Eucharist, and the stuff that matters

Supper at Emmaus. Triptych #1 of polyptych from 9 parts, 2007. Lambda print, Diasec on Dibond, wood frame, 191 × 363 cm.jpg

A pastoral letter by Trevor Hart, to the congregation of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, St Andrews, Scotland

One of the things that sets Christianity apart from most other religious traditions is the centrality and the value it places on the body. Not anybody’s body in particular, but the flesh and blood reality of what it means to be a human being in a world created by God with all sorts of thoroughly ‘material’ aspects. The world was created by God, the Creed tells us, as a reality made up of things ‘visible and invisible’ – things that can be touched and seen and heard and tasted and smelled, as well as others that can’t. So ‘matter’, we must suppose, matters to Christians because it matters to God!

Not for us, therefore, the elevation of some purely ‘spiritual’ reality as an ideal, as though the thing we should long and hope for most is the escape of our ‘souls’ from their current messy and inconvenient entanglement with the world into which our bodies enmesh us. That’s a very common idea in all sorts of other religious and philosophical traditions. But it has nothing to do with Christianity. For Christians, we need to remember, God is to be apprehended and grasped most fully not by leaving our bodies behind (or even, for the time being, straining to do so by screwing our eyes tightly shut and blocking their world out), but precisely when God himself ‘takes flesh’, so making the stuff of touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing his own in a radically new way. And doing so in a way that accommodates God’s own reality to the limitations of our human condition and our human knowing, not merely as a temporary measure, but permanently! (Jesus does not leave his body behind when he returns to the Father, but takes our whole flesh and blood humanity home with him into the Father’s presence.) And, of course, the ‘life eternal’ that God tells us is both our purpose and our promised end is not some wraithlike spectral existence bereft of substance, but something more solid, more real, more substantial even than the world we know and experience now. It will not be the disembodied survival of ‘souls’, but the resurrection life, enjoyed in a material creation restored by God’s love.

The eucharist or Lord’s Supper, so central to our usual diet of worship, is one point in our life together as the ‘Body’ of Christ where all this is paramount and taken fully seriously. Here, instead of mere words – of which our worship already contains plenty! – God calls us to take physical things (bread and wine) and to do physical things with them (breaking, sharing, eating and drinking). And as we do this together in the flesh and blood reality of our gathering as a congregation, God etches the meaning and the reality of the gospel into our hearts, minds and, yes, our bodies in a way that goes far beyond anything which words alone could ever communicate.

The ‘sensory overload’ of eucharist as distinct from some other forms of worshipping is, in other words, a divinely mandated bodily practice; and our bodily presence, bodily proximity to one another, and bodily involvement with solid, flesh and blood elements (taking, breaking, giving, receiving, eating and drinking) are all essential rather than incidental to its meaning. To strip away these things, to take our bodies out of the equation, or even to reduce the multi-sensory experience to one of seeing and hearing alone, is, I believe, to end up with something that is no longer eucharistic worship at all. Worse still, it risks complicity in the wider cultural and religious myth that tells us that disembodied realities are the only ones that really matter at the end of the day.

If anything like the current health crisis had occurred thirty years or more ago (that is, across most of human history), Christians would not have been able to share eucharist together, nor, indeed, any other form of worship. Our generation, with its technological prowess, enables those of us equipped with computers, tablets and smartphones to be ‘virtually’ present to one another. I don’t doubt that this is something to be grateful for and to give thanks for. It is certainly better than doing nothing. But virtual reality is not ‘virtually (‘more or less’) reality’, but in reality a far cry from reality itself. Its modes of rendering us ‘present’ to one another fall woefully short of the embodied engagements and relationships for which we were created, and which are the stuff not just of life but of ‘life in all its fulness’.

So, let’s by all means celebrate the power of Zoom and other bits of clever software that enable us to enjoy this pale reflection of things when the reality of things themselves is not available. But let’s never mistake their thin surrogates for a viable alternative to our embodied dealings with one another. And let’s not pretend that those things to which our bodily presence and participation together is essential rather than merely desirable can carry on perfectly meaningfully for the time being via such fleshless, virtual provision.

That’s why, in this time of exile, although we shall continue worshipping together in ways that Zoom does make meaningfully possible if not exactly as we would choose, I shall nonetheless not be doing what some clergy are doing — that is, livestreaming themselves saying the eucharistic liturgy. For the reasons outlined above, I do not believe this is a meaningful thing to do; indeed, I think it risks (unintentionally, of course, but genuinely) missing the point of eucharist altogether, and encouraging the largely un-Christian notion that disembodied, non-material, so-called ‘spiritual’ (or in its more secular version ‘digital’) realities are not only perfectly satisfactory but may even be what really matters most. They are not and cannot be! Not for Christians at least.

So, bear with me, and join me as your Rector in looking forward to our eventual return from eucharistic exile, when among many other things we shall rejoice in our ability to celebrate the eucharist together once again, and in doing so become more fully who God intends and desires us to be as the Body of Christ.

[Image: Raoef Mamedov, Supper at Emmaus. Triptych #1 of polyptych from 9 parts, 2007. Lambda print, Diasec on dibond, wood frame, 191 × 363 cm. Galerie Lilja Zakirova, Heusden, Netherlands.]

Setting Out into the Dark with God: A Christmas Meditation

The Nativity‘And the angel said to them,

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy that will come to all the people: for to you is born this day in the city oft David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” ( Luke 2:10–12).

On Christmas night the shepherds are addressed by an angel who shines upon them with the blinding glory of God, and they are very much afraid. The tremendous, unearthly radiance shows that the angel is a messenger of heaven and clothes him with an incontrovertible authority. With this authority he commands them not to be afraid but to embrace the great joy he is announcing to them. And while the angel is speaking thus to these poor frightened people, he is joined by a vast number of others, who unite in a “Gloria” praising God in heaven’s heights and announcing the peace of God’s goodwill to men on earth. Then, we read, “the angels went away from them into heaven.” In all probability the singing was very beautiful and the shepherds were glad to listen; doubtless they were sorry when the concert was over and the performers disappeared behind heaven’s curtain. Probably, however, they were secretly a little relieved when the unwonted light of divine glory and the unwonted sound of heavenly music came to an end, and they found themselves once more in their familiar earthly darkness. They probably felt like shabby beggars who had suddenly been set in a king’s audience chamber among courtiers dressed in magnificent robes and were glad to slip away unnoticed and take to their heels.

But the strange thing is that the intimidating glory of the heavenly realm, which has now vanished, has left behind a human glow of joy in their souls, a light of joyous expectation, reinforcing the heavenward-pointing angel’s word and causing them to set out for Bethlehem. Now they can turn their backs on the whole epiphany of the heavenly glory for it was only a starting point, an initial spark, a stimulus leading to what was really intended; all that remains of it is the tiny seed of the word that has been implanted in their hearts and that now starts to grow in the form of expectation, curiosity and hope: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” They want to see the word that has taken place. Not the angel’s word with its heavenly radiance: that has already become unimportant. They want to see the content of the angel’s word, that is, the Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They want to see the word that has “happened”, the word that has taken place, the word that is not only something uttered but something done, something that can not only be heard but also seen.

Thus the word that the shepherds want to see is not the angel’s word. This was only the proclamation (the kerygma, as people say nowadays); it was only a pointer. The angels, with their heavenly authority, disappear: they belong to the heavenly realm; all that remains is a pointer to a word that has been done. By God, of course. Just as it is God who made it known to them through the angels.

So they set off, heaven behind them, and the earthly sign before them. But, Lord, what a sign! Not even the Child, but a child. Some child or other. No special child. Not a child radiating a light of glory, as the religious painters depicted, but on the contrary: a child that looks as inglorious as possible. Wrapped in swaddling clothes. So that it cannot move. It lies there, imprisoned, as it were, in the clothes in which it has been wrapped through the solicitude of others. There is nothing elevating about the manger in which it lies, either, nothing even remotely corresponding to the heavenly glory of the singing angels. There is practically nothing even half worth seeing; the destination of the shepherds’ nightly journey is the most ordinary scene. Indeed, in its poverty it is decidedly disappointing. It is something entirely human and ordinary, something quite profane, in no way distinguishedexcept for the fact that this is the promised sign, and it fits.

The shepherds believe the word. The word sends them from heaven and to earth, and as they proceed along this path, from light to darkness, from the extraordinary to the ordinary, from the solitary experience of God to the realm of ordinary human intercourse, from the splendor above to the poverty below, they are given the confirmation they need: the sign fits. Only now does their fearful joy under heaven’s radiance turn into a completely uninhibited, human and Christian joy. Because it fits. And why does it fit? Because the Lord, the High God, has taken the same path as they have: he has left his glory behind him and gone into the dark world, into the child’s apparent insignificance, into the unfreedom of human restrictions and bonds, into the poverty of the crib. This is the Word in action, and as yet the shepherds do not know, no one knows, how far down into the darkness this Word-in-action will lead. At all events it will descend much deeper than anyone else into what is worldly, apparently insignificant and profane; into what is bound, poor and powerless; so much so that we shall not be able to follow the last stage of his path. A heavy stone will block the way, preventing the others from approaching, while, in titter night, in ultimate loneliness and forsakenness, he descends to his dead human brothers.

It is true, therefore: in order that he shall find God, the Christian is placed on the streets of the world, sent to his manacled and poor brethren, to all who suffer, hunger and thirst; to all who are naked, sick and in prison. From henceforth this is his place; he must identify with them all. This is the great joy that is proclaimed to him today, for it is the same way that God sent a Savior to us. We ourselves may be poor and in bondage too, in need of liberation; yet at the same time all of us who have been given a share in the joy of deliverance are sent to be companions of those who are poor and in bondage.

But who will step out along this road that leads from God’s glory to the figure of the poor Child lying in the manger? Not the person who is taking a walk for his own pleasure. He will walk along other paths that are more likely to run in the opposite direction, paths that lead from the misery of his own existence toward some imaginary or dreamed-up attempt at a heaven, whether of a brief pleasure or of a long oblivion. The only one to journey from heaven, through the world, to the hell of the lost, is he who is aware, deep in his heart, of a mission to do so; such a one obeys a call that is stronger than his own comfort and his resistance. This is a call that has complete power and authority over my life; I submit to it because it comes from a higher plane than my entire existence. It is an appeal to my heart, demanding the investment of my total self; its hidden, magisterial radiance obliges me, willy-nilly, to submit. I may not know who it is that so takes me into his service. But one thing I do know: if l stay locked within myself, if I seek myself, I shall not find the peace that is promised to the man on whom God’s favor rests. I must go. I must enter the service of the poor and imprisoned. I must lose my soul if I am to regain it, for so long as I hold onto it, I shall lose it. This implacable, silent word (which yet is so unmistakable) burns in my heart and will not leave me in peace.

In other lands there are millions who are starving, who work themselves to death for a derisory day’s wage, heartlessly exploited like cattle. There too are the slaughtered peoples whose wars cannot end because certain interests (which are not theirs) are tied up with the continuance of their misery. And I know that all my talk about progress and mankind’s liberation will be dismissed with laughter and mockery by all the realistic forecasters of mankind’s next few decades. Indeed, I only need to open my eyes and ears, and I shall hear the cry of those unjustly oppressed growing louder every day, along with the clamor of those who are resolved to gain power at any price, through hatred and annihilation. These are the superpowers of darkness; in the face of them all our courage drains away, and we lose all belief in the mission that resides in our hearts, that mission that was once so bright, joyous and peace bringing; we lose all hope of really finding the poor Child wrapped in swaddling clothes. What can my pitiful mission achieve, this drop of water in the white-hot furnace? What is the point of my efforts, my dedication, my sacrifice, my pleading to God for a world that is resolved to perish?

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy … This day is born the Savior”, that is, he who, as Son of God and Son of the Father, has traveled (in obedience to the Father) the path that leads away from the Father and into the darkness of the world. Behind him omnipotence and freedom; before, powerlessness, bonds and obedience. Behind him the comprehensive divine vision; before him the prospect of the meaninglessness of death on the Cross between two criminals, Behind him the bliss of life with the Father; before him, grievous solidarity with all who do not know the Father, do not want to know him and deny his existence. Rejoice then, for God himself has passed this way! The Son took with him the awareness of doing the Father’s will. He took with him the unceasing prayer that the Father’s will would be done on the dark earth as in the brightness of heaven. He took with him his rejoicing that the Father had hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to babes, to the simple and the poor. “I am the way”, and this way is “the truth” for you; along this way you will find “the life”. Along “the way” that I am you will learn to lose your life in order to find it; you will learn to grow beyond yourselves and your insincerity into a truth that is greater than you are. From a worldly point of view everything may seem very dark; your dedication may seem unproductive and a failure. But do not be afraid: you are on God’s path. “Let not your hearts be troubled: believe in God; believe also in me.” I am walking on ahead of you and blazing the trail of Christian love for you. It leads to your most inaccessible brother, the person most forsaken by God. But it is the path of divine love itself. You are on the right path. All who deny themselves in order to carry out love’s commission are on the right path.

Miracles happen along this path. Apparently insignificant miracles, noticed by hardly anyone. The very finding of a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger is this not a miracle in itself? Then there is the miracle when a particular mission, hidden in a person’s heart, really reaches its goal, bringing God’s peace and joy where there were nothing but despair and resignation; when someone succeeds in striking a tiny light in the midst of an overpowering darkness. When joy irradiates a heart that no longer dared to believe in it. Now and again we ourselves are assured that the angel’s word we are trying to obey will bring us to the place where God’s Word and Son is already made man. We are assured that, in spite of all the noise and nonsense, today, December 25, is Christmas just as truly as two millennia ago. Once and for all God has started out on his journey toward us, and nothing, till the world’s end, will stop him from coming to us and abiding in us’.

– Hans Urs von Balthasar, ‘Setting Out into the Dark with God’, in You Crown the Year With Your Goodness: Sermons Throughout the Liturgical Year (Ignatius Press, 1989).

On Max Ernst’s ‘The Virgin Chastises the infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter’ (1926)

It appears that to bear the weight of mum’s judgement means not only a sore bum but also a dropped halo. It appears that the Aryan half-pint might have again stolen her favourite manicure set from the middle drawer of the bathroom cabinet while he was supposed to be tidying his sister’s bedroom. It does not yet appear that in this act of descending freedom, of vacating a head that others might gild mockingly with thorns, the embarrassing shape of kenotic love is taking costly form. And it’s not as if

there is chaste indulgence here; this act of discipline reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Christ, this act of judgement upon cobalt and rubicund outlining her own contorted arm and deepening her own overtaxed gaze. A foretaste of arms bearing sin-gnarled stock and hers, those eyes which again will grieve as arms not her own are brought to bear upon her bare first-born, this unexpected fruit in whom her future and that of all shall find shape. And an open roof. Did it fly off with upswing arm so that one who sees everything could weep?

It has been some time too since Paul and Vincent came over, and now this other Paul, and André and Max; seemingly unsedated risk now transformed into dispassion. Was Gala really the benchmark of our friendship, our means of communication, our shared wife? What kind of love did we make to each other in her? And what of love once promised now turned, love now come to assault me? A naked face turned away in a sensuous spell.

© Jason Goroncy
24 December 2011

‘The Incarnate One’, by Edwin Muir

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,
And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,
And truer sight was theirs outside the Law
Who saw the far side of the Cross among
The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,
In ignorant wonder saw
The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,
Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,
Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,
The auguries say, the white and black and brown,
The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all
Invisibly will fall:
Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown
Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well
The bloodless word will battle for its own
Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.
The generations tell
Their personal tale: the One has far to go
Past the mirages and the murdering snow.

– Edwin Muir, ‘The Incarnate One’ in The Penguin Book of Religious Verse (ed. R.S. Thomas; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), 55.

Picking up some Hauerwas for Lent

There’s one wee book of Hauerwas’ that I purchased during the past year and never got around to reading, namely Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Brazos Press, 2004). Lent seemed like the right time to dig in. So I found me a quiet moment tonight and read it. Here’s a few passages that I sat with for a while:

‘Everyday death always threatens the everyday, but we depend on our death-denying routines to return life to normality’. (p. 26)

On Luke 23:43: ‘What does it mean to say these are criminals?’ (p. 38)

Citing Rowan Williams: ‘God is in the connections we cannot make’. (p. 39)

‘Our attempt to speak confidently of God in the face of modern skepticism, a skepticism we suspect also grips our lives as Christians, betrays a certainty inappropriate for a people who worship a crucified God’. (p. 40)

‘Our salvation is no more or no less than being made part of God’s body, God’s enfleshed memory, so that the world may know that we are redeemed from our fevered and desperate desire to insure we will not be forgotten’. (p. 44)

‘In spite of the current presumption that Christianity is important for no other reasin than that Christians are pro-family people, it must be admitted that none of the Gospels portray Jesus as family-friendly’. (p. 50)

‘Jesus’s being handed over, Jesus’s obedience even to the point of death, Jesus’s cry of abandonment makes no sense if this is not the outworking of the mystery called Trinity. This is not God becoming what God was not, but rather here we witness what God has always been … The cross, this cry of abandonment, is not God becoming something other than God, is not an act of divine self-alienation; instead this is the very character of God’s kenosis – complete self-emptying made possible by perfect love’. (pp. 62–3)

‘This is not a dumb show that some abstract idea of god appears to go through to demonstrate that he or she really has our best interest at heart. No, this is the Father’s deliberately giving his Christ over to a deadly destiny so that our destiny would not be determined by death’. (p. 63)

‘We try … to compliment God by saying that God is transcendent, but ironically our very notion of transcendence can make God a creature after our own hearts. Our idea of God, our assumption that God must possess the sovereign power to make everything turn out all right for us, at least in the long run, is revealed by Jesus’s cry of abandonment to be the idolatry it is … In truth we stand with Pilate. We do not want to give up our understanding of God. We do not want Jesus to be abandoned because we do not want to acknowledge that the one who abandons and is abandoned is God. We seek to “explain” these words of dereliction, to save and protect God from making a fool out of being God, but our attempts to protect God reveal how frightening we find a God who refuses to save us by violence’. (pp. 64–5)

‘If God is not in Mary’s belly, we are not saved’. (p. 76)

‘”It is finished” is not a death gurgle. “It is finished” is not “I am done for.” “It is finished” will not be, as we know from the tradition of the ordering of these words from the cross, the last words of Jesus. “It is finished is a cry of victory. “It is finished” is the triumphant cry that what I came to do has been done. All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled work. The work that is finished, moreover, is the cross. He will be and is resurrected, but the resurrected One remains the One crucified. Rowan Williams reminds us of Pascal’s stark remark that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.” This is a remark that makes unavoidable the recognition that we live in the time between the times – the kingdom is begun in Christ but will not be consummated or perfected until the end of the world. Williams observes that Pascal’s comment on Jesus’s on-going agony is not an observation about the deplorable state of unbelievers; it is instead an exhortation to us, those who believe in Christ. It is an exhortation not to become nostalgic for a supposedly lets compromised past or take refuge in some imagined purified future, but to dwell in the tension-filled time between times, to remain awake to our inability “to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is.”‘ (pp. 83–4)

‘We are told in John 1:18 that without the Son no one can see the Father. Von Balthasar, therefore, reminds us “when the Son, the Word of the Father is dead, then no one can see God, hear of him or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father, accordingly, inaccessible.” This is the terror, the silence of the Father, to which Jesus has committed himself, this is why he cried the cry of abandonment. He has commended himself to the Father so he might for us undergo the dark night of death. Jesus commends himself to the Father, becoming for us all that is contrary to God. Christ suffers by becoming the “No” that the salvation wrought by his life creates. Without Christ there could be no hell – no abandonment by God – but the very hell created by Christ cannot overwhelm the love he has for us’. (p. 97)

‘Christ had no Christ to imitate’. (p. 99)

Pre-School Theology – 1

Tunnel BeachI live with a three-year-old theologian many of whose questions beg in vain for an answer from her theologian-father. Recent months have seen us doing some exegesis on the Lord’s Prayer (apparently one of the funniest prayers ever written), and we’ve also discussed the Nicene Creed together (apparently it’s unnecessarily long: ‘it doesn’t need to be that long’). Here’s a few of her recent pronouncements:

  • ‘Because Jesus is God raised from the dead, then God must have a penis’.
  • ‘God is exactly like Jesus. There is no other God’.
  • ‘The cross means that God is a wonderful boy … but God’s not really a boy or a girl’.
  • ‘It’s OK when we don’t know how to pray because Jesus can pray for us’.
  • ‘I don’t understand the Spirit’.

Makes me seriously excited about being a father, and about discovering together with my daughter the wonderful life of the God made known in Jesus.

God: the artist who completes his work

kierkegaard‘If a poet or an artist puts himself into his Productions he is criticized. But that is exactly what God does, he does so in Christ. And precisely that is Christianity. The creation was really only completed when God included himself in it. Before the coming of Christ, God was certainly in the creation, but as an invisible sign, like the watermark in paper. But the creation was completed by the Incarnation because God thereby included himself in it’. – Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard (edited by Alexander Dru. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 324.

Bruce Hamill: ‘Response to Kevin Ward’s Inaugural Lecture’

hamill-1Rev Dr Kevin Ward’s recent lecture – ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’ – has sparked a good deal of constructive conversation, a conversation that was kicked off by a brief public response to the lecture by one who had enquired after one of Kevin’s earlier lectures – ‘So where’s the theology in all this? – the Rev Dr Bruce Hamill. Here’s Bruce’s gracious and insightful response to Kevin’s paper:


Thanks for the privilege of responding to today very briefly, in just 10 minutes… Kevin, those who know you expect nothing less than a broad-visioned, scholarly, insightful, pastoral, provocative but conciliatory lecture, grounded in your passion for the church and the gospel. You have not disappointed us…

Since I am expected to ask theological questions I will try not to disappoint.

Right Question?

I particularly liked the provocative title… however, as I have thought about the relation between the title and the concluding answer, I reached the conclusion that, for all its provocation this question is not quite right. Not that I want to avoid your question, but perhaps to narrow down the scope of my response…a better question might be: Does this movement within the church (or among the churches) point the way forward for reform of the body of Christ? Does this movement with its 3 foci of (1) alignment with postmodernism (2) relevance (3) incarnationalism have the theological resources for a missional church in our time? Now my suspicion is that your answer to this question would be a nuanced one, but probably, like mine, a ‘no’. Indeed the last half of your paper demonstrates how the emergent church consistently shows a conflict with the classical marks of the church – a strong indicator that its theological principles and direction is fundamentally flawed. In this respect my response is, I suspect in basic agreement with your view (particularly in the latter half of your paper)

Incarnation and Mission

However, if this is the case, then I fear that the framework you inherit from Niebuhr and others in the missiology movement is too close to that used by the emergent church itself, to really expose its flaws. In what remains of my few minutes response I want to indicate some of the tensions within your argument.

To begin with I would note that your adoption of the term incarnation, as an adjective (‘incarnational’) to represent a stance which is neither isolationist nor accomodationist, raises my theological antennae. This appears to me to be a sociologising of the language of theology – of incarnation – which trades on its theological background.

So to a more directly theological question: What is the incarnation? (in just 5 minutes!) And how does it relate to the church’s cultural existence and mission?

David Congdon, a Princeton theologian who has influenced my response to this, says:

‘the incarnation is sui generis, i.e., it is wholly unique and unrepeatable. In short, the incarnation is an event, not an idea that can be applied or a process that can be completed or a reality that can be replicated.’

What I believe lies behind this is the whole doctrine of divine grace emerging from the church’s experience of salvation in the raising of the crucified Jesus. Namely, that the life of Jesus originated unnecessarily (contingently) and freely from God’s transcendent act and being. In the incarnation God’s freedom from us is the basis for God’s freedom for us in the life of Jesus.

hamill-2In this sense Jesus life represents a break in the fabric of culture and tradition and original sin. It introduces a radical newness from the Word of God. In this sense the church came to talk of him as being born of a virgin and also suggest that the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowed’ even the maternal contribution to Jesus existence. God enters into the physical conditions of human life, adopting, as it were, the human condition, however this is not an accommodation to or adaption to culture, but rather human culture is here accommodated to the Word of God.

So as Congdon argues, the incarnation cannot be a model for us. However, it does transform and con-form our life. As already enfleshed and enculturated, fallen human beings, we are, because of the incarnation and the form and history it took, reculturated (that’s my word) by God.

In Christ we are not made ‘incarnational’, but a given a history that conforms to his history culminating in death and resurrection. It is here that we see the weakness of the link so often made between ‘incarnation’ and ‘adaptation to human culture’. ‘As the Father sent me…’ refers not to his incarnation but to the form of his life culminating in crucifixion and resurrection – a transformative, salvific encounter with culture.

Other Missional Language in Tension

Let me mention some further places where I think the language of the earlier half of your paper leads you closer to the framework of the ’emerging church’ than the latter half of your paper should allow. You suggest that the aim of missional thinking is a ‘culturally indigenous church’. According to my dictionary “indigenous” means: “born in or originating from where it is found”. If however, the church is created by the crucifixion and resurrection of the incarnate Word it may look like its surrounding culture (like Paul sought to in 1 Cor 9 in order to serve those cultures) but it will not originate from where it is found. The cultural processes that we rely on in the creation of the church are not indigenous processes of human meaning-making. They are the processes whereby God “crunches” from the old order, in all its indigenous and alienated diversity  and constant change, a new social order. Jesus very definitely did take the human context in all its particularity seriously, seriously enough to get crucified by it (as you point out). Seriously enough to spend most of his time with those who functioned as essentially non-representative of the culture – the culturally marginalised. I contend that to take culture seriously as Jesus did, is not to conform to its agenda.

As you say ‘there are limits to how far the culture can set the agenda and determine the shape’. My contention is that the issue is not the presence of a limit, but how that limit is set (and who determines it). I believe it is not by the balancing of principles, especially if one of those principles is Andrew Walls’ rather cosy ‘the gospel is at home in every culture and every culture is at home in the gospel’. Such a principle, even if balanced by the pilgrim principle which says that ‘the gospel is never fully at home’, makes the cross the exception rather than the culmination of Christ’s life. One cannot serve two masters, Christ and Culture (as Walls’s balancing act suggests). Cultural processes must have their limits set for them by Christ in the formation of his body, or our enlightenment culture becomes the default determiner of this process.

Church is not people who ‘have the gospel’ (like some ideal) and then apply it, enlightenment style, to the world’s forms. They are worldly people being re-formed by Spirit and Word and re-culturated into a new creation and an anticipation of the kingdom.

Barth, Form and Content

Which brings me to Karl Barth’s problem. He says that there is no ‘sacred sociology’, however I feel he needs to be challenged, by those like John Milbank, to understand the need of a theological sociology – a fuller ecclesiology.

Quoting Barth you say, “If then the church has been, and indeed should (the should is your addition) have its forms determined by whatever the current “political, economic and cultural models” of “its situation in world history” are, does that mean that anything goes?” [loaded question!] Barth has no “should”. I suspect he does not see such accomodation as an ecclesiological virtue – just an inevitability. However, I want to go beyond Barth and challenge the easy separation between form and content. Not only is it not true that anything goes (as you also clearly argue), but it is true that the form as well as the content should be subject to Christ and the Spirit (as you hinted at in places in your paper). This claim does not, as many seem to fear, imply that it will be a fixed form, or that to believe this requires identifying the form that Christ gives the church with a human form from the post. On the contrary it simply requires a formative process, by which enculturated people attend to Word and Sacrament, not just in their private spiritualities but also in their social habits and structures. This is in my view what it means to be a Reformed Church – constantly being re-formed socially.

Thanks again for the chance to respond to your stimulating lecture.

Kevin Ward: ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’

kevin-ward-08-2A week or so ago, I posted some reflections on the emerging church. I offered these in anticipation of Rev Dr Kevin Ward‘s then forthcoming inaugural lecture at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership entitled ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’ Kevin delivered his lecture on Monday, which was followed by a brief response by Rev Dr Bruce Hamill. Bruce’s response can be read here. Here’s Kevin’s paper:

‘IT MIGHT BE EMERGING: BUT IS IT CHURCH?’, a guest post by Kevin Ward

At a recent theological conference I was attending, one of the presenters outlining some of the factors in the changing context for theological education, referred to “fresh expressions” which he said was a more appropriate term than the previously favoured descriptor for experimental faith communities, “emerging church”, since as it turned out most of what they were emerging from was not church. He was Anglican and the term “fresh expressions” is a phrase developed by the C of E for some of its new developments, but the term “emerging church’ is still widespread and gains much attention from younger church leaders in NZ, including many of those accepted for ministry training by the PCANZ and coming to the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. One of our courses here is now titled “Missional and Emerging Churches.” At the VisionNZ Conference last year one of the major presentations was “A Kiwi Emerging Kiwi Church: Yeah Right!” by Steve Taylor, who has emerged as the leading spokesperson for emerging church in NZ, and a significant global voice. Indeed it is interesting in reading on the movement globally how much NZ comes up in the material as being, along with, Australia and the UK initiators in it. Mike Riddel and Mark Pierson from NZ, and Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch from Australia are seen as pioneers. I might add that as well as being from down under, they along with Taylor are Baptists, a heritage of course I share myself, and something I will come back to.

A google search of “emerging church” came up with about 1,530,000 entries. So what are we to make of what Scot McKnight calls “the most controversial and misunderstood movement in the church today”. One article I read was titled “Emerging Churches – Heroes or Heretics.” Clearly unambivalent about the answer a brochure I received at the beginning of the year blazed out. “The last days Apostacy. Coming to a church near you. The emergent church.” It warns that “With the move of the Church back to Rome through organisations like evangelicals and Catholics together, Alpha, Promise Keepers and Interfaith dialogue… Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven and now the postmodern Emergent wave… believe that today’s post modern culture needs a more relevant and experiential approach to God, Church and Worship. Eg. Playing u2 as an expression of worship using multi-sensory stimulation, candles, icons, art, images, stained glass etc.” And it warns “The Emergent Church has taken hold in NZ and its teachings have been aired on Radio Rhema and also being taught in the BCNZ.” I must point out that the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership you’ll be pleased to know was not listed among those who have fallen into “the last days deception.”

We need of course to ask the question why has this movement arisen? The broad answer is fairly simple: it is part of a number of responses over the past half century to the increasingly obvious fact that the church in particular and Christian faith in general has been having a rather difficult time of it in western societies like NZ. I have written in a number of places on this, as have many others, and have no intention of rehearsing that fact. It is simply a given, whatever figures one uses and however positive the spin one tries to put on them. There have been many responses to this post Christian, or perhaps more correctly post Christendom reality, from the God is Dead theologies of the 60s, through the Church Growth movement of the 70s and Cell Churches of the 80s, to the Seeker Sensitive Churches of the 90s. Despite all these grand initiatives the rot continues.

What emerged in the 1990s was the realisation among some that not only were our western societies post Christendom, but they were also postmodern in at least some ways. That term is rather problematic, and again it is not my intention to explore all the issues around it. However in the broadest sense it is helpful to identify the fact that the cultural, social and intellectual world we live in today is very different from that which existed in 1960, even if there may well be more continuities than discontinuities. In this world all sorts of institutions that have existed for centuries have increasingly struggled. A number of Christian thinkers and leaders began arguing that the problem with all the recent efforts to reorganise church for our postChristendom world, was that they were still based on the assumptions and thinking of a modern society and culture. As that was rapidly diminishing and being replaced by postmodern forms so these attempts were simply short term arrangements, much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Something more fundamental was needed.

There are many attempts, some helpful others not, to define the emerging church movement, but perhaps the simplest and most widely used is that by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, in their study of the phenomenon, which they titled Emerging Churches¸ “communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures.” Brian McLaren, who has emerged as its main spokesperson wrote in 1998 in the first of his many books:

You see, if we have a new world, we will need a new church. We don’t need a new religion per se, but a new framework for out theology. Not a new Spirit, but a new spirituality. Not a new Christ, but a new kind of Christian. Not a new denomination, but a new kind of church… The point is … you have a new world.

Now I want to say at this point that overall I would agree with the broad parameters of this argument. As Randall Prior summarised it at the Presbyterian General Assembly last year, “The form of the church which evolved in the era of Christendom and which served us well in that period is no longer sustainable. It is dying. It will die.” However I do want to add at least one cautionary note. Often the people involved use rather hyperbolic language, as if the church has only ever existed in one form or shape, at least since the inception of Christendom, often referred to as inherited church.  Now that old form needs to be discarded and a brand new form developed. This is of course quite misleading. The form and shape of the church has constantly changed throughout its 2000 years of history. We see this even in the NT, and writers such as Hans Kung, David Bosch and Andrew Walls have provided helpful ways of understanding this.

Andrew Walls invites us to imagine a long living, scholarly visitor from space, a Professor of Comparative Inter Planetary Religions, able to get periodic study grants to visit planet earth every few centuries, to study earth religion, Christianity, on principles of Baconian induction. He visits a group of Jerusalem Jewish Christians about 37 CE; his next visit is in about 325 CE to a Church Council in Nicea; then in about 650 CE he visits a group of monks on a rocky outcrop in Ireland; in the 1840s he visits a Christian assembly in Exeter Hall London promoting mission to Africa; finally in 1980 he visits Lagos Nigeria where a white robed group is dancing and chanting through the streets on the way to church. At first glance they might appear to have nothing in common, or be part of the same religious community at all, but on deeper analysis he finds an essential continuity about the significance of Jesus, the use of scriptures, of bread and wine and water. But writes Walls, he recognises that these continuities are “cloaked with such heavy veils belonging to their environment that Christians of different times and places must often be unrecognizable to others, or even to themselves, as manifestations of a single phenomenon.”

At the heart of this debate about these emerging new forms of church life is the question of just what is the relationship between the historic faith and the environment in which it presently finds itself, between Christ and culture, of theology to context . This question is actually at the heart of many of the disputes that go on in the church, and I am aware were fought with some intensity and lasting consequences around a variety of issues in these hallowed halls for some considerable time.

When it comes to the relationship between the church and the culture that surrounds it there are a number of different models used to explain the various orientations. The classic work, which has formed the basis for all following discussions, is that of Richard Niebuhr, in Christ and Culture. He identifies five basic models: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ the transformer of culture. It seems, though, that the alternatives can be more simply discussed by reducing these to three.

(i) An “anticultural” response, “Christ against culture”. The attitude where the church sets itself up in opposition to the prevailing culture. The difficulty with this position is that there is no such thing as a culture free articulation of theology or understanding of the church. Consequently this position while opposing contemporary culture is in fact usually holding on to some culture of the past. The Amish, for example, hold on to the culture of early nineteenth century German settlers in Pennsylvania, traditional Anglicans to 1950s England and many fundamentalists to the pre 1960s American south.

(ii) An “accommodationist” response, “Christ of culture”. This is the opposite, where the church is so anxious to fit into the world that it becomes merely an extension of the culture and has lost any distinguishing particularity as a culture of its own. This response assumes the congruence of church and culture. It is assumed that the primary symbols of the church and of the culture are identical. The church sees itself in some way as representative of the culture at large and prides itself on its shaping, transforming role. Churches in nations where the two grew up together often exhibit the most radical forms of this. This has been a strong tendency in liberalism in western countries and can be seen as a major factor in the decline of mainstream denominations. The view fails to recognise that there is a basic incompatibility between the church and whatever time in which it lives.

(iii) An “incarnational” response. This response recognises some kind of tension between Christ and culture, as is found in all of Niebuhr’s final three categories. There is both continuity and discontinuity. Lesslie Newbigin rightly insists that the gospel only retains “its proper strangeness, its power to question us… when we are faithful to its universal suprarational, supranational, supracultural nature.” Yet the gospel travels through time not in some ideal form, but from one inculturated form to another.  Consequently what missiologists call the “culturally indigenous church” is the aim of the incarnational approach.

A number of different terms are used to describe this approach to culture. The one that I find most helpful is “contextualisation”, although heated debate over its precise meaning continues, with Ecumenical and Evangelical interpretations differing considerably. At the core though is a recognition that many aspects of what humans believe, think, and do are contextually shaped. William Reiser defines it as “the process of a deep, sympathetic adaptation to, and appropriation of, a local culture in which the Church finds itself, in a way that does not compromise its faith.”

At the heart of the process is the model of the incarnation. In Jesus God took the human context in all its particularity seriously. Jesus was a historical person and so he was chronologically, geographically, religiously and culturally a first-century Jew. He neither repudiated his humanity or his Jewishness. The early church continued the principle as the gospel moved out of the language and culture of Jesus and his disciples into that of Graeco-Roman culture. Ever since those most effective in mission have “assumed that any culture can be host to Jesus Christ.”

However the critical point to note in an authentic contextual or incarnational approach is that there are limits to how far culture can set the agenda or determine the shape. Andrew Walls reminds us there are two important principles. On the one hand there is the ‘indigenzing’ principle, which affirms that the gospel is at home in every culture and every culture is at home with the gospel. But then there is the ‘pilgrim’ principle, which warns us that the gospel is never fully at home in any culture and will put us out of step with every society.

So there are two critical dimensions, which Max Stackhouse defines as the “textuality’ of the church – its faithfulness to the gospel – and its “contextuality” – its faithfulness to the world in which it finds itself. Hans Kung contends that we should aim for a “critical correlation” between the biblical message and the paradigm of the culture” and that “the task today is to come to terms with a postmodern paradigm”. The emerging church movement is endeavouring to take that task seriously and is to be commended for that.

If I can engage in a bit of personal narrative at this point, because, in a sense this lecture is part of an ongoing and unfinished conversation with myself. This is the second time I have given the inaugural lecture here. My earlier title was “Is New Zealand’s Future Churchless?” I outlined the paradox of countries like NZ where the data showed an ongoing resilience of relatively high levels of religious, and mainly Christian, believing and relatively low and declining levels of religious belonging. In light of this while it seemed religion was destined to continue rather than die out, as had been previously postulated in various forms of secularisation theory, the church itself may face a somewhat tenuous and uncertain future. I suggested that it would continue but needed to develop many more diverse forms, and these in essence would be “less church” in the sense of being much looser, less institutionalised, more eclectic, fluid rather than solid. Sounds much like emerging church!

After the address, Bruce Hammil, who through fate or destiny has been asked to be the respondent today, came up to me and asked “Where’s the theology in all of this?” A somewhat surprising question from Bruce! It was though a healthy rejoinder to me and a reminder that, central to my own thesis was the proposition that churches which had thrived had not only shown an ability to adapt their life and message to their rapidly changing cultural and social situation, but had also held a strong commitment to the central tenets of orthodox Christian belief. My major focus has been on the first half of that proposition, endeavouring to help churches realise the forms their life and message have taken have been wedded to a cultural and social context that has not existed for some time, and while they continue in their current form they indeed have a rather limited future. They are no longer incarnating the gospel in their context. To quote the new leader of the Labour Party, they have “lost touch with their electorate” and “need to reconnect”. Change is the essential challenge for the church, and I continue to be invited to help a broad range of churches understand the context they are in and how they might change to become culturally connected.

Now this is an essential task. While in some realms of theology we might be able to argue for some pure theology of the word, although I am somewhat sceptical of both the possibility and worth of that, even that great theologian Karl Barth, so often used to buttress the case for disregarding context when it comes to constructing theology, that it must be based solely on the self revelation of God in Christ, argued when it came to the church:

… in every age and place its constitution and order have been broadly determined and conditioned by political, economic, and cultural models more or less imperatively forced on it by its situation in world history… It has had and still has to adapt or approximate itself to these in order to maintain itself… in respect of the form of its existence… there is no sacred sociology [of the church].

There are then no sacred forms of church, however sacrosant these might appear to some. Of course we in the reformed tradition have always held this to be so, holding central to our understanding the reformation principle, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. If then the church has its forms determined by whatever the current “political, economic and cultural models” of “its situation in world history” are does that mean that anything goes? That the answer to Bruce’s question is that “theology does not have a place in determining the form of church life.” That in fact ecclesiology is a pointless discipline. There is not a theology of the church, merely a praxis.

It is interesting to review literature on the church, from a historical perspective. It used to be for centuries that the basic questions these endeavoured to answer was “What are the marks of a true church?” From the 1970s on the nature of the question most writing was endeavouring to answer had changed, by one word. Instead of “What are the marks of a true church?” it was “What are the marks of a successful church?” – the word ‘successful’ some times being interchanged with the word ‘growing’, since to be successful was equated with growing. Probably two things lay behind this: as the decline of churches in the west became increasingly evident the overwhelming preoccupation became with turning decline into growth; and as the church splintered into greater and greater variety as the culture became more and more diverse, it became seen as a hopeless task to try and presume there was any true form. It was reinforced by a developing culture that became suspicious of any insistence on adherence to one particular form or expression in any area of life. Indeed ideology became the enemy, grammar was fascist, theory was irrelevant, praxis was what mattered. I might add that in NZ, which has always had a bent toward pragmatism and suspicion of intellectualism, all of this found fertile ground.

And so in the emerging church movement there is a sense of anything goes. For those for whom tradition or inherited forms are in fact the obstacle to being effective churches and a barrier to the mission of Jesus, it is a waste of time to listen to what it might have to say us about how the church should form its life. Graham Redding may have asked the question did Calvin have any place in the Café Church? in his 2005 inaugural lecture, but café church is relatively mild fare and rather orthodox when church can apparently be a bunch of kids at a skate board park or bmx track, a group of students gathering in pub or dance club, or some mid life couples sharing a few wines and a movie together.

So when is a gathering of followers of Jesus actually a church?

Many of those engaged in experimental forms of church argue that because Jesus promised that “wherever two or three come together in my name, there am I with them”, any such gathering is church. Within the Baptist tradition this is the primary definition that is used, as in the Pentecostal and Charismatic streams. The presence of Jesus by the Spirit is all that matters. It is thus no coincidence that many of the initiators of the emerging church movement in NZ and Australia have been Baptist. Such a simple definition leaves them much freer to experiment with a diversity of forms. I would hasten to add that for some quite some time I would also have held that as sufficient. It is interesting to observe though that the Baptist movement in NZ, after being driven by sheer pragmatism for the past couple of decades, is now acknowledging it has significant problems and challenges. The current leader of the movement in conversation with me in December said “our first task is to get our ecclesiology sorted out”. Interesting for me in that this drift was a significant factor in my leaving to become Presbyterian.

Further reflection though has made me realise I was still more Baptist than I imagined. As I mentioned one half of my thesis argued that effective churches had  maintained a strong commitment to the central tenets of orthodox Christian beliefs. I identified these as being beliefs about Jesus Christ, about God, about scripture and about conversion, and used the Nicene Creed to define these. Nothing about the church though. No ecclesiology. And of course the Nicene Creed does include among its statements “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church”.  So if we use this as a measure how does the emerging movement measure up? Is it in fact church?

1. One. Everybody affirms the unity or the oneness of the church, but ever since the Schism of 1054 that oneness has been somewhat difficult to locate, and since the splintering of the Reformation even more so. Daniel Migliore helpfully defines it as “a distinctive unity rooted in communion with God through Christ in the Spirit. The unity of the church is a fragmentary and provisional participation in the costly love of the triune God.” Recent trinitarian theology with its focus on a plurality within an essential oneness is helpful for us in understanding how the Christian gospel embraces both diversity and unity. Much of the NT is written dealing with this issue. The unity of the church does not lie in either a controlling doctrinal conformity or a formal institutional structure, and I would eschew all endeavours to impose either of those kinds of unity on the church. Within the diversity of our expressions it is in the life we participate in together with the triune God, and as Hans Kung expresses it, “It is one and the same God who gathers the scattered from all places and all ages and makes them into one people of God.”

However ever since the Reformers placed the focus on seeing the unity of the church in the invisible church rather than the visible church, that understanding has been used as a way of enabling churches and their leaders to do nothing about working to see unity as an actual  mark of the church in its present reality. We have continued to be happily schismatic, tearing apart the fabric of church it seems whenever we have something on which we differ. What has been called the “creeping congregationalism”, which afflicts all varieties of church life in contemporary societies, heightens the tendency to focus on the local and the particular, as if that is all there was to being church. Jesus left behind a visible community not an invisible concept. A community he called to be one, and so it is incumbent on we who are the church to continually work hard to find ways to express in our increasingly diverse culture that this is a reality, not merely some ethereal and mystical entity. If the life of the trinity is the model of our unity then it does involved the diverse members working synergistically together for the glory of the one. One of my criticisms of the emerging church movement, is that with its brisk  dismissal of inherited forms of church life, its distancing itself from tradition, its reluctance to work with the church as it is, it magnifies the image of a divided church and fails to put energy into working hard at ways to give expression to and so maintain the unity of the church. While I would admire its willingness to engage with our cultures and seek to find new ways of incarnating gospel and church within those, I believe it would be more true to being the church of Jesus Christ in the world today if it sought to do that working with the church as it already is. Brian McLaren says we need “a new church”. There is only one church, and it already is. The challenge is to continue to work within that church so it might better faithfully be the presence of God in Christ through the Spirit in the diverse communities it inhabits.

2. Holy. The word holy and the concept of holiness is hardly a popular word in our contemporary context, either inside or outside the church. It raises images of a “holier than thou” judgmentalism and an isolationist separatism fearful of contamination by an evil world. A preoccupation with holiness it is suggested has been a major hindrance to the mission of the church in the world. Identification and engagement with the world is what the creator God is about. The word holy is of course the primary word used to name the essence of the nature of God. It is if you like what marks out God as God, as distinctly different from everything else in creation. It is something that belongs essentially to God. For other things or persons to be described as holy therefore is to claim that they also are marked by the essence of the character of God, and in this way are to some extent different from the rest of creation. But how do we know what God is like if we are to share in that character. The central claim of the NT and of Christian thought is that the fullest revelation of God is to be found in the human person Jesus Christ. By looking at the life of Jesus we see what it is like to live a human life marked by the character, or holiness, of God. But more than that the NT claims that by his death, resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit Christ mediates to us the very life of God so we can share in the fellowship of the trinity. Here is the essence of the holiness of the church. It can be identified by the degree to which it lives a life reflecting the glory of God seen in Christ and this is made possible by the presence of the Spirit in its midst. When we do this we will demonstrate a distinctive quality to our life that will indeed mark us out as different, distinct from others, as Peter put it a “peculiar people”. While this quality of holiness will be demonstrated in the church in an imperfect way, as Calvin put it, it is the “measure toward which it is daily advancing”.

grad-1As suggested in my overview of the relationship of church and culture, the church lives in a relationship of some tension with whatever culture it lives in. It needs to both incarnate the gospel into that culture but also allow the gospel to transcend and judge every culture in which it is present. Part of the problem with Christendom and the way of being church that developed in that context, is that it ended up identifying the culture of those societies as being Christian, and simply became a reflection of the societies in which they existed. They no longer were a distinct or holy people. As the society and the culture in which they existed changed rapidly in the post war era they ended up with nothing left to offer the new societies which emerged and were seen as antiquarian reminders of a world that once was. Dean Inge once said that “If you marry the spirit of the age you will find yourself a widow in the next.” Sadly that has come to be true of much of mainline Protestantism in the West, including many of its evangelical expressions, shaped more by the values of the consumer market and business models than the gospel. The emerging church movement has been quite right in much of the critique it has offered of the way in which traditional church life had been simply an expression of modern western life and values.

But while some of its analysis of what has been problematic for the church is invaluable, in its headlong rush to become relevant to the emerging culture of a postmodern world, it runs the risk of making the same mistake and may end up wedding itself to the spirit of this age, just as firmly as the church it critiques may have to a previous age. When the wonders of this age begin to wind down, and I might suggest it might be a phase in history that is much more short lived than the previous, where will it be then? What will it have to offer and to say when all its flaws have been laid bare. The emerging church articulates strongly an incarnational theology and understands Jesus almost solely in these terms. Yet any serious reading of the life and ministry of Jesus will identify that while he did live incarnationally within the culture of first century Judaism, he also lived in considerable tension with most in that culture, at times spoke judgement on it, and ended up being rejected by it. If he was simply concerned with relevance why was he strung up on a cross. At times it is difficult to distinguish an emerging café or night club church from any other café or night club down the street. Postmodern culture is neither any better nor any worse than modern culture. So emerging leaders celebrate the death of modernity and raise three cheers for the arrival of postmodernity, without recognising the need to provide a proper critique of that which is problematic for living a Christ shaped life. On the other hand some critics of the emerging movement such as Don Carson and David Wells see only a culture antithetical to Christ in postmoderrnity, and fail to recognise they are just as closely wedded to the culture of modernity. Whatever culture we happen to be in as the church of Jesus Christ, we need first to allow Christ by the Spirit to form us into a distinctive culture of its own that preaches in the language of the time and place in which it is set the unique holy life of our Trinitarian God.

3. Catholic. The affirmation of the catholicity of the church refers to its universality and inclusivity. It is the church that has existed everywhere, always and for all. It guards the church against parochialism, sectarianism, racism and conceit chronology, among other things. It is clear that both the unity and the catholicity of the church go together, they are two interwoven dimensions of the one church. However as with oneness we need to guard against it being understood merely as an abstract kind of universalism hovering over the particularities of culture and history. Again it is a mark that needs to be demonstrated in the life of the visible church, its expression in the life of local congregations. Avery Dulles claims that catholicity “is not the accomplished fact of having many members or a wide geographical distribution, but rather the dynamic catholicity of a love reaching out to all and excluding no one.” I would agree with Daniel Migliore that the “church today needs to interpret the meaning of catholic as inclusive of all kinds of people”. What might this mean for us today?

One of the major trends of a post 60s world of the global village, has been a growing pluralism of our societies. Not just through the coming to societies such as NZ of markedly different cultural groups from overseas, but also by the breakup of the dominant white European culture into a multiplicity of subcultures. Not only is this across generations, but also within generations, so much so that since the beginning of the 90s it has been pointless to talk even about youth culture. This pluralisation has been heightened by the fact that increasingly people do not live their life in one geographical place where they might mix with people of a wide variety of ages and cultures, but rather are mobile and live their life with communities of choice, usually consisting of people of the same culture as me. Often these subgroups are quite exclusive, having their own distinctive language, symbols and lifestyles. At a time in the past when people in a community lived their lives in that particular community, when generations shared many of the activities of life together, the local church embraced within its community members from every walk and stage of life within that community. It was catholic, inclusive, in that sense. This was the parish or family church, an increasingly rare bird in our pluralistic society. How do we reach people today within all these different cultural subgroups, when the culture of church as it is, represents that culture of a bygone age?

The answer of much of the emerging church is that we need separate churches to incarnate the gospel into all those cultural subgroups. And so we have youth church, student church, young adults church, young marrieds church, breakfast church, café church, biker church – and so on and so on. These churches become quite age or culture specific. One practical question to ponder is what happens to these churches when their particular niche finishes? But there is a bigger issue. Murray Robertson retires this month after 40 years as Pastor of Spreydon Baptist Church during which he has had significant influence on the church in NZ. Last year he served as President of the Baptist Church, and wrote a series of columns in the Baptist Magazine on his observations as he visited churches around NZ. In one of these he noted that churches now “tend to divide along shared interest lines” and there is “an age based apartheid”. He writes “Maybe this is part of the phenomenon of people looking for a church in which they will feel comfortable, but… something quite precious is lost when you only meet and share with people who are pretty much identical to yourself.” Indeed is it a church when its membership is so exclusively limited to some subgroup that others are in fact shut out? The emerging church movement is again to be commended for its recognition that in our multicultural world there is no one expression of the gospel that will incarnate it for “all” those, even within one community in NZ. They draw correctly on the missional principle Paul spells out in 1 Corinthians 9 of becoming “all things to all peoples so that I might by all possible means save some”. But that needs to be balanced by the ecclesial principle he spells out in Ephesians 2, talking about the major cultural divide of his world, that “Christ…. Has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall… to create in himself one new humanity.” Maybe what is a legitimate mission group is not in fact a church. It needs to see itself as part of the church catholic, and commit itself to being part of that church, and share its life with the greater whole in its lived practices, so that in this fractured divided tribalised world people may see that the gospel makes a difference, that estranged groups can be reconciled, that in Christ cultural separation might be transcended and that the new community of God’s people is inclusive of people of every race and every tribe and every tongue, even here now on earth. Might these questions also be asked of ethnic specific churches? To quote David Bosch

The new fellowship transcends every limit imposed by family, class or culture. We are not winning people like ourselves to ourselves but sharing the good news that in Christ God has shattered the barriers that divide the human race and has created a new community. The new people of God has no analogy; it is a “sociological impossibility” that has become possible.

4. Apostolic. Randall Prior at the Presbyterian Assembly defined the Apostolicity of the church as its essential missional nature. That before it is anything else it is missional, a view expressed by the missional church movement. While it is true the word apostle does have in it the idea of one who is sent, and while I agree fully with the sentiment being expressed, I do not believe that interpretation of apostolic as a mark of church is how it was understood by those who created the Nicence Creed or historically within the church. In confessing the apostolicity of the church we are acknowledging that the true church is founded on the apostles. The faith and life of the church must stand in continuity with their enduring witness. This continuity is ensured not by some physical continuity through the sacramental laying on of hands, but by our faithfulness to and reaffirmation of the gospel they gave witness to in the writings of the NT. As Jurgen Moltmann puts it: “The apostolic succession is in fact and in truth the evangelical succession, the continuing and unadulterated proclamation of the gospel of the risen Christ.”

It is of course one thing to affirm that “our supreme rule of faith is the Word of God” as the Presbyterian Church does or that “the Bible is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice”, as a Baptist church might. It is quite another to interpret what those words actually mean for us today. One of the things postmodern hermeneutics has made us aware of is there is no such thing as an un-interpreted word or act. There are two things this raises in relation to our engagement with emerging church. Being faithful to the apostolic witness is not just mere repetition of those words, or repeating the way in which they might have been interpreted as being appropriate to another place and another time. The apostolic word must be interpreted anew for every generation and every context. The emerging church is to be commended for its willingness, by and large, to take scripture seriously, and to seek to interpret afresh what it might mean for us today in our particular context rather than just repeat unthinkingly the formulas and answers of the past.

But secondly how do we know that new appropriation or interpretation is faithful to the witness of the apostles. Calvin argued that interpretation of scripture must take place within the hermeneutical community of the church. Too often in protestant and evangelical circles the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has been understood within the culture of enlightenment individualism, to mean the right of every individual to interpret scripture for them self, a tendency heightened in the radical individualism of late modernity. So much so that Kevin van Hoozer asks in his hermeneutical tour de force, Is there a meaning in this text? or is there in fact just a never ending possibility of meanings. Listening to the voice of the church, the hermeneutical community, is one of the significant factors to take account of in discovering what this text means for us today. And by the church we mean the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church”, the church throughout time historically and throughout the world geographically. This means giving due, but not stifling, weight to the voice of tradition. GK Chesterton wrote: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes – our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to walking around.” With its ditching of traditional church, its giving up on traditions that might have developed and been passed on for centuries, apart from occasionally ransacking them and tearing out of any meaningful context some token that seems cute in the eclecticism of postmodern culture, the emerging church runs the risk of missing the wisdom that has developed over the centuries, of listening to the caution that might come from previous misinterpretations, and thus in the end  run outside the boundaries of where the Spirit might be willing to venture with them. Sadly this is a pattern that has happened all too often in the history of well intentioned new movements. There is a use of scripture which is false teaching. There is heresy that is full of proof texts. Less dramatically there are also representations of the gospel that are unbalanced and therefore unhelpful, and maintaining conversation and community with the whole church so interpretation occurs within the checks and balances of that will help ensure an ongoing yet presently meaningful faithfulness to the gospel within the emerging movement.

Two further marks of the church have also been identified, particularly among Protestants. As Calvin put it, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” Holding this definition central to our understanding of the church, the Presbyterian Church has sent to Knox another group of students this year, to hopefully complete the final stage of their training so they can be ordained as Ministers of Word and Sacrament. So that we will have communities of believers where the “Word of God is purely preached” and as other definitions put it “the sacraments are rightly administered”. The former is in some ways easier to assess than the latter. What does it mean to ensure the sacraments are rightly administered? Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas argued it is the presence of the bishop that makes it so. Obviously a problematic definition for many churches. For Catholics and Anglicans it is someone rightly appointed by the bishop who ensures it is in faithful continuity with the apostolic tradition. We have argued here that being apostolic means faithfulness to the witness of the apostles as contained in the NT. Hence for Calvin, “as instituted by Christ”. Here is why the Reformed tradition has held word and sacrament together, because it is not just receiving the bread and the wine but doing so in the context of hearing the gospel story of what they mean that makes them a sacrament, a means of grace. So a theologically informed and properly recognised ministry is important to ensure that the church remains apostolic, faithful to the scriptures, in all aspects of its life, including the preaching and sacraments.

Parts of emerging church, as well as other experimental forms of church life, have often been critical of and resistant to theological training, often preferring to have leaders and pastors who are more entrepreneurial and creative. Too much theology kills those. Many Baptist churches in NZ have followed this also. And I have to say that at times I have been in churches and listened to sermons or seen communion or baptisms, that at best have not been faithful to the Scriptures and at times even heretical. An entertaining event but scarcely a sacrament. Sometimes they are missing completely. Which of course raises the question, is it church? A central reformation principle is ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, “the church reformed is always being reformed”. This phrase is often quoted by those who want to change and reform and do church in different ways . We are being true to our tradition in doing this. In some senses yes, but it is a misunderstanding of the reformers intent to see it as giving carte blanche to try whatever we want. The reformers reformed the church in the light of the Scriptures. Luther did not just way “Here I stand I can do no other”, but “My conscience is bound to the word of God, here I stand…” It is why ministers were teaching elders, and now ministers of word and sacrament, so that by placing the role of scripture central in life of the church and office of ministry the church will be continually reformed in the light of scripture. As the Church of Scotland statement on ministry in 2000 puts it, they are “to represent Christ in the faithful proclaiming of the Word and right administration of the Sacraments and so ensure the possibility of such reform and renewal.” The emerging church movement would do well to seek to ensure a theologically formed leadership so that it too will experience the renewing presence of Christ that come from faithful preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments.

I want to finish briefly by drawing from a sociological insight. Some of you might be surprised that it has taken me this long to mention one. Many of the grand theories of the earlier sociologists are now viewed with much suspicion. However there is one theory I think continues to provide invaluable insight. Max Weber’s theory of the routinisation of charisma. He argues that what happens in the evolution of religion is that a new group gathers around a charismatic leader and is a dynamic, free, loose charismatic movement. Over time it rationalises, routinises and systemises its life and so looses its charisma. Some people become frustrated with this and break away around the edges to form a new charismatic group with new energy and dynamism. It is this that ensures the ongoing renewal of the religion. Looking at the history of Christianity in the west there is much that can be helpfully explained by Weber. There is no question that much of church life in the west has become routinised and rationalised, there is little dynamism and charisma. The Spirit has been routinised out. I believe the emerging church movement can be understood in these terms, as can the charismatic movement of the 1960s and 70s. What has happened often in the past is that the established religious institution dechurches the new movement and the action is reciprocated by the movement. My hope is that in this instance we can avoid repeating history and that by remaining in communion and continuing in conversation, the emerging church may be part of the movement for renewal and reformation of the church in the west, and that the emerging church movement may gain from the wisdom and catholicity of the church to grow into a more faithful and dynamic communion of the triune God in our challenging western context.

When is a church a church? I would probably in the end agree with Miroslav Volf’s conclusion, that “where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, not only is Christ present among them, but a Christian church is there as well, perhaps a bad church, a church that may well transgress against love and truth, but a church nonetheless.” Many in the emerging movement prefer to talk about the emerging conversation than emerging church. My plea would be for those within the movement to include in the conversation all of those who with them are members of the “one holy catholic apostolic church”, so they might come to more adequately share those marks.  And to those sure they are members of that church, but  suspicious as to whether these new comers qualify, to reach out in conversation with them and so help us all to more fully demonstrate the transforming presence of the risen Christ in our life together.

Brian McLaren, Reinventing Your Church, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998, 13-14.

Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996, 3-7.

H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, New York: Harper Brothers, 1953.

Lesslie Newbigin, “The Enduring Validity of Cross-Cultural Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 12, 1988 50.

As quoted in L. Sweet, Aquachurch. Loveland: Group Publishing, 1999. 81.

D. R. Jacobs, “Contextualization in Mission.” In Toward the Twenty First Century in Christian Mission, J.M. Phillips and R.T. Coote eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. 236.

Max Stackhouse, “Contextualization, Contextuality and Contextualization.” In One Faith, Many Cultures: Inculturation, Indigenization, and Contextualization, R.O. Costas ed. New York: Orbis Books, 1988, 6.

Hans Kung, Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumencial View, New York: Doubleday, 1998, 166, 211.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/ 3/2: The Doctrine of Revelation, transl. G. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1962, 739.

Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991, 201.

Hans Kung, The Church, New York: Image Books, 1967, 353.

Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, New York: Doubleday, 1974, 122.

Migliore, 1991, 203.

David Bosch, Transforming Mission, Maryknoll: New York, 1991, 389.

Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit¸ New York: Harper & Row, 177, 359.

Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion,  Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity¸Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, 136.

Christmas as judgement

adventAs part of my advent journey this year I’ve been reading Schleiermacher’s 1806 novella Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas (trans. W. Hastie; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890). It’s a beautiful read, not least because undergirded by Schleiermacher’s enormous respect for childhood as childhood. Like Rahner, Schleiermacher believes that children teach adults, that children – as children – are full human beings and so worthy of all the respect and dignity due to creaturely personhood.

For example, one of the characters in the story (Agnes) poses a series of important questions:

Is it then the case that the first childish objects of enjoyment must, in fact, be lost that the higher may be gained? May there not be a way of obtaining the latter without letting the former go? Does life then begin with a pure illusion in which there is no truth at all, and nothing enduring? How am I rightly to comprehend this? In the case of the man who has come to reflect upon himself and the world, and who has found God, seeing that this process is not gone through without conflict and warfare, do his joys rest upon the eradication, not merely of what is evil, but of what is blameless? For it is thus we always indicate the childlike, or even the childish, if you will rather so have it. (p. 33)

The book is a revelation into Schleiermacher’s – and Barth’s – theology (on many levels) and not least Schleiermacher’s (overly)-optimistic view of human personhood. It was this that Barth, in his 1923/24 Göttingen lectures on the theology of Schleiermacher, rightly picked up on, criticising Schleiermacher for positing an anthropology too without regard for an adequate account of the realities of sin, conversion and the in-breaking of the Word of God.

In those lectures, Barth’s reading of Schleiermacher’s ‘Christological Festival Sermons’ (as Barth calls them) spans some 50 pages wherein Barth expresses his usual mixture of appreciation and criticism for the Silesian-born theologian. One place where Barth’s praise for Schleiermacher’s Christmas sermons is noted concerns Schleiermacher’s sermon on Acts 17:30-31 [‘In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead’]. On this, ‘the most powerful and impressive Christmas sermon that Schleiermacher preached’, Barth comments:

Let us look beyond the narrow sphere of individual life, Schleiermacher asks in the introduction, to the large and universal sphere. It is the Savior of the world whose coming we celebrate. A new world has dawned since the Word became flesh. His appearing was the great turning-point in the whole history of the human race. What is the change whereby the old age and the new may be distinguished? The fact that ignorance of God is no longer overlooked and tolerated by God. Christ’s life was from beginning to end an increasing revelation. The world’s childhood ended with it. Sin is now known and the image of God is evident. Hence judgement passes on all human action, and we ought to rejoice at this. We are now told that he commands everyone everywhere to repent. [Karl Barth, The Theology of Schleiermacher: Lectures at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/24 (ed. Dietrich Ritschl; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 72.]

For the world to have been judged so graciously is indeed the good news that advent dare not dream to hope for.

Still … Maranatha.

Thinking Advent: Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope

I read a delightful essay today by Jürgen Moltmann entitled ‘Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope’ [Theology Today 56, no. 4 (2000): 592-603]. In this essay, Moltmann recalls that Jesus was ‘not merely a “gentle friend of children,” as the sentimental nineteenth century liked to picture him’ but a revolutionary contrast to the Roman world of antiquity wherein children were undervalued and where their legal status (alongside that of women and slaves) was very low; indicative of the fact that as the property of the paterfamilias, they could be sold or abandoned, and often were, particularly girls. Moltmann then offers some helpful commentary on key NT verses concerning children:

(1) “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10: 14; Matt 19:14; Luke 18:19). The disciples view children as unworthy and therefore try to keep them from their master. After all, they are not children anymore. Jesus reprimands the disciples; embracing and blessing the children, he proclaims what he embodies, that the kingdom of God is already theirs. According to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God already belongs to the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying,” In the same way, it also now belongs to children, children are made partners in the covenant with God. Why? Did they deserve it? No. it is exactly because they do not deserve it and are unable to effect it, but in fact receive it like their own birth.

On the other hand, the kingdom “where peace and justice kiss” (as the psalm says) does not appear at the heights of human progress, among the clever and just, rich and beautiful of this world. Rather, it appears among the oppressed, the powerless, the poor, and the children, turning the status quo of human value systems upside down. If the kingdom comes into the world “down below,” those “up there” have been deprived of any religious legitimacy supporting their presumption to dominion. Just as the blessing of the poor was complemented by the lamentations over the rich, the benediction of children belongs with the curse pronounced over the violators of children: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6). If God’s kingdom comes into this world by way of the poor and the children, so does the judgment of God.

(2) “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes rne, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). And the one who sent Jesus, as we know, is the Father. By way of these identifications, Jesus declares children his representatives in society: Just as the God of his messianic mission is in him, so Christ is present in every child. Thus, whoever takes in a child, takes in Christ. This is exactly how Matthew describes the great judgment day: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” “For I was hungry and you gave me food … I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:40, 35-36). The one who will judge the world identifies with the lowly. He is hidden and present in them already now and will eventually judge how the just and the unjust treated the least among humans. Children and the lowly are not, unlike the apostles, agents sent by God. Rather, in them, the poor, powerless, and imprisoned Christ is waiting for his followers to act. Whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God. In helpless children, God is waiting for our compassion. This is also the spontaneous impression the image of the child in the manger awakens in us.

(3) “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is Jesus’ answer to the question of the disciples: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:3, 1) By saying this, Jesus underscores the point that whoever wants to be the greatest of all will have to be everybody else’s servant, “deny themselves,” and become “like a child” (18:4). He asks the disciples to accept themselves not in their power, but in their weakness, not in their wealth, but in their poverty: not as grown-up children, but as the children of their adulthood. He asks the disciples to reclaim the facets of their own being, which had been repressed by development and education. We can only come into the kingdom of God if we receive it like a child with empty hands. That does not mean one has to go back to being a child (which would be childish) but become upon analogy “like a child.” We don’t have to imitate children to become part of God’s future, rather we must be in solidarity with them, respecting their intimate proximity to God’s future. The point is not that children are closer to the kingdom of God because of especially childlike properties (like innocence or naivete that adults have lost), but rather that the kingdom of God is closer to them because they are loved, embraced, and blessed by God. We could also say: Whoever experiences God’s closeness in the community of Christ — as humans experienced it in the proximity of Jesus – will become like a child. Another, later way to phrase this is: Gotteskindschaft – “the community of God’s children.”

This stirred a number of questions in me that I’ll go to bed tonight thinking about:

  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s identification of children with Jesus’ words (in the Sermon on the Mount) regarding the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying”?
  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s claim that just as the God of Jesus’ messianic mission is in him, so too ‘Christ is present in every child’, so that ‘whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God’?
  • What might it mean for us to ‘reclaim the facets of [our] own being, which [have] been repressed by development and education’? Are there implications here for pastoral leadership?

Later on, Moltmann unsurprisingly draws on Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope:

“Jesus is himself present among the helpless, as an element of this humbleness, standing in the dark, not in brightness … This is why the child in the manger becomes so important, along with the humbleness of all the circumstances in the out-of-the-way, cramped stable. The unexpectedness of finding the redeemer as a helpless child.” Christian love therefore “regards the helpless as important, that which is discarded by the world as called” and “gathers up its own in their out-of-the-wayness, their incognito to the world, their discordance with the world: into the kingdom where they do accord.”

sinead-1I was reminded of another essay that I recently read by Tony Kelly where the author suggests that in a world of violent competition and the exponential growth of problems and responsibilities, the child calls for the rebirth of wonder, trust and playful contentment within the great womb of life and time. Where the harried adult might see only problems, and become weary in mind and heart, children live otherwise. ‘They breathe another air, content to play within the inexhaustible mystery of what has been so uncannily given. Every child is a call to return to the gift that was at the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’.

So too does this same refrain echo through Moltmann, who concludes his essay with three reasons for why children remain metaphors of hope:

(1) With every child, a new life begins, original, unique, incomparable. And while it seems that we always ask, who this or that child looks like (apparently because we seem to think we can only understand the new in the comparison with what is already known or similar), we also encounter the entirely different, the entirely dissimilar and unique in each child. It is these differences that we need to respect if we want to love life and allow an open future.

(2) With every beginning of a new life, the hope for the reign of peace and justice is given a new chance. It is important to see children in their own transcendent perspective and so to resist forming them according to the images of our world. Every new life is also a new beginning of hope for a homeland in this unredeemed world. If it were not, we would have no reason to expect anything new from a beginning.

(3) The last reason to see “a new beginning” or a “beginning of the New” in the beginning of a child’s life is the fact that, for me, children are not only metaphors of our hopes, of that which we want, wish for and expect, but also are metaphors of God’s hope for us: God wants us, expects us, and welcomes us. Humanity is God’s great love, God’s dream for God’s earthly world, God’s image for God’s beloved earth. God is “waiting” for the “human person” in every child, is “waiting” for God’s echo, resonance, and rainbow. Maybe that is the reason God is so patient with us, hearing the ruins of human history, inviting one human generation after the other into existence. God is not silent, God is not “dead” – God is waiting for the menschlichen Menschen the “truly humane human.” “In all of the prophets, I have waited for you,” Martin Buber has the Eternal One speak to the Messiah, “and now you have come.”

You were in this place … but we never knew

About 15 years ago now, I was introduced to a wonderful book by Vincent J. Donovan entitled Christianity Rediscovered. I have posted on this book before, and have never really gotten over reading it. I can’t remember how many copies I’ve given away. I only mention it here because I was reminded of it twice again today.

First, after following some of the (mostly) ignorant commentary on Rowan Williams’ recent lecture on Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective. (As well as the copious newspaper and blog articles, there’s also this frustrating discussion on BBC Wales with Kim Fabricius and Peter Hitchens). For a clarification of what Rowan did and did not propose see this post on What did the Archbishop actually say?

Second, I had reason today to revisit a paper given at a Faith & Unity Commission Meeting in 2003. As the report from that commission states, ‘the paper represents the thoughts and discussions of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission. It comes out of a couple of workshops held at their Commission meetings in late 2002 and early 2003’. The result is a powerful restatement of the grace of God at work in the world and in particular human communities, the God who is determined to make himself known because he does not want to be God without us. Here is a rich testimony, akin to that which Donovan was offered by the Masai elders. The paper reads:

We are what we are – Spirit People

We Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples believe that the Creator has always been with our people since the beginning of time. Our connection to this land Australia and the stories from long ago emphasise this and reveals to us our ongoing relationship to the Creator. We know that the Spirit is always close to us and within us. The Spirits of our ancestors are always around us looking out for us and showing us the path we should travel. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

We have been given a gift to offer the rest of humanity; the importance of relationships. The Creator still has a strong relationship with us and helps us build stronger relationships with one another. These relationships also cover everything around us, for it is through the land, water and air that we are continually reminded of this. It is not just the symbol of the rainbow that reminds us about the covenant between the Creator and humanity. There are signs all around us that continually reminds us of the Covenant.

Our peoples are generous, caring and compassionate towards each other and other Australians. We have survived many negative things yet we still reach out our hand in reconciliation. This is the message of long ago from our roots and also the message through the Christian Bible. It has been the message passed down from generation to generation from parent to children since time began.

The Spirit lives on through us and we must continually foster this relationship through acts that remind us of this great truth. These acts are ceremonies, which help us to draw closer to our creator who has left the Spirit with us. Through them we retell and relive the great stories of our past.

Since the coming of the Western Culture, there has been a breakdown in our relationship with the Creator. Our ways have been under threat and this has led us to move away from our roots and into a foreign way of thinking. This has caused hardships within our communities as we struggle to find our way. Sometimes we have failed to recognise the Spirit present with us. We looked to the new culture to show us the way forward and it has led to more confusion and loss of direction. This culture has failed our people. It has shown it cannot satisfy our deepest yearnings.

This culture wanted us to look for the Creator through their eyes. They have failed to see that the Creator exists within our culture. While Abraham was wandering in the desert our peoples had been for many generations living in close relationship with our Creator. We have an Old Testament, which we can now accept as part of our salvation history.

How short sighted Western Culture was to think they had the monopoly on the Creator and how blinded were we to believe this was true. It is up to us to reclaim our beliefs. Our Creator yearns for us to come back. Our relationship has been tested and made stronger because of the many mistakes along the journey because we have learnt so much from the experience. We now know about Christ. This story from the Western Culture has touched and had an impact on our lives.

We did not have Jesus amongst us as the Apostles did but he left us the Spirit of the Creator with us. We know this Spirit to be the same Spirit who is with us now because of what it has done and continues to do. This Spirit of relationships reminds us about our responsibilities to one another and creation and that we all come from the same source of life. This Spirit is also the Spirit of the Rainbow Serpent, the Brolga, the Emu, the Stars, the Fish, the Plants, the mountains and much more. We must hold on to and strengthen our Spiritual heritage.

As a Minority we stand as the strength of this Land. We affirm our belief in the Creator Spirit who created us. It is in our connection to this deep sense of belonging that our Identity lives. Our Culture can never be broken. We embrace our past. We are alive in the present and have hope in the future. The Creator Spirit calls us into a search for a deeper relationship with himself and each other. The Creator Spirit calls us to renewal.

Back in 1996, Wadjularbinna Doomadgee, a Gungalidda Leader on the Gulf of Carpentaria too bore witness to what Donovan had also ‘discovered’:

So the sad thing about it all was the missionaries didn’t realise that we already had something that tied in with what they’d brought to us. They saw different as inferior, and they didn’t ask us what it was that we had. And it’s very sad because if they had asked … things may have been different today.

Our people, before the white man came were very spiritual people. They were connected to land and creation through the great spirit, there was a good great and a great evil spirit … And Satan was the great evil one. So there wasn’t much difference in what the missionaries brought and what we already had …

One of the songs we used to sing regularly at our weekly college chapel services, and which bears witness to this reality, is Robin Mann’s You were in this place. I offer it here as a prayer:

1. At the dawn of the ages
You pulled land from the sea
With your Word You invented
All we know, all we see
Creek and desert and forest,
Red and grey Kangaroo
You were in this place
But we never knew.

2. Do we take after Jacob –
Blind to what lies at hand,
Needing dreams to inform us
God is here in this land?
See him suffering and dying,
Bread and wine tell the news
You were in this place
But we never knew.

3. Paintings seen on the rock face
Footprints left in the sand.
Campfire next to the river,
Songs that rise from the land
Signs that seem so elusive,
Shadows just out of view.
You were in this place
But we never knew.

4. Jesus, open our senses
Help us to see you today
In the person beside us,
As we work, as we play.
While we love you and serve you
May it never be true:
You were in this place
But we never knew.

That holiness might fill the whole of life

As one whose destiny was from eternity the cross, through his active conquest over every form of the demonic and its blasphemous evil – through healings, prayers, the casting out of demons – Jesus erased all that separated God and humanity from fullness of life together. All that he touched he healed – carrying the full load of human alienation and depravity, sickness and blasphemy, until it crushed him. He alone could carry such a load. And on the cross, the Triune God in Christ established not a new divine love for the world but a new relation or treatment with the world in which God’s holy love might take shape and bear witness to its source. God’s justifying activity, therefore, was not only done by holiness but for holiness, and for it alone. It was done that holiness might fill the whole of life on earth as it does in heaven.

Colin Gunton’s ‘The Barth Lectures’: A Review

Colin E. Gunton, The Barth Lectures (transcribed and edited by Paul H. Brazier; T&T Clark, London/New York, 2007). xxiv + 285 pages. ISBN: 9780567031402.

While he fruitfully enjoyed a life-long engagement with and formation by Karl Barth’s work, produced numerous articles on various aspects of such, and lectured on Barth most years he taught at King’s College London, Colin Gunton never fulfilled his ambition to pen a monograph devoted solely to this his favourite theologian. Had he done so, these lectures (recorded and transcribed almost verbatim by Paul Brazier, complete with charts, diagrams, live-questions and Gunton’s responses) would have served as the basis.

Chapters 1-3 attend to the intellectual, historical and theological background to Barth’s thinking. Beginning with a focus on Enlightenment philosophy as it finds voice in Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel – all three of whom ‘identified Christianity too closely with modern culture’ (p. 17) – Gunton then turns to Barth’s early theological formation in the nineteenth-century liberalism of Harnack and Herrmann, as well as to some other voices and ideas that impinged on Barth’s theological development – Johann Christoph Blumhardt (who also influenced Moltmann), Albert Schweitzer and Franz Overbeck through whom eschatology was re-confirmed on the theological radar. Barth’s engagement with existentialism (Kierkegaardian and other) and theologies of ‘religion’, ‘crisis’ and ‘dialectics’ are introduced in the second and third lectures, and re-appear subsequently throughout. Certainly, for the Swiss theologian, ‘no road to the eternal world has ever existed except the road of negation’ (p. 33). Thus when Gunton later comes to unpack something of the charge concerning Barth’s ‘irrationality’ through the continuing influence of Der Römerbrief, empiricism, and Barth’s ‘assertive style’, the United Reformed Church minister notes:

The influence of empiricism, especially on the minds of English and American theologians, cannot be dismissed. The English, or to be more pertinent, the Anglican theological mind is shaped by a philosophical tradition that does not find Barth’s approach to theology easy to understand let alone agree with … Part of our intellectual tradition makes it hard for us to understand – particularly an Anglican tradition. Anglicans on the whole like things to be nice and middle way, the via media. And there is not much of the middle way in Karl Barth! … Barth’s assertive style does make it difficult for mild-mannered establishment Anglicans to cope with. (p. 66)

Whether critiquing Augustine, Calvin, Kant, the ‘Absolutely Pagan’ Hegel (p. 17), or the ‘great opponent’ Schleiermacher (p. 15), Gunton repeatedly identifies that the crucial question for the author of the groundbreaking Der Römerbrief remains ‘how much of your intellectual method hangs on something foreign to Christianity?’ (p. 42; cf. pp. 52-3). To this end, Gunton also devotes an entire lecture (pp. 53-63) to Barth’s 1931 work on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, and to the Archbishop’s understanding of the relationship between ‘proof’, ‘reason’ and ‘faith’. He later writes: ‘Barth is a post-Reformation thinker with the rallying cry, by scripture alone and by faith alone! Barth found in the Reformation tradition a conception of theology based on a view of God that is linked with human salvation. The problem for Barth with the Scholastic tradition is that they begin with a rational view of God – a rational idea of God abstracted from human salvation. Barth begins with scripture because the God of scripture is about salvation not philosophical argument’ (p. 69). And on a comparison with Schleiermacher: ‘the problem with beginning with religion is that it is not theological, it can be, it can lead into theology, but in essence it is not: religion is an experiential concept, not a theological concept. Barth wants a theology that is theological right from the very outset. Barth considers that Roman Catholics and Protestants such as Schleiermacher are wrong in thinking that there can be a non-theological basis for theology. Barth is a theologian you see, to the fingernails’ (p. 69).

From Chapter Four onwards, Gunton turns to Barth’s Church Dogmatics, acutely aware that ‘there is nothing as boring as résumés of Barth’s Dogmatics‘ and that ‘the way to get into Barth is to select and to read – read him, there is no substitute!’ (p. 71). Over the next 190 pages, this is precisely what Gunton masterfully helps us do; whether on Barth’s theological prolegomena, his witness to the three-fold Word, trinity, the doctrine of God proper, election, christology, soteriology, ethics and creation, we are all along driven by the only thing of theological interest for Barth, the question ‘Who is the God who makes himself known in Scripture?’ (p. 77). ‘When Barth is at his best’, Gunton writes, ‘he looks at the biblical evidence in detail; when he is weak he tends to evade it’ (p. 119)

A few tastes from ‘5. Barth on the Trinity and the Personal God’:

Barth is anti-foundationalist … God’s revelation is self-grounded; it does not have to appeal to anything else beyond itself. Because it is revelation through itself, not in relation to something else, because it is self-contained, lordship means freedom. This is characteristically Barthian: a characteristically Barthian phrase. Lordship means freedom – freedom for God, absolutely central for Barth’s theology. (p. 78)

The basis of all theology lies in the fact that revelation does happen … This revelation is Christological: Jesus Christ is God’s self-unveiling. The Father cannot be unveiled, but the Father reveals through the Son. This is imparted through the Holy Spirit. A little artificial I actually think, but you can see what he is actually trying to do: he is trying to show that inherent in the structure of God’s presence in Jesus Christ is a Trinitarian view of God … The point here is that in Jesus Christ we see the limits, the possibilities of the knowability of God … So Barth in a way is still retaining this dialectical structure: veiling-unveiling, knowability -unknowability, revelation-hiddenness … In the end you have only got paradox … God preserves his privacy. (pp. 79-80)

The logic is that if God is like this in time then because he doesn’t con us, so to speak, he doesn’t pull the wool over our eyes, because he is a revealing God, then that is what God is. So don’t think that the God we meet in Jesus is one God and that the God of eternity is entirely different from Jesus. The God you meet in Jesus is no different from the God you might meet if you were able to have a direct view of eternity. (p. 83)

Barth is against all mathematics in theology – he is against theories and ideas propounded down the centuries by theologians whereby examples are given of the Trinity, where three things make one; Augustine was often doing this, it is pure analogy or an attempt at analogy, which generally fails to offer any theological elucidation … I don’t like Augustine. I think he is the fountainhead of our troubles. (pp. 84, 96)

[Barth] is often accused of modalism, and I think he is near it … I think he is on a bit of a knife-edge myself, but then all theology is on a knife-edge, it is such a difficult discipline. [Barth] wants to do what the Cappadocians did, and Barth thinks he has done it better with this term – ‘modes of being’. Well, I don’t agree with him, but that is the way he puts it. (pp. 88-9)

Theology is our interpretation of God’s self-interpretation. God interprets himself to us, that is what revelation is. Our response is to interpret this faithfully, or as Jüngel would put it, responsibly … We move from faith to understanding. We move from a grateful acceptance of revelation to an attempt to understand as best we may what that revelation means for God and ourselves. And the understanding consists in the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit. It is so obvious that we should, isn’t it! We might talk of God as a tyrannical monad, but the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit is, so to speak, a demonstration after the event that we are making sense, that God is making sense, our theology makes sense. (p. 91)

And from ‘8. Ethics: Church Dogmatics Chapter VIII:

I do think that there is a problem of abstractness because there isn’t really in Barth, I think (and I say this tentatively), I think that there isn’t really in Barth an account of how this relationship between God and the moral agent takes shape. There is not much of a principle of formation. How are people formed so as to take one ethical direction rather than another? Barth is relatively weak in ecclesiology; that is, some account of how ethics are shaped by the community of belief. He is so anxious not to tie God down; that is always his anxiety, not to tie God down. (p. 133)

Throughout, Gunton is rousing his 30-40 mostly MA and PhD students (although the lectures were intended for undergraduates and so leave considerable ground un-traversed and engage minimally with secondary literature) to ‘read as much of the man himself’ not least because ‘the people that write about him are much more boring than he is’ (p. 9; cf. p. 39). In a sense, this is one book to ‘listen to’ more than to ‘read’. At times, it’s a bit like the difference between a live album and a studio version. Not all the notes are spot on, but the energy – filled with a depth of theological and pastoral insight that betray years of wrestling with the things that matter – is all there.

Such wrestling means that whether expounding a key motif in Barth’s theology or fielding questions, Gunton reveals not only a deep indebtedness to Barth’s work, but also points of divergence. He is upfront in the first lecture: ‘Not everyone buys into Barth … I don’t, all the way along the line, as I get older I get more and more dissatisfied with the details of his working out of the faith … over the years I think I have developed a reasonable view of this great man who is thoroughly exciting and particularly, I can guarantee, if you do this course, that you will be a better theologian by the third year, whether or not you agree with him – he is a great man to learn to think theologically with’ (p. 10; see the prefaces to his Theology Through the Theologians and to the second edition of The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). Clearly, Gunton is no clone of Barth. Though mostly unnamed, he draws upon Coleridge, Owen, Zizioulas and Polanyi as allies in order to attain a measure of distance from Barth’s theology (and that of Barth’s student Moltmann), notably on creation, trinitarian personhood (Gunton prefers the Cappadocians), natural revelation, Jesus’ humanity, Christ’s priesthood, the Word’s action as mediator of creation, ecclesiology, and an over-realised eschatology, among other things (see pp. 52, 74, 82, 88-90, 96, 133, 142, 148, 170-1, 186, 200, 212, 227, 236, 250, 253-4, passim). Not alone here, Gunton reserves his strongest criticisms for what he contends is Barth’s weak pneumatology (for which he blames Augustine and the filioque): there is ‘not enough of the Spirit accompanying and empowering Jesus at different stages of his ministry’ (p. 200). Again: ‘the second person of the Trinity is made to do a bit more than he does in Scripture’ (p. 212). Gunton is always cautious and respectful however: Barth ‘never really forgets anything, he is too good a theologian for that. And when you are criticizing Barth it is only a question of where he puts a weight; he never forgets anything, he is too good a man for that’ (p. 171). Even on the Spirit, Gunton suggests that he can only be critical here because of what he has learnt from Barth already: ‘That’s the great thing about Barth: he enables you to do other things that aren’t just Barth but yet are empowered by him. Yes, that’s his greatness’ (p. 200).

While the reformed theologian is ‘too-multi-layered a thinker to have one leading idea’ if there is one, Gunton suggests it is that of covenant: ‘that from eternity God covenants to be the God who elects human beings into relation with himself’ (p. 149), that from eternity the triune God is oriented towards us. Gunton’s chapter on Barth’s revision of God’s election in CD II/2 is an astounding example of his adroitness and élan as a theological educator. Not many teachers could summarise so sufficiently and with such economy (just 12 pages!) what for Barth is the root of all things, ‘creation, atonement, all’ (p. 115), that is, election. Gunton concludes by (over?)-suggesting that Barth’s effort was ‘a huge improvement in the crude determinism of the Augustinian tradition, which did not represent a gracious God. The Augustinian doctrine replaces grace with gratuity: God gratuitously chooses group A and not group B – this is not the God who seeks out the lost [even Judas] and does not reject them’ (p. 121).

This volume is significantly more than merely a course on the theology of the twentieth century’s superlative theologian. It is also a reminder that to read Barth attentively is to be introduced to a broader dogmatic and philosophical tradition. Moreover, it is to be led to do so by one of Britain’s ablest pedagogues. A foreword by Christoph Schwöbel and a warm introduction by Steve Holmes prepare us for one of the freshest introductions to Barth available. Again, we are placed in Professor Gunton’s debt.

Advent Reflection 12: Not an ethereal figure

‘So deeply is this need [for love] rooted in human nature, and so essentially does it belong to being human, that even he who was one with the Father and in the communion of love with the Father and the Spirit, he who loved the whole human race, our Lord Jesus Christ, even he humanly felt this need to love and be loved by an individual human being. He is indeed the God-man and thus eternally different from every human being, but still he was also a true human being, tested in everything human. On the other hand, the fact that he experienced this is the very expression of its belonging essentially to a human being. He was an actual human being and therefore can participate in everything human. He was not an ethereal figure that beckoned in the clouds without understanding or wanting to understand what humanly befalls a human being. Ah, no, he could have compassion on the crowd that lacked food, and purely humanly, he who himself had hungered in the desert. In the same way he could also sympathize with people in this need to love and to be loved, sympathize purely humanly’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; trans. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; vol. 16; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 155.

Advent Reflections for 2007

Advent Reflection 11: God’s Self-Placement

‘He was man as we are. His condition was no different from ours. He took our flesh, the nature of man as he comes from the fall … His sinlessness was not therefore His condition. It was the act of His being in which He defeated temptation in His condition which is ours, in the flesh … He emptied Himself … placing Himself in the series of men who rebelled against God in their delusion … In so doing, in His own person, He reversed the fall in their place and for their sake’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), 1956, 259.

Advent Reflection 10: That Which Christ Assumes

‘If any assert that He has now put off His holy flesh, and that His Godhead is stripped of the body, and deny that He is now with his body and will come again with it, let him not see the glory of His coming … For that which He has not assumed He has not healed … If only half of Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may by half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, an so be save as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation’. – Gregory of Nazianzus (4th cent. A.D.), Epistle 101, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7 (Peabody: Hendrickson), 1994, 440.

Advent Reflection 9: Going the Whole Way

The cross was the reflection (or say rather the historic pole) of an act within Godhead. The historic victory was the index and the correlate of a choice grid a conquest in Godhead itself. Nothing less will carry the fulness of faith, the swelling soul, and the Church’s organ voice of liturgy in every land and age. If our thought do not allow that belief we must reduce the pitch of faith to something plain, laic, and songless, and, in making it more homely, make it less holy, less absolute, less adoring. The adoration of Christ can only go with this view of Him in the long run. Nothing lower takes with due seriousness the superhuman value of the soul, the unearthliness of our salvation, and its last conquest of the whole world. It would reduce the unworldly value of the soul if it could be saved by anything less than a Christ before the worlds. It came upon me, as upon many at the first it must have mightily done, that His whole life was not simply occupied with a series of decisions crucial for our race, or filled with a great deed then first done; but that that life of His was itself the obverse of a heavenly eternal deed, and the result of a timeless decision before it here began. His emergence on earth was as it were the swelling in of heaven. His sacrifice began before He came into the world, and his cross was that of a lamb slain before the world’s foundation. There was a Calvary above which was the mother of it all, His obedience, however impressive, does not take divine magnitude if it first rose upon earth, nor has it the due compelling power upon ours. His obedience as man was but the detail of the supreme obedience which made him man. His love transcends all human measure only if, out of love, he renounced the glory of heavenly being for all he here became. Only then could one grasp the full stay and comfort of words like these “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Unlike us, he chose the oblivion of birth and the humiliation of life. He consented not only to die but to be born. His life here, like His death which pointed it, was the result of his free will. It was all one death for him. It was all one obedience. And it was free. He was rich and for our sakes became poor. What he gave up was the fulness, power, and immunity of a heavenly life. He became “a man from heaven.”’ – Peter T. Forsyth, The Person & Place of Jesus Christ: The Congregational Union Lecture for 1909 (London: Congregational Union of England and Wales/Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 270–2.