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.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Aftermath (1): An indestructible kingdom

I have some post-referendum thoughts.  This particular one is theological; others slightly less so.  It might be too soon, in which case maybe don't read them right now.  Most of my friends are pretty upset about the result (okay, very upset).  I am not upset, but I am nervous - I am by nature averse to change and in favour of the status quo!  In the run-up to the referendum, and even more in the aftermath, I've been pondering Daniel 2.  Here's where my thoughts have arrived.

1.  The kingdom of Christ (the stone) destroys the whole statue - that is to say, the kingdoms of the earth past and present (and presumably from the perspective of the book, future).  All of our politicing therefore has only relative significance: it takes place in the context of the growing, mountainous, enduring kingdom of the Lord Jesus, which can't be shaken by plebiscites, or war, or any other circumstance.

2.  The surface of history is just the constant churn of empires and peoples, but underneath is the sovereignty of the God of history.  In his plan, apparent disasters serve great goods.  Note that this plan might seem a long way down!  Underneath are the everlasting arms, but it might feel like a long drop before they scoop us up.  They are still there, regardless.

3.  Nebuchadnezzar's dream is not for him, not really: it is a comfort to Daniel and fellow exiles, who would understandably be tempted to think that everything is out of control.  It isn't.  The God of Israel, who gave his people into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, is none the less God of gods and Lord of kings.

4.  So if you're a Christian who wanted a different result, by all means grieve and lament; in your view (which I can understand, even if I don't share it) something terrible has happened.  But in your grief, don't despair, and don't become bitter.  If you are right and I am wrong and this is terrible, it is still only relatively terrible, and God is in control.  That isn't trite, or just a pious thing we have to say.  It's the very heart of reality.  The kingdom of Christ will grow, regardless.  The relative good or evil of our political systems can and will serve him and his purposes.  Maybe this doesn't feel like a comfort right now, but if we are seeking Christ then it will be a comfort one day.  Hold on.

5.  If you're not a Christian, it is presumably of little comfort to know that God reigns.  It's true regardless, and it should be of comfort to you.  History is not a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  It all takes place under the control of the good God, who in the person of his Son gave himself to crucifixion for you,because he loved you.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Preparing to lose, or to win

The miserable referendum debate grinds on, and I'm desperately weary of it all.  I've already decided how to vote, although I confess I have almost been persuaded to change my mind by the wretched tone of the campaign.  One thing I am increasingly clear on: the fact that we are having a referendum at all represents a massive failure of leadership which has led to us being more divided amongst ourselves, less able to live with one another, than we were before.  There have been three referenda in the UK in the last five years or so, all of which seem to have been politically opportunistic events designed to put a particular issue to bed for a generation - but which have instead made divisions more acute and left behind them a huge feeling of resentment.

But here's the thing: one way or another, we have to live with one another next week.  I strongly suspect we will vote to remain part of the EU - but I think it will be close.  Then what will we do?  It won't do to just breathe a sigh of relief (for those who will be relieved) and then resume business as usual.  There needs to be a process of reconciliation.  We need to understand how we got to this place, and we need to work out what happens next.

Perhaps the biggest thing we need is to understand each other.  I've read a number of articles in the more liberal media which appear to proceed on the assumption that either 40-50% of people in the country are racist, or that a similar proportion have just been duped by manipulative UKIP types.  That won't do.  The analysis is simplistic and patronising.  There needs to be some listening here.  Personally, I think a lot of it is nothing to do with the EU.  There are a whole crowd of people who are not on board with the direction of political and social travel - they are not okay with globalisation, they are not okay with the new sexual politics, they are not okay with mass immigration.  For those who see themselves as citizens of the world, as liberals, as the good guys, these attitudes are incomprehensible and vile - but they are widespread.  What are we going to do about that?

As a thought experiment, it might be useful for us all to imagine what it will feel like on Friday if the side of our choice loses.  Half of us will feel like that whatever happens.  Or imagine the relief if your side wins.  Half of us will feel like that.  Whichever it turns out to be for each of us personally, remembering how it is for the other half of us will hopefully restrain triumphalism on the one hand and anger on the other.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (8)

Manuscript number eight included in the Works edition of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is actually a re-working of manuscript seven - given the title History and Good (2).  The themes are very similar, but I can see why the editors have elected to include both versions.  Bonhoeffer approaches the same questions from different perspectives, and whilst the second version is certainly tighter and clearer, the first is worth a read to see how the thought develops.  Given that it is essentially a repeat, though, here are a few thoughts with less quotes and more of my own interpretation.

In comparison to the first version. this second version puts Christology much more front and centre: it is because of Jesus Christ that we find ourselves in positions of responsibility towards one another.  Because the God who has become man is our neighbour, making us neighbours of God and one another, we are placed in relationship with God and our fellow man.  What I find fascinating and helpful about this is that, if I'm reading it right, Bonhoeffer makes Christ the source of our ethical responsibilities, the limit of those responsibilities, and the shaper of our responsible actions.

Christ is the source of our responsibilities because, as mentioned, it is he who brings us into relationship with God and one another.  Christ is, in a way, the mediator of all our relationships - we see God and others through him.  As such, he is the word of God which we hear, and to which we respond in all genuine responsible action (that is what makes it responsible).  He is also the one in whom God and the world are bound together and reconciled, and therefore the only one who can make action in the world a genuinely responsible action - an action of significance in the sight of God.

Christ is the limit of our responsibilities because he has ultimately taken responsibility for the world.  Therefore all our action takes place within the sphere of relativity; we do not deal with absolutes and ultimates.  He is himself the only absolute and ultimate left to us.  It is only because our responsibility is limited in this way that we can actually take any responsible action at all!  Otherwise we would be frozen by the weight of it all, or we would construct an abstract ethical system in order to clarify our choices.  As it is, knowing that ultimate responsibility is his, we can weight the situation and its likely consequences and make the necessary choice: we can act responsibly.

Christ is the shaper of our responsible actions, because in him we are called to vicarious representative action on behalf of all those for whom Christ has made us responsible.  Jesus, in showing us what vicarious representative action looks like, has also shown us the way: it is the cross.  That means both being willing to identify with the guilty and being willing to suffer for the other.  Perhaps what it means most fundamentally is to trust God for justification whilst venturing the necessary action to which we are called, and which we must undertake without ever being able to certainly justify ourselves.

It's a powerful way of thinking, and I'm wrestling with what it means for us (me!) in the here and now to act responsibly, responding to Christ and answerable to him.

Saturday, June 18, 2016


The young man glanced up.  “The towers aren’t as tall as I expected.”
“They were taller once,” replied the old man, “Long ago.”   And then they sat in silence for a while, and the dust shifted on the deserted streets, and birds landed near them and took off again.  “Why have you come here?”
“I don’t know really.”  A shrug.  “I suppose I wanted to see what it used to be like.  Before, you know.”  He paused.  “I didn’t realise everything was ruined.”
“Yes, everything ruined.  Not much left here.  Nobody comes here anymore.”  A longer pause.  “How are things, how is everything, out there?”  He waved his hand, indicating the world beyond the bounds of the empty city.
“Oh, fine.  Fine.”  And then, after a moment’s reflection, “Of course, there’s the war.”
“Of course.  The war.”
“It is pretty awful, I think.  I don’t know.  It doesn’t really affect me.”  He shifted uncomfortably.  “They say that you remember things.”
The old man looked sideways at his companion.  “I do remember.  Not everything.  There is a lot that I have forgotten.  But I remember the forgetting.  I cannot remember, anymore, what it was like when people lived here, or when the streets were full.  I know it was like that once, but I cannot recall the pictures to my mind.”  A long silence.  “But I remember when we all left.  I remember when the streets emptied and the people were all gone.”
“Why did they leave?”
“We left to build taller towers.  We left because we wanted to forget, and this place...”  He looked around at the empty square, the columns and the temples.  “This place reminded us.  In the end, we couldn’t bear it, the memory.  I was gone for years; I nearly forgot.  But when I returned...”  A pause.  “When I returned something came back to me.  I remembered something.  I remembered that we had forgotten.  I don’t suppose anyone else remembers, anymore.”
The young man reached into his rucksack, pulled out a water bottle.  He drank, offered it across.  The old man declined.  The young man sat, flipped the lid of the bottle open and shut, open and shut.  “What was it you forgot?  Why did you want to forget so badly?”
For a long time there was no answer.  Open, shut.  Open, shut.  And then the old man spoke quietly, almost in a whisper.  “How could we forget?  How could we try?”  And then in a louder voice, to his companion, “We wanted to forget ourselves.  We wanted to forget who we were.  We couldn’t bear to remember anymore.  I don’t suppose you can understand.  We didn’t want to know ourselves.”  The young man was silent.  He did not understand.
“Tell me,” the old man continued after a while, “do they still build towers?”
“Yes,” he replied.  “Yes, they build them.  They are taller and taller.  They build them of glass, now.  Where I live – well, I can look from my window and see dozens of towers, and the cranes building new ones all the time.”
The old man fixed him with a deep stare.  “Do you know why they build them?”
A pause, and then the young man could hold his gaze no longer.  “No.”
“No.  Of course not.  But we knew.  We knew why we had built the towers.  And we could not bear it.  We had done our best, before.  We built them as tall as we could, these ruins.  But it wasn’t high enough.  They meant something, and because they meant something they were failures, these towers.  We had to forget them.  We couldn’t live here, in the midst of our failures.  They had to become ruins so that we would not know.”
“Would not know what?”
“So that we would not know that we were ruins, too.  So that we would not have to remember that we had failed and fallen.  We could build bigger towers, start again.  But we would forget what they were for.  We would forget.  And now they have forgotten the forgetting, and only I am left.”
The old man fell into silence, gazing at the dusty cobbles.  The young man, too, was silent for a while.  A couple of times he opened his mouth as if to speak, but did not.  He took another swig from his bottle.
And then at last, “why did you build them?  Why did you build the towers?”
The old man did not reply at once, and when he did his voice wavered.
“I don’t know.  I don’t know.  I forgot, we all forgot.  What good does it do to remember?  I tried to fix them, for a while, after I came back.  But it was just me.  I was alone, and I did not know how.  And...”  A long pause.  “And I could not remember why.”
And the young man and the old sat silently in the shadows of the decaying towers as the sun went slowly down.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Friendly fire

I've been thinking a little bit about how painful church can be.  It seems to be a sad fact that church communities - which are meant to be families of grace and places of gospel healing - are very often places where Christians suffer their most serious wounds.  A house divided against itself cannot stand - and yet every church I know of is to some extent divided against itself, and the fallout of this division is very often deep personal pain for individuals.

What's going on?

To a certain extent I suspect we over-sell church, making it offer more than it can ever provide in reality.  No community made up of sinful people can ever be a totally safe place.  No community of miserable sinners will ever be free of pain.

But sometimes it's more than that.  The division and fighting and pain is not just the inevitable result of any human community, but is specifically about church.  I would guess there are a couple of things going on here.  One is that the church is not a community we choose, and in that regard it is less like a club and more like a family.  We find ourselves members of the church as a result of being joined to Christ, and we are stuck with that Christian family whether we like them or not.  My guess is that we all know to some extent how families can be: the places of the deepest love, but also the most painful struggles to relate.  That's church.

Then on top of that you have the fact that in entering the church we enter a place of acute spiritual conflict.  The fight for genuine church community is not only a fight against our own selfish predispositions and sinfully warped characters; it is also a fight against the devil and all his angels.  We have been brought into the cosmic struggle, won by Christ but still being fought - and it perhaps ought not to be surprising that there is a certain amount of friendly fire, given who we all are and given what is at stake.

Perhaps there is an analogy here to our personal experience.  When we don't try to follow Christ - when we let sin reign in our mortal bodies - well then, to be sure, we're dying eternally, but it feels easy and even pleasant.  When we turn to Christ and take up arms against our sin - well, that is the way to life, but it sure feels like a war.  It feels like it because it is.

Church is hard.  The Christian life is hard.  We're at war, and entering into church community puts us on the front lines.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Eternal Submission

Theologians on the interweb are having a jolly ding-dong about the at-first-glance-somewhat-obscure doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son of God.  Andrew Wilson has an excellent summary, with links to the various articles from the various combatants.  The presenting issue is that some theologians are using the idea that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in support of a compelementarian view of gender relations: basically, if the Son is ontologically equal to the Father in every way, and yet submits to him eternally, that provides a pattern for equality-with-submission in the marriage relationship (and possibly elsewhere).  But leaving aside the issue of gender, the deeper question is whether eternal subordination is an orthodox way of describing the relationship between the first and second person of the Godhead - and this question matters, because God is real.

In times like these, I do what I always do - reach for the Church Dogmatics.  In this particular case, specifically IV/1, and the beginning of the chapter on The Obedience of the Son of God.  So, how does Uncle Karl approach the question (which in his day was not so freighted with acute ethical questions)?

He begins by focussing, habitually, on Christ, and making clear that we are talking about the atonement that takes place in him and which is witnessed in both the Old and New Testaments.  God's self-revelation in Christ is the source, ground, and content of our speaking here.  We recognise from this source that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is indeed God himself, the deity.  There is no element of the NT which does not rest on this, and there is no element of the OT which is not caught up into it.  But what is the significance of this attribution of deity to Christ?  "The meaning of His deity... cannot be gathered from any notion of supreme, absolute, non-worldly being.  It can be learned only from what took place in Christ" (177).  In other words, we are relentlessly pushed back on revelation: no pre-conceived ideas of God - who he is, what he is like - can be allowed to qualify God's revelation in Christ.  What it means for Christ to be God must be read off from the evidence of his incarnational revelation: "to put it more pointedly, the mirror in which it can be known (and is known) that He is God, and of the divine nature, is His becoming flesh and His existence in the flesh" (177).

But how are we to understand the obedience of the Son of God?  "We cannot conceal that it is a difficult and even an elusive thing to speak of obedience which takes place in God Himself" (195).  Barth briefly rejects Subordinationism proper (which gets around the problem by making the Son less than God, or at least not equally divine with the Father), and Modalism (which gets around the problem by making the obedience only an appearance of submission, "a kind of forecourt of the divine being" [196]).  These solutions, often offered naively and harmlessly in the first few centuries of the church, must be rejected once their implications are seen, as they were rejected in the move to Nicene orthodoxy.

So Barth lays out three presuppositions to help move forward, "to engage (the difficulty) in frontal assault" (197).  In brief, they are:
1.  When we talk about the Son of God, we are talking about the subject and author of our salvation.  "Anyone other or less than the true God is not a legitimate subject competent to act in this matter" (198) - therefore Subordinationism is ruled out.
2.  The atonement is a genuine worldly event, which not only happens in the world "but affects it from within to convert it to God" (198) - therefore the entering into the world, the submission, of the Son of God is real and not only apparent, and Modalism is ruled out.
3.  The atonement is a matter of the action of God being "identical with the existence of the humiliated and lowly obedient man Jesus of Nazareth" (199).  Without in any way compromising his deity, God is in this man.  "Everything depends on our accepting this presupposition, on our seeing and understanding what the New Testament witnesses obviously saw and understood, the proper being of the one true God in Jesus Christ the crucified" (199).

And so the conclusion: "Is it a fact that in relation to Jesus Christ we can speak of an obedience of the one true God Himself in his proper being?  From the three inalienable presuppositions just expounded it is plain that we not only can do so but have to do so...  We have not only not to deny but actually to affirm and understand as essential to the being of God the offensive fact that there is in God himself an above and a below... a superiority and a subordination" (200-1).

And of course that leads to the glorious (and polemical!) assertions about the servanthood of God in IV/2...

I think the central point for Barth, rightly, is the question of whether God is really revealed in Jesus Christ.  If the relation of authority and obedience which we see in Jesus does not reflect anything in the internal life of God, then the incarnation is not revelatory but misleading; how could we then say that we know anything about God?  However, if God really is revealed in Jesus, we cannot and must not allow any preconceived notions of what God 'must be like' to prevent us from accepting that revelation.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (7)

The seventh manuscript in the Works edition of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is the first draft of a section entitled History and Good.  The section begins by making explicit that everything said so far only makes sense if we discard the common ethical framework of "an isolated individual who has available an absolute criterion by which to choose continually and exclusively between a clearly recognised good and a clearly recognised evil" (219).  This framework must be discarded because there is no such isolated individual, there is no such choice, and there is no such criterion.

The discarded framework is an abstraction, and fails to recognise "the historicity of human existence" (220).  An individual cannot be isolated from their historical situation and community.  Rather, "a human being necessarily lives in encounter with other human beings", which leads to the individual having responsibilities towards those others (220).  Note that these responsibilities are largely given, not chosen, and they provide the shape of our ethical lives.  The norm for moral action becomes "not a universal principle, but the concrete neighbour, as given to me by God" (221).

With this historicity, we also lose the abstract recognition of good and evil, and are forced to recognise that rather than consistently choosing between good and evil (which are both known), each ethical decision is "risked in faith while being aware that good and evil are hidden in the concrete historical situation" (221).  In other words, there is no clear ethical theory or principle which we can apply in a straightforward manner; to attempt it is mere abstraction, and can lead to the neglect of the actual responsibilities which God has given us.  Wanting to be clear-cut, to always be right, can lead to ignoring the real situations which surround us.

In place of this abstraction, Bonhoeffer calls us to live in "accordance with reality" (222), always remembering that "the most fundamental reality is the reality of the God who became human" (223).  We are called to think through the individual situations in the light of the event of reconciliation in Christ, and then to make free, and therefore risky, choices. These choices are made in faith - they "completely surrender to God both the judgement on this action and its consequences" (225).  This is not acting blindly; choice is made in recognition of the seriousness of taking responsibility, a seriousness which is grounded in the fact that God in Christ has taken responsibility for us.  But it is a recognition that we are not confronted by a black and white choice between the evil and the good, but by relative evil and good in complex situations.  Only God knows all ends, and he has already taken responsibility in an ultimate sense; we are therefore freed to take genuine responsibility in a penultimate sense.

In the end, "the commandments of God's righteousness are fulfilled in vicarious representative action, which means in concrete, responsible action of love for all human beings" (232).  What this makes clear is that the commandments of God are ultimately fulfilled by Christ, and that we take our part in their fulfilment only by conformity to him.  This may involve, as it did for him, taking on guilt - although obviously not in the same way.

This is an ethic of being in the world, of being confronted by messy situations and unclear choices.  But more fundamentally it is an ethic of being in Christ and shaped by him.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Lord, the Giver of Life

A recent camping holiday provided an excellent opportunity for some reflection on some of the 'nature Psalms', and I've especially enjoyed and benefited from time in Psalm 104.  Two verses are particularly striking:
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.
 The basic point is simple but profound: all created things are sustained by the Holy Spirit.  As I've chewed this over, I've had a few other thoughts...

1.  The Spirit's sustaining work goes beyond the provision of the necessary means for life.  That is there in the immediate context, but these verses add something else.  God doesn't just provide the necessary secondary causes of continued existence; he actually provides, by sending his Spirit, existence itself.

2.   The Spirit's sustaining work extends to both individual creatures, and the whole system of creation.  The renewal of creation is of course driven by the ordinary processes of procreation, but underlying those processes is the sending of the Spirit.  Life and the systems which sustain and renew life are equally upheld by the Breath of God.

3.  This is not pantheism or even panentheism.  Creation is not God, nor does it subsist within God - rather, the creature is distinct from God, and is distinctly maintained and sustained by him.  Note the dynamic and interactive language used - you take away, you send forth...  The Spirit is not some sort of impersonal substrate of creation, nor is he tied to creation, but he comes and goes at the will of God, sustaining the whole.

4.  God's Spirit can be, and is, withdrawn at God's will.  The ongoing existence of creation as a whole is dependent on God's faithfulness and nothing more.  The ongoing existence of any particular creature within the whole is also dependent on God, and can be withdrawn at any point in his sovereignty.  We, and all the things we see and experience, are dramatically contingent.

5.  Creation is real.  It is not a phantom, or a dream in God's mind.  It's very fragility and dependence on God's Spirit testifies to its reality as a thing which exists but which is not God.

6.  The same Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation in the beginning sustains creation now.  And he is the same Spirit who comes in the waters of baptism, creating and thereafter sustaining new life in Christ.  His work in old creation and new are linked through the creation of the human nature of Christ - hovering over the waters of the womb?

Tuesday, June 07, 2016


I'd like to offer some intelligent analysis pertinent to the EU Referendum that is creeping up on us.  Sadly, I'm not sure I'm able.  I mean, I know how I'm going to vote, and I can tell you why - but I'm painfully aware that this mostly comes from the gut and not from any particular argument that I could advance.  Let me explain my thought process, or lack thereof.

First off, it has to be acknowledged that I don't identify with the European Union at any level.  Its institutions, goals, political culture, history - none of it really resonates with me.  I'm sure there are reasons why this is the case, and the reasons would most likely have as much to do with me as they would with the EU.  My guess is that this will be the case for many people beyond myself: I don't feel like I belong to the EU now, let alone the referendum result.

Secondly, I'm aware that I am an idealist rather than a pragmatist.  That means that arguments about sovereignty, accountability, and governance all play much louder in my head than discussions about economics, immigration, and the like.  Obviously, one could be an idealist about the EU project, but as mentioned above I'm not.  And I tend to be fairly oblivious to risk when I think the principle is right.  That also plays into a tendency to vote, as it were, leave.

Thirdly, I know that I have a tendency toward nostalgia, and would love to believe that Bagehot's constitution was still alive and well, or at least might be resurrected.  There is a small part of me that thinks, maybe, outside the EU...

There are some of my prejudices - I frankly acknowledge them all.  I suspect that everyone on all sides of the debate is driven more by this sort of stuff than we'd like to admit.  My prejudices tend to make me a leaver, or as I believe we now have to call ourselves, a Brexiteer.

Recognising how non-rational this stuff mostly is (not irrational; there's a difference), I want to be a bit careful.  I don't want to be swept away by this stuff without thinking.  And there are three things that give me serious pause for thought.

For one thing, I know that one of the reasons I can afford to ignore practical arguments about the economy, jobs and the like and pursue my idealistic bent is that I'm relatively well-off.  It's all very well for me to be willing to take a financial hit in order to regain national sovereignty (or whatever), but have I thought about what that might mean for other people?  I hope I have, or at least I've started to.  Suffice to say, I don't find the scare stories all that convincing, and I even wonder whether there might be the possibility to roll back some of the negative effects of globalisation here.  Bottom line, I think we would take a hit, but it probably wouldn't be huge, and some of it - for example, reductions in house prices - could be of long-term benefit.  Still, I freely confess my relative ignorance here; I've done my best with the resources I've got.

A second thing that raises questions is the implicit, and sometimes explicit, racism of parts of the Leave campaign.  It's not that I subscribe to guilt by association in any way: people can support good causes for bad reasons, after all.  But you have to ask questions about the culture that is driving the campaign, and whether it is the sort of culture you want.  I think I'm right in saying that what we're suffering from here is just 'empty vessel' syndrome, as in 'empty vessels make the most noise'.  We hear more from people making populist, and to me very unpleasant, arguments, but I hope they don't characterise the majority.  I hope.

And the third thing that bothers me is the potential for 'Little England-ism', a desire for cultural isolation based usually on a firm and misplaced belief in the superiority of one's own culture.  Here I think we would be wise to listen to Gildor Inglorion, despite his being both an elf and clearly fictional: "The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out."  Maintaining an openness to the world is so crucial.  Still, again, I'm not sure this bad attitude follows necessarily from a vote to leave the EU; you could even argue that membership of the EU has in some ways closed us off to the wider world.

Although this has caused me to really think about my motives, it hasn't changed my mind.  For the record, here are a few reasons (other than my gut feelings) why I will vote Leave.

Firstly, there is political philosophy.  How obscure is that?  I am a convinced disciple of John Locke in most political matters, and I can't help seeing Msr. J.J. Rousseau as the enemy.  It is no secret that Anglo-Saxon political development has largely followed Locke, in maintaining a liberal opposition to overbearing government; continental political philosophy tends to go along with Rousseau in seeking 'the will of the people' as the foundation of governmental sovereignty.  I think that is a dangerous idea - there is no 'will of the people' at the end of the day, and of course Rousseau was open to the idea that people ought to be 'forced to be free' when they themselves didn't quite understand what their own will was (i.e. they disagreed with the majority or at least the government!)  I think I see this political philosophy at play in the EU project at several levels, not least the cavalier disregard for the expressed will of various national electorates which put the project at risk.

Secondly, there is good governance, or the absence of it in the EU.  I think it is just too difficult to hold people to account within the system, and I am convinced that it is wasteful and prone to massive over-reach.  Indeed, even the proponents of the EU recognise that this is a problem.  I am unconvinced that it can be fixed, unless we go in for full federalism, with powers reserved to what used to be national governments in a written constitution.  That might work, but nobody is proposing it, and I can't say I'd vote for it if they were.

Thirdly, and this is what swung it for me in the end, I've watched the EU response to various crises, and especially the Greek debt crisis, and what I've seen has not been benevolent.  A project and an elite committed to self-defence and the perpetuation of the system is what it looked like.  I don't want to be part of a club that plays that way.

When all is said and done, I wouldn't necessarily encourage anyone to follow my lead in voting!  I'd just say this:

  1. Check your prejudices - we all have them, but it's helpful to be honest with ourselves and be sure it isn't only our prejudices that are motivating our decisions;
  2. Think about others - it's easy to think about what would be best for me, but more difficult to get into other people's shoes - but the effort is worth it;
  3. Be irenic - one of the problems with a referendum is that it whips people up into holding strong opinions about things they had previously barely thought about, and can lead to really bitter exchanges - we can avoid that if we remember to be kind;
  4. Consider your opponents' best arguments - and give more time to this especially if their best arguments aren't of a sort to immediately appeal to you - they probably have more force than you're able to recognise at first;
  5. Consider the weaknesses of your own side - are they inherent or incidental?  Are you implicated in opinions and actions that are just wrong?;
  6. And finally, make up your mind and vote - knowing that you could be wrong.  It helps to remember that the future of nations is not ultimately in our hands, but God's!

Monday, June 06, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (6)

The sixth manuscript of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is entitled Natural Life.  Bonhoeffer sees this as a neglected subject in Protestant theology (although it features prominently in Roman Catholic theology, where the relationship between nature and grace is understood in a way which is problematic for Protestant thought).  Natural life is not the same as created life - rather, "through the fall, 'creation' became 'nature'.  The unmediated relation to God of the true creation becomes the relative freedom of natural life" (173).  In terms of the relationship between ultimate and penultimate things, natural life is penultimate, and indeed the concept of natural life helps us to distinguish between those things in life which are genuinely penultimate and those which are unnatural and therefore destructive of the penultimate.  Bonhoeffer is here establishing a differentiation within the sphere of the world and the penultimate: against those who deride the concept of natural life because they have lumped everything that is not grace together as 'sin', he sees some things as genuinely natural and others as genuinely unnatural.  But against the Roman concept which tends to make the natural an 'ultimate' in itself, Bonhoeffer is clear that the natural-ness or unnatural-ness of anything will only be revealed in the light of Christ - when things are seen to be either penultimate preparations of the way of the Lord, or obstructions to his path.

"How is the natural recognized?  The natural is that form of life preserved by God for the fallen world that is directed toward justification, salvation, and renewal through Christ" (174).  It can therefore only be known "by looking at Jesus Christ" (174).  Nevertheless, it is reason which is the human instrument for discerning the natural.  The natural, as universally human, is not something which can be defined by any human authority, which will only show itself as arbitrary in so far as it attempts this.  Bonhoeffer, of course, has the Nazi state in view.

"The natural guards life against the unnatural" (176).  Because the natural is the form of life preserved by God, it fights off the unnatural, which is in itself "the enemy of life" (176).  The unnatural may triumph over the natural in limited ways, but the natural will always reassert itself at length.  This is because "the unnatural is something that requires organization, while the natural cannot be organized but is simply there" (177).  It takes fighting and campaigning and legislation to suppress the natural - I am reminded of various campaigns and organisations in the early twenty-first century.  If Bonhoeffer is right, and I think he is, those campaigns are right to think that they need to keep on even after they have apparently achieved their objectives; the natural will in time fight back!

The natural life is a formed life, and its form takes shape in rights and duties, corresponding to the fact that for Christian ethics life is both an end in itself and a means to an end.  Rights come first: "that means speaking first of what is given to life, and only then of what is demanded from it" (180).  This is the only way in which God is honoured, and it is also logical: "duties spring from the rights themselves, as tasks from gifts" (180).  Therefore for the remainder of the manuscript Bonhoeffer expounds particular rights of natural life, including 'to each his own', the inviolability of bodily life, and the rights of reproduction and developing life.

In this connection, and with relevance to contemporary debate, here is another snippet on abortion: "To kill the fruit in the mother's womb is to injure the right to life which God has bestowed on the developing life.  Discussion of the question whether a human being is already present confuses the simple fact that, in any case, God wills to create a human being and that the life of this developing human being has been deliberately taken.  And this is nothing but murder" (206, emphasis added).  Of course there are circumstances (and "without doubt, all this decisively affects one's personal, pastoral attitude toward the person concerned" 181), but they can't change the facts.

I see this manuscript as pursuing one of the most essential insights of Bonhoeffer's work, which is that there are ethical distinctions in the non-Christian world.  This might seem obvious, but the temptation of theologians to write off the whole structure as sinful is powerful.  Of course, the structure is implicated in sin - we are talking about natural life, not the pristine life of the first creation.  But there is nevertheless relative good and relative evil, and the church needs to engage with that if it is to prepare the way for Christ and his gospel in the world.