Wednesday, July 19, 2017

No competition

Here is a question Barth faces in his discussion of preaching (and by the way, there is likely to be quite a bit of stuff forthcoming on Barth and preaching; dissertation reading, innit): when preaching in the Church becomes the Word of God (let's just assume for now that this is a sensible description of what happens), does it cease to be human activity?

Barth is clear that when the preacher stands up to speak, all he has is human words to say, in a very human way.  He aims, if he is a faithful preacher, at proclaiming the Word of God, but he can't do it.  He does his human thing, says his human words, and it is up to God whether this discourse actually is the Word of God, God himself addressing the Church.  But if it is, what then happens to the human element?  Is it displaced?  Or is hollowed out, leaving just a thin veneer of humanity around a basically divine event?  (Is it, then, transubstantiated?)

Nope.

"God and the human element are not two co-existing and co-operating factors.  The human element is what God created.  Only in the state of disobedience is it a factor standing over against God.  In the state of obedience it is service of God.  Between God and true service of God there can be no rivalry...  Where God is truly served, there - with no removal of the human element, with the full and essential presence and operation of the human element in all its humanity - the willing and doing of God is not just present as a first or second co-operating factor; it is present as the first and decisive thing as befits God the Creator and Lord."

(That's CD I/1, 94 for those reading along in their own Dogmatics at home.  You know who you are.)

Here is a thought which extends beyond preaching, and now seems so blindingly obvious, and yet I've never thought it before.  The question of the interaction of divine sovereignty and human freedom is only a question because of sin.  Take sin out of the equation, and there just isn't a problem.  So if we're wrestling with the dynamics of sovereignty and freedom, what we are really wrestling with is the most mysterious factor of human existence as we know it: sin.  In fact, sin might be considered to be the very act of raising the question: can my freedom, given me by God for use in his service, which service is perfect joy and freedom and leads to life - can that freedom be used contrary to God's will?  And so sin is exposed as a rebellious nonsense.

But between true service of God and God's own sovereign rule, there is no competition.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Doctor Who Cares?

Here is a rare foray into the world of popular culture, which given both my ignorance in the sphere and the fact that I can't imagine anyone cares what I think about it, I felt initially reluctant to offer.  But then I remembered this is a blog, and I regularly write about that things that I don't suppose anyone other than myself is interested in anyway.  So here, I wanted to offer some grumpy-old-man thoughts on Doctor Who.

This isn't about the new Doctor, or at least it's only indirectly about her.  Despite having watched Doctor Who since it's first reinvention, I found myself profoundly uninterested in who might be taking over the helm of the TARDIS, and I think the reason is that the last season of the show has persuaded me that I just don't want to watch any more.

Of course this last season hasn't been all bad.  Capaldi is a compelling actor, and a joy to watch; I guess he is the main reason I've stuck with it.  There have been some individually quite enjoyable episodes.  But the overwhelming feel has been a season-long preach, a constant crossing of the line between politically aware television and outright propaganda.

Doctor Who has two things going for it when it comes to producing propaganda.  Firstly, there is the character of the Doctor himself: vastly superior to humanity in practically every way, and in fact to all intents and purposes omniscient from the human perspective.  A god, one might say, but a god who spends his time pronouncing sarcastic moral judgement on the human race (whilst, it must be said, maintaining a certain fondness for and preventing our extinction multiple times).  The point is that when the Doctor pronounces the backwardness of human society and extols the virtues of liberal-left politics - which he does, a lot, in none-too-subtle ways - he must be right.

The second thing the show has going for it as a piece of propaganda is time travel.  This works whether the Doctor takes his companions forward or backward in time.  If he goes forward, he can show us that the logical end point of capitalism is to make people pay for the air they breathe, and that provides a great opportunity for a sermon about the evils of the economic system.  Of course, we know that the writers are just inventing the future - they don't actually have access to a TARDIS - but still, the idea sticks in the imagination, and capitalism is discredited by this apparently logical extrapolation.  If the Doctor goes back in time, on the other hand, we get to see that 19th century London was just as ethnically diverse as a modern cosmopolitan city, or that ancient Romans had sexual mores very similar to those of the early 21st century liberal left.  That is, of course, a falsification of history, which perhaps could be excused on the grounds of dramatic license, if it didn't once again feel so preachy.  We are being given the impression that those who don't toe the liberal line in the 21st century are just out of step, not only with our own time but with time as a whole.

Maybe I'm taking this all too seriously; it is, after all, just a light entertainment programme.  But perhaps that's the third thing that makes it the perfect vehicle for propaganda.  If the programme started with a notice along the lines of 'there now follows a party political broadcast on behalf of the 21st century liberal consensus', I guess we'd be a) a bit less likely to watch, and b) a bit more critically alert.  But you have to suspend so much disbelief to get into the TARDIS in the first place that you're probably not thinking about the view of the world that is being presented.  Perhaps the only thing that lets the show down as propaganda is that the writers are not able to be subtle enough about their biases to keep my critical faculties asleep until the end of the episode each week.

So, I don't think I care about the new Doctor.  It's a woman; jolly good.  Slightly put off by all the comments along the lines of 'it's about time', but perhaps only because in the light of the whole of the last season it all just feels like more of the same in-your-face gender politics masquerading as fun.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The disaster of untheology

I offer without particular comment this, from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p 77.  Paragraph breaks added and punctuation slightly altered for ease of reading.  Not difficult to apply to the present life of the Church despite the passage of 85 years...

How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretext, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta!  [the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered - the reference is to the Augsburg Confession.]  As though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre!  As though we could put ourselves in God's hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point!

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living "quite untheologically" for the demands of the day ("love").  As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard!  As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics!

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find no time should things become really serious and exciting!  As though there could be any more serious task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work!  As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency!  As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency!

Let there be no mistake.  Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance.  The whole Church must want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Why do we gather? (1)

I think there are three live understandings (in my context, at least) of what it is that Christians are doing when they gather on Sundays.  In this and the following two posts, I will no doubt caricature them, but perhaps it might still be helpful as a way of thinking through how we engage with Sunday services.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, when Christians gather together as church on a Sunday, they are doing salvation.  "For it is in the liturgy, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, that 'the work of our redemption is accomplished..." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1068 [citing here Sacrosanctum Concilium]).  The explicit connection to the Mass will render this view unacceptable to most evangelicals, and rightly so.  "In Christian tradition (liturgy) means the participation of the People of God in the work of God" (Cat. Cath., 1069).  In so far as this definition of liturgy is accepted, the word itself had better be rejected.  There can be no sense of the church participating in the salvific work of God in the way here anticipated.

That being said, evangelicals would be unwise to completely shut the door on the idea that we gather together to 'do' salvation.  The biblical link between baptism and salvation, which clearly ties a human-liturgical action into the economy of salvation means that the door has to remain open.  Similarly, reflection on the fact that preaching is also an essentially liturgical action leans in this direction.  The word of God preached is the seed of the faith that saves.  So, just replacing the Mass with the sermon?  Not quite.  The sermon (like baptism, actually) represents the witness in the church to the accomplished work of Christ.  It is not a participation in his work.  That God, by the Spirit, lifts up this human work to make it the means of applying that completed work to the individuals gathered is a very different thing from the Roman Mass.  This is the difference: we are recipients, not actors.

Nevertheless, it would be helpful for us evangelicals to take seriously the fact that when we gather on a Sunday this is the place of salvation.  This is where the Word of God is, in Scripture read, the gospel preached, the sacraments administered.  If church has become a bit of a chore; if we find ourselves wondering if it was worth getting up for this Sunday; if we think that perhaps we'd get on with the Christian faith better by ourselves: perhaps we need to remember that Sundays are for salvation.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sinners in the hands of an angry God

The late-Puritan Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon with this title in July 1741.  It is a warning shot of a sermon, expounding on the reality of hell in order to wake people up to their plight as guilty sinners.  It is uncomfortable reading; I can only imagine it was uncomfortable to preach, and to hear.  Frankly, it should be uncomfortable: the thought of unrepentant sinners coming before a holy God is terrifying.  Granted that Edwards plays heavily on the Biblical imagery of hell, and granted that this is just imagery - still, the horrific imagery is if anything inadequate for the awful reality.

But here's the thing: there is another way the Bible describes what it looks like for sinners to fall into the hands of an angry God, and it looks frighteningly familiar.

In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul describes the downward ethical and social spiral of a culture which has rejected knowledge of God.  It is an interaction of human and divine: human beings deny God, exchange his glory for the worship of created things, deliberately swap out his truth for falsehood; and God gives human beings over to increasingly depraved behaviour, to the point where they no longer even theoretically approve the good, but give praise and acclamation to those who pursue evil.

Yesterday, the British Medical Association voted overwhelmingly to campaign for the legalisation of in utero murder, on the grounds that we should trust women to choose 'what is best for themselves and their families'.  Foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  All around us, society celebrates what God condemns.  The calendar of Pride events has become our society's new liturgical year.  Those of us who are not directly involved in gay culture are nevertheless called upon to give approval to those who are.  Meanwhile, our politics degenerates into a popularity contest and what passes for public ethics spins out of any sort of control.

According to Romans 1:18, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against such wickedness.  Reading that in connection with verses 16 and 17, I take it that Paul is saying that the gospel - the good news about Jesus - is the message which unmasks what might be called social progress or social degeneration (depending on your political and cultural leanings) as something much more terrible: the anger of God being actually even now poured out on sinful human beings.

We don't need to pore over the imagery of flames and gnashing of teeth to see sinners in the hands of an angry God; we just need to read a newspaper with eyes opened by the gospel to see what is really happening.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Blessed Assurance

As faith is the first vital act that every true Christian puts forth, and the life which he lives is by the faith of the Son of God, so it is his next and great concern to know that he doth believe, and that believing he hath eternal life...
Thus Isaac Chauncey in his preface to John Owen's posthumously published work on the Evidences of the Faith of God's Elect.  Chauncey here envisages a two-step process, if you like.  Firstly there is faith, and by this he means not just intellectual assent to Christian doctrine but a living faith, a trust in Christ, such that the believer's life is now lived in Christ as Christ lives in him.  This first step is the thing which resolves all the biggest questions: by this faith, the believer is united to Christ, and with Christ destined for eternal life and glory.  But there is a second step here.  The believer, having believed, now seeks to know that he has believed.  This is a second-order concern, dependent on the reality of the first step, and with lesser consequences.  Faith leads to life; knowledge of one's own faith leads to assurance, comfort, and the blessings in this life that accompany confidence in one's relationship with God.

But is this right?  Is there a second-order move, after believing, whereby one must examine one's own faith in order to ascertain whether it is possible to discern in it the marks of genuine trust (and therefore, somewhere in the background, the evidences of election)?  Is that how faith works?

One study which might be attempted would be a biblical one.  It would be helpful to have a full contextual exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13:5, for example.  But it is also not unreasonable to ask some theological and pastoral questions of this viewpoint.  For example, theologically, faith is rightly understood as the believer looking away from himself, to place his trust in another, namely Christ.  Righteousness is sought in Christ.  Life is sought in Christ.  This by itself ought to raise a question mark against the idea that having looked away from himself for everything that pertains to life and godliness, the believer is called to a reflexive self-examination to ensure that his faith is genuinely faith.  How is one to avoid making faith a kind of work, on this model?

Pastorally, does this view recognise how impossible it is for the Christian to really know themselves - their true life and identity being, after all, hidden with Christ in God?  Not to mention the mere psychological difficulty of analysing any of one's own subjective actions.  Of course there is value in such analysis, but ought we to resolve the believer's assurance of salvation to such a thing?

A larger question is: does this approach inevitably follow from the classical Calvinist doctrine of election?  Is it inevitable that people will want to answer the question 'well, am I elect or not?' - and if so, how would they go about answering except by examining their own faith?  Of course, the pastoral advice which the good Calvinist would give would be to look to Jesus, but it is not clear on Calvinist doctrine that this actually answers the question.

Personally, I think Chauncey's approach (and, of course, Owen's, since he reflects the theme of the treatise here) is deeply flawed, turning faith into non-faith.  Faith is always and necessarily other-regarding; it always looks away from itself to Christ.  If the believer puts his own faith under the microscope, he will always find it wanting.  (There is a question in my mind over whether the psychological phenomenon of faith - which is all I have access to - is identical with what the NT is talking about, but that's for another day).  If the believer lives by faith in the Son of God, then let them also be assured by faith in the Son of God, and not by second-order reflection on their own state of mind or feeling.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Persuasion, ideology, politics

One thing I noticed about the most recent election campaign was the real lack of effort to persuade.  My social media feeds were full of people posting political things, but I only remember seeing one serious attempt to persuade people to vote one way or another (and even that was framed in terms of 'if you know anyone who is thinking of voting Tory...' - i.e., it wasn't trying to persuade directly, but on the assumption that all our friends think the same as us was advising on how we might evangelise the heathen).  Why don't we try to persuade each other?

My guess is that there are a number of factors.

One is the resurrection, on the left at least, of ideology.  Ideology, which we might perhaps define as a coherent and programmatic set of ideas which are considered to mutually imply or reinforce one another, makes persuasion more difficult, because you have to buy the whole package.  Now, some of us have considered, for example, socialism, and found that it's not a package we want to purchase.  You could still persuade me, though, if you wanted, of various individual policies.  But there is a sense of this being not worth the while.

Part of that sense is driven, I think, by the winner-takes-all setup of British politics.  If you can't persuade me to come over completely to 'your side', there's not much point in trying to persuade me of particular positions.  At the end of the day, one side or the other will be in power.  Note that this is true even after a very mixed election result like last week's.  The Labour party is not talking about how their ideas need to be taken into account, but about how hard they will make it for the Tories to govern.  Similarly, the chastened Conservatives are not chastened enough to consider a cross-party response to anything.

I wonder also if we've stopped trying to persuade because of a combination of statistics and a sense that people will almost always vote their own, predetermined, interests.  One of the most disturbing things about the last election campaign was the division exposed, and I think exacerbated, between young and old.  The implication was that we all know young people vote left, and old people right, and they do so because the right promotes the interests of the elderly and the left the interests of the young.  The determinism implied in this is fueled by stats: we know that the majority of younger people do vote left.  But the assumption that, for example, your dad is bound to vote Tory because he's drawing a pension, and that he does so without a thought for you and your situation is really quite offensive.  This promotes the worst kind of tribalism.  (Speaking from a Christian point of view, I would also want to point out the many, many passages of Scripture which encourage us to respect our elders as those likely to have more wisdom than us!)

Another thought is that we are all thoroughly caught up in post-truth.  No point trying to persuade people who live in different worlds and have different truths.  This is not limited to just the extremists, nor is it a phenomenon of the left or right exclusively (it is interesting to compare, for example, Corbyn's comments on the 'mainstream media' with those of the Donald.  My guess is that if you anonymised the comments people wouldn't be able to tell the difference).  But here's the thing: we're post-truth, but we aren't prepared to go full relativist.  So we're led into this place where we have to assume conspiracy: we know the truth, and all those who disagree are blinded.  It would take something with the force of a religious conversion to open their eyes, and so we don't bother trying to engage and persuade.

There is, of course, a big chunk of reality in the post-truth analysis.  We do all live in different worlds.  We see things hugely differently.  So my last thought is this: we don't want to try to persuade in the political realm because it is really, really difficult.  It is difficult because we can't assume the same priorities, or the same goals - it isn't as if we just disagree on the best way to get up the mountain.  We disagree about what the mountain is, or whether there is a mountain at all.  Attempts to persuade would take us pretty quickly into hard conversations - do we agree on any aspects of human flourishing?  Do we even agree about what a human being is?  And here we're in trouble, because I'm not sure we do.  So persuasion would have to go behind politics to huge issues of anthropology, ethics, and ontology.  Who, frankly, can be bothered?

I am not convinced the future is bright for our political discourse.  I don't think we can assume that democracy can work in such a fragmented society.  I wonder what happens next.