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Sunday, 20 November 2011

A subversive practice of "kingship"

This is the Sunday in the liturgical calendar of the Christian Church which is celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King. This carries with it much of the odor of Christendom and the terrible things that were undertaken under the alliance of the church and the empire. what I would want to argue is that if we dig down below our cultural memories and associations we find in the original account of Jesus' kingship a deconstruction of such associations and a subversion of our commonly held accounts of power.

Let me start with the Revelation of John chapter 1: 4-8 From John to the seven churches of Asia: grace and peace from him who is, who was and who is to come, from the seven spirits in his presence before his throne and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first born from the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth. He loves us and has washed away our sins with his blood and made us and Father; to him then be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen. It is he who is coming on the clouds; everyone will see him, even those who pierced him and all the races of the earth will mourn over him. this is the truth. Amen, ‘I am the Alpha and Omega’ says the Lord God who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Jerusalem Bible)

The key phrase around which the rule of Jesus revolves is that which describes him as the faithful witness and from that faithfulness his power and rule flows. He is the first born from the dead, the ruler of the Kings of the earth. Faithful in suffering a highly political death that was a scandal to all the religiously respectable. A death loaded with political and religious meaning. This is the paradox at the heart of our faith which we keep wanting to obscure, if not deny.

It is out of this faithfulness in dying a death which left Jesus identified with those who rebelled against Rome,  with all those who were outcasts and marginal that Jesus is affirmed by God to be ruler of the kings of the earth.

The stunning force of this claim needs to be registered if we are to seriously consider our own commitment as Christians. There is so much which seems at first to stand against it. To glance at the newspaper headlines or the lead stories on television is to be bombarded with evidence that whoever or whatever is in control it sure isn’t God. Perhaps John is suggesting that is not what God is about - God’s claims are overarching but perhaps her preferred mode of working is not by control.

Indeed the claim of death as the power which rules our age seems to confront us once we stop and ask the question. The newspaper headlines may be part of our problem because they already assume who the rulers of this world are and are shaped by the visions they claim to merely report on. that what is done by the powerful is all that is important and defines what is important for our life. That it is in the spectacular, the momentary that the measure of success is to be found.

Perhaps we don’t see the signs of God’s activity and rule because we are looking for the wrong thing, we are looking in the wrong places, we have the wrong assumptions about how God’s power and rule are to be identified. To change our sight our vision our expectations about the kind of kingdom or commonwealth Jesus was talking is going to be necessary before the evidence of God’s activity will become apparent - in a word we need to see with the eyes of faith.
What was the result of Jesus’ faithfulness? According to John the visionary it was that we might become kings and priests to serve God - his rule is so that we might become rulers - it is an empowering kingship. Is this empowering activity evident in our life together?

If we go back to the gospels and the gospel reading which we have not got to yet, the power of Jesus, the rule of Jesus is power that disturbs the status quo, offends the respectable, challenges the certainties of those who have God worked out and boxed within their system - preaches good news to the poor, heals the sick, eats with the unclean, touches the lepers, the AIDS victims of his day, announces the year of jubilee - a time of economic redistribution -the renewal; of God’s commonwealth Where do we see these signs? The Gospel passage John 18:33-37 focuses our attention on the nature of Jesus kingship.
So Pilate went back into the praetorium and called Jesus to him. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Jesus replied ‘Do you ask this of your own accord or have others spoken to you about me?’ Pilate answered ‘Am I a Jew? It is your own people and the chief priests who have handed you over to me; what have you done?’ Jesus replied “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this kind.’ “So you are a king then? said Pilate ‘It is you who say it’ said Jesus “Yes I am a king. I was born for this. I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.’  

If we come to this passage with the assumption along with those who take a narrow spiritual view that Jesus kingship has nothing to do with politics then we will miss the point of what Jesus has to say. Pilate it seems with his Imperial pragmatic and realistic view of politics missed it too. Jesus denies that what he is offering is a kingship of the traditional kind. Human beings, and Pilate will serve to stand in for all of us here, find it hard to imagine kingship except in terms of violence and force.

Jesus accepts the title of king but it is not of the kind that is established by violence. But it is a kingdom for all that – a  kingdom rich in politics, economics, social relationships and strong in its affirmation of the earth and our material existence. It is not ethereal, vague, individual lie mystical and feel good in your own way sort of entity. It is a kingdom which is exercised in our practice of truth and faithfulness in relations not in force or emotional violence. It is tough and uncompromising - the practice of truth as demonstrated by Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, or Jean Vanier.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Holiness and Justice

Giles Fraser, former Dean of St Paul's in a recent column in The Guardian puts his finger on a critical issue concerning the relationship between holiness and justice that was provoked by visit to Bethlehem.
"This is the place where Jesus Christ was born," whispers a guide in an affected and well practised baritone. Bells jingle and incense fills the church. And thousands queue up for the experience with hushed reverence. Buses from plush Jerusalem hotels make their way through the Israeli checkpoint and disgorge their passengers just a few paces from the narrow entrance to this most holy of Christian shrines.
Crusaders lowered the once grand entrance so as to stop pilgrims entering the church on horseback. Nothing so profane as a horse, and its inevitable waste products, must go anywhere near so sacred a place. Leviticus 10.10 puts it thus: "You are to put a difference between the holy and the unholy, between the clean and the unclean." In other words, the church must be protected from the world.
Sitting on the far side of Manger Square, I find myself getting more and more angry with this deeply rooted understanding of holiness. Bethlehem is a place of such vast injustice and social deprivation. The Israeli separation barrier has severed the whole town from its traditional sources of social and economic vitality. Farmers can no longer reach their olive trees. Families who live just a few miles apart can no longer visit each other. Graffiti on the vast concrete wall offers a slender message of hope: "Nothing lasts for ever."
But it seems that for many of the pilgrims to Bethlehem, this complex political reality is something to be passed by on the other side. They have come to find a sacred space that is as protected from politics as the holy is from the unholy. Yet there is a terrible irony in all this. For the birth of Jesus Christ, in a smelly cow shed, and threatened by the forces of occupation, represents a wholesale rejection of precisely this idea of holiness. God is no longer to be set in some pristine otherness. The sacred is no longer to be protected from the profane. Which is why Jesus makes such an ostentatious show of fraternising with those who were traditionally debarred from holy space – the lame and blind, sinners, lepers, menstruating women.
In the life of Jesus, holiness is redefined as justice. Like the prophets before him, he is at best indifferent and at worst downright hostile to traditional forms of protection against defilement – washing, ringfencing the Sabbath from work, and so on. The task of religious professionals is not to keep God clean, as one might defend a brand new exercise book from inky fingers. "I have come to give good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, sight to the blind."  Occupy St Paul's: no church should insulate itself from human raw need

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Foolishness, yes but not what Paul had in mind

Cardinal Pell has ventured out on the issue of climate change and has managed to demonstrate a level of foolishness on the issue that is a bit hard to credit someone who by reputation has a capable intellect.

I know Paul the Apostle referred to the Good News as "foolishness to the Greeks" but he was speaking about a message that was turning the world upside down with a message that was about turning the world upside down, in its critique of the social order, not trying to support "the powers that be, in the case the fossil fuel industries, to keep their hold on power.

The article the Cardinal Pell appeared under the title Can our Babel Succeed? Questioning the Moral Dimension of Climate Change

It has provoked several detailed critiques:
Tim Stephens argued that the Cardinal's scepticism was scientifically and theologically indefensible. In addition to canvassing some of the issues on the evidence Stephens noted that he seemed to be out of step with recent Popes theologically speaking (Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI) ... that God entrusted the planet to us and gave us responsibility to care for creation, and that we will face the consequences of not doing so.
John Cook of Skeptical Science advised Cardinal Pell to practice what he preaches and engage with the evidence when he enters the public debate. Joh provided a very clear account of the key scientific issues that were at stake.

Detailed point by point account of factual errors by Tim Holmes and Robin Webster from Carbon Brief "Cardinal Pell lecture peddles misrepresentations of climate science".

Theologically the good Cardinal is well behind the pace on this. Professor Michael Northcott, Professor of Christian Ethics at Edinburgh University has already written extensively on this issue, and was interviewed on Encounter on the issue earlier this year.

Monday, 14 November 2011

What is religion, really?

I have been sound off about the issue of 'generic religion' in some recent blogs. Here is a review of a recent book that takes up the same theme. This is a revised, extended and slightly more conversational version of a review that originally appeared in St Mark’s Review (No.217, August 2011). Word limits left the published version somewhat elliptical in style.

Let me start by pointing to the connection between religion and violence that has become a familiar theme in both media commentary and the public polemics of the “new” atheists. Peter Vardy, Vice-Principal of Heythrop College in the University of London, has written, Good & Bad Religion to try and redirect the whole debate. He wants to get away from the sort of purely defensive reaction on the part of religious people that he believes, quite rightly I think, is neither helpful, nor interesting. Instead he embarks on an attempt to establish that there is some common ground between believers and atheists.

The outcome of this worthy enterprise is Good & Bad Religion, (SCM Press, 2010) a brief paperback, relatively accessible in style and targeted at a thoughtful, but non-academic audience. Hopefully this sort of audience still exists. In a relatively non-defensive and consistently even-tempered manner Vardy moves to place the entire public polemics about “religion” and the contemporary warnings and assumptions of its dangers, and indeed its deep and consistent inhumanity, more clearly within the history of western philosophical and theological thought than has been the case in much of the debate to date.

While this is a helpful step in placing the debate into a wider context, I want to note that Terry Eagleton’s interventions on this issue by comparison have sought to remind us of the taken for granted political background to the contemporary emergence of this debate.

Vardy develops his argument in two distinct parts and at the end of each section, he provides a clear summary of the argument that he has developed and the conclusions that he draws.

In Part One, entitled The Challenge, Vardy sketches the critique of 'religion' provided by contemporary atheists.  Religion can be bad, Vardy concedes to the atheists, but supporters of “good” religion should be at one with them in resisting “bad” religion. It may be, Vardy asserts, that … in today’s world there is a more important distinction between atheist and theist, namely that between those who pursue bad religion and those who stand for truth and what is right, whether it be within, or without a religious framework (p14).

Vardy then takes us through a discussion of the nature of the truth and the good in the major philosophical traditions as an aid to assessing what “good” and “bad” religion are, He concludes with an account of Aristotle’s approach to the nature of human flourishing which he argues is the most helpful way of distinguishing between  ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion. This is an interesting philosophical move, given the role that engagement with Aristotl,e played in the early development of Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of modernity and the fact that he moved on to recover the thought of Thomas Aquinas because of Aristotle’s inadequacies in the restatement of a natural law approach to ethics.

Aristotelian philosophy, Vardy contends … offers a partial solution to the problem of devising standards against which to judge religion and religious practices. … the natural law approach is compatible with the major world religions and indeed has been used by them in the past to extend and enrich their philosophies of religion … Further the approach may be acceptable to atheist philosophers as well.  …most normative philosophical systems rely on defining good and bad in relation to what it means to be a fulfilled human being.(67)

In Part 2: A Way Forward Vardy covers a range of issues that arise in any attempt to undertake an assessment of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad religion’, starting with questions of authority and textual interpretation, and then moving on to the topics of science and religion, justice, equality and freedom. From the discussion in each of these chapters Vardy provides us in The Conclusion with a summary based on an Aristotelian, natural law framework, of six broad conclusions, and 26 more detailed criteria that we can use to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ religion.

Given the natural law basis of his argument, the conclusions that Vardy draws are coherent, admirable in their intent and largely predictable. The major problem that I have with the structure and argument that he develops lies not in his analysis, or his conclusions, but back in the underlying assumptions about the character of religion that were touched on briefly in the first chapter but not systematically developed, either then, or later.

The brief references to 'religion' that he provides in the early part of the book do not add up to a consistent, or coherent account of what religion is. Vardy starts out the discussion in a promising vein by noting that religion is the cord of ideas, beliefs and practices that hold communities together and that it is not a consistent monolithic phenomenon. However, he then goes on to affirm that religion can be used in damaging ways, but that it is important to the human psyche and cannot be eliminated. In taking the argument in this direction he is moving   inexorably towards an essentialist and non-historical account of religion. Religion becomes a generic category into which particular faiths or traditions can be shoehorned (or not).

This is followed by the observation that religion has often been taken over for political purposes. A key question arises here. If religion is as he acknowledges, the cord that holds communities together, how could religion not be political in character, and can we then distinguish in any meaningful way between religion and politics? Augustine in his critique of Rome seems to have found himself up to his neck in political theology when discussing “religious” issues. This phenomenon has reappeared min modern guise in the form of civil religions, of which the cult of Anzac Day has emerged in Australia as a recent local variant.

The working assumption that I draw from Vardy’s references to ‘religion’ seems to be that we all know what religion is, and that it can therefore be treated as a timeless generic category that can be evaluated in its specific manifestations as either ‘good’ or “’bad’. Who indeed would be in favour of “bad” “religion”?

The problem with a generic account of religion becomes clear when Vardy refers to the early Christians as having taken a stand against “bad or debased religion”. This really will not do. The early Christians affirmed that they were followers of Jesus whom they affirmed as “Lord”, a term in with both political and the religious connotations and implications. What they took a stand against was not “bad” religion, the Romans called them “atheists”, but the specific political religion of the Roman Empire. Roman officials sought a commitment to the Emperor that would overrode their primary and basic loyalty to Christ. That after all is the whole point of the book of Revelation.

I would, therefore, argue against overall thrust of Vardy’s project to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion, that people are not committed to ‘religion’ in general. People are committed rather to living lives from within specific traditions, traditions that embody differing accounts of the world, and differing accounts of what it is to be human and how one should appropriately live and shape one’s life in that. Indeed they may have very differing understandings of what the "world" is.

As my friend William Cavanaugh argues in his important work, The Myth of Religious Violence, religion has a history … and what counts as a religion and what does not in any given context depends up different configurations of power and authority … the attempt to say that there is a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena, is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern secular state as it developed in the West. In this context religion is constructed as transhistorical, transcultural, essentially interior, and essentially distinct from public secular rationality. (59)

Entirely in its favour is that, in an era of loud shouting, and rhetorically excessive, and factually limited ambit claims passing as argument from protagonists on both sides of the debate, Vardy’s apologetic is overall an eirenic, even tempered and thoughtful response to the new atheists that tries to reframe some of the terms of the debate. He seems willing to share with them an account of religion as a transhistorical and trans-cultural phenomenon and hopes that something can be built on that common ground.

If, however, we do not accept Vardy's implicit account of religion as generic, as I do not, the task before Christians and members of other faith traditions and communities will take us down a different path from the one that he maps out in this book. Our task will be to interrogate the history of our own traditions, their specific beliefs and practices, both for their implication in encouraging violence at the individual, family and communal levels, and for their resources for witnessing to, and embodying shalom. This seems to me to be a more promising, and interesting, though more difficult project than the one that Vardy has undertaken and one that will require churches as communities committed to peacemaking to get involved.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Rediscovering the "Jesus Movement" Revolution

I cannot recall during my lifetime a public debate around issues of belief and “religion” anything quite like that sparked by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and their fellow travellers, commonly referred to under the collective title of the “new atheists”.

Before going to consider the significance of that debate we should take note in passing the reminder by David Bentley Hart that “religion” as the term is used generically does not actually exist. There are, Hart reminds us …a very great number of traditions of belief and practice that, for the sake of convenience we call "religions", but that could scarcely differ from one another more. Perhaps it might seem sufficient, for the purposes of research, simply to identify general resemblances among these traditions: but even that is notoriously hard to do, since every effort to ascertain what sort of things one is looking at involves an enormous amount of interpretation, and no clear criteria for evaluating any of it. One cannot establish where the boundaries lie between "religious" systems and magic, or "folk science", or myth, or social ceremony.

There is not any compelling reason to assume a genetic continuity or kinship between, say, shamanistic beliefs and developed rituals of sacrifice, or between tribal cults, and traditions like Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, or to assume that these various developed traditions are varieties of the same thing. One may feel that there is a continuity or kinship, or presuppose on the basis of one's prejudices, inklings or tastes that the extremely variable and imprecise characteristic of "a belief in the supernatural" constitutes proof of a common ancestry or type; but all of this remains a matter of interpretation, vague morphologies, and personal judgments of value and meaning, and attempting to construct a science around such intuitions can amount to little more than mistaking "all the things I don't believe in" for a scientific genus. One cannot even demonstrate that apparent similarities of behavior between cultures manifest similar rationales, as human consciousness is so promiscuously volatile a catalyst in social evolution. ...

… the task of delineating the "phenomenon" of religion in the abstract becomes perfectly hopeless as soon as one begins to examine what particular traditions of faith actually claim, believe, or do. … what sort of thing is the Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths? What sort of thing is the Vedantic doctrine that Atman and Brahman are one? What sort of thing is the Christian belief in Easter"? What is the core and what are the borders of this "phenomenon"? What are its empirical causes? What are its rationales? Grand empty abstractions about religion are as easy to produce as to ignore. These by contrast are questions that touch on what persons actually believe; and to answer them requires an endless hermeneutic labor - an investigation of history, and intellectual traditions and contemplative lore ... (192-193) In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (Eerdmans, 2009).

After that significant and provocative diversion, let me to return to the “new atheists”. It is, I would suggest, not coincidental that this debate seems to be having its biggest impact in societies, like Australia, societies that are moving through the transition from a Christendom settlement, into a time that perhaps might best be labelled, if provisionally, post-Christendom. Their argument is driven at least in part by a reaction against a memory of the close connection of church and state, and the violence and terrible compromises that resulted from that connection.

The very public polemics of theses “new atheists’ have produced a range of responses, some of which offer entertaining and invigorating reading, and vigorous intellectual argument, in about equal proportions.

A highly significant contribution has come from Terry Eagleton with his rambunctious Terry lectures, Reason Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale University Press, 2009), a guaranteed page turner, with a take no prisoners edge to its aggressive, intellectual Irish night at the pub rhetoric. Possibly more substantial in the detail of its argument is the work by David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009), which offers by contrast to Eagleton a rather more grace-full and elegantly written historically informed demolition of many of the assertions made by Hitchens and Dawkins about the ills arising from Christianity’s impact on the world during the past two thousand years.

I won’t be attempting a comprehensive or comparative review of both books. Rather I want to unpack one particular and profoundly important theme that is central to the case that both authors want to make.  In identifying this point of common concern I was helped to focus on it by Shane Claiborne’s account of his experiments in practicing the Christian faith under the title The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an ordinary radical that I was reading around the same time as Eagleton and Hart.

Having taken the risk of rhetorical overkill in the title of his book, it transpires that Claiborne has strong support for his assertion of the revolutionary character of the Christian movement from both Eagleton and Hart.

Before proceeding to outline their respective accounts of the Christian revolution and its moral and political significance, I want to draw attention to one other strongly shared judgment by Bentley and Eagleton, in their response to the current wave of atheist critics of Christianity. They have in common the conviction that the quality of atheist criticism of Christianity has sadly declined from days of yore, or at least the time of Nietzsche. The current crop of critics are, in their view, embarrassingly ill informed, if not down right incompetent, in the case they make against “religion” in general, and Christianity in particular.

Eagleton in taking this stance, I need to emphasis, is not writing from inside the Christian movement, though we was exposed to it  through Irish Catholicism when growing up and engaged with liberation theologians during his university years. What Christian doctrine teaches about the universe and the fate of man may, he admits, not be true, or even plausible. The issue of truth he says is not the question immediately at hand.  The matter at hand for him is one of the ethics of controversy, how the argument is advanced. The case against critics such as Dawkins and Hitchens, referred to by Eagleton collectively as “Ditchkins”, is that they have failed morally and intellectually in the way they have prosecuted their case. … Critics of the most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.

Eagleton it must be acknowledged has had Dawkins in his sights for some time, as his review of the God Delusion in the October 2006 issue of the London Review of Books makes perfectly clear. The Terry lectures evidently gave him the excuse and the space that he was looking for to make his case out at greater length.

Hart strikes a similar note in his judgement of the current crop of atheist polemics: I can honestly say that there are many forms of atheism that I find far more admirable than many forms of Christianity or of religion in general. But atheism that consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism. (4) Hart too has had his eye on the “new atheists” for some time. His review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon entitled “On the Trail of the Snark with Daniel Dennett” displays the same characteristics of articulate prose and intellectually substantial critique.

But having digressed again, the temptation to quote and quote again from both Hart and Eagleton on the inadequacies of the “new atheists argument, is almost totally irresistible, so clear, forceful and entertaining is their prose, I must delay no longer in addressing the puzzle of why it is that the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton and the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart have arrived at a point, if not of furious agreement, then have moved into reasonable proximity around a judgement about the revolutionary character of the Christian movement, and its impact on the way we in modernity, (or is it post-modernity?), still engage with the world. 

Eagleton moves very early in his lectures to make his case against the new atheists on the grounds of Christianity’s revolutionary character. His line of argument is of particular interest because it does not rest on letting Christianity in its actually existing manifestations throughout history off for its failures. The case he wishes to make does not provide an apologetic for the failures of the Christian church. Eagleton after all begins the first paragraph of his book with the observation that, Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. (xi)

In a fascinating on-line review in Salon Andrew O'Hehrir observes of Eagleton’s opening gambit: That's quite a start, especially when you consider that the point of Eagleton's "Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate" … is to defend the theory and practice of religion against its most ardent contemporary critics. ...

While it is, as O’Hehir observes, quite a start, Eagleton is only warming up. In Chapter 2 “The Revolution betrayed” he observes that Far from refusing to conform to the powers of this world, Christianity has become the nauseating cant of lying politicians, corrupt bankers and fanatical neocons, as well as an immensely profitable industry in its own right . . . The Christian Church has tortured and disembowelled in the name of Jesus, gagging dissent and burning its critics alive. It has been oily, sanctimonious, brutally oppressive and vilely bigoted. (56)

Despite the record of betrayal, a record that
Eagleton acknowledges has been matched in actually existing Communism, he proceeds to suggest that atheism of a certain character, and politically engaged Christian orthodoxy that takes the call of Jesus seriously might not be that far apart. After all Christians in the Roman empire were regarded as atheists.

According to Paul Vallely in his review of Reason, Faith and Revolution in The Independent Eagleton is clear that the …  history of religion is "a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology." Just as communism has misunderstood Marx, he argues, so the Church has betrayed Christ by backing an establishment of warmongering politicians, corrupt bankers, and exploitative capitalists for centuries. The Jesus of the gospels, he insists, was as radical a revolutionary who took the side of "the scum of the earth". The love he offered was as transformative as true socialism.

Andrew O'Hehir points us in the same direction when he observes later in his review, You can almost hear the steel chairs creaking as the last secular liberals rise to depart when Eagleton declares where his true disagreement with Richard Dawkins lies, which does not directly concern the existence of God or the role of science. "The difference between Ditchkins and radicals like myself," he writes, "hinges on whether it is true that the ultimate signifier of the human condition is the tortured and murdered body of a political criminal, and what the implications of this are for living."
What Eagleton is saying here is that in the crucifixion of Jesus we have an ultimate account of what it is to be human, and that this is where the revolutionary character of the Christian movement is grounded.
In his review of Hart, Stefan Beck argues that explore Gr_arrow_down
Top of Form
. . . [Nietzsche] had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was--above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion--rather than allow himself the soothing, self-righteous fantasy that Christianity’s history had been nothing but an interminable pageant of violence, tyranny, and sexual neurosis. He may have hated many Christians for their hypocrisy, but he hated Christianity itself principally on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased; and, because he was conscious of the historical contingency of all cultural values, he never deluded himself that humanity could do away with Christian faith while simply retaining Christian morality in some diluted form, such as liberal social conscience or innate human sympathy." (Liberation theology” in The New Criterion)

Hart makes a similar case to Eagleton for the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus, though he makes the case from inside the Christian movement and argues at some historical depth of the extent to which Christianity has changed the way we understand what it is to be human. This practice of humanity in Hart’s view has profound moral implications that have gradually worked themselves into the way we understand the world and its sufferings.

Hart argues that, [W]e shall never really be able to see Christ’s broken, humiliated, and doomed humanity as something self-evidently contemptible and ridiculous; we are instead, in a very real sense, destined to see it as encompassing the very mystery of our own humanity… . Obviously, of course, many of us are capable of looking upon the sufferings of others with indifference or even contempt. But what I mean to say is that even the worst of us, raised in the shadow of Christendom, lacks the ability to ignore those sufferings without prior violence to his or her own conscience. We have lost the capacity for innocent callousness.

To follow through Hart’s account as to the depth and significance of the Christian revolution for our understanding of what it is to be human would require a substantial essay in its own right. I need to emphasis that what Hart offers is no easy apologetic to justify or to dismiss the profound failings of the Christian church. The changes that its has brought have only worked there way through our institutions and culture gradually and over a long period of time. Nevertheless he wants to insist the changes are real and profound, they are an interruption, the full significance of which it is hard for us to understand for those of us who now stand on the other side of that interruption. Eagleton provides a helpful account of why such interruptions are significant with reference to the work of the French philosopher Alan Badiou (see pages 117-119 of Reason Faith and Revolution)

In the first few centuries of Christian witness the gospel was regarded by the intellectuals of the time and those holding positions of power throughout the Roman empire, as an outrage. Christians were enemies of society, impious, subversive and irrational. … for advancing the grotesque and shameful claim that all gods and spirits had been made subject o a crucified criminal from Galilee – one who had during his life consorted with peasants and harlots, lepers and lunatics. This was far worse than mere irreverence, it was pure and misanthropic perversity; it was anarchy. (115)

Christianity did not preach a message of liberation from the flesh. This crucified criminal in his death and resurrection, body and soul, was associated with a proclamation of the goodness of creation, the transfiguration of the flesh and the glory of creation. Hart develops this account against a detailed rebuttal of accounts of a cheerful paganism but of a despondent society full of religious yearning in which the dominant spiritual movements sought an other worldly release. (144-5)

The Christian difference was found in the placement of charity at the centre of the spiritual life. It raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick and the poor to the centre of the religious life. In the third century the bishop had substantial responsibilities for social welfare. His duties encompassed responsibility for the education of orphans, aid for poor widows and purchase of firewood and food for the destitute. According to Hart however this is only to touch the surface of the difference between Christianity and the older religions of the empire.

The story of Peter weeping at his betrayal of Jesus is for Hart one of those moments that displays the difference Christianity has made. …in these texts and others like them we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visiblity, arguably for the first time in our history : the human person as such invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity and possessed of an infinite value. It would not even be implausible that our very ability to speak of “persons” as we do is a consequence of the revolution in moral sensibility that Christianity brought about. (167)

The form of God and the form of the human person according to Hart has been revealed … to them all at once, completely then and thenceforth always in the form of a slave. (182)

The account Hart develops of the revolutionary character of Christianity connects to his recognition of the power of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and the significance of what it would mean to reject Christianity and its view of the human. In an article “Believe it nor Not” published in the theological journal First Things, (May 2010), Hart states that, Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?

… on the sheer strangeness, and the significance, of the historical and cultural changes that made it possible in the first place for the death of a common man at the hands of a duly appointed legal authority to become the captivating center of an entire civilization’s moral and aesthetic contemplations—and for the deaths of all common men and women perhaps to be invested thereby with a gravity that the ancient order would never have accorded them.

One does not have to believe any of it, of course—the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth. But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross, for what it is, in the full mystery of its historical contingency, spiritual pathos, and moral novelty: that tender agony of the soul that finds the glory of God in the most abject and defeated of human forms. Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Waging Nonviolence

Some extracts from a recent sermon at Canberra Baptist, Waging nonviolencel by Thorwald Lorenzen, reminded me of how central to the heart of Jesus' call to discipleship, this practice is.The full sermon is available, in both audio and transcript at the above link on the Canberra Baptist website. The following extracts get to the heart of the matter:
... the grand narrative of our faith is unambiguous and clear: in a violent world, Jesus introduced a new way of being: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God!"
The early Christians followed Jesus in that. For the first three hundred years Christians refused military service and tried to live nonviolently. But then, in the 4th century, when the church became interlocked with the Roman government, the church also became involved with war and violence.
While acknowledging the failure of the church we should, Thorwald argues, move to a way of being where nonviolence, rather than violence, is the default position. The Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes do not call for a passive approach to engagement with the world.
A commitment to nonviolence in a violent world is not weakness but strength. It means marching out of step with the ways of the world. It invites us to swim against the stream. A commitment to nonviolence does not mean being passive or withdrawing from responsibility for life. Nonviolence must be pursued. It must be actively lived. It must be waged!
... On the basis of the resurrection of the Crucified One, we may therefore speak of nonviolence as God's way of being....On that basis we can affirm in a world of war and violence, that peacemakers are the children of God. We can confess in a world where political, economic and military power seems to dictate what is right and what is wrong, that ultimately the meek will inherit the earth.
 How then can we live this new way of being?
May I remind you that we have already done so. With our faith in Christ and our baptism into his sphere of influence we have been born to a new way of living. We only need to remind each other what this new way of living is, otherwise we easily fall back into the old ways of violence.

Intentionally with our prayers, our words and our actions we can tune in to the new consciousness of letting Christ rule our lives. We shall then be kind with each other, we shall walk softly on the earth, and we shall seek new and nonviolent ways to deal with human conflicts.
We need to examine and unmask elements in our thinking about God and the church to see whether violence has crept into our language and thoughts. Whatever we think and do, it must be an echo to the central Christian confession that "God is love" and that God is the “God of Peace”.
We can encourage our churches and our government to contribute to the United Nations Millenium Development Goals. The reduction of poverty and injustice and the empowerment of the oppressed are more effective antidotes to terrorism than the ever turning spiral of violence. 
There is no better way to end than to remember the words from the prophets Isaiah and Micah that are hewn into the United Nations Headquarters in New York:
"They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more."


Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Occupy, St Paul's and why the church needs a radical reformation

Responding to the contortions of the Church of England, and the dominant media narrative that Occupy LSX is a "disaster" for the Church as a result of the troubles at St Paul's Cathedral, my good friend Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, has drawn attention to the theological and ecclesiological issues at stake. Simon observed that:
Actually, Occupy LSX has also presented an unprecedented (some would say God-given) opportunity for the established Church radically to reconsider its mission and message in a plural society. The church needs to seize the chance to move from failing attempts at top-down control based on historic patronage, towards dynamic engagement with those at the grassroots and on the margins of an unequal and uneasy social order.
The core Christian message is that, in Jesus Christ, God pitched a tent among human beings for the purposes of bringing about radical personal and social change based on love and justice. The 'vertical church' of Christendom, emblemized by the remote, patronising and hierarchical response of the St Paul's management to a flowering of creative protest, is no longer 'fit for purpose' in a post-Christendom situation.
By contrast, Occupy, with its energy and imagination, is modelling a different possibility for the church. The institutions of Christianity need to be remade from the edges inwards. They need to be turned inside out.