Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Why 'believing' the Bible is a category mistake: a response to a response to *that* sermon


Melbourne-based Baptist pastor, Murray Campbell, has posted a response to Bishop Curry's Royal Wedding Sermon.

The bulk of the post was actually about Bishop Curry's support for same-sex marriage and his controversial place in the Anglican Communion. Nevertheless, Pastor Campbell respectfully acknowledged that there was much good in the sermon, but also elements that concerned him. So: 
Did Michael Curry say some things that were true and helpful? Yes. Did he speak too long? For a wedding, probably yes, but every preacher know that temptation. Was it positive to see an African American preaching at a royal wedding? Absolutely. Maybe in the future we’ll see a Chinese or Persian Pastors preaching the Gospel at such an auspicious occasion. Did the bishop say anything unhelpful or untrue? The answer is, yes.
For Pastor Campbell (drawing on the comments of an un-named Anglican minister), the 'unhelpful and untrue' lay in Bishop Curry's willingness to define love and its power in terms of human acts of love rather than in relation to God's love for us in Jesus Christ. I'm not entirely sure that that's entirely fair to Bishop Curry. Be that as it may, I can't help but turn Pastor Campbell's questions about Bishop Curry on to his own post. 

Did Murray Campbell write some things that were true and helpful? Yes. Did he write some things that were unhelpful or untrue. The answer is, yes. It was helpful that he pointed out that Jesus was skeptical of the world loving him and his gospel. That is an important note to sound in the euphoria the sermon has provoked and the likely ephemeral nature of that euphoria. It was especially unhelpful, however, that Pastor Campbell encouraged people struck by Bishop Curry's sermon to "seek out a Bible believing and Jesus loving church." 

Christians are not called to 'believe' the Bible; they are called to acknowledge its authority, and to listen to it through the filter of the gospel proclaimed by Jesus. It is a serious category mistake to talk about 'believing' the Bible. Employing this theological error allows some churches to distinguish themselves from other churches which by implication are said not to 'believe' the bible. In fact, the actual distinction at hand is between churches that might equally acknowledge the authority of the Bible but interpret it differently. When a church presents itself as 'Bible-believing', it is often a fairly blunt proxy for legitimating its interpretations of the Bible without acknowledging that they are interpretations.

Perhaps it was just an accidental ordering of the words, but the sequence of Bible first then Jesus is also cause for alarm. Christians should never, in my view, place their recognition of the Bible's authority (let alone their 'belief' in it) ahead of their 'faith' or 'trust' in or 'love' for Jesus. Despite the influence of this particular distortion of the theological grammar of the Christian faith, it too is a serious theological error. 

My own encouragement to those struck by Bishop Curry's sermon would be to seek out churches that trust and embody the Gospel in lives of discipleship and who deepen that trust by listening for God's living Word through listening to and interpreting the Bible.

(For a longer engagement with the relationship between faith in Jesus and reading the Bible, see this piece at the ABC Religion and Ethics Website.)

****
Update: Murray has written a response to my response(!) here. I won't be responding again. The arguments are now out there.

Monday, May 14, 2018

What do you do with a theological education in a post-truth age?



The occasional address given at the Annual Graduation Ceremony of the Adelaide College of Divinity, May 7th 2018.

***

Firstly, I thank the Faculty for the honour of the invitation to give this address. Although there is a lot of interaction between the respective leaders of the various theological consortia and colleges, there are not so many opportunities for general faculty members to engage other colleges and their students in events like this. I am especially grateful for being able to do so.
***
My earliest memory of attending a graduation ceremony goes back to my oldest brother’s graduation in the late 1960s. There is a 14 year gap in age between him and me. As a 10 year old I had no choice but to tag along to what was a significant family occasion. As it happens, it too was a theology degree – a BD in the then Melbourne College of Divinity.

What I remember most clearly about that graduation ceremony is the event that happened mid-way through the speaker’s address.

Dressed in all their ecclesiastical and academic finery and seated behind the speaker at the lectern were the various church and academic leaders. I recall my mother nudging me at one stage to look at the then Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne. He had very conspicuously gone to sleep.  His head was nodding lower and lower as he fell ever more deeply asleep. Then with a sudden and dramatic jolt he woke up and sat up straight. In the process of doing so, however, he propelled all the books and papers that had been on his lap into fan-shaped arrangement at the feet of the guest speaker.

I suspect that the speaker knew at that very moment that it would not be his address that people were talking about afterwards – let alone 50 years later at another graduation ceremony at another college of divinity in another city.

I tell this story not simply to serve notice to the assembled dignitaries not to fall asleep! Instead, I prod all of us to think about what should be memorable about a graduation ceremony.

Certainly, I do hope I don’t send anyone to sleep. But at the same time I won’t be at all offended if this address is not what you most remember about tonight.

What I hope is the most remembered part of tonight is the sense of achievement that every one of you, the graduands, is entitled to feel tonight, and which you are entitled to share with your friends, families, and teachers: those who in some significant ways have made this achievement possible.

The completion of any tertiary award is a significant achievement.

Regardless of the different levels of ease with which you've reaced this point, everyone has had to apply themselves. Everyone has had to wrestle with issues which perhaps they would have preferred not to. Everyone has had to ask their friends and family to understand that they just had to finish that essay that night and couldn’t be interrupted. Everyone will have given up something – whether income foregone, social life restricted, or career opportunities surrendered.

I don’t say any of this lightly or simply as the formulaic congratulations expected of a graduation speaker.

In the 17 years I have been involved in teaching theology and ministry studies, I have been repeatedly struck and frequently inspired by the sacrifice that theological students make to undertake and complete their degrees.

So, to all of you, ‘Congratulations’. Soak up this moment for all that its worth and for all that it represents. Remember it and recall it for the rest of your lives.

***
OK, so what now?

What are you going to do with your theological education?

The question is often asked.

Often, it is asked from within the church, for the church has always had its healthy scepticism and suspicion about the value of academic theology. And it is important to affirm that there will always be a tension within the Christian faith between action and reflection, between pragmatics and contemplation. Theology must never be isolated from the matrix of the activities and practices that make up the life of faith.

But that tension aside, there has always been a particular role for theologically trained members and leaders helping the church develop an informed faith, or perhaps a self-critical faith, or perhaps a faith more thoroughly prepared to give a reason for the church’s hope.

Yes, a theological education can equip you to do all that.

***
You might sometimes be asked about your degree by those outside the church. And if there’s a measure of uncertainty from within the church about the value of a theology, that’s got nothing on the uncertainty you might encounter in the wider world.

“Theology? What’s that?” is a question I’m often asked on those occasions when I decide that I have energy to come out as a theologian and then deal with the mostly predictable conversations that so often follow.

One day I plan on putting together a collection of my own and others’ experiences of such moments of self-declaration.

Even just last week at the hairdresser I had another intriguing encounter around this issue. I took my seat in the barber’s chair and the conversation unfolded like this:

“What do you do” asks the hairdresser.
I teach theology in the Uniting Church
“Oh, so you are a specialist in rocks?”
No, theology, not geology.
“Oh, so you study theory.”
No, I study Christian ideas about God.
“Oh. So you’re Christian. I’m not. I find that Christians are very judgmental.”

[I’m happy to say that notwithstanding that rather unpromising beginning, we ended up having a constructive conversation about Christianity.]

But the most interesting such conversation was some years ago, at a supermarket check out.
Again, the conversation began with usual sequence: “What do you do?” “Oh, Theology. What’s that?”

 I tried to give a brief summary of the combination of languages, history, texts and ideas involved in studying theology. Somewhat surprisingly the young man’s eyes began widening in seemingly awe-struck anticipation until he burst out: “Oh, you mean like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. How cool!”

On this occasion I thought it would be quite wrong to dampen his enthusiasm.

****
But to ask the question, ‘What to do with a theological education?’, today is to ask it in what has been called the post-truth age.

This is an age in which the structured and critical enquiry characteristic of an intellectual discipline (and not just in academic institutions)  is being called into question.

Of course, there have always been philosophical sceptics. It is a position which has always been part of intellectual discussion in one way or another.

But the post-truth phenomenon is not simply an appeal to philosophical scepticism and its lineage of healthy doubters.

The post-truth phenomenon is a cultural and political phenomenon in which truth claims are not just doubted. They are mocked. They are ridiculed.  They are trivialised. And so too are the truth-tellers. The symptoms of this are well known.

The dismissal of journalism as Fake news.
The willingness to deny outright clear evidence.
The intent to malign expert knowledge because it is expert.
The normalisation of spin as a substitute for political debate .
·        
And, of course, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. 

Indeed, it was the year in which Trump was elected to the White House that Oxford University Dictionaries announced ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year.

It was defined in these terms:


I’ll come back to that definition shortly. But let me quote two other short statements which offer snapshots into our culture’s tenuous relationship with truth, each of which highlights another edge to the problem

Lee McInyre is a philosopher at Boston University. In his recently published book, simply entitled ‘Post-truth’, McIntyre writes:

“One gets the sense that post-truth is not so much a claim that truth does not exist as that facts are subordinate to our political point of view(p.11).

He also says this:

“The question at hand [in this post-truth moment] is not whether we have a proper theory of truth, but how to make sense of the different ways that people subvert truth” (p.7).

His point: post-truth doesn’t signify a total denial of truth, but a political determination to subvert any claims to it.

My third snapshot quote comes from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writing, as it happens, some years before the language of post-truth gained currency. Williams claimed and lamented that the West had moved into a “ 'dark night’ for intelligence” in which “[W]e don’t quite know what knowing is for” and “we don’t’ quite know that we can know.”  

In many ways, the Archbishop’s comments suggest an even bleaker situation than described by Lee McIntrye or even than that implied in the Oxford Dictionaries' definition.

The Archbishop’s point: there is a fear at large that there might not be anything that we can know as truth.

If these seem rather abstract academic definitions, let me say that  it is the cultural mood or the cultural posture captured in them which makes it possible for the phenomena I noted above:  journalism being dismissed as fake news; clear evidence being dismissed outright; expert knowledge being maligned because it is expert; spin being normalised as a substitute for political debate.

***

It is a cultural mood, or posture, or moment where Christians need, I think, to ponder at some depth how they respond.

Allowing for all the nuances of Jewish and early Christian concepts of, and language for, truth, it is something which is not reducible to a theory of knowing. Rather, it is a way of living that holds together such notions of faithfulness, reliability, correspondence to God’s reality, straightforwardness, honesty – something that fundamentally God is long before we share in it.

It is part of being Christian to care about people, words, actions, doctrine and ethics being ‘true’ in this rich meaning of the concept.

We follow and worship the one who declares himself to be the way, the truth and the life. (See John 14:6)
We are told that the truth will set us free. (See John 8:32)
We are exhorted to think about ‘whatever if true and honourable and noble.’ (See Philippians 4:8)

In claiming to be people of the truth, we have an investment in, and a vocation to, resisting the posture and mood of the post-truth culture.

As Christians we share convictions that means it is not just a matter of emotion or personal belief when we declare that domestic violence is simply unacceptable; and when we challenge employers who might manipulate or exploit employees; and when we argue that reconciliation between first and second Australians is necessary.

For those of you who have been called to leadership in the church, you will want to know that it is not just a matter of emotion or personal belief  when you may need to challenge your community of faith and its members about how and where it invests its money; when you need to challenge a colleague in matters of their own conduct;  when you make a stand in a particular doctrinal dispute or challenge the misuse of scripture; when you advocate for the poor and marginalised in societies;when you speak truth to power – either within or beyond the church.

For all these scenarios we need operative accounts of truth.

But let me go back to the Oxford Dictionaries Definition.

...an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

As I’ve already hinted, there’s a need for Christians to tread carefully when responding to this. There can be a wrong kind of Christian response to it. There could be a Christian bravado that actually misses the real challenge that this definition poses.

You see, many of Christianity’s critics will readily argue that Christianity fits right into the post-truth world. It is not interested, so they say, in objective facts. Its only appeal is to emotion and personal opinion.

Most Christians would, I'm sure, want to resist the idea that Christianity can be reduced to the idea of emotion and personal belief, even if we will insist that there is a place for emotion in and personal commitments in our engagement with the truth.

At the same time, Christianity will not fit into the ‘truth world’ if fitting in depends on basing its truth claims on ‘objective facts’. After all, it is a theological insight common to Jews, Christians and Muslims that faith does not rest on ‘objective’ 'facts,' and that when it tries to do so it has probably taken a step towards idolatry.

So whilst resisting any attempt to locate Christianity amongst the post-truth realities, it would be a mistake for Christians to swing over completely to the definition of truth that many propose as the antidote to post-truth challenges.

Because we understand God revealed in Jesus Christ to be the truth, our truth claims will not fit easily into the categories of either truth as defined in modernity or post-truth as defined in our contemporary milieu.

****

As those who have been educated theologically, you have been taught to interpret texts; to analyse ideas; to understand doctrines; to reflect on the church’s practices of love and mercy; and to have an informed sense of the church’s historical and social location.

I suggest that in doing all that you learnt ways of navigating that space between the idea that truth lies only in objective facts and the idea that truth lies in emotion and personal belief.

To be theologically-trained for ministry is to be introduced to a way of thinking that is humble about the truth claims the church makes but confident in the convictions of which those claims consist.
It involves an understanding of truth which has certain virtues attached to it.

If we believed that objective facts alone were the basis of truth – the seed is sown for arrogance.

If we believe that emotion and personal belief is the basis of truth – the seed is sown for indifference.

But instead of between arrogance and indifference, the Christian operates between humility and conviction.

Helping the church navigate its way within this framework is one of the things that you can do with you theological education in this post-truth world.

In doing so, you might often surprise both those within and those beyond the church.

It seems to me that Christianity has been publicly pigeonholed by certain cultural assumptions, by its own sin, and by its own confusion about how to live in this context.

As the theologically-trained members and leaders of the church help the church negotiate this new context, you might also help cut through the strictures of those pigeonholes.

Remember the claim of Rowan Williams that our cultural context is one in which “we don’t know that we can know”. Perhaps it is part of the church’s vocation to offer a counter testimony to that situation to surprise ourselves and our world by what we believe to be true; a counter testimony that reality can be known, that God can be known.

****

So let me conclude by drawing your attention to the passage read earlier from the book of Acts (17: 16-21).

After Paul had discussed the good news about Jesus with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens they were sufficiently engaged to take him to the Areopagus where they asked him:

 “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”

And after he had spoken some more some of them declared: “We will hear you again about this.”
Paul’s message about Jesus Christ created curiosity – it cut through the structures and categories of thought that prevailed in first-century Athens.

As you leave here tonight with your freshly-minted degrees from the Adelaide College of Divinity, I encourage you to use your theological education to cut through the categories of thought that prevail in twenty-first century Australia. Undo many of the expectations that people have of you and the Christian faith. Break open the pigeonholes of cultural assumptions.

Follow Paul’s example and the exhortation he gives in his letter to the Philippians which I alluded to earlier.  
...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things..

And, if I can add, be strong in your convictions and humble in how you articulate and embody them. Do that and you will putting your theological education to good work.






Wednesday, May 9, 2018

What Cory Bernardi and Tony Abbott Get So Wrong about the 'Judeo-Christian Tradition'

A sermon preached in the Chapel of Queen's College, Melbourne University, May 7th 2018.

Texts: Luke 4: 14-21; 1 Peter 2:4-13
“Australia is a secular nation but it is founded upon the Judeo-Christian tradition and values.”
The claim at once invites some interrogation of what Bernardi means for a nation to be secular but founded around particular religious values.
Setting aside the question of its coherence or historical accuracy it is important to realise that Benardi’s invocation of the 'Judeo-Christian tradition' is part of  larger quest to defend not only so-called Australian values but the values of what he rather loosely calls ‘the West’. So, in his book, The Conservative Revolution, he makes these much more expansive claims:
The framework of our Western moral tradition can be found in the wisdom of the Ten Commandments, and the lessons of Christ and the lives of the Apostles.
All this can be affirmed, he rightly insists, regardless of whether the society at large regards itself as secular.  So he goes on:
Thus, secular or not, our society is based on the principles of religious faith, borne of the natural law that is engraved on our very heart, reflected in our customs and codified in our laws.
In this he has a close ally in his former party leader, or, I should say, the former leader of his former party, namely Tony Abbott.
In his 2015 Thatcher Lecture in London, the former Prime Minister made a quite specific appeal to Jesus’ instruction to “love your neighbour as you love yourself” – the so called Golden Rule. Abbott declared that this “imperative is at the heart of every western polity”. He continued: “It expresses itself in laws protecting workers, in strong social security safety nets, and in the readiness to take in refugees.”
Then last year in a much publicised speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, also in London, the former Prime Minister lamented how this particular religious heritage was being set aside by what he described as a new religion – namely the religion of Climate Change.
This is what he said:

Climate Change is by no means the sole or even the most significant symptom of the changing interests and values of the west. Still, only societies with high levels of cultural amnesia – that have forgotten the scriptures about man created “in the image and likeness of God” and charged with “subduing the earth and all its creatures” – could have made such a religion out of it.
What is going on here? It is partly nostalgia, or at least it trades on a certain kind of cultural nostalgia. It is partly a reflection of their own faith convictions. It is partly a perfectly reasonable reminder of positive influence of the Christian faith in shaping Western Culture. It is also partly, indeed, in very large part, a conservative political strategy.  
And this political dimension is Bernardi’s appeal to the 'Judeo-Christian' tradition is perfectly logical. We need, he writes, “traditionally minded governments” because only such  governments “can appreciate the importance and need of these principles.”
According to Bernardi, to honour this culture’s religious traditions and the culture on which is it founded is a political responsibility and the responsibility of politicians.
Again to quote from The Conservative Revolution:
I believe by stripping God and religious principles from our culture and our politics we have become a nation which does not know what port it is sailing to. Without the notion of the transcendent in our daily and public lives, we will undoubtedly lose a sense of the profound. Such a loss is like killing off the spirit of civilisation.
Perhaps he’s right. The values of the dignity of all people, a concern for the rights and welfare of the poor, and the orientation to heal rather than ignore or stigmatise the sick are not self-evident values. That they became common moral assumptions in the West was largely a consequence of Christian and Jewish ideas about these matters taking hold in Europe in the centuries following Christ, however imperfectly those commitments were enacted.
Yet, as a Christian, I’m very uneasy about what’s going on here.
I’m not uneasy because I want to deny the impact of Christianity on the formation of Western culture. Far from it. There is a forgetfulness, indeed often an ideologically driven denial, of  how Christianity has positively shaped the West.
But I am uneasy that the Christian heritage is presented in such idealised form. Christian faith demands honesty. And honestly, Christianity has been complicit in much that has been destructive. We must confront the ambiguity of the Christian heritage even whilst honouring and defending some aspects of the societies it has helped to generate.
I’m also uneasy because I think the political use of Christianity prevents any serious or wider engagement with the purpose of Christianity – at least as those purposes have some grounding in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Indeed, the use of the term 'Judeo-Christian' itself heavy with political intent. And this is not confined to Australian conservatives.
In October lastyear, Donald Trump declared: “We are stopping cold the attacks onJudeo-Christian values…We’re saying Merry Christmas again.” Seemingly unaware that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, Trump was clumsily, but no doubt very effectively, playing to his conservative Christian base and its acute sense of loss of power and influence.
In 2014, an Australian scholar, Chole Patton, wrote that the very term, Judeo Christian tradition, first appears in Australian literature in 1974.  There is then a sudden peak after September 11, 2001. She writes: until 9/11, “it appears Australians didn’t give a fig about Judeo-Christian values”. A similar pattern is evident in America where the term first appears in the 1930s and again experiences a peak post- 9/11. Then it becomes a something of a rhetorical strategy of resistance to the influence of Islam.
And once again Christian honesty must be insisted upon here. For it is also the case that the Christian tradition has for long enough not only not cared about the Jewish roots of its own tradition, but maligned and persecuted the community out of which its own founder came.
This particular political appeal to the so-called 'Judeo-Christian tradition' also feeds into the persecution that many Australian Christians feel (wrongly in my view) as they find themselves challenged by the shift of the culture at large away from deference to the church and Christian values (broadly understood). This rhetoric about defending the 'Judeo-Christian tradition' too often becomes a tool for defending the rights of Christians. Yet to the extent that we can talk historically about the ‘Christian tradition’ and its involvement in politics, it has been more about Christians defending the rights of others and seeking the welfare of all rather Christians defending themselves.
So, ambiguity must attend any evaluation of the impact of the so-called 'Judeo-Christian tradition'. But this provides an opportunity to ask a deeper question: Just what is Christianity for?
Our gospel reading gives us some insight into at least how Jesus' followers remembered his own self-understanding of his mission.
Sometimes labelled the Nazareth Manifesto, the text from Luke records a highly-charged moment.
Famous local boy returns home. He attends the synagogue. He reads a heavily-freighted text, bristling with messianic, even revolutionary, rhetoric.
And then Jesus essentially rebuffs the good will shown to him by his own townsfolk. He tells them quite bluntly that they don’t have a clue who he is or what the text was about. So incensed is the synagogue congregation that they drag him to a nearby cliff intending to throw him off it and do him in.  It all went pear-shaped very quickly.
So what was the text he had read?  Let’s read that section again:
The scroll is handed to Jesus. He unrolls it to a passage from the prophet Isaiah (Chapter 61:1-2)   to be exact):
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.
Certainly we see here some of the themes that have come to be accepted as normative in the West. And, yes, it is from a Jewish prophet, or at least a tradition of prophecy associated with Isaiah of Jerusalem who lived in the 8th century before the Common Era. And it is read and endorsed by Jesus Christ. So, perhaps we do see here the foundation of 'Judeo-Christian' values.
Yet despite the fact that is labelled a manifesto – that is, as a charter for future action – Jesus turns all the attention to the present and, indeed, to himself. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.
How, exactly, we might well ask?
You see, this text and this incident in Jesus’ ministry is not a manifesto for forming a new culture. It is actually about Jesus himself and his status. He is announcing that he will fulfill these hopes.
And it was the conviction of the first Christians that he had done so, but not through providing the template for the future culture of Europe, let alone 'the West.'
They believed he fulfilled these hopes in a way that was confusing, cryptic, and ambiguous. They found their hope not in the way he changed society – something he singularly failed to do in his lifetime - but through the whole drama of his life, death and resurrection. And rather than see that as transforming the wider culture, at least some of them they saw themselves as a counter culture.
We get a small insight into that perspective from the second of our readings. The document we know as 1 Peter was written to various small Christian communities scattered across Asia Minor around the end of the first century of the  Common Era.
Did you hear how the readers were addressed? “Aliens and strangers”. Their vocation was not to lay down the law for the surrounding world; it was instead “to lives honourably” amongst their neighbours that even the neighbours might glorify God.
And at the outset of the letter ( a section we didn’t read) they were addressed as "exiles". Their identity and their hope was grounded in “the resurrection of Jesus Christ”.
They are not instructed to take over the culture and politics of the day. There was no summons to a 'conservative revolution.' They were told to “honour everyone.” and even to “honour the emperor” of an empire that was by no means favourably disposed to this novel form of life called Christianity.
Now of course, this once exiled, persecuted, minority community scattered across Palestine, Asia Minor and the Mediterranean did become powerful. Over time it acquired and was given political power and cultural control.
But was this the founder’s intention?
That good flowed from this development, was perhaps providential. Perhaps it was an accident of history.
But  Christianity cannot claim that historical development as the mandate for preserving a 'Judeo-Christian' tradition or defending that tradition for for the sake of Christians having and retaining rights.
If we take the example of Jesus and the self-understanding of the first Christians as being in any way normative, the Christian posture towards the world should be characterised by a sense of modesty, a degree of humility, many acts of contrition, and constantly-nurtured orientation to serve the world.
Yes, it should also be characterised by a deeply-rooted confidence that the ways of life to which it is called are worthwhile, that they have something to contribute to the wider world, that they do point to the ways of  God and God’s purposes for the world.
So, can I encourage you, if you needed any encouragement, to treat with some skepticism the calls to defend the 'Judeo-Christian tradition' when it is made for political purposes.
Can I also encourage you to look at the history of Christianity and its formative impact on the West with your eyes wide open. You will have no difficulty seeing where that history has failed its own identity and calling.
But be willing also to recognize that the values of human dignity, care for the poor, attention to the ill, didn’t come to pass automatically. They are hard-won values and they are worth preserving.
And as a Christian disciple, as a teacher of Christian theology, can I also invite you to look behind the Christian tradition to the one from whom it takes its inspiration.  An ambiguous, cryptic, confusing Jewish rabbi, obsessed with what he called the 'kingdom of God,' and who through his life, death and resurrection brought something genuinely new to the world.
Looking at him, listening to his teaching, tracing the patterns of his behaviour, and wrestling with his unusual end, there could well be times when like the congregation at  Nazareth you might want to push him away – even off a cliff.
But there might also be times when engaging his teaching and tracing the patterns of his behaviour, and wrestling with his unusual and violent end, you find yourself drawn into the very depths of reality – your own and that of the cosmos. That has been the experience of Christian faith across diverse cultures, well beyond the 'Judeo-Christian' culture of the West which Cory Bernardi and Tony Abbott champion.

Christian faith is not about preserving a culture. It is about engaging Jesus Christ and serving and shaping many cultures. And that is what we are all invited to do in this place and every place.  Amen.
****


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Christianity and War - An ANZAC Day Reflection

I've penned a short article on the use of John 15:13 in Australia's acts of war remembrance and suggested that, if the wells of Christianity are to be tapped on such occasions, it would be more appropriate to cite the teaching about love of enemies and reconciliation.

The article is published in The Guardian Australia and is available here.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Sex, Gender and Christian Doctrine: Semester 1, 2018


Updated Feb 14th 2018

This unit is being taught by me and Monica Melancthon at Pilgrim Theological College in Semester 1, 2018.

Part 1: March 2nd-4th  (Sessions 1-6)

Part 2: April 27th-28th (Sessions 7-10)

Below is the outline of the content for each session, including a summary of the respective aims of each of the two parts. Check out the full schedule here



**** 
Part 1 of this Intensive will survey the contemporary interface between Christianity and the discourses of sex and gender (and the contentions about them within Christianity) and develop the concepts, language, and questions required to develop informed, mutually critical but constructive conversations which occur at that interface. With both a biblical scholar and systematic theologian involved in the teaching, there will also be opportunity to explore the relationship between doctrine and scripture.  

Overview
A brief history of how sex and gender have become major points of disputation in the relationship between Christianity and Western cultures. Doctrinal discourse (and particular doctrines) will be introduced as a dynamic and constructive enterprise able to engage in lively, and not merely reactive, conversations with the discourses about sex and gender.

Body in Christian Scripture and Early Christianity
Christian theology is an embodied theology embedded in creation, incarnation, resurrection and sacrament, making the body both the site and the recipient of God's revelation. Even so, the body has been problematic for theologians and the church. What do the  Christian scriptures say about the body? How has the scriptural understanding of the body been received and understood by thinkers and theologians in the formative years of Christianity? How has these early understandings impacted our understandings of body and sexuality

Sex and Gender: contemporary discussions
Historical, philosophical, political and scientific developments have radically reshaped Western discourses about sex and gender. These include feminist exposure of patriarchy, Queer claims about gender fluidity, historical studies of the diverse meanings of ‘sex’, and biological explorations of gender diversity and intersex. The impact has been to place ideas about sex and gender very close to the centre of the West’s cultural identity.

Sex, Gender, Creation and Anthropology
Christian anthropology is the default doctrinal locus of sex and gender. The idea of the gendered human bearing the image of God has a complicated history within Christian doctrine. Now it is even more complicated. Is there anything about human being as imago dei that can be illuminated by contemporary ideas of sex and gender, and vice versa? Also relevant are recent developments in the broader doctrine of creation, notably evolutionary diversity and disputed questions of the order of creation.

Sex, Gender, and Eschatology
From Christianity’s origins, belief in the resurrection and its associated eschatology has given the body a pivotal  place in Christian thought. The resurrection at once affirms bodily existence but also points to a transformed body. The early equivocation towards, but never absolute denial of, marriage and sex was one manifestation of living in that tension. How does this perennial tension within Christian thought engage contemporary discussions of sex and gender. 

Sex, Gender, Christology and Trinity
Classical Christology is usually seen as a barrier to conversations between doctrine and contemporary discourses of sex and gender. On the other hand, classical Trinitarian theology is almost the first-chosen partner for such conversations. Christology will be explored for its fruitfulness for an understanding of what human ‘nature’ is. The Trinity will be explored (with more caution than has sometimes been the case) for the understandings of personhood which flow from it. A conversation around these issues has much potential.

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Part 2 will focus on using the framework developed in Part 1 to engage a variety of specific and recent proposals for linking particular Christian doctrines to particular areas of sex and gender. These will include desire, celibacy, orientation, intersex, and marriage. Each of these proposals gives particular weight to particular Christian doctrines. Each will be studied closely and critically evaluated. But the framework will also be challenged by considering the issues of sexuality and gender from a non-Western context, namely that of India. We will conclude by canvassing how the insights gained unfold in the life of the church, both locally and globally.

Proposal A: Sarah Coakley’s God, Sex and the Self. In this book, British theologian, Sarah Coakley, explores the connections between the doctrine of the Trinity, desire for God and sexual desire. Drawing on patristic writers, Coakley develops a post-Freudian theology of desire.

Proposal B: In his book Spiritual Friendship, American biblical scholar, Wesley Hill, argues for a classical doctrine of marriage according to which it is closed to gays and lesbians. He argues for celibate, covenanted spiritual friendship as the appropriate structure for same-sex attracted Christians.

Proposal C: Robert Song’s Covenant and Calling also employs the notion of covenant for same-sex relationships, but in his case for relationships which involve sexual intimacy. Arguing from the doctrine of creation, he argues that openness to pro-creation is a definitive element of marriage.  But his notion of covenantal relationships embraces a connection between sexual intimacy and both faithfulness and permanence.

Sexuality in India
Discussion on sexuality in India is often limited to the Kamasutra or the many erotic temple sculptures or miniatures. The latter should be seen as 'irrigularities' or 'symbols' of artistic licence that are in fact lodged within an overarching narrative of repression.What is sexuality? How is it understood? Where is it embedded? What are the challenges that confront discussions on sexuality in India today? These are some of the questions that will be addressed.  

Proposal D: In Sex Difference and Christian Theology Megan DeFranza argues, in part, from Christology for a concept of the imago dei which ‘decentres’ sex and gender from that image. She developed this argument with particular reference to the realities of the intersex community.

Proposal E:  Roman Catholic theologian, Jean Porter, argues from a doctrine of nature and an understanding of natural law by which procreation is paradigmatic for the institution of marriage,but it is not essential to every marriage. Accordingly she extends marriage to same-sex relationships.

Sex, Gender and Christian discipleship, Christian witness, and church unity.
The issues explored in the previous sessions have implications individual Christians. They also have implications of the corporate life of the church. These include the understanding of baptism and the composition of the Christian community; the witness of the Christian church in a context where the church’s traditional teachings on these matters have become a form of ‘anti-witness' (Robert Song); and for the unity between churches of the West and those of other contexts where the issues of sex and gender have are framed differently than they are in the contemporary West. Against the background of the close nexus in the contemporary West between sex, gender and cultural identity, the place of sex and gender in Christian identity will also be explored.