I’m a long-standing member of that most disreputable club: The People Who Think C.S. Lewis Is An Under-Appreciated Genius. I suppose I should do my bit by filling the internet up with some more kilobytes of Lewis quotations.
The final lines of Chapter One of his criminally under-read The Abolition of Man is a fine argument in our favour. It is beautifully crisp writing, wonderfully and gently witty and it is also a summation of his argument. One might call the entire effect style, but “Jack” himself wouldn’t dare.
You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more “drive,” or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or “creativity.” In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the gelding be fruitful.
- C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 36-37.
How appropriate that paragraph remains for us, in our age of Much-Guff from Ted talks and Austerity economists, techno-solutionists and consumptive gurus.
Your Correspondent, Has a green ninja to help him do his hair swing
With a hat-tip to Brad Anderson at Mater Dei, here is a fascinating paragraph on the thicket of insanity that is contemporary Western evangelicalism from an article called “Prosper, consume and be saved” by Marion Maddox. Here, Maddox is discussing the Women’s Teaching provided by the Sydney pentecostal church-network Hillsongs. She is specifically addressing the teaching of one of their most prominent female pastors, Bobbie Houston.
It is a terrifying idea of what it means to be a Christian, utterly in thrall to oppressive concepts of gender, oppressing concepts of capitalism and nothing at all to do with Jesus of Nazareth; a drunk, a glutton and a convicted insurrectionist. That it is hugely effective on an evangelistic level is an ongoing mystery to me.
… Perhaps it’s most striking exposition is her CD set “Kingdom Women Love Sex,” reissued as She Loves and Values Her Sexuality. Christian wives should emulate advertisers’ standards of beauty, even resorting to plastic surgery “if it’s for the right reasons,” and certainly attending to diet and exercise: “Becoming a bit fitter could be advantageous to your sex life.” Nor is exercise merely cosmetic: “Girls, pelvic floor exercises. I have heard that orgasm is not as strong if you are really sloppy in that area.” The expressed goal is evangelism:
We need to be good at sex ourselves so that if the world happens to come knocking we can tell the story of God in our lives. … we can say, “I have a great marriage and a great sex life” – wink wink, nudge nudge. (Houston, 2004)
- Marion Maddox, “Prosper, consume and be saved” in Critical Research on Religion (2013: 1(1), 108-115.
Your Correspondent, Buy his new book, coming soon, “Pampering for Proselytism”
An hour ago I finished my time at Maynooth College by hopefully acing an exam on the Wisdom literature. It is a curiously anti-climactic feeling. I returned some books to the library. I went to the supermarket to buy food for dinner. I did another round of laundry and now I am having a cup of coffee before dispatching my massive pile of accumulated notes to the the recycling bin.
This is what a theology degree looks like:
The secrets of my success are:
- Attend lectures.
- Take notes.
- Actually read the Bible (hence a little TNIV and not the massive NRSV Study Bible that always gets recommended).
- Start essays when you get the titles.
- Don’t get caught for time in exams.
The most valuable book over the last few years in terms of college courses has definitely been Walter Brueggemann’s guide to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Brueggemann is the most readable Biblical scholar I have ever encountered. His readings are simultaneously deep, challenging and devotional. The value of this book has been not just in its excellent introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures but in the bigger picture way that it represents the formation of the Canon as an imaginative act in the past that determines the shape of our theological imagination in the present. At undergraduate level, this gets you out of a lot of tight corners, especially when it comes to writing essays and contributing to tutorials.
Your Correspondent, Like a Quaker in a strip club.
In a bizarre twist of reality, I have an article published in the wonderful and stupendous The Other Journal. It is all about Karl Marx, human rights and how Christians should engage in political discussion. Even more bizarre, it means I’m published alongside three of my theological heroes, Jason Goroncy, Luke Bretherton and Daniel Bell and the remarkably gifted author I keep telling you all to read, D.L. Mayfield.
Your Correspondent, Convenor of the association of Gay Witches For Abortion, so you wouldn’t be interested.
What Has Christmas Ever Done For Us?
I obviously don’t have the beard, vocabulary or learning of David Bentley Hart and so let me be oh-so-very tentative in suggesting that our culture has been impacted and shaped and formed by the celebration of Christmas.
And I don’t even mean the way that the festival is celebrated in the modern era where Christmas’ most significant social role is as a sort of consumptive pick-me-up for retail sales. If we go back even to a pre-commercialised Christmas, back to a time before a Coke-drinking Santa Claus rode a polar bear to get some elf-themed sexy underwear for his wife, back to a time when good, decent Presbyterians actually suspected the festival as a devious Romish plot.
What difference does it make to our culture that Christmas became the highpoint festivity of the year?
Of course, Easter is always the centre of the liturgical year and when Christians think straight, they take that to be much more important than the passing months named after Roman deities.
We could speculate that the content of the Christmas narrative informs certain base beliefs in cultures where it is regularly practised. For example, the idea of Incarnation does give a rather exalted status to human beings. What God becomes, God redeems. It may be a long and meandering river, but surely there is a chain stretching from the songs and prayers and parties of Christmas down to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
What The Hell Is Pentecost Anyway?
But what would our culture look like if the contingencies and coincidences and the million little factors that made Christmas so significant in Europe and America had actually fallen in favour of Pentecost?
Pentecost is one of the few major Christian holidays that has resisted commercialisation. If people can find a way to profit from a Jewish man being tortured and murdered by an expanding militant army, I have no doubt that the forces of Mammon could twist some dollars out of the strange stories found in chapter 2 of Luke’s book, the Acts (of the Holy Spirit). Pentecost marks the end of the seven weeks of Easter. And it is a very strange story.
The scene begins with the followers of Jesus still huddled in groups, scared presumably of further recriminations for their allegiance to this false prophet Jesus. Suddenly, a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven (which doesn’t mean “from the sky” but from out of a different realm of reality entirely) and this force somehow fills the hideout they are occupying. They begin to speak, but in all the languages of the world.
The Jewish festival of Shavuot (Pentecost is from the Greek word for 50th since it marks the 50th day since Good Friday but Shavuot marks the seven weeks from Passover) was in full force outside. Diaspora Jews and God-fearing Gentiles were all over the city and the followers of Jesus went out to preach to them, emboldened by this heavenly force. As they spoke, the words that came out of their mouth were from the languages of the people who heard them.
Luke, with his typical openness, admits that the crowd were amused and mocked the apostles, declaring that they were drunk.
Then Peter stood up. And from this point onwards in the narrative of the first generation of the church, Peter remains a key figure. Peter stands up and answers the mocking voices with a response so pragmatic and true to what we know of him that it must be authentic: “These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!”
He addresses the crowd, recapitulating the entire story of Israel as if it climaxed in those blood drenched activities at Golgotha 50 days before. He makes this audacious argument that what the crowd were now seeing was the long awaited fulfilment of all Israel’s hope. The Spirit of God had come upon him and his allies. And if the Spirit had come, there must be a Messiah. And if Peter and his allies have the Spirit of God and are followers of Jesus then that means that Jesus is the Messiah. And if Jesus is the Messiah, then that means that God must have somehow, mysteriously, willed the crucifixion. And if God willed the crucifixion, then the crowd must listen again to these claims of resurrection. And if the Messiah has been resurrected, has been crucified, has actually come among them and they missed him, then they must make amends.
Luke compresses this drama into a simple phrase:
“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart.”
They ask Peter what they must do and Peter responds with words that are still used by Christians today:
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
About three thousand people, claims Luke, accepted that invitation that day.
What If Pentecost Were The Central Festival?
So much for Pentecost.
But if the accidents of history that meant that Christmas took up such a disproportionate part of our imagination had actually placed Pentecost at the high point of our holidaying, would our culture look differently?
We always have to ask what is happening under the surface of any Biblical text. These texts were composed in conversation with what had come before. And an attentive reading of Acts 2 as Scripture would lead us to the conclusion that Luke is suggesting that seven weeks after Jesus was crucified, at a particular point in a square in Jerusalem, the curse of Babel was undone.
You remember Babel. It is one of those early Bible stories. It is one of those stories that has echoes in the mythologies of surrounding cultures. Technically it is an etiological tale, a mythological explanation for how the many different languages of the world arise.
Statistically, if you read a blog about the tale of the Tower of the Bable, you are likely to be reading some angry internet atheist decrying the fact that this can’t actually literally have happened. Yes, yes. And so what?
The Tower of Babel remains one of the most profoundly accurate stories we tell because it says that the differences between people groups are caused by our proud desire to be dominant.
And at Pentecost, what we are told is that the first thing that happens after Jesus ascends to sit at the right hand of God, as Lord of the Cosmos, is that the pride that separates one people from another is undone.
The rabidly nationalistic rural Jew Peter stands up and speaks in the languages of defilers and polytheists and pig-eaters. Christianity doesn’t begin by exalting the supremacy of the culture from which it arose. Christianity begins by subverting its culture of origin.
If Pentecost was the centre of our secular culture’s festive excess, nationalism would be a very difficult idea to uphold. Cultural supremacy would be constantly undone by the Pentecost carols we would sing. It is hard to build an empire if you begin by surrendering your rights to colonise.
I’m not trying to do proper theology here. Rather, I am just trying to draw out some of the ways that our cultural view will be impacted depending on which religious narratives gain our attention.
I suppose what I am trying to do is to think through Pentecost by attempting to sketch the way in which the body of Christian believers in a society invariably, unconsciously, tug a culture in a certain direction. When the wider culture follows that tug, regardless of how officially secular or theocratic they are, formative beliefs will drip down into the very essence of public action.
This has happened with Christmas. You can call it Festivus all you like but the suggestion that God would move into the neighbourhood has now penetrated into the core of the culture and that is a humanism that won’t be eradicated by rebranding or an avalanche of crass commercialism. (Corollary: Christians don’t ever need to worry about any “War on Christmas”.)
And if it had happened with Pentecost, the impact could have been greater still. The story that we tell on Sunday is very peculiar, very radical and very challenging. We should not let it pass as just another May morning.
Instead, with every fibre of our being we should pray:
Veni Sancti Spiritus, Come Holy Spirit, comforter, guest of the soul, consolation.
Your Correspondent, He thought we were going to be lighting spiders on fire.
On the way to my final exam in moral theology a stray thought crept into my head. It’s been a while since I have watched Groundhog Day so please remember I am working here from memory and I might want to take this back when I give it another goo and in that case you must never talk of this again.
But, Groundhog Day is the definitive Christian, even better, Biblical comedy.
I’ve probably made you like this wonderfully likable film just a little bit less as a result of that mere sentence but hear me out.
In Groundhog Day, Phil spends an eternity trying to achieve enlightenment. When he achieves it, he is rewarded with an escape back into the *real world*.
Most of our culture sees enlightenment as something that bring you escape from this world. Groundhog Day sees it as an escape into this world.
Within the film, the cosmic response to perfection is the resumption of everyday, ordinary, terrestrial life… only seen through entirely new eyes that are able to love. In other words, Groundhog Day is the wittiest introduction to the Gospel of John that you can ever find!
Your Correspondent, For your information, Hairdo, there is a major network interested in him.
The marks of human unrighteousness and ungodliness are crossed by the deeper marks of the divine forgiveness.
- Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 95.
Karl Barth was born on this day in 1886. If you are one of the few readers of this blog who aren’t theologically inclined, Barth may be a strange name to you. It is a funny thing, that the most influential theologian since the Reformation is still largely unknown, even within the church.
The story of Barth’s conversion to Christianity, if I can be so unapologetically and atrociously evangelical about it, has been told in many places, far better than I could. Broadly speaking, he was schooled in the finest theology of his day, which was German liberalism. He sat at the feet of scholars like Van Harnack, who had a cultural and political influence that it is hard to imagine any theologian possessing. The generation before him had, it was thought, successfully integrated the Enlightenment with German Protestantism and thus adapted Christianity to the realities of the world. Speaking with a tabloid anachronism that obscures more than it reveals, these boyos had out-flanked any potential new-atheist style attack on Christianity.
How they managed this is interesting, not just as a piece of intellectual history but because the lingering effect of such approaches can be found in all corners of Protestant Christianity, the liberal and conservative sides. In short, they build on the foundations of Schleiermacher who argued that religious experience was a domain beyond the objectively knowable on one hand and the mysterious unknowable on the other.
Barth drank deeply from this well. He was a brilliant scholar but he was gripped by the ability of the Gospel to bring about social change and so he took up parish ministry in the little Swiss town of Safenwil. Then in the summer of 1914 he opened up his newspaper to find that over 90 leading German intellectuals, including all his theological teachers, had signed a public declaration in support of Kaiser Wilheim II’s war policy.
That morning, Barth realised he did not know what he thought he knew. It seems it wasn’t until the summer of 1916 that he came to know what he needed to know. What happened in the interim was that, plunged beyond doubt, into a territory of chaotic uncertainty, he searched for some semblance of meaning in the ruins of the rational palace of the intellect he had inhabited. He found resolution in the most surprising of places: the Bible. It was a “strange new world to him.” Preparing for a sermon series he was due to deliver on Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, Barth had a series of epiphanies that in effect, constituted him as a new man. Since the World War had been declared, he was no longer confident of human reason. Now he was no longer lost in self-referential circles. What he discovered reading and re-reading Romans was that God was God.
God is God.
This sounds like a tautology. It is actually a revolutionary proposition. It was revolutionary in 1916 and it is revolutionary today. God is God. There is an infinite qualitative difference between God and man. Human reason cannot work its way up a ladder to find God. As Barth’s later student, Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, a God we can prove is an idol.
In other words, for all his genius as a preacher, Schleiermacher was spoofing. A strange warming of your heart is not evidence for God. A code of laws and a functioning society of people who get on well together and happen to sing hymns in a special building on Sunday mornings is not evidence for God.
Barth found language to take God seriously.
In 1918 his commentary on Romans was published. It dropped like a bomb on European theology. I was not brave enough to widely cite it when I sat in seminary classes on Paul’s writing. After all, the study of Paul has moved on magnificently since then. But when I preach on Romans it is my first book, well thumbed and heavily marked. It is dense and cyclical and startling.
God is God. Man is not God. But God is man. The heart of Barth’s theology is that in Jesus, God is revealed. Without Jesus, God is hidden. With Jesus, God is revealed as being for humanity. God gives the gift of himself to us. And in becoming man, Jesus brings all humanity into the life of God.
If you aren’t a Christian that might seem dense and meaningless. Arguably that is because we still live in a world ruled by the thought processes of Van Harnack. If you are a Christian it might seem obvious. Arguably that is because Barth has left his impact on every significant Christian theologian of the last century. If you are a theologian that might seem deficient and dreadfully shallow as a summation of Barth. Arguably that is because I am writing this off the top of my head while distracting myself from exam study!
After the Romans commentary, Barth was called into the university. He worked in Bonn and Gottingen and then back in his hometown of Basel. His major work is the Dogmatics. There is no way to over-state the importance of this work. Barth’s refusal to separate doctrine from ethics has simply redefined what theology is. His insistence that the revelation of God in Jesus through the Spirit is the subject matter of Christianity rebooted us out of the dead-end we had worked ourselves into. Barth leaves us with very little to say that is simple. But we had made a dreadful mistake when we imagined that Christianity was just the logical conclusion that a good man, well informed would arrive at.
Barth was one of the first to identify the demonic nature of the NAZI movement. He pretty much single-handedly wrote the Barmen Declaration, which continues to be of importance as Christians try to figure out how to relate to power. He was an invited guest at the Second Vatican Council and an influence on many of the key theologians who helped draft those documents. In the post war world he was a constant critic of nuclear armament, of Cold War disputes and a regular visitor to the local prison where he would preach on Sunday mornings and then hang out with the prisoners smoking cigars he brought with him. As the years go by, it is this angle of Barth that I appreciate the most – his theology is joyous and expansive and inclusive – and he said that this was because his theology was a theology of prayer.
So on Barth’s birthday, let us end with a prayer from Barth:
Dear Father in heaven, we thank you for the eternal, living, saving Word that in Jesus you have spoken and continue to speak to us human beings. Do not allow us to hear it only in a cursory fashion and to be too lazy to obey it. Do not let us fall, but remain near each one of us with your comfort, and between each one of us with your comfort, and between each of us and our fellow human beings with your peace.
Let dawn continue to break a little in our hearts, in this institution, at home with those who are dear to us, in this city, in our nation, and throughout the whole earth.
You know the errors and misdeeds that make our current situation once again so dark and dangerous on all sides. Let a fresh wind blow through it, that might at least scatter the thickest fog from the heads of those who rule this world, but also from the heads of the peoples who permit themselves to be ruled, and above all from the heads of those who make public opinion.
And have mercy on all of those who are sick in body and in spirit, the many for whom life is suffering, those who are lost and confused through their own or other’s fault, those who have no human friends or helpers. Show our youth also what true freedom and genuine joy are, and do not leave the old and the dying without the hope of the resurrection and eternal life.
But you are the first, who are concerned about our sorrows, and you are the only one who can turn them to good. We thus can and want only to lift our eyes up toward you. Our help comes from you, who made heaven and earth.
Your Correspondent, Just rubbed his armpits with air fresheners; new car.
WordPress won’t allow me to format quotes of dialogue from a play so instead allow me to present the relevant quote in an image:
Aidan Mathews, Exit/Entrance, p. 53. Itallics added.
The play Exit/Entrance was first performed in 1988. I have no idea when it was last performed. It is a play about love and marriage and hope and regret and death. And Hesiod. I wish I could see it live but until contemporary Irish culture wakes up to how simply terrific Aidan Mathews writing is, it is unlikely. Hauerwas’ First Law is: “You never marry the right person.” This interchange between Charles and Helen is a dramatic depiction of the truth of that law. It comes towards the end of the play, which is towards the start of their life together. It is wonderful. Marriage may be, depending on who you listen to (I don’t quite agree), a sacrament; an expression of God’s grace in time and space and material form. It is a heavenly thing, perhaps. But because of that (not in spite of that) it must be an earthly thing made on the ground upon which we stand and from the ground upon which we stand.
Your Correspondent, His favourite exercises are woodworking and sex
Right here in the prologue, let me give you my verdict:
This is a film you should track down and watch.
Especially if you are one of the very many Christians who read this blog: please, track down this movie, put your phone away, close over the laptop, draw the curtains, exile distraction and watch this film.
In the rest of what follows, spoilers (if such a term applies) will be shared so come back to read this after watching the film, if you’re the kind of person who thinks movies are ruined by being able to tell what comes next.
In our age, films involving priests as primary characters are rarely satisfying. They are sometimes very good but they usually involve two key character dynamics and one major over-riding point. The character tensions are: how hard it is for a principled individual to work under a hierarchy and how impossible it is to commit to celibacy. The major over-riding point of films involving priests tends to be anti-clerical. Priests are bad and worse, priesthood itself is bad.
In White Elephant you have the character tensions but you do not have the major over-riding point. This places it in a rare group of movies which includes the greatest film I’ve ever seen about vocation, Of Gods And Men, and the recently over-looked Malick movie, To The Wonder. White Elephant tells the story of two dear friends who happen to be priests. The older friend has brought the younger friend, recovering from injuries sustained in a largely undiscussed massacre in the Amazon where a colleague was martyred, to work with him in a massive Argentinian slum, based around the carcass of an unfinished, half constructed super hospital.
The film depicts three communities, interwoven together, overlapping and inter-penetrating. At the heart of the film is the community of priests, centred around Fr. Julian. It includes a volunteer named Cruz who teaches the boys of the favela practical skills, and a driven, compassionate social worker, Luciana, who is played brilliantly by Martina Gusman. These are people of faith* who are possessed by a missional purpose. They want to see the young people of the slum rise out of it. They want to see the dignity of the older people in the slum restored. They want to be enemies of no one. They pray together and they eat together. This is a rare, unflinching look at Christian ministry in community.
The second community the film records is the slum itself, the district of Villa Virgin. The depiction of the city is neither tuned to evoke a sentimental response nor used as a menacing piece of exotica. It is what it is – the result of human beings living close together. There are good things and bad things quite independent of the horrendous decay.
We might called the third community the “Enemies”, although the point of Fr. Julian and Fr. Nicholas’ work is that the people we want to blame must instead be embraced. So the State in the form of an obstructionist city council and a brutal police force are included in this number, as are the two rival drug gangs that vie for control of the district. The plot of the film is nothing more than the interaction of the three main character, Fr. Julian, Fr. Nichols and Luciana, with the different communities that make up Villa Virgin.
* The notes on the film from the Cannes Festival last year describe Luciana as an atheist. Unless I passed out at some point, this is never suggested in the film. In fact, prominently placed above her desk in her office is an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. One might speculate that this shines light on what faith means in a secular age. Many jump to a conclusion that because a character doesn’t appear in scenes where “devotion” occurs, we imagine that they must be irreligious. The underlying idea revealed in this assumption is that religious faith is a gloss that sits on top of a more primal, universally shared idea of what it means to be a human. Unless I missed some explicit signal somewhere, the reviewers** who have come to this “Luciana is atheist” conclusion are reading stuff into the film that isn’t actually there in a way that allows us to read out of their reviews a lot about the hidden assumptions of our age.
** One could further speculate that the critical dullness elicited by To The Wonder is also at work in responses to White Elephant. An idea of faith as a set of outmoded metaphysical commitments that some people have and that might possibly be of social benefit in some settings can be found again and again (good example here). This is a serious journalistic deficit. Imagine how crippled a film reviewer would be if they believed politics was nothing more than elections?
The film does fall into the trap of nodding towards the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church as an obstacle to the ministry being carried out. However, this nod is restrained. Fr. Julian and his team seek to work under the authority of their bishop. This is at times frustrating. The depiction of hierarchy is still negative, but it is viewed realistically.
The film also falls into the trap of depicting celibacy as almost impossible. This is a pity. But the way that it is done is wonderful, if just taken for what it is. Fr. Nicholas doesn’t fall out of celibacy because celibacy is a horrendous burden, but because friendship is desirable. The sex scene and subsequent relationship scenes that ensue are actually profoundly touching because what is communicated is the hunger for the other, not in some tacky counterfeit idea of a physical urge that can’t be resisted but in the sense of an attraction to the beauty of the other self. Falling out of celibacy is not a torturous existential crisis so much as a thing that happens because he loves his friend and desires her and she him. It is not a deficit in the path he is walking but a surplus in her beauty that possesses him. The falling out of celibacy creates internal contradictions but it doesn’t destroy his vocation.
The reason why I want my Christian friends to watch this film is threefold. Firstly, it is a very good, gripping, thought provoking drama. It is superbly acted, it is restrained, it is interesting. These are rare and good things.
Secondly, the film is an informed attempt to show us what it means to do Kingdom of God work embedded in a community. The protagonists are embedded in their community of faith but they live and dress and speak like the community that makes up the favela. Christians mis-use the word incarnational when they are describing this kind of work. What White Elephant offers us is a depiction of what this kind of community based ministry should look like. It is representational, not incarnational. Worship and mission and social justice work are not segmented. It is integrated. This film manages to do all this without being in any way propagandistic.
Thirdly, the film shows us what our right stance should be towards politics, power and the State. We do not resist the State, any more than we seek to resist the drug dealers. We neither want the State overturned nor see that as our job, regardless of how unjust it is. Equally, we neither want the drug dealers extinguished nor see that as our job, in spite of the damage they inflict. Rather we witness to the State that we are citizens of a different Kingdom. The Argentine flag is a recurring motif in the film. Everyone except Fr. Nicholas is Argentinian and his Belgian origin is much discussed because to be foreign is to be strange. But the Christians in this film demonstrate in their words and their deeds that they are holding the State we call Argentina to account by the standards of the in-breaking Kingdom of God, which is their true home and the entity to which they owe allegiance. If that higher allegiance means they must shelter those that the law of the land deem criminal, then so be it. If that higher allegiance means that they must seek to restrain violence against the State even when they wish they could lash out, then so be it. If that higher allegiance calls them to martyrdom, then so be it.
Final point: The soundtrack kicks in with some stirring stuff at important moments.
Your Correspondent, A cool name for his dog would be “Bark Obama”
I had coffee with a scholar buddy, BA, earlier this week. As two people fairly committed to Christians getting on well together, we got to talking about ways in which different Christian traditions have different strengths. I suppose we were playing a sort of Denominational Top Trumps, where us evangelicals were very good with handling the Bible and Catholics are very good at prayer and the Church of Ireland is very good at showing up at wine receptions hosted by powerful people.
I apologise to my Anglican readers. I obviously still have a lot of work to do within myself in Foundational Ecumenism.
Our conversation touched briefly on a curious aspect of Catholic teaching which appears to Catholics to be very wonderful and appeared to us to be very problematic. The specific aspect is the Catholic tendency to have a view on everything. Presbyterians or Pentecostals can’t have a view on everything because the “official line” in those traditions and traditions like them is so diffuse that it is a wonder they manage to have a view on anything. What is simply impossible for Presbyterians seems to be irresistible for Catholics.
The existence of an authorised teaching office means that the Pope has words to say on world peace, on evolution, on condoms as well as on you know, the Resurrection. In Ireland today there is a fascinating story that can be pointed to by considering a couple of vectors. Firstly there is the decline of Catholic practice in the country. Secondly you need to chart the increase of people who want to declare themselves in some serious way as “non-religious”. But the final line it would be great to have some way to chart is the large batch of people within the first group that still consider themselves Catholic in more than some kind of weird political-national identity way.
In other words, Ireland is for a short time going to remain among the most Catholic countries in the world as measured in terms of attending mass and going to confession and baptising babies. But soon a tipping point will be reached where there are more people who do not participate regularly in the worship and practices of the Roman Catholic Church than that do. And the thing none of us can make sense of yet is that there will still be a Catholic majority in the country because a huge number of Catholics are Catholics in rebellion.
There are competing ways of explaining this. My hardcore Catholic friends in seminary would just say that if you don’t follow the Magisterial teaching and perform the sacramental aspects of the religion you can’t call yourself Catholic. There are hardcore atheist friends on the internet who would trot out an equally blunt and equally simplistic argument that this just represents the inexorable march of reason and progress, which requires the dimming and then extinguishing of all religious light. There is a third approach that BA and I were trying to work out. It would basically involve the Catholic church taking back some of the things it has said.
Specifically, I think that if they found a way to take back Humanae Vitae and redescribe why Catholics are asked to be suspicious of contemporary sexual morality as it is presented today, then a huge gulf between the official church and the (non) practising believer on the ground would be closed. Of course, we might just be Protestants who don’t understand how Rome works here but we were struck with relief that as leaders in churches we would never have to offer a systematic and complete position on how every married couple should approach their family planning. Of course, we might be foolish enough and arrogant enough to propose such a system but we would be shot down in our hubris by the sheer fact that our congregations would ignore us.
It seems to me that if a theologian or pastor outlines a moral theology that simply cannot be lived out in the real world, that would be a pretty sure sign that the moral theology is deficient. I am not saying that our theological ethics ought to be shaped by the prevailing norms of the culture we live in. Rather, I am trying to remember that Christianity is a liberation movement. The teaching we advocate is counter-cultural and it will get into fights with other systems and approaches and it will be difficult and require worshipping, virtue-forming communities to sustain it. But if your teaching is almost universally ignored and in effect discredits your doctrinal teaching, your Gospel preaching and your worshipping, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
But when you have set yourself up as the Teaching Office, then going back on yourself is a tricky task.
Often in the last year I have had cause to reflect on how common it is that I need to take my words back. In the past, I have stuck my foot in my mouth with alarming regularity. I think that a year filled with more pastoral work and preaching in a range of different churches and the humbling effect of living life in the complexity of the world that I live in has made me far less likely to shoot from the hip (to use a phrase I despise because it is almost always an insult hidden as a word of wisdom). Even when I do, I know I can declare fallibility and without hesitation change my mind (which is after all, a literal description of what the word “repentance” means).
As a preacher I take 1 Peter 3:11 very seriously: ” If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.” The bit of that hard sentence that gives me the comfort and solace needed to keep preaching is “do so as one” who speaks with divine authority. That “as one” is an aspiration and a stance and an attitude. It doesn’t assure me of infallibility. The responsibility of being a teacher in the church is grave and we should aim to speak with prophetic and revelatory force. But in our private life and in our public ministry, how delightful it is to be able to take back what we’ve said.
Your Correspondent, Can do more with one foot than most people can with three.