Monday, January 19, 2015

Davis McCaughey: little substance?

Recently when browsing the newly-arrived journals at my college library I opened up a recent issue of The Reformed Theological Review (73:2, August 2014).  I was interested to see that it contained (pp. 142-43) a review of Sarah Martin’s Davis McCaughey: A Life (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2012). McCaughey was, among other things, New Testament scholar, Master of Ormond College, inaugural President of the Uniting Church in Australia, and Governor of Victoria. The review focused mostly on Martin’s account of McCaughey’s theological and ecclesiastical work. Although this was at the expense of Martin’s engagement with the other areas of McCaughey’s life, within the compass of a brief book review in a theological journal, this limitation is fair enough.
What is not fair enough, however, is the conclusion the reviewer draws. I quote the final paragraph in full:
McCaughey’s earthly pilgrimage came to an end on Good Friday, 2005. He was not without insights and eloquence, but having rejected what he saw as the narrow creed of Irish Presbyterianism, he was left with little of any substance to put in its place. In the end, this is a sad book – and all the sadder because it is not altogether evident that many involved in its telling realise how sad it is.
In fact, to describe this conclusion as unfair doesn’t quite capture my concern. It’s more that this is a quite unscholarly conclusion and, at least in my view, below the standard expected in a peer-reviewed journal. In concluding that this is a ‘sad book’, the author appeals to some deeply personal criterion, to which, apparently, Martin and her sources were simply blind.  And, devoid of this criterion, Martin was unable – so the reviewer suggests – to understand, or provide an informed judgement on, McCaughey’s life. 
Yes, of course, reviewers are perfectly entitled – and expected – to expose an author’s prejudices, failures and errors. But any successful critique on those grounds needs to be backed up by relevant information and data. And the conclusion would be along the lines that the author had failed in his/her own objectives, or neglected to take into account relevant scholarship, or, in the case of a biography, omitted critical moments in the subject’s life.  Nothing like that applies here.  This is an arbitrary claim that Martin didn’t know how to judge her own material: she didn’t know – but apparently should have known – how sad the story was she was telling. So, the conclusion is a judgement on Martin’s inability fully to understand her subject matter. But – and this is my interest – it is also a judgement on Davis McCaughey’s theology.
The reviewer’s reason for making this judgement is his own claim that McCaughey’s journey was one of departure from earlier theological convictions to a position “with little of any substance”. The only apparent basis provided in the review for this journey consists of two quotes from Martin’s book. The first is McCaughey’s comment at Princeton in 1967 that the church “must be prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church”. The second is from McCaughey’s 1987 Boyer Lectures in which he quoted Niebuhr’s comment that “we must be saved by love” which the reviewer glosses with the comment, “by which he meant love of one’s neighbour”.
Neither these quotes nor anything else in the review can justify the claim that McCaughey’s constructive theological view had little substance to it. To make that judgement in an intellectually responsible way, it would be necessary to study and analyse the corpus of McCaughey’s theological writings. Even Martin’s biography is not the source material for such a judgement. 
The reviewer is perfectly entitled to disagree with McCaughey’s theological views, and to disagree strongly. But to suggest that McCaughey’s theology had “little of any substance” is simply wrong. McCaughey was far from the most prolific or influential theologian; by contemporary academic standards his literary output was significant, but modest. Nevertheless, judging from the body of his theological writings – many of which are readily accessible in various publications – McCaughey was an informed, thoughtful and creative interpreter not only of New Testament texts (his particular area of expertise), but also of the creedal orthodoxy which nurtured the Church catholic and into which he sought to draw the sectarian Protestantism of both his native Northern Ireland and his adopted Australia. It is also seems that in one area he was likely well ahead of most of his theological peers: his deep appreciation of the relationship between literature, imagination and theology. Some of his – admittedly brief – proposals in this area measure up very well alongside the best writings on this now important theme in contemporary Christian theology. Remarks he made to the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his ordination (see below) provide an insight into the personal faith which both nurtured and was nurtured by his developed theology.
There are others far better placed than I am to defend McCaughey’s theological reputation. I can only say that whenever I have read his theological writings, I have found them illuminating, faithful to the gospel, creatively engaged with the classic traditions of Christian thought, and worthy of considered engagement. The RTR’s review makes a quite contrary claim – but does so without fully attending to the criteria of accuracy and fairness to which scholarly discussion, not least scholarship pursued as a Christian ministry, is summoned.
Some readily available examples of McCaughey’s sermons and theological writings:
Address to the 2002 meeting of the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. The text of this speech was distributed widely throughout the synod following the meeting.
Davis McCaughey, "If I had known then what I know now" in William W. Emilsen and Susan Emilsen (eds), Marking Twenty Years: the Uniting Church in Australia: 1977-1997 (Sydney: UTC Publications, 1997).
J. Davis McCaughey, Commentary on the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1980).

J. D. McCaughey, "Church Union in Australia" The Ecumenical Review 17(1), 1965, pp. 38-53.

J. D. McCaughey, "Confession of Faith in Church Union Negotiations" Mid Stream 6(3) 1967, pp. 24-46.
J.D. McCaughey, "Language About the Church", Reformed Theological Review 15(1), 1956, pp. 1-17.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Books Worth Reading (1): Being Christian by Rowan Williams

I hope occasionally to post brief summaries of books that I think are worth reading. It will be an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. The summaries will be just that: summaries. I won't be offering technical book reviews, but simply highlighting books that I think are either useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate. This is the first.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (London: SPCK, 2014).

I am often  surprised  by the success Rowan Williams appears to have as a popular writer. Such books as Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (1982), Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (2000), Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (2003), Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (2007), and are clearly pitched beyond the academy for more general audiences. They are not, however, light reads and they clearly demand of their readers a patient willingness to follow Williams’ nuanced and often slowly-developed arguments.

Obviously Williams' audience and marketability owe much to the profile he gained whilst serving as Archbishop of Canterbury. The position itself made his ideas important and interesting and gave him a visibility not usually enjoyed by theologians of his calibre. Yet I would suggest one feature of these writings which might be a further explanation of their success. Williams writes about the Christian faith with obvious authenticity and out of conspicuous personal involvement in that faith. His wisdom comes not just from his erudition or intellect, but from a deep prayerful engagement with God, the life of faith, the Christian community, and the wider world.

This is certainly true of one of several of his books to be published in 2014: Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer (London: SPCK, 2014). The book (of less than 100 pages) consists of lectures given in Canterbury Cathedral during Holy Week (in an unspecified year) and addresses “the essential elements of the Christian life” which he defines not “in terms of individuals leading wonderful lives, but just in terms of those simple and recognizable things that make you realise you are part of a Christian community”, i.e., baptism, Bible, Eucharist and prayer. (p.ix)
Whilst accepting baptism as clear identity-marker, he also warns against treating it as a mark of segregation; it does not “confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else”. He continues:

To be able to say, ‘I’m baptised’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected – you might even say – contaminated – by the mess of humanity. This is very paradoxical. Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created. It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave untouched or unsullied. (p.5f)

Williams adopts the hermeneutically unfashionable view that the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the controlling centre of the Bible. This does not mean, however, that Williams executes a christological flattening of either Testament. He shows how different biblical writers offer commentary – and negative judgement – on other parts of the bible. He gives the example of Hosea’s reading of Jehu’s massacre of the house of Ahab. As recorded in 2 Kings the massacre is “presented as a triumph of God’s righteousness”. 
Now, that clearly, is a rather problematic story because of all the random bloodshed in it. But it did not take twenty Christian centuries for people to notice that. For in the book of the prophet Hosea (1:4) you will find, just a few generations later, a prophet of Israel looking  back on that very story and saying that Jezreel is a name of shame in history, not of triumph, and that Jehu’s atrocities deserve to be punished. Something has happened to shift the perspective. (p.37)

In exploring that changed perspective, Williams engaged in some imaginative, but not implausible, reconstruction:

And I imagine that if asked what he meant, Hosea would have said, ‘I’m sure my prophetic forebears were absolutely certain that they were doing the will of God and I’m sure the tyranny and idolatry of the royal house of Ahab was a scandal and need to be ended. But, human beings being what they are, the clear word of God calling Israel to faithfulness and to resistance was so easily turned into an excuse for yet another turn of the screw in human atrocity and violence. And we’re right to shed tears for that memory. (p.38)

In his discussion of the Eucharist, Williams does not get bogged down in the metaphysics of sacraments. He places it against the background of Jesus’ own hospitality. With the story of Zacheus in mind he states that “Jesus is not only someone who exercises hospitality; he draws out hospitality from others. By his welcome he makes other people capable of welcoming”(p.42). Thus we see something essential about the Eucharist:
We are the guests of Jesus. We are there because he asks us, and because he wants our company. At the same time we are set free to invite Jesus into our lives and literally to receive him into our bodies in the Eucharist. His welcome gives us courage to open up to him… We are welcomed and we welcome; we welcome God and we welcome our unexpected neighbours. (p42)
The chapter on prayer proceeds by way of an engagement with the respective views of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Cassian on the Lord’s Prayer. He discerns three themes common in each of these writers: prayer is God’s work in us; there is a deep connection between praying and living justly in the world; and prayer is about faithfulness or ‘sticking to it’. There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, echoes between how Williams summarises the second theme about prayer and what he said earlier about baptism and Eucharist: “Prayer is the life of Jesus coming alive in you, so it is hardly surprising if it is absolutely bound up with a certain way of being human which is about reconciliation, mercy, and freely extending the welcome and love of God to others”. (p.81)

Perhaps more so than Williams' other popular books, Being Christian is highly accessible, both in terms of content and style. The book would be a great conversation starter for any small group wanting to explore some of the basics of Christian existence. I could also imagine it would be very useful in an adult confirmation class. It could also richly reward – as it did in my case – a solitary reading.