Posts Tagged ‘ Theology ’

#faithseeking: theology in a nutshell

#faithseeking: wholy weak

so, we’re back to work – well, at least for now. one weekend Jesus dies then comes back to life, the next some smiley, rich people have their TV wedding paid for by our taxes. one of these holidays is worthy of RQT attention.

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there are numerous of ways of interpreting the Easter story, all of which affect, in turn, the interpretation of Christ. how we conceive of his work affects how we conceive of his nature: soteriology and Christology are intertwined.

orthodoxy stipulates that Christ is fully God and fully man, but, beyond this mystery, a vast range of interpretive options stand. the tendency, however, is for interpretations of Easter to emphasise Christ the God. the logic runs that Christmas is when we reflect on the transition from eternal divinity to finite humanity, and Easter is when we chart the reversal of that process.

as such, interpretations of Easter often become way of understanding how Christ’s humanity functioned as a diminutive foil to his ultimate divinity.

for St Basil, who saw the cross as the location of a cosmic trick, Christ’s humanity is in some way an elaborate deception that paves the way for the triumph of his divinity. for St Anselm, it is simply the necessary condition to enable due legal process – Christ must be human for a time in order for the system to work.

according to various other interpretations, Easter shows us how Christ’s humanity was a necessary vehicle for suffering – suffering being understood as that which brings about change. for some, Christ’s pains make satisfaction: God is set against God for our sake, and violence acts as a purifier.

in Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ, Jesus’ divinity allows his humanity to suffer to a superhuman extent. they whip him down, but he gets back up. again and again. the soldier who confesses that Jesus was ‘truly God’s son’, appears to do so largely on the basis of how much punishment he was able to withstand. here, the (David Copperfield-esque) resurrection is the ultimate manifestation of sadomasochistic glee.

i find Gibson’s near-superhuman, glint-eyed Christ extremely offensive. if Christ is fully human, then his sufferings must be fully human also. Jesus died exhausted, naked, covered in his own shit and with an erection, just like every other criminal the Romans ever crucified.

one of the emphases in Paul’s interpretation is that the work of God in Christ is the making of weakness into strength. i think this is one of the ideas that lies behind Gibson’s superhero Christ, but for me he fails to see just how radical this Pauline conception of ‘strength’ is. this is not physical, warrior-like strength summoned at a time of apparent weakness – it is not about a masquerading hero who chooses to let the baddies think he’s weak even though he’s incredibly strong. for me, this weakness-strength is about something fundamentally other than might and power.

not only do i think that all the hierarchical conceptions of the two natures mentioned above are crypto-docetic and counter to orthodoxy’s radical dialectic, i also think they gloss over details of the Easter story that we do well not to miss. one of the most important of these is Gethsemane.

many people find Good Friday difficult. liberals always want to skip straight to Sunday, where everything is made nice again. conservatives (like Gibson) are eager to linger on the agonies – the brutal torture that buys our health.

if Gethsemane doesn’t get ignored, then it is primarily the site of the disciples’ final failure, or the place where Christ’s physical torment begins (sweat so profuse that it’s like drops of blood seems often to become actual haemorrhaging in the conservative imagination). however, what, in my experience, tends not to figure prominently in Good Friday reflections is the psychological trauma, the mental breakdown that precedes the physical collapse.

just as in society, so in theology. ‘physical’ suffering is less disquieting than mental suffering. it can be more easily perceived, empathised with and ultimately rationalised. the truth is, however, that the synoptic accounts of Gethsemane (Mark 14. 35-37; Matt 26. 38-40; Luke 22. 40-45) testify to a weak, scared man in way that many Christians find too difficult to encounter. why would Jesus, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity break down and beg not to have to go through with the scheme that God had planned from all eternity? yes, why indeed?!

kenotic theology gets something of a bad press nowadays. a bit like Liberation Theology, people seem to think that because some of its expressions were found to be problematic that we can now safely ignore it.

for me, however, it still offers the best fit when it comes to a way of understanding Christology that marries well with a way of understanding history. the Greek word kenosis means emptying or pouring out, and its most famous use is found in what is thought to be an early Christian hymn, quoted by Paul in his letter to the Philippians.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied (ekénōsenhimself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2. 5-11)

despite the fact that it seems to endorse at least two notions that the Church calls heresy (“human likeness” and “human form” both smack of Docetism, and “Therefore God also highly exalted him…” more than likely testifies to a form of Adoptionism), i am of the opinion that the Philippian hymn is full of theological insight. in particular, i find the notion that Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” a very useful reflection on incarnation and the riddle of the two natures.

where the NRSV has “something to be exploited” i prefer a translation of arpagmon that brings out the sense of something being seized, held, or grabbed on to – perhaps “did not regard equality with God as something to cling on to”. in a sense, I think Christ’s pre-incarnate status is both something that could have been exploitable – i.e. something that would have rendered true incarnation problematic – and something that it was necessary for him not to clutch, hold tightly, or covet, but to let go of, to give up.

for me the logic of the incarnation at large, but also the details of the Easter story make more sense when considered alongside this notion of Christ’s giving up of his status as equal with God. not only does this conceptual framework throw interesting and useful light on Gethsemane and the crucifixion, it also pleasingly illuminates a nice little detail in the resurrection narrative.

a favourite scene of the Great Masters down through the ages, there are numerous paintings of the post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, classically entitled Noli Me Tangere. the phrase is the Latin rendering of John 20.17 where Jesus instructs Mary “do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my father.”

whereas some people take a daft, sci-fi inspired approach to interpreting this verse – Mary couldn’t touch Jesus because he hadn’t fully re-materialised (or something) – a more plausible interpretation, and one that happens to mesh pleasingly with the above reflections of the Philippian hymn, emerges by virtue of a better translation. the Greek haptou properly suggests not mere touching, but holding or grasping on to.

in the same way that the Philippian hymn claims Christ had to be willing not to hold on to his equality with God in order for the incarnation to come about, so Jesus tells Mary, probably his most loved companion, that she must now not hold on to him. for me, this is a moment of Gethsemane-like weakness. i think Jesus is begging Mary (like he begged the Father) not to hold him – it is as if he knows that if she does, he will never be able to let her go. as Nikos Kazantzakis knew, Christ’s last temptation is the temptation to stay, to allow himself to be held on to.

the mystery of Easter is death made life and weakness made strength. and yet, i think we can’t really embrace Easter’s true life, its true strength, unless we are fully open to the reality of its death, and the real fragility of its weakness.

#faithseeking: lent & the job centre

so we’re into the third week of Lent and it’s high time i got round to sharing some thoughts that have shaped my seasonal reflections thus far.

Lent is the time of year that Christians use to prepare themselves for Easter, the most important festival of the Christian calendar. it lasts for forty days, and traditionally people choose to abstain from various things for that period.

you’d be amazed how many Christians there are for whom the above sentences are about the extent to which their understanding of Lent stretches. i’ve spent the last eighteen Wednesday evenings tutoring an evening class largely comprised of people training to be priests and readers in the Church of England. chatting with several of them last night, it was apparent that few of them had ever really reflected on the purpose of Lent beyond a general understanding of it as a period of preparation and prohibition.

on the one hand, this understanding is both orthodox and meaningful in its own right. Lent, like Advent, is a time of fasting and reflection that preceeds a time of feasting and celebration. but what to reflect on during Lent? Easter? well, that’s what Easter is for. on Good Friday we reflect on Christ’s execution, on Easter Saturday his descent into hades and on Easter Sunday his resurrection to new life. given that these facets of Easter each have a day set aside for their contemplation and that they also play quite an important part in Christian worship the whole year round (at least Christ’s death and resurrection do), then it seems somewhat strange for the whole of Lent to require focus on them as well.

given that Advent prepares Christians to celebrate the hope, love and radical potential that collide at Christmas, by reflecting on judgement – a probing juxtaposition – it seems like there should be more to Lent than just a warm up period in which you think about Easter and don’t yet eat chocolate eggs. and i think there is.

the forty day duration of Lent is derived from the period that, according to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Jesus spent in the wilderness thinking and praying before beginning his work of teaching and healing. during this time, Jesus is visited and tested. while Matthew and Luke refer to this ‘tester’ as “the devil” (Mark, widely accepted as the earliest of the three accounts) calls him Satan.
 
Mark’s nomenclature is more helpful (and probably more accurate) given that it attests to the fact that the origin of the being that Christian tradition calls ‘The Devil’, lies in ‘the satan’ – a traditional character in Hebrew mythology who, rather than a wicked fallen angel, is a member of the heavenly court (one of the ‘sons of God’) and fulfils the function of an accuser (i.e. the person that presents the charges in a court). the satan is someone who tests a person, who strips away their facade and exposes them for what they truly are.

in the prologue to the Book of Job, the satan petitions YHWH to test Job’s apparently extensive faith, and in so doing lays the narrative foundations for Job’s critique of the Wisdom tradition. in Zechariah 3 – a text that clearly inspires Matthew’s temptation account – we find the satan standing at the right hand of the angel of YHWH as an accuser of Joshua (NB. in Hebrew and Greek Joshua and Jesus are the same name). the influence of this text on Matthew probably also explains the shift from the satan in Mark to the devil in Matthew, given that in the Greek version of Zechariah (which Matthew seems to have used) the original Hebrew ha šātān is rendered by the Greek diabolos.

so, if the tempter of Jesus in the wilderness is a derivation of the traditional, legal figure of the satan, what does that suggest? well, to me it implies that interpretations of the temptation (and possibly wider accounts of the life & ministry of Christ) that emphasise his purity and sinlessness are perhaps slightly missing the point. if the satan is not a malign being, tempting Jesus into sin and corruption, but a morally neutral ‘tester’, whose purpose is to probe and challenge Jesus and discern his true colours, then that seems to put a rather different spin on the encounter from the usual interpretation.

if the emphasis is not on Jesus’ purity, then what is the purpose of the story? well, perhaps, i’d like to suggest, it is more about the nature of his vocation. for me, the temptation stories represent an attempt by the early communities to grasp (in the light of his death) the meaning of the distinctiveness of Jesus’ ministry and the origins of his focus. rather than a garden of illicit delights, i interpret the psycho-social space of the wilderness, under the narrative direction of the satan, as a kind of primitive job centre (plus).

in all three Synoptic accounts, the temptation is directly preceded by the baptism of Jesus by John, and thus by the declaration from heaven that: “This is my well loved son with whom I am pleased”. Jesus was by no means the first person to perceive a messianic calling within the Hebrew tradition. great community leaders like Moses, Joshua and Samuel, great prophets like Elijah and Ezekiel and great kings like David and Solomon all stand in some way as messianic figures, as sons of God. what is more, the several reflections on the coming messiah throughout the Hebrew Bible present him in various ways: a king, a warrior, a seer, a priest. as such, there were many ways that Jesus might choose to express his calling, many patterns he could have followed.

what i think the satan offers Jesus are three ways in which he might not only begin his ministry, but also shape its objectives and outcomes. as the gospel stories of the feeding of the crowds show, a person who can provide for the needs of the people will gain a huge following. and yet, when the satan suggests that Jesus satisfy his own hungers first by turning stones to bread, more is implied than just a ministry of provision. as Christ seems to understand, not only do people need more than bread to survive, but also truly great community organisers must also be self-sacrificial servants of the people, and not the sort to put their own interests ahead of those of the many.

when the satan suggests that Jesus throw himself from the temple tower and have angels catch him, he seems to be invoking the image of a radical overthrowing of the religious order. those convicted of blasphemy during this period were taken to the top of the temple and thrown from there over the walls of the city.

to throw himself and be saved, would be, in a single act, to dismantle the religious structures of Israel and undermine the temple. despite his healings, during his ministry Jesus makes several withering references to those who desire to witness spectacular signs – least of all his famous comment to Thomas after the resurrection: “Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” even if he could have done it, performing such a public stunt and thus announcing himself as a messiah would surely have brought a rather different context and tone to Jesus’ ministry than the one he decides to plump for.

in Psalm 2 (“whoo hooo, when I feel heavy metal”) – a passage that clearly provides the pattern for the gospel writers’ image of the heavenly voice blessing Jesus at his baptism – it is the messianic king, newly installed on the holy hill of Zion, who is told “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession”, but also warned “Now therefore, O Kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way”.

in the third of his ‘tests’, it seems the satan is offering the exact same deal to Jesus. become a great king, and you get to possess the whole earth. as a member of the heavenly court (and perhaps, as in Job, some sort of overseer of the earth) the satan seems to have the authority to grant great power, but he also demands allegiance. the seemingly obvious interpretation here fits with the notion of the satan as a diabolic being, seeking to tempt Jesus into idolatry and corrupt him with power. however, i think we miss something if we pass over the extent to which Jesus’ rejection of the satan’s offer is a rejection of centralised wealth and power per se, not just that gained from idolatrous worship.

Jesus seems to emerge from his wilderness based psychological experiment/careers interview with a clear sense of what it might mean for him to be a son of God. his ministry will prove to be inspired most, not by the tradition of the wealthy, divine king, the powerful magician, or the revolutionary warrior, but by the vision laid out by Isaiah of the Suffering Servant – one who sets aside all that they have, gives themselves up, and through radical, selfless suffering demonstrates the limits of power, inspires hope and enables a new kind of future.

therefore, leavings my reflections on Easter until Eastertide, i’m using these forty days of discipline and self-denial to focus on the notion of vocation. that means not only trying to discern my own skills, aptitudes and abilities, plotting a path that is meaningful, and reflecting on what examples i definitely don’t want to follow as well as those that i do, but also, more fundamentally, the nature of purpose in general – not just my own, but that of the whole of reality.

#academix: the dr’s (first) book

today on QVC, hot off the press:

Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology by Susannah Cornwall (a.k.a The Dr)

as well as being a fascinating examination of the issues raised for Christian theology by the existence of intersex conditions and the experiences of those that have them AND a devastating critique of essentialism with regard to gender, sex and sexuality within Christian tradition, it is also:

… a way of looking knowledgeable at relevant seminars (if carried visibly), a superb hiding place for a hip flask, small gun, snack, bag of drugs, usb stick/microfilm, smaller book and so on (NB hardback only. the shape of the object should be carved into 3/5s of the pages in order to create the hidey space), an excellent levelling device for tables, chairs, beds (and more) with uneven leg-lengths (one needed per uneven leg. see youtube video for instructions & walk-through), an ingenious ‘space keeper’ for a shelf, a useful tray for a human baby or small pet (please note – again, only the hardback is recommended for this application), a serviceable child’s hat (1.open the book to the middle. 2.place on child’s head.), a sort-of hand fan (here, you’ll need the ‘give’ of the paperback), a solar-powered non-torch, and a rigid cuddly toy for a naughty child.

with so many functions, it is an unbelievable Christmas bargain at only:

>c.£50 in hardback and c.£15 in paperback in the UK
>c.$30 in paperback in the U.S.
>c.CDN$30 in paperback in Canada
>c.R1,000 in paperback in South Africa
>c.S$33 in paperback in Singapore (from eBay.sg)
>c.¥9,360 in paperback in Japan

at these prices, why not try to collect them all?

remember, only a finite amount will ever be printed.

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The analysis is almost as sharp, and the implications as far-reaching, as the author is vital to the discourse – Andre Romelle Young, PhD

Yuk. Don’t read thisJan Moir, Daily Mail

I usually struggle to know what to get The Duchess for Christmas; that won’t be an issue this yearSir Jimmy Savile (speaking in 2002)

The fundamental solution to the problem of loss of suctionSir James Dyson

One more giant leap for mankind – Neil Alden Armstrong (NB not from moon)

#faithseeking: ramping steals thunder

gratings |||||||||

like the prowling, critical-thinking lion that he is, bounder, london socialite, baby-faced intellectual and super-sharp minded blogger Ramping (of rampingandroaring fame) totally took the thesis of my Advent reflections from yesterday to task.

as such, i throughly recommend that you all temper my somewhat dour thoughts with his:

why you should get drunk, eat as many mince pies as you can and snog someone at your office party …

#faithseeking: on not learning war

adventageous

it’s a cliché for church people to bang on about how Advent is a season for sober reflection on the world and for pondering judgement, and how awful it is that (despite the calendars) most people skip it and jump straight into the high-spirit of Christmas festivities – boo consumerism, boo Coca-Cola, etc. however, despite it often coming across as snooty and somewhat sour, there is a point to this kind of grumbling.

our nativity: a Peruvian holy family, tiny toy animals & Rod & Todd Flanders (as shepherds, not Jedi)

just like how the celebration of life and bounty at Easter only really makes sense when preceded by Lenten fasting, so Advent properly contextualizes Christmas. moreover, given the way that most of us in the West live in relative plenty (from a global perspective), and Christmas will likely mean even more luxury than usual, it is perhaps more important than ever for the Church to take the discipline and witness of Advent seriously.

judgement, however, is not something that many christians find easy to reflect on. unless (as tragically some do) you take sadistic glee from the idea of some sort of fiery after-life torment awaiting the impious, then perhaps, like me, you tend to think of it as one of the more troubling aspects of the christian tradition.

magicians journey from the East (the TV)

what helpful sense can we make of judgement if we wish to reject the idea of God as a giant, bewigged Lord Justice poised to slap down his massive gavel and pronounce as many people guilty as possible and then punish them horribly? (and yes, i am aware that judges don’t really use gavels, but it’s an undeniably evocative part of the social imagination.)

in addition to my wariness, i also find some satisfaction in the (logical) notion that without judgement there can be no justice. justice, as i understand it, is not primarily about the punishment of criminals, but about that which makes for a flourishing society. those who transgress the boundaries of what is held to represent ‘the common good’, must both be held accountable for their selfishness, quiescence or general dereliction of duty, and offered restoration to and reintegration into the fractured community.

in the same way that justice is about hope for a better future, a future in which the things which spoil the present have been eradicated, judgement is the assurance that, regardless of wealth and influence, wrongs do not go unnoticed, and that there is a mechanism for the realization of our hopes for a better world.

given that there is nothing new about this insight and many other cleverer people than me have thought all this through before, it is no coincidence that the Hebrew Bible lesson for today came from the opening lines of First Isaiah’s vision of restoration:
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established
as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the
God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in
his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of
the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall
arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword
against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
(Isa. 2.1-5)

this profound conception of judgement does not focus on punishment, but on arbitration and the establishment of peace. Advent is really about looking at the world, and attending to the reality of its brokenness and partiality, but also finding consolation and strength for the works of mercy and justice that must be done in the idea that arbitration and restoration are possible; indeed, that they define the shape of the future.

my favourite part of Isaiah’s vision is the way he understands a peaceful world as one where people do not learn not to war, but rather where they stop learning war. for Isaiah, unlike Hobbes, the ‘natural’ state is not “bellum omnium contra omnes”, but a world in which if people want to fight, they must first learn so to do. the prophet draws on an aspect of the Hebrew anthropological tradition that understands violence as a corrosive, contagious corruption of, but not fundamental to, the human nature.

in this sense, Isaiah’s words prefigure those of John Lennon. the gaunt, four-round-eyed scouser, is not someone that i would usually celebrate as a serious thinker, let alone a source of religious wisdom. however, as the writings of Karl Marx demonstrate most profoundly, for many people atheism never quite manages to get in the way of theological insight. Lennon made “War is over, if you want it” the refrain of a whiny Christmas song – however, while this sentiment is in no sense out of place at Christmas, it might be that the truth of that line would find its proper home in an Advent carol.

Advent prepares us through its disciplines (such as should always precede a feast) and by calling us to reflect on what manner of world we live in and what manner we strive for, but, most importantly, it shows us that the real mystery of Christmas is that there might be some relationship between a grand, cosmic vision of a God who judges, intercedes for and restores the world (such as we find in First Isaiah) and a small, screaming baby clasped in the terrified and joyful arms of a young couple, huddled with steaming animals beneath an unfamiliar roof in an occupied city two millennia ago.

#faithseeking: conversations with hauerwas

and with thy spirit.

Blue (Labour) Steel

for those of you who attend to such things, and more importantly for those who don’t, i would like to draw your attention to the fact that an audio file of the discussion between Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank > (classic photo) and Luke Bretherton which happened on 18th October at King’s College London, is now available (although unfortunately without the questions).

[thanks to Jason Clark]

in listening, my ears were drawn in particular to:

> Luke helpfully pressing both (but John in particular) on slightly diffuse uses of ‘catholic’, and the political significance of too much of an elision of the term with some abstracted notion of the church that transcends time and place.

> Stanley’s insight that serious writing, of any sort, not just autobiography, is about acknowledging your own death and death more broadly, and is thus thoroughly anti-Liberal.

> John’s reflections on his desire to ‘win’ and his identification of ‘winning’ with mission.

> The incessant clicking of a pen.

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anyway, for your instruction, here it is: