A war conceived and executed in deceit

A big PR story this week was the withdrawal of the last US combat troops from Iraq after a 7 1/2 yr combat mission. I say PR because there remain over 50,000 armed US troops in the country backed up by a huge military power. The big deal made of the final departure of 4th Stryker Brigade has more to do with political image management than a definitive US withdrawal from Iraq.

I think it was Gareth Porter at The Huffington Post who first said Iraq was a ‘war conceived and executed in deceit’.

Such a war, has in my humble opinion profoundly damaged the integrity and standing of the US and the UK. The jubilation of soldiers crossing the border into Kuwait was understandable (who wants to face the prospect of violent death every day?), but the cry ‘We’ve won! We’re going home’ from one soldier was surreal.

What has been won?

Yes, Saddam is gone. It’s far too soon to say ‘democracy’ has arrived, especially since it has been stalemated since the elections.

Over 106,000 Iraqis have been killed (and innumerable injured) along with over 4,400 US troops. The horrors of Abu Ghraib will remain etched in the memory of generations in the Middle East long after they are forgotten in the West.

But it was reading admiring reviews of Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death by Jim Frederick (just published in the UK and Ireland) that sums up for me the moral, political and military black hole at the heart of the US invasion.

The book tells the awful story of the murder of the Janabis, an Iraqi family, and the rape of their 14-year-old daughter by four US soldiers. The descent of members of B Company’s 1st Platoon into casual brutality and heinous war crimes brings Vietnam to mind. Edward Wilson in his review puts it this way

The soldiers did it because they had the power to do it; they didn’t need a reason why – almost the invasion of Iraq in microcosm.

Best kept secret (4)

Chapter 2 of John Dickson’s The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission is called ‘The many and the one: the challenge of pluralism’

Dickson clears some ground in this short chapter addressing a necessary question that if answered in the affirmative, would take the ground from under Christian mission. Don’t all religions lead to God? And if they do this proves a ‘monumental defeater’ of Christian mission.

You may recall that in our interview, Scot McKnight identified universalism as the big issue facing evangelicals in the years ahead.

More sophisticated pluralists like Marcus Borg propose that religions mediate spiritual reality by connecting people to the ‘sacred’– in this sense they are ‘sacramental’. They point to ultimate reality but are not ultimate reality themselves. In his own words (not in Dickson’s book)

“I don’t want to deny the uniqueness of Christianity. I want to speak of the uniqueness of Christianity, as well as Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism. They are all unique in the sense that they are not exactly alike. But what I’m affirming is that beneath their differences is this common path of transformation. For me, seeing that all the major enduring religions know this path of transformation gives Christianity much more credibility than if it were to claim to know something that no other religion had ever known.”

Pluralism seems tolerant (all views are validated); it ‘solves’ the ‘problem’ of God’s judgement; it avoids the impoliteness and intolerance of evangelism and mission; it deals with the reality that (for example) vast numbers of people are born into religions other than Christianity; it is therefore psychologically satisfying.

Dickson points out the weaknesses:

– Views like Borg’s that all religions point to ultimate reality but none are true is simply asserted. Does Borg have some special revelation no-one else has?

– Pluralism is fantastically presumptuous: it claims to have access to a bigger ‘truer truth’ than all religions. In effect it is saying all religions are ‘true’ in a way that none of those religions would affirm or recognise.

– Pluralism seeks to avoid the unbearableness of God’s judgement, but  it consigns pretty well all the world’s religions to wholesale delusion and error.

– Therefore pluralism promises more than it delivers

Dickson argues for taking religions seriously and for a robust tolerance that engages with people of different faiths with kindness, respect and humility.

Boundaries, Blogging and Theology

Over at Faith and Theology Ben Myers, who is a very smart fellow,  has a link to an article he wrote on ‘Theology 2.0: Blogging as Theological Discourse’ with a response by Rob Redman. The article is published in the journal, Cultural Encounters, Vol 6, No.1. and is well worth a read.

Among lots of interesting things he says

“.. I suspect web technologies will play an increasing role in the way theological discourse evolves in the future. And if I have any hope from all this, it would be that, as a result of blogging and similar practices, theology would become a somewhat friendlier discipline. A discipline marked less by narrow specialization and professional self-interest, and more by the friendliness of community, inquisitiveness, and open conversation – so that the whole “style” of theology becomes more like a conversation or a seminar than a lecture or monograph.

And I hope this friendlier theology will open into a larger and more expansive domain of discourse. Larger in the kinds of people it includes-not only scholars but pastors, laypeople, students, curious non-believers and others. And more expansive in its domain: so that theology is not merely specialized rumination on small number of pre-defined topics, but an adventurous and always unpredictable exploration of God’s strange and surprising ways in the world.”

What strikes me here is how Myers’ hopes not only contrast but directly conflict with traditional forms of theological training that operated within clearly defined boundaries of truth, control and authority. Hey, I live in ex-Catholic Ireland, down the road from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. For generations priests were trained within strict literal and theological boundaries. Friendliness, open conversation, playfulness and adventurous exploration of God’s ways were not how you would have described those decades! [And you can apply much of this description to Irish Presbyterianism too of which I know a little.]

Redman notes how the ecclesial aspect of theology is marginal to Myers reflections.  There is a ‘community’ aspect to the conversation but one without boundaries or agreed core beliefs.

If theology should be non-hierarchical, inclusive, playful, conversational and personal exploration of God’s ways in the world,  my question is what are the pros and cons of this vision of what theology is for?

And if Myers’ vision is the future, is blogging and the Web 2.0 hastening the death of denominationalism and theological boundaries? Is this a good thing?

Or maybe is the future an increasing gulf between those that see the purpose and form of theological training in very different ways: between those committed to working within a very definite and structured theological tradition [like a strongly Reformed ethos or a heavily Pentecostal ethos for example} and those who find such boundaries innately limiting to authentic, open, exploration and conversation?

A Wright on ‘World’ (2)

In a previous post I commented on Chris Wright’s article on ‘world’ in the Bible in the July edition of Evangelical Review of Theology and his argument for strong continuity between ‘this world’ and the ‘world to come’.

In another previous post I mentioned that we’re back from seeing some fantastic scenery in the west coast of the USA.  In this post I want to try to connect the two a wee bit.

One of the great secrets of America is that vast tracts of it are wilderness. We were numbed with scenery overload – hard to take more in. The grandeur of Yosemite, the awe inspiring Crater Lake [with less than awe inspiring clouds of mosquitoes], the daunting power of the Pacific Ocean, the imperious beauty of a bald eagle, the imposing grandeur of Mt Rainier, the raw violence of Mt St Helens, the humbling presence of the great Sequoias …

I found it a deeply spiritual experience – simplicity of camping, of hikes, of spending time in the outdoor world away from intense human presence (although of course never too far from its civilising comforts!). The beauty of creation, perhaps more clearly than any other thing, speaks of a world as it could be, as it should be … in harmony, in equilibrium, where every thing has its place.

This I find easy enough to connect with the world to come – a very recognisable, renewed creation – presumably with trees, and flowers, and grass, and mountains and rivers and lake and animals and so on. At the level of beauty I find little problem identifying with ‘all that is good in creation’ being part of the renewed new heavens and earth.

But of course this is simplistic. It is a sort of sterile ‘scenery picture postcard’ view of creation. The natural world is full of death hidden not far behind the beauty. A small example: in Yosemite, a raven snatched a baby squirrel from its mother on the roof of the visitor centre and pecked it to death for dinner in front of crowds of horrified adults and children. They all wanted to stop it but couldn’t. Such brutality and the desperate attempts of the mother to save her offspring jarred horribly with the whole image of unspoilt beauty towering around us on all sides. Nature red in tooth and claw gatecrashed the party.

OK you may say, in the new creation there will be no more death. Yes – but here immediately we cannot begin to conceive of life without death. The more specific sorts of questions you ask about continuity between this world and the one to come the more difficulty you have in coming up with any sort of coherent answers.

Don’t get me wrong – as I said last time, there is a strong case for continuity. But I wonder how much can be made of this given how absolutely little we can begin to guess about the world to come and how little specifics there are in Scripture which is necessarily metaphorical.

And if this is the case for the natural world, I would suggest it is even more impossible to say anything much about what sort of continuity there will be in terms of human culture – but I’ll come back to that in a final post on ‘A Wright on World’ [get it? :)]

Bird’s eye view of Paul (9) stories within a story : Jesus

We’re continuing Bird watching via A Bird’s Eye View of Paul: the man, his mission and his message by Michael Bird by looking at ‘stories behind the story’ – the background themes of Paul’s thought.

Next is Jesus

It seems obvious, but it’s worth reiterating how Jesus-centred (Christocentric) Paul’s theology is. The gospel that he received is from Jesus (Gal1-2) and is all about Jesus.  And Bird has already said quite a bit about Jesus in the previous themes, so is justifiably brief here.

Incarnation : – the pre-existent Son is ‘sent’ (Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3) and willingly endures humiliation, suffering, death and exaltation (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:5-11).

Obedience and faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, fulfilling his calling in harmony with the Father.

Awareness of Jesus’ life and teaching : while not often explicit, Paul’s theology of Jesus is profoundly historical, rooted in what Jesus said and did. There is no gap between the Christ of history and the Christ of faith – Paul would have found such an idea inconceivable (2 Cor 11:4).

Understanding of the significance and purpose of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension and reign as exalted Lord : Jesus’ unique identity is linked intimately with his unique mission. Death and crucifixion are reinterpreted positively in light of the resurrection radically to transform previous expectations of Messiah.

The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is astonishing, surprising, counter-intitutive, mysterious and paradigm-shifting. What does that say about God I wonder …

Nothing wrong with a bit of wife chastisement?

(Belated) Saturday story of the week

I was away on hols and missed what I’m sure was usual scintillating debate in the Dail, in this case passing the Civil Partnership Bill on 1 July.

In that debate the minister for Justice Dermot Ahern was half-heartedly pressed to explain why he had rejected religious church leaders and organisations request for an opt out clause on grounds of conscience for public servants and private individuals.

He didn’t answer the private individuals question, but here’s what he said about why public servants could not be allowed to opt out:

“A court clerk might refuse to issue divorce orders because of a religious belief. A fundamentalist Christian Garda might refuse to arrest a person who is breaching a safety order on the basis that the husband is entitled to chastise his wife. A judge might refuse to register a power of attorney in favour of a person’s civil partner.

A Muslim or a Mormon accident and emergency doctor might refuse to treat someone with alcohol poisoning. A social welfare official might refuse to pay a carer’s allowance to a person’s civil partner. A probate officer might refuse to issue a grant of administration to a deceased person’s civil partner.”

Ya wha?

The mind boggles. What does Minister Ahern think ‘fundamentalist Christians’ (and I wonder who qualifies) get up to and what’s the source of his info?

And right enough, there must be loads of Irish fundamentalist Christian garda who think ‘wife-chastisement’ is a fair cop ….

A Wright on ‘World’ (1)

In the July edition of Evangelical Review of Theology, Chris Wright, who is chairman of the Lausanne Theology Working Group reflects on the word ‘World’ in the Bible.

This is part of an ongoing conversation about the contemporary meaning of three phrases in the Lausanne Covenant ‘The whole church taking the whole Gospel to the whole world’ for the upcoming Lausanne III Congress in Capetown 2010.

With typical lucidity, Wright unpacks five meanings of ‘world’ in the Bible.

  1. The world of God’s creation
  2. The world of humanity
  3. The world of sin and judgement
  4. The world of God’s salvation
  5. The world to come

The bit I want to talk about in a couple of posts is the link between 1-4 and 5.

Chris Wright is strong on arguing for continuity between this world and the new heavens and new earth.

He argues that it is NOT God’s plan to obliterate this created world, but to ‘purge, purify and renew all of creation’ (Is 65:17-25; Rom 8:18-25 and 2 Peter  3:10-13; Rev 21:1-4).

‘The world to come’ will not be a blank sheet … with all that humanity has accomplished in fulfilment of the creation mandate simply crumpled up and tossed in the incinerator.’

No, this continuity, argues Chris, is more than metaphorical. He suggests that all that a passage like Rev 21:24-7 is best read as saying that the citizens of the new creation will bring with them ‘the accumulated treasures of their civilisations and cultures’. He says

‘I think they {these texts} mean what they say.  The world of humanity, of nations and civilisations – so shot through with sin and pride, with violence and greed … will be purged of all of those things so that that which truly reflects the image of God will remain, for the glory of God and for our everlasting enrichment.’

There sure is strong biblical support for some sort of continuity between ‘this world’ and the ‘world to come’ and I want to do another post reflecting on how far this can be pushed. But certainly, obliteration, incineration or annihilation of this world does not make sense of those texts or of God’s declaration that the creation is ‘good’. Creation is to be redeemed, not destroyed.

So is this how you think of the world to come – a rather physical, recognisable sort of place filled with the best of human culture? And what difference does it make in the here and now how we understand the relationship between ‘this world’ and the ‘world to come’?