Luther, Protestantism and Society

This should be fun.

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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’

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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

‘Elegy from a Seaside Graveyard’, by John Stokes

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From ‘The Eden Set – coming on the coast suddenly’

… and this stone-picture’s Wayne, the Suicide
doing it his way: longest finger
cocked up from the earth
into the sealight fading.

Here the surfer, boy of the sea
still suckled by his mother feeling
his salt mouth, his sighing
over the tablet gravestone of the waves.

Here the incongruous Calvinist whalers
moaning with their predestinations:
born in sin, living to lament
relieving themselves in death

and here the mother lover, with her child
still moving, on top and hung
in the harness, the smash cut
gently into the mind at twilight

and Brad, who knew Sherryl
in the fullest biblical sense
and Nathanial, who knew the kill
and the smell and ways of the mulloway.

These deaths are so Australian
and yet the same. They are sung
in the tongue of the water, the hiss
of the sand-grains rubbing

one with another, and another
and another, under bellbirds
sounding their death knells
into the sealight fading.

So leave the dead ones to it
– they are, after all, forever –
love them, leave them, go
pausing once, at some corner

(you will know when)
so the car-hoon
when he misses you by a nail
gives you the finger!

Resurrect your breath.

Drive on.

– published in Meanjin 66–67, no. 4–1 (2008), 22–23.

‘Habits as Signs: Some Reflections on the Ethical Shape of Christian Community’

The latest issue of the International Journal of Practical Theology includes a little essay I wrote titled ‘Habits as Signs: Some Reflections on the Ethical Shape of Christian Community’.

[Image: ‘Irregularities of Discernment’, by theflickerees. Source]

On religion (and theological education) in Australia

Australian religion

Another little thought provoker from an old edition of Meanjin, this time from around 40 years ago (although most of it could have been written last week, or next week):

Unlike those in Britain, Europe or America, our universities have never taken the study of religious thought seriously (Melbourne in fact explicitly excluded Divinity in 1890), and there are no great theological colleges in Australia; until recently the churches imported rather than bred their theologians. The Anglicans and the Romans in particular have had a fractured system of small-time colleges, each with its own emphasis, which are only now being rationalised; all theological colleges are heavily oriented towards the vocational training of clergy, rather than the intellectual critique of the church’s language about God. The last few years have seen the beginnings of substantial theological scholarship and discussion, but each publication is overwhelmingly a contribution to a debate centred in Europe. It may be objected that Australian religion is vastly wider than what goes on in theological colleges, and so it is. But I submit that the failure so far to spawn a tradition of self-sustaining theological scholarship and debate tells us something significant about Australian religion.

There is a second point here as well. Religion in Australia has been, and to a large extent is still, very derivative. The Irish consciousness of the Catholics needs no elaboration, and has caused considerable difficulties to continental Catholics who have come here in the past 30 years; the Anglicans are still in the process of dropping the name ‘Church of England’; Scottish accents have always commanded especial respect in Presbyterian Assemblies. More recently, the ‘evangelical’ Protestants have turned to America to import business models and techniques.

From the early days of the colony, there were groups – the emancipists, the larrikins, the battlers – who thought of themselves as Australians and scorned the ‘new chums’. But these were precisely the groups who were little affected by religion, whether in the formal guise of the churches or through the missions of the evangelists. This striking disjunction is marvellously illustrated by the uncultivated youth in a magistrate’s court about 1840 who, when asked his religion, replied ‘I am a Native’. The foreignness of the Australian Churches, whatever their denominational allegiance, was indeed foreshadowed in the First Fleet; the Church arrived here ‘on the wrong side’, in the presence of an officially-appointed chaplain.

Nationalistic self-identity had, therefore, little effect on religious consciousness: Australia has not even produced its own analogues of the off-beat American sects. All the ‘way-out’ religious groups appearing here with significant impact have been imported. And, of course, in this very paper I have had to take ‘Australian religion’ with the implicit gloss ‘white’: the mythological structure of the Aboriginal ‘dreaming’ has contributed nothing to white religious thought here, however much it has intrigued anthropologists. There has been remarkably little indigenisation.

The picture I am painting may change. In the last year or so one can detect what might prove to be the first stirrings of a genuinely contextual articulation of an Australian religious outlook. (It will be interesting to see whether the new Uniting Church of Australia inaugurated in July can rise to the challenge.) More characteristic has been the short life of Charles Strong’s Australian Church, with its simple Unitarianism, which never really got off the ground.

For the moment, the essentially derivative nature of Australian religion remains more striking. The way post-war migrants have brought their own churches with them, be they Gereformeerdekerk or Serbian Orthodox, has only accentuated this fact. And if we add to that the manner in which the population from the beginning, even if mainly falling under the general classification ‘British’, owned different national and ecclesiastical allegiances with none predominant, then it follows that the Australian church scene is characteristically sectarian ….

The sectarianism of Australian religious life has, of course, had an enormous influence on social and political affairs. The centralised and bureaucratic shape of our education systems was the direct outcome of bitter religious rivalry and distrust last century; State aid for church schools remained the principal issue of religious-political interaction until the Whitlam government established the Schools Commission to defuse the issue.

More generally, the role of the churches in Australian political life has been to reinforce our pervasive conservatism. This role has been accomplished in two ways: precisely by emphasising their derivativeness, the churches have provided symbols of famililiar security in a strange, unsettling environment, and by underpinning a vague liberal-humanism the churches have provided a stable value-system within which personal and political questions can be discussed without serious clash between church and state …. Yet while Christianity has served this conservative role in these ways, it has made no clear doctrinal contribution to the sense of national identity of the kind we noted in America. Insofar as that identity has been articulated in terms of the Anzac tradition, its religious motifs are more reminiscent of a Mithraic blood sacrifice of immortal youth than of the Cross ….

This brings me to the next point: there are regional differences which talk about Australian religion should not obscure. South Australia … has a different denominational mix from the national average; Methodists, Congregationalists and Lutherans have been more numerous there. But denominations aside, there is a striking difference between Sydney and Melbourne right across the religious board. Let me remind you of some facts. It was in Melbourne that the Catholic National Civic Council had its base and Santamaria’s groupers were most influential. It is in Melbourne that the predominantly Anglican Brotherhood of St. Laurence operates. It was in N. S. W. that the Presbyterian Church split right down the middle over church Union. Melbourne Baptists tend to look to English Baptists for guidance [ed. – If anyone knows of such a gang, then do please introduce me]; Sydney Baptists to American Southern Baptists. Melbourne has its College of Divinity in which Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Anglicans and Jesuits now work closely together …. Religious life in Melbourne has always been more urbane, more ecumenical, more catholic in its social vision, more Tory in its conservatism, whereas Sydney has been more assertive, more sectarian-fundamentalist …, a tendency which becomes stronger the further north one goes ….

Insofar as Australian religion is derivative from Europe, it has inherited the theological problematic of Western Christianity. But our situation here is different; the very fact of migration has altered what comes as historically given. The problem of how to overcome nihilism, I want to suggest, likewise requires a different response here …. [We Australians] know ourselves to be thrown into a world in which we are not at home. (Indeed many generations of Australians referred to Britain as ‘home’, and we still cringe around the southern and eastern seaboard.) Hence also the conservative, derivative character of church life; caught up as Australians are in the rapidity of modern social change, before any deep cultural traditions could have become established, the churches can provide rare havens of familiar security. Seen in this perspective, it is no longer surprising that the churches which are, by secular measures, most ‘successful’, are precisely those which appear aggressively old-fashioned, and offer simple assurance.

Further, the tranquillised self-assurance which [Martin] Heidegger takes to characterise inauthentic Being-at-home is highly manifest in contemporary Australia. Unlike people in other countries, we know in our hearts that the rhetoric of public life is largely phoney, even as we continue to invoke it. Our overwhelmingly suburban life-style, it seems to me, has to be explained in terms of an obsession to gather material possessions into the supposed security of one’s own home as a compensating reaction to our corporate lack of natural community. Heidegger could be describing Patrick White’s Sarsaparilla ….

The relevance of all this for our character-sketch is that our cultural heritage is not rooted here. Our form of estrangement is not the European one of a culture which has collapsed in on itself to find nullity at the heart of its being. But neither are we at home; in their different ways, the banality and crudity of our everyday Ocker, the strident assertiveness of our churchly behaviour, the haunting elusiveness of the quest for wholeness which pervades our best literature, all testify to this ….

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves more deeply why it is that the Outback still figures so forcefully in our imagery, even though we flee from its untameable emptiness into the seeming security of suburbia. Our consciousness is shot through with that sort of ambiguity: ambiguity about authority, which is reviled and yet conformed to; ambiguity about the land, which is shamelessly exploited and yet cannot be domesticated; ambiguity about ourselves, as a people oriented towards the future yet clinging obsessively to old, familiar forms of thought and social action.

My suggestion, made with great tentativeness and temerity, is that we stand out into emptiness. There is none of Heidegger’s typically European rootedness (Bodenständigkeit) here, and that, I submit, is what unifies the traits of Australian religion I have noted into a single character.

But emptiness is not nothing; it is the uncanny limit of our self-assertion, a beyond, an ‘outback’ which indwells our existence, curbing any pretensions to absolute knowledge or authority. This deep, inarticulate sense of a limit is the correlative of the recognition of the contingency of our being-in-the-world. Practically, it means that we are driven back into our situation, to grapple with the recalcitrant nature of what is given – our so-called materialism and pragmatism. Theologically, it means that the absence of God is not nothing; it is the particular mode of his presence. At one level, the conservative-assertive style of the churches can be explained as a curious refraction of that theological situation within a derivative culture. At a deeper level, a more positive articulation of how we know ourselves to be contingent beings ‘thrown’ into a reality which transcends us and defies our efforts at domestication, might yet provide a basis for an authentic religious consciousness in this country.

– Richard Campbell

Don Watson on the evangelists, and the God, we need

Preacher.jpg

I’ve been slowly making my way through some old editions of Meanjin. A thoroughly enjoyable experience. Came across this lovely essay by Don Watson. It concludes with these good words:

‘We need a revival. We need more evangelists on the road. I mean real evangelists and a real God: not those unctuous neophytes and sanctimonious suburban lay preachers with their nice God. We need fiery preachers with a fiery God. Man and God in hot competition. Only then can we be assured that one day something funny will happen to those honey-tongued hypocrites in the United States athletics team. It will be very unpleasant for them you can be sure. And the irony will be — the really funny part — they won’t know what hit them’.

– Don Watson, ‘The Joke After God’. Meanjin 46, no. 2 (1986), 235.

[Image: Source]

On empty talk about faith

‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.

– Dag Hammarskjöld

‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’

The latest issue of Mission Studies is now available online, and includes a little article I wrote on ‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’. The Abstract reads:

This essay attends to the relationship between our ethnic, social, and cultural identities, and the creation of the new communal identity embodied in the Christian community. Drawing upon six New Testament texts – Ephesians 2:11–22; Galatians 3:27–28; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 and 10:17; 1 Peter 2:9–11; and Revelation 21:24–26 – it is argued that the creation of a new and prime identity in Christ does not abrogate other creaturely identities, even as it calls for the removal of such as boundary markers. Catholicity, in other words, is intrinsically related to the most radical particularity, and demands an ongoing work of discernment and of judgement vis-à-vis the gospel itself. Those baptized into Christ are now to live in the reality of Christ who is both the boundary and center of their existence, a boundary which includes all humanity in its cultural, ethnic, gendered, social and historical particularities.

[Image: Jean Marais, ‘Le Passe-Muraille’, Montmartre (1989). Source.]