Thursday, 30 July 2009

Theology ologies N-Z

Ontotheology: A quick read of ‘ontology’ and ‘theology’ will help you understand why ontotheology is all about the sort of theology that equates God with Being, and thinks that God is both the Beingest of all Beings and also the source of every other Being. Kant invented the term, but Heidegger made it important. Details of Heidegger’s argument are for another time, but suffice it to say that he though that ontotheology was bad, shameful, and the source of all sorts of evils, possibly including poisonous insects and reality TV (don’t quote me on that, though).

Ontology: ontos means ‘being’, so ontology is all about the nature of being: what does it mean to exist?

Soteriology: soteria means ‘salvation’, so soteriology addresses questions like, what does it mean to be saved? Does it hurt? What’s the difference between being saved
and not being saved? How exactly does Jesus dying on the cross mean that I can be saved? Will they let me into heaven even though I need a haircut and my shoes are scruffy?

Teleology: telos means ‘end’, so teleology is all about the end of humankind. Confusingly, this is different to eschatology, which is about the End Times etc. - in this case, ‘end’ is more about purpose: ‘I’m going to read Left Behind’ ‘To what end?’ ‘Good question. Maybe I’ll read Dickens instead.’ The end of human nature is its purpose: what are we meant for? Happiness? Riches? (I wish) What did God create the world for? To be burnt up or to be transformed into a (re)new(ed) creation? As you might imagine, it sometimes kind of smerges into eschatology, but they are different things.

Theology: theos means God, so theology is just ‘things we say about God.’ This makes everyone a theologian, really, even people like Richard Dawkins who talk about why God is a stupid concept. Hah! Wriggle out of that one, Ricky D.

Photo credit: Vidiot on Flickr (Brilliantly, the image is titled 'Big Bang: Not an actual picture of the Big Bang)

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Theology ologies A-M

Theology is full of ologies. They’re often useful ways of quickly referring to whole subsections of theological thought, which is great for concision, but not so great for those who haven’t been inducted into the Mysteries of Jargon. Fortunately, the world of theology isn’t quite so bad as the Masons, so I shouldn't get into trouble for initiating you (phew).

Anyway, all ologies come from the Greek word logos (or λογος if you want to show off) which means ‘word’. So any ‘ology’ means ‘things we say about...’ whatever the ology-prefix is. Here, then, are some ologies for your delectation (the first of two posts - too many ologies all at once can be a bit much):

Aetiology: aitia means ‘cause, reason’ so aetiology is ‘things we say about causes and origins.’ Creation stories are all aetiological, insofar as they say things about the origin of the world. People often refer to creation stories as ‘aetiological myths’, which DOESN’T MEAN THEY’RE NOT TRUE, guys, so please don’t freak out on me.

Anthropology: anthropos means ‘human’ or ‘man’ (the OED seems unbothered by the sexistness of using ‘man’ to mean ‘mankind’ so it’s hard to tell just how gender-specific the word is), so anthropology is all about the study of humans and human nature. This looks quite different as a subset of theology than it does as a subject all on its own. A friend of mine did a degree in Anthropology, during which he spent several months living with monkeys. You don’t get to do that in theology.

Christology: G’won, see if you can work this one out for yourself. Well done! Have a sticker. Christology is all about Jesus, the God-Human, and what you get if you add the divine nature to the human nature and still end up with only one person. Was Jesus fully human? Was he fully divine? How did his humanness and divinity interact? It’s one big barrel o’ questions.

Epistemology: episteme means 'knowledge', so epistemology is the discussions and theories we have about what it means to know: what do we know, how much can we know, how sure can we be about what we know, whether there are different sorts of knowledge, and if so, which is better. Know what I mean?

Eschatology: eschatos means ‘last’, so eschatology is ‘things we say about the last things’. Eschatology is all about the End Times, or the weird stuff that happens in Revelation, or when Jesus will come back and what will happen (we’ll all look busy, right). It doesn’t have to be all Left Behindy, though: some people manage to write about eschatology without pooing all over biblical scholarship, good theology, and the English language (oooh, BURNED!).

Hamartiology: I once looked up hamartiology in the Oxford English Dictionary, and couldn’t find it. I was very excited to have discovered a word that the dictionary had missed, right up till the moment I realised I’d just been spelling it wrong. Boo. Anyway, hamartia means ‘sin’: so hamartiology is ‘things we say about sin’: is it all about pride, or missing the mark, or loving the wrong things, or the heart being turned in on itself; what is original sin and how does it affect us?

Missiology: The theory of mission, innit?

Friday, 24 July 2009

Sarah Coakley on Gender and Systematic Theology

In a recent article called ‘Is there a Future for Gender and Theology?: On Gender, Contemplation and the Systematic Task’, Sarah Coakley explores some issues around gender theory and systematic theology. She says that people are often suspicious of systematic theology, for three reasons:
  1. Some people argue that systematic theology is often idolatrous, in that it acts as though it’s possible for human beings to comprehensively understand and explain God, even though in reality we can’t ever fully comprehend the divine nature.
  2. Some people worry that because systematic theology is usually written by white, Western, middle class, straight men, it ignores the concerns of marginalised people, but because it claims to be systematic, it won’t acknowledge that it’s limited in this way, and so just pretends that those people don’t exist.
  3. Some feminists have argued that any systematic thinking is – wait for it – phallocentric (hur hur, phallus), by which they mean that it’s a male way of thinking that’s all about control and mastery.
Coakley says that all of these objections have a point, but if you do systematic theology right, it avoids these pitfalls. She says that the really important thing about systematic theology is that it should be rooted in contemplative prayer, which she sees as being all about practising mental attitudes of un-mastery, welcoming the unconscious, making ourselves attentive to others, and making ourselves aware of the messy ways our desire for God is tied up with our sexual desires.

Contemplation allows us to do systematic theology properly. It brings in apophatic awareness, which isn’t just about acknowledging the limitations of our understanding, but about encountering God, and knowing him in the middle of the realisation that we don’t know him at all. It teaches us to pay attention to those who are marginalised and excluded, and because systematic theology is really all about exploring all the different ways that theological truths can be expressed, and trying to answer all the questions we encounter, doing it well should mean that we constantly challenge and change our assumptions, and constantly discover theological truths in unexpected places. She points out that it’s difficult to substantiate any claims about intrinsically ‘male’ and ‘female’ ways of thinking, but argues that systematic theology rooted in contemplation should be open to different ways of expressing theology, whether it’s in contemplation, intellectual discussion, or the arts.

Coakley argues that all three objections to systematic theology are about mastery: they all worry that doing systematic theology is about desiring mastery, either as complete understanding of God, social power, or as the domination of women by men. She says that these concerns about mastery are about the relationship of knowledge, power, and gender, but also, most importantly, about desire.

Coakley says that these questions can’t be answered without thinking about gender, because gender is about what it means to relate to God and to one another as individual, embodied people. She also says that this question about gender, about human twoness, relates to questions about God, about the divine three-in-oneness.

Coakley argues that prayer is where we most powerfully encounter God in his trinitarian nature, because in prayer, the Holy Spirit prays in me, responding to the call of God the Father and drawing me into the life of Christ. She argues that in Christ, we encounter the One who interrupted the brokenness of fallen gender, fallen twoness, by bridging the twoness of God and the world. Just as the world is transfigured by the activity of God in incarnation and redemption, so the twoness of gender is caught up and transformed in the threeness of God.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Christian ethics

The first rule of Christian ethics, according to Bonhoeffer, is that there is no such thing as Christian ethics. The knowledge of good and evil is a result of the fall, and the return to God means abandoning all our knowledge of good and evil. Fortunately, there’s still enough to talk about for a whole book on Christian ethics, which Bonhoeffer called, imaginatively, Ethics. Unfortunately, Ethics was never finished. This is sad for two reasons: firstly because we’ll never know quite what Bonhoeffer wanted the book to be, and secondly because different editions arrange the sections in different orders, which is terrible confusing when you’re trying to do a bibliography. On the plus side, it does mean there’s lots of scope for arguments about how it ought to be arranged, which keeps theologians busy and out of trouble.

If knowledge of good and evil is a bad thing, then what are we aiming for instead? Bonhoeffer argues that if the Fall had never happened, human beings would never have known about good and evil because they would never have known anything except God. The knowledge of good and evil means that we start to see ourselves not in terms of our relationship to God, but in terms of our capacity for good and evil. We start to see ourselves as separate from God, as our own origin of good and evil, and start to think of ourselves as our own creators. Our likeness to God becomes a likeness we have stolen, not a likeness that God has given to us. Instead of trusting God to show us what sort of people we ought to be, we set ourselves up as our own judges.

Shame is the sign of this disconnection from God: it is our recognition that we are estranged from our origin. We become ashamed of our nakedness, and shame leads to covering and concealment. Conscience is the sign of our disunion with ourselves: it pretends to be the voice of God, but instead encourages us to set ourselves up as our own judges. Humans were never intended to have a conscience, to feel shame, to know the difference between good and evil: we were made, instead, to know only God, to love only God, and to see ourselves only as God sees us.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Open Table Theology

I have another blog post up over at Open Table Theology. This month's topic was prayer, and I was inspired (thanks, Gabriel!) to see if I could write a theology of speaking in tongues. It was fun.

Go check it out.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Karl Rahner on the Incarnation

Karl Rahner discusses this phrase: ‘The Word of God has become man.’ You’re right; that is a bit sexist: he’s using ‘man’ as a homonym for ‘human’, which is naughty. Let’s correct him, and start again.

Rahner discusses this phrase: ‘The Word of God has become human.’ What does it mean, he says, that the Word of God became Human? What does it mean to be human? Rahner argues that it’s only in the Incarnation that we finally see the truth of human nature, because it’s only in Jesus that we see a person fully given over to God. Human nature’s meaning is to be given up to God, abandoned; humanity is fulfilled and finds itself by disappearing into God: 'Man is insofar as he gives himself up’ (Cadence, on this occasion, is granted priority over feminism. Sorry). The Incarnation shows us that being human means having the potential to be completely inhabited by the Word of God.

What does it mean that the Word of God became human? Isn’t God unchangeing? What we have to say is that God, who is unchangeable in Godself, can become changeable in something else. The divine freedom means that God can become not-God, finite, Other-than-God. In emptying Godself and giving Godself away, God can make the other his own reality. Everything that God makes has, as a result of God’s self-giving love, the potential to become an expression of God and God’s love. All theology, says Rahner, is therefore anthropology, and all anthropology is Christology. To know what it is to be human is to know Christ, and to know Christ is to know God.

Photo credit: Orin Optiglot on Flickr

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Meister Eckhart on obedience

Meister Eckhart was born in Germany in about 1260, not long after Thomas Aquinas died. He was a Dominican monk, and an important theologian time, but unusually for such an prominent thinker, was accused of heresy under the Inquisition.

In his Talks of Instruction, Eckhart discusses obedience, which he sees as the most important virtue of all. Everything is made better when it’s done out of obedience, which is the decision to completely give over control to God, to say ‘not your will, but mine.’ He says that the best kind of prayer doesn’t ask for anything except for God’s will to be done, with no ‘I want’ or ‘I don’t want.’ The best sort of prayer is totally free, prayed by someone who hasn’t committed themselves to wanting a particular thing from God.

Eckhart says that some people make a big fuss about seeking God, saying ‘I wish I could be as close to God as person X is’ or ‘I can’t pray properly; I need to go off somewhere far away from everything; that’s why I’m struggling.’ ‘Just one more book about how to pray and I’ll crack it.’ ‘Maybe if I go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, or to Toronto Vineyard Church, maybe then I'll be able to be close to God. Rubbish, says Eckhart: the problem isn’t your circumstances; it’s you. Particular places, forms of prayer, certain people, certain activities or ways of life, however good they are, can’t be the source of peace: peace comes from your own heart, your own willingness to renounce everything of this world and to be obedient to God’s will. Eckhart says that to the extent you give up yourself, your desires, and the things of the world, God will enter into you. Start with yourself, he says, however much it costs: it’s here and only here that you will find peace.

People should worry less about what they do and more about what they are. If you are holy, the things you do will be holy. It’s not our works which make us holy, but we who make our works holy. It’s more holy to stub your toe with a mind that’s holy than to take communion if your mind isn’t fully given over to God.

Eckhart says that someone once asked him whether people who withdraw to be alone with God are more holy. No, he says: if your mind and heart are right, it shouldn’t make any difference where you are or who you’re with. People who want nothing but God find him wherever they are. He says we should train ourselves to turn our minds to God in all situations: notice what it’s like when you’re in church meetings focusing on God, he says, and try to have that state of mind all the time, wherever you are. People who don’t have God within themselves are constantly trying to find him in external things: maybe if I go to this place, or pray like this, or spend time with this person. Eckhart says that practising the presence of God is like learning to write: at first you have to concentrate on every letter, but eventually it becomes second nature.

It's funny, actually: reading over this, it strikes me that what Eckhart says isn't a whole world away from some of the things that Luther says. Like Luther, there's definitely a bit of dualistic thinking going on, not to mention some Stoic-style thinking (have we done the Stoics yet? We should, they're mental). But I like Eckhart a lot more than I like Luther: the dualisms aren't so heinous, and he just seems kinder: the sort of person you'd enjoy hanging out with, even if it wouldn't bring you inner peace.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Meet the Sadducees

The Sadducees have, depending on how you look at it, either got off pretty lightly or been sadly overlooked in the popular imagination. We all know about the Pharisees and their hypocrisy, and they’ve become a symbol of hypocritical religion which only cares about outward observance of the rules, but what about the Sadducees? Can’t we make them a symbol of bad Christianity too? Why should the Pharisees get all the attention?

Why ‘Sadducees’?
The origin of the name isn’t quite clear. It's probably something to do with Zadok, who was the high priest during David and Solomon’s rule, but the double ‘d’ in the name suggests it might have got confused at some point with the Hebrew word ‘tziddik’, which means ‘righteous.’

Who were they?
The Sadducees emerged during the Maccabean times (around the time of Alexander the Great, in the bit between the Old and New Testaments). The Maccabees led a big revolution against Greek rule, and the old hereditary line of high priests got a bit lost in all the kerfuffle, so there was a need for a new high priestly dynasty. The Sadducees emerged into this gap, and were running the Temple right up to Jesus’ day, and for a little while after. They were made up of members of the Jewish aristocracy, so were pretty conservative, and they got rich off Israel’s tithes and the sale of sacrificial animals in the temple (so they were the ones who got their arses kicked by Jesus that time he went mental). They weren’t very popular – they collaborated with Roman rule in order either to ensure that Temple worship was able to continue under occupation (that’s the charitable view, and what the Sadducees would have told you), or in order to cling on desperately to what little power they still had. They often made concessions to Roman demands, and were accused of telling people that they animals they’d brought to sacrifice were impure, so that they’d have to buy new ones from them.

The Sadducees didn't believe in the afterlife, and so, unlike the Pharisees, rejected the idea of resurrection (who needs an afterlife when you're rich and powerful in this life, right? Also unlike the Pharisees, they didn't believe in the Oral Law - a set of traditions which had supposedly been passed down orally from Moses, and is the basis of what Jews now know as the Talmud.

The Sadducees were constantly at war with the Pharisees, and their relative political influence changed over time. At one point, there were rumours that John Hyrcanus, a Jewish leader, was the bastard child of a Roman soldier who’d raped his mother, and so that Pharisees opposed him and said he shouldn’t be allowed to rule Israel; when it turned out that the rumours were false, the person who’d started the gossip was punished by the Pharisees, but not particularly severely, so (perhaps unsurprisingly), Hyrcanus favoured the Sadducees instead. Hyracanus’ son, Alexander Janneus, also preferred the Sadducees, partly because he’d had a Greek education, and the Sadducees’ theology was closer to Greek thought than the Pharisees’.

Later, though, the Sadducees lost influence: Herod deliberately tried to undermine them, executing 45 Sadducees who’d supported his rival for kingship of Israel, and confiscating Sadducee property to give to Mark Anthony. Herod also changed the role of the high priest: where before, high priesthood had been a life-long role, by Jesus’ time the high priest had to buy his position from the government every year. By making the high priest less important, Herod made the high priest’s deputy, a Pharisee, more important, giving him control over the Temple and making sure that the high priest had to do the ceremonies Pharisee-stylee. After Herod, the Sadducees got steadily less important, until they disappeared completely after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

So that's the Sadducees. If you feel sad that they've been so overlooked by history, feel free to start referring to examples of the Church compromising in order to retain power and fleecing innocent believers to get money from them as 'Sadducaical'. We are, after all, short of examples from church history of people who've behaved like that. Oh, wait...

Photo credit: Erick on Flickr