Next week, Whitley College is hosting a free public webinar on the complex issues of privacy, citizenship, freedom, and rights in the digital spaces we occupy.
I was delighted to receive an invitation to contribute a short piece for Zadok and their issue on ‘Urban Spirituality’. It’s a great issue, with pieces by some amazing people – Karina Kreminski (who edited the issue), Alison Sampson, Simon Carey Holt, Glenn Loughrey, Siu Fung Wu, Jo Kadlecek, Sherry Maddock, Geoff Maddock, Melinda Cousins, Joel McKerrow, and Matt Anslow. My own contribution is some scribbles about street art. Details: ‘On the Gifts of Street Art’. Zadok 146, Summer (2019): 13–15. [pdf]
I was even more thrilled when they chose to use one of my photos for the front cover.
[Update: the Australasian Religious Press Association awarded this essay silver prize for ‘Best Theological Article’ in their 2020 ARPA Awards.]
I’ve noted before that today really is an incredible time to be thinking about and learning from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that pastor and teacher who from a life cut short over 70 years ago left us a profound vision of what it might mean to speak responsibly of ‘God’ and of ‘the world’ in the same breath, and to be Christian community in one of the most violent and unstable and disenchanted times in recent human history. Rather than seek to escape such realities, Bonhoeffer believed that to follow Jesus is to be thrown ever more deeply into them, into the darkness. He taught us that the first place to look for Christ is in hell, and that it is ‘only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith’. It is only by ‘living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities’ that, he said, we ‘throw ourselves completely into the arms of God’. And this means, for Bonhoeffer, that ministers of the gospel are ‘not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice’ but rather are called to ‘drive a spoke into the wheel itself’.
Next semester, Whitley College will again host the Rev Dr Keith Clements, a leading international Bonhoeffer scholar, who will teach an intensive course on Bonhoeffer and his theology. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most courageous theological minds, and to wrestle with how some of his convictions might inform our own faithful witness in the world today.
When: Fridays 6pm–9pm | Saturdays 9am–1pm | 14–15, 21–22, 28–29 July and 11–12, 18–19 August
Where: Whitley College, 50 The Avenue, Parkville
Cost: $300 for audit enrolments (normally $500). Discounted Rate available until Thursday 31 May.
Enquiries and enrolments: 03 9340 8100 or email
I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:
Some characteristically thoughtful words here from Jonathan Sacks in his acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize:
A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom … At some point the West abandoned this belief …
Morality itself was outsourced to the market. The market gives us choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire. The result is that we find it increasingly hard to understand why there might be things we want to do, can afford to do, and have a legal right to do, that nonetheless we should not do because they are unjust or dishonourable or disloyal or demeaning: in a word, unethical. Ethics was reduced to economics … [And] having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics.
And it seemed to work, at least for a generation or two. But by now problems have arisen that can’t be solved by the market or the state alone …
You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away …
But the West has, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa in Frozen, “Let it go”. It has externalised what it once internalised. It has outsourced responsibility. It’s reduced ethics to economics and politics. Which means we are dependent on the market and the state, forces we can do little to control. And one day our descendants will look back and ask, How did the West lose what once made it great?
Every observer of the grand sweep of history, from the prophets of Israel to the Islamic sage Ibn Khaldun, from Giambattista Vico to John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell to Will Durant, has said essentially the same thing: that civilisations begin to die when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being in the first place. It happened to Greece and Rome, and it can happen to the West. The sure signs are these: a falling birthrate, moral decay, growing inequalities, a loss of trust in social institutions, self-indulgence on the part of the rich, hopelessness on the part of the poor, unintegrated minorities, a failure to make sacrifices in the present for the sake of the future, a loss of faith in old beliefs and no new vision to take their place. These are the danger signals and they are flashing now.
There is an alternative: to become inner-directed again. This means recovering the moral dimension that links our welfare to the welfare of others, making us collectively responsible for the common good. It means recovering the spiritual dimension that helps us tell the difference between the value of things and their price. We are more than consumers and voters; our dignity transcends what we earn and own. It means remembering that what’s important is not just satisfying our desires but also knowing which desires to satisfy. It means restraining ourselves in the present so that our children may have a viable future. It means reclaiming collective memory and identity so that society becomes less of a hotel and more of a home. In short, it means learning that there are some things we cannot or should not outsource, some responsibilities we cannot or should not delegate away.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, and not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future. If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.
One can read the full lecture here.
As the US continues to beat its war drums in the Middle East, it’s a good time to think again about the so-called ‘just war’ theory. So, I draw attention to three pieces – from Michael Leunig, from George Hunsinger and from Stanley Hauerwas.
And in a recent piece published in Commonweal Magazine, Hunsinger argues that ‘a defensible case for the attack on Syria would have to satisfy traditional “just war” standards. In its modern form the just-war tradition (jus ad bellum) involves at least four primary elements: just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. If these criteria remain unmet, the recourse to war is unjustified’. In Hunsinger’s view, the proposed attack on Syria meets none of these standards.
And here, Hauerwas argues that the real realists are not the just-war advocates anyway, but the pacifists. Moreover, he contends that ‘the lack of realism about realism by American just war advocates has everything to do with their being American’. ‘In particular’, he suggests, ‘American advocates of just war seem to presume that democratic societies place an inherent limit on war that more authoritarian societies are unable to do. While such a view is quite understandable, I would argue that democratic society – at least, the American version – is unable to set limits on war because it is democratic. Put even more strongly, for Americans war is a necessity to sustain our belief that we are worthy to be recipients of the sacrifices made on our behalf in past wars. Americans are a people born of and in war, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a people set apart’. Such democracies, Hauerwas believes, ‘by their very nature seem to require that wars be fought in the name of ideals that make war self-justifying’. And, characteristically, Hauerwas concludes his piece with a reflection on the relationship between war, christology and ecclesiology:
Pacifists are realists. Indeed, we have no reason to deny that the “realism” associated with Augustine, Luther and Niebuhr has much to teach us about how the world works. But that is why we do not trust those who would have us make sacrifices in the name of preserving a world at war. We believe a sacrifice has been made that has brought an end to the sacrifice of war.
Augustine and Luther thought Christians might go to war because they assumed a church existed that provided an alternative to the sacrificial system war always threatens to become. When Christians no longer believe that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the salvation of the world, we will find other forms of sacrificial behaviours that are as compelling as they are idolatrous. In the process, Christians confuse the sacrifice of war with the sacrifice of Christ.
If a people does not exist that continually makes Christ present in the world, war will always threaten to become a sacrificial system. War is a counter church. War is the most determinative moral experience many people have.
That is why Christian realism requires the disavowal of war. Christians do not disavow war because it is often so horrible, but because war, in spite of its horror – or perhaps because it is so horrible – can be so morally compelling. That is why the church does not have an alternative to war. The church is the alternative to war. When Christians lose that reality – that is, the reality of the church as an alternative to the world’s reality – we abandon the world to the unreality of war.
For what it’s worth, whenever I happen across Christians defending just-war theory to justify their participation in the state’s various machineries of cross-border violence (which, for the record, is not what I think Hunsinger is doing), I’m reminded of another George – George Bernard Shaw – and his challenge to (hypocritical) church leaders:
They have turned their churches into recruiting stations and their vestries into munitions workshops. But it has never occurred to them to take off their black coats and say quite simply, ‘I find in the hour of trial that the Sermon on the Mount is tosh, and that I am not a Christian. I apologise for all the unpatriotic nonsense I have been preaching all the years. Have the goodness to give me a revolver and a commission in a regiment which has for its chaplain a priest of the god Mars: my God.’ Not a bit of it. They have stuck to their livings and served Mars in the name of Christ, to the scandal of all religious mankind.
The Council of the University of Otago invites applications for the Howard Paterson Chair in Theology and Public Issues and Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues.
The University is seeking a scholar with a distinguished record of international research publications and teaching experience in the area of Theology and Public Issues, Public Theology, Christian Ethics or Applied Theology.
The Howard Paterson Professor will be expected to engage in ongoing research, teaching and postgraduate supervision and will be the Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues within the Department of Theology and Religion. The aims of the Centre are to facilitate research at the interface of Christian theology and society in a New Zealand context, and to encourage in the public realm theologically and ethically informed discussion on matters of public interest, including important issues of public policy. The Centre’s activities will include research and research publication, hosting conferences, public symposia and other educational events, and media commentary. The Centre has a national focus, and is also a foundation member of the Global Network for Public Theology. It attracts high-quality research students, and is expected to seek external funding to support some of its activities.
Salary will be at an appropriate point in the University’s professorial range, depending on qualifications and experience. Less experienced candidates with appropriate expertise are not precluded from applying but may be appointed at an Associate Professorial level.
For confidential enquiries about this role, please contact the search partner, Academic Search International:
Sonia Pechner, Executive Director
T: +64 9 379 6900 M: +64 21 338 879
Closing Date 4th October 2013.
The position will be available from 1 February, 2014, or as soon as possible thereafter.