on a kind of ecological grace and the ethical life

‘The real choice we all face is not what to buy, whether to fly or whether to have children but whether we are willing to commit to living ethically in a broken world, a world in which human beings are dependent for collective survival on a kind of ecological grace. There is no utopia, no Planet B, no salvation, no escape. We’re all stuck here together. And living in that world, the only world there is, means giving up any claims to innocence or moral purity, since to live at all means to cause suffering.

Living ethically means understanding that our actions have consequences, taking responsibility for how those consequences ripple out across the web of life in which each of us is irrevocably enmeshed and working every day to ease what suffering we can. Living ethically means limiting our desires, respecting the deep interdependence of all things in nature and honoring the fact that our existence on this planet is a gift that comes from nowhere and may be taken back at any time’.

– Roy Scranton, Raising My Child in a Doomed World’

Some Recent Watering Holes


Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source


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:

And this:

Theology and Issues of Life and Death: A Review

Theology and Issues of Life and Death

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 couple of conferences on theology and ethics

The Department of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, together with the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, are organising the following conferences:

Theological Ethics Conference Aberdeen

Bonhoeffer Events Aberdeen (2)

Note: If you are a fellow blogger and/or tweeter/G+er/facebooker, please consider helping to spread the word about these exciting events. Please feel free too to use the images (jpegs) that I have uploaded here.

Daniel Bell on ‘Just War and Christian Discipleship’

By way of a wee follow up to a recent post on ‘just war’ theory, I wish to draw attention to a talk, which I have only just gotten around to listen to, by Daniel Bell on ‘Just War and Christian Discipleship’, the subject of a book and of this pamphlet also by Bell. It’s a paper presented at Wheaton’s Theology Conference earlier this year on Christian Political Witness, and is available for download in both MP3 and MP4 formats.

Leunig, Hunsinger and Hauerwas on ‘just war’ theory

As the US continues to beat its war drums in the Middle East, it’s a good time to think again about the so-called ‘just war’ theory. So, I draw attention to three pieces – from Michael Leunig, from George Hunsinger and from Stanley Hauerwas.

So, Leunig:

Just war

And in a recent piece published in Commonweal Magazine, Hunsinger argues that ‘a defensible case for the attack on Syria would have to satisfy traditional “just war” standards. In its modern form the just-war tradition (jus ad bellum) involves at least four primary elements: just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. If these criteria remain unmet, the recourse to war is unjustified’. In Hunsinger’s view, the proposed attack on Syria meets none of these standards.

And here, Hauerwas argues that the real realists are not the just-war advocates anyway, but the pacifists. Moreover, he contends that ‘the lack of realism about realism by American just war advocates has everything to do with their being American’. ‘In particular’, he suggests, ‘American advocates of just war seem to presume that democratic societies place an inherent limit on war that more authoritarian societies are unable to do. While such a view is quite understandable, I would argue that democratic society – at least, the American version – is unable to set limits on war because it is democratic. Put even more strongly, for Americans war is a necessity to sustain our belief that we are worthy to be recipients of the sacrifices made on our behalf in past wars. Americans are a people born of and in war, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a people set apart’. Such democracies, Hauerwas believes, ‘by their very nature seem to require that wars be fought in the name of ideals that make war self-justifying’. And, characteristically, Hauerwas concludes his piece with a reflection on the relationship between war, christology and ecclesiology:

Pacifists are realists. Indeed, we have no reason to deny that the “realism” associated with Augustine, Luther and Niebuhr has much to teach us about how the world works. But that is why we do not trust those who would have us make sacrifices in the name of preserving a world at war. We believe a sacrifice has been made that has brought an end to the sacrifice of war.

Augustine and Luther thought Christians might go to war because they assumed a church existed that provided an alternative to the sacrificial system war always threatens to become. When Christians no longer believe that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the salvation of the world, we will find other forms of sacrificial behaviours that are as compelling as they are idolatrous. In the process, Christians confuse the sacrifice of war with the sacrifice of Christ.

If a people does not exist that continually makes Christ present in the world, war will always threaten to become a sacrificial system. War is a counter church. War is the most determinative moral experience many people have.

That is why Christian realism requires the disavowal of war. Christians do not disavow war because it is often so horrible, but because war, in spite of its horror – or perhaps because it is so horrible – can be so morally compelling. That is why the church does not have an alternative to war. The church is the alternative to war. When Christians lose that reality – that is, the reality of the church as an alternative to the world’s reality – we abandon the world to the unreality of war.

For what it’s worth, whenever I happen across Christians defending just-war theory to justify their participation in the state’s various machineries of cross-border violence (which, for the record, is not what I think Hunsinger is doing), I’m reminded of another George – George Bernard Shaw – and his challenge to (hypocritical) church leaders:

They have turned their churches into recruiting stations and their vestries into munitions workshops. But it has never occurred to them to take off their black coats and say quite simply, ‘I find in the hour of trial that the Sermon on the Mount is tosh, and that I am not a Christian. I apologise for all the unpatriotic nonsense I have been preaching all the years. Have the goodness to give me a revolver and a commission in a regiment which has for its chaplain a priest of the god Mars: my God.’ Not a bit of it. They have stuck to their livings and served Mars in the name of Christ, to the scandal of all religious mankind.

The cruel and godless practice of live animal exports

live-export-australian-steer-slaughtered-indonesiaRecently, I posted a video of David Clough’s lecture ‘Rethinking Animality: Towards a New Animal Ethics’. One of the reasons that I drew attention to that lecture was because I consider the work that David (and others too) is engaged in around this issue to be incontrovertibly ‘vital’ [from the late fourteenth century Latin vitalis, meaning ‘of or belonging to life’]. Any society that takes lightly the killing of animals (those creatures whom Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to as the brothers whom Adam loves), as do those societies with which I am most familiar, has grossly misjudged the sheer giftedness of life itself and is, it seems to me, already well on the way to responding lightly to and of justifying various forms of homicide and deathliness in its midst, blinded by the lie that the life of any creature belongs to something or someone other than God. This is why Karl Barth, for example, argued with due passion that ‘the slaying of animals is really possible only as an appeal to God’s reconciling grace’, and that we ought to have very good reasons for why we might claim the life of another creature for ours. Human beings can only kill an animal, Barth avers, knowing that it does not belong to us but to God alone, and that in killing it – an act which itself is incredibly traumatic, as I can testify – one surrenders it to God in order to receive it back from God as something one needs and desires. ‘The killing of animals in obedience is possible’, Barth contends, ‘only as a deeply reverential act of repentance, gratitude and praise on the part of the forgiven sinner in face of the One who is the Creator and Lord of humanity and beast’. Here Barth’s words compliment the Jewish tradition which champions the need to avoid tzar baalei chayim – causing pain to any living creature – and insists that where animals are killed that they are done so ‘with respect and compassion’, most properly by way of shechita.

With that, I come to the subject of this post; namely, live animal exports. Animals Australia reports that

every year millions of Australian animals are exported live for slaughter. Those who survive the journey often endure brutal treatment and conscious slaughter. Cattle, sheep and goats are sent throughout the Middle East and South East Asia — to countries with no laws to protect them from cruelty. Tens of thousands of animals don’t survive the sea journey and those that do disembark into countries where they are transported, handled and then slaughtered in appalling ways. Most animals slaughtered overseas have their throats cut while they are fully conscious, leading to an incredibly painful and prolonged death. Since 2003, Animals Australia has conducted numerous investigations into the treatment of animals exported from Australia. The evidence from investigations in the Middle East and South East Asia has consistently revealed the willingness of Australia’s live export industry, and consecutive Federal Governments, to export live animals despite appalling cruelty in importing markets.

While Australia remains by far the world’s largest exporter of sheep and cattle, this is not, of course, only an Australian issue. Earlier this year, the New Zealand Herald, for example, reported a ‘Boom in live cattle exports to China’, although thanks to the Customs Exports Prohibition (Livestock for Slaughter) Order these are mostly for breeding purposes, and recent protests at the Port of Dover in the UK are evidence that exporting of live cattle remains a practice in the UK and the EU, with exports going mainly to Italy and France.

This video, produced by Animals Australia, testifies to the cruel and godless practices that attend the live export of animals:

Clearly, this is a political as well as a moral issue (not that the two can ever be separated); and as the Australian Federal election draws near, I wish to publicise my support for the campaign by Animals Australia and Ban Live Export against the sickening and anti-vital practice of live animal exports. I learned recently that one of the Coalition’s priorities, should it win the election, is to ‘apologise’ to Indonesia (a country that receives some 45% of Australia’s live animals) for the Labour Government’s five week trade suspension in 2011, a suspension put in place in direct response to an ABC Four Corner’s program, ‘A Bloody Business’, which exposed the practices that attend live animal exports. In Australia, with the exception of Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, it has been The Greens who have consistently spoken out against this practice and who have sort to (re)introduce the Live Animal Export (Slaughter) Prohibition Bill (2012) into the Senate. And in New Zealand, from which there has been no live animal exports for slaughter since 2003, it is again The Green Party who have tried to maintain pressure to restrict the export of live animals. (I don’t mention this in order to propagandise for The Greens, but simply to report a fact.)

Here is the campaign video produced by Animals Australia:

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, and the other Coalition party leaders, seem to have forgotten – or, just couldn’t give a rats about – the outrage that Australians felt after that program aired, the facts therein being also corroborated by the live export industry’s own reports. Certainly, it is difficult to see how any formal apology to the Indonesian government or business groups could do anything other than serve to send a message that animal abuse is condoned. To my mind, this ought to be an important election issue. It is certainly an important theological issue. So if you are a fellow Australian citizen, or have your name on the electoral role, then please consider joining me in supporting this campaign.

‘Rethinking Animality: Towards a New Animal Ethics’

David Clough is a very fine Christian theologian who for many years now has been doing some great work to help us rethink our attitude to animals. Recently, he delivered a wonderful inaugural professorial lecture at The University of Chester (a university, to be sure, with some aesthetically-challenged lecture rooms) on the subject ‘Rethinking Animality: Towards a New Animal Ethics’, or Why Christians (& others) should stop eating animals from intensive farming. I thought it was worth sharing, so here it is:

Ethics in the Presence of Christ

Christopher R.J. Holmes, Ethics in the Presence of Christ (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2012). ISBN: 9780567491732; viii+164pp.

Christian theology is always ethics. To be sure, dogmatics and ethics are not entirely the same thing, but there can be no responsible dogmatics that is not also concerned with ethics, and no responsible ethics that is not equally concerned with dogmatics. Unhinged from one another, both become retarded at best, and tyrants at worst. Put otherwise, ethics is part of the doctrine of God precisely because, as Barth noted, God makes himself responsible for us. So Barth’s decision to speak of ethics as a task of the doctrine of God in CD II/2, a paragraph he introduces thus:

As the doctrine of God’s command, ethics interprets the Law as the form of the Gospel, i.e., as the sanctification which comes to man through the electing God. Because Jesus Christ is the holy God and sanctified man in One, it has its basis in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Because the God who claims man for Himself makes Himself originally responsible for him, it forms part of the doctrine of God. Its function is to bear primary witness to the grace of God in so far as this is the saving engagement and commitment of man. (§36)

According to Barth, a Christian account of dogmatics and ethics – both evangelical and catholic – begins with a particular person – Jesus Christ – and in his contemporaneous power, truth and love graciously made available to us by the ministry of the Spirit. This too is Chris Holmes’ claim in his delightful and eloquently written essay, Ethics in the Presence of Christ. Slaying the dragon of christological exemplarism (‘Exemplarism in Christian Ethics trades upon principles and a dead Jesus, a Jesus who lives only inasmuch as his example guides. Exemplarism is imprisoned by immanence, the idea that the resources we need for good conduct, for living humanly, are present within the matrix of our own experience, so that Jesus himself is called upon only inasmuch as he corroborates values and attitudes commensurate with our account of what it means to be “ethical”’) as a foundation for Christian and ecclesial existence, Holmes seeks to ‘draw the life of the Christian community into the orbit of the presence and ongoing ministry of Christ, its natural environment, and thus to explore the consequences of his presence for ethics and offer an account of the moral landscape of ethics that is dependent on its environment’.

Convinced that ‘ethics is a function of Christ’s “continually operative” reconciling and revealing intervention’, and that responsible ethics is as participatory as is life, prayer, worship, etc. – i.e., it takes place in the life of the Spirit and from the side of Jesus Christ – Holmes is concerned that we engage in conversations about ethics in light of the contemporary presence and determining ministry of Jesus Christ. He seeks to take with full seriousness the fact that ethics is a function of christology, the human counterpart to Christ’s vicarious obedience and faith. ‘Ethics’, he writes, ‘is simply action evoked by and participant in his saving action and saving obedience. Accordingly, ethics is behavior that recognizes “the pioneer and perfecter” of our faith’. Ethical acts, in other words, are acts aligned to the presence of a particular person, and to what that person – Jesus Christ – is now doing. Accordingly, ethics is not concerned with the good abstractly understood or indeed with any norm or concept apart from a particular living person. And Holmes calls upon Christians to continually turn to the person who speaks through his Word.

Ethics in the Presence of Christ, Holmes outlines in the introductory chapter, is concerned to ask and answer two basic questions: Is this One as narratively attested present? And if so, what is he doing? When ethics becomes attuned to how God’s rule in the world takes shape through the present Christ and how God intends his rule to take shape in us through patient hearing of the Word, it, Holmes insists, ‘becomes an enterprise that begins afresh each day, seeking to do God’s will, recognizing that the doing of God’s will is a matter of being rendered transparent to what God is already doing “to keep human life human in the world’”.

Drawing on the work of Lehmann, Bonhoeffer, TF Torrance, Webster, Hoskyns, Barth, Newbigin, and others, Holmes offers us a theological reading of three texts from John’s Gospel – 5.1–18; 18.1–19.42 and 21 – attending to the themes of the presence of Christ’s power, truth and love respectively. These three chapters form the heart of the book, and are introduced by a fine (though somewhat repetitive) chapter on ethics and presence. The final chapter offers a rich account on why Scripture construes ethical reality.  Holmes’ decision to attend closely to Scripture is premised on the fact that ‘a text on Christology and ethics cannot afford to be exegetically thin, precisely because Christology is a description of the person who acts as narratively depicted, and ethics an account of what the One who acts as Scripturally attested would have of us’. Would that more theologians followed Holmes’ lead here!

In his exposition of Jesus’ healing of the sick man in John 5, Holmes argues that ‘Christ is acting now among us no less powerfully than he did then; he is present among us by the Spirit in accord with the grain of the universe’. He suggests that Jesus’ gracious healing of the sick man is indicative of the fact that Jesus ‘does not will that life go on as normal for this man whom he encounters. The healing of the man is a sign, a sign of ‘the End’, namely the eschatological enfleshment ‘of God’s glory and presence to Israel’. Moreover, Jesus’ healing ministry attests his identity as ‘One in whom God’s life-giving rule is present and effective’. Drawing on E.C. Hoskyns’ claim (in The Fourth Gospel) that ‘In Jesus the world is confronted by the End’, Homes suggests that the end is already present and contemporary to us in Christ: ‘The End – that is, Jesus – is present, moreover, to all times, remaking them in accordance with the will of his Father whom he loves. The hour is no less present to the Jews who sought to kill him because he called “God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God”, than it is to us (John 5.18). We too live in this hour; we too must hear the voice that is speaking to us and live’. He continues:

This is of course quite difficult for people to appreciate. We are used to and often at home in a world wherein we expect to hear nothing because we already ‘know’ what is real and what can be. But the joy of hearing Jesus is that we realize the extent to which our time is encroached upon by his time. Indeed, Jesus does speak and in so doing he calls ‘into question all the criteria by which – in normal affairs – I [we] judge what is possible, what is reasonable, what is admirable’. As late modern people we find it difficult to believe that the reign of God is present to us and impinging upon us … The gap between the then and there and the here and now is really not so large. In fact, there is not any gap.

Holmes argues that in meeting the power at work in Christ, one encounters God’s knowing and willing – the grain of the universe, to use a phrase popularised by Hauerwas. Power, Holmes insists, is never to be isolated from a determination – namely, that of peace with God himself. It is precisely this determination which is the reality-indication ingredient in the person of Christ. What Scripture testifies to is that this determination is an omnipotent determination which withstands the world’s rebellion. So Holmes:

If the movement in ethics ought always to be from God to humanity, inclusive as it is of the movement of humanity to God, one must take a moment to reflect upon the eternal basis of such a movement. To talk about the eternality of Christ as what grounds his always ‘working’ matters precisely because without such an account we risk talking about the presence of Christ in purely interventionist terms (John 5.17). The power of this One as the presence of God’s power ‘working’ is his immanent life. That is not to take away from the unsubstitutable character of these accounts, but it is to say that we are not beholding in them a reaction. Instead, in the Gospels, we are witnesses to the enactment of an eternal determination: that ‘all things have been created…for him’ (Col. 1.16). It is the Son of God’s eternal determination which is manifest here: the eternal determination of Son and Father to guarantee for the creature their participation as creatures in the blessings of covenant fellowship with themselves. To be sure, the way in which this eternal purpose is realized is shaped by the fact that we have sinned. But our sin and its fruits do not determine God’s will. God’s will – indicative as it is of God’s being – is to humanize. The surety of the reconciliation Jesus is, enacts and reveals is rooted in his person as the eternal Son. An account of the eternality or immanent life of the Son whose ministering presence in Jesus Christ effectively confronts illness is thus necessary if the divine character of the work be granted. Without it, the Gospels can be read only as interventions, not descriptions of the grain of the universe which is the outworking in time of the life of the trinity, specifically the life of the eternal Son.

The implication for ethics is clear:

We do not need by our activity – principally belief – to extend the power at work in Jesus’ ministry into the present or try to make it relevant to our contexts. ‘This is because the question of Christian ethics itself remains malformed unless and until set firmly within a wider acknowledgement that “God has founded the church beyond religion and beyond ethics” by the graciously vicarious fulfillment of the law in the person of the savior.’ Ethics is to be taken up in light of the person of the Son as subjectivized in us through the work of the Spirit. That is, law or command does not describe resources for conduct internal to the self or of the Christian community, a story, or various pressing contingencies or contexts. Rather, ethics understood Christologically is a destabilized ethics. It is destabilized precisely because it is an inherently revelational undertaking. What is given in Christ – the fulfillment of Moses’ law – ‘subjectively takes shape in the mind of the church through the unique enshrining of Christ’s gospel’. Ethics understood theologically is thus a destabilized or ever relativized ethics because it is not a matter of implementing a moral program of sorts, but rather a question of being formed by the One – by the objective Person – who truly fulfills himself in us via his faith. By believing in his fulfillment of his will, we too are made participants in him who claims us for faith. And his life – his faith, what he is doing, his present ministry – is done into us. Most importantly, we do not then live as those in a kind of vacuum of our own making. Instead, our life is formed by Jesus who is present in the Spirit’s power to us, whose present ministry claims us, so that we too might fulfill the law of our being by believing.

‘A biblical person is one who lives within the dialectic of eschatology and ethics, realizing that God’s Judgment [sic] has as much to do with the humour of the Word as it does with wrath’. So penned William Stringfellow in A Simplicity of Faith. Translated otherwise, we might simply say that the person of faith is the person who is living in Jesus Christ, God’s eschaton and ethic incarnate, and reigning in his freedom as he who, in the words of the Book of the Revelation, is walking and speaking ‘in the midst of the lampstands’ (i.e., his people). This is the metaphysic that Holmes seeks to bear witness to in this essay. Clearly, his thesis is grounded on the claim that ‘metaphysics governs ethics’, a thesis strengthened and made all the more stimulating by a sturdy commitment to the doctrine of creatio continua – a corollary of the church’s claim that in Christ ‘all things hold together’ (Col 1.17), and that in the person of the mediator ‘that which constitutes our world and indeed our lives is present in such a way that our descriptions of the way things are must be subject to a “going on”’.

Each of the three chapters engaging with specific texts from John’s Gospel are a highly stimulating read, sermonic in parts, informed by a maturing dogmatic mind, and laden with pastorally-valuable insights.

The final chapter, ‘On why Scripture construes ethical reality’, betrays Holmes’ deep indebtment to Webster’s and Krötke’s work (Holmes’ doctoral dissertation was on Barth, Jüngel, and Krötke), and engages, I think convincingly, with the likes of Hauerwas, O’Donovan and Wannenwetsch, identifying some achilles in their use of Scripture for theological ethics. A couple of passages are simply worth repeating in full:

To begin ethics with Christ is not enough: ethics is to stay with Christ, to seek to be present to Christ.25 I am not interested in only a Christological starting point for ethics: that is, Christology as only a beginning but not also the middle and end point of ethics. Ethics involves our being continually schooled by the prophets and apostles. To not only begin with but to stay with Christ, which is ethics’ task, is to yield to Scripture. By yielding, the church hears and obeys Scripture’s prophetic and apostolic testimony. The church is where ethical agency is nourished, insofar as it is in the church that we are baptized into Christ by the Spirit and nourished by the proclaimed Word and holy table.

Scripture is first and foremost an address that needs to be heard as the discourse of One who unceasingly speaks or shows himself through its pages. Its authority does not lie in its ability to speak to our situations, or arise to the degree to which it resonates with us, its hearers. Biblical commands such as the particular command spoken to Peter – ‘Follow me’ – are not commands that he or we as those addressed in Jesus’ address to Peter need apply. We need, rather, to hear so as to obey. The Bible’s moral authority is inextricably bound up with the present and ministering Christ. Talk of the Bible’s authority – particularly its commands – is derivative of an authoritative presence: namely Christ present as the appointing, calling and commissioning Word, and so the upholding, gathering and sending Word. He in his person is command: Christ is God’s command, what God wills … Faith is a matter of perceiving, then, of acting in agreement with he who is there and at work: the ‘incessant redeemer’. The present tense, the self-giving of the Son in the Spirit, is crucial to acknowledge if the context be properly elucidated. It means that the more important question becomes, I think, ‘What does the “situation” ask of me in light of Christ’s very definite presence and concrete activity in relationship to it?’

There are a number of places where Holmes makes (over?)statements that demand, at the very least, further clarification or explanation. So, for example, Holmes’ claim that the natural post-Fall world is no longer able to function as a ‘theatre of life’ (a claim, prima face, I think, which is undermined by this very book), or that Scripture’s display of what is really going on in the world is ‘especially the case with respect to John’s Gospel’ (a claim that requires some further argument; it certainly betrays the fact that in writing this book Holmes has been living in John’s Gospel). More significant and obvious by their omission are any sustained discussions on prayer, and on the sacraments. These would, I think, have made this a more satisfying book, building on the already-significant exposition of Christ’s immanent reign among and over his people in his prophetic, priestly and royal ministry.

Still, these really are minor quibbles about what is a tremendously-important and well-overdue book. Holmes’ attempt to discern the present reign of the Word is among the best introductions to theological ethics that I have read. I commend it warmly and enthusiastically.

Jürgen Moltmann’s Ethics of Hope: Eschatological Possibilities For Moral Action: A Review

A review of Timothy Harvie, Jürgen Moltmann’s Ethics of Hope: Eschatological Possibilities For Moral Action (Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009).

It was Karl Barth who, in his Ethik (1928), reminded us that Christian theology is always ethics, that ethics belongs to theology proper precisely because God makes himself responsible for us, and that ‘ethics as a theological discipline is the auxiliary science in which an answer is sought in the Word of God to the question of the goodness of human conduct’. It is of little surprise, therefore, that such a commitment is shared by one of Barth’s most prolific students, Jürgen Moltmann, whose own articulations concerning theological ethics remain valuable though, in his own words, ‘an unfinished task and an unfulfilled wish’ (p. ix).

Timothy Harvie’s volume (a ‘slightly revised version’ of his doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Aberdeen and supervised by Professor John Webster) represents an attempt to consider and extend an unfinished trajectory in Moltmann’s theology; namely, and appropriately, an ethics of hope. It is, in the words of its author, ‘not a piece of applied ethics engaging specific moral quandaries or the nature of Christian virtues’ but rather ‘an attempt to theologically describe the sphere of Christian moral action and the means by which this is enabled to take place’ (p. 3). Harvie makes it clear in the Introduction that his essay will argue that Moltmann does not begin with antecedent ethical presuppositions and then mould dogmatics to fit these concerns. Rather, ‘Moltmann begins with an investigation of theological concerns stemming from the biblical history and then attempts to articulate the moral relevance this theological conception has for the current social situation of humanity’ (p. 6).

The book is divided into two parts. In Part I, Harvie attends to the christological, pneumatological and eschatological foundations for an ethics of hope, and offers readers (and particularly those unfamiliar with Moltmann’s oeuvre) an accessible entrée into a number of vistas fundamental to Moltmann’s theological project. Through four chapters, Harvie’s aim is to rehearse how Moltmann is principally concerned with articulating the Christian gospel, and subsequently concerned to point to how the Church’s convictions about the gospel inform her ethical assertions.

He opens with a chapter on hope and promise, noting that the generative thrust and unambiguous priority of Christian hope, for Moltmann, is birthed in the divine promise given in a particular locus in history, and creating and securing a new trajectory for history and for human existence: ‘In the midst of a history wrought with injustice, turmoil and sin, the promise of God (given definitively in the resurrection of Jesus Christ) secures a new future which contravenes the sinful status quo of the present with a new creative work of God for a redeemed cosmos. This new, creative work secured in the promise is a novum in history which moves towards the present’ (p.15). Harvie proceeds to cite Moltmann – ‘The simple prolongation of the status quo no longer provides a future for which it is worth living’ (p. 26) – and avers that eschatological hope grounded in the cross-resurrection means that Christian living becomes subversive, demanding not onlookers but, in Moltmann’s words, ‘combatants’ (p. 26). The promise of God in Jesus Christ creates in history an interval between promise and fulfilment, a Zwischenraum or ‘between-space’, which sets in motion a way of living adumbrated in the promised future but ‘enacted through the creative work of God in such a way that in Christ humans [i.e., the Exodus community, Exodusgemeinde] may now participate in this space … in contradistinction to the world’ (p. 28). This way of living is ‘life commensurate with the Kingdom of God’ (p. 36).

The Kingdom of God, another topic of decided importance for Moltmann, is the subject of Chapter Two. Herein, Harvie outlines the way that Kingdom and christology are inextricably bound up together, and attends to the way that, for Moltmann, the Kingdom represents not only a positive description of the content of Christian hope but also ‘a foil to critique societal situations [Moltmann] perceives to be unjust’ (p. 40). Jesus’ embodiment of the Kingdom, it is noted, means table fellowship with sinners, liberating proclamation and praxis for the poor, and healing to the broken.

Chapters Three and Four attend to the role that pneumatology and the doctrine of the trinity, respectively, play in Moltmann’s theology, and how each informs the ethical shape of his theology of hope. With clarity, Harvie outlines that while, for Moltmann, the trinitarian history of the divine life with the world begins with the history of the promise, a history which culminates in the death and resurrection of the Son, it is the faithful and historical efficacy of the Spirit which ‘constitutes the continuing presence of the Kingdom’ in both Church and world. ‘This’, he continues, ‘in no way denigrates the future horizon of Christian hope for the Kingdom, but rather structures the initial fulfilment of the divine promise, which creates a surplus of expectation and hope for the eschatological novum’ (pp. 57–8). He notes how, for Moltmann, those empowered by the Spirit are ‘led to be non-conformists with the unfulfilled present, which leads to death. The Church, through the work of the Spirit, is empowered to resist in its Zwischenraum of tension, to overcome death with life, violence with peace, and hate with love’ (p. 92). Harvie is critical of Moltmann’s emphasis on a ‘universal society’ (p. 85), arguing that such ambiguity blurs the distinction between the Spirit’s work in the Church and in wider society. In Chapter Four, Harvie gathers up many of the already-attended-to themes and brings them into dialogue with Moltmann’s exposition on the trinity, noting that the creature’s moral living does not equate principally to imitatio of the trine life so much as, by the Spirit, being ‘taken up into the divine communion as an-other … to participate in and live out of the divine love’ (p. 109). Herein, as Moltmann explains it, the ‘lived circulation’ (p. 118) which is the divine life has two kinds of openness: first, there is an intra-Trinitarian openness between the three persons; second, and implying no deficiency of being, the Trinity is open for communion with creation. ‘This divine openness’, Harvie suggests, ‘fundamentally alters the moral life of the Christian through justification and sanctification’ (p. 122). In an interesting conversation with work by Carl Schmitt and Richard Bauckham, Harvie notes how Moltmann’s thoroughly trinitarian theology creates an eschatological ethic which rejects both clerical and political monotheisms, and he follows Bauckham’s critique of Moltmann that the tendency to inadequately distinguish between the triune life in se and the social life of creatures has ‘no biblical basis’ (p. 128). Turning then to the way that creatures participate by the Spirit in the fellowship of love, Harvie considers how, for Moltmann, the notion of divine apatheia both sponsors a utopian hope and undermines the command to be ‘present in open, loving solidarity with those who suffer’ (p. 135).

Harvie then turns – in Part II – to a more focused consideration of the ethical shape that the theological foundations he has outlined in Part I take in creaturely existence. He does this via three discussions on hope: on (i) time and space for hope, (ii) hope for humanity, and (iii) hope for the economy.

In the first of these, what I found to be the most stimulating part of the book, Harvie draws upon Augustine and Bauckham to very helpfully explicate how Moltmann understands, and makes use of, christologically-determined categories of time over against, say, Kathryn Tanner’s ‘futureless eschatology’ (what Carl Braaten calls ‘eschatology sans eschaton’) and time’s modern myths, and how these then inform what Moltmann wishes to aver about the theo-ethical implications of such in the kingdom of God wherein space – conceived as both Zeitraum and Zwischenraum – is opened up for hope and moral action. The present earthly time – the time of promise – is ‘characterized by expectation and anticipation of the novum which is anticipated in the promise and ensured by the divine faithfulness’ (p. 151) and, by the tension created between the divine-human covenant which existentially orients creaturely perspective to the future, sensitises covenant partners to the incongruous nature of their surroundings. Contra Mark Lewis Taylor and Rubem Alves, Harvie notes that, for Moltmann, ‘the ethical space envisioned in a moral theology of hope is not simply the space of human structures where moral action is attempted through one’s own empowerment to one’s own end. Rather, it is a space created by the promise of God through the death and resurrection of Christ in which human structures are transformed by the efficacious work of the Holy Spirit to manifest the eschatological Kingdom. This space orients Christian moral action, through the divine promise, to the future. The result is that this space is then in tension with those structures, circumstances and actions which are not located within the Kingdom of God or brought about through the beneficent work of God through the Spirit’ (p. 167).

Harvie turns, in the final two chapters, to the subjects of human nature, human dignity and human rights, and to outline how he understands Moltmann’s theology of hope might inform conversations about economics. He rightly notes that for Moltmann, the imago Dei depends upon, and says more about, God than it does upon any human trait per se, that the imago Christi is paramount for an ethics of hope, and that ‘it is precisely at this Christologically focused point within eschatological history that the Zwischenraum of tension … is understood to constitute the sphere of Christian moral action’ (p. 172). He also rightly notes that ‘the claim that human beings have equal and intrinsic worth is difficult to maintain as a universal presupposition apart from God’s revelation as creator and redeemer of the world’ (p. 181).

These concluding chapters, however, are disappointingly conservative in their application of the ethic that Moltmann’s thought invites. Harvie proposes no genuine protest to the structures of that world put to death in the crucified God, and very little hint of the novum created by the radical interruption of Jesus’ resurrection and the life that this event births. The praxiological content of the eschatological Zwischenraum which is characterised as life in the Spirit, in other words, is left drastically underdeveloped. The ethical implications of Moltmann’s professional project call for a more radical engagement – or what Ernst Wolf calls a ‘creative discipleship’ – of the ecclesia than Harvie outlines here. Moreover, as Moltmann avers in Theologie der Hoffnung, we must speak not only of the historic transformation of social and public life but also of the suffering, self-surrender, self-expenditure and sacrifice that attend such ‘day-to-day obedience’, and which mark a different way from the glories of self-realisation and the miseries of self-estrangement arising from ‘hopelessness in the world of lost horizons’ – ways disclosed to the laos tou theou in the future of the crucified God in whose life they participate, and to whom they look for the coming of the kingdom in fulness. At the end of the day, Harvie tumbles into the very trap that Hauerwas outlines (and which Harvie cites on p. 183): ‘One of the things that bothers me about such discourse is the designation “us,” meaning Christians, and “them,” meaning the poor. Such language inherently presupposes that Christians have no convictions that might not make them poor. As a result we privilege our place as rich Christians who can justify our being rich because we are concerned about justice’.

While the essay is unduly repetitive, it is amiably unencumbered with distractive engagements with secondary literature and side issues. Where these are relevant, they are appropriately attended to, and that so as not to sidetrack the reader from the main line of enquiry; namely, Moltmann’s own presentation of a foundation for an ethic grounded in trinitarian space-making and orientated toward the future in the kingdom of life and love. And while the ethical implications drawn by Harvie are, to my mind, drastically undercooked, there can be little doubt that those interested in exploring a rich theological foundation for Christian ethics will find much here of value.

On William Stringfellow’s homosexuality

Since I started posting on William Stringfellow, I’ve received a significant number of emails asking if I might comment on Stringfellow’s homosexuality, and how, if anything, such might undermine or affirm his authority to speak to the Church on other issues. My initial reaction to these requests was largely one of dismissal, partly because I do not think that the blogosphere is the best place to have this discussion, and partly because this question should not dominate any of our thinking about what Stringfellow (or anyone else for that matter) has to offer us. I still believe both of these factors are true. That said, I have decided that some things can be said, and even that some things may be of help for our thinking about, and reading of, Stringfellow’s work.

There are a minimal number of references in Stringfellow’s own work to the question of homosexuality. That Stringfellow says abundantly more about Jesus Christ than he does about himself is, I think, significant in itself. One place where Stringfellow does speak to the question of homosexuality is in his essay ‘Loneliness, Dread and Holiness’, published in The Christian Century on 10 October 1962. Significantly, the essay is a reflection on 2 Corinthians 12:8–9a, ‘Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”‘.

In that essay, Stringfellow begins by recalling the loneliness which is ‘as intimate and as common to men as death’, and ‘the void [which] may be mere boredom’, and then proceeds to note all the places that exploit and profit from that transient loneliness and boredom ‘promising that time will be consumed for those who pay the price’ – whether it be a dance studio, a club, a bar, with ‘prostitutes or homosexuals or whatever one wants’  – even if it means relieving the loneliness in lust. ‘These are’, he writes,

‘establishments often populated by those who realize that loneliness is more than the burden of time and who are beguiled by another fiction: that loneliness can be conquered by erotic infatuation. Here are folk, whether men or women, whether looking for the same or the other sex, for whom seduction becomes a way of life, who insist on the importance of what meets the eye – physique, clothes, the appearance of youth. Here are the lonely whose search for a partner is so dangerous, so stimulating and so exhausting that the search itself provides an apparent escape from loneliness. But when a partner is found for an hour or a night or a transient affair, the search immediately resumes, becomes compulsive. And while erotic companionship seems more appealing – and more human – than resignation to boredom, while touching another may be more intimate and more honest than watching another, no one may really find his own identity in another, least of all in the body of another. Perhaps this is the most absurd fiction of them all: the notion that is present, primitively, in erotic partnerships but also very often in other relationships – between parents and children, in friendship, in marriage – that one’s own identity must be sought and can be found in another person’.

Later in the essay, Stringfellow exposes his own cards: namely, that the issue is not primarily about sexuality but is about our hope in Christ who alone fills the vacuum of the human heart. There is no attempt here to justify, nor to call that which many name evil good. There is only one man’s witness to him who in subjecting to death takes the dread out of loneliness and who calls us to love, to abandon our idols and to worship God above all else, and to enjoy God’s love not just for ourselves but for all, ‘including those who do not yet enjoy God’s love for themselves or for anyone or anything else’. This posture of enjoyment of God is, Stringfellow insists, ‘the estate of holiness’. ‘Holiness’, he writes, ‘does not mean that you are any better than anyone else. Holiness is not about goodness; holiness is not common pietism. Holiness is not about pleasing God, even less about appeasing God. Holiness is about enjoying God. Holiness is the integrity of greeting, confessing, honoring and trusting God’s presence in all events and in any event, no matter what, no matter when, no matter where’.

The question of Stringfellow’s sexuality has been taken up by Marshall Ron Johnston in his fascinating PhD thesis entitled ‘Bombast, Blasphemy, and the Bastard Gospel: William Stringfellow and American Exceptionalism’ (Baylor University, 2007). In his thesis, Johnston notes that ‘while it is true that fundamentalists and many evangelicals would have rejected Stringfellow’s thought outright in light of his homosexuality, he seemed to have managed to keep that fact of his life private, identifying himself in many forums as “celibate by vocation”’.

Johnston recalls Stringfellow’s thorough engagement in his two passions – religion and politics. He writes that Stringfellow’s interest in issues of faith were transformed from one of intellectual absorption to one of existential centrality, and that Stringfellow credited this transformation to the awareness that while religion must be intellectually respectable, it ‘must also provide the core and motivation of one’s whole life’. While Stringfellow does refer to an ‘unusually close relationship with another fellow’ (i.e. Anthony Towne, whom he would later refer to as ‘my sweet companion for seventeen years’. A Simplicity of Faith, 115. This was, in Anthony Dancer’s words, the ‘closest Stringfellow ever came to becoming uncloseted’), he also confesses their decision that their friendship would not endure if it were self-centered, but only if it were God-centered.

Johnston contends that Stringfellow never openly declared his homosexuality, and recounts Andrew McThenia’s observation that ‘the taking up of joint residency with Anthony Towne was Stringfellow’s “first and only ‘public’ acknowledgement” of his sexual orientation’. Of course, those who have read Stringfellow’s Instead of Death will recall his description of himself as vocationally committed to celibacy (p. 10). As for Stringfellow’s relationship with Towne, in a memorial address entitled ‘The Felicity of Anthony Towne’, Stringfellow stated that Towne’s ‘vocation – as that may be distinguished from his occupation – was, in principle, monastic, as is my own’ (A Simplicity of Faith, 52). Parenthetically, he added, ‘That is the explanation of our relationship’ (A Simplicity of Faith, 52).

Johnston (on pp. 57ff.) later recalls that while Stringfellow was never public about his own homosexuality, he was not reticent about identifying with those devoted to homosexual advocacy. Stringfellow served for several years as the general counsel for the George W. Henry Foundation, an organisation established to help homosexuals and others who were, in the words of the time, ‘by reason of their sexual deviation … in trouble with themselves, the law, or society’. This association apparently afforded Stringfellow opportunities to speak about homosexual advocacy to various groups. For example, in 1965 he delivered an address at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut, entitled ‘The Humanity of Sex’. In that address, Stringfellow offered a brief comment on the theology and ethics of homosexuality before turning most of his attention to various legal issues surrounding the gay lifestyle. He framed his address in the context of a Christian’s identification with the marginalised in American society. In his introductory remarks Stringfellow noted that ‘according to the ethics of American society’, homosexuals ‘are not respectable’. Identifying himself as ‘a Christian, not a moralist’, Stringfellow referred to Christ’s care for the outcasts as one reason for interest in their legal situation. He stated, ‘If homosexuals in this society are orphans or prisoners, for a Christian that is itself enough reason to be concerned with them’. Beyond his interest as a Christian, Stringfellow was also concerned with the legal situation of the homosexual from the constitutional perspective of equal treatment. He noted that he was ‘bred in’ a legal tradition ‘which believes that if anyone is not represented or cannot secure representation before the law, whatever his cause and whatever the popularity or social approval of his cause, the whole society is imperiled’. Later, in the same address, Stringfellow suggested an association between legal cases involving homosexuals and civil rights cases associated with the ‘present racial crisis’. So, Johnston continues, for Stringfellow the justification for an interest in the issue of homosexuality and the advocacy for homosexuals was based upon a sense of Christian responsibility to identify with the outcast and upon a sense of legal responsibility to provide equal treatment under the United States Constitution.

Johnston proceeds to suggest that Stringfellow’s ethic of homosexuality is best understood in light of his overall theological framework. Certainly, Stringfellow assumed a certain ‘givenness’ to homosexuality that was associated with his overall view of the diversity of sexuality, complaining in a 1979 address to the national convention of the group Integrity, Gay Episcopalians and their Friends, that ‘[the] matter of sexual proclivity and the prominence of the sexual identity of a person, are both highly overrated’. Consequently, he continued, ‘the issue is not homosexuality but sexuality in any and all of its species [because] there are as many varieties of sexuality as there be (sic) human beings’.

Here’s Johnston:

In light of that understanding of sexuality, Stringfellow explained that at Christian conversion ‘all that a particular person is, sexuality along with all else, suffers the death in Christ which inaugurates the new (or renewed) life in Christ’. This new life does not mean the sublimation of sexuality in any of its forms. Instead, according to Stringfellow, conversion means that Christians ‘have exceptional freedom to be who [they] are, and, thus, to welcome and affirm [their] sexuality as a gift, absolved from guilt or embarrassment or shame’. Stringfellow’s understanding of Christian conversion is important here, because it was essentially anthropocentric. In the address at Christ Church in Hartford in 1965, he had explained it: ‘To become and to be Christian is to become utterly vulnerable to God’s own affirmation of one’s existence . . . and, as it were, to participate in God’s affirmation of one’s self and of all things’. Based upon such a perspective of homosexuality and Christianity, Stringfellow asked rhetorically, ‘Can a homosexual be a Christian?’ He answered with further questions: ‘Can a rich man be a Christian? Can an infant be a Christian? Or one who is sick, or insane, or indolent, or one possessed of power or status or respectability? Can anybody be a Christian?’ He considered such questions ‘theologically absurd’, since ‘[nothing] . . . familiar to the human experience, including all the varieties of sexuality deprives any man of God’s love’. Consequently, Stringfellow answered, ‘Can a homosexual be a Christian? Yes: if his sexuality is not an idol’.

In light of the anthropocentric description of conversion, Stringfellow’s view of idolatry logically follows. An idol is something that hinders a person ‘from accepting himself in a way which means loving the whole world just as it is and thereby following Christ’. Thus, in Stringfellow’s view homosexuality, which is inherently morally neutral, is paradoxically acceptable for a Christian as long as the homosexual accepts him or herself in Christ, acknowledging and receiving God’s love …

Anthony Dancer, in his dissertation on Stringfellow, devotes a section to the nexus of the latter’s homosexuality, his work, and his thought. Dancer notes that as a homosexual Stringfellow certainly had a personal point of identification with the marginalized, which ‘put him in touch with reading the gospel from “below”’. I would agree with Dancer’s assessment and add further clarifying comments … Stringfellow, as a gay man, remained for his lifetime outside of the traditional family structures that have in many cases characterized the so-called ‘American dream’. Arguably, as an outsider he was more capable of observing the various hypocrisies of ‘family values’ as they have been promoted by various conservative groups. By the same token, however, his critique of the notion of American exceptionalism, a concept which depends in part on the centrality of family values, could likely be dismissed as the rantings of an angry man, excluded from much of the promise of American society. Perhaps, paradoxically, both are the case. Ultimately, his exclusion from the essentials of the American dream helped fuel his critique, substantively and motivationally, of America’s claims to moral superiority.

One of the emails that I received recently came from someone who is ‘working in a very conservative theological context’, but is also ‘very happy to learn from Stringfellow’. This person suggested that ‘there is something about Stringfellow’s insights as a lay theologian of the highest order (along with Ellul) that … transcends the “suitability for teaching office” question – although’, he adds, ‘I do take those concerns seriously’. He continues: ‘From my last decade or so working and living in community – as an Anglican non-layperson – in the inner-city Sydney areas of Darlinghurst, Kings Cross and Glebe, I’ve found that Stringfellow is more than qualified to speak into such contexts. More so than many others who might “tick all the right boxes”. Not that I mean to glorify brokenness or make it “the” qualification that trumps all others … But Stringfellow’s struggle alongside the forgotten ones, personal illness and grief (and I suspect being gay) combine to afford him insight and practical wisdom that is a pearl of great price in the types of contexts I’m used to and somewhat rare in the scholarly circles I am now “playing house” with’. I think there is much wisdom here.

I also think that Mike Higton, summarising Rowan Williams’ essay ‘The Body’s Grace’, has outlined a very helpful beginning point for this conversation to take place. It certainly seems to me to be consonant with Stringfellow’s own approach. Higton writes:

  1. The gospel, the good news spoken by God to the world in Jesus Christ – is God’s command. To put it the other way around, the command of God is not extraneous to the gospel, as if God, while saving us in Christ by the Spirit, said, ‘Oh, and there’s another, unrelated thing I wanted to talk to you about’.
  2. The connection between gospel and command is intelligible. That is, it is possible for us by attending to the Gospel to understand how and why we are commanded and such understanding is the fundamental task of Christian ethics.
  3. The gospel so understood provides the criterion by which we discover what truly is a binding command upon us. Faced, for instance, with a range of biblical commands about slavery, women, usury, polygamy, and sexual relationships, the fundamental theological question is not, ‘Which of these is culturally conditioned?’ but ‘How, if at all, do these matters relate to the gospel?’ Theological ethics is a matter, we might say, of taking every thought captive to Christ.
  4. Because this attention to the gospel is the fundamental task of Christian ethics, any approach that simply stops with the apparent demands we find in Scripture, without asking whether and how they connect to the gospel, fails to take the command of God seriously.
  5. If there is some intelligible connection between the gospel and sexual relationships, there would be a binding Christian sexual ethic (a command of God regarding sexual behaviour) even if there were no passages in Scripture that explicitly treated sexual matters.

In his book Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, James Torrance recounts an experience that a colleague of his, Roland Walls (who was a member of the Community of the Transfiguration in Roslin village, a few miles out of Edinburgh) had. One day, James noticed in his garden a piece of sculpture he had not seen before. Roland told him about it. A young sculptor, brought up among the Exclusive Brethren, one day confessed to the fellowship that he was gay. As a result, he was asked to leave the Assembly. In his distress, he found his way to the Roslin Community, where Roland found him on his knees in prayer in the chapel. The young man poured out his story and unburdened his heart. At the end of their conversation, Roland simply put his arms around him and gave him a hug! That hug symbolised everything for the man. He knew he was loved, accepted, forgiven. He went back, found a block of sandstone and carved out a figure of the two Adams. They are kneeling, embracing one another. Christ lays his head on the right shoulder of fallen Adam, and fallen Adam lays his head on the right shoulder of Christ the second Adam. The only way in which one can distinguish between the two Adams is by the nail prints in the hands of Christ. That sculptor saw himself in fallen Adam, and in that symbolic hug he saw himself accepted in Christ, the second Adam. There one sees the Pauline theology of an Irenaeus – that what was lost in Adam has been restored in Christ. That is the biblical concept of ‘the one and the many’ – that we, the many, can see ourselves accepted by grace in Christ, the one Mediator, who fulfils God’s purpose – to gather together all things in Christ, the head – the doctrine of ‘recapitulation’.

Irenaeus used the metaphor of ‘the two hands of God’ in his criticism of Marcion. God our Father has ‘two hands’ – the Word and the Spirit – by whom he created and redeemed the world. Marcion had taught that the Creator God of the Old Testament was different from the Redeemer God of the New Testament. No, according to Irenaeus, the God who created this world (and Adam) has redeemed this world (with Adam) by the same Word and the same Spirit. The one by whom and for whom all things were created has taken our humanity upon himself in order to redeem us, i.e. ‘to bring many sons and daughters to glory’. It is by these ‘two hands’ that God gives himself to us in love to bring us to intimate communion. We can extend that metaphor further. Think of a hug! When we hug somebody whom we love there is a double movement. We give ourselves to the beloved, and in the same act by putting our arms around the other, we draw that person close to our heart! That is a parable of the double movement of grace, the God-humanward and the human-Godward movement, that takes place in the hypostatic union and in which we participate through the ministry of the Spirit. In Christ, the Word made flesh, and in the Holy Spirit – his ‘two hands’ – God our Father in grace gives himself to us as God. But in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and in the Spirit we are led to the Father by the intercessions of Christ and the intercessions of the Spirit. We are lifted up by ‘the everlasting arms’. As in the mediatorial ministry of Christ, the Spirit is the interceding Spirit, through whom Jesus Christ our ascended High Priest presents us to the Father.

One of the reasons that I found Ray Anderson’s posts on Homosexuality and the Church so encouraging is because Anderson is at least wanting to allow the gospel and its shape to determine our ethics, rather than some vague commitment to natural theology or to so-called Christian moralism. Regardless of whether one agrees or otherwise with his conclusions, this is the right ordering. He also takes sin seriously enough, and the tragic condition of human fallenness seriously enough, and the gift of Holy Scripture seriously enough, that he is not prepared to simply dismiss those texts in the Bible which speak to this issue.

In response to a recent comment on my blog, I wrote that ‘if I was at some stage to try and articulate a theologically-robust reflection on the issues of sexuality, sin and ministry, I think that I would try to explore the relationship between these issues twofold: (i) in light of an ethic determined by eschatology, i.e. by the coming of God in Jesus Christ, and (ii) in light of the Church’s two sacraments – namely the Baptism by which we are put to death and inaugurated into a new humanity, and the Table at which sinners feast in anticipation of the great banquet which is to come. Clearly, it is christology that must determine a Christian response to these questions. If the word one of us is given to speak during this time-between-the-times comes via something of a contradiction in one’s own personhood, then this, it seems to me, does not abrogate the message. Clearly I have no problem with learning from Stringfellow’. I do not think that one’s sexual orientations disqualify or qualify one from being heard, nor from being ordained.

NT scholar Richard Hays devotes a chapter to homosexuality in his excellent book The Moral Vision of the New Testament. While that particular chapter is in some ways among the least satisfying in the book, his response to the question ‘Should persons of homosexual orientation be ordained?’ is worth recalling here in the context of thinking about Stringfellow’s own life and witness. He writes:

‘I save this question deliberately for last, where it belongs. It is unfortunate that the battle line has been drawn in the denominations at the question of ordination of homosexuals. The ensuing struggle has had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing a double standard for clergy and lay morality; it would be far better to articulate a single set of moral norms that apply to all Jesus’ followers. Strictures against homosexuality belong in the church’s moral catechesis, not in its ordination requirements. It is arbitrary to single out homosexuality as a special sin that precludes ordination. (Certainly, the New Testament does not do this.) The church has no analogous special rules to exclude from ordination the greedy or the self-righteous. Such matters are left to the discernment of the bodies charged with examining candidates for ordination; these bodies must determine whether the individual candidate has the gifts and graces requisite for ministry. In any event, a person of homosexual orientation seeking to live a life of disciplined abstinence would clearly be an appropriate candidate for ordination’ (p. 403).

There is, of course, much more to be said, not least on the relationship between Christians who are non-celibate homosexuals and the Church’s teaching ministry. But this post is about Stringfellow, and what I’ve written will have to do for now.

Hans Küng on Global Ethics, Roman Catholicism, and other stuff

Last night, Rachel Kohn, presenter of ABC Radio’s The Spirit of Things, aired an interesting interview with the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng. Among other things, they discussed global ethics (‘a program which can integrate again secularists and clericalists’), Roman Catholicism under Benedict (that ‘the Catholic church is in a period of roman restoration’) and genital mutilation. You can also download/listen to the conversation here.

The Service of Intercession

Moses MosaicKarl Barth once noted that ‘Even within the world to which it belongs, it [the Church] does not exist ecstatically or eccentrically with reference to itself, but wholly with reference to them, to the world around. It saves and maintains its own life as it interposes and gives itself for all other human creatures’ (CD IV.3.2, 762). There can be no doubt that this ministry of intercession certainly involves prayer, but prayer without diakonia is not true prayer, even as diakonia without prayer is not true diakonia. Authentic intercession also involves a struggle against evil, identification with those who are estranged and alienated, and an ‘argument’ with God on behalf of those who have become disenfranchised from God, from human community and from creation. We might recall here Moses’ intercession for those who have worshipped the golden calf:

On the following day Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a great sin. But now I shall go up to Yahweh: perhaps I can secure expiation for your sin.’ Moses then went back to Yahweh and said, ‘Oh, this people has committed a great sin by making themselves a god of gold. And yet, if it pleased you to forgive their sin …! If not, please blot me out of the book you have written!’ (Exodus 32:30–32)

Inherent in this intercession of responsible action is a sharing of guilt. This recalled something that I read recently in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, (the implications of which we might also profitably tease out with a copy of TF Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ in hand). I cite Bonhoeffer:

[The] structure of responsible action includes both readiness to accept guilt and freedom.

When we once more turn our attention to the origin of all responsibility it becomes clear to us what we are to understand by acceptance of guilt. Jesus is not concerned with the proclamation and realization of new ethical ideals; He is not concerned with Himself being good (Matt. 19.17); He is concerned solely with love for the real man, and for that reason He is able to enter into the fellowship of the guilt of men and to take the burden of their guilt upon Himself. Jesus does not desire to be regarded as the only perfect one at the expense of men; He does not desire to look down on mankind as the only guiltless one while mankind goes to its ruin under the weight of its guilt; He does not wish that some idea of a new man should triumph amid the wreckage of a humanity whose guilt has destroyed it. He does not wish to acquit Himself of the guilt under which men die. A love which left man alone in his guilt would not be love for the real man. As one who acts responsibly in the historical existence of men Jesus becomes guilty. It must be emphasized that it is solely His love which makes Him incur guilt. From His selfless love, from His freedom from sin, Jesus enters into the guilt of men and takes this guilt upon Himself. Freedom from sin and the question of guilt are inseparable in Him. It is as the one who is without sin that Jesus takes upon Himself the guilt of His brothers, and it is under the burden of this guilt that He shows Himself to be without sin. In this Jesus Christ, who is guilty without sin, lies the origin of every action of responsible deputyship. If it is responsible action, if it is action which is concerned solely and entirely with the other man, if it arises from selfless love for the real man who is our brother, then, precisely because this is so, it cannot wish to shun the fellowship of human guilt. Jesus took upon Himself the guilt of all men, and for that reason every man who acts responsibly becomes guilty. If any man tries to escape guilt in responsibility he detaches himself from the ultimate reality of human existence, and what is more he cuts himself off from the redeeming mystery of Christ’s bearing guilt without sin and he has no share in the divine justification which lies upon this event. He sets his own personal innocence above his responsibility for men, and he is blind to the more irredeemable guilt which he incurs precisely in this; he is blind also to the fact that real innocence shows itself precisely in a man’s entering into the fellowship of guilt for the sake of other men. Through Jesus Christ it becomes an essential part of responsible action that the man who is without sin loves selflessly and for that reason incurs guilt. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. N.H. Smith; London: SCM, 1955), 209–10.

BonhoefferBonhoeffer (who my wife often confuses with Jason Alexander, a.k.a. George Costanza) then turns to consider the implications of this theology of Christ’s vicarious humanity for the human conscience and its relationship with law:

When Christ, true God and true man, has become the point of unity of my existence, conscience will indeed still formally be the call of my actual being to unity with myself, but this unity cannot now be realized by means of a return to the autonomy which I derive from the law; it must be realized in fellowship with Jesus Christ. Natural conscience, no matter how strict and rigorous it may be, is now seen to be the most ungodly self-justification, and it is overcome by the conscience which is set free in Jesus Christ and which summons me to unity with myself in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has become my conscience. This means that I can now find unity with myself only in the surrender of my ego to God and to men. The origin and the goal of my conscience is not a law but it is the living God and the living man as he confronts me in Jesus Christ. For the sake of God and of men Jesus became a breaker of the law. He broke the law of the Sabbath in order to keep it holy in love for God and for men. He forsook His parents in order to dwell in the house of His Father and thereby to purify His obedience towards His parents. He sat at table with sinners and outcasts; and for the love of men He came to be forsaken by God in His last hour. As the one who loved without sin, He became guilty; He wished to share in the fellowship of human guilt; He rejected the devil’s accusation which was intended to divert Him from this course. Thus it is Jesus Christ who sets conscience free for the service of God and of our neighbour; He sets conscience free even and especially when man enters into the fellowship of human guilt. The conscience which has been set free from the law will not be afraid to enter into the guilt of another man for the other man’s sake, and indeed precisely in doing this it will show itself in its purity. The conscience which has been set free is not timid like the conscience which is bound by the law, but it stands wide open for our neighbour and for his concrete distress. And so conscience joins with the responsibility which has its foundation in Christ in bearing guilt for the sake of our neighbour. (pp. 212–3)

This got me thinking: What might be some implications of Moses’ prayer, and Bonhoeffer’s words, for pastoral ministry? And for that of the people of God as a whole?

I’m still thinking …

Convictions, Principles, Opinions and the proper task of Christian theology

Bruegel - The Fight Between Carnival and LentSaturday morning is always about coffee. Not only about coffee, to be sure, but never anything apart from coffee. In fact, my vision of hell is being locked in a house devoid of beans for an eternal Saturday morning. Sometimes, Saturday morning is also about reading. But if that’s going to happen, then Saturday-morning reading really needs to be something decent. Well, James McClendon’s Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology is a worthy contender for the much-coveted Saturday morning slot. Here he is on the distinction between convictions, principles and opinions:

Convictions may be distinguished from principles, in that the latter are the product of reflective thinking, have often a rather academic flavor, and are perhaps more often weapons for attacking others than guides for ourselves (most of us have at some time served on committees with ‘men of principle’); while convictions are very often particular and immediate in form, and may not be consciously formulated by their holders at all, yet when we do find our convictions, we find the best clue to ourselves. Convictions may be distinguished from opinions: people stake money on opinions, whether of lawyers or of handicappers, but they have been known to stake their lives on their convictions; opinions are argued, but convictions are the hidden agenda in every argument, the unseen weight on even the most honest set of moral scales. Now it must be that an ethics of character will be concerned with convictions, for to have convictions is to have at least that much character; moreover, convictions, unlike traits of character such as justice or mercy, may, if known, be expressed in propositional form, so they may evince the particularity of character as the more general ‘traits’ cannot … For as men or women are convinced so will they live. And similarly with convinced communities. What is noteworthy, however, is that the realm of convictions is just the realm with which theology, too, is concerned. The best way to understand theology is to see it, not as the study about God (for there are godless theologies as well as godly ones), but as the investigation of the convictions of a convictional community, discovering its convictions, interpreting them, criticizing them in the light of all that we know, and creatively transforming them into better ones if possible … Theologians, then, are concerned with convictions, not merely in themselves, but in relation to the persons and communities that embrace these convictions, and they are interested in what those convictions are about. The Christian theologian cares not only to know that there is a belief in God, not only to know that that belief is the conviction of the Christian community, but also to know whether there be such a God and what difference God’s being (as well as the belief in it) makes to the women and men who believe or disbelieve. – James Wm. McClendon Jr., Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 19–21.

McClendon proceeds to name the relationship between ‘adequate ethic’ and what he calls theology’s ‘proper work’:

Ethics may have to acknowledge that the only truly universal ethical judgments are purely formal, providing little guidance for the formation of moral character, and may have to learn to attend afresh to the way of life of particular communities and individuals, though without sacrificing its yearning for universalizability. Theology may have to acknowledge that a theology of revelation or of reason, or a theology of secularity or of religiosity, if it does not enter into the actual shape of the lives of the people in its community of concern, is after all irrelevant to these lives. (p. 21)

The reconciliation of this relationship, he argues, is found is biography where the tension between ‘what is and what ought to be believed and lived by all’ is enfleshed, and that in community. To engage in such reflection, he argues, is ‘the proper task of Christian theology’.

By recognizing that Christian beliefs are not so many ‘propositions’ to be catalogued or juggled like truth-functions in a computer, but are living convictions which give shape to actual lives and actual communities, we open ourselves to the possibility that the only relevant critical examination of Christian beliefs may be one that begins by attending to lived lives. Theology must be at least biography. If by attending to those lives, we find ways of reforming our own theologies, making them more true, more faithful to our ancient vision, more adequate to the age now being born, then we will be justified in that arduous inquiry. Biography at its best will be theology. (p. 22)

This relates to another important thesis of McClendon’s essay; namely, that the locale for the formation of one’s character is community. As Edmund Pincoffs reminds, ‘Aristotle did not give open lectures; St. Paul did not write open letters. When they used the word “we”, they spoke from within a community of expectations and ideals: a community within which character was cultivated’. This, of course, is one of the weaknesses of so-called ‘situation ethics’, or what James McClendon refers to as ‘decisionism’. McClendon argues that decisionism is ‘ill equipped to understand and shed light upon those dark struggles of our selves in which, confronted with imponderables, we do flounder about, sometimes conscientiously, sometimes self-deceived, sometimes locked in the struggle that classical Christian theology calls temptation’. He contrasts this with what he calls the ‘classic view’, the notion that a person’s life is ‘a journey, a pilgrimage, in which one’s self is not mere datum, nor an electronic calculator reading “decisions” off new “situations”, but a soul in the making, a self which can become itself only as the weight of sin is fully recognized and the self recognizes a center of meaning and source of power beyond itself, forgiving and remaking that self’ (p. 9). Such recognition, I concur, requires being-in-community. There is no stand-alone ‘I’. The journey inwards cannot be made apart from the journey outwards. Learning, maturation and character are perichoretically-determined activities.

Anyway, time to grind …

Solzhenitsyn on the legalism that kills

‘Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.

I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure’.

– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’ (A paper presented at the Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, Harvard University, Thursday, 8 June, 1978).

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

There’s a recent article in The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr (author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google) which explores the effects of the internet on our reading – and thinking – habits. Drawing upon research by developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf and sociologist Daniel Bell (among others), and citing as examples Friedrich Nietzsche’s use of a typewriter, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s efficiency experiments, Gutenberg’s printing press, and Kubrick’s 2001, Carr makes us wonder what we might be risking when we hand over to the internet (and Google) what we once considered to be far too invaluable to even commit to print – our ability to think!

Carr recalls the spirit of Plato’s Phaedrus, wherein Socrates bemoans the development of writing: ‘He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong – the new technology did often have the effects he feared – but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom)’.

Carr also cites from a recent essay by playwright Richard Foreman wherein Foreman writes:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality – a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’ – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

For the full article.

On Bastard Philosophies, Stolen Generations, and the Forgiveness of Sins

Writing of Bacon, Locke and Scottish common sense philosophy (uncritically lumped together), Nevin writes: ‘The general character of this bastard philosophy is, that it affects to measure all things, both on earth and in heaven, by the categories of the common abstract understanding, as it stands related to simply to the world of time and sense’. – John W. Nevin, Human Freedom and a Plea for Philosophy: Two Essays (Mercersburg: P. A. Rice, 1850), 42. Cited in Alan P. F. Sell, Testimony and Tradition: Studies in Reformed and Dissenting Thought (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 173.

This leads me to draw attention to a recent reflection by Aussie theologian, Frank Rees, on what it means for the new democratically-elected Australian government to say sorry for past and not-so-past sins, and why ‘sorry is not the hardest word: indeed, it will be a word of life’. Frank’s post is a timely reminder of how ‘bastard philosophies’ don’t bring life, but only death; in this case that death bred of fear, misunderstanding (of the issues, of people, and of the gospel itself) and mistrust, the wounds of which will probably take decades, if not centuries, to heal.

In a related post, Rory suggests that the apology to Australia’s stolen generation should be made on our behalf by the Governor General rather than by the Prime Minister. He writes: ‘He is the head of government in Australia, and he holds a position that is above party politics. Whatever you think about the virtues or otherwise of the current government, surely addressing this part of our history is bigger than who won the last election. I can only think that an apology coming from the GG would better speak for the nation, and it would allow the apology to loose itself from any particular party’.

I think I like this (Are there any good reasons – constitutional or otherwise – for why this cannot, or should not, happen?). But regardless of from whose vicarious lips the apology comes, one hopes that it may also model and encourage the way of life and a softening of heart (and a less bastardly-informed philosophy) for other people, governments and organisations. One hopes … [I confess to having no such confidence in human nature of itself to bring about such a change of heart. This too must be a work of the Spirit].

Frank’s and Rory’s posts reminded me of Stevan Weine’s book, When History Is a Nightmare: Lives and Memories of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a volume which includes some powerful documentary of those closely affected by the tragedies attending the recent conflict in the Balkans. One such testimony witnesses:

I remember Bosnia as a beautiful and peaceful country. We all lived together. Before the war, it was unnecessary to know if your neighbor was Serb, Croat, Muslim or Jew. We looked only at what kind of person you were. We were all friends. But now I think it is like a kind of earthquake. A huge catastrophe. After this war nothing will be the same. People will live, but I think they will not live together. they will not share the same bread like before. Maybe they will be neighbors, but I think the close relationship will not exist any more. Because the Bosnian people, especially the Muslim people, had a bad experience, partly as a result of our attitude. (p. 13)

In his brilliant treatment on forgiveness, The Cleansing of the Memories, Geoffrey Bingham reminds us that ‘memory has always been a problem with mankind. It may seem a curious thing that man can be troubled by his past, as also delighted by it. Some memories bring a renewal of shock and trauma when they come unbidden’. Bingham proceeds to speak of ‘God’s holy amnesia’, of ‘the Divine forgetfulness’ or ‘the Divine non–remembering’. ‘God refuses to remember our sins! If then God refuses to remember our sins, why should we choose remember them?’ While our consciences never let anyone off the hook, Bingham writes, ‘God–through Christ–has so purged our sins, that they have been worked out to exhaustion and extinction, and all their power of guilt, penalty and pollution has been erased. In other words there are–effectively –no sins to remember! God has not simply ignored our sins. He has destroyed them, forever! … Of course–from time to time–we will remember the sins we once did, but we must not make them back into substantial things. God has denuded them of substance, of guilt, power and pollution. If they come to us in memory, then in faith in the Cross we should say, ‘Whilst you represent the sins I committed, you have no substance. God has emptied you, purified you, and taken away the guilt which accompanied you. You are wraiths, ghosts of the past come back to haunt me via the accusations of Satan and his hosts, but you have no substance’. [See The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World by Miroslav Volf, and my post here on Redeeming Bitterness – An Interview with Miroslav Volf].

I have just finished reading Wilhelm Herrmann’s Systematic Theology (Dogmatik), which I recommend. At one point, he notes that ‘It is the realization of the impossibility of friendship with God that creates in us the religious consciousness of guilt. Obviously we cannot be quit of this burden of guilt by any effort for our own betterment; for the sense of guilt before God will paralyse our courage to start a new life’. To all who have tried to be quit of the burden of guilt by their own efforts, Herrmann’s words sound out as a prophetic rebuke and caution against the futility and arrogance of such resolve. This is one of the reasons why in the final chapter of his The Wondrous Cross (reviewed here), Steve Holmes suggests that the message of penal substitution remains an important one to teach us about God’s love, about forgiveness and about justice – for both victims and perpetrators. He writes:

Penal substitution will, of course, teach us something about justice and guilt. It will teach us first that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside. Not that there can never be forgiveness – of course not – the point of the story is precisely that there can be, and is: while crimes cannot be forgotten, yet at the same time they must also be forgiven. Cases of child abuse, where the abuser has used shaming mechanisms so successfully that none of his victims ever speak; cases of corruption, where the politician has cynically sold favours and hidden her misdeeds well enough never to be discovered; cases of war crimes, where the military officer has callously committed certain deeds, feeling secure in the knowledge that they will not come to light: these are the types of cases and situations where penal substitution becomes an important story to tell.

For the victims in such situations, the story of penal substitution holds the promise that there is justice in this world, even for the worst crimes, or the best-hidden atrocities …

For the perpetrators in these situations, the story of penal substitution holds out the invitation to stop trying to escape their crimes by their own efforts, and to find, if they dare to face up with honesty and repentance to what they have done, full and free forgiveness in Christ.

In a recent paper I heard, Alan Torrance bore witness to the truth that it is only by virtue of Christ’s vicarious humanity that we discover the two forms of liberation that are intrinsic to atonement: first, liberation as victimisers for our sin of victimisation; and second, liberation as victims from the bitterness and hatred that attend the sense of irreversible injustice, the hurt of damaged lives, irretrievably lost opportunities, and all the other evils that result from sin. There is liberation here, he said, because precisely at the point where we cannot forgive our enemies the Gospel suggests that our sole representative, the sole priest of our confession, does what we cannot do – he stands in and forgives our victimisers for us and in our place as the One on behalf of the many – and then invites us to participate in the very forgiveness he has realised vicariously on our behalf. On these grounds we are not only permitted to forgive but obliged and indeed commanded to forgive others. Alan said, ‘Where we are not entitled to forgive, the crucified Rabbi is. And where we are unable to forgive, we are given to participate in his once-and-for-all forgiveness and to live our lives in that light and from that centre – not least in the political realm’. He cited his dad (JB Torrance), who defined worship as ‘the gift of participating by the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father’. The consequence of any ethic, therefore, that warrants the name ‘Christian’ must be conceived in parallel terms, namely as the gift of participating by the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. ‘Forgiveness’, Alan stressed, ‘is the gift of participating in a triune event of forgiveness. In an act of forgiveness, the Father sends the Son, who, by the Spirit, forgives as God but also, by the Spirit, as the eschatos Adam on behalf of humanity. The mandate to forgive must be understood in this light.’

The ‘apology’ that will be made when the federal government next sits is ultimately possible because in Christ, God has already confessed humanity’s sins and forgiven all parties. To say ‘sorry’ is to take up Christ’s invitation to us to ‘participate in that forgiveness that he has realised vicariously on our behalf’. It is, as Alan presses, to participate in a triune event of forgiveness in which the Father sends the Son, who, by the Spirit, forgives. And, it is to participate by the Spirit, in the action of the last Adam on behalf of humanity, to the joy of the Father. Whether or not the Australian Government (or Governor-General), those of the Stolen Generation (and their families/nations), and all Aussies (even Faris QC) know that this is what it means to say ‘Sorry’ and ‘Receive the forgiveness of sins’ does not undermine the reality that the very human actions of confession and forgiveness are at the heart of what it means to be imago dei, and to participate in the ministry of the Triune God in our maimed and besmirched world.

‘For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility’ (Eph 2:14).

‘See to it’, therefore, ‘that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him’. (Col 2:8-15)