Thursday, 27 November 2008

Darrell Cosden - The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work

Darrell Cosden used to work in Russia as a missionary, and over time he started to realise that, when people became Christians, their main ambition was to be able to leave their jobs and become missionaries just like Darrell and his friends: because that was the high point of being a Christian, right? Who wants to work in a shop when you could be working for the Lord? Darrell wasn't happy. Surely this wasn't right? Surely our ordinary work can be significant for more than just that it gives us the opportunity to tell people about Jesus?

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:
  1. 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.
  2. Work is important, but it isn't everything. We mustn't forget the Sabbath, the principle of rest.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 Moltmann - Liberating the future

There has been a lot of discussion in the twentieth century about eschatology. Some people think it all started with Albert Schweitzer, who wrote a lot about the New Testament and started a lot of conversations that have carried on since. He was one of the first people to realise (re-realise?) that Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God, so sparked a lot of discussion about what the Kingdom of God actually was (while most people now agree with Schweitzer that the kingdom of God is really important in Jesus' teaching, they tend to disagree with him about what the kingdom of God actually is).

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

Augustine on breaking wind

It's not that they were obsessed with sex in the old days - let's talk Foucault sometime and explain why we're much worse - but it did pose some problems for some theologians. It bothers Augustine that sex requires arousal (at least for the men). You can't get it up until you're turned on. He imagines a pre-Fall Paradise, where men would be able to control their bits freely, without the need for arousal. You know, he says, the sort of perfect control over usually involuntary movements that's displayed by those folks who

"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?

James Alison - The Gay Thing

I'm reading a collection of essays called Queer Theology at the minute, which may well make further appearances as it's really interesting, and means that I get to talk about sex (woo!). James Alison is a Catholic theologian, looking for a Catholic response to the issue of gayness. Personally, I'm a bit irritated by his generalisations about Catholic and Protestant theology, but they lead him to interesting thoughts, so we'll go with it.

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

Karl Rahner and anonymous Christians

Karl Rahner was born in 1904 and died in March 1984. He was one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th Century, in part because of his impact on the Second Vatican Council, which happened between 1962 and 1965 (now that's one long meeting), and which I don't know much about except that it was Very Significant and marked Important Changes in Catholicism. Rahner was also German, which is significant (in my mind) largely because it means he's really difficult to read. This is a shame because (as is the case with most 20th century German theologians who are difficult to read i.e. pretty much all of them) when you work out what he's saying, it's really quite interesting.

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

Heretics: Marcion

The study of heresies is an interesting one, partly because the ideas that were ruled out of orthodoxy tell us a lot about the nature of orthodoxy, and partly because, particularly in the case of the early heretics, they were at least partly responsible for the very formation of orthodoxy: often they put forward ideas that, at the time, seemed (at least to them) congruent with the teachings of the Church, and so forced a discussion about whether or not what they said could be considered Christian, and if not, why not.

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

Thought for the day

Is your skin rough and scaly because you never bathe? He that is once washed in Christ has no need to wash again.
- St Jerome

Monday, 10 November 2008


Liberation theology is a theological movement originating in Latin America in the 20th Century, which picked up Marxist critiques of society and integrated them into a theological movement that focused on the motifs of liberation and "God's preferential option for the poor." Also, some of them have funny names. Hugo Assman is my tip-top favourite liberation-theology-name, but today's theological thoughts come from Leonardo Boff (snigger), who identifies in his book "Jesus Christ Liberator" these key characteristics of a Latin American Christology:

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 is going to be a blog about the things that other people have said about God. It won't be so much about what I think (although that will doubtless creep in whether I want it to or not) as about trying to communicate some of the different ways that people have thought about and talked about God. One thought that some of the Church Fathers have is that, until we've used every word we have to name God, we won't have grasped the fullness and depth of the riches of who God is, and even if we could do that, we still won't have got it. It makes me sad that sometimes the Church focuses in on a few images and names and concepts for God to the exclusion of all others, and it makes me excited that we could talk about God forever and never run out of new stories to tell, poetry to write, wisdom to acquire.

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.