Sunday, November 29, 2009

Eucharist and Sacrifice (IV): Some Preliminary Conclusions


[The last extract from my SBL presentation. I have omitted a section discussing Ignatius of Antioch, in hope I can hold something back for a published version!]

Eucharistic meal practice is not merely a passive object of a process wherein a fixed or essential idea of sacrifice was gradually used more and more to interpret it. Meals, here as elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean world, are settings where meaning is made and re-made.

Amid the rather unsystematic evidence for belief and practice concerning Eucharistic meals in these texts, there are at least two tendencies crucial in the subsequent development of sacrificial theories and practices in Christian contexts, and which have been neglected because of assumptions about sacrifice as an essentialized and stable object.

The first is conflation: a tendency by these authors and communities to recast the theory and practice of sacrifice through reinterpretation, combination and other changes to inherited understandings. The prior Septuagintal conflation and adaptation of cultic language and understandings particularly of the key term θυσία (thusia), is itself an assumption in the Didache. But these texts make their own contributions to further forms of re-imagining cultic language and practice, both by applying this biblical imagery directly and literally to new forms of meal and offering and also, in Paul’s case, by drawing new correspondences between the Christian meal and those of Greco-Roman religion.

The second is extension: a tendency to extend the reach and force of sacrificial understandings and interpretations to a wider range of practices. There is no need to identify this process with the “spiritualization” of sacrifice which Philo and the Letter to the Hebrews engage in; it may also be worth noting that these transformations are not dependent on the violent death of Jesus or the tradition of the Last Supper, although for Paul one or both contribute profoundly to his specific proposals. This is an organic, material process of extension from one cultic meal and tradition to another.

These two tendencies are instances, rather than the whole extent of, the transformation of sacrificial theory and practice in the crucible of early Christian meal practice. This crucible was to contribute further to the development of the more familiar ideas of sacrifice so important and yet so contestable for practitioners and theorists of religion alike, both in Eucharistic settings and otherwise.

These earliest texts certainly do not show all the features ultimately assumed as the meaning of “sacrifice” in contexts such as Medieval Eucharistic theology—strikingly, none of them is particularly interested in the Eucharist as an expiatory or substitutionary sacrifice at all. Other early Christian texts will manifest more profound unease about the logic and practice of both Jewish and pagan offerings.

These discussed above however are witness to the fact that what is typically called “sacrifice” can neither simply be identified or denied at the earliest identifiable level of Eucharistic origins, partly because it does not (yet) exist. Or to put it another way, “sacrifice” in this sense is both present, and absent, and in formation.

Untying the Knot: Church, State and Same-sex Unions

[a version of this piece was run by the Fairfax media in Australia as an op-ed on their combined National Times site on November 27]

Is it time to change the way Australian law deals with marriage? As the Prime Minister and the ACT government wrangle over civil unions for same-sex couples, it seems the peculiarity of Australian marriage law has led to a situation unhelpful and unproductive for governments, celebrants and couples alike.

Although most Australians now marry in civil ceremonies, these are secularized versions of a religious model, not a genuinely civil construction. Kahlil Gibran, balloons or doves and tapes of Michael Bublé have simply (if unaccountably) replaced St Paul, candles and Mendelssohn on the organ, but the knot is still tied by ritual.

Despite a general understanding that Church and State are separate, Australia has inherited a feature of the established religion that still prevails in the UK, in the form of religious ceremonies with actual legal force. Unlike European countries and the USA, where the contracting of a marriage is a purely civil matter and ceremonies optional according to personal belief, England’s and Scotland’s established Churches can and do marry all comers, as agents of the state.

Australia inherited and continued this connection, despite the fundamental constitutional difference. Since there is no single established Church, instead the Marriage Act of 1961 allows for any Church to nominate ministers “to meet the needs of the denomination”, who are then authorized to solemnize marriages. Civil “celebrancy” (has anyone pointed this one out to Don Watson?) emerged as a secular counterpart to this oddity.

It is the continued centrality of ceremonial—traditional or tasteless as it may be in a given case—that now provokes the difficulty over civil unions in the ACT and elsewhere. The inclusion of a ritual for civil unions as part of the ACT legislation does, as conservative objectors point out, mimic marriage as Australians know it. What is less well-understood is how peculiarly Australian this situation is.

We still find ritual significant, whether or not we find religion so. And the provision for ritual that meets changed and changing needs for marriages, as well as other life transitions, remains a reasonable hope. Yet this need lies far outside the proper realm of government; and the unwarranted confusion, having thus far lain dormant in our history, is now causing some difficulty and even injustice.

Although there are many Australians who seem uneasy about civil ceremonies for same-sex couples—the Prime Minister is savvy enough to feel there are votes to lose on this front—I suspect many of the same Australians feel it is iniquitous for same-sex couples not to have equivalent legal protections and security to those of conventionally-married couples. Yet where people of different faiths and none might, given the chance, agree over such legal protections for couples of the same sex, regardless of whether they all think such unions constitute marriage as traditionally understood, the ACT legislation and that in Tasmania (where the Federal government has no power to complain) repeats the problem enshrined in the Federal Marriage Act—it makes the ritual the point.

The Federal government would do better to withdraw from the realm of offering credentials to religious and civil celebrants alike, but to ensure that appropriate legal safeguards exist for traditional marriages, and for civil unions between persons of the same sex (as well as for de facto couples, as appropriate).

Couples should contract marriages, and other unions legally provided for, in a purely civil setting, and then be able to seek appropriate forms of celebration (if any) for their needs. Religious groups should similarly be free to express in their own rituals, and in the choice of those whom they welcome to them, the beliefs and values fundamental to their traditions.

There is still room for argument about the character and desirability of different forms of relationship, as there is about Churches, good taste and sexuality itself—yet government exists to ensure the inclusion and security of all, not the continued marginalization of any group for the sake of a knot between legal marriage and public ritual than would best be untied.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Eucharist and Sacrifice (III): The Septuagint, and the Didache


The Didache or 'Teaching of the Twelve Apostles' is the next surviving document after Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians directly to address the communal sacral meal of the Christians. This late first or early second century 'Church Order' document also gives a variety of prescriptions for ethics and liturgical life. It also uses the language of sacrifice to refer to the Christian meal.

If Paul’s appropriation and reconstruction of cultic logic for the meal is largely structural, the evidence of the Didache is more linguistic; but it assumes an earlier re-casting of sacrificial language, that of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Bible (i.e., Old Testament) that was read and used by most early Christians.

The Hebrew Bible does not have a single or simple term for 'sacrifice'. English translations are all confounded by this, and attempt to supply extended and tendentious phrases, including common elements like 'offering' and 'sacrifice' which are not there in the Hebrew, to translate the different forms of ritual prescribed (e.g.) in Leviticus.

The ancient translators of the Bible into Greek had a slightly different problem. The Septuagint’s use of Greek vocabulary to translate the sacrificial system of Israel was a more radical step than it might seem at first glance. To use words that were associated with idolatrous offerings involved a willingness to draw correspondences between the practices depicted in the OT narratives and still carried out in the Jerusalem Temple and those involved with Greco-Roman cults.

Among the choices made, the Septuagint uses the Greek word θυσία (thusia)--which refers in Greek religion to animal offerings slaughtered and shared as a feast among participants (with a portion burnt for the god)--as preferred translation for both Levitical zebaḥ and minḥāh. The first of these seems a close fit, since it is the word used referring to the peace or communion offerings of slaughtered animals prescribed in Leviticus, typically involving a shared meal. The second however refers to offerings of grain, made into cakes, not to animal sacrifice.

This step in translation draws grain or meal offerings into a closer relationship with other alimentary sacrifices
than might otherwise have been assumed, as well as making a clear statement of a cross-cultural nature about the parallel between the cultic practices of Judaism and those of the gentiles.

The extension of the meaning of θυσία in both these directions is significant; for present purposes, it paves the way for an extension of Greek cultic language to the meatless but bread-centred Eucharistic meal setting, simply as a direct and descriptive (and biblical) means of speaking about a sacral meal, even a meatless one.


The Didache uses the Greek term θυσία twice in ch. 14, both times in reference to the Eucharistic gathering, as well as in quoting Malachi 1:11 and 14, all within a brief prescription for Sunday meetings. Confession of sins is urged that the “sacrifice may be pure (καθαρὰ)” (14.1) or “may not be profaned (κοινωθῇ)” (14.2).


It is important that the Didache can use this language of "sacrifice" for the Eucharistic meal, despite the lack of knowledge of, or at least explicit interest in, the death of Jesus or themes of atonement and blood sacrifice in the document, because in this context θυσία does not need to entail these things.

The Septuagintal re-imagining of the Temple cereal offerings and of θυσία in terms of each other has opened a somewhat different path for the meaning of "sacrifice", and the Didache pursues it.


[I have used a different font for this post because it contained the required unicode extended characters to show my Hebrew transliteration and my Greek!]

Eucharist and Sacrifice (II): Paul to the Corinthians


Paul’s discussion of the communal meal at Corinth in 1 Cor 10 draws on a broad set of images and associations from both Jewish Temple cultus and practices more familiar to gentile Corinthians in local temples.

Paul argues that the meal is a sort of communion in the offering of a unique victim: “The cup of blessing that we bless [is] a sharing in the blood of Christ… The bread that we break…a sharing in the body of Christ…”

He draws an analogy with the Jerusalem cultus, not in relation to victims or offerings as such but with regard to the effect of sharing among participants:

“Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?” (18). The Christians’ “participation” in the body and blood of Christ works in the same sense that worshippers at the Jerusalem temple are participants in the “altar”, a sort of synecdoche for the cultus as a whole.

Paul then juxtaposes Christian and pagan meal types directly. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” By analogy to Jewish participation in Jerusalem cult meals, devotees at Corinthian temples are in communion with the gods in their cultic meals.

However the specific homology of cup and table Paul draws, of the Lord and of demons, is constructed not between the Christian meals and the Jerusalem cultus, but between Christian and Greco-Roman pagan meals, which are understood therefore as strictly parallel as well as mutually exclusive events.

Paul thus suggests that the Christian meal is not merely a sort of shared supper expressing friendship or memorializing Jesus, but an effective analogue to cultic meals based in the Jerusalem Temple, and a superior as well as benign alternative to those celebrated by gentiles. Both comparisons influence his presentation of the meal; Paul’s theory of the Christian meal as cultic is not merely a reinterpretation or extension of the Levitical system of the Old Testament, but a presentation of the new meal as comparable to cultic meals of the gentiles.

So Paul actually creates here his own cross-cultural theory of sacrifice, to the extent that he suggests a set of generally-applicable understandings about cult meals as communion with the deity and between the participants. The Christian meal is indeed “sacrificial”, if by this we can understand not mere equivalence to older and other practices, but a dynamic reuse and reinterpretation of them.

Paul does not present Eucharistic meals as cultic merely as in relation to the Last Supper tradition as usually assumed; this is of course crucial for him, but is not discussed until the following chapter. Rather Christian meals are presented as directly bound up in a broader language and logic of offerings and sacrifices; yet in a new construction of ritual and cultus, Paul arguably changes the meaning of “sacrifice” even as he employs its logic.

Eucharist and Sacrifice: Rethinking the Origins (I)

Aztec human sacrifice
[From my paper at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in New Orleans, November 2009: "Sacrificing Eucharists: The Earliest Christian Ritual Meals and their Cultic Context"]

The relationship between the Christian Eucharist and sacrifice has long been debated. In this paper I wish not so much to ask yet again whether the Eucharist is sacrificial, as to question the consensus about the sacrifice whose reality or absence is contested. The first question must really be “is there such a thing as sacrifice?”

The first response of many to questioning the assumption that sacrifice even exists may be akin to Mark Twain’s response to the question of his belief in infant baptism: “Believe in it? Hell, I’ve seen it”. Those of us who have got at least our intellectual hands dirty—bloody even—with the realia or the literary remnants of sacrifice may initially find the suggestion odd.

What I mean to challenge is not the historical reality of the various ritual offerings grouped by scholars and others under this name; it is to ask whether the category of sacrifice itself is entirely defensible, and whether it is really such an obvious and stable concept to be evoked in interpretive practice of texts or objects without profound critical qualification.

“[The idea of Sacrifice] reveals”, suggests French classicist Marcel Detienne, “the surprising power of annexation that Christianity still subtly exercises on the thought of…historians and sociologists who were convinced they were inventing a new science.”

Detienne suggests that general theories of sacrifice, from Frazer through Robertson Smith and Durkheim, and on to their fulfilment perhaps in the curious and controversial work of René Girard, confuse a Judeo-Christian religious mythos with scientific method: they tend, for instance, to posit an essential or original sacrifice, sometimes of the self-offering god or hero; and thence they seek or find particular features, such as the altruistic human or divine victim, and an emphasis on substitution or expiation, typically with animal offerings as the proxy for human ones, as the interpretive key to a range of rituals and offerings which might otherwise not be seen in these terms.

The basic questions raised by such a critique cannot be resolved here; but if it is correct in whole or in part, the invention of “sacrifice” as a cross-cultural or totalizing theory does not really begin with Frazer, Robertson Smith and the now often-raked-over history of modern anthropological theory, but in the ancient world, and in the same crucible of theory and practice in which Christianity and Judaism arise.

Jews and Christians in the Hellenistic and Late Antique worlds found themselves changing the language of cultus and the practices to which they applied it, and so to explore these ancient ideas and practices is therefore to explore the origins of sacrifice, as generally understood. Once we critique claims to universal applicability of this idea of sacrifice, it can become more historically (and ultimately theologically) interesting, rather than less.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

God in Early Christian Thought

[An extract from the preface of my new (edited, with Tim Gaden and Brian Daley SJ) book, God in Early Christian Thought; Essays in Memory of Lloyd G. Patterson)]

Early Christian studies have changed. New emphases on diversity of thought and practice, and on the experience and belief of Christians other than the great theologians, mean more and deeper attention to a variety of ancient texts beyond those previously regarded as useful or revealing, as well as to material evidence. The diversity of Christian discourses and rituals, the distinctive experiences connected with class and gender, concerns about the construction of the body as well as the progress of the soul, and the role and function of languages and texts themselves, are now being given fresh and deeper attention.

In the more specific realm of ideas and their history, theoretical assumptions somewhat different from those of classical historical theology now elucidate the most foundational of ancient theological texts. And scholars exploring the beliefs of the ancient Christians are less likely to focus their inquiry exclusively on the work of great theologians, but have come more and more to consider the thoughts, experiences and practices of various women and men, so far as they are accessible. Thus the great tradition of emergent Catholic Christianity once easily evoked by the term “Patristics” is increasingly viewed in relation to a diversity at best imperfectly dealt with by categories of “orthodoxy” and “heresy”.

In this different intellectual landscape, where practice is emphasized and doctrinal clarity challenged, the question of God is perennial and fundamental. This volume ventures into that area of greatest scope, editors and contributors aware not only of the trepidation proper to mystery, but also of new pitfalls, as well as opportunities, arising from the methods and interests now deemed appropriate or necessary.

Since the idea of a comprehensive or definitive approach to the topic is more problematic than ever, these essays take a variety of approaches to the early Christian experience of God that reflect the changes just described. While individually modest in scope, they seek to address questions of both ancient and modern significance, using particular issues and problems, or single thinkers and distinct texts, as means to engage far larger questions. They include studies of doctrine and theology as traditionally understood, but also explorations of early Christian understandings of the Christian God that emerge from liturgy, art, and asceticism, and in relation to the social order and to nature itself.

In their various ways these studies all grapple with what is arguably the distinctively Christian problem and promise: of holding the philosophical impossibility and the soteriological imperative of knowing God in creative tension.

[More information here.]

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mixed Blessings on Anglican Road to Rome


[This appears also as the lead article in Eureka Street for October 23 '09]

There has been a wide range of responses so far, many of them understandably emotional, to the announcement that structures for Anglicans who wish full communion with the Roman Catholic Church are being prepared. In Britain the stakes are particularly high, since the timing of the move will affect current conversations within the Church of England about women bishops and how to accommodate dissenters.

Most of the focus has been on Anglicans, and particularly the conservative Anglo-Catholics who are likely to seek such unity. These have grown into a distinct strand of Anglicanism since the 19th century Oxford Movement, which sought first a revival of Catholic piety and theology drawing on both medieval English and later Roman sources, and ultimately led to the appearance of a movement focussing on liturgy and spirituality of great aesthetic and theological depth. That movement however became deeply divided over women’s ordination (and now also sexuality, despite the undoubted presence of many gay men among them).

Conservatives today view the more liberal wing of Anglo-Catholicism, embodied by the current Archbishop of Canterbury, with deep suspicion. Many of these are understandably relieved to have the prospect of recognition and stability of their liturgical practice, within the fulfilment of a long-held hope for visible unity with Rome.

Other Anglicans however are hurt and bemused, especially those who have committed themselves to ecumenical endeavour while expecting the integrity of existing Anglican structures to be respected.

And last but not least there will be an odd and brief consensus among both more liberal and more evangelical Anglicans, who will share relief at the prospect of a ‘rump’ moving along and leaving the main game in the current inner-Anglican struggle to them. This is likely to be the Australian experience, where most of those lining up to embrace the new structures either joined Anglican separatist groups long ago, or now huddle in a few embattled parishes.

But Roman Catholics will have their own mixed feelings too, sooner or later. One Roman Catholic colleague apologized to me at a meeting yesterday, obviously embarrassed by a gesture seen by many in both communions as undiplomatic at best. Many other loyal Catholics will share unease at this step away from a long and costly process towards greater mutual understanding and cooperation within the existing forms of Church we know. Christians in both Churches and others will wonder how to calculate the cost of unity-by-disunity.

Liberal Roman Catholics have particular reason to be perturbed at the influx of a group of ex-Anglicans who have self-selected, not so much by ecumenical zeal or real engagement with the life and faith of the Catholic Church, but dogged adherence to certain positions on gender roles and human sexuality which tend to bespeak a broader conservatism.

Of course others, especially conservatives, are rejoicing. The conservative Catholic blogosphere, where the enthusiasm of the convert is often very much in evidence, is hailing the move. They too, however, may have cause for circumspection when the new ‘ordinariate’ becomes reality. The prospect that these quondam-Anglicans can not only have married clergy but train new married seminarians, and maintain a liturgy related to the Book of Common Prayer, may be a mechanism in which some detect a ticking sound.

Unlike the Uniate groups like Eastern Catholics of various kinds, the Anglican ordinariate will breathe the same cultural and social air as standard Western-rite Catholicism, and the boundaries will be highly porous.

Will there not be Roman Catholic aspirants to ordination who find life in the Anglican ordinariate a more attractive prospect than clerical celibacy? Will there not be aspects of the Anglican Prayer Book tradition whose lex orandi continues to lead such Anglican-rite Catholics to different understandings of Church, ministry and sacraments than their Roman Catholic brethren (let alone the resurgent ‘extraordinary use’ sub-group)?

One of my late Jesuit teachers, Noel Ryan, told his classes that he believed the conversion of John Henry Newman—leader of the Oxford Movement which had such an impact on Anglicanism, before his change of allegiance—had a significant effect on the history of Roman Catholicism, including and especially on the spirit of Vatican II. Roman Catholicism will itself be affected by these moves; perhaps for better, perhaps for worse, but most likely both.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Lord's Supper in Uncertain Hands


Is the Eucharist (or Lord's Supper or Holy Communion or Mass...) a necessary or characteristic practice of the Christian Church, or of Anglicanism in particular? Until very recently there could have been no doubt about the answer to the question. Like other Christians, Anglicans regard the sacramental meal as a distinctively Christian action, commanded by Jesus, observed in universal tradition, and enshrined in Anglican formularies, from the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion to the Lambeth Quadrilateral.

Not necessarily in Sydney, however. While many Anglicans are aware of the somewhat idiosyncratic position held in Sydney on the subject of presidency or leadership at the Eucharist, fewer seem to have realized that this debate is the tip of a much bigger sacramental iceberg.

Lay presidency reared its head again last October when two organisations strongly associated with the leadership of the Diocese of Sydney published The Lord's Supper in Human Hands, an oddly-named (weren't Jesus' hands human?) apologia for lay presidency. It takes the form of essays that seek to explain and argue for the position in Sydney's terms. Despite some unevenness, it probably does that about as well as it could; perhaps those who share the sort of biblical minimalism that characterizes some Sydney Anglican theology might find themselves won over. Others will be somewhat helped in understanding that position, at the same time as better understanding how odd it is in Anglican terms.

Yet the apologetic character of the book means that it does not reveal everything about where the issue stands, even in Sydney itself. For despite the appearance often given of a monolithic party-line approach to this issue, there are differences underlying it that are more startling than the public dispute between Sydney and others about liturgical leadership.

Last night's showing of "Anglicans: Sydney Style" by Compass on ABC television included a brief but telling reference to the celebration of the Holy Communion at Northmead Anglican Church; apparently they don't. Or rather, they believe that fellowship meals rather than the sacrament of the Holy Communion are an expression of following Jesus: "We wouldn't have the Lord's Supper in a formal ritualized sense because that's not how people do meals in our community".

Northmead's weekly bulletin is peppered with references to prayer breakfasts and seniors' lunches (and an advertisement inviting you to 'come and meat the community' at the butcher's shop!), but there is no mention of the Lord's Supper. Northmead may or may not be exceptional in Sydney, I can't tell; but they are not alone.

Sydney support for lay presidency began with a strongly principled "reformed" position about the relationship between Word and Sacrament. Proponents of change seem to have felt that the opening-up of lay participation and leadership in ministries of the Word in recent decades revealed or reinforced a sort of sacerdotalism, insofar as such openness did not extend to sacramental leadership. This is clearly the position Archbishop Peter Jensen himself holds, along with a continued valuing of, and reverence for, the Lord's Supper.

Yet for some other Sydney Anglicans, the Word/Sacrament contest is more like a fight to the death than a jostling for precedence. At Moore College itself there is some sympathy for the view that Jesus did not institute an ongoing sacramental practice at all. In two editions of Matthias Media's The Briefing in 1993 (124) and 94 (128), John Woodhouse - now Principal of Moore College - argued precisely that. Surveying the NT evidence, Dr Woodhouse argues that it does not lead to the conclusion Jesus instituted a sacramental meal. Responding to some letters arising, in the second Briefing he reasserts that the Lord's Supper is not a clear command of Jesus, and that the 'traditions of men' are not to be imposed on Christians [I add that I can't be sure of whether Dr Woodhouse still holds these positions].

Northmead shows the results. Being an historian of eucharistic origins myself, I acknowledge the complexity of determining the relationship between Jesus, meal traditions and the sacramental practice of the Church, and the need to explore the issues without fear or favour. I also believe strongly in the necessity of revealing the character of the Holy Communion as meal in its use of liturgical symbolism, and in the importance for the Church of sharing food in other ways, not least with the hungry.

Yet I have no doubt what the conclusions of Christian orthodoxy about the practice of the Holy Communion are, as one of the two sacraments connected with Jesus himself, and constitutive from the earliest times of the Christian Church. And like many others I am wondering how the language of "orthodoxy" in the Anglican Communion can be claimed at all, let alone exclusively, by or for those who are so far from the universal tradition of the Church.

The Lord's Supper in Human Hands (eds. Peter Bolt, Mark Thompson & Robert Tong; Camperdown, NSW: Australian Church Record/Australian Church League, 2008).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rights and Wrongs: Religious Freedom and Equal Opportunity in Australia

The Government of Victoria, Australia, recently pre-empted a Parliamentary review of Equal Opportunity legislation by announcing that Churches and religious groups would be exempt from the provisions of laws preventing discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation, marital status and parental status.

Strictly speaking, what these exemptions offer is not discrimination as such, but an opportunity for the Church to make choices about discrimination which others will be denied. If it is possible to view this positively, it means the Churches can do freely in their own terms what the rest of society must.

There have of course been significant criticisms of the move, largely from those outside the Church concerned with legal reform and human rights, but in at least one articulate case from an Anglican bishop, John McIntyre of Gippsland. His response in the Melbourne Age encouragingly raised questions of justice, not merely of defence of privilege.

Beyond McIntyre’s voice however there is little sign that Victorian Christians will see the new situation as an opportunity to do more, rather than an excuse to do less.

At its recent Synod, the Melbourne Anglican Diocese passed a resolution expressing support for the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, and recalling with pride its own support in 1971 of decriminalization of homosexuality. This was encouraging, except that the motion was amended to remove reference to support for legal recognition of same-sex unions.

The debate on that amendment suggested a failure, not only to look beyond the fence created around the Churches by the equal opportunity exemptions, but to respect and support civil rights outside the Church. A number of speakers for instance referenced comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury about blessing gay and lesbian unions in Churches, as though these were prescriptive for determining Christian responses to rights in civil society.

Rejection of legal recognition in civil society for same-sex couples on the basis that their lifestyle is incompatible with Christianity (as was claimed in the debate, and effectively endorsed in the result) is not only a deeply questionable outcome in terms of justice but a colossal confusion of Church tradition with civil rights.

Were this logic applied elsewhere when the Church considers human rights issues, we would ask whether, for instance, an Indian student beaten up by thugs in the outer suburbs of Melbourne were a Muslim or Hindu before deciding whether they were entitled to the same legal protections as others.

Refusing to distinguish between the freedom bestowed on the Church in its internal dealings, and the necessary responsibility proper to society as a whole, undermines any claim the Churches (or at least their conservative members) might make for seeking respect for specific religious positions while affirming justice. In reality, the same logic drives exclusion in the Church and failure to support rights and freedoms outside it.

Melbourne Anglicans have half-stumbled at one hurdle; there will be many more in the future. Most obviously, Anglicans here now need to grasp the odd freedom they have been given to act unjustly in a clear and forthright way - by refusing to exercise it.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Jesus Calling: Religion in the Songs of David McComb


[This week sees the launch of two books related to the late David McComb and the Triffids. To commemorate the event I post a second extract from my essay, "Jesus Calling", in one of the books, Vagabond Holes, edited by Chris Coughran and Niall Lucy and published by Fremantle Press]

Late in 2006, Australian author Nikki Gemmel wrote of feeling her expatriate “eyes prickle” while reading the lyrics to “Wide Open Road” in Meanjin during an agnostic celebration of Christmas in London. McComb’s lyrics and music have that eye-prickling effect for many people, not least for Australians of a certain age but apparently for Scandinavians and Belgians too. Their evocative power is usually connected with yearning involving love, distance, or time, the capacity to open up some infinite horizon and our distance from it. These lost horizons and flashes of nostalgia always suggest transcendent questions, which if not institutionally religious are inevitably theological.

Overtly religious themes and images do sometimes play an important part in McComb’s construction of that “eye-prickling” distance between the human being who is both singer and hearer, and a horizon, various constructed geographically (infinite distance), historically (nostalgia), and at times more explicitly theologically. The specific character of that religious imagery, unsystematic and sometimes surprising, sheds some light on the curious and powerful character of his songs generally.

From Treeless Plain onward, a lyric strategy emerges where some aspect of God, the Church or its accoutrements emerges—sometimes quite in passing—to evoke a sort of religion curiously alien to the world the Triffids’ music arose in. Treeless Plain and Raining Pleasure speak to the baby boomer Australians whose experience of religion is itself a wasteland. The songs have little connection with the tired suburban Protestantism of late twentieth-century Australia, but flirt with religious images drawn from American musical traditions that McComb had absorbed for years, and which were also a common part of his Australian contemporaries’ experience of popular culture. This world of chapels for crying and convents to find refuge in, of flawed priests and whooping preachers, of ecstatic prayer and grovelling penitence, waits in the background of his lyrical constructions and occasionally bursts through the lines of his writing.

The power of these religious images, whether sporadic or sustained, comes in part from their own strangeness to the Australian ear. They belong in large part to the world of popular culture which post-war Australians had discovered, through television and radio, as a sort of wonderland. At a distance where detail was unimportant, McComb was even less constrained than Hollywood myth-makers in combining elements of American religiosity (or anything else) that belonged to traditions as disparate as New England Puritanism and frontier revivalism. The result is a world still partly Western Australian, but with Nashville and New Orleans neighbourhoods of a former generation just around the corner.

McComb’s best-known use of religious language and images is also one of his most explicit quotations from any lyrical source, the use of “The Three Bells” in “Bury Me Deep in Love”. The borrowing is unapologetic:

And the little congregation gathers,
Prays for guidance from above;
Hear our meditation;
Lead us not into temptation,
But give us some kind of explanation…

“The Three Bells” evoked a white-washed chapel among hills in Maine or Michigan, where the French original (“Les Trois Cloches”) had envisaged Roman Catholic ritual and practice in rural Europe. Although the English translation is relatively faithful, the more commonly-recorded and truncated version erases references to infant baptism and a priest—less attractive to the mindset of the New World’s implied audience. Yet the two versions present the same neat and cyclical view of an unchanging world, whose religious institutions exist to mark and bless the safe and secure transitions of its collective life.

McComb’s use of the song drags it from the neat depiction of a life-cycle into a ragged existential quest. The Chapel is now set in a valley framed by a precipice, from which a “lonesome climbing figure, slips and loses grip”. Its spire stands not to summon a rural community, but as a guide “for travelling strangers in distress”, embodied by that fallen unknown. The contrast between the two images, of pastoral piety and desperate searching, drives the song, and the plea of the chorus and title is then far more than that of an average love ballad.

The chorus is addressed to an unnamed ultimate reality, first called upon to take the fallen seeker and “bury him deep in love”. The cry to “take him in, under your wing” is a biblical allusion (see, e.g., Psalm 17:8), yet at some points in the song the plea is transferred from the divine to a more immediate and human desire for love, as the singer asks “bury me deep in love”.

Yet a continued theological strand appears in the addition to the chorus of “The Three Bells”, where the congregation goes past its modest prayers about meditation and temptation to demand “some kind of explanation/Bury us deep in love”. The inhabitants of this rural religious synthesis have broken out of their caricature and improvised, a little shockingly, on their own script. As they do so, they seek a theological as well as an existential or affective response. The thick texture of symbolism manages to coexist with an element of protest, and of profound doubt.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

Those Miserable Psalms


In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a reasonably common view of the Psalms is presented by none other than God. King Arthur and his knights receive a vision of the Almighty and immediately grovel; God responds:
Oh, don't grovel! If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling.
ARTHUR: Sorry--
GOD: And don't apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it's "sorry this" and "forgive me that" and "I'm not worthy". What are you doing now!?
ARTHUR: I'm averting my eyes, oh Lord.
GOD: Well, don't. It's like those miserable Psalms-- they're so depressing. Now knock it off!
Here on Sunday evenings through the year, and also morning and evening through the week without the refinement of music and dignified robes, a handful or a dozen or a hundred people gather in this Chapel and pray, or try to pray, the Psalms.

Psalm 78 of which we earlier heard a portion sung tonight as the Psalm is not actually constructed as a prayer at all, but as a kind of historical narrative woven into a sermon; it begins with a bidding to the hearer:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us...
Referring to “dark” sayings, the Psalmist acknowledges that the history to be recounted is difficult; and what is told here is the history of the Exodus, of Moses and the Israelites escaping Egypt but then struggling with one another and with God in the wilderness for years. This Psalm may be the oldest intact literary version of that story we have, older than the final prose versions of the story contained in the books of Moses themselves. The portion the Choir sang this evening refers to the gifts of water and manna and quails given by God to feed the Israelites in the desert after their escape from Egypt, but in this story the dysfunctional relationship continues despite these triumphs, again God is wrathful, and the people rebellious.

The Psalms reflect the lived experience of ancient Israelites, across a spectrum of lament and praise, bitterness and joy, murderous rage and soaring hope, “dark sayings” and all. Sometimes they are moralizing and historical like Ps 78; other times more personal and poignant. And yes, they are sometimes just miserable and depressing. The Psalms can seem to embody what so many people who are reasonable, moral and enlightened find difficult about religion; namely that they seem at best a mixture of high-minded principles and backward tendencies or beliefs, and at worst vehicles or excuses for chauvinism and violence.

Yet they have always been at the heart of Christian communal prayer, as of Jewish prayer. The twentieth-century theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, known to a few Australians because of our Prime Minister’s published interest in his work, wrote a short book for the students at the College where he ministered about praying the Psalms. He reminded his readers “It is not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray”.

This may seem to underline the difficulty; but the point is precisely that the Psalms do not allow us to depict ourselves before God the way we want to be, but compel us to be the way we and the world really are. They do not express the highest and purest ideals of spirituality or charity at all points, but neither do we. If you pray the Psalms, you exclude the possibility of coming before God having deceived yourself about who is speaking. You come not merely as a wishful thinker but as one who succeeds and fails, as one who hates and loves, as one who believes and who doubts. Clothing our prayer with the Psalms strips us of pretension and self-deceit.

This is essential to prayer, but may not be quite enough. How are we to deal with the difficulty of our brokenness, or our own propensity to reject or damage ourselves and others, even if we have acknowledged all the wrath and bitterness and revenge?

Bonhoeffer suggests that because the Psalms are historically the prayers of Jesus – prayers which he too, an observant Jew, said or sang with his own community of faith – that we can read and sing them too, as though with him. Reading and singing the Psalms with Jesus means insisting that the radical and all-encompassing love of God is the ultimate horizon of interpretation. It does not do away with the “dark sayings” any more than Jesus was kept from the obscurity and pain of the cross or Dietrich Bonhoeffer from torture and execution; but in Christ we claim all these things are not ignored but transformed.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Interpreting the Bible: Slavery and Sexuality (The Strangeness of Scripture V)


During the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century, Americans became increasingly divided on the question of slavery. Common however across the political divide, due to the success of the Great Awakening and then the Evangelical Revival, was a tendency towards acceptance of the clear authority of the Scriptures understood in their plain, literal sense. Amid the increasing confusion of denominationalism, “Scripture alone” had taken on a somewhat new sense and power; all else divided, and Scripture alone united.

As the conflict over slavery escalated, first in the political arena and then ultimately in America’s bloodiest war, the equal appeal in both North and South to the plain meaning of scripture as the basis for the utterly opposing positions held seems rarely to have led to circumspection about the principles of interpretation themselves, largely because they were the same. The result seems to have been confusion and anger, and a paradoxical failure to maintain theological conversation that made its own contribution to the conflict to come.

A British observer, James Stirling, was an opponent of slavery but confessed himself quite convinced, exegetically at least, by the arguments of the southern preacher Albert Taylor Bledsoe:
I must confess that, as against his opponents the orthodox Abolitionists, he is perfectly triumphant…[A consideration of the patriarchs, the Mosaic law, and the New Testament] are irresistible proofs that the institution was recognized by the founders both of Judaism and Christianity. How those who adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible…are to reconcile these facts with modern anti-slavery notions, it is, thank goodness, no business of mine to find out.
While not all are convinced by contemporary theological arguments that compare the change of heart and mind by most western Christians over the Bible and slavery to the more controversial shift in some Christians’ thinking about human sexuality, there is a clear analogy in historical and hermeneutical terms in the insistence on the part of some that the teaching of the Bible is clear and unavoidable, and the insistence by others that the teaching of the Bible is quite different. While the conflict is less dreadful in terms of violence, there is also a real parallel in the way opposing and inflexible claims about what scripture supposedly says clearly and irrefutably are linked to a breakdown of relationship.

Dogged insistence that the teaching of the Bible is clear has been applied again and again historically in areas where it subsequently seemed to be far less clear. It is evident that a variety of opinion exists in the Anglican Communion over some issues concerning human sexuality. Does the undoubted existence of biblical texts which take a negative attitude to genital sexual acts between persons of the same sex really constitute a clear basis for dealing with same-sex unions in the 21st century? The question is at the very least contestable by most measures. How then should we proceed?

The clearest thing is that talk of "parting of the ways" and more explicitly schismatic language and actions are poorly supported, even and especially when an issue is so contestable. Schism is not supported by the necessity of the ecclesial context for scriptural interpretation. It is not supported by what should be accepted of classical theological views of the clarity of scripture. And it is not supported by a deeper understanding of the Word of God than is shown in accounts of interpretation that limit the meaning of the Word to the scriptural text.

[See further Mark A.Noll, “The Bible and Slavery”, in Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles Reagan Wilson, eds., Religion and the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Picture of Albert Taylor Bledsoe from the University of Virgina]

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Clarity of Scripture (The Strangeness of Scripture IV)


The Anglican Communion worldwide is in continued uproar, with an undoubted if ill-defined realignment in progress. Today (July 6th 2009) the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans will be launched in England, marking another step on the awkward and painful journey variously characterized as one to division or renewal.

The topic of Scripture arises here not only because of its perennial importance to the Church, but because of the centrality given to Scripture and its interpretation in the Anglican conflicts to which I have referred.

There may be some in the Anglican Communion who have lessened the place of the Scriptures vis-à-vis other texts, or who regard aspects of experience or other sources of authority as equal to biblical revelation. They are not all professedly “Liberal”, but there is little point in dismissing the possibility that the caricatures laid by conservatives at the feet of the American and Canadian Churches, and perhaps also in some corners of the Church of England and here in Australia, could not correspond in certain instances to reality. Whether these are the profound or all-pervasive realities depicted in some parts of the Anglican blogosphere is another matter entirely. The greater problem is that Anglicans, who as a whole tend not merely to respect but to love Scripture, genuinely differ about its import in certain cases. My concern here is not to relativise the place of scripture but to consider the conditions necessary for its interpretation, with Scripture itself an indispensable guide for that process.

So while the problem of not taking scripture seriously enough exists in the Church, there may be other problems too. The most obvious is not the equal and opposite, because it does not seem that the Church can take scripture too seriously. There is however a danger that the type of seriousness with which the Church engages with scripture is misconceived.

Much of the rhetoric of interpretation used in the GAFCON study document The Way, the Truth and the Life has to do with "clarity".

I have no great quarrel with what I take to be the genuine or classical doctrines of scriptural clarity and perspicuity, which as defined in a document like the Westminster Confession does not mean that scripture is universally clear or its meanings obvious, but that can be read faithfully, and the message of the Gospel – the Gospel of God’s saving love as uniquely known in the person of Christ – can be discerned therein, without necessarily being provoked or catalysed directly by the teaching authority of the Church.
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Westminster Confession, 1.7)
Despite the focus even in the classically-Reformed Westminster Confession on the clarity of the Gospel rather than of the canonical scriptures per se, many subsequent commentators are clearly concerned, in defending the notion of clarity, not so much with the capacity of scripture to the witness to the Gospel, but to some much more general claim about the plain sense of scripture generally being generally evident.

This seems to be the case regarding the most contentious matters involved in the current difficulties within the Anglican Communion. This diverse group of Anglicans includes Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals who reject women’s ordination, and others who accept it; it includes evangelicals who deny any sacramental character in ordination at all, and some who at least advocate lay and diaconal presidency, as well as Anglo-Catholics who persist in a high sacerdotalism.

The Way, the Truth and the Life document states that “in Anglican tradition adiaphora are primarily matters to do with ceremonies and robes, and not issues concerning doctrine or morality”. The implication that ordination, gender and sacraments are not about doctrine might surprise quite a few "confessing" Anglicans, not least those whose difficulties with their national Churches have stemmed in large part from differences over the ordination of women.

In nuanced expositions such as Mark Thompson’s recent A Clear and Present Word, the limitations of the idea of "Clarity" are acknowledged in such a way that there would seem little danger of the more extreme abuses of the idea. Even when appropriately nuanced however, we might still ask whether clarity is a genuinely helpful idea.

The problem with the notions of clarity and perspicuity is that they tend to reify scripture itself in a way that stands in some tension with the Christian notion that the Word is revealed to the Church through the power of the Spirit. A proper doctrine of revelation and even of the reading of scripture does not consist of a set of affirmations about scripture itself as an isolated object, but refers always to the dynamic involving reader, spirit and text. In fact to give a full account even of reading as opposed to revelation would still require a more complex account of “reader” which includes the context.

To emphasize perspicuity and clarity in and of themselves implies that these are qualities inherent in the text, independently of the reader. This smacks of a sort of solipsism of text, which is then somehow understood to have an inherent power even when not read, or a sort of textual equivalent of the medieval scholastic doctrine of the Eucharist, understood to have a metaphysical reality independent of the Eucharistic actions.

One does not have to succumb to the worst excesses of postmodern indeterminacy to insist that meaning is not inherent in a text but made in the encounter between reader and text. Theologically this is affirmed by the Christian insistence on the role of the Holy Spirit, without whom the Biblical text is neither clear nor powerful. “Clarity” should therefore be reserved for God’s Word, rather than for the letter of the text. God’s Word is not the text, but the effective action of the God to whom the text witnesses.

The great irony of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans is that its historic catalyst has not really been scripture as such, or the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Book of Common Prayer, all of which are likely to be respected and loved as much outside that Fellowship as within it; its catalyst has been the issue of human sexuality. The basis of that opposition is of course understood to be the authority of scripture; but the implication is that scripture is if not more authoritative then at least supposedly clearer about homosexuality than about, say, gender roles.

This must be questioned.

God's Word, GAFCON and the Bible (The Strangeness of Scripture III)


It is a fine thing to say that scripture is God’s Word, but the imprecision with which this identification is often made can have disastrous consequences.

A genuinely scriptural doctrine of God’s Word is not first and foremost a doctrine of the Bible. There is no doctrine of the Bible (in the sense of the complete canon) in Scripture itself, although of course there is a real if limited set of reflections about “scripture”.

What we do find in the Bible is arguably a two-fold understanding of God’s Word, in general and in specific terms. In general, God’s Word refers to the fact of God’s effective revelation, the Word which is spoken and effects what it says. This is the Word of God’s “let there be” at Creation, the Word which for Isaiah will “not return empty”, the Word which speaks hope and judgement through Ezekiel, the Word which is living and active according to the Letter to the Hebrews. God’s “Word” is God's effective communicative action.

More specifically however, God’s Word is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. The definitive exposition of this doctrine of the Word is of course the first chapter of John’s Gospel, where the eternal Word is identified both as the effective word of creation and, made flesh and having come to dwell among us, as Jesus. This identification of Jesus as one in the beginning with God, the creative power through which God’s purpose is mediated to all things, is in any Christian reading of the Bible the most fundamental element of a doctrine of revelation; for it shows us that God’s communication is the giving not of propositions, but of self.

What we learn about this self-giving in scripture is derivatively but genuinely God’s Word; it partakes in the general sense of God’s effective revelation, and the Church affirms its character as God-given. In classical Anglican terminology Scripture is “God’s Word written” – insofar as its words are both a form of this effective revelation of God, and particularly as a witness to Christ the Word. Yet that phrase also qualifies the identification – “God’s Word written” is not identical to “God’s Word”.

This terminology however is distorted in some forms of Protestantism, which regard the fact of the canonical scriptures rather than their content as determinative of a doctrine of the Word of God. The orthodox and historic teaching that the Bible can be spoken of as God’s Word is subtly reversed, subject and predicate substituted for one another, so that God’s Word is now the Bible.

The Way, the Truth and the Life, a document issued as a preliminary to GAFCON in 2008 may have to stand as the most authoritative guide to the positions attributable to the uneasy coalition drawn into that movement. The book seems to make a related shift when for instance it states that the “Old Testament is the written form of the word of God” and the Bible “is the Spirit inspired written form of the word of God”. These phrases seem to me to identify Scripture and Word in an exclusive fashion; although there may be no other written Word, this sort of formulation implies direct correspondence rather than, say, participation in the much larger category that the Word of God properly is. And just as seriously, if somewhat differently, it makes what must be seen as a gaffe (!), stating that “Though this fork in the road may present itself publicly as a choice in relation to aberrant sexuality, the core issues are about whether or not there is one Word, accessible to all, and whether or not there is one Christ, accessible to all”. Doubtless the mistake is unintentional and forgivable, but it is real.

When, as so often, “God’s word” is used simply and exclusively as a shorthand for the Bible, this risks making the Bible itself rather than Christ the centre of its witness. The Christological principle may then cease to be the touchstone for the authenticity of scriptural interpretation, giving way to one grounded in abstract notions of communication. An ethical hermeneutic of charity which arises necessarily from the practice of Jesus then gives way to an epistemic requirement such as absolute literal truth, or the more sophisticated notions of clarity or perspicuity.

The implications of this shift are profound, and can extend through the whole of theology; the very character of God becomes a matter of God’s willingness or ability to communicate clearly and effectively, where such clarity is conceived abstractly, rather than accepting the Cross itself as the kind of clarity that God chooses. While there is a danger inherent in more liberal theologies of simply resorting to “mystery” as a sort of sloppy resort for difficulties, it is not thereby wrong to affirm that the character of God’s being and revelation are revealed in ways that are not clear by other standards of clarity.

The "Fathers" and the Hermeneutics of Schism (The Strangeness of Scripture II)


The early Christian writers sometimes referrred to as the "Fathers" of the Church do not envisage an understanding of scripture implied by modern Protestant talk of “clarity” or “sufficiency”. Neither, however, do they imply the need for a sort of external ecclesiastical authority as the arbiter of truth for the average Christian.

Writers of the late second and early third centuries like Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement and Origen all had to contend with groups who took scripture with enormous seriousness but whose interpretations were wildly different from their own - what we can call retrospectively "emergent orthodoxy". These others, most obviously those loosely termed "Gnostics", tended to wade through scripture with great care, using allegorical methods to claim support for elaborate cosmological myths.

The proto-orthodox response to the Gnostics was not to claim either sufficiency, or even the fairly obvious possibility of clarity, as a retort to the obscurity of these biblical speculations. Rather the early theologians I have mentioned assessed the adequacy of biblical interpretation by the doctrinal and ethical coherence of its results, with the “Rule of Faith” – effectively what we know as the Apostles’ Creed – as touchstone. Of course the Creed is itself largely derived from Scripture and indeed from what one might call its "plain" sense, so the questions of simplicity and accessibility are not irrelevant here.

Yet it was the Gospel, not scripture, whose clarity and accessibility to the simple as well as to the wise they affirmed. These early Christian writers acknowledged there were conundrums in scripture, some accessible only to the mature in faith, some just intellectually demanding, some utterly mysterious. Scripture was not all clear at all.

Yet while the Gnostics saw the capacity to probe these conundrums as a means of achieving spiritual maturity or power, the emergent orthodox rejected such a hierarchy of propositions and persons. While some, like Clement and Origen themselves, felt called to solve or at least probe these mysteries because of their calling as catechists or Christian philosophers, the basis of salvation was for them not knowledge of the answers, but reception of the gracious truth revealed to the poor and ignorant – not least the illiterate - as much or more than to the wise and powerful.

These early Christian writers all gave rather more room to the role of the Church as bearer of that Rule of Faith than some conservative Protestant hermeneutics would now allow.

One of the reasons for the emergence of a strong idea of scriptural clarity was the important realization on the Reformers’ part that the authority of Scripture could not and should not depend on the mediation of ecclesiastical authority. However nuanced it may now appear to be, official Roman Catholic pronouncements still tend to reflect the view that the magisterium of the Church, subsisting in a clerical hierarchy, retains an apostolic tradition of content and method necessary for adequacy of doctrine and interpretation.

The ancient Christian writers I have mentioned did not have this particular issue to contend with; for them, to insist on the place of the Church in the determination of genuine interpretation was not to invoke or even allow such an authority, but to insist that the community of the Church universal that confessed the Rule of Faith was the necessary context in which the adequate reading of scripture could take place.

To set the Fathers and the Reformers at odds here would simply be anachronistic. Yet we can and should ask whether the affirmation that the Gospel can be heard and believed by the simple, not least by reading scripture (otherwise unaided), requires or even allows the conclusion that the the personal act of reading, outside an ecclesial context, is really richer or more fundamental to hermeneutics than the communal act of hearing.

We can also ask whether the fullness of authentic interpretation can ever really be as well-served by schism in search of truth, as by persistence in service of unity. The fullness of interpretation is not the work of the most enlightened or Spirit-filled individual, but the rich, deep and challenging harmony of the action of the Word of God in the lives of all God's people.

This vision is inevitably eschatological - and I acknowledge there are circumstances where unity will appear impossible. Yet fundamentally intepretation is not enriched by isolated pursuit of the truth; schism should be acknowledged not only as regrettable, but as hermeneutically subversive.

The Strangeness of Scripture (I)

Based on a presentation at the St James' Institute Seminar at St Paul's College, Sydney, July 4th 2009

In 1663 Puritan minister John Eliot published the first Bible in what was to become the United States of America, and indeed in the western hemisphere.

It was not a local printing of a King James or Geneva Bible. Eliot had a great heart for mission to the native Massachuset people, and after years of toil had the entire scriptures of the Old and New Testaments translated into their Algonquian language.

However the Massachuset had no written language before this point. To be rendered in their own language, the Bible had to be put into a system of signs more culturally alien to the indigenous people than was spoken English itself. The results were mixed.

A claim that by 1674 30% of the Massachuset to whom Eliot courageously ministered, in ways beyond this publication project, were literate in their own language, can be taken as cause for both joy and pain. The same ambiguity can be seen in a hand-written marginal observation by one original owner of an Algonquian Bible: “I am forever a pitiful person in the world. I am not able clearly to read this, this book”.

Eliot also corresponded with the great Puritan divine Richard Baxter, a great advocate of the clarity of scripture, and obtained permission to translate his Call to the Unconverted into Algonquian. This tract, a call to literacy as well as to faith, was not a success among the Massachuset. While in English its subsequent popularity in America for many years among what David Paul Nord calls the “optimistic, self-reliant, evangelical strain of the Anglo-American Puritan tradition” was remarkable, it was no call that these “pitiful” were able to hear.

This historical example serves as a reminder of just how dependent the clarity of scripture is on culture and other elements of context.

Most Christians in most times have not been literate or sufficiently economically powerful to have regular access to books. The fact that this has changed in the developed world is cause for celebration, but perhaps not unqualified joy. Access to Bibles and to literacy has arguably been an obstacle as well as a path to salvation, at least where it was assumed by those proclaiming the Word that literacy was a necessity, and that a Church whose encounter with Scripture was a ministry of the Word heard more than read, was inconceivable or unacceptable.

It is not in the end plausible or proper to claim that the normal or necessary form of the Church and its common life can only or even normally be determined by the immediate accessibility of scripture to the individual as a book, rather than through the faithful witness of the community to its members, above all in the liturgy.

Irenaeus, second-century Bishop of Lyons, says for instance that
many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God... Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed…. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears… (Adv. Haer. 3.4.1-2)
He could of course have been speaking of the Massachuset - would that he had been.

To claim otherwise, and presume that literacy and, consequently a personal reading of the Bible characterises how we do theology, disenfranchises most of the Church triumphant - presumably to their bemusement. Whether it also disenfranchised the Massachuset people of New England is not for us to judge.

However we can suggest that in contemporary debates, glib references to the 'clear' teaching of scripture which are predicated on mass literacy and private study as normative are dubious.

See further Lori Anne Ferrell, The Bible and the People (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 107-111, and David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of the Mass Media in America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

So "Jesus wasn't religious"?

[a spin-off from posts "On Religion", here and here]

The popular claim in some Christian circles that "Jesus wasn't religious" isn't just a throw-away line; it's a softer version of the old slur that Jesus wasn't Jewish.

I'm sure those who say he wasn't religious don't mean to be anti-semitic; they probably don't even mean what the phrase "not religious" would convey to the average person. They do know Jesus was actually Jewish, and if pressed they remember that Jesus went to the Temple, observed Passover and in various other ways lived the life of an observant Jew.

Some people are confused about Jesus observing the Jewish Law. Of course there are stories in the Gospels which depict Jesus or his followers engaged in disputes with other Jews, notably the Pharisees. While the place of the Pharisees in these stories seems to have grown with the Gospel tradition itself, reflecting the life-setting of the early Christians, there is no reason to doubt such disputes took place between Jesus and other religious teachers or authorities.

Yet these were disputes about religion, among the religious. The positions that Jesus took may have been unique in some cases, but fit well into other evidence for disputes among Jewish teachers of the first century. Jesus disagreed with some other Jews, but shared the religious matrix within which these disputes were held.

So Jesus was certainly an observant Jew, and hence certainly religious in a specific way.

Why then does this issue even arise? Partly because of misunderstandings about what "religion" is, and partly because religion itself is in such bad odour, particularly in the more secular parts of the West such as Australia and Europe. The "Jesus wasn't religious" crowd don't want to be connected with the historic Churches, which have justly had widespread bad publicity in recent years. Nor do they want to be associated with the musty mediocrity associated with benign but declining "mainstream" Christianity. Some of them don't want to be associated with newer "McChurches" either, to their credit.

This much is understandable. But it's also dangerous and self-deceiving. However much emergent or evangelical or whatever forms of Christianity flee from "religion", they find it staring back at them in the mirror. Faith doesn't exist in a vacuum; all communities produce rituals, customs and cultural accoutrements that make them "religious" as well as believing. Claiming somehow to transcend the inevitable consequences of being human and in community, and to have attained a purity of spirituality or doctrine or practice that others cannot, is an old and familiar heresy. The fact that "religion" is a marketing liability won't matter in the end - if the truth won't set us free, nothing else will.

Besides that general difficulty, denying or ignoring Jesus' particular religion is too big a price to pay for making him irreligiously cool. Christianity's incapacity to deal with the religious Jesus is related to the burden of anti-semitism which the West has not shrugged. The Church proclaims the unique and universal significance of someone who had a specific culture and history; if for Christians he transcends that culture and history too, this is not because in Christ God was choosing a "fresh expression" of truth that rejected Judaism, but by the costly and permanent engagement with history that we call the incarnation. Any Jesus we meet outside that history is possibly not Jewish, or religious - but he's not Jesus either.

[The image above of Marc Chagall's painting is from "The Arty Semite"]

Saturday, June 13, 2009

On religion (II)


From the Melbourne College of Divinity Centenary Colloquium, "Religion at the Crossroads"

Odd as it may seem, some Christian Churches are now quite enthusiastic followers of the anti-religious bandwagon – themselves excluded from such rejection of course.

“Jesus wasn’t religious” is a catch-cry in these circles – a devastating mistake, and if unintended then still a real slur against his religion, which was of course Judaism. To say that Jesus wasn’t religious is not just grossly inaccurate but is a new and more liberal version of the old anti-semitic slur, that Jesus wasn’t Jewish [note: I'll post separately on this point soon].

In Christian circles the rejection of religion is of course somewhat different from the "Ditchkins" version. It doesn’t mean atheism or revisionism, and will usually be theologically "conservative" (if fundamentalism can be called that); “religion” in this context seems to mean “anything we don’t like about other people’s religion”.

You do not have to travel far from here to come across congregations with a relatively large number of younger members, whose leaders have told them that their adherence is not a form of religion – but even if their bands and casual gear don’t look like traditional Protestantism, no one much outside that circle is being fooled. Of course they are religious, both in the obvious sense that they are members of a group with religious purposes by any reasonable definition, and also in the sense that despite their rejection of traditional forms of liturgy, such groups quickly form their own traditions. They generate forms of music, language and behaviour that, however hard they try, will eventually - even immediately, to tell the truth - look quite distinctive and, yes, religious too.

Even in plodding mainline Christianity, still more beholden to the outward forms that Gen-X fundamentalism has labelled "religious", this view has its defenders. There is a sort of pathos about seeing a greying congregation of Anglicans, gamely singing along with John Bell that Jesus “upsets religion, fearless both of fate and cost”. The problem isn’t just that it’s wrong – he did upset people, but not specifically the religious – it’s that the irony of singing this as a hymn in rather uninspiring but very religious contexts seems entirely lost.

Although it will rarely be obvious at a Megachurch, the anti-religious view of Christianity has some impressive intellectual allies, in names like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Forgive me under these circumstances for saying fairly bluntly that Barth, whose views we know, was in the end wrong, and that Bonhoeffer, whose views were only hinted at, tends to be misquoted.

Bonhoeffer clearly envisaged a sacramental and ritual life in a Church after Christendom and not just "meetings" centred on studying the Bible, whatever else he meant. Barth actually argued in a way not completely alien to my comments earlier, that religion belongs thoroughly to the realm of human and historic theory and practice, but wanted to claim that Christianity or its Gospel were completely other than religion. The truth in this is the recognition that there must be an utter distinction between the completely other whom the faithful dare name God, and the sum total of human thoughts and actions called religion.

Yet those human thoughts and actions are all that is available to us, at least for public discourse and for communal celebration in religious traditions, in the thoughts and actions of Moses, Siddhartha Gautama, and just as much of Jesus too. The scriptures of the great religious traditions are likewise embedded in the cultural realities of their origins and transmissions. And some of us will still claim not only that these thoughts and actions - or rather some of them in particular - are worthy not only of continued critical intellectual engagement, but of personal commitment.

To make a slightly more modest claim, these thoughts and actions are precisely what the academic studies of religion and theology can concern themselves with; even while these may examine or posit claims about the transcendent, they do so in the languages and forms that are wholly human and historical, else they would be unavailable for critical study. This is not to say that Christians (or others) make no other claims about the reality of God; but we have only words and objects and actions through which to make them. These words and objects and actions are the subject of theological study, and of religious studies too, despite other differences between those two.

In the case of Christianity, the need to teach this "religion" is obvious but also urgent. Teaching the Christian tradition, teaching theology, is no longer a matter of deconstructing bad traditional religion, as it may have seemed to be in the mid-twentieth-century and still seems to a few post-Christian commentators. Such religion is almost dead, and theological students today have rarely been strongly formed in any religious tradition, good, bad or indifferent. We no longer have the luxury of treating the Church as a given, since the 'mainstream' – and a bitterly euphemistic term that has become – is being squeezed between fundamentalism and secularism. The space between might well be termed the “crossroads” – and the path we now take is crucial.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

On religion (I)



Extracted from a presentation at the Melbourne College of Divinity Centenary Colloquium, "Religion at the Crossroads" at Trinity College, Melbourne, June 11 2009.

“Religion” is a modern invention. The idea that religion constitutes a distinct realm of thought and practice, to be arrayed alongside of but quite separately from music, physics, cooking, sex, politics and whatever other realms of activity our society defines and recognizes, would have made no sense to the authors of the Bible, or even to the early moderns who wrote or translated works like the Book of Common Prayer or the King James Bible.

Although it obviously has to do with phenomena such as faith, approaches to the numinous, and practices such as liturgy, "religion" generally has not been a distinct realm of practice but the overarching theory that informs and includes our whole practice, in terms that attempt to take the transcendent into account.

By contrast, in modernity both critics and often also proponents have pushed religion back from the public sphere. They, or we, have sought to create, usually deep within the human person, a safe but harmless place where religion might thrive as a matter of private judgement without threats from sociology or science. Having defined religion in terms that are largely private, to do with phenomenology but not sociology, we have created a situation where religion is of course eminently dispensable. Thus defined it has little purpose, or might be a sort of optional extra in life to scratch an itch in that other very modern category, “spirituality”.

The problem with this view, or at least one of the problems, is that whatever transcendent foundations or lack thereof may really be involved, historically and humanly speaking religion has not been just about phenomenology, or even what since William James we have commonly called "religious experience". It has been about the symbolic, ritual and yes of course spiritual underpinnings of everything.

Religion is, in our current terms for dealing with social phenomena, fairly close if not quite identical to the idea of "culture". Religion is not just prayer; it is Westminster Abbey, the Alhambra and Angkor Wat; it is vegetarianism and keeping kosher and Easter eggs; it is Bach and the Blues and Bhagavad Gita; it is T. S. Eliot and the Psalms and Rumi.

The tragic absurdity of the fairly common view that religion has been responsible for most of the world's ills, and wars in particular, is therefore correct in a surprising if limited sense – but only if we accept and understand that it is "responsible" for everything else too. Those who espouse that sort of view engage in an extraordinary sort of special pleading which grants credit for all virtue to other areas of activity or endeavour, and all vice to religion, rather than facing more honestly the deep ambiguity of human experience of religion, and indeed of humanity.

So the study of religion is the study of people and culture, including of ourselves (whoever "we" are) and our culture, not just that of others. To teach and research history or art or philosophy without religion is either disingenuous or impossible; one either bundles the religion in and hopes it won’t be noticed, or excises it and offers a culture in tatters.

Without such study we are poorly equipped to deal with challenges within society that have a religious dimension. One such is the growth in prominence of Islam in Australia and the fear it has engendered, marked by unhappy events from street thuggery to dubious town planning decisions. This reaction is of course at least partly related to the emergence of what we might better call Islamo-Fascism than “Islamism”. That phenomenon exploits and colludes with secularism to mystify Islam. Yet even without that, we – other westerners, religious or not - show ourselves poorly equipped to respond to genuine, mainstream Islam. This is not least because we do not know how to deal with religion, including but not limited to Islam, when it makes claims that go beyond the artificial safety of western interiority. Our religious ignorance colludes with our racism (sorry Mr Rudd) to render us powerless and then, by turns, fearful and angry, even of someone in our streets who simply seems to be wearing one too many items of clothing.

Institutions which would study religion and promote its understanding both critically and sympathetically have a very real social calling in this regard, to help us all think about religion as a social and historical phenomenon in the present even in a secular society.

But there is also a further need which, for the westerner, may be a prerequisite for such engagement with or understanding of the religious “other”. We "Anglos", mostly Christian or post-Christian, tend to think not only that religion is for other people but that culture is too. The common but degraded form of multiculturalism that centres on food and folk-dancing is really a form of soft racism, in which a people who have forgotten their own culture stare nostalgically and voyeuristically at others who seem not to have, yet. The study of religion, or inter-religious exchange, cannot afford to be further versions of this desire for the other at the ostensible expense of knowledge of the self, but must mean the thoughtful engagement of one grounded person or community with another. In religious terms, it is hard to fake respect for another’s beliefs when one manifestly rankles with one’s own.

We need therefore sound, critical, deep engagement and study of Christian tradition in the university setting, precisely as a form of social and historical self-understanding – not chauvinistically or exclusively by any means, but with the same balance of sympathy and unflinching pursuit of truth that should characterize any other discipline.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

After the Ascension: The End of Jesus


The Ascension of Jesus, commemorated in these few days at the end of the Easter season, is a story that might seem to suggest only Jesus’ divinity. After a violent death, Jesus is seen again alive by his followers, who encounter him a number of times over a period of days or weeks - after which he goes to heaven.

The Gospels do not all describe this event, and some seem to assume it but leave it veiled. Luke's Gospel says just that “he left them, and was taken up into heaven” – which leaves room for some ambiguity or mystery about how - but Acts makes things more concrete: “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight”. This can appear in the mind’s eye in almost comical terms, as when the Ascension is sometimes depicted in Medieval art by means of a pair of feet and ankles projecting downwards from a cloud.

In fact the Ascension of Jesus is, I suggest, a sign of Christian belief in his real humanity.

The stories that are central to the Easter season certainly affirm Jesus' triumph over mortality and death. But we could almost wonder why and how it was necessary to end this period of triumphant return to life, after such a brief time. Could Jesus not simply have kept appearing through closed doors across the centuries, allowing inspiring glimpses of himself to the uncertain and offering pearls of theological wisdom to many generations?

The doctrine of the Ascension actually says that even Jesus has to end. Twentieth century theologian Norman Pittenger suggested Jesus as the person where “ultimate reality and finite reality” meet. Jesus is like us as finite, but unlike us as the person whose life uniquely shows the infinite possibility we call God.

Although he has conquered death, his humanity - in order to be real and not just an appearance - requires a finitude that would not be compatible with an open-ended Eastertide. For to be human, Jesus has to be circumscribed, defined, and particular. He has to be a first century male Jew, not an everlasting and hence a generic or abstract human being, who could be constantly acquiring experience with time, evolving an identity as we do all our lives, but with new choices to make and new reasons for joy and regret over millennia, rather than just months. In this sense he has to be like us; were he to drift benignly on forever, he might be divine, but hardly human.

Not only in stories that are inexplicable or unappealing to our sensibilities, but in others which are all too easy to understand, stories of suffering and love and openness to others, Jesus shows the reality of that infinite possibility which we call “God” being made known in the life of one finite person. This is not a secret, but it is a mystery.

So in the end we are right to want a human Jesus, one who is like us. For his to be a human life in which we can see the divine, he must be someone whose challenges and choices are like ours, but whose responses and decisions reveal that other, infinite possibility. For in following him, incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended, we are following the one who became like we are, so that we might become as he is.