A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (12)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Another of your main themes is that love is inherently interpersonal. You even predicate this of God, talking about the relationships within the Trinity. I remember the famous saying of Vic Furnish that the love the NT is talking about is not like a heat-seeking missile that is attracted to something inherently targetable and likable in the object of the love. I understand what you are saying here, but since we are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves, it seems to me that self-love is presupposed, and that is not interpersonal per se. Right? And that leads me to ask about 1 John 4, is the author really meaning when he says ‘God is love’ that God’s character couldn’t be described that way if God had no one else in the universe to love? Really?

PATRICK: This is an interesting theological question that impinges on worship as well. No, ‘God is love’ whether he has someone else to love or not. While John’s statement that ‘God is love’ is unique in the Bible, it is not as though love stands above all other divine characteristics (see John’s parallel statement in 1:5 that ‘God is light’). It is to say that all that God is and does is loving.

How much we can say for sure about the ‘inner’ workings of the trinity is debatable. As you know a social model of the Trinity has been advanced in different ways by theologians like Miroslav Volf, Jürgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, Cornelius Plantinga and others. It has been popularized by people like Tim Keller in The Reason for God, and before him by C.S. Lewis. It is not without its critics, such as Fred Sanders, Stephen Holmes and Karen Kilby who say it is too anthropocentric – reading human experience ‘back’ into the incomprehensible mystery of the triune God. An example of what they criticize is the use of the Greek word perichoresis to describe the inner ‘dance of love’ between Father, Son and Spirit. I really like that image and talk about it in the book – there’s plenty of talk in John about the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the Father after all. But I accept its limitations and potential problems.

BEN: Let’s deal briefly with some of the hard sayings, like those who do not love do not know God. In what sense is that true? I agree that without God’s love, we could not have or receive salvation— true enough. True enough, we love because God first loved us. But I have to say that I’ve met a lot of persons, for example some of my Muslim and Jewish friends, who know a lot about the Biblical God, and know the Bible often better than many Christians. Yet, I can’t really say that they love God in the way 1 John describes the matter. They don’t really worship God per se, most of them are secular Jews or Muslims. I suppose we could say they know about the real God in ways that are often accurate, but they have no personal relationship with that God, taking ‘to know’ in the deeper relational sense of the term. Does this make sense?

PATRICK: I don’t pretend to know the answer here Ben – I like where you are going though. Clearly very many people who have no Christian faith can and do love in remarkable ways, so I agree with you. It seems to make most sense of lived reality to say that John is referring to a specifically Christ-like love and those who do not know God will not be motivated to love in this way.

But I think John’s point is primarily about love as the visible evidence of an invisible spiritual reality. If I can quote myself (!): “to be in relationship with the God who is love, means that someone will reflect the character of God. Not to love shows that there is no true relationship. The vertical shapes the horizontal. John does not explain how this process works in practice; he simply describes an apparently inevitable implication of knowing the God who is love.” p.110

Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (7)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook

 

BEN: Why you think so many people have mistaken God’s love to mean unconditional tolerance of anything, or as something that is a substitute for obeying God, whereas Jesus says ‘if you love me, keep my commandments’ and that is found in the OT as well?

PATRICK: That’s primarily a cultural and philosophical question. I couldn’t get into this too much in the book but love has a fascinating history. What you describe is the culmination of an evolution of ideas that have become virtually sacred in the West.

I can only recommend Simon May’s Love: A History again here. He’d point to nineteenth century Romanticism as a crucial turning point that continues to exert enormous influence in how we understand love today. A core belief here is that love is unconditional, a spontaneous gift that seeks nothing for the giver, that affirms the loved one in who they are.

The cultural power of such beliefs means, I think, that many Christians have real difficulty in making theological sense of how the Bible consistently ties love and obedience together. I talk in the book about the ‘paradoxical nature of Christian love’ – believers are loved, forgiven and even become ‘friends’ of Jesus their Lord (John 15). Yet, as you note, Jesus is crystal clear that friendship takes the form of obedience to authoritative commands. And his core command is to ‘love one another’. That love can be commanded seems strange to us, perhaps because we too easily ‘reduce’ God to a loving coach enabling us to live our lives better. In researching and writing the book I was repeatedly reminded of the unequal relationship of love between God and his people.

10 suggestions towards responding theologically to the Coronavirus pandemic

M12597 Dept of Health_COVID-19 Poster_For Public Offices AWLast Sunday in church we received a communication about Coronavirus from HQ. It was perfectly commonsensical and useful: consider how to greet one another, especially those on welcome duty (probably not shaking hands). Wash hands and generally be sensible in trying to limit potential for spreading the coronavirus as you meet in community.

This is all fine and good to have the issue acknowledged and basic guidelines set out.

But what might be some distinctively Christian things to say at a time of confirmed pandemic? What theological issues are being raised by potential quarantining of whole countries, wall-to-wall media coverage; limitations to travel; economic crisis; pressure on health services; and heightened vulnerability among the aged and ill?

What to make of wildly divergent estimates of potential numbers of deaths? In Germany Angela Merkel said possibly 58 million people in Germany could get it (70% of the population), while an expert virologist said, based on China, it would be more like 40,000. So, give a death rate of say 2.5% of those who get it and that is a rather large margin of error of between 1000 and 1,450000 deaths!

In Ireland you have health minister Simon Harris say that he takes seriously the possibility that the country with a population of 4.8 million could have up to 120,000 deaths. If the death rate is 2.5% that means everybody would have get the virus (he is obviously working with a worst case scenario much higher death rate).

The maths isn’t the issue and I am not qualified to dispute the figures one way or another. The issue is the massive fear and uncertainty of just how bad things are going to get.

These are just initial sketches written on the train home from work, please feel welcome to add your own suggestions for relevant theological themes.

1. Love your neighbour

From Christianity’s earliest days, it was known as a movement of compassion and care for those in need. Such teaching is embedded in the gospels and in John, James and Paul. Their teaching is in turn rooted in the Jewish scriptures which speak of God’s impartial love for the widow, alien and stranger. Christianity lay behind the development of hospitals and the idea that all people, made in the image of God, are worth caring for.

Such love is costly and other-focused. It is impartial – given to those in need rather than making judgements about who is worth loving. The twist in the tale of Jesus’ story of neighbour-love in the parable of the Good Samaritan is that loving your neighbour means practically caring for your enemy.

As the pandemic spreads, love means considering others before yourself. It sure isn’t panic buying in supermarkets. Obviously self-care is part of this – you don’t want to catch Covid-19 and pass it on. But the pandemic calls Christians to consider how they can prioritise helping the weak, the isolated, the elderly who may not have the resources and physical ability to look after themselves.

2. Do on to others as you would have them do unto you

The ‘golden rule’ should govern all Christian behaviour all the time. As Bob Dylan puts it in ‘Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others) in Slow Train Coming

Don’t wanna judge nobody, don’t wanna be judged
Don’t wanna touch nobody, don’t wanna be touched
Don’t wanna hurt nobody , don’t wanna be hurt
Don’t wanna treat nobody like they was dirt.

But if you do right to me baby
I’ll do right to you too
Ya got to do unto others
Like you’d have them, like you’d have them, do unto you.

As much as possible we are to be responsible for not unnecessarily risking the health of others. Especially if in good health and/or young, we may think there is massive hype after what is probably something like a dose of flu. But Jesus’ teaching calls us to put ourselves in other’s shoes – and those include the slippers of the elderly and those with underlying health issues, especially respiratory.

3. Hope not fear

There’s a lot of fear about. Not only for our health but also economic – and that means jobs and all they represent. There is proper and responsible caution about trying to contain the virus. Already today we are told no indoor gatherings of over 100 people which will stop a lot of churches meeting. And this may be necessary.

But when does concern for health and safety turn into unfounded fear? Fear that becomes corrosive and destructive? Fear than becomes overly self-protective? Fear is not a Christian characteristic. Crisis should reveal Christian virtues of faith, love and hope, not anxiety, selfishness and despair.

4. Pandemic as ‘a school for exercise and probation’ of faith

Eusebuis’ Ecclesiastical History tells of how the early church was known for its sacrificial care for the sick in times of war, famine and plague. This is a description of events in Alexandria as recorded by Dionysius (Eccl Hist XXII)

For the very heart of the city is more desolate and impassable than that vast and trackless desert which the Israelites traversed in two generations … men wonder, and are at a loss to know whence come the constant plagues; whence these malignant diseases; whence those variegated infections; whence all that various and immense destruction of human lives…

… But now all things are filled with tears, all are mourning, and by reason of the multitudes already dead, and still dying, groans are daily resounding throughout the city…

[This pestilence was} a calamity more dreadful to them [the pagans] than any dread, and more afflictive that any affliction, and which as one of their own historians has said, was of itself alone beyond all hope. To us, however, it did not wear this character, but no less than other events it was a school for exercise and probation.

“Indeed, the most of our brethren, by their exceeding great love and brotherly affection, not sparing themselves, and adhering to one another, were constantly superintending the sick, ministering to their wants without fear and without cessation, and healing them in Christ, have departed most sweetly with them.”

Many also, who had healed and strengthened others, themselves died, transferring their death upon themselves … So that this very form of death, with the piety and ardent faith which attended it, appeared to be but little inferior to martyrdom itself.

Among the heathen it was the direct reverse. They both repelled those who began to be sick, and avoided their dearest friends. They would cast them out into the roads half dead, or throw them when dead without burial, shunning any communication and participation in death, which it was impossible to avoid by every precaution and care.”

Compared to this the Coronavirus is pretty mild stuff! The Pope’s call to priests to visit the sick is an echo of such courageous love. Putting others first at risk to yourself is profoundly Christian. It is not every man and woman for themselves, but how as communities of disciples we can look after those in need. Of course the Pope’s call is problematic as to how it would work without risk of infecting the healthy. But its instinct is absolutely right.

Behind such action is a belief that death does not have the last word. Christians believe death has been overcome already in the death and resurrection of their Lord. It has lost its sting and power.

5. The illusion of control

In this excellent article (tks SS) the author, wandering empty streets in Venice, reflects on mortality. Is a subtext of panic in the West about loss of control?

If we can only cling to these totems, if we can only wear these items, if we can only take these precautions, we will be safe — not just from death but from the consciousness of its possibility. We will be, once more, comfortably sterilized; we will exist, once more, in a world in which our bodies are under our control.

The virus has confronted us Westerners – cocooned in our technology, medicine, knowledge and freedom – with our own mortality. My daughter says sometimes that human civilisation is only a couple of short steps away from anarchy and chaos and I think she’s right. We are being reminded that we are not in control – however much we like to think we are masters of events, our lives and even our bodies.

As Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, in the West we like to think we have the medical technology to get out of life alive.

The trouble is life has a 100% death rate.

6. Grace not blame

The illusion of control is closely linked to the blame game. There has to be someone to blame for things going wrong. And so you have xenophobia, racism and verbal and physical attacks on individuals or communities associated with ‘causing’ the virus and threatening ‘our’ way of life. Rather than solidarity, sympathy and help and “there but for the grace of God go I”, there is judgment, fear and hate.

I don’t need to say more here – Christians are called to the former, not the latter.

7. Pray

I liked Ian Paul’s comment that when washing your hands, don’t sing Happy Birthday twice, pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Prayer is bringing our concerns and fears to God in faith and trust. It is asking his blessing on others. It brings us consciously into his presence and re-orientates us to think, talk and act in light of the truth that God is God and we are not.

8. Economics

There has been plenty said on this blog over the years about the destructive myths of hyper-capitalism and the toxic effects of the love of money. But of course a well-functioning economy is crucial for human flourishing. You only need to look at waiters standing in empty squares in Rome to see that the days ahead hold much uncertainty for millions of people in regard to possible recession, closures and loss of jobs.

empty square

There are pastoral and practical responses here for churches to help those effected. There is prayer for those in our church communities in management of businesses and organisations to make wise decisions. There is debate and lobbying of government to use its unique authority and power to help individuals unable to work and businesses to survive.

9. Gaining a sense of perspective

There is a deep modernist narrative to life in the West: expectations of endless growth, freedom, happiness, travel, insurance against risk, comfort, health, low infant mortality and long-life. The pandemic poses a moderate and probably temporary challenge to that narrative. Perhaps in a year it will be all but forgotten.

I have posted about this before, but perhaps this is a good time to reflect self-critically on those expectations. It’s worth reminding ourselves how localised geographically and novel historically our modern expectations are.

infographics_malaria03-25If we lived in sub-Saharan Africa we would be used to death and the fragility of life. See this graphic of malaria, a preventable disease. Annual deaths are 438,000. There are 214 million new cases each year (thks SS).

10. Witness

The job of every disciple, whether in a pandemic or not, is this

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15a)

 

 

 

 

 

The State of New Testament Studies: eschatology

This arrived in the post yesterday.

Publication date is 05 November 2019.

Delighted and humbled to be part of such a project with such an array of scholars.

The book is a fantastic ‘go to’ resource to familarise yourself with pretty well any topic within contemporary New Testament studies.

My chapter surveys developments in the study of New Testament eschatology and how, over the last century or so, eschatology has (rightly) moved from the margins to the centre of New Testament theology.

Key figures discussed along the way include Johannes Weiss, Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, C. H. Dodd, Werner Georg Kummel, Oscar Cullmann, Jurgen Moltmann, Norman Perrin, Margus Borg, N. T. Wright, Brant Pitre, Timo Eskola, James D. G. Dunn, J. Richard Middleton and Richard Bauckham.

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘eschatology’?

Perhaps it evokes some sort of end-times scheme. Or perhaps it raises questions likeWhat happens when I die?’; ‘What is heaven?’; ‘What about judgement?’ ‘What does it mean to have a resurrection body?’ ‘What will the new creation be like?’

While these are certaintly important and pastoral eschatological questions, they tend to relegate eschatology to the future rather than of relevance to the here and now.

Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to eschatology. My argument is that there is no area of Christian theology that is more relevant to Christian living in the present.

So the focus of the chapter is broader, looking at how, as Jurgen Moltmann famously said ‘Christianity is eschatology’. Here’s a snippet.

Particularly post-Moltmann, and reinforced by Bauckham, the renaissance of eschatology is characterised by a recognition that it represents the spine of early Christian faith, giving the rest of the skeleton support, shape and ability to function. Without it, the entire body collapses. Such eschatology is intrinsically particular; right across the New Testament it is relentlessly Christological, focused on the person, resurrection and enthronement of Jesus. (249-50)

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (1)

The B word. It didn’t even exist a short while ago and now apparently it’s one of the most spoken words in the English language. It’s pretty well impossible to get through a day without it intruding. And as we approach 31 October that cacophony will rise to a crescendo.

I haven’t said much on this blog about Brexit (in fact I haven’t had time to say much on this blog full stop). It’s not because I’ve got my head stuck in the sand and don’t follow the news (I do – rather too much probably, it is an addictive soap-opera-horror-show on both sides of the Atlantic).

The reality is that it is not obvious how to articulate a ‘Christian’ response to Brexit.

If you were to preach or teach about Brexit, what would you say?

Those that confidently pronounce judgement that leaving is a disaster or mock the stupidity of the entire Brexit fiasco sure have plenty of ammunition, but such responses don’t take us very far apart from maybe feeling better about ourselves. I freely confess that much of my response to the unfolding ‘debate’ in London and the catastrophic ‘leadership’ from the Conservative Party from Cameron, to May to Johnston is a gut reaction to an entitled, arrogant, destructive, narrow sort of English nationalism that, as an Irish observer, presses every one of my red buttons. But that isn’t a very good basis for a mature theological reflection! It is no good misusing the pulpit as a platform for one’s own political opinions and prejudices.

An alternative approach is to step back from partisan politics and issue general appeals for tolerance and civility in public life and particularly against whipping up fears for populist political ends. While important in our increasingly fragile political environment, there is nothing particularly Christian in this. Indeed, there is little distinctively Christian in most arguments I’ve heard from Christians and church leaders either for or against Brexit. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. The debate revolves around complex issues of economics, national sovereignty, trade, immigration and law, untangling those is proving to be well-on-nigh-impossible practically, let alone theologically. Reasoned Christian responses to Brexit tend to revolve around analysis of such issues and therefore largely mirror reactions in the media and wider society.

A digression – I’m reminded here of this exchange in between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll’s, Through the Looking Glass (p. 364.) A key reason behind the fiasco is that over three years after the Referendum, no-one is still sure what the word ‘Brexit’ actually means. Different factions fill the word with whatever meaning that best suits their interests.

http://sabian.org/images/lg29.jpg

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

A third response is to say nothing. Now I have some sympathy with church leaders who have not preached about Brexit (and I have not heard a sermon addressing Brexit – have you?). What do you say, for example, if your congregation in England or Northern Ireland is split down the middle just as the Conservative and Labour parties are?

But saying nothing is inadequate. Like it or not, Brexit has become a defining moment that will shape politics and society in the UK, Ireland and Europe for the foreseeable future. It requires theological engagement, so what follows is some ‘thinking out loud’ towards that goal.

The title of this post asks what is an Anabaptist view of Brexit. As I have often said on this blog over the years, I am an Anabaptist at heart. Researching, writing about and teaching the New Testament only continues to confirm those sympathies. So the next post will try to sketch some principles for thinking about Brexit through an Anabaptist lens.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Message of Love is on its way!

9781783595914

Delighted to announce that The Message of Love will be out in September. You can pre-order your copy now before it sells out!!

Seriously, I won’t be pushing the book on this blog apart from this announcement and maybe a couple of posts when it comes out.

Few things are more boring than an author obsessively banging on about their book.

So excuse me this post and then we will move on.

It has taken up weekends, evenings and holidays for the last couple of years or so, so it’s exciting to see publication in sight.

I’ve loved writing about love. For me, the book effectively turned into a biblical theology of Christianity.

It did not start there but that is where it feels like it finished.

By ‘biblical theology of Christianity’ I mean it engages with the great core questions at the heart of the Christian faith. That theology emerges via exegesis, discussion and contemporary application of 17 individual key ‘love texts’ in the Bible.

The sorts of issues are listed below. They are not a table of contents but some of the theological themes that surface along the way.

Who is God and what is he like?

God’s love for his people Israel – unbreakable covenant love, judgement and forgiveness.

God’s just love for the poor and marginalised

The love of the Father for the Son

God is love

God’s great love shown in Jesus Christ

God’s love poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit

Human love for God

Wholehearted love for God – heart, soul, strength

The cost of discipleship love

Love and worship

Love and obedience

Love for one another

The difficult discipline of love as a foretaste of the future

Enemy love

Love, freedom and the Spirit

Erotic Love: sex, the body and desire

Love and Marriage

Misdirected love: the love of money

Every chapter has discussion of implications for how the ‘Bible Speaks Today’.

The more these themes came into focus, the clearer it became how and where a biblical theology of love confronts and contrasts with how love is understood in the twenty-first century West.

Overall, the book discusses how the Christian faith is effectively a beautiful vision of a flourishing life together. 

But it also asks some hard questions.

If God’s people are called to love and worship a God who is love, what does that look like in churches? In how Christians treat opponents? In a culture where the church is often seen as opposed to love rather than the embodiment of it?

If love describes God’s character, his dealings with his people and his attitude to the world; if love is the ultimate goal of his redemptive work and is heartbeat of the Christian life and future hope; if churches are to be communities of other-focused love – what challenges does this pose to churches today?

To you and I?

Where do we need repentance and renewal? What is the connection between love and mission?

That hopefully gives you a flavour of what The Message of Love is all about.

A couple of encouraging endorsements are in from NT scholars Scot McKnight and Ben Witherington.

Press Reviews

For close to two decades I have studied both how the Bible presents love and how Bible scholars have expressed that presentation. Luminaries like James Moffatt and Leon Morris, from two considerably different traditions, have become standard treatments but I found both coming up short for different reasons. No one will ever offer the final word on what the Bible says about love, but I know of no volume that is as thorough, sensitive to context and contour, as Patrick Mitchel’s sparklingly clear and faithful exposition of how the Bible presents love, how in fact the God of love loves the world and the people of God in Christ. This will become a standard text for my classes on New Testament theology.

Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois, USA

Oddly enough, it has been decades since a really good study of love in the Bible has appeared. Finally, we may now thank Patrick Mitchel for remedying this oversight in The Message of Love. There is a reason that Jesus said that the great commandment has to do with love, and Paul said love was greater than even faith and hope. It is because God himself is love, it is the essence of his character, and Mitchel in this book lays out for us how that is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Highly recommended.

Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary, USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musings on beauty, Barth, buildings and blessed hope

IMG_9923

Had a wonderful hike up Slieve Donard over the bank holiday weekend. Can’t say it was easy (getting on you know) – after rather a lot of huffing and puffing there were fantastic views to enjoy – including the best golf course in the world (last photo).

When have you last heard a sermon on beauty? Or read something on the relationship of beauty and theology? There were a lot of people on pilgrimage up Donard – all doings something physically demanding in order to experience beauty. There is something compelling about beauty – humans are drawn to it and go to literally great lengths to see a beautiful place.

Within the evangelical Christian tradition in which I grew up, live and work, beauty has tended to be neglected. There are probably a few reasons for this. Four come to mind, and these are simply musings, feel free to add your own reasons.

And if it is the case that beauty is marginalised within our lives, our theology, our churches – what might be some ways to recover an appreciation and experience of beauty? Beauty can be found in many places, not just a mountain top experience. Where do you find, and take time to appreciate and perhaps create, God-given beauty?

1) The Revealed Word versus Natural Theology

Christianity is a religion of the Book. Christians believe God has revealed himself in his written Word which therefore has authority above any other source of revelation.

No-one was a fiercer opponent of any form of natural theology (the idea that God can be in some way known outside his self-revelation in Jesus Christ the Word of God) than Karl Barth. His great ‘NO!’ to natural theology insisted that there could be no such thing as ‘theology from below’. Its fatal weakness is to open the door for human hubris to reinvent God in our own image.

Barth was in the midst of a fight against classic liberalism and its utter failure to speak out against the rise of national socialism. I am no Barth scholar but he may have softened his views towards the end of his life. But the point is Barth was essentially right. No natural theology can ‘reach God’. Without revelation we end up turning ‘God made beauty’ into ‘beauty is God’.

The Christian gospel is essentially mysterious, surprising, scandalous and apocalyptic. It can only be revealed by God in his Word and through his Spirit, never discovered in and through human reason – whether through the physical creation or beauty of mathematics (I’m told maths is beautiful and wondrous but have to take others’ word for it!) or whatever other forms of natural theology.

IMG_9930

2) Suspicion of beauty: musings on church architecture

But, I wonder, has the flip side of the supreme authority of the revealed Word been an overly suspicious attitude to beauty within much post-Reformation Protestantism?

As if beauty is, at best, a secondary distraction and, at worst, a pathway to idolatry and worship of the created world rather than its creator?

Take the Reformed Tradition of which I am also a part (Presbyterian). The theology of the Word is reflected in the architecture of its churches. The early Presbyterian churches in Ireland were stark ‘meeting houses’ – and most churches today remain plain and simple. The pulpit and the Word is what matters. There is, I think it fair to say, deliberately not much a tradition of the beautiful in the design of Irish Presbyterian churches.

Or take another strand within evangelicalism – that of culturally adaptable communities who deliberately eschew ‘churchy’ buildings, imagery and symbolism in favour of modern pragmatic facilities which, with the best will in the world, are hardly ever beautiful.  Beauty, within such pragmatic utilitarian theology, is simply not ‘useful’ and therefore effectively unimportant.

As I’ve gone on as a Christian I find I desire and appreciate beauty more than I used to. Beauty has the power to draw us into the presence of God beyond the world which we can control and manipulate. Dismissing beauty, or seeing it as an optional ‘add on’ to what really matters, seems to me to deny something essential about God, the creator of beauty. And, as a result, such spaces fail to inspire or draw our hearts towards him in wonder and praise. Rather, they can merely echo the narrative of our pragmatic, utilitarian and relentlessly ‘this worldly’ capitalist culture.

3) Dualism

A third reason for the marginalisation of beauty is the legacy of the Enlightenment. As Descartes’ dictum, ‘I think therefore I am’, unfolded historically, the elevation of reason promoted a type of dualism between the ‘higher’ mind (reason) and the created order. This sort of Cartesian dichotomy impacted Christian theology in spirituality that neglected the physical world – including the body and the affections.

To be fair, such dualism has a much longer legacy than the Enlightenment – one of Augustine’s negative legacies is still felt in his neo-platonic linking together of sex and sin for example.

Regardless of how exactly these influences developed, my point is that Christianity has a long and an ongoing struggle with dualism. Deliberate focus on and integration of beauty within Christian theology and practice can act to overcome such dualism. God has created us with minds, hearts and bodies and calls us to worship him holistically using all our God-given senses.

4) Sin and the Fall

A fourth possible reason for Christian ambivalence towards beauty is the doctrine of the fall. This world is broken. Sin, death and injustice stalk creation, which itself, Paul tells us, groans for liberation from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:21). Wrongly understood, the brokenness of creation can lead to an anti-worldly theology of escapism – where there is little of value to be redeemed here. Our main task is to ‘get the hell out of here’ and not get too entangled with temporary marginal distractions like pleasure, beauty and the joys offered by the material world.

IMG_9925

Towards a Christian integration of Word and Beauty

God is an artist.

The fact that we live in a wondrously beautiful world tells us that beauty is a creation of God. All beauty derives from him. The universal human desire for beauty points us to how we are created with a sense of wonder to appreciate, enjoy and create beauty. The Psalms are full of this link between appreciating the beauty of creation and the worship of God.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

Psalm 19:1-6

Yet the next verse of the Psalm continues

The law of the  Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The beautiful world is never detached from the beautiful Word.

As someone who ‘deals with’ the Bible every day, the more I study it the more I am struck by its beauty. It is a magnificent work of art as well as God’s inspired Word. Each book is a remarkable literary work in its own right. Overall, at heart it is a story that overflows with images, symbols and themes that draws readers into a magnificent drama of divine goodness, beauty and love versus all that would corrupt and destroy.

In the New Testament we are even told that it is in and through Jesus Christ that ‘all things were made’ (John 1:3; Col. 1:16). It is this beautiful creation that is in the process of being redeemed by its triune creator.

The new creation will be a place of unimaginable beauty (Rev 21-22). What is the image of the new Jerusalem but a vision of perfect beauty in which God dwells with his people? The future outcome of this drama is a restored creation in which love, beauty, worship and goodness flourish in all their all fullness.

All this means, I suggest, is that Christians should be people above all others who love and appreciate beauty.  A Christian theology of beauty integrates Word and world, creator and created with hope. Beauty points us to God himself in thankfulness and praise.

Not saying you have to climb a mountain to experience beauty! But why not take time out to search out, experience, create, appreciate and share beauty wherever you are.

Thus endeth the sermon

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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