Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Books Worth Reading (11): Rachael Keefe's Barefoot Theology: A Dictionary for Pilgrims, Priests and Poets

Raechael A. Keefe, Barefoot Theology: A Dictionary for Pilgrims, Priests and Poets (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2013),

Notwithstanding its title this is not the usual sort of theological dictionary. In fact, it's not really the kind of theological book that academic theologians are terribly comfortable with. There are no long historical, exegetical, doctrinal or philosophical discussions. The entry on 'hemenueutics' extends to only four lines. On the other hand, the entry on 'questions' runs to three pages. And, gosh, there is no entry whatsoever for homoousious! Still, I think many theological students would profit from having this book sitting beside their more usual dictionaries, encyclopedias, and textbooks. This dictionary defines through poetry.

Theology is necessarily discursive, analytical, exegetical and historical. But theology is ultimately an imaginative discipline. Precisely as a technical discipline - or set of disciplines - it shapes and reshapes our imagination. In other words, it shapes and reshapes how we imagine God, creation, salvation, Jesus, the Spirit etc. Sadly this is not always immediately apparent to theology students as they engage the technical disciplines required of them. But I think it is one of the responsibilities of a theology teacher to help students grasps the imaginative functions of theology. And that requires providing diverse points of entry into theological work to match the diverse ways that people cultivate their imagination. I know that my imagination is actively engaged and stimulated by engaging with ideas, concepts and texts. But I recognise that this is not the case for many others. That does not mean, however, that we obliged to set aside the conceptual and analytical. It does mean that multiple points of entry into them need to be developed. This is not to deny that the poetic and the artistic do not have an integrity of their own. But as well as that they can helpfully open the imagination to the technical discourses of theology.

If pressed, I would ultimately place this book in the genre of the devotional, but it is devotional in a way that is intentional about speaking to the mind as well as the heart. Let me cite just two examples.

The entry on 'kerygma' is actually built around a mediation on Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman. The last stanza of the 'definition' runs as follows:
If we really want that early church preaching
then maybe we should get ourselves to the well
with all the sinners who thirst for Living Water
and are afraid to drink in the presence
of the Word who comes to us
in the fullness of grace and truth
until our testimony pours our
new life
And on 'redaction', after several lines  reminding readers of form and grammar, and original languages, the poem, written in a chiastic structure, concludes
These are good to tools to use lest we forget that
every writer has an agenda, a goal, a reason
to spin a story in a certain direction,
especially when politics and
religion are twisted together
lie they were in the
church's very
early days
as they

Not all the 'definitions' sit comfortably with me, but the approach Keefe pursues does. Whilst this book could only accompany and not replace other more conventional theological dictionaries, I think for a theological student (regardless of how right- or left-brain they are) to have the meanings of some key theological words expanded by poetry is important. After all, it involves the same kind of imaginative shifts involved when we move from doctrine to prayer and hymns in worship.


This (very occasional) series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Visionary Orthodoxy

"Visionary orthodoxy" is a term Marilynne Robinson uses to describe the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in her essay about him in her The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. It's a lovely phrase that captures the imaginative dimension of classical Christian theology. As she continues in the essay, Robinson goes on to give something of a definition (although that word is too technical) of what she specifies as 'great theology'. Clearly what she writes here is shaped by her engagement with Bonhoeffer, but this seems to be a more personal understanding of theology. It invites extended reflection and meditation. And it requires no commentary other than to say if this is what 'great theology' is, it is indeed a 'visionary' task that warrants our attention and energy.

Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and the dying words, and who attend to its retelling with a special alertness, because the story has a claim on them and they on it. Theology is also close to the spoken voice. It evokes sermon, sacrament, and liturgy, and, of course Scripture itself, with all its echoes of song and legend and prayer. It earns its authority by winning assent and recognition, in the manner of poetry but with the difference that the assent seems to be to ultimate truth, however oblique or fragmentary the suggestion of it. Theology is written for the small community of those who would think of reading it. So it need not define freighted words like 'faith' or 'grace' but may instead reveal what they contain. To the degree that it does them any justice, its community of readers will say yes, enjoying the insight as their own and affirming it in that way.

Marilynne Robinson, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer" in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Picador, 2005). The reference to 'visionary orthodoxy' is on p. 115 and the description of 'great theology' is on p. 117.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Cracking of Christendom: Semester 2 Unit at Pilgrim

The second unit I’ll be contributing to in semester 2 is ‘The Cracking of Christendom’. This is a dual church history/systematics unit which covers both historical and theological aspects of the Reformation. It will be taught in face-to-face mode on Tuesday nights, 6-8pm, at the Centre for Theology and Ministry, Parkville as well as being available for online enrolment. There could hardly be a better year to take this unit: the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. (Indeed, the final lecture will actually be on October 31st. I’m sure we’ll find some theses to nail to some doors that night.) The unit is a chance to explore why Christendom did suffer such deep cracks, whether they have healed, or even whether, in this post-Christendom age, they still matter.

The unit was developed by Katharine Massam and me and was first taught in 2015. In Katharine’s (sabbatical) absence, the historical dimensions will be covered by Kerrie Handasyde, one of Pilgrim’s Adjunct Faculty. The balance between theological and historical elements will be pretty much 50/50.

Kerrie will focus on the lived experience of the Reformation. When we look closely at this revolutionary time we see the source of so much of our present practice. The spaces where we worship are shaped by Reformation ideas about hearing the Word. So, we will ‘read’ church buildings and study the language and rising influence of preaching. With our own vocations, spirituality, and sacramental understandings in mind, we’ll look at Reformation ideas about the individual’s relationship to God and to the body of Christ. The liturgy, art and stories of the sixteenth century will aid reflection on the continuities (and the dissonances) with our own time.

I’ll be focusing on the doctrines of justification, scripture, and the sacraments.  I’ll do so in the mode enjoined in the Basis of Union: “The Uniting Church continues to learn from… the witness of the Reformers”. In other words, the purpose of engaging with the Reformers is not to repeat their theologies, but to learn from them in ways that might illuminate our contemporary witness to the faith. Of course, John Calvin will be one of the people from whom we learn. And among those from whom we’ll learn about Calvin will be Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson and feminist theologian Serene Jones; their shared enthusiasm for Calvin is striking and a little unexpected. Particular attention will be given to the Confessions which UCA ministers promise (ahem) at their ordination to read. Unsurprisingly the roots of some enduring protestant problems surrounding the authority and inspiration of scripture lie there. Surprisingly, so too do some solutions.  Of course, for the UCA, the Reformation heritage sits alongside that of Methodism, the emergence of which played its own later part in the ‘cracking of Christendom’. Accordingly we will also explore John Wesley’s key sermons on justification, scripture and the sacraments – including an assessment of his understanding of the ‘open table’. Is it relevant to today’s communion practice?

We will also engage some of the very lively contemporary discussion about the legacy of the Reformation, not least the widespread claims that the roots of the West’s current individualism and fragmentation lie in the Reformation. This will include a critical assessment of Brad Gregory’s recent, influential and controversial The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap, 2012).

For enrolment details contact the College Registrar at .

If you intend to enrol in this unit and would like some suggestions for preliminary reading, consider the following:

Donald McKim, Reformation Questions, Reformation Answers: 95 Key Events, People and Issues (Louisville: WJKP 2016). Just over a 100 pages, this is a little gem. Its short and pithy entries on the said ‘95 events, people and issues’ provide an excellent introduction to the basics of the Reformation.

Gillian Evans, The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture  2nd ed (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012). This is a more technical and expansive book than the above, but its various chapters are good points of entry into the many different aspects of the Reformation.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Theological Lessons From China

I spent 10 days last month doing research and a little bit of teaching at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary in China. This element of my sabbatical was made possible by UnitingWorld as part of the UCA’s ongoing relationship with the China Christian Council.  This was my fifth visit to the Seminary. As always, the experience of just being there is striking on multiple fronts: 300+ full-time students, the overwhelming majority of whom are under 30; generous hospitality from students and faculty (who are phenomenally busy combining academic and church responsibilities); insights into the remarkable growth of the Chinese church and the complex issues it faces; the deeply embedded place of theological education in the Chinese church.

The particular focus on this visit was to develop my understanding of the interest of Chinese theologians in cosmic Christology. In the context of my present writing project I am citing this as an example of doctrinal development in the churches of the global south. (Of course it is not absent from the global north, but there are issues in the global south which give it a particular edge in that context.) The prominent Bishop K.H. Ting (1915-2012) was well known for his interest in this doctrine. Another theologian whose work touched on this theme was Wang Weifan (1927-2015).

Weifan was a colleague of Ting at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary of which he was Dean. But his academic work followed early years as a pastor. He also spent 20 years in forced farm labour after being identified as a 'rightist'. (It is worth us Western theologians pausing to take in that sentence.) Recently he has come to the attention of the international theological community through references to his work in the third edition of David Ford’s The Modern Theologians and a scholarly article on his work by Alexander Chow in a 2016 issue of the international journal Modern Theology. There is also an extended account of his theology in Brill's 2016 Yearbook of Chinese TheologyIt was Chow’s writing on Weifan which first directed me to taking up this interest.

Weifan was not quite as explicitly engaged with the discourse of ‘cosmic Christology’ as Ting, but like Ting he had little interest in the reductionist Christologies of the West’s modern liberal theology. Also like Ting, he was insistent on the universal Lordship of Christ in both creation and redemption. This led to something that overlapped strongly with more explicit‘cosmic Christologies’. He is interesting also for the way he appropriated earlier, but almost forgotten, Chinese Christian theologies from the Tang (618-907) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. He draws attention to the uniqueness of the Chinese Christian experience in that it already has these ancient Chinese Christian sources, developed independently of Western theological trajectories, on which to draw.

A reconstructed image
 of a Chinese 

What the commentators on his work most usually mention is his development of the concept of shengsheng shen. It means something like ‘ever-generating God’ or even ‘life-birthing life’. He notes that the earlier Chinese Christians had drawn on this idea of ‘change’ (sheng) from the Book of Changes (I Ching) which had emerged in the Zhou dynasty (770-256 BCE)

I am still getting my head around these concepts and their history. Nevertheless, what has interested me most in the reading I have done (regrettably dependent, as I am, on the English translations) is what Weifan perceives to be at stake in the process of this sort of contextualization. What follows is a brief section on this theme from the first draft of what I trust will eventually emerge in the book.

Weifan is clear about what he understands is at issue in thus drawing on ancient Chinese concepts. He seeks to pursue “theological thinking which can be refined into a theology with Chinese characteristics [and thus allow] Chinese theology will guide the Chinese Church and Chinese believers through the process of modernization in China”. What is just as interesting, however, is what he says next: “...and make a fitting gift to the Church worldwide”.[1] The same point is made when he articulates the hope that such a theology “will be more easily appreciated and accepted by the sons and daughters of the yellow Emperor – and welcomed and treasured by the Church ecumenical”.[2] Clearly, this is not an attempt to develop a parochial Chinese theology. Indeed, Weifan was himself wary of some Chinese influences on Chinese Christian thought, notably the pressure of Confucianism to “lower the status of Christianity to that of an ordinary ethical system, ignoring its transcendent aspects.”[3]  Rather, he was attempting develop a Chinese theology that could take its place in the whole church. This raises an important issue with regard to the relationship between this proposal and received doctrine. Weifan is not an unqualified innovator. He draws explicitly on an earlier teaching of the Chinese church which had itself grown out of a Chinese interpretation of the biblical teaching of the lordship of Christ. Moreover, the reference to the Chinese concept is not part of any foundationalist project. His point about the earlier appropriation of this term is not that the God of Jesus Christ was pre-figured in the concept of sheng. [4] It is much more the case that this concept is used to illuminate an existing Christian belief. After all, in the Book of Changes (Zhou dynasty, 770-256 BCE) the concept of sheng was part of a process of divinization which “attempted to explore the hidden patterns of change in order to predict the future”.[5]  Manifestly, Weifan is not suggesting that either he himself or the earlier writers are wanting to appropriate divinization techniques of the Zhou dynasty into contemporary Chinese Christianity. Rather, the concept is given Christian meaning whilst aspects of its original meaning are being used to illuminate an existing Christian concept. By introducing it into Christian discourse he expands the range of resonances the confession of Jesus' lordship evokes.

I find this dynamic of his work fascinating and would welcome any comments or insights from those familiar with his theology.

[1] Weifan, “Chinese Theology and its Cultural Sources”, Chinese Theological Review 11 (1995), 45
[2] Weifan, “Chinese Theology ”, p.48.
[3] Wang Weifan, “The Word was here made flesh”, Chinese Theological Review 8 (1992), p 95.
[4] Certainly there are other Chinese theologians who do make foundationalist appeals to traditional Chinese religions and traditions. Wang Weifan is more subtle. For an overview of other Chinese developments of Comsic Christology see Tang, “The Cosmic Christ the search for a Chinese theology”, Studies in World Christianity 1 (1995): 131-142 (p. 132).
[5] Joachim Gentz, Understanding Chinese Religions (Edinburgh: Dunedin, 2013), 45.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Books Worth Reading (10): Rowan Williams' Being Disciples

Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life  (London: SPCK, 2016)

This is an excellent book. It is well worth reading, or, more precisely, well worth using.

As something of a sequel to his earlier Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (also a Book Worth Reading), this latest small book (just 87 pages) is another instance of Rowan Williams addressing some of the basic issues entailed in living as Jesus' disciples.  The book distills for us 'ordinary' Christians the somewhat unique combination of scholarship, pastoral insight and ecclesiastical leadership that Williams offers the whole church.

Each chapter was originally a lecture or presentation given to lay audiences whilst he was Archbishop of Canterbury. Although those presentations spanned a six year period and were given in various locations around the world, they have been combined quite seamlessly in this volume.

After an introductory chapter on the overall theme, Being Disciples, the following chapters explore five distinct but related themes: Faith, Hope and Love; Forgiveness; Holiness; Faith in Society; and Life in the Spirit. The writing is very accessible, at times quite beautiful, always to the point, and often unsettling. Each chapter starts with a reflection on a particular New Testament passage but then opens out into wider issues. Accompanying each chapter are some discussion-starter type questions.

The most useful way of providing a taste of this book, is to offer a short quotation from each chapter.

On 'Being Disciples' 
"Awareness, expectancy - all of this is bound up with the idea of the disciple as someone who follows. This listening awareness, this expectancy, presupposes following because it assumes that we are willing to travel to where the Master is, to follow where the Master goes. And, of course, in the Gospels, where the Master goes is very frequently not where we could have thought of going or would have wanted to go... Familiar and pious language, which we need to hear afresh as the chilling and sobering summons it really is" (p. 9f).

On 'Faith, Hope and Love' 
"[In] this sense of confusion and loss where our understanding is concerned, faith grows in its true meaning. It appears not as a system, a comprehensive answer to all our problems. It appears quite simply in the form of 'dependable relationship'... You realize when the signposts and landmarks have been taken aware there is a presence that does not let you go. And that is faith, I would say, in a very deeply biblical sense" (p.25).

On 'Forgiveness'
The person who asks forgiveness has renounced the privilege of being right or safe; she has acknowledged that she is hungry for healing, for the bread of acceptance and restoration to relationship. But equally the person who forgives has renounced the safety of being locked into the position of the offended victim. ... Both the giver and receiver of forgiveness have moved out of the safety zone; they have begun to ask how to receive their humanity as a gift" (p.40).

On 'Holiness'
"[T]here is no contrast, no tension really, between holiness and involvement in the world. On the contrary, the most holy, who is Jesus, is the most involved, most at the heart of human experience. And we really misunderstand the whole thing very seriously if we think that holiness means being defended from our own humanity or other people's humanity: quite the opposite." (p.50)

On 'Faith in Society'
"Christians...are not called to impose their vision on the whole of society. If they have a role in the political realm, it is that they will argue that the voice of faith should be heard clearly in the decision-making processes of society. The Christian disciple, in other words, does not campaign for political control...but for public visibility - for the capacity to argue for and defend their vision in the public sphere, to try and persuade both government and individuals that a better moral basis exists for ordering public life." (p. 71)

On 'Life in the Spirit'
"To be opened up [by the Spirit] is to discover joy: not happiness, not a transient feeling of euphoria, or feeling it's basically all right in a kind of shoulder-shrugging way, but joy - the sense that we are connected with something so real that it will break every boundary or container we try to confine it in, a sense of something overflowing, pushing outwards." (p.85).

I said at the outset that it is more precise to speak of 'using' this book rather than 'reading' it. I hope these cameo quotes indicate why this is so. I'm sure any study or discussion group which chose to use this book would not be disappointed.


This occasional series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.