Monday, 22 September 2014

Everything is holy now

Although life has been hard going the last few years – well actually, because life has been hard going the last few years – I'm no longer so black and white in the way I see many things. I used to think the alternative to black and white was an unattractive gradient of grey. But as my friend Annabella has suggested, there is another outlook: to see the world in full colour! Even hurt and brokenness is richly textured and infused with God.

Peter Mayer's Holy Now (nice live version) captures that transformation well.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Identity: Volf, Žižek and Rollins

While reading Miroslav Volf's commentary* on 1 Peter I was struck by his thoughts on how the church establishes its identity in the world.

By describing Christians as aliens and strangers in the world, Peter establishes a clear difference between the church and the culture that surrounds it. Volf asserts that, to Peter at least, "It is Christian identity that creates difference from the social environment, not the other way around."

That dynamic is not what normally happens. More commonly, individuals and groups form their identity through the negative process of rejecting the beliefs and practices of others. We define ourselves as "not them". But rejecting the other in order to define ourselves is an oppositional stance that almost inevitably produces resentment and conflict. It makes us insecure and defensive even at the same moment as we are acting superior and aggressive. "We have to push others away from ourselves and keep them at a distance, and we have to close ourselves off from others to keep ourselves pure of their taint."

Peter's alternative is to establish his community's identity through copying from God (1:15-17) and Jesus (2:21-24). He encourages the community to be self-controlled; to be holy; to love deeply from the heart; rid themselves of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander; to recognise themselves as a people belonging to God; submit to authorities and to each other; live in harmony with each other; speak to others with gentleness and respect; rejoice in suffering; etc. None of Peter's exhortations directly question or criticise those outside the community.

Peter surely knows that his advice will set the community apart as something different. He even expects it will result in alienation and persecution. Knowing that, he nevertheless wants to be part of a community that does not repay evil with evil but with a blessing. "But how can people give up violence in the midst of a life-threatening conflict if their identity is wrapped up in rejecting the beliefs and practices of their enemies? Only those who refuse to be defined by their enemies can bless them."

This dovetails perfectly with Žižek's recent comments on the insecurity of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Whereas a true fundamentalist shows an "absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the nonbelievers’ way of life",  the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists lack true conviction and secretly consider themselves inferior. They have already internalised the judgement of the surrounding culture and measure themselves by that judgement. By defining their identity in contra-distinction to "the West" they have done the opposite of what Peter calls the Christian community to do.

Volf's interpretation also connects with Peter Rollins' claim that the Christian community is a place to eschew all identity (Chapter 5 of The Idolatry of God ). On the surface, the two views may seem contradictory. Volf is proposing a specific formulation of Christian and church identity, whereas Rollins argues that Paul, especially in Galatians 3:28, intends to subvert all religious, political and biological identities. For Rollins that radical subversion is a continual process that must even subvert any "Christian" identity.

But Rollins is big on paradox and can also write that "One's concrete identity continues to exist, but it is now held differently." His point is not that we no longer have any identity but that we hold our identities lightly, and that is very similar to Volf's "soft difference". I don’t want to imply that they share the same view: Volf's involves a degree of personal assurance (people who are "secure in their God") that Rollins' considers idolatrous. But they both wish for forms of personal and communal identity that do not fear the Other, and that consequently have no need to subordinate, blame or impose on others.

* Volf, Miroslav. 1994. ‘Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter’. Ex Auditu 10: 15–30.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

What God has torn let no one stitch together

At a Peter Rollins event last night, one participant spoke of how he has lost Jesus and wondered if he was hiding behind some curtain. Someone else countered that the curtain has been torn - I assume referring to (Matthew 27:51.

Peter didn’t pick up that theme, although I know it is at the centre of his upcoming book, The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith. What was revealed behind the curtain in the Temple when it was torn from top to bottom? We'll wait and see how Peter answers that when the book arrives, but I'm sure the answer is going to be along the lines of "Nothing". There was nothing there, and the core outcome of the crucifixion was to reveal the emptiness that often hides behind the curtain of religion.

The curtain in the Temple marked a holy place into which none but the High Priest was allowed. By tearing the curtain, God declared that there was no such space, nowhere that needed to be hidden, and no-one who needed to be kept away.

The thought came to me that too much of institutional church history looks like an attempt to stitch the rent curtain back together again. Have we been guilty of hiding God behind facades of belief? What curtains (or even brick walls!) do we erect that create some false "holy place" to which we deny others access?

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Oceans is a dangerous song

(Originally posted at Men of Strength on 1 March 2014.)

At church this morning we sang Oceans again. Yikes! that is a scarey song!
“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
… Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander …”
I advise you to think carefully before  you voice that request to God. The place of infinite trust is not likely to be a comfortable place. In fact it is guaranteed to be seriously uncomfortable. Within the borders of my comfort zone I rarely need to trust God. Sometimes I can convince myself that I am trusting God, when actually I know that even if the water is over my head I am a pretty good swimmer. But the real place of unbounded trust may involve betrayal, loneliness, poverty, weakness, sickness, loss, failure. You may drown.

That song always reminds me of what has become known as the Wesley Covenant Prayer, which shares the same dangerous idea of consciously giving God permission to do whatever God wants with us.

Only the naïve or brave can say that prayer or sing Oceans.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Released from retribution

An unstated assumption that underlies a lot of my culture's thinking is that evil deserves to be punished. As of today, I no longer believe it.

That change of heart comes from a long line of influences.
  • I read Butler's Erewhon way back about 1985. It's a humourous saga in the same genre as Gulliver's Travels, in which a lost traveller finds a land where physical sickness is punished but criminals are given medical attention.
  • I started a post-grad degree on the topic of forgiveness in mid 1990's and read Murphy and Hampton's wonderful book Forgiveness and Mercy. In that book and other readings at the time I learnt a lot about the retributive principle behind most modern law but also that there are other approaches to justice, including approaches that focus on restoration rather than punishment.
  • I've read plenty of Gandhi and Tutu and other apologists for non-violence. Come to think of it, I've read the Gospels for years!!! I've never been keen on the idea that people "deserve" anything, neither entitled to blessing nor deserving of punishment: the Bible makes plain that we live under grace rather than getting what we deserve.
  • More recently I have given away the belief that God is angry and vengeful, needing to inflict wrath on someone, if not on us then on Jesus. Reading Rob Bell and Rene Girard have helped along that path. Still reading Darrin Belousek's Atonement, Justice, and Peace to understand Jesus' death from a non-retributive point of view.

So why have I continued to believe, however implicitly, that the proper response, the just response, to wrong-doing is to punish the wrong-doer? The assumption has been so deeply ingrained that I have not been able to question it. It is woven into our legal system, into our understanding of God, into our approach to parenting, international relations, the "war on terror", asylum seekers, slave traffickers.

But it is foreign to the attitude shown by Jesus, and foreign to the image Jesus presents of God.

This fell into place for me when Belousek's book commented on these words of Jesus:
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45, NIV)

How does Jesus respond when betrayed by friends, unjustly treated in a legal system, and treated violently to the point of death? Does he show any signs of revenge? Any sign that the people harming him should fear punishment? Of course not! He says "Father forgive them"!

[I've gotta include an aside here to point out that Jesus was in the habit of forgiving people prior to dying as well. He did not need to die in order to be able to forgive people. Consequently, those who believe that Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God should have no problem understanding that God can forgive without Jesus having to die!]

Jesus tells his followers that the appropriate response to evil is love rather than retribution. But what Belousek showed me for the first time was the reason Jesus gives. Why should followers of Jesus not seek revenge? "That you may be children of your Father in heaven." That is, because God does not seek revenge and neither should God's children! God sends sun and rain equally on all people, not just those who deserve it. When we see someone metaphorically striking God on the cheek, we should never expect or hope that God will smite them, nor that God will swing to hit the "sinner" and clobber Jesus instead. Those who strike God on the cheek can expect God to turn the other cheek.

Perhaps I have found it hard to give up the idea that without retribution, people who commit horrible acts will just "get away with it". To eschew retribution can seem too soft and too tolerant of evils that really should be opposed. That misses the point. Certainly one alternative to retribution is to just accept any behaviour and not judge anything to be "evil". But that's certainly not the alternative Jesus promotes. His life stands in clear opposition to evil, and his death displays the power of love over evil. We can take the horror of real evil seriously and seek with all our heart, mind and strength to prevent, expose, and oppose evil, and to heal its consequences, without needing revenge or retributive punishment.

As I walked the streets of Wahroonga in the rain thinking that through, there was a moment of clarity and peace. Released from the need to support the retributive mind-set, I can all the more earnestly seek the well-being of even the most horrible people.

To my friends who figured this out a long time ago, sorry I have been so slow getting to this position. To my friends who still don't see it, come on guys! Catch up!

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Girard Reader

Just finished the rather daunting project of trying to understand Rene Girard through the selection of readings in The Girard Reader. Like most deconstructionist and phenomenological writers, Girard's style makes hard work for the reader! I was very pleased to read at least these main parts of the primary source material but in the end others probably explain Girardian thought better than Girard.

The part of the anthropological story that I think is still missing is what new possibilities the death of Christ brings to human society. Most of these readings focus on the way Christ deconstructs and undermines the dynamics of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating, but there is little on what alternative is created in its place. Girard claims that there is a form of mimesis that does not rely on rivalry: that we can copy Christ who copies a God who has no need to be our rival. But I'd like to see that in more detail.

I also find a core claim of Girard's insufficiently substantiated. He claims that our understanding that the victim can be innocent comes from the cross; that it is the influence of Christianity that has allowed modern society to side with the victim. He shows how this is hinted at throughout the Old Testament, and then more fully expressed in the Gospels. But was scapegoating really universal outside this Judeo-Christian tradition? Was there no other civilisation or philosophy in which some other mechanism was used to maintain social cohesion against the force of mimetic rivalry? Was there really no prior example of victims known to be innocent?

Saturday, 29 March 2014


A friend who is travelling on a similar road to me, away from Evangelicalism towards something that gives the character of God as shown in the words and actions of Jesus more centrality, posed the question of how we now pray. My friend suggested that it is no surprise that the first disciples asked Jesus how they should pray. No doubt they had been taught how to pray before, but Jesus presented them with a new way of viewing God, no longer as just the provider of rain and sun and as creator and judge, but as an intimate father expressed in the story of the two lost sons.

As we move away from treating God as an idol who we expect to fulfil our needs for certainty and satisfaction, how does that change the nature of our conversation with God? As I reflected on my recent prayer practices, there have certainly been changes over the past few years, but none of them fundamentally different.

I have always been fairly Trinitarian in the way I visualise God and consequently how I talk with God. Sometimes I want to complain to the father-image. When I am driving, I often imagine Jesus ("elder brother of my second birth" as George Macdonald calls him) in the passenger seat and we hold a conversation. When I have no idea what to say or how to express my struggle, I open myself to the Holy Spirit, who is the master translator of groans.

As a youngster I was taught a simple pattern of prayer in four stages spelling ACTS: adoration, confession, thanks and supplication. I still find that a useful framework, though I understand it differently.

Instead of adoration I tend to think of acknowledgement: a time when I remind myself of who I take God to be. I affirm that all I see around me finds it's source in God. I remind myself that there is nothing outside God's understanding or interest. God is wild and cannot be contained in any conceptual box, however theologically astute the box-builder might have been!

That leads naturally to some thoughts about who I am in relation to that God, a part of which is a type of confession, though not the sort of confession that's associated with guilt. I have trouble asserting that God is good, or that God will always do what is good for me. At times when it is true, I will admit to God that I feel betrayed. I know there is no point hiding from God and freely admit to feeling lost or confused or lonely.  I re-assert that I nevertheless want to do things that are noble and holy and right and honouring to God. I think about the unhelpful expectations I have held of how life would unfold for me, and how I have misused God to uphold those beliefs.

I thank God for my present reality: for this day, for this view of the sun coming through the clouds, for this body, this mind, this job, this relationship with my family, these friends, this breath.

I do still ask God to do things, and still have an expectation that God is concerned for my concerns and able to act in response to what I ask. I've never been one to claim Biblical promises as though we can force God's hand. But I have an honest conversation with God about my own needs and wishes. I often pray that God would fill the hole left by divorce; that I would not fill that hole with some other substitute. (God hasn't seemed to answer that prayer except to ironically send me Peter Rollins who says that the hole will always be there and that we cannot expect even God to fill it!) But on the other hand I often ask God to help me find a new partner.

A new prayer for me that is now very regular is for God's insight to do away with any self-deception in me.

For many years I followed a weekly cycle of prayers for my wife. I have now turned that into prayers for the family and friends closest to me. On Mondays I pray for their emotions, Tuesday for their use of time and energy, Wed for physical well-being, Thurs for their talents/abilities/studies/career, Fri for their friendships and family relationships, Sat for sexuality and Sunday for spirituality.

Least you start thinking that I must be extremely self-disciplined, I have to add that all the above is a pattern rather than a rule. I do not do all of that each day. It works nicely on the days I drive to Newcastle for work. Often happens incompletely in the five minutes between going to bed and falling asleep.

All of that is to point out that for me, I approach prayer with something of a different attitude, but largely the same practice.  God is not an idol who we can manipulate by our prayers to give us certainty and satisfaction. And yet "you can throw the whole weight of your anxiety on God for you are God's personal concern." Prayer can be more honest than just repeating doctrinal "truths" in an attempt to cover up our doubts and fears and inadequacies.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The image of God in the re-unification of gender

In The Journey of Desire, John Eldredge paints a very noble picture of gender differences and sexuality (Chapter 8, The Grand Affair).

From Gen 1:27 he infers that gender is the means by which God's image is born by us.
God wanted to show the world something of his [sic] strength. Is he not a great warrior? Has he not perfromed the daring rescue of his beloved? And this is why he gave us the sculpture that is man. Men bear the image of God in the dangerous yet inviting strength. Women, too, bear the image of God, but in a much different way. Is not God a being of great mystery and beauty? Is there not something tender and alluring about the essence of the Divine? And this is why he gave us the sculpture that is woman. [p. 136]
I totally agree that these aspects of masculinity and femininity find their source in God and are intertwinned in the character of God. It may be that God needed to create two genders because the richness of all those characteristics could never be expressed by a single creature.

Eldredge quotes Peter Kreeft as saying "This spiritual intercourse with God is the ecstasy hinted at in all earthly intercourse, physical or spiritual." [p. 135] Seeing sexual intercourse as a metaphor for our union with God is key to what makes sex sacred. This has made me think about a further implication: if God had to separate aspects of God's nature to express them in two genders because they could not be contained within a single gender, then the re-unification of those genders through phsyical and psychological intimacy is an even deeper indication of what God is like. The mutual knowing of each other in sex (in ideal holistic sex anyway) – the intertwining of daring and strength and beauty and allure and mystery – is even closer to the image of God than what any of us contain within our single-gendered self.

My problem with the Eldredege quote above, however, is that any attempt to classify the difference between male and female inevitably over-generalises to the detriment of both portraits. Although there are significant differences in the psychology of being male and female and consequently in the ontological categories of masculinity and femininity, defining those differences always seems to me to be unhelpfully stereotypical. Why should daring rescues not be feminine? Why can't being alluring be masculine?

And why does Eldredge continue to use pronouns that imply that the source of these rich gender differences is male? That undermines the key point he seems to be making.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

God didn't tell Eve not to eat the fruit!

Greg Carey writes on the Sojourner's website:
God does not prohibit Eve from eating the fruit. God fills the garden of Eden with trees that bear fruit. Yet God sets apart one tree as forbidden. “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (2:16-17, NRSV). God provides this instruction to Adam but not to Eve. She hadn’t yet been created. Eve apparently hears this news from Adam (3:2-3).
How could I have missed that???????

Eve does *not* disobey anything God told her by eating that fruit, though it is clear from her response to the serpant (3:2-3) that Adam had passed on God's words to her.

Carey also observes that at least part of Eve's reason for eating the fruit was that she sought wisdom. And if the personalification of wisdom as feminine in other parts of the Bible (e.g. Proverbs 8) is any indication, that was an admirable outcome!