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.
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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.