28 Jun 2013
Calvin wrote his Institutes as "a key to open a way for all children of God into a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture" (p.7). So it is appropriate that the first chapters are about the role Scripture plays in leading us to a true knowledge of God (and, consequently, to a true knowledge of ourselves, I.i*).
But, from the outset, Calvin is at pains to emphasise that this knowledge of God is not a cold, abstract, theoretical knowledge of God. For Calvin, a genuine knowledge of God is inseparable from piety, by which he means "that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces" (I.ii.1). Knowing God means that we will find our "complete happiness in him" (I.ii.1).
Book I of the Institutes is concerned with the knowledge of God as Creator; the knowledge of God as Redeemer in Christ will be the theme of Book II. This knowledge of God as Creator is that "primal and simple knowledge to which the very order of nature would have led us if Adam had remained upright" (I.ii.1, emphasis added). That is, whereas we all know deep down that there is a God (I.iii), and whereas the universe and the flow of history reveal God to us (I.v), that knowledge of God is "either smothered or corrupted, partly by ignorance, partly by malice" (I.iv). We therefore need the light of Scripture if we would come to know God the Creator (I.vi).
But how are we to know that Scripture is reliable? Not on the basis of the testimony of the church, since the church is "built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles" (Eph 2:20; I.vii.2), and thus the church owes its own authority to Scripture. Nor is it on the basis of rational proofs. Instead, Scripture is "self-authenticated" (I.vii.5) through the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. "For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit" (I.vii.5). That is not to say there are not good reasons "to establish the credibility of Scripture" (I.viii): for example, its majesty, its antiquity, its record of miracles, the fulfilment of its prophecies, and the way it has been received by the church through the ages.
Finally, we should not set Word and Spirit against each other. "God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display, intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it. Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word" (I.ix.3).
(I hope I've not misrepresented Calvin in my summary of these chapters. Some parts were quite heavy going, dealing with the nature of God's self-revelation through our hearts and through his creation, and the way in which that revelation is obscured by our sinfulness. Hopefully things will become a little more concrete in the following chapters!)
* References are given as book.chapter or book.chapter.section, e.g., II.iv.1.
27 Jun 2013
What is it that unites those people who identify as LGBT—or LGBTQIA?
There is really only one conviction that can hold this coalition of disparate human experiences together. And it is the irrelevance of bodies—specifically, the irrelevance of biological sexual differentiation in how we use our bodies.
What unites the LGBTQIA coalition is a conviction that human beings are not created male and female in any essential or important way. What matters is not one's body but one's heart—the seat of human will and desire, which only its owner can know.
How should Christians respond to this?
Christians will have to choose between two consistent positions. One, which we believe Christians who affirm gay and lesbian unions will ultimately have to embrace, is to say that embodied sexual differentiation is irrelevant— completely, thoroughly, totally irrelevant—to covenant faithfulness.
There is one other consistent position that Christians can hold, though we will hold it at great social cost, at least for the foreseeable future: that bodies matter. Indeed, that both male and female bodies are of ultimate value and dignity—not a small thing given the continuing denigration of women around the world.
Indeed, that matter matters. For behind the dismissal of bodies is ultimately a gnostic distaste for embodiment in general.
Read the whole thing here.
(Hat tip to Glynn Harrison.)
17 Jun 2013
I've started (again) to read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. Undoubtedly it's one of the most important books of the sixteenth-century Reformation. Luther had kicked things off in 1517, and the first edition of the Institutes was published in 1536. It was subsequently revised and enlarged several times, with the final edition being that of 1559. (I'm reading that final version neither in Latin nor in French, I confess, but in the English edition of McNeill and Battles.)
It's a book with a dual purpose. First, it was written for those seeking to understand the Scriptures, "to guide them and help them to find the sum of what God meant to teach us in his Word" (p.6) by providing "a sum of Christian doctrine" (p.8). It was meant as a companion to Calvin's commentaries on the various books of the Bible, so that in those commentaries he would "have no need to undertake long doctrinal discussions, and to digress" (p.5).
The second purpose is as a defence of the teachings of the Reformation. The book includes a "Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France", under whose rule some of those spreading these doctrines were being "shackled with irons, some beaten with rods, some led about as laughingstocks, some proscribed, some most savagely tortured, some forced to flee" (p.14), and some had even suffered "the punishment of death" (p.30). Calvin's Institutes were intended to demonstrate that the doctrines of the Reformation were not deserving of such outrage, but were nothing but the doctrines of the historic, orthodox Christian faith, and that it was the Papacy of his day that had departed from this.
I'm planning to write brief summaries and reflections along the way, mainly to help me to digest what I've been reading. The projected outline of those posts is below, and links will appear in due course. (Don't hold your breath.)
I'll also be listening to a series of lectures on the Institutes by David Calhoun of Covenant Theological Seminary (also available on iTunes). (There are plenty of lecture courses available there, by the way, and it's an excellent resource.)
Comments welcome, and don't forget to subscribe to future posts, either using the "Subscribe" link at the top right, or using your favourite aggregator (I'm using Feedly at the moment).
Book One. The Knowledge of God the Creator
- The knowledge of God and Scripture (chapters 1-9, 61 pages)
- God (10-13, 63pp)
- Creation (14-15, 38pp)
- Providence (16-18, 42pp)
Book Two. The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, First Disclosed to the Fathers Under the Law, and Then to Us in the Gospel
- Guilt and original sin (1-5, 99pp)
- Salvation through Christ (6-11, 124pp)
- Christ's person and work (12-17, 71pp)
Book Three. The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow
- The Holy Spirit and faith (1-2, 55pp)
- Regeneration and repentance (3-5, 92pp)
- The Christian life (6-10, 41pp)
- Justification (11-19, 125pp)
- Prayer (20, 70pp)
- Election (21-24, 67pp)
- Resurrection (25, 22pp)
Book Four. The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein
- The church and its government (1-4, 73pp)
- The Papacy (5-11, 145pp)
- Church discipline and vows (12-13, 47pp)
- Sacraments and baptism (14-16, 83pp)
- The Lord's Supper (17-18, 89pp)
- False sacraments (19, 37pp)
- Civil government (20, 40pp)
15 Jun 2013
Allowing myself to dream for a moment. What would my ideal church be like? Here are a few features. What would be on your list?
- Gospel-preaching. My ideal church would definitely proclaim the gospel: the good news that Jesus came to earth, died and rose again to rescue us from sin and death. He didn't come simply to make us feel good about ourselves, or to set an example, but to do something on our behalf that needed to be done and that we couldn't do ourselves. And this is a message to be shared.
- This-worldly. My ideal church would proclaim a message of good news for this world: that God isn't planning to destroy everything except human souls and whisk us away to live in creation 2.0, but that God sent his son to save the world, and to set it free from its current bondage. The message it proclaims would have the implication that everything in life matters more because of Jesus, not less. This world matters. Work matters. The environment matters. Politics matters. Business matters. Education and scholarship matter. Global justice matters. Poverty matters.
- Bible-believing. My ideal church would recognise the authority of the Scriptures, and seek to hear God speaking to us through them.
- Local. My ideal church would have as its most important "distinctive" its location. It would be a church for the area in which it meets. The people in the church would mostly live in that area. And it would be an expression of God's new humanity, by drawing together a disparate group of people who share nothing in common, apart from their belonging to Christ and living in a particular area.
- Connectional. My ideal church wouldn't be an isolated congregation, going about its work with no sense of connection to the wider body of Christ, whether locally, regionally, nationally, internationally or historically. It would express, both formally and informally, its sense of being part of the body of Christ, and its interdependence on other parts of the body, through time and space. It would recognise that it belongs to the holy catholic church.
- Anglican. Here I'm thinking of the English context. My hunch is that the best way to express a comprehensive unity in the gospel is by belonging to the Church of England. It's a hunch about which I have all sorts of reservations and uncertainties, but I still think it's got something going for it. The values above—gospel-proclaiming, Bible-believing, local and connectional—are all present within the Church of England, both in principle, and, to a not-insignificant degree, also in practice.
- Liturgical. There is great value in the historical worship practices of the church, and it's a shame that many evangelical churches do not draw on these resources. There is a deep formative effect of going through particular motions week by week (not "just" going through the motions, of course!). We need rich liturgies to counter the powerful secular liturgies of our culture. We need formation, not just information.
- Sacramental. Not in a sights-and-sounds and smells-and-bells way. But there will be a real sense that as we meet together and do very earthly, ordinary, physical things (like singing and speaking and baptising and sharing the bread and the cup), that God actually meets us, in the materiality of our worship.
- Simple. Having said those things, I think there should be a simplicity about our worship. Life is too busy and over-full and complicated as it is. Our church life should be a breath of fresh air compared with that.
- Confessing. There would be an expectation that everyone in the church (not just the leaders) will believe the essentials of the gospel. This would probably show itself in the corporate reciting of the ancient creeds of the church.
- Eclectic. There are huge and very silly divisions in the church between people who like one kind of music and people who like a different kind of music. My ideal church would not be afraid to draw on the riches that God has given to us in the different traditions of the church.
- Unpretentious. There should be something very ordinary about the church. An "extraordinary ordinariness". My ideal church would reflect this, probably by not being enormous, and not having an extraordinary building, and not sitting on the cutting edge of this or that.
- Serious but relaxed. A church should be welcoming and friendly, but not trivial.
Of course, my ideal church doesn't exist! (And if it does, I would be bound to spoil it if I joined it!) But it's fun to dream sometimes...
(Also relevant is my post on Rethinking the local church: ecclesiology for spiritual reductionists.)
14 Jun 2013
Often when considering the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, the saying popularised by Carl Sagan is quoted:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Now, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead is a pretty extraordinary claim if ever there was one.
Or is it?
The apostle Paul didn't think so:
Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? (Acts 26:8, ESV)
For Paul, the claim that God would raise someone from the dead was really quite an ordinary claim. Of course, that doesn't mean that every claim that someone has come back to life from the dead should be accepted without any investigation. But, if it is perfectly conceivable that God might raise someone from the dead, that does mean that no "extraordinary" evidence is required to establish whether or not a particular person has been raised from the dead. Perfectly ordinary evidence will suffice: evidence that the person was dead, and evidence that the person who is now alive is that same person who was dead.
Extraordinary evidence may be required, but only if the claim can first be established that the resurrection of Jesus is actually an extraordinary claim. And, for me at least, I'm not prepared to accept that claim without some fairly extraordinary evidence to back it up.
4 Jun 2013
How should we proceed? I have come to the view that a more radical reconstruction of the law on marriage would be the right way forward. I think it would meet a lot of the issues raised in the powerful speeches that have been made. We should consider going some way towards the continental version, which has a legal, contractual relationship that is the same for everyone, absolutely without question. Then we could develop different religious understandings on top of that. That may be a bridge too far: the Government thought so when they drew up this rather rushed legislation. Several Members in the other place drew attention to this as the logical outcome of what we should be doing. Much of what we have heard today would potentially be satisfied, amid our society’s many differences, if we separated the legal contract of marriage, which the state establishes as being the same for everyone, and the religious side. I fully accept that that would have implications for establishment but there are unintended consequences of this Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Dear, said, and that is just one of them. It has not been thought out and if we commit this Bill to a Committee, we are almost saying that the Bill can be improved by tinkering: it cannot. What is wrong with it is just too basic. That is why, with the same regrets that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned, I shall be with the noble Lord, Lord Dear, in the Division Lobby.
See my various posts on marriage for some arguments along similar lines.
I think that last bit means he'll be voting
against the bill in favour of Lord Dear's amendment, which would effectively wreck the bill. I don't think it means he regrets having to share a (cramped?) lobby with Lord Dear.
Hat tip: Thinking Anglicans.
29 May 2013
Liam Goligher moved not too long ago from the UK to the USA to become pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
He was asked recently (video below) to compare preaching in the USA with preaching in the UK. He had some cutting comments:
Especially expository preaching in the UK has been reduced to what's described very often as a Bible talk, it's like a Bible class talk, with one main point, an opening illustration, a closing moral application, and this is among the most conservative groups in England. So to come to a church here ... and to have people who actually believe that preaching is a divine act, it's God's speech to his people, gathered in covenant assembly, and they're here to hear from the throne, as it were, from God—that is not a perception or a point of view that you would find at most places in the UK.
Why is that?
In some conservative Anglican circles there has been influence from Australia, from the Australian view that there is no such thing as public worship. So, once you remove the concept of public worship, when the assembly is meeting, when the gathering is there—very often just referred to as "the meeting"—it is for fellowship, maybe for Bible study, mostly for evangelism. ...
[Preachers] don't have any sense that they are the messengers of God. [Preaching] is an entirely horizontal, education means. And that view is now dominant in a lot of conservative evangelical circles in England.
His comments might not be entirely fair, but they do ring true to an uncomfortable degree.
Here's the video (full set of videos is on the Westminster Theological Seminary site):
28 May 2013
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. ... And because of this I rejoice (Philippians 1:12, 18, NIV).
It got me thinking. If Christians were persecuted or marginalised in the UK, might that serve to advance the gospel?
The answer must surely be, Yes, it might! As with Paul, people might well hear about Jesus who otherwise would not have heard (1:13). As with Paul, the rest of the church might well be emboldened through the example of those who are suffering (1:14). And there could well be other beneficial consequences. There would inevitably come to be a clearer distinction between those in the church who truly know Christ, and those who are in it for other reasons, which would surely help the spread of the gospel. And further afield, in those parts of the world that feel threatened by what they perceive to be the Christian West, if they see Christians being persecuted in the West, that might well change their attitude to Christians in their own countries (no longer seeing them as Western infiltrators), which would be enormously beneficial, both to the persecuted believers there, and to the spread of the gospel.
So, in many ways, yes, I think a bit of persecution of Christians in the UK could well serve to advance the gospel.
So should we pray that it would happen?
I don't think so. Persecution is not a good thing, and I don't think we should ever pray that bad things would happen. Moreover, as citizens in something resembling a democracy, we should seek to use the authority that God has given us to preserve religious freedom for everyone. So we shouldn't pray for persecution. But we should pray that the gospel will advance. And if the way for the gospel to advance is for God to allow bad things to happen and then to use those bad things for good, then we should pray that God would work all things together for good, in the way that only he can. Jesus wouldn't have died for the sins of the world if no one had opposed him, betrayed him and crucified him. The gospel wouldn't have advanced as much in Paul's day if he hadn't been imprisoned. And—conceivably!—the gospel might not advance in the UK in our day if our much-cherished religious liberties remain intact.
So what do we want? What would give us the most joy? For the gospel to advance? Or to continue to enjoy a cosy, comfortable life? We might have to choose to pray for one or the other, but not both.
24 May 2013
At my church house group last night we were looking at Luke 15, with the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. Or is it the two lost sons? I was reminded of this excellent talk by Glen Scrivener, which you might like to watch right now...
2 May 2013
No one asked Willem-Alexander what he wanted to be when he was older. When he was born, his grandmother Juliana was Queen of the Netherlands, and his mother Beatrix was heir to the throne. Everyone knew that, all things being equal (which they haven't been for his younger brother), he would one day become King. Two days ago, to be precise.
I was born into a society in which respectable people don't think it is right for someone's destiny to be mapped out at birth. No one asked me if I wanted to be born into that society. Almost from birth, we are bombarded with that question, "What do you want to do?" Most of us don't know what we want to do. Or if we do, we are either made to feel like failures for our lack of ambition, or we sooner or later find that we can't do what we want to do, for reasons that ultimately boil down to the accident of our birth. The destiny we receive at birth, then, is to search restlessly for contentment and a sense of belonging, and never to achieve that. No one asked me if I wanted to be shouldered with that burden.
Still, I don't think I'd want to switch places with someone else. Others, whether kings or those born in poorer parts of the world, may have a sense of identity and belonging—and even contentment—which I can only dream of possessing. But their lives are poorer in other ways.
Whatever role a hereditary monarchy may have in modern Western nations, it does have at least one function. It reminds us that we are all shaped enormously by the circumstances of our birth. And that, in itself, is no bad thing.
23 Apr 2013
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld" (John 20:22-23, ESV).
These verses link together the gift of the Spirit to the church with the authority of the church to pronounce on whether someone's sins are forgiven.
What on earth is this about?
Some might take these words to mean that, when a Christian commits a sufficiently serious sin, they absolutely must make confession of that sin to a minister of the church, otherwise that sin will not be forgiven. However, these words of Jesus (and similar words elsewhere) are certainly not sufficient to establish such a practice, nor do we read of such a thing happening anywhere in the New Testament. Now, it may well be valuable for us to confess our sins to one another, and to assure one other of Christ's forgiveness. But it is difficult to see that as the primary meaning of these words.
Others might take them to mean this, and nothing more than this: that the disciples were commissioned to proclaim that whoever believes in Jesus will be forgiven, and whoever does not believe will not be forgiven. But, if this was all that Jesus intended to convey here, it is difficult to see why he didn't express it more clearly. His words seem much more specific, and seem to give the disciples the role of saying of particular people, that their sins are forgiven, and of other particular people, that their sins are not forgiven.
So what do these words mean?
Jesus' words are a promise. Jesus promises that there will be a correspondence between what the disciples say is the case (in terms of forgiveness) and what is actually the case (in terms of forgiveness). It seems to me that what Jesus is promising here is precisely what we find happening in the book of Acts. On the day of Pentecost, Peter said, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38, ESV), and then we read of 3000 who were added to their number that day. Presumably, given Peter's words, those 3000 were baptised, and their baptism was taken to be a sign that their sins had been forgiven. So Jesus' promise would mean that this sign of forgiveness was not an empty sign, but that the sins of those 3000 people really had been forgiven.
It seems to be the case that, in Acts, people responded very clearly and powerfully to the proclaimed word. People heard the word, responded with faith, received the Holy Spirit, and showed undeniable evidence of that. It was abundantly clear that some people had received forgiveness, and that other people had not received forgiveness. (Take Cornelius and his companions for an example of the former.) Jesus' words, therefore, I take to be a promise that the initial preaching of his word would be accompanied with a powerful work of his Spirit, such that the disciples would be able to declare accurately and with conviction that the sins of certain people had been forgiven, and that the sins of certain other people had not been forgiven.
What about today?
It should be clear that things are not always so clear! There are many in the church, who have received the sign of forgiveness in baptism, who show no evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and who therefore show no evidence that they really have been forgiven. We still administer the sign of baptism, on a credible profession of faith, but it can be many years after receiving someone into the church that it becomes undeniable that the outward sign has been accompanied by an inner transformation (or not!). So might it be the case that, in building his church, there are times when Jesus makes his true church abundantly visible, and times when he allows his true church to be somewhat hidden from view? Certainly in the apostolic age the true church was made powerfully visible. And I'm sure that is also the case today in other situations of persecution or of mission or of revival. But that is not necessarily the case in every time and place.
Perhaps we should be laying hold of Jesus' promise, and praying that, by a work of his Spirit, his true church may become more visible in our own day? The whole creation is longing for such a day, and shouldn't we? "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God" (Romans 8:19, ESV).
16 Apr 2013
I couldn't resist a few more quotes from James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom, this time on the theme of worship:
One of the first things that should strike us about Christian worship is how earthy, material, and mundane it is. To engage in worship requires a body—with lungs to sing, knees to kneel, legs to stand, arms to raise, eyes to weep, noses to smell, tongues to taste, ears to hear, hands to hold and raise. Christian worship is not the sort of thing that ethereal, disembodied spirits could engage in (p.139).
This down-to-earth practice of Christian worship has within it an implicit understanding of the material world and its connection with God:
Implicit in the materiality of Christian worship is this sense that God meets us in materiality, and that the natural world is always more than just nature—it is charged with the presence and glory of God. Thus the very performance of Christian worship cuts against both dualistic gnosticism, which would construe matter and bodies as inherently evil, and reductionistic naturalism, which would construe the world as "merely" natural (p.143).
It is this infusing of the material stuff of creation with the grace of God its Creator that Smith describes as "sacramental". In this sense, the whole world is "sacramental", but in Christian worship, "[t]he sacraments, we might say, are particular intensifications of a general sacramental presence of God in and with his creation" (p.141).
And it is because the whole world is sacramental that God takes up nitty-gritty things like bread and water and wine to function as sacraments, special means of grace (p.141).
I long for a recovery of this sense of the whole created order being "charged with the grandeur of God" (Hopkins), and particularly a sense of Christian worship being that part of the created order in which God most powerfully and tangibly reaches down to us, in word and sacrament.
4 Apr 2013
I finished reading Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith last week. It's a superb book, with a broad theme and a narrow theme.
The broad theme is the question of what drives us as human beings. In many Christian circles, the assumption is that we are most fundamentally thinking-and-believing creatures. We have a worldview, which is a set of our basic beliefs and convictions, and our lives derive their direction from this worldview. We are shaped by our exposure to ideas. So, in order to grow as Christians, we need to tackle false ideas and have our minds informed by solid Christian thinking, to help us to formulate in our minds a coherent Christian view of everything. Smith challenges this, arguing (persuasively) that we are more fundamentally desiring-and-loving creatures. We all have a vision for the good life (or the "kingdom"), and it is our love for that vision that drives us and shapes our lives. We are most deeply shaped, not so much by the ideas we encounter, but by participating in powerful embodied practices ("cultural liturgies"). So, in order to grow as Christians, we need to recognise the cultural liturgies of the world around us (such as the consumerist liturgies that train us, mind and body, to love shopping) and we need to engage in the embodied practices of Christian worship, so that our minds and bodies can be formed in such a way that we grow to love the kingdom of God with all of our being.
It's a powerful and important message with implications for all sorts of things. For more, see my post from September, which contains a video of Smith speaking about this broad theme from his book.
But it's the narrow theme of the book to which I should like to call your attention in this post (despite appearances to the contrary!). This is the theme of Christian education.
What is a Christian education?
Following the "thinking-thing" model for anthropology, a "Christian education" would be an education characterised by Christian ideas and Christian perspectives. Smith's concern is that this may be woefully inadequate:
Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn't actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market? (p.218)
But what might a Christian education look like, if we recognise that people are primarily lovers, rather than (primarily) thinkers?
It will be an educational experience in which Christian formation is central, rather than merely Christian information.
Its goal, I'm suggesting, is the same as the goal of Christian worship: to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being God's image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation—but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus's cruciform cultural labor (p.220).
Smith provides three examples of what this could mean in practice.
- An important role for the university chapel as "a kind of 'mediating institution' between the university and the church" (p.225). "[T]he role of the chapel is not to stir our emotions or merely fuel our 'spiritual' needs; rather, it is the space in which the ecclesial university community gathers to practice (for) the kingdom by engaging in the liturgical practices that form the imagination" (p.224).
- A whole-life rhythm of communal Christian living. This provides an alternative to participating in the powerful and formative secular liturgies of consumerism or of typical undergraduate life. "What if we saw the wider environment of the university as also a space for fostering Christian practices, including liturgical practices? The unique nature of residential higher education provides an opportunity to create intentional communities within the dorms that not only gather for Bible study and prayer but also engage in a range of full-bodied Christian practices, including liturgical practices such as prayerful observance of the Daily Office or 'Divine Hours'. Such intentional community could also include commitments to common meals; Sabbath observance; works of mercy in the neighborhood, weekly acts of hospitality for students, faculty, or those outside the university community; fasting together once a week; worship together at a local parish; a yearly service project; and more. Together these practices would constitute a rich fabric of formation that would nourish the imagination and prime the community for thinking Christianly in their learning and scholarship" (p.226-7).
- Embodied learning. The first two examples haven't touched on the actual teaching that goes on within the university. How might that be affected? Learning needs to move beyond "read and talk" courses to include some embodied practices. For example, while reading philosophical texts discussing hospitality, students could also be given assignments requiring them to engage with the poor, homeless and needy to extend (and receive) hospitality. This kind of learning would be formative as well as informative.
Smith is writing within a North American context, where there are plenty of explicitly Christian universities and colleges. Such things are not so common in the UK, and most Christian undergraduates study at "secular" universities. However, having read Smith's book, I'd like to pose a question: Is it possible to get a 99% Christian education at a secular university? I suspect the answer might be "yes". If a fully Christian education is, say, 95% about formative practices and 5% about Christian ideas and perspectives, then it seems to me that a "secular" university in the UK leaves plenty of space for Christian students to fill their lives with Christian practices (1 and 2 above), to find creative ways of supplementing their "read and talk" studies with embodied learning (3 above), and also to do some "Christian perspective" private study on the side. And maybe this kind of Christian education within the secular university is a better model for Christian engagement in the world than having separate institutions for Christian higher education?
If we really grasp this vision for embodied and formative Christian university education, this could have all sorts of exciting implications not only for Christian faculty, but also for churches, chaplaincies and organisations working with Christian students... Comments welcome!
Finally, I can't resist quoting from the final paragraph of the book, in which Smith touches on the issue of Christian scholarship, linking it with the role of worship in shaping the imagination:
If our theorizing and scholarship are going to be informed by Christian accounts of the world, our imaginations must first be fueled by a vision of the kingdom, and such formation of the imagination takes place in the practices of Christian worship, which carry a unique understanding of the world ("I worship in order to understand") (p.230).
20 Mar 2013
Last year I wrote a post entitled Spiritual reductionism, about a view of reality in which the only things that ultimately matter are God and human souls. I think this spiritual reductionism has a very powerful influence among Christians.
Today I want to ask, If we adopt this spiritual reductionism, then what happens to our understanding of the church? Let me describe what I think happens when this view is taken consistently. (Fortunately, people are not always consistent!)
- The universal church becomes invisible. It no longer matters whether or not there is an identifiable group of people living out God's new creation life on the earth. Our bodies don't matter, and the earth doesn't matter. The only things that matter are God and human souls, and these things are invisible and spiritual. So the universal church is thought of in entirely invisible and spiritual terms. Membership of the universal church is entirely invisible, personal and spiritual. If you are a member of the universal church, you can personally be confident of that. But it is impossible to really know someone else's heart. So it is impossible to know whether or not someone else belongs to the universal church.
- The local church becomes disconnected from the universal church. The universal church on earth is not visible, so "the local church" (as it is called), being a visible institution, is in no sense part of the universal church. It is a category mistake to ask whether a local church is part of the universal church. They are different kinds of things.
- The local church becomes pragmatic. The local church now exists simply to facilitate the growth of believers in their spiritual relationship with God and with each other. A local church is a local community that provides heart-felt worship, good teaching and mutual encouragement so that Christians can grow in their faith. Any connections between local churches exist only to support that goal. For example, they might pool resources, support each other, and plant new local churches. There is no longer any sense that God's ultimate purpose is to have a visible and global community of his disciples on the earth. Local churches are a means to an end, not part of the end in themselves.
- The local church becomes a community of people who may or may not be in the universal church. Since there is no way of knowing for sure whether or not someone is a member of the universal church, it is not possible to structure local church life around the assumption that a certain group of people belong to the universal church and other people do not. (Or, if you do so, it becomes a very select and inward-looking group.) So local churches are ordered such that it is possible to participate in most areas of the life of the local church without giving decisive evidence of belonging to the universal church. And there is no problem with this: if the local church is a pragmatic tool, serving the goal of growing disciples, it will tend to appeal to people who belong to the universal church anyway, and unbelievers may well be drawn to membership of the universal church through their active participation in the life of the local church.
- The beliefs of the local church become the beliefs of the church leaders only. The local church, being a mixed community, cannot profess a shared faith. But the teaching of the local church must be the kind of teaching that helps individual believers to grow. So it is important that the leaders in the local church profess to believe the essentials of the Christian faith (articulated however the local church chooses). This is partly so that individual believers can exercise discernment when they join a local church, and so that local churches can partner together, particularly through joint events and church-planting initiatives.
- The local church ceases to be a professing community. Only the leaders profess to believe what "the church believes". The rest of the people in the local church may or may not believe what the leaders profess to believe, and it would not be a good idea to put pressure on them to make false professions of faith. So it is no longer seen as important for local churches to express their beliefs corporately by reciting creedal statements. And, pragmatically speaking, very few people find that reciting creeds helps them in their personal, spiritual relationship with God, so it is no great loss if they are no longer used.
- Baptism ceases to have any connection with local church membership. Baptism becomes a profession made by the individual believer that they are confident that they belong to the universal church. It is no longer a visible sign that the person belongs to the universal church, because the universal church is entirely invisible, and it certainly doesn't, in any sense, make someone part of the church! The local church has a separate thing called "membership", which is, to be honest, largely a formality about voting in church business meetings. The two are entirely disconnected. Baptism doesn't make you a member of the local church, and not being baptised doesn't disqualify you from membership of the local church.
- The Lord's Supper ceases to have any corporate role. The Lord's Supper (along with everything in the life of the local church) is about supporting our spiritual relationship with God. It no longer has a role in forming and marking out a visible community of God's people on earth. Anyone can partake, if they would like to, whether or not they have been baptised and whether or not they are a member of a local church, and there is little sense that if you take the Lord's Supper and I take the Lord's Supper, then we are expressing any kind of solidarity with each other (unless I know you personally and have some confidence that you belong to the universal church). It is no more a corporate act than eating in a crowded restaurant is a corporate act.
Now, I've deliberately taken this to an extreme, but does it sound familiar?
Is spiritual reductionism causing us to miss out on God's purposes for the church on earth?
(Further reading: The Body of Christ is the Body of Christ, by Peter Leithart.)
16 Mar 2013
In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith describes the mall (shopping centre) in religious terms (see here for a previous post and video). He sees the mall as inviting us to participate in certain "liturgies", which instil in us a certain "understanding of what it means to be really human" (p.94).
The mall has its own strategy for outreach and evangelism, as do many other religions. Through the massive advertising industry we are surrounded with images of the good life, which reinforce in us the belief that if we visit the mall and "worship" by purchasing the products on offer, then we too can have perfect bodies and happy and fulfilling lives.
This is particularly striking when we consider the way women's bodies are portrayed in advertisements and the media in general. Smith mentions the Killing Us Softly documentaries by Jean Kilbourne in connection with this. Here's the trailer for her 2010 documentary, Killing Us Softly 4:
14 Mar 2013
At this time of change for the Roman part of the Catholic Church, it seems appropriate to pray for the whole church on earth: the "church militant" (as opposed to the "church triumphant" consisting of those who have died and are awaiting the resurrection of their bodies at the return of Christ to the earth).
So, in powerful (if somewhat archaic) words from the Book of Common Prayer (1662)...
Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church militant here in earth.
Almighty and everliving God, who by thy holy Apostle hast taught us to make prayers and supplications, and to give thanks, for all men: We humbly beseech thee most mercifully to receive these our prayers, which we offer unto thy Divine Majesty; beseeching thee to inspire continually the universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord: And grant, that all they that do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity, and godly love.
We beseech thee also to save and defend all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governors; and specially thy servant ELIZABETH our Queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed: And grant unto her whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.
Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all Bishops and Curates, that they may both by their life and doctrine set forth thy true and lively Word, and rightly and duly administer thy holy Sacraments: And to all thy people give thy heavenly grace; and specially to this congregation here present; that, with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear, and receive thy holy Word; truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life.
And we most humbly beseech thee of thy goodness, O Lord, to comfort and succour all them, who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.
And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom:
Grant this, O Father, for Jesus Christ's sake, our only Mediator and Advocate.
13 Mar 2013
Violence could become a thing of the past, thanks to a new Nuclear Holocaust app.
Studies of violence in various contexts have shown that, in general, attacks happen only when the perpetrator is confident that the victim does not have adequate means for self-defence. This has been a constant feature of life, with violence occurring when one person has a bigger fist than another person, or a bigger knife, or a bigger gun, or a bigger tank, or a bigger fleet of drones. The new app, which was released today, could put an end to that.
Alec Johnson of the Campaign For World Peace Through Universal Nuclear Armament is behind the app. "It became clear that only when everyone has the same level of protection would it be possible to eliminate violence once and for all. So the app guarantees world peace by giving everyone the same ability to cause the sudden destruction of the entire human race through a nuclear holocaust."
The app connects a person's mobile phone to a global network of nuclear warheads, which are constantly armed and ready to destroy the planet. One click on the red button will cause the weapons to detonate. It is estimated that within 15 minutes the human race would be extinct.
The scheme has been piloted in an area of Memphis, Tennessee, which has seen dramatic reductions in all kinds of violent crime. At first the gangs continued to threaten people with guns and knives, but when they were met with threats of a nuclear holocaust in return, they immediately realised that such violence would be futile. The gangs have now been disbanded, children can play safely on the streets, shops and homes are left unlocked, and the police no longer have any work to do in the area.
"I now feel so much safer," said one participant in the pilot scheme, "knowing that I can trigger a nuclear holocaust if anyone threatens me or my family. It seems that a new era of peace and prosperity has begun!"
Johnson added, "All that it takes for evil to triumph is for the good guys to be inadequately armed. Today marks the final triumph of good over evil."
7 Mar 2013
To deal with a surplus of deer and apples in the UK and an increasing demand for imported venison and apples from New Zealand, the government has announced that 50% of UK deer and apples will be exported to New Zealand and subsequently re-imported to the UK to be sold in expensive restaurants and supermarkets.
Announcing the move yesterday, George Osborne was optimistic that the new trade would provide a much-needed boost to the economy: "The new exports will make basic food products more expensive for the unproductive layabouts in the population, who will then need to take out bigger loans in order to survive, which will transfer yet more wealth to the highly productive financial markets, thus boosting GDP. Moreover, we propose to fly the apples and deer from Heathrow, which will provide a stimulus to the oil and aviation industries, while clogging up the roads, trains and airports, and providing more demand for airport expansion, and new and faster means of transferring people and money from the rest of the country to the City of London, thus boosting the economy still further. We'll sell any excess venison to Romania to be incorporated into beef burgers, thus providing another scandal to boost the newspaper industry while creating a new market for bad jokes about eating deer."
East Anglian farmer Ted Giles expressed his tentative support for the scheme: "You'd have thought it would make sense to sell our apples and deer on the local market, but if the Markets tell us to send them round the world first, then I suppose we'd better do what they say. Don't want to upset the Markets, do we?"
5 Mar 2013
We live in troubled times. Worldwide poverty, environmental degradation, widespread terrorism: the problems are massive and potentially catastrophic. As we face these global crises, is it possible to react with hope rather than despair? Is disaster inevitable and beyond our control, or Is it possible to get under the surface of these issues and begin to see new possibilities for our world?
Hope in troubles times (2007) was written by Dutch professor and former MP Bob Goudzwaard, Canada-based writer and social worker Mark Vander Vennen, and US-based professor David Van Heemst. The bulk of the content comes from Goudzwaard, building on his 1984 book, Idols of our time. The main text (205 pages) is accessible to the general reader, while the notes (35 pages) make it suitable for academic readers too.
The authors' contention in the book is that we find ourselves in the grip of powerful modern ideologies. These ideologies first latch onto a worthy goal (such as prosperity in the face of extreme injustice and poverty, or security in the face of potential attack), then propose a means by which that goal can be reached (such as the operation of free markets, or weapons technology), and then seek to reshape the whole of reality in the service of those means. The means then function something like a traditional idol: we create something, we entrust ourselves to it, and then we find it seems to have a life of its own, demanding greater and greater sacrifices while the good things that the idol promised become more and more elusive.
[V]enerating a certain force or type of knowledge as something that by definition brings prosperity or security implies that in specific circumstances we may be prepared to place our lives under the control of such a power, a power that would not exist without our efforts. At the heart of that transfer of control may be a need for certainty, an urge to feel as though there is a power greater than us that can regulate our lives. It may be born out of fear that we have little or no control over our world. And for some today, following the dictates of the market, technology, or the state may offer that sense of security. But then the ultimate irony, the role reversal characteristic of idol worship, has been achieved: what we ourselves have created ends up controlling us. The instruments must be obeyed, even if they require sacrifices—such as damage to health, deterioration of the environment, the loss of privacy, the threat of unemployment, or the perilous undermining of peace. In principle, every ideology is able to summon its own tools or instruments, either forces or institutions, whose exacting demands elude scrutiny and critique (p.43-44).
Three contemporary ideologies dominate the book:
- Identity. When a group of people have their identity threatened, an ideology can emerge in which the preservation of their identity becomes an absolute end. Violence is employed to secure that end, but violence can become an idol, and there is soon no limit to the amount of violence that can be legitimately used in service of the goal. Examples of this ideology in practice are apartheid, Islamism, terrorism, most conflicts in the world today, and the Israel/Palestine conflict, in which "both sides adhere to a very similar ideology: the preservation of a people's identity and their threatened land" (p.79).
- Material progress and prosperity. In the face of widespread hardship, the operation of the free market is trusted as the saviour from poverty. This can become an idol.
[W]e live, to a greater or lesser extent, in the grip of a powerful, largely Western ideology: the ideology of a restless commitment to unlimited material progress and prosperity (p.93).
Obsessed by an end (rising material prosperity), we have off-loaded our responsibility and allowed various forces, means, and powers in our society (such as untrammeled economic expansion) to become gods who dictate their wills to us (p.28).
In addition, a remarkable sense of fear radiates from these [financial] markets, fear of what they might do to us. The predominant question today is, How do we behave as a corporation or as a nation so that our actions become acceptable in the eyes of the financial markets? The question in and of itself suggests that money and financial markets have taken on a life of their own: a feature of idolatry (p.97).
A remarkable table (p.158) shows how a blind adherence to this "market fundamentalism" has led to a host of undesirable outcomes, as a consequence of an obsession with those sectors of the economy that can increase in efficiency at the expense of those sectors of the economy that are "characterized by virtually fixed levels of productivity" (p.90). So the operation of the free market mechanism has led directly to "unemployment, environmental problems, stress … Increasing need for care; increasing inability to pay … Loss of home markets, increase of poverty" (p.158), and yet the only solution that seems available (particularly to the Coalition government in the UK!) is to sacrifice more and more to the free markets, in the hope that they will give us that prosperity that we long for.
- Guaranteed security. Following the Second World War, it was clear that there was a great need for security. Military power was trusted as the "idol" to give us security. And—particularly in the USA—this has been taken to extremes. The only answer to threats to security is to accumulate more and more weapons. The weapons end up controlling us.
The means take control. The strategy no longer holds the weapons in check. Instead, the progress of weapons technology determines the strategy (p.110).
Even when the accumulation of weapons ends up destroying the very freedom it was supposed to deliver, the answer is still to accumulate more weapons.
Absolute freedom requires absolute force to accomplish, secure, and guarantee that freedom. The end (freedom at all costs) justifies every possible means, including unprecedented force (such as unlimited military power, a profound curtailment of civil liberties, and the violation of international law). The requirements of that force gradually diminish, curtail, and ultimately destroy freedom (p.120).
The outcome is truly hideous.
"The subject matter of this book is hardly uplifting" (p.169), particularly when these ideologies are exacerbated by globalisation, or when they are seen to reinforce each other (as in the global arms trade) or to collide with each other (as in 9/11). What room is there for hope?
Perhaps the greatest opening for hope is simply the unmasking of the idols of our age. They are not autonomous powers beyond our control. We have put them in place, and it is within our power to dethrone them.
[T]he so-called end of our history is by no means in inescapable fate. Today's general feeling of insecurity is actually not a sign that the powers now dominating us are beyond our control. On the contrary, it is a sign that we have abdicated our human responsibility (p.170).
Drawing richly on biblical insights, the authors then sketch out some steps that could be taken towards "widening ways of economy, justice, and peace". They are optimistic that by "turning away from today's steps of despair" (p.178) and by taking even small steps towards hope, it would be possible to counter "today's ominous, devastating spirals of terror" (p.157) and to "launch an upward-moving spiral, one that lifts us from the depths that threaten to engulf us" (p.188).
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says in his foreword to the book,
If apartheid can fall in South Africa, then ideologies of identity, materialism, and security can end too. God is dreaming of a world where all people, black and white, rich and poor, clever and not so clever, are drawn into one family, a world where all of us participate as agents in God's inexorable transfiguration of evil into good. How can we lose? (p.11)
22 Feb 2013
The Green Party is celebrating its 40th birthday this weekend in Nottingham at its party conference. I'll be there (from tomorrow). It will be my first ever political party conference, so I'm quite excited. Here are some of the things I'm hoping to get out of it…
- I've been in the Green Party for almost 18 months, but I still don't feel I really know how the party actually works. I'm looking forward to learning more about that.
- I might even get to vote on things that might even make a difference to what the Green Party does in the future!
- I'm looking forward to meeting other people in the Green Party and learning what makes them tick. I'm sure there will be plenty of fascinating people there.
- I'd like to learn more about how the party sits with respect to Christian faith. On the one hand, green politics seems to fit very comfortably with Christian faith, not least in its care for the world in which we live (and here and here and here). But, on the other hand, the Green Party seems quite anti-Christian on various issues (such as abortion [and here] and a view of human identity that has nothing to do with biological gender, hence the party's strong views on same-sex marriage). It's probably not possible to answer the question of what the party as a whole thinks of Christian faith. But I'd at least like to hear a few individual perspectives, to see if there is anything approaching a general consensus, and to figure out which issues are influenced by this. I'd certainly love to see the party making a more conscious effort to appeal to people of various faiths.
- I'm sure there will be quite a buzz at the conference, and I'd like to pick up some enthusiasm!
- Finally, I've given in to pressure from the surrounding culture, and I now have a (second-hand) "smart" phone. So I'm looking forward to feeling cool by tweeting from my gadget during the conference sessions and adding a few pence (and only a few pence!) to my mobile bill with The Phone Co-op.
Maybe see you there!