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. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Yes, theologians make things difficult

Today was the final day of an inter-disciplinary intensive at the UFT, Introduction to Theological Studies. One of the sessions involved the three of us teaching the unit (Sean Winter, Gerry O'Collins and me) speaking briefly about our own theological journeys. Among the things that came to mind when preparing my own contribution were some comments by my own Doktorvater, Nicholas Lash, in his book, Easter in Ordinary. They've stayed with me, perhaps unconsciously, ever since I read them over 20 years ago, but I'm grateful whenever they come back to the surface. I think I'll just let Lash speak for himself:

Theologians are often accused of making things difficult. But the theologian does not invent either the complexity and illegibility of our history or the pain and confusion of contemporary circumstance. I would go further: part of the theologian's responsibility is to help discipline the propensity of the pious imagination to simplify texts, demands and requirements that are resistant to any such simplification.

Serious theological reflection is always hard work, and its outcome fragmentary, tentative, and (often) quite technical in its quest for appropriate imaginative and conceptual accuracy, not because God is complicated, but because we are - and so is the world in which we live. It is not possible without complexity to indicate, or point the way toward, the deep simplicity of the mystery of God....
Serious theological reflection, in other words, is, and should be made to be, hard work.

To add just one comment which places these remarks in the context of Lash's wider work. Simplistic theology is often an indication of attempts to sum God up comprehensively, or to 'capture' God, or to speak of God in ways that are detached from the 'pain and confusion of contemporary circumstance'. And that, for Lash, would be nothing other than idolatry.
Nicholas Lash, Easter in Ordinary: Reflections on the Human Experience of the Knowledge of God (London: SCM, 1988), p. 290f. 

Beyond Education: a colloqium on the church's theological formation

Next month I'll be participating in this colloquium on theological formation (March 28-29). It's an attempt to explore a theology of theological formation. The presenting issues include the current debates about theological education in the mainline churches, but framing them by some larger questions about the purposes of theology in the church. There will be engagement with some classic theological texts plus the exploration of theological formation in specific contexts. You can register here and see the schedule of papers here.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Guest Post: We're not in Beroea anymore

One of the last things I did before leaving my role in the Queensland Synod last year was attend the Synod's 2013 meeting. My then Faculty colleague, Dr Aaron Ghiloni, led one of the series of Bible Studies with which we commenced each day's business. Below is Aaron's own brief synopsis of the study, as well as a link to the podcast. I think that Aaron puts his finger on several dimensions of the strangeness of the interface between the church and contemporary Australia. His engaging study was still ringing in my ears when I set up this blog.

* * * * *

“Rendering an account of faith is even more important now, in the present century, when the religious a priori no longer exists and God has become problematical precisely as God.”

This extract from Schillebeeckx was projected on the screen as I began a Bible study given to the Queensland Synod in May.  As leaders of parishes and agencies, rural and urban, sat making crucial decisions for the future of the church, I hoped the quote would illustrate an enormous challenge facing Christians today.  Our primary challenge is not how to manage money, retain youth, or defuse internal controversy. In culture where religious atheism, “non-Christian” religions, and "syrupy dogooderism" simultaneously thrive, the church must be driven back to rudimentary theological categories. 

If as liturgists, theologs, and Sunday school teachers we are doing our work properly, it should be a discomfiting problem: what does it mean to speak of God?

The Bible study was titled “A Debatable Way”. As the Synod gathered around the theme “Disciples on the Way,” I chose the adjective debatable to signal that the Way (a) is not self-evident and (b) must be contended for.  Drawing on Paul’s approach in Athens (Acts 17), the study had three themes:

1.       An Eclectic Social Context
2.       A Curiosity-Inducing Message
3.       A Pagan-Friendly Doctrine

The first theme, social context, seems especially crucial for understanding this text.  Ministry in Athens (vv.15-34) is juxtaposed to ministry in Beroea (vv.10-14).

Beroea is every theologian’s dream!  In Beroea, Paul’s can really play up his Hauerwasian credentials.  It is a “counter-polis” – a “story-formed” “community of character.”  Paul can break-out his classic post-liberal moves, for in Beroea, Scripture is the “native language, the primary medium in which they think, feel, act, and dream” (Lindbeck). The Beroeans are eager to accept the authority of Scripture.  In Beroea, Paul can also play up his Bonhoefferian credentials and give sermons about “single-minded radical obedience.”   Sermons which muse: “Only the believers obey and only the obedient believe.”

But the assumptions Paul can rightfully make (about Scripture, about authority) in Beroea, he cannot get away with in Athens. Perhaps this is true in Australia too. In the study – available by podcast here – I propose that we are not in Beroea anymore.

* * * * * * *

Aaron Ghiloni is Director of Studies - Mission, Ministry and Leadership at Trinity Theological College, Brisbane. He is the author of Dewey Among the Theologians (Peter Lang, 2013).

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Systematic theology and its strangeness (2)

"Systematic theology has fallen on evil days". 
"There are few phenomena in the theological world which are more striking indeed than the impatience which is exhibited on every hand with the effort to define truth and state with precision the doctrinal presuppositions and contents of Christianity."

Despite the echoes in these remarks of sentiments possibly to be heard from contemporary systematic theologians lamenting all the challenges to their discipline in these postmodern days, these comments are actually over a century old. In fact, they were written in 1897. The first were penned by Edinburgh's Professor James Orr in his Introduction to Benjamin Warfield's The Right of Systematic Theology. The second are from the main body of Warfield's text itself.

It is interesting to read Warfield's summary of the sources of this 'impatience': claims that Christianity is about life, not thought; that it proclaims acts of God, not dogmas; and the concern that doctrine is a (Greek) way of truth-telling alien to the witness of the biblical narratives. Again, it's all very familiar. Less familiar, perhaps, is Warfield's confidence in aspiring towards a "pretty complete systematic theology" and justifying it with the claim that from the beginning Christianity has "ever come to men (sic) as rational religion, making its appeal to the intellect".  It's not that you don't have to scratch too far below the surface to discover the rhetoric of modernity in Warfield's protest, you don't have to scratch at all. 

It is interesting to ponder the history of the discipline in the intervening century, not least the development of the discipline, especially in English-speaking circles in the last two to three decades in particular. The 'impatience' with it has not subsided, but, as a discipline, systematic theology is lively, energetic and developing on multiple fronts. And it needs to be said that it has developed in directions that Warfield himself is unlikely to have approved of. The quest for 'completion' has not been abandoned, but it's surrounded by caution. Claims for the rationality, or perhaps the 'reasonableness', of Christianity are still made, but without the clear definitions of rationality which Warfield assumed.

Both of these developments have been very much shaped by the strange institutional location of the discipline, i.e., at the boundary of the church and the academy. Systematic theology faces some particular challenges in straddling this boundary (challenges which may or may not be shared with other theological disciplines). Some of these challenges were explored by the Catholic scholar, Nicholas Healy, in a 2009 essay, "What is Systematic Theology". Healy argues that systematic theology "must necessarily be a bit of an outsider in both the church and the university". When it shifts too much to the academic side of the boundary, it becomes an outsider to the church because its enquiring and constructive tendencies bring it into critical relationships with the church's ordinary and official theologies. When it shifts its balance back to the church side of the boundary, it becomes an outsider to the academy because its insistence on the transcendent nature of it's subject matter, i.e., God. (Healy argues all this at much greater length and helpfully differentiates between ordinary, official and professional forms of systematic theology.)

Yet claiming a transcendent subject matter is only the beginning of the problem. To say that the discipline's transcendent subject matter is God is not a stand-alone claim. Christianity fleshes out this claim by articulating a comprehensive vision of God and God's relation to the world. Here the claim for comprehensiveness and totality bumps into the claim of the postmodern academics that all such total claims (or meta-narratives) presuppose a totality of vision which no person or community can claim. And  to the extent that such a totality of vision is a truth claim (which it inevitably is), it invites the related criticism that truth claims are simply products of the time, place and circumstance of those who make them. According to that criticism, the 'effort to define truth' is not only misplaced, it is pretentious.

One important response from within systematic theology to these sorts of criticisms, has been articulated very powerfully by the English theologian, Sarah Coakley. She unapologetically pursues what she has coined a théologie totale. Her ideas around this theme have been emerging over recent years, and have now begun to take more formal shape in the recently published first volume of her own systematic theology, God, Sexuality and the Self. She refuses to abandon the making of truth claims, but does so in ways that "reason is stretched and changed beyond its normal, secular reach". This stretching occurs not least because she brings prayer, contemplation and desire into the theological task. 

Upending much of the postmodern concern about total visions, she argues that the pursuit of a total vision of God and God's ways in the world, far from being a strategy for control, is actually a practice of constant critique and renewal. In her own words théologie totale is
an attempt to do justice to every level, and type, of religious apprehension and its appropriate mode of expression. Thus it is devoted precisely to the excavation and evaluation of what has previously been neglected: to theological fieldwork in a variety of illuminating social and political contexts....; to religious cultural products of the arts and the imagination; to neglected or sidelined texts in the tradition; and to examination of the differences made to theology by such factors as gender, class or race. 
Her argument moves towards a proposal for an 'unsystematic systematics':
In short théologie totale makes the bold claim that the more systematic one's intentions, the more necessary the exploration of such dark and neglected corners; and that, precisely as a theology in via, théologie totale continually risks destabilization and redirection. In an important sense, then, this form of systematic theology must always also remain, in principle, unsystematic. 
All this is part of an attempt to "recapture the contemporary imagination for Christ, [and] to reinvite reflection on the perennial mysteries of the gospel". (Some of the ideas around gender and sexuality which emerge in this first volume can be sampled here. And, it will be interesting to see what role she gives to Christ and the biblical witness to him in future volumes of her (unsystematic) systematics.)

I suspect that neither Benjamin Warfield or James Orr would be entirely enamored of an unsystematic systematics. They may even find these days no less 'evil' than those of 1897. Perhaps they were just a little too impatient with the impatience directed at their discipline. That others have constructively engaged that impatience over the last century has refined and renewed systematic theology - albeit in ways which have not necessarily reduced its strangeness. Again to quote Healy, straddling the church and the academy, systematic theology is "a constructively unsettling element in both".

Benjamin B. Warfield, The Right of Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1897).

Nicholas Healy, "What is Systematic Theology", International Journal of Systematic Theology 11 (2009), pp. 24-39.

Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity (Cambridge: CUP, 2013).