Friday, June 3, 2016

What are we doing when we meet as a council of the church?

This morning, as part of an orientation session for the meeting of the UCA's Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, I presented a theological overview of the nature and purpose of meeting together as a Council of the church, specifically in the UCA with its commitment to interconciliar government. It's pretty much the same presentation as I gave at the beginning of the 2014 Synod. But there is one thing that has changed in my own thinking since 2014. The framers of the Uniting Church long argued that their work was not simply an exercise in ecclesiastical carpentry. I've never been fully persuaded that that was actually the case with respect to church government. But in thinking a bit more about comments made by Davis McCaughey and D'Arcy Wood (both of whom were involved in writing the Basis, and both of whom subsequently served as President of the national Assembly), I 've become less sceptical. It may not be quite evident in the surface of the Basis (specifically Paragraph 15), but both these framers of the church suggest that that Paragraph needs to be read as pointing us to something subtly different from what had been the practices of any of the uniting Churches or from any combination of those practices. It's worth trying to read that paragraph through the filter of that subtle nuance.

The text of the presentation is available here.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Zero Dark Thirty and the Morality of Revenge


A sermon preached in the chapel of Queen's College in the University of Melbourne as part of a Film Text series of sermons.
Film: Zero Dark Thirty
Biblical Text: Romans 12: 9-21

Theme: The Morality of Revenge

* * * * * * *

Zero Dark Thirty is a very dark film. It tells a very dark story.
Deception, torture, murder, children traumatised.

Yet the film is itself a chapter in a larger story of apparent triumph: the American killing of Osama bin Laden.

In the film, and in fact, the sheer darkness of the story was vanquished by the light that apparently came with the national – and indeed – international – celebration of bin Laden’s demise.

The film plays its own role in American patriotism – and made a lot of money for its producers in doing so.
As a Hollywood product, the film is, of course, embedded in a matrix of power, money and politics – an extension of the national matrix of  power money and politics.
Located in that matrix, Zero  Dark Thirty  is an one act in the drama of the politics of triumph – or more precisely the politics of revenge.


I lost no sleep over the death of Osama bin Laden.  Indeed, I recall responding to the news of his demise with a sense of relief and satisfaction. Although as to what exactly drove that relieve and satisfaction, I’m not quite sure.

I’ve also greatly enjoyed watching the dramatised and idealised version of the hunt for and murder of the leader of Al Qaeda. For the sheer force and the intricacies of its cloak and dagger plot, Zero Dark Thirty is riveting.
It’s the story of a young CIA operative (the character presented in the film apparently a composite character of several actual operatives) picking up the minutest of clues from a tortured Al Qaeda leader and running with it. She runs with it against suspicion, sexism and fear – all the way to the chief of the CIA – and through him to President Obama.

And I admit, I enjoyed watching it – its cloak and dagger rhythms and edge-of-the-seat plot – despite the film’s graphic presentation of deception, torture, murder and children being traumatised. I enjoyed it, also notwithstanding the fact that the director seemingly made no attempt to interrogate the morality of the deception, torture and murder. The film itself seems not to make any explicit moral statement. It simply echoes the morality of the political and patriotic decisions which produced this story.

And that, of course, raises a moral question in itself. How is it that we can find violence entertaining?

But that’s not the question I want to wrestle with tonight. In fact, there are a couple of alternative questions I’d like to put out there.

* * * *
I’ve already suggested that the film itself is a chapter in a larger story of revenge. It’s a celebration of the revenge that a nation took on one by whom it had been attacked.

Of course, for many, this was not revenge but justice. So, what is the difference between justice and revenge? Can something be an act of revenge but also just?

The other question is one that I must ask as a Christian. Even as I took that quiet satisfaction at Bin Laden’s demise, and even as I enjoyed the cloak and dagger plot of Zero Dark Thirty, I have some well-known words of Jesus echoing in my ears.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’” (Matt 5:38-39)

But also echoing in my ears are the words of the early Christian leader, Paul, in the passage we’ve heard tonight. In a teaching which surely echoes Jesus, Paul instructs his readers:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  … Never avenge yourselves.” (Rom 12:17, 19) 
How might a Christian shaped by these teachings respond to Zero Dark Thirty and the story it tells?

Well, let’s pause from these questions and watch the trailer for the film – either to jog your memory or to give you a bit of feel for the film if you haven’t seen it. (You can watch the trailer here.)
* * * *
Of course, the trailer spares us the torture which makes the mission possible in the first place. And it also spares us the film’s climax.

The moment of climax is this: Bin Laden has already been shot. His wife is screaming. One of the marines takes aim at Bin Laden again, pummelling further bullets into his body. And then this same marine declares: “For God and country.”

And this was no script writer’s embellishment. From all accounts, these are the very words which rippled through the airwaves all the way to the White House to confirm the success of the mission.

And, of course,  those four words were an echo: the cry of Allah Akbar which we can imagine the Al Qaeda pilots declared as they guided their planes into the World Trade Centre a decade before.

Those two cries – 10 years apart – each its own declaration of triumph: a triumph in the name of God. 

Each cry so contrary to Paul’s exhortation: “Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all”
Invoking God in violence is not unusual – monarchs and Generals,  presidents, patriots and priests have done it from time immemorial. To invoke God is to invoke the ultimate sanction of one’s violent cause.

Yet vast tracts of the Christian tradition are by and large deeply troubled by such invocations – and the teachings of Jesus and Paul we have already heard are the basic reasons for that.

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”

Certainly in contemporary Christian ethics, ideas of retributive justice are seen to be basically unChristian. Yes, even though that same passage of Paul says something like, ‘Leave room for the wrath of God’. (And, that sentence warrants a sermon on its own.)

But it is nevertheless, a fundamental element of early Christian conviction that the ultimate moral ordering of the universe was God’s prerogative. Christians could not play God in terms of judging others.

And the resistance to revenge, to repaying evil for evil, is not a belief unique to Christians. Long before Jesus, Plato, for instance, had departed from Homeric values and argued that vengeance was always unjust.

Yes, it is true that some modern philosophers draw a distinction between revenge and retribution – revenge being emotive and retribution being a constrained but necessary response to evil.
But most contemporary social and legal theorists regard retributive justice as problematic. It is seen to be a vehicle for perpetuating violence. And so, in matters of justice, contemporary Western societies have a developed orientation to theories and practices of restorative justice prevails.

But can restorative justice be applied to disputes carried out on a global scale? Could restorative justice ever been applied to the relationship between the US and Al Qaeda? Was there ever any hope of it after9/11? Was there any ever hope of it after the murder of Bin Laden. Is there any hope of it today between the West and ISIS?

Are there disputes so deep, so embedded in violence, that restorative justice is simply naïve? Are there disputes so deeply mutually destructive that hopes for restorative justice will simply evaporate?

And are there disputes so embedded in violence, so mutually destructive, that the Christian invocation ‘not to pay evil for evil but to take thought for what is noble in the sight of all’ is not only naïve but also an expression of  indifference to the realities of violence and destruction.

Whilst historically you could make an argument that Christian teaching has helped Western societies develop notions of restorative justice and to have put in check some ideas of retributive justice, that Christian influence has not checked the world’s history of violence

 And when some Christians have been prepared to invoke God to sanction their nation’s violence, thy only make the problem worse. The marine standing over Bin Laden declaring, ‘For God and Country’, is hardly an isolated story in the history of war and terror.
Is it not the case that humanity seems trapped in a endless cycle of violence. Indeed, even an ever ascending spiral of violence? War, domestic violence, bullying, terror, colonial and imperial dispossession. 

Every generation seems to think it has reached some threshold of violence only to see that threshold broken by some yet more terrible horror.

Perhaps films such as Zero Dark Thirty keep that spiral spinning. It whets our appetite for the story of the world’s violence.

What then of Jesus’ teaching of turning the other check? What of Pauls’ echo of that teaching with his exhortation not to repay evil with evil?

The first thing that perhaps needs to be said is that Paul wasn’t addressing leaders of nations or policy makers. He was addressing a small group of first century Christians about how they should relate to each other and to those who were giving them grief.

It’s a reminder that the Bible is a book for Christians. Only by historical accident did it assume a kind of de facto cultural authority in the history of the West. (Remember, the next time you see someone quoting the Bible on Q&A telling this or that politician how to develop policy, you can be sure they are misusing it.)

* * * *

What then is the status of this Christian teaching in a violent world, and in a world (a world that includes people like you and me) which is happy to be entertained by films about the story of the world’s violence?
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
For me, it is best understood as a dissenting voice. A voice that interrupts our dominant narrative about violence. A voice that resists the quest for revenge.  A voice that says no to soldiers and terrorists whenever they declare either ‘For God and Country’ or ‘Allah Akbar’.

It is also a realistic voice. Listen to something else in this exhortation from Paul: “If it is possible, as far as it depends you, live at peace with everyone.”  If it is possible.

Sometimes it is not possible. Perhaps this recognition explains why pacifism has never quite won over the totality of the Christian tradition – even though it is an honoured and authoritative element of that tradition.
Be that as it may, this note of realism is at least a kind of concession to forces that we can’t control.

What we can control is how we understand the use of violence in an inevitably violent world. It is a tragic consequence of whatever it is that is wrong with the human condition – what Christian call sin.

It must always be an act for which those humans who exercise it must take responsibility. No soldier, no president, no general, no priest, no terrorist can legitimately claim that God is on their side.
They can never claim that God sanctions revenge. They can never claim ‘For God and country’. That is what the Christian tradition calls blasphemy.

Zero Dark Thirty, for all its embellishments, tells a true story. It really happened. It has taken this powerful story of geo-political revenge into popular culture. It has allowed some to celebrate that story; others to be troubled by it. Christians will vary in their view of the morality of the act of killing Bin Laden. And they will vary in their view of the morality of making a film about it.

They will vary their view of how widely restorative justice can be employed in this violent world.
But, it seems to me, Christians who watch this film, and reflect on the story it tells of the world’s violence, must at least spend some time reflecting on the words of Paul: “Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with one another.”  AMEN.

Friday, April 29, 2016

What is theology? An interview with Reverend and Smith

I was recently interviewed by Reverend and Smith, a couple of Christian young guys in Brisbane who are seeking to develop a new web-based ministry of theological discussion and debate.

The interview started by exploring what theology, and systematic theology in particular, is. In the end we ranged across a quite wide range of topics about where theology is done and by whom. We also discussed why it is that theology often seems remote from the life of the church. I really enjoyed the experience, and being involved in what is my first podcast. And I even enjoyed Reverend and Smith dissecting my responses afterwards. And, full marks to Reverend and Smith for developing this series of programmes and fostering some serious cyberspace-discussion about theology.

Listen to the interview here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Books Worth Reading (7): Postliberal Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed by Ronald T. Michener

I have never been a card-carrying postliberal theologian. Nevertheless, my engagement with the postliberal theologians of the 1980s and 1990s undoubtedly shaped my approach to the study of theology and, and more enduringly, my interest in the diverse roles of doctrine in the church’s life. Central to the postliberal school was George Lindbeck’s 1986, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and theology in a Postliberal Age. I read it for the first time just as I embarked on my postgraduate studies. If I can say this without being too presumptuous, it woke me from my doctrinal slumber. It snapped me out of the dreary liberal/conservative rhetoric of the mainline protestant theology I had imbibed by being part of mainline protestant church. Lindbeck’s typology of doctrine –  experiential expressivist, propositional, and cultural-linguistic –  provided  me with quite different and more interesting ways of mapping the theology I was learning. It made me realise that to describe a theological position as liberal or conservative was to say almost nothing intellectually interesting, let alone informative, about that theological position. Moreover, reading Lindbeck made me realise that the study of doctrine and the many functions it performs in the church was at least as interesting, complex and fascinating as the study of hermeneutics or method or the various backgrounds to the biblical writings.

As a specific school of thought, postliberal theology had a relatively short life. Paul de Haart has even written about its rise and decline. The questions it raised, however, are still worth pondering. Indeed, to some extent, they are inevitable in any study of Christian theology, whether or not that study is shaped by exposure to specifically postliberal writings. So, for instance:
  • If doctrines aren’t propositions, what are they?
  • How is narrative related to truth?
  • What is the relationship between theology and practice?
  • Can theology be non-foundationalist without becoming fidestic?
  • Are the discourses of different religions incommensurable?

So the postliberal school may well have passed into history, but if you want to see how postliberal theology brought such questions to focus and how it helps address them, then Ronald T. Michener’s short 2013 book, Postliberal Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed would be a book well worth reading. As with other books in Bloomsbury’s Guide for the Perplexed series, it’s pitched at readers able to engage arguments typical of tertiary education, it provides a helpful overview of the topic without bypassing the critical questions, it is relatively short (140 pages), and it has many helpful suggestions for further reading.

The book consists of 5 chapters. The first, ‘Introduction’, does what its title says. It’s a very general overview of postliberal theology which locates it in the midst of other twentieth-century theological movements. Chapter 2, ‘Background’, provides a very useful summary of the wide range of philosophical, anthropological, sociological and theological backgrounds to the movement. (Throughout this chapter readers would glean some insight into the important contributions to postliberal theology of Augustine, Aquinas and Barth.) Chapter 3, ‘Theological exponents of postliberal theology’ provides sustained engagement with the three major voices of the movement (Frei, Lindbeck, and Hauerwas) and a quick overview of ‘other voices’ (David Kelsey, William Placher, Bruce Marshall, George Hunsinger and Kathryn Tanner). The title of Chapter 4, Problems and Criticisms of Postliberal Theology, speaks for itself as does that of Chapter 5, ‘Prospects and proposals for postliberal theology today’.

So what is 'postliberal theology'? Early on Michener offers what is less a definition and more a set of observations that help to locate this particular theology:
Postliberal theology has always been more a loose connection of narrative theological interests than it is some monolithic agenda. It represents an overarching concern for the renewal of Christian confession over theological methodology. Rather than reliance on  a notion of correlative common experience, postliberal theology moves towards the local or particular faith description of the community of the church (p.3).
As such it is a  "tertium quid solution" between the two major protestant responses to modernity: fundamentalism and liberalism. More specifically, postliberal theology rejects the identity of truth with doctrinal propositions characteristic of fundamentalism. At the same time it rejects the location of truth within a putatively pre-cognitive domain of human experience (of which doctrines are contingent ‘expressions’) typical of liberalism. In contrast postliberal theology locates truth within Christianty’s own practiced and articulated narratives: i.e.,  the narratives that shape the church’s life – creeds, liturgies, scriptures, confessions etc. And here, of course, is what is usually perceived as the major problem with postliberal theology: it so completely internalises truth, that it is essentially sectarian and fideistic.
Of course, postliberal theologians have frequently addressed this question, but the criticism persists. Michener sets out some of these response as well as his own in Chapter 4. In the response to the charge of the inevitably of isolationism which attached to postliberalism, Michener cites the example of the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to the massacre of their schoolchildren in 2006. Here was a community which prima face represents what a postliberal church might be: isolated and so formed by its own internal traditions that it was unable to relate to the world. Yet as Michener indicates, it was precisely that internal formation which enabled this community to practice forgiveness under the most extreme provocation. Michener makes this observation:
This is a remarkable example of how a commitment to one's faith, fully embedeed in the narrative and tradition of that faith, even with (what is often seen as) an extreme sectarian context may still have a radically profound impact on society. The Amish are certainly no friends to modern culture and society. ... [Nevertheless] with no regard to society's value or acts of self-aggrandizement  a faithfully devout community can still have a powereful effect on that society (p. 117).
Now, there are quite properly serious limits to this most extreme example. By itself it should not be taken as a justification for postliberal theology or as a response to a major criticism of it. Nevertheless, it does provide a lived example which calls into question the assumption made in theory that faithfulness to a tradition necessarily leads to public isolation.

The other aspect of Michener's critical discussion which is worth noting relates to the Holy Spirit. A little surprisingly, Michener draws some parallels between Postliberalism and Pentecostalism in their shared rejection of modern reductionist rationality. He quotes James K.A.Smith's reference to Pentecostalism's  "more expansive, affective understanding of what counts as knowledge and a richer understanding of how we know" (Smith, quoted by Michener, p. 136) and suggests this as an area of shared concern. It is not entirely clear where that parallel might lead, but the shared concern is at least worthy of note and any pathway to deeper mutual understanding between mainline and Pentecostal theologies is worth pursuing.

This is a good book. It would be useful to any one already interested in and familiar with postliberal theology. It would also be well worth reading for anyone keen to find out about it for the first time.
* * * *
In second semester this year I'll be teaching a unit, 'Doctrine, Truth and Pluralism'. Although postliberal theology will be only one part of this unit, questions such as those listed above will be the unit's major driving force. It will be taught as a two-part intensive, July 29-30 and Oct 7-9.  Check out this promotional video and the course outline on pp. 92-94 of Pilgrim's 2016 Handbook. The unit will also be available for on-line enrolment.
* * * *
(This series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Doctrine, Truth and Pluralism

In semester 2 this year I'll be teaching a unit, Doctrine Truth and Pluralism. We've just announced a timetabling reschedule. It will now be offered as a two-part Intensive on July 29-30 and then on October 7-9. The unit is available at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

The video below gives a quick summary of what we'll be exploring.

And you can read a more complete description with more specific details here.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Christianity and Narcissism

Last year, with my colleague Katharine Massam, I taught a new unit, Culture, Beliefs and Theology. The unit is designed as an introduction to the tasks and skills of theology. Unlike other introductory courses, however, this unit is less focused on classic texts and debates. Instead, it jumps right in to the conversations happening in Australia about God, Jesus, the Bible. More specifically, the conversations happening outside the church or at least at the edge of the church. We engaged agnostics, atheists, politicians, comedians, academics, novelists, historians, mainstream Christians, and self-designated 'fellow travellers'.

Again, unlike conventional apologetics, the aim was not to work  out what Christians could say that would 'answer' the various accounts (positive and negative) of faith located amongst this diverse range of peers, critics, and friends. Rather, the concern was to listen to them and to discern in what we heard what might or might not resonate with us. Were there things to learn? Were there things to resist? And having eavesdropped on these conversations, what theological skills, wisdom and ideas would be needed to enter the conversation?

One of the critics we studied was Tamas Pataki, specifically the argument of his 2007 book Against Religion. I included Pataki for several reasons. Firstly, Against Religion is a small book which includes a good introductory overview of the standard criticisms of religion. Secondly, he is a local; he teaches at Melbourne University and therefore is helping to shape perceptions of and approaches to Christianity amongst the current generation of tertiary students. Thirdly, he has a particular take on the persistence of religious belief. He does more than offer yet another recital of the standard arguments against religion. Pataki is especially focused on a very particular question: Why do people persist in religious belief when such powerful arguments have intellectually deconstructed all religious belief? In other words, he does not simply focus on the arguments against religion, but on why - despite the power of those seemingly well-established reasons - people go on believing.  His answer: narcissism.

Building on an 'economy of narcissism' characteristic of infancy and which involves the infant's construction of a world of 'omnibenevolence', Pataki argues that religious belief is the continuation of this desire to think that the world is constructed around oneself. Religious belief is a psychologically-driven strategy for being able to continue to live in this world beyond infancy and to 'bask in the radiance' of unlimited and unfettered devotion and affection.

Religious teachings about God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness are particularly fitted to reinvigorate desires and to gratify them for these are the very properties the child is striving more or less desperately to retain or retrieve. So, once again, he may attempt to establish a relationship in phantasy with the ideal figures, this time supernatural ones…and bask in their radiance.

It is tempting to pick holes in Pataki's argument. (At the very least it's a pretty reductionist view of why people believe what they do; and if belief can be explained away with a psychological explanation, why shouldn't unbelief be similarly explained away?) Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that that we Christians manage to provide a fair bit of justification for Pataki's argument. After all, the church's scriptural and liturgical language is rich with claims about the intense focus of God's love for, and interventions on behalf of, individuals or communities which trust him (e.g., Psalm 33:18-19; Lam 3:22-25; Rom 8:28, etc). Such claims are, of course, set within larger narratives about the people of God being set apart to be oriented to the world rather than themselves.

Often, however, that larger narrative is suppressed in the piety of the church. Let me give an example. One Sunday, last year, I  happened (largely by accident) to worship in a church whose character and style reflected  very different theological convictions to my own. It was in a major Asian city; the very large congregation was mostly expatriate Europeans, Africans and Americans. Many of them were students or lecturers at a nearby university. It was difficult to reconcile this particular demographic with the very low level of theological reflection evident in the songs, prayers and sermon. What was most disturbing, however, was the word of benediction: "Remember! God has organised the week for you."

There was no word of mission. No exhortation to serve the poor. No encouragement to care for the sick or comfort the bereaved. No reminder of the command to love our neighbours. No direction to pray for our enemies. Just an indulgent claim that God had organised the week for us. If you were looking for a connection between faith and narcissism, there it was - front and centre in the life of the church itself.

This is far from a stand-alone example. A recent feature article on one of Australia's highest-profile churches included reference to this exhortation from the chief pastor:  "Speak your faith, start seeing miracles ... Owner of your first home! Best-selling author ... Mother of handsome sons and beautiful daughters! Businessman who is prosperous and fruitful! Your brother's salvation, your sister's healing ... Speak it into being! Speak it into being! Speak it into being! Amen!" Even if this is more explicitly an example of prosperity doctrine, it's not hard to see how such a view would feed the link between faith and narcissism. (And you can watch the particular address here; go to the 36min mark.)

So, Tamas Pataki is not without insight into the connection between faith and narcissism, even if he over-reaches himself in using it as an exhaustive explanation of why everyone who  believes does so. Being aware of his critique can, however, encourage Christians to ask ourselves why we do believe in the first place, and to realise that there are indeed elements of the Christian faith which, if isolated from others, can easily feed the narcissistic propensities that seem to weave their way through the human condition which we all share.

In eavesdropping on contemporary conversations about God, Jesus and faith, we Christians will often hear things that are little more than cheap shots. But we will also hear things that rightly and properly prompt us to self-examination. Tamas Pataki's comments on faith and narcissism are a case in point.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Ferment, Change and the Church's Vocation

Each month a member of the faculty at my college is rostered to write a short op-ed style piece for Crosslight, the monthly magazine of the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. My turn has rolled around again this month. Under the heading, "Ferment, Change and the Vocation of the Church" I've tried (very briefly) to flesh out the changing attitudes to Christianity that have emerged - and become more identifiable - in Australia in recent decades. This has involved resisting what I term 'catch-up ecclesiology'. One key paragraph reads as follows:

For the duration of the UCA’s life, Christianity in Australia has been shaped by social and cultural forces over which the Church has had precious little control. It is sometimes suggested that things could have been different: ‘if only the church did… x, y or z.’  But this kind of ‘if only’ lament is, I think, misguided. Behind it is often a kind of ‘catch-up’ ecclesiology: ‘if only we catch up with the changes in society, we’ll be a more effective in mission’ – or so the argument goes. But this underestimates the extent to which the power of even the most innovative, energetic, faithful and authentic missional strategy is often overwhelmed by the currents of change that have taken Australian society in directions few would  have predicted even two decades ago, let alone the nearly four decades ago when the Uniting Church was born.

You can read the full piece here.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Does this confess 'the faith of the church'? An Easter Reprise

Easter seems a good time to return to the Confession of  Faith I drafted some months ago. I am grateful for the responses from many and various people to the earlier version. There have been many conversations which have made me think a bit more carefully and be clearer about what I was trying to communicate. I'm won't explain the detail of all the changes that ensued from those responses. Nevertheless, I doubt it will take long  to recognise the following as the key issues which I've addressed: the relationship between historical an doctrinal claims, the emphasis on the unity of  God as the starting point, gendered language in the second article, more care in the claims made for the church, and a few others.

I've had several requests to use this in various contexts. I'm very glad for it to be used. It's a public document intended for use in the church. If it is used, I would always be interested to know how it is received and/or adapted.

We trust the one God.

We trust the Love and Life who is the source and sustainer of all that was, is and will be.

We trust Jesus Christ, Loves Beloved, Life's Light, Eternal Wisdom, Israel's Messiah, God with us.
Sent from the very heart of God's love for the world, coming not to be served but to serve, Jesus became human in the womb of Mary.

Hailing from Nazareth, befriending outcasts, healing the sick, forgiving sinners, confronting falsehood, and showing mercy to enemies, Jesus proclaimed the long-promised reign of God.

Reaching Jerusalem, prompting hosannas, trusting the one he named Abba, he offered himself as the servant Lord; he was rejected, abandoned and betrayed, and then crucified on a Roman cross as a false Messiah.

Lying dead and buried in a tomb, God raised this Jesus to new life: the human verdict was reversed; violence was rejected; the earthly mission was vindicated; death was defeated, the reconciliation of the world to God was manifest

Appearing, speaking and eating, this transformed body provoked fear, doubt, joy and hope. With words of peace the risen Jesus empowered these confused followers, sending them as witnesses to the way, truth and life.

Returning, scarred and bruised, to the One who sent him, Jesus now shares in Loves rule and receives the worship of his sisters and brothers from every culture, class and nation.

We trust the Holy Spirit, the loving and lively breath of God, who blows where she wills: in, around and through the whole creation.

This same Spirit spoke through Israel's prophets, animated Jesus' ministry, and gathers a community, the church, which, like Jesus, is called to serve; it is an instrument through which Christ continues to command attention and awaken faith.

Sent by the Spirit, the church is to proclaim the risen, crucified Jesus Christ in ever-fresh words and deeds; it is to witness to God's renewal of all creation, for which it waits with an impatient but sure and active hope.

This is the churchs faith. It is the faith we confess. In this Triune God we trust. God grant us so to live and hope. Amen.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Books Worth Reading (6): The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison

Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

In recent years I have found myself in several conversations during which a definite disquiet has greeted the suggestion that modern science depended on Christianity for its origins. The claim has often been heard as an triumphalist apology for the Christian faith (and by extension a denial of the legitimacy of, for instance, Islamic science). It is actually a historical claim about the history of ideas and, as a historical claim about the history of ideas, it is (more or less) uncontroversial. That the claim has become historically uncontroversial owes much to the work of Peter Harrison, formerly the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, and now the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. Over the last decade or so Harrison's work has significantly re-shaped the understanding of the history of the relationship between science and religion by demonstrating that both 'religion' and 'science', as we use those words today, are modern conceptual inventions and that the invention of the latter was especially shaped by theological considerations. Many of the arguments that ground these claims (together with some new arguments) are presented in The Territories of Science and Religion, the published version of Harrison's 2011 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The essence of the argument is crystallised in a helpful analogy at the book's outset. Harrison invites his readers to imagine a contemporary historian presenting a claim about a war between Egypt and Israel in 1600. Such a claim would actually be meaningless because neither 'Egypt' nor 'Israel' - as we now understand those signifiers - existed in 1600. Yes, there may well have been a war between different parties which then occupied parts of what our maps now identify as 'Egypt' and 'Israel', but this would not have been a war between the modern nation states that are now designated Egypt and Israel. Analogously, claims about the history of science and religion can involve projecting these modern concepts onto earlier practices which only just, if at all, overlap with what we mean by 'science' and 'religion'.

So what were scientia and religio in the ancient world and how do they differ from what 'science' and 'religion' are in the modern world? In brief, and with all the dangers of summarising a complex argument, the differences can be explained like this. In the ancient world, both scientia and religio were more like inner virtues than external practices. In the modern world, on the other hand, both 'science' and 'religion' are external, objectified practices. In the ancient world, the purpose of scientia was to form particular mental habits. In the modern world the purpose of 'science' is to advance the human capacity to manipulate the physical world. In the ancient world, religio was identified by the cultivation of piety. In the modern world, 'religion' is identified by bodies of belief and identifiable institutional, communal practices. 

In the first instance, recognising this conceptual history enables some critical historical leverage on the commonly-held idea that with the emergence of Christianity, the previous  progress of 'science' on the part of the ancients was arrested, impeded by the allegedly intrinsically obscurantist tendencies of Christianity. Only with the loosening of Christianity's influence in the modern era, so the argument goes, has 'science' been set free again to take up its historical trajectory of bringing light where religion only brought darkness. This particular 'myth of the conflict between science and religion' employs the same degree of category mistakes employed in the analogy about the 1600 war between 'Egypt' and 'Israel'. In the ancient world, 'science' and 'religion' were not the sorts of things that would be in conflict. (To add my own analogy, it would be like suggesting that the Australian Football League was in some perennial, essential conflict with the Oslo Society of Cabinet Makers.There is simply nothing about their respective concerns that require them to have a relationship of any sort, let alone one of conflict.) Only in the modern era do 'science' and 'religion' emerge in ways that the possibility of 'conflict' attaches to their relationship.

So how did 'religion' and 'science' emerge as modern concepts and what is it about their respective definitions which means that they might be in conflict? In the case of religion, a principal factor was the insistence of the sixteenth-century Reformers that 'faith be explicit' in contrast to the 'implicit faith' of medieval Catholicism. As Harrison notes: "The Reformers insisted instead that Christian believers be able to articulate the doctrines they professed, and do so in propositional terms" (p.92).  As such, religio as a virtue was replaced by 'religion' as body of beliefs. Now externalised, it could become the object of comparison and objectification: religion becomes something that attracts the definite article. Harrison documents this shift with reference to the emergence of the phrase 'the Christian religion' in books published in English between 1530 and 1690 (see pp. 92-94). The shift is also crystallised in the translation history of the title of John Calvin's Institutio Christiannae Religionis. The title given in English translation changed as follows:
  • 'The Institution of Christian Religion' (1561)
  • The Institution of the Christian Religion' (1762)
  • 'The Institutes of the Christian Religion' (1813).
Thus, the "modern rendering is suggestive of an entity 'the Christian religion' that is constituted by its propositional content - 'the institutes'. These connotations were completely absent from the original title" (p.11).

If religion now attracts the definite article, it can also be pluralised. Religion becomes a genus of which there are particular species. This move is especially highlighted in the way the West designates as 'religions' the other traditions and ways of life it with which it comes into contact during colonial expansion. This phenomenon has, of course, been well-documented in recent decades. Harrison draws particular attention to the fact that colonial expansion was more or less coincident with the religious fragmentation of Europe. 'World religions', itself a new concept, "came into existence through the projection of the religious fragmentation of Western Christendom onto the rest of the world. ... The 'other religions' were thus constructed as inferior versions of the territorialized Christian religions of Europe" (p.99). (An upcoming 'Books Worth Reading' will be summarising Brent Nongbri's Before Religion: The History of a Modern Concept (2013) which addresses this issue in much more detail.)

What then of the origins of science? Those who first developed an experimental approach to understanding the natural world did not at first necessarily consider themselves 'scientists'. Yes, they were producing bodies of knowledge about the world that represented a shift from scientia as an internal virtue to something objective and measurable. In producing such bodies of knowledge they would have they thought they were doing 'natural philosophy' or even 'natural theology'. But, at some point, not before the nineteenth century, these experimental activities, and their consequent bodies of knowledge, came to be described as 'science' and to break free of their philosophical and theological frameworks. Harrison quotes an 1867 article which defines science in terms of "physical and experimental science, to the exclusion of theological and metaphysical" (William Ward quoted by Harrison, p. 145f.). This is the significant move which constitutes modern science: not that people were only now using experimental methods to increase their knowledge of the world, but that the knowledge so produced was being separated from any philosophical or theological framework. Harrison summarises this shift in these terms:

In the nineteenth century, 'science' as we now understand it, came to be constructed in a way that resembled the early modern construction of the idea 'religion'. That is to say, it was aggregated from a range of activities and distanced from the personal qualities of those who practiced it. This took place when 'science' came to be linked to a putatively unified set of practices ('the scientific method'), associated with a distinct group of individuals ('scientists'), and purged of elements that had once been regarded as integral to its status and operations (the theological and metaphysical). Modern religion had its birth in the seventeenth century; modern science in the nineteenth. Properly speaking then, this belated appearance of 'science' provides the first occasion for a relationship between science and religion (p.147).
Only in the nineteenth century, therefore, do religion and science - both defined as bodies of knowledge, produced by particular communities engaging in certain practices to make particular claims about the world - become the kinds of phenomena which can be compared, contrasted - and brought into conflict.

Yet, as Harrison explores developments in science's self-understanding, it becomes apparent that certain remnants of its theological origins remain. (This is also a helpful way to return to the disquiet about those theological origins noted at the outset of this post.) The early experimental scientists used theological ideas to evaluate and understand their scientific work and its achievements. To take one example of the many which Harrison provides, Francis Bacon. With a particular understanding of Genesis providing the backdrop, Bacon writes as follows of how science is able to 'repair' the fallen state of humanity.  
For man by the fall fell at the same time from this state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences. For creation was not by the curse made altogether and forever a rebel, not by various length in in some measure subdued to supplying of man with bread; that is to the uses of human life (From Bacon's Novum Organum, quoted by Harrison, p.138).

This leads to a link between science, the 'relief of the human estate' and therefore 'progress'.  "The stuff of nature is pursued not only for the purpose of moral edification, but also to yield technologies that will offer ways of relieving the human condition. In time the latter will completely displace the former" (136). In other words, the link between the rhetoric of progress and modern science has a theological foundation, and even if the theological foundation is discarded (which it now has been), the nexus between science and progress has its origins in that cluster of Christian theological convictions.  From this emerging independence of the rhetoric of progress other things flow: "Progress had once been understood as progress towards a particular end. Now it had become an end in itself" (p141). A new cultural status is now granted to both the discipline of science and its practitioners:  "Now the wonders of nature become the wonders of science, understood as the product of scientists' rigorous application of the scientific method" (169). So yes, the theological origins of science are clear enough: but given the ambiguity of 'scientific progress', Christians might pause before pointing to the 'Christians' origins of science.

Harrison concludes the book by referring to various contemporary debates. These include debates about the coherence of science, something which is prone to being exaggerated. He insists that 'science' and 'religion' are not cultural constants, highlighting as he does so the manner in which ideological atheism is parasitic on the distinctly modern construct of 'religion'. He also cautions against over-enthusiastic claims about a "consonance between science and religion", precisely because such claims often involve conceding the cultural authority of science and the propositional nature of religion.

It goes without saying that this book is a work of advanced scholarship. It would be most easily read by people with some existing knowledge of the history of ideas in general and, more specifically, the history of science and religion. Nevertheless, Harrison presents his arguments in an accessible and engaging style. Some of the more technical details of the various arguments are placed in endnotes, thus allowing the general reader to take in the larger argument more easily. The book would be of interest, I imagine, to anyone (Christian or not) involved in the science/religion discussion. It would also be of value to ministers and preachers who confront the pastoral issues raised by the rhetoric of conflict between science and religion (remembering, though, that this is not a book of Christian apologetics) as well as to anyone who wishes to know a little more about the history of Western culture and some of the formative ideas which have given it the particular shape it has.

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Links to videos of the lectures at which Harrison first presented the material making up The Territories of Science and Religion are available here.

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(This series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.)