Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Economical with the truth

I am not an economist, or the son of an economist, but I have spotted a few aggravating untruths which are being either assumed or actively preached in much of the current debate over the British economy.  Rather than allow my annoyance to build up to levels where I am in danger of bursting every time I watch the news, I thought I'd vent here.  Thanks for listening.

1.  In the normal course of things, we can expect to get continually richer.  This has left- and right-wing versions, although increasingly they sound pretty similar.  The gist of both is that if only the other guys hadn't done something wrong - fiddled with the market, or failed to fiddle with the market - then the good ship capitalism would be sailing along quite happily providing more and more wealth to more and more people.  This is twaddle.  There is no guarantee that we will get richer - no "British promise".

2.  There has been a catastrophic failure in the system, but we can fix it.  The system hasn't failed.  What we are going through is a painful market adjustment, which is what the market is meant to do.  If something is over-valued, even if that thing is the whole of the British economy, then eventually the bubble will burst.  This is the system working.  Maybe we don't like the system - you're welcome to propose a better one - but let's not pretend that this is some sort of aberration.  It is business as normal.

3.  We are poor.  No, we're not.  In the grand scheme of things, I imagine everyone reading this is stupendously rich by global standards.

4.  People in the public sector are paid less than people in the private sector.  There is no evidence that this is true.

5.  You have to allow people to be paid stupid sums of money or they will take their business overseas.  There is no evidence that this is true.

6.  The rich don't pay enough tax.  Actually, the top 1% of earners pay a whopping 27% of all income tax.

7.  We can have it all.  No, we can't.  If we live longer, we have to pay more.  If we want more money, we have to work harder.

8.  Wealth will make us happy.  And that's the big one.  The whole debate is predicated on the idea that becoming more wealthy is the goal.  Theologically, this is the idolisation of money, but even putting this to one side it's pretty stupid, and yet utterly pervasive.  Money won't make you happy and it won't fix our social ills.

Here endeth the rant.  That feels much better.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jesus in the OT

Let's take it as axiomatic that the OT, as Christian Scripture, is about Jesus.  Of course there will be those who dispute this, but let's assume it for the time being.  The question then becomes: how do I see Jesus in the OT?  I think you have two basic approaches, which I will call the one-step and two-step interpretations.  The one-step interpretation goes straight to Jesus; the two step-interpretation stops off somewhere else along the way.  The one-step approach sees Jesus as the immediate meaning of the OT; the two-step approach sees Jesus as the ultimate meaning of the OT.

To illustrate, imagine you have just read Psalm 1.  You ask yourself: who is this blessed man?  The one-step interpreter says - this is Jesus.  This description could never match anyone but Jesus.  And then they will usually draw a link straight in to Psalm 2 and make the anointed man in that Psalm equal the blessed man in the other, and both of them identified as Jesus.  The two-step interpreter is more likely to read Psalm 1 as a wisdom Psalm - a text which establishes the categories of blessedness and wickedness, into which all people could broadly be allocated.  And then they would make the second step, pointing out that Jesus is of course the ultimate fulfilment of what it means to be the blessed man, and that this Psalm which deals in general categories only finds its grounding in human reality through Christ.

Or another example - suppose you are reading the Song of Songs (it's Solomon's, you know).  The one-step interpreter says that this whole Song is about the relationship between Christ and his church, and sets out to show how the details match up with that relationship.  The two-step interpreter says that the Song is an (often highly erotic) love song, telling the story of the relationship between a man and a woman.  And then they would make the second step, showing that marriage itself is a picture of Christ and the church, and therefore seeing Christ in the Song.

I've been back and forth on this, but I'm now pretty firmly in the two-step camp.  Here are some reasons why:

1.  One-step interpretation leaves us open to the charge that we are just making stuff up.  If we end up saying stuff which anyone with a basic grasp of comprehension would be able to expose as 'reading in', I think we're in trouble.  So, when Moses struck the rock he was really striking Jesus was he?  Then why is there no indication of that in the text?  Why do we have to explain (away) so much of the Song in order to make it about Christ, or resort to arbitrary allegorising?

2.  One-step interpretation undermines the uniquely revelatory character of the incarnation.  When Christ came into the world, so did light - see John 1.  The implication of this, and numerous other parts of the Old and New Testaments, is that the OT is full of shadows, which the one-step interpreter wants to disperse prematurely.

3.  One-step interpretation seems to want to make the Scripture about Christ by denying that the Universe is about Christ.  This is a bit obscure, but it's clear to me from the treatment of the Song.  Is marriage - all human marriage - ultimately about Christ and the church?  The Apostle says it is.  Well then, what is the difficulty with saying that the Song is about human marriage?  It shouldn't undermine the Christological and gospel importance of the Song in any way, unless you have a sneaking doubt that marriage really is about Christ, and feel that there is some need to short circuit this.

There's more, but I wondered if anyone had any thoughts on those?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Scriptures which speak

It occurs to me that if the first part of Psalm 19 is about the speech of creation, the second part is about the speech of Scripture.  This may seem more obvious (although it is less clear in the Psalm!) - but how often do we treat Scripture as if it were just an artefact upon which we can work our wonders of interpretation and exegesis?  What difference would it make if we expected Scripture to be the locus of personal communication from God?

Again, the issue comes down to what we might call the epistemic stance which we take toward the world.  Are we expecting to come face to face today with a world which is at the deepest level personal and therefore communicative?  Or are we expecting to be the only subjects in a world of objects?  Theologically, this latter seems to be an expression of a sinful mindset.  If the world is empty of meaning until I arrive at it - if Scripture is just a text until I interpret it - then I am king in my own universe.  And I can express that even as I come to read the Bible.

The universe presented to us in the gospel is charged with personality; the Scripture given to us is filled with living communication.  Are you listening?

Monday, November 07, 2011

The stars that speak

The heavens declare the glory of God, 
   and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. 
Day to day pours out speech, 
   and night to night reveals knowledge. 
There is no speech, nor are there words, 
   whose voice is not heard. 
Their voice goes out through all the earth, 
   and their words to the end of the world.

Thus Psalm 19.

I think there are two basic models for understanding this sort of text.  On the one hand, there is the model which sees creation as a brute fact - something that is just there - from which it can be inferred that there is a God, and that he is glorious.  This approach leads to cosmological and teleological arguments.  On the other hand, there is the model which sees creation as communicative, as something that speaks and sings the glory of God.  This approach leads to less arguments, and more mysticism.

It seems to me that Psalm 19 very definitely presents the latter approach to creation.  The creation is not dumb, but speaks.

Our post-Enlightenment worldview does not prepare us well for this.  We are expecting to be subjects approaching a world make up of objects.  We are the active ones, and everything else is meant to be more or less passive.  But this subject-object epistemology breaks down when faced with the communicative power of creation.  Creation speaks - not of its own resources, but God speaks through it.  We live in an inter-subjective universe; we are always in the presence of the word of another Person.

In practice, that means less arguments from creation and more marvelling at creation.  It means that the feeling of wonder at the night sky matters, perhaps more than all the evidence of God that can be culled from philosophy.  There is no getting away from the voice of God.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


I find atheism pretty tempting at times.

This isn't because it is particularly attractive to me, or because I find atheism a particularly cogent intellectual position.  I just find it inexplicably tempting.  It's encouraging to me that Luther had similar temptations.  Anyway, this is a reflection based on the time I've spent on the border between atheism and Christianity.

The main thing that baffles me about most avowed atheists these days is how easy they seem to find it.  Unlike the earlier atheists - Nietzsche, the existentialists - there doesn't seem to be any struggle involved in their atheism.  It makes me wonder if they get it.  What could be more terrifying that being alone in a meaningless universe?  How can anyone live with the burden of being their own god - deciding for themselves what is right and what is wrong, forced to invest that meaningless universe with meaning conjured up from your own mind?  Shouldn't there at least be a struggle?

Having said that, sometimes I look back into Christian territory, and wonder at the ease with which some people put their faith in God.  Maybe it is a gift, but it eludes and confuses me.  I see so much that seems to speak against God's existence, so much that raises doubts.  Even the clearest revelation of God in history involves a cross; every light seems to be shrouded in darkness.  Shouldn't faith also be a struggle?  And what would it mean to live in a world in which I am not of ultimate significance - where I don't get to decide what life is all about?  Isn't it terrifying to be in a universe that belongs to God, where everything is weighed down with value?

To despoil a phrase of the Duke of Wellington's, there can be nothing half so terrifying as a God who exists, unless it be a God who does not.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Jesus and the Bible

"So much as we know of Christ, his sufferings, and his glory, so much do we understand of the Scripture, and no more."

Thus John Owen, in his meditations on the glory of Christ (Works I, p 343).

What would this mean for our reading of the Bible, if we took it seriously?  What about our preaching?  Our systematic theology?