The ‘slow drift’ and ‘the frank event’


Artist unknown, ‘Pell-O-Phile’. Hosier Lane, Melbourne, 31 August 2019.

‘There are a few ways you can lose your religion – in a slow drift where the time between mass attendance and sacraments like confession gets longer and longer, until you can’t in good faith claim to be a member of the flock any more. And then there’s the frank event, where something happens and you realise you cannot continue supporting the institution that has inflicted so much pain’.

– Brigid Delaney, ‘Losing my religion: after the Pell verdict, the conflict for Catholics’, The Guardian, 30 August, 2019.

Christmas, and not lying about the world

Ghouta chemical attack.jpg

Ghouta, Syria, 21 August 2013

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2.16–18)


I think a lot these days of those perpetually incomplete lives, beautiful and made tragic; and I wonder how they speak for God, or not for God; how they participate in the divine pathos, or at least the divine silence; and how their parents have ‘borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’, sharing in the divine labor itself.

Often, hope leads to just despair – of faith, of the church, of God, of life itself. This too, it seems, is part of the kind of faith that Christmas makes possible, and that threatens to be transformed in the fullness of time.

Speaking of that horrible text in Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas is right to turn to Donald MacKinnon:

Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants. Christians are tempted to believe that the death of the children of Bethlehem “can be redeemed” by Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection. Donald MacKinnon, however, insists that such a reading of the gospels, in particular the destruction of the innocents of Bethlehem, is perverse. For MacKinnon, the victory of the resurrection does not mean that these children are any less dead or their parents any less bereaved, but rather resurrection makes it possible for followers of Jesus not to lie about the world that we believe has been redeemed.

A prayer:

Roráte caéli désuper,
et núbes plúant jústum.

Víde Dómine afflictiónem pópuli túi,
et mítte quem missúrus es:
emítte Agnum dominatórem térræ,
de Pétra desérti ad móntem fíliæ Síon:
ut áuferat ípse júgum captivitátis nóstræ.

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:

Jennifer Strauss, ‘The Anabaptist Cages, Münster’

Jan van Leyden1535
Jan van Leyden, Prisoner:

It is enough that God is with me;
I need no priest.

The Sentence:

And let the bodies of those condemned–
Krettech, Knipperdolling, Jan ‘the King’ –
Being brought from the place of execution
Be severally hung in iron cages
Wrought to that purpose.
And let the aforesaid cages hang
High on the steeple of St Lambert’s,
That being the place of first offending.
And let the people thus remember
What follows of misery and excess
When foolish men puffed up by wicked pride
Despise the just and natural laws
Of God and princes.

The Polygamous Wife:

Brag in the wind, old bones!
Preach in your stinking cage till the trumpets sound
To set to partners in that resurrection dance
Where there’ll be neither marriage nor giving in marriage.
Dreaming, we thought you promised with God’s voice
Our spirit’s freedom, but woke to find
You’d bound us harder than ever before
In marriage and childbed. A prisoner to his cell,
Battering at hateful walls, you entered my flesh.
Sisters in God? Did a brotherly hand
Slash off my friend’s head in the market-place
For ‘disobedience’? Did you not hear us all
Pray in our hearts with our first martyr
‘See to it heavenly Father – if you’re Almighty –
That I’m no more forced to mount this marriage-bed.’?
You could say that He answered. I say rather
Let them toll the cages, not the bells,
Let the cages cry to the Sunday city
‘Where is God now? Your God? Our God?
Where is God? Is God? Where?

The Priest of St Lambert’s:

God in my hands: shall I offer Him then
To a congregation with eyes glazed
By terror and something more – a terrible greed
Unsated by mere symbols of torn flesh?
The Bishop says that God is Love,
The Bishop says God is in the wafer,
The Bishop says the Church is in God:
I would set down God and Church together
For my hands’ bones ache with weight
Even as the beams of the church groan
With the spire’s burden. Last night
In the chancel I found another crack.
Every night I beg my God
That the great stones fall
And set me free, that the earth
Open, and swallow me whole.
But is it the same unanswering God
He cried to, breaking upon the wheel?
If I spoke my doubts they’d call me
At best possessed and hunt a witch to burn
At worst, corrupt with heresy.
I have seen exorcism, I have been
Shown the instruments of interrogation;
I am too afraid. In dreams the altar rails
Close round to cage me in.
If the Church be the instrument of God
Let Him use it and make an end.

The Girl:

Every night my heart knocks in its cage of ribs.
If it got out, how they’d startle
These grave masters, hitching their pants,
Laying down coins and solemn reflections
On fallen man. Thoughts are like stones.
My lover’s hands were gentle, to me at least.
Let them think they have him, rags of flesh,
Snared in their iron cage. I know
I can charm him out. Every night
Between midnight and dawn he sings in my thighs.
They’ll not burn me; by day
I creep about in the roots of the city,
By night I have my protectors.
What are beliefs? We might have had children.
In love he’d call me his mouse, his rabbit –
They crunched his bones in the teeth of their traps,
They flayed him living with red-hot tongs.
I vowed the day they set his corpse
To dangle on their ‘House of Love’
I’d never think of God again.


The Tourist:

They seem so insignificant there on the steeple,
Quiet as a birdcage after the bird has flown;
Centuries of rain have rinsed the stones of anguish,
If they are crumbling it’s not from the workings of blood;
Terrible things are done, now as yesterday.
Leaving through sunlit woods, I watch a hawk
Sweep, hover and strike. Unheard on the wind
The thin wail of whatever small furred thing
Had blundered into the open, natural prey.
Leaving Europe, I pack away a Manichean postcard:
The world as God’s cage for heretics.

– Jennifer Strauss, ‘The Anabaptist Cages, Münster’, in The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse, ed. Kevin Hart (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994), 208–10.

Some (pre-election) wisdom from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Letters and Papers from PrisonAs I contemplate, despair, protest, hope, pray, and engage in an upcoming election, I was very grateful this week to read, and to take the time to type up, some (pre-election) wisdom from brother Dietrich:

On Stupidity

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand, its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid. We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who live in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurk, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

Yet at this very point it becomes quite clear that only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity. Here we must come to terms with the fact that in most cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person. This state of affairs explains why in such circumstances our attempts to know what “the people” really think are in vain and why, under these circumstances, this question is so irrelevant for the person who is thinking and acting responsibly. The word of the Bible that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome stupidity.

But these thoughts about stupidity also offer consolation in that they utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance. It really will depend on whether those in power expect more from peoples’ stupidity than from their inner independence and wisdom.

Contempt for Humanity?

The danger of allowing ourselves to be driven to contempt for humanity is very real. We know very well that we have no right to let this happen and that it would lead us into the most unfruitful relation to human beings. The following thoughts may protect us against this temptation: through contempt for humanity we fall victim precisely to our opponents’ chief errors. Whoever despises another human being will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing of what we despise in another is itself foreign to us. How often do we expect more of the other than what we ourselves are willing to accomplish. Why is it that we have hitherto thought with so little sobriety about the temptability and frailty of human beings? We must learn to regard human beings less in terms of what they do and neglect to do and more in terms of what they suffer. The only fruitful relation to human beings – particularly to the weak among them – is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them. God did not hold human beings in contempt but became human for their sake.

Immanent Justice

It is one of the most astonishing experiences and also one of the most incontrovertible that evil – often in a surprisingly short span of time – proves itself to be stupid and impractical. That does not mean that punishment follows hard on the heels of each individual evil deed; what it does mean is that the suspension of God’s commandments on principle in the supposed interest of earthly self-preservation acts precisely against what this self-preservation seeks to accomplish. One can interpret in various ways this experience that has fallen to us. In any case, one thing has emerged that seems certain: in the common life of human beings, there are laws that are stronger than everything that believes it can supersede them, and that it is therefore not only wrong but unwise to disregard these laws. This helps us understand why Aristotelian-Thomistic ethics elevated wisdom to be one of the cardinal virtues. Wisdom and stupidity are not ethically indifferent, as the neo-Protestant ethics of conscience wanted us to believe. In the fullness of the concrete situation and in the possibilities it offers, the wise person discerns the impassable limits that are imposed on every action by the abiding laws of human communal life. In this discernment the wise person acts well and the good person acts wisely.

There is clearly no historically significant action that does not trespass ever again against the limits set by those laws. But it makes a decisive difference whether such trespasses against the established limit are viewed as their abolishment in principle and hence presented as a law of its own kind, or whether one is conscious that such trespassing is perhaps an unavoidable guilt that has its justification only in that law and limit being reinstated and honored as quickly as possible. It is not necessarily hypocrisy when the aim of political action is said to be the establishment of justice and not simply self-preservation. The world is, in fact, so ordered that the fundamental honoring of life’s basic laws and rights at the same time best serves self-preservation, and that these laws tolerate a very brief, singular, and, in the individual case, necessary trespass against them. But those laws will sooner or later – and with irresistible force – strike dead those who turn necessity into a principle and as a consequence set up a law of their own alongside them. History’s immanent justice rewards and punishes the deed only, but the eternal justice of God tries and judges the hearts.

Some Statements of Faith on God’s Action in History

I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil. For that to happen, God needs human beings who let everything work out for the best. I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to resist as we need. But it is not given to us in advance, lest we rely on ourselves and not on God alone. In such faith all fear of the future should be overcome. I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that it is no more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.


Few have been spared the experience of being betrayed. The figure of Judas, once so incomprehensible, is hardly strange to us. The air in which we live is so poisoned with mistrust that we almost die from it. But where we broke through the layer of mistrust, we were allowed to experience a trust hitherto utterly undreamed of. There, where we trust, we have learned to place our lives in the hands of others; contrary to all the ambiguities in which our acts and lives must exist, we have learned to trust without reserve. We now know that one can truly live and work only in such trust, which is always a venture but one gladly affirmed. We know that to sow and to nourish mistrust is one of the most reprehensible things and that, instead, trust is to be strengthened and advanced wherever possible. For us trust will be one of the greatest, rarest, and most cheering gifts bestowed by the life we humans live in common, and yet it always emerges only against the dark background of a necessary mistrust. We have learned to commit our lives on no account into the hands of the mean but without reserve into the hands of the trustworthy.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best, et al., vol. 8, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 43–47.

… believing in God’s love

Dancing in the Water of LifeHere’s a wonderful confession from Thomas Merton, which even in its brevity dares to say more than we can really know this side of the dirty mirror:

Automatic and compulsive routines that are simply silly – and I don’t take them seriously. All the singing, the “speaking in tongues,” etc. Funny. I see how easily I could go nuts and don’t especially care. I see the huge flaws in myself and don’t know what to do about them. Die of them eventually, I suppose, what else can I do? I live a flawed and inconsequential life, believing in God’s love. But faith can no longer be naïve and sentimental. I cannot explain things away with it. Need for deeper meditation. I certainly see more clearly where I need to go and how (surprising how my prayer in community had really reached a dead end for years and stayed there – fortunately I could get out to the woods and my spirit could breathe). Still, Gethsemani too has to be fully accepted. My long refusal to fully identify myself with the place is futile (and identifying myself in some forlorn and lonesome way would be worse). It is simply where I am, and the monks are who they are: not monks but people, and the younger ones are more truly people than the old ones, who are also good in their own way, signs of a different kind of excellence that is no longer desirable in its accidentals. The essence is the same.

Renounce accusations and excuses.

– Thomas Merton, Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage, ed. Robert E. Daggy, The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 5: 1963–1965 (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1998), 328.

With thanks to Mary Luti for drawing my attention to some of these words.

faithfulness, through a glass darkly

Through a glass darkly

To think about love as that which is sourced in God, which moves us towards healing, which is open to others, which refuses the bondage of disembodiment, which takes risks, and which carries with it certain responsibilities, is to recall that love is not too far removed from that other fruit of the Spirit that ought to characterise the Christian community; namely, faith. For the Christian community, to faith is to risk the entirety of its existence by leaning unreservedly into the Word who addresses it and who calls it away from its own life-less patterns of self-reliance and into God’s true freedom.

It is important to remember that faith is neither the ‘idolatry of certainty’ (Monika Hilder) nor the same as belief. To believe is part of faith, but faith also involves not believing, questioning, doubting, exploring, or not knowing what to believe. A faithful response to God includes the courage to explore further, to value mystery rather than carrying the burden of knowing all that is to be known. And a faithful community is one that welcomes and holds together all of these dimensions of faith – rejoicing, resting, anguishing, risking, exploring, being unstable bearers of live questions. Faith communities devoid of such dimensions are communities in danger, or worse, of not growing up at all.

It is not insignificant that the Bible has no arguments for the existence of God. It is not insignificant that the Bible offers little reason to think that faith should be facile and unambiguous. Indeed, the Bible is unfilled by comfortable and reassuring words about the life of belief and trust. It is unfilled by presentations of a God who expects or demands doubtless faith. If Abraham and Moses and Hannah and Job and Mary and Jesus and Simeon and Paul suggest any pattern, then our knowledge of God and of God’s ways is characterised not by epistemological certainty but by being found caught up in a reality planned and constrained only by mysterious love, love which appears to have little difficulty in making space for angst and struggle and disbelief, and which is at home looking through a glass darkly. Indeed, in a sense these are a kind of argument for God.

Faith is always being called into risky business. The faithful deal with shadows, partaking little of ‘the optimistic gleam of scientific progress’ (Catherine Keller). Faithful communities are therefore unavoidably characterised by some confusion, some doubt, and some ambiguity. Indeed, these are part of their gift and witness. And trusting this is a sign of their faithfulness to the One whose ways are not like ours.

[Image: David Mello]

Christian Wiman on belief, faith, poetry, experience, and the unreligious artist

IAM (International Arts Movement) recently posted Makoto Fujimura’s 4-part interview with Christian Wiman. I thought it was worth sharing:

1. On belief and faith

2. On poetry and faith

3. On experience and self-expression

4. The unreligious artist

Whenever I read Wiman, or read about Wiman, I am reminded of the Church’s long history of mistreatment and silencing of the doubters and sceptics in its midst, of my own disquiet about the idolatry of certainty, and of my own hunger for honest conversation about the mysteries that lie most deeply in the centre of existence. I am also reminded that scepticism as well as faith ‘seeking understanding’ (after Anselm) involves not only some continuity with the past but also the constructive work of doing what Hans-Georg Gadamer famously refers to as opening ‘horizons’ of meaning where one learns ‘to look beyond what is close at hand—not in order to look away from it, but to see it better within a larger whole and in truer proportion’. Theologians, it seems to me, ought to champion the opening up of such ‘hermeneutic space’ for all those – whether so-called believers or sceptics – who simply cannot imag­ine any other way of the world being. This is one place where the work of artists like Wiman take on an almost indispensable role for the church, and perhaps especially in those parts of it which tend to be more than a little wordy (and a little nerdy!) – where, despite all claims to the contrary, what is communicated is that ultimate truths really can be captured by human constructs – not only in liturgical contexts but also in our other theological musings.

My friend Cynthia Rigby recently identified Wiman as an example of one for whom the search for meaning constitutes ‘a kind of belief that … would not run nearly as deep were it void of skepticism’. Clearly, doubt and scepticism may be expressions of faith. Equally, belief may be an expression of a lack of faith, a mistrust and/or fear – the fear of not believing. All this is part of the complexity and ambiguity of scepticism. What sceptics and doubters need, Paul Tillich said, is not repression but courage which ‘does not deny that there is doubt, but … takes the doubt into itself as an expression of its finitude and affirms the content of an ultimate concern’. This is the kind of scepticism which is essential for the kind of theology that grown-ups do!

St Ambrose once said that ‘it did not suit God to save his people by arguments’. Of course, arguments have their uses – encouraging the gift of clarification, for example – but they are no substitute for imagination, vision, and hope, truths not lost on the biblical writers. It is not insignificant that the Bible has no arguments for the existence of God. It is not insignificant that the Bible offers little reason to think that faith should be facile and unambiguous. Indeed, the Bible is unfilled by comfortable and reassuring words about the life of belief and trust. It is unfilled by presentations of a God who expects or demands doubtless faith. If Abraham and Moses and Hannah and Job and Mary and Jesus and Paul suggest any pattern, then our knowledge of God and of God’s ways is learnt not, in the first instance, by clinical enquiry and epistemological certainty but by being found caught up in a reality planned and constrained only by mysterious love, love which appears to have little difficulty in making space for angst and struggle and disbelief. Indeed, in a sense these are a kind of argument for God.

Lipsey’s Dag Hammarskjöld: A Life – 3

Lipsey - Hammarskjold. A LifeIt is true that Dag Hammarskjöld was given an astonishing apprenticeship in life and early career in terms of both formal education and other opportunities through which he would gain valuable perspectives on the inner workings of international diplomacy. It was a start which prepared him well for the vocation in which he would eventually find his feet. But among the many things that made him extraordinary as a world leader was an energy turned towards things more elusive. His deep and hope-filled capacity to say ‘Yes’ to humanity (he was not naïve; the Congo crisis birthed in him a conviction that ‘there are really evil persons – evil right through – only evil’, p. 510), and his ‘moral stature and incorruptible justice, his integrity and whole-hearted commitment, and his never-failing sense of responsibility vis-à-vis the task’ (p. 51) – to recall a description provided by Hammarskjöld’s governmental colleague and later loyal friend Henrik Klackenberg (Hammarskjöld served as a member of the Swedish cabinet in the early 1950s) – grew not only out of the soil provided by a mother with a deep social conscience and spirituality, but also, as Roger Lipsey notes, by a ‘crushingly honest exploration of what it is to live; to have mind, heart, and body; to be thrown into this world; to decipher experience; to carry burdens and face weaknesses a little wisely; to find something approaching inner peace; to glimpse a larger pattern, and somehow serve the good’ (p. 53).

Anyone familiar with Markings could not but agree that this description is indicative of its author’s quest to live an examined life – ‘we are witnessing a gifted soul deeply engaged in its own education’ (p. 59) – a quest which more than any other single factor made Hammarskjöld lead out of a tributary that too few dare approach, but which Lipsey, appropriately, makes much of throughout this biography. As Hammarskjöld would write in Markings:

The road to self-knowledge does not pass through faith. But only through the insight we gain by pursuing the fleeting light in the depth of our being do we reach the point where we can grasp what faith is. How many have been driven into our darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something ‘true’.

HammarskjöldIt is little wonder therefore that one of the most recurring themes in Lipsey’s study is loneliness, an indispensable burden (it seems) of a person given to take seriously the long wandering for home that the hungry soul risks, and of a leader given to undertake with unflinching gravity the risky service of humanity – the lonely burden of true leadership – and that while carrying the conviction that ‘the only elevation possible to man lies in the depths of humiliation’ (Hammarskjöld, as cited on p. 502). Little wonder too that while not lacking in resources, Lipsey’s Hammarskjöld is ‘a tormented soul’ (p. 65).

He was not, however, without wonderful friends – his brother, Bo and Greta Beskow, W. H. Auden and John Steinbeck among them. Indeed, one of the persistent refrains throughout Lipsey’s account of Hammarskjöld’s life concerns the abiding value of true friends, particularly at those times when (such as in the midst of the Suez and Congo crises) ‘one’, in Hammarskjöld’s words, ‘happens to be standing in the middle of crossroads along which an abnormally high level of political traffic is pressing’ (p. 488), when hope is clouded in and lost to weariness, and when the music of reconciliation is drowned out by the Machiavellian drums of fear and mistrust. His friends, it seems, provided a sanctuary wherein his humour was most expressive, and where his kindness could be enjoyed without fear of suspicion. They also helped him to keep things in perspective – to ‘remember that there is more to reality than [the] chaos, menace, and slander’ (p. 492) which characterised so much of his day-to-day work as a political celibate (although he was not, by his own admission, a political virgin). As with prayer, his friends too were a gift from the God of hope, the One for whom chaos and human recalcitrance finally represent no obstacle to love reaching its goal – however long it may take, and however hard the arc of history must bend. His relationship with his friends represents too where the road to self-knowledge could be traversed, and where the repeatable journey from death to life passes though the experience of unworthiness, disappointment and incapability into the freedom of inexplicable relief and surprise, and even joy.

PT Forsyth, a report on his birthday

Last evening, a few, including Bertha, Jessie and myself, gathered at an undisclosed location in Tillydron Terrace, Old Aberdeen, to celebrate P.T. Forsyth’s birthday, which falls today. (Peter had been back in town to catch up with old friends, and to give an address on Goethe at the Newtondee Village Gentleman’s Club.) At an unarranged point in the evening, some considerable time after dinner, the birthday boy motioned his desire to make a short speech. In addition to being mostly polite, none of the guests at the party were in any mood to argue, and that despite knowing that ‘short’ speeches were not in their friends’ usual repertoire. It was by now late, many of the conversations had degenerated to talk about sports and favourite movies, and most of the guests were semi-sozzled (Laphroaig had been on special this week at Sainsbury’s.) But ever feeling up for the challenge, and most probably to quell the conversations about that most outré of sports, curling, he arose from his burgundy velvet chair, the one with the studded arms, adjusted his perfectly-tied size 16 white cotton bow tie (none of this polyester ‘one-size-fits-all’ arrangement), and spoke of how ‘Life begins as a problem, but when it ends well it ends as a faith: a great problem, therefore a great faith’. Already by this point, some of the guests hoped-against-hope that he’d finished his wee oration on life and, feeling confused but anticipating that they may be able to send a message to the beloved speaker that it might be a good thing if he started to wrap things up, began that body rustle one does to get ready for a few brief jokes and the raising of a glass to the tune of ‘Co-latha-breith sona, Peter’. But he went on:

Ordinary experience gives us the first half, it sets a problem; gives us the first half, it sets a problem; but the second half, the answer of faith to us, comes from God’s revelation of grace … To overcome the world and master life takes all the deep resources of Eternal God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. ‘When the Gospel is duly preached it is the Trinity that preaches’ … [Life] offers a task rather than an enjoyment. The soul must be achieved. The kingdom is above all a gift, but it is also a conquest. We are here to fight the good fight rather than to have a good time. The people to whom life is only an excursion, a picnic, a stroll, or a game grow more and more outlanders in society. Most people—more people than ever, at least—feel life’s problem to-day more sharply than ever before. Indeed, some feel nothing else. The trouble with so many serious minds among us is that life is no more than a problem to them. They are loaded with the riddle of it. They are victims of the age of uncertainty and unrest. It is not work that kills, but such worry. What does the life of worry mean but that life is felt to be much more full of problems than of power? … The problem is disquieting, anxious, and even tragic. It is not simply interesting and musing: not like a chess problem, or a mathematical, or a literary, to be solved at arm’s length by our wits for the pleasure of the thing. We are in no Kriegspiel, but in the real thing always. It touches the nerve. It is a problem, it is not a riddle. It has become a war. It involves the realities of life, the things most dear, solemn, searching, commanding. Darkness—is it the cloud of night or the mist of dawn? Disaster—is it there to burn up life, or to temper and anneal it; to crush life, or to rouse in us the spirit that overcomes it? Death —does it explode life or expand it, stifle it or solve it? Life is not a seductive puzzle; it is a tragic battle for existence, for power, for eternal life … To grasp the real, deep tragedy of life is enough to unhinge any mind which does not find God’s solution of it in the central tragedy of the Cross and its redemption. But life’s tragic problem to-day is not merely discussed in salons by philosophers and their circles, nor by petits-raítres and amateurs of thought; it lays hold of almost every man who takes things seriously at all. And especially it takes religion seriously and gets beyond the Cheeryble brothers. Life is not a riddle for a tea-party, but a battle of blood. It is certainly not a matter of snug optimism in philosophy, nor of mauve religion in fiction’.

At this point, Kentigerna said to Somerled, her husband and co-host, ‘Right. Perhaps we ought to attend to the cake and then call it a night. Big day tomorrow at the curling club’. Peter looked sad and, after a permission-giving glance from Bertha and Jessie, headed towards the cake table for the song and ceremonial cutting, not knowing that his words would continue to unsettle the soul, and the nerve, of not a few on the morrow.

Some other guests sat still, almost paralysed, somewhat confused but certainly unhinged by what they had heard. These were brooding on the possibility that somehow and in some way, even in this little loungeroom in Tillydron Terrace, the wind of God had blown through.

For the record, I very much enjoyed the Carob Cake. It had rich, fudgy frosting.

Living Easter Faith: a reflection on Luke 24.13–35

Easter is always a surprise. Whether Easter meets us in the bustle of busy-ness, or in the deep surges of grace overturning tragedy in our lives, or in the celebration of the eucharist, or in the world with its tsunamis, earthquakes, assassinations, tornadoes, and wars, Easter is always a surprise. And it’s the kind of surprise – thank God – that invites, even shocks, us into waking up, to having our eyes pried open, to recognising that the world in which we fell asleep no longer exists.[1]

And our waking up births new questions: How will we learn to walk in the new reality that Easter’s dawn has opened up? And how shall we proclaim the reality that in the raising of the dead Jesus God is inaugurating the re-creation of all things, and that a new politic is at work in the world? And how shall we avoid being stuck at Good Friday as custodians of the crucifixion, or on Holy Saturday with decimated hopes sealed in a sarcophagus?[2] And what does it mean for us to join Cleopas and his unnamed partner on the road of broken dreams when the very embodiment of our expectations for liberation is walking right beside us … and when – in spite of his imminence – our eyes are kept from recognising the incognito God?[3] In other words, how might we live with both familiarity and mystery, with recognition and doubt? And what might it mean that in the absence of Jesus, it is the presence of the Spirit who makes life meaningful?

Luke tells the story of those who have bet their lives on the wrong messiah. And so, confused as much as anything about the recent events birthed in Jerusalem’s corridors of power but played out on a cross outside of Jerusalem’s walls and around Joseph of Arimathea’s ‘rock-hewn tomb’ (Luke 23.53), these two hit one of the ancient city’s outbound roads and head to Emmaus, a village about 11 kilometers from Jerusalem. Like the others, these two sorry disciples are heading back to fishing nets, back to tax offices, back to missed appointments, back to familiar territory, back to how things were before Jesus interrupted their lives. Carrying their bag of unanswered questions with them, they are on the road that will return them to what T.S. Eliot called ‘the human condition’, a condition marked by the maintenance of a ‘common routine’ and an avoidance of ‘excessive expectation’.[4]

They confess in v. 21: ‘But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’. That hope is now gone. It is hope in the past tense. This story is about those who have held on to Jesus’ message, but whose lives are now in limbo because God’s plan seems to have run out of steam. It’s about those of us who can’t quite get our minds around Easter. And it’s about those who mourn in post-Christendom bewilderment, wondering how God’s promises relate to the relentlessness of institutional decline.

And as we read this text together, we’re tempted to keep our eyes on the two disciples, tracing their movement towards hope and faith. But Luke turns the spotlight onto Jesus. It is Jesus’ actions which provide the impetus for the narrative. And Jesus’ first action is simple but profound. We read in v. 15 that Jesus simply ‘came near and went with them’. It’s an unremarkable sentence, until we remember that this is just 10 verses after the resurrection. Here is Jesus, fresh from the domain of death, out on a dusty road, still seeking and saving the lost. Frederick Buechner says of this text:

You’d have expected a little more post-resurrection fanfare – an angel choir filling the sky with a Hallelujah chorus perhaps. But instead, Jesus is pursuing two sad pilgrims on a dusty road to a little village out back of beyond. He comes in the middle of all their questions. It’s the sheer ordinariness of it all that is so striking.

What a stunning reminder that God is both closer and stranger than we think. As Buechner put it,

Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but … at supper time, or walking along a road. This is the element that all the stories about Christ’s return to life have in common: Mary waiting at the empty tomb and suddenly turning around to see somebody standing there – someone she thought at first was the gardener; all the disciples except Thomas hiding out in a locked house, and then his coming and standing in the midst; and later, when Thomas was there, his coming again and standing in the midst; Peter taking his boat back after a night at sea, and there on the shore, near a little fire of coals, a familiar figure asking, “Children, have you any fish?”; the two [people] at Emmaus who knew him in the breaking of the bread. He never approached from on high, but always in the midst, in the midst of people, in the midst of real life and the questions that real life asks.[5]

Luke places Jesus with us on the road of our confusion, and tiredness, and frustration, and discouragement, and cynicism – when every ounce of hope has been wrung out of us, and his presence alone is all we have left. And even though we don’t really know who he is, we let him talk, and his words begin to peel away the calluses on our unbelieving hearts.

‘Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’, Jesus said. ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ In other words: ‘Where have you been all your life? You go to synagogue every week. What Bible have you been reading? Don’t you know your own story? Don’t you remember how, in the economy of God, that even death is no obstacle to God’s determination to bring life to every citadel where death reigns? Maybe those women spouting stories about an empty tomb aren’t so crazy after all’.[6]

But the rebuke is only the beginning! Jesus then walks these pilgrims through Moses and all the prophets. Just as he had done in his hometown synagogue, and just as Philip would do a few years later with an Ethiopian seeker, Jesus directs them to the Scriptures. Why? Because Scripture is the cradle in which we hear the living voice of God.[7] And to hear that voice is to know something of what the two Emmaus pilgrims experienced – our hearts burning within with the very life of God.

And their response? From v. 28:

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. (vv. 28–31).

The disciples on the road fail to recognise him, even in the Bible study. And when they do finally recognise him at the cracking of bread crust, Luke tells us that he ‘vanished from their sight’.[8] It’s easy to miss these few words. The moment of recognition lasts just long enough to surprise, to remind, to reassure, and to release vision and energy enough for a lifetime. Like those first disciples, we too wish he would stay longer, we long for more permanence. Yet, whatever else faith is, it cannot be chronic certainty.[9] Jesus refuses to be contained by us. Even when he makes himself known, he remains strangely elusive, free of our attempts to constrain him, to shape him into our image, to enlist his support for our own cultural, theological and political agendas. And he rejects all our attempts to create an image of an unbroken, impartial and unambiguous God. Jesus will not have us live by sight. The constituents of Easter faith are wonder and surprise, risk and trust, voluntary vulnerability, and contentment with hints of truth and glimpses of glory. That walk to Emmaus could have left the disciples where they were – bewildered, resentful, and at a loose end. But a stranger drew near, and he walked with them, and won confidence enough to not only speak, but to be listened to, and on being asked to stay longer he welcomed their welcome, and shared their meal.[10]

And this brings us to another thing to notice: Recall the first meal in the Bible.[11] ‘The woman took some of the fruit, and ate it; she gave it to her husband, and he ate it; then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’ (Gen 3.6–7). And now Luke is describing the first meal of the new creation: ‘When [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight’. The resemblances here are startling. But what is more astonishing is that the couple at Emmaus discover – through the breaking open of Scripture and in the breaking open of bread[12] – that in Jesus the Christ, the long curse has been broken, that God’s new creation, brimming with life and joy and unforeseen possibility, has burst in upon the world of decay and death and sorrow.

But this table fellowship does not erase the memory of the past, so much as recall the way that in Jesus Christ the entirety of our history – with its shame, betrayal and failure – is gathered up in the reconciling love of God made concrete in Jesus Christ. So Rowan Williams notes how, for both St John and St Luke, the resurrection meals

echo specific occasions of crisis, misunderstanding, illusion and disaster. They “recover” not only the memory of table-fellowship, but the memory of false hope, betrayal and desertion, of a past in which ignorance and pride and the rejection of Jesus’ account of his destiny in favour of power-fantasies of their own led the disciples into their most tragic failure, their indirect but real share in the ruin of their Lord. Yet Jesus, even as he sees their rejection taking shape, nonetheless gives himself to his betrayers in the breaking of bread. The resurrection meals restore precisely that poignant juxtaposition of his unfailing grace and their rejection, distortion and betrayal of it.[13]

Here, Word and Sacrament redefine life for us, challenging our assumptions about Jesus, and about his message of radical love rather than revenge for our enemies, because it is only as we love that we see the nature of the God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6.35).[14] ‘Oh, how foolish … and how slow of heart’ the world has been this week to hear this message. To claim Easter faith is to claim the great alternative to the way of death. Easter faith recognises God’s passion for the life of every person threatened by death. And Easter faith participates in love’s process by getting up out of the apathy of misery and out of the cynicism of prosperity, and fighting against death’s accomplices – the economic death of the person we allow to starve; the political death of those who are oppressed; the social death of the handicapped and the refugee; the noisy death that strikes through tomahawk missiles and torture chambers; and the soundless death of the apathetic soul. This is the protest for life that the Word and Table call us to, and equip us for, and keep us from turning to death’s tools to accomplish, and from losing heart.[15]

The promise of this text in Luke is that Jesus will meet his beloved through the opening up of Scripture and ‘in the breaking of the bread’. There is no hocus pocus here, as if Scripture and Holy Communion are some magical elements by which we can manipulate God. Rather, there is only the promise of the God who in the freedom of love confronts us again and again and again in Jesus Christ, leading us into God’s future, and joining us wherever we read the Bible and share bread and wine together.

I finish with a poem:

We walked into the sunset
brooding our deep loss,
sure that the best days of our lives
lay dead behind us.

We talked around the rumours
spread by our small group,
but feared to embrace the good news
lest it be false hope.

A stranger then overtook us,
travelling our road,
he unfolded the truths and loves
our grief had betrayed.

Our hearts trembled within us
for the faith we’d lost,
we reached an inn at sundown
wanting to break fast.

We sat at table together
to share cheese and bread,
he took up the loaf and broke it
and out danced the dead![16]

[1] The eruption of newness in which we find ourselves is itself birthed by an event entirely original and unpredictable and even inconceivable. The resurrection of the dead Jesus is an event which so shatters all of our explanatory categories that no one story, no one account, can adequately capture what it means. Whether we think of the story in John’s gospel about the resurrected Jesus penetrating locked doors, or of Matthew’s description of earthquakes and of frightened soldiers, of resurrected bodies coming out of the tombs and entering Jerusalem en masse, or this account in Luke’s Gospel. In contrast to Matthew and John, Luke has no resurrection appearance at the sight of the tomb. See Christopher F. Evans, Saint Luke (London: SCM Press, 2008), 901–4. The NT communities are straining to find words to adequately bear witness to an event about which words betray their limit. So Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978), 107: ‘There is not any way to explain the resurrection out of the previously existing reality. The resurrection can only be received and affirmed and celebrated as the new action of God whose province it is to create new futures for people and to let them be amazed in the midst of despair’. But of the fact that the early disciples are amazed and eager to bear witness to the things that they had seen and heard concerning Jesus there can be no question. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the themes of perception and response play such a central role throughout Luke’s Gospel. And even in this chapter, we see that despite the clarity of Jesus’ prophecies, the empty tomb leads to mixed evaluations. It seems that it is only with the direct intervention of Jesus in the Emmaus scene that the possibility of truly seeing who Jesus is is strengthened. See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, et al.; The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 841.

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 418. The French philosopher Simone Weil once said that ‘if the gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s resurrection, faith would be easier for me’. I think that Weil was challenging the common but shallow assumption that the resurrection makes life easier for those who believe. It doesn’t. For one of the realties that the NT paints is that the reaction to the news that ‘Christ is risen!’ suggests not confirmation and relief but disturbance and disorientation. Those first disciples were like the walking wounded after an explosion, and their subsequent witness was as overwhelmed as it was overwhelming. That’s why those courtroom-inspired ‘proofs’ of the resurrection are so misconceived and insipid. They not only fail to resolve the insurmountable literary and historical problems of the Gospel texts, but they turn the irreducibly mysterious into the demonstrable and manageable, as if the resurrection were under our control and for our consolation. See Marva J. Dawn, ‘”Behold! It Came to Pass,” Luke 24:13–35 – The Third Sunday of Easter’, Journal for Preachers 28, no. 3 (2005).

[3] On the journey metaphor in Luke see James L. Resseguie, Spiritual Landscape: Images of the Spiritual Life in the Gospel of Luke (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004).

[4] T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1950), 139: ‘The condition to which some who have gone as far as you/Have succeeded in returning. They may remember/The vision they have had, but they cease to regret it,/Maintain themselves by the common routine,/Learn to avoid excessive expectation’.

[5] Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 77; cf. Frederick Buechner, Now and Then (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 86–7: ‘There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not recognize him … See [your life] for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, and smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace’.

[6] Corbin Eddy, Who Knows the Reach of God?: Homilies and Reflections for Year A (Toronto: Novalis, 2001), 142. Modified.

[7] To be sure, Scripture, like every gift of God, can be misused – whether to claim the superiority of one race or ethnic group over another, or to propagate anti-Semitism, or to sanction horrendous acts of violence and ethnic cleansing, or to justify the subordination of women to men and related acts of domestic violence. But received rightly, it is in Scripture that we hear the very voice of love. See René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 278: ‘Western culture as a whole, whether Christian or post-Christian, … is moving further and further away from Christ … It is struggling to rid itself of Christ for good. But at the very point when it is under the impression of moving in quite a different direction, Christ is to be found beside it, as he has been for a long time, “opening the Scriptures”’.

[8] See Buechner, A Room Called Remember 7–8: ‘[Christ] is our shepherd, but the chances are we will never feel his touch except as we are touched by the joy and pain and holiness of our own life and each other’s lives. He is our pilot, our guide, our true, fast, final friend and judge, but often when we need him most, he seems farthest away because he will always have gone on ahead, leaving only the faint print of his feet on the path to follow. And the world blows leaves across the path. And branches fall. And darkness falls. We are, all of us, Mary Magdalene, who reached out to him at the end only to embrace the empty air. We are the ones who stopped for a bite to eat that evening at Emmaus and, as soon as they saw who it was that was sitting there at the table with them, found him vanished from their sight’.

[10] That Jesus longs to share his hospitality – the hospitality of the Triune God – with us there can be no doubt. That he does so through Scripture and Holy Communion is the testimony of a Church two millennia old. That the hospitality of God might be the hospitality of travelling strangers becomes the doorway to grace. And here in Luke’s telling, the willingness of this stranger on the road to enter the space of another – our space, our history, our limitation – recalls a level of trust and hope almost entirely foreign to us. That Cleopas and his companion welcome this stranger into their home expresses a deep vulnerability. And yet it is precisely in this moment of encounter, this moment of tangible love that embraces the brokenness of betrayal and the fragility of human hope, that the rays of Easter sunlight come burning away the frost that has rotted the human mind and made cold the human heart. And weary travellers are revived, and their hearts renewed.

[11] See N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 296–8.

[12] A key word here is ‘revelation’. ‘Revelation is’, as one writer put it, ‘the clue that enables one to put together the disparate experiences of life into a meaningful, coherent whole, to see a pattern and purpose in human history, to overcome the incongruities between what life is and what life ought to be’. John H. Leith, Basic Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 30.

[13] Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), 39–40.

[14] This point is well made in John Howard Yoder, Nonviolence: A Brief History. The Warsaw Lectures (ed. Paul Martens, et al.; Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010), 89.

[15] Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless: The Word of Liberation for Today (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 123–6. For all kinds of reasons Luke’s Emmaus narrative of that troubled journey and its resolution, touches into those deep places of our human experience, those parts of our journey that are also troubled, from which we don’t emerge unscathed or unchanged. But in the breaking of bread, the Guest becomes the Host, our eyes see, and our souls are fed – and life is nourished again towards wholeness. So Walter Brueggemann, Living the Word: How Do We Practice an Easter Life? [nd (cited 30 April 2011)]; Online: ‘The walk with the risen Christ is an ongoing process of having our anxiety transformed in faith, and our despair transformed in hope. While our anxious, despairing world is inevitably self-destructive, the church alternatively lives in buoyant faith and daring hope that issues forth in an emancipated life in the world’.

[16] Bruce Prewer, ‘Emmaus’ in Beyond Words: Reflections on the Gospel of Luke (Melbourne: The Joint Board of Christian Education, 1995), 62.

Advent IX: Somebody’s out to get me

Few books have left their mark on me as deeply as Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle to the Masai. One of the oft-recounted ‘episodes’ in the book concerns Donovan’s ‘conversion’ by a Masai elder who unmasked Donovan’s very Western (enlightenment) notion of faith as predominantly intellectual assent, ‘to agree to’. ‘“To believe” like that’, the elder said, ‘was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word’. He continued: ‘for a man really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up on the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms) pulls it to itself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is’.

Donovan’s response? Silence, and amazement: ‘Faith understood like that would explain why, when my own was gone, I ached in every fiber of my being’. But the Masai elder had not finished speaking to Donovan:

‘We did not search you out, Padri … We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God’. (p. 51)

Does this not go to the heart – and challenge some of our misconceptions – of Advent wherein we celebrate the coming of God, the lion – or, if you prefer Francis Thompson’s image, ‘the hound’ – of heaven among us? For all the time that we are focussed on our waiting, the lion is on the prowl, awaiting his own time to enact the ‘terrible death leap and single blow’ upon us, love’s victim. Clearly, Advent is his waiting too.

It was this lion, of course – this lion from whose generous bounty we live, gift after gift after gift; this lion who is the glory of the Father – who pounced on Mary, pulled her to himself, and made her part of himself. And it is Mary, perhaps more than any other biblical figure, who gifts us with how one lives under and inside a lion; i.e., who gifts us with how one lives the other side of our death. So her Magnificat, as recorded in the Book of Common Prayer:

My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel: as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Time to reflect: Here’s the ‘Magnificat’ by Arvo Pärt, set to Cal Jones’ (Director and Producer) and Ralph Lopatin’s (Cinematographer) ‘Miracle on the Delaware’:

[Image: Gary Cutri]


‘Americans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe’

Saturday’s Guardian ran this perceptive comment on the religiousity of Brits and United Statesians by Stanley Hauerwas:

‘The British, I have discovered, assume that Americans are more religious than they are. That presumption seems justified in the light of Ed Miliband’s declared atheism. As yet no one running for high political office in the US has been willing so to identify themselves. Indeed, it seems to be a requirement of political office in America that you believe in God. Americans seem to think those who rule us must believe in God because, if they do not, they cannot be “moral”– which means they will cheat on their spouses, thus destroying the family, which will bring civilisation to an end.

Yet I remain unconvinced that the difference between Britain and the US, when it comes to religion, can be determined by the faith or lack of it of those in public office. In fact, I am not convinced that the US is more religious than Britain. Even if more people go to church in America, I think the US is a much more secular country than Britain. In Britain, when someone says they do not believe in God, they stop going to church. In the US, many who may have doubts about Christian orthodoxy may continue to go to church. They do so because they assume that a vague god vaguely prayed to is the god that is needed to support family and nation.

Americans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe: all they need is a general belief in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in the US. The god most Americans say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny, because it is only the god that has given them a country that ensures that they have the right to choose to believe in the god of their choosing, Accordingly, the only kind of atheism that counts in the US is that which calls into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.

America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom.

The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Americans, however, are unable to acknowledge that they have been fated to be “free”, which makes them all the more adamant that they have a right to choose the god that underwrites their “freedom.”

A people so constituted will ask questions such as “Why does a good god let bad things happen to good people?” It is as if the Psalms never existed. The story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story produces a people who say: “I believe that Jesus is Lord – but that is just my personal opinion.”

I hope that makes it understandable that Americans expect their presidents to believe in god. They do so because they are confident that the god presidents believe in is not a god that can call into question the American project. This is why President Obama had to leave his church when his pastor suggested that God might stand in judgment on the US.

Of course George W Bush was and is a sincere Christian. But that is just an indication of how little being a Christian has to do with sincerity. That is why I find Miliband’s atheism more interesting than the “faith” of the American presidents’.

– Stanley Hauerwas, ‘How real is America’s faith?’ Guardian, 16 October 2010, 45.

[Images: Rodney Dunning & Art Flutter]

Saturday Link Love

No faith is an island

In a previous post, I draw attention to a comment that Stanley Hauerwas made in an interview wherein, discussing Friendship and Community, he said:

‘The last thing in the world I want is a personal relationship with God. Our relationship with God is mediated. And that’s the reason why without the Church we know not God … Our faith is a mediated faith through people reformed by word and sacrament. So I would never trust myself to have a personal relationship with God’.

I was immediately struck by this comment, spurted out in true Hauerwasian style. And while I reckon that Hauerwas needed to introduce a distinction here between ‘personal’ and ‘individual’ (I assume that it is the latter that he most concerned with) I think that his basic point is right.

Paul Tillich, in one of his clearer bits of writing (and there aren’t many of those), also argued that ‘the life of faith is life in the community of faith, not only in its communal activities and institutions but also in the inner life of its members … There is no life of faith, even in mystical solitude, which is not life in the community of faith’. (Dynamics of Faith, 118)

This same word was brought home to me again recently when I was reading Robert McAfee Brown’s book Is Faith Obsolete? In that book, Brown makes the point that we do not believe by ourselves, as individuals in isolation; ‘we believe as part of a community of believers, whether the community is a Benedictine monastery, a communist cell, a Protestant congregation, a Jewish minyan, or a Hindu ashram’. He continues: ‘To be sure, we must personally appropriate the faith of the community to which we belong and make it our own, and in this sense Luther was right in insisting that everyone has to do his own believing just as everyone has to do his own dying. But we need to remember also that the faith we personally appropriate is the faith of the community, and this means that even the most internalized, existential act of personal commitment will bind us into a communal relationship of shared belief with others. Even if the faith I appropriate were somehow brand new, never before conceived, the product of no apparent community save my own internal dialogue with myself, if I really believed it to be true I would perforce share it with others and thus, whether I directly willed it or not, a new community would be created around it’ (p. 141).

There is, Brown insists, a relationship between faith and community which is ‘inextricably joined together’. ‘Community’, he writes, ‘can only be created around a faith; faith can only be creative within a community’. And then he helpfully proceeds to identify five ways in which community nurtures and strengthens the life of faith.

1. The community is an economy of relations wherein the faith of individuals can be tested against the faith of the community. ‘The community has a long history; better still, it has a memory, which means that it can put its history to use. The individual has a short history that needs frequent checking against the community’s longer history’ (p. 142). This means that the practices and learnings of the present are to be in critical relation with, and to exemplify, the life of faith as the creative appropriation of an open past.

2. The community is an economy of faithful relations where the faith of the community can be tested against the faith of the individual. This means that ‘any community that is truly a community must be able to suffer fools gladly and even embrace the heretics that threaten its peace. Since communities are almost always careful and conservative, they need the leaven of fresh ideas, along with new interpretations of old ideas, and these are contributions that only the most venturesome within their midst are likely to propound’ (p. 143). This, Brown insists, is how communities stay alive and grow. He cites Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Hans Küng and Daniel Berrigan, as examples of those who were used by God to bring fresh wine alongside old wineskins.

3. The community is an economy of relations of faith where the burdens of doubt can be shared. Faith always – and necessarily – involves risk, some of which are too overwhelming and potentially destructive to be shouldered by the individual alone. At such times, Brown reminds us, ‘the community can be the place for “the bearing of burdens,” where things too heavy to be borne individually can, at least during crucial moments, be borne corporately. It need not be a sign of individual weakness, but rather it can be a sign of communal strength, when an individual can say of the forgiveness of sins or the inevitability of the victory of the proletariat, or whatever: “Look, that part of it just doesn’t make sense to me right now. It did once, and I hope it will again, but for the moment the rest of you will have to do the believing for me”’ (p. 144). This quality of sharing is not to be interpreted as an exposure of weakness but rather as charismatic, i.e. as gift.

4. The community is an economy of relations which contributes to the life of faith precisely because it functions as the locale where faith can be celebrated and faith’s loves embodied, where the community’s members may ‘draw assurance that their faith is a future possibility for all because it is a present reality for a few’ (p. 145). Is this not precisely why we compose community-forming liturgies, and, conversely where we are made communities by that same liturgical action, in order that we might dramatise our graced convictions and spur each other on to participate in, and be continually recreated by, the faith we share and which has taken hold of us. At the very centre of this action, participation and recreation is the eucharist, that event-location around which communities gather to both remember, in the sense of recalling the past, and also to re-member themselves. There is an important (re-)ordering that needs to takes place here too, and that with ecumenical implications. We ought to eat and drink together first, and then talk theology. To invert this ordering is a nonsense. Debra Dean Murphy recently reminded us, ‘Through the sacramental gifts of Christ’s body and blood, the community receives itself – it becomes the body of Christ, blessed, broken, and shared. As the Great Thanksgiving says, we are made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” In this act the Church is united across time and distinctions between the global and the local are collapsed, for in every local assembly is the whole body – “the world in a wafer,” as Bill Cavanaugh has said’.

5. Finally, community is an economy of relations which ‘contributes to the life of faith by being the place where faith is energized to turn outward. Communities cannot remain ingrown, concerned only with their own inner life. They too must exemplify faith as the dynamic interrelationship of content and commitment. They must thrust their members out into the “strange land,” into the arenas of life not populated by the community’ (p. 146). In other words, the community called by God and re-membered around generous helpings of broken loaves and poured out bottles of Shiraz is ever the apostolic community, i.e., it is always a people being ‘sent’ out in order to invite others to the feast.

Perhaps Hauerwas’ comments are not so strange after all.

On boab trees and the healing of the nations

For not a few, the boab is considered to be Australia’s most grotesque tree. Found only on the flood plains and in rocky areas from the south-western Kimberley to the Northern Territory’s Victoria River, their huge, grey swollen trunks topped by a mass of contorted branches make a fascinating spectacle, especially during the dry season when they lose their leaves and are transformed into ‘the tree that was planted upside-down’.

The boab might serve as something of a parable of the church and even of the life of faith:

  • They are awkward looking.
  • They seem like they belong somewhere else. It’s almost as if they are grounded in another world.
  • They store a deep reservoir of moisture in their trunk that they need to survive in hot and harsh environments. A sign of an unhealthy church is one which seeks to maintain its life by drinking deeply only every so often (whether at the Reformation, or at the Billy Graham crusades of the 50s, etc.) and then trying to sustain its life by drawing upon those every descreasing floodwaters which have long become stagnant and toxic. Conversely, a healthy church is one that is planted by a living stream and which drinks of that stream often.
  • Their moisture serves as a lifeline to those who are lost in the bush.

Trees are used frequently in the Bible especially to describe both the life of faithlessness and of faithfulness, and sometimes of both in the same passage. So Jeremiah 17:

‘Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit’. (vv. 5–8)

Here Jeremiah warns us of making human beings the source of our hope and strength, and that those who do so will be ‘like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land’. Rather we are called to be those whose ‘trust is the Lord’, and who are ‘like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit’.

Such trust, of course, is grounded in another tree – Calvary’s tree, the tree whose roots are planted on the violent conveyor belt of human history but whose branches reach all the way to the New Jerusalem. It is a tree, according to St John’s vision recorded in the Book of the Revelation, that lives beside ‘the river of the water of life, bright as crystal’, and which flows ‘from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city’. John tells us that ‘on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’ (Rev 22:1–2).

And so this tree of Jeremiah’s vision which is planted by water and which sends out its roots by the stream does not stop establishing itself until all of the nations, all of creation, is healed; this is to be about its core business, and that healing takes place by the very gift of the tree itself.

This post was inspired by a prayer penned by Chandran Devanesen that Jim Gordon posted a few days ago, a slightly-modified version of which reads:

O Tree of Calvary
send thy roots deep down
into our hearts.
Gather together the soil of our hearts,
the sands of our fickleness,
the stones of our stubbornness,
the mud of our desires, bind them together
O Tree of Calvary,
interlace them with thy strong roots,
entwine them with the network
of thy love.

On self-appointed contemporary guardians of orthodoxy

‘There are two things the self-appointed contemporary guardians of orthodoxy seem to forget: (1) orthodoxy was never a guarantee of certainty, but of mystery; and (2) the opposite of faith is not doubt, but apathy.

Augustine spoke to the first point when he reminded us that after we have said everything we can about God we must remember that the God we have described is still not the God who is. As Daniel Migliore has said: “True faith must be distinguished from fideism. Fideism says we reach a point where we must stop our inquiry and simply believe; faith keeps on seeking and asking.” The goal of orthodoxy is to resist the simplistic reductions of irreconcilable realities, realities which invite (even demand) continued interrogation.

George MacDonald, the Scottish writer whom C. S. Lewis called his greatest influence, speaks to the second point in his fairy tale, The Princess and the Goblin: “People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less.” The church is not a club; least of all the kind of club with which you beat others over the head.

MacDonald’s admonition is just as important to theology as is Augustine’s, and perhaps even more crucial for the church to hear today. A church rattled by threats from without and within is tempted to retreat into a cocoon of fideism, demanding the unquestioning belief of adherents. But a retrenched faith lacks the energy, imagination and love to engage the world for the sake of the gospel, and a defensive faith tends to prosecute its most creative minds and adventurous spirits precisely when it needs them most’. – Michael Jinkins, ‘Orthodoxy as guarantor of mystery‘.

Theodicy, Suffering and Faith: A Bibliography

Thanks so very much to all readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem who took the time to contribute a richly-helpful smorgasboard of readings and films in response to my previous post. This has been enormously helpful (and encouraging) and I’ve spent much of today checking out some of these suggestions (including some really obvious ommissions to my original list) and building a fuller list which I hope to keep adding to in the coming months. Again, additional suggestions are most welcome.



[Updated: 26 April 2010]