Monday, July 1, 2019

Why Christians disagree over the Israel Folau saga

I had this article published in The Conversation last week. I haven't linked it to here before now because I was touring and hiking in Central Australia with my wife and had only limited access to the internet.

I explore why it is that Folau has galvanised so much support from Christians. I'm not convinced that is simply about the freedom of speech or freedom of religion. I suggest, instead, that it is because he was making a stand (in the eyes of his supporters) on the issue of gender and sexuality that he has generated the support he has. For his supporters, the issue of sex and gender is the new line in the sand between Christianity and modern Western societies. But not all Christians see it this way.

An excerpt:

There are many other Christians who find it hard to understand how traditional teachings on sexuality and gender have been elevated to such a prominent place within some strands of Christianity.
That’s not to say that these Christians automatically disregard the theological arguments for traditional stances on these issues. For instance, Christian proponents of same-sex marriage can accept there are carefully worked-out arguments against it, even if they are unpersuaded by them.
The puzzle, to many, is how these issues have become so definitive to Christian thinking. For these Christians, there’s also a deep disquiet that sexuality and gender are being held up as a test case for religious freedom in Australia.

The full article can be read here

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Trinitarian Disruption


Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas mus be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. [1] The metaphysical insanities of Athanasius, of Loyola, and of Calvin, are, to my understanding mere relapses into polytheism, different from paganism only be being more unintelligible. The religion of Jesus is founded in the Unity of God, and this principle chiefly gave it triumph over the rabble of heathen gods then acknowledged. [2]

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1816. Whether ridicule, objection or parody, the doctrine of the trinity has been, and is, subject to all of them. The reasons for these responses are well known: the messy politics in which the doctrine's development was embedded; the dependence on highly-technical philosophical terms and the subtle distinctions between them; and the propensity of the various participants in the decisive early debates to indulge in ungracious ad hominem attacks on each other. 

Do these problems disqualify the doctrine of the Trinity? For many they do. In a considered blog published earlier this week, my Uniting Church colleague and New Testament scholar, John Squires, has helpfully straddled the positive and negative answers to that question. The value of John's blog is the way he approaches the critical questions from the respective angles of history, scripture, liturgy, doctrine, polemics, prayer, mission and meaning. It's worth a read.

On balance I would see more enduring value in trinitarian doctrine (even in the terms in which it was developed) than John tends to do and I'd push for a more nuanced understanding of what it means for the doctrine to be 'biblical'.  But I think his final challenge is to be heeded. After declaring that "the concept of the Trinity [is] a fine example of good, honest contextual theology" he calls us to follow that example:
The missionary task that we face is to follow the example provided by the contextualised development of doctrine by the church fathers. This Trinity Sunday, instead of sermons that grind through abstruse and remote arguments for the Trinity, I would hope we can being to find ways, in the contemporary context, where we can talk about God and bear witness to our faith, using concepts that are understandable and ideas that are enlivening.
Let me say at the outset, I don't think I've ever heard a Trinity Sunday sermon grinding through the doctrine's remote arguments. Perhaps I've been lucky.  In reality, I don't have any great sense that this is a particular risk in the Uniting Church!

And to John's challenge I would add the need to allow the peculiarity of allowing a crucified Jewish rabbi to shape the way we use the word God. The reason why Christians developed their own distinctive way of speaking about God was because of the extreme provocation of allowing the reality of Jesus' life, death and resurrection to shape the way they filled out the word 'God'. If that not been the case, whatever other factors came into play, including the inclusion of the Spirit in this task of defining 'God', there never would have been a doctrine of the Trinity. There never would have been a distinctive Christian way of speaking about God.

Rowan Williams once put it like this: "Christian faith had its beginnings in an experience of profound contradictoriness, an experience which so questioned the religious categories of its time that the reorganisation of religious language was a centuries-long task."[3]  Sure, that it is too drastic a summary of everything that happened on the way to getting to trinitarian doctrine. But it's a reminder that the categories of Christianity's language for God aren't random. The challenge of Trinity Sunday can, therefore, include re-familiarising ourselves with this 'profound contradictoriness' of the early Christian proclamation: the claim not just that a human was one with God, but that a state-executed criminal determined the shape of Christian God-talk.

Yes, the move from that identification to the threefoldness and the particular conceptuality of the doctrine of the Trinity involved many further steps, but none of them would ever have been taken without that first move. Of course, the problem is is that in its development and influence, the doctrine of the Trinity has played its own part in insulating our God-talk from that original disruption. On this, it is worth remembering that the Nicene Creed's homoousios  (of one being with / consubstantial with) was a way of insisting that 'God' was defined by Jesus as much as it was that Jesus was defined by 'God' - with the same logic at work in the reference to the Spirit being worshipped alongside the Father and Son. It did so in the face of intra-Christian concerns that this definition disrupted some of prevailing meanings of 'God'. That was exactly the point.

Christian faith has filled the word 'God' with specific meaning. Articulating that meaning, finding the right language for it, and linking it to contemporary life and thought can be the challenge to take up on Trinity Sunday. It is also the challenge to check that our God-talk remains open to being both disrupted and reconstituted by the original Christian proclamation and its theological novelty and peculiarity.



[1] Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to Francis Adrian Van Der Kemp, July 30th 1816" http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/jefferson.htm (accessed October 10th 2008).
[2] Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to Rev Jarred Sparks, Nov 4th 1820" http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/jefferson.htm (accessed Oct 10th 2008).
[3] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross (London: Dartmon, Longman and Todd, 1990), 1.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Exactly how might God 'bless' Australia?

Yes, for all sorts of reasons I cringed when Scott Morrison concluded his victory speech with "God bless Australia". On the other hand what a great opportunity to cast a vision of what a 'blessed' Australia might look like. And what a great opportunity for Christians to go back to the most fundamental teaching of Jesus on the theme of blessing: the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
If a divinely-blessed Australia sees the poor lifted up, if Australia's indigenous people can be comforted in their mourning, if the meek community volunteers who seek no gain or status in their public service can be upheld, if the prophets who call out greed and idolatry are given a hearing, if those who practice mercy can change our attitudes to refugees, if those working for peace and reconciliation between communities and within families can be honoured and not mocked.... then, yes, indeed, 'God bless Australia'. 

Friday, May 3, 2019

A Post-Christendom, Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union - Post 4/4

Last year I published (through MediaCom) a short commentary on the Uniting Church's Basis of Union. This is the fourth of four posts, each of which consist of the commentary on a selected Paragraph from the Basis. The first post - which includes a bit more detail about the purpose and structure of the book - can be found here and the second post is here and the third here

If this whets your appetite, you can order the book through MediaCom or CTM Resourcing. There's also a short article about the book in the NSW/ACT Synod magazine, Insights.



Commentary on Paragraph 11
This is the second of the two paragraphs which, in my view, have been assigned an especially unhelpful heading in the officially published editions of the Basis. ‘Scholarly Interpreters’ has led to a serious neglect of the full range of issues the paragraph raises. It completely bypasses all “those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word”. It obscures the other witnesses specifically mentioned in this paragraph: evangelists, prophets and martyrs. The actual theme that runs through this paragraph is that of the various ministries which help the Church to “confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds”. I think a more appropriate heading would be ‘Contemporary Witnesses’.

At the same time, to note the wider themes of the paragraph is not to gloss over the significance of what is said about the ministry of scholarship. Research by Andrew Dutney into the background to this paragraph has highlighted that the commitment to scholarship was included to ensure that in learning from Scripture, we did not limit ourselves to the example and insights of earlier readers, specifically those of the Reformers who were mentioned in the previous Paragraph.[i]

It emerged out of a recognition that between the Reformation and the twentieth century, there had been some immensely significant developments in the scholarly engagement with Scripture. Many of these developments made serious claims upon the church’s attention. Hence the second sentence of this paragraph and its reference to the “inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry” of “recent centuries” and the note of gratitude that “God’s ways with humanity…are open to an informed faith”.

Note the location of scholarship. It is not the academy per se, but the church. What is imagined here is a ministry within the church by those who seek to use their scholarship to help the church better hear “God’s living Word”. The scholarship implied here is not that which begins with the scepticism towards faith and religion characteristic of the secular academy. Rather it is scholarship which begins with the expectations formed by Christian convictions, specifically the Christological convictions that lie behind the phrase ‘God’s living Word’. Take those convictions away, and the meaning and significance of this paragraph is fundamentally distorted.

The purpose of having an informed faith is not to convince ourselves that we’re smart. Nor is it to claim that the intellectual challenges to Christian faith can be easily overcome. At least one of the purposes of being informed about our faith is that we “sharpen our understanding of the will and purpose of God”. But this is not achieved merely by scholarship. This paragraph suggests that such a sharpening of our understanding occurs “within a world-wide fellowship of Churches” and “by contact with contemporary thought”. The paragraph also suggests the relationship with contemporary societies will “help [the Church] understand its own nature and mission”. These are striking and important claims, but they are not novel.

Christian thinkers have long recognised that there is insight and wisdom beyond the church which have claims upon the church. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) acknowledged, albeit grudgingly, that whatever from the philosophers “which happen[s] to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from owners who have no right to them”.[ii] More charitably, John Calvin (1509-1564) declared that if God “has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic mathematics and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance.”[iii] And John Wesley (1703-1791) produced, and continually revised, a Compendium of Natural Philosophy to help the Methodist community be intellectually aware.

In this process of ‘sharpening its understanding of the will and purpose of God’, the Uniting Church relates itself to scholarship, the world-wide fellowship of Churches, contemporary thought and contemporary societies. Perhaps the acute challenge of this network of relationships is one which echoes what was observed in the commentary on Paragraph 5. Today when we talk about the ‘worldwide fellowship of Churches’ we are acknowledging communities in Asia, the Pacific and Africa which inhabit social, cultural, and intellectual worlds significantly different from those of the West. The insights which they learn from their contemporary societies and their traditions of thought will add to – and often be in tensions with – those which the Western Churches received from the “literary, historical and scientific enquiry of recent centuries” in the West.

It is also from those contexts that we might be challenged to overcome our neglect of evangelists, prophets and martyrs. It is an understatement to say that the Uniting Church has been nervous about evangelism. Perhaps we need to let go of our anxieties generated by the bad press which many styles of evangelism have understandably generated. To embrace the task of evangelism is not to commit to supposedly smart techniques with their frequent hints of manipulation. It might well start, instead, with learning from the basic confidence in the gospel which characterises so many of the Churches beyond those in the West.

Perhaps we have not been entirely deaf to the witness of prophets, especially those who have properly confronted us with our easy capitulation to materialism, our preoccupation with property, our tolerance of patriarchy, and our complicity in the colonialism which has wreaked havoc on Australia’s First Peoples. Prophets discern when the church neglects or distorts the core claims of the faith, and when it lives in outright denial of those claims. By their very nature, prophets are irritating, idiosyncratic and frequently disruptive of the church’s complacency. They and their message must, however, be heard.

To be called to acknowledge the witness of martyrs often generates similar anxieties as those associated with evangelism. In today’s world martyrdom easily conjures up the fanaticism of a suicide bomber. It is also true that only a small minority of Christians have been called to martyrdom. But those of us living in Australia must pause and reflect on the fact that in many part of the world today, notably the Middle East, some Christians are being martyred not because they are fanatics, but simply because they are Christian. With their example before us, we can only pray that we be ready “when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.” 





[i] See Dutney, Where Did the Joy Come From? 25-27.
[ii] Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 64
[iii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol 1, trans. Ford Lewis Battles and ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 275.

Friday, April 26, 2019

A Post-Christendom, Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union - Post 3/4

Last year I published (through MediaCom) a short commentary on the Uniting Church's Basis of Union. This is the third of four posts, each of which consist of the commentary on a selected Paragraph from the Basis. The first post - which includes a bit more detail about the purpose and structure of the book - can be found here and the second post is accessible here. The fourth post will be published in due course.

If this whets your appetite, you can order the book through MediaCom or CTM Resourcing. There's also a short article about the book in the NSW/ACT Synod magazine, Insights.

****

Commentary on Pragraph 9 of the Basis

When did you last say either the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds in worship? And if you said it, how many in the congregation had their fingers crossed whilst saying it? Or, did you notice a distinctly muted collective mumble when it came to the statements 'born of the Virgin Mary' and 'on the third day he rose again'. These elements of the Creed have troubled Christians who have been enculturated into modernity. They constitute the so-called ‘supernatural’ elements of Christianity which modern people have been taught to distrust. To this objection, it could be asked, ‘Why stop at these elements?’ If modernity is our benchmark, why even believe in God as Creator?

On the other hand, other Christians are troubled by the fact that we continue to use creeds which, quite apart from any specific problematic details, come from an overall cultural and intellectual framework so (apparently) alien to our own. As such, their relevance is deemed doubtful. This can only be pushed so far as an intellectually serious objection because Jesus’ own context and that of the New Testament is even older and arguably even more alien than that of the Creeds.

Then there are others who are troubled not merely by any particular claims or by the cultural difference between us and the authors of the Creeds, but by the very act itself of saying a Creed. For them, to affirm Creeds defined as “authoritative statements of the Catholic faith…[which] declare and guard the right understanding of that faith” is a challenge to the freedom of individuals to make up their own minds about what to believe. 

Whilst the themes of Paragraph 9 will increase the anxieties of all three of these groups of objectors, they probably most clearly prompt an engagement with the third set of concerns. But the other two concerns also invite some brief comment. In many ways both of them question the capacity for the wisdom of the past to engage us or make any claim upon us. And here, I suspect, we confront a divide in the church that is less between Christendom and post-Christendom, and more between baby boomers and certain Christian millennials. The posture of baby boomers towards the past is probably best captured in Marcus Borg’s description of the Enlightenment as “the great watershed event in Western cultural history that created the modern world, separating it from all that went before” and which led to a “collision between the Enlightenment and Christianity”.[i]

Of course there was a clash between the Enlightenment and Christianity. But millennials might well regard the Enlightenment’s supersessionist posture (‘separating it from all that went before’) towards the past as somewhat quaint. (Some of them would also have studied enough philosophy and history to know that modernity existed well before the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment was one specific political manifestation of the intellectual currents of modernity. But that is another story!) Few millennials – Christian or not – buy modernity’s triumphant rhetoric about itself. Many of the millennials in the Uniting Church have much to teach the rest of us about how to resist modernity’s dubious legacies of colonialism, its misplaced confidence in Western rationality, and the culturally-sapping forces of its individualism. That Uniting Church millennials are critically open to pre-Enlightenment wisdom is not because they are more ‘conservative’ – as baby boomers might assume. It is because they have been nurtured in different and arguably more politically- and ideologically-aware notions of truth than baby boomers tended to be.

To return now to the third of the concerns identified above. A willingness (or not) to acknowledge an “authoritative statement” which “guards a right understanding of the faith” says something, at least in principle, about our understanding of Christianity regardless of the content of the Creed. I stress, in principle. But the principle is focused in this question: Do we think Christianity is something we can parochially reinvent or is there something constant about it across time and space? That the Basis declares that saying these Creeds links us to the “unity of the Church throughout the ages” suggests the latter. And to affirm that unity indicates a willingness, in some sense, to be accountable to the whole church regardless of whether we ‘believe’ everything that every other Christian of the past has believed.  After all, as already noted earlier in this commentary, the Creeds bypass the details of  Jesus’ human life and manage to say what they say without mentioning God’s love. But that is not a reason not to use them.

But what ‘right understandings of the faith’ are actually entailed in the Creeds? Interestingly, the Basis is quite coy about this – something which reinforces the point made above. Nevertheless, in describing their use as “acts of allegiance to the Holy Trinity” there is an implicit reminder that the Trinitarian understanding of God is a primary concern of both Creeds, particularly the Nicene.  Space does not allow a full discussion of this here. Suffice to say the following. In relation to their Trinitarian orientation, I wish that rather than saying “framed in the language of their day”, this paragraph had actually said ‘responding to the issues of their day’. Had it done so, we would have been continually reminded that the task of interpreting the Creeds requires an understanding the questions to which they were answers.

One of the background questions to early Trinitarian disputes was whether the claim that Jesus was God incarnate implied that God had somehow become less God by entering the messiness of this world. Some felt that God’s ‘godness’ was being dishonoured by affirming the incarnation. To say that God is Father, Son and Spirit is, in a very short summary form, a way of insisting that Christians don’t believe in just any ‘god’. Rather they believe in God whose very ‘godness’ is on full display and not at all compromised by entering the world of flesh and time in the work of the Son and Spirit. If that’s not true, then the game would be up for Christianity. That is perhaps the key thing we can learn from a “careful study of these creeds” and which is worth ‘declaring and guarding’.




[i] Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 21.

Friday, April 12, 2019

A Post-Christendom Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union - Post 2/4

Last year I published (through MediaCom) a short commentary on the Uniting Church's Basis of Union. This is the second of four posts, each of which consist of the commentary on a selected Paragraph from the Basis. The first post - which includes a bit more detail about the purpose and structure of the book - can be found here. The third post will be published in due course.


If this whets your appetite, you can order the book through MediaCom or CTM Resourcing. There's also a short article about the book in the NSW/ACT Synod magazine, Insights.


*****

Commentary on Paragraph 5 of the Basis.


In Uniting Church discussions about the Bible you often hear the phrase, ‘I read the Bible metaphorically, not literally’. It is often said as if it is evidence of great intellectual insight. It isn’t. It is actually a quite unsophisticated claim which tells us nothing at all about what is involved in reading the Bible. Ironically, it replicates the same ‘flattening’ of the reading techniques pursued by the literalism it opposes! What, for instance, would it mean to read Paul’s letters as metaphors? They’re letters! And as letters – and ancient letters at that – they require quite complex reading strategies to interpret them.

In fact, this is one paragraph where it is worth hesitating before appealing to a contrast between Christendom and post-Christendom. The all-too-common literal/metaphorical contrast reflects the dominance in our discussions of the question of how to read the Bible. This itself is a reflection of complex and enduring shifts in the study of theology during the last few centuries. Suffice to say that in academic theology, the discipline of hermeneutics – the study of interpretation – developed in a way that the question of how to read the Bible became detached from the questions of what the Bible is and why and where it is to be read. This was not the case in earlier centuries. The questions of how, what, why and where were held together in theological reflection on the Bible in ways that can be very instructive for us today. In this crucial paragraph, the Basis prompts us to learn once again to ask all of those questions. After all, what’s the point in having sophisticated theories of how to read the Bible if we don’t know why we are reading it?

So, let’s start by looking at what this paragraph tells us about what the Bible is. It tells us that the Bible consists of the books of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is a two-volume anthology of the formative literature of Judaism and the early Christian movement. These two volumes are also given their respective classic theological designations ‘prophetic’ and ‘apostolic’. By consisting of these particular two volumes, the Bible has some significant theological tensions built into its very structure. The tensions are never resolved. We have to live with them – and that’s one of the things that makes reading and interpreting the bible so interesting and never-ending.
 
But the tensions are not confined to the relationship between the two volumes. The paragraph also refers to the "witnesses". The plural is deliberate. There are diverse theologies not only between the Old and New Testaments, but also within each of them. Reading the Bible, therefore, is like eavesdropping on a conversation amongst a group of wise, probing and authoritative teachers, prophets and pastors. The topic of their sometimes heated and disjointed but intentional conversation is God’s history with Israel which had come to such sharp focus in Jesus.

The word "witness" is important for another reason. By using it, along with the closely related word, "testimony", this paragraph reminds us that the literature of the Bible points to events and experiences which the human authors of the literature did not invent. This same principle applies to the use of the word "received" in describing how the church has come to have the Bible in the first place. When it confesses that "the church has received the books" of the Bible, the Basis is using a theologically finely-tuned word. It’s a way of holding together two distinct convictions. On the one hand, the church affirms that the Bible derives its authority from God. On the other hand, the human actions and decisions that led to the Bible’s existence must be acknowledged and honoured. And that’s the key reason why the question of how we read the Bible is so important.

What, then, about why we read the Bible? Interestingly, the answer to this also addresses the issue of what holds this diverse collection of literature together as a single entity. The Basis tells us that the Bible is “testimony in which it hears the Word of God”.  For the Christian community, the phrase ‘Word of God’ has always been linked to Jesus Christ. In other words, the Bible is a witness to Jesus Christ and we read it to hear his word to the church. It is of course Jesus who is the reason for the existence of the Bible. It is the proclamation about him which holds the Bible together. If Jesus had not been proclaimed as Israel’s Messiah, what we know as the New Testament literature would never have been written. And if he had not been proclaimed as Israel’s Messiah, the New Testament would never have been added to the Old Testament. There would be no Bible.

Finally, what about where we should read the Bible? Here the Basis makes a quite striking claim: “The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church.” Neither the academy nor private devotions as regarded here as the normative place for reading the Bible. As the means of encountering the Word of God, i.e. Jesus Christ, the Bible is to be read in the midst of the church’s active life. The very activities of praying and proclaiming, of serving the transforming the world, of forming disciples and listening to prophets, all shape our reading of the Bible. All of them prompt ever-new questions which fine-tune our listening to the Word of God.

And we must take seriously what it means to read the Bible with the whole church. Uniting Church theologian, Dr. Ji Zhang, has rightly pressed many of us to recognise that the Churches of Asia, Africa, Pacific and the Middle East are reading the Bible and listening for the Word of God in contexts characterised by severe poverty, religious pluralism, the adverse effects of climate change, persecution and marginality. What they hear as they listen must also become part of our listening for the Word.

Friday, April 5, 2019

A Post-Christendom Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union: Post 1/4

Last year I published (through MediaCom) a short commentary on the Uniting Church's Basis of Union. It has the slightly (but deliberately) long title, "In His Own Strange Way": A Post-Christendom, Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union. The book aims to bring the Basis into conversation with some key contemporary issues. 

Each section of the book focuses on a particular passage of the Basis by way of a short 'commentary' (loosely defined!). This is followed by some discussion starters to locate the text in post-Christendom,  a set of specific questions, and finally a passage from the Bible as a suggested focus for developing connections between the Basis and the Bible. The book has been designed to be used be used for either individual reflection or group study.

In each of this series of four blog posts, the commentary on one selected paragraph from the Basis is reproduced, specifically Paragraphs 1, 5, 10 and 11. 

If this whets your appetite, you can order the book through MediaCom or CTM Resourcing.  There's also a short article about the book in the NSW/ACT Synod magazine, Insights.


*****
Commentary on Basis of Union, Paragraph 1.


The formation of the Uniting Church on June 22nd 1977 was big news. It was headlined on the front pages of many of the daily newspapers. The inaugural service held in the Sydney Town Hall was replayed on ABC TV that same evening. Indeed, it even claimed international attention. Firebrand preacher, Ian Paisley, not satisfied with the bigotry he was fomenting in his native Northern Ireland, travelled to Sydney to protest about this new ‘ecumenical’ church. More happily, Synod-based services marking the UCA’s advent were held in Australia’s capital cities on the following Sunday. They were packed.

Have we lived up to the expectation? And how would we answer that question in any case? If we used this opening paragraph of the Basis as a criterion, we might ask whether, when we gather in our various communities of faith week by week, we do so acknowledging “one another in love and joy as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ” and in order to “hear anew the commission of the Risen Lord to make disciples of all nations, and daily to seek to obey his will”? Or to lower the register of the language, we might simply ask: Is Jesus Christ and his mission central to our life as Christian communities? This is a much more serious test of the state of the Uniting Church than any narrative about numbers or any data about demographics.

The union of churches that produced the Uniting Church in Australia was not a denominational merger. Its purpose wasn’t to consolidate resources. It wasn’t a strategy of expansion. It wasn’t driven by a vague sense that it was a good idea. No, at least according to this paragraph, union was embedded in some deep theological convictions: it was intended for the glory of God; it was a call to "sole loyalty to Christ"; its horizon was nothing less than the kingdom of God which Jesus had proclaimed and for which Christians hope.

Right at the outset of the document, union is set within a context of the triune God, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the call to mission, and the hope of the coming kingdom. The UCA was not intended as a ‘new Church’ or a new ‘denomination’ - even if that is the language that might come most easily to us to describe what happened. Indeed, it was probably inevitable that this is how the event of union would be described and understood – both within and outside the church. To counter that inevitability, one way of summarising the spirit of this paragraph might go like this: the formation of UCA was simply a new episode in the history of the ‘Church of God’.

The logic at work in this paragraph is precisely the logic that challenges ‘denominationalism’, the phenomenon of Christendom by which the divided Churches defined themselves over and against each other. 'We are this kind of church.' 'We do communion this way, not your way.' 'We appoint our ministers this way, differently from you.' 'We have this form of government, unlike yours.'  Of course, Christianity has never been homogeneous: it has always displayed variety and diversity. But denominationalism turns that variety and diversity into division. It makes primary, things which should be secondary: forms of government and leadership; modes of worship; theologies of ordination, or beliefs about the sacraments. For instance, consider the names of the three Churches which entered union: each one of them was known by a title which referred in one way or another to the form of government adopted or to the way it structured Christian experience: Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational. In other words, Christians from these churches identified themselves to each other by the way they organised themselves.

One of the most striking post-Christendom notes in this paragraph is precisely the move away from these denominational labels as markers of identity. They are challenged and subverted by the seemingly innocuous but deeply challenging summons: “In this union, these churches commit their members to acknowledge one another in love and joy as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.” As noted above, this union was not simply an organisational merger. It was an event that called forth a deeply personal response from the individual members of each of the denominations. No longer would Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists identify themselves or one another in those terms. Nor was the challenge from now on simply to recognise one another as fellow members of the Uniting Church. That would simply replace one form of denominationalism with another. No, something even more fundamental was being called for: an acknowledgement of each other as ‘believers in our Lord Jesus Christ’. We might baulk at the language of ‘believers in’ rather than, say, ‘followers of’ Jesus Christ, but the basic point of Christian identity is stated. Christians are Christians through their relationship to Jesus Christ.

Of course, at one level acknowledging fellow Christians as Christians can be a fairly formal or superficial process. Beneath (and not always beneath!) the acknowledgement can be mutual suspicion, hostility or indifference.  Here, however, the Basis invites those entering union to set those aside and to accompany the mutual acknowledgement with a key Christian virtue and an equally key Christian disposition: love and joy. This is not about whether we like our fellow Christians or whether we can put up with them. It’s about the hard work of acknowledging that in Christ I am connected and responsible to any other person whom Christ calls into the church and that together we are equally called by Christ into his mission.

                                                                       *****

The three remaining posts in this series will be published in due course.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Looking for Jesus in Greg Sheridan's Defence of Christianity



I've written a response to Greg Sheridan's God is Good For You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times. Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of The Australian newspaper. He is also Catholic and in recent times has increasingly associated himself with the defence of Christianity in the public domain.

The book has its strengths. He provides some reasons to push back against contemporary naturalist assumptions of much secular thought. He reminds readers of the West's Christian heritage. He challenges church leaders to accept Christianity's minority status and stop looking back to more comfortable times. But it also has one major weakness: the account of Jesus. This is what I focus on. Here's a short extract from my response:

In the specific engagement with beliefs about Jesus’ divine status, Sheridan is particularly concerned to resist claims that would reduce Jesus to a mere moral teacher devoid of any ‘transcendent’ status. This resistance to the idea of Jesus as a moral teacher is based, in part, on Sheridan’s interpretation of Jesus’ Beatitudes. They are presented as Jesus’ summons to his followers to live in a particular way. Whilst acknowledging that if more people lived according to the Beatitudes, the world would be more just, Sheridan nevertheless insists that the beatitudes are only an “indirect call for justice.” They point instead to an “infinitely more transcendent justice.” Indeed, he makes the bold declaration that the justice of the beatitudes “doesn’t include any political content at all.”  
Now, even if the intent of this remark is to demarcate Jesus from contemporary notions of partisan politics, or even from a particular political programme, this is a most surprising and outright odd claim. For the moment you deny the ‘political’ you deny the social and relational – and to deny those in name of defending the New Testament witness to Jesus is simply untenable. More tellingly, Jesus wasn’t crucified on a cross of the Roman Empire because he’d been talking about the transcendent.
The full article is available here on the ABC Religion and Ethics website.


Sunday, September 23, 2018

Western Christianity's death wish? It's not that simple

A few days ago the Sydney Morning Herald carried an article first published in UK-based The Telegraph: "Why Western Christianity has a death wish." The title of the version published in the UK was much more assertive: "Western Christianity isn't dying from natural causes.  It's dying of suicide." The author, Tim Stanley, who identifies himself as a Catholic, places his focus on the numerical decline and what he argues is the irrelevance of the Church of England. This is taken, in a rather cavalier way, as representative of Western Christianity. Be that as it may, his argument is not an unfamiliar one to those who follow these sorts of discussions.

A few scenarios and a couple of statistics are invoked to paint a picture of a church to which no one is willing to listen and certainly very few wish to belong.
Like many agonies, you can blame it on the 1960s. The experiences of world war and nuclear threat seemed to necessitate a rethink in the way Christians acted: to preach less, listen more. Protestants and Catholics tried to meet people halfway, to talk to them in their own language. This could have been a marvellous project; humility and meekness are inherently Christian virtues. The crucifixion turned weakness into a strength, say the gospels, offering Jesus as a sacrifice for the whole of mankind. And, yes, it's good to talk to the other faiths and, of course, social justice is a divine calling. At some point, however, dialogue turned into deference and socialism became the only face many bishops were comfortable showing the world.
 A "greying church leadership" is criticised for "stubbornly cling[ing] to the nostrums of the 60s" and for becoming "comfortable with underperformance." His point, he insists, is not about favouring any particular theology over another - it's something deeper: "[I]t's about whether the Church talks chiefly about man [sic] or about God. Whether Christians have a distinct message at all.

(I concede that my insistence on [sic] reveals my stubborn 1960s slip.)

Yes, it does matter whether the church has a distinct message. But does having a distinct message ensure the reversal of the trends that exercise Stanley? Can the perceived irrelevance of the mainline churches in the Europe, the UK and Australasia be exhaustively explained by those churches abandoning Christianity's distinct message. And are those churches that buck the trend doing so because they remain distinctive? After all, a message can be distinctive and false. And a message can be relevant and true. But there are no neat correlations here - the history of Christianity is replete with faithful churches disappearing and faithless churches prospering.

And that brings me to Stanley's final point. It entails a quite revealing - but not uncommon - twist.
Churches need to be strong for when people decide they do need them - in moments of celebration, more often in commiseration.
Faith helps us deal with life and death, and the Anglican Communion, for all its wounds, remains a repository of culture and ethics. Remember: it is beauty and kindness that keep us from sliding into barbarism.
So, it turns out that the church's real purpose is "to be strong" in order to meet certain cultural needs. This, Stanley seems to be implying, is the natural state of Christianity from which the Church of England has fallen - and along with it other churches of the West.

With this diagnosis, however, Stanley reveals himself to be 'stubbornly clinging to the nostrums' of Christendom. Stanley, no less than the 'greying church leadership' he decries is taking his cues from a particular set of cultural assumptions.

Articles like this, not least because they appear in the secular press, are often used as ammunition in in-house church discussions. To the extent that they are perceived as such often depends on those inside the church assuming the neat correlations between cultural accommodation and decline or, conversely, between distinctiveness and growth.

If, however, we are really to ask about the distinctiveness of  Christianity, we need to go back to the figure of Jesus and the strange things he is remembered to have said about himself and the odd gospel about him that his first followers proclaimed. It is this person (who is referred to only once in Stanley's article, and a little grudgingly at that) and the gospel about him which are completely eclipsed in Stanley's analysis. Jesus' mission simply cannot be construed in terms of producing strong churches for when people need them or of providing a repository of culture and ethics. These may well be be good and valuable long-term outcomes of Jesus' ministry. But what was distinctive about him was his cryptic and suggestive preaching about the Jewish notion of the kingdom of God, the way he placed himself centrally in the hopes for that kingdom, and how he lived into that kingdom through suffering with the expectation divine vindication.

Only by wrestling with those features of Jesus' identity and ministry can any church be drawn into . the distinctively Christian message. And that will spill over into distinctive ideas about such matters as God, salvation, forgiveness, mercy, love, community and hope. The distinctive Christian message is at once compelling and disorienting, reassuring and costly, clear and opaque. And, I would suggest, that only those churches who do undertake that wrestling will have any hope of getting critical leverage against Christendom. With all its promise of success, power and cultural influence, Christendom (be it political, psychological, intellectual or cultural) is an enduring trap waiting to capture any church that assumes the neat correlation between distinctiveness and growth.

Yes, of course there are elements of western Christianity that seem to operate with a death wish. Yes, there are elements of western Christianity that have lost their confidence in the gospel. And, yes, all this is utterly tragic. And, of course, churches need to have a posture of availability to those who need them.

But that some of the West's churches look less culturally robust than Tim Stanley thinks they should reflects a more complicated story than the one he presents. Some are working hard at gaining that critical leverage against Christendom and going back to the basics and rediscovering the singular strangeness of Jesus and his revelation of God's love - unencumbered by what Stanley seems to imply is the natural state of Christianity. What he perceives as a death wish might actually be a wish for the life that only God can give, however strange that life might look to the assumptions of Christendom and the culture that wants 'strong churches.'


Monday, September 10, 2018

The Prime Minister's Faith

I've written a short piece for The Guardian about some aspects of how Scott Morrison understands the connection between his Christian faith and his political vocation. I raise note the dangers of claiming to be 'on God's side' in the context of the adversarial and partisan world of Australian politics (quite apart from it being theologically problematic in any case).

I also think there needs to be some push-back against those Christians who see the elevation of their kind of Christian to top job somehow being a plus for Christians. I see matters quite differently.



Deep in the logic of Christian faith is the idea that God is impartial. The only “side” that God’s takes (if that language must be used) is the side of all humanity. This, moreover, is why those Christians welcoming Morrison’s elevation to the prime ministership as indicating some sort of benefit to Christians are so wrong in their understanding of Christianity.
You can read my article here.