Friday, October 24, 2014

Going Beyond: God's Big Idea

The Berkeley Divinity School motto is drawn from 2 Corinthians 10:16, Paul’s reference to a mission “into the regions beyond”; this expansive vision is echoed in the Acts reading tonight (1:1-8) for our observance of St Luke, which presents the spread of the Gospel in terms of a sort of theological manifest destiny, “from Jerusalem and Judea even to the ends of the earth.” But as you sit listening to an Australian Dean, fetched from the ends of the earth and from regions beyond anywhere our founders could have had in mind, you must surely be asking – well, “beyond what”?

The first and most straightforward meaning of the “regions beyond” was of course geographical. And this vision of an expansive mission is reflected not just in the School’s motto but in its name.

Anglo-Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley managed to become our founder, in spiritual terms at least, without knowing anything of the fact. Berkeley, previously Dean of Derry, travelled to Rhode Island in 1728 and lived there awaiting promised support for a new college to be based in Bermuda. The funds never arrived, and he left again in 1731, giving his property to Yale - the first Berkeley-Yale partnership! Berkeley became Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland, and died in Oxford in 1753, a century before Bishop John Williams of Connecticut became the material founder of the School and borrowed Berkeley’s name for this project in theological education.

At the dedication of the original St Luke’s Chapel in Middletown in 1861, Williams referred to the naming of the School as intended “to commemorate the pious zeal of Bishop Berkeley in the cause of clerical education, and his relations to our early Church in Connecticut.” Speaking myself as another intercontinental dean, Berkeley’s willingness to go into “regions beyond” has a certain resonance as an example.

Although a famous philosopher, Berkeley’s popularity in mid-nineteenth century America had much to do with his interest in a pioneering and expansive Christianity, by Williams’ time seen walking in step with Manifest Destiny.

Berkeley had penned famous verses about the decrepit old world and the hopeful new to express the basis of his project:

The muse, disgusted at an age and clime
Barren of every glorious theme,
In distant lands now waits a better time,
Producing subjects worthy fame.

The last stanza of that same poem (“On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America”) famously begins “Westward the course of empire takes its way” - an inspiring or perhaps a fearsome phrase, depending on your race and language. This line of Berkeley’s also inspired the founders of another educational institution on the West coast of this country to choose his name for their new town, a few years after this School had taken it first.

So while this is the earlier meaning of our “going beyond,” it has elements that we ourselves need to go beyond; we need to claim that expansive and global perspective, but not the imperial and colonial visions grounded in exceptionalism; we need to go beyond them, to loving service of a diverse and fragile world.

This leads to a second “beyond.” George Berkeley’s own movers apparently uploaded “fifty eight boxes, whereof fifty-five contain only books” when he came here. I think Felicity and I between us may have beaten Berkeley on this front at least, if not in erudition. In fact when Berkeley left New England and gave Yale his books he doubled the size of the University library at the time.

Berkeley was obviously not skimping on the resources that would provide those hoped-for students with the best that Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian thought had to offer. He was intending to create not just a shadow of institutions like his own Trinity College, Dublin, but to go beyond them with a new bright exemplar, of which the old world’s universities would seem mere types and shadows.

This ambition was a genuine point of continuity when Berkeley Divinity School was actually founded. In the same sermon at the dedication of the first St Luke’s Chapel, Bishop Williams wryly observed that “An unlearned clergy is one of the sorest evils that God allows the Church to impose upon herself.”

Heaven knows God seems to be getting more permissive in this regard; theological education has seen better days - better months and years even - and the danger may be not just that we fail to go beyond past ambitions, books, boxes and all, but that we actually retreat from the demands of theological learning because the Church often seems to have forgotten its usefulness.

It is of course now apparent that there are other ways of doing theological education than the residential seminary, and also that there are forms of scholarship and wisdom inconceivable to Williams or Berkeley; but here at Berkeley and Yale, set in one of the world’s great universities, our calling is not to fall back from the ideal they pursued but to go beyond it, to provide even better education not just for ministers and teachers but for theological educators themselves, and to do so in a setting where denominational tradition and ecumenical conversation are friends, not enemies, offering depth and breadth respectively.

Beyond exceptionalism, then, to a global vision; beyond ignorance and sectarianism to an expansive pursuit of knowledge; but the third “beyond” is most fundamental, and most elusive.

When he set out for New England, Berkeley had already made a name for himself as one of the great philosophers of the day. While the history of Western thought now often skips from John Locke to David Hume, it used often to stop and sojourn with George Berkeley. You’ve nearly all heard something of the issues he presented, if not under his name; remember that freshman philosophy class discussion about whether a tree that falls in the forest makes a noise if there is no-one around to hear it? This is Berkeley to a tee, although he never used the example himself. We could put it thus: the external world means nothing, if we do not grasp it in thought.

Berkeley’s idealism, his philosophical insistence that everything we know has to be thought into being, has been widely misunderstood as a sort of pure subjectivism. Its most famous if not its most sophisticated critic was none other than the great lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson, whose response to Berkeley’s idealism was recorded by Johnson’s biographer Boswell:

“After we came out of the church we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – ‘I refute it thus.’”

Johnson has even more sore-toed sympathisers today, in an age where materialism is often taken for granted, than in the eighteenth century; but he and they alike fail to grasp one key thing about Berkeley’s idealism.  Berkeley did not think that objects or things really just came and went as we ourselves perceive them or think of them, but rather that they exist because they are perceived and willed to exist, by the mind of God.

So I for one would like to think that Bishop Williams was making a pious philosophical joke of sorts in choosing the name for us. Bishop Berkeley had apparently managed only to think of his seminary; but in the end, even a century later, that proved enough - at least when God thought of it too.

In the end no Divinity School, no Church, no human being, can escape the question of what being and truth itself lies beyond our immediate knowledge; unless we affirm that all our exploration, all our passion for justice and truth, is itself a form of “divinity,” and that in the end we are God’s big idea, rather than the reverse, we stub our toes on the rocks of a self-defeating pragmatism.

So there are still frontiers left to explore and seas to cross at Berkeley. Let us be a community characterised by diversity and curiosity, inspired by justice and wisdom, and together with St Luke and all the saints – George Berkeley and John Williams among them - go beyond what we already know, and thus find the one whose thought we are, and whose love we share.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dressing for Dinner: The Great Feast, and the Wedding Robe


Jan Luyken,
The Man Without a Wedding Garment
[from a sermon given at All Saints', Margaret Street, London, October 12th 2014]

A remarkable amount of material in the Gospels concerns meals; stories of Jesus eating and drinking, feeding others, or telling stories about people doing the same. There are arguments about what you can eat, with whom you ought to eat it, and how your seats ought to be arranged; there are stories about when to kill fatted calves, of underperforming fig trees and hungry Messiahs - and these of course culminate in the story of a last meal and a command, which we observe today, to keep eating and drinking together in memory of him.

In this age of molecular gastronomy, fast and slow food, and nose-to-tail eating, we might seem particularly well-equipped to engage this eating Jesus. Yet today's parable about a marriage feast may disappoint the foodie in us, because it focuses not on the cuisine, but on a problem just as perennial at dinner as what to eat, or whom to invite - namely, what to wear.

'When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless' (Matt 22:11-12). The aftermath is well known, dramatic, and definitive, and involves weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What is this wedding robe, on whose presence or absence our place at the king’s meal of all meals depends? Are you mentally checking labels now, or wishing you’d worn something else?

Now Jesus was attacked for being a "glutton and a drunkard" who accepted the hospitality of the wrong people. The problem of what actually to wear to dinner does not appear in any of the Gospel controversies about Jesus’ own meals, nor was he ever attacked for his dress sense.

What to wear to dinner turns out, however, to be a New Testament issue beyond this parable. The Letter of James warns early Christians of risks related to dressing for dinner, or perhaps for Church: “if a man with golden rings in fine clothes comes into your assembly, but also a poor man in filthy clothes, and if you honor the one in fine clothes and say…"sit here in a good place," and to the poor man “stand over there” or “sit here under my feet", are you not discriminating, and haven’t you become judges with perverse thoughts?” (2:2-4)

This apostolic lecture on etiquette seems, at first glance, to take the opposite position from that of the parable, dismissing the value of fine clothing as a basis for judging those who appear at the Lord's banquet. Despite the contrast however, I suggest the two passages are closer than they appear; and this demand from James to treat others with openness and charity actually gives us a clue to the meaning of the Gospel.

The Gospel story is a parable, and parables are not models for etiquette any more than for agriculture; what kings may do at weddings is, thankfully, not exactly prescriptive for what God does with our inadequacies. Nor for that matter is it about literal clothes.

So what is the wedding robe required of us, if not obtainable from Liberty or on Jermyn Street?

St Augustine of Hippo mused with his own congregation about this parable something like 1600 years ago. They apparently wondered what the wedding robe was too. Was it perhaps baptism? Or Eucharist? No, he says, for even in Church among the regulars there are those who are “called but not chosen”. But neither, Augustine argues, is the robe some charismatic gift of spiritual power, nor even faith itself - but love. By “love” he means not the love that virtually anyone has for those to whom they are already bound by family or friendship, let alone the “love” that involves control or manipulation of others for our own ends.

"Ask yourselves" he says, "if you have it, you can be at the Lord's banquet without fear." But Augustine goes on to suggest that "it" - self-giving love - is both the wedding garment but also functions as a kind of infectious invitation to the feast:
First, love God. Extend yourselves out to God; and whomsoever you can, draw them on to God. There is your enemy: let him be drawn to God. There is a son, a wife, a servant; let them be all drawn to God. There is a stranger; let him be drawn to God... So let love be advanced, so be it fed, that being fed it may be perfected; so let "the wedding garment" put on (Sermon 90).
I said earlier that there is no Gospel narrative suggesting that what Jesus himself wore was ever part of the controversy in relation to his fulsome dining practice. But I should qualify that. At the culmination of the Gospel, Jesus' clothes do become a matter of contention, when Roman soldiers cast lots for them.

Jesus himself was stripped bare in preparation for death; bare, that is, of all but love itself. This was event of course not a meal; but his invitation, arms open wide on the cross, draws the world to himself and to this sacred banquet, regardless of wealth or clothing, not because of our resources, but because of his generosity. This indicates how little and how much it matters what we wear as we approach him today.

What then is the wedding robe? It is the love that we cannot claim to have, or find anywhere else to obtain, nor to know or share, unless he gives it himself. He offers us this wedding robe that we need to come in and eat with him; this Eucharist is our present foretaste, binding us to one another and to him, but also to the world that needs his gift so much. Let us celebrate the feast at peace with one another, and as we go out take Jesus' prized and immoderate invitation to the rich and ragged alike, wearing the clothes he provides.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Bread and Roses: Elizabeth of Hungary, Poverty, and Justice

[Given in St John's Chapel at the Episcopal Divinity School in November 1999. Posted for Labor Day 2014]

A woman, a widow with three children, no stranger to poverty, dies of exhaustion at the age of 27. The setting could be the barrios of Manila today or of rural Palestine in the first century, but it was Marburg in Germany in 1231. The woman was not born to poverty but to wealth and power, and chose a life of service to and even identification with the poor. This was St Elizabeth of Hungary.

Elizabeth was born in Hungary, a daughter of the King, and at 14 married the ruler of one of the principalities in what is now Germany. Like Margaret of Scotland whom we remembered earlier in the week, at least part of her fame lay in generous and compassionate use of power to address gross poverty and sickness. Like Margaret, Elizabeth was distinguished by charitable works and the founding of hospitals. Elizabeth is somewhat different, however, in the extent or depth of her identification with the poor.

Elizabeth, like Hilda of Whitby whom we celebrated yesterday, is the subject of one of the windows in the North transept of the St John’s Chapel at the Episcopal Divinity School. Many are not aware of this and some might assume that Blessed Mary is the royal personage, but no, it is the rather un-Anglo-Saxon Elizabeth. The popularity of Elizabeth in Episcopalian stained glass and suchlike in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would make a good Master’s thesis for anyone curious the intersection of art, popular piety and social concern. She stands opposite the window of her teacher Francis – whether there was any intentionality about that I do not know – but her pairing with Michael the Archangel in the transept is said to represent the balance or interdependence of spiritual warfare (his work) with social outreach (hers).

 But I confess to being both fascinated and disappointed by various details of the window. She is depicted as a queen, which she was, distributing food to children. Her complex crown – a triple crown in some depictions – reflects her royal birth, royal marriage and heavenly coronation as a saint.

The disappointment comes mainly from the image of Elizabeth as the kindly philantropist, moved internally but unaffected materially by those to whom she ministers. Her clothes are royal, theirs are rags. In fact her own life was marked by personal struggle and suffering, including poverty. Her generosity during her husband’s life went beyond noblesse oblige to sacrificial and controversial measures. She used both her dowry and later her personal jewelry to respond to the needs of the local people in Wartburg, earning as much opposition and anger from others in the court as appreciation from the poor.

From the age of sixteen she was greatly influenced by her older contemporary Francis of Assisi, who had also chosen poverty rather than being born to it. When Friars visited her city she was inspired by the preaching she heard and became a Tertiary, the first member in Germany of the third order which opened the Franciscan life and spirit to women and men who were married or otherwise engaged in secular life.

Here’s the part that fascinated me. In her basket are bread and roses. When EDS tutor David Siegenthaler pointed this out I first didn’t think much of it, although it reminded me of the old socialist song of that name:

“As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!”

I discovered that the basis of the image in the window is a story of Elizabeth’s attempt to continue her service to the poor after the death of her husband and the accession of his less sympathetic brother. As she was smuggling bread out of the castle in her apron, she was challenged by her relative, and when she opened the apron what was inside were just the roses.

The epilogue to this connection was my discovery that the socialist and feminist anthem quoted was written in 1912 at the time of the strike by women mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. I cannot help wondering whether this window or others like it were known to the writer, to the singers, or how this window looked to those who worshipped here in that year.

Having donned the Franciscan habit, Elizabeth lived with and for the poor thereafter until her early death. In her identification with the poor despite her royal status, power and wealth, and her acceptance of the radical spirit of the Gospel and not mere of philanthropy, Elizabeth not only fills the role of saint, or saintly woman in particular but actually transforms it. Praxis here is not merely charity or even activism, but a personal spiritual transformation that expresses the necessity of faith and justice to one another, not just bread but roses too. Retaining both elements, bread and roses, the artist of the window invokes for me something of the same “both and” expressed in the song:

"Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!"

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Importance of Being Wrong

[Proper 15, Year A: Is 56: 1, 6-8, Ps 67, Rom 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matt 15: 21-28]

Don’t you just hate it when Jesus is wrong?

Lastman, Christ and the Canaanite Woman
(Web Gallery of Art)
In the Gospel for this week from the Common Lectionary, Jesus signally fails to say what we all know he ought to have said. Let me be clear: when he says to his disciples that he was sent "only to the lost sheep of Israel," and to the Canaanite woman that one should not take "the children’s food and give it to the dogs," surely this is wrong.

What I want him to have said, and maybe you will think similarly, is something like this: "I was sent not only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but to lost sheep—and dogs—everywhere. In me there is neither dog nor sheep, Canaanite nor Israelite, male nor female.” I want a Jesus who will uncompromisingly reject the barriers by which people oppress, exclude, marginalize. I want all to be children, or at least to be sheep—and for all to feast. Instead we have talk of dogs, and crumbs.

Jesus misses the golden opportunity for the unambiguous teaching moment that we could all have been using this past week regarding events in Ferguson, Missouri; earlier in the month regarding the crisis on Mt Sinjar; all year, regarding events in Gaza, and who knows where else for centuries before now. Hasn’t he even read Isaiah 56 (which we just heard) and the promise of God calling all nations to the holy mountain?

This group, leaning generally if not universally to the more progressive side of religion and/or politics (according to the latest scientific poll taken at coffee hour today), are not the only ones to have been disappointed by Jesus. The 20th Century German NT scholar Ernst Käsemann tells a story of a group of conservative Dutch Reformed elders who gathered on the eve of disastrous floods that in 1953 threatened to overwhelm the dykes that protected their homes from the threatening tides of the North Sea. Their theological dilemma was not one of persons but of time; the floods threatened to hit on a Sunday, and they were being called to reinforce the dykes on the “Sabbath” when Calvinist ethic demanded pious inactivity. The minister, seeking to enrich the conversation, pointed out that Jesus himself had asked about the forms Sabbath observance should take, and said it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath. One elder voiced the doubts others were feeling:

"I have been troubled, pastor, by something I have not been able to say in public. Now the time has come to say it. I have always had the feeling our Lord Jesus was just a bit of a liberal.”1

Truth be told, Jesus is often getting it wrong, making mistakes, disappointing us. He thinks Moses wrote the Pentateuch and David the Psalms—you’ve got about a week left to live with those fantasies, junior class. A little earlier on this journey, he wants a fruitless fig tree to yield out of season—no happy ending there. And a few verses after this story, it’s Peter who shows what it means to be right, saying Jesus is the Messianic savior of Israel; but instead of accepting and throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression, Jesus predicts his doom, calls a friend one who will turn out to betray him—and gets himself killed.

So failing to fix the anti-Canaanite dogs-and-crumbs problem isn’t so much a departure from the usual for Jesus, it’s characteristic. Being disappointed by Jesus’ failure isn’t so much an exception in the Gospels, it’s typical.

The good news is that this is what incarnation means. God’s encounter with us in Jesus is a sharing in our own limitations, even our mortality. A Gospel with no mistakes might not have mere crumbs for dogs, but it has no cross either. The Gospel has a cross, because it is a Gospel for a real world that has crosses in it.

Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman isn’t perfect—that’s because the situation in which they meet is not perfect. Some commentators see the Canaanite woman as challenging and instructing Jesus, even changing his heart and mind. The text allows this conclusion. Yet in their encounter, each of these two speaks from the beginning in ways whose honesty is discomforting for us, because they do not avoid what unmistakably real for them.  The greater error is that of the disciples, who want to sent the woman and her need away—Jesus will not. Jesus joins in the difficult conversation. He does not however pretend at any point that Canaanites will no longer struggle for Israelite crumbs, when he has gone on his way from the region of Tyre and Sidon. But neither does he deny that a certain woman’s faith is great. And for all the verbal sparring, on that day more than crumbs was given, and a child—not a dog—was restored and healed.

At this table we commemorate and share with the real Jesus, who apparently makes mistakes; above all, the mistake of becoming a vulnerable person who has a body and blood to spill and share, not just fine fare that is all plenty and no pain. These, however, are crumbs worth gathering. The God he reveals likewise may not run the world the way we might prefer, but has entered into it fully and shared in our reality, with honesty and no qualms. Even God has let go of being “right” all the time.

God does not ask you to be right today, or in class, or when the first paper is handed in, or the first quiz completed; not to be right first, but to be here. So, come to this table, trusting not in your own right-ness, but in God’s many-fold and great mercy. God may not give you what you want first either, but here Jesus gives us what we need. God’s crumbs are worth begging for, but we will be fed more generously than that, with Jesus’ very presence. Thus, we may ever more dwell in him, and he in us.

Fed, empowered, embodied thus, we are called to travel into different and difficult places; to pursue God’s uncomfortable conversations about love and justice and healing and wholeness; and to be willing to be at least as wrong as he was.

Sermon from the Berkeley Divinity School Community Eucharist, Marquand Chapel, Yale Divinity School, during Before the Fall Orientation 2014

1. Jesus Means Freedom (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970) 16

Monday, July 14, 2014

Gutenberg in Melbourne: Inventing the Bible

From the Manchester Gutenberg Bible: the beginning of
Paul's Letter to the Romans
The rare and valuable character of the Gutenberg Bible, an example of which is about to be exhibited at the University of Melbourne's Baillieu Library (on loan from the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester), belies its real significance.

What is most remarkable about this first book printed with movable type is that it heralded an era of plentiful and cheap books. For all its passing resemblance to the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of its own time, the spiritual offspring of Gutenberg's project are the aesthetically modest Bibles of modern hotel-room drawers, and indeed mass-produced paperbacks in general.

Before Gutenberg or what Gutenberg and his Bible represent, much of what is now taken for granted about books, secular and sacred alike, was impossible. The new technology, based on a flexible and reusable type whose expense could be recouped not just in multiple copies of a single work, but in an infinite number of works, ushered in new possibilities beyond Gutenberg's intention or imagination.

Prior to the invention of movable type, books in the West were of course rare and expensive. This meant not only that they were largely in the hands of wealthy individuals and powerful institutions, but also that the purposes of books were largely focussed on the public liturgy and private devotions of Christianity.

The contents of those older scriptural books conformed only rarely to the modern idea of a "Bible". Gospel books, epistolaries, psalters, lectionaries, and other collections and selections from a biblical library, were the tools of trade of those who led liturgy, and the media through which most heard scripture read. But they were not "Bibles".

Johannes Gutenberg's project was not intended to change this social and religious reality, so much as profit from it; his market was still an elite section of society, as the impressive "rubrication" (supplementary decoration and adornment) of the Gutenberg Bible makes clear enough. After all, relatively few had the level of education that allowed them to read. And while Gutenberg's Bible heralded a new level of access to the biblical text, his own publication was still the traditional Vulgate, the canonical Latin scriptural text of the Roman Catholic Church. The new printed Bible preceded the German Reformation by the best part of a century.

It is hyperbolic to say that Gutenberg "invented" the Bible; but without him the Bible as it is now understood in many places - as a single and particular book synonymous in content with the canon of Christian scripture -  simply could not have come about. Christian scripture, of course, is very much older, but these sacra biblia ("holy books") hitherto constituted not a single book but an inspired library, which most heard communally rather than read individually. As already noted, the conjunction and collection of different scriptural works in one binding was determined mostly by liturgical use. When the whole of scripture could readily be encompassed in a single volume (or two, as most Gutenberg Bibles were bound), a new possibility emerged; the library of scripture now became a single book, and canon itself, rather than devotional and communal use, determined its internal architecture.

The disruptive character of the new technology, and its potential significantly to increase access to scriptural and other texts, thus did not appear overnight, and required other social and intellectual developments to catalyse it. The emergence of a bourgeoisie whose interests, material and spiritual, did not sit easily with the traditional alliance of Church and old aristocracy, was crucial. As a larger group of educated and increasingly powerful merchants and professionals found themselves able to ponder scripture, as well as the classics and other sources encouraging critical reasoning, they were ripe also for the ideas of such as Luther. The new printing technology then allowed the very writings that fomented reform to circulate rapidly, too.

While it is impossible to imagine Protestantism, or the place of the Bible in it, without these complementary social and technological developments, there were further changes before distinctive modern forms of western Christianity, with their assumptions about faith and spirituality based on personal Bible reading, could emerge. Gutenberg's movable type did not yet create mass literacy, or make Bibles cheap enough for typical households. Yet it had allowed the idea of a "Bible" in a hitherto almost impossible sense.

While this technological revolution in printing was a necessary condition of democratising literacy in general and the Bible in particular, the same developments were at best a two-edged sword for the centrality of the Bible, and for the place of Christianity in western culture. For the infinite variability of moveable type heralded a new and open-ended set of textual possibilities; if the Bible were indeed a "book", it would now have many other books alongside it, and form part of an increasingly complex  and competitive library of meaning.


Sunday, June 08, 2014

A Top Ten List for Theological Students (Sermon for Friday after Ascension for Trinity College Theological School)

The Matthaean Ascension story depicts Jesus instructing the eleven to make disciples and baptise, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”. This “everything” did not seem to all ancient readers simply to refer back to the Gospel itself; many Christians assumed that whatever they did in Church had been prescribed among such commands, and some documents like Church Orders explicitly placed liturgical and ecclesial instructions into this narrative context, giving their own practices apostolic or even dominical origins.

Being myself about to leave and scheduled to preach in Ascensiontide, I have my own opportunity for parting advice, but thought it sufficiently important to de-emphasise the relative importance of my own by putting them into a genre that implies a little self-satire. So, bearing in mind also that my next long-term destination is the USA, I offer you on departure a quintessentially American discourse, the “top ten” list à la David Letterman, for the theological student and future minister.

10. Listen
Emerging from theological college with degree, and from cathedral with holy orders, it is tempting for the newly-ordained to begin inflicting themselves on the Church; insights and passions are likely to be spilling from your full cups. Stop. Listen. God has been doing things in your new place of ministry before; more indeed probably than you will get to do. Things are as they are for a reason. Pay attention not just to individual pastoral need, but to community understandings and concerns. You will be effective leaders only if you start where the people are, and then move together.

9. Take Initiatives
The central structures of the dioceses are important, but different from (rather than more important than) parishes and other communities and networks. In our time the most important initiatives are likely to come from the latter. Bishops often have their work cut out just managing what emerges from the local scene; don’t wait for them to take action. We need you to be entrepreneurs and initiators, engaging with new ways to offer people the Gospel and the sacraments. Sometimes you will have to seek forgiveness rather than permission.

8. Keep studying
We can’t possibly teach you everything you need to know here in theological college. In fact the realities of the Church today are that you probably didn’t even know all the things the curriculum still assumes you do before you got here. That’s not your fault; your fault would consist of not remedying that, and that process can’t end here. If your personal standard for theological education is just meeting degree or diocesan requirements, you’re aiming too low. Come back for your Master’s in a few years, when you know more about your needs and gaps, or take the steps to seek the further education that will help you and the kind of learner you are.

7. Get mentored
Given that the curacy system is less extensive than it was, some of you will find yourselves ministering without the support and supervision formerly taken for granted. There are structures intended to compensate but these cannot do all you need. Neither, for that matter, can a traditional curacy, truth be told. So get it yourselves. Ask those you trust for advice about senior colleagues (in experience, whether or not age) who might help. Don’t stick to friends; don’t be afraid to learn from people who are different.

Now a few that relate to your roles of liturgical leadership and prayer: 

6. Prepare
Liturgy can be as easy as opening the book and turning the pages; but that is rarely good liturgy. If you believe that word and sacraments are worth dedicating your life to, prepare for both. A well-designed pew sheet is not a substitute for a well-rehearsed liturgy either. If you would typically throw a large party with no preparation, by all means try the same for the liturgy; you will see in time how many people come back to either. 

5. Preach
Preaching of a high standard is not the most common experience in our Churches today, and one of the results of that is that some of you may not have heard many preachers who actually made you want to preach like them. But the vocation of the priest and deacon in public worship is as much or more to preach than merely to intone prayers or perform sacramental acts.  The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer indicate that a sermon is a normal part of the liturgy; do not despise the privilege this offers to proclaim the Gospel and to teach.

4. Read the Bible
The Daily Office allows Anglicans to hear or read virtually the whole of Scripture every year. This gives us an almost uniquely biblical spirituality, if we fulfil it. For various reasons the framework for this discipline is less effective than it was; don’t let this prevent you from reading and learning about scripture as best you can, day in and day out. Of course you’ve studied the Bible here in sophisticated ways, but method is not an alternative to content. It’s forgivable if not edifying when a lay person scheduled to read on Sunday can’t find their place; the same doesn’t apply to a cleric. If you really don't know the names of the books of the Bible in order, go learn them. Knowledge of and facility with scripture is a gift to you personally, but also an indispensable tool for teaching and for debate in the issues we will face as Anglicans in the years ahead. Do not dare self yourself short by thinking that others may take a stand on scripture, while you can work from some other set of authorities.  

3. Pray
This work relies on our being called to serve a reality which lies not just deep within but beyond ourselves; it is not our own work, but God’s. Prayer is the means by which we engage and acknowledge that reality. Prayer is not just asking; prayer is listening. Your survival in ministry and your effectiveness depend on that acknowledgement and connection, practiced in a disciplined form. The Daily Office is again the most evident gift that the Church offers you; use it, and whatever else you need, to pray alone and with others.

And two broader ones about the self and vocation:

2. It’s not about you
While we all believe you are here because God has called you to be, what God has called you here for is the Church, not yourself. God doesn't need theological colleges and ordination processes to work in the world, but the Church does. We trust that your deepest self will in fact be nurtured and expressed in however your own calling turns out to be fulfilled, but that is not the same thing as the fulfilment of your own dreams and yearnings as they now are. Resist the temptations that ministry offers to use liturgies, vestments, and whatever else primarily as expressions of your own personal theology and spirituality; put the best of who you are in the service of the whole community.

1. God will cope
After the above list and its accumulation of things you ought or ought not to do or be, let me offer a word of assurance. When you fail to meet these or other expectations that you or others set, God will cope. This is not your excuse for indiscipline or incompetence; rather it is the reminder that we dependent on grace. God has called you to this work and will do through you what God will; engage in this work with passion, and trust in the end that it is not up to you.

So much for lists. Over on NBC (and here in Australia, on ABC 2) Jimmy Fallon has a different sort of signature “list”, in the form of “thank-you" notes. My “thank-yous”, then: to my colleagues for their efforts and support here over these eleven years; to you, for daring to come and see what God might do with you and through you, as well as to you; and last but not least, thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.



Monday, May 26, 2014

The Nagging Question of God: Farewell Sermon at Trinity College

From one point of view, this College is named Trinity for the sentimental attachments that certain of our founders had with similarly-named institutions in Cambridge and Dublin. From another perspective however, the name Trinity reflects the nagging question of God, and specifically the Christian response to that answer.

Over eleven years I have had the privilege of speaking here to congregations diverse in age, faith, and otherwise about the Bible, the problem of evil, social justice, sustainability, about the very possibility of religion, and about that nagging question of God. And this last question is my topic this evening, not merely because it seems apt for a theologian to name it on a significant occasion like a farewell, but because it has something to do with why we are all here, sceptics and believers alike, and with why those other questions matter too.

The God issue has not become an easier one to handle over those eleven years. Popular discourse about God and religion is often characterised by superficiality and sound-bite-ism, whether the case is being made for or against. Religion’s popular despisers rarely seem to have read any actual theology, but are often able to identify faith with fundamentalism, partly because faith has too few intellectually and indeed morally credible champions.

Let it be admitted - or indeed proclaimed - that what often passes for God in popular discourse does not really deserve to be believed in. “God” merely as a sort of being larger than other beings, whose existence can be invoked to explain that shrinking pool of phenomena not otherwise yet explained, is not a necessary or impressive proposal. What might be more surprising is that this was not the God of classical theology in any case; theologians worth reading always affirm that the word “God” is a convention that points to a mystery, not a sign with an obvious or easy referent.

The real religious question that will not stop nagging us is not whether there is such a large being or anything left to explain, but whether there is a mystery to encounter at the heart of life, which has little to do with explanation and evidence, but much to do with awe and wonder. If you can answer no to that question I will grant your status as officially irreligious without argument. But if there is indeed a mystery at the heart of being and the universe, it is that, and not anyone’s imaginary friend or hypothetical intelligent designer, that we people of faith call “God”. For all the complex edifices of story and ritual built on it, religion and spirituality have that awe as their foundation, and build on it because this is what human beings do; we create art and music, reflection and argument, in hope of catching and conveying glimpses thereby of truths that lie beyond and beneath.

This is of course not quite enough to get us as far as speaking of God as a Trinity, even though that doctrine is famously referred to as a mystery too. But the language of Trinity does stem from a very different and specific set of affirmations about God, which are again very different from those of contemporary fundamentalism.

Christianity does indeed claim some more specific and potentially implausible things about the character of the universal mystery, most particularly and audaciously that the life of Jesus of Nazareth sheds light on it in a definitive way. The essence of this claim is not that his teaching or miracle stories identify him as that large being aforesaid, and hence that we had better follow him or watch out. It is that the character of his life, and above all the willingness of this man to die for his friends, tells us something about the mystery of our lives;
not that God is to be sought after and served because powerful or even just plausible, but that God has sought after and served us, and that our hope centres not in some divine manipulation of events in our favour but in the willingness of the divine to be subject to the vicissitudes of human life. This is why the most fundamental affirmation Christians make about the reality of God is not to do with power, but love.

The necessity of speaking of a Trinity emerges from early Christian reflection on this same story. God, the followers of Jesus believed, was simultaneously the transcendent mystery beyond thought or knowledge, but also encountered in the man Jesus, and also immediately present as the Holy Spirit. Unwilling to jettison any of these affirmations while affirming traditional Jewish monotheism, they confessed God as Trinity. 

More than that, they saw the relation between these three aspects of divinity as social; just as the relationship between God and the world was characterised as love, so too the inner reality of the Trinity was one of love, between a parent, a child, and Spirit. Thus in turn human relatedness, and the reality of love as the character of human community, is not merely an accident of our being or a defensible moral choice, but lies at the heart of our existence, and our experiences of love constitute a window onto the mystery that sustains all.

When our founders chose this name they were referencing those ancient reflections. We still teach them here in our Theological School, we celebrate them in this Chapel, and some of you might also be surprised by how many of our Foundation Studies students affirm them. 

All this has at least two consequences for all of us, diverse as our positions on the God question may be:

First, by calling this place Trinity, the founders affirmed then and we do now that the character of human community is itself not merely historical accident or pragmatic necessity; community is something we honour and celebrate, something that reveals what is at the heart of our lives. This means that here we work and study and play and dine, believing that these things are inherently good; and for some of us they even come close to what Christian theological language calls “sacraments” because they reveal or allude to deeper mysteries even than themselves. It also means - as that somewhat opaque collegiate motto pro ecclesia, pro patria suggests - that we do this work together as a small community with a sense of the wider implications for the whole of human society. We seek to be compassionate and just, because now as much as ever Australia and other nations need compassionate and just societies.

Second, and more fundamentally if perhaps also more problematically, “Trinity” amounts to a statement not just about who we are, but about what the world is, and what it is for. For almost one hundred years, members of the College have come to this Chapel to encounter, through a veil, a truth and a love deeper and older than any number of centuries. It is as mysterious as time and the universe, or more so; but it is as immediate as you and I are to each other as community, as friends. May this place continue to provide its members, and the wider world, with glimpses of this mystery for which it is named. 

Eucharist and Anglican Catholicism: Sermon from St Peter's, Eastern Hill


E. S. Hughes and others at St Peter's, Melbourne, c. 1900
In this place you are the inheritors of a great tradition of liturgical worship, spirituality, and mission that goes back not only to the Oxford Movement of the mid nineteenth century, but to the medieval and even the ancient Church - a pattern of corporate life and prayer, centred in particular on the celebration of the Eucharist.

Before the Church of England was reformed in the 16th century, the Eucharist or Mass was celebrated often, but participated in little. Medieval Christians were more focused on the character of the Mass as an sacrifice, offered for them by the priest, than on its character as a banquet to which God’s people were all called.

The protestant reformers, including the framers of the first Books of Common Prayer like Thomas Cranmer, believed correctly that ancient Catholic order commended regular eucharistic participation; but their contemporaries were unable to overcome their sense that the solemnity of the sacrament was not to be trifled with by receiving it too often. Thus Anglicanism took on for some centuries the accidental and quite novel shape of a Church that worshipped in Word far more than sacrament; this is still the fate of much contemporary Protestantism, ironically to be deeply medieval by downplaying eucharistic participation, and hence failing in a core aspect of Christian discipleship by not presenting the Eucharist as the characteristic act of Christian worship.

It is not so long ago however that the Fathers and Mothers of Anglo-Catholicism recalled us  to the centrality of the Eucharist; and it is this sacramental re-focussing, rather than its ritual expression, which we must consider as their real gift.

When the likes of E. B. Pusey and John Keble in the Oxford Movement of the mid-nineteenth century articulated a new sense of catholic identity in the Church of England, their concerns were not primarily about ritual and ceremony at all; rather they were concerned with the fact and the importance of prayer and sacrament. It was only in the next generation that now-familiar patterns of ornaments and ceremonies became a major focus of interest. Anglicans of Catholic mind came quickly to believe that the sacraments whose significance they had come to appreciate in more profound ways required an embodied piety of which our now-familiar vestments and rituals are the outward expression.

The beauty of this vehicle has always been a great strength of the catholic movement, but has always also risked being a distraction or an idol; it is common, inside Anglo-Catholicism as well as out of it, now to find ceremonial the most distinctive thing about us. This is a deep and dangerous misconception, and one that extends into different forms of Anglicanism influenced by the beauty and order of this liturgy but less clearly aware of its real roots; this can be a case of, in T. S. Eliot’s terms, doing “the right thing for the wrong reason”.

Anglicans may indeed be people who do things “decently and in order”, well and good; but this is our cultural heritage, not our theological foundation. Anglicanism does not mean formality in liturgy; Anglo-Catholicism does not mean the use of Fortescue’s Ritual Notes. We enact what we think of as characteristic catholic ritual at the Eucharist, not because of its agreeable aesthetics but because of the remarkable sacrament; not because of the tradition, but because of the Gospel.

What then does the Eucharist mean for us? Three things are worth remembering, at least:

First, the Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ’s saving death and resurrection, in which we encounter him truly and personally. Our individual participation in it is a unique means of grace, through which God feeds and leads us to the fullness of the new life we have been born into through baptism. Hence the great Catholic tradition of prayer and devotion, the offer to the Church and world of a deeper spiritual life. In the Eucharist, Christ calls us to receive and worship him.

Second, the Eucharist is the reminder and enabler of our together being members of the mystical body that Christ has constituted through his life, death and resurrection; we are united in the Eucharist not only with him but with one another in this body the Church, curious as it may be in history, glorious as it is known to God and will be revealed in God’s good time. Hence the great Catholic tradition of building up not merely individual converts but a great pilgrim people, united in worship and mission. In the Eucharist Christ calls us to be his body.

Third and not least, the Eucharist proclaims a wider reality about God’s love for and presence in the world; the God once incarnate in Galilee can be present here with us in bread and wine, but is also present still in that world God loves so much. Hence the great tradition of heroic social service and advocacy that was so famously encapsulated in Bishop Frank Weston’s manifesto at the 1923 Anglo-Catholic congress: "You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.” In the Eucharist Christ calls us to serve him in the world.

Catholic Anglicanism stands ultimately on these affirmations, not on ceremony. Our future as a means of God’s action in the world depends on our willingness to receive Christ in the Eucharist, for ourselves, for each other, and for the world. However well or badly we worship in ritual terms, we affirm with gratitude that in the Eucharist as otherwise it is God who has acted, God who has spoken, God who has given; for this we humbly give thanks, worshipping the Word made flesh who still comes among us as bread and wine, transforming us for his work in the world.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary"


[From a sermon preached at Evensong at St Paul's Cathedral Melbourne on Sunday May 18 2014, in a series on the Apostles' Creed]

In this brief pair of phrases from the Apostle’s Creed we find expressed in a pithy narrative form the Christian answer to the question “who is Jesus?"

The answer can also be called the doctrine of the incarnation. Historically, we profess that this conception and this birth happened; theologically, we have said rather more in the process of reciting the Creed - namely that Jesus is truly divine and truly human.

The Christian affirmation that Jesus is divine and human is the most distinctive thing the Church has to say about God, humankind and the world.

Some people digging down into this affirmation may however find it problematic; it may seem to be not merely unlikely but contradictory to say that a person is at the same time the transcendent reality on which the world depends for its existence and the particular historical figure constrained by time and space, human nature and culture. Is this more meaningful than saying that God can make a square circle or a breakfast so large he cannot eat it? But the Christian affirmation about Jesus’ identity does not begin with our preconceptions about divinity and humanity; rather we allow both these to be redefined by what we learn from him about them.

Perhaps it’s true of most of us that we at least begin with one aspect or the other, the divine or human, when it comes to Jesus.

There are certainly those more comfortable sticking with Jesus’ humanity - “born of the Virgin Mary” - than with his divinity. For some, Jesus is thus primarily a good example of being human, a moral teacher or example. I confess that this approach I have never found particularly convincing, in that Jesus’ teaching and example - taken in isolation at least - are at best confronting and at worst a counsel of despair. But few who claim him in these terms really pay attention to the radical nature of his proclamation about love; instead they turn it into something like a version of the “golden rule”, and depict him as a kind and wise self-help guru.

Yes, Jesus does say “do unto others”, but describes this as the essence not of his own teaching but of the law and the prophets (Matt 7:12). Jesus of course affirms this too but says, more confrontingly, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Luke 6:27). He also says “think not that I have come to bring peace on earth, but a sword” (Matt 10:34), and “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt” (Luke 6:29), and - last for now, but not least, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).

Jesus’ teaching about love in other words is not a self-contained moral prescription for the good life; it is a radical set of claims that cannot be understood independently of him and his fate. As Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe put it regarding what Jesus’ life teaches, “if you don’t love, you’re dead; and if you do, they’ll kill you”. If Jesus’ teaching were translated to the shelves of inspirational book-sellers, we’d be reading “Chicken Soup for the Crucified” and “The Seven Habits of Highly Offensive People”.

Little wonder then that even the faithful tend to flick past Jesus’ own teaching and its unsettling elements, and sink more comfortably into the relative comfort of later Christian reflections about how to exist in a stable and sustainable way. The man Jesus is, taken in isolation, a tragic figure.

So on the other hand, and perhaps more commonly among Christians, Jesus’ divinity - “conceived by the Holy Spirit” - may be assumed as the starting point. This may sound more orthodox, superficially at least, but it is not necessarily so.

Too often Christians may adopt a sort of space-suit theology; God we imagine appeared in human form, but for the purposes of effective communication, as a marketing strategy of sorts. This quasi-human God can be very attractive; he seems to be a great ally, and can help us order neat prosperous lives. But this is not really Jesus either.

What the creed affirms is that God not only appeared human or took on a body, but that God “born of the Virgin Mary” entered into the whole reality of human experience, including finitude and mortality. While the Gospels present Jesus as embodying the kingdom of God in ways that exceed human capacity and expectation, they also present him to us as limited in knowledge, capable of feeling grief and despair, and of course ultimately constrained as we are by his mortality; for nativity must always foreshadow mortality too.

I suggested earlier that to affirm Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” was to confess the doctrine of the Incarnation, but not merely to combine our preconceptions about divinity and humanity. We can begin, then, with Jesus' humanity or divinity as we attempt to understand his significance for us; but we cannot remain where we began, wherever that may have been.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit”.

So it is above all with him, conceived of the Spirit and born of the Virgin. We believe that as the human being uniquely conceived by that restless creative Spirit and who thus shows us what God is really like in the world, Jesus does not fulfil our preconceived notions of what our human lives are for, or of who God is, but offers new, disturbing and glorious glimpses of real human life and of true divine service. We believe that meeting him, truly God and truly human, we find that the humanity we share with him and Mary is changed; and that the divinity we encounter is more remarkable, more awe-inspiring, and more loving than we had ever imagined.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Thoughts on Theological Education (II): Divinity and the Disciplines

If (as I argued in an earlier post) “divinity” is centred on (but not necessarily limited to) the preparation of students for Christian ministry and mission, this has important implications for its content and scope. While the theological curriculum intends to provide intellectual and spiritual challenge to the student, it does so primarily in order to equip them for certain professional - or at least ministerial and vocational - goals.

Its effectiveness in this task has become contentious, and it is not hard to find attempts to supplement the classical curriculum with content designed to offer increased knowledge and competence for changing realities. These include: the emergence and continued expansion of the fields variously defined as practical and pastoral theology; the emergence of degrees or awards designed specifically for “ministry”, “pastoral studies” and similarly, whether as alternatives to or complements to the classical theology or divinity degree; and the development of continuing education and training for theological graduates, both in academic and ecclesiastical settings.

These trends, all positive enough in themselves, have colluded with the recent misunderstanding of what “divinity” is; if divinity is not seen as “practical”, in the sense that graduates do not always seem well prepared for contemporary pastoral leadership, then by implication the classical curriculum has been characterised as “theoretical” or similar. Australian assumptions about the relation between theory and practice may also have contributed to what I think is actually a fundamental  misunderstanding. If “divinity” does not always seem to equip students well for contemporary ministry, this is not because it is not a practical or vocational type of study, but because the perceived needs have changed more than the curriculum.

How then to address this disconnect? Two things seem particularly important to me.

First, “divinity” can and should include the additional and practical areas noted above, and not merely be seen as (e.g.) exegesis, history, or hermeneutics. Divinity has in fact never been a single discipline at all, but has always been the collection of disciplines deemed necessary for adequate ministerial preparation.

“Divinity” therefore was and is more like medicine than like microbiology. Medicine can be described as a “discipline” only if we use the term vocationally, to convey formation of a practitioner, via what are actually various disciplines in the academic sense. So too “divinity” is not a single subject area (the limited imaginations of regulatory bodies notwithstanding), but refers to the provision of a preparation for practice via various academic disciplines.

It is worth remembering that the specialists who may go by the name “theologian” (i.e., who are teachers of “divinity”) are not very united by method or content in their work. The Hebrew grammarian, the modern historian, the philosophical theologian, and the sociologist of religion are joined in their vocational focus and commitment to an educational and ecclesial enterprise, not by the fields of their study. Of course the phenomenon of religion does provide a link, but it is a weak one that derives more and secondarily from that vocational commonality in the educational (and ecclesial) enterprise than from research fields. The stronger link is the commitment to equipping students for a form of practice.

My second point is that, while there is ample room to reconsider and reform the theological curriculum in the light of changing realities, there is also scope to rediscover why we inherited a "divinity" so focussed on the Bible and on doctrine.

"Divinity" is eminently practical, of course, but that envisaged practice was centred around the vocation of teaching and preaching. The disconnect that graduates and churchgoers now experience between training and practice does reflect a loss of the role of clerical and lay "divine" as the "organic intellectual" of the Christian movement, in favour of models centred on (e.g.) sacramental functionalism or provisional of individual pastoral care. The sacraments and pastoral care need not be de-emphasised in asking whether their performance is really where the distinctive charism of the "divine" should be focussed.

While the extended declamatory rhetoric of divines long past may not be an adequate model to reclaim the centrality of teaching and preaching in Christian ministry today, a renewed intellectual practice must undergird not merely homiletics but the whole mission of the Church. More than at many times in the past, the Church is engaged in a struggle of ideas: justice, mercy, compassion, indeed, but the reality and relevance of the Gospel underneath all. For this, we need not functionaries to slip into the existing slots of the lumbering ecclesiastical structure, but visionaries who can work with the people of God to discern the demands of God's mission in remarkable times. For this, we surely need divinity.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Thoughts on Theological Education (I): Theology and "Divinity"

[This is one of two posts arising from an invitation from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Divinity to contribute to a discussion in the University of what "divinity" means.

Persons learned in the Christian scriptures and the doctrines of the Church have traditionally been known as “divines” and their discipline as “divinity”; the word in this sense alludes not to God-like being, but to godly knowledge.

These persons were of course traditionally the members of the clergy; “divine” was a synonym (perhaps with slightly stricter parameters, related to learning) for “cleric”. While this equation no longer restricts the student population studying “divinity", the connection is important, for it reveals something often ignored in contemporary discourse about theological education. To offer a degree in divinity was - and arguably is - to prepare someone for the ministry and mission of the Church; it was not to expose them to a body of abstract knowledge about faith, God, or Bible, except to train them in the use of such knowledge for effective pastoral leadership of communities who shared that faith, and for preaching in particular.

Some contemporary discourse about theological education argues or assumes something different, namely that theology (now the more common term, and probably more amenable to this other definition) is pure exploration into divine truth, or Christian tradition, or some similar concept (dependent perhaps on confessional or similar understandings) - something like the Latin and Greek theologia underlying that modern term.

This alternative and more abstract view has arguably grown in popularity as the participation of lay persons in theological education has increased; while some of these have studied with pastoral goals in mind, others have done so primarily for the more abstract purposes noted. So of course this exploration can and does occur; my point is not to decry this by any means, but to point out that the curriculum which sustains those explorations is designed for another purpose.

A curriculum that really was designed for that pure theologia would not be constructed accordingly to the typical three-, four-, or even five-fold schema that dominates theological education in the English-speaking world: Bible, Theology, and Practice, or Bible further divided into OT/NT, and Theology into historical and systematic streams. A degree structure that was “theological” in that other sense might either be primarily conceptual and hence centered on the field of systematic theology as we have it perhaps, or else “ascetical” as the term was once commonly used and hence based around prayer and liturgy, or perhaps empirical and based around the social and historical facts of religion.

My point then in this and a following post is not to argue for the merits of a particular approach to theological education, but to point to some realities about it. Theological education as we know it is actually still “divinity”, and divinity is still essentially organised (and funded etc.) as preparation for ministry.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Camels for Abraham, or Truth and Fact in the Bible

[From a sermon for Commencement 2014, preached in the Chapel of Trinity College, March 2 2014; Genesis 15:1-11, 17-18, Psalm 99 and Romans 4:4-13]

The Bible begins, in the Book Genesis, with a set of stories that have a universal if certainly mythic character - Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, the Tower of Babel. But in Gen 12 a somewhat different sort of story begins - not a universal but a specific story, about the forebears of Israel and the Jewish people.

A certain “Abram” is called by God to leave his home in what is now Iraq and journey with family, retainers, and herds of camels and sheep to an unknown land of promise. Along the way, he encounters God a number of times, his name is changed to “Abraham", he adopts the rite of male circumcision as a sign of his faith, and he acquires descendants who we are told came to include not only the Jews but Arabs and other Middle-Eastern peoples.

Abraham was actually in the news last month because of the publication of a new study from Israeli archaeologists about camels. While the Genesis story refers to Abraham as having camels, and the implied chronology of Genesis places Abraham sometime between 2000 and 1500 BCE, the witness of carbon dated evidence published by Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures suggests domesticated camels only got to his part of the world in more like 1000 BCE, half a millennium later. The story did not add up.

There was a forceful but predictable backlash on the internet. All sorts of people, most rather less qualified than Drs Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen, offered their firm opinions about ancient camels; some observed that there could still be older camel bones waiting to be discovered, which is of course true. But none of this reaction was really about camels, and little of it was even about Abraham; it was about the Bible, what it is and what it means.

In our time it is difficult to maintain the middle ground between forms of scepticism that dismiss the value of biblical literature out of hand, and of fundamentalism which insists on the literal accuracy even of stories that historians, let alone physical scientists, would not defend in such terms.

In fact biblical scholars - most of them people of faith - have quietly acknowledged for over a century that there are elements of the biblical stories of Abraham and his offspring  - and not just those possibly anachronistic camels - which seem more at home in later centuries than those they are supposed to be set in. But the stories of Abraham are not journalistic or eye-witness accounts of ancient events, even though they do have a relationship with history; rather they have been shaped by telling and re-telling, formed for the readers and hearers, both in oral tradition and then in varied literary sources underlying the present text of the Pentateuch. The truth we are offered in them is not always the truth of fact, but often the truth of value, meaning, and purpose. Abraham’s story is one of trust, and of hope - not primarily of camels.

Ironically the most prominent proponents of both sides of that debate have far more in common than they realize; they have both accepted the dubious premise that truth and facticity are the same thing. The sceptic must dismiss Abraham, and the Bible with him, because he does not have camels; the fundamentalist must find camels for Abraham (as well as an ark for Noah and various other dubious pseudo-historical accoutrements) lest the Bible be untrue; both are so worried about whether or not these camels are facts, that little or no attention is given to what they - or more to the point Abraham - might mean.

Many of us who study these documents as both history and poetry would say something like this: The Bible is true - and some of it happened. For truth and reality take forms beyond the narrowly historical and the strictly material, although they include it.

The apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans reflects the interest of the new Christian movement, which had already spilled beyond the peoples who claimed physical descent from Abraham, in that already-distant ancestral figure. Paul claims (Rom 4) that Abraham is relevant to his readers as a model of faith, rather than as a literal ancestor. Not only Jews (and Arabs) who adopt circumcision and the Law of Moses, but Greeks and Romans too can be Abraham’s spiritual descendants.

This claim offers an interesting hint about reading the Abraham narrative itself, and the Bible. Descent from Abraham, Paul says, is not about the fact of literal ancestry or inheritance but about faith. What is significant about Abraham is that he was called, and that he went; not because of the evidence, we might add, but despite it. Those who follow are the true descendants of Abraham.

But the evidence is ultimately important too of course. The whole of the story that follows, of promised land, suffering and redemption, of Moses and Miriam, or Mary and Jesus, of Paul and (if it is our story too) of us, depends on that ancient and mysterious “yes” about which, historically speaking, we can be sure of little more than that it happened. And yet it did.

Abraham’s is a good story with which to start the journey of our own academic year. In it we will be challenged to pursue truth in all its forms. Some of these forms will even involve facts. May we go forward, with discerning and enquiring minds, and like Abraham also with courage, and with hope.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

On Being "Un-Australian" and "Un-Judaean", or How to Stop Worrying and Love the Law

[From a sermon at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, February 9th 2014 (Epiphany5); Isa 58.1-9a, Ps 112, 1 Cor 2.1-13, Mt 5.13-20]

The issue of being "un-Australian" has recently been a matter of public debate here, particularly regarding the role of the press. While some think our national broadcaster should not run stories that could damage Australia's reputation, others hold to the old-fashioned notion that the role of a free press in a democracy is to keep government accountable, and that the inadequacies of recent press coverage might not concern its reputational impact on us, but its accuracy or lack thereof.

I raise this contemporary example not for its own sake, but for the light that may shed on Jesus as a controversial commentator and political figure in his own day. There were certainly those among his contemporary detractors who regarded Jesus as a "un-Judaean" sort of character, a nuisance and a threat. Of course he did contend with influential leaders, and took stances viewed as treacherous, which ultimately led to his suffering and death as a traitor on the cross.

That event however cannot be read at face value. Few patriots are mere cheerleaders for their nations, and not all those who die as traitors have betrayed their country; consider deaths in Tibet or West Papua in recent years, or in Germany or the Soviet Union at times in the previous century.

Jesus proves in fact to be the true patriot in his own story. Jesus is a loyal and pious Jew who criticises the hypocrisy and croneyism of the contemporary elites, and the alternative leadership too, not however because he rejected Israel or denied Judaism. Jesus is the "loyal opposition".

Such loyal opposition had its precedents in Israel’s history, not least in the prophets themselves - Isaiah castigates Israelites who ostentatiously observed the outward forms of religious fasts, but ignored their ethical and social significance, adopting voluntary hunger for show, while the involuntarily hungry were passed by. This however is not criticism of piety or religiosity, but of hypocrisy. Isaiah’s targets are not the more religious or hyper-conscientiously Israelite, but the inadequately and half-heartedly so.

It is surprisingly common to find Christians repeating the slurs of his ancient opponents, imagining that Jesus was a critic of Judaism itself, or a flouter of the fundamental practices and beliefs contained in the Law of Moses.

The idea that Jesus was either not a Jew, or was opposed to Judaism itself, is the last gasp of Christian anti-semitism, a long and vile tradition that has been a burden to us, and more so to Jews caught up in its consequences. Into the mid or even late 20th century, even theological scholarship tended to put Jesus in the place not of loyal Jewish opposition, but of rejection or at least transcendence of Jewish identity.

Today’s Gospel provides perhaps the strongest statement from Jesus about his commitment to that most basic of Jewish commitments, the Law of Moses:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:17-20).
The implication is inescapable, if uncomfortable; not only does the law apply, but those who seek the Kingdom of heaven are called through and beyond its requirements, exacting as they were; not less is required of us, but more.

Augustine of Hippo, the great African writer and thinker (354-430), saw this clearly, and pointed out that “Christ never tried to turn Israel away from the Law; but he charged them with being turned away from the Law” - even to the point that Augustine sees the timing of Jesus’ death and resurrection as fulfilling the command for Sabbath rest between the great works of his saving death and triumphant rising (see contra Faustum 16). Jesus is for Augustine the most pious and loyal Israelite of all - the words of the Law, all those letters and strokes of letters, are made flesh in him.

As citizens of that Kingdom of heaven of which Jesus speaks, Christians are caught up in his project, both his great critique of the world we now encounter, and his embodiment of an order, a commonwealth, towards which Israel’s order points.

Doubtless our citizenship will not always be exemplary, and if we measured it only by adherence to rules we would fall short. In making the words of the Law into flesh, Jesus embodies loyalty, piety, and civic duty, both to the Law and to the Kingdom; and even for those of us not under the Law, his allegiance and courage to the kingdom make us unlikely citizens of a great commonwealth of hope and love.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Applying our Hearts to Wisdom: Sermon for the Funeral of Frank Henagan

From the Funeral Service for Frank Henagan, held at the Chapel of Trinity College, January 13 2014

One of those alumni of the College who sent us reflections on Frank Henagan's time at Trinity was honest enough to observe that there had been those students and staff who initially sneered at or dismissed Frank. Frank did not, after all, possess the gifts which are most clearly valued in an academic community - or at least did not seem to, because in fact as we have already been reminded Frank had more by way of formal educational achievement than most people knew, having matriculated and studied at RMIT. Nevertheless his unprepossessing demeanour, and the predominantly manual labor to which he unstintingly applied himself at Trinity, did not fit the most prevalent conceptions of wisdom and education or its fruits.

Wisdom and knowledge are not the same thing however; nor are wisdom and education, even if they are related. Most of us came over time to see that Frank was a wise man. This was true not only in regard to the practical wisdom that was easy to see in his great love of sport and in matters of physical fitness; it was also the case with regard to various larger and smaller matters of human endeavour and character - his pithy assessments of people, ideas, and projects were always worth attending to. I remember the time when at a Senior Management Team, confronted with some imponderable matter, Don Markwell suggested “Let’s ask Frank!”. And we did.

Wisdom is more than an attribute about which to celebrate or eulogise Frank, however. Wisdom is something which points to the deepest truths of our reality. It is the subject of a set of writings in the Bible’s Old Testament in particular, including parts of the Psalms as well as the books of Job and of Proverbs, not so well known perhaps because they are not stories, and are focussed not on the miraculous or the other spectacular manifestations of the divine in human life, but on those things learned from experience and from observation of creation itself, accessible to all, if only grasped by few. Wisdom, we are also told, comes from God and has something of divinity about it.

The model human being in this Wisdom Literature is not the prophet, priest, or king, but the sage - the wise man or woman who understands the realities of life, not least its limitations and its vicissitudes, makes choices accordingly, and so not only lives well but fosters the well-being of others.

Psalm 90, which we have heard sung today somewhat laconically representing this view, reminds us that we are like the quick-growing grass of summer, and that our years number "threescore years and ten” or for the strong perhaps “four score”, and praying “so teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom”.

Frank of course, happily for us, was strong enough indeed to get his four score; but for a community like this one, focussed on excellence and suffused with privilege, Frank Henagan was indeed a sage, a living reminder of what true wisdom is, and of how different it might be from the mere accumulation of learning or the glib rhetoric of success. The apostle Paul in today’s first reading claims that "God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” George Herbert  speaks of the recognition that the simplest, least glamorous activity could, when God was seen in it, and when done for the sake of others, become “drudgery divine”.  Wisdom and its attendant divinity consist not of the spectacular, but of the real.

Many were challenged to emulate Frank’s self-discipline, or to count their blessings, or by heeding his advice learned numerous other sound and practical things about themselves and life. The most abiding lesson of Frank’s wisdom to us all however might be theological - a reflection of the insight that Wisdom is not merely benign or even precious, but relates us to the mystery of God in creation, which although we experience it in many ways and through many good things, is never to be confused with them.

Frank quietly but surely placed his own faith in this claim - and proclaimed it more than once in this Chapel as an unlikely but profound preacher. The gifts that he shared with us belong to and point to a truer wisdom, a more profound beauty, and a more ancient love than any we yet know in full. As we pray that we too may so number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom, we commend Frank, and ourselves, to this eternal love, this transcendent beauty, and this holy wisdom.