Sunday, February 27, 2011

Don't Quote This To William Lane Craig

"But how can we know that [the Christian story] is true?"

There is a long tradition of Christian theology that goes under the name "apologetics" and that seeks to respond to this question and to demonstrate the "reasonableness of Christianity." The assumption often underlying titles of this kind is that the gospel can be made acceptable by showing that it does not contravene the requirements of reason as we understand them within the contemporary plausibility structure. The heart of my argument is that this is a mistaken policy. The story the church is commissioned to tell, if it is true, is bound to call into question any plausibility structure which is founded on other assumptions. The affirmation that the One by whom and through whom and for whom all creation exists is to be identified with a man who was crucified and rose bodily from the dead cannot possibly be accomodated within any plausibility structure except one of which it is the cornerstone. In any other place in the structure it can only be a stone of stumbling. The reasonableness of Christianity will be demonstrated (insofar as it can be) not by adjusting its claims to the requirements of a preexisting structure of thought but by showing how it can provide an alternative foundation for a different structure.

- Lesslie Newbigin
Is it reasonable to claim that when William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens debate about God the only winner is Descartes?

Saturday, February 26, 2011


For a blog that at times resembles a Walter Brueggemann appreciation page, it's been far too long since I quoted one of the most prolific and provocative scholars of our time. I'll make up for that with an extended quotation from an article he wrote on Evangelism and Discipleship:

Discipleship is no easy church program. It is a summons away from our characteristic safety nets of social support. It entails a resolve to follow a leader who himself has costly habits, in order to engage in disciplines that disentangle us from ways in which we are schooled and stupefied and that introduce us to new habits that break old vicious cycles among us, drawing us into intimacy with this calling God. Discipleship requires a whole new conversation in a church that has been too long accommodating, at ease in the dominant values of culture that fly in the face of the purposes of God.
    It is right to conclude, in my judgement, that the God who calls is the God of discipleship, the one who calls people to follow, to obey, to participate in his passion and mission. Such disciplines – in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and now – intend and permit a drastic reorienting of one’s life, an embrace of new practices and, most particularly, a departure from other loyalties that have seemed both legitimate and convenient.

As I've mulled over discipleship for an essay this semester, I've come to realise that discipleship of Jesus doesn't occur in a vacuum. It is not a case of people either being discipled or not being discipled. Discipleship is a competitive sport, with discipleship of Jesus challenging the "technological-therapeutic-military consumerism" school of thought that is constantly discipling anyone who breathes. That is why Brueggemann can write that "discipleship is no easy church program". 

We do not add discipleship to a list of local church ministries. Rather, every act a church engages in ought to be permeated by a "summons away" and a "resolve to follow". If a church lacks discipleship of Jesus, we do not say that it needs to add a discipleship program; instead, we may legitimately say that we are not sure whether the church is in fact a church in any meaningful sense of the word.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Born Again

“Ye must be born again.”

I saw this verse from John’s gospel twice as I travelled from north to south. First on a church building near Great Victoria Station and second on the DART to Dun Laoghaire. I wondered how the three Dubliners sitting next to me on the train would have responded if I turned to them and said, “You know, lads, the sign is right. Now who wants to go first?” Perhaps a greater fool than I would have found out. Perhaps a braver evangelist than I would have found out. As an ivory tower theologian in training, however, I was content to speculate and go on my way.

But this verse was not through with me yet.

I joined my brother and his wife for a Bible study that evening. They wanted a Bible college student’s perspective on the Bible study of a potential home church, seemingly unaware that a Bible college student has little time to devote themselves to reading and understanding the Bible. We may at best read a few commentaries on a biblical passage, but give us the choice between Scripture and the complete works of N.T. Wright and we’ll side with the ex-Bishop every time.

Nevertheless, I kept up the charade and went along only to discover that the passage up for discussion was the passage that had batted its eyelashes at me and given me a suggestive wink earlier that day. John 3 was our text, with particular emphasis on the words “born again”. Even for the hard of hearing such as myself it became impossible not to hear God speaking.

I’ve always understood the term “born again” as denoting an identity. It is an identity that says “I am not a Catholic”. The call to be born again is a call to leave behind dead religiosity and to embrace the freedom of evangelicalism. It is a call to a decision that, in Ireland, stands over and against the Catholic church. In many cases it is a decision that requires one to leave friends and family behind for the sake of a protestant understanding of the gospel.

You often hear that if Jesus was walking the earth today he could be a dentist, a shopkeeper, a janitor, a teacher; in other words, someone just like you. But there are two things he certainly couldn’t be, – a Jew and a Catholic (with Catholicism being, for many, “a Christian form of Judaism”). That’s the “born again” mentality I’ve grown up with. It can’t possibly be what Jesus was on about, can it?
It can't, but how can this language of Jesus become our language? Can "born again" be born again? Can we meet the term again for the first time? Much of Christian theology is a peaceful struggle between the reality of the kingdom of God and the words we use to denote the reality. If "born again" was good enough for Jesus then it ought to be good enough for us. The task now is to connect these two words with the kingdom of God in a faithful way.

Another time, perhaps!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Liberation Theology: The Importance of Being Contextual

Every theology has at its focal point some aspect of the life of God. Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “A Christian is defined as a follower of Jesus, and reflection on the experience of following constitutes the central theme of any theology.” Forgive the reductionism, but Evangelical theology could be characterised as a theology born out of the word of God. Reformed theology could be characterised as a theology born out of the sovereignty of God. Pentecostal theology could be characterised as a theology born out of the presence and power of God. Liberation theology could be characterised as a theology born out of the “preferential love of God for the poor”.

The failure of Western Christian spirituality – the failure that the spirituality of Latin America seeks to counteract – is that it has uprooted theology from its context – both the original context in which the theology emerged and the present day context in which the disciple finds themselves. Thus someone can be a Calvinist without any knowledge of the kind of man Calvin was, the kind of culture he lived in, the books he wrote and his reasons for writing them, not to mention a lack of knowledge of the relationship between Calvinism and their own situation today. Dare I say, it’s too easy to become a Calvinist, or a Pentecostal, or a Baptist. Those naming themselves as such should really have to earn it.

When theology is decontextualised, the nature of truth is also misunderstood. Truth, for Western Christians, has become exclusively transcendent and impartial. What is right and fair for one must be right and fair for everyone. We’re taught to seek these universals in our Bible reading like hidden treasures. The goal of reading Scripture is to find the “timeless truth”. But this is a simplistic understanding of truth (and a simplistic understanding of a related reality: justice).

According to Samuel Wells, “The great cry of liberation theology is a cry for theology to take seriously its context.”

The context of Liberation theology poses some serious questions:
In our Latin American context we may well ask ourselves: How can we thank God for the gift of life when the reality around us is one of premature and unjustly inflicted death? How can we express joy at knowing ourselves to be loved by the Father when we see the suffering of our brothers and sisters? How can we sing when the suffering of an entire people chokes the sound in our throats?

For those in Latin America asking these painful questions, “theology is done not to understand the world, but to change it.” Liberation theology thus generates a problem not only for those who are oppressors of the poor and who want to keep things the way they are, but also for those who are oppressors of the real work of theology, of which I am one.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Writer and Reader

"There is no such thing as texts; only readers."

I remember reading that quote in one of Richard B. Hays's books a few years ago, though I don't know who said it and I don't know which book. I bring it up because lately there has been no such thing as regular posts on this blog; only a dwindling number of readers. I don't like this situation. I need to write, but before I do that I need to make the time to write. The temptation is to only write when it helps me in my task of completing an assignment, thus the writing required for blogging gets left by the wayside. This isn't healthy. The beauty of writing posts for Charismata is that it gets me absolutely no where. I only ever write on here because I love to think, I love to imagine, and I love to write. That's the way it should be.

Of course if the postmodern literary critic quoted above is right, then I am writing something that doesn't exist. There is no such thing as a blog post; only people with too much time on their hands. Be that as it may, there is such a thing as a writer. By having my own blog, I am at least pretending to be one. Hopefully I can become a more frequent one in the coming weeks.

I'm giving a presentation on Liberation Theology in under three weeks' time. I don't know very much about Liberation Theology, but my intention is to sketch some thoughts on it here over the next while. There will be nothing revelatory on display, but up to now Charismata has viewed theology exculsively through Western eyes. The next few posts (when they concern Liberation Theology) will thus be a watershed moment in the life of this waning medium.

Back to the quote that kicked all of this off. "There is no such thing as texts; only readers." I mentioned it to a couple of guys after a class in hermeneutics. We've been getting a good laugh out of it ever since, applying its logic to all sorts of real life situations. For example:

There is no such thing as shoes; only shoe laces.

See if you can come up with your own.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Not Given To Sentimentality

Stanley Hauerwas does not waste perfectly good emotion. He is not given to sentimentality, and so I was eager to read his sermon for the marriage of Jana Bennett and Joel Schickel. He didn't disappoint.

...Christians are required to love one another not because they are married, but because they are Christians.
Indeed I think it remarkable that Christians are permitted to marry. After all, marriage (particularly in our culture) threatens to destroy the love that constitutes the church. This is not simply because marriages often go bad, making those who were friends of the couple choose sides. Rather, just to the extent that marriage in modernity represents a desperate attempt to force and forge an intimacy that can rescue us from our lonliness, marriage for many becomes their church. We should not be surprised it does so because marriage becomes the only relationship left in our world that requires us to face the reality of our self-centredness and pride.

For Hauerwas, the most intimate context for love is not a marriage; it's the church. The vocation to love with all our hearts, souls and strength begins at baptism. Marriage can so easily become an escape into a world of private love; it can become an excuse for lacking deep, mutually edifying relationships with neighbours in church or in work or in college. We seem to have given marriage a place in our lives as Christians that is unwarranted by the New Testament, which might also explain many Christians' desire to defend marriage from recent if the union between a man and a woman under the sovereignty and grace of God is something that exists outside of the context of church life. When we act as if it does then of course we're going to feel threatened by something like the Civil Partnership Bill, because we think that the most sacred context for love is being torn apart at the seams. But when we begin to understand that the covenant of marriage is subsumed by the covenant between Christ and his bride, marriage finds its true home and we are free to love each other as we have been loved. This is love without fear.

Just when you think Hauerwas couldn't dance on the grave of marriage any further, he introduces modern marriage -- which, he says, is "incapable of hospitality" -- to some "strangers". These strangers, according to America's premier theologian, often come in the form of children. If you're married and are wondering what the impact of a child might have on your relationship with your wife or husband, look away now:

...children cannot help but challenge marriage in which love is assumed to be constituted by shared selfishness.

Shared selfishness? Ouch. But of course he's not talking about you, obviously.

I wonder what Stanley Hauerwas has planned for Valentine's Day.