Thursday, October 27, 2011


I'd like to think I've grown up. Or changed for the better. I want to believe that if now faced with similar circumstances to those past, I would be the kind of person who would do things differently - who would do the right thing (if there is such a thing).

But I can't be certain. For better or worse, I am my history; or, at least, I am the story that I tell myself about myself, the truths and the lies. What is the present but a culmination of interpreted pasts? What is the future but more of the present? What am I but the deeds I have done? I am their creation, as they are mine.

But I am not alone. There is a history outside of my history that is dying to break into my history; or rather, dying for my history to break into his his story. This story is told by another about another and it is nothing but the truth. It does not obliterate my story. It redeems it; offers transformation from fate to destiny. My present moment is determined by the past, but not only my own. The past of another is always present, carrying newness, life, and hope for a future radically different from my past and present. There is another doer, another actor, whose deeds and acts out-form my own.

He offers new creation.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Defending Natural Revelation

Natural revelation names what God shows us of himself through creation. Jesus, therefore, is the telos of natural revelation. He is the pinnacle of God's creation - the Word who was born of a woman into the created world. In the man Jesus, the distance between creator and creation is effaced, and revelation springs forth from the transformed and transforming naturality of his life.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life... - 1 Jn. 1:1

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Stanley Hauerwas said it succinctly:

Tolerance kills us.

I haven't read enough Hauerwas to know what he might mean by this, but Slavoj Zizek offers some clues:

Tolerance means don't harass me; don't harass me means come too close to me....In other words, tolerance means I am intolerant to your over-proximity to me. Tolerance means don't come too close; stay at the proper distance.

Tolerance is distance. Distance is loneliness. And loneliness kills us.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Our Moral Universe

Nicholas Wolterstorff said something I had never heard before when he gave a lecture here in Belfast during the summer. Without knowing the exact quote, he said something along the lines of, Why do we think that God has to punish every wrong deed?

Without presuming to know what he was getting it, it struck me as I was reading on the nature of grace that at the control centre of the universe we have placed punishment in the hotseat. Punishment is the default divine response to wrongdoing. Punishment gets the first word. Punishment is primary. Without this arrangement, we live in an immoral universe.

So the story goes.

But what if grace is in the hotseat? What if grace is the default divine response to wrongdoing? What if grace gets the first word? What if grace is primary?

In Christian discourse, grace is mostly talked about in punishment's shadow. Grace is what happens when the primacy of punishment is foregone. God must punish us to bring balance to a moral universe. God has no obligation to be gracious to us.

But the moral universe is not subject to an adapted form of Newton's third law of motion, with grace as the occasional exception to the rule. Rather, the moral universe is subject only to the rule of God.

And at the core of this rule is not lex talionis, but love.

Friday, October 21, 2011

My Theological 15 Minutes

Today I attended an inter-church dialogue featuring N.T. Wright as the keynote speaker. I can't remember the title of it, but it was something long-winded that probably took a general synod months to formulate. There is a lot I could share from the day, but here is a little snippet that is something of a personal milestone - the moment I first felt like a theologian.

It was in a seminar on Hope and History. We talked about remembering rightly, about the need to learn from the past and to pursue an ethical vision for the future. We talked about lament and repentance and the general ignorance of history amongst young people today. We talked about upcoming commemoration services and what the response to them might be. But over all this discussion, one woman's question on the violence inherent to our national identity remained unanswered. We even came back to it having acknowledged our oversight, yet immediately we moved on. But just as the discussion was about to be wrapped up, I dropped my bombshell on the playground of Irish theologians [!]. It took the form of an honest question:

When did it become possible to be a Christian and to be violent?

This, I think, is a historical, ethical and theological question that needs to be answered if the church is ever to speak of "hope" in any meaningful, christian sense of the word.

And with that question, my 15 minutes ended and the feeling of absolute theologian-ness vapourised, remembered only on a blog that diminishes my chance of ever being considered a serious theologian with every passing post. 

It was fun while it lasted, though.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Truth Is More Self-Involving Than It Used To Be

My answer to the question, What role does Scripture have in God's ongoing revelation to the world?...boiled down to the bare essentials:

In summary, we cannot speak of scripture’s role in God’s ongoing revelation without speaking of the church that reads scripture as a testimony to the gospel of God, a witness describing the world not as it appears to be, but as it is: redeemed by the love of God in Christ. To a watching world, it is not merely argument from scripture but embodiment of scripture that speaks the deepest truths to the greatest powers. If I may paraphrase the One who teaches us to read scripture rightly, it is by this that the world will know the authority of scripture and the truth to which it attests: if the church who reads it has love for one another.

A Missed Trick

Since its en vogue for Christians to comment on books that they've not yet read, there is something about Scot McKnight's latest offering, The King Jesus Gospel, the strikes me as odd. On his blog, McKnight has stated the methodology behind the book. Basically, the sources he uses to define the gospel are the four canonical gospels, the preaching in Acts, and chapter 15 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. The latter is the most important for McKnight's project, providing the hermeneutical lens through which we see other gospel texts.

My question is, where's Galatians? This is probably an earlier source than any of the others, and it is a letter that deals specifically with a community who are getting the gospel wrong. In short, it makes little sense to leave it out of the list of primary sources. Of course on the face of it, Galatians seems to be on the side of those who tell the "soterian gospel", so perhaps that is why McKnight's methodology has no room for it. But I think there was an opportunity to pull off some methodological jujitsu and use the force of Galatians against those who wield it. For example, Richard Hays and N.T. Wright have demonstrated ways to read Galatians that subvert the individualistic readings that have prevailed. 

In short, I think a trick was missed, at least in terms of the book's stated methodology. And because of that...

Farewell, Scot McKnight.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Theology and Love: Barth and Von Balthasar

There's a famous story about a lecture that Karl Barth gave in the States, after which he was asked to sum up the findings of his career as a theologian. He paused for a moment and replied,

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

The humour and simplicity of this reply both veil and unveil Barth's absolute conviction that this is the supreme content of revelation. Theology that does not begin and end with the love of God in Christ is nothingness. Creation is an act of love. Covenant is an act of love. Incarnation is an act of love. Crucifixion is an act of love. Redemption is an act of love. Judgement is an act of love. In this story of the world we are confronted with God's love, which is a love that is not easily recognised given that it's supreme expression was a bloodied Jew dying a criminal's death on a roman cross.

I can't explain how and why that is love for me and you. And it is not a self-evident truth, no matter how easily the words "Jesus died for you" roll off our tongues. But to use a Hauerwasian turn of phrase, the work of theology is not to explain or rationalise the love of God. Rather, the work of theology is to help us see the world as unintelligible if it is not loved by the God revealed in Jesus.

The Bible that Barth read gives us a world that is the theatre of the love and the glory and the holiness of God. The preaching of the Word is a description of that world and an invitation to enter its strangeness. It is an invitation to walk by the way of grace. Christian theology has everything to do with that Way, or it profits us nothing. 

Hans Urs Von Balthasar gives Barth's playful response above some scholarly frill:

Christian self-understanding (and therefore theology) can be interpreted neither in terms of a wisdom that surpasses the knowledge of the world's religions through a divine utterance (ad majorem gnosim rerum divinarum) nor in terms of man's definitive achievement of personal and social fulfillment through revelation and redemption (ad majorem hominis perfectionem et progressum generis humani), but solely in terms of the self-glorification of divine love:  ad majorem Divini Amoris Gloriam.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Thoughts on The Tree of Life

There are scenes in The Tree of Life during which I'd love to sit down with Terrence Malick and ask him what the mess is going on. But to be honest, I expected as much. This was to be a visually stunning film with a perplexing, open-to-several-interpretations 'plot'. That is what I came into the experience prepared for.

What I wasn't prepared for was the simple, lucid story(-ies) involving a father, a mother, and their three sons. This was, by some distance, the most authentic -- the most beautiful -- portrayal of a family that I've witnessed on film. It's not for everyone, but certainly all parents and children should watch it. 

Malick begins by displaying creation in macro terms. Stuff explodes, planets are born, seas begin to roar. We see life through the eyes of a god. The heart of the film, however, involves us seeing life through the eyes of a child. And through the eyes of this particular child, we see ourselves. Innocence, freedom, playfulness, harshness, resentment, disobedience, guilt, forgiveness - in Malick's theologically dense terms, we see the experience of nature and we see the experience of grace, played out in the relationships created by a family.

Given the film's title, the echoes to some of the genesis narratives are not hard to hear. The eldest boy, Jack, assumes the role of Adam who lost innocence, and Cain who experienced jealousy. We watch this boy playing and eating and doing his chores, and we see him little by little inheriting the nature of his father. This is not an evil nature, but it is a nature that knows nothing of grace. The mastery of the film, however, is that Jack's world is not fated. There are other presences -- his mother and his brothers -- who know what it means to love.

I won't be spoiling anything by telling you that one of the sons dies. We discover this at the very beginning of the film, with the majority of the remainder being a series of flashbacks. Given this tragic event, you might think that this film leaves us pondering the question, "Why would a good God allow such a horrible thing happen to this God-fearing family?" You'd be right to a degree, but Malick offers no answers as a response, no way of making sense of the son's death. All he offers is a glimpse of this family as they wrestle with the forces of nature and grace. The question Malick ultimately wants us to wrestle with is printed on the screen before any events transpire:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Malick wants us to ponder the thought that grace has been wrestling with nature since the beginning, and in this present moment we are given an invitation:

...there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.

Through the story of an ordinary childhood, we are left with little doubt as to which is the more excellent way. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Maybe I Was Wrong About What Barth Was Right About

Revelation is indeed the truth: the truth of God, but necessarily, therefore, the truth of man in the cosmos as well. The biblical witness cannot bear witness to the one without also bearing witness to the other, which is included in it. 
- Karl Barth

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Boo Denominations!

Here are a couple of playful images posted over at Robin Parry's blog:

An Approach to Scripture

When we approach Scripture, should we approach it from the standpoint of an I-It relationship or an I-Thou relationship? Both approaches seem to have problems. I-It turns Scripture into a lifeless, passive text that gives us all the power. I-Thou suggests that in dealing with Scripture we are dealing with God himself, thus turning the Bible into an idol.

Perhaps what we encounter in our reading of Scripture is not God directly but the community of God's people who bear faithful witness to the God who makes their life as a community possible. The Thou is not God; it is the Spirit-inspired community through whom alone we can come to know God.

I will have to think about this a lot more, but might it be fair to say this?:

Paul (and the rest of the NT writers?) did not write what we call Scripture so that its readers would come to know God. Scripture therefore, is not primarily -- or at least not only -- a revelation of God. It is a revelation of what it means to be the people of God. The New Testament was written so that its readers would know who the people of God are, and the kind of life which constitutes that people.

To use Hays against Hays, the Bible is about God and us. It has to be. Paul's ecclesiocentric hermeneutic demands that we take the church's role in the drama with full seriousness, because it is through the church the wisdom of God is manifested.

Of course this being true, what I have presented becomes a false dichotomy. Paul wrote Scripture so that his readers would become the kind of community in which and through which God can be known. To paraphrase Barth, the revelation of God and the people of God, the people of God and the revelation of God, are not two things but one.

The little I know of Barth tells me that he might rightly disagree with such a statement, but that's neither here nor there.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Great Sentence

If you take the ruling ideology seriously you are one step from being a dissident. 
- Slavoj Zizek

To paraphrase, if you take Christianity seriously you are one step from being a heretic.

To be somewhat playful, for Zizek, this entails living in the realm forged by a crucified revolutionary who died an atheist. Zizek is right to a degree, but he is not "heretical" enough. To be truly heretical, we must live in the realm forged by a crucified and resurrected revolutionary. To live in light of crucifixion is foolishness; even heresy. To live in the light of resurrection means that that heresy is our only hope.

To find out more about what Zizek means by his quote above, you could spend an hour and a half watching this lecture. This is the kind of thing normal people do in their spare time, right?