Monday, October 17, 2016

Health is Wealth

Just before the summer I went on a "theological retreat" for first-year systematic theology students and their supervisors. We were joined by a visiting scholar from Tuebingen, who presented a paper on God and medicine. One of the points he made - the one that has stuck with me - is that the things we used to do for God we now do for our health. A pilgrimage is a way of keeping fit and improving our mental health, fasting keeps us slim and cleanses the body, and so on. It is little wonder, then, that Silicon Valley is pumping millions of dollars into experimental medicine in order to discover the thing which God alone was once thought to offer: eternal life.

I live in the UK, home to the NHS, but I have private health insurance. Why? Because I am married to someone from the wrong country. For my wife to get a residence card, we needed to have something called "comprehensive sickness insurance," and the NHS didn't count. So we now pay a substantial sum of money every month for a service that we neither want nor need.

The reason I mention all of this is because I just received a call from our health insurance provider, and I have seen the future. The lovely gentleman on the phone explained to me with great gusto all of the fantastic little offers available to me as a paying customer. For example, I can get "free" cinema tickets by keeping track of my steps and earning rewards. I can also pay for the new Apple watch simply by exercising and uploading the data to their app. This, I fear, is the future. It is not a future without money. I cannot pay my health insurance provider by walking to my office, although there may come a time when that data alone will suffice. But it is a future in which the body is monetised not only for sex or for labour, but for exercise and well-being - in short, for energy (or "power" if you want to speak in a theological idiom). Energetic human beings are deemed valuable human beings. This is one reason why abortion in general - and the abortion of those with disabilities in particular - can be justified. Those without energy are deemed burdens, and they do not belong to our energy-harvesting and data-mining future.

I will continue to play my (ridiculously expensive) Tuesday evening and (free) Saturday morning football. I can't claim to feel God's pleasure as I play, and I get the impression that God derives increasingly little pleasure from watching me play. But I'll be damned before I wear a piece of technology which tells my insurance company how many (or, more likely, how worryingly few) steps I took so that I can get an Apple watch. Get me a machine that records nutmegs, however....

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Fancy a Pint of Evangel-Ice?

I grew up in a Christian environment where street evangelism was something close to a norm. My church would regularly stage events in the main square in Galway, where members of the congregation would hand out tracts (little leaflets giving you the nuts and bolts of the gospel) and share their testimony (the story of their conversion). I was too young actively to participate in these events, but I wasn't too young to feel embarrassed at having to tag along with my parents. I knew that what we were doing was odd, and that we would be making many regular people on the streets either uncomfortable or angry. There was always a certain amount of guilt attached to that embarrassment. After all, if I'm ashamed of Jesus, then Jesus will be ashamed of me. That was never said to me directly I hasten to add, but that's one of the mentalities that surrounded the whole endeavour.

My unwillingness to participate in this kind of evangelism never went away, though the gradual decline of the 80s-90s enthusiasm of evangelical Christians made the opportunities for street evangelism few and far between - at least in my small circle. More and more Christians, it turns out, are ashamed of Jesus.

Was the street evangelism wrong? Or was my embarrassment and unwillingness wrong? I am in no position to make a final judgment. What is clear to me is that the willingness of Christians to "share their faith" is not a categorical good. The reticence of Jesus to make known his true identity (the so-called 'Messianic Secret' of the Gospel of Mark) is perhaps - perhaps - as much a model of how to be faithful as are the extravagant stories recounted in the book of Acts. Furthermore, consider Jesus's words in the Sermon on the Mount: "On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you." All of this is by way of saying that unwillingness to boldly proclaim the name of Jesus in the streets of Galway is not necessarily a sign of disobedience. On the contrary, it may very well be the kind of quiet obedience that Christ commands (he said, in order to justify himself).

Why do I mention all of this? Because on my way to university this afternoon (a la my NUIG days) I saw an army truck and stall set up outside the campus library. From some distance I could see the recruitment slogan: "Be the best." All of a sudden I was the regular Joe on the streets of Galway, and the soldiers were the weird Christians handing out tracts and trying to convince me that there was something better out there for me. The whole thing felt odd, and I wondered if others felt the same way. Do those who are made uncomfortable or angry at the street evangelism of Christians also feel uncomfortable or angry at the street evangelism of soldiers?

There is much more that could be said about all of this. But what struck me is the rather simple truth that we are never not being evangelised. Speaking on the story of Elijah and Elisha, Walter Brueggemann asks his congregation the question: "Who threw the mantle over you?" What this question presupposes is contesting evangelists who preach contesting gospels, gospels to which we have committed our lives. Many of us in the West like to think that we do not wear anyone's mantle, only the mantle we made for ourselves. But that is just the mantle we have been given. The extent to which we think it is worth passing on is perhaps measured by our willingness to have and raise children. Those British soldiers are looking to throw a particular mantle over students, a mantle which brings with it some potentially horrific expectations and devastating consequences, but which is sold as the opportunity to "be the best." The Christian gospel is deeply opposed to the military evangel in ways far too numerous to be discussed here. The point is, seeing that truck and that recruitment stall made me realise that Christian evangelism - in some form or another - is more needed than ever. Or, better, the gospel is more needed than ever.

I was ashamed of going out into the streets of Galway as a very young Christian. I still am! But twenty years on from the mid-nineties evangelistic fervour I am, in my better moments, learning why Paul could proclaim that he was not ashamed of the gospel.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Interview with Barth

In November 1938 Columbia Theological Seminary published an interview with Karl Barth. It's not the most enlightening interview you'll ever read. Most of the questions (asked by William Childs Robinson) take the form: "Is it true that...?" or "Given what you have said, does this mean that...?" For this reason Barth's responses rarely rise above the level of "Yes," or "No," or "I wouldn't quite put it that way." Indeed, as you read the interview you realise just why you had never discovered what 5 minutes ago appeared to be a hidden gem. The interview is little more than a wasted opportunity, really, but then we hardly lack for words by or about Karl Barth.

Still, there is one question and answer that gives a good summary of what Barth is up to in his theology. William Robinson asks:

"Would you describe sin as the transgression of the law of God?" (what did I tell you?)

You might expect Barth to respond with a simple "Yes," but he has something a little difference up his sleeve. He replies:

"Not primarily. Sin is first a protest against grace. There is no law apart from grace. Of course, grace gives a law, but what makes sin condemnable is our resistance against His love, not against His commandments. The Gospel comes before the law and love before the claim."

With these few sentences the traditional configuration of law -> sin -> grace is criticised and re-configured. For Barth, the true order is grace -> sin -> grace -> law (or perhaps grace -> law -> sin). This is why Barth says elsewhere the only Christians can properly sin, since Christians are the ones who know the grace (and the God) against which they sin. Indeed, our chief sin is our attempt to understand sin apart from grace. Barth's name for this attempt is "ethics."

One thing worth thinking about is what Barth's order would do to the practice and content of evangelism.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Creator and Creature

“But God confronts all that is in supreme and utter independence, i.e., He would be no less and no different even if they all did not exist or existed differently. God stands at an infinite distance from everything else, not in the finite degree of difference with which created things stand towards each other. If they all have their being and a specific nature, God in His freedom has conferred it upon them: not because He was obliged to do so, or because His purpose was influenced by their being and nature, but because their being and nature is conditioned by His being and nature. If they belong to Him and He to them, this dual relationship does not spring from any need of His eternal being. This would remain the same even if there were no such relationship.”

Above is a passage lifted out of Barth's Church Dogmatics. In this passage and its surrounding context, Barth is talking about the aseity of God, that is, the freedom of the divine being in itself and in relation to others. The standard claim of the tradition - a claim which Barth more or less follows - is that God does not need us to be God, that God would be God without us. I get what he is saying (and, more importantly, what he is trying to avoid saying) when he follows this line of thought. "Pious blasphemies" such as God does not exist if we do not exist, or God needs us as much as we need God, are just that - pious blasphemies.

And yet...In this and other similar passages, is Barth not in danger of treating that which is other than God – creation – in the abstract? Barth appears to be speaking of human beings or creatures in general, as opposed to the human being Jesus Christ. But if we take the man Jesus of Nazareth as the true creature - as Barth insists we must - then is it really true to say that God "would be no less and no different" even if the man Jesus did not exist or existed differently? Barth, of course, does not want to divinise the man Jesus, or turn the flesh which the Word became into an eternal, divine flesh, as if the creature is co-eternal with the creator. But Barth appears to be speaking of the Creator-creature relationship un-christologically in this instance, which is surely a problem. There must be some other way of articulating this relationship that doesn’t make the man Jesus either irrelevant to the divine being or co-eternal with it.

For those of you who are by God's good grace unaware of the secondary literature on Barth, what I'm on about here is one of the fault lines in Barth studies. The issue being debated is a genuine issue. You only need to read Barth for a while before you begin to wonder what it might mean to say "God could be God..." or "If God didn't..." Of course there is the danger that such wondering is precisely the kind of theological speculation that Barth rejected. Perhaps this is an unavoidable danger, such that the whole debate is destined to be unfruitful at best, divisive and elitist at worst. I have no real interest in picking sides, or in making a contribution which will decide the issue one way or the other (or which will perhaps introduce a "third way", or a fourth way which is even more nuanced than the already existing third ways). That is not theology. That is hell. But I'd be lying if I said that the passage quoted above didn't raise any questions. The Christian theologian is profoundly interested in the claim that the creature Jesus of Nazareth is God. What must be clear to the Christian theologian, however, is that that interest is not for the sake of academic positioning. It can only be for the sake of the Church, for its worship of God and service to the world.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Loyalty and Love

"The intuition is that loyalty, not prosperity, is the foundation of a healthy society. To my mind, it’s a sound intuition."

The editor of First Things, R. R. Reno, wrote these words the day before just over half of the 72% eligible to vote in the United Kingdom decided to leave the EU. The "intuition" mentioned belongs to those who campaigned to leave. In Reno's own words, "the vote to 'Leave' opens up the possibility of a different future, one in which national identities are renewed rather than 'fused.'" This renewal of national identities is, for Reno, a self-evident good, with the vote to leave representing a collective, British middle finger to the "global technocratic empire" whose face in this instance is the European Union.

This is all socially, historically, economically and politically dubious. It becomes theologically dubious when Reno connects the United Kingdom post-Brexit with Augustine's City of God. According to Reno, had the UK remained in the EU then it would be a polity ruled by fear of poverty and the rapacious desire for prosperity. These are the characteristics of the city of man. By contrast, a UK outside of the EU would model the city of God by participating "in the ennobling power of love". The basis of this participation is "national loyalty." The object of this love is one's British neighbour.

If what Reno is describing were true, it would be disconcerting at best and diabolical at worst. A theologically justified nationalism is a collective middle finger to the Christ attested in Scripture. But what Reno is describing isn't even true. It's false. And that's the real problem. What is happening in Britain is not nationalism per se (if there is even such a thing). It is racism. There have been an enormous amount of reports from people who have either experienced or witnessed abuse and hatred in the wake of the UK's vote to leave the EU. What is worth noting is that a significant number of these people are British. But being British is simply not enough. They may be "officially" British, they may have British passports, they may even have been born in Britain, but they don't look like a British person should look, or they don't talk like a British person should talk. or they don't worship the god that a British person should worship. All of this is by way of saying that nationalism is inherently racist. To be British is to be white, not black. To be British is to be Christian, not Muslim. The "national loyalty" that Reno gets so misty eyed about is poisonous to its very core. It is a loyalty that Jesus came quite explicitly to defeat. It is a loyalty that nailed him to the cross, but which was in fact nailed to the cross with him.

We live in troubling times. We always do. That is why theological work needs to be done. Indeed. Karl Barth's justification for theology is a simple one: sin. The sin of Christians, the sin of non-Christians, the most especially sin of theologians, means that the work of theology must continue. Church's who sing the songs of national loyalty, and theologians who write its propaganda, cannot go uncriticised. Woe to those who call the city of God the city of man, and the city of man the city of God.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

How (Not) to (Not) Speak (about) (God)

In Barth's foray into doctrine of God he makes the modest claim that more or less every pre-Reformation and post-Reformation theologian got the doctrine of God wrong. Theologians today work in the wake of this claim. Some agree with Barth, and try to continue along the same path that he walked, though not uncritically. Others agree, but seek to find alternative solutions (some of which are more alternative than others). And others simply disagree, and seek to keep alive what is in danger of being lost.

Barth's criticism can be summed up as follows: theologians have confused theology with metaphysics. What does such confusion look like?

Barth gives one such example. Take the divisions we might make between nature and grace, body and soul, visible and invisible, material and spiritual, earth and heaven. You will finds these divisions all over so-called "classical theology". God is generally associated with the latter term, and creatures are associated with the former term. So, for example, we associate God with "spirit" and "supernatural" and "invisible" and "heaven." Barth's point is that the differentiation of the divine from the non-divine does not coincide with these other distinctions. In other words, God is as much to be distinguished from the "supernatural" as He is from the "natural", or from the "spiritual" as the "material". So if we think we are in the realm of true talk about God when we talk about spirit, we are gravely mistaken. According to Barth, it is no more anthropomorphic to talk of God's hands or feet or back than it is to talk about the being of God as spirit.

With this Barth basically dismantles the work of my former teacher, Maximus the Confessor. Maximus was of course much too sophisticated to identify God with any human word, be it spirit or being or absolute. Indeed for Maximus God so transcends Being Itself that He is perhaps even more like non-being than being when conceived by us. Nevertheless, the metaphysical hierarchy is present: spirit, intellect, soul are closer to God than matter, senses, and body.

Barth's argument is that we cannot equate God with the Invisible, or Incomprehensible, or Absolute, or Ground of Being. God is as different from the invisible as He is the visible. Or on the positive side, God is as free to be associated with the visible as He is with the invisible.  We don't get closer to the "pure essence" of God when we approach God with our metaphysical i's dotted and t's crossed. There simply is no way from here to there.

The takeaway point in all of this?

People in "sophisticated" (post)modern Churches would do well not to identify God with absolute spirit or the unknown ground of being, whereas people in "unsophisticated" evangelical Churches would do well not to identify God with the supernatural.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

I Believe, Help my Unbelief

I didn't realise it until I saw BBC News this Sunday morning, but this weekend the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and Head of the Commonwealth, officially celebrated her 90th birthday. Little did I know, that wouldn't be the last I heard of it.

I trotted off to Church, for the first time in a while it must be said. We arrived late, and were greeted with a hymn book and an order of service, before settling into a deeply uncomfortable pew. Hymns were sung, prayers were offered, there was lovely choir performance that may or may not actually belong in a worship service, and some biblical texts were read from the lectern. And then there was a sermon.

It started off fairly benign, but the more it went on the more subversive it became. The only problem, and it really was the only problem, was that this particular sermon was subversive of the gospel. Out of nowhere, the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and Head of the Commonwealth was front and centre. The minister made reference to his own personal acquaintance with the Queen, and described this weekend as a celebration of her "public life". I turned to my wife and asked her what the hell he is talking about the Queen for? But it was about to get worse. The minister then directed our attention to what was coming at the close of the service - the first verse of the national anthem. Of cours,e he acknowledged that there may be some in the room who are critical of the monarchy, and they are of course free not to sing along. Yet this tolerance of other views was immediately undermined by his claim that "Yes, monarchy, in the past, has done bad things, but then" - wait for it - "so has the Church". The hidden message, of course, being - you who have not sinned, only you can refuse to sing the national anthem and refuse celebrate the "public life" of a queen. And for the record, this is a Presbyterian Church in Scotland. A Presbyterian Church in Scotland! As Alex Ferguson would put it, Church, bloody hell.

Now this is all bad enough as it is. And when I say bad, I mean idolatry and heresy. But the irony of it all was the biblical texts everyone in that massive Church building heard. That's the beauty of Scripture. Even when it is being mishandled and abused, it has a power that no human can get a handle on. The thing is, if you wanted to pick three texts that are deeply critical of monarchy, nationalism, and pride in human achievement, you probably could not have hand picked three better texts. Without any discernible self-awareness, the minister preached his sermon after we had just heard the story of King Ahab coveting the land of Naboth, and his wife, the Queen, conspiring to have Naboth killed and the land handed over to the monarchy! Here, in plain speech, is what the Bible has to say about the public life of queens. If only we had ears to hear. Next came a passage from Galatians, where Paul chastises Peter for a nationalism which undermines the truth of the gospel. Finally, the Gospel reading was from Luke 7, where Jesus eats dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader enthralled by power and therefore blind to his need for forgiveness. Three texts, one deeply troubling and energising gospel, and a sermon that sought to threaten it all at every turn.

We left after the sermon, but not before we recited the Apostle's Creed together. There we affirmed our faith in Father, Son, and Spirit, and our belief in the Church. And at times like this it is crucial to remember: that there is a Church is not a given, a self-evident factor in the world, but an article of faith. We thank God that there has been a Church, and pray that there will be a Church in the future, but it is in God's hands whether there is a Church or not. Stanley Hauerwas, in his Gifford Lectures, is critical of a sentence in Church Dogmatics where Barth says that the world would be lost without Christ, but would not necessarily be lost if there was no Church. This morning was a reminder of why Barth thought had to say what he said. The Church needs God, but God does not need the Church. 

In the Apostle's creed we also declared our common belief in the forgiveness of sins. Before I left, I was tempted to use the pen I was given to write on the order of service sheet: "God forgive us for celebrating the life of Jezebel." I refrained. I won't be going back to this Church again. An unfaithful, sinful Church is simply the Church of Jesus Christ. But an unfaithful, sinful Church that is blind to its need for forgiveness is the Church for Simon the Pharisee and Jezebel the Queen, and not the Church for the woman who loves the merciful Jesus and the vineyard owner who will not bow to the demands of the royal family.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Health Before Wealth

In Slavoj Zizek's reading of Titanic, the film is not a love story. It is a film about the redemption of a bourgeois woman. Leonardo Di Caprio is not her lover, but her priest and saviour, instilling in her bloated and regimented existence some of his lower-class values of spontaneity and revelry (the real party is in steerage, you see). In the end, Kate Winslett gets the best of both worlds. Leo dies, meaning she doesn't have to live an impoverished existence with him. Instead, we see pictures of her living an affluent life but without the guilt and depression that might have ensued had she not been freed to enjoy her wealth. The problem, it turns out, was not wealth, but the fiance who would prevent her from finding satisfaction in it.

Almost 20 years later, we have a slightly new spin on this trope. I have not seen Me Before You, but I have read about it. It seems to be almost identical to Titanic in its form, though with one significant difference: one of the "lovers" is disabled. This, it seems, makes all the difference. While it is bad to be working class, it is actually worse to be rich and quadriplegic. Like Kate Winslett's Rose, Sam Claflin's Will is wealthy and suicidal. But unlike Rose, Will is beyond saving. His disability means that he is unable to enjoy his wealth, and this makes him deeply unhappy. The Jack Dawson of this film, Louise Clark, is an "eccentric" and "bubbly" working-class woman without much qualifications or job prospects. Like Will, she is in need of salvation, but unlike Will, she can actually be saved. Where Will is wealthy (good) and unhealthy (bad), Louise is poor (bad) and healthy (good). To spoil a film that should probably never be watched, the two fall in love. But what this means is that Will must take himself and his disability out of the picture if Louise is to truly find happiness (if you love someone, set them free and all that). So Will goes through with his planned assisted-suicide, but not before leaving Louise with a large inheritance. Like Rose in Titanic, Louise now has the best of both worlds. She is healthy and wealthy, and Will's tragic existence has given her a real sense of duty to make the most out of her newly-possessed privileges.

The takeaway lesson is as follows: health without riches is useless, but riches without health are equally useless, if not more so. Indeed, in the hierarchy of human existence, persons with disability apparently rank the lowest, and they ought at least to consider the possibility that they'd be better off dead. It is little wonder that this film is being protested against. This is a vile message when stated explicitly, yet it is implicitly accepted by many of us. What is at work here, theologically speaking, is idolatry. Health and Wealth are our gods. All that we do, we do for them. All that we sacrifice, we sacrifice for them. It would be a grave mistake for churches to think this idolatry is only practiced by "health and wealth" or "prosperity gospel" churches. Churches which are not temped by the the health and wealth gospel are more often than not Churches whose members have a surplus of both.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Worst Thing in the World

In the same Barth Q and A mentioned in the previous post there is a question about the relationship between Christianity and other religions. Based on the text in Acts 14 where it says that God did not leave the nations without witness or testimony, the student asks Barth whether there is revelation in religions outside of Christianity. Barth's response? "The answer is 'No'" But what then of Acts 14 and these "testimonies" given to the nations?

Barth explains this by drawing a distinction between revelation and what he calls "signs." Certainly, he says, the world is full of signs of God's presence. Paul also talks about this in Acts 17 and in Romans 1. But these signs of God's presence are not revelation, that is, they are not God's self-disclose, His own speech concerning Himself.

Returning to other religions, he notes that in the Bible the other religions surrounding Israel (and later, the Church) are not dealt with as revelation. On the contrary, the relationship between the people of God and other religions is always agonistic (though it must be said that the relationship between the people of God and the people of other religions is not always so). Indeed, Barth summarises the story of Scripture as the fight between God's revelation and what is called religion. "The worst thing in the world," claims Barth, "is religion." One hesitates to conclude that this is mere exaggeration. Indeed, Barth returns to his first answer - there is no revelation in other religions - and adds that one can and must include Christianity in this Nein insofar as Christianity has become a religion. What initially looked like "religious intolerance" from Barth becomes something much more interesting: the call to abolish all religion, including the Christian one.

"God's speaking in the Gospel - now there is revelation over against the whole Christian and non-Christian world!"

The "Thus saith the Lord" is therefore not the word of a pious man, or the theological insight which has arisen form the human heart. It is, for Barth, the Word which is strange and new, graceful and helpful. In other words, revelation is apocalyptic all the way down. If we follow Barth, we might say that the extent to which Christianity fails to conform to this apocalypticism is the extent to which it becomes the worst thing in the world.