Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Response to the Response to the Response

I came across an article linked on Facebook which was a response to the response to the murders in Paris last week. The author is concerned with the treatment doled out to Christianity in the wake of the massacre, and highlights a number of instances where Christianity is being lumped in with Islam as a religion which is dangerous to a humanistic society. Yet in the author's desire for others to exhibit a nuanced approach to the different religions he forgets to exhibit such an approach himself. He writes:

Many times I have been presented with the mantra of the New Fundamentalist Atheists, "Atheists don't fly planes into buildings". To which the obvious response is "Neither do Presbyterians, Anglicans, Catholics or charismatics – not even the most extremist wacko charismatics. When did you last hear of Benny Hinn suicide squads?" But those who don't think about the consequences and harm of their prejudices far too often rush into this demonization of all religious people.

This is a paragraph bereft of self-awareness. These words by another writer demonstrate why:

The Muslim world has suffered more casualties at the hands of the West in the name of "freedom" than the West has suffered at the hands of Muslims in the name of "Islam."
Moreover, it is precisely through the use of planes (remote control ones) that much of the damage to the Muslim world has been done by the West. Anglicans or charismatics or Presbyterians or Catholics may not fly planes into buildings, but we can be fairly certain that they fly them over the heads of Muslim men, women, and children with the intent to kill. There is no spectacle to this Western form of plane-based violence (mainly because it is done in relative secrecy and from a cold distance, and partly because the lives taken don't matter to us, as evidenced by our reaction to the tragedy in Nigeria), but is it any less cruel, any less fueled by "religious" belief?





Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Captive to Christ, Open to the World


I was given Brian Brock's Captive to Christ, Open to the World a few weeks ago and just got around to reading the first chapter/conversation. It is really a quite brilliant piece of theological reflection on the interaction between Scripture and Christian living. Out of the many insights on offer one in particular stood out the most.

Brock is critical of virtue ethics or an ethic of character. He thinks that this way of seeing the moral life easily leads to an obsession with the self and the self's moral progress. Indeed, Brock thinks that this is an unscriptural way of seeing the moral life. He says: "...I don't think Scripture allows us to frame Christian ethics as a matter of moral improvement" (10). According to Brock, "moral improvement is the result, not the aim of Christian ethics" (10). Brock goes on to cite Samson and David as examples of the kind of moral life that Scripture is interested in. This is a life which is at times obedient and disobedient to the divine claim, but a life which is never abandoned by God in virtue of his faithfulness. In the end, then, the aim of Christian ethics is not self-improvement, but a response of faith to the faithfulness of God.


I like this way of understanding things, though I think a focus on the New Testament would almost certainly bring character and virtue back into play. It is quite obvious that the stories of David and Samson were not told in order to convey the moral progress they made. Samson ended up getting his hair cut during one of his frequent visits to a prostitute, while David's last act was to give his son and successor Solomon a list of people who needed to get got. But as we move to the New Testament we are met by characters who, well, develop character. Peter is one such example, Paul another. Of course neither are immune to sin even as they progress, yet Paul is so confident in his character that he can say to the Corinthians "imitate me as I imitate Christ." Imitation as a form of moral training is very much at home in character/virtue ethics. Of course we cannot imagine David or Samson encouraging us to imitate them, and so Brock's model is appropriate within the context of their narratives. But my initial reaction to his insight is that it cannot be applied across the board.



Saturday, November 22, 2014

Interpretive Strategies

That the act of interpretation is inextricable from the social context of the interpreter is never more evident than when Jesus's sayings to and about the rich are expounded in churches in the West. When those who have are implored to give what they have to those who have not, we take this to mean that those who have are to offer up their possessions to Christ and proclaim that everything they have belongs to Christ. To expect anything else of those who have would be unreasonable, even immoral. After all, if those who have give everything away then what's left for them? In the zero-sum game of life those who have see no reason to switch places with those who have not.

But Luke will not let us get away with our cunning interpretive strategies. Notice the parallel between Luke 18:22 and Acts 4:34-5:

Luke 18.22: "Sell everything that you own and distribute it to the poor"

Acts 4.34-5 [those who owned land or houses] sold [them] ... [and the proceeds] were distributed to each according to his need.

Selling and distributing among the needy was not a unique, one-off mandate given to the rich young ruler. Luke presents this solidarity with the poor as a constituent of the early church. Furthermore, the early church here acts as both the faithful interpreter of Luke's story of the rich young ruler and as the judge over our unfaithful interpretations.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Interstellar (Spoiler warning)

Interstellar is one of those rare films that lays bare a director's vision not only for this particular work but for all of life. This is Christopher Nolan's 2001: A Space Odyssey, his The Tree of Life. When such a film comes around it demands our attention. But does Interstellar deserve it, and can it hold it beyond the three hours running time? The answer to these questions is yes and no, but more no than yes. Indeed, a lot more no than yes.

The yes of Interstellar is its commitment to the vision. This vision is signposted in the opening hour, with Professor Brand (Michael Caine) telling us that "We're not meant to save the world. We're meant to leave it." Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) relates a similar aphorism:  mankind may have been born on earth, but we were not supposed to die on earth. The will to explore is at the centre of Nolan's vision, which means that the film is constantly moving toward new lands, hidden NASA headquarters, distant galaxies, and extra dimensions. It is hard to be bored given this relentless kinetic energy. This creates a problem, however, and is one reason why Interstellar is anti-Gravity: we are never in the same place long enough to care about it or the people who dwell there.

While Gravity did not spend much time on earth, earth was unquestionably "home." The only question was whether Dr Stone (Sandra Bullock) would make it back. Exploration was not the end, and (contrary to Professor Brand in Interstellar) leaving earth was the very opposite of what was required for human salvation. Dr Stone longed for the very mud and dust which Cooper raged against. In philosophical terms, Gravity depicted procession and return. Or in biblical parlance, it conveyed the Old Testament belief of coming from dust and returning to dust. Stone is then raised up from the dust and the mud a creature reborn. Interstellar is all procession, all progress. This in itself does not make for a bad film, though it perhaps makes for a theologically suspect one. Kubrick portrays the relentless journey toward progress stunning effect in 2001. But Kubrick's vision of life was cold, violent, and ultimately lonely. 2001 is deeply tragic and traumatic. Nolan tries to avoid this tragedy by making love the unifying factor in the universe. But in the words of Will.i.am and co, where is the love?

Nowhere is this lack of love more evident than in the film's final moments. A middle-aged Coop is reunited with his long lost daughter on her death bed. She is over one hundred years old due to some time lapse stuff that doesn't make sense. Does he stay by her side to be there when she takes her final breath, or even to mingle with his grandchildren? No. She tells him that no father should have to see his child die, so he quickly departs in order to explore the United States colony which is being established on another planet. For a film which unashamedly preaches the virtues (and science!) of love it has remarkably little time for the actual practice of love. This is because love is bound up with place, and Interstellar has no sense of place. Unlike with Gravity (and also The Tree of Life), earth sure as hell isn't good enough. It is portrayed with wonder and longing by Alfonso CuarĂ³n and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Malick's cinematographer for The New World and The Tree of Life). It is portrayed by Nolan as arid, unfruitful, and irredeemable.

Where Interstellar also differs from Gravity as well as 2001 is in its unquestioning trust in technology. As far as I can remember nothing ever goes wrong from a technological point of view. Technology can be relied upon absolutely. Hell, even drones become the play things of children! This causes the film to suffer both as a drama and as a meaningful commentary on the human condition. In Gravity the whole drama centres around the limits and vulnerability of technology. 2001 portrays technology ("embodied" by HAL 9000) as being as devious and untrustworthy as the humans which create it. Nolan's Interstellar exhibits no such skepticism. Technology does not fail, it does not disobey, it does not change the humans who use it (at least not for the worse); it simply carries us into a glorious future.

Nolan's faith is admirable. He sees in humans an incredible and complex ability to survive and adapt. But what is the price of this kind of survival? And more crucially, what does it look like for humans to flourish as humans? Nolan's answers to these questions are suspect and superficial. The message Interstellar delivers to humanity is "trust yourself." Gravity, on the other hand, ends in a "thank you" which addresses a reality beyond the limits of human power and which bespeaks a more disciplined and peaceful way of seeing the world. Karl Barth would argue that love is only possible when these limits are acknowledged on the side of humans and broken into on the side of the "beyond" or the "other". For Nolan this "other" is other humans from the future. For Barth this is not other enough.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Orthodoxy and History

Anyone with two hours to spare and who is interested in questions of historicity, theology, and biblical interpretation should watch the following video:

 
On a recent the only blog post which sparked a conversation, the question of whether Paul had an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity popped up. While apparently not far from "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" it is a question which does have a bearing on how the Bible is viewed and interpreted. Do we require Paul to have an orthodox account of the immanent Trinity if he is to be considered a trustworthy writer? And if Paul does not have an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity what does that make him? A heretic!?
 
I came down on the side which thinks that Paul neither had nor needs to have an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. I don't think theology works that way, with everything the church teaches being simply lifted from the Bible (here I said with Barth in his suspicion of biblical theology as any kind of substitute for dogmatics). There is, to be sure, the beginnings of Trinitarian orthodoxy in Paul's corpus (as well as John's), but Paul himself lacked what the church in the second, third, and fourth centuries supplied. This means that we do not believe exactly what Paul believed. But if we believe that the Spirit leads the church into truth then that should not be cause for concern.
 
This video addresses an even trickier question: did Jesus of Nazareth believe he was divine?
 
What I find most interesting about the video is that the opposing speakers are both orthodox Christians, yet they arrive at orthodoxy from very different starting points. Licona grounds his orthodoxy in history. Martin grounds his orthodoxy in the church. This raises a key question: to what extent is the church's orthodoxy dependent on historical factuality? Does Christianity ultimately "appeal to history", as N.T. Wright is fond of saying?
 
This video won't answer all the questions, but it does a good job of raising them. Noteworthy also is Martin's "explanation" of his faith at the end. For someone who appears to identify himself with the liberal strand of Christianity it is curiously Barthian.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Ninja Samaritan

Continuing on this blog’s life as a supplement to Creideamh, I will now write something about pacifism Christological non-violence. I have been reading a couple of commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount as a way to see if Jesus really meant that we shouldn’t be anxious about tomorrow and about important things such as clothes and food. But as the topic of pacifism was hot I decided to see what the authors had to say about these verses in Matthew 5:38-42:

“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to anyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

I'll use Charles Talbert (and his book on character formation and ethical decision making in the Sermon on the Mount) as my sparring partner.

As a collection of directives which impinge on our moral imaginations by the sheer force of their rhetoric, Talbert sees in this passage the type of language which functions to form moral character: “It is a catalyst for one’s becoming a person who does not retaliate” (91). With this I wholeheartedly agree. This Sermon is about forming humans into the image of Christ, who is our forerunner in the refusal to retaliate.

But when it comes to discussing the implications of this passage for “ethical decision making” Talbert makes a complete hames of it. First he leans on Eugene Boring, who says that this passage on non-retaliation cannot be taken literally because such a reading would lead to anarchy, the multiplication of evil, and an increase in suffering and oppression. Boring’s (and Talbert’s) mistake is to think that Jesus is instructing everyone. He is not. He is instructing those who would be his disciples, those who would show themselves to be sons and daughters of God. The move to not take these instructions literally is a move which obliterates the peculiarity (and anarchy) of discipleship. What Boring and Talbert are saying is, effectively, “if these instructions cannot be followed by everyone then they can be followed by no one.” But that is a deeply problematic way to make ethical decisions.

By way of illustration, the instruction to not take any risks with one’s money is not for a professional gambler. The professional gambler is someone who by definition takes risks with his money. He cannot possibly keep this instruction and remain as he is. It is not for him in his current status. He can of course choose to obey the instruction, but at that point he is no longer what he once was. To bring this back to the Sermon, Jesus isn’t telling soldiers to refuse to retaliate. Retaliation belongs to the very definition of a soldier. A soldier who doesn’t retaliate is like a gambler who doesn’t take risks with his money. It is nonsensical. So if a soldier wants to obey the commands of Jesus, he will logically cease to be a soldier. The attempt to make these commands into something that a soldier can obey is to put the cart before the horse. Talbert says that “a Christian who works for the State may find it necessary to retaliate in that role” (93). But if Jesus’s words are to be taken seriously, it is the role and not the call to non-retaliation that is in question.

This is not the biggest problem with Talbert’s exposition, however. He goes on to say that “the hermeneutic of the Matthean Jesus placed love and mercy as the overriding concerns in terms of which everything else is to be interpreted” (91-92). That’s a fair enough statement. But what Talbert does with it is exegetically and theologically specious. He thinks that, given this concern for love, “then love of neighbour would override the value of non-retaliation” (92). He uses a hypothetical version of the Good Samaritan parable to demonstrate his point. Suppose that instead of coming along after the attack and robbery the Good Samaritan turned up right in the middle of it. If the Samaritan placed non-retaliation above love of neighbour, he would have waited until the attack was finished and then tended to the wounded man’s needs. In Talbert's eyes, putting non-retaliation before love of neighbour is a reversal of the true order of things. If the Samaritan had acted the Jesus way, Talbert argues, he would have placed love of neighbour before non-retaliation, and “would likely have taken his staff, cuffed the robbers about their ears and driven them off, and then gone to the man. In so doing he would have made his ethical decision out of a character that gave mercy and love for the neighbour priority” (92).

The first and overriding problem with Talbert’s exegesis is that he thinks of “love of neighbour” and “non-retaliation” as two separate ethical directives. But non-retaliation is precisely a way to love one’s neighbour. Talbert presumes to know what love is, but it is Jesus’s words in this Sermon that give love its true definition. Furthermore, non-retaliation is a way to love one’s enemy. The parable of the Good Samaritan is told precisely to change the way we think about who is the neighbour and who is the enemy. If we kill our enemies to protect our neighbours we have not carried out Jesus’s commands. Allowing our neighbours to die by refusing to kill on their behalf is not wrong  - in fact, this is what Jesus told Peter to do when he told him to put away his sword (“for all who take the sword will perish by the sword”). God, after all, allows us all to die! But killing our enemies in no way belongs to the New Testament ethic of love. In his hypothetical version of the Lukan parable, Talbert make absolutely no room for love of enemy in his ethical decision-making process.

There is also a practical problem which is ignored by Talbert: he assumes that attacking the attackers will work. But what would prevent both the Samaritan and the other man from lying helplessly on the road having both been beaten up and robbed? In Talbert’s hypothetical version the lesson we might well end up learning is that fighting violence with violence is useless, because then there is nobody left to help the wounded. The parable would end tragically with the Samaritan and the Jew lying half-dead on the side of a road without anyone to come to their aid.

Monday, August 18, 2014

This is Martin Bonner - Catch it While It's Hot

If you have access to the US Netflix, I recommend giving This is Martin Bonner a watch (it's only going to be up for another day or two). It's a film about a man who works for a Christian organisation that aids former prisoners in their emergence back into society. It's also one of the only films I've ever seen whose main character has a degree in theology! At just over 80 minutes it is a short watch, but I am still mulling over its contents.

And it's got Karl Barth in it.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Equal Yet Unequal

When I wrote my previous post on gender and the Bible I assumed I had settled the matter once and for all. It turns out that not everybody agrees with me. Hard as it is for me to accept that that’s true, it has also forced me to turn my gaze on my own position and work out exactly where I stand. This post will hopefully help me move toward that end. I will offer a very brief “history of exegesis” of 1 Corinthians 11 based on the commentaries that are available to me. Sound boring enough for you?

The “ancient commentary on scripture” series present a smorgasbord of early Christian interpretations of 1 Corinthians. The dominant thread running through these comments is that man and woman are equal in substance but different in terms of their relationship to one another. For some, the equality is stressed. For others, it is the difference that matters.

Chrysostom states that “Christ and God are equal in substance but different in relationship, and the same applies to man and woman” (105). Severian of Gabala insists that “the nature of man and woman is the same,” just as the nature of God and Christ is the same (105). The difference, then, is one of relations – the woman submits to the man. “For just as God has nobody over him in all creation, so man has no one over him in the natural world. But a woman does – she has man over her” (107).

Augustine is clear that both man are woman are images of God – images of the Trinity, in fact. But man is that part of humanity that has “the power of ruling” and woman is that part of humanity “that is ruled” (107). Ambrosiaster, while affirming the equality of substance between man and woman, claims that “the man has relational priority because he is the head of the woman. He is greater than she by cause and order, but not by substance” (107). The woman is “dependent,” whereas the man is “responsible” (108).

Epiphanius uses this text (along with 1 Tim. 2:12 and Gen. 3:16) as justification for denying women the office of bishop or presbyter (107-8). Theodoret of Cyrus appeals to the “order of creation” evident in this text as a way of explaining “the primacy of man.” After all, “the woman was created to serve him, not the other way round” (108).

Interestingly, out of all the texts given, only Pelagius references the new creation in Christ. He says that “The man is the head of the woman in the natural order but not in Christ, in whom there is neither male nor female” (104).

The problem with the “equality of substance” argument is that it tends to be largely meaningless. All it usually affirms is that both man and woman are homo sapiens. You could just as easily say that “Wuthering Heights” and “PS – I Love You” are equal in substance. They are both books, made out of paper with ink printed on them. But that doesn’t get us very far. It is the content that matters. And the content for humans is relational all the way down. Affirming the equal humanity of women is certainly a start. God knows that powerful humans often try to deny the humanity of those they seek to dominate and exploit. But humanity is always co-humanity, and these interpretations almost unanimously present co-humanity as men being the responsible rulers and women the dependent subjects. It is hard to argue that they have read Paul irresponsibly; his language, at the very least, makes these readings almost natural. But it is relatively easy to argue that they have not taken the “counter-testimonies” of the canon into account, as Pelagius did.

Skipping on a few centuries, Calvin, like Pelagius, notices an apparent contradiction in Paul’s thought. How does he reconcile 1 Corinthians 11:3 with Galatians 3:28? Calvin does so by appealing to the “spiritual kingdom” which is only in view in the Galatians passage. Here the equality between man and woman has nothing to do with their bodies, or with “the outward relationships of mankind.” Rather, it has to do with the mind and the inward conscience (354). 1 Corinthians 11, on the other hand, has to do with “civil order or honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life” (354). So while “spiritually” there is no regard paid to the difference between male and female, “external arrangement and political decorum” dictate that a relational “inequality” exists, such that woman follows man.

Calvin also addresses the discord between Paul telling women to cover their heads while they prophesy (1 Cor. 11:5) and Paul telling women to be quiet in the Church (1 Tim. 2:12) by claiming that Paul was simply delaying his condemnation of female prophesying for another date, and that by condemning their uncovered heads he does not commend the prophesying (356). This, it must be said, is yet another disastrous example of the kind of exegesis that happens when scripture must be perfectly squared with itself. Calvin’s logic is flawless, but it only serves to show how limited the role of logic is when it comes to faithfully reading the text.

In relation to Paul’s phrase that man is the image and glory of God, and woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7), Calvin is pretty much in line with early Christian interprets: substantial equality but relational inequality. The man is therefore “superior” to the woman and has “pre-eminence” over her (357). The woman is the “distinguished ornament of the man” (in The Message translation of Calvin, she is “the man’s trophy wife”), the “product” whose “cause” and whose “end” is man (357-8).

This is a brief selection of the interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11 which the Church has produced and inherited down through the ages. I will tackle some of the more modern interpretations in another post, but I will make three comments based on the above snippets.

First, early Christian interpreters were well capable of criticising the literal meaning of biblical texts when they didn’t conform to reason or moral sensibilities. There is no such criticism levelled at this passage, however. The “order of creation” argument made sense in their world. The relational superiority of men made sense. Indeed, texts like 1 Corinthians 11 perpetuated that norm.

This raises a question which was also raised in the comments section of the first post on this topic: on what grounds can we criticise this norm? Is patriarchy “normalised” by the scripture’s rootedness in patriarchal societies? If Paul was patriarchal, does this make patriarchy the norm? And if he was patriarchal, on what grounds can we criticise his patriarchy? Paul, after all, told us to imitate him. Does that mean we should imitate his patriarchy?

Second, the witness of the canon is acknowledged by both Pelagius and Calvin to be in (apparent) tension. Calvin resolves this tension in the interest of preserving a univocal canon. Pelagius’s brief comment lets the tension hang in the air. Should this canonical tension be resolved? Or can one part of scripture be countered by another part of scripture without losing the authority of scripture? What would the authority of a diverse and “tense” canon look like? How would this authority be exercised?

It should be no secret by now that I think that scripture is countered by scripture in numerous places. I think a doctrine of scripture (and a hermeneutical method) have to reflect this diversity. The principle of scripture interpreting scripture is a sound one, provided it is not used to explain away the troubling nature of certain texts.

Third, Calvin’s distinction between the spiritual kingdom and the “ordinary life” which we live in the world has had a long shelf life. I have had plenty of conversations with people where we largely agree on the radical message of the gospel and yet disagree over whether this radical message can or should have any impact in the here and now. In theological jargon, there is very little realized eschatology around today. Paul, who said that “if anyone is in Christ, there is new creation: the old has gone and the new has come”, would surely be horrified at Calvin’s exegesis, and his relegation of the kingdom to the human conscience.

As I said in the original post, Paul should be read graciously and critically. Critically, because he was unable to see the full extent of the “crater” that was created by the explosion of his gospel message.  Graciously, because the gospel which he preached was the gospel of Christ, who is the good news.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Who Then Should I Kill?


I stumbled upon Richard Dawkins's website today. He wrote an article defending his recent tweets about rape and paedophilia and logic. It's his description of moral philosophy that's most intriguing, however. He begins the article with these paragraphs:


Are there kingdoms of emotion where logic is taboo, dare not show its face, zones where reason is too intimidated to speak? 
Moral philosophers make full use of the technique of thought experiment. In a hospital there are four dying men. Each could be saved by a transplant of a different organ, but no donors are available. In the hospital waiting room is a healthy man who, if we killed him, could provide the requisite organ to each dying patient, thereby saving four lives for the price of one. Is it morally right to kill the healthy man and harvest his organs? 
Everyone says no, but the moral philosopher wants to discuss the question further. Why is it wrong? Is it because of Kant’s Principle: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” How do we justify Kant’s principle? Are there ever exceptions? Could we imagine a hypothetical scenario in which . . . 
What if the dying men were Beethoven, Shakespeare, Einstein and Martin Luther King? Would it be then right to sacrifice a man who is homeless and friendless, dragged in from a ditch? And so on. 
Two miners are trapped underground by an explosion. They could be saved, but it would cost a million dollars. That million could be spent on saving the lives of thousands of starving people. Could it ever be morally right to abandon the miners to their fate and spend the money on saving the thousands? Most of us would say no. Would you? Or do you think it is wrong even to raise such questions? 
These dilemmas are uncomfortable. It is the business of moral philosophers to face up to the discomfort and teach their students to do the same.

It is true that moral philosophy has been (and continues to be) practised along these lines. But my word is this the most boring and pointless way to do moral philosophy, not to mention the most morbid. Moral philosophy, it seems, boils down to who we should kill!


You can either throw Andres Iniesta into a pool of piranhas or starve 2 homeless men to death. Which should you do?

Your father and mother are drowning in the ocean. You are only able to rescue one of them on your two-person dinghy. Your father is a surgeon who saves hundreds of lives a year. Your mother is a social worker who transforms the lives of families in poor communities. Your father has cancer and will die in a year. Your mother has a brain tumour, but she will live if it is operated on. The only person in the world who can operate on her is your father. Who should you save?


While fun for about three minutes, this is the worst form that moral philosophy can take. Rather than it being the business of moral philosophers to face up to these uncomfortable and useless dilemmas, it should be the business of moral philosophers to once and for all put this way of doing moral philosophy to death. Ironically, it has no utility.