Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Love ain't love

Peter's return to Jesus on the shore of Galilee is famous (Jn 21:15-17).
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?'
'Yes, Master,' was his answer; 'you know that you are dear to me.'
'Then feed my lambs,' replied Jesus.
Again a second time He asked him, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?'
'Yes, Master,' he said, 'you know that you are dear to me.'
'Then be a shepherd to my sheep,' He said.
A third time Jesus put the question: 'Simon, son of John, am I dear to you?' It grieved Peter that Jesus asked him the third time, 'Am I dear to you?'
'Master,' he replied, 'you know everything, you can see that you are dear to me.'
'Then feed my much-loved sheep,' said Jesus.

Sadly, most common English translations miss the distinctions between the various kinds of love here. It's usually translated as "Do you love me?" followed by "Yes, I love you."

The first two times, Jesus is asking whether Peter loves with agape, the love of charity and giving and service. For both of those, Peter responds that he loves with filo, the love of a family member or close friend. Jesus' third question, and Peter's final response, are also both about filo.

Jesus is chasing agape, more than filo. It's what he wants from his disciples, especially what he wants from the shepherd of the sheep. It's what he wants from people today, too. His closest disciples are marked by agape for Jesus and for other people.

But does he reject filo? No. It seems that all Peter will commit to is filo, but Jesus doesn't reject Peter for it. Instead, Jesus meets Peter where Peter is and gives him a vocation. If filo is all that Peter can give, then filo will have to do.

In a way, this shows Jesus has high expectations. He wants us to live in agape, a strong love that acts despite feelings. It's a choice, an act of the will. We can do the same thing with filo, but filo is fickle. It's affected by how we feel about a person. You could have a great relationship with someone in your family and do great things for them, but if it turns sour your actions will be soured too. Agape surpasses that.

Jesus' disciples should aspire to act out of agape, but remembering that Jesus won't reject filo. If they result in kindness, goodness, faithfulness, etc, then they'll do. But we should always seek the highest way, the more excellent way of agape (1 Cor 12:31).

Monday, 23 December 2013

Making questions dangerous

I'm in a church of fundamentalist evangelicals. That's not meant to be pejorative, just accurate1. Fundamentalism is a kind of orthodoxy and it doesn't like dissent, but that makes it the perfect space to ask dangerous questions. Questions like:

What if God isn't omnipotent? That's not an attribute of God from the Bible, it's from Greek thought and part of the backdrop of most Western theology. So let's dig it out of our mental picture of God and see how things change.

What if pneuma isn't Spirit but spirit? The Biblical texts didn't use spaces, punctuation, paragraphs, and capitalisation as we do in English. Every time a translator has to deal with pneuma, they have to make a decision about whether to capitalise it. And if you think that doesn't matter, find a New Testament passage with pneuma, force the lower case s, and think about how we use phrases like "the spirit of the sentence" or "the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law." What does it mean to "live by the spirit" rather than "live by the Spirit?" What does it mean to "pray in the spirit," not "pray in the Spirit?"

Of course, very little of this has a bearing on the most important part of Christianity: Christ's command to love. In global Christianity, the heterodoxy of all believers still retains the common statement of faith that Jesus is the Christ and because of this we are united in obedience to the command to love.

What I like about the environment, though, is that the questions take on more power because they challenge the orthodoxy. In a liberal church, or a process church, these questions are good but have a different flavour. In the midst of fundamentalism, questions like these command our attention.


Notes
1. They adhere reasonably closely to The Fundamentals from 1910-15, so I call them fundamentalists2.
2. I wonder if you can have such a thing as a non-fundamentalist evangelical.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Real Saint Nick

Santa Claus? He's got nothing on Saint Nicholas of Myra, the real person on whom several Santa stories are based. This guy didn't hand out gifts to nice people and coal to naughty ones, he handed out cash to the poor to save them from slavery. He sold all his possessions for that cause, even though he was raised in a wealthy family.

He also argued, successfully, with Emperor Constantine about excessive taxation and had it lowered. And he intervened in an execution at the last minute by wrestling the sword out of the executioner's hand.

This isn't your jolly fat guy in a red suit.

This year, no matter what you're doing for Christmas, spare a thought for the legacy of Saint Nicholas of Myra. He served others without regard for his own comfort or safety. Give me a Saint Nick over Santa Claus any old day.


Friday, 15 November 2013

All kinds of altar calls

Altar calls. I've lost count of how many I've heard. But what's in an altar call? And what are we responding to with an altar call?

Come and get your life right with God.

We hear this so often. It's the call for the person who feels disconnected. It's the warm, redemptive invitation to be made whole again. It's comfort for those who mourn, who worry, who fret, who are burdened with their own sense of guilt. God reaches out to heal us. God invites us to communion. God washes us and we become clean.

Come follow me.

We hear this less often, but we read it over and over. Jesus said it to Zacchaeus. Jesus said it to the disciples. Jesus said it to the rich young man.

And they said back to him, "We have given up everything to follow you."

Take up your cross.

We sometimes hear that the Christian life isn't easy. We sometimes hear that it's no guarantee of a good life, a big house, perfect health.

But a call to die? To die an embarrassing death? To no longer be counted among the somethings of this world, instead to become the nothings?

While every head is bowed and every eye closed...

Your private decision. Your moment to speak up, to be counted. The angst of decision, with total freedom.

Say this prayer after me...

A prayer. A repetition. What do these words mean? What's a saviour? Why do I need to say that I receive it? I don't know what I'm saying but you're telling me I have to say these words! Are they magical?

I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works I do.

Jesus calls us to follow. We follow by imitation. We follow by building on what he did with what we do.



What about you? Which call did you answer? Did you find redemption? Did you find a master? A teacher? A comforter? Did you just want to be made right with God, or did you want to follow Jesus?

Or in following Jesus were you made whole?

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Borg asks: What is the gospel?

Over at Marcus Borg's new Patheos blog he's asked the same question that I put to a group of Christians in my church this week. What is the gospel?

If Jesus' message is the gospel, then what did Jesus preach? What did his followers believe? Why did they follow him, even without knowing about Jesus' death and resurrection?

I think it's a challenging question for us. Our answer reveals something of our motivations and our desires. What do we want from God? Why do we follow Jesus? Would we follow Jesus based on his preaching alone?

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Kindy Theology: Where is Jesus?

Of course it's an easy shot of doubt that asks, Where is God? For the atheist or empiricist this is the stumbling block they can't get past. God can't be examined with a spectrometer or a telescope. So where is God?

Part of the scandal of Christianity is that this question extends to the resurrected Jesus. The Bible account tells that Jesus was bodily resurrected and taken to the right hand of God. But where's that? How does a bodily resurrected Jesus exist in the world today?

Talking with my kindy-aged son the other night brought this question up for him. He asked me where Jesus is. I decided not to answer him directly but for us to talk it through. It didn't take long, maybe two or three sentences, before he said, "Hang on, I know where Jesus is. Whenever people do kind things for each other we can say that they're Jesus."

My dialectical heart leapt. My exegetical heart leapt. My paternal heart leapt. He gets it. Jesus is not an absent being somewhere out there but is now present with us, poured out kenotically for us and in us so that the church is the immanent presence of Jesus. He won't use that language, sure, but it's the same. 

Jesus is present among us when we love the neighbour. When we love with the love of God, we embody Christ. Christ is present and manifest. Where is Jesus? In the manifest act of divine love.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Who is the thief of John 10:10?

I remember the class in which my New Testament lecturer asked us the question, "Who is the thief of John 10:10?" and gave us this clue, "It's not the devil."

He's right. It's not the devil. Read verses 7 to 10 and tell me what you think. Who is the thief?

In the beginning was Reason

The fourth gospel begins with the famous prolegomenon. It takes a Greek concept (logos) and puts it into a Hebraic sentence (In the beginning...). It sets the stage for Jesus as the new Moses. Time and again in the gospel Jesus is compared to Moses one way or another. It's hard to avoid it, especially since the first sentence is, "In the beginning was the Word."

But "logos" doesn't only mean word, it also means reason. We use logos in plenty of English words today. We use it in logic. Bio-logy. Geo-logy. Theo-logy. They don't just mean life-words, rock-words, and God-words. They are the study of life, the study of rocks, the study of God. Logos is word and reason, and yet the typical translation of John 1:1 uses Word for logos. But what if we use Reason?
"In the beginning was Reason, and Reason was with God, and the Reason was God. ...And Reason became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth."
John 1:1,14
It can't be denied that this changes our view of Jesus. It might be true that this translation may not be standard exegetical fare, but it adds more depth to the passage. It also throws the reader out of the mindset of Jesus-as-New-Moses and into something different. Now we are confronted by the notion of Jesus as a student, as a logician, as an expositor. We are presented with the incarnation as the enfleshment of the logic of God.

If Jesus is the incarnation of the logic of God then we learn something about God. God's logic is the logic of self-emptying (see Php 2). God's logic is overcoming through weakness. God's logic is not to change the world through the enforcement of rules, it is to change the world through the encounter with God's person. The gospel is not enacted by force and can't be presented with force. God's logic is to present the gospel without the kind of power that Caesar had, but with the power of the divine encounter, the very character of God.

This is the logic that helps to explain the verses in the middle of this passage.
"The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God."
John 1:9-13
The encounter with God in the person of Jesus the incarnate Reason is the encounter that changes us, not in the same way that the things of this world (the flesh) change people, but in the way of powerlessness and love.

Translating logos as word and reason opens the way to understand the logic of God as more than the capriciousness of a tribal deity. It presents God as a being who has exemplified God's very message for the world, and who calls us to do the same.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The key to non-violence

"That's the key to non-violence. You do respond. You do fight back. But you use different methods and different tactics.

First of all I realised that my life was already in jeopardy but that's because I joined a movement. That was the condition under which I went to South Alabama. I knew that it was dangerous. I knew I could lose my life so I had already given my life, and once you have given your life then you are free because no one can take your life if you've given it already. So I was free to behave in the most loving, compassionate and human way.

So these are the tools of non-violence. This is how you fight back. You fight back not with the weapons of your opponents but you fight back with the weapons of love and non-violence." - Bernard Lafayette Jr

Saturday, 28 September 2013

What is faith?

Faith is treated like a plastic word. It gets used however the speaker wants it to be used. I've heard dozens of sermons about faith and hundreds of references to it. I can't help but cringe at some of them, or feel guilty at others.

At the risk if setting up straw men, here are some notable versions of faith:
- Faith is blind belief, usually in contradiction to scientific fact (as though faith requires the individual to be ignorant or willfully stupid.) 
- Faith is believing that God will reward obedience with the trinkets of Rome (as though we only believe in order to receive). 
- Faith is waiting for God to do something extraordinary to break the hardship or monotony of our lives (as though we are incapable of changing the circumstances of our lives). 

When I read the gospels, however, I see a different kind of faith at work. This faith is the faith that believes in the Son of Man, that believes Jesus is the Christ. It's faith in the identity of Jesus, faith that Jesus is more than a rabbi or a healer or a rebel. It declares that God is wholly revealed in Jesus and that the believer follows Jesus by example and by teaching. 

The question of faith is what we answer with our belief. Jesus asked it. His followers asked it of him. "Who do you say that I am?" "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" The disciples answered, "You are the Christ, the holy one of God."

Christian faith is not the belief in what Jesus can do for us, but faith in who Jesus is. When we exist inside this faith we are less concerned with what we gain from it and more concerned about how we ought to respond to Christ. We are faced with Christ and all the consequences of it. Christ has the message from God about how we should live. Christ has the message from God about how blessed the world would be if we would follow Christ's commands to love. 

If we believe with Christian faith, we believe in who Jesus is. Whatever else Jesus does for us us derived from this initial statement of faith. What we call faith is always an answer to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?"

Friday, 27 September 2013

Trinitarian Ambivalence

I'm not convinced that the doctrine of the trinity is accurate.

That's a bold claim to make, I realise. Hundreds of years of development resulted in the familiar formulation that most in the western church have been taught. Augustine did a great job of putting it into words, to be sure, but here are my doubts. When I read Paul I see a distinction between the Father, the Son and the Spirit (and the spirit) more than I see a unity. He likes to write, "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" as a kind of distinctive title. It's at the start of most of his letters. The Holy Spirit appears as power which enacts God's will in the world. Lastly, "the spirit" is something different again, seen in the repeated use of "kata pneuma" (according to the spirit) in contrast with "kata sarka" (according to the flesh). By reading Paul alone I get the impression that he emphasises the distinctions and barely deals with the unity. That's not to say that the early believers didn't have ideas of divine unity; Paul also didn't pay a lot of attention to Jesus' miracles, signs, or sayings either. 

On the other hand, the Johannine literature is significantly more interested in the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus is one with the Father. Jesus wants the disciples to be one, just as the Father and the Son are one. The Holy Spirit prominantly gets a personal pronoun in the Johannine literature. The concept of the pre-existent Christ who is one with the Father is loud and proud. It's clear that there is a kind of relationship going on between the three, but it feels as though Augustine's doctrine of the trinity is always going to fall short of being able to explain it. The doctrine can't even be explained without first explaining Greek concepts of ousia, hypostasis, and prosopopeia. Such dependence on a single language gives me pause to doubt the accuracy.

The social trinity has a bit more appeal to me. Unity in the relationship gives us the opportunity to live out Jesus' prayer that his disciples may be one even as Jesus and God are one. It holds out the potential for the divine community to be more than a collection of individuals who have a common interest. The social trinity invites the participation of all people and allows us to transcend the self. Where I think it falls short a little is beyond the Johannine framework, or outside the Johannine texts. I think there might be the possibility of bridging the gap through Bonhoeffer's work in Act and Being and Sanctorum Communio, particularly that the being of the Christian is found in the being of Christ both as the self and as the other.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring model of the trinity is the death of God model (for shorthand I like to call it the dialectic trinity). The pure kenosis of God, the complete and utter self-giving in the movement from transcendence to immanence astounds me. This is not the action of a God who wants to be in relationship with humans, but the action of a God who wants to be united with humans. The transformation of God and the transformation of humanity at one and the same time speaks volumes about the character of God. I find it counter-intuitive to pray to God in that way, but that could be simply a product of my formative years. I also find it to be an awkward fit with the teaching to pray to "Our Father in heaven" unless we are thoroughly committed to the notion that heaven is where God is, and since God is in the Church we therefore have heaven with us here and now. This is certainly not your patristic or classical understanding of God.

Just like the Augustinian model, both the social trinity and the dialectic trinity bump up against the limits of language. They're informative up to a point. They're deficient beyond that. I don't find it especially helpful to insist that it can only be understood through revelation either. Do we need a doctrine of the trinity? Well, yes and no. As informative as they are, they just aren't solid enough or necessary enough for Christian discipleship. I like them and I don't, hence my trinitarian ambivalence. 

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Three Ways to Have More of Christ's Presence

It's a standard Christian doctrine that Christ is present with the believer through the Holy Spirit. You might experience this emotionally or intellectually, but if there's one thing that's certain, as a believer you probably want more. Let's look at a few.

Remember and accept that your flesh is redeemed
This might seem odd at first so bear with me. We know that Jesus is the word made flesh (John 1:14). This word "flesh" is the same as the word "flesh" in Galatians 5:19, in which Paul warns his readers that the way of the flesh is full of sin.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Jesus was born into this flesh, struggled with that flesh, was crucified in that flesh, and then resurrected in a new kind of flesh. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see that flesh has been redeemed and transformed. The flesh that is prone to all kinds of wrong is the same flesh that Christ has redeemed. To recognise that Jesus lived in the flesh and redeemed the flesh is to recognise that Jesus has redeemed our flesh by his transforming power. When we accept that, we accept Christ into our flesh and experience his presence through that redemption.

Rejoice and suffer with your fellow believers
In one of Paul's letter to the Corinthian church he writes,
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 1 Cor 12:26-27
To be a believer in Jesus Christ is to be a fellow believer along with others. You aren't alone in your belief, you are part of the body of Christ here and now. Paul writes that as part of the body, we will consequently rejoice and suffer with other believers.

He's not saying that we should manufacture rejoicing and suffering, but that when we are close with others and united in the spirit with others, then we will empathise and sympathise with them. When they rejoice, we will rejoice with them because we are in close relationship with them. When they suffer, we suffer with them because of our close relationship with them. This is evidence of the body of Christ manifest in the Church. It's evidence of the presence of the risen Christ with us. When we allow God to unite us as the body of Christ, we get closer to others in the Church and are open to experiencing their lives, with all the joys and sorrows that come with them. God is present in that relationship and in that unity. In other words: get to know the people in the pew next to you and love them.

Serve the needy
In the famous passage about the sheep and the goats, Jesus tells his audience how he will judge the world when he returns.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” - Matt 25:34-40
In setting this standard for behaviour, Jesus more than identifies with the needy, he says that he shares the experiences of the needy. Jesus is present in their suffering and is the co-recipient of any kindness or neglect that we show. Think about that for a moment: Jesus is present in the needy. Jesus is in the malnourished child, in the enslaved prostitute, in the wrongfully imprisoned, in the oppressed, in the poor, in the marginalised. When we encounter people with these needs, we encounter Jesus. When we are in their presence, we are in Jesus' presence.

This one has an extra opportunity for us as well. When we serve the needy in meeting their needs, we have the opportunity to act on behalf of Christ. In a way, we act in the place of Christ as the embodiment of Christ. We become the hands and feet of Christ, the flesh of Christ, for the needy. In that moment we are one with Christ as the one who meets their needs. In that moment of service, Christ is present in us as well as in the needy. When we serve the need we have a double experience.

So if you want more of Christ's presence in your life:
1. Remember and accept that your flesh is redeemed;
2. Rejoice and suffer with your fellow believers; and
3. Serve the needy.

The experience of the presence of Christ during a church meeting can be powerful, and quite motivating for many Christians. The good news is that we don't leave it behind when we walk out of the service; it's out there waiting for us.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Kindy Theology: Tsunamis

If you follow me on social media you'd know that I'm a dad. One of my children is in kindergarten and has a propensity for asking questions about God, morality, and science. I decided that I wouldn't sugar coat my answers to him, but I would answer as honestly as I could to the level of detail that he was interested in. Since some of his questions are exactly the same as questions I hear adults ask, I wanted to use them as inspirations for my blog. So I present to you the first in the series on Kindy Theology. You're going to get the question he asked and the answer I gave him. 

"Why did God make tsunamis?"

God made the universe to be full of energy. Because of all that energy we have planets and stars, the wind and the sunshine. And that energy also means we live on a planet that has earthquakes and big waves like tsunamis. And because of all that energy, it was possible for you and I to be here. That's the kind of universe God created; the kind that has you and I in it, and God is very interested in you, and very interested in me. Sometimes that universe is scary, and sometimes it's beautiful. 




Monday, 9 September 2013

The votes are in

We voted. We ate hot dogs (making "sausage" a trending topic on twitter). We walked through our neighbourhood schools and other polling places. Now that's all done and we have a new PM, I'm still keen to see my favourite part of the election: the senate results. Practically speaking, legislation doesn't go through the lower house until there's confidence that it will pass the senate, or unless the lower house majority wants to make a spectacle of things.

The senate is where Abbott could come unstuck. At the time of writing it looks as though the Coalition won't have a majority in the senate. He will have to rely on minor parties to get things through. It will require negotiation and compromise. Ideas will have to be watered down, or additional ideas incorporated. I'm looking forward to seeing how tense the situation will get and whether it will force a double dissolution.

But best of all, the nation's stand-up comedy will get better. There's nothing like a conservative government to give fodder for the comedians. Sure, this probably reveals a bias in that industry but nothing we didn't already know.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

When the election is over

The federal election is finally upon us. Whatever the result I like to remember a couple of key things that I think are essential to the Christian life under any government. 

We are united in Christ alone.

It's easy to let political opinions divide us. The policies of the day change the shape of our society. They change what's legal and they change how money flows. We don't all agree on those changes and we need to be aware of how disagreements can create an us-them situation, even in the church.

In Christ we cannot allow Christ to be divided. That doesn't mean a monolithic view on politics by any means. We aren't united by politics, we're united by Christ. We aren't united by tax breaks, road infrastructure, or immigration policy. If we believe that then we've created an idol out of those things. Our unity is in Christ alone.

The church doesn't have a political strategy, the church is a political strategy.

This comes from Stanley Hauerwas and is a master stroke of articulating something important about the church. God has been revealed in Jesus with a message for the world; the kingdom of God is here and we are invited to be part of that. 

The kingdom of God is the rule of God in this world and we have a portrait of it in the Sermon on the Mount. It's a vision of fairness and justice and love. This is the foundation of the kingdom and of the church. Living that way probably doesn't align perfectly with any political party in this election, so we can't place our hope in any government to deliver on that vision. Our reliance must be on Christ to give us strength to obey Jesus' teachings. By teaching us Jesus expects us to follow through with it as single individuals and as the church in community. Jesus relies on us to be the living embodiment of this solution; to be the divine and loving change that the world needs. 


So I hope you have fun voting today. Enjoy the sausage sizzles and cake stalls. Enjoy the banter between booth volunteers. Enjoy the spectacle for as long as you like but remember that as Christians we are united by Christ in order to be the community-as-solution to the brokenness of this world.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

A new transfiguration

If I could wish for art to appear I would probably wish for a revised transfiguration. Put a middle-eastern Christ in the centre, flanked by Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer. 

Donations of this artwork will be gratefully accepted. 

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Your Vote Is Not For You

This post is for Australian voters. When you vote on September 7, don't vote for your own benefit. Vote for the people who need the most help from society.

To put it another way, when you vote: don't vote for your own tax cuts at the expense of lower income earners; don't vote for your own comfort at the expense of the homeless or the disabled; don't vote for your own culture at the expense of the immigrant and the refugee; don't vote for your big plasma TV at the expense of the environment; don't vote for the economy at the expense of society; don't vote for you at the expense of people who need help.

Vote with enlightened social interest, not enlightened self interest. Vote for the common good, not your individual good. Vote for the benefit of the least in society.

All of these sound like great aphorisms and you could probably feel good about dismissing them because of that structure. But you shouldn't. You should follow them because that is the measure of our society and the measure of us as individuals. If you're Christian you'll know that
"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." James 1:27
The world would have you vote for yourself. It would tell you that you should vote for the people who will give you more money or make your house cheaper. Don't be stained by that. Instead, look after the people who need the most help. Look after them with personal actions and look after them with electoral actions.

And whether you're a Christian or not, you'll know that in Australia middle income earners are unaffected by a change of government. However, low income earners are always affected. Services are always changed after an election, moreso after a change of government. Some services are cancelled. Some are strengthened. Some are added. The people who need those services the most are low income earners.

So when you vote, change your mindset about who deserves the benefit of your vote. Think about the policies for the parties, not about how they affect you alone but how they affect the least in our society.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Sudden Increases in Church Offerings

From time to time, I find a quote that needs to be read in its entirety, and shared almost without comment.
"Thou plain man! I do not conceal from thee the fact that according to my notion, the thing of being a Christian is infinitely high, that at no time are there more than a few who attain it, as Christ's own life attests, if one considers the generation in which He lived, and as also His preaching indicates, if one takes it literally. Yet nevertheless it is possible for all. But one thing I adjure thee, for the sake of God in heaven and all that is holy, shun the priests, shun them, those abominable men whose livelihood it is to prevent thee from so much as becoming aware of what Christianity is, and who thereby would transform thee, befuddled by galimatias and optical illusion, into what they understand by a true Christian, a paid member of the State Church, or the National Church, or whatever they prefer to call it. Shun them. But take heed to pay them willingly and promptly what money they should have. With those whom one despises, one on no account should have money differences, lest it might perhaps be said that it was to get out of paying them one avoided them. No, pay them double, in order that thy disagreement with them may be thoroughly clear: that what concerns them does not concern thee at all, namely, money; and on the contrary, that what does not concern them concerns thee infinitely, namely Christianity." - Kierkegaard, Attack Upon Christendom.
Be wary of sudden increases in the offerings, pastors! You may have a Kierkegaardian protest movement in your congregation.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Jesus or Moses?

In John's gospel account, Jesus is often compared with Moses. The many comparisons highlight the tension between the early Christians and their Jewish roots. It's clear that the message of Jesus divided the Jewish community.

Look at John 6, for example. This is Jesus out-Mosesing Moses. He's out in the desert and is followed by a crowd who are fed by a miraculous supply of bread. He even follows it up with a miraculous crossing of the sea, walking on it rather than walking through it. Sounds a lot like the Exodus experience, and the crowd knows it.
So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’
So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’
The story goes on to say that after this, many of his disciples left him and for a long while I thought they left him because his teachings were crazy, or because people just didn't understand the metaphor. With texts like these, it's no wonder that some people accused early Christians of cannibalism.

But this is far from the truth. The clue to the real problem here is back with Moses, and specifically in Leviticus 17.
If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.
Anyone who eats blood shall be cut off from the people. They will be expelled, excommunicated, rejected, and disinherited. They will lose their identification with the nation. Jesus doesn't reinterpret the principle of eating blood, he drives it to an extreme conclusion. Yes, the blood has the life and yes, if you eat Jesus' blood you'll be cut off from the people.

No wonder they turned away from Jesus. Seen in this light, he was preaching a message that forced them to choose between Jesus and their own heritage. Choose Jesus or Moses, you can't have both. If you choose Jesus, you'll drink his blood and be cut off from the people of Israel.

For the original audience of John's gospel, this might have represented their own struggle with conversion to Christianity. Many were rejected by their families because of it. But is the problem really Jewishness? I suggest that the problem is larger than that, and that it could be Australian-ness, or British-ness, or American-ness, or even Christendom. The problem that Jesus confronts is group identity. We're entrenched deeply within the groups that raised us; so deep that it gives us our identity. Jesus insists that to follow him is to leave that identity behind and be rejected by that group for Jesus' sake. To follow Jesus is to risk being cut off from the people you call family, from the land you call home; and at the same time, to follow Jesus is to follow the holy one of God, to hear the words of eternal life.

The contrast between Jesus and Moses is not about Moses the man, but Moses the symbol of what we inherited from our culture. When we follow Jesus we need to be willing to leave that behind, and to be rejected by those who remain there.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Whose side are you on?

I think it's fair to say that God is on our side only inasmuch as God wants the good for us, but no further. Beyond that it is we who must move to be on God's side. If we forget this, or even worse reverse it, then we have made God into an idol of our own image. 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Knowing Jesus, Being Known by Jesus

"From the human point of view there are countless possibilities of understanding and interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knows only one possibility: simply go and obey. ... Those who treat the word of Jesus any other way except by acting on it assert that Jesus is wrong; they say no to the Sermon on the Mount; they do not do his word. ... I can insist on my faith and my fundamental recognition of this word as much as I want; Jesus calls it inaction. The word that I do not want to do is no rock for me on which I can build a house. I have no unity with Jesus. He has never known me." - Bonhoeffer, Discipleship


In characteristic severity, Bonhoeffer slaps us in the conscience with this stark reminder of Jesus' message of the houses on the sand or on the rock. He labours the point about those who put Jesus' words into practice and those who do not.

There are many sermons today about faith, but how many about action?

There are many people who look at us Christians and form an opinion of Jesus from what they see in us. When they look at us, will they see a people who have built their houses on the rock by acting on the Sermon on the Mount?

Jesus calls us to action, saying that to act this way is to be on the firm foundation of the divine will, that it is the way to be known by Jesus and to know Jesus. Do you want to know Jesus? Do you want to be known by Jesus? The answer is the same: do what he commanded in the Sermon on the Mount.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

We aren't made for heaven

I don't hold much to any sense of a disembodied afterlife. There doesn't seem to be overwhelming evidence in the bible for a heavenly afterlife, at least. If anything, the bible holds views either of nothingness or resurrection, depending on which books one reads in the bible.

Salvation isn't about pie in the sky when you die. It's not about escaping hell with a kind of "Get out of jail free" card. Salvation is for the here and now. Salvation is for this world, to transform this world and its people. Jesus had a message for his contemporaries, about a divine way to live, about the interruption of God into the world. He preached that the Day of the Lord had arrived, and with it the justice of God for all people.
"It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystic pietistic ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ." - Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
Bonhoeffer's words remind us of Jesus' saying that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. Heaven was made for us, not us for heaven. God's reality is made to come here, to be manifest here. That's the first target for salvation. The good news is that God wants to do something about this world here and now by bringing heaven to us.

A careful reading of the gospels shows us that Jesus preached almost entirely about the arrival of the kingdom on earth, and about how we should live. Even in his sayings about Gehenna and Abraham's Bosom and Paradise he brings it back to contemporary life, the life lived by us here and now.

Let me be clear. The kingdom of God is meant for this world now, not left for an unknown time or a disembodied place.

Furthermore, we are called to make it happen, not through the powers of this world, but through obedience to Jesus. In the shameful parts of church history we have tried to make it happen at the point of a sword, as though we were entitled to bring the judgement of God. And when we did that we were undoing all the good that Jesus had done. Our strategy is not the sword, it is obedience to Jesus. Imagine a world in which we all loved as Jesus loved. Imagine a world in which we all served each other, shared with each other, worked hard for the benefit of each other, loved each other. A whole world like that? That's the kingdom of God; the kingdom brought about by our obedience to Jesus' command to love.

In a world like that, the rich are set free from enslavement to wealth, the poor are set free from destitution. In a world like that, the perpetrators are set free from committing sin, the victims are spared the sting of sin.

It sounds too good to be true, like a dream of a delusional person. It sounds like hippy tree-hugging nonsense. Who would ever listen to a message like that? Worse still, who is the madman who would preach it?

Jesus preached a message so difficult that many could not accept it and they left him. But in his message is God's answer to the problems of this world. For us now we need to decide whether Jesus was the Christ, sent to preach the divine truth. Once we answer that, we know whether to take him seriously enough to obey him.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Seeing and Being Seen

Becoming a Christian entails a new perspective on the world. It's just not possible to believe that Jesus has been resurrected without also affecting how we see the rest of the world around us. Right at the heart of a new worldview is a new view of ourselves and of the people in the world around us. To that end, Bonhoeffer has this to say about how we see ourselves:
"The person now lives in the contemplation of Christ. This is the gift of faith, that one no longer looks upon oneself, but solely upon the salvation that has come to one from without. One finds oneself in Christ, because already one is in Christ, in that one seeks oneself there in Christ." - Bonhoeffer, Act and Being
In other words the Christian does not find themselves by reflecting on themselves, but in the singular focus on the person of Christ. Christ is where we find ourselves. Christ is also what we are to become. When we look at Christ we see ourselves purified here and now, and we see ourselves as we are becoming. As we continue to live as disciples of Christ we also continue to become like Christ. Our awareness of ourselves is found in our focus on Christ, not our focus on ourselves.

Furthermore, if the Christian only truly sees themselves in Christ, the Christian can only truly see others in Christ. In a way, they become like the Christ-in-need of Matthew 25. Every other person is the Christ who needs to be cared for in sickness, who needs to be fed in hunger. And when we see that Christ in them as well as ourselves in Christ, we immediately become the Christ who is able to provide what they need.

By contemplating Christ rather than reflecting on our own selves we are able to see Christ in other people, and see ourselves as the body of Christ at work in the world today. The Christian activity of seeing and being seen begins with seeing Christ, then it moves to revealing Christ in the world around us, and ends with us being the hands and feet of Christ in the world today. We truly see in Christ, and we are truly seen in Christ.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Even AI Has Learned How to Live Peacefully

It seems that rudimentary artificial intelligence has figured out and implemented what we mere humans have yet to do. They figured out how to live in peace with each other.

This screen grab from a forum (from a retweet by William Gibson) tells the story. In short, after running a Quake 3 bot simulation for four years, all 16 bots learned that the best way for individual survival is for each individual to stop initiating aggression. The secondary result is collective survival as well.

If the image doesn't display well for you, here's the link to where I found it.


Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Ruddy Returns

Kevin Rudd is PM. Again. Does that mean he qualifies for the PM pension twice over?

I feel a little prescient, though, about his comments on same-sex marriage. It's a vote-winner among some parts of the electorate and Rudd is keen to win votes.
"Wherever I go in Australia, it just hits you in the face what young people think about this, which is that our current arrangements are just wrong and offensive to people."
Let's see how much ground he gains with this, and how much he loses. There will undoubtedly be some people who are totally opposed to it and will vote against the ALP because of it. Rudd's almost playing a no-lose game with the issue. He's put the challenge out for a free vote. If Abbott agrees then Rudd wins a small victory by showing leadership. If Abbott refuses, then Rudd wins a different small victory by being able to decry Abbott for squashing the vote. If the vote goes ahead and is approved, Rudd wins by getting the issue through. If the vote goes ahead and is rejected, Rudd can be disappointed and say that it was the parliament's fault.

Seems like he can't lose, right? Except that if he was such a man of conviction on the issue he might also be able to simply push it through with a vote along party lines. Suppose he wins the federal election with a majority, what's to stop him putting the legislation through with the numbers from his own party? Only his willingness to retain support from party members. Despite the noise he's made about it, it's not at the top of his agenda of real things to do, but it's near the top of things to talk about in order to win votes.

Friday, 28 June 2013

You Are Not Theologically Correct

We Christians say the darndest things. We like to ask whether something is theologically correct, for instance. There is something about this question, this pursuit, that sets my teeth on edge.

Right from the heart of the matter, the idea that a statement or a belief is theologically correct probably comes from the early periods of Christian history. We spent a long time arguing about doctrine. We had several ecumenical councils about doctrine. We had schisms over doctrine. Our very identity as Christians has been fought and argued over doctrine. All the creeds are evidence of this. And we do have a lot of creeds.

But wait, Andrew! I don't go in for this "doctrine" stuff. I just believe in Jesus.

Whether you know it or not, you probably hold to several doctrines that have been argued about and created splits in the church. The trinity? That's a doctrine. Communion is just bread and wine? That's a doctrine. Every time we've created a doctrine we do it to establish "correct theology" with the result that there are some people who end up with "incorrect theology." Every doctrine has at least one contradicting doctrine, and both are ardently believed and taught by sincere Christians.

Some doctrines are derived from the finer points of the Bible, or even outside of the Bible. A difference this way or that has divided communities, launched civil wars, unleashed untold evil into the world. Most of it came about because one part of the church was so proud as to enforce their notion of being theologically correct.

In a way, the pursuit of theological correctness is a Sorites paradox. We know that a thousand grains of rice is a pile of rice. And we know that by taking one away we still have a pile of rice. And if we take one more away we still have a pile of rice. But how many grains are required to make a pile? It's not a perfect illustration, but it makes the point that we know when something is A and when something is B, but it's not always possible to know where the boundary exists between A and B.

So I'm wrong to ask whether something is theologically correct?

Not wrong, just dangerous. The pursuit of finding meaning in the faith is good and worthwhile. Faith seeking reason, as Aquinas put forward, is the challenge for every Christian. Even Kierkegaard's so-called "irrational fideism" is argued for with reason. But are we so confident in our reason that we can put the final stamp on it and say that it's theologically correct?

Navigating the boundaries of doctrine requires an intellectual finesse that few of us have. However, it's a finesse that we can learn and develop. In Hebrews we are encouraged to press on to maturity (5:11-14), a maturity that is marked not by theological correctness but by the ability to discern between good and evil, an ability that comes through practice.

This kind of practice is the pursuit of every one who follows Christ. By following Christ we become more mature and gain the ability to discern between good and evil. Following Christ does not make us theologically correct, it just points us in the right direction: the person of Christ.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Unlearn what you have learned

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to forget the interpretation of a parable that you've been taught? It's ingrained in the mind. It becomes part of the vocabulary of belief, and in turn it becomes belief itself.

I'm working through parables at the moment, attempting to read with fresh eyes. It's all too easy to keep reading them as they were explained to me years ago.

Whenever I see them in a new light, it's often because I've learned something about the culture of the time, something relevant to the parable. Historical criticism to the rescue! Without that background, the parable is a translation of an alien idea from an alien time in an alien place. It's a mystery waiting for an explanation.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Evolving Out of the Closet

I like the diversity of the Christian faith. It's challenging and exciting at the same time, and I've been lucky enough to attend a few different denominations and experienced the differences. If you're a believer and never switched denominations you're missing out on a great experience.

Something that doesn't appear in church doctrine but does appear in church culture is an attitude to the theory of evolution. It's never taught from the pulpit, and rarely mentioned in passing. Sometimes it appears as preachers remark about the divine involvement in the physical world. Sometimes it appears in the midst of an apologetic sermon on intelligent design. And separate to the pulpit? Well, that's the interesting part.

From what I've seen, one's opinion on the theory of evolution seems to stay firmly hidden. It is the thought that dare not speak its name. It's almost as if it's left alone for the sake of peaceful coexistence. Almost. There are some quite vocal people who adamantly express their opinions, to the point of stifling alternative views. This sort of thing happens in all kinds of groups, and in the church it certainly happens with evolution. I expect there are probably Christians who hint at it in hushed tones in order to ascertain what the person next to them really believes.

In the end, however, what one believes about it only appears in a coming-out experience. I wonder if we need to mark it in the calendar as the day each of us came out of the heretical closet and firmly said what we believe about evolution.

The notion of a doctrinal unity in the church is not as rigid as its opponents might suggest. If in formal doctrine there are too many differences, this diversity explodes when it comes to informal or folk doctrines. Don't bother to try and count them.

Nevertheless, I know I've come out of the evolutionary closet already. Maybe I should have had a parade.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

How to Win the 2013 Australian Federal Election

Regardless of what the polls say right now, I can't help but wonder if there's an election winning policy just waiting to be grasped. I speculate that whichever major party wholeheartedly embraced the legalisation of same-sex marriage would probably romp in at the next election.

This is probably a cynical view of the Australian electorate, to imagine that it's not interested in economics, industrial relations, education, or any of the other usual issues. However, right now it's probably the only issue that would galvanise strong feeling in the voters. For just about everything else that they've presented in this year's election there's no significant difference between the ALP and the Coalition, with the possible exception of the carbon tax.

Same-sex marriage. There's your vote winner in 2013.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

John Oliver on Gun Control

I know parts one and two made the rounds on social media earlier this year, but I didn't see part three get the same exposure. For your viewing pleasure here are all three parts of The Daily Show's reports on Australian gun control.







Tuesday, 28 May 2013

So Much Kierkegaard in Copenhagen

I'm both delighted and envious to see that Copenhagen has a lot of activities this year to mark the 200th birthday of Kierkegaard. I wish that the one time I was in Copenhagen I knew more about the man and his work, or at least as much as I know now. 

2013 would be a great year to go back. Any other year and I'd just have to settle on the ice cream and chocolate, without quite so many theological dalliances.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Soundbite Politics

I like a good election. There are plenty of things to despise about them (soundbite politics is the worst) but I still enjoy the process. The only thing missing from this year's election is my favourite part: actual policy.

So far all I've seen is labor telling me how bad Tony Abbott is, and the liberals telling me how bad Julia Gillard is. Oh, and one Clive Palmer telling me how bad Abbott and Gillard are. Of course, they don't do it with actual policy, just ad hominem attacks.

What do they stand for? A fair go for working Australian battling families? Education reform? Jobs? This country's future? Apparently they all stand for that. Well duh. That's the goal but we have no idea about their methods.

I don't expect to actually see any policies because nothing makes the electorate comatose faster than a policy launch. But that's what I want to see. I can only hope the party websites are just as informative as in previous years.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Media Consumption and Piety

Last month I blogged about a panel that I was part of. As it happens there were a few questions in the queue that were never asked on the night. So here's the (paraphrased) question, and what I probably would have said in response.

Q: What media is it appropriate for Christians to watch, read, or listen to?

I guess the spirit of the question is mostly about how media imagery affects the personal piety of the believer. Does watching lots of music videos featuring scantily clad girls count as lusting in one's heart, contra to Matthew 5? Will watching violent slasher flicks make the viewer more inclined to anger? In short: will exposure to morally questionable (whatever that means) media have a negative influence on its audience?

First of all, if we're worried that sexual or violent imagery will corrupt us, then we'd best remove several passages in the bible itself (Psalm 137, Ezekiel 16 and 23, just to name a couple). Or perhaps just not read them, leave them under the carpet where no one has to know about them. Like them or not, they're in the bible. Ban violent media and you have to ban the bible along with it.

And second, what is probably more important is the choice of which media content we endorse by its consumption. Supposing we spend money on a magazine that promotes false expectations about body image, we endorse that view. The publishers will get our money and point to yet another sale indicating the popularity of their content, and the magazine will continue to operate and propagate its distorted message.

While there is a connection between what we consume and how we think, the more significant message is that there is an economic and social connection between what we spend our money on and how the world is shaped into the future.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Forgetful Reading

One problem with a static canon1 is the risk that reading it becomes stale. With only 66 books in the (protestant) Bible, and only 27 of those in the New Testament, it's not long before they've all been read. And read again. And again.

And for those raised within the tradition, it's even easier to read them as though they've been read more often than they actually have. The very familiarity of the names, the concepts, the phrases, the words; they all cloud the reader's mind and increase the chance of reading things into the text which simply aren't there.

To learn anything new from the texts, it requires something to shift. Maybe a perspective shift or a shift in time or a shift in background knowledge is all it takes. Reading a Psalm the day before and the day after tragedy strikes will give a different perspective. Reading a gospel before and after learning about the social structures of the time will give a different perspective.

My particular favourite at the moment is wilfully forgetting ever having read the text before. Read slowly and absorb every word. Treat every piece of jargon as unfamiliar. Forget what you've been told by your Sunday school teacher, your parents, your pastor, and your friends. Really read it for the first time as something strange and new, as a puzzle to be solved. Sometimes all we need to do is forget what we think we know, and remember that we don't really know it at all.


Notes
1. Regrettably not the same as a static cannon, which would be a lot of fun to play with.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Why People Attend Pentecostal Churches

In the middle of a great piece about declining attendance at both conservative and liberal churches is this summary of research into the reasons people attend a pentecostal church.
Sociologists studying the movement - preeminently David Martin - suggest that the popularity of these churches is related to the way in which Christianity is linked to access to power. People are drawn to the neo-Pentecostal movement because they believe that their participation will result in some tangible results: financial success, health, successful marriage and so on. It is perhaps thus unsurprising that, generally speaking, individuals in less developed countries, particularly those making the transition from rural areas to large urban centers, are most likely to attend neo-Pentecostal churches.
It's a telling analysis. People who feel powerless are drawn to power, especially egalitarian power. The pentecostal message of universal access to divine power is understandably attractive.

I'm ambivalent about the implications. On the one hand it seems like a terribly shallow motive. Going to church just for what it does for the self does little to reflect the sacrifice required of the believer. I'm often reminded of Acts 9:15-16, "But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’"

On the other hand, Jesus' message was good news to the marginalised and the powerless. He preached to them, he showed kindness to them, and in the months immediately after his death his followers shared their possessions with each other. There is power in the gospel and it's hope for the powerless.

It's easy to see how it can become twisted, without violating the logic. The preaching of power to the powerless is one thing, but preaching it to the powerful is trouble waiting to happen. The hope for Pentecostalism is humility, the recognition of what they have and the responsibility to use that in the service of others. Without humility the movement will be utterly lost.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Happy 200, Pastor Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard turns 200 today. As one might expect, I think this is a birthday worth celebrating. Personally I hope to settle in with The Point Of View for an hour or so.

I'm not alone in the commemoration. Radio National has at least two programs to mark the occasion; one from Encounter and one from The Spirit of Things. I'm keen to see what else they publish, especially from the Religion and Ethics portal.

What are you doing to remember the gadfly of Copenhagen, the Socratic Lutheran, the father of existentialism, and the 19th century's greatest challenge to Christianity from within itself*?



* Hat tip to Nietzsche as the greatest challenge from outside of Christianity. Well worth reading his stuff, especially for Christians.


Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Two Lessons from Crucifixion

I think we can all agree that crucifixion is horrible. The very thought of nailing a person to anything sends a chill along my spine. As an execution method it surely ranks amongst one of the worst that we humans have ever devised but Jesus tells us to carry our cross daily. And Paul boasts in the cross of Christ, as well as insisting that each Christian has been crucified.

Crucifixion has become a formative concept in Christian theology but doesn't feature highly in most contemporary Christian discussion. So what are we missing out on? Let me suggest just two ideas.

Humiliation
From the artistic representations of crucifixion available we see that it's a humiliating way to die. Sometimes the victim had been beaten beforehand. Sometimes the victim was naked. Total exposure to the elements and to the world. In the cross of Christ we see humiliation and scorn in the eyes of the world. There is no glory here, none that looks like pomp, celebration or adulation. If this is how Christ was willing to die, Christians are compelled by their obedience to be willing to be subject to humiliation for following him.

Beautifully, this spares us from being worried about blasphemy. If Christ was willing to be humiliated on the cross, there are no signifiers strong enough to turn him away. The world can continue to profane his name but we have no right to be offended by that. Jesus is willing to bear the brunt of it.

Abandonment of Power
Jesus died as a political enemy of Rome, through the same method used to execute terrorists and revolutionaries. He refused a crown from his followers. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, evoking the image of the conquering Davidic king. He refused to call legions to fight for him. He refused all the trappings of a political messiah of the type of the Maccabees or the Judges. And yet he died the death that Rome would have ordered for any of these. 

To be crucified along with Jesus is to die a similar death; a death that abandons all the power structures of this world. It's a death that faces Caesar and refuses to become Caesar. To die to that death is to be free from that kind of politics, and be free to engage in the politics of loving the neighbour. The political power of the church is not found in lobby groups or petitions. The power at our disposal is the power to freely act, to be indifferent to Caesar in the act of loving the neighbour. This is the real, social and political power of the church.

Crucifixion as a theological concept formative for the Christian subject opens us to thinking about living in ways separate to the ways of the world. If we are truly crucified with Christ, we share in that death in many ways. Sharing in that death then allows us to live as Christ, free from the constraints of Rome.

Monday, 29 April 2013

A Panel on Hot Topics

I had the opportunity to be part of a panel for our church's young adult group. We were to deal with a couple of hot topics in society today and give a few different perspectives on each issue to help the audience develop their own opinions. Importantly, however, was the recognition that none of us were speaking for "the church" or for this church. Official church policy is not currently in my portfolio. I'll be sure to let you know when someone asks me to act pontifically.

Here's a little summary of what I said. The other panellists had their own opinions but since I didn't record it I don't really want to misrepresent their comments.

Gay Marriage
The question here was whether Christians should support it and what does that support look like. Should we officiate same sex marriages?

My response was largely what I'd argued before on this blog. In addition I made some comments about the pejorative use of the word "gay" - particularly in daily language. Taunting and bullying are not options for Christians and we shouldn't stand by while others talk that way.

Christian Faith in the Workplace
I had to take off the theology hat and put on the manager hat for this one. I, like most of us, spend most of my days in service to the empire of money, as I manage a factory. I said that I don't mind if people are talking faith in my workplace but that slacking off from work is giving bad witness. Being proactive at work is much like going the extra mile when forced to carry a load for Caesar. Being an unproductive employee will turn colleagues and supervisors against you and against Christians.

That all sounds like a sell out, that the capitalist enterprise takes priority over the testimony of the saints. I think, though, that's a systemic issue more than it is an individual issue. Testify through good works, kids.

Theodicy
Admittedly, no one actually called it theodicy. The "why do bad things happen to good people" question is usually a bit of fun but they only gave me sixty seconds to answer it. I managed to invoke Luke, Matthew, Proverbs, Job and John in my answer. As you can tell, sixty seconds to harness those five didn't allow much time for nuance but did allow me to address the notion that somehow the victims of evil are responsible for it. "Who sinned, this man or his ancestors, that he was born blind?" is the rot that Jesus dug out. When his disciples asked that he turned it around completely to say that the man's blindness is the opportunity for God to intervene. Likewise when there is evil around us it is our opportunity to intervene; clothe the naked, feed the hungry, tend the sick.

I know it's not an answer that everyone's happy with, but it's the answer that most obviously leaps from the bible.

Persecution
How should we respond when people say bad things about us behind our backs, especially because we're Christian? A quick return to Matthew 5 (with dips into Romans 12 and Petrine letters) was enough to answer this.


Overall the experience was good. I've not been on a panel for a while and I enjoyed the return. There were some questions texted in as well. I'll bundle them into another blog post for later in the week.


Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Necessary Death of the Believer

Peering into the atonement once again, this time around the Pauline theology around the death of Christ and the believer's participation in it, I see that Paul makes large of the issue of the death of the Christian.
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. Galatians 2:19-21, NRSV
These awkwardly translated words, even across several translations, make it clear that although there is a sense that Jesus died for our benefit, the believer also dies in some way. The believer is considered dead both to the law and to sin.

It's an odd phrase to use for someone who is plainly and biologically alive. Is this just a metaphor? As metaphor it's reduced to poetry; a nice word picture to convey the conversion experience. I think Paul isn't quite so vapid, however, and has deeper intentions. The very being of the believer has changed, and changed through death.

But what is that death? Today we'd refer to it as a transcendence of the self, but this doesn't do for Paul's purposes. It's not quite enough to just say that the believer has changed to the point that they're living as Christ would. Paul needs to connect this to torah and does so by linking torah and death. The ultimate consequence of torah is death, even though it was meant to bring life. And because death is an ultimate consequence, once a person is dead they are out of the scope of the law. They cannot be punished any more, neither can they be blessed any more. Along with Christ, Paul has died to the law and in so doing is free from the obligations of the law, free from the punishments of the law, and disqualified from claiming any benefits under that law.

If I died today, I would no longer have to pay taxes and would no longer be able to access benefits owed to me under Australian law. As dead to the law, I'm an invisible non-citizen; owing nothing and being owed nothing. Paul appears to put the believer in the same category. Invisible to the law, beyond its reach and beyond its protection. The believer has only the life of Christ.

The movement from death to life through participation in the death of Christ is therefore a qualitative difference in which the being of the believer is changed. No longer in the contract, now in the life of Christ. The death language is important because the believer has died, has transcended the self and transcended the law by escaping from it the only way possible. The self as we know it is utterly caught up in law, in the consequences of blessings and curses. The epistemological cause of sin is removed and replaced by the epistemological awareness of Christ.

The believer must die to the law in order to escape it. Without that death, without that crucifixion, the law still holds the believer.



Thursday, 25 April 2013

That They Will Not Kill Each Other

Every year I get to Anzac Day and write a blog. It's the same message every year.

1. War is evil and should be opposed.
2. It's terrible theology to take John 15:13 and apply it to soldiers.

And even though I've said it before, I need to say it again today. Anzac Day at its worst is drunken forgetfulness in the name of Lest We Forget. It's a woeful celebration of "our" heroes; people who became heroes while fighting people who were heroes for someone else. We need to remember more than the lives of the people who died in war, we need to remember the horrors of war and the evils of war. When we forget that horror we are too keen to send more people to war.

Jesus' message to us was to turn the other cheek when we are struck, to carry the load an extra mile when oppressors force us, to be peacemakers. He preached all of this while Israel was occupied by a military force. Roman soldiers patrolled the streets. They executed political prisoners in order to maintain their control. Even in the midst of this environment he told his followers not to resist. His way is the way that doesn't recognise state boundaries, it serves the needs of the neighbour. His disciples resist the occupier by being compassionate, not by being violent. There is a qualitative difference between them.

And as for John 15:13? Here it is.
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.
Can we honestly say that Jesus meant for this to apply to the soldier? Let's follow the logic.
No one has greater love than this, to take another's life for one's friends.
Can we really suggest that killing another human being, as soldiers do in war, is the "greater love" that Jesus preached? That is the kind of evil that war brings out in us, that we would kill each other and that we would justify it by insisting that it was Christian love that motivated us to do it.

If we are to hold days like Anzac Day as national holidays of remembrance then we need to remember war in its entirety. It is evil and brings out the worst in us. If we remember one thing from days like this we must remember to never again go to war.
"A modest proposal for peace: Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other." - Stanley Hauerwas

Sunday, 21 April 2013

First steps towards a ransom theory

In my ongoing quest to unravel the atonement I'm working through a ransom model. There are plenty of references to imprisonment and ransom in Paul's writings so it's little wonder that it was such a widespread theory for so long. Some versions of this theory put us imprisoned to Satan but this doesn't seem to hold much weight. I can understand how people would be averse to thinking that God owes anything to Satan, particularly in order to set people free. Nevertheless, the idea that there is some other power in control of us is appealing to me at the moment. It allows us to think about salvation as being from something other than God. It gets us out of the problem that puts God as the threat and the solution, like some kind of mafioso protection racket.

My thinking this week will then be about the prison. How did we get there? What is it? What is the power of that prison?

If this proves fruitful, I'll move on to the ransom itself.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Without you there can be no redemption

I first saw The Last Temptation of Christ about eight years ago. Right up until that moment it was probably running second in blasphemous media only to satanic death metal, or whatever it was that my evangelical upbringing couldn't countenance that week. I remember the cinema protests. I remember the media outrage. For an impressionable pre-teen, that was enough to blacklist the film forever.

And then I got myself an education. And I realised that Christianity isn't actually threatened by anything. As a religion born from humiliation, there's not much more ridicule that can be heaped onto it. So I watched Martin Scorsese's film. In fact, I borrowed it from one of my biblical studies lecturers. I was overwhelmed by its intensity, its provocative portrayal of Jesus in all his boldness and insecurity.

Best of all I was struck by the story's willingness to take on a question that has been asked over the centuries. Was Judas doing the will of God when he handed Jesus over to his enemies? The anguish of this scene, the power of the choice that it contains; I was entranced. Watch the clip for yourself.



How easy it is to make a sacrifice and be lionised for it? How much more difficult it is to make a sacrifice and be cursed by your peers and subsequent tradition?

Whatever you think of Judas, a scene like this is worth contemplating.

"Remember, we're bringing God and Man together. They'll never be together unless I die. I'm the sacrifice. Without you there can be no redemption."


Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Jesus is not a Supergoat

I might seem late to this party but that's only in public. I've harboured suspicions for a few years that penal substitutionary atonement theology is wrong. After a lot of thought on the matter I've decided to come out of the closet as a skeptic.

We know it in its most famous form as a derivative from Anselm's Cur Deus Homo. For me I think its most famous form is in any number of evangelical tracts (thank you especially to Jack Chick) and the altar calls so common in pentecostal churches and tent revival meetings. Ostensibly derived from Romans but conveniently ignoring the other New Testament authors, it's a popular explanation.

But here are my suspicions.

It's nothing like the message of salvation in Acts. Throughout Acts the disciples preach that salvation comes when one believes that Jesus is the Christ so that one's sins can be forgiven. Note that this is "forgiven" and not "paid for."

The entire pistis christou debate (on which I side with the subjective genitive interpretation) either requires faith in Jesus or rests on the faith of Jesus, neither of which indicate substitution.

In Romans, sin enters through our participation in Adam and our salvation enters through our participation in Christ's death. Participation isn't substitution either. Adam's sin better not be known as penal substitutionary guilt theology.

Even in Hebrews, where Jesus' death is most explicitly compared to a Jewish substitutionary atonement sacrifice, the sense to me is that Jesus death is better but not by magnitude. It's not as though there's a quantitative difference between a goat sacrifice and Jesus' death (i.e., a goat balances the sins of a nation and Jesus is like a super-goat who is able to balance the sins of so many more), rather there is a qualitative difference between a goat-atonement and Jesus' death.

Let's not go much further for now. It's enough to say that the penal substitutionary atonement account has its problems. And let's face it, it was only developed in the late 11th century. For more than a millennium Christians believed something entirely different about Jesus' death. It's been around for less than half the life of Christianity and like most Christian teaching is open for debate.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Bonhoeffer the Celebrity

I'm struck by the standing of Bonhoeffer today. There seem to be three camps: people who encounter his biography, people who've read some of his writings, and people who've never heard of him. I can forgive the last group. I belong to the second group. I want more for the first group.

It seems that the age of the populist book has reduced Bonhoeffer to a mere hero instead of a teacher and prophet. He's more popular as celebrity than as instructor. Perhaps that's because our media saturates us with celebrity rather than with content. We seem to like the idea of Bonhoeffer as the martyr and would-be assassin much more than we want to take the time to read his lasting words.

I like his writings even though I don't agree with all of them. He writes clearly and he writes for the believer. This is especially true with Discipleship. If you have time for only one of his books, it's that one. For a little more chewing try either of his dissertations Act and Being, and Sanctorum Communio. It's well worth the time.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The impossibility of Christ in khaki

I'm delighted to have finally found the source of a quote I'd heard some time ago.
Look! Christ in khaki, out in France thrusting his bayonet into a German workman. See! The Son of God with a machine gun ambushing a column of German infantry. …. That picture is impossible – and we all know it.
It comes from a book by Alfred Salter, The Religion of the Conscientious Objector. Published in 1914, it sold over a million copies. Although I don't have the book I'm struck by the vision of the quote and the questions it raises.

Would Jesus have gone to a war like the Great War, WW2, Viet Nam, Iraq?

Would Jesus have stabbed a Roman who was mistreating a Hebrew? I think here of Moses who killed an Egyptian for the same reason.

Is it fair to say that because Jesus fashioned a whip to drive money lenders from the temple that he would use a machine gun to drive invaders out?

Would Jesus stand by and do nothing while an invader attacked civilians?

If we suggest that Jesus would take up arms "in the right circumstances" then we can imagine Jesus with the bayonet or the machine gun. But if we can't imagine Jesus with the bayonet or machine gun, can we say that there are ever "the right circumstances" for that kind of violence?

If we suggest that Jesus would not bear arms against the invader, we must imagine a way to be Christian in the midst of an oppressive regime. How would Jesus have lived if Capernaum had been invaded by the worst warlords in history? Choose whichever warlord you like for the exercise.

In the end we have to return to the biblical accounts of Jesus and his disciples who lived under Roman military occupation, albeit mostly benevolent, and who chose a path of non-violence on the way to his death at the hands of those same Romans. He chose a violent rebel, Simon the Zealot, to be one of his disciples and taught him to love the enemy, to pray for the persecutor, to go the extra mile for the oppressor.
Look! Christ in khaki, out in France thrusting his bayonet into a German workman. See! The Son of God with a machine gun ambushing a column of German infantry. …. That picture is impossible – and we all know it.
Christ in khaki... an impossible picture.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Blessed, not Flourishing

Blessed. The word is a rorshach test. Ask a Christian what they mean when they say it and you'll catch a glimpse into their theology. From the highly unscientific research I've conducted it seems that most people treat it as happy, fortunate, recipient of a gift, well off, and so on. In some cases that's what we mean when we say it too, and in some cases that's what the biblical writers meant as well.

It reminds me of eudaimonia, the flourishing that many ancient Greek philosophers highlighted as the chief meaning of life. To be blessed is to have some kind of divine favour that leads to eudaimonia.

A little word study reveals an alternative to this concept of blessed in Jesus' sermon on the mount. In both Matthew and Luke the word behind "blessed" is makarios. Makarios was only used of the gods, the dead, and the astronomically wealthy. In short, if someone doesn't have to worry about the concerns of this world they are makarios-blessed. Strange, then, that Jesus says the following:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Jesus has put a message out that says it is possible to escape the trials of this world, that people can be free from worrying about the struggle and can get on with the more divine life. To mourn, to be meek, to hunger for righteousness; all of these things provide a way out of the drudgery of the daily grind, the daily pursuit of consumer goods, the daily concerns about career, and so on. Jesus' sermon is about a life distinct from those things, about a life that is makarios.

These blessings are not flourishing, and don't pretend to be flourishing. In stark contrast to eudaimonia they belong to an existence that is unencumbered from that life. Jesus' gospel is a new way to live, not a divinely-charged hyper-life that puts believers on the cover of lifestyle magazines. To be blessed this way is to be in the world but not of the world.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Yes, but is it ontological?

Much of my theological thinking has revolved around the sociopolitical role of the church and the ideology of the gospel. The church is a political strategy (thank you Stanley) in the world, a divine oppositional alternative to the established order (thank you Soren).

Where this kind of thinking goes next depends on whether we remain at the level of the sociopolitical or whether we insist on ontological repercussions. Is it enough to say that the church is counter-cultural or must we take it a step further an insist that the church is an ontological change as it becomes the new creation? As a sociopolitical element it fits neatly within Badiou's model of truth and subjectivity but is scarcely distinguishable from other instances of love, science, art and politics. We must avoid the notion of a church that is devoid of content and merely profound in structure. The content of the church and the gospel must have some significance.

The question that I've yet to answer for myself is whether the significance is confined only to a strict sociopolitical account or whether there is an actual ontological change for the Christian subject and therefore also an actual ontological change for the church in the world. Grace is real, but at what level?


Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Tonight's study

Tonight, for fun and giggles, I'll be studying this passage from Matthew 5.



Well worth it, I dare say.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Why the church is a political strategy

Jesus said to give to Caesar what is Caesar's. Today we can legitimately use the metaphor of Empire to categorise the equivalent systems. The dominant capitalism of today is a continuation of Empire, albeit not the specific empire of the Romans. In a way Empire is another way of talking about Kierkegaard's established order. They both demand an ontological significance which is greater than merely social constructions. Empire is the power that wants to be God. It rules us, controls us and demands our subservience.

No wonder that the early Christian writers subverted it by stealing its language. Most famously Paul takes "Caesar is lord" and declares that Jesus is Lord. These kinds of movements are a political statement that identify the church as a political entity. This is a political entity unlike a lobby group or a political party but a political entity which proposes and actualises an alternative sociopolitical reality. Hauerwas is right to suggest that the church does not have a political strategy, it is a political strategy. The simplicity of the acts of faith, the living out of the gospel despite the crushing power of Empire, is the political strategy. Christians are not called to form political parties in order to lobby for justice, we are called to do justice with our own hands. It is somewhat misdirected to make our sole efforts in social justice an appeal to Caesar that he would make Empire more Christ-like. The place for those appeals is after we have given priority to being Christ despite the power of Empire. Even a cursory reading of Jesus' sermon on the mount is enough to tell us this.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Pope of Infinite Resignation

The resignation of Benedict XVI this week was interesting for its historical significance. It will become tedious for the ongoing conspiracy claims. And it would have been delightfully brilliant if he'd done it for reasons other than age and infirmity.

Imagine if he'd made the Kierkegaardian move of resigning it through faith, that he'd absurdly given up the thing he most desired because God commanded him to. We could have seen his faith at work when he absurdly was elected back into the pontificate. Or, less glamorously and even more interestingly, if he gave it up by faith to then be given a superior (and non-papal!) ministry.

No wonder Kierkegaard was a Protestant.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Just another trinitarian heresy

It's time for Lent! That usually means I read fewer extra-biblical texts and more biblical texts. It rarely means that the pope resigns, though.

There are a few sources which have coalesced to give me reason to think about the trinity and especially trinitarian formulations. Now, when I'm reading the Bible, all I tend to see are the texts that contribute to the concept. The ones that leap out even more than the other are those which present a different perspective than the Augustinian formulation1.

And now to the point. Peter's sermons in the early chapters of Acts include a perspective on Jesus' role. The first sermon of Acts (2:14-36) notes that Jesus was a man (v22) and that God endorsed Jesus (v22), freed him from death (v23), raised him up (vv23) to be exalted by/at the right hand of God (v32), gave him the Holy Spirit (v33) and "made him both Lord and Christ" (v36).

In a way, this presents a contrast between how God treated Jesus the man and how the Israelites treated him; glorification vs shameful death. Without downplaying that at all, what I see here is how Peter identifies Jesus' starting place - Jesus is the man from Nazareth - and that God has made him Lord and Christ.

This appears to be quite different to the idea of a pre-existent Christ from the Johannine prolegomenon. In Peter's sermon, and in other accounts of Peter's sermons, Jesus is the man from Nazareth that God has endorsed and exalted to be Lord and Christ.

It's no wonder that the first few centuries of Church history were marked by debates about the nature of Jesus. Today the view of the Augustinian trinity is the mainstream view and the steps that theologians took to develop that model almost invariably come to the same conclusion each time. However, tracing that path allows the careful reader to challenge each of those steps. These comments by Peter in his Pentecost sermon (and elsewhere) are informative of one aspect of the debate.

Part of me suspects that if we were to take away the fourth gospel and the influence of Platonism on Christianity there would not be a doctrine of the trinity. But that's just a suspicion.




Notes:
1. It's a given that the Bible is in conversation with itself. The various authors didn't cross-check with each other. That's a given, and it's fine with me.