Friday, December 12, 2014

Teaching Theology in Nanjing


From 22nd-29th of November I was teaching at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary – the national seminary of the Chinese Protestant Church. This stint of teaching was part of the unfolding relationship between the Uniting Church and the China Christian Council (CCC). Despite the name, the CCC is not so much a Council of Churches as we in Australia understand that term, but more the federation of Chinese Protestant Churches. Below are a few observations, reflections, learnings etc.,  prompted by the experience.

Facts and figures: CCC The growth of the Protestant church post the Cultural Revolution is staggering. The conventional estimate is that there are as many as 30 million Protestant Christians in China. It is believed that there were perhaps 1 million Christians at the end of the Cultural Revolution. So, the growth rate of the church far exceeds that of the population at large.  Another figure that is widely-quoted is that there are 400,000 baptisms a year.  I was struck on this and two previous (non-teaching) visits to the CCC how little triumphalism there is  in the Chinese accounts of this growth. It is as if this has happened independently of them, and that the response is to care for and encourage the new Christians.

Facts and Figures: Nanjing Seminary The CCC oversees 17 seminaries throughout the nation: 16 of them regional, and the one national seminary in Nanjing. The Nanjing seminary is the only one which teaches for postgraduate degrees - although only to Masters level. There are 400 students at the Nanjing seminary, all of them residential, and nearly all of them aged in their twenties. Some are in their late teens having come to theological study straight from school. Of course, the age profile of the student body reflects that of the church at large: it is a young church which is generating and attracting committed and energetic leaders. Nevertheless, there is an acute shortage of theologically trained pastors: present figures suggest that on average there is only one theologically-trained pastor for every 18,000 Christians. Accordingly the CCC is deeply committed to developing high-quality theological and ministerial education.

The campus at Nanjing is spacious and comfortable. Watch the video below to get a sense of the size of the buildings; watch right through because it finishes focused on a sculpture of the crucified Christ whose arms are stretched over world. It is an interpretation of Gal 6:14 and was created by a recent graduate.
My course and the students My teaching was part of a four week-intensive for 45 pastors doing Continuing Education (their second such intensive for the year). They hailed from all parts of China, including Mongolia and a city on the border with Vietnam. In the previous weeks they'd studied, among other things, the Old Testament prophets (with another visiting Australian scholar) and Luther's doctrine of Justification (with a Chinese theologian from Hong Kong). In this final week it was my lectures on Doctrine and Pastoral Ministry in the mornings and in the afternoon a course on the history of Chinese Christianity  (starting in the 8th century) with my UCA Colleague Rev Dr Ji Zhang. My own topic was worked out in consultation with the Faculty. The Chinese church is exercised by its lack of a common confession of faith as well as by both the pastoral and regulatory roles of doctrine in church life. The pastors were very engaged and I learnt much from them about some of the doctrinal discussions and disputes presently at play in the Chinese Church. (Whilst I didn't do an exact count, my conversations with the various members of the class suggested that this group of pastors had responsibility for something approaching 40,000 Christians.)
At work with my host, translator and
super-smart systematic theologian,
Dr Wen Ge.
Chinese Theology I was interested to see how the discipline of contextual theology was being appropriated. I was struck by the nuanced attitude towards the relationship between developing Chinese theological traditions and those of the West. This is a complex but also fascinating issue. The Chinese church desires to present itself as an indigenous church, free from divisions of Western Christendom. It speaks of itself as a postdenominational church. At the same time, it wants to learn from the great theological figures of Christendom: the Chinese church knows it is not starting from scratch. Then, on another flank, contemporary China is otherwise being Westernised in so many ways. At least as I heard the theologians and students speaking, they were wanting to nurture a Chinese Christian identity  shaped but not determined by Western Christianity whilst simultaneously wanting to keep their distance from the more negative westernising trends in China.  I was intrigued to learn of many Christian scholars teaching Christian thought and history in many of China's universities. This is the way many Chinese are actually introduced to Christianity.

A final comment The suffering of the Chinese church during the Cultural Revolution is well-known and much honoured in the West. In one conversation about this experience, one of my Chinese colleagues quickly deflected the discussion away from any sense of martyrdom. Instead, he pointed out that Christians were far from the only group to suffer during that period. The present significance of that experience of suffering is not that it allows Chinese Christians to think of themselves as more virtuous, but that it allows them to share in the suffering shared by so many of their fellow Chinese.

The word privilege can be too easily used, but this week was a privilege.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Multi-Age Advent Resource

The Centre for Theology and Ministry has produced the following resources for the season of Advent. They are built around daily bible readings followed by reflections, questions to ponder, and a suggested brief prayer. There are also weekly suggestions for multi-age activities. You can download the material from these links:

2014 CTM Advent Resources

2014 CTM Multi-Age Advent Resource

Friday, October 17, 2014

Symposium: Religion and Continental Philosophy

Later this month a one-day symposium, The Return of Religion in Continental Philosophy, is being held in Melbourne and sponsored by the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy and The Committee for the Study of Religion in the University of Melbourne.

Wednesday October 29th, 9.30-5.00
The 1888 Building, University of Melbourne

Full programme and contact details here.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Theological Reflections: VicTas Synod 2014

Over the last weekend and into Wednesday of this week I attended the meeting of the UCA's Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. The Synod meets every18 months. The theme this time around was 'Movement and Rest'.

I was asked to fill the role of Theological Reflector. This involved offering a reflection at the outset of the meeting with the brief 'What are we doing, theologically speaking, when we meet as a council of the church?'. Four further responsive reflections were offered on Days 2, 3, 4 and 5. These were reflections on each of the day's business. My brief with these was to identify and reflect with the Synod on the various theological issues which came to the surface in our debates and discussions.

These various contributions, very slightly edited, are available via the links below:

Theological Orientation: Day 1

Theological Reflection: Day 2

Theological Reflection: Day 3

Theological Reflection: Day 4

Theological Reflection: Day 5

You can access the blog of the Synod meeting here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Job Opportunity in Melbourne

Applications are now open for this position in the University of Divinity. All details here


Monday, September 8, 2014

Learning Theology from Terry Eagleton

This post is an extended version of an article by the same title which was first published in the September 2014 issue of Crosslight, the monthly magazine of the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia.
* * * * *

Terry Eagleton is a leading British intellectual. Still going strong at the age of 71, he’s now Professor of Literature at Lancaster University. Unless they were already students of his writings on Marxism, Cultural Theory or Literature, many Christians became interested in his work through his famous 2006 review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The review became famous for several reasons, but none more so than its potent opening sentence. It’s hard to resist giving it another airing: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” This sentence also gives you a rough idea of what it feels like to read Eagleton: his style is witty, pugnacious and daring.

After that review there followed a series of lectures, essays and books in which Eagleton challenged the New Atheists to lift their game. Along the way, in his own inimitable style, he invented a new word: Ditchkins. This enabled him cheekily to conflate into one signifier the ideological identity between Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. More importantly, however, he emerged as a somewhat unusual phenomenon: a public intellectual well-informed about Christian theology.

But he’s unusual in another sense also. Whilst clear about his Catholic upbringing, he holds the cards of his present beliefs close to his chest. His critique of contemporary atheism is not that of a Christian apologist. Neither is his advocacy of Christian thought. There are no altar calls at the end of his lectures. He is quite distinct from the Christian academics who become apologists for the Christian faith on the basis of being, for instance, scientists or lawyers or sociologists who also happen to be believers. For some reason their scientific, legal or sociological expertise is taken automatically to confer an authority on their faith and theology, even when the latter is quite undeveloped.

Eagleton is not – and doesn’t seek to be – a theologian. Nor does he write to edify Christians. He writes about theology only because he writes about culture, politics and the history of ideas for people who study culture, politics and the history of ideas. For example, in his recent book, Culture and the Death of God (Yale University Press, 2014), he explores the birth and development of modern culture. The book is a fast-paced overview of the various trajectories of thought that stem from the Enlightenment, especially as manifest in philosophical idealism, romanticism, Marxism and postmodernism. His basic claim is quite straightforward:

The history of the modern age is among other things the search for a viceroy for God. Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations: all of these have acted from time to time as forms of displaced divinity (p.44).

For the champions of modernity this story of displacement is a story of liberation from the political and intellectual clutches of Christianity. For Eagleton, however, the displacement of divinity has yielded cultural losses alongside cultural gains. And some of the losses, he says, stem from a failure of the founders of modern culture to understand what they were rejecting.

According to Eagleton, some modern thinkers, “too dewy eyed about humanity”, dismissed the doctrine of sin as demeaning. In doing so they surrendered the moral realism intrinsic to the Christian doctrine of sin. This doctrine can function as an invitation to take a “soberly realistic account of the tenacity of human egoism, the persistence of violence and self-delusion, the arrogance of power, the compulsive recurrence of conflict [and] the fragility of virtue”. For Eagleton, a culture that bypasses sin is a culture intent on “buying [its] cheerfulness on the cheap”. (For all these quotes see p. 92.)

Where modern thinkers transferred ultimate authority from God to humanity, what they handed over to humanity was an exaggerated, non-Christian view of divine authority, thus inflating humanity’s importance in its own eyes. Eagleton pounces on the theological error. “It is theological orthodoxy to hold that the sovereignty of God is not that of a despot, however benevolent, but a power which allows the world to be itself. It is thus a critique of human sovereignty, not a prototype of it” (p.143). Misreading the theology it was rejecting, modernity did not entirely insulate itself from despots.

Eagleton is just as willing to correct those Enlightenment thinkers who, not without a hint of condescension, were prepared to tolerate an intellectually less scandalous, de-mythologised form of Christianity because it could still function as the moral teacher of the unenlightened common people. This was a strategy to use a trimmed down religion to preserve social order. Eagleton’s riposte to this is to highlight another – less patronising – reason why religion might claim the allegiance of the masses; one that might subvert rather than maintain social or political stability: “[T]he Jewish Bible presents Yahweh as a champion of the poor and powerless, a non-deity who spurs religious cult, rails against fetishism and idolatry, refuses a title and image and sets his people free from slavery” (p.137).

Ultimately, Eagleton wonders whether the divinity which was displaced by modern culture, especially modern high culture, was little more than a fetish in the first place, a fetish helped along by the church’s distortions of its own faith. Eagleton reminds his readers of the God proclaimed in the Christian gospel:

[T]he God of Christianity is friend, lover and fellow accused, not judge, patriarch and superego. He is counsel for the defence, not for the prosecution. … For Christian faith, the death of God is not a question of his disappearance. On the contrary, it is one of the places where he is most fully present….[Jesus] is a sign that God is incarnate in human frailty and futility. Only by living this reality to the full, experiencing one’s death to the very end, can there be a path beyond the tragic (p.160).

Many will contest Eagleton’s reading of modernity as well as his understanding of Christianity. But it is refreshing to see Christian ideas projected onto an expansive intellectual and cultural canvas, and especially by someone with none of the usual ecclesiastical axes to grind.

Most of us learn and fine-tune our theology through our participation in the domestic theological disputes of the church. This is fine, but we risk learning to talk theology only to ourselves. Eagleton’s example reminds us that Christian ideas of God, salvation, creation, sin, hope and love can be communicated and articulated in public, and that those ideas can contribute to the formation and repair of culture. For Eagleton this is less a process of translation and more one of explanation. He doesn’t seek an idiom through which Christian ideas will (supposedly) become immediately intelligible to the uninitiated. He takes the time to explain them. He appears confident that they are not simply dispensable products of sundry ideological forces; they actually possess content worth understanding. He is also confident that they can be communicated and that their meaning can thereby be carried into contemporary discussions.

From Eagleton’s grasp of Christian theology, and his confidence to resist the cultural embargo often placed over it, there is much to learn. It may be one of the ways theology, and deep discussions about Christianity, become genuinely public.  

Friday, September 5, 2014

Basis of Union Conference, 2014: Part 2

Is the Basis of Union trinitarian? For some within the UCA a negative answer to this question is cause for concern whereas for others it is cause for deep appreciation.

The question was raised at the recent Basis of Union conference by one of the visiting Chinese theologians from NanjingTheological Seminary. For him it was a matter of concern that the Basis was not sufficiently trinitarian. The issue was not, however, a matter of testing the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Basis. Rather, it was a concern that, as they stand, the particular Christological commitments of the Basis did not give much scope for developing an idea of the Cosmic Christ. For the Chinese colleague, a more explicitly Trinitarian account of Jesus Christ could challenge the church more readily to look for and see Christ beyond its own walls. My own view is that the Basis does do this anyway, specifically through its eschatology. Nevertheless, it was good to be reminded by a different set of questions too look again at the specific terms in which the Basis speaks of Christ.  (It turns out that at least some of the Chinese discussion about the Cosmic Christ has been shaped by the influence of the late Bishop K.H. Ting's appropriation of the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin.)

Putting this specific issue to one side, my sense has always been that, for the document that it is, the Basis gets the church's confession of the Triune God just about right. There are only two explicit references to the threefold name of God. The first is a classic Christian specification of 'God': in its second sentence the Basis invites the three uniting churches to pray that their union may be to the "glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit". The second explicit reference is in Paragraph 12 with its recognition that membership of the Uniting Church is open "to all who are baptized into the Holy Catholic Church in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit". Alongside these two explicit references to the threefold name is a single reference to the "Holy Trinity". This occurs in in the exhortation in Paragraph 10 to use the creeds liturgically "as acts of allegiance to the Holy Trinity". These are hardly insignificant locations for the reference to the trinitarian confession of God: the identity of God; initiation into the Christian community; the corporate worship of God. Still, there is no stand-alone articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, and there is certainly no reference to or endorsement of any specific trinitarian formula. Does this matter?  And, does it any way qualify the UCA's commitment to the church's classic confession of God's triune identity? In my view, no – on both counts.

So, in what sense does the Basis get the confession of the Triune God just about right? Of course, it is not the function of the Basis to expound every doctrine, so we shouldn't expect a full exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity in any case. What the Basis does provide, in Paragraph 3, is an extended confession of the foundation of the Church, namely Jesus Christ the risen, crucified one who is the pivot of the drama of God's saving action in and for the world. This paragraph tells us why there is a church; it tells us what must be true of Jesus for there ever to have been a church in the first place, and why there should still be a church called to mission in his name.

I would add that it also reminds us, at least indirectly, why something like a doctrine of the Trinity ever emerged at all. It does this in two ways. The first relates to how strikingly close it stays to the language of the New Testament. At first sight, this might seem to distance it from the doctrine of the Trinity. But its adherence to the language of the New Testament is not an end in itself. What is at stake here is a deeper theological adherence: an adherence to the story that is told across the various strata of the New Testament. Paragraph 3 speaks about Jesus in a discourse of hope and fulfilment, of historical particularity and cosmic renewal, of God giving a Son and sending the Spirit, of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the discourse of Jewish messianic hope interpreted in novel ways by the early Christian community on the basis of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. It seems reasonable to conclude that the radical novelty of the early Christians' disruptive claims about messiahship and salvation would at some point lead to novel and disruptive claims about the identity of God. In other words, if Jesus' life, death and resurrection forced a radical reworking of messiahship and salvation, then it would be unlikely that understandings of God could escape a similar reworking. 

That these claims might be the foundation of a new discourse about God is one thing. Are they also the foundation of a specifically Trinitarian understanding of God? This question leads to the second way Paragraph 3 reminds us why something like the doctrine of the Trinity emerged.  My suggestion here relates to the origins of the threefoldness of the Christian confession (which, of course, long predates both the language of persons and the concepts of the Creed) in early Christian proclamation. Paragraph 3 reminds us of this threefoldness, once again precisely because of its adherence to the faith proclaimed in the New Testament. There, in the New Testament, God is presented unambiguously as the agent of the drama of creation and redemption, but the capacity to speak of this agency univocally is under great strain. Just as in the New Testament, so in Paragraph 3, the agent of this drama is spoken of variously and even imprecisely as Father, Son and Spirit. This reminds us that the New Testament produces its own tension in its discourse about divine agency. On the hand is a conviction about a single agent who creates and redeems. On the other hand this agency differentiates in a threefold way. It is this tension which contains the seeds of Christianity's threefold manner of speaking of the one God. 

Doctrines of the Trinity emerge in attempts to articulate that tension without dissolving it. In particular times and places, different concepts will be used as the church lives, worships and thinks in that tension. But the criterion of such concepts is not their continuity with patristic or credal concepts, and not even with biblical terms and concepts. Rather, it will be their capacity to tell the same story that the New Testament variously tells about the one God who creates and redeems the world in a drama at the centre of which is Jesus Christ sent by the Father in power of the Spirit. And if a trinitarian formula or a set of trinitarian concepts is developed in such a way that it either obscures or detaches itself from that drama, it is not really a confession of the triune God.

This is why I think the Basis gets it right. Its few and unsystematic, but deliberate and specific, references to the Triune God are far from unimportant. They remind us, in general terms, that the Christian community means something specific when it says the word 'God'. Specifically, they also remind us that the Christian community has learnt the discipline of naming God as Father, Son and Spirit whilst maintaining with varied arguments that God is One. Nevertheless, these references never take over the Basis. They are framed by and can take their meaning only from the identity of God manifest in the drama of creation’s renewal which is confessed in Paragraph 3. 

Exactly how the three-in-oneness of God is articulated is always a matter of negotiation. The juxtaposition of the various relevant theological commitments in the Basis does provide us with some reference points for any such negotiation. Perhaps the Basis places us somewhere similar to the space identified by Karl Barth in his brief discussion of God's triunity. Barth links fidelity to the biblical witness to linguistic flexibility and a continual quest to move in and around a conceptual space generated by the biblical witness, but which properly remains open. 

We see on the one side how for those who hear and see revelation in the Bible the Father, Son and Spirit, or however we name the three elements in the biblical revelation, come together in the knowledge and concept of the one God. And we see on the other side how for them the source and goal of this knowledge and concept are never a sterile one but are rather the three, whatever we call them. In practice, the concept of triunity is the movement of these two thoughts (Church Dogmatics, I/1, p. 369). 

So, is the Basis of Union trinitarian? In my view, for the kind of document it is, and for the purposes it serves, it is trinitarian in just the right way.

Basis of Union Conference, 2014: Part 1

Last weekend, the Assembly Doctrine Working Group, Uniting Mission and Education, and the United Theological College jointly hosted a conference on the Uniting Church's Basis of UnionThe theme was Basis of Union: Catalyst for Renewal. This followed an earlier conference on the Basis in Melbourne in 2010. This second conference drew around 80 participants over the weekend. The keynote address was given by the leading scholar of the Basis, Andrew Dutney, who is also the current President of the UCA. You can read his address here.

The range of topics and the various approaches taken can be checked out in the conference brochure.  Some highlights for me included hearing the new Preamble of the UCA's Constitution read by an indigenous person, the appropriation of the Basis by a panel of UCA Young Adults, the input of theologians from the Nanjing Theological Seminary, and Bec Lindsay's engagement between the Basis, Deuteronomy and the churches of South-East Sydney.

Over the next week I'll post some brief reflections on three specific issues raised at the conference and which I've been pondering since. These three issues are: the relationship of the first 13 paragraphs of the Basis to the last 5 paragraphs; the place of the triune understanding of God in the Basis; and the question, 'Whose document is it?'

In my own paper I focused on Paragraph 4, specifically its reminder that we are "called to be disciples of a crucified Lord, and to enter into the fellowship of Christ's suffering". I argued that the appropriation of the discourse of discipleship, so understood, could help us resist moralism, triumphalism and nostalgia. On that basis I suggested that this fourth paragraph could feed into the post-Christendom and post-denominationalist calling of the UCA. (My presentation included a project I've been working on with the Young Adults from the local congregation of which I'm a member. They offered themselves as first time readers of the Basis. Their filmed responses were interesting, diverse and challenging, and injected a form of engagement with the Basis which was well-worth hearing.)

I also emphasised the reference in Paragraph 4 to the claim that "in his own strange way, Christ constitutes, rules and renews [his disciples] as his Church". The priority of Christology over Ecclesiology evident in this paragraph continues the same Christological priority articulated in Paragraph 3, the paragraph described by D'Arcy Wood as 'the basis of the Basis'.

The question was raised in the discussion after my paper as to whether the Christological priority of these paragraphs really do condition the theology of ministry and government in Paragraphs 14 and 15. Are those later paragraphs as open to renewal as the core, intentionally controlling paragraphs would mandate them to be? This question was reinforced in the final plenary session when it was asked, 'What if the Basis had simply stopped at Paragraph 13?' Behind these questions lies a concern - widely articulated - that the paragraphs on ministry and government have made the UCA less flexible, more structure-bound, and less mission-oriented than it was meant to be.

We can only speculate about the possible consequences of the Basis finishing at Paragraph 13. We can, however, engage in a much more concrete discussion about the earlier question: Are Paragraphs 14 and 15 really controlled by the normative Paragraph 3? Or, despite the framers' claims to the contrary, are these later paragraphs the place where a bit of 'ecclesiastical carpentry' does actually come to the surface?

For what it's worth, what follows is simply some unpacking of the presenting question with a few observations and/or questions of my own, and in no particular order.
  • Paragraph 14 is not without its note of renewal and openness to reform. This is most explicit in the reference to the renewal of the diaconate. It is also present, if a little less transparently, in the acknowledgement of the 'reconsideration of traditional forms of ministry'. 
  • The note of renewal and openness to reform is harder to find in Paragraph 15. Nevertheless, the duty of the councils so mandated is to ensure that the "whole body of believers may be united by mutual submission in the service of the Gospel". Any given council of the church can be called to account by this criterion on the authority of this paragraph itself.
  • If these paragraphs have stifled the church's capacity for flexibility (on which see below) is that less because of their content per se and more because of the way they have been received and appropriated? Is it here that the Uniting Church hears the strongest echoes and/or remnants of the language and structures of the predecessor churches that they have become the locus of attempts to resolve matters unresolved at union? And if this is so, might it be that the tensions around this will pass the more distant we are from union?
  • How inflexible is the Uniting Church anyway? Attention was drawn in the final plenary session to just how diverse the UCA is and how many different trajectories and diverse forms of ministry it has pursued since union. Is this because of or despite the Basis of Union?
  • To what extent are the various demands for extra flexibility a summons to gospel-faithfulness and to what extent are they driven by an anti-institutionalism? I'm not suggesting that the latter can't be a tool for the former. But anti-institutionalism is not a self-evident virtue, even if it is deeply embedded in Australian culture and society. Interestingly, the reference to the post-denominational calling of the UCA in my own paper was heard by various people - approvingly by some and not so by others - as a critique of our institutions. This was certainly not my intent. And the call to renewal in the Basis should not be set against the church's institutional dimensions. The call to renewal of church order and law in the Basis is call to the constant reform of government and law, not their elimination.
  • Perhaps the trickiest issue to address here is that of the impact on our readings of these paragraphs, especially Paragraph 14 and its reference to ordination, of our ecumenical commitment and impulse. This issue was also raised in the conference plenary. Paragraph 14 can produce quite different resonances when read through the filter of Paragraphs 1 and 2 than when it is read through the filter of Paragraph 3. This is a big question, and one that requires more than a dot point in response. I hope to publish some posts on this question from various interested parties in due course.
So, the question of the Christological core of the Basis is not a stand-alone question. It unpacks into a range of more specific questions, none of which, in my view, can be answered terribly easily.

The next post will be about the way the question of the  Trinity surfaced at the conference, not least through prompts from our Chinese visitors.

Friday, July 4, 2014


Someone once said to me that if you come away from a conference with one new idea the conference has probably been worth it. By that score, the recent ANZATS conference in Perth was more than worth it. The electives were a good mix of classical and contemporary topics. I got to hear high-quality papers on the theology of Kevin Hart's poetry, an evangelical argument for hilasterion as expiation (and not propitiation), affectivity in the theologies of Bernard of Clairvaux and Jonathan Edwards, and debates about the divine apatheia in Pentecostal theology. (As the presenter of the latter paper indicated, 'Pentecostal theology' is not an oxymoron and, as I myself have observed in recent years, there is an emerging body of high quality theological scholarship coming out of the Pentecostal movement and it deserves to be taken seriously by those of us in the mainline traditions.)

The highlight for me, however, was Graham Ward's set of three papers on the conference theme, 'The Eclipse of God: Theology after Christendom'. He combined cultural commentary, philosophical analysis and constructive theology - dare I say, preaching - in a creative and engaging way. (I doubt popular music or film clips would have played quite the role in keynote addresses at previous ANZATS conferences as they did at this one.) 

I don't think I could summarise his thesis easily, but perhaps some of its elements are captured in these various notes I've made of his remarks:

  • Confidence in the secular can now be seen as a minor cultural blip limited to the West in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • One of the few places where secularism still persists is the church; it has habituated itself to being secularism's victim. Secularism, however, is neither normative nor neutral; it is not our destiny.
  • There is a new visibility of religion witnessed in the reverse of the secularising trends amongst Europe's younger generations.
  • Religious symbolics are increasingly present in contemporary music and film, but no one knows how to read them.
  • A new rhetoric is emerging around the word 'belief'. It's perceived as something open and is emerging as a counter to 'knowing' and its certainties.
  • In this context we need theologies of the secular, not secularised theologies. So-called post-Christian theologies are ecclesiologically bankrupt.
  • Theologians need to write as if their lives depended on it: theology as prophetic poetry. After all, no early church father was afraid of rhetoric.
  • Theology needs to be viscous, visceral and viral.
  • The opposite of faith is not unbelief. The opposite of faith is certainty.
  • Theology for and on behalf of the world is a form of intercessory prayer.

Ward repeatedly acknowledged that he was drawing on his British and European context and kept on asking if his anlaysis resonated with the Australian and New Zealand scenes. The general consensus was that it did. Clearly, these ideas are not unqiue to Ward, but there was something delightfully uncommon about his capacity to combine highly developed culural commentary with equally highly developed theological construction. Much to admire and appropriate.

Some of these ideas are already discussed at greater length in Ward's True Religion (2002), The Politics of Discipleship (2009) and his forthcoming Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don't (scheduled for publication in October 2014).

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Christian Heritage?

I actually think that, you know, the ethos of our community, the guiding principles of our law, are based and built around Christianity. Now, you don't have to be a Christian to recognise there are inherent benefits to that. I support the Federal Government's chaplaincy program. ...  
Yeah, it's not about proselytising, but it’s about informing students and providing pastoral care within, I think, a moral framework, that is consistent with our laws and expectations.  (Cory Bernardi, Q&A, June 2, 2014)

To my mind it's a rather tedious debate, but it reared its head again on this week's Q&A. Senator Cory Bernardi defended government funding of chaplains on the basis of Australia having a Christian heritage. There were several layers of confusion between the question asked of Bernardi and his answer, but that's not my concern.

I personally have no investment in claiming, defending, or even disputing Australia's Christian heritage. It would seem pointless to deny that Christianity has exercised various influences on this nation's history and identity. But it would be just as pointless - perhaps even more so - to deny the irreducible and unavoidable ambiguity of that influence. The treatment of Australia's First Peoples, the White Australia policy, the present refugee policy of detaining children - all these sit uneasily with a Christian 'ethos' that Bernardi claims.

More troubling for me is that there are those who want to argue from their understanding of a Christian heritage towards proposals for minimising the diversity of contemporary Australia. This is coupled to a further argument about giving Christianity and its representatives a privileged role in defining the nation's present and in shaping its future. What I find most unsettling about this claim is that it involves proposing a role somehow earned by the past and not by the validity or authenticity of the contemporary Christian presence.

It is perfectly proper to have a serious discussion of the Christian influence on this nation's history. It is an appropriate issue of scholarly debate and cultural analysis. In such debates contemporary Christians might be both inspired and disappointed by what our forebears have done in and for this country. Equally, some non-Christians might be confirmed but also challenged in their assessments of the Christian influence.

I believe that as Christians we need to sit very loosely to the issue of this nation's 'Christian heritage' and not just because of its ambiguous character. It's also because attempts by Christians to claim it simply fall on deaf or rightly-suspicious ears in our pluralist, multi-faith context. Neither the heritage nor the contemporary realities of the Christian presence in Australia warrant Christianity being given a privileged place.

Yet none of this is to say that as Christians we should not seek with, as much energy as we can, to influence our nation - but it will need to be an influence exercised through love and service. Nor it is to suggest that Christians should be coy about projecting their voice into debates about Australia's institutions, politics and future - but our voice needs to be as self-critical, even repentant, as it is confident. The shape of any influence of such contributions is likely to be very different from what was familiar to the mainline churches of late Christendom.

One striking element in much of this debate is the typical absence of references to living Christian communities. The 'Christian heritage' so vigorously defended is often very abstract - a phenomenon which, it is said, provides principles and frameworks. But the cultivation of any ethos requires a people to practice it. Perhaps the future and present shape of Christianity's influence won't be measured by its scale. It might, instead, be measured by its capacity to form people and communities who practice the way of Jesus as a loving if disturbing presence in a society that is supported by many frameworks.

In fact the best examples of how to participate in this unfamiliar context might come from the Churches in those countries where there is no 'Christian heritage'. I'm sure we have much to learn from the witness of churches in, for example, India, Pakistan and China, who against all odds and from numerically, religiously and culturally marginal positions bear witness to Christ. We might need to let go of the modern theories of Church and State, sit loosely to debates about the nation's Christian heritage, and discover something entirely new. And something authentically Christian.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


On Palm Sunday I participated in a public liturgy and in a protest rally. The proximity of the two events prompted these still somewhat untidy reflections on the fluid boundaries between liturgy, protest and politics.

The public liturgy occurred in the forecourt of St. Ambrose's Catholic Church in Sydney Road, Brunswick. The occasion was the annual Brunswick Ecumenical Palm Sunday Service. The Salvos, the Anglicans, and Baptists and the UCers all walked from their respective churches to meet at St. Ambrose's. I don't know what reactions the other groups drew as they walked along Sydney Road, but those of us walking from the UC got a mixture of car horns, curious looks and indifference - together with the quiet mutterings of those who suddenly found the footpath more congested than it usually is on a Sunday morning.

Once gathered, we did what Christians typically do. With shoppers, trams and the Sunday morning brunch brigade passing by, we prayed, we sang, and we listened. Specifically, we listened to the narratives of Jesus' fateful entry into Jerusalem and we were encouraged to enter into the challenges of Holy Week and Easter. It was a protest of sorts.

The rally - just a couple of hours later - was held in central Melbourne and part of the nation-wide protest against Australia's present scandalous treatment of asylum seekers. Here Christians - of all sorts and varieties - mingled with thousands of others. All were united in their indignation at what is being done by this nation.

We did what people normally do at such rallies. Placards were waved. Some music was performed. Speeches were made. We variously applauded and cheered (when speakers, especially the UCA's Alistair Macrae, found just the right words to focus the crowd's concerns). And there was even a bit of jeering (when speakers mentioned certain policy makers and their policies). Then the march itself began. It was a liturgy of sorts.

In the weeks straddling Palm Sunday the Australian community has been able to witness another combination of liturgy and protest. Not just a liturgy of sorts or a protest of sorts, but the explicit merging of liturgy and protest. Groups of Christians have gathered to pray in the offices of the politicians overseeing the current refugee policies. They have crossed the usual boundaries between liturgy and protest. In doing so, they've provided an insight into both. Here faith, hope, human action, morality and discipleship all converge in a quite particular way. This is a time-honoured form of protest by Christians.

As I see it, the challenge posed by those who in Christ's name have prayed in the offices of Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop is to remind the rest of us that Christian worship is properly political. At the most basic level, worship presses the question of our ultimate allegiance. The question of whether we worship God or the gods is on the line. The common, even mundane, practice of gathering together to worship is political, if for no other reason than it gathers people together for a specific purpose. More specifically, as Christian people are gathered together to worship Jesus Christ, we willingly expose ourselves to the narratives, rituals and practices that form us as his disciples. Exhortations such as the following are not an appendix to the liturgy, they remind us of what is at stake in our praising, confessing, listening, eating and drinking.
Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage;hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour everyone; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit...
A life so lived is inevitably a politically-charged life because it seeks to resist the narratives, rituals and practices of many of the prevailing orders. If there is no match between this dismissal and what has come before it, then there's a good chance that the liturgy has been de-politicised.

But back to the Palm Sunday rally. One of the speakers concluded her speech by saying something about how the government's policies were betraying the nation's character. At the very moment she said that I was taking this photo. It's a pretty feeble photo, but there's a telling juxtaposition of the church and the powers of the day. A tiny, steepled church (between the trees) is dwarfed by sky scraper (in the background) dedicated to commerce and profit.

It's only a white smudge in this photo, but at the very top of the sky scraper is a large, conspicuous advertisement for the 'ME Bank'. Might the spirit of that logo be imposing itself on the character of our nation? I fear that there isn't a great gap between that bank name and the widespread support for the current refugee policies. And, I can't kid anyone that there isn't a great gap between that bank name and my own desires and aspirations.

And that's one reason why I go to church. I go to church to be politicised. I don't go to have my 'spiritual' needs met; I don't go to encounter the 'sacred'. I to to become a person whose desires and aspirations are directed away from the 'ME Bank' and away from the inhospitable spirits of our age. I go to have my desires and aspirations redirected to the one God. It's a chance to be exposed to and once again en-grafted into the drama of the risen crucified one, and the self-giving way of God which he embodied.

On the face of it, it's such an impotent story, literally and metaphorically dwarfed by the social and economic skyscrapers that dominate our cultural horizons. But because that story has been told, enacted and embodied week by week there are people who have learnt to protest through their words and deeds against the gods of this world and for those denied a voice.

We live in a world of competing narratives and ideologies; yes, a world of many gods. To gather with other Christians to worship God is make a choice within those narratives and to make a statement about our ultimate allegiance. Sometimes that worship and its liturgy will be more public than others. But public or private, if it's not political then maybe it's not worship.

The two books that in recent years have help me to think through some of these issues are:

The full text of Al Macrae's speech is available via the Wesley Church website.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Not nearly radical enough?

Last year I participated in a conference marking the 50th anniversary of J.A.T. Robinson's Honest to God. A re-worked version of that paper is now available on the ABC Religion and Ethics website. I argue that whatever one makes of the overall argument, neither Robinson's friends nor his critics have fully appreciated the nuances of his intentions. He sought to execute a radical re-casting of the gospel but to do so in a way that preserved what he called 'the fundamentals of the gospel'. I try to tease out what he thought those fundamentals were. I propose two key criticisms of the book: he sought to strip the Christian faith of its eschatological dimension (and thereby rob it of moral force) and that he was somewhat naive about the modern world he was trying to address. I suggest that the key strength of the book - not always noticed by its critics - is the theological exposure he provides of Christian idolatry.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"You believe in Genesis, do you?"

"You believe in Genesis, do you?" So asked the slightly puzzled Tony Jones of Miroslav Volf right at the end of Monday's Q&A. Jones' question was provoked by Volf's fairly innocuous appeal to Genesis when answering what seemed to be a leading question from a Christian concerned about attempts to deconstruct gender. 

Whilst the question from the audience gave an insight into the pre-occupations of one strand of contemporary Christianity, and Volf's answer provided an insight into one theologically nuanced account of gender, Jones' puzzlement offered a snapshot of the state of the public discussion of theology. This was reinforced by Jones' bemused chuckle that followed Volf's interrupted attempt to explain how Genesis might be read. 

Volf's answer and his curtailed explanation of his use of Genesis were both pretty standard fare for theologically-informed Christians. But Jones seemed unable to take them at face value. He appeared to lack a framework that could combine an appeal to Genesis with Volf's intellectual sophistication. 

My concern is not to criticise Jones; he more than holds his own in most discussions. Rather, it is to reflect on the opportunities provided for theologically-conscious Christians in articulating their faith in public. 

The various points of entry into the contemporary public square suit some Christians better than others. The ideological and cultural forces which have defined those points of entry have led to journalists such as Jones inheriting a whole raft of assumptions about what Christianity is and how it is to be talked about in public. On the basis of those assumptions they know how to engage the ACL or George Pell or even activist mainstream Christians. These represent the Christian 'types' that have a defined and variously tolerated place in the contemporary public square. Journalists and commentators know how to disagree or agree with them. 

But a theologian such as Volf and the kind of critically-articulated faith he represents offer something different. It's as if he's slipped in under the guard of the public square's gatekeepers and forced open a new entry point for theology. And once in, he's trying to carve out a different space for theological conversation that the public square isn't quite ready for or doesn't know how to handle. In this respect, perhaps there are certain parallels between Volf and Rowan Williams. When they are not understood, it is not that they are being inconsistent or obscurantist. They are trying re-shape a conversation that has become all too predictable and often boring. 

To be honest, I couldn't really get into Volf's book A Public Faith when I read it last year (and I was a bit disappointed with some lectures he gave last week in Melbourne). After watching him on Q&A - an explicitly public space - I think I hear him differently. Perhaps he's not just confronting Tony Jones' assumptions, but also challenging Christians to take the risk of different kinds of public conversations. They'd be conversations in which all participants would quickly learn that the question, "You believe in Genesis, do you?" isn't actually a very nuanced question. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The strangeness of the Uniting Church

How might the Uniting Church in Australia be categorised? Within the Australian Christian community, it would conventionally be deemed a 'liberal denomination'. For some, this designation will carry with it an automatic and unambiguous criticism. To be 'liberal' is a bad thing; it's to be captivated by the spirit of the age - at least that's what such critics might say. For others, that same designation might include a possibly wistful, 'I wish my (conservative) church could be a bit more like the UCA'. To be liberal is a good thing; it gives the church some critical leverage against its inherited theologies and practices - at least that's what such friends might say.

Beyond the Christian community - to the extent that anyone out there actually has a view about it - the UCA might be regarded as a champion of social justice and inclusion, a church you can support when you don't actually want to belong to one. Yet even these friends might finally conclude that as an institution it is hindered by its 1970s birth and the cultural and intellectual baggage it carries from that and earlier eras.

As for the UCA's own self-understanding, well, where to start! An Australian church. A multi-cultural church. A scholarly church. A post-denominationalist church (even though deep down we do still hang on to being the third largest denomination!). An ecumenical church. A church in covenant with Australia's First Peoples. A church committed to community service. A democratic, inter-conciliar church. A non-fundamentalist church. A church in the Reformed and Evangelical traditions. A pilgrim people.

None of these categories, however, was where the UCA started. The theological move made by the framers of the church was to direct the new church to the church's only foundation: Jesus Christ. 

It is easy - and not uncommon - to gloss over this as self-evident. 'Of course, the church is built upon Jesus  Christ', we might say. 'What we're really interested in is what the church says about, say, justification by faith, or ministerial order, or the inspiration of Scripture, or theories of atonement, or predestination, or baptism, or any other number of church-dividing issues. Tell us what the Uniting Church believes about these things, then we'll know what kind of a church it is; then we'll be able to categorise it.' The authors of the Basis of Union refused to go down this path. The insistence on Jesus Christ as the starting point was a step out of the divisions and the theological fault lines of Christendom.

Moreover, there was nothing vague or platitudinous about this appeal to Jesus. In pointing to Jesus Christ, the church's framers did so in a quite particular way. In identifying the foundation of the church, they did not point to the creedal affirmations of Jesus' divinity and humanity. They did not point to the Jesus of pietism. Nor did they point to the historical Jesus of the modern academy. Their statement of Jesus Christ's identity, achievement and significance is articulated in an eloquent summary of certain key New Testament claims about him. It's found in the third paragraph of the Basis. Here it is:

3. BUILT UPON THE ONE LORD JESUS CHRIST The Uniting Church acknowledges that the faith and unity of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are built upon the one Lord Jesus Christ. The Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father. In Jesus Christ “God was reconciling the world to himself ” (2 Corinthians 5:19 RSV). In love for the world, God gave the Son to take away the world’s sin.

Jesus of Nazareth announced the sovereign grace of God whereby the poor in spirit could receive God’s love. Jesus himself, in his life and death, made the response of humility, obedience and trust which God had long sought in vain. In raising him to live and reign, God confirmed and completed the witness which Jesus bore to God on earth, reasserted claim over the whole of creation, pardoned sinners, and made in Jesus a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. To God in Christ all people are called to respond in faith. To this end God has sent forth the Spirit that people may trust God as their Father, and acknowledge Jesus as Lord. The whole work of salvation is effected by the sovereign grace of God alone.

The Church as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit confesses Jesus as Lord over its own life; it also confesses that Jesus is Head over all things, the beginning of a new creation, of a new humanity. God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself. The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.

One UCA biblical scholar has described this paragraph as a faithful 'epitome' or summary of the New Testament witness. Packed into this core paragraph are allusions to Israel's messianic hope, to Jesus' life of witness to God in word and deed, to the centrality of his death and resurrection to Christianity's reconfiguration of Israel's hope, to the sending of the Spirit and the emergence of a novel, boundary-breaking community, to the anticipation of God's reconciliation and renewal of all creation. This is the story the church told and embodied before it surrounded itself (for ill and good) with the doctrines, debates and structures of Christendom.  This paragraph points us to the convictions and commitments which meant there ever was such a thing as Christianity. In fact, the much-quoted remark of former UCA President, D'Arcy Wood, that this paragraph is the 'basis of the Basis' continues with the (usually unquoted) explanation: "for it states how and why the church exists at all". Precisely.

We are directed here to the memories of Jesus, the convictions about him, and the vision of God and God's purposes for the world which energised early Christian preaching and provoked the novel forms of social existence which the first Christian communities became. This was all they had: a strange story of a risen crucified man through whom the God of Israel was renewing the whole world. 

This is a remarkable gift to the contemporary UCA. It is also, I think, the underlying reason the UCA has the critics and friends it does: it unsettles the conventional and formulaic ways of speaking about Jesus. It's a confession of Christian faith that can be made without having first to take our stand on the divisions of Christendom. Of course there is wisdom to be gleaned from the traditions and theologies of Christendom (and I'm in the job I am because I believe that), and the Basis itself is not silent on some of them. But they are all subject to the authority of what is confessed here; they are never where we start. 

It is a confession of faith in Jesus Christ which, in many ways, is strange to the churches of Christendom and the tendency to seek a more secure starting point for ecclesial self-understanding. The banal categories of 'liberal' and 'conservative' can't touch it. It is a confession of faith in Jesus Christ, drawn from the pre-Christendom church which could well yet prove to be a spark for a post-Christendom Christian imagination. Ironically, it is precisely in this 'biblical' account of Jesus and God's work in him that the theological strangeness of the UCA lies. At one level, it's all we've got: a strange story of a risen crucified Jew through whom we dare to believe God was and is renewing the world. Perhaps an ongoing discussion for the UCA is whether we're convinced it's enough.

* * * * * 

  • The ideas in this post are explored more fully in a study booklet, Jesus Christ According to the Basis of Union, which I've prepared for the Doctrine Working Group as a resource for the UCA's upcoming Season of Teaching and Learning. It's one of a set of three studies; the others are Christianity in the 21st Century (written by Avril Hannah-Jones) and Living the Christian Life (written by Rod Horsfield). All can be ordered at Mediacom.
  • For the discussion of paragraph 3 as an 'epitome' of the New Testament claims about Jesus, see Vicky Balabanski, "The Biblical Fabric of Paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union: How Well Does it Stand Up to Scrutiny", Uniting Church Studies 17.2 (2001), p. 66. 
  • The reference to the 'basis of the Basis' comes from D'Arcy Wood, Building on a Solid Basis: A Guide to the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Chruch Press, 1986), p. 15.