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).