Saturday, July 12, 2014

Barely Trinitarian

I have a confession to make: I am a student of theology who dislikes reading about the doctrine of the Trinity. When reading Tertullian for my dissertation I usually sprinted through his work on the Trinity. I have read a lot of Karl Barth, but I have not read a lot of Barth on the Trinity. David Bentley Hart's Beauty of the Infinite opens its dogmatic part with a chapter on the Trinity. It was the last chapter I read, and even then I only half-read it at best.

Perhaps the Trinity is like Guinness or coffee or a Terrence Malick film: appreciation for it is earned through hard work, and even then appreciation is not guaranteed. But rather than put the work in, I begin with the conclusion that nobody who writes about the Trinity knows what they are writing about. Don't get me wrong: I presuppose the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity as best I can. But I'm happy to take it as mystery pointing to a mystery and then move on to other things that make for better reading.

Since this can't go on forever, is there any writing on the Trinity that will make me not want to skip over all those other writings on the Trinity?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Body and Soul

The 20th century's pre-eminent philosopher made the following profoundly Christian statement:

The human body is the best picture of the human soul.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations.

This is a re-jigging of Jesus's statement that his disciples will be known by their fruit. As I read Jonathan Edwards I am encouraged to find amidst his talk of affections and ideas and minds and hearts that same commitment to the indispensability of bodily praxis:

…if a professor of Christianity manifests in his behaviour a pitiful tender spirit towards others in calamity, if he is ready to bear their burdens with them, willing to spend his substance for them, and to suffer many inconveniences in his worldly interest to promote the good of others’ souls and bodies; is not this a more credible manifestation of a spirit of love to men, than only a man’s telling what love he felt to others at certain times, how he pitied their souls, how his soul was in travail for them, and how he felt hearty love and pity to his enemies; when in his behaviour he seems to be of a very selfish spirit, close and niggardly, all for himself, and none for this neighbours, and perhaps envious and contentious?” 
- Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Maximus the Confessor finds in the heron a supreme example of chastity. How so?

They say that a "heron" is a bird, and it lives with such chastity that whenever it is about to come together for sexual intercourse it mourns for forty days, and after these, again, another forty days.

Cue the "that sounds just like my wife" jokes.

Battle of the Anthems

The World Cup is, among other things, a war of national anthems, which themselves usually have some kind of war behind them. These patriotic tunes which open every game of the tournament are somewhat at odds with the make-up of "national" teams these days. Many players cannot sing them, either because they don't know the words or because the words don't reflect their convictions or sense of identity (or, as is the case with Ireland, they don't know the language!). What it means to be German or French or Irish may no longer be reflected (or may never have been reflected) in the ideological lyrics that accompany the often beautiful melodies.

To my ears, no melody is more beautiful (and, perhaps, no lyrics are more troubling) than the German national anthem, Deutschlandlied. The part about Germany being above everything in the world is left out, however, so the usual cliches about fraternity and justice are all that is sung by some, though by no means all, of the German players. Podolski, Ozil, Khedira and Boateng remain silent in the video below as their team mates belt out the lyrics with gusto. One wonders what this obvious divide does to team spirit? Certainly this cosmopolitan German team, for all its talent, has not been exemplary in its cohesion in the way that previous German teams were. Time to ditch Deutschlandlied?

Leaving all this to one side, however, the tune is elegant and graceful, and remains my favourite World Cup anthem. Here is what Chris De Burgh of, er, Guardian Sport, has to say about it:

I have a great connection with this piece of music, which was written by Haydn in 1797. I went to Marlborough College in Wiltshire, and they had a beautiful chapel where we had matins most days. I remember singing the hymn Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, to this tune, which with 800 voices was a thrilling sound. I was brought up Church of Ireland, and one of my earliest memories would have been in church with mum and dad, listening to this melody. There’s an interesting thing with music like this, how the beat falls with the melody; they often say music is mathematical in construction and this is a very good example. The melodic pattern repeats itself several times throughout, then you have a mid eight, and for me the most thrilling part is the reprise, those rising notes, and then it hits the top. It’s a hell of a piece of music.

Here, also, is the hymn version of the song, mentioned above by De Burgh:

I look forward to my local Church of Ireland (which, on the topic of nationalism, has a British flag hanging up inside!) belting out this song some time.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Uniqueness not a Virtue?

Q & A sessions at the end of a lecture/talk are brilliant, even if the questions tend to be in the form of either a) "Here is an interesting thought I have. Can you confirm for everybody here that it is interesting?" or b) a completely irrelevant or bizarre line of inquiry that gets the conversation nowhere. At a Terry Eagleton lecture last week there were quite a few questions veering towards the second form, yet it was precisely in his answers to these questions that Eagleton's true genius, and his patience, was revealed. I didn't ask him a question, partly because I get nervous in these situations and partly because I'm afraid of asking a question that takes one of the two forms mentioned above. Of course as soon as I left the building I had formulated in my head a question which perhaps would have been worth asking, namely: How does Terry Eagleton's interpretation of Jesus relate to the metaphysically-tinged creeds of the Church? 

Eagleton made two intentionally provocative statements in his lecture. The first was "God does not have genitals." The second was "God is an animal." I wondered about the relation between these statements, since they are essentially contradictory. It seems to me that the creeds provide a way to hold them together, but Eagleton's interpretation of Jesus basically removed metaphysics (and therefore later Christian understandings of Jesus) from the picture. I wondered if that was his intention, or if he thought his reading of the Gospels could be squared with the creeds. Perhaps that line of questioning would have been too confessional for Queen's, which Eagleton memorably described as a "constitutionally godless institution."

Anyway, I bring up Q & A's not only to name drop, but because I listened online to a Q & A after a Miroslav Volf lecture on faith and violence, and something he said has got me thinking, or at least has got me thinking that I need to get thinking. Here is what he said:

There is so much talk about Christian uniqueness, as if uniqueness were a value. But it isn't. It's a fake value. Truth is a value, but not uniqueness. The fact that Christian faith is unique, I'm troubled by this. I want a state of affairs in which Christian faith isn't unique....In heaven it won't be unique. It just will be. Truth. So if we emphasize uniqueness we are interested in difference. And there is a kind of a pride associated with a stress on uniqueness which wants others to be different than we are, wants others to be outside so that we can reel them in....I think that's a mistake.

The reason Volf's words have got me thinking is because they are quite at odds with much of what I have read in the last 5 years, which has been about the distinctiveness or uniqueness of Christianity and its ethics.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Barth's Theological Method

I have been reading Barth for about five years now. My birthday present in 2010 was the Church Dogmatics, which at a special price of $100 may just have been the biggest bargain since 5p Woppa bars. (Church Dogmatics will now set you back $995, and Woppa bars no longer exist.)

The beauty of Barth's billion pages of theological reflection is that, due to his particular way of writing, you can just jump in to any volume at any point, and it will more or less make sense. He is always circling around the same object, looking at it from different angles, emphasising different parts of the whole. This method is captured in a little technique that Barth uses repeatedly. For example, he takes the commandment "Thou shalt love thy neighbour" and examines it using different emphases. So...

Thou shalt love thy NEIGHBOUR.

Thou shalt LOVE thy neighbour.

Thou SHALT love thy neighbour.

It is a simple method, homiletical in nature, and it is this simplicity that makes Barth's theology so forceful and so compelling. Barth is said to have summed up his theology with the children's song "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." The volumes of Church Dogmatics can almost be understood as different emphases on this sentence.

JESUS love me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 23, 2014

Breaking the Cycle

Since I first watched The Wire, I have only watched one TV series in its entirety: The Wire. As of yesterday, that is no longer true. I have watched Friday Night Lights. And in its own very different way, it is equally magnificent.

Well, "equally" is pushing it. Season 2 of The Wire is a masterpiece of bold and complex storytelling. Season 2 of FNL is crap. Really, really crap. That it was cut short because of a writers' strike may just have been the show's saving grace. From then on in the show lived up to the standards it set itself in the first season.

Though it went through something of an identity crisis, a run-of-the-mill teen-centric drama this is not. If The Wire is really about Baltimore, FNL is really about small-town Texas. These two places might seem like world's apart, and in many ways they are, but the presence of Michael Jordon (a different one) in both shows hints at a deeper correspondence. The two Americas that David Simon likes to speak of are both on display in FNL, though it must be said that there is an (unrealistic?)optimism in FNL that is utterly absent from The Wire. Yet perhaps, just perhaps, that is more a criticism of the latter than the former.

***Spoiler alert for FNL*** That said, I like to see a certain pessimism in FNL which may or not be intentional. One of the most surprising plots in the show is its (tentative) criticism of the military. It leaves us, to some degree, resentful of a soldier. That is something of a miracle for a series which is set in Texas and which aired on network television. In the final montage, we see one of the high school football stars in military gear, headed off to base camp to begin life as a soldier. The scholarship he presumed upon never materialised. He hadn't thought of anything other than playing football. So he hands his State championship ring over to his sweetheart, gets on a bus, and joins the army. This might be meant as a touching moment, but given what we have witnessed in the previous five seasons I have my doubts. Are we not in fact seeing the emergence of a new Saracen family, destined to end in division, resentment, and death?

There is also the character of Julie Taylor, fictional proof of Shakespeare's comment that good wombs can sometimes bear bad sons or daughters. For all the infectious virtue of her mother and father, she is annoying and immature to the end, evidence that life does not always correspond to our formulae.

Where FNL really triumphs - and in this it also mirrors The Wire - is in its development of what appear initially to be throw-away characters. In one way, the show can be said to find its centre in Billy Riggins and Buddy Garrity. More than the Taylors, they embody Texas, and that is what this is all about.

There are many great scenes, numerous inspirational speeches, and excellent passages of American Football action. The game itself - since it is so scripted - is almost designed to be televised, so when it is depicted on television it is just like watching the real thing. But it's not really the winning or the losing that matters. This is hammered home to us in that wonderful portrayal of the final game. The coin is tossed, a sign that fate (or perhaps destiny) has more of a say than we like to think when it comes to winning and losing. There are, after all, things that we cannot control. Fitting, then, that the final shot of the final game is quarter-back Vince Howard throwing a Hail Mary. We do what we can, and then we pray like hell that it all turns out okay. But it's the doing what we can for which we are responsible. Or as Coach Taylor says, it's in the trying that character is revealed.

If I have a favourite scene, it is one that is of little consequence to the plot, but which captures the heart of the show. A few of the high school football players meet on their respective balconies in a hotel before a game. They don't realise that Coach Taylor is also outside, listening in on what they have to say. A lesser show (or season 2 of this show) would have them saying all kinds of stuff that would create drama for later on. This show just has them talk and joke with each other, with Coach Taylor enjoying the moment.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Trouble With Words

It's not often a sermon makes front page news. But as I glanced at the newspaper section in Tesco this morning, I read of a "firebrand evangelical" in Belfast who labelled Islam "the spawn of the devil." Any publicity is good publicity, right?

I find it hard to know how to respond to this kind of story. I usually like to distance myself from crazy evangelicals and console myself with the reminder that they don't represent "true Christianity." Christianity, after all, is a religion of love and tolerance and acceptance.

Then comes more tired liberal-multicultural speak, the kind that George Bush would have given before the U.S. invaded an Islamic country and killed its men, women, and children: Islam is a religion of peace. It is fundamentalists who give it a bad name. They have co-opted it for political-ideological purposes.

In sum, I am tempted to distance myself from Christian fundamentalists, and to distance Islam from Islamic fundamentalists. All of this tends to be based on the vague notion of "tolerance." The same strategy can be employed by any reasonable secular liberal: Christianity with any "public" or "political" interest is dangerous, but "true Christianity," which is a private matter practised by a collection of pious individuals, is a perfectly acceptable phenomenon with which we can peacefully co-exist.

I think one of the reasons I find it difficult to respond has to do with the nature of language. This is one reason why the media is not a neutral observer reporting the news. The media shapes the way words like "Christian," "evangelical," "Muslim," "political," "religion" and "fundamentalist" are understood. These words carry an enormous amount of rhetoric and emotion, but very little concrete meaning. Much is assumed when one uses these words, but many of these assumptions don't stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, they sometimes distract from what is really going on.

There is a word that appears four or five times in the extract from the sermon that appears in the paper. It is a word that Christians would do well to scrutinise. That word is "Britain." If there is a fundamentalism on display here, it is this word that might give us a clue to its true source.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rollins, Zizek, and Ecclesiology

Slavoj Zizek likes to tell an anecdote about physicist Niels Bohr. It goes like this:

Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn't believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn't believe in it!’
The point of this anecdote for Zizek is its commentary on the nature of ideology: a social structure - say, democracy - works even if none of those members of the society really believes in the ideals of democracy.

Peter Rollins transposes this into an ecclesial context. For Rollins, the Church functions as an ideological structure which, in a sense, believes for the individual so that the individual does not have to believe. This is where Zizek's comments about laughter tracks also comes into play. According to Zizek, the purpose of the laughter track is not to prompt us to laugh, or to accompany our laughs. The laughter track exists as a substitute for our laughter. The laughter tracks laughs so that we don't have to. The Church believes so that the individual does not have to.

Rollins's "insurrectionist" Christianity is an attempt to move away from this ideological ecclesiology. I am sympathetic with this attempt, which I understand to be an extreme and undiluted form of evangelicalism. What Rollins wants is authenticity. It doesn't matter what form that authenticity takes: it could be authentic faith or authentic doubt. What matters is that it is authentic. Christianity as a religion which critiques religion should be about fostering authenticity.

This places a great burden on the individual to be authentic; that is to say, to be an individual. My worry is that individuals were never meant to be as individual as Rollins thinks they should be. At this point Rollins even departs from Slavoj Zizek's "faith." For Zizek it is precisely the Church as institution which interests him. For Rollins, on the other hand, the Church as institution is in tension with authentic Christianity. This is why Icon did "non-membership courses" and "Omega courses," which were designed to free the individual from the clutches of institutionalism.

In being so freed we are free to be ourselves. But are we made to handle this freedom? What Rollins is trying to do is to create a space in which the individual is free, even obliged, to doubt. "To believe is human; to doubt, divine" hangs over his webpage. The reason we do not need the Church to have faith for us when he have lost our faith is that losing faith is not a bad thing. Quite the opposite: doubt, for Rollins, is a cardinal theological virtue, given its paradigmatic expression by Jesus on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Rollins - like Zizek - makes much of the verse, but I'm not sure it can carry the weight he attaches to it. The overwhelming testimony of Old and New Testaments is that faith (or "belief") is to be commended, while doubt, in the end, is shown to be unreasonable. "Oh ye of little faith" was not a compliment to the disciples.

Rollins is right that doubt or lack of faith should not be suppressed. It should be given a voice, as it is in the hymn book of the Bible, the Psalms. Where Rollins is wrong, however, is that it is precisely the Church as believing (or faithful) community that can carry these doubts within the context of faith. It can do this because it does not depend on the individual to be always faithful. That the Church has faith even when the individual is at the end of her faith is good news.

In what was a very Hauerwasian moment, the preacher in Everwood said the following: "The gift of community is that each one of us is absolved of the burden of completeness." One of Hauerwas's students, Chris Huebner, wrote about this very gift in an essay on memory, faith, and Alzheimer's disease. He describes the Church as a place of memory for those who can no longer remember. This is what being a member of the body of Christ is all about.