Lazarus

After the wake and speeches, when the guests in black
Had with the charm of ordinariness
Dispelled the gross terror of a fellow dead
(Eyelid grown waxen, the body like a sack
Bundled into the tomb) and the women with their mindless
Ritual of grief had murmured abroad all that could be said –

Then, as the world resumed its customary
Mask of civil day, he came, too late to mend
The broken vase (a cracked one could have been mended)
God’s image blackened by causality.
And the woman said, “Since he was called your friend,
Why did you not come then? Now it is ended.”

And when, the army blanket of grey earth
Put off, Lazarus from the cave mouth stumbled
(Hand, foot and mouth yet bound in mummy cloth)
To the sun’s arrow, furnace of rebirth –
What could they do but weep? infirm and humbled
By Love not their love, more to be feared than wrath.

– James K. Baxter, who died on this day, 45 years ago.

You can read more about Baxter here, and more of his poetry here.

Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

A little something for the Catholic cats and pigeons to have fun with:

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit. “God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers” (Heb 1:1), “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” (Dei Verbum, 8). We are called to make this voice our own by “reverently hearing the word of God” (ibid., 1), so that our life as a Church may progress with the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, towards those new horizons to which the Lord wishes to guide us.

– Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

Peter Brown on Sarah Ruden’s translation of St Augustine’s Confessions

confessions-88.jpgWhile some reviewers have found Sarah Ruden’s recent translation of St Augustine’s Confessions unnecessary, ‘jarring’, and marked by too many ‘aesthetic costs’, many, it seems, have welcomed it, and that not least because of the ‘vivid, personal prose’ that characterises its pages. Among the latter we might now add the brilliant Augustine scholar Peter Brown who, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, notes that one of the things that he most appreciates about Ruden’s work is its presentation of God’s lively personhood, a liveliness that makes Augustine more alive also. Here’s a taster:

So what is the correct reaction when we open the Confessions? It should, perhaps, be one of acute embarrassment. For we have stumbled upon a human being at a primal moment – standing in prayer before God. Having intruded on Augustine at his prayers, we are expected to find ourselves pulled into them, as we listen to a flow of words spoken, as if on the edge of an abyss, to a God on the far side – to a being, to all appearances, vertiginously separate from ourselves.

The measure of the success of [Sarah] Ruden’s translation is that she has managed to give as rich and as diverse a profile to the God on the far side as she does to the irrepressible and magnetically articulate Latin author who cries across the abyss to Him. Most translations of the Confessions fail to do this. We are usually left with the feeling that one character in the story has not fully come alive. We meet an ever-so-human Augustine, with whom it is easy to identify even when we most deplore him. But we meet him perched in front of an immense Baroque canvas called “God” – suitably grand, of course, suitably florid, but flat as the wall.

How does Ruden remedy this lack of life in God? She takes God in hand. She renames Him. He is not a “Lord.” That is too grand a word. Its sharpness has been blunted by pious usage. Augustine’s God was a dominus – a master. And a Roman dominus was a master of slaves. Unlike “Lord,” the Latin word dominus implied, in Augustine’s time, no distant majesty, muffled in fur and velvet. It conjured up life in the raw – life lived face to face in a Roman household, lived to the sound of the crack of the whip and punctuated by bursts of rage ….

To make God more of a person, by making Him a master, does not at first sight, make Him very nice. But at least it frees Him up. It also brings Augustine to life. In relation to God, Augustine experiences all the ups and downs of a household slave in relation to his master. He jumps to the whip. He tries out the life of a runaway. He attempts to argue back. Altogether, “Augustine’s humorously self-deprecating, submissive, but boldly hopeful portrait of himself in relation to God echoes the rogue slaves of the Roman stage” [Ruden]. (Indeed, the thought of the bishop of Hippo as having once been the slippery slave of God – like Zero Mostel as the plump and bouncy Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – somehow lightens the impression of a seemingly inextricable roller coaster of sin and punishment that we usually derive from reading the first part of the Confessions.)

For God can change His mood. Like any other free person, He can show a different side. The Confessions is about the marvelous emergence of new sides of God as Augustine himself changes in his relation to God, over the years, from slave to repentant son to lover. Ruden may have to defend her re-translation of the name of God from “Lord” to “Master.” But her approach is a thoughtful one. It is governed by a determination to present Augustine’s relations with his God as endowed with the full emotional weight of a confrontation between two real persons. She takes no shortcuts. Small departures from conventional translations show her constant effort to capture an unexpected dimension of tenderness (very different from that of the slave owner) in God’s relation to Augustine and in Augustine’s to God.

To take small examples: Ruden does not have Augustine “embrace” Jesus as if He were a proposition. He takes Him in his arms. When Augustine looks back at his first mystical awakening, he cries: Sero te amavi: “Late have I loved you!” It is a famous cry. But it is a little grand. You and I would say: “I took too long to fall in love.” And this – the less dramatic but more human turn of phrase – is what Ruden opts for. Repeated small acts of attention to the humble, human roots of Augustine’s imagery of his relations to God enable Ruden to convey a living sense of the Being before Whom we find him transfixed in prayer: “Silent, long-suffering and with so much mercy in your heart.”

So far, I’ve very much enjoyed reading Ruden’s translation, and it will sit happily alongside my copy of Chadwick’s translation of the same. The latter remains my go-to translation, but Ruden certainly helps me to notice things that I have otherwise missed while reading Chadwick and others. I can also imagine setting some of its chapters as readings for my students, precisely because of the reasons Brown names. For both of these reasons, I am grateful for Ruden’s work.

And how perfect is that cover!

Theological ‘bush camps’

20170701.jpgThere is a wonderful little documentary here on the Hermannsburg Mission and the work of the theological ‘bush camps’ organised by the Finke River Mission as part their commitment to the continuing education of pastors.

On Tolkien’s vision of sorrowful joy

Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg.jpg

Ralph Wood has written another excellent piece on J. R. R. Tolkien’s assessment of history, evil, being a company, eucatastrophe, impatience, joy, Beowulf, mercy, patience, pity, providence, sympathy, and ‘sorrowful joy’. Here’s a taster:

For Tolkien, the chief question – and thus the real quest – concerns the proper means for “redeeming the time.” The great temptation is to take short-cuts, to follow the easy way, to arrive quickly. In the antique world of Middle-earth, magic offers the surest escape from slowness and suffering. It is the equivalent of our machines. Both ancient and modern magic provide what Tolkien called immediacy: “speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect.”

The magic of haste is the method chosen by those who are in a hurry, who lack patience, who cannot wait. Sauron wins converts because he provides his followers the necromancy to achieve such instant results by coercing the wills of others, giving them brute strength to accomplish allegedly grand ends by cursory means.

The noble who refuse such haste prove, alas, to be most nobly tempted. Gandalf, the Christ-like wizard who quite literally lays down his life for his friends, knows that he is an unworthy bearer of the Ring – not because he has evil designs that he wants secretly to accomplish, but rather because his desire to do good is so great. Gandalf’s native pity, when combined with the omnipotent strength of the Ring, would transform him into an all-forgiving, justice-denying magus, not a figure befitting the origins of his wizard-name in the Anglo-Saxon word wys (“wise”).

You can read the full essay here.

[Image: ‘Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg’, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Source.]

Rethinking the Roles of Church and State in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

The ABC Religion and Ethics site has posted some of my thoughts around Australia’s same-sex marriage debate [sic] here.

Luther, Protestantism and Society

This should be fun.

Luther-flyer-full-smaller.jpg

 

The Eucharist and (unbridled) Capitalism


‘For the early Christians the ceremony of the breaking of bread – the Eucharist – was intimately connected with the sharing of bread. It was not a mere formalist ceremonial. The Eucharist signified sharing. It also brought about what it signified. The rite and the reality were intimately linked. The symbol was for real. They tried to practise what they professed. We have seen how the early Christian groups shared what they had so that there was no one in need.

For Jesus too the last supper, the first and inaugural Eucharist, was closely associated with his selfgiving. He gave bread and wine saying “this is my body”; “this is my blood”. This was not merely a symbol, rite or ceremony. He said that he was giving himself – his life – for his people. He then gave a new commandment “love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. If there is this love among you, then all will know you are my disciples…” He enjoined them to love even their enemies. For Jesus the Eucharist was a supreme act of concern for others; of sharing; of community. His own body was being broken and his blood shed. He was not merely giving bread, or a bit of property; he gave his life for the liberation of others. He was killed because he championed justice, the truth, the poor and the exploited. He took an unflinching stand against injustice, deception and the exploitation of the poor and the weak. Like the bread that he broke and gave his disciples, his body was to be broken, scourged and crucified by the powerful of the day and their agents. The Eucharist signifies this being broken for others. His sacrifice was the supreme one of offering his blood up to the last drop for his cause. He endured immense and intense suffering of mind and body to bear witness to his message that God is love, and love demands justice and truth.

If the Eucharist is lived by those who celebrate it, sharing will have to be practised by them. This is a primary requisite of the Eucharistic community or Church. Since love is to be for all, sharing must also be with all others too. The Eucharist is anti-individualistic. It is not compatible with a philosophy of selfish profit maximization for persons or private groups. The Eucharist cannot really co-exist with vast gaps of wealth and misery. This would be a mockery of Jesus and his life message.

The Eucharist does not indicate a mode of production or a form of social organization. But it does demand effective sharing in freedom. In this sense the Eucharist relates better to an effectively socialistic society. No one should be in need. All things should be for the needs of all. Self sacrifice must be prior to selfishness and acquisition of things for oneself. Since the Eucharist demands that we live for others, how much more does it not demand that we should work for them. If our life has to be given for others in truth, love and justice, how much more does it not demand that property be for all. Thus the Eucharist emphasizes basic values which are closely related to the ideals and priorities of a socialistic way of life.

The Eucharist and the profit maximization of Capitalism are incompatible. The Eucharist cannot be meaningfully celebrated by persons who spend lavishly on themselves – as in the first class hotels, while others live off the dust bins close by. At least the Eucharist should impel them to strive hard to change such a situation. Otherwise their lives would be like that of the Pharisees and scribes whom Jesus condemned categorically’.

– Tissa Balasuriya, Eucharist and Human Liberation (Colombo: The Centre for Society and Religion, 1977), 50–51.

A Statement from Christian Ethicists Without Borders on White Supremacy and Racism

 

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I am one of a growing list of signatories of the statement below. If you are a Christian ethicist, I urge you to follow the links at the bottom of the page and to add your name also.

 

A Statement from Christian Ethicists Without Borders on White Supremacy and Racism

 

August 14, 2017

As followers of Jesus Christ and as Christian ethicists representing a range of denominations and schools of thought, we stand in resolute agreement in firmly condemning racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and neo-Nazi ideology as a sin against God that divides the human family created in God’s image.

In January of 2017, white nationalist groups emboldened by the 2016 election planned an armed march against the Jews of Whitefish, Montana. On August 11th and 12th, hundreds of armed neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. As we mourn the deaths of 32-year old counter-protester Heather Heyer and state troopers H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates from this most recent incident, we unequivocally denounce racist speech and actions against people of any race, religion, or national origin.

White supremacy and racism deny the dignity of each human being revealed through the Incarnation. The evil of white supremacy and racism must be brought face-to-face before the figure of Jesus Christ, who cannot be confined to any one culture or nationality. Through faith we proclaim that God the Creator is the origin of all human persons. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

The greatest commandments, as Jesus taught and exemplified, are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves; and so as children of God, and sisters and brothers to all, we hold the following:

  • We reject racism and anti-Semitism, which are radical evils that Christianity must actively resist.
  • We reject the sinful white supremacy at the heart of the “Alt Right” movement as Christian heresy.
  • We reject the idolatrous notion of a national god. God cannot be reduced to “America’s god.”
  • We reject the “America First” doctrine, which is a pernicious and idolatrous error. It foolishly asks Americans to replace the worship of God with the worship of the nation, poisons both our religious traditions and virtuous American patriotism, and isolates this country from the community of nations. Such nationalism erodes our civic and religious life, and fuels xenophobic and racist attacks against immigrants and religious minorities, including our Jewish and Muslim neighbors.
  • We confess that all human beings possess God-given dignity and are members of one human family, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or country of origin.
  • We proclaim that the gospel of Jesus Christ has social and political implications. Those who claim salvation in Jesus Christ, therefore, must publicly name evil, actively resist it, and demonstrate a world of harmony and justice in the midst of racial, religious and indeed all forms of human diversity.

Therefore, we call upon leaders of every Christian denomination, especially pastors, to condemn white supremacy, white nationalism, and racism.

We also humbly call upon all Christians, whose baptismal waters are thicker than blood, to resist this evil by committing themselves to:

  • Contemplate and respect the image of God imprinted on each human being.
  • Work across religious traditions to reflect on the ways we have been complicit in upholding and benefiting from the sins of racism and white supremacy.
  • Pray for the strength and courage to stand emphatically against racism, white supremacy, and nationalism in all its forms.
  • Participate in acts of peaceful protest, including rallies, marches, and at times, even civil disobedience. Do not remain passive bystanders in the face of the heresies of racism, white supremacy, and white nationalism.
  • Engage in political action to oppose structural racism.

We will bring the best of our traditions to an ecclesial and societal examination of conscience where rhetoric and acts of hatred against particular groups can be publicly named as grave sins and injustices.

Finally, as ethicists, we commit—through our teaching, writing, and service—to the ongoing, hard work of building bridges and restoring wholeness where racist and xenophobic ideologies have brought brokenness and pain.

(If you are a Christian ethicist or teach Christian ethics and wish to add your name, please email Tobias Winright at tobias.winright@slu.edu or Matthew Tapie at matthew.tapie@saintleo.edu or Anna Floerke Scheid at scheida@duq.edu or MT Dávila at mtdavila@ants.edu with your name, highest degree, title, and institution. Institutions are named for identification purposes only and this does not necessarily represent their support of this statement, although we hope they do, too.)

For a full updated list of signatories, please click here.

[Image: Nic Muller]

on white christendom

White Jesus.jpg‘White Christendom in America survives pathetically.

The traditions and ethics of the inherited, white denominations – as their adherents sense privately, and everyone else acknowledges openly – are moribund, nostalgic for a legendary past, extravagantly irrelevant to virtually anything to which one might attempt to relate them. White Christendom’s institutions are truly secular, that is, utterly preoccupied with their own survival, and hence dissipated in anxiety. Their human constituency is being visibly depleted by dropouts, deaths, and other departures. The people of these churches have been stunned by the renunciation voiced by their own offspring, bewildered by the long overdue rejection of their paternalism by the blacks, and so traumatized by their guilt that their conscience has been both perverted and paralyzed. They have feted a doctrine of achievement in work and in charity that is bereft of biblical authority and that now turns out not even to have the illusion of efficacy. After seeking a justification that proved futile, they grow frantic and afraid, increasingly tempted to an anger that only a false righteousness can spawn.

The condition of white Christendom is pathological; it is, I suggest, the state designated in the Bible as “hardness of heart.”

The reason for this bitter ailment is that the white churches in America have long doubted the very existence, much less the vitality, of the Holy Spirit. In these denominations, on the whole, it has never been seriously granted that God has freedom and discretion in being present and active in this world; it has never been conceded that God is not dependent upon human beings and, specifically, upon the white, American bourgeois. It has been presumed instead that God needs these churches, that God’s integrity requires their effort, that God’s existence in history is verified by their prosperity, popularity, and power. Today, with the legitimacy of their wealth under challenge, their reputation the butt of ridicule, and their power ineffectual, it becomes clear that their god is indeed dead and, even more threatening, that their god is not and never was God’.

Mr Stringfellow
St James’ Day, 1969
Block Island, Rhode Island

A Christian theology of marriage

I. Foundation. “For … all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1.16). Jesus Christ is the one Word of God in, by and for whom humanity is constituted. He alone reveals God’s will for human life and flourishing. Consequently, marriage ought primarily to be understood christologically. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to ground its doctrine and ethics in sources apart from and besides this one Word of God. Such efforts threaten to turn an institution or relationship into an idol, an anti-Christ.

II. Eschatology. “ ‘… and the two will become one flesh’. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5.31–32). Like every gift from God, marriage is good and fitting – not only for individual persons and families, but also for the flourishing of human society. But its goodness is closely associated with its provisionality – with its being bound to the creation which is passing away (eg. Luke 18.29; Matthew 19.12; 22.30) – and with it, as with celibacy, bearing prophetic witness to the coming new creation. Its ultimate meaning is eschatological and so it is called to be characterised by the transforming of old markers and the reconstituting of human relationality in the light of God’s coming. The Church therefore rejects efforts to explain the mystery of marriage solely in terms of the old creation. Furthermore, because Holy Scripture speaks of marriage in terms of Christ’s relation to the Church unbound by gender, we reject the claim that marriage’s signalling of Christ’s relationship with his bride must be gender specific.

III. Discipleship. “Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9.23). Jesus Christ calls and the Holy Spirit empowers persons to leave behind all that has the appearance of certainty, and to become his disciples. This call precedes and exists uncompetitively with all other claims that may be made. God’s provision (marriage is a “gift” rather than a “right”) of marriage during this time-between-the-times is a particular vocation given to some so that they might be trained in the way of discipleship; learn how to recognise the otherness of the other (i.e., as a being not under their power); be taught love of neighbour; celebrate the mystery of friendship; be schooled in embodied witness, repentance and virtue; practice the meaning of sacrifice, the risk of hospitality and the formation of community and be ready to accept the challenges of new life which love creates – the disciplines of denial and restraint that liberate human persons for sanctification. The Church therefore rejects as false all efforts to understand marriage (and all other human relationships) independently of the call to discipleship.

IV. Desire. “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22.19). Marriage occasions a social context to commit oneself to being where one’s body is, to make one’s body available for the other – “for better, for worse … for as long as you live” (Book of Common Order) – and for desire to mean more than meeting emotional and physical needs. While it is beyond the creature’s power to make sex spiritually or sacramentally significant (indeed, all such attempts are idolatrous), it is entirely commensurate with God’s character to do so; ie. to make good on the promise that human beings are more than material. “The moral question, at this point, ought to be how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects,” says Rowan Williams. The Church therefore rejects as illegitimate all expressions of desire for other persons unbridled and undirected by commitment to the relationship in which the blessing of the other is not a foremost concern.

V. Election and covenant. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” (Hosea 11.8). Marriage serves as an analogue to, and a reflection of the electing love of God (however imperfect). Marriage exists because God loves Israel, in whom God also makes space for gentiles. This is God’s counter word to the fear many couples experience; namely, the threat to the security of their own marriages from the “other”. The Word of God brings persons into covenant communion with God and with each other, the character of which is holy, loving, and unbreakable. The Church therefore rejects all theological justification for divorce. That said, lest we turn God’s gracious provision into an ideology, the Church equally rejects all notions of indissolubility which smuggle in a metaphysic whereby divorce and remarriage are made authentic impossibilities. “Indeed, if one purpose of marriage is to serve as a sign of God’s love in the world … how can we reject the possibility that a second marriage after a divorce could serve as a sign of grace and redemption from the sin and brokenness of the past?” (Richard Hays).

VI. Responsible freedom. “You were called to freedom; do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5.13). Marriage is an expression of the freedom granted to God’s human creatures and to the societies they form. So, “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgement to give their consent” (The Westminster Confession of Faith). Marriage, in other words, is created not by a ceremony per se but by an act of responsible freedom. Where possible, a public ceremony – wherein the “I do” confessed by the couple and heard by a public serves as both creative and performative utterance – might also represent such an act and so ought to be the norm. Still, “there are many marriages, true though incomplete, which the Church has never blessed or the State ratified” (James K. Baxter). If a couple “cannot or will not have one another in this freedom, it is far better for them not to want to have one another at all” (Karl Barth). The Church therefore rejects all pre-determined images (whether understood in terms of roles, or contractual obligations, or any other matters decided in advance) of what any particular marriage might look like as being fundamentally at odds with the loving promise of covenant freedom in God. “Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing, this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being” (Micheal O’Siadhail).

A little piece on voluntary assisted dying in The Conversation

 

The Conversation.pngRobyn Whitaker and I teamed up to offer a few thoughts for The Conversation on voluntary assisted dying ‘Voluntary assisted dying is not a black-and-white issue for Christians’.

My longer essay on the subject – ‘Euthanasia: Some theological considerations for living responsibly’ – can be accessed via this link. I am grateful that SAGE have granted free public access to the article until the end of October.

PUBLIC LECTURE: ‘Priorities for a public theology in a time of extremisms: Fresh insights from Bonhoeffer’

Postage Stamp Germany 1995 Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Whitley Theological College and the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy are very pleased to be hosting a free public lecture by the leading Bonhoeffer scholar the Revd Dr Keith Clements.

The lecture is titled ‘Priorities for a public theology in a time of extremisms: Fresh insights from Bonhoeffer’.

  • When: Thursday, 10 August, 2017. 6:00pm–8:00pm.
  • Where: Whitley College Theological School, 50 The Avenue, Parkville, Melbourne.
  • Cost: Free, but registration via TryBooking would be appreciated.

The Revd Dr Gordon Preece, Director of RASP, will offer a response to the lecture.

This will be the second public lecture on Bonhoeffer that Whitley has hosted this year. The first was Dr Andrew Root’s lecture on ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker’.

Euthanasia: Some theological considerations for living responsibly

Die Klage der heiligen Zeder

A recent issue of Pacifica includes my article on euthanasia. It can be accessed via this link. Apparently, SAGE have granted free access to the article until the end of October.

[Image: Anselm Kiefer, ‘Die Klage der heiligen Zeder’, 1981]

‘The Last Day’

jurek d. - Horizon

When the last day comes
A ploughman in Europe will look over his shoulder
And see the hard furrows of earth
Finally behind him, he will watch his shadow
Run back into his spine.

It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day

Our stories will be rewritten
Each from the end,
And each will end the same;
You will hear the fields and rivers clap
And under the trees

Old bones
Will cover themselves with flesh;
Spears, bullets, will pluck themselves
From wounds already healed,
Women will clasp their sons as men

And men will look
Into their palms and find them empty;
There will be time
For us to say the right things at last,
To look into our enemy’s face

And see ourselves,
Forgiven now, before the books flower in flames,
The mirrors return our faces,
And everything is stripped from us,
Even our names.

– Kevin Hart, 2015 [Image: jurek d.]

Responding to the Anthropocene

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When Footscray had a beach, and the Maribyrnong River flowed through ‘grassy country’

George Gilbert, Maribyrnong River (c. 1850)

George Gilbert, ‘Maribyrnong River’ (c. 1850)

It’s a cold day here in Melbourne, perfect weather for catching up on a bit of reading. So I’ve been reading a few little books on local history, particularly on the Wurundjeri and the Yalukit-willam people. At the moment, I’m particularly enjoying Isabel Ellender and Peter Christiansen’s beautifully-produced book People of the Merri Merri: The Wurundjeri in Colonial Days. And a cup of tea or so ago, I was struck by these words by Gary Presland from his little booklet The First Residents of Melbourne’s Western Region. I imagine that this was partly because I grew up on the Maribyrnong River, and still travel along its banks on most days:

When Europeans first settled in the Port Phillip district, they saw a landscape which looked vastly different to that we see today. But that landscape itself was a result of long processes of change, some of which had been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. There is some evidence to show that people were living in the Maribyrnong River [sic] valley, near present-day Keilor, about 40,000 years ago. Since that time there have been enormous changes to the landscape – all of which Koories [sic] must have witnessed and lived through.

Many of the most spectacular and significant changes to the countryside have been to the Maribyrnong-Yarra River system.

Ten thousand years ago the valley of the Yarra River was more than thirty-five metres deeper than it is today and the river flowed at the bottom of a deep canyon. At that time the world’s sea level was considerably lower because a great deal of water was locked up in the ice sheets covering Europe. So there was no water in Port Phillip Bay, and instead of flowing through the flat land in West Melbourne the Yarra turned to the south and flowed down the eastern side of a large grassy plain. At this time the Maribyrnong River flowed more directly to the south east and joined up with the Yarra near what is now Williamstown.

In the long period that Koories have lived in the Melbourne area, the Maribyrnong and Yarra River system has deposited a great deal of mud and silt in the river valleys, and as a result the ground level has been raised by hundreds of metres.

From about 10,000 years ago, the sea started to rise, as the Ice Age came to an end. As the ice sheets in the northern hemisphere melted, the water flowed back into the sea and the level slowly rose. By about 8,500 years ago Bass Strait was flooded, and the gradually-rising sea had reached Port Phillip Heads and began to fill the area of Port Phillip. The sea continued to rise until about 7,000 years ago, by which time the level of water in the Bay was much higher than it is today. The top of the Bay then stretched as far north as Flemington and water covered the area of Flemington Racecourse and many of the inner city areas such as the lower parts of West Melbourne, Port and South Melbourne, and St Kilda. At this time Footscray was a beach-side area and the Maribyrnong River was affected by tides as far north as Braybrook.

When the sea level stabilized at its present height, about 5,000 years ago, the waters of the Bay retreated a little. During the previous 2,000 years a new land surface had been built up by the accumulation of silt in the bay water. The ground surface in the flat area where Victoria, Swanston and Appleton Docks were later constructed, and through which Footscray Road and Dynon Road now run, is a result of this build-up of silt. [ed. – You can read more about that here.]

When Europeans first arrived, they were attracted by the sweeping grasslands to the west of the Maribyrnong River. The wide volcanic plain, the edge of which is now covered by the western suburbs, presented rich pastures for the colonists’ sheep. There was a thick covering of native grasses, with a few trees growing along the major water courses, such as Kororoit Creek.

Those ‘sweeping grasslands’ were elsewhere described thus by George Robinson when he visited the Port Phillip settlement in December 1836:

Saw nothing but grassy country, open forest, plenty gum and wild cherry. Saw where the natives had encamped, plenty of trees notched where they had climbed for opossums …. There are herds of forest kangaroo immensely large, a short distance from the settlement, also flocks of emus on the western plains fifty and sixty in a drove …. The country through which I travelled to the Salt Water (Maribyrnong) River had a park-like appearance, kangaroo grass being the principal, the trees she-oak, wattle, honeysuckle. Saw a blue flower, thorny appearance. Numerous old native huts.

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Maribyrnong River, Sunrise. 15 July 2017.

Free article on George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown 5.jpgSome readers of this blog may be interested to read my recent essay on the work of the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. The essay, which was published in Pacifica, is currently available to be downloaded freely, and can be accessed here, or via pdf here.

I had much pleasure writing this article, but reader beware when I suggest that its reading will be significantly enhanced if accompanied by a wee dram or two of Highland Park. Trust me.

‘Holiness in Victorian and Edwardian England’

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I was honoured to have been invited to contribute a little piece for a Festschrift being prepared for Professor Yolanda Dreyer, of the University of Pretoria. Papers for the Festschrift are being published in the online journal HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies.

My paper is titled ‘Holiness in Victorian and Edwardian England: Some Ecclesial Patterns and Theological Requisitions’. Its Abstract reads:

This essay begins by offering some observations about how holiness was comprehended and expressed in Victorian and Edwardian England. In addition to the ‘sensibility’ and ‘sentiment’ that characterised society, notions of holiness were shaped by, and developed in reaction to, dominant philosophical movements; notably, the Enlightenment and Romanticism. It then considers how these notions found varying religious expression in four Protestant traditions – the Oxford Movement, Calvinism, Wesleyanism, and the early Keswick movement. In juxtaposition to what was most often considered to be a negative expression of holiness associated primarily with anthropocentric and anthroposocial behaviour as evidenced in these traditions, the essay concludes by examining one – namely, P. T. Forsyth – whose voice called from within the ecclesial community for a radical requisition of holiness language as a fundamentally positive reality describing the divine life and divine activity. The relevance of a study of the Church’s understanding of holiness and how it sought to develop its doctrine while engaging with larger social and philosophical shifts endures with us still.

The paper can be accessed here.

When is political power legitimate?

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John Bale, ‘Revelation Chapter 13’, 1545

‘When is political authority legitimate? When does the state have a status and function that may be considered “ordained by God”? When are those who rule – emperors or presidents, parliaments or police – due honor, not out of fear, because they wield the sword and command the means to intimidate, dominate and coerce human beings, but as a matter of conscience?

These have not been abstract issues in the American context. The founding premises of the nation define legitimacy in government, both with respect to a rule considered so obnoxious to human life in society that it was to be resisted and overthrown (the Declaration of Independence), and, thereafter, with respect to the limitations upon political authority and the institutionalization of public accountability (the Constitution). Between the Declaration and the Constitution, political legitimacy concerns how political power is established and how such power is used. Incumbency in itself is not enough to validate any exercise of political authority.

Nor is the matter abstract nowadays. In the past decade the opposition, notably that of Christians, to the war and to the war enterprise in Southeast Asia has upheld the position that the illegal and unconstitutional conduct of the war renders incumbent political authority illegitimate. It is this very point that occasioned the witness of the Berrigan brothers in becoming fugitives at a time when they had been ordered to submit to imprisonment. To have surrendered to illegitimate authority voluntarily would have seemed to condone it. For the Berrigans, there could be no obedience to criminal power.

At a time when the President is reported to be frustrated and angry that his rule lacks credibility and that he does not receive automatic homage, it is edifying to recall that many who have all along opposed him and his regime – and also the Government of Lyndon Johnson – have not done so as weirdos, cowards, far-out radicals or malcontents. In truth, they have upheld the classic American view of political legitimacy. The very citizens President Nixon has been so desirous to watch and spy upon, defame and persecute, humiliate and ostracize, prosecute and punish have been those who have acted to redeem legitimacy in government so that political authority could be conscientiously honored (again) in this nation.

And, more than that, such persons have acted within the traditional doctrine of Romans 13. John Calvin’s comment could hardly be more emphatic or more immediately relevant to both the war and Watergate as manifestations of political illegitimacy:

Understand further, that powers are from God … because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. For though tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the well-being of mankind. As it is lawful to repel wars and to seek remedies for other evils, hence the Apostle [Paul] commands us willingly and cheerfully to respect and honor the right and authority of magistrates, as useful to men …

If that be the truth, for citizens who are biblical people, the way to expose illegitimate authority is to oppose the incumbent regime. In that case President Nixon may not invoke Romans 13 to indulge vanity, induce tribute, evade guilt or compound deceit; rather, he is consigned to suffer Romans 13 as a stunning and awesome rebuke – and as a fearful and timely warning’.

– Mr Stringfellow