Interrogating Hauerwas – book notice

My friend Kevin Hargaden has had the privilege and task of listening to and editing a series of conversations between his two Texan PhD Supervisors, Brian Brock and a certain Stanley Hauerwas. He’s done a great job.

The result is Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas, to be published in February 2017. Here is the endorsement that I’ve had the pleasure to write:

“This is no ordinary conversation. Brian Brock’s deep familiarity with the entire Hauerwas corpus, astute and persistent probing, combined with an ability to push Hauerwas hard, results in an important book – one that offers new perspectives on both Hauerwas the man and the integrative importance of Christology and ecclesiology within his diverse theological vision. Following the discussion is demanding. It is also an education – not only in Hauerwasian theology but in truth-telling, the art of conversation, wisdom, virtue, suffering, prayer, love, hope and joy. All told, a richly rewarding eavesdropping experience.” –  Patrick Mitchel, Irish Bible Institute.

I read it in bed in a mammoth session over a weekend when not feeling very well. It was a wonderful excuse to do nothing else but devour this book and forget about the rest of life for a couple of days. While these two men are obviously very good friends, the conversations are far from ad hoc chats. Brian Brock is frankly rather awesome (I can say that of an American) in his depth of research combined with an ability ‘interrogate Hauerwas’ in a way that very few people would be equipped to do.

The resultant conversations are erudite and – I’ve got to be honest here, you can’t BS about Hauerwas, he’s the one who says we must be first and foremost truth-tellers! – at times I had to read and re-read to keep up with what was going on.  The level of learning and the art of conversation is remarkable, but more that this, what comes through is the vibrant, attractive (I’m a huge fan) and passionate humanity of Hauerwas.

The thing is he is just simply right about a whole lot of things. And he writes beautifully, whatever the subject. The discussion on his writing of Hannah’s Child was fascinating in how seriously Hauerwas takes the creative art of writing.

What’s the best way in to Hauerwas? Opinions welcome.

Three suggestions to begin:

His autobiography Hannah’s Child is wonderful – I read it again a while ago and it helped me enormously at the time.

The Peaceable Kingdom is terrific – I recall thinking that Hauerwas was extolling the benefits of narrative theology long before it became popular and fashionable.

War and the American Difference is classic polemical and prophetic Hauerwas, calling Christians to an alternative ecclesiological body politic to that of militarism, nationalism and violence that characterise contemporary America. (And that just might be a message that needs to be proclaimed from the rooftops in the next few years …)

Loving Donald Trump: a theory

Whatever your political persuasion or opinion on the American Presidential election, there are few voices even trying to argue that Donald Trump is a good, morally upright and virtuous person.

Even one D. J. Trump did (briefly and defiantly and only when confronted by the audio-tape of his bragging about using his fame to take advantage of women) admit that he has made mistakes and is not perfect.

Yet, it’s pretty clear that a very many Americans love Donald Trump. I use the word ‘love’ deliberately. I’m not talking just about political reasons to vote for him. Yes, for a lot of people, it was his policies and promises that won the day. But from mass rallies all over the country it’s clear that a very sizeable portion of the electorate are passionately committed to Trump at an emotional level that goes far beyond pragmatic self-interest.

(It’s not my main point here, but it might even be said that one reason Hillary did not win was that even her own supporters did not love her in the same way as Trump’s supporters loved him. They respected her, but she did not inspire the same intensity of devotion)

9780300118308Simon May has a very interesting take on this phenomenon of love for people who are most definitely not good. People who actively have no interest in appearing to be good and yet who are loved. May mentions captives’ love for their kidnappers or a child’s continuing love for a parent who has obviously harmed them by some form of abuse.

Or what about whole populations’ love for megalomanical leaders who killed millions?: huge swathes of the German people’s love for Adolf Hitler. Many Russian people’s love for Stalin (even after his death). I’m not equating Trump with Hitler or Stalin, the point is that love is not necessarily inspired by virtue.

We are tempted not to call such devotion ‘love’ because we are shaped by the very Greek idea that love, if it is to be true love, is inspired by beauty and virtue. But such mass love for bad people cannot so easily be dismissed.

If love is not necessarily inspired by virtue, what then can it be inspired by?

(this question does not deny that love can be inspired by virtue and goodness; it does suggest that love cannot be so simply explained).

May’s theory is that love is inspired by what he call’s ‘ontological rootedness’. Now that’s quite a label. What he means is that we love that which gives us a sense of ultimate meaning and security in the world. Love is deeply connected to power because it is the powerful who have the capacity to deliver on such deep hopes.

Here’s May’s explanation … and I will resist the strong temptation to pick out bits that I think are stunningly prophetic regarding the 2016 USA Presidential Election!

How well does this explain Trump’s election do you think?

There is no greater human need that to find such affirmation, nourishment an anchoring of one’s being, and we can secure it only through relationships to a world in which we are embedded. This is why when we think we have discovered someone – or indeed something, like a vocation or art or nature – with ontological power over us we lunge at it with such overwhelming desire. It is also why we can fall (and remain) in love not only with those who would use their power to affirm and enhance our lives, but also – even precisely – with those who regard us as enemies, or with people whose wealth inspires a sense (robust or not) of ontological rootedness, or with fraudsters who give us illusory confidence in ourselves, or with others who might destroy us, or with those whose love for us we permanently doubt. (37)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Escaping the babylonian captivity of theological education (1)

ibi_logo_400x400At Irish Bible Institute we are embarking on a year-long journey of ‘re-validation’ with our partner university. Happily, this means that the university has agreed to renew our partnership for years ahead.

But it is not just re-signing a bit of paper, the process involves (and requires) us to think afresh about what we are doing and why. This isn’t just ticking boxes – our partner is committed to educational innovation and creativity and is pushing us to think afresh from first principles as to what we are doing.

The thing is, most theological colleges have some form of assent to integrative learning. But it is a very different thing to get beyond ‘ink on paper’ to genuine transformative learning that shapes the whole person.

Some paradigms of theological education, historically particularly within universities, aren’t that interested in this sort of learning, particularly if that university is, or has ambitions to be, a prestigious academic institution that prizes a particular type of educational success . This is one reason the Bible College movement began in the UK and Ireland.

It was Lesslie Newbigin who, paraphrasing Luther, talked about the Babylonian Captivity of much theological education. He meant by this the prioritization of a form of objective, scientific learning that imagines theology as an academic exercise of the detached neutral mind. It results in a programme where academic, cognitive success dominates all levels of the student experience – from advertising and recruitment of students, entry qualifications, the shape and structure of the classroom, the content of lectures (primarily information transfer), the setting of assessments, the criteria for grading, right through to qualifications, awards and prizes.

In other words, an Enlightenment paradigm of learning where theology is primarily the study of books and ideas, detached from personal faith, character transformation, practical skills for ministry, prayer, community and Christlikeness.

This is theology as mere acquisition of knowledge, the student as consumer of information, the teacher as expert distributor of information. It is non-relational and I would say, pretty well non-Christian in terms of an authentic preparation for forming people spiritually and preparing them for the demands and messiness of Christian ministry.

No wonder churches have long been sceptical of the value of going to study theology – whether at Bible College or university. No wonder, there is a lot of anti-intellectualism in the church if studying theology means that a student might be brilliant at writing a paper on Barth’s doctrine of election but have little humility and self-awareness or pastoral heart (nothing against Barth, but you get the point).

So, going back to first principles is a very good, and demanding and uncomfortable, thing to have to do. For, if you are like me, if we are allowed to, we tend to keep doing what we know, what we are comfortable with, what has worked in the past, without asking too many tough questions of ourselves and our organisations.

9781783689576To do this, we are working as a team together through Perry Shaw’s excellent and stimulating book Transforming Theological Education: a practical handbook for integrative learning

I’ve linked to Shaw on this blog before – see here, here and here for thoughts on integrative learning across cognitive (head), affective (heart)  and behavioural (hands) domains.

At the moment we are also doing a series of consultations with leaders, current and past students and others on some key initial questions. We need to answer these sorts of questions before we get into the nitty gritty of programme design and what modules we will offer and how they will be assessed etc.

Because it will the answers to these sorts of questions that will shape what we do. The biggest obstacle to change in any organisation I think is not being willing to ask and act on questions of purpose.

Shaw talks about the sorts of questions his Seminary worked through in their radical restructuring of their programmes. We are now doing the same:

I wonder what your answers to these questions might be?

What is the ideal church for our contemporary context in Ireland?

[assuming our continued purpose is to serve the Irish church it makes sense to think about what sort of churches are going to be best set to fulfil God’s missional mandate.]

What are the contextual challenges facing churches in Ireland?

  • Internal challenges?
  • External challenges?

What are the qualities and attitudes and skills of an ideal graduate in this context?

  • what sort of knowledge and thinking skills are needed for a faithful Christian to connect with the context and to continue to adapt and grow in a changing ministry environment?
  • what sort of character and attitude traits are required for Christian service in this context?
  • what sort of skills and abilities are needed so that the gospel can be incarnated in word and deed in the student and those he / she serves?

We are processing these questions and working towards the next steps

Your comments and thoughts are welcome to the mix

which Messiah? which hope?

Sstatue-liberty-hands473x488o America has made its decision. I believe it’s a reckless one.

Trump’s narrative in the campaign and his acceptance speech is messianic … greatness is around the corner, our time has come, economic blessing is coming, the government will be once again for the people. .. it is going to be a beautiful thing.

The only certain thing about such dreams is that they will fail. The irony is of course that Trump got elected on capitalising on the failure of previous political dreams. And so on goes the cycle of political ambition and hubris.

What’s not sure of course is how a Trump Presidency, his supporters and America in general will deal with the dashing of those dreams. I don’t think it’s going to be beautiful, it’s likely to get rather ugly. Such has been his rhetoric that he’s got little or no room for manoeuvre in building walls, delivering jobs, fixing the entire political system, renegotiating global trade, and making people feel they have hope in life …small stuff like that.

When Obama was elected the first time there was a lot of messianic mania in the air. I remember thinking then that he had no chance of meeting such unrealistic hopes. No mere human could …

For Christians do not believe in political messiahs .. whether democrat or Republican or whatever other brand around the world. Human history is littered with the vain hopes of emperors, kings, and hubristic politicians and their ambitions to control history. One reason I think voting for Trump was reckless is that his vaunted ambitions are going crash and he’s going to do a lot of unpredictable damage in the process.

In contrast, Christians believe in the one true Messiah who is the eternal Word made flesh, the king of kings, the one through whom all things are made. Christians’ hopes lie in him alone – nowhere else. For it is in God, Father, Son and Spirit, is the hope of a ‘new world order’ of justice and peace. In him alone is reconciliation, ultimately of all things.

We pray for his kingdom to come in full.  It is already here, we are citizens of the kingdom first before any national or political identity. Our ‘politics’ are kingdom of God politics – the church as an alternative body politic to the vain power plays of transient politicians. A calling to preach, live and embody the good news of Jesus the Messiah and risen Lord. To be people of reconciliation, forgiveness and grace. To live lives worthy of the gospel. To walk in the Spirit, love God and love our neighbours.

That task remains constant and urgent – regardless of who happens to occupy the White House for a few years …

Comments, as ever, welcome.

One of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history

9780300118308Another snapshot of Simon May’s exceptionally good book Love: A History

The Hebrew Bible develops three innovations of immense significance for how we think about love today.

The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 states

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

1. The goal of love is divine

God is the one true God, the creator and source of all that exists. To love God with all that we are is to make the goal of love divine. There can be no higher purpose or calling.

2. Loving God means that we are to walk in his ways

He argues that the second innovation is that we are to love what God loves – and that includes our neighbour.

May could unpack this more. He doesn’t quote this but Deuteronomy 10:12-13 states

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

The text goes on to define the sort of imitation that Israel is to demonstrate:

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.

As God loves the alien, providing for their needs, so Israel is to imitate Yahweh, in a sense ‘doing to others as God has already done to them’.

3. Love is a moral duty

The love of the alien, widow and the orphan above is not a sentimental feeling-based emotion – it is a moral duty to do good to those in need. Israel is commanded to love God and love others.

May comments that other pre-Christian systems of thought – Confucianism, Buddhism and Platonism made love a central value “but in none was it conceived as so overwhelming a command issued by the one God”.

May concludes with this – and it needs to be said again and again given the caricatures and confusions out there regarding the Old Testament and its main character ..

“The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and ‘an eye for an eye’, while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history.” (19-20)

A vote for Trump is reckless irresponsibility

If the Brexit vote in the UK taught us anything, it is that (very) surprising things can and do happen at election time. Sure it was going to be a close-run thing but the overwhelming consensus was that a Remain vote would fairly comfortably win the day. What was missed was the momentum was with Leave and the rest is (unfolding, messy and chaotic) history.

There are parallels – most have not seriously thought Trump could win, yet he has the momentum entering polling week. It is now more conceivable than ever that Donald J Trump could become the President of the United States of America.

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Very thoughtful, non-American Christian commentators like John Stackhouse have argued that a vote for a third party in order to send a message to the main parties or to avoid contamination of voting for two awful candidates is basically a cop-out, ethically and politically.

He may be right. He also says this:

In this election, American friends of mine are supporting Donald Trump. They want above all to see the next president appoint a more conservative Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade and protect Christians from an encroaching political correctness especially on matters of sexuality and bioethics.

They are well aware of Mr. Trump’s manifest deficits and they know that they are taking the longest of political shots by trusting in a man who has (one wants to put this gently in a decidedly un-gentle campaign) no very strong record as a political conservative, a defender of the unborn, or as a keeper of promises.

Still, they reason, Mrs. Clinton will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mr. Trump. And I can respect that.

And Prof Stackhouse adds

Other American friends of mine are supporting Hillary Clinton. They want above all to see an experienced, moderate politician in the White House who will do some things they like and some things they don’t, but will not put much at risk that isn’t already at risk and likely will do some good in the process.

They are well aware of Mrs. Clinton’s deficits, manifest or otherwise, and they know that they are going to have to swallow some bitter pills.

Still, they reason, Mr. Trump will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mrs. Clinton. And I can respect that.

I am not as sanguine about respecting a vote by a Christian for Trump or Clinton within a sort of “equivalence of badness”. I can only see a vote for Trump by a Christian as being a form of reckless irresponsibility.

It is patently obvious that Trump is utterly unqualified to be President. He has none of the virtues required and all of the vices you do not want to see in a person representing one of the greatest experiments in liberal democracy in recent Western history, that has, with many faults, worked.

John Stackhouse is right to say that a Christian voting for Trump is taking ‘the longest of long shots’ that he might – just might –  show some integrity and values that could inform policy around political conservatism, defence of the unborn or keeping his election promises. There is little or no evidence Trump is going to do any of these things.

What we do know for sure is: he is a liar and bully; a man without any signs of integrity; who breaks promises; gropes women, admits it, then tries to intimidate and threaten to sue women who says he did; uses his power for selfish ends; who is running of a platform of ugly potentially violent nationalism; inchoate rage; not so incipient racism; and a ‘towering’ vanity that verges towards megalomania.

The idea that, whatever happens on Tuesday, that such a man could get within sight of the White House should be deeply deeply troubling to all who care about America.

I have huge affection for the country. Yes it has manifest flaws, deep inequalities, a history shaped by violence and an addiction to unsustainable ruthless capitalism (and Ryder Cup fans who lack civility). But show me a nation that does not have parallel problems, if on a smaller scale. I live in the Republic of Ireland and we are a tiny little place but do a pretty good job on political corruption, injustice, a history of violence, inequality and a neglect of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

So this is not American bashing. It is an expression of horror that Christians, and especially well known Christian leaders, can come up with arguments defending the indefensible of voting for Trump.

Again and again in media reports we are told that ‘evangelicals’ are a key support group for Trump. I am not naive enough to believe that this is generally true. Those labelled ‘evangelical’ are likely very nominally connected to that label. Many evangelical Christians I know in the States are most definitely not voting for Trump – they are as appalled by him as others around the world.

But the fact remains that a lot of committed evangelical Christians are supporting Trump. I can only see this as a failure of discipleship – where a combination of loyalty to Republicanism and antipathy to the Democrats ‘trumps’ the bigger and more important moral duty to keep a man like Trump out of power.

And, such Christians may not realise it (but they should), their stance does nothing but harm the wider mission and reputation of the church outside America.

That evangelical Christians – who are called to follow a crucified Messiah and who are to be shaped by love for God, love for neighbour (where the neighbour is an enemy other than us), love for the foreigner, the weak and the vulnerable, who are to be people or peace and reconciliation – are labelled as supporters of a man of hate and division gives Christians a bad name globally.

The first duty of Christians in America is not to America .. it is to act in a way worthy of Jesus Christ and his gospel and for the good of the church catholic. And that means, I suggest, not voting for Donald Trump.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

John Barclay in Maynooth: the incongruity of grace

John Barclay , Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, Durham University was speaking in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth this evening on ‘Grace as Free Gift: Freedom from What?’ This was the opening keynote address of the Irish Theological Association Annual Conference.

His 2015 book Paul and the Gift is one of those very big books a top scholar writes at the peak of his / her career. I don’t mean in big in size (although at over 600 pages it ain’t small) but in significance. It is the fruit of many years of research and has caused a substantial amount of reaction and debate, most to my knowledge very positive.

If you are keen you can read two substantial reviews at Books & Culture by Scot McKnight and Wesley Hill  Others of a more Reformed persuasion can be found here  (Thomas Schreiner) and Alistair Roberts here. Ben Witherington (as he is wont to do) did a mammoth blogging review in dialogue with John Barclay – like a mini-book in itself.

img_20161104_225105And if you are really keen you can always buy and read the book – I’ve a copy (here’s a pic) and plan to read it over Christmas if all goes well.

All to say is that this post isn’t yet another review (which would be a bit difficult since I’ve only glanced through it as yet and have read reviews). But it is some observations and thoughts on tonight’s lecture.

First, Barclay developed his argument with clarity, brevity and good humour in four sections.

1. GRACE IS IN THE FIELD OF GIFT

This is talking about grace in general. Remember when someone gave a you a nice gift? Or invited you to dinner? What is going on? The act of grace you have experienced is a free, voluntary act. You are not legally obligated to respond! Neither (I hope) are you eating the dinner and working out a budget of what it cost your host in terms of time and money so that you know exactly how much to ‘pay back’ when you invite them around in return – the gift is non-calcuable. But note the sense of obligation to reciprocate often created by a gift. But the main thing a gift is doing is building relationship – they are personal. They are also ‘discriminatory’ in the sense that you have received that invitation because the person likes you – they haven’t invited a total stranger or someone they don’t like.  Barclay gave the example of a will – you leave money to people and causes you have affinity with. You might not leave money to the local dog shelter because you believe that your money is better spend helping humans .. this is discriminatory grace.

In the ancient world, the expectation was that the gods gave favour in this sort of discriminatory fashion – to people of value and worth. So the qualifying factors – perhaps your ethnic identity, gender (usually male preference), your moral superiority etc – determined the giving of grace. For God / gods to do otherwise would be to cause upheaval and social chaos – where is justice and social order if grace is indiscriminate?

2. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM PRIOR CONDITIONS OF WORTH  (the incongruity of grace)

This is where Christian grace becomes revolutionary and truly shocking. God’s grace is given without regard to ethnic, moral, gender or any other conditions. In fact ‘Christ died for the ungodly’. Repeatedly in the NT  (but also foreshadowed in the OT – I think more could have been said here on texts like Deut 10:14-22, Isaiah 58:6-7, Job 29:12-17 which make clear that God’s impartial love and grace is intrinsic to the OT and simply carried on a climax in the NT) it is stressed that God’s grace is unconditioned – Jesus and the Prodigal Son, Paul telling the Corinthians that it was exactly that they were NOT rich, wise, clever and powerful that they were chosen by God – it was in this choice that God was demonstrating his ‘foolishness’ (Paul is not into building false self-esteem here!).

This is Barclay’s important notion of the ‘incongruity’ of grace – it does not make logical sense – it is a misfit between the gift and the worth of the recipient.

This radical notion of grace has been central to all Western forms of theology – Catholic and Protestant. But there are struggles and differences in how the incongruity works out in the life of a Christian.

Famously, for Luther is it ‘simil iustus et peccator‘ – simultaneously justified and a sinner. This does NOT mean that Luther is thinking introspectively that he in himself is both a sinner and righteous person. He means that he is a 100% a sinner and that he is 100% righteous only because he is united with Christ and his righteousness. In other words, for Luther, grace was permanently incongruous.

Others, in different ways have wanted to square God’s incongruous grace with the expectation that grace will be transformative – and therefore effective in making the changed sinner more congruent with God’s final justice. Augustine, Aquinas  and Calvin all wrestled with this.

Barclay referred to Therese of Lisieux who, near death, said that if she was to be judged according to works then she would have no works – all she would have were the works of Christ in her (very Lutheran indeed!).

But the Christian tradition as a whole have agreed that God’s grace truly is a wonderful and life-giving freedom from being in some way good enough to be chosen by God. (Again a text like Deuteronomy emphasises similar themes – Israel is specifically told she was chosen exactly NOT because she deserved it).

3. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM OBLIGATION?

Here we get the crux of popular distortions of grace among a lot of contemporary Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant. These distortions are shaped by a Western notion that grace is not really grace unless it is ‘unconditional’. In other words, there is absolutely no expectation of reciprocity or return.

There is a key difference between ‘unconditioned’ grace and ‘unconditional’ grace. One is the basis on which grace is given, the other is the expectation of return in light of grace.

Barclay mentioned Kant (grace is grace only if there is no obligation) and Derrida here – who said that creating any sense of obligation in the recipient destroyed the sense of gift. It was better to give anonymously. Indeed the best gift would be given when you are dead – then there is no chance of obligation of a return gift! This is typical of the idea of unobliging gift – no strings attached at all.

Yet the Bible has little difficulty in the idea of obligation in light of God’s grace. For Paul, the grace of God is revealed in Christ. That gift places believers under the lordship of Christ (literally slavery to Christ) – Christians are under new ownership and are ‘to live to the Lord’ and ‘live a life worthy’ of the gospel.

But a key qualifier here is that the gift of grace created relationship. There is a new status – beloved son, adopted by the Spirit, abba Father .. out of which the believer is to live a new life in love and thankfulness to God. And this is a social context – worked out in community

It is only because of our radical individualism that we can imagine there is no obligation of a gift of grace given.

4. GRACE AS FREEDOM FROM PRE-CONSTITUTED CRITERIA OF WORTH

Barclay has been forging a path that is between Old and New Perspectives on Paul. In this section he sounded distinctly ‘New Perspective’ in that his concern is that grace too often has been interpreted in narrow individual categories – John Newton’s Amazing Grace captures wonderful truth but is detached from the social implications of unconditioned grace.

Take Galatians (on which Barclay did his PhD): the real issue is not works-righteousness he says, but WORTH. The pagan Galatians were not deemed worthy by the Judaizers until they were circumcised. But says Paul, any pre-conditions of worth are utterly destroyed by God;s grace – so Galatians 3:28

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In Corinthians, God’s grace subverts human ideas of worth – they are simply not worthy by standards of the ancient world. This is actually God’s point in choosing them. There is an intentionality in God’s grace to turn human ideas of worth on their head. This is why the early church was socially revolutionary (again a New Perspective feel to this, although he did also say that while NP got the social dimensions of justification well, it tended to lose the theological motive for how and why Jews and Gentiles were brought into one new community – that theological basis being God’s grace). Justification by grace alone created new communities formed only by people who were recipients of grace and not on any other criteria at all.

The context for Paul was missional – grace dissolves existing value systems regarding age, education, social status, gender, ethnicity, wealth etc.

APPLICATIONS

Here Prof Barclay was interesting and pastorally very helpful. Note the title of part 4 – it is not guilt or merit but WORTH. Grace tells us that the gospel is for all regardless of their worth.

Two areas of application:

First, chatting to him afterwards, he made a very interesting point about ageing – old age is the hardest time of life: you are losing friends, status, work, health, strength, social mobility, and maybe even your mind. This is where the gospel really impacts at a deep level for it speaks of a worth that is not measured by any of these things – a worth that is only dependent on God’s grace and this gives hope beyond loss of all we hold most dearly and that which currently gives us value and esteem.

Worth asking ourselves a question – how would you cope do you think if all that currently gives you a sense of worth was taken away?

Second, in a ‘sinless’ society with little notion of guilt this is another way of talking about the good news. He commented that numerous students and young people are under enormous pressure to measure up in a social media saturated society – cyber bullying, internet shaming, constant criticism, hierarchies of acceptance, pressure to perform and conform are more intense in a globally connected world.

Here God’s grace remains revolutionary good news – there is life and acceptance and welcome in a new community of brothers and sisters who gather around the Lord’s table solely on the basis of grace – nothing else.

This is why it is so important to work towards churches where there is real diversity – across gender, social, money, culture and ethnic lines. For this is a living breathing community of grace where we are reminded that this is what Christianity is all about – it’s not a narrow culturally specific religious club, it is about God’s unconditioned grace in Jesus Christ.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The idolisation of love

What do you live for? What most in this world gives your life meaning and purpose and joy? I suspect many people would answer those questions with the word ‘love’.

angelo_bronzino

Angelo Bronzino: Venus, Cupide and The Time (Allegory of Lust) Cover Image of Love: A History

I’m beginning to read the philosopher Simon May’s Love: a History. Published in 2011, it has rave reviews. His prose is outstanding. Here’s a taster.

In the wasteland of Western idols, only love survives intact. (4)

Elsewhere he sums up exactly what he means by this. And what he says below is bang on – the worship of love itself; love the goal to deliver our hopes and dreams; love as that which lives on after death, giving meaning to life.

In my book – Love: A History – I attempt to trace how love came to be the new god. And not any old god – say, one of those self-seeking, lustful, capricious and frankly evil Greek gods – but rather the spitting image of the Christian God.  In other words, love – genuine love – has come to be seen as all-good, unconditioned, unchanging, selfless in showing concern for the wellbeing of loved ones, and our chief bulwark against suffering and loss.  Today love has arguably become the only truly universal religion in the West – including in the United States.

I can remember well the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana in 1997 – the national and public outpouring of grief and simultaneous divinisation of love as that which gave her sudden death eternal significance. But you could pick any big public funeral – perhaps you can think of some? ‘Love’ takes over: on its own it is everywhere invoked in the face of death as that in itself which gives hope and meaning.

And this zinger from May,

Whereas becoming even a fairly competent artist or gardener or editor or plumber or banker or singer is dearly purchased with long effort and then only by the few with sufficient talent, love is a democracy of salvation open to all.

May’s book has three (ambitious) aims:

1. To show how, in Western thought, love came to play God; to be understood as the virtue that gives ultimate meaningful and significance to life.

2. To trace historically how genuine love came to be seen as unconditional.

3. To develop and present an alternative theory of love that sees it

“as a harbinger of the sacred without pretending that it is an all powerful solution to the problem of finding meaning, security and happiness in life.” (13)

Looks promising and provocative. I’m not going to post through it but will check in now and then.

You Are What You Love 8 : the demanding vocation of teaching for formation

9781587433801This is the final post on Jamie Smith’s sparklingly written You Are What You Love (YAWYL for short).

I say sparkling since it shines with elegant prose that simultaneously delivers original, creative and often dazzling insights.

And he’s on top form when it comes to teaching for formation.

Smith talks about his becoming a heretic regarding teaching at higher level. He was coming at it from post-graduate study, implictly assuming that his 18 year old students were “graduate-students-in-waiting.” As a teacher his was never to impose on their independence (and culturally accepted goal “to become prodigious consumers”)

Smith’s ‘conversion’ was to realise that his approach to teaching these young people was inimical to formation. They were not remotely ready suddently to be who he had assumed they were. His ‘heresy’ was to come to the point where he saw teaching as having “a sense of what the students ought to be.”

Smith does not reference Stanley Hauerwas here, but he has much to say on this theme (as with many others – and that’s meant at a compliment!).

“As a way to challenge such a [liberal] view of freedom, I start my classes by telling my students that I do not teach in a manner that is meant to help them make up their own minds. Instead, I tell them that I do not believe they have minds worth making up until they have been trained by me. I realize such a statement is deeply offensive to students since it exhibits a complete lack of pedagogic sensitivities. Yet I cannot imagine any teacher who is serious who would allow students to make up their own minds.”

‘Christian Schooling or Making Students Dysfunctional?’ in Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified. Bloomsbury T&T Clark 2nd Edition. 2016

But this of course is a whole new ball game compared to most higher education for it immediately involves the teacher in a much higher and demanding goal – the formation of people of virtue.

Since education is a formative project, aimed at the Good, the True and the Beautiful, then the teacher is a steward of transcendence who needs not only to know the Good but also to teach from that conviction. (159)

And yet most teachers have gone through their own formation process – an intensive secular “novitate”. One that assumes education is ‘for’ very specific things:

implicit in the dominant models of education is a modern, secuarlist narrative that prizes autonomy as the ultimate good. Thus the goal of education is reduced to “critical thinking,” which only turns out to be an empty, vacuous way of saying that education will simply enable young people to choose whatever “good” they see fit. In this picture, “freedom” requires the loss of a telos, since any stipulation of “the Good” impinges on the autonomy of the individual. In other words, such a model of education actually precludes virtue. (159)

This is of direct and urgent relevance into the UK and Irish university sector, just as much as in the USA. Pragmatism, employability, value for money, and raising as much income from students (and their families) as possible is what education is in danger (or has already) of becoming all about. An instrumental vision of education as purely a means to an end.

These depressing programmes (no longer available online) on ‘Queen’s: A University Challenged’ were broadcast on the BBC on the decline of Queen’s University of Belfast. A combination of a lack of Govt funding and ruthlessly pragmatic educrats who value education only by its monetary worth are eviserating the original vision of a once fine University.

Rather than academic life being valued by how much funding the teacher can attract, what if the primary task of the teacher is to be a former of people? And if this is the case, teachers first need be formed themselves. In other words, says Smith, educational reform begins with the teachers.

Smith offers some practical suggestions for (Christian) faculty development:

  • be committed to communities of formative Christian worship
  • build communal (team) practices
    • eat together
    • pray together
    • sing together
    • live life together – rejoice and grieve and walk with one another.
    • think and read together (It’s actually this one that is the most difficult. Business is ever demanding – there is rarely time to share ideas, discuss and learn what each member of the teaching team has been learning and reading and writing, visit each other’s classes to hear another teacher’s heart and passion (not just teaching ability).
  • Serve students – lead by example. Show hospitality. Pray for them and with them.

I’m very glad to be part of a team and work in a College that does much of this – that students and observers continually notice the depth of community and warmth of relationships at work. Smith would say (rightly) that such a context does not happen by accident – it is a habit that takes practice (and can’t be taken for granted).

 

You are what you love 7: an elegant, attractive polemical post-evangelical-low-church manifesto that doesn’t persuade

9781587433801We left Jamie Smith last time delivering a rocket at contemporary American youth ministry.  His alternative to expressivist extrovert entertainment is to go back to the future – to formative practices rooted in the historic worship of the church. Namely:

  1. Enfold youth within a congregation committed to historic Christian worship and multigenerational gathering. There is no difference, young and old are formed by “the ordinary means of grace offered in the Word and at the Table” (152). He quotes Christian Smith’s 2005 study of how critical it is for discipleship of young people to have a network of non-parental adults who know and care about them.
  2. Invite young people into formative disciplines “as rhythms of the Spirit”. To see formative worship practices as the heart of discipleship.
  3. To reject entertainment for service – that unites all in a common outward focused service of others. (He rightly comments how the entertainment model, often at high level and high cost provision of services to young people – are actually often segregationist, dividing people across socio-economic, class and even race lines.

We’re not at the end of the book – and there is one more post on great stuff about teaching – but I’m going to jump ahead with some overall critique.

I find myself with complex reactions to this book.

One the one hand …

First, I’ve loved and find myself drawn to and in very substantial agreement with most of what he is saying. It is largely ‘where I am at’. He says it elegantly and persuasively. Again and again what he says rings true to life. Such as :

that discipleship is about the heart first; about the richness and freedom of the liturgy; the need for formative worship; that so much of our teaching remains abstract and rational; embedding ourselves daily in the Great Tradition of the church; being part of the church catholic; intentionally building in habits that run counter to the secular liturgies of pervasive consumerism; of the immeasurable value of multi-generational worship; of the thinness and superficiality of evangelical entertainment ministries; that we are formed primarily by habits and spirituality at home; that there is a hunger and thirst among many evangelicals I know (and I include myself) for a deeper, historically and theologically shaped spirituality than they currently experience …..

Second, he has rightly identified a very real problem. I remember posting a good while ago about the documented struggles of people to maintain spiritual growth within evangelical churches. This book is very much in that territory. Smith is right to point to a crisis in evangelical spirituality. His argument that such evangelicals desperately need to find real sustaining depth within ancient liturgical traditions is I think persuasive.

BUT on the other hand ..

Even as I have enjoyed the book, learnt lots, will continue to value much of what is in it (especially about us being affective worshippers) … I have three major problems with the book.

First, I am afraid  it is effectively sectarian in a reverse sort of way. By this I mean that Jamie Smith’s disenchantment with much of low church non-liturgical non-denominational evangelicals results in a very erudite, imaginative and heartfelt manifesto to leave that world behind. He’s effectively writing that sector of the church off.

More than once he states that if you want formative worship find a liturgical community. It is basically a call to leave low-church worship and find a community that is practicing the historic Christian liturgy and the church calendar; ideally in a building that is in keeping with ancient Christian tradition.

In other words, this is a polemical “post-evangelical-low-church” manifesto.

Within our context in Ireland it would take the form of a call to Anglicanism or Catholicism. Methodism perhaps? But Presbyterians don’t do liturgy much if at all, independent evangelicals neither, nor Baptists nor charismatics nor Pentecostals. Most in fact, rightly or wrongly, are intentionally never going to go there …

It brings to mind John Stott and Martyn Lloyd Jones’ head-to-head back in the late 1960s (I’ve read about this in books I hasten to add) … L-Jones was all for evangelical purity and leave the ‘compromised’ historic denominations behind if you want to be a ‘true’ evangelical. Stott, the Anglican, rejected this saying evangelical teaching and worship can be found within and without the historic churches. They parted ways on that one.

Smith, for me, is taking the Lloyd-Jones line in reverse. Now this is a very interesting reflection of where evangelicalism is at, but it is still a sectarian move. Just as ‘pure’ low-church worship has run away from ‘dead liturgy’, here is Smith extolling liturgy and criticising the dead-end of non-liturgical worship.

Second, the book is not attempting to build bridges, or to suggest reform of low-church worship. His “all or nothing” approach is unfortunate.

Third, there is something unconvincing about the appeal to the power of liturgy within a historically embedded community. Too much weight is put on it here. It simply has not sustained authentic Christian discipleship within many historic churches. They sadly have often been lacking life, love, passion, heart, mission, and concern for the poor. There is more at play here than Smith allows.

Theologically – and ironically for a book on love – I think he does not give the presence of love within the community in the power of the Spirit a prominent enough role. In other words, where there is the Spirit at work, love will be evident. A church may have hit-or-miss worship, flimsy teaching, haphazard discipleship etc … but if there is a deep love for God, an outward focused love for others – the poor, the wider community, love across boundaries – then there is life, mission, and an embodied witness to the presence of God

Does not love cover a multitude  of sins?

So, for all my personal attraction to the forms of Christian life that Smith espouses (I guess I’m a closet Anglican charismatic anabaptist if there can be such a thing), I’d take that flawed Christian community over one that has all the liturgical depth you like but little heart-love for God and others …

Comments, as ever, welcome.