Wednesday, 31 December 2008
Jesus was a man – perhaps surprisingly, no one has yet suggested that, on that point at least, the Bible got it wrong. But why did God choose to become incarnate as a man rather than a woman? Theologians have given various answers, but until recently, they've mostly gone with Aquinas who said that: “because the male excels the female sex, Christ assumed a man’s nature.” Both conservative and post-Christian feminists have often, as a result, assumed that the language of maleness and hence of patriarchy are inextricable from the biblical text. Uh oh.
"Antifeminist” and “post-Christian feminists” share some assumptions. They tend to assume that religious symbols are unchanging through historical theology and through the biblical texts, so that words like “father” have a static meaning, that our understanding of the differences between genders are unchanging throughout history and that gender symbolisms are always connected to biological sex. All of these assumptions are problematic – actually, biblical texts and the writings of theologians are often happy to use a whole range of sexed images when talking about God, sometimes in deliberately contradictory ways in order to disrupt the idolatrous idea that God is male or female.
The Application: Blood and Defilement
Can we find the feminine in the story of Christ, then? The cross is a good place to start. Traditionally, the piercing of Jesus' side and the outflow of blood and water has been read as an image of the crucifixion as childbirth (that is, Jesus giving birth to the Church), and the blood of Jesus poured out as feeding us, connecting Jesus' body with the female body. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, women were seen as much more physical than men, and while this was often used to argue that they were rubbish, it also meant that they were seen as closer to Christ, the physical side of God.
In the medieval period, it was generally assumed that everyone was male in one sense (see [link] Aristotle on the female as defective male), but female in another sense, because the soul was always seen as female in relation to God (this is probably where CS Lewis gets it from). Jesus was often discussed using female language because the physicality of mothers – bleeding, feeding, and giving birth – was connected with his saving role. The imagery of blood, death, food, birth and milk is often found in various places in the New Testament.
But what, then, do we do about the Levitical emphasis on blood as a source of uncleanness and defilement, which often excludes women, as the more bleedy gender, from the holiest places and greatest closeness to God? Let's take the story of Jesus' healing of the woman with irregular bleeding, which goes with story of Jairus’ daughter being raised from the dead. Both stories deal with issues of defilement and death, of fertility and new life. Jesus restores fertility and wholeness – a new creation. The impurity that comes from bleeding isn’t because bleeding is sinful, but because of the holiness of blood and birth and life. Women are excluded by bleeding which should be to do with fertility but doesn't yield life (e.g. menstruation). Early Christian legend and art identifies the bleeding woman with St Veronica who wiped Christ's brow on his way to Golgotha: there's a parallelism between the cloth of Christ’s garment, which stopped the flow of the woman’s blood, and Veronica’s cloth which stops the flow of Christ’s blood. As woman’s flow of blood is stopped and her fertility restored, so Christ’s flow of blood is turned from death to “new life.”
Thursday, 18 December 2008
Sorry. Let's talk about Laqueur. He's interested in the way we understand the difference between men and women. Contemporary writers have often distinguished between sex (the biological difference between men and women) and gender (the culturally constructed roles we assign to men and women). Laqueur's basic argument is that it's more complicated than that, and he traces the history of the different ways people have understood sex in order to argue that the way we see biology is inextricable from our culturally constructed ideas about what it means to be men and women. He writes about three different ways of understanding the male/female difference: the ancient one-sex model, associated with Galen; the ancient two-sex model, associated with Aristotle, and the modern two-sex model.
Galen's idea (Galen was one of the earliest doctors) was that there's basically only one sex, and that women aren't fundamentally different to men but are just weaker versions of men. Part of the reasoning behind this was the idea that female genitalia were just the inverse of male genitalia, which came from the physical similarities between them: so the ovaries were roughly equivalent to the testes and the vagina to the penis (if you draw it right, it does look a bit like and inside-out penis). His idea was that men were hotter than women (temperature-wise, that is), and the greater heat in their bodies pushed their genitals out, and also for the fact that they were, generally, better. It also meant that the boundary between male and female was fluid, and men were always threatened with the danger of becoming female (so had to make sure they acted sufficiently bloke-ish to avoid this), and that if girls behaved in inappropriately male ways, they might become men (Laqueur relates some funny folk tales about girls acting like boys and then - whoops! - a penis suddenly appearing).
Aristotle, on the other hand, advocated a model which saw men and women as essentially different. He associated men with soul and reason, and women with matter and physicality. In his biology, it was the sperm which gave life, and women were just the receptacle. His account is less funny, but no less misogynistic. Are you starting to see now how we read culture into biology?
Laqueur's main point is that, around the 18th century, a new model for understanding the male/female difference emerged. It saw men and women, for the first time, as "opposite sexes". This was very much related to new discoveries in biology, though these too were very much culturally interpreted. For example, around this time the first drawings of the female skeleton emerged. No one had bothered to draw a female skeleton before, because everyone had assumed that male and female skeletons were pretty much the same, but now people became determined to find the differences because they became convinced (before the emergence of any evidence that would force this view) that men and women we completely different in every part of themselves. For a while, it was thought that women's skulls were smaller, suggesting (naturally) that women were stupider. Then it emerged that, proportional to their bodies, women actually had larger skulls. Aha! said the scientists. We all know who else has a big skull proportional to their body - children! Women, then, must be childlike - i.e. stupider than us. Nice. It was this sort of reasoning which led to the study of racial differences in biology, an interest which waned in popularity since - I wonder why?
The key point is this, though: science is never culturally neutral. It always interprets, and can never be fully disentangled from ideology and prejudice. What's the difference between men and women? Now there's a question. Maybe we'll come back to it later.
Monday, 8 December 2008
Sunday, 7 December 2008
Montanus started causing problems in the mid-2nd century in the Asian church. According to the sources (unlike many early heresies, we don't have anything written by the Montanists to tells us what they thought, so pretty much everything we know about them comes from people who disapproved of them), Marcion was a recent convert who, wanting to be important, "let the devil in" and started prophesying: "moved by the spirit he fell into a state of possession...and abnormal ecstasy, insomuch that he became frenzied and began to babble and utter strange sounds, that is to say, prophesying contrary to the manner in which the Church had received from generation to generation by tradition from the beginning." He began to attract a following, including two women who also began to prophesy.
The local church got together and decided that Montanism was decidedly non-U, what with its "new fangled" teaching (isn't "fangled" just a brilliant word?) and "madness of the soul." They were kicked out. With them, at some point, went Tertullian, one of the early defenders of Christianity who started off as part of mainstream Christianity and subsequently went off with the Montanists.
Self harm, drugs, and rock'n'roll
So, what was the problem with Montanism? It could be simply that the claim to prophesy was at this point in the church's history considered beyond the pale. However, it looks to me like there are two things in particular that might have been the root of the church's problems with Montanism. First is the manner of the prophesying. An anonymous source talks of the frenzy, babbling and ecstasy of the Montanists' prophecy. This sounds a lot like the sort of prophesying common to the Ancient Near East, but generally not so popular with Christians and Jews. Prophets would whip themselves up into a state of ecstasy, often using music, drugs, or even self-harm to enable them to achieve this, and then go on to prophesy. You find this sort of prophecy in the biblical story of Saul's prophetic frenzy and the prophets of Baal when they have a competition with Elijah to see who can call down fire. In contrast, most biblical prophecies seem to be delivered by people who are rather more compos mentis. So that's one possibility.
The other possibility is that Montanus was claiming to have either new revelation from God or new and authoritative interpretations of traditional teachings. He was prophesying before the formation of the canon of Scripture, and may have been one of the factors prompting the church t come up with an official list of authoritative books in order to rule out new and unorthodox teaching.
Interesting questions, then, for the charismatic/Pentecostal churches: what are the limits of acceptability in terms of prophecy? Where is the border between biblical prophecy and more suspect altered-state prophecy? To what extent is it possible/desirable to create a particular atmosphere/mental state among Christians in order to facilitate hearing from God (particularly, where does music cross the line from helpful to dodgy)? How do we balance prophecy with the teachings and traditions of the Church? Try it: ask yourself or your favourite Pentecostal, "Are you a Montanist?"
Friday, 5 December 2008
Brueggeman identifies five things that we see at this nullpunkt, this turning point in Israel's history, where they are caught between exile and homecoming; chaos and new creation; complaint and praise:
- The turn from exile to homecoming is lyrical, imaginative, and exuberant. Israel is expectant, but it doesn't know exactly what the future redemption will look like. Their hope isn't reasonable, controlled or precise, but wildly exuberant and creative.
- Israel’s imaginative exuberance about the future it will receive from Yahweh is informed and shaped by Israel’s memory of his previous generosity and fidelity. The images of exodus, creation, the promised land all shape how Israel thinks about its future.
- This way of imagining the hoped-for future, that transposes remembered miracles into anticipated miracles requires a way of thinking that is open to a myriad of images, figures, and metaphors. No single image is adequate because reducing hope to only one image would turn lyrical expectation into description and prediction, something Israel will not and cannot do.
- Israel won't and can't give a precise definition of what they are hoping for, but at the same time insists that their hope is about real life in the real world. Because their hope is for the real world, to hope doesn't mean simply to wait around until God acts, but to live in a countercultural way that challenges and subverts their existing sociopolitical situation.
- Israel's hope is theocentric, Yahweh-centric. It isn't something they can bring about themselves, but something which they hope and trust that God will do.
Thursday, 27 November 2008
So, he set about drawing up a theology that gave a more important role to the work most people do, most of the time. At the heart of his theology of work is something Miroslav Volf said:
"The significance of secular work depends upon the value of creation, and the value of creation depends upon its final destiny”The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work picks up on a common theme amongst environmentally-minded theologians: the new heavens and the new earth. The new Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22 isn't a brand new creation ex nihilo, but the old creation, renewed, restored, and transformed into something beautiful. It's a city – not the natural garden of Eden, but the ultimate symbol of human culture – and “people will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” Cosden, amongst others, takes this to mean that the the good things of human work and culture will have a place in the new heavens and the new earth. Our work matters, because it will last.
He makes five main points about our work:
- We are co-workers with God. To be human is to be called to built, to make, to shape the world through our work. As Adam (adam in Hebrew) tilled the earth (adamah) from which he came, so we in our work work on ourselves as well as creation, shaping both humanity and the whole creation in ways which will endure eternally. God invites us in our work to be his co-creators.
Work is important, but it isn't everything. We mustn't forget the Sabbath, the principle of rest.
We were made to be physical images of God. Our physicality isn't a result of the Fall, and we don't need to feel bad about being physical beings. We weren't created as finished products, and part of the process of becoming finished is our work on the physical world.
Work isn't yet fully redeemed. The world is still broken, as our we: the work we do will always be ambiguous and imperfect, as well as boring and frustrating, but just as Jesus' hand still bore the mark of the nails in his post-resurrection body, so even the partial goods we create can be transformed and made beautiful.
Work is already redeemed. Frustration and decay aren't the whole picture: we live between the resurrection and the ascension. The Holy Spirit in us enables us to imagine a new creation, and to work to begin the process of building it, right here, right now.
Good, eh? And after all that talk of work, I think I'll go and do some.
Tuesday, 25 November 2008
Jurgen Schmurgen, as we shall call him, is a German (another one) Protestant theologian. He's still alive, which seems weird to me, though maybe only because recently I've mostly been reading old dead dudes. He wrote a lot about eschatology, including an article called Liberating the Future in a book called Liberating Eschatology. In it, he argues that the modern western world tends to have two visions of the future: one, that we're progressing towards a golden age where everything is wonderful, and two, that everything's getting worse and the end is surely nigh. This leads to two tendencies: the conservative, where because we think everything's getting worse, we want strong discipline in the state, the church or the family to hold back the end, and the progressive, where our vision of the future is of continual expansion of technology and ideas, without anything really changing (see, for example, Fukuyama's The End of History, which argues that capitalism is the last great idea, and we can't really go anywhere new from here).
Nihilism: it's hardly an inspiring choice, and Moltmann argues that in a world where we lack alternative visions of the future, we badly need Christian eschatology to liberate the future with the hope of something better. He offers three guidelines for "hope in action", which he says have emerged from recent ecumenical discussions:
1) The Anticipation of God's Future. This means that instead of buying in to the miserable alternatives modern thought offers us, we should let our lives be shaped by the hope of God's promised future.
2) God's preferential option for the poor. A favourite theme of liberation theology, this means that not only is God on the side of the poor, the weak, and the oppressed, but that it is among these marginal people that we really find Jesus. If the Church just cares for the poor, it becomes an accomplice of the society that oppresses them; if it just speaks out against injustice, no one listens: the Church needs to work with and speak for the poor.
3) Correspondance and contradiction in history. The Kingdom of God is and is not present and able to be made present in the world. The Kingdom of God is involved with, for example, the fight for fair prices for coffee traders; but fair prices for coffee traders aren't in themselves the Kingdom of God. Politics should be both a parable and a preparation for the Kingdom of God, which we can never fully bring to earth ourselves.
Wednesday, 19 November 2008
"produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region."Musical farting: symbol of redeemed humanity. Who knew?
Alison argues that there are two ways we can see humans and their desires. The first he identifies as a traditional Protestant view, which is that all humans are sinful right through, in every part, so much so that what they need from salvation is to scrub out the whole of their pasts and start again from scratch. Nothing of who they were before salvation can be redeemed. Whether or not anyone has taken this extreme position (and I'm probably caricaturing a little myself), it's definitely a tendency that you see in various theologians/theological traditions. The alternative is to see humans and their desires as essentially good, albeit distorted by sin. This view sees sin less as a virus which hopelessly contaminates everything it touches, and more as basically good intentions directed to the wrong ends - sin as missing the mark. In this view, salvation isn't about scrapping everything and beginning again, but about slowly untangling and unbending our muddled up desires, reorientating them towards right ends and thus enabling us to flourish.
In the first view, because the world is so screwed up, we can't really look to it to find out what is right - we just have to trust the commandments we find in the Bible. In the second view, the world reflects, albeit in a somewhat distorted way, the nature and intentions of God, and so we can learn from it: if things we thought were commandments seem to inhibit human flourishing, we can reassess whether they really are commandments, and whether we've been reading them right.
Within the second view, there are two possibilities for understanding homosexuality. We can see it as being basically wrongly directed (so the fact that our desire is directed to people of the same sex is a sign of its brokenness), or we can see it as fine, but distorted by sin in the same way that everyone's sexual desire is (so it's fine to fancy people of the same sex, but sin means that good desire is a bit twisted and so tends towards selfishness, jealousy, cruelty etc). Is it the object of desire itself or just the way the desire works out in we broken humans that's the problem? Is homosexuality redeemable, or is it "objectively disordered" like, say, kleptomania? We have studied kleptomania and have come to see where it comes from, what good desires it's a distortion of, and how people can be helped out of it into lives of greater flourishing. Alison argues that, if the Church is to continue to assert that homosexuality is simple "a severely defective form of heterosexuality" then it needs to "produce regular and sustained witnesses to heterosexual flourishing emerging without violence from the life stories of people who had assumed they were gay on something like the same scale as there are regular and sustained witnesses to gay and lesbian flourishing emerging without violence from the life stories of people who had been taught that they were heterosexual." Ouch.
Sunday, 16 November 2008
One of his better known ideas is that of "anonymous Christians", which I'll attempt to explain below, and which pops up later in various other theologians' works, including some of the liberation theologians (see below). Most of what I know about this comes from his Foundations of the Christian Faith, in case you're ever tempted to read it for yourself.
Rahner argues that because of the Incarnation, the two greatest commandments to love God and love your neighbour are united: love of neighbour becomes love of God. To fully accept humanity becomes to accept the Son of Man, because in him God has accepted humanity. To love your neighbour becomes fulfilment of the law, because God himself has become our neighbour.
For this, among other reasons, Rahner answers the question of other religions and their relationship to Christianity with the idea of anonymous Christianity. If we are to say that Jesus is the salvation of all people, he must be present in the history of all people. He says that Christ is present in non-Christians and therefore in non-Christian religions through the Holy Spirit, and that wherever there are faith, hope and love, these justify people because, whether people are aware of it or not, these three always refer to Jesus. Consequently, there are two extremes: conscious and explicit Christianity, and anonymous and implicit Christianity, and a whole range of shades of grey in between. Rahner argues that Christianity is essentially existential - fundamentally about what American evangelicals would call "a personal relationship with Jesus" rather than doctrinal assent, and so as love of neighbour can be the same as love of God, it's possible for people to have that personal relationship with Jesus without necessarily recognising or naming it as such.
This is an appealing idea in many ways: it allows the possibility of seeing truth in all religions, and of seeing God at work throughout the history of the world and not just in the history of the Jewish people and then the church. But it does have its problems: I can't help wondering how Rahner's "anonymous Christians" would feel about being told that, while they think they're following Buddha or Mohammed or Marx, they're actually following Jesus. I wonder how Rahner would feel if someone told him that, for all that he thought he was a Christian, he was actually an "anonymous Hindu"?
Friday, 14 November 2008
One of those early and influential heretics was Marcion, who led a briefly prosperous sect which was excommunicated in about 144 AD. We know about him mostly from Christian apologists like Justin, Tertullian and Irenaeus, who wrote treatises about why he was wrong. At the heart of Marcion's thought seems to be a struggle to reconcile the Old and New Testament. Marcion decided that it was impossible, and argued that the Gods of the Old and New Testament were in fact two Gods, rather than the same God. The God of the Old Testament was a Bad God, "the author of evils, a lover of war, inconstant in judgement, and contrary to himself", who created the world. The Father of Jesus was a superior God who offered salvation through the escaping of the physical world, and human bodies which were unredeemable. Marcion was, as a result, the first to suggest an official Christian scriptural canon, which he thought should consist of the gospel of Luke and some of Paul's letters, both heavily edited to get rid of any passages which suggested continuity between the Father of Jesus and the Creator God of the Old Testament.
I think Marcion's interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, because he does the thing that heretics often do, and goes for the easy theological way out. The Old Testament is difficult, presenting a God who, at times, can seem like a bit of a git. What do we do? Heretical andswer: get rid of it, and keep the bits we like instead. A theme of the Church's slow formation of doctrine seems to be that they go for the difficult answers, the messy solutions that often feel less like solutions and more like the permanent inscription of difficulty into Christian theology. Partly as a result of Marcion, the slow emergence of a canon of Scripture begins around this time, saddling us once and for all with a Bible riddled with difficult questions, apparent contradictions, and a story which can feel pretty alien to the God we think we know. Loads more fun, of course, and probably a lot more useful in helping to engage with a world that's equally tricksy and befuddling, but you can't help sympathising a bit with old Marcion, not least because I think that we're almost all guilty of doing what he did and ignoring the difficult bits of the Bible.
Also, I think that we see in Marcion another regular theme of early Christian thought: the attempt to reconcile the teachings of Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures and the apostles with contemporary Greek thought. Marcion's idea of two Gods bears some resemblance to the thought of Numenios, a Middle Platonist, although on reflection I think we'll come back to that some other day, as that's a whole big barrel o'worms. But for now, suffice it to say: there are lots of arguments now about the Greek philosophical legacy in Christian thought - how influential it is, whether its influence is a good thing or a bad thing - but I think the case of Marcion shows that, at least some of the time, Greek philosophical ideas were rejected, however appealing, because they simply couldn't be made to fit into Christian orthodoxy.
Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Monday, 10 November 2008
The primacy of the anthropological element over the ecclesiastical
Boff says that Latin American theology values the human person over the structures of the church. The church exists to "help, raise up and humanise" people. The Church needs to be free to create new structures that allow fresh incarnations of the church.
The primacy of the utopian element over the factual
Latin American theology is determined by the future, not by the past: by hope for the utopia of a world fully transformed and made free from sin. The Church should be driven by its desire to see the kingdom of God come on earth.
The primacy of the critical element over the dogmatic
The Church's tendency is to become institutionalised and stagnant, but by reflecting critically on its theology and praxis, this doesn't have to be the case.
The primacy of the social over the personal
The Western Church has tended to make salvation all about the individual person, and ignore their social context. Jesus deliberately sought out and spent time with the marginalised, the poor, the voiceless, the excluded: the church should imitate him, and preach a gospel of social as well as personal liberation.
The primacy of orthopraxis over orthodoxy
The Church's teaching, and its attempts to formulate and systematise doctrine haven't led it to behave in a distinctively Christian way: the Church has preached Jesus Christ the liberator, but it hasn't been a force for liberation in the world. Jesus didn't preach primarily about himself or the church, but about the kingdom of God which is the total transformation of the whole world, and he acted in ways which showed that that transformation was possible here and now. When the Church emphasises orthodoxy (right belief) at the expense of orthopraxis (right action), it gets it wrong.
This blog may evolve over time, but right now, the basic concept is this: I will read theology books (for me, this means pretty much any book, I'm afraid, as I'd argue that in the end, everything is theological), and I will try to communicate some of what I read for people who aren’t academic theologians. This will be good for me: having to explain an idea to other people is probably the best way to grasp it properly yourself. It might be good for you too, but I’m not making any promises. In the interests of our mutual edification, though, please comment and let me know if there's anything you'd like me to say again, say better, or say differently.