Friday, 19 December 2014

No more traumas

The time has come at last! I'm closing this blog and this is my final post. It's time to take a look at the blog that was and drop a clue for what will come next for me.

Top Ten Posts of All Time
1. Of flags and books; on the stupidity of burning copies of the Koran.
2. Making golf courses useful; classic George Carlin.
3. Your Vote Is Not For You; this will always be my advise for voters in prosperous countries.
4. Biblical Marriage, Gay Marriage; a divisive topic. But do you really know what's in the Bible about marriage?
5. Why there are no Christian men; I meant this to be about the way we import secular ideas of masculinity into the church, but it got plenty of hits from people searching for dating advice. Good luck to you on the prowl for a Christian man.
6. Good is bad is good; why the gospel isn't the kind of good news that we really like, but it's the good news that we really need.
7. Invoking the Devil; a complaint about logical fallacies.
8. Kierkegaard and Tolstoy; a lightbulb moment for me when I realised the influence that Kierkegaard had on Tolstoy, by reading the texts for myself.
9. Supply and Demand After Disaster; on how the market moves when a natural disaster causes demand for something to skyrocket.
10. Zizek gets the RSA Animate treatment; it has Zizek in it, just like all clickbait.


Highest Traffic Sources
I honestly have to take the bots out of this one. They drive my traffic up, to be sure, but it's meaningless traffic. After that filter, here are the top five sources:
1. google.com
2. reddit
3. Some Fool Blog (if you like Divine Trauma, you should read this. It has so many similar things to this, but with tech nerd posts as well.
4. facebook
5. divine trauma (so self-referential!)

Interestingly, the top search keywords were equally self-referential, and then turned demonic.
1. divinetrauma.blogspot.com
2. wikileaks conflict
3. how to invoke the devil
4. supply and demand in a disaster
5. invoking the devil
6. zizek whiteboard
7. divine trauma
8. kierkegaard tolstoy
9. kierkegaard and tolstoy

The key lesson to learn here? People find things by referral. Get it onto reddit or facebook or someone else's blogroll and you'll get traffic. And mention Zizek.

A quick summary
The category count at the bottom of the blog tells a nice story too. Theology, Kierkegaard, Politics, Badiou, Philosophy. You get what's advertised on the tin: theology and politics. At least I managed to stay true to that promise, despite the occasional dip into science fiction.

I tried a few different styles of writing along the way. Some was academic and some was conversational. Often when I look back at something I've written I wince at the tone or the style. It's especially bad when I'm pontificating or prevaricating. (Yeah, I know what I just did.) If I get to the point the first time and then edit the damn thing for style and tone afterwards, there's no wincing. Lesson learned.

Behind it all, though, has been a drive to figure things out in public. A little more than decade ago I was a card-carrying conservative fundamentalist evangelical. I went to this church before it was rebranded as this church. I even remember writing to a politician in support of a campaign to allow religious schools to discriminate against homosexuals in their hiring policies. True story.

The thing that ate away inside of me was the suspicion that the version of Christianity I'd bought into was wrong in some way. It was hard to say where it came from. Sometimes there'd be hints from the pulpit, strong polemic in recommended books, side comments in conversations. I'd ended up with a faith that said the universe was young, that there was magic money to rain from the sky if only I gave more in the offering, that my faith was more real when I could tangibly feel God while singing in church.

But it was a faith that couldn't handle questions like these:
- Why did God command genocide?
- Why does the Bible contradict itself?
- Why does the Bible exaggerate so many stories (e.g., King David)?
- Theodicy (oh that old thing? YES!)
- Why is there such a difference between the Old Testament God and the New Testament God?
- How do we reconcile the Biblical portrayal of the universe with modern science?
- Why aren't the proverbs true?

And so on. All those objections to faith are real objections, even when you have faith. I found that there were no answers to them in evangelicalism, even in the folk-religion version of evangelicalism. Instead I heard sermon after sermon about how to flourish in life. There wasn't much difference between those sermons and a business motivational seminar, except the sermons had a "isn't God smart to have told us all this centuries before Tony Robbins?" bit glued to the end.

In a way, everything I've done since the first lecture I attended on Introduction To New Testament 1 has been a steady path to answering those kinds of questions and then posting some of those answers here. Let's take a snapshot of some things I know I'm convinced of that are different from wayyyy back then.
Physicalism is true and God made it that way. The universe is governed by physical laws, not spiritual laws. Humans are not ghosts inhabiting bodies, we are bodies that have consciousness arising from our brains.

Evolution is the most likely explanation for us. We are the result of the natural processes created by God.

The universe is very old. It's not a young universe that looks old.

The hope at the end of time is a bodily resurrection, not a disembodied afterlife in the heavens. I'm still working through what that means, but I'm open to the possibility that it's just a metaphor for the new life of the believer after conversion.

It's OK to be a gay Christian, just the same that it's OK for a woman to teach in church, that it's OK for men to have long hair, that it's not OK for people to own others as slaves. When we read the bible, history matters.

People wrote the books of the Bible, not God. The authors and canonisers were inspired as much as believers today but it was a flawed human hand that held the pen.

It's OK to disagree with another Christian about plenty of things, but not the lordship of Jesus.

Penal substitutionary atonement is a terrible metaphor for atonement. It's also not as biblically supported as you might think.

God doesn't know the future with certainty, but God has a preferred possible future.

It's OK to use female pronouns for God as much as using male pronouns. Best is to use neither, but that sounds awkward at first.

I'm sure there are others, but these come to mind most readily.

I think I'm comfortable with this new metaphysical view of the world. It doesn't really make much difference to daily life. Whether you think there's a heaven just beyond the clouds in a young universe, or whether you think it's a physicalist universe that's old, it doesn't matter. There doesn't seem to be anything in the Bible that says God especially cares about it. What seems to matter is the principle question from Matthew 16 when Jesus asks, "What about you? Who do you say that I am?"

Peter responds with the voice of all believers and says, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God."

What's next?
Unless I go away, I won't be able to send my next project to you. I have something in mind that is for a different audience, speaking with a different voice. You'll have to wait for the announcement of that, and it won't be here. This is my last post on this blog. My next project will be announced through social media and eventually have a link from amgsmith.net. Watch for it after January.

Some thanks
It wouldn't be a closing post without a few acknowledgements.

To my readers, thank you for your page views. I hope that you also learnt something along the way and have made the world better because of what you've read here.

To my commenters, thank you for your comments. Thank you for getting angry with me. Thank you for trying to correct me. Thank you for helping me to see how terrible an ad hominem attack is. Thank you for your encouragement. Thank you for your additional thoughts. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

I will also acknowledge several other people - alive or dead - who have influenced me along the way. If you can, take the time to look them up.

Russell Tannock, for his friendship and accompaniment along the journey
Scott Stephens, for introducing me to new thinkers good and bad
Van Shore, for teaching me academic method
Richard Colledge, for guiding me through my Masters degree
Alain Badiou, for his perspective on evil and for resolving the thorny problem of how Jesus fulfilled the torah
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for presenting the church as the solution to the problem of being
Søren Kierkegaard, for creating existentialism and writing The Book on Adler.

And many, many thanks to my wife. Although she doesn't agree with me on much of this, she's the very model of grace, encouraging me to write and think and write.

My last word isn't mine. It's a quote from Jerome. I'll sign off with this.
The Blessed Evangelist John lived at Ephesus down to an extreme old age, and, at length, when he was with difficulty carried to the Church, and was not able to exhort the congregation at length, he was used simply to say at each meeting, "My little children, love one another."

At last the disciples and brethren were weary with hearing these words continually, and asked him, "Master, why do you only say this?"

He replied to them, worthy of John, "It is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough."



Wednesday, 17 December 2014

We don't need no science

It's time to confess something to you.

I confess my rage when Christians reject science, as though it's a choice between science and faith. I confess that I think they're idiots. I confess that I want to shake them and shout at them. I confess that I want to get into the argument rather than just let it go.

After all, if God has created the universe with all its laws, it seems to me that we should be accepting of those laws. If God has created a universe which is not only comprehensible but also continually discoverable then we ought to embrace that. From where I stand, science isn't the enemy of faith. Science is the method of learning about the universe. I have faith that it was God who created it. Atheists don't have that faith. But both theists and atheists can work together on scientific projects.

My confession comes out of this. I confess my rage. Being willfully ignorant of science seems about as desirable as being willfully ignorant of traffic.



New Statesman - Joe Public v the volcano

This is an older draft I didn't quite get around to publishing. The short version? To make humans take care of the environment, use totalitarian techniques.

And yes, it's Zizek.

New Statesman - Joe Public v the volcano
"It is instructive, here, to return to the four elements of what the French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou calls the 'eternal idea' of revolutionary politics. What is demanded, first, is strict egalitarian justice: worldwide norms of per capita energy consumption should be imposed, stopping developed nations from poisoning the environment at the present rate while blaming developing countries, from Brazil to China, for ruining our shared environment.

Terror firmer
Second, terror: the ruthless punishment of all those who violate the imposed protective measures, including severe limitations of liberal "freedoms" and the technological control of prospective lawbreakers. Third, voluntarism: the only way to confront the threat of ecological catastrophe is by means of collective decision-making that will arrest the "spontaneous" logic of capitalist development (Walter Benjamin, in his essay "On the Concept of History", pointed out that the task of a revolution is to "stop the train" of history that runs towards the precipice of global catastrophe - an insight that has gained new weight with the prospect of ecological catastrophe).

Last but not least, trust in the people: the wager that the large majority of the people support these severe measures, see them as their own and are ready to participate in their enforcement. We should not be afraid to encourage, as a combination of terror and trust in the people, the resurgence of an important figure in all egalitarian-revolutionary terror - the "informer" who denounces culprits to the authorities. (In the case of the Enron scandal, Time magazine was right to celebrate the insiders who tipped off the financial authorities as true public heroes.)"

I can imagine it now. Children denouncing parents for throwing recyclable plastic in the general rubbish. Neighbours denouncing neighbours for burning the BBQ too long. Workers denouncing bosses for printing too many documents. Companies firing employees for the same thing.

It's a bizarre spectacle to imagine. But is the larger point that for all our good will about the environment we will ultimately need a Big Other to be accountable to? I'd like to think not.





Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Picard on Offering Talks

A lovely quote from the C3 Presence Conference this year.

"Give in faith and expect to receive a blessing back! A new church building! An increase in your business turnover or profit! And to those people who say just give and expect nothing in return, well you're not better than God are you? He gave his son to get us."

And then I did this.



Try as I might, I still need more grace for some of my fellow believers. I'm sure they're a lovely bunch.



Hallmark Christianity

And I don't mean "hallmark" like the craftsman's marks on silver, I mean the greeting card company. Greeting cards and calendars have reduced Christianity to mere sentimentality with an accompanying sunset. The message of the gospel becomes a feel good moment, a teary reminder of a fond memory, a sentimental shadow of the message of life. The next time you see a calendar sale you'll see these.

The trouble with them, and with that medium in general, is the way that it corrodes the gospel. We have a message from Jesus that is both a call to repentance and a source of comfort. It is a message that turns the wisdom of the world upside down. Surprisingly the inversion is almost too good to be true. Here's a winner.

"Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened."
becomes
"Don't smile because it's over, cry because it happened." Blessed are those who mourn, right?

It's a terrible version of the gospel and probably has more to do with Ralph Waldo Emerson than Jesus. I'm sure it sells a lot of calendars, though.

Monday, 17 November 2014

What is sin?

I think I've been skirting around this one for a long time, never really putting it out there what I suspect is true of sin and sinfulness. So let's go for it.

I think that humanity has been created with a certain epistemology, a way of knowing things. We learn about the world through stimulus and response and eventually our understanding grows more complex until we develop a consciousness. We come to the conclusion that there is an I in the midst of the neural network, a thinking thing, a centre of thought, a ghost in the machine. Consciousness arises from the brain and the brain develops through sensory experience.

We can't help but put ourselves at the centre of the universe because for all we know, we are the centre of the universe. We don't know for sure that anyone else has a mind, even though we act as though they do. Everything that happens, happens in relation to ourselves as the cosmic centre. Even space-time is defined this way. Up: defined in relation to ourselves. Before: defined in relation to ourselves. Later: defined in relation to ourselves.

In order to function as creates in the universe, we need to first experience the universe and to formulate a consciousness at the centre of that experience. Our primary experience is of self-centredness. Our natural condition is self-centredness. Our inclinations are self-centredness. We do what is easy or pleasurable. We avoid what is difficult or painful. We act out of self-interest, an interest which is developed through our previous experience of the world. In order for us to be conscious, we need to develop a self-centredness. Once we have this, then we are free to make choices.

I choose.

Unlike a Chalmers-esque zombie, there is an I that arises from my brain and allows me to truthfully make the statement: I choose. There is an I and it is an I that chooses. In order to have free will we must be aware of the I that exercises such free will. If we are to be able to make a choice to follow Jesus or not, we must first be able to choose. To be able to choose we need to have a sense of self, a self-centredness. Self-centredness is the natural outcome of a biology that channels all sensory experience to a single brain.

This biology is the result of evolutionary processes, set in motion by a creator God. God has created these processes and the pure freedom of the individual is the result. This means that there was no Fall, there was only an exposure of our true nature. It wasn't as though we started as perfect and later became sinful. Instead we started as sinful and every time we have a choice to make, it exposes our natures.

So what is sin? Sin is the epiphenomenon of consciousness: selfish indulgence.

To say it again: stimulus-response creates a centre of the self; the self-centre creates a consciousness; consciousness allows free will; free will usually chooses self-indulgence through avoidance of pain or pursuit of pleasure.

This, I think, is an explanation of sin that doesn't rely on myth or parable, but which derives from what we know about the human brain today.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The trauma will soon be over

Years ago I created this blog. I wasn't sure why. Maybe I just wanted a platform. Maybe it was to pander to my own ego. Maybe I had something good to say.

Whatever the reason, I called it Divine Trauma. Riffing off the Lacanian idea of trauma, that somehow Christ is a traumatic event that interrupts and redefines the world, I ploughed on.

But now it's many years later and it's soon time to bring this trauma to an end. Although this post isn't the final post, by the end of 2014 the blog will finish up so that I can work on a new project, something post-traumatic.

Watch this space for pointers to the next project, and a couple of wrap-up posts.


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Living outrageously

I think it's been a long time since Christians did something divine that provoked outrage. I don't mean the kind of outrage that deservedly comes when child abuse or embezzlement is uncovered in the church. What I mean is the kind of action that is indisputably Christian, the kind that can't be dismissed by saying that it was done by "so-called Christians." Something about being Christian has offended people so much that they persecuted and executed the early church.

The likely candidate is the Christian confession of faith. It says Jesus is Lord, Jesus is the Christ, Jesus is the Son of God. Those confessions were in opposition to the requirement of the day to say that Caesar is Lord, or to deny that Jesus was more than merely human. Beliefs drive actions. And actions provoke reactions.

In the last few weeks in Australia, the debate over what Muslim women wear in public has reached fever pitch. Some people have called for a ban on the burqa and the niqab. Some people who don't wear them for religious reasons have started wearing them in solidarity with those who do. Something as simple as a veil has become a focus for a kind of culture war. The public is outraged. One side is outraged by the women who wear veils, the other side is outraged by this outrage.

But if clothing symbolises the divide between Islam and the rest of the world, what symbolises the divide between Christianity and the rest of the world? The famous "What Would Jesus Do?" quip that was used to stir people into behaving more like Christ has an ominous dead end: crucifixion. Whatever it is that Jesus would do, it ultimately ends up at the cross, at an execution by the authorities and dominant culture of the day. If you want to do what Jesus would do, then get ready to make enemies and be persecuted.

That's why I have this question. What do Christians do that is so outrageous as to cause our society to persecute us? What authentically Christ-like behaviours do we have that are offensive to the world we live in, so much so that it reaches the front pages of news sites?

Our persecutor in the first century was the Roman Empire. That Empire continues today as consumerism. It's a way of thinking that surrounds us and drives us. Consumption is Lord of that world. But for us there is one Lord, Jesus Christ. If we are to genuinely follow Jesus, we have to turn our backs against the Lord of Consumerism.

But do we really do that? What does that even look like?

Monday, 6 October 2014

The prayer of faith

When I first became a Christian...

Let's back that up a bit.

When I was a child - a mere infant! - my grandfather baptised me in his church with water from the Jordan River. As a good Church of England priest he followed the baptism service that has been in use for centuries. He asked my parents to answer on my behalf, and he put three important questions to them.
Do you turn to Christ?
Do you repent of your sins?
Do you renounce evil?
In that tradition, my parents had done two important things for me. They had given thanks for my life, and they promised God that they would point me towards Jesus. Many years later, when I was old enough to decide for myself, I stood before a bishop who asked me the same questions. And that was the day I became a Christian.

Do you turn to Christ?
Turning to Christ is the moment of the encounter with the risen Jesus. It's the moment of looking towards the incarnate God, towards the human with the message, the peasant who was crucified. It's the moment in which we can answer Jesus' question to his disciples (Matt 16), "But what about you? Who do you say that I am?"

The turning is an acknowledgement, a confession of faith. Turning ourselves to Jesus is answering, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God," just as Peter did. It is the turn towards salvation, towards a lord who isn't Caesar, towards the person of Jesus and not the institutions of Rome or Jerusalem or Athens.

Do you repent of your sins?
There is something about turning to Christ that represents where we are going. In just the same way there is something about repentance that is a turning away from where we have gone wrong already. Throughout Jesus' ministry there is the call to repent. It's where he starts in Mark. It's the encouragement he gives to the woman caught in adultery.

In repentance we acknowledge the hurt of our own actions, the hurts we have committed against others, against God, against ourselves, against creation itself. This is our apology, our sorry, our recognition of the value of who and what we have hurt.

Do you renounce evil?
Evil, however we define it, has no place in the life of the Christian. It might oppose the Christian, but it has no place inside the Christian. The renunciation of evil is the turn away from future sins, the promise we make that we won't sin again.

In renouncing evil, this is the turn away from the institutions of sin as well. We turn away from Empire with all its consumerism and money-worship. Our backs are turned to it and to all that it does.

-

Three promises. Three movements of conversion. When I first became a Christian these were my words. My salvation prayer was as simple as this.
I turn to Christ.
I repent of my sins.
I renounce evil.

And every day I promise them again.


Thursday, 4 September 2014

What do we really need?

Those of us in the prosperous Western churches have a problem. We are driven to prayer over what we feel we need. We need a new job because we are unhappy in our current job. We need our house to sell quickly so that we can buy a better one. We need a loved one to recover from an illness, big or small. We need our kids to behave better.

What we pray about is a reflection of what we think our needs are. Our problem is not the thing we tend to pray about. Our problem is what we think our needs are.

In 1943 Maslow published a paper which included his hierarchy of needs. The general idea is that human motivation is broadly grouped into five needs, and that we tend to ignore the higher order needs if the lower order needs are unmet. Regardless of which level needs we feel, we always feel needs, and those needs motivate us to act in the ways that we do.

Our prayers are motivated by these same kinds of needs. When we feel a need for the basics of life (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) then we pray for those things. But when all those basic needs are met we feel the higher needs and will be naturally inclined to pray for those needs to be met. It's easy to see how a prayer life of a prosperous Western Christian could be focused around the higher order needs and produce a selfish prayer life.

But Jesus asks us to do something a little unnatural when he teaches his disciples to pray. He teaches us to pray for us, not for me or for you. From Luke 11.
He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
Our prayers and our concerns must extend beyond our own feelings and desires. When we take the needs of others into account we can't avoid knowing that there are others who don't even have the basic needs fulfilled. There are still people in the world who haven't yet fulfilled the lowest levels of Maslow's hierarchy. Their needs are for food, water, clothing, and shelter.

Jesus' original hearers undoubtedly included people in the same position; Judean peasants living in sustenance farming or a low income agrarian economy. It's no wonder that this prayer is about bread and debts (moral and financial). Their needs were lower in the hierarchy than the needs we feel in the prosperous West.

You might say that Jesus was simply preaching a message to his audience, knowing their situation. In a sense that's right, but only if we stop taking an individualistic view. Jesus' audience today ought to be just as concerned with bread and forgiveness for us, not just for me.

Jesus' gospel requires us to be concerned for us, not just me and not just you. Us. I might well be living in comfort but we are not. I might feel the need for my boss to appreciate my work, but we are starving and under persecution.

What I need might not be what we need.

Do you read C3 Church Watch?

"Do you read C3 Church Watch?"

That's the number one question I seem to get asked by people in my local church after a few minutes of theological conversation. I'm still not sure why that's such a popular question.

Other regular questions include these big two:
What do you think about Revelation, the Left Behind series, or the end times?
What do you think about the creation of the universe? I mean, is it just like the big bang and evolution or what?


I wonder if these are the big questions because of the influence of culture on these topics. There are a lot of books and arguments about these, and unfortunately there's a generalisation of which side that Christians take and which side the scientists take, as if it's even possible to assume that Christians all believe the same thing about Creation and Revelation.

Sometimes I wonder whether these are just unanswered questions, despite the ongoing caricature that is called a debate. It doesn't matter how many internet forums, youtube videos, books, or sermons are focused on the topic, there still seems to be a strong sense of incompleteness about these issues in the Christians around me.

And for me that's a good sign. It's an indication that people are still questioning. It's an indication that there is still a search for truth. There isn't a dogmatic bellow that insists one way or the other, but there is space for discussion and learning.

But the C3 Church Watch question... that's still a mystery to me.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Biblical contradictions

It's well attested that there are contradictions within the bible. Or at least that's the conclusion that most armchair critics come to. I think that the problem is not one of logical contradiction, but one of textual form.

Most armchair critics approach a book like the bible with an expectation of a systematic description of God, and life and how life ought to be lived. Unfortunately the bible is a canon, not an essay. As a canon it collates documents from various authors, various times, various social class, various experiences. It is not univocal. It is a polyvocal testimony to experiences of God, and as such we will find one passage which critiques another, or one passage which clarifies another.

All of these texts are attempting to convey a testimony about God and all falling victim to the reality of language. Once we use language we can only ever approximate. Symbols have meanings and meanings require interpretations. Trying to impose an expectation of consistency on a canon is an inappropriate method.

As a canon, with all the various factors that contribute to its production, I think that we would be more fruitful in treating it as a perichoretic testimony. The texts interplay with each other, drawing from each other and distinguishing themselves from each other. All the while they make space in the middle for an actual experience, an inference, an interpolation. By reading them and allowing them to be in dialogue with each other, they make space for the reader to use those testimonies and reach a conclusion about God.

"Subjectivity is truth" and the pursuit of truth needs the believer to own the truth for themselves. A systematic presentation could never generate this kind of subjectivity. On the other hand, a canon of texts that demands the reader to wrestle with them, deliberate on them, and find a truth that resonates with lived experience… this is what drives people to developing faith that transcends the self and creates more than a human animal.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Kindy Theology: The Prodigal Son

I was telling my five year old the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) over the weekend. It's a good choice of story for him; he's the eldest of two sons. At the end of the story he asked a great question.

"What did the older brother do next?"

Like a lot of parables this one poses a challenge of unfinished detail to the audience. The Good Samaritan challenges the hearer to be a good neighbour, for example. The Prodigal Son parable challenges the audience on how they will react to the penitent sinner. Will they pout about the unfairness of God or will they join the celebration for someone else's salvation? After all, the eldest son has been good and obedient and probably has the right to refuse the younger son any welcome.

For those wondering what I said next, I asked my son what he thought the older son would do. He said that the older son would try to get the younger son into timeout and tell the dad about it. So I asked what the son should do. He said that he should not try for the timeout and should join in the party to welcome the younger son home.

In other words he got it. Even a five year old understands the message of this parable. No theological training required because the story had immediate relevance to him. I'm not sure I'd expect the same about some other parables. :)

The next question he asked was a doozy. He did what good expositors will do and ask about who was not there.

"Did they have a mum? What was she doing?"

Thinking about who's conspicuously absent is part of close reading and I feel like a caveman for not seeing this before. In the story of Esau and Jacob, Rebekah was the voice in Jacob's ear, guiding him about how to get the greater inheritance. Could there have been a mother who did the same? Or was the mother in as much anguish and joy as the father, sharing the turmoil of parenting? Perhaps she organised the feast for the younger son's return. Jesus didn't include her in the story but we can meditate on it and wonder what we would do as the mother of these boys.

Parables that need no explanation. An absent mother. Kindy theology is a beautiful thing.


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Your presence is heaven to me

Like all liberal theologians* I find that some unpalatable songs become palatable when we mess around with the meaning of words.

For example, here's one that's doing the rounds at the moment: Israel Houghton's "Your presence is heaven to me."

But I find the mysticism jarring. I feel nothing in songs like this, nothing other than chord progressions. But when I do hear this song, or even sing it at church, this happens:

Your presence
From Matt 25 we learn that just as we treat the least, that's exactly how we treat Jesus. And from Matt 18 we learn that where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name, he is there. Jesus' presence is in the people around us, in the neighbour, in the other.

Heaven
From Rev 21 we learn that it is not us who go to heaven, but it is heaven that has come down to us and formed the church. Heaven is now invading this world in the church.

So when I hear "your presence is heaven to me" it always means "the people around me, believers or needy, are the presence of God in this world and by being among them I am in heaven."

Silly physicalist Christian that I am, but without this the song is a meaningless ditty.





* Stereotypes are welcome here, just for this sentence.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Three Arguments Against A Young Earth

I normally stay out of arguments about the creation of the universe but I've been asked a few times recently about what I think. So just in case you were wondering, I think a young earth is unlikely, and here are just a few reasons why.

1. From reasoning: It requires the possibility of a very short and artificial past.
Suppose you say that the universe is young but was created to look old. And by "young" you mean "a few thousand years." By allowing that possibility, you also allow the possibility that "young" could mean "a few seconds." If that was the case, then all our memories from more than a few seconds ago would be implanted there by God. Furthermore, it would also mean that the historic events of Jesus' life never actually happened, but God has created an artificial history that indicates they were. No Jesus, no crucifixion, no atonement. So, to allow a universe that is X years old but artificially looks like it is Y years old, with Y larger than X, is to allow some far-fetched possibilities.

2. From textual analysis: The writing styles of Gen 1 and 2 are vastly different to each other and to the rest of Genesis, and bear a striking similarity to other creation stories.
So what? Here's what. It means that they oughtn't be read as the same genre as the histories (e.g., Kings, Chronicles, etc.) but should be treated as parables or allegories. They are simply too different to be read as any kind of history.

3. From science: There's only one truth and scientific method is pretty good.
It would be strange and non-sensical if God created a universe with one truth and then gave a revelation with a contradictory truth. What we learn about the universe through scientific method isn't a threat to God, but is a way of rescuing us from superstition. It takes away from God the attributes that we have ascribed to God and allows us the space to focus our religious efforts on what really matters.

And just in case that was even in any doubt, I go back to Jerome's account of John the Elder.
The Blessed Evangelist John lived at Ephesus down to an extreme old age, and, at length, when he was with difficulty carried to the Church, and was not able to exhort the congregation at length, he was used simply to say at each meeting, My little children, love one another. At last the disciples and brethren were weary with hearing these words continually, and asked him, Master, wherefore ever sayest thou this only? Whereto he replied to them, worthy of John, It is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough.

What matters is this love, not quarrels about the origins of the universe. However, it seems that there is no end of questions about it.



Friday, 18 July 2014

Penalty is not Forgiveness

At the risk of being a cynic with no better plan I'm putting forward a criticism with no alternative. Calvin's theory of penal substitutionary atonement has bothered me for years. It gets brought out over and over, not just as the explanation for Jesus' death but as a necessary statement of faith for the believer. If I'm to hold to it, then I should confess that I deserve eternal damnation, and that my only way out of it is for someone sufficiently better than me (i.e. Jesus) to be punished on my behalf.

This atonement requires that God receives satisfaction, and the only satisfaction that God will accept is eternal damnation. In this model, God needs to administer punishment to fit the crime and is bound by that need; God is captive to the requirement for punishment.

And yet, God forgives. Jesus taught that God forgives. Jesus gave authority to his disciples to forgive sins. But what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is a restoration that relinquishes the obligation to make restitution or to administer punishment. If I forgive you, then I let go of any claim that you make things right.

Forgiveness is not penalty. Forgiveness is the acceptance of the other, despite any wrongs or injustice. Conversely, penalty demands reparation.

I think that there is a conflict between penalty and forgiveness. It seems to me that the teaching of Jesus was heavily in favour of forgiveness and so I'm skeptical of Calvin's theory of penal substitutionary atonement.


Note to evangelical readers
Please don't be offended by this. There have been centuries of attempts to develop a model of the atonement. The most popular evangelical model (Calvin's) is only five hundred years old. It's not "the one true interpretation" of the matter.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

I will show you the bride of the Lamb

I adore the moments of reading the Bible when a sentence comes alive. Perhaps it comes alive for the first time, or perhaps for a second (or third) time, but it's alive with possibility and meaning. Every time I do good exegesis, this happens. Sometimes it happens by accident.

This is one of those accidents.
"Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God." Rev 21:9-10
I normally steer clear of Revelation, mostly because I don't have enough background context for it. There are a few points in it that anchor it to the rest of the Christian Bible and I think this might be one of them. The angel tells John that he is going to show John the bride of the Lamb, and what he shows him is the new Jerusalem. This metaphor of the bride is only used elsewhere in Matthew and John. Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is the bride.

For so long I (like others, I suppose) charged into this passage with the pre-formed idea that the new Jerusalem is the city in heaven, a picture of perfection for when God has finished the final transformation of the universe. And then I saw my mistake. The people of God don't live in this city. In fact, no one lives in this new Jerusalem. For the rest of the chapter there is no mention of anyone living there at all. People come and bring glory and honour into the city, but that's it.

So I read it again. The angel said he would show the bride, and he showed the city. The city is the bride. The new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven is the bride. This is the new work that God has done, and it is the church.
"I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it." vv22-24
This is a picture of the church as a blessing for others, not the picture of an afterlife blessing for the church. It reinforces the idea that the kingdom of God is God's interruption into this world, to bring a solution for this world rather than being a "pie in the sky when you die" solution.

For the believer, therefore, this is an encouragement to bring God's light and life and love into the world. We are the new Jerusalem that God has brought down from heaven for others. Once again, the Biblical texts show that the message of Jesus and the work of the church is for this world, in the here and now.


Picture credit: B Facundus 253v




Friday, 4 July 2014

Inspired

I've been running a series of groups lately, teaching people ways to read the Bible. It's a kind of "exegesis for beginners" discussion group, aimed at people who might never pursue tertiary studies but who take the Bible seriously, as texts that should be read and understood and applied.

For that group there's no discussion of inspiration, inerrancy, or infallibility. Nevertheless, they all see the Bible as inspired, as God-breathed (but not God-dictated). This is a serious claim. It's a claim of authority, a claim of revelation. The words in the Bible aren't just any words from any authors, they are words from inspired authors. Somehow, God's spirit has been involved in the production of the text that we have today.

But at the same time, the Christian belief is that God's spirit is also breathed into each believer. Each believer is inspired. This is especially true in the charismatic and pentecostal traditions, and taken all the way in the Christian Quakers' tradition. I like this quote from George Fox, as recorded by Margaret Fell:
"You will say Christ saith this and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God, etc.?"
In other words, if the believer is really inspired then they have some measure of authority through their experience of the spirit. Let's be clear about it. In this way of thinking, a Christian has God's spirit in them, making them inspired and this entails that the believer has inspired authority.

The various traditions will have much to say about this, I'm sure. Someone will probably say that a believer has to be "in the spirit" when they are being authoritative or that the believer's pronouncements cannot contradict the Biblical texts. They will cite texts like Rev 1:10 to support it. I can't help but feel that this approach is more like the vision of Yahweh's spirit in Ezekiel 1: the spirit descends to make a pronouncement and then leaves after it's done. The believer no longer has the spirit.

In a way it's like saying, "All my friends like my taste in music." If someone doesn't like my taste in music, they aren't my friend. "All Christians are spirit-filled when they live and speak as inspired." If the Christian experience is a genuine transformation then our lives and words will be inspired, and that will give us authority. We know what it is to meet someone who has committed their life to Christian charity. We can't help but listen to them speak. They have an authority about them. In a way, I think that this resolves the deadlock in the situation. A life transformed by God to discipleship and service is a life that will overflow with divine authority. But then, Jesus said something about that in Matthew 7.
‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.


Sunday, 15 June 2014

Reading the Fundamentals

I've taken to reading The Fundamentals lately. They're a collection of essays produced early in the 20th century to describe the fundamentals of the Christian faith. This is from the preface to the Torrey edition.
In 1909 God moved two Christian laymen to set aside a large sum of money for issuing twelve volumes that would set forth the fundamentals of the Christian faith, and which were to be sent free to ministers of the gospel, missionaries, Sunday School superintendents, and others engaged in aggressive Christian work throughout the English-speaking world. ... Some of the volumes were sent to 300,000 ministers and missionaries and other workers in different parts of the world.
These books are undoubtedly part of the reason that American and American-style Christianity has its current culture. Even after reading just the first chapter, there's no doubt to me that the positions laid out in these books are still held by multitudes of American-style Christians.

Reading them, and especially the history of these books, puts them in a similar space to the doctrinal disputes and ecumenical councils of the earlier church. There's a quest to get things right, to stamp out the heretics, and to clearly define "the faith of the Church."

We Christians have a long history of doing this. Even as far back as Galatians we can see the footprints of the quest for doctrinal purity (Gal 1:6-9). Every story of a council, a heresy, or an excommunication is the story of one part of the church arguing with another part of the church about what Christians ought to believe.

We fight we each other. We claim the truth. We claim the divine position. We assert and assert and assert. But do we listen? Do we take the time to listen to the other person's experience of God?

Even The Fundamentals is part of this history, despite being a product of its time and unable to stand up today. It does raise important questions for theology, especially for the application of theology in the pews. And it raises questions that are important in the minds of the believer. Reading it, or any other theology from our history, informs us and challenges us. It presents us with questions that need answers, even if those answers aren't found in that same text.

I've not finished reading it, but I'm sure I'll work my way through it this year.

Uploaded paper at amgsmith.net

Over at amgsmith.net I've uploaded a copy of the paper I wrote that was included in the student journal Arche. You can find it in the theology section of the site.

It's a paper about Chalmers' philosophy of consciousness and some possible consequences for theology.  I looked at the possible ways of thinking about the nature of God, presuming that a divine consciousness follows the same rules as other physical entities. If consciousness arises from the physical, what kind of God is possible from within that metaphysical framework?

So if you're into that sort of thing, go and download it from there.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Everybody Falls

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’

The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’

But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Genesis 3:1-7
We usually call this the story of the Fall. It's the moment that, through Adam, sin entered humanity. Before this moment God walked and talked with people in a garden and after this moment God pronounced judgement for the disobedience. We have a neat explanation for why things are wrong: there were two people who made a mistake and we have inherited it from them.

They made the mistake. We inherited it from them.

For a long time I understood this as a literal story. An actual man and woman called Adam and Eve. I could blame them. I could ask questions like "if only they hadn't..." and say things like, "If I was there I wouldn't have..." Somehow I could use this story to blame someone else for the situation that I'm in.

But of course this isn't true. Whatever it is that I choose to do, I'm the one who made the choice and I must live with those consequences. I can't blame Adam any more than I can blame my cat. If I was Adam, I probably would have done the same thing. I would have grasped for the opportunity to be wiser, to know more, to be more godlike. We humans are like that. We want more from life. We want to be stronger, smarter, more beautiful, richer, and so on. We can see this just from the average magazine rack. They offer the promises of a better life, a better house, a tighter six-pack. We want these things and magazine publishers make money off this desire. The desire is real.

And that brings me back to the story of the Fall; a story that tells more if we stop reading it literally and instead read it as a parable. If you like, read it as the answer to this question: what are human beings like? If you leave us alone, away from the watchful eye of authority, what are we like?

There's a fluffy bit of advice that says: sing like no one is listening, dance like no one is watching. Maybe this story of the Fall is what happens when humans live like no one is watching. Maybe we should stop calling it the Fall and start calling it the Revelation of Human Nature. This is what humans are like. We grasp for things. We see what we can get away with. We lure each other and blame each other. We want what the other person has. We even want the wisdom of a serpent, the wisest of all creatures.

Perhaps when we tell the story we should add a preface like Jesus did for many of his parables. He liked to say, "To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like..."
The Revelation of Human Nature
To what shall I compare human beings? What are humans like? It is like two people in a garden, surrounded by all the animals of creation.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’

The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’

But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Reading the words for what they are

When we read we always read into the text, adding something to it from our own experiences. We read it through our own lives. We read it with our own expectations and we read it with our own conclusions.

I grew up in Rockhampton, a cattle town in Queensland. One day I read a story about the Fitzroy River flooding and straightaway I could imagine it. I'd seen it flood before and remembered the way the water flowed and churned. I remembered how high it came up the banks. And when I saw footage of the later flood on TV I was startled. It wasn't the same. Things had changed in Rockhampton. My recollection was old, for sure, but also Rockhampton moved on since I'd lived there. There were new buildings, new parks, new roads. When I'd read about the flood, I read my memories of the place into the story.

We do this sort of thing all the time, and if we don't know that we're doing this we tend to miss the details and we miss the point of the story. In other words we read it already knowing what we want to get from it and end up not getting what the writer wanted us to have.

It's especially true with the way we read the bible. Most of us come to it after someone else has already talked to us about it. We've already heard the stories and parables. We've heard sermons preached about them and have already had them explained and interpreted for us so when we read them we find ourselves learning nothing new, and oftentimes learning something vastly different to what was meant. Ultimately, we can miss the point.

Reading what was written takes patience and attention to detail. The slow reading and awareness of details is what lets you into the world of the author. They wrote those details in so that you would read them. They included all those people by name because they want you to see them and know them, even just a little bit. Those words are written for you.

To really understand what had happened in that flood in Rockhampton, I needed a new set of mental images of the place. After watching the news footage I would be able to go back to the written article and see the story in a new light.

The bible doesn't really have a news video. It has dramatically-interpreted movies. The buildings look the way that the directors wanted. The people spoke English and are all-too-often white-skinned. Those mental images are artistic recreations

To really get the point of the written story, especially the one that has no documentary video, you need to read the bible slowly, taking it all in. Let the details come to life and imagine them. Who was there? Where was it? What time of year or day was it?

Those detailed words will transport you to that world and into those lives. And when you get there you will be able to see what you're meant to see, hear what you're meant to hear, and take away and understanding that will change the way you see the world.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Our unmarked tombs

I went to a funeral today. As always it was a somber experience. Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

The body of a man was in a box and lowered into the ground. His wife of 60 years watched and wept, along with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. His childhood friend of 75 years delivered the eulogy. He knew the man through and through. From childhood mischief to trade training to personal hobbies to family ancestry.

We all die. At some naturalistic level we will die and we will probably be mourned by those who knew us. They will gather around our resting place and cry and laugh and remember.

As Christians, we've already died. The day of our "yes!" to Jesus was the day that we participated in his crucifixion. We died. We died to escape the law. We died to escape our selfishness. We died so that our flesh could be born from above and live a new life in Christ.

But we don't mourn that death. We don't cry. We don't mark a resting place for it. Instead we live in the here and now, and we look in hope to the future. Like the empty tomb of Jesus that no one goes to visit, each believer has an unmarked tomb that no one goes to visit. We have moved through death, beyond the law, into a life of divine grace and love.



Photo credit: Andrew Smith

Monday, 28 April 2014

Session 10: Louis Giglio

The final session was held by Louis Giglio. He preached about the bigness of God.

Summary
God has created a vast universe. If it exists only for humanity then it's much too large for its function. Perhaps it was created to show the glory of God (Isaiah 40). If God could create this universe by divine command, and the universe is as large as it is, surely God is even bigger. How remarkable it is, then, that God would know us personally, become flesh, and be crucified for us.

Thoughts
Space photography is beautiful. Louis showed lots of it during his sermon. Each one was a picture of something vast or of something a great distance away. They all supported the notion that the universe is massive. And for the audience we get a chance to be awed by this. We feel small and fragile.

At this point Louis makes the leap from natural religion to revealed religion. Whether you know it by this name or not you've probably seen it before. The basic structure is to start with an argument from nature (see how beautiful/complex/awesome this thing is) in order to persuade people that there is something more than the physical universe. The next step is to move away from nature and to a revelation (a book, a vision, an experience) to describe characteristics of that "something more."

The problem is that the "something more" could be Zeus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a juvenile deity who created us as a forgotten plaything, or whatever. The movement from "something else" to "the God and father of our lord Jesus Christ" is a movement of faith. It's not a logical consequence. Giglio's last image (after all the astronomy1) was a depiction of the crucified Christ.

Even though it's a logical fallacy, it's actually quite a successful technique for converting people to a particular faith. But as they say, you should aim to win the person and not the argument.


Notes
1. The inclusion of an image of the X-structure at the core of the whirlpool galaxy was a crowd-pleaser but it reminded me of people who claim to see the face of Jesus in grilled cheese on toast.

Session 9: Phil Pringle

This was a very different session to the others. It wasn't preaching so much as it was an experience. Pringle called it New Oil on the basis that believers can be baptised in the Holy Spirit more than once. The point is to stay current with the move of God. Most of the session was spent in prayer and the experience of that baptism. 

Writing about this is tricky. It's a religious and mystical experience, one that is intensely personal. For me, I don't feel anything in these kinds of sessions. Other people claim to experience physical or emotional phenomena. 

I don't have these experiences but others do so I'll take Wittgenstein's advice and pass over it in silence.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Session 8: J John

The Canon preached his second sermon around the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:38-45), using an allegorical interpretation. 

Summary
1. Remove
Remove the stone from the tomb. The stone represents something in our lives that is a blockage to us leaving the tomb and having a resurrection experience. 
The stone must be removed by someone other than Jesus. Jesus could have removed it with a word. 

2. Respond
Jesus called specifically to Lazarus, not all the dead (c.f. John 5:28). Lazarus had to hear and take action in order to complete Jesus' command. Likewise today the Christian must take action to obey Christ's command. Any specific, personal command may have been given years ago but we may not yet have taken obedient action is response. 

3. Release
Christ sets us free but we can still be wearing grave clothes. In our freedom we must be sure to live in that freedom and not cling to past hurts, disappointments, etc

4. Reveal
Just as the people who saw this went on to testify (and their hearers also believed and went on to testify) so too must we testify to the work that Christ has done in us and in others.

Thoughts
What I like about this is the necessity for action on the part of the believer. Christ does not command us to feel good on the inside, but to take our inner transformation and do something with it. The actually existing individual only rises above the herd by this moment of subjectivity. Subjectivity is truth, as Kierkegaard said. 

The sternness of the delivery, though lost in this blog post, carried the message even better. The audience could not miss the intent that they were to stop living as the crippled beggar in the roadside, and to start living as the healed disciple of Christ. 



Friday, 25 April 2014

War?

"Imitate me as I imitate Christ." 1 Corinthians 11:1
Christ made friends out of enemies. He didn't raise an army to accomplish his goals. 

"Blessed are the peacemakers." Matthew 5:9
Not the politicians who send their youth to war for petty disputes and nationalistic fervour.

"They shall learn war no more." Isaiah 2:4
Our commitment to a divine future begins now. Spend time learning about your neighbour and less time learning how to kill them.

"Love your neighbour as yourself." Matthew 22:39
And who is my neighbour? Can the Samaritan say that the Jew is not his neighbour? Can the free man say that the slave is not his neighbour?

This Anzac Day we need to use the occasion to rethink how we treat our enemies, how quick we are to pull the trigger, how keen we are to let loose the dogs of war. We need to rethink the governments that we put into power and give authority over declarations of war. 

I dream of a future with no war and I choose to be part of making that future part of the present. No war. Never again. Lest we forget the waste of life that is war. 

Session 7: Kong Hee

I missed sessions 5 and 6 but ended up at session 7. Kong Hee was the speaker and he spoke about the Holy Spirit as supported by his own story. 

Summary
The Holy Spirit is the paracletos, the one who comes alongside to advocate and help. 
The Holy Spirit speaks to people (Acts 13:22)
The Holy Spirit directs people (Acts 16:6)
The Holy Spirit testifies (Acts 20:22-22)
The Holy Spirit brings hope (Rom 15:13)

Thoughts
The sermon had the fundamentals of the Pentecostal teachings in the Holy Spirit. Nothing new or remarkable there. It made the assumption that the believer would recognise when an inner voice is genuinely divine and when it isn't. 

I'm especially interested in this because it was a central thematic question of my masters thesis. I compared Abraham's call to sacrifice Isaac against the claim by Christopher Lee McCuin who killed and cooked his girlfriend because God told him to. Being able to hear the authentic voice of God is crucial. Paul claimed his teaching was a divine revelation (Gal 1:11-12).

Hearing God is good. Recognising it as authentic is hard.

 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Session 4: J John

An Anglican amongst the C3 Pentecostals? Who would have thought it?

Summary
This was a reminder about four things. 
1. The book. 
The bible is a sacred text. We should treat it as such. We should find in it where we are and where we are going. It is a filter for the pollution of the world. 

2. The breath. 
The Holy Spirit is the breath of God. It is the power of God to refine us. We must not grieve it, quench it, or resist it. 

3. The blood. 
The blood of Christ cleanses us from sin and heals us. It keeps the church alive and healthy. Christ's blood is precious., perpetual, powerful, and permanent. 

4. The bride. 
The bride is the church. Are we preparing it to meet Jesus the bridegroom? Are we saying nice things about her? Are we supporting her? Or are we putting spots and blemishes on her?
We cannot love Jesus without living the church. 
It is flawed but it is our family. 

Thoughts
Typical evangelical Anglican teaching here. It carried a mix of encouragement and warning. Special note goes to the idea of the church as the family, dysfunctional but ours. This is the community that Christ set up for us. God has always chosen flawed people to do holy work in the works. In the church we flawed people work together and accept each other. I almost get the sense of Rowan Williams in the background here, but then he wasn't the first to say these things about the divine community. 

Session 3a: Brian Houston

It seems that I've lost all my notes from this one. From what I remember...

Summary
People have dreams deep in their hearts about what they could do. 
Some dreams are outrageous. 
Some dreams are kept private, perhaps not even shared with spouses. 
The heart is where God starts working in us. 
We must protect our hearts so that our dreams are not crushed. 

Thoughts
So perhaps it's not fair to go too deeply into this, seeing as how I've lost my notes. My rudimentary thoughts are just two. 

I like the notion of having a mental picture of how we'd like things to be. It gives us direction. This is probably conventional wisdom, though.

The idea of dreams or aspirations deep in the heart is like a two-edged sword. It's something that people hold dearly and can be great motivation but it's also subject to the fickleness of human desire. Maybe this sermon has an unspoken label of "some discernment required" on it somewhere. 

Session 3b was a discussion panel with audience questions. I didn't think it was worth a blog post. 

Session 2: Chris Pringle

With a reputation for unstructured preaching, Chris Pringle had the second session. 

Summary
The whole sermon was titled, "Winter is gone." And that was the one point of the message. It was a riff on Songs chapter 2 and was an encouragement for people going through a difficult time, a winter. 

Thoughts
This is part of the larger biblical debate on hope and calamity. Some of the poetic and wisdom books suggest that faithfulness is rewarded with blessing. Some others remind us that faithfulness is no guarantee of blessing. Sermons like this one are encouraging for some people in their distress and based on the crowd reaction, some of those people were there. I'm not that kind of person so I'm happy to step aside and let the encouragement reach those who need it. 

Session 1: Phil Pringle

The first session was a welcome and tone-setting by Phil Pringle. He said it was going to be a ramble, not a precise sermon with clear points so that's how I listened to it. I'm going to summarise his points as concisely and accurately as I can. No straw men here.

Summary
1. Christians need the Holy Spirit to be able to live the Christian life. You have to live through Acts before you can live through the epistles.

2. We must pray for God's kingdom to come. We have to pray and then be the fulfilment of that prayer. When the sick are healed, the dead are raised, the prisoners set free, that's when the kingdom has come.

3. We can't turn disasters or sicknesses into objects of theological discussion. We should be weeping about it. Problems exist to be solved. They are opportunities for God to be seen. God's power is breakthrough in your life for you to have massive breakthrough. Power is to open the eyes of the blind, raise the dead, set the prisoner free.

Thoughts
Overall I think there's some good and bad in this one. Top of the pile goes to the comment about being the solution to our prayers. The kingdom comes when people take action to follow Jesus. Following Jesus is not just about bumper stickers or going to church on Sundays, it's about the lives we live. 

Right next to it comes the comment about evil in the world. Jesus told his disciples that evil is not necessarily anyone's fault, it's just there and God wants us to be part of the solution, regardless of whether the evil is man-made or natural. This taps into the larger theological debates on theodicy.

Where we disagree is in definition of power. Pringle interprets power as signs and wonders, and uses biblical texts out of context to support this. His use of 1 Cor 1&2 misses the sense in which Christ is power as social and community power. Christ is power to be indifferent to social hierarchies, to act beyond them with impunity.

I also think there's something deficient in the, almost narcissistic, notion that God's power is for your own personal breakthrough. I think this is half the story. God's power is for the transformation of the individual and the transformation of the world. Framing it as breakthrough or conquest gives it a spirit that doesn't come from the New Testament. Also (and this is anecdotal only) most stories I hear about people praying for breakthrough are first world problems. Most of the audience were first worlders, already with enough provision in our lives, but needing modesty in our consumption.

He made a couple of historical errors along the way but they didn't detract from his message.

That'll do for now. I really hope this is taken in the spirit it was intended: a genuine representation of what was said, an engagement with those ideas, and not a personal attack on anyone.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The next few posts

I said last week that I'd be at a conference this week. My next few posts will probably be in response to it. Rest assured that whatever I write won't be sycophancy or personal attack. I can't stand that sort of thing but I like a good engagement with a topic and critique of what's written or said. 

And if I don't write about what was said then I've totally disengaged with the speakers and read something from my Atheism for Lent studies while they were talking. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Many voices of atonement

Resurrection Sunday is a great trigger to think about the atonement. Although if I'm honest I think about the atonement more often than any other question in theology. I took a quick survey through the New Testament today to see what the various authors had to say about it. I've grouped these loosely.  

Synoptic Gospels and Acts
Salvation comes to those who believe in Jesus, who believe that Jesus is the Christ.

Fourth Gospel
Similar to the Synoptics, salvation is about believing in Jesus. 

Pauline Letters
Salvation is for those who declare Jesus as Lord and comes about by the believer vicariously following Jesus through death, out of the realm of law, into life. The path is crucifixion, not resurrection. Vicarious is not the same as substitution. 

Hebrews
This is the most convoluted. God makes Jesus perfect through suffering. Jesus becomes a priest in heaven. As priest Jesus offers a sacrifice of himself to sanctify believers.

Petrine Letters
Back to the gospels again, salvation comes by believing in Jesus. It is the resurrection that brings about the benefits of salvation and the resurrection is a gift. The believer is elected and needs to support their election with works. 

James
Being at one with God only happens when actions match faith, particularly with regard to compassion and care for the oppressed. 

Johannine Letters
By loving with divine love a person is united with God. 

Revelation
People are saved by acknowledging that Jesus is Lord, by repentance, and then by a divine washing in Jesus' blood. 

Seems like there isn't a unified account here. They all look at it differently. One thing is for certain: there isn't any penal substitutionary atonement here. By having different perspectives we have an opportunity to discover it more fully. 

Friday, 18 April 2014

10 Reminders of our Brutal Universe

In the middle of all the busyness of life and the shiny happy messages coming from pulpits and TVs, I'm often shattered out of my reverie by things that remind me of the cold, brutal universe that we live in. Here are my top ten.

10. Clouds
They've been forming, moving, and dropping rain on the planet for billions of years. After I die they will keep doing it as though I never existed. Add to this item: oceans and old trees.

9. Sunrises
They look beautiful some days. But then I remember that one day the sun will go nova and completely obliterate our planet and all evidence that I ever existed. It's like a daily reminder of impending doom.

8. Sunsets
Just when I find my way home after a day at work I see the great fireball in the sky shining warmly back at me, biding its time until it's ready to strike. See #9.

7. Ecclesiastes 9:10
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going." Cheery.

6. Parasitic worms
These lovely creatures are doing the same thing we are. They look for food and shelter. Some of them don't have to look for mates to help the species along so they have one less item on their checklist. Still, their quest for survival in our bodies has no regard for us at all. Kind of like the way we humans have treated the planet.

5. Cancer
Even when human medical science has found solutions and preventions for so many ailments that took billions of us to the grave, the very reward of survival - to get old peacefully - comes with the ever-increasing risk of cancer. And if we ever cure cancer? What the hell is the killer after that?

4. Deep time
The universe is old. Very old. Older than the second-oldest thing ever. On the other hand, human civilisation is but a few thousand years old. We are teeny and tiny by comparison.

3. Chess
I like playing chess. I like the idea of playing chess. I am, however, terrible at chess. Why on earth do I enjoy something I'm so clearly bad at? How did the human psyche develop this feature?

2. Children
We allocate years of emotional effort into them. We love them and nurture them. And then they watch us die. Don't get me wrong; I love my kids even though they remind me of my own mortality.

1. Faith
Somehow we have the tendency to believe things to be true, even though we have no evidence to prove or disprove them. They are convictions deep in our minds of something beyond this world, but it's always something that stubbornly resists the very logic of proof. Faith itself is not always a comfort, but a reminder that there are some things that I will never know for sure.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

I am Judas

A meditation on Maundy Thursday.

I am a disciple of Jesus. I walk behind him in the parade as people shout praises and wave palm branches. I help organise the passover meal. I sit and remember the traditions of my people, and the way that Jesus has transformed them.

I am Peter. I refuse Jesus' offer to serve me by washing my feet, and then demand that he demean himself more by washing me all over. I don't understand what Jesus is doing. I've never really understood, but I still follow him

I am Judas. I share the cup with Jesus. I dip the bread with him. When he tells me to go quickly and do what must be done, I go. I take the thirty pieces of silver. I wait for the Pharisees to gather enough armed men to arrest Jesus.

I am a disciple of Jesus. When the meal is finished, I sing with Jesus. We go out into the night. Jesus tells us that we will desert him, that we will flee for our lives. But still, he takes us to a garden to pray. I cannot stay awake with him. He prays so earnestly. He prays more than I do.

I awaken to hear Jesus talking about men with clubs. There is a fight. Swords clash. I see Jesus heal his attacker.

I am Judas. I kiss my teacher on the cheek. He calls me his friend. We both know where he is going. I am the one who handed him over. I led his enemies to him in the darkness. He calls me his friend.

I am a disciple. I flee naked from the soldiers. I cannot even stand with my master when our enemies come with swords.

I watch them take Jesus away, hoping that they will only flog him, hoping that he will be spared the cross he always spoke about.

I am Peter. I deny Jesus once. I deny Jesus twice. I deny Jesus thrice. I am embarrassed of Jesus, and then embarrassed of myself.

I am a disciple, even today. I am all these disciples. I sing and pray and eat with Jesus. I demand from Jesus. I don't understand Jesus. I hand Jesus over to his enemies. I run away when trouble comes. In the darkest night, I abandon Jesus and pray that one day he will take me back as his disciple.



Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The presence of a witness

Just as a note to my earlier post (Can I get a witness?), I'll be going to the C3 Presence Conference next week.

This may come as a surprise to some of my regular readers.

(I'll wait a moment while you pick yourselves up from the floor.)

I'll probably tweet a bit through it, or blog a bit in the evenings. Maybe I'll meet a pentecostal theologian there. Let's hope so.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Can I get a witness?

I'm told that there are some actual, living, breathing, pentecostal theologians. I don't know any and by looking around my circles I don't know where to start.

I know several pentecostals who have "been to bible college" and after talking with them for a few minutes I get the sense that their bible college has a stunted academic rigour.

I know this sounds horribly condescending of me, but hear me out. I've met three kinds of people in bible colleges and seminaries.
1. People who are there to be told all the reasons why what their church believes is right. They only read Zondervan books and have a tendency to use the word "revelation" a lot. They come out of the student experience having learnt the apologetics of what they already knew.
2. Same as #1 but they give up in the first semester because of all the liberal garbage, and the amount of non-literal interpretations. They fail to get past the first time they hear, "Let's look at this text another way."
3. Similar to #1 or #2 but when they encounter a different point of view they take it seriously, engage with it, and whether they agree or not they have solid reasons for doing so; reasons other than upbringing or extant doctrine.

Who I'd like to meet is a #3. A real, genuine theologian who has engaged with biblical studies, theological studies, and philosophical studies. Someone who knows about Barth, Hegel, Aquinas, Origen (even if they haven't read them deeply) and who holds confessional belief in the Spirit as depicted in Acts.

I want to meet them because I don't understand them. I want to sit and listen, and argue, and debate.

So if that's you, let me know. I have ears ready to listen.


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

amgsmith.net has been revitalised

If you're the curious sort of person who has clicked around this blog after reading a post then you may have found my personal page at amgsmith.net

After a lot of mucking about, I've redesigned it to trim the fat and just because I like the kind of mucking about that goes into making something new.

We now return you to your normal programming.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Palm Sunday

Add another layer of meaning to your Easter observance. Go and read this blog post. Here's a snippet to whet your appetite.
Holy Week: Palm Sunday: "Less well-known is the historical fact that a Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem for Passover from the other side of the city. It happened every year: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be present in the city in case there were riots at Passover, the most politically volatile of the annual Jewish festivals. With him came soldiers and cavalry to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem."
Two processions into the same city at the same time, but in opposite direction and in opposite appearance. Which will you choose?

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Who is my neighbour?

World Vision USA has changed its employee conduct manual. Now it no requires its married employees to be heterosexual.

(Did you hear the sound of a thousand evangelical pastors' jaws dropping open? Perhaps the sound of a thousand coffee cups hitting the floor?)

I imagine that some churches will applaud this. And some will waggle their fingers at it. Some churches will loudly denounce the organisation. Some will do it quietly, perhaps promoting another child-sponsorship group instead.

What will be most telling, however, is what makes the most noise. Will the noise be about so-called declining morals? Or will the noise be about how the church needs to act in response to poverty? There's a place for both of those topics in a robust society, but I think that we Christians need to press harder for the latter rather than the former.

I'll go out on a limb and say something unambiguous about God. God is very concerned with wealth distribution. God is very concerned with how we look after each other. God is very concerned with how we treat the poor, the naked, the hungry, the widow, and the orphan. Our louder protests should therefore be in unison with that. We must be more outraged about abject poverty and oppression than by almost anything else. If we do not take care of the neighbour, whether that neighbour is literally next door or is in the foreign factory that makes our cheap clothes, then we have paid too much attention to the smaller matters and not enough attention to the weightier matters.

World Vision helps people in need. I don't care if it's a clean cut all-American, a homosexual, or a Samaritan who works for them. Which of these was a neighbour? Go and do likewise.

Monday, 24 March 2014

A heart without meaning

Somewhere, deep in your heart, is the real you. That's where you really feel the truth of a situation. That's where your soul resides.
"The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." Genesis 6:5-6
Or is the heart something else?

For centuries it was considered scientific fact that thoughts came from the literal heart, the organ in your chest. Stop a heart and you stop the person. We hear echoes of it when the Israelites are forbidden to eat blood (Deut 12:23).

In European history, sometime towards the end of the 15th century, science took over. People started discovering (through some awful experiments, by the way) that the brain was involved in motion and speech and other control aspects. Eventually we know what we know today. Our thoughts are generated in our brains, not our hearts.

But the heart lingers as a poetic device. We love from our hearts. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab stabs from hell's heart. Even though the biblical authors believed the heart generated thoughts, today we read it instinctively that the heart is just a metaphor for our inner thought life, our motives, our intentions.

I can't help but wonder why we so easily accept this and learn to read through that lens, and yet we seem unable to do the same with ideas of heaven, or demonic possession, or a host of other things which we can now view differently. It would be a laughable argument to suggest that because of cardiology and neurology, all biblical references to the heart are devoid of truth or meaning. Is it not just as laughable to say the same about the relation between psychology and demon possession?

Our view of the world has changed because of science, but it doesn't mean that we need throw out the meaning of our sacred texts. We can still figuratively understand the bible, even when it literally opposes science, without taking away any value.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

If I Was God

If I was God I wouldn't waste any more time. The world has too many horrible things in it for my liking. If I was God I'd be removing tyrants from power, teleporting murderers onto island prisons, destroying gun factories, curing cancer, and cancelling debts. There is too much evil in the world. Today would be judgement day.

If I was God...

This kind of wish fulfilment fantasy reveals something about God. God either can't or won't do those things. The Christian claim about God is that God is love, so "won't" is out of the question. But what about "can't?"

For a long time we've allowed our understanding of God to be defined by ideas of earthly power. Power is the ability to force our will, we've said. So we say that divine power must be the ability to force divine will. But what if divine power is not an infinite version of human power? What if our own ideas of power are if a different kind of power to God's power?

God showed us divine power in Jesus. Look at the way he treated people, even his enemies. It is weak in the eyes of the world. It is a different kind of power to Caesar's power. Caesar's power puts its enemies on a cross for all the world to mock. Jesus' power goes against social expectations and has a meal with the outcasts. Jesus' power rejects the crown and accepts the marginalised.

Even in the midst of cleansing the temple, Jesus did not hit anyone. He used a whip to drive out the animals (John 2). Matthew, Mark, and Luke don't mention a whip, only that he drove them out. In Matthew, the very next thing that happens is the excluded people (the blind and the lame) come in to the temple and are healed.

The truth is that if I was God I wouldn't bring judgement day today. No. If I was actually like God - even just a little bit - I'd be more interested in lifting up the lowly than I would in punishing the guilty. If I was God I'd be a better man than I am today.

If I was God...