Paul Fiddes on being Baptist

This past week, Whitley College has played host to Professor Paul Fiddes who has been our guest speaker at the annual School of Ministry. He has been speaking on the theme of Baptist identity. It really has been a rich time in so many ways. For those who were unable to be there, or who might like a little summary of what it was all about, here is a precis of the various addresses:

Songs that stink

Paddling By the ShoreIt has been my privilege over recent days to have prepared the liturgies for the various worship services held this week at Whitley College’s School of Ministry. I included two songs from Kim Fabricius’s collection of hymns published in Paddling by the Shore. People seemed to really appreciate these songs, a testimony I am pleased to hear. My own enthusiasm for Kim’s book is noted on its back cover:

The songs gathered here stink. They stink of theology cultivated by the best of the Catholic tradition and sensitive to the hazards of congregational worship. They stink of the holy wit of an indecorous soul set loose. And, most wonderfully, they stink of divinity unashamedly immersed in the blunt realities of being human in the world and delighting in life familiar with, but unconstrained by, death. They also should be sung, loudly and lots.

A number of folk asked me for a copy of the words for the two songs we sang from this collection. So, for them and for any others that may be interested, here they are:

‘Out of nothing God created’. Tune: Blaenwern – 87 87

Out of nothing God created
all the somethings that exist;
from a Bang the world inflated,
light-years later earth he kissed.
Starting with the smallest microbe,
moving from the sea to land,
life evolved around the new globe,
gently pushed by God’s good hand.

‘Go!’ said God, and animated,
species spread by law and chance;
Spirit fashioned and related
each to all in sacred dance.
All that breathes is love’s location,
not just humans in their pride;
by selection and mutation,
ask the beasts how God can guide.

Now creation groans and shudders,
plundered, poisoned, colonized
by a beastly little brother,
self-styled as the one who’s wise.
Will the sparrows finally perish,
though God clothes them and protects?
Time is short, so let us cherish
all that God will resurrect.

‘Migrant Jesus, at the border’. Words modified. Tune: Servant Song/Brother Sister Let Me Serve You.

Migrant Jesus, at the border,
refugee of fear and hate,
you’re a threat to law and order,
nightmare of the nation-state.

Child of Israel, fleeing soldiers,
from the Jordan to the Nile,
were your parents passport-holders,
were you welcomed with a smile?

Home from Egypt, Spirit-breathing,
in the towns of Galilee,
how you had the people seething
when you preached the Jubilee.

At the margins, far from center,
where you met the ostracized,
even friends weren’t keen to enter
conversations that you prized.

Ease our fears, forgive our hatred
of the other and the odd;
help us see the single-sacred:
face of stranger – face of God.

Migrant Jesus, at the border –
Manus Island or Nauru –
Greetings, sister! Welcome, brother!
Make this place your promised land.

How democracy produced a monster

‘[He] came to power in a democracy with a highly liberal constitution, and in part by using democratic freedoms to undermine and then destroy democracy itself …

[His party’s] surge in popular support … reflected the anger, frustration and resentment – but also hope – that [he] was able to tap among millions of [his countrymen]. Democracy had failed them, they felt. Their country was divided, impoverished and humiliated. Scapegoats were needed …

Mercifully, what happened [then] … will remain a uniquely [sic] terrible episode in history. What took place then reminds us even so of the illusory assumption that democracy will always be a favored choice of a population torn apart by war, facing enormous privations and burning with resentment at national humiliation through perceived foreign interference. It also reminds us of the need for international cooperation to restrain potential “mad dogs” in world politics before they are dangerous enough to bite’.

– Ian Kershaw, How democracy produced a monster (3 February, 2008)

Lear on Brexit

Harding - Study for John Bell as King Lear

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.

– King Lear (with thanks to André)

[Image: Nicholas Harding, ‘Study for John Bell as King Lear’, 1998–2001]

 

Steve Biddulph on why Eddie McGuire should resign

Eddie McGuire

Meanwhile, over here in the colonies, there’s a much-welcome statement from Australian-based psychologist Steve Biddulph on why Eddie McGuire should resign:

In case you are in any doubt, I think he should resign too.

The pattern is important to understand if we are to end violence against women.

Caroline Wilson is a serious journalist, she made valid and important – but always reasoned – criticisms of Eddie McGuire’s performance as a manager of Collingwood. That’s her job.

A grown up would have two options – to address her arguments and make a case why she was wrong. Or to concede that she was right.

But instead of engaging as an equal and an adult, Mr McGuire seethed, and in a setting where he felt safe, among mates, and in the hearing of several million people, they joked about – essentially – killing her.

When shamed men can’t deal with the anxiety they feel, they choose to resolve it by imagined, or real, violence, and rally support from other men to make that okay.

This also happened with Alan Jones and our first woman PM Julia Gillard, and the infamous “chaff bag” threats. And as we see in the daily news – from Yorkshire to Orlando, there’s always some nutter willing to carry it out.

Token apology that is forced by circumstance isn’t the same as real change. You have to say – this is a character flaw.

Even if the victim wasn’t a woman, it’s still wrong.

Adults deal with conflict or disagreement with words, respectfully, and safely. Only mature adults should be in positions with this much power …

A few commenters, mostly men, are saying “it was just a joke”. Because they are presumably fathers, I want to explain this, as it makes a difference to your parenting. If you go back to my piece at the top, I am saying I don’t believe this was “just” a joke.

There was a context. He was genuinely threatened and angry at her criticism in her articles. It was on his mind.

It came out quite inappropriately at a charity dunking. It was a slip up, sure, but it showed his underlying anger, and his inability to deal with it in an adult way.

And it showed him appealing for emotional support to his mates. It was anger and threat leaking out through humour.

And as the Age pointed out today, she wasn’t there, so it can’t be banter. Banter is when people are sharing in put downs for fun, by mutual agreement. Humour is used to mask violence every single day. Rapists and abusers often say “get over it”.

It was window into the man’s heart. And that is a huge thing.

[Source]

Is the ACL the least theologically-literate lobby group in the country?

ACLIs the Australian Christian Lobby the least theologically-literate lobby group in the country?

They may well be, for according to their latest newsletter, ‘A marriage plebiscite is … the only way that, as Christians, we can secure both the future of marriage, and our freedoms to believe and practice our faith’.

This piece of brilliant propaganda might be the least Christian statement on marriage that I’ve ever read. What an embarrassment these people are to the Good News.

They’re certainly right about one thing, however: ‘There’s more at stake this election [sic] than marriage’. But even on that subject, the institution of marriage is far too important to be left to the likes of the ACL to define it.

[Update: Within minutes of this little post going live, the Australian Christian Lobby blocked me from the ability to post comments on, or even to ‘Like’, their Facebook page. (As far as I am aware, this is a first for me.) So much for being about promoting ‘public contributions of the Christian faith reflected in the political life of the nation’.]

Theology and the Arts

In September this year, Richard Kidd, Anne Mallaby, and myself will be teaching an intensive unit on theology and the arts. Some basic details here:

Theology and the Arts flyer - 2

Let Speeches Fall Silent

Adam Tice’s response to the recent shootings in Orlando was to pen some wonderful text for a new hymn:

Let speeches fall silent and platitudes cease
from hawkers of violence they brand as “peace.”
Let people who suffer find places to speak,
and holders of power give way to the weak.

Let teachers of hatred, suspicion, and fear,
and those who would kill for the views they hold dear,
be turned from their ways and disarmed of their wrath
to walk on a new, more compassionate path.

Forgive us the times we neglected to act;
forgive our excuses for courage we lacked.
God, teach us the wisdom that leads us to grace:
your image is found in our enemy’s face.

Let Speeches Fall Silent COLUMCILLELet Speeches Fall Silent FOUNDATION

Imagination, leadership, and the gift of a safe public commons

electionImagine going to an event, as I did last night, where political candidates for the upcoming federal election are asked about what kind of leader they aspire to be, about what kind of leadership might best meet the challenges that are facing our local, regional, and global communities and their moral and physical environments. Imagine imagining that you were expecting to hear names like Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Mary Robinson, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi (who today celebrates her 71st birthday), Lowitja O’Donoghue, Desmond Tutu, Dag Hammarskjold, Jonathan Sacks, Rowan Williams, Fred Hollows, Eva Burrows, Muhammad Yunus, or Noel Pearson, and instead being told by one of those political aspirants that the best models of leadership today are those championed by Ronald Regan, David Cameron, and John Key. Tea, anyone?

I’m immensely grateful that there were some other – some more sagacious – voices present, a reminder that our parliament also has some good people serving in it and that many who aspire to serve in such a way are also of outstanding ilk, even if I disagree with them on some matters that we both agree are fundamental for the healthy flourishing of life.

I’m also encouraged that the event itself was hosted by two churches who believe that part of their service to the wider community is to create safe spaces where such conversations might occur. There can be no healthy society without a rigorous and safe public commons. It is, above all, the role of the constitution, the courts, and the parliament (including its organisations such as the Human Rights Commission) and not the church to ensure the existence of such spaces. But that need not preclude religious communities also making such space available.

… in contrast to my nature

Botticelli Primavera

I read some really beautiful words today; the middle bit of Clive James’s poem ‘13: You Saw Nothing in Hiroshima’, from his latest collection Gate of Lilacs: A Verse Commentary on Proust:

Proust’s book gave me the courage to admit –
As did the culture of Japan, as did
The architecture of the Winter Palace,
The glass and plaster of the Amalienburg
And many fine and delicate things throughout
Our heritage – think of the Graces swaying
In Botticelli’s Primavera, think
Of the bronzes that a scuba diver found
Two hundred metres down in the sand floor
Of the sea at Capo Riace in our time,
Those bronzes that had spent two thousand years
Being beautiful down there – think of all that
And too much more that I have no time now
Even to name, now that my death comes close –
To admit that almost all I’ve ever loved
Exists in contrast to my nature. I,
A clumsy man, and thoughtless, with small gifts
Of subtlety or intuition, have
No natural business fondling the fine-drawn
And exquisite. Tanagra figurines,
If given to my keeping, I’d have used
For paperweights. We’re talking a born vandal,
A Goth dyed in the wool. Yet all my life
People and things I’ve loved have always shared
Unnecessary grace.

A little Friday link love

Triduum II - version 5

Haven’t done one of these posts in a while …

[Image: Alfonse Borysewicz]

‘Being, After Martin’

Heidegger at spring Gelassenheit

My remarkable partner, a physiotherapist and mad Western Bulldogs supporter (this latter fact is quite irrelevant here), recently dipped her pretty toes into the ponds of poetry. This is without doubt a much-to-be-celebrated achievement. Hell, it calls for a drink!

Her inaugural offering, see below, was inspired by a twin encounter – with a patient, and with the thought of Martin Heidegger, whose work she has been trying to decipher. The poem represents her attempt to bear witness to, and to contrast, two methods, as she refers to them – ‘that of the raw facts (the “scientific method”, as told from the physiotherapist’s perspective) and the subjective experience of the patient’. This is coupled with an effort to take up Heidegger’s invitation to read and recognise being with the other, and that that being itself is not exhausted by such action.

What’s not to love about all that!

 

Being, After Martin

Michael Jinkins on the future, or otherwise, of theological education

sailing fog‘So what the Dickens is going on? Where are theological schools headed? Do we still have options that will not undercut the quality of education we expect and need for those going into ministry?

This last question is the one that keeps me awake at night.

Dan Aleshire, executive director of ATS and the wisest analyst of theological schools in our time, in his address to participants in the annual Presidential Intensive Leadership Conference quoted something said many years ago by Dutch Leonard, a professor at Harvard Business School. Dr. Leonard famously said: “The central challenge for nonprofit leadership is that mediocrity is survivable.”

To which Dan said: “Maybe no longer is this true.”

Dan is so right about this. Mediocrity is dead, as Tom Friedman said in one of his New York Times columns a couple of years ago (in response to which I wrote an earlier blog). If you want your organization to survive, whatever it does must be excellent. Just “good enough” is no longer good enough.

That is exactly where the rub comes. A mediocre school is not long for this world. Even great schools have failed. And most of the schools that have failed were still delivering a traditionally strong education to their students.

I would hazard to guess that many, if not most, of the schools that have stumbled and fallen in the past several years didn’t fail because they lacked adequate analytics. Like most businesses that fail, they failed because they didn’t do what their analysis told them they needed to do. Some failed because they jumped on what appeared to be a bandwagon headed to success only to discover too late that the solution wasn’t the right one for them. Others have attempted to do “business as usual” in an exceptional era, and they simply ran out of operating capital. Others were unwilling for whatever reason to sacrifice their sacred cows for the sake of their mission.

The seminaries that have flourished have disciplined themselves to make tough choices based on their strategic vision. Furthermore, successful schools in the current environment do not think of adaptation as something they did, but something they do’.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Calvin for today: on living with ‘others’

Hungary

This story made news today here in Australia. It reminded me of John Calvin’s words on James 3.1:

For it is to be observed, that James does not discourage those neighbourly admonitions, which the Spirit so often and so much recommends to us, but that immoderate desire to condemn, which proceeds from ambition and pride, when any one exalts themselves against their neighbour, slanders, carps, bites, and malignantly seeks for what they may turn to a sinister purpose: for this is usually done when impertinent censors of this kind insolently boast themselves in the work of exposing the vices of others.

From this outrage and annoyance James recalls us; and he adds a reason, because they who are thus severe towards others shall undergo a heavier judgment: for that person imposes a hard law on themselves, who tries the words and deeds of others according to the rule of extreme rigour; nor do they deserve pardon, who will pardon none. This truth ought to be carefully observed, that they who are too rigid towards others, provoke against themselves the severity of God.

On the American presidency

Vote Mad (1)

Ah, 2007; the good ol’ days:

‘The current politics of popularity, and the reality show atmosphere that surrounds presidential elections, have not held the nation in good stead. We labor under the myth of our own goodness and believe that it doesn’t matter who runs the nation, since the balance of power between the branches of government, and a free activist press will protect us from our own bad choices. Recent history proves that we must pay more attention to the criteria by which individuals are selected, because twenty-first-century high stakes political strategies can neutralize even the best laid plans of the nation’s founders … The next President of the United States should be a twenty-first-century thinker and visionary, a woman or man whose sense of responsibility includes a personal and political identity that is deeply connected to the lives of others in the world. An American presidency is never confined to the political interests of the electing nation; this is an office that influences the world and accordingly requires a leadership model predicated on integrity and vision’.

– Barbara Holmes, ‘The Politics of Vision: Transforming the Presidency’, Political Theology 8, no. 4 (2007), 417, 418.

‘Memo to J.C.’

BBQ, Australia Jesus by Reg Mombassa

When you were down here JC and walked this earth,
You were a pretty decent sort of bloke,
Although you never owned nothing, but the clothes on your back,
And you were always walking round, broke.
But you could talk to people, and you didn’t have to judge,
You didn’t mind helping the down and out
But these fellows preaching now in your Holy name,
Just what are they on about?
Didn’t you tell these fellows to do other things,
Besides all that preaching and praying?
Well, listen, JC, there’s things ought to be said,
And I might as well get on with the saying.
Didn’t you tell them ‘don’t judge your fellow man’
And ‘love ye one another’
And ‘not put your faith in worldly goods’.
Well, you should see the goods that they got, brother!
They got great big buildings and works of art,
And millions of dollars in real estate,
They got no time to care about human beings,
They forgot what you told ‘em, mate;
Things like, ‘Whatever ye do to the least of my brothers,
This ye do also unto me’.
Yeah, well these people who are using your good name,
They’re abusing it, JC,
But there’s people still living the way you lived,
And still copping the hypocrisy, racism and hate,
Getting crucified by the fat cats, too,
But they don’t call us religious, mate.
Tho’ we got the same basic values that you lived by,
Sharin’ and carin’ about each other,
And the bread and the wine that you passed around,
Well, we’re still doing that, brother.
Yeah, we share our food and drink and shelter,
Our grief, our happiness, our hopes and plans,
But they don’t call us ‘Followers of Jesus’,
They call us black fellas, man.
But if you’re still offering your hand in forgiveness
To the one who’s done wrong, and is sorry,
I reckon we’ll meet up later on,
And I got no cause to worry.
Just don’t seem right somehow that all the good you did,
That people preach, not practise, what you said,
I wonder, if it all died with you, that day on the cross,
And if it just never got raised from the dead.

– Maureen Watson, ‘Memo to J.C.’, in The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse, ed. Kevin Hart (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994), 223–23.

[Image: Reg Mombassa, ‘BBQ’, from the Australian Jesus series]

On Hitler: ‘We engaged him for our ends’

Hitler‘Hitler didn’t reach the chancellorship by his own efforts, but was put there by supercilious idiots who assumed they could manage this vulgarian. “We engaged him for our ends”, said the despicable Franz von Papen. A year later, in the Night of the Long Knives, von Papen was grovelling to save his own neck’.

– Neal Ascherson, ‘Hopping in His Matchbox’, London Review of Books 38, no. 11 (2016), 23.

Innovation, Renewal, and Betrayal

Innovation

I’ve been reading Michael Welker again, this time his essay on ‘Travail and Mission: Theology Reformed According to God’s Word at the Beginning of the Third Millennium’, published in Toward the Future of Reformed Theology: Tasks, Topics, Traditions. I was struck by Welker’s use of the word ‘innovation’ to describe the reformed habit of semper reformanda, the subject I tackle in my contribution to this book. Incidentally, Michael Jinkins, in his delightful little book The Church Transforming, also likens the reformed maxim to the idea of ‘innovation’, and draws upon the work of Edwin Friedman, a rabbi and leading proponent of family systems theory, and upon Friedman’s notion of ‘adventurous leadership’ as the only effective antidote to the anxiety that grips people, organisations, and institutions today, noting the apparent insanity of the Renaissance explorers who sailed west to discover a new trade route to the east and by doing so helped medieval Europe become ‘unstuck’ from its anxiety and conformity to convention and thus ushered in the Renaissance. In some sense, Jinkins argues, Luther and Calvin and the whole Protestant movement during the sixteenth century were products of the ‘Age of Unstuckness’, the ‘Age of Adventure and Exploration’. He suggests too that ‘the thing we most need today in our church in this profoundly anxious time is a similar spirit of adventure in leadership’. But I digress …

Back to Welker. Welker suggests that while the Reformed community has made its mark on the dialogue with the social sciences and with jurisprudence throughout the twentieth century, and has been one of the most actively committed proponents of the ecumenical movement, ‘it seems that precisely Reformed theology’s delight in innovation and new departures, its interdisciplinary, cultural, and ecumenical openness, has brought it into a profound crisis at the end of the twentieth century’. This crisis, he avers, finds its nexus in the rapid, diverse and diffuse cultural and social developments that have characterised the Western industrialised nations. Welker believes that Reformed theology with its special openness for contemporary cultural developments has been particularly tested and assaulted by these developments in ways in which other theologies, perhaps those with more dogmatically- or liturgically-oriented ‘brakes’, have been less vulnerable. The theologia reformata et semper reformanda seems ‘to be at the mercy of the shifting Zeitgeist’, and the profile of Reformed theology seems to have disintegrated into ‘a plethora of attempts to engage contemporary moral, political, and scientific trends, either strengthening them or fighting them’. Exposure to continual renewal has left Reformed theology both vulnerable to losing its profile through the ‘cultural stress of innovation’, and in danger of betraying its ‘typical mentality and spiritual attitude’.

Welker’s prescription for response to this ‘travail’ is to clarify our understanding of, and attend to the address of, the word of God over against the cacophony of competing utterances, addresses and presentations. Such ‘evangelical freedom’ will mean not only joining the ancient Hebrew prophets in naming the perversion of justice, the misuse of the cult, and the refusal to practice mercy, but also drawing repeated attention to ‘the situation in which religion, law, politics, morality, rulers and ruled, natives and foreigners make common cause against God’s word and God’s presence’, and bearing witness to the creative power of the Word of God who ‘overcomes the power of sin, renews and lifts up Christian persons and communities in the church of all times and regions of the world, and radiates a beneficent influence on their environments’.

It seems to me that such freedom also invites a change of direction (metanoia) regarding the Church’s yielding to three temptations: (i) the turn inwards, or the burying of itself, in its own affairs to the almost-complete neglect of any meaningful engagement with non-churchly cultures; (ii) the engagement in a flurry of welfare activities, or what P. T. Forsyth once referred to as ‘affable bustle’, the focus and essential content of which is set by the moment’s popular interest. (The Reformed principle of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda is, of course, a call to being reformed by the Spirit and the Word rather than an invitation to an ‘endless cycle of idea and action, endless invention, [and] endless experiment’ (T. S. Eliot) for its own sake); and (iii) the uncritical alignment with the most sympathetic leaders of other faiths and programs in a profession of loyalty to ‘Truth’. This situation was acutely observed more than half a century ago by Lesslie Newbigin in his little essay ‘The Quest of Unity through Religion’.

[Image: Tabbert]

Jennifer Strauss, ‘The Anabaptist Cages, Münster’

Jan van Leyden1535
Jan van Leyden, Prisoner:

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

The Sentence:

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

The Polygamous Wife:

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

The Priest of St Lambert’s:

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

The Girl:

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

1982

The Tourist:

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

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

Theology and Issues of Life and Death: A Review

Theology and Issues of Life and Death

A guest post from Scott Jackson

John Heywood Thomas, Theology and Issues of Life and Death (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2013). ISBN: 13:978-1-62032-228-4; xx+136pp.

According to philosophical theologian John Heywood Thomas, Christian theology must vindicate itself by addressing practical questions: When does life being? How can we die with dignity? How can we uphold human values in the face of rapid advances in medicine and technology? To meet this need, these thematic essays mobilize concepts from Christian thought and modern philosophy to address contemporary moral decision making. Thomas, professor emeritus at the University of Nottingham, writes, ‘What I want to show is that Theology is of temporal as well as eternal use and that it has light to shed on problems that concern us and guidance to offer us in our perplexities as we live our lives in this world’ (p. xvi). By and large, Thomas succeeds at this task with sensitivity, erudition and an engaging style. The collection is somewhat eclectic and lacks a central thesis; still, these seven essays, which were developed from public lectures and previously unpublished pieces, hang together fairly well.

Thomas draws from his extensive research into Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy and theology. He reiterates the Danish philosopher’s clear distinction between time and eternity and his characteristic emphasis upon the lived dialectic of existence. Like his mentor Paul Tillich, Thomas conceives theology as a ‘boundary’ discourse that impinges upon the human sciences at the level of their existential rootedness in ultimate reality. Thomas quotes Aquinas and catholic spiritual writers with ease. In one of the more engaging aspects of this collection, moreover, he draws from literary sources, showing a special affinity for the poets from his Welsh heritage who share his surname (Gwen Thomas, Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas), and he teases out religious implications from these works.

Thomas rejects typically modern dichotomies in religion and morality. Thus, for example, he insists that all philosophy and theology stem from existential commitment and the authors’ specific contexts, as Kierkegaard taught; yet, as Tillich insisted, religious thought also entails a speculative dimension (Thomas does not share the postmodern antipathy to asking big questions.) Good theology, he holds, transcends the dichotomy between theory and practice and embraces the keenest insights of contemporary research. In this vein, he goes beyond the absolute stance of the Roman Catholic against abortion and argues that the contemporary science of brain development can help us address the question of when human life begins. Still, as Christians, we cannot rely merely upon modern notions of individual rights when facing problems in medical ethics: All our deliberations must be framed by our paradoxical situation as ‘created creators’ and by the central events of our redemption in Jesus Christ. Similarly, in our common human experience, we respect the bodies and last wishes of the deceased, and these commitments inform the practice of transplant surgery, tempering the utilitarian impulse to treat bodies as mere sources for parts to save the living.

Some of the most provocative insights in this book emerge from the author’s attempt to frame a theology of death and a ‘theology of the funeral’. Although Thomas references the Christian story explicitly and seems fairly comfortable with traditional religious language, he also seeks to respect the mystery that permeates the meaning and ending of human life. Thus, he affirms the resurrection hope believers share in Christ, but he refuses to speculate about the character of our post-mortem existence. In faith we proclaim that the frontier line between time and eternity has been overcome in Christ’s death. Whatever eternal life means is not something we can know before we experience it. Still, scripture provides images – e.g., the last supper as eschatological banquet. In conversation with Sartre, Heidegger and Rahner, Thomas explores the notion of death as the quintessential act of human freedom that gives meaning and shape to life as a whole. Moreover, today, contemporary climate science urges us to ponder the spectre of death on a global scale and points to a potential catastrophe for life on earth. Western individualism does us a grave disservice as we face questions of ecology and sustainability; yet, Christian eschatology has always had ‘cosmic’ strands that may help us learn to take the natural world more seriously; Thomas engages such thinkers as Jürgen Moltmann and Teilhard de Chardin, who have offered powerful models for addressing these questions.

Some readers, no doubt, are likely to find these essays unsatisfying. Thinkers who seek a bolder and more direct account of how Christian witness may inform contemporary moral issues – including some liberationists, postliberals and radical orthodox thinkers – may find Thomas too indebted to modernist philosophy and theology. Nonetheless, the author engages his resources with skill and thoughtfulness. Contemporary Christians, especially lay and ordained ministers, can find much in Thomas’ work to challenge and broaden their perspective on some of the most vexing issues of our day.

Scott Jackson, a member of the Episcopal Church, is a theologian and independent scholar who lives in western Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to the wonderful blog Die Evangelischen Theologen.