebrated, is not always a reliable impulse toward moral action – that it can cut both ways. Because our natural inclination to empathize with the victims of crime and injustice, while generally a good thing, when mixed with our tribal instincts – our biases, conscious or not, in favor of people like ourselves, members of our own communities — can lead to a dehumanization of the stranger, the other, especially if that other is the perpetrator (or perceived to be) of a crime. It’s easy to empathize with a victim, as one should; to empathize with a murderer – to see ourselves in another who violates our deepest values and taboos – is something else, something that may seem beyond our merely human capacity.

You can read the whole piece here.

Marilynne Robinson on Writing

‘Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected. It’s like wrestling with the angel: On the one hand you feel the constraints of what can be said, but on the other hand you feel the infinite potential. There’s nothing more interesting than language and the problem of trying to bend it to your will, which you can never quite do. You can only find what it contains, which is always a surprise’.

– Marilynne Robinson on Finding the Right Word, The New York Times, 22 September 2017.

… in a little corner with a little book

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‘I have sought for happiness everywhere, but I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book’. – Thomas à Kempis

‘There’s a strong impulse in our culture to run away from these little corners. We’re told that society’s winners will be the thinkers who network, collaborate, create, and strategize in concert with others. Our kids are taught to study in groups, to execute projects as teams. Our workplaces have been stripped of walls so that the organization functions as a unit. The big tech companies also propel us to join the crowd—they provide us with the trending topics and their algorithms suggest that we read the same articles, tweets, and posts as the rest of the world.

There’s no doubting the creative power of conversation, the intellectual potential of humbly learning from our peers, the necessity of groups working together to solve problems. Yet none of this should replace contemplation, moments of isolation, where the mind can follow its own course to its own conclusions.

We read in our little corners, our beds and tubs and dens, because we have a sense that these are the places where we can think best. I have spent my life searching for an alternative. I will read in the café and on the subway, making a diligent, wholehearted effort to focus the mind. But it never entirely works. My mind can’t shake its awareness of the humans in the room.

When we read deeply and with full commitment, we enter an almost trancelike state that mutes the outside world. The distance between words on the page and the scampering abstractions in our head collapses. As with the first generations of silent readers, heretical thoughts come and go; we’re stripped of intellectual inhibitions. That’s why we habitually retreat with our book to private spaces, where we don’t need to worry about social conventions, where the world can’t possibly read over our shoulder. That’s why we can’t jettison paper, even though the tech companies have tried their hardest to bring that about’.

– Franklin Foer, ‘How Technology Makes Us Less Free

 [Image: Minoru Karamatsu, ‘Reading’, 9 September, 2017]

 

Luther, Protestantism and Society

This should be fun.

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AG Lionel Bowen on the principles for an Australian Human Rights Bill

Hear, hear:

‘A strategy of compliance with international human rights standards which does not involve legislative definitions of rights must be half-hearted and hollow, if not suspect. Those who argue that our existing legal and social institutions make a Bill of Rights unnecessary, overlook that the common law does not offer clear or wide-ranging statements of an individual’s freedoms and liberties; at best, the common law offers remedies in a haphazard and incidental way often only after satisfying complex procedural requirements; the power of the Parliament to confine or withdraw totally common law “rights” – this may occur unintentionally and even unnoticed by the public at large; the fragility of community attitudes and pressures on which so many of what are popularly regarded as individual freedoms rely. In the light of this, the Government does not believe that it is sufficient or appropriate to rely on administrative measures alone and those aspects of our common law or general culture which recognise rights here and there. Furthermore, the enactment of a Bill of Rights has a vital educative function. It has the capacity to inspire respect for fundamental freedoms and liberties by setting out rights in positive, declaratory form. It is a broadly based declaration drafted in Australia for Australians, in conformity with international standards. Alternatives whether reliance on the common law, particular legislation or administrative mechanisms and programs without more do not spell out and proclaim key rights and concepts in the same way as does the Bill of Rights’.

– Lionel Bowen, via Frank Brennan

The Original 1851 Reviews of Moby-Dick

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On first inspection: some amusing and intelligent reviews here of Moby-Dick, published in the year of the release of that book well described as a ‘tale … disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English’. It’s hard to imagine a higher compliment!

 

The Eucharist and (unbridled) Capitalism


‘For the early Christians the ceremony of the breaking of bread – the Eucharist – was intimately connected with the sharing of bread. It was not a mere formalist ceremonial. The Eucharist signified sharing. It also brought about what it signified. The rite and the reality were intimately linked. The symbol was for real. They tried to practise what they professed. We have seen how the early Christian groups shared what they had so that there was no one in need.

For Jesus too the last supper, the first and inaugural Eucharist, was closely associated with his selfgiving. He gave bread and wine saying “this is my body”; “this is my blood”. This was not merely a symbol, rite or ceremony. He said that he was giving himself – his life – for his people. He then gave a new commandment “love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. If there is this love among you, then all will know you are my disciples…” He enjoined them to love even their enemies. For Jesus the Eucharist was a supreme act of concern for others; of sharing; of community. His own body was being broken and his blood shed. He was not merely giving bread, or a bit of property; he gave his life for the liberation of others. He was killed because he championed justice, the truth, the poor and the exploited. He took an unflinching stand against injustice, deception and the exploitation of the poor and the weak. Like the bread that he broke and gave his disciples, his body was to be broken, scourged and crucified by the powerful of the day and their agents. The Eucharist signifies this being broken for others. His sacrifice was the supreme one of offering his blood up to the last drop for his cause. He endured immense and intense suffering of mind and body to bear witness to his message that God is love, and love demands justice and truth.

If the Eucharist is lived by those who celebrate it, sharing will have to be practised by them. This is a primary requisite of the Eucharistic community or Church. Since love is to be for all, sharing must also be with all others too. The Eucharist is anti-individualistic. It is not compatible with a philosophy of selfish profit maximization for persons or private groups. The Eucharist cannot really co-exist with vast gaps of wealth and misery. This would be a mockery of Jesus and his life message.

The Eucharist does not indicate a mode of production or a form of social organization. But it does demand effective sharing in freedom. In this sense the Eucharist relates better to an effectively socialistic society. No one should be in need. All things should be for the needs of all. Self sacrifice must be prior to selfishness and acquisition of things for oneself. Since the Eucharist demands that we live for others, how much more does it not demand that we should work for them. If our life has to be given for others in truth, love and justice, how much more does it not demand that property be for all. Thus the Eucharist emphasizes basic values which are closely related to the ideals and priorities of a socialistic way of life.

The Eucharist and the profit maximization of Capitalism are incompatible. The Eucharist cannot be meaningfully celebrated by persons who spend lavishly on themselves – as in the first class hotels, while others live off the dust bins close by. At least the Eucharist should impel them to strive hard to change such a situation. Otherwise their lives would be like that of the Pharisees and scribes whom Jesus condemned categorically’.

– Tissa Balasuriya, Eucharist and Human Liberation (Colombo: The Centre for Society and Religion, 1977), 50–51.

A Statement from Christian Ethicists Without Borders on White Supremacy and Racism

 

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I am one of a growing list of signatories of the statement below. If you are a Christian ethicist, I urge you to follow the links at the bottom of the page and to add your name also.

 

A Statement from Christian Ethicists Without Borders on White Supremacy and Racism

 

August 14, 2017

As followers of Jesus Christ and as Christian ethicists representing a range of denominations and schools of thought, we stand in resolute agreement in firmly condemning racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and neo-Nazi ideology as a sin against God that divides the human family created in God’s image.

In January of 2017, white nationalist groups emboldened by the 2016 election planned an armed march against the Jews of Whitefish, Montana. On August 11th and 12th, hundreds of armed neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. As we mourn the deaths of 32-year old counter-protester Heather Heyer and state troopers H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates from this most recent incident, we unequivocally denounce racist speech and actions against people of any race, religion, or national origin.

White supremacy and racism deny the dignity of each human being revealed through the Incarnation. The evil of white supremacy and racism must be brought face-to-face before the figure of Jesus Christ, who cannot be confined to any one culture or nationality. Through faith we proclaim that God the Creator is the origin of all human persons. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

The greatest commandments, as Jesus taught and exemplified, are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves; and so as children of God, and sisters and brothers to all, we hold the following:

  • We reject racism and anti-Semitism, which are radical evils that Christianity must actively resist.
  • We reject the sinful white supremacy at the heart of the “Alt Right” movement as Christian heresy.
  • We reject the idolatrous notion of a national god. God cannot be reduced to “America’s god.”
  • We reject the “America First” doctrine, which is a pernicious and idolatrous error. It foolishly asks Americans to replace the worship of God with the worship of the nation, poisons both our religious traditions and virtuous American patriotism, and isolates this country from the community of nations. Such nationalism erodes our civic and religious life, and fuels xenophobic and racist attacks against immigrants and religious minorities, including our Jewish and Muslim neighbors.
  • We confess that all human beings possess God-given dignity and are members of one human family, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or country of origin.
  • We proclaim that the gospel of Jesus Christ has social and political implications. Those who claim salvation in Jesus Christ, therefore, must publicly name evil, actively resist it, and demonstrate a world of harmony and justice in the midst of racial, religious and indeed all forms of human diversity.

Therefore, we call upon leaders of every Christian denomination, especially pastors, to condemn white supremacy, white nationalism, and racism.

We also humbly call upon all Christians, whose baptismal waters are thicker than blood, to resist this evil by committing themselves to:

  • Contemplate and respect the image of God imprinted on each human being.
  • Work across religious traditions to reflect on the ways we have been complicit in upholding and benefiting from the sins of racism and white supremacy.
  • Pray for the strength and courage to stand emphatically against racism, white supremacy, and nationalism in all its forms.
  • Participate in acts of peaceful protest, including rallies, marches, and at times, even civil disobedience. Do not remain passive bystanders in the face of the heresies of racism, white supremacy, and white nationalism.
  • Engage in political action to oppose structural racism.

We will bring the best of our traditions to an ecclesial and societal examination of conscience where rhetoric and acts of hatred against particular groups can be publicly named as grave sins and injustices.

Finally, as ethicists, we commit—through our teaching, writing, and service—to the ongoing, hard work of building bridges and restoring wholeness where racist and xenophobic ideologies have brought brokenness and pain.

(If you are a Christian ethicist or teach Christian ethics and wish to add your name, please email Tobias Winright at tobias.winright@slu.edu or Matthew Tapie at matthew.tapie@saintleo.edu or Anna Floerke Scheid at scheida@duq.edu or MT Dávila at mtdavila@ants.edu with your name, highest degree, title, and institution. Institutions are named for identification purposes only and this does not necessarily represent their support of this statement, although we hope they do, too.)

For a full updated list of signatories, please click here.

[Image: Nic Muller]

on white christendom

White Jesus.jpg‘White Christendom in America survives pathetically.

The traditions and ethics of the inherited, white denominations – as their adherents sense privately, and everyone else acknowledges openly – are moribund, nostalgic for a legendary past, extravagantly irrelevant to virtually anything to which one might attempt to relate them. White Christendom’s institutions are truly secular, that is, utterly preoccupied with their own survival, and hence dissipated in anxiety. Their human constituency is being visibly depleted by dropouts, deaths, and other departures. The people of these churches have been stunned by the renunciation voiced by their own offspring, bewildered by the long overdue rejection of their paternalism by the blacks, and so traumatized by their guilt that their conscience has been both perverted and paralyzed. They have feted a doctrine of achievement in work and in charity that is bereft of biblical authority and that now turns out not even to have the illusion of efficacy. After seeking a justification that proved futile, they grow frantic and afraid, increasingly tempted to an anger that only a false righteousness can spawn.

The condition of white Christendom is pathological; it is, I suggest, the state designated in the Bible as “hardness of heart.”

The reason for this bitter ailment is that the white churches in America have long doubted the very existence, much less the vitality, of the Holy Spirit. In these denominations, on the whole, it has never been seriously granted that God has freedom and discretion in being present and active in this world; it has never been conceded that God is not dependent upon human beings and, specifically, upon the white, American bourgeois. It has been presumed instead that God needs these churches, that God’s integrity requires their effort, that God’s existence in history is verified by their prosperity, popularity, and power. Today, with the legitimacy of their wealth under challenge, their reputation the butt of ridicule, and their power ineffectual, it becomes clear that their god is indeed dead and, even more threatening, that their god is not and never was God’.

Mr Stringfellow
St James’ Day, 1969
Block Island, Rhode Island

A Christian theology of marriage

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).