Eros and unrequited love – who is this in love with whom?

As part of a writing project I’m reading and researching on love and came across these love poems. They are remarkable.

Can you guess the author? And to whom they were written?*

You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out she is a woman – she’s madly in love with someone very famous.

What do you think of them? Of her? Of him?

What lines grab your attention? Why?

She wrote many more of these poems – a few below are selected around her earthy, passionate love for a man who seems to know of love only in the abstract.

There are powerful theological questions here:

What is a Christian view of sex, the body, and physical desire?

Do you find her erotic love disturbing, ‘unspiritual’? Too frank and ‘needy’? Or is her transparency beautiful in its heartfelt humanity?

Does his aloofness represent almost a sort of gnostic detachment from the material world? Is he perhaps afraid of real flesh and blood life and love, despite knowing much about it theoretically?

Or is he rightly focused on ‘higher’ things, a sort of modern Saint Paul in his resolute commitunrequited-lovement to singleness and a God-given mission?

One thing is sure, they show the risky ‘dark-side’ of love – love cannot be forced. You can’t make someone love you, however much you love them. Loving another makes you vulnerable to the agony of unrequited passion.

Don’t cheat by googling!

XVIII. You think you know something about kindness and pity. But you only
know these things in your head. Yes, yes, it is all well and good for you
to say “God loves you.” That is not the point. I do not want that kind
of love, as if I was an angel. I am flesh and so are you (whatever else you
may say). You run from passionate love and unwillingly play into your
enemies’s hands. What you call love — platonic, affection, friendship—
does nothing to whet the flesh. And I almost hate you when you give
me that passionless smile. I am left cold. I do not want your kindness or your pity. I think you know I want more.

XX. Yes, you are kind, sorry you cannot give me the kind of love I want.
You say you love my sharp wit and my courage. What is more, you say
you have warm feelings of friendship for me (are not those just the
kind of things a man gives a woman who longs for so much more!).
But you say you cannot love me the way I want. And then you have
the audacity to tell me that I am not exactly “plain”- in fact, you say,
someone else might even find me attractive (do you not know this cuts
out my heart!). “But I,” you say, “really do not care for brunettes.” Dear
Christ! I did not lose out because of his love of God. No, I have lost out because I am not a blonde!

XXII. Can I really blame him for not loving me? I guess he cannot help
not knowing what to say that would soothe my bitterness. But neither
can I help my loving him. If I was a fair hair and fair skinned lass, I
might win him and avoid falling into my self-imposed pit of pain. Who
should be blamed then? If it is God he wants, so be it. I, on the other
hand, stand stricken, numb and mute. And I confess, as my heart
breaks, that I cannot forgive God for my pain.

XXV. You are pathetic. Stop it. No amount of crying will bring him back. He
was never meant for you. It does not matter if you lie awake all night
in silent agony or whether you cry your eyes out. In fact, when you
weep, he just “prays harder.” It would not matter if you could break
the bars of hell and ascend the walls of heaven. He does not want you.
He is “with God,” probably in his prayer closet. Dear Christ, can you
not just leave him alone to his Lord and his “spiritual calling?” No, I
cannot. One day he may need me to salve his wounds.

XXVII. A torturer could hardly have done more-stripped me to pay off
debts, thrown me into a blaze to keep him warm, drank my blood for
drink, ate my flesh for food, or shattered my fingers for pegs. Or he
could have sired his children of lust on me. Instead, you kill me with
kindness-speak softly, invite me to live on sighs, and teach me to lie
through my smiles. You have always said you wanted nothing, that all
you want is to help me. I would rather you shot me dead.

XXXV. Tut, tut, my love. You thought you could rely on your love of God—
your wonder at His creation and your service to Him as His prophet—
as if they would be a magic circle around you. You failed to account
for feelings and emotions, especially those awakened in a woman like
me. You saw your mistake and tried to retreat. Too bad. It is not that
easy. Now a hollow-eyed female wraith haunts you, its head bobbing in
a frightening fashion, its bones clacking, its voice whispering venom.
Poor child. You should have known better than raising the dead.

XXXVI. Your naivety astounds me! It is as high as a mountain of ice. I could
have tamed a herd of fire-breathing dragons or scaled the burning wall
of a citadel. But your mountain office was too much. It was your childlike innocence—not your sexual purity-that thwarted me. Surely you know that hell is thought by some to be a lake of ice. _______, you are my
Antarctica, my Newfoundland, my continent of ice! If only I could
come to you at night, slip into your bed, and press my lips to you!
Then, I believe, you would not care about the colour of my hair.

XXXIX. Do not scorn me for what follows. Because I am a woman, I long to
kiss your lips, and I long for your hands to caress my breasts. Such
desires are only natural, including my desire to lie next to you, skin to
skin. And don’t scorn me for calling your name in the darkness, for
reaching out for you blindly hoping to find you in my arms. My body
was made for you and yours for me. Blame God for my desires, not me.
I have spent the last three years of my life bloodying my fists against a
bolted door. These same bruised and bleeding hands could do much
to teach you how to love me tenderly, certainly much more than what you have learned from praying.

* In the next post I’ll reference the source where these are published

Contested Love (4) idealistic optimists versus pesky pessimists

Some questions about love.

What sort of characteristics or virtues are necessary for love to take root and grow? Do you see love as that which requires discipline and hard work? What does such work look like in practice?

Or is love natural, easy, automatic and instantly available to all? Add a bit of passion and voilà! Love is in the air!

Are you an optimist or a pessimist concerning love?

These are the sorts of questions raised by reading Simon May’s excellent Love: a History.

Today, optimism rules regarding love.  In the West love is:

  • like God, eternal, overcoming death, as that which lives on after us
  • gives meaning to ordinary life
  • sacred – it connects us to a higher realm
  • the source and measure of true happiness

May says this modern idea of love as the grounding of meaning has no grounding itself – it has become an object of faith.

As we saw last time, historically Christian love has had two dimensions: love as divine and love as humility.

To love in Christian theology is to be recipients of God’s love and grace. Grace is gift which leads to a deep sense of humility. May does not really develop this, but love is primarily a work of the Spirit. The believer is empowered to love. Love does not come easily or naturally. It takes the discipline to ‘walk in the Spirit’ and ‘keep in step with the Spirit’.

Modern love has become detached from classical Christian love – the two sides of love (love as divine and humility necessary to love) have become ‘unstuck’.

Now we have love as divine – but without the humility.

“Without an all-powerful God to hold them together and serve as a standing reminder of how severely hard love is, as well as fundamentally beyond our control, they have simply gone their own separate ways, producing extremes of optimism and pessimism about love, both of which have damaged it.” 93

The optimists are in the majority: we all want to believe in love don’t we? But this is a love that is easy, romantic, lovely, and that which brings happiness. This is the radically democratic, universally available love that is celebrated, sought after, idolised, worshipped and pursued.

But with little sense of the need for the humility / obedience / discipline and the sheer hard work and stubborn covenant commitment required for love to last.

This makes much modern love superficial and thin. Everybody has a right to love and can love instantly. (And cease to love just as quickly) ‘Love’ can be emptied out to mean virtually anything.

But those pesky pessimists are a significant minority, throwing all sorts of dark and complicated spanners in the bright sparkly world of optimistic love:

The pessimists are those who have set about deconstructing the fantasies of optimists. So to the deep cynicism and pessimism about love in prophets of doom concerning love: atheists like Nietzsche and psychoanalysts like Freud (of more anon).

 

Has science proved the irrationality of faith?

This post is prompted by listening to “The Infinite Monkey Cage Christmas Special” – you can listen to it here.

It’s hosted by Professor Brian Cox (he of numerous TV series etc) and Robin Ince. The guests on the programme were Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Mark Gatiss (Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock), cultural anthropologist and editor of the Sceptic Magazine Deborah Hyde and the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines.

Now it’s a sort of comedy come scientific education reality show .. sort of hard to categorise. However you define it, it’s popular – this is its 15th series. It’s an enjoyable listen, if trying a bit too hard to be funny.

The theme of this show was ghosts and “the Victorian obsession with the supernatural.”

This was no New Atheist rant against the dangerous irrationality and intolerance of religious faith. But (not far) under the surface, some very familiar themes were bubbling.

Basically the topic of ‘ghosts’ could just as easily have been ‘God’ or – as the blurb on the website says – the supernatural in general.

  1. Science and the measurement of reality

Cox began the show with a statement: We are here to investigate reality. When it comes to ghosts, there is nothing to investigate because they do not exist. For some sort of persistence of people after death to be possible there would have to be an “extension to the standard model of particle physics” that has escaped detection at the CERN Hadron Collider – something inconceivable at the energy scales that it is now able to measure.

His point goes beyond ghosts to any notion of a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ – anything that would somehow interact with our bodies must be detectable. Cox asserts (his term) that they can be no such thing as an energy source that drives our bodies.  We are purely material, physical beings.

Similarly, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that there was nothing he had encountered that defied his “complete knowledge of maths, physics and astrophysics.” Belief in ghosts etc was simply the ill-informed seeing mystery in things they did not understand.

Deborah Hyde commented that belief in the supernatural is the “default setting for human beings” and it takes “a lot of education” to come to understand things as they truly are. In the past it was “forgiveable” that people believed such things and it provides comfort in the face of the realities of life and death.

She added belief in the supernatural “plays into” human nature – “we don’t see the world as it really is.” We are finite and limited. We can’t see infra-red, electrons, gamma rays etc etc. Humans are enormously attuned to a very narrow range of stimuli (faces, movement) and tend to see the world through that (distorting) lens.

It is the genius of science, she implied, that has educated and set us free from the narrow psychological need to see the world in spiritual terms.

To this Tyson made an impassioned plea NOT to believe in or trust the hopelessly limited 5 senses of the human body. Science has access to dozens and dozens of sophisticated senses to measure all sorts of things the human senses have no access to. So successful has science been that it makes sense of the world, it transforms our cultures and has incredible explanatory power. So to believe in something spiritual beyond the human senses is not hard. But to believe in “some spirituality” beyond the vast modern day scientific apparatus is hardly tenable.

And going forward, anything seen as ‘spiritual’ will almost certainly one day be explained by advances in science.

To his credit, Bishop Nick Baines responded that Christianity says there is more to reality that what is measureable. It also deals in questions of meaning and purpose beyond the boundaries of science, but the overwhelming flow of the programme was that science is the gateway to knowledge and objectivity.

Nothing will stand in its way as an explanatory tool to understand all reality. The ‘spiritual’ and the ‘supernatural’ will eventually be squeezed out of existence by the onward march of the inquisitive scientific pioneer.

  1. Scientism

Now as I heard the show (and this is simply my take on it, my opinions are demonstrably falsifiable – just ask my family) this was an entertaining form of scientism – the belief that scientific enquiry forms the limits of our cognition and that any knowledge or belief claim that does not measure up to empirical enquiry is at best inferior and most likely a delusion.

It was a celebration of science, not only for what science can do but for what it is ‘disproving’. The whole ethos of the show is the elevation of experts sharing with us insights into the reality of the world; a top-down hierarchy of knowledge to be shared (in an entertaining way) with the masses.

Science deals in the trade of measurements, instruments and fact; religion is in the realm of unprovable opinions.

This is very much a modernist celebration of the advance of rational objective enquiry and the increasingly discredited and unbelievable world of subjective and credulous faith.

  1. A Conceptual Brick Wall

It seems to me that there is what I call a conceptual brick wall being built here; an inability to grasp that Christianity (I will focus on Christianity rather than the supernatural in general) believes in a God who created the material universe but who is distinct from that universe. He existed prior to it and will continue to exist if it ever collapses. He is not by necessity a material being but a Spirit who cannot be ‘measured’ in material categories.

  1. The ‘ghost’ of Immanuel Kant

kantThe ghost who was really present in the studio was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He wanted to ‘save’ religious faith from rational enquiry and tried to do so by redefining the scope of human reason.

Human reason was the basis of human knowledge, but it could only lead into knowledge of the empirical world. This was true objective knowledge.

That which does not belong to the material, spatio-temporal world (e.g. God, supernatural) cannot be comprehended by the human mind. So faith, for Kant, lay elsewhere, in man’s moral sense; in the realm of the subjective, as opposed to the world of ‘pure’ reason.

Brian Cox & co are disciples of Kant in their claim that knowledge only lies in the empirical world of scientific measurement. Yes, people may believe that there is something beyond the materialist view of the universe, but such claims are subjective (nonsense).

  1. Reflections

Kant’s ideas were a dead end philosophically. Christian truth is not confined to the realm of private subjective moral feeling. It is ‘public truth’, open to enquiry. Neither is it irrational. It has 2000 years of deep theological and philosophical tradition that has explored profound questions of existence. It is rooted in real historical events concerning the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Of course the Christian faith is not a total explanation of everything, but no belief system or worldview can ever be a total explanation of everything – including science.

Indeed, the Christian faith is not even really a ‘belief system’ or a ‘philosophy’ or an ‘explanation’ of reality. It is a faith in a person – the resurrected Lord.

I guess my feeling in listening to the Infinite Monkey Cage were these:

  • These guys (Cox and Ince and guests) are very smart
  • They know it
  • They are also very confident
  • And that self-assurance is leaking over into an over-confident celebration of all things scientific whereby science itself seems to be the measure by which reality and life can be understood

I guess I am just not that confident.

We don’t live in Kant’s Enlightenment Age, intoxicated by the apparently infinite capacity of human reason and all the good it will do. We life in a post-modern world, rightly sceptical of those who confidently claim to have the keys to knowledge.

Yes the rise of science and human reason has led to unimaginable advances, but also to unimaginable brutality and a contemporary ‘culture of death’.

Rather than deGrasse Tyson dismissing the Bishop at one point “Yes, you can get all philosophical if you want”, it would have been good to have a hint of humility that maybe science doesn’t have all the answers. That maybe things that can’t be ‘measured’ – like love, forgiveness, truthfulness, character, compassion, hope, joy – are what really make life worth living.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Contested Love (3) love as the supreme virtue

9780300118308I’m skipping on in Simon May’s Love: A History to an important chapter on the evolution of love within Christianity.

A question: what is Christian love? How would you define it? What is distinctive about Christian love as compared say to love in our wider culture today?

I had quite a few quibbles with May in the this chapter. Not surprising I guess, he is venturing into detailed areas of Christian theology and painting with a broad brush. There are half-truths and generalisations, but the overall thesis is intriguing.

He argues that two major shifts in the history of love happen that are intimately linked to how love comes to be understood within Christianity.

  1. Love is elevated to become the supreme virtue. There is no better thing than to love and be loved. The idea of love as eternal and supreme is everywhere in the West.
  1. Love as divine: in love we are united to the divine. And this experience of divinity is radically democratic – open to all ordinary people.

He traces this development, beginning with Jesus. (and this is one place that it is ‘Yes, but’)

Jesus is not linked to the two developments above. He is firmly located within OT categories of love as command and obedience. May says Jesus speaks little of love – I think this is overplayed with significant elements of love within the life and teaching of Jesus passed by.

May pits Jesus against John (love as divine) and Paul (love as supreme). Again, I am not convinced that there is such a wedge between Jesus, John and Paul when it comes to love.

[And there are links here back to our discussion of the New / Old Perspective on Paul – with love in the apostle’s teaching seen in some frameworks as part of Christianity’s love / grace / freedom set over against the law / legalism / slavery of Judaism.]

May argues that the claims made for love by Paul are uniquely extravagant in the history of love – love fulfils the law. [But I would argue that love is deeply rooted within the law – Deuteronomy 6]. May sees a radical disjuncture of OT to NT (Paul) in terms of love. A sort of Old / New Perspective on Love.

“one thing that is obviously happening is the creation of a new morality – based on so great an intensification of Old Testament morality that a genuine revolution in values has occurred.” 87.

What do you think? Is love within Paul a ‘new morality’ and ‘revolution’ compared to love in the OT?

Moving on, it is Augustine, May argues, where love becomes the greatest virtue and from which all actions and morality flow.  But what happens is how love not only answers questions of flourishing and ethics, but deeper questions of existence and meaning.

“love is to be the lodestar of our lives and, if blessed with the capacity to exercise it, we can aspire to imitate God. It was only a matter of time before the outrageous conclusion was drawn that through love we, ordinary men and women, can ourselves become divine.” 87

A bit of a villain in the historical exaltation and divinisation of love is Martin Luther who he quotes as saying “we are gods through love.” He acknowledges that Luther is well aware of potential heresy here – again I think this is overplayed.

But things get really interesting in how May perceptively links Christianity’s elevation of love as the supreme virtue WITH a deep awareness of the need for humility within Christian spirituality.

To fill in what I think he means here: if we are commanded to imitate the love of God, such love is only possible because of grace, the gift of forgiveness, the Spirit and God’s enabling.  Love is always first from God.

If Augustine is the theologian of love, he is also the theologian of grace: we are not self-sufficient. “The Grace of God makes a willing man out of an unwilling one.” 90

We find our fulfilment in God (Augustine’s restless heart).  May sees Augustine as very Platonic – the ladder of ascent to the divine. It is by grace that humans can ascend to caritas (divine love, selfless love, eternal love) rather than cupiditas – lower love, without reference to God.

It is this unique combination within Christianity of an ascent to divine love combined with a deep emphasis on humility, that is so powerful and enduring. Such love is hard – it requires obedience and persistence and discipline.

The implication I think is that he means love only comes slowly, it needs character, it is a virtue that is the fruit of moral integrity and dependence on God.

“This view of love expresses the reality that exaltation and abasement are related to each other in a profound dialectic – a dialectic incomparably revealed in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. ‘Wanting to be gods’ is inseparable from wanting to go the way of the Cross. The crucifixion of the incarnate God is not a gruesome paradox, as Nietzsche was to characterise it, but rather speaks a deep truth: if you want to be ‘Gods and Saviours of the world’ you have to be (and not merely appear) humble.   (92)

How convincing do you find this?

What are the essential requirements for love to flourish?

 

Paul & Gift (2)

img_20161104_225105One more post on Paul and the Gift.

Contrary to popular (particularly Reformed) Christian views, Paul does not somehow stand out uniquely from all other Jews of his time as the only one who suddenly ‘gets grace’. He is part of debate within Judaism in terms of the priority of grace (God’s initiative) and its incongruity (the mismatch between the goodness of God and the unworthiness of the human).

What does of course stand out is how Paul interprets

“the Christ-event as the definitive enactment of God’s love for the unlovely, and to the Gentile mission, where the gifts of God ignore ethnic differentials of worth and Torah-based definitions of value (“righteousness”)”   565-66

This theology of grace re-shapes Paul’s understanding of the identity of Israel. His theology of grace is NOT AGAINST Judaism (as a religion of works). God’s grace relativises the Torah in a way absolutely at odds with any of his Jewish peers.

“Paul is neither anti-Jewish nor post-Jewish, but his configuration of the grace of God in Christ alters his Jewish identity and makes him question his former allegiance to the Torah. 566

The crucial theme of Barclay is that for Paul the gift of God’s grace is incongruous (without regard to the worth of the recipient). Non-Jewish ‘un-worthy’ Gentiles pagans are ‘called in grace’ to be in Christ and gifted with the Spirit. But so are Jews (like Paul himself in his own experience). The Christ=event dissolves every pre-existent classification of worth. So the new communities of Christ are Torah free (not anti -Torah) made up of people from across social, ethnic, religious, gender distinctions.

The flip side of this inclusive grace is an inclusive theology of sin. No exceptions – the radical claim that all are sinners (Jew and Gentile) are under the rule of sin. The Torah can’t solve it. The only thing that can is the grace of God in Christ and the gift of the Spirit.

This ties to Paul’s mission:

The goal of Paul’s mission is the formation of communities whose distinct patterns of life bear witness to an event that has broken with normal criteria of worth. Paul expects baptism to create new life-orientations, including forms of bodily habitus that express the reality of resurrection-life in the midst of human mortality. 569

In other words, the gift of grace carries an expectation of transformation and obedience to the reality of new life in the Spirit.

In Christian history, grace was reapplied in very different contexts to the original missional one of Paul. For example, in the Reformation grace is ‘rediscovered’ by Luther, NOT in the context of preaching the gospel to people who had never heard it to form a new community of Jews and Gentiles detached from their previous cultural identities, but INTERNALLY within Christendom (my term not Barclay’s). In other words, grace was applied as

“a tool for the inner reform of the Christian tradition, its critical edge turned against believers, undermining not their pre-Christian criteria of worth but their pride or purpose in achieving Christian worth … an attack on the believer’s confidence or independence in adhering to Christian norms. 570

The ‘law’ is reinterpreted as = a reliance on self-righteousness. And Judaism unfortunately is therefore seen as a religion of works from which Paul was freed by the grace of G0d.

Augustine was key here as one who interpreted “boasting” in believers as “pride” of those who attribute merit to themselves and not to God. It is this inner turn of grace within the life of the believer (which is not what Paul was talking about) which is then taken up so famously by Luther. Paul’s polemic against ‘works of the law’ are taken to mean “subjective evaluation of one’s own good works as effective for salvation.” 571-72

Reading this, I’d put Barclay closer to the side of the ‘New Perspective’ which has been making similar points (if not identical, Barclay’s approach of the incongruous nature of God’s grace and framework of worth are crucially new).

He identifies his departure from the New Perspective around the theology of Paul’s mission.

A criticism of Sanders for example was that he found actually little difference between Christianity and Judaism – both were religions of grace. The ‘problem’ of Judaism was that it was not Christianity.

Famously also J D G Dunn had argued that Sanders’ Jewish Covenantal Nomism’ actually preached “good Protestant doctrine” (grace is God’s initiative [prior], human effort is the response to divine initiative, and that good works are the fruit of salvation, not its root). Justification by faith for Paul, according to Dunn, seemed little more than the boundaries had been widened to include Gentiles.159

N T Wright’s fulfilment theology, where Israel’s sin was to hold on to ethnic and national privilege despite the righteousness now being available to all nations, also tends to downplay the importance of grace in Paul’s theology. 163

So Barclay wants to highlight that it is the theology of the Christ-gift given to all that lies behind Paul’s radical mission.

A nice line:

“It is because grace belongs to no one that is goes to everyone” 572

“Paul’s ecclesiology has its roots in his soteriology of grace”

A challenge for churches today is to identify and re-articulate “what it is about the good news that makes them socially and ideologically distinctive.”

I think he means by this that grace was deeply radical in Paul’s day, it remains deeply radical today. Not only ‘internally’ in how no individual can be ‘worthy’ of God and needs grace, but also in how churches can be communities of grace in a fast-changing post-Christendom culture.

A culture where little can be taken for granted any more in how ‘church’ and ‘gospel’ and ‘grace’ are understood.

And perhaps a culture that is perhaps as deeply divided in its own way as Paul’s was in terms of social, religious, gender, economic and cultural boundaries.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Grace reimagined: Paul and the Gift

img_20161104_225105Looking forward to preaching at MCC tomorrow. As a one off sermon rather than part of a series, it’s going to be about grace; connected to working through John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. Hopefully the sermon will not be a lecture on the book! Will be trying hard to earth it.

Prof Barclay was in Maynooth last year.

What would you say grace is?

Something like the unconditional love of God? Or God’s unmerited favour to sinners?

Far greater minds than mine have hailed this book as a masterpiece and one that will re-shape how grace is understood within Christian scholarship and the wider church (Have a read of the endorsements on the Eerdmann’s website above).

Having spent quite a bit of time researching and writing a book chapter ‘The New Perspective and the Christian Life: Solus Spiritus’ within The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life this is an area I find fascinating.

Not so much on ‘Old’ versus ‘New’ (I don’t really have a dog in that fight), but how the discussion relates to mission, how the gospel is presented, the role of the Spirit (pneumatology), the place of Israel, the radical implications of who can be righteous before God (ecclesiology) and how (soteriology), the identity of Jesus (Christology) and how to read the Bible as a whole (narrative vs systematic) and how we understand the Christian life itself.

So a lot of things are tied up in understanding Paul.

So it is fantastically impressive to see John Barclay cut with a surgeon’s knife through over 40 years of contentious debate between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Perspectives. His operation is clinical (in the best sense), analytical, massively learned and compelling.

A huge issue that he brings out so well is that a lot of the confusions and disagreements about Paul, grace, justification and works, is that people are often working with different understandings of what grace actually is and how it works.

For example, many people say that grace is ‘free’ and ‘unconditional’. But what does unconditional actually mean in practice?

Does it mean that God’s saving grace in Christ is unconditional (it is not conditioned on anything we do or are)? OK. But is grace still free or unconditional after that?

Protestants have deep anxieties about subsequent ‘works’ being mixed up with grace and talk a lot about grace being ‘free’ if it is truly to be grace. Catholics generally don’t (they talk about an infused righteousness that can go up and down in the Christian life).

‘Old’ Perspective people are generally Reformed and have been dead set against some ‘New’ Perspective voices that seem (to them) to make works part of saving faith and so undermine grace.

E P Sanders, who kicked off the whole debate in 1977, talked about Judaism as a religion of ‘Covenantal Nomism’ – Jews were already ‘in’ the Covenant by grace. All of Judaism, he said, was a ‘religion of grace’ and therefore Jews had the task of ‘staying in’ by keeping the Torah. And the implication was that Christianity worked much the same way.

But this challenged ‘Old Perspective’ ideas that went back to Luther and in some ways all the way to Augustine. Namely, that Paul’s solution of grace was in contrast to Jewish legalism. The gospel of grace was an answer to legalism (self-righteousness).

Today, the dominant way evangelicals talk about grace and the gospel is in terms of liberation from self-righteousness (trying to save ourselves). This is good news to be sure, but was Paul talking about grace as salvation from legalism?

Barclay’s book is so important for a number of reasons: he is a world class scholar on Paul. He also has done years of research into gift in the Greco-Roman world and also has discussed in detail the ‘history of grace’ – through people like Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Sanders and modern scholarship.

Barclay’s brilliant move is to offer an original and creative 6 fold matrix for defining what grace actually is and how it works within the realm of gift. This then becomes his analytical tool for seeing how grace is being understood and used by Paul and also by those theologians through history.

Reading through his extensive conclusions I found myself nodding in agreement and having plenty of ‘Ah Ha’ moments when something vague became crystal clear. He has a terrific gift of his own for writing clearly and logically. In doing so he has forged, not a middle way between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Perspectives, but a way that helps to bring out the best insights of both into a fresh and convincing understanding of grace.

But that’s not all. Paul’s theology of grace is worked out in mission to Gentiles. Barclay sees how Luther’s reconfiguration of grace, while departing from Paul in significant ways, was still a brilliant re-application of grace in the context of Medieval Catholicism. As we think about grace today, we also need to be thinking about how it applies missionally – and he finishes the book with insightful ideas for grace in our contemporary Western world (one or two of which I will be nicking tomorrow).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

Brueggemann on money and possessions

The church has long been haunted by a dualism … But the Bible eschews every dualism and asserts the materiality of creation over which God generously presides. That pernicious dualism has readily produced a religion that is disconnected from public realty and has sanctioned predatory economic practices that go hand in hand with intense and pious religion. Thus the earlier robber barons were card-carrying Christians in good standing; and in our time the church is mostly silent in the face of a predatory economy that reduces many persons to second-class humanity. That deceptive misreading is aided and abetted by a lectionary that mostly disregards the hard texts on money and possessions. xxi

money-and-possessionsSo begins Walter Brueggemann in his new book Money and Possessions.

The quote above reveals a big concern of this book: the church has generally ‘bottled it’ when it comes to speaking of money and possessions within a highly acquisitive culture. To do this requires putting on blinkers in how we read the Bible because from Genesis to Revelation the Bible has an enormous amount to say on the material world.

Do you agree that Christianity tends to be dualistic when it comes to money and possessions? Heard any good sermons on money recently?

He outlines 6 theses concerning money and possessions in the Bible and further proposes that at each point the Bible flatly contradicts the global market economy which now so totally dominates our lives.

I’ve cannibalised what he says along with bits of my own commentary into a wee table:

The greatest achievement of capitalism’s advance is that somehow it is seen as ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’.

It also has claimed to be the best way for economic and social progress – but endless crises and crashes tell another story – one we know rather a lot about in Ireland. Over 8 years on from the crash of 2008, the EU is still trying (and failing) to fight its way out of insurmountable debt.

The Bible certainly envisages a different way of handling limited resources. Capitalism is simply a man-made construction – it is not natural and it is certainly unsustainable.

God’s will is for justice and for his people to embody a different way of life. As Brueggemann says his will “contradicts much of our preferred, uncritized practice.” 13.

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Contested love (2) Aristotle

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We’re sketching ideas from Simon May’s Love: A History.

Another key Greek player in the history of love is Aristotle.

First, consider those whom you love – on what is your love based? Qualities in that person? Family blood and loyalty? Something indefinable? Attraction of opposites? Or attraction of like-mindeness? A decision of the ‘will to love’?

Apart from sex, is love for a friend different from love for a lover?

These are some questions raised by Aristotle’s view of love. For him the highest form of love is philia – friendship love.

Now, as a good Greek man, he means friendship with another man. A man obviously could not have a noble and equal friendship with a woman since she (along with a slave) could never be up the mark of equality with a man.

Philea is a more down to earth love than Plato’s ascent to the heavens.

Philea is most definitely not a sexual sort of love, since sex brings in all sorts of other lower motivations. It is unstable due to dependence on temporary qualities like pleasure or beauty. For Aristotle, sex is fairly irrelevant to a flourishing, virtuous life.

Aristotle also assumed that philea was conditional. It very much depends on who the other is. For example, love depends on:

1. the virtue of the friend – is he worthy of love? The two men need to be alike; to have similar virtues and interests. To both be concerned about excellence of character

2. the constant character of the friend. If he declines in virtue, love will die for you should drop an unvirtuous friend. Love can only love like.

It is through such love that we come to self-knowledge and fulfil our own potential. Philia helps us to love ourselves and know ourselves.

Love is a virtue that requires discipline and application. It is hard to know ourselves and we find it in love of another – like a mirror, the love of a friend helps us see ourselves. We should therefore choose friends wisely.

You can begin to see how the big A is pretty out of fashion these days.

Modern love is obsessed with sex as an essential requirement: for Aristotle it was pretty irrelevant to flourishing love

Modern ideas of love assume that love is unconditional; for Aristotle it is very much conditional

Modern love is often undisciplined and spontaneous – you can ‘fall in’ (and out of) love in an instant: for Aristotle it takes the discipline of a lifetime to learn and practice love.

Modern love assumes we know ourselves and ‘forget’ ourselves for the other; for Aristotle love is the key to self-knowledge

Modern love can be rooted in many things – beauty, personality, physical attraction, common interests etc: for Aristotle it is dependent on virtue in both parties

Modern love at least desires or dreams of ‘eternal togetherness’: Aristotle is more pragmatic, love can come and go dependent on virtue.

Modern love says we love ourselves first in order to love others: Aristotle says it is in philea that we find ourselves

What do you think we moderns have to learn from Aristotle when it comes to love?

Contested love (1) Diotima’s Ladder

9780300118308Simon May’s superb book Love: A History unpacks changing understandings of love through the centuries. It’s a tour de force; a scintillating journey with an expert and entertaining guide who introduces the reader to a fascinating list of characters, all of whom have a lot of (conflicting) things to say about love.

A few posts follow on key highlights of that journey.

The first stop on our journey is Diotima’s Ladder in Plato’s Symposium.

First, some questions: if asked, what would you say is the key to happiness? Would your answer include love? How do you think of love? Is it the supreme goal of life? Is it the true sign of spirituality and virtue? Is it that which makes you whole?

If you are answering yes to some of these then you are at least in part agreement with Plato.

Here’s a very clever little video (1.32) that captures Plato’s’ important idea of love as an ascent towards virtue: from physical lust to abstract morality; from this world to a higher plane; flesh to spirit.

The Symposium is the first extended philosophy of love in the Western world and has had immeasureable influence in the history of love.

This is Greek morality  – the ideal youth is male; sexual lust is not in mind here, it is beauty that is idealised and women were inferior, so male beauty is that which arouses ‘bottom rung of the ladder’ love.

What parallels do you see in the concept of love as a ladder with Christian theology? And / or with how our culture thinks about love today?

 

Fear, Nietzsche and Beauty: approaching 2017

Two things behind this post.

  1. 2016 was, in many ways, a brutal, ugly and unsettling sort of year.
  2. This pair of goldfinches visited our garden (I’ll come back to the goldfinches)

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2016 was especially unsettling for us in the West, I think, because it was also a year that saw rising threats to the future stability and security of our Western way of life.

In no particular order, some of these threats include (and I am sure you can add your own):

  • The devastation of Syria – but also within Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere – and its unimaginable associated human cost, have left many looking on feeling both helpless and angry. On top of this, the conflict has exposed the West’s impotence to oust Assad and has hugely bolstered Putin’s influence in the region.
  • The West continues to reap what was sown by Bush and Blair’s reckless and arrogant invasion of Iraq. Western hubris to imagine that Western democracy could be catalysed in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has been shown to be just that.
  • Putin’s latest ‘victory’ in Aleppo is part of his agenda of regaining Russian self-respect and influence in the world. Annexing Crimea, partial invasion of Eastern Ukraine, new balances of power with Turkey, cyber-hacking the USA and ruthless crushing of dissent at home – are all part of Putin’s gangsterism and empire-building strategy demonstrating his contempt for the weak West.
  • European elites seem to have no coherent answer to either the refugee crisis or the very real chance of the break up of the Euro. Italy could enter a fiscal crisis in 2017. Risks to the viability of the Euro appear to be relentlessly rising despite continual firefighting by European policy makers. After years, it is pretty clear that there is neither the political cohesion or creativity to ‘re-imagine’ a different structure for Europe that can actually work.
  • That scepticism towards Europe as an idea is shared by more and more within Europe. Brexit might be only the first step.
  • Liberal Westerners are aghast at the potential ending (or at least a serious threats to) of the onward ‘civilising’ march of liberal secular democracy in Europe and the USA. Trump and Putin (and their mutual admiration society) pose the nightmare scenario of the rise of autocratic right-wing nationalism. I mean by this  a form of nationalism that goes back to a myth of ‘our origins’ and seeks to ‘recover’ who we ‘truly’ are while simultaneously finding scapegoats blame for the ‘decline of our once great nation’.
  • The nihilistic brutality of ISIS / Daesh and its sporadic, unpredictable and ruthless violence within European cities is designed not for military victory but to spread fear and catalyse division within the enemy. One desired outcome is to sow seeds of enmity and distrust within European multiculturalist pluralist societies that can grow into ugly plants of xenophobia, racism and exclusion – to undermine Europe from within.  So far, quite a lot of progress made on this front.

The fear and uncertainty felt by many in the West today is not because uncertainty, violence, mass immigration and nationalism are new but because they are hitting close to home.

These are some impressionistic descriptions – some may be more accurate than others. The real point is not the detail but a question:

What is a response for a disciple of Jesus to living in times of deep uncertainty?

Some possible responses:

  1. Be consumed by fear at threats to our ‘Western way of life.’

There is an incomparable richness with living in the West – the freedoms and opportunities that we take for granted are all around us. It is an astonishing privilege to live in a culture that has a democratic government (and only partially corrupt form of politics). Heck, even the trains nearly run on time some of the time. These freedoms should be supported and defended as that which gives maximum freedom to most people.

But, Christians should be well aware that these gifts are not guaranteed and are certainly not an indispensable part of being a follower of Jesus. A Christian’s source of identity, security and hope does not derive from living in an unheralded time (historically speaking) of prosperity, political stability and access to infinite information.

So we are not to be people of fear, but of hope. Our ‘salvation’ does not rest on the fortunes of liberal secular democracy. Christians in the West are, after all, called to be NOT good Westerners – whether Irish, American, British or German etc. They ARE called to be faithful disciples of Jesus their Lord.

2. Live by the sword

Up there with ‘love your enemies’, perhaps one of the most ignored teachings of Jesus is that “those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52)

Christians are not to be uncritical supporters of the West or of their particular state. A role of the church (however unpopular) is to call the state to account before God – and take the consequences (ask John the Baptist).

It is the West’s arrogance and militarism that has helped create the disaster of the contemporary Middle East. Rather than respond the catastrophic mess with support for more violence, it is Christians who are called to be peacemakers; people of prayer; compassion; of reconciliation and mercy.

An illustration from the radio this morning: Lyse Doucet is a superb international correspondent for the BBC. She was talking of why she risked her life reporting from Aleppo. Her reply was unescapably moral: it was a privilege to see what was happening and tell the human story of suffering. She recalled her Catholic upbringing and that she had been taught to be ‘my brother’s keeper’. She was there to use her training and experience to help give a voice to those without a voice. Her actions are a fantastic model for Christians. Non-violence is not passive, it is courageous and bold on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. It speaks of risky love at cost to ourselves. It speaks of a radically different narrative to the men of war.

3.   Accept the fate of the world

nietzscheThe brilliant atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (with impressive moustache) talked of amor fati – love of fate. By this he meant that we should overcome our weakness of trying to seek salvation or moral perfection in this world. Rather we should grow up and say YES to all that exists; embrace all of life, both its miseries and joys. There is nothing else higher or better than life as it is.  It is Christian weakness and illusion to believe that there is – and Nietzsche hated such weakness. He believed in strength and power rather than perverse ideas of pity and compassion.

Nietzsche was absolutely right – if God is dead. For without God all we do face is a pitiless world where the will to power wins out and compassion is mere stupidity (sound familiar re a certain President elect?). Fatalism and power are the responses of faithlessness – quite consistent for an atheist but not exactly an option for a Christian.

4. Hope, compassion and beauty

Rather than 1-3, can I suggest that in a violent and uncertain world, Christians are to be people of hope, compassion and lovers of beauty.

Christian hope rests not in politics or nationalism but on the victory of God won in Christ. In him we have the certainty of resurrection life, forgiveness of sin, new life in the Spirit, a mission give our lives to, a God to love and a church and world to serve. We are to be people who believe in, are shaped by and share good news – whatever the world is doing around us.

That good news includes Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ and to live a kingdom life that is ‘good news to the poor’. God’s people, like OT Israel are to reflect God’s heart for those cast aside by the power structures and politics of the world:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deut. 10:18-19

As recipients of God’s grace and compassion, we are to share grace and compassion generously with those in need like refugees fleeing from unimaginable violence.

Finally, back to those goldfinches. I like bird watching and think goldfinches are particularly pretty. Now some people I know don’t like birds at all and I think Starlings are frankly evil. So my point is not about birds per se, but beauty.

There is something captivating and transcendent about beauty – maybe for you it is a landscape, a sunset, a person, a poem, a tree, a painting, a crashing wave on a beach or a crafted piece of clothing?

Beauty reminds us that this life, this world, is full of goodness, made by a loving creator. It is to be treasured, savoured, enjoyed and looked after. Since God’s ultimate agenda is renewal and healing of this broken and violent world, Christians are to be life-affirming and world-affirming.

Part of being people of hope is to pause and give thanks for the beauty we see every day. Part of being people of hope is to create beauty with our hands and with our words.

Hope, compassion, beauty: these, I suggest, rather than fear, violence and fatalism, form a Christian framework for approaching 2017.