Friday, 29 May 2009

What's right with prosperity theology?

I just stumbled across this brilliant article about what prosperity theology gets right (calm down, I'm not going to try to persuade you to buy me a private jet. Yet.), and thought you might like it:

Abundance for all

Martin Luther
would approve.Link

John Milbank on the Four Senses of Scripture

John Milbank is one of the big names in modern theology, although sadly, like many trendy thinkers, actually trying to understand what he's on about is a bit like wading through treacle. Still, I thought it was worth trying to distill some of his treacly ideas about the four senses of scripture for your delectation, so here goes.

Milbank argues that medieval biblical exegesis was influenced by the fact that lots of the people who wrote commentaries on Scripture also wrote commentaries on Dionysius the Areopagite. Now, for Dionysius, the symbols of Christian liturgy participated in the ordered structure of creation, which in turn reflected the nature and character of the infinite God, and, as a result, was overflowing with multiple and varied meaning.

Because the words of scripture pointed to this richly symbolic world, it became to be seen as "oceanum mysteriosum Dei, ut sic loquar labyrinthum" (My Latin's pretty poor, but I think that means something like "the ocean of the mysteries of God" and then something about a labyrinth of speaking. Help me, Latin scholars!) - whatever the subtleties of that phrase, the basic idea is that within the words of Scripture are endless depths and layers and intricacies of meaning in there. Umberto Eco (most famous for his novel The Name of the Rose, a theological murder mystery) argues that the four senses of scripture weren't meant to open up a greater variety of interpretations of scripture, but actually to reduce the number of possible ways of reading the Bible, by limiting it to generally accepted traditions of interpretation.

Now, Milbank thinks that one of the things about Christ is that he embodies the endless possibilities within God. He thinks that Christ is the head and body of the Church in the sense that he kicks off a new way of living 'in Christ', but also right from the start contains all the possibilities which the Church then goes on to embody. All the different ways that the Church and Christians have embodied Christ and lived out the good news of the kingdom of God were potentially contained in Christ from the beginning, and there's no way we'll ever fully understand everything that Christ means, because to do that, we'd have to have a complete view of everything that both Jesus and the Church have done and will do in his name. To be a Christian, thinks Milbank, is actually to contribute something to the person, meaning, and body of Christ.

As a result, Milbank thinks that when we read Scripture allegorically, tropologically, and anagogically as well as literally, it becomes possible for us to read it as the story of our lives rather than just a story about dead people (and I know, Jesus is still alive, but that's Milbank's point: if we can't read the Bible in these ways, we can't read our own lives as part of the story of Jesus, so he effectively is dead anyway).

Milbank then goes on to argue that, as Protestants started (at least theoretically) to reject the possibility of reading Scripture in these multiple ways, focusing on literal interpretations and getting back to the New Testament Church, what they actually did was to shut down possibilities for reading Jesus into their own lives, and as a result, what they did was to move their understanding of salvation away from the idea of participation in Christ towards the offer of abstract grace which would somehow pay off our abstract debt to God. In addition, says Milbank, this shrinking of the range of acceptable readings of Scripture did away with the role of the Church: just as reading went from encountering symbols which pointed beyond themselves to things in the world, multiple meanings, and God himself to an activity in which the individual directly confronted the literal meaning of the text, so the sense of the individual being caught up into the rich, messy and complicated symbolisms of the rituals, actions, liturgies and symbols of the Church was abandoned in favour of a vision of the individual directly confronting God, alone with their conscience.

I hope that makes sense. If you, too, feel like you are drowing in treacle reading this, please shout and I'll see if I can destickify you a bit...

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Aquinas on the Four Senses of Scripture

Traditionally, the Church has identified four levels of meaning or 'senses' of Scripture: the literal sense and three spiritual senses - the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical senses. Aquinas explains these in his Summa Theologiae, in Article 10 of Question 1 in the Prima Pars:

Whether in Holy Scripture a word may have several senses?

How confusing would that be? We'd all get confused and believe untrue things about God, and surely the Bible can't lead us into untruth, right?

On the other hand: Gregory the Great says that "Holy Writ, by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery."

Reply: The author of Scripture is God, who is able to signify meaning with things as well as words, so some of the things described by the words of the Bible themselves point to other meanings. The historical or literal sense of Scripture is the obvious meaning, the things that the words directly point to, so when the Bible talks about rocks, the literal sense of its words are rocks: you know, those hard, stony things. But then there's also a threefold spiritual sense. When things in the Old Law signify things in the New Law, that's the allegorical sense: so when the Old Testament describes Moses hitting the rock and water flowing from it, that text refers literally to an actual rock, and allegorically to Jesus, from whom living water flows. Then when things symbolise what we ought to do, they are to be read in the moral sense: so when Jesus challenges anyone without sin to throw rocks at the woman caught in adultery, the moral or tropological sense is that we ought not to judge because we are sinful too. Finally, the anagogical sense is when the words of the Bible refer to our eternal glory, so when the Israelite prophets refer to the restoration of Jerusalem, the literal meaning is the actual city of Jerusalem, but the anagogical sense is the Kingdom of God.

Aquinas says that these four senses don't need to confuse us, because they're all based on the literal sense, and there isn't anything in the Bible which is there in the spiritual sense but not in the literal sense.

This division of the meaning of Scripture into several senses is pretty common from very early in the Church right up to the Reformation, after which it fell a bit out of favour, and everyone got very excited about reading the Bible literally or pulling it apart with 'scientific' historical criticism. It's been becoming more popular again recently, though, and however much people might talk about sticking to the literal sense of Scripture, it's rare to find anyone who completely avoids the other senses. I think we do several of these senses a lot in the charismatic church, particularly when reading the Old Testament or prophesying, but often people aren't that aware of what they're doing when they give, say, an allegorical reading of Scripture. I think it's worth being aware of because how we read the Bible matters, and how we understand what we're doing when we read the Bible affects both how we read it and how we assess other peoples' readings of it.

Photo credit: GeoWombats on Flickr

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Judith Butler on Bad Writing

In 1999, Judith Butler won a Bad Writing Contest run by the journal Philosophy and Literature for this sentence:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
I know. Nightmare. Butler is, I think, a pretty bad writer: convoluted, difficult to read, repetitive, all in all, HARD WORK. Interestingly, though, she did see fit to respond to her award in a surprisingly lucid article in the New York Times. Her argument went like this:

The role of scholars in the humanities is to 'question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.' When scholars use language in unexpected and difficult ways, people who read what is written are forced to stop in their tracks and rethink ideas and worldviews that they've always taken for granted. Common sense often stops us rethinking these assumptions: common sense used to say it made sense for women to be denied the vote, for black people to be slaves to white people. The whole point of writing the sort of text that Butler writes is to challenge the stories we tell and the ordinary language we use, which stops us seeing the world differently.

I don't think I agree. Plenty of people have changed the way we see the world by using language simply and effectively; by telling surprising stories or using ordinary words in extraordinary contexts. Bad writing matters because it effectively walls off academia from the rest of the world, and allows people to think that what happens in universities doesn't matter. It does, not least because things that are thought in academic contexts go on to shape the world in subtle but profound ways. Part of my reason for writing this blog is, I think, to see whether it's possible to communicate difficult ideas in less difficult ways, though how successful I am is probably for you to say.

Photo credit: the Frankfurt School on Flickr. Remind me to tell you one day about the lesbian phallus (not as much fun as it sounds, I'm afraid).


From Edwin Radford’s Encyclopedia of Superstitions: ‘A mother who, before she is churched [brought to church] after the birth of a child, enters any house other than her own will bring ill-luck on the house...It is believed also that, should a mother venture out from under her roof before churching, and be insulted or injured by neighbours, she had no remedy at law...However, in Ireland, the ill-luck of venturing out before churching could be evaded if a piece of thatch or a slate was pulled from the roof and worn on top of a new hat. With such a decoration, the mother could wander where she listed [because] she was still “under her own roof.”'

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Loving angels instead

Rosemary A. Arthur says that in the intertestamental period – that’s the gap between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, the way that the Jews saw God underwent a transformation, which correlated closely to the transformation of the political order they lived in. The kings in the Old Testament are a very human bunch. They screw up; they get angry; they fancy women; they go to the loo; they listened to women fighting over a baby; they asked for ornery shepherd boys to play them music. And their kingdoms were also pretty small: they were never that far away from the ordinary people. And the God of the Old Testament was similarly engaged. He showed up in bushes; he got people out of bed in the middle of the night; he threatened to go off in a huff because his people were disobedient; he talked about Israel as the beautiful woman he loved. He was right there, in the middle of history, talking to ordinary people, accessible.

But when the Israelites went into exile, they were caught up into far vaster empires with much more complicated bureaucracies, and layer after layer of civil servants. Alexander the Great was an almost mythical Emperor; his empire spanning continents, containing unimaginable numbers of people. And as the meaning of kingship and authority changed, so did the Jewish conception of God. Increasingly, God’s transcendence was emphasised, his utter apartness from ordinary human beings. And because he was so inaccessible and far away, there was a new need for something to bridge the gap between God an man. This is where the angels came in. Picking up some ideas from Babylon, Jewish thinkers slowly developed the idea of a hierarchy of angels mediating between God and man, much as the ranks of civil servants mediated between Alexander and ordinary people. All sorts of hierarchical schemes of angels were proposed, often corresponding pretty closely to the structure of contemporary royal courts. This idea of mediating angels got picked up by Neoplatonism, Gnosticism (an early Christian heresy), and early Christianity. It surfaces in Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Dionysius the Areopagite, to name but a few.

I think it’s interesting that a change in the structure of society was reflected in a change in ideas about God. I wonder how much that’s still the case. Hans Kung, a Catholic theologian (though not one very popular with the present Pope), argued that, as the infallibility and authority of the Pope became more important over time, there was a corresponding rise in the importance of Mary within Catholic devotion and doctrine. Maybe Mary fulfils a similar function to the angels: she is accessible and human where God, like the Pope, is other, distant, and cut off from ordinary people by layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy.

Is there a relationship between the way that we seem to want politicians to sell themselves to us as personalities and the way that we talk about a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’? Is there a relationship between the way that we’re subjects of the Queen, but don’t let her have any real power, and wheel her out at Christmas and special occasions to say a few kind things that the fact that 70% of British people call themselves Christians and yet hardly ever attend church, except maybe at Christmas and special occasions? Any more?

Friday, 8 May 2009

Augustine on suppressing heresies

In Letter 93, Augustine addresses the question of whether it’s ok for the Church to encourage the government to punish their enemies. He’s talking about the Donatists, Christian heretics who were violently suppressed by the Roman empire – maybe the modern equivalent would be Christians asking the state to suppress abortion (ooh, controversy), ban Jerry Springer the Musical, or send Jehovah’s Witnesses to prison. Pick your own analogy. He acknowledges that there aren’t any examples in the New Testament of the Church asking rulers to punish their enemies, but points out that the rulers of the time weren’t Christians, so it was a whole different ball game, right? Before, wicked people made Christians suffer; now that the Christians in charge, it can be the wicked who suffer (Don’t you just love Christendom?). He says that it’s important to treat heretics severely or they’ll never return to the truth, casting the Emperor in the role of parent to naughty Donatist children who need a good smacking.

The important thing about force, says Augustine, isn’t that it’s good or bad in itself, but what people are being forced into. He says that he used to be opposed to the idea of using force to convert people or force them back into the truth, but he’s seen examples of Donatist heretics being coerced back into orthodoxy, and can’t argue with how effective that strategy has been. Maybe the Donatists aren’t heretics out of pure evil wills – maybe they were heretics out of habit, laziness, fear, or because they’d been conned into believing lies. Forcing them to reject their heretical ideas can only do them good.

He does say, though, that the motives of the people doing the coercing is important. If the Donatists were persecuted by people who just didn’t like them, or wanted an excuse to take their possessions away from them, that would be bad; in principle, though, it’s fine to take their riches – we have earthly possessions only if we’re granted them by God or by earthly kings, so it’s totally justified to confiscate the property of heretical Donatists who set themselves up against both God and the Christian Emperor.

Coming from the guy who formulated just war theory, I find this pretty troubling. It’s not that Augustine was a mean guy – elsewhere he’s compassionate and reasonable, and he didn’t get to be one of the most influential theologians of all time just by being wrong about things. But I think this letter highlights some of the problems inherent in the idea of a ‘Christian nation’, and makes me pretty glad to be living in a society that values multiculturalism and freedom of religion, however complicated that might be.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Meet Hans Urs von Balthasar

Hans Urs von Balthasar was one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century. He was born in Switzerland in 1905, joined the Jesuits in 1928 and was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1936. In 1950, though, he left the Jesuits, believing that God had called him to found a secular order of lay people. Because he'd left the Jesuits, he was banned from teaching in any of the Catholic universities, and he struggled to support himself by going on lecture tours. He gradually became more respected, though, and in 1988, Pope John Paul II asked him to be a cardinal. Unfortunately, however, he died before he was able to accept the offer.

One of the key relationships of Balthasar's life was with a woman called Adrienne von Speyr. Originally a Protestant, she converted to Catholicism partly due to Balthasar's influence. She had apparently experienced visions since she was a child, but afterwards began to have enormous numbers of visions, and other mystical experiences including stigmatisation (spontaneous pain or bleeding from which correspond to the wounds of Jesus. Cf. Francis of Assisi and the X-Files), and miracles. Between 1941 and 1965, every Easter she went into a trance from Good Friday until Easter morning, reliving the Passion of Jesus and experiencing a descent into hell with him. All pretty weird, no? Some of the content of the visions was pretty strange too, not least what they communicated about masculinity and femininity (sometimes coming dangerously close to describing God as divine rapist, which has been a bit passé since the death of Greek paganism).

Yet these visions were enormously influential on Balthasar. He described his and von Speyr's work as two halves of one whole, said that his work could not be properly understood without hers, and was reluctant to expose her work to criticism. The way he quotes her in some of his work resembles the way that fundamentalists quote the Bible, and her influence can be seen in many of his key concepts. All a bit strange, and problematic when you consider that Balthasar has been hugely influential on mainstream Catholic doctrine.

One of the issues Balthasar wanted to address was the question of why theology had become so boring. Apparently whilst studying Thomas Aquinas, he found his lecturers so dull that he would stuff his ears and read more racy material: Augustine and the early Church Fathers (hell, yeah). He though that by losing a sense of the beauty of God, theologians had missed the point and reduced theology to something dull and lifeless. He thought that the glory of God should be at the heart of theology, and wanted to build his whole theology around love: the glory of God, the essence of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Balthasar's magnum opus was the trilogy Herrlichkeit ("The Glory of the Lord"), Theodramatik, and Theologik.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Morna Hooker Part 3 – 2 Thessalonians

Thought I'd forgotten, did you? Ha! No, I was just waiting til you'd let your guard down before hitting you with the next installment of Hookerian wisdom. Boom! Here we go:

2 Thessalonians closely resembles 1 Thessalonians in both its format and its topic, but its actual teaching is substantially different – so much so that some have argued that the two letters actually contradict one another. The structure is very similar; the themes are the same; it sounds like Paul: but is it written by Paul or someone deliberately imitating him (these arguments go on and on in New Testament studies, because, let’s face it, how can you really prove it one way or another?). If the two letters are contradictory, then perhaps that could mean that it wasn’t written by Paul, or maybe by Paul after he had changed his mind; or maybe the two letters actually don’t contradict each other after all.

If 2 Thessalonians was written by an imitator, they were being pretty cheeky: warning the letter’s recipients not to be alarmed by letters falsely claiming to come from Paul (2:2) and saying that parts of the letter were written by Paul’s own hand (3:17). Is it by a Paul who has changed his mind? Also tricky: 2;5 says, ‘Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?’ suggesting that Paul at least thinks he’s being consistent. Maybe they’re not inconsistent after all. 2 Thessalonians emphasises the wrath of God more than 1 Thessalonians (1:8-10), but then the writer of 1 Thessalonians clearly took God’s wrath seriously too. Perhaps the two letters are not contradictory, but simply have different emphases.

The beginning of chapter 2 makes it clear that there’s some kind of rumour circulating in the Thessalonian community: it looks like people are worried that they’ve missed the return of Jesus. Paul (let’s just assume he did write it for the sake of ease) tells them to chill out: various things have to happen before Jesus will return. He seems to have some sort of eschatological timetable in mind, and this is one of the contrasts with 1 Thessalonians, where the day of the Lord comes suddenly, and we need to be on our guard. Perhaps 1 Thessalonians got them a bit overexcited and now Paul is trying to calm them down? It’s not unprecedented to talk both about the immanence of the Day of the Lord and also the idea that various things need to happen first: a similar tension can be found in, for example, Mark 13.

I'm afraid that, brief though it is, that's all I have to offer you on this particular epistle. More on other letters later, though I'd just like to point out that most of the above is about whether Paul really wrote 2 Thessalonians, rather than interesting commentary on the letter itself, and this, dear readers, is largely why I moved away from biblical studies in my theological journeyings: because I just don't care that much, even when taught by someone as sharp, funny, and eccentrically wonderful as Morna Hooker.

Photo Credit: Lawrence OP on Flicker