Wednesday, 30 December 2009

God Incarnate

And what are we celebrating when we Christians celebrate Christmas? Apparently it's about the Baby Jesus (or baby cheeses, depending on your accent).

Really? It's about a baby? If that's the case, Christmas is about sleepless nights, gas and filthy nappies. For all the parents who've had a baby late in the year this is probably true at least once. You have my undying admiration, but you're only 25% of the population, and a baby doesn't say much about Christmas.

Except for one thing: powerlessness. This is often brought up around Christmas, that God would be a powerless and vulnerable baby. Even though a baby is powerless and vulnerable, I don't think that's exclusive to babies. But let's run with it, because the comparison between God as transcendent and God as immanent is where it leads. God in the flesh is far removed from the kinds of gods found elsewhere. God in the flesh is powerless, not the force of nature found in the traditional fertility gods, or the god of the gaps.

Seeing God in this way, as incarnate, provokes us to think about the implications. God became human and taught people to follow him, to emulate him. Live life as God did. And die as God died, by taking up the cross each and every day. Christmas is a celebration of the liberation from the burdens we've managed to accrue through human history and human effort, but it carries with it the quiet reminder that to follow Christ, the God incarnate, is to follow the path of powerlessness and humility.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Biblical Texts

I've had mixed opinions about the origins of the Biblical texts over the years. At one point I didn't question their status as authoritative, because as a child I didn't question that kind of thing. When I was a fundamentalist evangelical I believed them to be literal and probably the result of trance writing or some kind of deep, prayerful authorship.


The fact is that Christianity has a canon of texts as well as other useful texts. Everything from the Gospel of Thomas through to the latest Christian best-seller is all part of the enormous literature of Christianity. Many of them aren't even self-consistent, let alone consistent with the others. And it's the tiniest fraction of them which even try to present Christianity as a whole, or as a system, and these works are large and difficult.

And then there's the contradictions within the Bible, and within the texts by the same Biblical author. All in all, the role of the Christian text is to create space in which to work out the consequences of the lordship of Jesus. If Christians are trying to obey Christ and become like Christ, then the texts can only be the attempt to deduce the consequences and/or to convey these consequences to others.

By doing this we rid ourselves of the notion that the Bible is infallible and we liberate Christianity from being an exclusively theoretical exercise. Christianity is meant to be lived, and lived intentionally. Christian texts allow the space to work out what that means but are no substitute for the activity of discipleship.

In this Christmas season, when we remember the shepherds and the magi and the angels and the manger, we need to remember that all of these symbols in the text are just pointers, and that the arrival of Christ in the world still depends on the activity of Christians today.

Monday, 28 December 2009


The Magnificat is a great little poem, full of humility and hope. You can read the full text of it all over the web, but if you like using your bible, try Luke 1:46-55. Following on from my previous post about the inversion of lowly and wealth, the Magnificat also has hard words for the rich.

He has shown strength with his arm

and has scattered the proud in their conceit,

Casting down the mighty from their thrones

and lifting up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty.

It's clear from this, and from other parts of Luke's text, that Jesus may well have inspired Robin Hood to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Mary's song doesn't pull any punches here, showing that the proud, mighty or rich will be brought low suddenly and powerfully, for the sake of the lowly and hungry. Jesus' arrival in the world isn't all fun and games. It's a redistribution of the wealth so that the hungry are fed by the rich, and to do this the rich must give up their conceit, their thrones and their wealth.

When I read things like this, I find it hard to reconcile the contemporary practice of giving useless or frivolous gifts to each other with the arrival of Christ in the world. To celebrate Christmas as a Christian would surely mean giving gifts to the hungry and lifting up the lowly, and not giving half-arsed gifts to other family members who are already overflowing with trinkets.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Gospel Inversions

There's a contrast in the Christmas story between the shepherds and the magi. I imagine that the inclusion of these two groups is quite intentional within the gospel accounts. The shepherds, although gainfully employed, probably weren't high in the social structure of the time. After all, they were looking after sheep during the night, not sleeping. The sheep probably weren't theirs. The real owners either were on the day shift, or were wealthy enough to pay for daytime shepherds as well. Conversely, the magi were wealthy enough to be able to spend their time gazing at the stars and reading. These were educated people, from somewhere outside of Israel.

These are the people who find their way to the infant Jesus to pay homage. The shepherds, though, are sought out by the angels. The angels go to them to tell them the news, and then the shepherds come to Jesus. For the magi, however, no one goes to them with the news. They're only given a sign in the stars to interpret, a sign that hovers above Jesus.

I think this is an intentional contrast. Lowly shepherds are found by messengers, whereas the wise and wealthy are summoned from afar. This is a typical gospel inversion; flipping the natural hierarchy on its head by privileging the underprivileged and bringing the privileged low.

It would be too easy to start claiming that there is a third group missing from this story: the priests of Israel. The one group who should see and know that Christ was born is the group that is neither summoned nor found. I'm always a little cautious about deriving lessons from what's missing because it runs the risk of reading something into the text. Still, it's a curious omission.

Right from the beginning the gospel is good news for the poor, and hard news for the rich. Angels are sent to the shepherds, full of pomp and ceremony. No one is sent to the wealthy, who must search for themselves and then make a long journey to find Christ. Even with these little details, the framework is set for a gospel that goes against the grain of human society.

Friday, 25 December 2009

My Christmas Wish

Being Christmas Day, it's customary for my atheist, agnostic and theologian friends to make mention that December 25 is more closely related to Saturnalia than Christ's birth, that there are similarities between Horus and Jesus, that Christmas trees are pagan, and so on. The trappings of a ritual are all too easily the focus of the discussion.

But suppose that we leave them to one side for a moment. Suppose we simply say that it's appropriate for Christians to remember that Jesus was born and lived among us. And it is quite appropriate for that. Would it matter which day was used to celebrate it? If the Christian celebration was divorced from the pagan influences, it could be any old day.

On one level, I wish this would happen. Leave the shops and the tree and the public holiday where they are, and put the Christ Mass somewhere else in the year. Separate the two. People could give each other gifts for whatever reason they liked. They could take a day off work and decorate trees for their own reasons. More importantly, Christians could have a genuine holy-day on which to remember Jesus' birth.

I've asked before, in other places, whether anyone would celebrate Christmas if it wasn't a public holiday. I suspect that if it were not at the end of the calendar year (perhaps sometime in May?), it might be more like the Muslim observation of Ramadan, or the Chinese New Year. People who believed in it would take the time to observe it and proclaim it. It may even regain something of its authenticity.

Who knows, even the practice of giving gifts to the poor (rather than to our own families) may be associated with the Christian Christmas.

But just in case you think that I'm a grinch, that I despise Christmas, rest assured I don't. Rather, I believe that it's important for Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It just so happens that this celebration has picked up some baggage along the way.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Bits and Bytes of the Mind

The SEP now has a revised entry on the Computational Theory of Mind. As usual, it's a good introduction to the field.

Personally, I have some scepticism about the CTM largely because it arose with the development of computers. My feeling is that the CTM is an attempt to map the phenomenology of mind onto the structures of computers. It may be that at the level of third-person experience, a computer and a person could be indistinguishable (c.f., the Turing Test) but this doesn't guarantee that the two have the same internal mechanisms.

However, it may be the case that with the advent of computers, we have learned a new way to look at the world and this actually explains how the mind functions. But I doubt it.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Seven Deadly Sins - The Series

I've just finished listening to the last in the series on the Seven Deadly Sins produced by The Spirit of Things. Overall, I found it a little repetitive, until the last one on sloth.

The first six took the same form, in which the deadly sin was reinterpreted in the Anglosphere context and watered down until it became like something close to enjoyable. Lust became a lust for life, or a lust for one's partner. The others were much the same. Take the deadly sin, recontextualise it and now it doesn't look so bad.

For sloth, however, one of the guests at least had the courage to keep it in its original context. Sloth was differentiated from relaxing or recharging. Slothfulness was viewed as the bad thing it is, and not brought so close to rest as to be synonymous. This was a good move, and guided the whole of the conversation. The value of rest was praised without detracting from the condemnation of sloth.

Overall, this is a lesson for anyone taking a text across time, culture and language. It takes a lot of work to even begin to understand what a text meant to its original audience and to its author. Without acknowledging that, the reader is making a new reading. A new reading is a valuable exercise, for sure, but it has to be acknowledged as such.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Tony Abbott to make it interesting

Back in August, Scott Stephens wrote a piece in Eureka Street about Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader (reproduced with a few extras in Faith and Theology). Now we get to see how the prediction will unfold. To quote:
Indeed, one often gets the impression that Abbott is picking a fight not so much with Labor as with the libertarian and individualist tendencies within his own Party. Abbott’s determination to restore charity, belief and courage to their rightful place as the greatest of political virtues — which I’ve elsewhere described as ‘a leader’s willingness to wage war against the people’s baser instincts, to expand the public’s moral imagination rather than simply pander to avarice, to stare electoral oblivion in the face by defying popular opinion, to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of a larger cause’ — distinguishes him as the antitype of both Rudd and Turnbull.
Stephens argues that what politics needs is the reintroduction of virtues as drivers for policy, a capacity he says is missing in Rudd and Turnbull. Virtue in the face of popularity; this is precisely what Turnbull cannot claim. In the past week we've heard him say that voting against the ETS is a move that will be seen as taking no action on pollution and will lose the next election. I'm left wondering whether Turnbull supported the ETS because he thought it was right, or because he thought it was a vote-winner.

So now that Abbott's in, can we expect a return of virtues and belief as drivers for Liberal Party policy? Not having read Abbott's book, I don't know for sure, but I hope so. I honestly hope that Abbott can provide a genuine alternative to the two different flavours of vanilla we currently have. I've written before that Australian politics would benefit from a Senate of minor parties, with no clear balance of power. The situation of a single party - or worse, a single senator - holding the balance of power should be avoided. What we need is a variety of starkly different opinions on the matter, and I suspect that a virtue-laden Tony Abbott would move things in that direction.

It remains to be seen what kind of leader Abbott will make. Congratulations to him.