Dylan in Dublin 2017

Walked down after work on Thursday evening to the large arena that used to be called the Point. It was a short pilgrim walk to see and hear a sort of sacred relic. That’s meant in the kindest and most admiring way possible.

Saint Bob was in town.

In theological education we are always encouraging students to combine faith and worship with critical thinking. This post is going to err, unapologetically, on the side of uncritical adulation.

I’m not right over there with the Dylan fanatics to whom the great man never can put a foot wrong. But I do love the man and his music.

The arena was sold out. The show was 1 hr 50 and the set list was:

Dublin 11 May 2017

Setlist:

  • (intro) the foggy dew
  • Things Have Changed
  • Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
  • Highway 61 Revisited
  • Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
  • Why Try to Change Me Now (Cy Coleman cover)
  • Pay in Blood
  • Melancholy Mood (Frank Sinatracover)
  • Duquesne Whistle
  • Stormy Weather (Harold Arlen cover)
  • Tangled Up in Blue
  • Early Roman Kings
  • Spirit on the Water
  • Love Sick
  • All or Nothing at All (Frank Sinatra cover)
  • Desolation Row
  • Soon After Midnight
  • That Old Black Magic (Johnny Mercer cover)
  • Long and Wasted Years
  • Autumn Leaves (Yves Montand cover)

Encore:

  • Blowin’ in the Wind
  • Ballad of a Thin Man

Dylan seems at peace. He’s having fun at 75. It was a deep pleasure to be in his company for a couple of hours and to hear those songs.

Roll on Bob.

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Contested Love (5) the deadliest opponent of love?

9780300118308Getting back, eventually, to Simon May’s fascinating book Love: A History.

We are in chapter 7 on ‘Why Christian Love is not Unconditional’

We don’t tend to link thinking about money with thinking about love. They are very distinct things are they not? What has one to do with the other? We assume that wealth, and the things that go with it, are benign, if not actively good. It does not have much to say, one way or the other, about our loves lives does it?

May writes as a philosopher looking in to Christian theology and ethics from the outside. While I don’t agree with some rather sweeping generalisations, he nails the Bible’s warnings about the spiritual danger of wealth and its connection to pride.

Pride destroys our capacity for love. Thus it is the deadliest sin of all.

Jesus’ greatest enemies, he says, are money, pride and hypocrisy. They feed into vanity, greed, selfishness, a lack of concern for others, and a vain morality that pretends to be for the good of others but is about making ourselves feel good.

Love, in contrast, is a determined focus on the good of the other.

“Jesus’ tremendous focus on money and the vices of pride – hypocrisy and self-righteousness – returns us to a central theme of this book: the precondition for love … is submission to the real presence of the other; submission to her individual lawfulness and what she calls on us to do …

And this is why money and the pride and self-sufficiency it fosters, are Jesus’ main target in his prophetic denunciations within the Gospels

… pride and the some of the conditions of wealth-accumulation can be huge impediments. Pride is about self-protection, self-sufficiency, barricading oneself against one’s neighbour, absorption in, or the business of self-esteem, a myopic dedication to one’s own prestige and power that darkness the mind to the reality of others – all attitudes that exclude submission; while the pursuit of wealth necessarily places the impersonal demand of utility at the centre of our relations with those caught up in this ambition – a far cry from the attentiveness that is at the heart of love …

This theme is so overwhelmingly pervasive in Jesus, that May asks this question.

What might your answer to it be ?

Why then has Jesus’ message been so perverted? Why has Christianised civilisation been so concerned with sex, and so much less inhibited by Jesus’ preaching against pride, possessions and power? Whether we are talking about the historical Church, the ‘civilising mission’ of Victorian Britain, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the atheistic embodiment of the deeply religious Russian nation) and its unspeakable vanity of bringing revolution to the whole world, the ‘manifest  destiny’ with which American ‘Anglo-Protestantism’ dignifies itself, or the Christian fundamentalism that gives it such strident voice today – in all these cases intense sexual prudery is combined with ruthless pursuit of power and property, flaunted with the very pride, the very self-congratulatory lording it over others, to which Jesus’ whole life and death are a standing reproach …

He concludes with this stinger.

it is remarkable how often people who seek to civilise the world by force, often in the name of Christianity and with a sense of being guided by God, themselves profess a hierarchy of values so completely at variance with those of Jesus.”

pp. 105-6.

Do you agree – is pride the greatest opponent of love? What else makes the flourishing of love all but impossible?

Contested Love (3) love as the supreme virtue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How convincing do you find this?

What are the essential requirements for love to flourish?

 

Contested love (2) Aristotle

aristotle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas reflection (according to the book of Hebrews)

Rarely included in texts read at Christmas is Hebrews’ distinct and rich contribution to the identity of the incarnate Son. In a sense this is not surprising – compared to John’s magnificent and poetic prologue and Matthew and Luke’s compelling birth narratives, Hebrews’s more unfamiliar imagery is harder to relate to.

Here’s a summary of Hebrews on the incarnation for this Christmas.

Hebrews 1:1-4

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

In these few lines the story of Jesus is beautifully unfolded. God has now spoken through his Son. All previous revelation through the prophets and history of Israel has foreshadowed the coming of the Son.

The Son is described in extraordinary Christological language and accomplishes extraordinary things.

In terms of identity, the writer talks of key moments in the ‘career’ of the Son, not in a neat chronological progression but by moving back and forward between past and present.

Seven things are said of the Son in these few lines:

  1. He is appointed heir of all things by God – when exalted by God after being made lower than the angels for a period of time.
  2. The Son is the one through whom God created the world. The Son therefore existed before engaging in his saving work (not a major theme in Hebrews but important nonetheless).
  3. Ontologically this exalted creator Son embodies the very glory and presence of God himself. Like the dazzling warming rays of the sun are in effect the presence of the sun itself here on earth, so Jesus is the radiance of God. To gaze at the Son is to gaze at God himself.
  4. The Son not only creates but also sustains all things by his powerful word
  5. The Son’s ‘mission’ was to effect the purification for sins (the main theme of Hebrews)
  6. As a result the Son has been exalted to sit at God’s right hand in heaven (a major theme of Hebrews)
  7. He has inherited a name far above that of the angels – he alone is the Son of God (another major theme in Hebrews)

With the Son’s exaltation, Psalm 8:4-6 is fulfilled (Heb 2:5-9)

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor
   and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.  But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

God’s purpose is to exalt and redeem humanity. For this to happen, the preexistent Son has become incarnate, truly ‘one of us’. Humanity’s exaltation is yet to happen. But the author of Hebrews writes to encourage and give hope. The destiny of the exalted Son is the destiny of humanity. He is the pioneer and perfecter of faith – the truly human one who has provided purification for sin through his atoning death. Now crowned with glory, his journey through suffering and death to glory can be followed by those in him.

The author spells out the significance of the incarnation from 2:14ff. Jesus shares in our flesh and blood to break the power of the devil and to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

The Son is “fully human in every way” and this means:

  • He alone can become a merciful and faithful high priest representing humanity
  • He alone can make atonement for the sin
  • As risen and exalted one, he is able to help those who are being tempted because he himself suffered when he was tempted.

This is the astonishing good news of the incarnation according to Hebrews this Christmas – and every Christmas.

Happy Christmas!

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

A good choice that doesn’t matter very much

He’s been a companion for decades, so it feels like news of when something good happens to a friend – congrats on the Nobel gong Bob!

Not of course that he probably cares less (?) or that it needs the artificial exercise of a prize to somehow affirm true greatness 🙂

His catalogue is so rich there is always more to discover and fall in love with – my current one is the epic song ‘Tempest’ about the sinking of the Titanic from the 2012 Album of the same name (his 35th). For some reason I just love playing it for the last 14 minutes or so of a road trip … turned into a little ritual.

dylan