Friday, April 26, 2019

A Post-Christendom, Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union - Post 3/4

Last year I published (through MediaCom) a short commentary on the Uniting Church's Basis of Union. This is the third of four posts, each of which consist of the commentary on a selected Paragraph from the Basis. The first post - which includes a bit more detail about the purpose and structure of the book - can be found here and the second post is accessible here. The fourth post will be published in due course.

If this whets your appetite, you can order the book through MediaCom or CTM Resourcing. There's also a short article about the book in the NSW/ACT Synod magazine, Insights.


Commentary on Pragraph 9 of the Basis

When did you last say either the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds in worship? And if you said it, how many in the congregation had their fingers crossed whilst saying it? Or, did you notice a distinctly muted collective mumble when it came to the statements 'born of the Virgin Mary' and 'on the third day he rose again'. These elements of the Creed have troubled Christians who have been enculturated into modernity. They constitute the so-called ‘supernatural’ elements of Christianity which modern people have been taught to distrust. To this objection, it could be asked, ‘Why stop at these elements?’ If modernity is our benchmark, why even believe in God as Creator?

On the other hand, other Christians are troubled by the fact that we continue to use creeds which, quite apart from any specific problematic details, come from an overall cultural and intellectual framework so (apparently) alien to our own. As such, their relevance is deemed doubtful. This can only be pushed so far as an intellectually serious objection because Jesus’ own context and that of the New Testament is even older and arguably even more alien than that of the Creeds.

Then there are others who are troubled not merely by any particular claims or by the cultural difference between us and the authors of the Creeds, but by the very act itself of saying a Creed. For them, to affirm Creeds defined as “authoritative statements of the Catholic faith…[which] declare and guard the right understanding of that faith” is a challenge to the freedom of individuals to make up their own minds about what to believe. 

Whilst the themes of Paragraph 9 will increase the anxieties of all three of these groups of objectors, they probably most clearly prompt an engagement with the third set of concerns. But the other two concerns also invite some brief comment. In many ways both of them question the capacity for the wisdom of the past to engage us or make any claim upon us. And here, I suspect, we confront a divide in the church that is less between Christendom and post-Christendom, and more between baby boomers and certain Christian millennials. The posture of baby boomers towards the past is probably best captured in Marcus Borg’s description of the Enlightenment as “the great watershed event in Western cultural history that created the modern world, separating it from all that went before” and which led to a “collision between the Enlightenment and Christianity”.[i]

Of course there was a clash between the Enlightenment and Christianity. But millennials might well regard the Enlightenment’s supersessionist posture (‘separating it from all that went before’) towards the past as somewhat quaint. (Some of them would also have studied enough philosophy and history to know that modernity existed well before the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment was one specific political manifestation of the intellectual currents of modernity. But that is another story!) Few millennials – Christian or not – buy modernity’s triumphant rhetoric about itself. Many of the millennials in the Uniting Church have much to teach the rest of us about how to resist modernity’s dubious legacies of colonialism, its misplaced confidence in Western rationality, and the culturally-sapping forces of its individualism. That Uniting Church millennials are critically open to pre-Enlightenment wisdom is not because they are more ‘conservative’ – as baby boomers might assume. It is because they have been nurtured in different and arguably more politically- and ideologically-aware notions of truth than baby boomers tended to be.

To return now to the third of the concerns identified above. A willingness (or not) to acknowledge an “authoritative statement” which “guards a right understanding of the faith” says something, at least in principle, about our understanding of Christianity regardless of the content of the Creed. I stress, in principle. But the principle is focused in this question: Do we think Christianity is something we can parochially reinvent or is there something constant about it across time and space? That the Basis declares that saying these Creeds links us to the “unity of the Church throughout the ages” suggests the latter. And to affirm that unity indicates a willingness, in some sense, to be accountable to the whole church regardless of whether we ‘believe’ everything that every other Christian of the past has believed.  After all, as already noted earlier in this commentary, the Creeds bypass the details of  Jesus’ human life and manage to say what they say without mentioning God’s love. But that is not a reason not to use them.

But what ‘right understandings of the faith’ are actually entailed in the Creeds? Interestingly, the Basis is quite coy about this – something which reinforces the point made above. Nevertheless, in describing their use as “acts of allegiance to the Holy Trinity” there is an implicit reminder that the Trinitarian understanding of God is a primary concern of both Creeds, particularly the Nicene.  Space does not allow a full discussion of this here. Suffice to say the following. In relation to their Trinitarian orientation, I wish that rather than saying “framed in the language of their day”, this paragraph had actually said ‘responding to the issues of their day’. Had it done so, we would have been continually reminded that the task of interpreting the Creeds requires an understanding the questions to which they were answers.

One of the background questions to early Trinitarian disputes was whether the claim that Jesus was God incarnate implied that God had somehow become less God by entering the messiness of this world. Some felt that God’s ‘godness’ was being dishonoured by affirming the incarnation. To say that God is Father, Son and Spirit is, in a very short summary form, a way of insisting that Christians don’t believe in just any ‘god’. Rather they believe in God whose very ‘godness’ is on full display and not at all compromised by entering the world of flesh and time in the work of the Son and Spirit. If that’s not true, then the game would be up for Christianity. That is perhaps the key thing we can learn from a “careful study of these creeds” and which is worth ‘declaring and guarding’.

[i] Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 21.

Friday, April 12, 2019

A Post-Christendom Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union - Post 2/4

Last year I published (through MediaCom) a short commentary on the Uniting Church's Basis of Union. This is the second of four posts, each of which consist of the commentary on a selected Paragraph from the Basis. The first post - which includes a bit more detail about the purpose and structure of the book - can be found here. The third post will be published in due course.

If this whets your appetite, you can order the book through MediaCom or CTM Resourcing. There's also a short article about the book in the NSW/ACT Synod magazine, Insights.


Commentary on Paragraph 5 of the Basis.

In Uniting Church discussions about the Bible you often hear the phrase, ‘I read the Bible metaphorically, not literally’. It is often said as if it is evidence of great intellectual insight. It isn’t. It is actually a quite unsophisticated claim which tells us nothing at all about what is involved in reading the Bible. Ironically, it replicates the same ‘flattening’ of the reading techniques pursued by the literalism it opposes! What, for instance, would it mean to read Paul’s letters as metaphors? They’re letters! And as letters – and ancient letters at that – they require quite complex reading strategies to interpret them.

In fact, this is one paragraph where it is worth hesitating before appealing to a contrast between Christendom and post-Christendom. The all-too-common literal/metaphorical contrast reflects the dominance in our discussions of the question of how to read the Bible. This itself is a reflection of complex and enduring shifts in the study of theology during the last few centuries. Suffice to say that in academic theology, the discipline of hermeneutics – the study of interpretation – developed in a way that the question of how to read the Bible became detached from the questions of what the Bible is and why and where it is to be read. This was not the case in earlier centuries. The questions of how, what, why and where were held together in theological reflection on the Bible in ways that can be very instructive for us today. In this crucial paragraph, the Basis prompts us to learn once again to ask all of those questions. After all, what’s the point in having sophisticated theories of how to read the Bible if we don’t know why we are reading it?

So, let’s start by looking at what this paragraph tells us about what the Bible is. It tells us that the Bible consists of the books of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is a two-volume anthology of the formative literature of Judaism and the early Christian movement. These two volumes are also given their respective classic theological designations ‘prophetic’ and ‘apostolic’. By consisting of these particular two volumes, the Bible has some significant theological tensions built into its very structure. The tensions are never resolved. We have to live with them – and that’s one of the things that makes reading and interpreting the bible so interesting and never-ending.
But the tensions are not confined to the relationship between the two volumes. The paragraph also refers to the "witnesses". The plural is deliberate. There are diverse theologies not only between the Old and New Testaments, but also within each of them. Reading the Bible, therefore, is like eavesdropping on a conversation amongst a group of wise, probing and authoritative teachers, prophets and pastors. The topic of their sometimes heated and disjointed but intentional conversation is God’s history with Israel which had come to such sharp focus in Jesus.

The word "witness" is important for another reason. By using it, along with the closely related word, "testimony", this paragraph reminds us that the literature of the Bible points to events and experiences which the human authors of the literature did not invent. This same principle applies to the use of the word "received" in describing how the church has come to have the Bible in the first place. When it confesses that "the church has received the books" of the Bible, the Basis is using a theologically finely-tuned word. It’s a way of holding together two distinct convictions. On the one hand, the church affirms that the Bible derives its authority from God. On the other hand, the human actions and decisions that led to the Bible’s existence must be acknowledged and honoured. And that’s the key reason why the question of how we read the Bible is so important.

What, then, about why we read the Bible? Interestingly, the answer to this also addresses the issue of what holds this diverse collection of literature together as a single entity. The Basis tells us that the Bible is “testimony in which it hears the Word of God”.  For the Christian community, the phrase ‘Word of God’ has always been linked to Jesus Christ. In other words, the Bible is a witness to Jesus Christ and we read it to hear his word to the church. It is of course Jesus who is the reason for the existence of the Bible. It is the proclamation about him which holds the Bible together. If Jesus had not been proclaimed as Israel’s Messiah, what we know as the New Testament literature would never have been written. And if he had not been proclaimed as Israel’s Messiah, the New Testament would never have been added to the Old Testament. There would be no Bible.

Finally, what about where we should read the Bible? Here the Basis makes a quite striking claim: “The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church.” Neither the academy nor private devotions as regarded here as the normative place for reading the Bible. As the means of encountering the Word of God, i.e. Jesus Christ, the Bible is to be read in the midst of the church’s active life. The very activities of praying and proclaiming, of serving the transforming the world, of forming disciples and listening to prophets, all shape our reading of the Bible. All of them prompt ever-new questions which fine-tune our listening to the Word of God.

And we must take seriously what it means to read the Bible with the whole church. Uniting Church theologian, Dr. Ji Zhang, has rightly pressed many of us to recognise that the Churches of Asia, Africa, Pacific and the Middle East are reading the Bible and listening for the Word of God in contexts characterised by severe poverty, religious pluralism, the adverse effects of climate change, persecution and marginality. What they hear as they listen must also become part of our listening for the Word.

Friday, April 5, 2019

A Post-Christendom Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union: Post 1/4

Last year I published (through MediaCom) a short commentary on the Uniting Church's Basis of Union. It has the slightly (but deliberately) long title, "In His Own Strange Way": A Post-Christendom, Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union. The book aims to bring the Basis into conversation with some key contemporary issues. 

Each section of the book focuses on a particular passage of the Basis by way of a short 'commentary' (loosely defined!). This is followed by some discussion starters to locate the text in post-Christendom,  a set of specific questions, and finally a passage from the Bible as a suggested focus for developing connections between the Basis and the Bible. The book has been designed to be used be used for either individual reflection or group study.

In each of this series of four blog posts, the commentary on one selected paragraph from the Basis is reproduced, specifically Paragraphs 1, 5, 10 and 11. 

If this whets your appetite, you can order the book through MediaCom or CTM Resourcing.  There's also a short article about the book in the NSW/ACT Synod magazine, Insights.

Commentary on Basis of Union, Paragraph 1.

The formation of the Uniting Church on June 22nd 1977 was big news. It was headlined on the front pages of many of the daily newspapers. The inaugural service held in the Sydney Town Hall was replayed on ABC TV that same evening. Indeed, it even claimed international attention. Firebrand preacher, Ian Paisley, not satisfied with the bigotry he was fomenting in his native Northern Ireland, travelled to Sydney to protest about this new ‘ecumenical’ church. More happily, Synod-based services marking the UCA’s advent were held in Australia’s capital cities on the following Sunday. They were packed.

Have we lived up to the expectation? And how would we answer that question in any case? If we used this opening paragraph of the Basis as a criterion, we might ask whether, when we gather in our various communities of faith week by week, we do so acknowledging “one another in love and joy as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ” and in order to “hear anew the commission of the Risen Lord to make disciples of all nations, and daily to seek to obey his will”? Or to lower the register of the language, we might simply ask: Is Jesus Christ and his mission central to our life as Christian communities? This is a much more serious test of the state of the Uniting Church than any narrative about numbers or any data about demographics.

The union of churches that produced the Uniting Church in Australia was not a denominational merger. Its purpose wasn’t to consolidate resources. It wasn’t a strategy of expansion. It wasn’t driven by a vague sense that it was a good idea. No, at least according to this paragraph, union was embedded in some deep theological convictions: it was intended for the glory of God; it was a call to "sole loyalty to Christ"; its horizon was nothing less than the kingdom of God which Jesus had proclaimed and for which Christians hope.

Right at the outset of the document, union is set within a context of the triune God, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the call to mission, and the hope of the coming kingdom. The UCA was not intended as a ‘new Church’ or a new ‘denomination’ - even if that is the language that might come most easily to us to describe what happened. Indeed, it was probably inevitable that this is how the event of union would be described and understood – both within and outside the church. To counter that inevitability, one way of summarising the spirit of this paragraph might go like this: the formation of UCA was simply a new episode in the history of the ‘Church of God’.

The logic at work in this paragraph is precisely the logic that challenges ‘denominationalism’, the phenomenon of Christendom by which the divided Churches defined themselves over and against each other. 'We are this kind of church.' 'We do communion this way, not your way.' 'We appoint our ministers this way, differently from you.' 'We have this form of government, unlike yours.'  Of course, Christianity has never been homogeneous: it has always displayed variety and diversity. But denominationalism turns that variety and diversity into division. It makes primary, things which should be secondary: forms of government and leadership; modes of worship; theologies of ordination, or beliefs about the sacraments. For instance, consider the names of the three Churches which entered union: each one of them was known by a title which referred in one way or another to the form of government adopted or to the way it structured Christian experience: Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational. In other words, Christians from these churches identified themselves to each other by the way they organised themselves.

One of the most striking post-Christendom notes in this paragraph is precisely the move away from these denominational labels as markers of identity. They are challenged and subverted by the seemingly innocuous but deeply challenging summons: “In this union, these churches commit their members to acknowledge one another in love and joy as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.” As noted above, this union was not simply an organisational merger. It was an event that called forth a deeply personal response from the individual members of each of the denominations. No longer would Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists identify themselves or one another in those terms. Nor was the challenge from now on simply to recognise one another as fellow members of the Uniting Church. That would simply replace one form of denominationalism with another. No, something even more fundamental was being called for: an acknowledgement of each other as ‘believers in our Lord Jesus Christ’. We might baulk at the language of ‘believers in’ rather than, say, ‘followers of’ Jesus Christ, but the basic point of Christian identity is stated. Christians are Christians through their relationship to Jesus Christ.

Of course, at one level acknowledging fellow Christians as Christians can be a fairly formal or superficial process. Beneath (and not always beneath!) the acknowledgement can be mutual suspicion, hostility or indifference.  Here, however, the Basis invites those entering union to set those aside and to accompany the mutual acknowledgement with a key Christian virtue and an equally key Christian disposition: love and joy. This is not about whether we like our fellow Christians or whether we can put up with them. It’s about the hard work of acknowledging that in Christ I am connected and responsible to any other person whom Christ calls into the church and that together we are equally called by Christ into his mission.


The three remaining posts in this series will be published in due course.