Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Teenage Culture

One of the things you notice when you spend a little while in the early chapters of Proverbs is how much the wisdom literature emphasises listening and learning.  Here is the opening part of Proverbs 2:

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding...
What we're dealing with here is tradition - the handing one of wisdom from one generation to the next.   And in fact, tradition is a clear theme throughout Scripture.  Consider the emphasis in Deuteronomy on the transmission of Israel's story and law, for example, or the apostle Paul handing on the gospel to younger co-workers (and expecting them in turn to do the same).  In the post-apostolic period, this theme of tradition is continued and developed, as the churches seek to ensure that what is being passed on is what they received from the apostles.

Now, there can be no doubt that the idea of tradition can go to seed.  In general terms, it can lead to some sort of gerontocracy, or a setup where there can be no questioning whatsoever of 'received wisdom'.  In the church, Roman Catholicism in many ways represents the notion of tradition gone to seed.  But tradition is nonetheless a basically sound, Biblical concept.  It is based on the idea that something has been received which must be passed on, and the clearest example is of course the witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  These events took place once, in a particular place, in the midst of particular people - and without tradition, they would remain absolutely closed to the whole of the rest of humanity.  What the apostles received, they had to pass on.

By contrast, our culture is youth culture.  We must be continually reinventing the wheel.  We know that nothing that has gone before is of any value, except perhaps as a dark backdrop to illustrate our own dazzling brilliance.  It's like the whole culture is one big teenager, who knows for sure that his parents know nothing at all, who knows that they don't understand what it's like to be the astonishing, unique individual that I am, who is sure that a bright future lies just over the horizon if we can only wrest control away from the deadening hand of the past generation.  In this sort of culture, tradition represents the great evil - the extension of the past into the future, the refusal to give us the blank canvas which our genius surely deserves.

Can I suggest that the church needs to work harder at being counter-culture in this regard?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (10)

The tenth manuscript of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is short, and in that sense feels like a fragment - but on the other hand, it seems to me that it expresses a complete thought, and does so coherently and persuasively.  The title is Church and World I (presumably Bonhoeffer envisaged writing a Church and World II), and the theme is initially based on Bonhoeffer's observation that in the circumstances of the Nazi Reich many people were looking to the church to preserve culture and civilisation.  "Reason, culture, humanity, tolerance, autonomy - all these concepts, which until recently had served as battle cries against the church, against Christianity, even against Jesus Christ, now surprisingly found themselves in very close proximity to the Christian domain" (340).

For Bonhoeffer there is a clear logic to this: all these concepts really belong to Christianity.  "In the hour of danger, the children of the church who had become independent and run away now returned to their mother" (341).  The origin of all these good things is Jesus Christ, and although they have changed through their long estrangement from the church, they still essentially belong to her and return to her in crisis.

There follows a reflection on what this means for the relationship between the church and the world.  Bonhoeffer considers the two apparently conflicting statements of Jesus that 'whoever is not against us is for us' (which seems to set the boundaries of the church very broadly) and 'whoever is not for us is against us' (which seems to set it more narrowly).  Bonhoeffer sees the apparent conflict resolved in the experience of the German churches under Nazism.  On the one hand, the churches became a refuge for all those who resisted, Christian or not; on the other hand, the churches necessarily had to become narrower, focusing more keenly on the gospel, forced to make their confession of Christ more exclusive.  "Thus [the church] gained, precisely through this concentration on what is essential, an inner freedom and openness that protected it from all anxious efforts to erect boundaries" (343).

There is a fascinating historical reflection on the church's relationship with 'good' and 'wicked' people in the second half of this section.  From the Reformation, the church has inherited a definite emphasis on the gospel for the wicked, and the justification of the sinner - and it is essential that this be understood.  But the danger of turning this into a condemnation of goodness is always there.  In particular, we must beware of making it seem as if the tax collectors and sinners were in some sense better than the good people, adopting a position of despising 'bourgeois morality'.  I sense that danger in some of the churches I know.  But since I've written about this section before, I won't dig any further now!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Being orthodox


Loosely based on the first chapter of T.F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith.

Because God makes himself known in Christ, to whom the Holy Scriptures bear authoritative witness, there are definite boundaries to our knowledge of God - if we stray beyond the witness of Scripture and the person and work of Jesus Christ (which I have deliberately made co-extensive in the diagram), we do not truly see God; we are heretics.  But if we are orthodox - looking to the Scriptures to see Jesus, expecting that in him we will see God revealed - then we gaze into the infinite depths of the being of God.  We can know him truly, but in knowing him truly we see that we can never know him exhaustively.  There will always be more to know, and yet we don't look to one side or the other to find it: the 'more' is in the depths, not to the sides, and we must continue to focus our gaze on Jesus Christ through the Scriptures.

Orthodoxy is closed to anything that departs from the Biblical Christ, but infinitely open to the God revealed in Jesus as we see him in the Bible.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (9)

The ninth manuscript gathered in the Works edition of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is entitled God's Love and the Disintegration of the World.  It might clarify the meaning to write 'dis-integration', with the hyphen.  The point is that the world and the people in the world exist in a state of disunity; neither as individual persons nor as societies are we 'integrated'. 

In a sense, the existence of ethics as a discipline reflects this dis-integration.  Ethics is about knowing good and evil, distinguishing between them, and plotting a course accordingly.  But of course in the Biblical narrative, the knowledge of good and evil is a result of the fall.  "For Christian ethics, the mere possibility of knowing about good and evil is a falling away from the origin" (300).  In an unfallen state, human beings "know everything only in God, and God in all things" (300) - that is to say, they know everything in an integrated way, as it is given to be known in and through God.  But in claiming or trying to know good and evil, "human beings understand themselves not within the reality of being defined by the origin, but from their own possibilities, namely, to be either good or evil" (300).  They seek to live as if it were up to them to decide what their own lives could and should be, and then they work at living up to the ideals they discover or construct.  This is inevitably to live "in opposition to God" (300), and therefore Christian ethics "can be considered an ethic only as the critique of all ethics" (300), as an attack on the presupposition that it is the task of human beings to discern what is good and evil and to make the choice between them.

Bonhoeffer gives a helpful and important theological exposition of some of the consequences of this dis-integration.  Because we no longer know ourselves and others in an integrated way in God, we experience shame as something that tinges our whole existence, especially with other people (303-6); because we no longer live with the simple knowledge of God's perfect will, we experience conscience as the sign of our internal dis-union, as we stand as judges on our own lives and behaviour, judging and justifying ourselves, standing in the place of God (307-9).

The Pharisees - both the historical Pharisees and those who are like them - give the clearest, because the best and most noble, example of what it means to know good and evil.  "Pharisees are those human beings, admirable to the highest degree, who subject their entire lives to the knowledge of good and evil and who judge themselves as sternly as their neighbors - and all to the glory of God, whom they humbly thank for this knowledge" (310).  The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is the conflict between those who live in disunity, who live in the knowledge of good and evil, and therefore must judge - themselves and others - and Jesus, who lives an integrated life and knows only the will of God.  In Jesus, we who are reconciled to God - and so brought back into unity with ourselves and others - are called to live from his will and not our own decision.  We recognise ourselves as those who are elect in Christ, and therefore fundamentally as chosen, not as choosers.  If we are elect in Christ, we are elect to do God's will.

An interesting theme: in the fallen state, our thinking and doing become reflexive.  Even in doing good, we are continually referred back to our own internal sense of what is good and evil, and thus pushed back against our own disunity.  It is impossible for us not to be self-judging - that is what we are at our best, in the dis-integrated state in which we live!  But reconciled to God in Christ, and thus to ourselves and others, our actions lose that reflexive nature.  What is good is for God to decide.  The judgement on our own actions is not only not necessary, but is forbidden; God will judge.  We are thus freed for genuine action in the world, action that is not just a curiously externalised sort of introspection.

This does not mean that we need not think - we do still need to discern what God's will is, and there is a legitimate self-examination under the gospel.  But this discernment and judgement takes place within the knowledge of Christ - within the event of reconciliation to God.  Fundamentally, we know the shape of God's will - by loving us, he has shown us how to love.  God's love in Christ overcomes our disunion, and sets us on the course of reconciling love ourselves.  "It is as whole human beings, as thinking and acting human beings, that we are loved by God in Christ, that we are reconciled with God.  And as whole human beings, thinking and acting, we love God and our brothers and sisters" (337-8).

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Where is wisdom?

I was attempting to preach from Proverbs 1 on Sunday, and have been particularly struck over the last few days by the speech of Wisdom in the latter part of the chapter.  Broadly speaking, I think these early chapter of Proverbs present us with three groups of people: the wise, who have knowledge and understanding (and also the awareness to know that they still need to learn more!); the simple (or the naive, or the young), who are not yet wise but are also not yet hardened in a life of folly- they are teachable, and have the potential to become wise; and the fools, who have decisively rejected wisdom and are living in their own way as they please.  The key difference between the groups - the thing which divides them - is the fear of the Lord.  To reverence and stand in awe of God and his word is the gateway to wisdom, a gateway through which the wise have already passed, before which the simple stand in indecision, and away from which the fools have contemptuously turned.

Wisdom's call is to both the simple and the foolish: those who have not yet begun to follow her, and those who have decisively turned away.  Both are called to turn and (re)consider the value of a wise life.  But Wisdom also holds out a stern warning for those who do not turn: there will come a time when they will seek wisdom and will not be able to find her.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently but will not find me.
When disaster comes, foolish and simple alike will be asking 'where is wisdom?' - and the answer will be that she is laughing, mocking.  They would not have Wisdom on her terms, and now that they have finally come to see their need of her - too late! - they will not have her on any terms.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way,
and have their fill of their own devices.
The application to our national life and contemporary culture does not seem too difficult!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Aftermath (3): There are no foreigners

One thing that the referendum brought into the light - and this has been widely-noted - is that we don't know each other.  I believe I may have remarked on this in advance of the event, but my point in raising it is not really to glory in my own prescience.  Rather, I just want to point out the multi-layered and complex 'othering' that is going on right now, and suggest that perhaps we might want to stop it if at all possible.  Also, I'd like to say something about Jesus.

To start with, there is the well-documented racist abuse directed at ethnic minorities in the wake of the referendum result.  That is the most urgent issue, because this is the most vulnerable group.  Anything that can be done to put an end to the scape-goating of those who are ethnically different should be done.

Then there is the obvious fact that the referendum vote largely went along geographical and class lines, implying that the concerns of those in the countryside are different from those in the cities, and that those in the working class are different from the middle class.  Of course that's no surprise - people living differently will have different political concerns.  But I think we've all been struck by just how different our visions have become, and how little we understand each other.  We are foreigners to one another, foreigners sharing a language and a country.

Then there are all the comments from people who are disowning half the country.  In the run up, this was mostly on the 'leave' side - let's take back our country etc.  The implicit message behind this is that not only 'immigrants' but also all those 'natives' currently in power are 'foreigners', others, those from whom we need to reclaim 'our country'.  In the aftermath, it's been more the 'remain' side - I don't feel like I belong in my country anymore etc.  The implicit message here is that everyone who voted leave is a 'foreigner' who has somehow infiltrated and taken over 'our country'.

This stuff really is complex, and it concerns us all.  The obvious xenophobia - other-fearing - which shows itself in racist attacks, and the more subtle other-fearing which demonises those who share our ethnicity but no longer share our culture...  It all needs attention, even if it is not all equally urgent (see above).  But at one level it's so extraordinarily simple: we need to widen our networks of relationships, to deliberately seek out friends of different ethnicities, economic backgrounds...  Simple, but really hard.  I am challenged and don't know practically how to go forward.

What I do know is Jesus.  Jesus is the one who persuades me of our common humanity, and he is the one who does not allow me to close the door on anyone - he won't let me 'other' anyone.  Jesus really is 'other' than me - better, above, transcendently superior.  But what he does with that glorious otherness is step down and become 'one' - one of us, one with us.  He 'un-others' himself, declaring that none of us is a foreigner to God, and in so doing he 'un-others' us to one another.

And he does it to the depths.  Perhaps it might be tempting to think that there is at least one legitimate piece of othering to do - we should obviously refuse to be identified with the genuinely vile racist, shouldn't we?  But it won't do, because of Jesus.  Even the genuine racist, the most vile, is no foreigner, because Jesus has 'un-othered' the vile by so closely associating with them that he has taken on their guilt and died for them.  So I can't disown the racist.  I can bear responsibility for his actions, but I can't just call him 'other'.  Like me, he is a sinner whose guilt was paid for at Calvary, whether he will acknowledge it and benefit from it or not.

We are all one.  This is often advanced as a pious creedal statement of humanism.  But it is not true in that sense.  It is true only in the sense that we have been made one, by Jesus.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Aftermath (2): Take Responsibility

This one is for the Leavers, and since they're my crowd I'm taking some liberties with tone.  You've probably been on the receiving end of a lot of grief over the last few days.  It's been great to periodically check the old Facebook feed and discover that we're all moronic xenophobes, hasn't it?  Fantastic to have your friends call you a Nazi?  You've been enjoying that, right?  And of course it hasn't been at all frustrating to watch people try to wriggle out of the result, whether it's with re-runs or protests or just plain ignoring the referendum altogether.  It's been a tough few days.

Well, boo hoo.

Look, we got what we wanted.  Other people got something they really, really didn't want.  In many cases, the vitriol you're getting is literally grief.  In a few weeks time, it will be appropriate to ask for a moderation of tone, but for now I really think all those who disagreed with the result have a right to complain, bitterly.  I also think they have a right to seek any way they can to overturn the decision.  Given how destructive many of them think it will be, it would be negligent to do anything less.

Responsible leaders wouldn't have brought us to this place.  They would have taken responsibility themselves, and with it they would have shouldered the burden of the unpopularity, even hatred, which inevitably comes from making a call on an issue which so sharply divides the country.  We don't have responsible leaders, and so the responsibility falls to us.

Suck it up.  You won.

Take responsibility.

And that will mean more than just quietly taking the hits from your upset friends.  That upset isn't coming from nowhere.  There is good evidence that genuine racists have been emboldened by this referendum decision.  I don't think you voted for that.  I don't think you wanted that.  But right now, taking responsibility for your vote means demonstrating that there won't be tolerance for racist behaviour.  Think about how you can do that.  Consider attending one of the 'Stand Together' events (Oxford folk, here is the local one on FB) - the event descriptions say they want to welcome everyone, regardless of how they voted, so that we can all work out how to go forward positively together.  Why not take them at their word?

We shouted at each other for weeks, and in the end somebody had to win the shouting match.  Now it's time for talking and listening.