Friday, December 21, 2018

Looking for Jesus in Greg Sheridan's Defence of Christianity

I've written a response to Greg Sheridan's God is Good For You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times. Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of The Australian newspaper. He is also Catholic and in recent times has increasingly associated himself with the defence of Christianity in the public domain.

The book has its strengths. He provides some reasons to push back against contemporary naturalist assumptions of much secular thought. He reminds readers of the West's Christian heritage. He challenges church leaders to accept Christianity's minority status and stop looking back to more comfortable times. But it also has one major weakness: the account of Jesus. This is what I focus on. Here's a short extract from my response:

In the specific engagement with beliefs about Jesus’ divine status, Sheridan is particularly concerned to resist claims that would reduce Jesus to a mere moral teacher devoid of any ‘transcendent’ status. This resistance to the idea of Jesus as a moral teacher is based, in part, on Sheridan’s interpretation of Jesus’ Beatitudes. They are presented as Jesus’ summons to his followers to live in a particular way. Whilst acknowledging that if more people lived according to the Beatitudes, the world would be more just, Sheridan nevertheless insists that the beatitudes are only an “indirect call for justice.” They point instead to an “infinitely more transcendent justice.” Indeed, he makes the bold declaration that the justice of the beatitudes “doesn’t include any political content at all.”  
Now, even if the intent of this remark is to demarcate Jesus from contemporary notions of partisan politics, or even from a particular political programme, this is a most surprising and outright odd claim. For the moment you deny the ‘political’ you deny the social and relational – and to deny those in name of defending the New Testament witness to Jesus is simply untenable. More tellingly, Jesus wasn’t crucified on a cross of the Roman Empire because he’d been talking about the transcendent.
The full article is available here on the ABC Religion and Ethics website.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Western Christianity's death wish? It's not that simple

A few days ago the Sydney Morning Herald carried an article first published in UK-based The Telegraph: "Why Western Christianity has a death wish." The title of the version published in the UK was much more assertive: "Western Christianity isn't dying from natural causes.  It's dying of suicide." The author, Tim Stanley, who identifies himself as a Catholic, places his focus on the numerical decline and what he argues is the irrelevance of the Church of England. This is taken, in a rather cavalier way, as representative of Western Christianity. Be that as it may, his argument is not an unfamiliar one to those who follow these sorts of discussions.

A few scenarios and a couple of statistics are invoked to paint a picture of a church to which no one is willing to listen and certainly very few wish to belong.
Like many agonies, you can blame it on the 1960s. The experiences of world war and nuclear threat seemed to necessitate a rethink in the way Christians acted: to preach less, listen more. Protestants and Catholics tried to meet people halfway, to talk to them in their own language. This could have been a marvellous project; humility and meekness are inherently Christian virtues. The crucifixion turned weakness into a strength, say the gospels, offering Jesus as a sacrifice for the whole of mankind. And, yes, it's good to talk to the other faiths and, of course, social justice is a divine calling. At some point, however, dialogue turned into deference and socialism became the only face many bishops were comfortable showing the world.
 A "greying church leadership" is criticised for "stubbornly cling[ing] to the nostrums of the 60s" and for becoming "comfortable with underperformance." His point, he insists, is not about favouring any particular theology over another - it's something deeper: "[I]t's about whether the Church talks chiefly about man [sic] or about God. Whether Christians have a distinct message at all.

(I concede that my insistence on [sic] reveals my stubborn 1960s slip.)

Yes, it does matter whether the church has a distinct message. But does having a distinct message ensure the reversal of the trends that exercise Stanley? Can the perceived irrelevance of the mainline churches in the Europe, the UK and Australasia be exhaustively explained by those churches abandoning Christianity's distinct message. And are those churches that buck the trend doing so because they remain distinctive? After all, a message can be distinctive and false. And a message can be relevant and true. But there are no neat correlations here - the history of Christianity is replete with faithful churches disappearing and faithless churches prospering.

And that brings me to Stanley's final point. It entails a quite revealing - but not uncommon - twist.
Churches need to be strong for when people decide they do need them - in moments of celebration, more often in commiseration.
Faith helps us deal with life and death, and the Anglican Communion, for all its wounds, remains a repository of culture and ethics. Remember: it is beauty and kindness that keep us from sliding into barbarism.
So, it turns out that the church's real purpose is "to be strong" in order to meet certain cultural needs. This, Stanley seems to be implying, is the natural state of Christianity from which the Church of England has fallen - and along with it other churches of the West.

With this diagnosis, however, Stanley reveals himself to be 'stubbornly clinging to the nostrums' of Christendom. Stanley, no less than the 'greying church leadership' he decries is taking his cues from a particular set of cultural assumptions.

Articles like this, not least because they appear in the secular press, are often used as ammunition in in-house church discussions. To the extent that they are perceived as such often depends on those inside the church assuming the neat correlations between cultural accommodation and decline or, conversely, between distinctiveness and growth.

If, however, we are really to ask about the distinctiveness of  Christianity, we need to go back to the figure of Jesus and the strange things he is remembered to have said about himself and the odd gospel about him that his first followers proclaimed. It is this person (who is referred to only once in Stanley's article, and a little grudgingly at that) and the gospel about him which are completely eclipsed in Stanley's analysis. Jesus' mission simply cannot be construed in terms of producing strong churches for when people need them or of providing a repository of culture and ethics. These may well be be good and valuable long-term outcomes of Jesus' ministry. But what was distinctive about him was his cryptic and suggestive preaching about the Jewish notion of the kingdom of God, the way he placed himself centrally in the hopes for that kingdom, and how he lived into that kingdom through suffering with the expectation divine vindication.

Only by wrestling with those features of Jesus' identity and ministry can any church be drawn into . the distinctively Christian message. And that will spill over into distinctive ideas about such matters as God, salvation, forgiveness, mercy, love, community and hope. The distinctive Christian message is at once compelling and disorienting, reassuring and costly, clear and opaque. And, I would suggest, that only those churches who do undertake that wrestling will have any hope of getting critical leverage against Christendom. With all its promise of success, power and cultural influence, Christendom (be it political, psychological, intellectual or cultural) is an enduring trap waiting to capture any church that assumes the neat correlation between distinctiveness and growth.

Yes, of course there are elements of western Christianity that seem to operate with a death wish. Yes, there are elements of western Christianity that have lost their confidence in the gospel. And, yes, all this is utterly tragic. And, of course, churches need to have a posture of availability to those who need them.

But that some of the West's churches look less culturally robust than Tim Stanley thinks they should reflects a more complicated story than the one he presents. Some are working hard at gaining that critical leverage against Christendom and going back to the basics and rediscovering the singular strangeness of Jesus and his revelation of God's love - unencumbered by what Stanley seems to imply is the natural state of Christianity. What he perceives as a death wish might actually be a wish for the life that only God can give, however strange that life might look to the assumptions of Christendom and the culture that wants 'strong churches.'

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Prime Minister's Faith

I've written a short piece for The Guardian about some aspects of how Scott Morrison understands the connection between his Christian faith and his political vocation. I raise note the dangers of claiming to be 'on God's side' in the context of the adversarial and partisan world of Australian politics (quite apart from it being theologically problematic in any case).

I also think there needs to be some push-back against those Christians who see the elevation of their kind of Christian to top job somehow being a plus for Christians. I see matters quite differently.

Deep in the logic of Christian faith is the idea that God is impartial. The only “side” that God’s takes (if that language must be used) is the side of all humanity. This, moreover, is why those Christians welcoming Morrison’s elevation to the prime ministership as indicating some sort of benefit to Christians are so wrong in their understanding of Christianity.
You can read my article here.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Grace, Scripture, Confessions and the Living God

Prompted by a conversation earlier today, I went back to 'The Faith of the Church', the first document produced, in 1959, by the Joint Commission on Church Union, the body whose work laid the theological foundations of the Uniting Church in Australia. My friend and I had been talking about how to distinguish between what is primary and what is secondary in the Christian faith. The relevant passage from 'The Faith of the Church' is reproduced below. The language is gendered, the prose a product of its 1950s context, and there are potentially jarring echoes of certain kinds of piety, albeit all mixed with some strong rhetoric. But what is notable is the way it orients the church to scripture and tradition through the framework of grace, or more precisely, the one who is gracious, namely the living Jesus Christ.

 1. Our commitment is made in faith

The position in which we stand as churches and human beings is one of grace. God has dealt with us graciously, and he has done so with us as with men who are unworthy. There is only one way in which to receive this grace and that is by faith. We would wish to see the biblical teaching of justification by faith through grace written out in the corporate life of the Church and in the life of Christians in their personal and social relations in our day.

The Church on earth must ever learn the meaning of justification by faith.

a. We would express it in the way we hold the faith. By our reverence before the witness of scripture and our humility before the confessions of believing men, but above all, and through all, in our awareness of the Living God, we would show that we are grasped by a holy love and power which is not our own but which was made manifest for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. The knowledge which we have of divine things is given to faith. But faith is not a way of knowing what has been objectively given, apart from a relation of trust and obedience which is conditioned by the One who grasps and holds us.

The Church will therefore guard against allowing that which is necessary but secondary to play a dominant part in her life. No system of Church government, no rules or precedents, no system of doctrine or ethics, no technique of evangelism, no tradition of men regarding the ordering of worship, is sufficiently free from error to be permitted to hold anything but a subordinate position in the life of the Christian Church. Only by setting forth as the primary ground for her existence God’s justifying act in Jesus Christ, apprehended in the Church by faith, can the Church prevent a proper concern for law from deteriorating into legalism, a proper concern for morals deteriorating into moralism, a proper concern for theology from deteriorating into intellectualism, a proper awareness of the grace set forth in the sacraments from deteriorating into sacramentalism.

The Church’s message is not even of justification by faith, lest the holding of that should become a justifying work. The Church’s message is of her Justifier. We preach not ourselves (not anything to do with ourselves — our doctrines, our practices, our religious experience, or our faith) but Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. He only is the Justifier of the Church’s life.*

*Joint Commission on Church Union, The Faith of the Church in Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia, edited by Rob Bos and Geoff Thompson (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2008), 59-60.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Books Worth Reading (13): For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare

Samuel Wells, Russel Rook and David Barclay, For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2017).

This short (90 pages) and highly-readable book addresses the  role of the British churches in welfare in the light of the economic and political fragility of Britain's famous post-World
War 2 Welfare State. Its starting point is the need to reflect (theologically, sociologically and politically) on the phenomenon of growing church involvement in welfare as the securities provided by government welfare weaken.

The authors provide a brief sketch of the history and foundations of state welfare, focusing particularly on the impetus and legacy of the 1942 Beveridge Report which set up Britain's approach to welfare. From its beginning the approach was oriented to the alleviation of (to use Beveridge's now anachronistic terms) 'Want, Idleness, Ignorance, Disease and Squalor'.

Whilst acknowledging the immense achievement of the welfare state, the authors argue that welfare must do more than alleviate such deficits, it must be oriented to the development of assets and/or goods. Economic circumstances also mean that there needs to be a reconsideration of the allocation of respective responsibilities to the state and other institutions (including churches) in order to effect that shift in the aims and practices of welfare. In place of Beveridge's 'deficit approach', the authors identify five 'good's or 'assets' which should be cultivated: relationship, creativity, partnership, compassion and joy (see pp 13-17). In a key plank of the argument, it is proposed that among the roles of the churches is the need to:
work actively and tirelessly to model a social role that is appropriately modest - because it doesn't demand that they step in where they  have relatively little expertise and where the scale of the challenge is enormous - but is eminently achievable, in that it affirms what the churches do best, which is create cross-generational community and cherish people for what they are, not what they are not (p.12).
The book is grounded in the actual experience of churches navigating their way into this new situation. In addition to a well-sketched but brief and accessible theological rationale, there is a whole chapter devoted to case studies of church social action. The case studies are stories of successful engagement with developing goods and assets in local communities. Yet they are not 'glossy' stories - the problems and challenges are identified and engaged. The first is of a Pentecostal church in Burnley, Lancashire, responding to the social divisions  manifested and reinforced by community riots in 2001. The second is of a Baptist-based movement, Oasis, which has developed community hubs through sponsorship of, and engagement with, poorly-funded state schools. The third is an Anglican parish in Shadwell, East London which, through an alliance with the Centre for Theology and Community (which had been renting the church's crypt), became intentional about linking worship with social activism.

Another, more theoretical, chapter articulates various models of church social action. It is based around a 'spectrum' of such models. They authors maintain that different churches are called to adopt different modes of engagement depending on their context. That context might also required them to adopt more than one such mode at any one time. They use the following diagram to set out the range of models.

From p. 66
It is important to note that spectrum is not intended as an abstract model of church-state relations (as if there was ever one thing called 'church' and one thing called 'state'). It is, as the heading indicates, a social 'action' spectrum. This conforms to what is a warning earlier in the book:
The danger is that, for all their growing social impact, churches become defined more by what they believe about the state's role than what they believe about their own (p.33).
Indeed, the church's self-understanding is one of the most important themes of the book. It also picks up the issue of what it is about Christianity that means that the church should have such a role in the first place. There is an endorsement of Pope Francis' comment that the church needs to be more than a "compassionate NGO". There are some very helpful reflections which subvert the binary between, say, social action and disciple-making (especially pp. 31-36), but the relationship between the church as a gathered community and the development of social goods is perhaps best captured in some remarks about the work of the Anglican parish in East London. The more the congregation engaged in its various projects of social activism and renewal, the congregation itself was renewed. The authors suggest that this should not be surprising:
After all, the worshipping community is the place where goods often abound. Here men and women find new relationships, means of expression, opportunities to serve, individuals to love and reasons to celebrate (p. 63).
It is this quote which has been for me the most helpful bridge between this British study and the similar, but quite different, issues faced in the Australian context, and in the Uniting Church in particular. Of course, much of what is outlined in this book is already in place in such movements as Common Grace, Sydney Alliance and Assets Based Community Development.

Anyone familiar with the UCA, however, will know that there for some time there has been discussion about the relationship between congregations and our community services agencies. Sometimes it has been as silly as a tussle between the two to be the  'future face of the church'. Other times, it is a discussion seemingly caught in conflicts between corporate and ecclesial cultures. Then there are times when the discussion gets trapped in a mixture of nostalgia and mutual suspicion. I've argued elsewhere that whilst there is indeed an urgent need to address the ecclesiology of large-scale institutions such as UnitingCare, there is also a need (equally urgent) to address the nature of congregations as communities oriented to the world precisely and simultaneously because they are oriented to God.* We would have achieved nothing if we did sort out the ecclesiology of the agencies, but didn't similarly renew our reflection on the nature and purpose of congregations as communities of worship, witness and service. This where I find the above quote so helpful.

What if we unpacked the idea of our congregations being places where 'goods abound'? This is not an alternative to thinking of congregations as communities of worship, witness and service. It does, however, provide a different language by which to ground and interpret our activities of worship, witness and service. It might also help us move beyond the now almost-hackneyed term 'mission'. The idea of 'goods abounding' might help us more easily see the connections  between the life of congregations and the church's involvement in developing goods in the wider community. There is no doubt that these connections do exist, but much of our received language for these issues hides them or plays them down. A shift to the language of 'goods' and a commitment to their 'abundance' both within and beyond the gathered community could be sustained by a well-grounded confidence and orientation to the gospel of God's love made known in Jesus Christ. For it is, after all, that love which unites, and is the common focus and driving force of, our worship, witness and service. Equipped with that confidence, churches could be relieved of the pressure to legitimate their contribution to society by the scale of that contribution. A gospel-grounded confidence would nurture the 'appropriate modesty' of the church's role which the authors of For Good call for (see quote from p.12 above).

For Good is written with just such a quiet confidence that the church and the gospel it proclaims in word and deed actually matters, not least in the world of welfare. Notwithstanding the need to make adjustments for its British provenance, I found it the most helpful overview I have read of the vexed question of the church's engagement in welfare. Without question this is a book worth reading.

*See A Genuinely Theological Church: Ministry, Theology and the Uniting Church (Reservoir: Uniting Academic Press, 2018), 69-76.


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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Christine Helmer to visit Pilgrim Theological College, August 2018

American Theologian and author of Theology and the End of Doctrine, Christine Helmer, will be a visiting scholar at Pilgrim Theological College in August 2018.

She will be giving a Public Lecture ("Ecclesiologies of Resistance"), an academic seminar ("A Brief Introduction to Schleiermacher’s Most Important Ideas") and several lectures in the Intensive unit, 'Doctrine, Truth and Pluralism'. The latter is taught over two blocks, Aug 24-26 and Oct 12-13. Professor Helmer will be teaching in the first of those.

Further details are available here and more will be posted in due course.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Books Worth Reading (12): Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre

Lee McIntrye, Post-Truth (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2018)

This is as good an introduction to the emergence of the post-truth era and its consequences that I can imagine being condensed into 170 pages. McIntrye, a Research Fellow at the Center for the History and Philosophy of Science at Boston University, writes in an engaging and lucid style. The story he tells is an unhappy one, and no reader will be left in any doubt about the seriousness the problems he highlights. But he also points in several directions for how resistance to the apparent triumph of post-truth rhetoric, ideologies and political strategies might be carried out.

Perhaps the most important point he makes near the outset of the book is that post-truth refers to  a situation where truth is not necessarily denied, but where it is consistently, aggressively and dishonestly subverted - and for political purposes: " is not so much a claim that truth does not exist as that facts are subordinate to our political point of view" (p.11). The dishonest element of post-truth is made abundantly clear in the sketch he gives of the organised science-denial organised by the US Tobacco Industry in the 1950s. Strategies employed then would later be deployed in the denial of climate change.

The commercial and ratings-inspired roots of cable news are explored. The shift of TV news from information to entertainment, and its consequences for public debate, are clearly set out. Reading the origin of the portrayal of false-equivalences between genuine experts and opinionated activists, reinforced by the split-screen of talking heads, made me ponder just how pernicious these developments have been and how deeply embedded they now are in the way we discuss issues. The seeds of 'fake news,' 'alternative facts,' and the discrediting of the mainstream media were sown long ago. They will be hard habits to break even if society at large generates the will to do so.

The penultimate chapter, 'Did postmodernism lead to to post-truth' was certainly the chapter which I found pressed the most significant intellectual issues. He claims that the "pathway from science denial to full-blown reality denial itself seems undeniable." He continues: "What would an application of postmodernism to post-truth politics look like? It looks a lot like the world we now inhabit" (p.144). Interestingly, he places this connection against the backdrop of competing politics: "What a complete misfire of the original politics that motivated postmodernism, which was to protect the poor and vulnerable from being exploited by those in authority. It is now the poor and vulnerable who will suffer most from climate change." In all this, he says, the academy has failed in its responsibility: "It's all fun and games to attack truth in the academy, but what happens when one's tactics leak out into the hands of science deniers and conspiracy theorists, or thin-skinned politicians who insist that their their instincts are better than any evidence"(p.145).

He laments (and alleges) that philosophers have been silent as the post-truth forces gathered momentum in recent decades. But he commends Daniel Dennett for the latter's critique of postmodernists. He favourably quotes Dennett's claim that postmodernists "are responsible for all the intellectual fads that made it respectable to be cynical and about truth and facts. You'd have people going around saying: 'Well you're part of that crowd who still believe in facts'" (p.148).

And therein lies something of the source of my own criticism of the book, notwithstanding that it is very much a book worth reading. The quotation from Dennett contains the important and necessary distinction between truth and facts. I'd like to have seen McIntyre discuss at much greater length the modes of truth telling which are not reducible to announcing or reciting facts, and how such modes of truth telling are themselves important resources in combating post-truth.(That might also have necessitated a more nuanced account of postmodernism than the one given, but that's another matter.) I think there are important philosophical reasons for such a discussion and there are certainly good Christian theological reasons as well. In fact, Christian theology's long and sustained reflections on truth, language and faith may well have some helpful and unexpected contributions.

The book concludes with some brief case studies of where courageous resistance to post-truth denials of truth have been carried out - including by politicians. McIntyre's final paragraph is both challenging and (cautiously) hopeful - but certainly not triumphalist:
Post-truth is not about reality; it is about the way that humans react to reality. Once we are aware of our cognitive biases, we are in a better position to subvert them. If we want better news media outlets, we can support them. If someone lies to us, we can choose whether to believe him or her, and then challenge any falsehoods. It is our decision how we will react to a world in which someone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Truth still matters, as it always has. Whether we realize this in time is up to us (p. 172). 

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.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Good News and Fake News: Discipleship and Conviction in a Post-truth Age

Next month I'll be giving three keynote addresses on the above theme at the annual School of Discipleship event in Sydney. You can read about the event here, and catch a glimpse of my themes here.

It's not too late to register. It's a mostly young-adult group, usually 100+ participants. SOD is associated with various movements that identity as 'Radical Discipleship'.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Forming disciples - theologically

Every month the magazine of the Victoria/Tasmania synod of the Uniting Church carries an article by a member of the Faculty of Pilgrim Theological College. This month it was my turn. I took some remarks from Cornel West's eulogy to James Cone a as a springboard for some reflections about the connection between discipleship formation and theological formation.

West referred to the challenges Cone faced when growing up in deeply-segregated Arkansas in the pre-civil rights days. He drew attention to the way Cone’s family and his church (the African Methodist Episcopal Church) had shaped him to be the person he was and to have the gospel commitments he did.
Professor West made two points about this. First: “That’s what we need these days,…the spirit of the tradition that produced a James Cone.”
Second: “He was already fortified before he got to Union Theological Seminary.”
Both of these comments are worth thinking about in the context of the Uniting Church. They prompt two questions: ‘What kind of people should our church communities produce?’ and ‘What does a theological education contribute to those already formed by their churches as Christian disciples?’

You can read the whole article here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Why 'believing' the Bible is a category mistake: a response to a response to *that* sermon

Melbourne-based Baptist pastor, Murray Campbell, has posted a response to Bishop Curry's Royal Wedding Sermon.

The bulk of the post was actually about Bishop Curry's support for same-sex marriage and his controversial place in the Anglican Communion. Nevertheless, Pastor Campbell respectfully acknowledged that there was much good in the sermon, but also elements that concerned him. So: 
Did Michael Curry say some things that were true and helpful? Yes. Did he speak too long? For a wedding, probably yes, but every preacher know that temptation. Was it positive to see an African American preaching at a royal wedding? Absolutely. Maybe in the future we’ll see a Chinese or Persian Pastors preaching the Gospel at such an auspicious occasion. Did the bishop say anything unhelpful or untrue? The answer is, yes.
For Pastor Campbell (drawing on the comments of an un-named Anglican minister), the 'unhelpful and untrue' lay in Bishop Curry's willingness to define love and its power in terms of human acts of love rather than in relation to God's love for us in Jesus Christ. I'm not entirely sure that that's entirely fair to Bishop Curry. Be that as it may, I can't help but turn Pastor Campbell's questions about Bishop Curry on to his own post. 

Did Murray Campbell write some things that were true and helpful? Yes. Did he write some things that were unhelpful or untrue. The answer is, yes. It was helpful that he pointed out that Jesus was skeptical of the world loving him and his gospel. That is an important note to sound in the euphoria the sermon has provoked and the likely ephemeral nature of that euphoria. It was especially unhelpful, however, that Pastor Campbell encouraged people struck by Bishop Curry's sermon to "seek out a Bible believing and Jesus loving church." 

Christians are not called to 'believe' the Bible; they are called to acknowledge its authority, and to listen to it through the filter of the gospel proclaimed by Jesus. It is a serious category mistake to talk about 'believing' the Bible. Employing this theological error allows some churches to distinguish themselves from other churches which by implication are said not to 'believe' the bible. In fact, the actual distinction at hand is between churches that might equally acknowledge the authority of the Bible but interpret it differently. When a church presents itself as 'Bible-believing', it is often a fairly blunt proxy for legitimating its interpretations of the Bible without acknowledging that they are interpretations.

Perhaps it was just an accidental ordering of the words, but the sequence of Bible first then Jesus is also cause for alarm. Christians should never, in my view, place their recognition of the Bible's authority (let alone their 'belief' in it) ahead of their 'faith' or 'trust' in or 'love' for Jesus. Despite the influence of this particular distortion of the theological grammar of the Christian faith, it too is a serious theological error. 

My own encouragement to those struck by Bishop Curry's sermon would be to seek out churches that trust and embody the Gospel in lives of discipleship and who deepen that trust by listening for God's living Word through listening to and interpreting the Bible.

(For a longer engagement with the relationship between faith in Jesus and reading the Bible, see this piece at the ABC Religion and Ethics Website.)

Update: Murray has written a response to my response(!) here. I won't be responding again. The arguments are now out there.

Monday, May 14, 2018

What do you do with a theological education in a post-truth age?

The occasional address given at the Annual Graduation Ceremony of the Adelaide College of Divinity, May 7th 2018.


Firstly, I thank the Faculty for the honour of the invitation to give this address. Although there is a lot of interaction between the respective leaders of the various theological consortia and colleges, there are not so many opportunities for general faculty members to engage other colleges and their students in events like this. I am especially grateful for being able to do so.
My earliest memory of attending a graduation ceremony goes back to my oldest brother’s graduation in the late 1960s. There is a 14 year gap in age between him and me. As a 10 year old I had no choice but to tag along to what was a significant family occasion. As it happens, it too was a theology degree – a BD in the then Melbourne College of Divinity.

What I remember most clearly about that graduation ceremony is the event that happened mid-way through the speaker’s address.

Dressed in all their ecclesiastical and academic finery and seated behind the speaker at the lectern were the various church and academic leaders. I recall my mother nudging me at one stage to look at the then Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne. He had very conspicuously gone to sleep.  His head was nodding lower and lower as he fell ever more deeply asleep. Then with a sudden and dramatic jolt he woke up and sat up straight. In the process of doing so, however, he propelled all the books and papers that had been on his lap into fan-shaped arrangement at the feet of the guest speaker.

I suspect that the speaker knew at that very moment that it would not be his address that people were talking about afterwards – let alone 50 years later at another graduation ceremony at another college of divinity in another city.

I tell this story not simply to serve notice to the assembled dignitaries not to fall asleep! Instead, I prod all of us to think about what should be memorable about a graduation ceremony.

Certainly, I do hope I don’t send anyone to sleep. But at the same time I won’t be at all offended if this address is not what you most remember about tonight.

What I hope is the most remembered part of tonight is the sense of achievement that every one of you, the graduands, is entitled to feel tonight, and which you are entitled to share with your friends, families, and teachers: those who in some significant ways have made this achievement possible.

The completion of any tertiary award is a significant achievement.

Regardless of the different levels of ease with which you've reaced this point, everyone has had to apply themselves. Everyone has had to wrestle with issues which perhaps they would have preferred not to. Everyone has had to ask their friends and family to understand that they just had to finish that essay that night and couldn’t be interrupted. Everyone will have given up something – whether income foregone, social life restricted, or career opportunities surrendered.

I don’t say any of this lightly or simply as the formulaic congratulations expected of a graduation speaker.

In the 17 years I have been involved in teaching theology and ministry studies, I have been repeatedly struck and frequently inspired by the sacrifice that theological students make to undertake and complete their degrees.

So, to all of you, ‘Congratulations’. Soak up this moment for all that its worth and for all that it represents. Remember it and recall it for the rest of your lives.

OK, so what now?

What are you going to do with your theological education?

The question is often asked.

Often, it is asked from within the church, for the church has always had its healthy scepticism and suspicion about the value of academic theology. And it is important to affirm that there will always be a tension within the Christian faith between action and reflection, between pragmatics and contemplation. Theology must never be isolated from the matrix of the activities and practices that make up the life of faith.

But that tension aside, there has always been a particular role for theologically trained members and leaders helping the church develop an informed faith, or perhaps a self-critical faith, or perhaps a faith more thoroughly prepared to give a reason for the church’s hope.

Yes, a theological education can equip you to do all that.

You might sometimes be asked about your degree by those outside the church. And if there’s a measure of uncertainty from within the church about the value of a theology, that’s got nothing on the uncertainty you might encounter in the wider world.

“Theology? What’s that?” is a question I’m often asked on those occasions when I decide that I have energy to come out as a theologian and then deal with the mostly predictable conversations that so often follow.

One day I plan on putting together a collection of my own and others’ experiences of such moments of self-declaration.

Even just last week at the hairdresser I had another intriguing encounter around this issue. I took my seat in the barber’s chair and the conversation unfolded like this:

“What do you do” asks the hairdresser.
I teach theology in the Uniting Church
“Oh, so you are a specialist in rocks?”
No, theology, not geology.
“Oh, so you study theory.”
No, I study Christian ideas about God.
“Oh. So you’re Christian. I’m not. I find that Christians are very judgmental.”

[I’m happy to say that notwithstanding that rather unpromising beginning, we ended up having a constructive conversation about Christianity.]

But the most interesting such conversation was some years ago, at a supermarket check out.
Again, the conversation began with usual sequence: “What do you do?” “Oh, Theology. What’s that?”

 I tried to give a brief summary of the combination of languages, history, texts and ideas involved in studying theology. Somewhat surprisingly the young man’s eyes began widening in seemingly awe-struck anticipation until he burst out: “Oh, you mean like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. How cool!”

On this occasion I thought it would be quite wrong to dampen his enthusiasm.

But to ask the question, ‘What to do with a theological education?’, today is to ask it in what has been called the post-truth age.

This is an age in which the structured and critical enquiry characteristic of an intellectual discipline (and not just in academic institutions)  is being called into question.

Of course, there have always been philosophical sceptics. It is a position which has always been part of intellectual discussion in one way or another.

But the post-truth phenomenon is not simply an appeal to philosophical scepticism and its lineage of healthy doubters.

The post-truth phenomenon is a cultural and political phenomenon in which truth claims are not just doubted. They are mocked. They are ridiculed.  They are trivialised. And so too are the truth-tellers. The symptoms of this are well known.

The dismissal of journalism as Fake news.
The willingness to deny outright clear evidence.
The intent to malign expert knowledge because it is expert.
The normalisation of spin as a substitute for political debate .
And, of course, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. 

Indeed, it was the year in which Trump was elected to the White House that Oxford University Dictionaries announced ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year.

It was defined in these terms:

I’ll come back to that definition shortly. But let me quote two other short statements which offer snapshots into our culture’s tenuous relationship with truth, each of which highlights another edge to the problem

Lee McInyre is a philosopher at Boston University. In his recently published book, simply entitled ‘Post-truth’, McIntyre writes:

“One gets the sense that post-truth is not so much a claim that truth does not exist as that facts are subordinate to our political point of view(p.11).

He also says this:

“The question at hand [in this post-truth moment] is not whether we have a proper theory of truth, but how to make sense of the different ways that people subvert truth” (p.7).

His point: post-truth doesn’t signify a total denial of truth, but a political determination to subvert any claims to it.

My third snapshot quote comes from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writing, as it happens, some years before the language of post-truth gained currency. Williams claimed and lamented that the West had moved into a “ 'dark night’ for intelligence” in which “[W]e don’t quite know what knowing is for” and “we don’t’ quite know that we can know.”  

In many ways, the Archbishop’s comments suggest an even bleaker situation than described by Lee McIntrye or even than that implied in the Oxford Dictionaries' definition.

The Archbishop’s point: there is a fear at large that there might not be anything that we can know as truth.

If these seem rather abstract academic definitions, let me say that  it is the cultural mood or the cultural posture captured in them which makes it possible for the phenomena I noted above:  journalism being dismissed as fake news; clear evidence being dismissed outright; expert knowledge being maligned because it is expert; spin being normalised as a substitute for political debate.


It is a cultural mood, or posture, or moment where Christians need, I think, to ponder at some depth how they respond.

Allowing for all the nuances of Jewish and early Christian concepts of, and language for, truth, it is something which is not reducible to a theory of knowing. Rather, it is a way of living that holds together such notions of faithfulness, reliability, correspondence to God’s reality, straightforwardness, honesty – something that fundamentally God is long before we share in it.

It is part of being Christian to care about people, words, actions, doctrine and ethics being ‘true’ in this rich meaning of the concept.

We follow and worship the one who declares himself to be the way, the truth and the life. (See John 14:6)
We are told that the truth will set us free. (See John 8:32)
We are exhorted to think about ‘whatever if true and honourable and noble.’ (See Philippians 4:8)

In claiming to be people of the truth, we have an investment in, and a vocation to, resisting the posture and mood of the post-truth culture.

As Christians we share convictions that means it is not just a matter of emotion or personal belief when we declare that domestic violence is simply unacceptable; and when we challenge employers who might manipulate or exploit employees; and when we argue that reconciliation between first and second Australians is necessary.

For those of you who have been called to leadership in the church, you will want to know that it is not just a matter of emotion or personal belief  when you may need to challenge your community of faith and its members about how and where it invests its money; when you need to challenge a colleague in matters of their own conduct;  when you make a stand in a particular doctrinal dispute or challenge the misuse of scripture; when you advocate for the poor and marginalised in societies;when you speak truth to power – either within or beyond the church.

For all these scenarios we need operative accounts of truth.

But let me go back to the Oxford Dictionaries Definition. adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

As I’ve already hinted, there’s a need for Christians to tread carefully when responding to this. There can be a wrong kind of Christian response to it. There could be a Christian bravado that actually misses the real challenge that this definition poses.

You see, many of Christianity’s critics will readily argue that Christianity fits right into the post-truth world. It is not interested, so they say, in objective facts. Its only appeal is to emotion and personal opinion.

Most Christians would, I'm sure, want to resist the idea that Christianity can be reduced to the idea of emotion and personal belief, even if we will insist that there is a place for emotion in and personal commitments in our engagement with the truth.

At the same time, Christianity will not fit into the ‘truth world’ if fitting in depends on basing its truth claims on ‘objective facts’. After all, it is a theological insight common to Jews, Christians and Muslims that faith does not rest on ‘objective’ 'facts,' and that when it tries to do so it has probably taken a step towards idolatry.

So whilst resisting any attempt to locate Christianity amongst the post-truth realities, it would be a mistake for Christians to swing over completely to the definition of truth that many propose as the antidote to post-truth challenges.

Because we understand God revealed in Jesus Christ to be the truth, our truth claims will not fit easily into the categories of either truth as defined in modernity or post-truth as defined in our contemporary milieu.


As those who have been educated theologically, you have been taught to interpret texts; to analyse ideas; to understand doctrines; to reflect on the church’s practices of love and mercy; and to have an informed sense of the church’s historical and social location.

I suggest that in doing all that you learnt ways of navigating that space between the idea that truth lies only in objective facts and the idea that truth lies in emotion and personal belief.

To be theologically-trained for ministry is to be introduced to a way of thinking that is humble about the truth claims the church makes but confident in the convictions of which those claims consist.
It involves an understanding of truth which has certain virtues attached to it.

If we believed that objective facts alone were the basis of truth – the seed is sown for arrogance.

If we believe that emotion and personal belief is the basis of truth – the seed is sown for indifference.

But instead of between arrogance and indifference, the Christian operates between humility and conviction.

Helping the church navigate its way within this framework is one of the things that you can do with you theological education in this post-truth world.

In doing so, you might often surprise both those within and those beyond the church.

It seems to me that Christianity has been publicly pigeonholed by certain cultural assumptions, by its own sin, and by its own confusion about how to live in this context.

As the theologically-trained members and leaders of the church help the church negotiate this new context, you might also help cut through the strictures of those pigeonholes.

Remember the claim of Rowan Williams that our cultural context is one in which “we don’t know that we can know”. Perhaps it is part of the church’s vocation to offer a counter testimony to that situation to surprise ourselves and our world by what we believe to be true; a counter testimony that reality can be known, that God can be known.


So let me conclude by drawing your attention to the passage read earlier from the book of Acts (17: 16-21).

After Paul had discussed the good news about Jesus with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens they were sufficiently engaged to take him to the Areopagus where they asked him:

 “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”

And after he had spoken some more some of them declared: “We will hear you again about this.”
Paul’s message about Jesus Christ created curiosity – it cut through the structures and categories of thought that prevailed in first-century Athens.

As you leave here tonight with your freshly-minted degrees from the Adelaide College of Divinity, I encourage you to use your theological education to cut through the categories of thought that prevail in twenty-first century Australia. Undo many of the expectations that people have of you and the Christian faith. Break open the pigeonholes of cultural assumptions.

Follow Paul’s example and the exhortation he gives in his letter to the Philippians which I alluded to earlier.  
...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things..

And, if I can add, be strong in your convictions and humble in how you articulate and embody them. Do that and you will putting your theological education to good work.