Monday, December 23, 2013

Personal possessive piety

Theologians love to worry about such things as personal possessive pronouns. It's what gets some of us going in the morning. As this post will show, I get particularly animated by whether it's the singular or plural form of the pronoun (or more strictly, the possessive determiner, but that really would be pedantic). I could go on for hours about it. (At this stage, some of my former students will know what's coming, and they are probably just about to hit the close-page button. But wait! There is a twist in the tale.)

A few years ago I got very agitated by the opening line of Shout to the Lord, i.e., 'My Jesus, my Savior...'. The song itself seemed inescapable - it was being sung in just about every worship context I had anything to do with. I still find it odd that so many worship services start with this song - and nobody even blinks that the first words of the gathered congregation are 'My Jesus, my Savior'. Perhaps one day I'll have the courage to turn to the person next to me and say, 'Excuse me, but I think there's been some misunderstanding; Jesus is actually my Savior'. Of course, the issue could arise with any number of songs - both contemporary and traditional. Yet perhaps the immense popularity of Shout to the Lord is no accident in in this age of consumerist religion.

For all that, there is a legitimate question to put to my frustration - and I've had it put to me often enough. Isn't there a place for individual confession of faith in our hymns and songs? Well, of course there is. How, then, can it be articulated? A recent reading of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters has given me a new angle on this.

In Letter 21 to Wormwood, Screwtape celebrates the confusion they have caused by teaching Christians "not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun". Their success has been in obscuring
the finely graded differences that run from 'my boots' through 'my dog', 'my servant', 'my wife', 'my father', 'my master' and 'my country' to 'my God'. ... We have taught men [sic] to say 'my God' in a sense not really very different from 'my boots', meaning 'the God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit.

These remarks penned by Lewis (in a work which at many levels is a quite helpful critique of pietism) helped me to see that simply changing the singular personal possessive pronoun to the plural personal possessive pronoun only shifts the problem - it doesn't solve it. Certainly, shifting to the plural brings the language of piety into greater conformity to the forms of reference to Christ and God which pervade the New Testament, i.e., "Our Lord" and "Our God" and "Our Saviour" etc. (C.F.D. Moule's remarks in an earlier generation on the 'the corporate Christ' in an essay by that name come to mind.)

Yet our use of this corporate language is not immune to the failure to note the 'finely graded differences' in the use of 'our' that run from, for instance, 'our house', 'our nation' to 'our God'. The insidious nature of the conflation of the last two has been manifested often enough. And church history tells us that 'our Church' and 'our God' have often traded on the same sense of the possessive. The challenge, then, is not necessarily to favour 'our' over 'my'. Instead, it is to learn how to use each of these possessive pronouns in ways that reflect a sense that embodies our response to God's claim on us rather than any possessive claim we might make on God.

Perhaps such learning can only occur as we participate in the various practices by which we 'lose our lives'. After all, there is something fundamentally dispossessive about Christianity. I've been struck this Advent by how this theme of dispossession runs as something of a subplot in the gospel texts that are focused on preparation. Mary lets go of the limits of the possible (Luke 1:34-38); Joseph lets go of convention (Matt 1: 18-25); and John the Baptiser challenges Israel to let go of its sense of privilege (Matt 3:9-10). Perhaps Mary, Joseph and John are examples of those who succeeded in making those 'finely graded distinctions' in the use of both 'my' and 'our'.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Bonhoeffer Intensive at UFT, March 2014

Next March 23rd-27th, the UFT will be offering a post-graduate intensive on the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A flier for the course is available here and you can access the official unit description here. The following is from the unit description:

This unit is a study in depth of the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as set out in his major writings. Seminars will examine Bonhoeffer's theological formation and develop a critical engagement with his understanding of scripture, the person and work of Jesus Christ, church, discipleship, as well as key themes in Bonhoeffer's ethics, and his later theology, especially the themes of 'religionless Christianity and the 'world come of age'.

The unit will be co-taught by Dr. Stephen Plant and Prof. Mark Lindsay. Stephen is the Dean and Runcie Fellow at Trinity Hall in the University of Cambridge, and a key figure amongst the new generation of Bonhoeffer interpreters. He will be in Australia as a guest of the CTM as a Northey Lecturer. Mark is Director of Research in the University of Divinity. A leading interpreter of Karl Barth, he has recently turned his attention to Bonhoeffer. You can sample Mark's writings on Bonhoeffer via this article on the ABC Religion and Ethics site.

The Intensive is available for credit and audit. All enrolment inquiries should be directed to the UFT office.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

On not putting Christ back into Christmas

This is definitely worth a read. Bruce Kaye writes about Christmas on the ABC Religion and Ethics website: "Why Christians should leave Christmas to commercialism: a modest proposal." One of the key themes of Kaye's thesis is that since Christmas started off by Christians colonising a pre-existing pagan festivial, why not let the festival be de-Christianised. A couple of highlights from the article.

I can't help but feel, however, that there is a curious irony about attempts by Christian people and churches to try and "put Christ back into Christmas," when the whole motivation behind the celebration of Christmas was the attempt to take over an existing non-Christian festival in order to serve a Christian purpose.
 My proposal is for Christians to shift their festival focus to the real centre of the Christian year - namely, Easter. Lent could be restored to a observance that marked out the Christian celebration of their faith as a preparation for Easter. Christians and their churches would become known in the public arena as those who observe the Lenten discipline in anticipation of a joyous celebration of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection.

Read the full article here.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Starting a blog

The PD for my position at the CTM includes this in my tasks: “Foster an understanding of systematic theology in the life of the Synod, promoting new initiatives as appropriate.” The measurable outcome for this task is: “Systematic theology has a high profile in the life of the church”. I’m not quite sure what criteria will be used to measure that outcome.  Nor am I entirely sure, at this stage, just how I’ll go about addressing the task. I haven’t been back in this Synod long enough to have any real idea of just how systematic theology is already understood and what contributions I might make to ‘fostering’ that understanding.

Anyway, this seems a good reason to start a blog, and to use it to foster some thinking, provide some resources, and perhaps even spark some discussion about systematic theology (and theology more generally).

And the name? It’s based on Acts 17:20 and the Athenian philosophers’ response to Paul’s strange message about Jesus Christ: “We have heard you say some strange things and we want to know what you mean.” I think this is an appropriate framework for this blog.

Christianity is strange. The proclamation about Jesus Christ was strange in the ancient world. Emerging now from the domesticated pieties of Christendom, Jesus Christ can again address the church and the world with the theological, ethical and spiritual novelty of his way. (I've just recently explored some of these ideas in this short reflection on Christmas.)

Systematic theology is strange. Of all the academic theological disciplines it is arguably the one that sits most uneasily to contemporary academic culture, and it is often treated with suspicion within the church precisely because it is, well, systematic. It is seen to bring too much intellectual organisation to the life of faith. In my view, the more creative exponents of the discipline show how being systematic and being open belong, in their own strange way, to each other.

The Uniting Church is strange. In the very act of union it was called to take a step out of Christendom and its denominationalism. Just how big a step we actually took remains an open question. The Basis of Union presents an account of Jesus which precisely in its orthodoxy subverts the conventional liberal/conservative spectrum we inherited from our mainstream Protestant heritage. I’m not sure that we’ve yet come to terms with that particular Christology. So, in their strangeness, the UCA and its theology are hard to classify.  

These different sources of strangeness will be some of the driving forces of this blog.