Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mind the Gaps

One of the things I would want to challenge in the average evangelical doctrine of revelation is its simplicity. I am using the word here in its technical sense, as something which does not have parts, is not capable of further analysis, stands as a monad.  I think that is the way the doctrine of revelation works in most evangelicalism.  There are no gaps in it.

To put that more concretely, what I mean is that when evangelicals talk about revelation they tend to move straight to Scripture, and thence directly to doctrine, with the assumption that they have not in any way changed the subject in so doing.  The position is that revelation is to do with the Bible - God is revealed in Scripture - and the Bible is essentially a system of doctrine, or at least a mine of potential doctrine that is just waiting for the exegete (and theologian, although the latter is looked on a little suspiciously on the whole) to dig up and arrange in orderly fashion.  Revelation, Scripture, doctrine - basically the same thing.  The only potential gap relates to human error; I may have misread Scripture and extracted the wrong doctrine from it. Nevertheless, fundamentally, revelation is simple.

I'm sketching a caricature here, but not one, I think, which is too far from life.  Caricature can be helpful; one may be quite unaware of one's larger than average nose until the caricaturist exaggerates it.  The exaggeration does not make the subsequent realisation that the nose is, indeed, rather on the large side any less true.

My quibbles with this sort of understanding of Scripture are manifold, but my two big theological objections are these:

1.  This makes revelation textual, which is not easily assimilated to the picture of revelation which is actually given in the text of Scripture.  It removes the backward question, the question of reference, from theological consideration.  We must ask 'do historical events stand behind this testimony?' - if we do not, we are essentially saying that it is indifferent whether the events recorded in Scripture actually happened.  (We can, after all, construct our systems of doctrine regardless of the answer to the question).  If Christianity is about anything - if the Bible is about anything - it is about stuff that actually happened.  There is, therefore, a gap between revelation in history and its record in Scripture.  This should not be considered a threatening gap.  If the witnesses are trustworthy - if their testimony is indeed authorised and guaranteed by God - then the gap is simply a recognition that there is an event and testimony to an event, and these things are two, not one, though they stand in the closest possible relation.  We must not be trapped inside the Bible, but must allow the Bible to point beyond itself to the reality behind the text.

2.  The doctrine I have described makes God's revelation of himself unproblematic.  That is to say, it assumes that it is an easy thing for human beings to know God - just read the book, pick out the doctrines!  But that, again, flies in the face of the Scriptural witness, which again and again insists that it is a hard thing for humans to know God - hard in particular for the omnipotent Deity!

Why are the gaps - the recognition that revelation, Scripture, and doctrine are far from identical - so threatening?  Perhaps because we cannot conceive of a way in which non-identity and identity can be affirmed at once; which is not surprising, since with man this is impossible - but with God...

Monday, July 16, 2012

Revelation and Resurrection

My thoughts once again circle around to the doctrine of revelation.  I am pretty convinced that we (by which I mean, Christians in the evangelical tradition) do not have a handle on it.  I think the reason we don't have a handle on it is that we don't see it as problematic.  God reveals himself - something about Jesus, more about the Bible, bish bash bosh, job done.  Let's call it a doctrine.  Obviously, there are lots more thoughtful treatments of the subject than that, but I haven't come across many which try to get to grips with what is, for me, the central question of our time: 'how could God reveal himself to us?'

A few things about the question:

1.  Methodologically, we need to be committed to a certain weak circularity here.  That is to say, we must decline to look at answers which are not themselves based on revelation.  Rather than imagining channels through which God might be revealed, and then investigating them for revelatory content (which is the procedure of, say, Schleiermacher and the whole liberal school of the 19th century), we need to face up to the fact that we could only find out how God could reveal himself by examining how God did reveal himself. Start with the gospel, and then move to theology and philosophy.

2.  The question is made problematic by the recognition in Kant and post-Kantian epistemology that human beings are not merely receptive in their perception of the world.  Each of us, and all of us collectively in the various groups and societies in which we find ourselves, shape the 'world' that we perceive.  We bring as much as we receive.  I think this is undeniably true, but I think the implications are widely ignored (in analytic philosophy, and in English-speaking theology).  Those implications are manifold, but one huge one is the raising of another question - how could God give himself to be known by us in a way which does not also constitute giving himself away?  How could God reveal himself without becoming another object, becoming just another building block in my construction of my 'world'?  (The wider philosophical question is what forces me, at least, to walk somewhere between a naive realism and a full-blown phenomenology).

3.  The answer, I think, lies in the analogy between incarnation and inscripturation.  God did give himself to us in such a way that he became subject to our deepest distortion of reality.  In the person of Christ, God gave himself, and to all appearances gave himself away.  That is to say, at the cross, the God-man can scarcely be seen as divine at all.  God's revelation, at its highest point, has been incorporated into anti-God constructions of the 'world' - materially, by the crucifixion.  The resurrection, however, shows that this apparent giving away of God is nothing other than the material condition of his final triumph over all such false constructions of the world.  God rescues his revelation, and in so doing shows that it was always his intention to let it walk the way of humiliation.  Is the same true in revelation generally?  In committing the witness to Christ to writing - to Scripture - God gives himself away again.  Here we have a book, another object over which I am a subject, material which I can interpret any which I please, and which I must inevitably interpret according to my situation, background etc. etc.  Is God's revelation lost?  Only if he doesn't come back to it; only if there aren't little epistemic resurrections of the text which triumph over our individual constructions.  God fights back against all our misreading.

4.  Pneumatology must be the end point, as the starting point.  Incarnate of the Holy Ghost - driven along by the Holy Spirit - reminded of all these things.  These phrases are linked historically and theologically.

Still thinking...

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Thomas the Apostle

When considering Thomas the Apostle, lots of people fixate on the post-resurrection Thomas, who doubts that Jesus is alive and is only persuaded by seeing the risen Christ.  This is not, perhaps, Thomas' finest moment.  Still, it resonates with our sceptical and empiricist age, which tends to cast Thomas as the hero of the scene.  To do this, of course, one has to to ignore the implicit rebuke in Jesus' words regarding those who have not seen.  In fact, Thomas should have believed on the basis of testimony, and so should we, but "God, for the firmer foundation of our faith, allowed... Thomas to doubt the resurrection".

Anyway, that isn't the snap-shot of Thomas that I love.  I love his minor appearance in John 11.  The story is simple.  Lazarus has died, and Jesus is determined to go to Bethany; we do not yet know that he is going to restore Lazarus to life, although it is clear that Jesus knows.  The problem for the disciples is that Bethany lies in territory extremely hostile to Jesus.  The last time they were in the region, Jesus was almost stoned.  Nevertheless, Jesus is determined to go, and Thomas pipes up: "Let us also go, that we may die with him".

Doesn't sound like a statement of great faith, and I don't think it is meant to.  Unpicking the logic of it a little, it doesn't even make much sense.  Thomas is presumably following Jesus because he believes him to be the Messiah; if he is not the Messiah, Jesus no longer has any claim on Thomas.  But if he is stoned by the Jews, it will be shown clearly that Jesus is not the Messiah (for Thomas, like all the disciples, is unaware that the Messiah must die).  If Jesus dies, there is no reason to die with him, from Thomas' point of view.  His claims will have been shown to be false, and following him will have been revealed as a huge mistake - a colossal mistake if indeed it ends in being stoned at his side!

So Thomas in this instance isn't driven primarily by truth.  If he were, he would say "Let us also go, because he is after all the Messiah, and no harm can come to him".  Right at this moment, Thomas is more like the contemporary Christian who says "If it all turns out to be false, I will still cling to him".  At this point, I think Thomas is driven not by truth, but by love for Jesus' character.

My reflection on this is that truth alone is not always enough to keep me following Jesus.  In the classical triad, the other two - goodness and beauty - are just as important.  I wonder if the need to fight for truth in our culture - for the very concept of truth as well as the particular truths of Christianity (or perhaps that should be the other way round) - has led us to neglect the other two aspects.  Of course we need truth.  Ultimately, the person who wants to cling to Jesus even if his claims are proven to be false is a fool.  But perhaps from time to time a little foolishness is permissible.  Perhaps sometimes we can't see the truth, or at least it doesn't seem as certain as it once did.  What do we do in those times?  Follow Jesus because he is good.  Follow him because he is beautiful.  And hope and pray that we will see clearly again that he is the truth.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Government, Freedom, Democracy

This is a brief thought relating to the current proposals for House of Lords reform which have been brought forward by HM Government.  The plan, basically, is to move from a mostly appointed upper house to a mostly elected upper house.  I won't comment on the way the appointments system has been blatantly abused by successive governments, except to say that, well, it has been blatantly abused.  What I do want to do is offer some pondering on the point of democracy.

It seems to me that the proposed reforms are predicated on the assumption that 'democratic'='good'.  I would want to unpick that assumption a little bit, and ask 'if democratic=good, then what is it good for?'  In other words, why is democracy good, and is it good in all circumstances?

I suppose the answer will depend on what you think government is for.  I basically want two things from a governmental system.  I want it to preserve, and ideally further, liberty, and I want it to offer responsible and accountable government.  It is worth mentioning straight up that these two goals are not necessarily 100% compatible, and there may well be some tension between them.  It is also worth putting in some definitions.  By 'liberty' I mean the absence of restraint on personal belief and behaviour.  Obviously at some point liberty has to be curtailed in order to preserve liberty; i.e. my freedom has to stop at the point at which it critically endangers another's freedom.  By 'responsible and accountable', I mean being forced to behave in a way which, if brought into the light, will stand up to scrutiny.  The virtue of responsible and accountable government is simply that it impedes the tendency of government to become its own special interest group, governing only for its own good rather than the common good.

I would argue that democracy is good if, and in so far as, it fosters these two priorities in government.  I would further argue that in fact the relationship between democracy, liberty, and accountability is actually quite ambiguous.  On the one hand, it can be assumed that democracy presents a very direct form of accountability; the government is literally scrutinised by the electorate, who have the ability to throw them out if they don't like what they see.  Government is responsible to the electorate.  However, we need to recognise that in practice governments need only to please a larger number than they displease.  That is to say, democracy does not prevent governments from acting in the interests of a small group rather than in the common interest of all; it simply means that the small group must be large enough to outnumber all the other groups.  And in fact this is likely to mean that democratically elected governments are more likely to act in the interests only of a particular group, because this is the best way to ensure the loyalty of that group.  The other guys probably wouldn't have voted for you whatever you did, so why care about their interests?

On the liberty front, the impact of democracy is even more problematic.  If we had a populace who, as a whole, valued liberty very highly, then presumably democracy would mean that governments which threatened liberty would be swiftly removed.  But in fact we have a society that is fragmented into different sections, each of which would be happy to see the liberty of others impinged upon in order to further their own sectional interests.  It is therefore not necessarily in the interests of those in government to preserve liberty for all.  In fact, democracy allows government to hide behind the rhetoric of the 'vox populi' to argue that because 51% want it, the people as a whole want it.  This kind of argument makes slaves of the 49%, but who cares?  So long as you please the majority, you can tyrannise the rest.

Now, I'm not dead against democracy.  I think we'd be better off under an enlightened despotism, but I don't think despotism tends to be enlightened, and you always have the problem of who will take over.  We need to have elected representatives who will hold government to account.  But I think there are good reasons not to have a wholly democratic system.  Within limits, democracy can foster liberty and accountability.  What it cannot provide is the necessary technical know-how to govern well.  To that end, an appointed revising chamber seems to me to be a great idea, so long as appointments are controlled and principled.  Democracy also cannot provide a symbol of permanence and allegiance, which to my mind is the role in the British system of the Monarchy.  Moreover, democracy is unable to provide governments who will be thinking about the long term, common good of society rather than the short term need to appeal to just enough people to get re-elected.

There being three kinds of government among men, absolute monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and all these having their particular conveniences and inconveniences, the experience and wisdom of your ancestors hath so moulded this out of a mixture of these as to give this kingdom (as far as human prudence can provide) the conveniences of all three, without the inconveniences of any one, as long as the balance hangs even between the three estates, and they run jointly on in their proper channel (begetting verdure and fertility in the meadows on both sides) and the overflowing of either on either side raise no deluge or inundation.  The ill of absolute monarchy is tyranny, the ill of aristocracy is faction and division, the ills of democracy are tumults, violence and licentiousness. The good of monarchy is the uniting a nation under one head to resist invasion from abroad and insurrection at home ; the good of aristocracy is the conjunction of counsel in the ablest persons of a state for the public benefit ; the good of democracy is liberty, and the courage and industry which liberty begets.