I finished a thing. Further details here.
And here’s a picture of the cover, which features part of Emmanuel Garibay’s wonderful painting Selda (Prison Cell), 2020.
I am thrilled to announce that the manuscript for Imagination in an Age of Crisis: Soundings from the Arts and Theology, which I’ve been editing with Rod Pattenden, is now in the hands of the publishers. Updated details here.
Ross Langmead once suggested that to be human is to ‘find ourselves in the middle of a cosmic story’. He was, it seems, on a perpetual journey to discern and to celebrate the spirit of life in all things. And he discerned that spirit in communities, in movements of justice, in solidarity with the poor, in creation’s hope-filled and determined persistence and wonder, and in the life and teaching of Jesus, God’s ever-new Word among us.
Much of Ross’s life and work recalls commitments expressed also in the life and work of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, someone whom Ross liked to read and to cite. In particular, it was their shared conviction that ‘God’ – ever irreducible to a single name or principle, and never impounded by any particular religion – is never present in general; never simply ‘out there’. Rather, God is always present for and in God’s creatures, every one, in concrete ways – as grace, as care, as kindness, as light, as troubling and healing water, as ‘mystery of servant love’. ‘We are not alone’. This is to recall that Ross’s life was grounded in the twin-conviction that God is not a Christian, and that the western-centric nature of Christian theology that dominates ecclesial life and that of theological academies in Australia has both hidden and distorted divine revelation that is at work in every human culture, and, indeed, in all creation.
Inspired by the courageous work of Latin American liberation theologians and those theologies emerging from the ‘womb’ of Asia, Ross came to the conviction that a church preoccupied with its own welfare, security, and self-perpetuation is something quite other than that community that is a sign of God’s self-emptying life in the world. And, like Bonhoeffer, he came to the unshakeable conviction that the church is the church only when it exists for others.
There are, in fact, only two questions worth asking in theology – ‘Who (or what) is God?’ and ‘So what?’. Ross’s work bears the marks of these two questions, and finds their commonality in the language and praxis of mission, which is ‘the mother of theology’ (Martin Kähler). As Ross once put it: theological education should be ‘missiological to the core’. Missiology is, therefore, neither a theological hobby horse nor an addendum to theological work. It is theology at its crux – concerned with the life of God as God, with the life of the world as world, and with the vocation of a community made to celebrate, interrogate, and participate in the encounter which is the God–world partnership. Moreover, it is theology that can be sung, and embodied. Indeed, it must be, lest it perpetuate a lie. So Ross did a lot of both, and this deep conviction emboldened him to develop what he called ‘a mission heart in … curriculum praxis’.
I reckon Alison Langmead summed it all up very well when she wrote in the book’s Foreword:
This book’s account of Ross’s life reveals an authentic journey into how learning to trust and to participate in [God’s] great love, can play out in a single lifetime: how his early childhood in Hong Kong prepared him for an expanded world view; how he looked at and worked with the questions of life through study, practical exploration, writing, friendship, teaching, singing, and research; how he encouraged others to grapple together with the many challenges of life, taking time out to consider, to learn, to pray, and to act with courage; how working with unemployed youth and exploring the multicultural needs of a municipality could shape his theology of being the church in the world and ground his future work as a missiologist; how he consulted professionals as he tried to face the truths of his own issues; how songwriting could open the windows of the soul when other things could not; and how others have felt the benefit of having known him.
It is, however, really important for readers to remember that this is not Ross’s book. In fact, I’m not sure how Ross would have felt about the whole project; possibly quite embarrassed. It is, rather, Jeanette’s book, Jeanette’s story. Each of us will have our own memories about Ross. Some of those memories will be stirred by those recollections captured here in this story, beautifully told. Good stories do that.
Living for Shalom is a biography that walks carefully somewhere between Ross’s private and public worlds, and between the recollections of both the researcher herself and those with whom she has had exchange during the course of her research; not an easy task, but one that Jeannete pulls off admirably. Of course, Jeanette’s work on this book was assisted greatly by the generosity of those she interviewed – who responded to her survey, who kindly shared with Jeanette their own reflections and pictures of Ross, who answered her many questions, and who, along the way, widened the research pool. Moreover, Jeanette had the enviable and remarkable twin-benefit and burden that her subject appears to have never done anything much that he didn’t write down. His detailed diaries, journals, letters, notebooks, articles, academic writings, and songs mark the research gathered here in this volume.
What began with a tentative question to herself and with a hesitant email to a sister-in-law resulted in a well-researched story written with a clarity, order, and precision befitting Ross’s own work. Of course, like any good biography, Living for Shalom teaches us about much more than only its main subject, and here readers are given rich and lively insights and snapshots: about growing up as a missionary kid in a Salvationist family; about the challenges, costs, and risks associated with sustaining Christian activism; about the shape of love in private and public life; about the insanity, character, costliness, and desired ends of theological education, not least in places like Nagaland; about how to carefully tread a path through the fears and expectations of others while maintaining your own integrity as a researcher, biographer, and person with a living faith; about the face of poverty and the possibilities of its concrete overcoming; about leaving home, and about just how complicated leaving home can be; about the difficult and painful questions of Aboriginal and migrant identities that sit like cancer on the heart for the quest for a just Australia living with the invitation for ‘a fuller expression of [its] nationhood’; about the radical (and Salvationist) roots of the Westgate Baptist Community, roots evident only in Ross but also in many other Westgaters; about the life of Christian communities in Melbourne from the first Prime-ministership of Robert Menzies through to Julia Gillard’s (another Westie!) last days in the same unenviable job, set against the backdrop of music played by the likes of The Seekers and Bob Dylan, and against the terrifying screams of the Vietnam War and of the jungles of the Thai–Burma border, violent howls that show no signs of petering out and where even here hope manages to find a way against all the odds.
We all responded to and coped with Melbourne’s long and multiple lockdowns in different ways. Jeanette Woods used that time to write a beautiful book about her brother and then gifted it to us all. For that, we are much in her debt.
This reflection is part of something that I had prepared to share at the launch of Jeanette’s book. Unfortunately, the launch needed to be cancelled.
I was honoured and delighted to be invited to pen a wee endorsement for Jeanette Woods’ recently-published biography of my teacher and friend – Ross Langmead. The book is called Living for Shalom: The Story of Ross Langmead, and here’s what I wrote about it:
This is an affectionate, inspiring, and fluently written account of the life of Ross Langmead, a dedicated and infectious teacher and leader who turned many things upside down. It’s also a striking witness to the redemptive power of the love song that moves the earth toward healing, reconciliation, and wholeness. Very few people could have written this book. That Jeanette Woods has done so has helped us to see—see more and more—what we have loved in and learned from this good mate of a carpenter’s son
The book is available via the publisher, or you can also contact the author directly.
Over at Art/s and Theology Australia, the wonderful Clare Boyd-Macrae has shared a reflection on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Here’s a snippet:
They poured out their very souls in these letters, in a way that I suspect contemporary lovers rarely do with their instant messaging and their moving in together five minutes after they ‘hook up’. The sheer longing for each other in these epistles is a world away from the instant gratification we have come to expect in everything, including sex. I’m not wishing myself back there exactly – I do wonder how marriages panned out when these heightened times were over and a couple had to settle down to jobs and housework and the daily irritations that are a part of a long love. But the contrast with current practices is staggering.
Those interested in submitting short essays, reviews, poems, photos, and critical reflections to ATA can do so here or via email.
Whitley College has the pleasure to host the launch of Dr Xiaoli Yang’s recent book A Dialogue Between Haizi’s Poetry and the Gospel of Luke: Chinese Homecoming and the Relationship with Jesus Christ.
The book has been well received by a wide range of scholars:
“This is no mere correlationist project wherein Haizi provides the questions and Luke(‘s Jesus) responds. Instead, there is a dizzying multi-directionality through which various chasms – East-West, Yin-Yang, ancient-contemporary, modern-postmodern, rural-urban, terrestrial-cosmic, poetic-philosophical, symbolic-discursive, epistemological-ontological, immanence-transcendence – are bridged, irreversibly through the Dao of Haizi’s suicide and ultimately through the way of Jesus’ cross. Yang herself emerges as poet giving profound expression to the contemporary global (dis)location, as prophet naming and diagnosing its instable homelessness, and as priest mediating the possibility of a fresh gospel homecoming precisely in and through the desolation of late modernity’s interface with the post-Mao Chinese soul. The word Dialogue in the title is too modest; be forewarned of the tremors this book will unleash to those who think philosophy and theology are mostly discursive Western undertakings.” — Amos Yong, Professor of Theology & Mission, Fuller Seminary
” A Dialogue between Haizi’s Poetry and the Gospel of Luke is a welcome contribution to the field of intercultural theology. It skillfully employs together four lenses for hermeneutical reading – the historical, literary, philosophical, and religious — to see freshly Luke and the message of Jesus, now heard along with the poetry of Haizi (1964-1989), a voice still new in the West. Drawing poetry into the work of intercultural learning, Xiaoli Yang also brings new resources from the Chinese context into theological reflection, giving new substance to the ideals and practices of an Asian Christian theology. Comparative theologians too will enjoy learning from Yang’s methods and purposes, broadening our repertoire for the work of interreligious theological learning today.” — Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology, Harvard University
“This book offers us an insight into the souls of the contemporary Chinese genuine intellectuals, who have lost their cultural and spiritual home. Through the unique approach combining literary study, intercultural dialogue and comparative theology, Ms. Yang helps us get to such a highland, where we could see clearly the home way of an honest genius poet who committed suicide but never ‘died’, and more importantly, see why millions of Chinese people today are struggling to leave their homeland for new home in foreign land, and for the heavenly home to be with Jesus Christ.” — He Guanghu, Professor of Religious Studies, Renmin University of China
“Historical events claim our attention and can generate a desire to rethink our own philosophical stance. Haizi agonized over social realities of his day through his poetry and ultimately through suicide. This is a fascinating yet tragic personal revelation. The advantage of this tragedy is that it opens up for the reader an opportunity to reflect on one’s own ideas. Dr Xiaoli Yang’s book provides some assistance in this by outlining how one can dialogue with Haizi’s poetry and compare the thinking with another historical figure, Jesus, who also challenged attitudes of the day and finally was killed for his revelations.” —David Claydon, OAM; previous International Director of the Lausanne Movement; author & theological lecturer
Yesterday, I started on a book that’s been on my ‘must read’ pile for most of this year – Patrick Deneen’s gripping and highly-readable Why Liberalism Failed. While Deneen appears to read some of the most significant historical shifts in the West’s cultural and political imaginary in ways that are markedly less contested than do I, there is no doubt that, at least to where I’ve read up to so far, his book offers a stimulating and broadly-compelling diagnosis of liberalism, its vacuous promises, its parasitic nature, and its self-defeating vision.
Here’s a taster:
‘Liberal anticulture rests on three pillars: first, the wholesale conquest of nature, which consequently makes nature into an independent object requiring salvation by the notional elimination of humanity; second, a new experience of time as a pastless present in which the future is a foreign land; and third, an order that renders place fungible and bereft of definitional meaning. These three cornerstones of human experience—nature, time and place—form the basis of culture, and liberalism’s success is premised upon their uprooting and replacement with facsimiles that bear the same names.
The advance of this anticulture takes two primary forms. Anticulture is the consequence of a regime of standardizing law replacing widely observed informal norms that come to be discarded as forms of oppression; and it is the simultaneous consequence of a universal and homogenous market, resulting in a monoculture that, like its agricultural analogue, colonizes and destroys actual cultures rooted in experience, history, and place. These two visages of the liberal anticulture thus free us from other specific people and embedded relationships, replacing custom with abstract and depersonalized law, liberating us from personal obligations and debts, replacing what have come to be perceived as burdens on our individual autonomous freedom with pervasive legal threat and generalized financial indebtedness. In the effort to secure the radical autonomy of individuals, liberal law and the liberal market replace actual culture with an encompassing anticulture.
This anticulture is the arena of our liberty—yet increasingly, it is rightly perceived as the locus of our bondage and even a threat to our continued existence. The simultaneous heady joy and gnawing anxieties of a liberated humanity, shorn of the compass of tradition and inheritance that were the hallmarks of embedded culture, are indicators of liberalism’s waxing success and accumulating failure. The paradox is our growing belief that we are thralls to the very sources of our liberation—pervasive legal surveillance and control of people alongside technological control of nature. As the empire of liberty grows, the reality of liberty recedes. The anticulture of liberalism—supposedly the source of our liberation—accelerates liberalism’s success and demise’.
– Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 65–67.
This afternoon, I had the joy of being at the wonderful Pilgrim Theological College and to share some words at the launch of Geoff Thompson’s fabulous new book, A Genuinely Theological Church. Below’s what I said, more or less.
Thank you to Geoff and to folk here at Pilgrim for the kind invitation and privilege to be here today to help launch Geoff’s latest book, A Genuinely Theological Church. I wish to acknowledge that we meet on Wurundjeri land, of the Kulin nation with whom there have yet been no treaties and whose sovereignty has never been ceded. I pay my respects to any elders past, present, and emerging who may be here among us.
Well, what a wonderful gift to the church Geoff Thompson is! He keeps summoning us to love God and neighbour with our minds, and does so without the levels of anxiety that tend to characterise a great many church discussions. As an expression of Geoff’s love for the Uniting Church, this very timely book is an invitation to develop an explicit rationale for the study of theology in ministerial education. It is also an invitation to the church to understand itself as a theological community, ever renewed by rediscovering its life rooted ‘within the history of Jesus Christ’ (72).
It is difficult to imagine anyone better placed to write such a book. It reflects the wisdom of one who has wrestled long with questions about ‘the highly contested nature of theological education in the Uniting Church’ (7) and beyond. Geoff maps the recent history of theological education against the background of ‘almost incalculable’ (23) cultural and intellectual change in the global church, and he calls upon the church to not retreat from but rather to engage with such realities with the full resources of the Gospel. To this end, Geoff argues that theological colleges ought to be located in ‘larger communities responsible for developing a culture of debate, research, resourcing, advocacy and public engagement’ (68).
He laments that while the demands, orientations, and contexts of ministry and of ministerial training have changed, there has been very little reflection on the role of theology in the church, and about why theology should assume the constant place it does. He surmises that this ‘suggests that we’re convinced that theology is important, but we’re not entirely sure why’, and that this absence of clarity means that ‘theology tends to become little more than a hoop that must be jumped [through] on the way to something else’ (24). He accepts that ‘theologians … have to take some of the blame for this situation’. ‘We have’, he says, ‘been either too defensive or … too confident that people will simply know what to do with a theological education and that the church … will know what to do with its theologically-educated leaders …. who are often appointed leaders for their expertise in other areas’ (25).
Geoff wants us to scrutinise what he and other theological educators have been doing, to ask if we have gotten the ‘questions about theological education right’, and to interrogate that question ‘with meaningful criteria’ (7–8). Drawing upon the extraordinary witness of the Basis of Union, he invites us to reflect on more basic questions, like: why does the church bother with theology at all? Indeed, why is there a church at all? What is this strangely ‘embodied way of life sustained and normed by the novel message of the gospel’ (9) of which Geoff speaks?
Of course, Geoff has been talking about this stuff for a long time. Some might say that he has a bit of ‘thing’ for it. Indeed, in an article in this month’s Crosslight he again advances the claim that ‘theological education is not about developing a theological “position”’ but is, rather, ‘about shaping a theological imagination. It involves learning to see and experience God [and] the world … through an ongoing critical but constructive engagement with the tension-filled biblical material, an immersion in the ebb and flow of the history of Christian doctrine, and a ruthlessly honest familiarity with Christianity’s history and its diverse practices’. This book too is a call to see in the ordinary work of theology that which cultivates the church’s ‘collective imagination’ (73). It therefore rejects as unhelpful the ‘sharp contrast between scholarship and practice’ (14) as, in Geoff’s words, ‘a furphy’ (27). He laments ‘the ease with which’ members of the Uniting Church have allowed ‘scholarship to define theology’, or to ‘reduce theology to scholarly theology …. Theology … is much larger and far more important to the church than its scholarly forms’ (15).
The reduction of theology to the purview of church ‘ministry’ – whether lay or ordained – is another part of the problem that Geoff is keen to diagnose. He does not follow the worn path of thinking that ‘everyone is a theologian’, however. Indeed, he judges this to be ‘one of the more unhelpful slogans at play in the Uniting Church’ (43). Instead, he argues that the theologian is one who ‘relates to particular features of the social imaginary by attending in an explicit way to what otherwise remains implicit’ (46), and who does so with attention to biblical texts, to analysing historical doctrinal developments, to debating contested interpretations, to generating constructive theological proposals, to writing and presenting papers and preaching sermons about such matters, and to critically articulating the faith in public fora (42–43).
Geoff’s reference to theologians clearly preferences those whose work is concerned almost exclusively with words. If I was to venture a small criticism of this terrific book, it would be that it might have donated more ink to the ways that words do not exhaust the making explicit what otherwise remains implicit; that engagement in the joyous burden of enquiry and witness to the hope born of a faith that Easters us is not done with words alone. Yes, theology does much of its critical work through ‘exegesis, analysis, construction, writing and debating’ (50) and so on, but unlike work on say dogma and doctrine, theology does these with more than words. What of cultural myths, ritual, image, architecture, time, music, hospitality? I wish that Geoff had also explored some such ways in this book.
For those, like Geoff and myself, committed to serving God through the atmosphere of the Reformed project, the dynamic and free character of the living Word is as uncompromising a priority as is the hope that faith communities are ever born through its hearing. But it is very easy to be blind-sighted by such a commitment. Edwin Muir’s criticism of King Calvin’s kirk comes readily to mind. Muir, a Scottish poet, spoke of how ‘the Word made flesh … is made word again’, exposing an enduring proclivity in Reformed Christianity to attempt to secure the truth of the Gospel through words alone.
Don’t get me wrong: I love words, and theology can’t do without them. But language has a tendency to pretend ‘to a precision, a finality that it cannot deliver, and this, ironically, is what makes it potentially more idolatrous than the images of which it is so suspicious’. Responsible theological education must constantly underscore this fact by undertaking its work in an abundance of performative modes. This is indeed to take seriously Geoff’s own claim that theological work ought to correspond to the modes by which divine revelation has come into the world. It is also to underscore the theological community’s ‘vocation’, in Geoff’s words, ‘to counter the myth that reason is the only legitimate mode of truth-telling’ (60). Or, to cite Luther: ‘It’s not reading books that makes a theologian, but living, dying, and being damned!’
A Genuinely Theological Church is a welcome challenge to those faith communities still breathing late-Christendom air to imagine that the church’s ‘validity is derived [solely] from its availability to Jesus Christ’ (29–30). It is this that assists the church to counter the ever-present temptations of abstraction and domestication. And it is this, primarily, that makes the Christian community to be stranger than we hardly ever dare imagine. How fitting, for its sole existence is to bear witness to the peculiarity of God’s own strangeness among us in Jesus Christ. This is part of the novel gift that the ‘decline of Christendom allows us in the West’ (34–35). And it is theology’s role, Geoff believes, ‘to help shape the church’s collective imagination around’ this strange and novel story of the crucified God ‘with which Christianity launched itself into the world’ (38). Geoff believes that this calls for ‘leadership which is embedded in a post-Christendom [or we might be better to say late-Christendom] theological imagination which can articulate and shape the Christian faith in the midst of the other social imaginaries that make up the cultural plurality of Australian society’ (82). Geoff’s book made me pause and ask myself the question: What would it take for the UCA to produce another kind of Davis McCaughey, but for today’s Australia?
A few years ago, the Church of England produced a consultation document called Resourcing Ministerial Education. Among other things, it argued that the Church needs a ‘significant increase in the number and quality of ministerial leaders’ to meet its new challenges. One thing that it highlighted is that, as one commentator put it:
To be asked to minister without an informing vision of God (which is what theology is really all about) … is like being told to make bricks without straw …. We cannot evade discussion of issues of finance, resourcing, and patterns of ministerial education. Yet there is a risk that we may fail to ask the right questions – particularly if we allow the institutional needs of the Church to trump the spiritual and pastoral needs of congregations, or lose sight of the importance of a theological vision in inspiring and sustaining Christian ministry.Geoff’s book is concerned to articulate and to invite engagement with many of these ‘right questions’.
You know, many scholars write excellent fat books. Very few get read. Many, however, do a most admirable job at elevating computer monitors. Geoff’s book would make a useless computer monitor stand! A few years ago, when Julian Barnes’ short novel The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize, readers and critics were reminded that form matters as well as content. At 88 pages, A Genuinely Theological Church frees its readers – and its author – of the burden of being comprehensive. Like Walter Benjamin’s 38-page The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Geoff’s fabulously-hobbit-sized book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only material its reader has at hand. Of course, short books are only very rarely indeed a substitute for more complex works that advance challenging arguments. But they can certainly delight in piquing curiosity and in provoking further thought, and perhaps even action. Geoff’s book seeks such ends, and for that the church is again truly in his debt.
 Geoff Thompson, A Genuinely Theological Church: Ministry, Theology and the Uniting Church (Reservoir: Uniting Academic Press, 2018).
 While Geoff properly resists the temptation to commit on other parts of the church, the relevance of this book clearly extends beyond the bounds of the UCA.
 Geoff Thompson, ‘Forming Disciples – Theologically’, Crosslight, June 2018, 18.
 Edwin Muir, ‘The Incarnate One’, in Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 228–29.
 Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 11.
 The judgement that we are living in a ‘post-Christendom’ context is debatable in my view and, as Geoff notes, a not-entirely-accurate description of the Australian scene.
 Geoff is right to argue that ‘a simplistically-formulated faith, and a faith reflected on only simplistically, will betray its own substance’ (39). Unremitting and unqualified silence is not a final option for those called to discipleship in the world because such would mark a retreat into pure subjectivity at the very point when those so called find themselves already committed to the world. But as Kierkegaard diagnosed in his own context, the most carefully parsed words offer no guarantee that the truth of Christianity might be rendered more or less meaningful.
 Alistair E. McGrath, ‘It’s the theology, stupid’, Church Times, 17 April (2015), https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2015/17-april/comment/opinion/it-s-the-theology-stupid.
‘The unpacking of books, perhaps because it is essentially chaotic, is a creative act, and as in every creative act, the materials employed lose in the process their individual nature: they become part of something different, something that encompasses and at the same time transforms them. In the act of setting up a library, the books lifted out of their boxes and about to be placed on a shelf shed their original identities and acquire new ones through random associations, preconceived allotments, or authoritarian labels. Many times, I’ve found that a book I once held in my hands becomes another when assigned its position in my library. This is anarchy under the appearance of order’.
– Alberto Manguel, ‘The Art of Unpacking a Library’
[Image: Juno Lamb]
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!
I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:
A guest post from Scott Jackson
John Heywood Thomas, Theology and Issues of Life and Death (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2013). ISBN: 13:978-1-62032-228-4; xx+136pp.
According to philosophical theologian John Heywood Thomas, Christian theology must vindicate itself by addressing practical questions: When does life being? How can we die with dignity? How can we uphold human values in the face of rapid advances in medicine and technology? To meet this need, these thematic essays mobilize concepts from Christian thought and modern philosophy to address contemporary moral decision making. Thomas, professor emeritus at the University of Nottingham, writes, ‘What I want to show is that Theology is of temporal as well as eternal use and that it has light to shed on problems that concern us and guidance to offer us in our perplexities as we live our lives in this world’ (p. xvi). By and large, Thomas succeeds at this task with sensitivity, erudition and an engaging style. The collection is somewhat eclectic and lacks a central thesis; still, these seven essays, which were developed from public lectures and previously unpublished pieces, hang together fairly well.
Thomas draws from his extensive research into Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy and theology. He reiterates the Danish philosopher’s clear distinction between time and eternity and his characteristic emphasis upon the lived dialectic of existence. Like his mentor Paul Tillich, Thomas conceives theology as a ‘boundary’ discourse that impinges upon the human sciences at the level of their existential rootedness in ultimate reality. Thomas quotes Aquinas and catholic spiritual writers with ease. In one of the more engaging aspects of this collection, moreover, he draws from literary sources, showing a special affinity for the poets from his Welsh heritage who share his surname (Gwen Thomas, Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas), and he teases out religious implications from these works.
Thomas rejects typically modern dichotomies in religion and morality. Thus, for example, he insists that all philosophy and theology stem from existential commitment and the authors’ specific contexts, as Kierkegaard taught; yet, as Tillich insisted, religious thought also entails a speculative dimension (Thomas does not share the postmodern antipathy to asking big questions.) Good theology, he holds, transcends the dichotomy between theory and practice and embraces the keenest insights of contemporary research. In this vein, he goes beyond the absolute stance of the Roman Catholic against abortion and argues that the contemporary science of brain development can help us address the question of when human life begins. Still, as Christians, we cannot rely merely upon modern notions of individual rights when facing problems in medical ethics: All our deliberations must be framed by our paradoxical situation as ‘created creators’ and by the central events of our redemption in Jesus Christ. Similarly, in our common human experience, we respect the bodies and last wishes of the deceased, and these commitments inform the practice of transplant surgery, tempering the utilitarian impulse to treat bodies as mere sources for parts to save the living.
Some of the most provocative insights in this book emerge from the author’s attempt to frame a theology of death and a ‘theology of the funeral’. Although Thomas references the Christian story explicitly and seems fairly comfortable with traditional religious language, he also seeks to respect the mystery that permeates the meaning and ending of human life. Thus, he affirms the resurrection hope believers share in Christ, but he refuses to speculate about the character of our post-mortem existence. In faith we proclaim that the frontier line between time and eternity has been overcome in Christ’s death. Whatever eternal life means is not something we can know before we experience it. Still, scripture provides images – e.g., the last supper as eschatological banquet. In conversation with Sartre, Heidegger and Rahner, Thomas explores the notion of death as the quintessential act of human freedom that gives meaning and shape to life as a whole. Moreover, today, contemporary climate science urges us to ponder the spectre of death on a global scale and points to a potential catastrophe for life on earth. Western individualism does us a grave disservice as we face questions of ecology and sustainability; yet, Christian eschatology has always had ‘cosmic’ strands that may help us learn to take the natural world more seriously; Thomas engages such thinkers as Jürgen Moltmann and Teilhard de Chardin, who have offered powerful models for addressing these questions.
Some readers, no doubt, are likely to find these essays unsatisfying. Thinkers who seek a bolder and more direct account of how Christian witness may inform contemporary moral issues – including some liberationists, postliberals and radical orthodox thinkers – may find Thomas too indebted to modernist philosophy and theology. Nonetheless, the author engages his resources with skill and thoughtfulness. Contemporary Christians, especially lay and ordained ministers, can find much in Thomas’ work to challenge and broaden their perspective on some of the most vexing issues of our day.
Scott Jackson, a member of the Episcopal Church, is a theologian and independent scholar who lives in western Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to the wonderful blog Die Evangelischen Theologen.
A new collection of essays on reformed theology, arising from a wonderful conference hosted by Austin Seminary, has just been published. Always Being Reformed: Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Reformed Theology was edited by David Jensen, who was also a contributor to the volume along with Cynthia Rigby, Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, Deborah van den Bosch, Henk van den Bosch, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Lameck Banda, Margit Ernst-Habib, Martha Moore-Keish, Mary Fulkerson, Meehyun Chung, and Bill Greenway. The collection includes a few scribbles from me too.
My essay is titled ‘Semper Reformanda as a Confession of Crisis’. It is unambitious and simple in its three broad aims, each of which earns a section. The first section is an attempt to identify the historical beginnings and theological intentions of the aphorism semper reformanda, and to trace some of the ways in which the commitment to this virtue of the reformed project has evolved. The second, and longest, section asks more specifically about how that commitment relates to reformed patterns of confessing. Principally, what I argue for here is that to confess the faith in the spirit of the semper is to confess that the Christian community is, at core, in a state of crisis. The final section attempts to place on the table one theo-political commitment that might call for reevaluation; namely, how the reformed conceive of their relationship vis-à-vis the modern state. I take it that this section is an implication of the previous one – i.e., an implication of the gospel’s eschatological character and what it means to be a community unsettled, unpredictable, and unreliable when it comes to its relationship with whatever current arrangements might be in place in the world.
I look forward to seeing the book when it arrives, and to revisiting some of the wonderfully-stimulating essays therein.
The conference was memorable in many ways. So was Austin. It was there that I met, for the very first time, a quiscalus quiscula.
Prayers of a Secular World. Edited by Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy; introduction by David Tacey. Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2015. 160pp, ISBN: 978-0-9875401-9-5.
Inkerman and Blunt recently published a new anthology of work, a relatively little book by an impressive range of some 80 mostly Antipodean poets, some very well known, others hardly at all. The collection, Prayers for a Secular World, was edited by Melbourne poets Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy, and is introduced, fittingly so, with a brief essay by David Tacey on the religious nature of secularism. The latter helps to orient the reader to some of the terrain they are about to enter.
In their call for submissions, the editors said that they were ‘looking for poems of wonder and celebration, poems that mark the cycle of the day – dawn, midday, evening, night – the seasons, the progression of planets, the evolution of weather; poems of becoming – first steps, first words, transitions, epiphanies and inspirations; poems of belief and of doubt, pleas for protection, poems of remembrance and blessing, of forgiveness and redemption, poems of gratitude’. Short of the sternest editorial policing, such an invitation almost guarantees, more than most edited collections I think, the kind of hotchpotch smorgasbord of aptitude evident in the volume’s final form. Still.
The book’s title – which echoes Donna Ward’s claim, in Australian Love Poems, that ‘poems are prayers of the secular world’ – appears, at first glance, to promote the somewhat late-Victorian idea that poets are the new priests. But the pages therein are marked by a welcome avoidance of such presumption, their words occupied with patterns of time and of place, of dying and of encountering the world anew, and with the sounds of landscapes mostly suburban, where the majority of its readers, no doubt, dwell and pass through. In a review published in The Australian, Geoff Page noted of the title: ‘They are certainly not be [sic] “prayers” in the intercessory sense but they are contemplative and very likely to widen and diversify the metaphysical sensibilities of all but the most hardened of fundamentalists – who, no doubt, already have their own (more limited) rewards in view’. This is a point worth repeating, especially perhaps for those uncomfortable, in Tacey’s words, with the notion that ‘the transcendent doesn’t happen elsewhere, apart from the world, but is a dimension of the world’. Still, the publisher’s description of the book as ‘a meditation on living in a post-religious world’ strikes me as very odd – odd not only as a sketch of the book’s content, but also odd in terms of its assessment of things. Observers of the cultural landscape of our day might well enquire what world exactly is being spoken of here.
There is, for many, the perennial temptation to will oneself into a kind of authenticity. Such efforts are an expression of a romanticism that either refuses or forgets to weave into the solidest realities a knowledge of its loss. The result is, as the poet Christian Wiman has observed, a ‘soft nostalgia’. There are here, happily, a good number of notable exceptions to what might otherwise be merely another unwelcome example of such, of groping disorientated by a handful of tamed Emersonian ghosts trying to iron out the highs and lows of life apparently naïve to the view that our being of dust does not equate to an uncritical defence of some pathetic form of natural theology. In this volume, poems by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Andrew Lansdown, Fiona Wright, Robyn Rowland, Debi Hamilton, Ron Pretty, Anne Elvey, Michelle Cahill, and David Brooks, for example, serve this end particularly well. So do, I think, these two contributions:
‘Da Barri Barri Bullet Train’, by The Diwurruwurru Poetry Club with Mista Phillip
we bin get up with mista an habim gooda one feed
we bin jumpin da mudika
an millad bin go lunga bush
mimi an kukudi bin come too
an dey bin singim kujika
dey bin learnim us mob
for sing im kujika
we likim learn for sing us mob kujika
wen us mob bin lyin down in da darkes
darkest night I bin look da barri barri
e bin movin really really like da bullet train
I bin hold ma mimi really tight
da fire us mob bin make next ta millad mob
poking tongue like a big one king brown
an millad mob listen noise one side na water
must e bin da buffalo drinkin water
den us bin listen da croc bin snap da buffalo
da gnabia out there too
an he bin make us mob so frightn
but ma mimi bin sing out
hey you mob stop all da noise
ma mimi bin start to sing
da song na us mob country
sing in da old language
dem old people did sing
an make millad mob so shiny an strong
an I bin lyin da listen na mimi
I bin feel really really safe
den I musta bin go sleep
‘Eucalyptus Regnans’, by Meredi Ortega
that was some fiery trajectory you took, moving to Kinglake
to be among giants and clouds
I recall you dying once before
…….. .. run down at the crossing, going home for lunch
but you’re on Yea oval, among the nightied and discalceate
and you’re okay
road posts gone
all delineators and signs, the way forward and way back
…….. ..only black stags, ash deafening
one charred fence post
and your old weatherboard like a kind of gloating, it falls to you
…….. ..to be the lucky one
better to believe in regnans than luck, they have what it takes
martyrdom, lofty sentiments
…….. ..all crown and nimbus and resurrection
up on the mountain, no one knows if lyrebirds
are mimicking silence
…….. ..volunteers go into the wasteland, leave songs out
musk and fern and siltstone tunes
it rains and then some
…….. ..and the green is giddying
stags wash white, their millioned saplings serry
…….. ..knit roots, squeeze out the other then each other
ashes move up the escarpment and up
to the yellow-raddled cockatoo, yellow-eyed currawong, to the sun
and you are in the very dawn of things
I want to commend Marilynne Robinson’s recent book The Givenness of Things.
The result of this collection of wise and intelligent essays on profoundly human themes, proclivities, and experiences – like poverty, theology, freedom, randomness, fear, fads, greed, faith, science, and alarmism, breathed through with decent doses of Shakespeare, Calvin, Locke, and Saints Matthew and Luke, and marked by a remarkably high christology – is a perspicacious map which assists those of us living in and with Western cultures to read better the signs of the times, and to live better orientated towards those things that will outlast all else. A gift, from one who on her next birthday will be seventy.
I read large amounts of this book while sitting by two kangaroos – a big one, and a little one. They seemed to enjoy my company as much as I did theirs, and that of this book. And nearby hung this sign, another telling commentary on the state of things:
My (re-)reading of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North turned me into a disciple, a Flanaganite, a lover of all things Flanagan, and so determined to enjoy my way through everything he’s published. I recently finished reading his Gould’s Book of Fish, doting on quirky page after quirky page of this delightful story, and along the way falling in love with William Buelow Gould who lived ‘once upon a time … long ago in a far-off place that everyone knows is not here or now or us’.
Here’s one of my favourite passages; it’s about books:
‘Perhaps reading and writing books is one of the last defences human dignity has left, because in the end they remind us of what God once reminded us before He too evaporated in this age of relentless humiliations—that we are more than ourselves; that we have souls. And more, moreover.
Or perhaps not.
Because it clearly was too big a burden for God, this business about reminding people of being other than hungry dust, and really the only wonder is that He persevered with it for so long before giving up. Not that I am unsympathetic—I’ve often felt the same weary disgust with my own rude creations—but I neither expect nor wish the book to succeed where He failed … I had begun with the comforting conclusion that books are the tongue of divine wisdom, and had ended only with the thin hunch that all books are grand follies, destined forever to be misunderstood.
Mr Hung says that a book at its beginning may be a new way of understanding life—an original universe—but it is soon enough no more than a mere footnote in the history of writing, overpraised by the sycophantic, despised by the contemporary, and read by neither. Their fate is hard, their destiny absurd. If readers ignore them they die, and if granted the thumbs-up of posterity they are destined forever to be misconstrued, their authors transformed first into gods and then, inevitably, unless they are Victor Hugo, into devils’.
– Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish
The most recent edition of the journal Horizons (42.1, June 2015) includes a review (pdf), by Kevin P. Considine (Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Calumet College of St. Joseph, Indiana), of my book Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth.
The book is now available in paperback at a friendlier price too.
The publishers have informed me that the Kindle edition for my edited volume Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth is now available from Amazon in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, India, Japan, Italy, and Mexico.
It’s also available in regular paperback and in ePub formats direct from the publisher, Wipf and Stock, and from wherever good books are sold.
Until recently, my major study on P. T. Forsyth – Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth – has only been available in hardback (which is usually my preferred format for non-fiction titles but can be, and in this case is, reasonably pricey) and in e-book format (convenient but not, in my view, the nicest way to read theological tomes).
I was happy to learn of late that the publishers have followed a habit with the T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology series and have now made Hallowed Be Thy Name available in paperback (at a more reader-friendly price too). Those interested can pick up a copy here.
By the way, if you do happen to head over to the Bloomsbury site, some readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem may also be interested to note the appearance of a forthcoming title, The Spirit and the Letter, edited by Paul Fiddes and Günter Badder. It looks great.