Category Archives: Church

Church, theology

What’s Unity Got To Do With It?

My friend Conor McDonough is a ferociously smart Dominican. It is Christian Unity week and so, he recently asked me and a bunch of his friends who are not in communion with Rome, what our traditions made of 2 Corinthians 5:14-20, which is the passage of Scripture we are all meant to reflect on this week. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that God has given “us the ministry of reconciliation” which prompted Conor to ask:

So, a question for my Orthodox and Protestant friends: what does this phrase mean in your traditions, and what does the ministry of reconciliation look like today in your communities?

I can’t speak for the entire Reformed tradition, but I can allude to the two major figures in our family tree. John Calvin declares in his commentary that “Here we have an illustrious designation of the gospel, as being an embassy for reconciling men to God.” In unpacking this verse, it is clear that Calvin reads it as a message to the leaders of churches. “Ministers are furnished with this commission” and “when, therefore, a duly ordained minister proclaims in the gospel, that God has been made propitious to us, he is to be listened to just as an ambassador of God.”

In the context of church unity it is important to note that already, a generation into the Reformation, its key intellectual leader no longer feels a need to justify his (or his readership’s) status as a minister of God. Once they made the break, they broke.

Karl Barth takes up a similar note in Church Dogmatics (§19 is where I’m focused but the other references all sync closely to what I write here), where he considers what can be discerned about the apostolic vocation from this passage. Barth doesn’t read it as a message directed to leaders in particular, but to every Christian who might have business sharing the good news (all Christians, for old Karl). The reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ is one side of a coin, the other side is our ministry of reconciliation. So, for Barth, when a Christian proclaims the Gospel – which at base must be concerned with the gracious and costly redemption of humanity achieved by Jesus – their words have potency only to the extent that the Spirit speaks through us.

Admittedly this is a very brief overview of only two figures, but it is probably extensible across Reformed thinking generally: this text is read as being about soteriology. Verse 14 talks of Christ’s love and his sacrifice, which continues into verse 15. Verse 16 describes the epistemological transformation that follows from conversion. Verse 17 stretches that subjective transformation out to the objective, eschatological hope that we all await. So when Calvin and Barth reach verse 18, their Presbyterian DNA is exposed, as they see it as a reminder that whatever authority a Christian teacher might have is always rooted in God’s graciousness.

How does that answer Conor’s question? I think that it presses Presbyterians to remember the precarity of our ecclesial position. By our own lights we are meant to be temporary. We cannot assume that our generation still has reason to exist because the previous generation did. We are not authorised to engage in this ministry of reconciliation through our good intentions, impeccable logic, or the achievements of our forefathers and mothers. Our tradition, both in broad theological brushstrokes and detailed historical detail, emerged as a corrective for a church that had, in many ways, gone down several dead-ends. “Back to the sources!”, they shouted in Geneva. “Reject no light!”, they declared. But they maintained their commitment to the church catholic. In the Scriptures or in the Patristic mothers and fathers, no church outside that universal church can be found, and the desire to see that universal church in unity should be perpetually stoked.

But if unity is to flourish, it will blossom from Jesus. This is both a challenge to the Presbyterians like me who relish praying with other Christians and a comfort to the Presbyterians who can be commonly found around Ireland who are hesitant to enter into church unity activities. It is a challenge to me because no ecclesial creativity can generate unity. It is a comfort to my friends who are more exclusionary because they have no need to fear a slippery slope of manipulation. The ministry of reconciliation we are charged with in verse 18 is embedded inside such a payload of phenomenally explosive, Christ-centred theology, that we can never imagine that making the church one is a human act. We can do a bang-up job of shattering church unity on our own, but we need the Spirit if it is to be repaired. God’s reconciling action is always prior to our efforts.

So that is a quick attempt to answer the first part of Conor’s question. For Presbyterians, the reconciliatory meaning of 2 Cor 5:14-20 is, unsurprisingly, that God is radically sovereign and free, rampantly gracious, and utterly trustworthy when it comes to making peace. He makes peace with us and that makes us peacemakers on his behalf, but never on our own authority.

It leaves the last part of Conor’s question unanswered. My honest sense – admittedly from a few hundred miles away in north east Scotland – is that the ministry of reconciliation, from a church unity perspective, is only embraced in patches. There remain many in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland who are fearful of church unity efforts. There is a vocal margin that actively suspect that ecumenicism is a watering-down of Gospel clarity. They argue, with strong reasoning, that many of the dead-ends of the Reformation era have not been renovated and now we have Protestant liberalism to battle with as well. Then there is a bigger slice of ministers and leaders so busy with keeping things ticking over that they never have the time to reflect on and prayerfully commit to church unity. They are inclined, instinctively, towards embracing their brothers and sisters from other traditions but they have hospital chaplaincy duties and funerals, youth groups on Tuesday and homegroups on Wednesday and Presbytery duties on Thursday and on and on until they collapse on Sunday night exhausted and baffled at how so beautiful a job as ministry ends up being so bitty. Then there are people and places where church unity is taken very seriously. Steve Stockman at Fitzroy is an obvious example, as is Keith McCrory in Maynooth.

Approved

The nature of the Presbyterian church structure means that there is unlikely to be a centralised, unified, solitary approach to unity anytime soon. I recognise that that appears ludicrous on the surface. We have designed it so that we can have no structural unity on the question of unity! There is no Presby-Lutheran council who can approve a particular approach to ending/healing/completing [delete where appropriate] the Reformation. But there is a beautiful theological commitment hidden in that stubborn stance. Unity will come about, maybe faster than we dare to believe. And when it does happen, we won’t be able to claim any credit for it.

Your Correspondent, It’s like words are his second language

Church, Society

The Only Position To Hold Is None At All

7 thoughts and a conclusion about the hot topic of the week, that will actually continue to be a critically important topic even after magazines stop talking about it next week.

1.
Christianity can be sorted into all sorts of different buckets. You can parse it by era (apostolic – early – medieval – and so on), place (east and west and the east beyond Russia and the south and the Mediterranean versus northern Europe and Celtic versus Roman and on and on), institutions (a denominational approach), or theologically, liturgically, doctrinally, or how much the priests like getting dressed up in silly clothes.

Having done this, the one thing you can’t do is go out on to the street or down to the church building and actually find the taxonomy you have described. In the Presbyterian church where I discovered that God had indeed charged my baptism with more than water and a chance for a knees-up, devout Roman Catholics would take a seat, eager to hear the Word preached, having come from mass. My pentecostal buddy here in Aberdeen has the deepest sense of creedal liturgy. I could go on.

The point is: there are theological reasons to reject theological abstractions.

***

2.
There is a certain strand of theological ethics that is enamoured with order. You can find thinking of this sort through the eras and in all the places and institutions, as well as all over the theological and liturgical and doctrinal spectra. With such a theology you can sort things in ways that can be very useful. You can sort political power out from ecclesiastical power. You can sort nature from supernature. You can sort man from woman. And the ability to make these distinctions from what is called “created order” can give a structure to the apparent anarchy of our shared lives.

This strand of theological ethics is often very well liked by people with status.

***

3.
In many places in the West today, Christians are commonly scared. Their churches continue to empty. Their balance sheets are thinning. Their connections to power are weakening. All this encourages them to get caught up in a sorry story of the decline of their civilization, with important symbolic losses in courts and legislatures where abortion is decriminalised and gay marriage is legalised and the onward march of euthanasia is unstoppable. The order doesn’t seem to hold anymore, their arguments never seem to land, they sincerely worry about the human life being wasted in an increasingly atomised, consumptive society.

The instinctive reaction of people who find their hold is slipping is to try and grab it even tighter.

***

4.
Transgender issues have been discussed for decades but it seems that they are becoming more pressing in our public discourse. Undoubtedly this is because of the glossy media coverage of celebrities who are struggling with gender identity issues but it may also owe something to the way in which it is pitched as “the next big thing” for us to fight about after gay civil rights. You can leave such analysis aside, because the reality is that our conversation about transgender issues – whatever prompts for-profit media corporations to give it attention – is deeply significant for the many people afflicted with them who aren’t going to be on the front cover of Vanity Fair and don’t have the energy or resources to launch activist campaigns.

We have known for decades that this phenomenon existed and perhaps now we can pay it sustained attention.

***

5.
The default mode of the early 21st century person who lives in the Western world, when confronted by transgenderism, is to applaud the existential self-actualisation involved in coming out. As Hauerwas never tires of saying, we are the people whose story is that we have no story apart from the story we choose for ourselves. The problem with this, in the realm of gender dysphoria and in so many other realms, is that we are not our own. We come to discover our “I”, straightforwardly cis-gendered or in ways that are more complicated and fraught, in the midst of a “We”. The people we discover ourselves in the midst of have some real purchase on who we are.

Alongside the deep trauma of gender dysphoria for the one who suffers, there is trauma for those all around.

***

6.
The default mode of the early 21st century Christian who lives in the Western world, when confronted by transgenderism, is to lament how this condition destroys order. The categories are all messed up. The structures that we take for granted disintegrate and we are confronted with the troubling reality of the way everything we make falls. We construct these ways of being human; male and blue, and female and pink, one side taciturn and stoic and the other emotional and sensitive. And then they slide out of place and what can we do except groan in deep human empathy for those trapped inside this pincer movement of social construct and internal identity.

If the doctrine of the Fall cannot anticipate gender dysphoria, we are devastatingly under-estimating how far things fall.

***

7.
Then the smart, order-loving Christians reflect on all this and they notice that gender dysphoria expresses itself in the modes that are dominant in the culture. So the man who comes to identify as a woman buys into the tropes of femininity that are propogated by late-capitalism. This is how you end up with transgender celebrities in lingerie on the front of magazines. The stark order created by the binary of male and female has been challenged for so very long that when it gets challenged not as intellectual game but as the deepest form of existential angst, these Christian thinkers think they see a flaw. Equipped by a theological system that can find a place for everything, they describe those who are transgendered as sadly futile, a hollow parody of what our society mistakes for masculinity or femininity. This thinking holds that because their identity is so wafer-thin, the phenomenon can be disregarded. This is a grave mistake. It is disdain posturing as theology. There are internal incoherencies present in the accounts of those who are transgendered, in the same way that there are internal incoherencies in all our accounts of self.

In other words, of course gender dysphoria expresses itself in gender-normative terms, because the people suffering from gender dysphoria live in a gender-normed society!

***

Conclusion
The question raised by people who are transgendered is not a question about gender. It is a question about humanity. “Masculine” and “feminine” may be ideas that can be useful in some conversations. But like the taxonomies of Christianity, you’ll never encounter the taxonomies of gender out on the street, or down at the church building. You won’t even be sure to meet “man” or “woman”. You’ll meet people. With names they were given by their parents, and names that they took from their spouses, and names that they changed by deed poll to avoid abusive partners, or for a prank, or because of gender reassignment therapy. And the Scriptures tell us that none of these actual people even know their names. Jesus will reveal that to them when the time comes.

Christians are tempted by accounts of the world that promise order because in times of change, order promises stability. But Christians cannot be seduced by accounts of the world that do not begin with Jesus. The natural orders we locate in tradition, or culture, or science do not win our allegiance. The fully human one – who was biologically male but who took form in the womb of a biological female – is the one to whom we owe our allegiance. The fully human one is the one we turn to when we seek wisdom about what it is to be human.

People with gender dysphoria suffer immense trauma and stress. Their families do too. The weight of being this uncategorizable type in world obssessed with categories and in a species addicted to types is too much to bear. Suicide rates are so high as to constitute a crisis, with or without the incentive of celebrity interviews to drive the narrative.

Christians are tempted to take positions, aided by reasoning that seems solid because it is built off of orders that appear to be natural. If we find a firm place to stand, then we can start moving again. On this, as on so many issues, I plead with my friends to resist calcifying. We’re not really talking about the transgendered issue. We’re talking about people, people bearing an incredible weight.

Jesus is not a theological abstraction. He is not a container full of propositions that allow us to advance our piety or politics. Jesus is a man who lived a life paid for by women and who preached sermons about eunuchs. Gender identity (and indeed, for a conversation on a different day, sexual identity) is as native to Jesus as it is to you or I or Chelsea Manning. We don’t abstract Jesus’ humanity and break it into components that can be placed in little boxes. We don’t do that to ourselves. We should oppose doing it to others.

I realise I have written 1500 words to say “we don’t need to have a position”. So obviously that is my position. But that is not an evasion. It is theological stance that would train us to shut up long enough to learn how to listen. In shutting up, we might see there is reason to hope where we thought there was reason to fear. In listening we might hear the word of God break in and strip away our flimsy self-made personae as ordered people. Regardless, we will at least be close enough to make friends with people just as confused as we are about how to go on being human.

Your Correspondent, Broker than an old VCR

Church, Society

How To Bake A Gay Cake

Today in Northern Ireland, a civil court found in favour of a gay rights activist who brought a case charging a prominent bakery – Asher’s – with discrimination. Last year Gareth Lee had ordered a cake with Bert and Ernie on it and a slogan supporting gay marriage. Asher’s initially accepted the order but then two days later reneged on the deal, citing their Christian faith as the motivation for turning down the work.

I think this ruling is best described as asinine. The great risk of identity politics is that it will be reduced to the freedom to purchase our identity and in this instance, that seems to quite literally be at play. Whatever about the reaction of the people who brought this case and the people who defended this case, Mammon is delighted about the verdict.

But the over-riding impression that I have following this case is the sense I have had from the beginning. Something is very amiss about what Irish Christians seem to think is a public voice. The freedom to not make cakes is not a promising start for trying to enact a New Testament social witness. There are legitimate reasons to stress about how deep our concept of free speech is in such cases, but there are deeper concerns about how deep our concept of mission is (as well as legitimate concerns about cross-sectional discrimination against gay people!).

I am a reasonably skilled baker. I am a wizard with old bananas or a few carrots or a half finished box of malteasers. So let me share with you and any potential Christian bakers out there my recipe for Gay Cake.

    1. Take Mark 12:30-31 and reflect on the nature of neighbour love. Think how outraged many Christians would be if a prominent secular family of bakers outright refused to make Easter-themed cakes anymore. What does it now mean to love your neighbour as yourself?
    2. Add in Matthew 5:41 and consider how Jesus used the example of a genuine enemy to describe the social engagement of his followers. The audience of the Sermon on the Mount were Hebrews, oppressed in their homeland by the undefeatable and pyschopathic might of the pagan Roman Empire. The backstory to “walk a mile in their shoes” is the legal blank cheque that Roman soldiers had to humiliate and denigrate the local population. Even to chief enemies – the rapists of your women, the murderers of your sons, the thieves of your land, the insulters of your God – even to these should compassion be shown.
    3. Fold in Matthew 5:44 which tells you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Don’t go overboard here with whisking because the idea is so similar in texture to the previous one that it will just flow right into the mix. After all, if Christians in Ireland did have some genuine persecuting enemies, the clear and unavoidable teaching is that we should love them and pray for them. Loving them means contact with them and praying for them creates some sense of openeness and empathy for them.
    4. With these three ingredients ready to go, you now need to bake it for an hour in a kitchen. Consider the kitchen of Simon the Pharisee, or Zacchaeus the tax collector or the numerous places where Jesus engages in table fellowship with people whom he ought to stay clear of. The Pharisee is a particularly good case because on the surface, he is the kind of guy you want to have marry your daughter, so to speak. He is fine and decent and upstanding. But he judges Jesus for the way he welcomes the attentions of a disreuptable woman. Commentators down through the centuries have speculated that the woman was a prostitute. It seems the upstanding religious impulse has wanted to distance dinner parties from sexual immorality even before Belfast bakers said no to Ernie.

The New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg has a wonderful little book called “Contagious Holiness” about the way that Jesus used meals to both instruct his followers in his Way and to initiate the reality of that Way in his followers. If the ingredients of this gay cake are clear teachings of Jesus, the oven it is baked in are the many cases where Jesus transgressed both societal norms and the internal coherence of his own movement if he was just another religious guru selling enlightenment. He issues teachings with Godlike authority and then interprets them with Godlike audacity. He has no fear of contamination. He acts as if he is the one who is a contagion. The saltiness and the light that he represents gets passed around along with the bread-basket. He eats with anyone and everyone.

Christians should be the same way. The Ashers are sincere and obviously very committed to Christianity. They have the stamina and the cojones to back up what they say they believe. They are not bigots. They are not worthy of scorn. But I do think they missed an opportunity when they didn’t bake the Ernie and Bert cake. As one Christian to other Christians, I suggest there was a better way.

Our voice in the public square is no longer going to be about power. Our voice in the public square can no longer be about having friends in high places. Our voice in the public square should not be about how we have special rules for conducting our business affairs. Based on the specification of electoral politics, Christians will therefore be increasingly silent in the public square. This is very good news. When we stop speaking the language of power, people will finally get a chance to listen in on us as we worship the one who, forsaking power, triumphed over power, and killed death. He was hospitable even to death, he went as far as hell, he did this to set the captives free.

We can bake cakes for gay people, for capitalist people, even for Baptists. Jesus wants to welcome them all. We should too.

Your Correspondent, Has your cake and will eat it too

Church, Society

Theological Reasons For Not Imposing Theology On Our Laws

After demonstrating the patience that marks true friendship, by reading my 3,500+ word screed on theological stances towards marriage equality in Ireland, a dear friend asked me to elaborate on the theological reasons that we have for not imposing our theology on law.

Jesus and politics

I love questions that allow me to badly regurgitate ideas that Stanley Hauerwas has taught us.

But let me be brave and try to sketch this out without blatantly ransacking the old works published by my teacher and so exposing what another friend called, as if he was alluding to a B.O. issue, my “Anabaptist tendencies”.

I study wealth. This leads me to reading many books about capitalism and globalisation, markets and money. I have become reasonably competent at guiding people through the Christian tradition on how to engage with wealth. And I have noticed that thinking about the theology of having more than you need casts a great deal of light on thinking about other aspects of the Christian life. For one thing: when you get paid to read books about getting paid, you start to really notice how often Christians get agitated about, well, getting laid.

So Christians that I know and love and respect are very agitated about the idea of marriage equality but they are not really comparably concerned (at least by reference to their external acts) about wealth (in)equality. We want to maintain a legal framework that encourages our sexual ethic but we do not want to build a legal framework that encourages our wealth ethic.

Perhaps the reason is because we have no wealth ethic. We just have claims about God in one hand, and our day-to-day life with our bank account in the other, and the left doesn’t know what the right is doing and we are happy with that.

If that seems unfair, let me ask you when was the last time you deliberated on the nature of usury? When was the last time you heard a sermon about the dangers of usury? When was the last time a Christian got themselves invited on drivetime radio to debate with politicians about the futility and delusionary nature of societies constructed on usury?

Christians have reason, it would seem, to impose their views about usury on the world. The Bible is very clear. Usury is out of bounds. The people of God do not engage with it. They cancel debts. They forgive debts. They do not profit from debt. They were enslaved in Egypt, they are now liberated from enslaving others with fictional bonds.

Jesus on money-lenders

Laws progressively changed in post-Reformation Europe so that the concept of usury is now effectively meaningless for us in any legal sense. The failure of the British government to clampdown on parasites like Wonga demonstrates how in a critical contemporary ethical zone a basic Christian commitment has been so unlegislated as to be silent. The Archbishop of Canterbury rails against Wonga, but he is unusual in that. I have heard more Christians laud the welfare cuts, systemic underemployment, and brutal surveillance of David Cameron’s Satanically named “Big Society” than I have heard Christians offer quiet critique of 3000% APR rates.

So why do Christians not lobby for laws that limit (nevermind prohibit) usury?

There are two reasons, as I can see it. Both are pertinent. The first is that we cannot successfully get them passed. We’re better off putting our energy into realisable political goals – like getting funding for a huge educational tapestry that shows Jesus first fighting and then taming the raptors in Jurassic Park that once and for all teaches children the folly of Darwninism.

The second is that we cannot achieve what we want to achieve by passing such laws.

We have laws against murder because it is evident to everyone why murder is wrong. We do not have laws against usury (and soon gay marriage) because it is not evident to everyone why they are wrong. It is only because it was revealed to us that we claim that we should not establish industries that are predicated on profiting without reference to the success of our partners. Murder destroys civilisation. It is not evident that usury does. When we say usury is wrong (something few of us actually seem to believe), we are not just making a claim about licit financial transactions but making a claim about the very nature of reality.

Strip usury out of our society, without that transformation being embedded in a deep trust in the grace and covenant shared with us by the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and we will just find new and more devious ways to enslave each other. Unless we actually believe that God stands opposed to all our attempts at mastering others, boycotting usury will just be window dressing.

In the same way, living for generations in societies where gay people couldn’t get married didn’t create societies where people trusted and lived out the strange and upside-down logic of Christian sexuality.

So pragmatically we can’t pass these anti-usury laws we’ve never even thought about, because no one agrees with us. And on a deeper level, we can’t pass these anti-usury laws because they don’t achieve what we long to see.

This is not some secret anabaptist retreat from the public square. Rather, it is a theologically coherent position that arises from dwelling on what our theological vision for our communities actually looks like. Law limits excess. But the goodness of God is always in excess. Law is great for doing some things, like drawing lines for acceptable behaviour and arranging ways to fight with each other without resorting to pistols at dawn. But the Gospel pushes us over the lines into unacceptable behaviour and it is forever aligning us to love those we are logically meant to fight.

Other arguments can be offered. For example: one could read Hauerwas’ many references to Walter Rauschenbusch as a lesson in how successfully changing society for the better can still lead to Christian unfaithfulness. I could offer a theological argument for the value of tolerance, grounded in the doctrine of hospitality. Tolerance, remember, implies disagreement. But welcoming those we disagree with is central to who we are meant to be as people of the Eucharist. We could argue from history and consider the hellish place Ireland often was when Christians got to make up the laws to suit themselves.

But I think thinking about our failure to think about usury is a good way to approach this question because of how it implicates us. The things we fight for reveal the things we believe. Christians genuinely do want to see strong families and so on, and hence some people are very vexed about gay marriage. But the things we don’t fight for also reveal the things we believe.

Usury shows us that we don’t believe we can bring in the Kingdom by passing laws.

Your Correspondent, Would raise a white flag, but even that is too much participation

Church, Society

Five Equal Reflections On Marriage

*On How Strange Is The Collusion Between Christian Marriage And Civil Marriage*
One afternoon in 2004, I got two buses across Dublin with my girlfriend and knocked on the door of a nice house on a tree lined avenue. A harried, welcoming woman showed us into the living room, littered with the debris of an abandoned board game and we waited awkwardly for the man of the house to return. This he did, within minutes. He was bearded and friendly and he was prepared with a set of forms that we were to sign in his presence.

He was a Presbyterian minister. We wanted to get married. He was the Presbyterian minister designated with taking care of the marriage forms on behalf of the Presbytery. Those forms needed to be dispatched to a government office and arrive there not less than six weeks before the well spoken woman sitting beside me agreed to become Wife-unit.

I am sure I have friends in the Anglican churches who can make a strong argument that there is something gracious and meritous about the fact that our covenantal commitment to each other on our wedding day was so immersed in form filling. But ever since Henry VIII decided he wanted to have a religion of his own, God has had to maintain an office building in heaven. Anglicans are eternal bureacrats and they get bored in paradise if they don’t get to photocopy things and file them.

The rest of Christianity suspects that the excellence of marriage might be somewhat diminished by having to stop in the middle and apply for a tax write-off.

Administration

Why did we start doing this?

***

*On How Biblical Marriage Is About God, Not A Political Campaign*
The Bible is almost as long as the Harry Potter books. So it is impossible to isolate particular themes and elevate them to supremacy. There’ll always be contestation about interpretation. But I think a reasonable Christian summation is that the overarching story is about God and the God in question is whoever it was who raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.

I think it is also a reasonable bet that Christians, who worship that insistently particular God who took on flesh and dwelled among a few hundred people in a small village in the armpit of the Levant, tend to be suspicious of big overarching stories. They will want you to show them how that compressed movieposter summation works out. When you look inside the books, you find very often that the story works out along the plotlines of marriage.

This is why Christians fall into the trap of talking about Biblical marriage. There is so much of it! They say that Adam and Eve is the beginning, even though they definitely didn’t meet Rev. Alan Boal and get their papers processed. The subsequent chapters of Genesis are full of horrendous polyamory and misogyny that is so brutal, it is a wonder we let our kids read it. Women are property and security and playthings. The first book of the Bible is full of dysfunctional families and it doesn’t improve from there. David killed a man to take his wife. Solomon kept a harem. The book of Esther tells the story of a kind of heroic divine prostitute, who wins a competition to become a concubine of a foreign king. God tells the prophet Hosea that he is to marry Gomer, a prostitute, and what happens next is the clickbait worthy book called Hosea. Even the Holy Family fails the tradition test. Mary is a teenager when she hears the news from Gabriel. There is nothing comfortable and suburban and sanitised about marriage in the Bible.

Stoneybatter

In fact, a sustained sensitive reading might lead one to believe that the Scriptures expose – in the brokenness of the stories it unflinchingly depicts – the ways in which marriage can break us, especially those of us who are women. It is an institution, and therefore Christians should be wary of it because institutions get corrupted. We are meant to believe that guys. Not just as a generally observable fact but as an eschatological reality. The powers and principalities with which we engage are not neutral.

Easy talk about God’s will for marriage is easy because it isn’t wrestling with reality. True language is hard fought.

Below the surface stories of marriage is a deeper narrative arc. God’s faithfulness to the promises made to the Iraqi pagan called Abrahm is again and again depicted as a marriage. Israel is to be the bride of YHWH. Israel is adulterous. The church is to be the bride of Christ. The church is adulterous. Marriage takes on a significance not because it is so romantic or because it is what human beings are made for or because of some natural law. It is significant for us because God uses it as an analogy to describe what his faithfulness looks like. When we consider the paltry trustworthiness we can muster for ourselves, by negative reflection, the Scriptures suggest, we can come to see what God’s gloriously reliable trustworthiness looks like.

Biblical marriage talk shouldn’t lead to a conclusion where we talk about ourselves. Biblical marriage should lead us to pay attention to God.

I am not opposed to us wading into public squares and getting all hypostatic about our unions. We should be unashamedly Christian in our political speech. The Gospel is public truth. We can’t stop being Christians when we come to deliberate as citizens. Jesus is Lord means Caesar isn’t! But if you follow the Biblical theology I am sketching out in the broadest terms, then you begin to see why “Biblical marriage” is not the engine of an electoral argument. It doesn’t result in a message we can put on a billboard, or even cram into a manifesto.

Living in a republic, we have theological reasons for not imposing our theology on laws. That is not a capitulation of theology any more than it is an elevation of republics (both mistakes can be made but are not necessarily going to be made!). When we take the deep story of divine marriage that comes to its climax in Revelation and instrumentalise it to a political argument about how people’s relationships can be recognised in a state with a dwindling number of Christian adherents, we might be making a theological, missional, and political mis-step.

***

*On Natural Laws And Slippery Slopes*
I am writing this on a sunny Saturday afternoon because my friend sent me an email during the week and asked me to write. She had heard that when the referendum passes, all sorts of bills will automatically be passed. This is not how republics function. This referendum affirms a reorganisation of a clause in the constitution that has already been passed in the Dáil. It doesn’t do anything else. When that bill becomes law, it is like all other bills – passed by the representatives we elected. That will continue to be the case. We did not need to have this referendum. Because of the fact that the constitution never thought to stipulate gender in the marriage clause, the Dáil could have just passed this law. They didn’t do that because of a perception that this law is culturally significant and needs the unusual imprimatur of a general referendum.

One of the drawbacks of a yes/no referendum is that it can only ask a yes/no question. And as everyone who has ever been part of a home Bible study group can attest to, the conversation that follows from that kind of question is usually crappy. In this instance, the conversation has been full of inflated rhetoric about the inevitable march of liberty and equality and fraternity from the Yes campaign and ramshackle digressions about natural law and surrogacy and feminism and all sorts of distractions from the No campaign. If I was home for the vote, I’d be tempted to spoil my vote with a hastily composed cartoon of a dog marrying a cat and “MAKES YOU THINK” scrawled over it.

One of the concerns that Christians have is that this is a redefinition of marriage and that starts us on a slippery slope. Of course, in 1996 we redefined marriage when we permitted divorce. And we redefined it when we made the idea of rape coherent within marriage. And we are currently redefining it to make it illegal to arrange kinship marriages. We call that “forced marriage” and Christians gladly support that redefinition, even though it raises questions of religious liberty.

It is absolutely clear that the referendum presents a redefinition of marriage. I have tried to suggest above that our political goal ought not be to make the law look like our theology. So if the redefinition is occurring, Christians who are ambivalent about divorce and wholeheartedly against forced marriage need to justify some serious grounds for calling this redefinition a slippery slope.

And here I think it is useful for us to remember how law happens. It is not truly the case that after the referendum, gay people in Ireland will suddenly be able to form unions that fulfill all the requirements of civil marriage. There are gay couples living in such unions in every city and town and village in Ireland. The law is catching up with life as it is lived. We are not at the top of a slippery slope. We are at the base of a mountain of injustice.

I am an evangelical Christian. I am a proponent of the traditional Christian sexual ethics. I think marriage is for life and between a man and a woman and that sex should happen inside marriage. But I am an evangelical Christian. I am an heir of the nuanced and deep social thought we can draw on. I don’t expect my non Christian friends to see their marriages like I see mine, or to live their sex lives like I failingly try to live mine.

But while my friends who were married in a civil office approach their relationships with a very different set of justifications and hopes and desires than Wife-unit and I in our deeply Christian worship service, the end result in the eyes of the state is the same. The Republic of Ireland determinedly ignored Rev. Dr. Keith McCrory’s words at the end of our service: “What God has brought together, let no man pull asunder.” The forms we signed mean that there are a bunch of reasons for this man or my woman to pull the union asunder, because fundamentally, the state acts as if God doesn’t exist. We might lament that, or celebrate that, but let’s not be confused about that.

In a society that lives etsi deus non daretur, there are many people who have meaningful relationships that mirror marriage. They are marriages in the eyes of the state. They are monogomous sexual unions where intimacy extends to all material aspects of life. That people can selflessly serve each other for decades and then find at the end that there is no way to let the other care for them in their dying or that they can sacrificially give to each other and yet not have that bond recognised by the society is an injustice. Marriage redresses the injustice.

“But it is against nature!” say some. “But I am a Christian!” I answer! After Easter Sunday, after the Incarnation, after the call of Abrahm, we don’t make arguments from nature. There is no more secular argument.

“But what’s to stop people marrying 3 people, or their sister, or their garden fence?” query some. “Nothing!” I answer. We can live as counter-witnesses, faithful to what the Spirit calls us into. We can form communities where our distinctive and strange marriage is practiced. We can show grace to each other and grace to our neighbours. And we can hope things get better. But if they do get worse, law is one way we can limit excess and if in decades we need to make more redefinitions, we shouldn’t mistake acknowledging how things are with how we want them to be.

Slippery slopes

We’re Christians. Of all people, we should be invested in telling it as it is. We’re religiously devoted to the truth!

Here’s my mischievous question to the natural law folk: Why do so many gay people want to get married?

It used to be that homosexual life was a genuine sub-culture, forced into the shadows at the margins of our shared life. It is no longer the case now. Do we think that vice can flourish more easily today? Do we think that virtue is hampered by tolerance? Homosexuality used to be disparaged for the wanton culture that it was associated with. Now it is synonymous with gentrification and farmer’s markets. If you want to make an argument from some critical redefinition of how reality is, it seems that this radical community has been converted to desire the most conservative of institutions.

The Iona Institute should see this massive movement as its historic victory. Give people space, and they form society-constructing, economy-driving units of suburban flourishing!

I jest, but only in part.

And here’s my deathly serious question to the slippery slope folk: What else is a slippery slope?

My friend Geoff Lillis has shown that the Irish Catholic bishops seem to be unable to do basic moral calculus because they think gay marriage is a grave threat but couldn’t find the same potency in their words about systematic child abuse. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has issued letters about both the civil partnership bill in Northern Ireland and the marriage referendum in the Republic but has said absolutely nothing about seven years of the most depraved austerity. The Evangelical Alliance released a nuanced but ultimately cautious statement but for all the midweek events happening in churches ahead of the referendum, there has never been an event (that I am aware of) about how the Irish state colluded in the “War on Terror” alliance and so supported a global network of torture.

Violence against children, class war, and participation in torture machines – these are slippery slopes. You can be a No voter. You can even be a No voter and argue from natural law or slippery slopes. But I would urge Christians to ask themselves why certain ethical issues exercise them and others don’t.

***

*So What Should We Do?*
I don’t even have a vote. Irish citizens who live outside of Ireland are, inexplicably, not allowed to vote in referenda. If I was home, I would vote yes. But it would be an apathetic yes. I don’t think a yes will bring about the end of civilization, nor a utopia of mutual respect. I think it will lead to a lot of joyous days for couples whose relational bond deserves our respect and gratitude. It is good when people are good to each other. I also think it will lead to a lot of alterations in what future generations think is normal. But I carry a black piece of plastic in my pocket with a clear screen on the front. When I tap it, it answers every question I ever have. I take it for granted. If I showed it to someone from 1995 they’d think it so abnormal that they’d mistake me for a wizard. I suppose if I was time-travelling, that would make me sort of a wizard. My point is that what we think of as normal is always fluid. “Normal” is not a category Christians aspire to – just ask any nerdy friendless church kid. I am quite sure my grandchildren will think my habit of taking short-haul flights to be a habit of grotesque, selfish depravity. To me it is just normal.

Things change.

We should change too. We should stop doing the state’s job. Christians have a fascinating and rich and complex approach to marriage that is a witness to God’s grace in the world and it is utterly obscured because it is ubiquitous. Why confuse it with civil marriage?

We don’t need a referendum, a campaign, or even little logos stamped on our social media images. We can just start having a civic marriage on an anonymous Wednesday afternoon when it suits us. And on a different, special day we can have a thing called a wedding and invite our communities to raise the roof in praise of the God who is faithful in a way that we can sometimes, vividly discern in the close friendship of marriage. What this does is reorganise our shared life so that we are less likely to think that it is our job to make the history of Ireland turn out well. It is a habit of reorganisation that would teach us that the vibrancy of our shared life and the legitimacy of our praise is not dependent on the state agreeing with it, or pretending to not disagree with it. We are followers of the one whose first miracle was to make 500 litres of wine for a wedding party. There were no forms filled in. There was no regard for tax individualisation. There was rejoicing.

Now is a good time to commit to a different way of being Christian. Whatever is coming after Christendom is going to be a place where we are set free to be irrelevant. Juicy things will come from that freedom.

***

*Conclusion*
There were other forms we filled in in 2004 that I remember. There was a referendum that drew very little attention from Christian leaders. Churches were not organising mid-week meetings to ensure that congregations were informed and prepared. That referendum passed as rampantly as this one will. And it was a travesty that I often reflect on. We collectively agreed that babies born in Ireland weren’t Irish unless their parents were.

Nobody made a fuss about natural law that time.

There were no prominent churchmen grabbing the mic and shouting about the slippery slope of dehumanization that this law represented.

The Irish constitution now says that babies born in Ireland aren’t Irish unless other factors are met. How’s that for pro-life? How’s that for love-your-neighbour? How’s that for welcome-the-stranger-and-the-orphan?

The Irish church needs to reflect on how they fail to be prophetic. This campaign, that I have observed from a distance, has so little light or laughter or good news in it, one wonders where the Gospel actually is. Why is God so feeble that we can be so afraid? We are screeching, not singing. We have gotten it wrong so often, we should maybe think about taking a break from telling society how to live. We have a lot of housework to do. We have a lot of repenting to do. We can’t listen for the Spirit if we’re always talking (says he after writing 100 lines!).

Parts of the Irish church seems to find itself looking around and saying, “Where are we?” We feel we have woken up in a foreign place and an alien land. We cannot comprehend the decisions people make. We seem to use the language spoken here with a thick tongue, confusing people and offending people and boring people. We are in a foreign land. We haven’t yet woken up. When we do, we will set off on the long walk out of exile, towards our home. When we do, we will have moments of clarity where we remember the riches we have squandered and fear for the reception we will get from our father. On that long walk we won’t have time to influence power, or make the world a better place, or protect the natural order of things. We need to go home. We need to find the embrace of our father again. We need to rediscover our identity – not as kingmakers, or entrepreneurs, or gurus – but as sons and daughters who are beloved and forgiven. The scandal of our sin has not yet struck us and so we are worse than charlatans as we lament the sin in others.

There are fancy political theologies that we need to develop. And there are serious liturgical reforms that we need to initiate. But the problem that the Irish church faces today is the same one it has faced in all the years I have been a Christian: we still do not believe that to repent is to be set free. We cling to power and status and rules and law and concepts of righteousness and the divide between in and out and pure and dirty and with all that feverish activity, we don’t stop to listen. The Spirit speaks. The Spirit persists. We don’t need to protect marriage. We don’t need to save the family. We don’t even need to have the right theology of sexuality. We need to listen.

Your Correspondent, Going back to shutting up

Church

Maybe If You Had Women Preachers, You’d Know How To Use The Word ‘Heresy’?

Why You Should Define Your Terms
Peter Leithart is one of the most prolific theologians writing today and his books are always worth a look. He writes a blog – an old fashioned, often updated, here’s-what-I’ve-been-thinking blog – for the conservative American magazine First Things. Sadly, because it is a blog, he sometimes publishes things that I suspect an editor would stick a firm red line through. For example, last week he called feminism “gender arianism.”

One of the basic tasks of honest thinking is to do justice to your opponent. You will never arrive at the truth if you don’t account for those you disagree with in such a way that they would stand over how you have described them. Feminism is a massive, many branched thing. It is a splendiferous diversity, such that one can easily be a feminist (because you have strong allegiance with some or a large chunk of the movement) but you could never really be an anti-feminist (opposed to everything that could be called feminist). After all, each of the different waves and movements have one thing in common – they are activist movements that seek to end sexism and its associated oppressions.

Leithart offers no definition of how he uses the word “feminism” and he doesn’t even offer any clues to help us. There is no accounting for the diversity of feminist thought. There is just “feminists”, a conceptual unity, who apparently “reject the Genesis account of creation as misogynist.” I think I could find feminists who would reject this account of feminists. I would raise my hand but I am too busy angrily typing. Wife-unit would raise her hand but she is too busy burning her bra.

Pat Robertson

Who was Arius?
Feminism is, it seems, a form of gender Arianism. “What the hell is Arianism?”, asks everyone who has never been to seminary.

Arius was a 4th Century Christian teacher who became one of the first and most notable heretics in the church. As Rowan Williams has shown, Arius was not some evil caricature of a false teacher. He was a serious ascetic who felt that the language that Christians were using to describe Jesus’ identity was in error. All this talk of homoousia and pre-existing eternal divinity was an innovation to Arius’ mind and a dangerous one at that. The central concern for Arius was that Jesus was not pre-existent. He was not properly, originally divine. So Leithart summarises Arius well when he talks of a “twofold assumption behind Arianism.” The church decided that he was wrong. And his views about Jesus were ruled out of bounds. That is what heresy is. It is the markings on the pitch that determine where theology can play. You cross into Arianism and the ball is out of play.

File photograph of Arius, lounging around while the bishops do the hard work at Nicea

 

Now there are two big problems with what Leithart has written and they replicate enough in common Christian conversation: Misapplication of the word “heresy” and blindness to where your argument really leads.

Stop Dropping the H(eresy)-Bomb
The first is the colloquial use of the word “heresy”. Arianism is a heresy and a heresy is a sort of border we cannot cross. But heresy is the most formal language that the church can deploy. It would be a dreadful mistake to take the ancient heresies and start applying them willy-nilly, wherever their resemblances could be discerned. We could no doubt make a superficially scholarly argument that that kind of habit should be called rhetorical Donatism but Donatism is an ecclesiological heresy and we would be warping it to, well, apply it willy-nilly, wherever a resemblance could be discerned!

Serious Christian speech involves taking care of our language. Let us not start comparing feminism to Arianism, unless of course a specific feminist starts teaching Arianism. Heresy is a special category, determined by councils, not individuals and specified with precision, not as a stylistic flourish to short-cut an argument.

The alternative is that you’ll start calling me a Star Wars Marcionite because I want to cut out the first three movies when I am giving any hypothetical future kids an education in film. And while there is an elegance in combining the nerdiness of Star Wars with the nerdiness of church history, it is probably a bit over the top to call someone a heretic for disagreeing with you about Jar Jar Binks.

The Incoherency Of Complenetarianism
Leithart’s argument is a variety of what might be called complementarianism. This is the position within the church that holds that men and women are equal, but different. They complement each other, see? The difference argument sometimes is a tedious Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus variety and other times is an even more tedious argument from some “natural law” but what it amounts to is that men get to preach and women get to listen.

That mansplaining remains a Christian doctrine is a sad thing.

Complementarians are happy to live under the authority of a female President, as they are happy to live under female Supreme Court judges, female surgeons, female police officers, female primary school teachers, female basketball coaches, female environmental health inspectors and female playwrights but they draw the line at female preachers. Their reading of Scripture leaves them in this strange quandary.

Whenever I press my friends – and I have dear and beloved friends of both genders who fiercely hold this position – they tell me that this is what the Bible says and that Eve was made from Adam so there is some intrinsic ordering at play that means that preaching and priesting is a male-only thing.

That the first creation narrative in Genesis doesn’t have ordering is never fully acknowledged. That Paul who references this argument elsewhere praises female teachers and gives guidance for how women should prophesy in church is not fully acknowledged.

And this is where Leithart’s argument is very werid. I’ve been mulling it over this week and I think it reveals an incoherency in the complementarian position.

Leithart’s argument is that feminism has a blanket rejection of Genesis and that rejection is based on a perception of misogyny. (Let us skip over the fact that there are so many reasons why individual feminists might not take Genesis as sacred, most fundamentally that they might not be Jewish or Christian!) The critical move comes right at the end. Leithart says that the misogyny in Genesis is diagnosed by feminists because they think that “to be second is to be subordinate.” Arius thought that too. So feminists resemble Arius. And QED: feminism is gender Arianism.

Am I imagining this? This argument freaking DESTROYS the complementarian position.

If priority does not equate to primacy, then that the first priests were male in no way excludes women from being priests today, or bishops, presbyters, elders, pastors, deacons, ministers, or whatever title you want to give to the people who hold the keys. If priority does not equate to primacy, then the entire edifice of cultural reasoning that allows some Christians to block the way of women with gifts and calling from the pulpit falls away.

TL;DR
You can’t call people you disagree with heretics, unless they are guilty of that specific heresy (and found guilty of that in an actual council of the church!). You certainly can’t do ad-hoc extensions of heresy so that 4th Century disputes about the nature of the Trinity become grounds for attacking 21st Century feminism. But the one thing that Leithart gets right in this post – that coming first doesn’t make you best – is completely misapplied. That is not a stick with which to beat feminists. It is the collapsing walls complementarians have constructed around the Bible.

When your defensive walls fall in on yourself, maybe you’ve misidentified your enemy?

Your Correspondent, From Earth, like all women.

Church

The Depressing, Ever-Present Reality Of Christian Sexism

My mother worked as a teacher all through her working life. She left for school before me and got home after me. Me and my five siblings never fully understood all the cultural nod-and-wink jokes about women wearing the trousers because of course women wore trousers. My mom dressed appropriately for corralling 36 little girls into tiny chairs to learn long division. Even as a very small boy, my perplexity at sexism was only matched by my fury. What kind of crap were these people spouting when they imagined there were some things that only men could do.

I became a Christian under the teaching of a woman. She was 16, so I suppose she was a girl, but she had the smarts and maturity to beat this confident atheist around every debating venue in which I dared to engage her. She batted away my trolling on Leviticus and forced me to confront the gentle genius of the Gospel of Luke and she had to come at me in a myriad of ways before that glorious gold coin of grace finally dropped and got what the whole thing – I mean everything – was all about.

I recently met an old acquaintence at a theology conference. In a room largely filled with old white men, she explained some of the profound difficulties that she faced as a serious scholar who happens to not have the required anatomy to be heard by much of the Christian church. I might think that it is my voice that gets me a hearing in the church. But it is my chromosomal make-up that invites me to the mic in the first place.

*

The Christmas story is very often overwhelmed by our familiarity with it. At the annunciation of the coming of Jesus, Mary breaks out into song. She is a teenaged girl, bound to a lifetime of speculative gossip over the birth of this baby outside of wedlock. But in her song, her worries are not her concern:

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Mary is reaching into the Hebrew scriptures, and remixing the song of Moses’ sister, Miriam, composed after YHWH had delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. With the baby gestating in her womb, Mary will at first hand see the long-awaited delivery of all creation from the slavery of sin and therefore “all generations will call me blessed.” But look at the end. God’s strength scatters the intellectual order of the elites (51), knocks potentates from power and raises street people in their place (52), satisfies the hunger of the poor and dwindles the confident investments of the rich (53). The God that she sings of is faithful to the promises made to the Iraqi pagan Abrahm and this God is one marked by mercy (54-55).

Mary is a phenomenal theologian. She is thoughtful too. Luke 2:19 says that in strange happenings after the birth of Jesus, “Mary treasured all the words spoken and pondered them in her heart.”

It is not taking a leap from this Biblical evidence to say that Jesus’ first theological teacher was Mary. Scripture poured out of her in her moment of trial. She pondered the acts of God in her life. It is undoubted that the toddler Messiah learned the Psalms from the voice of his mother. It is inconceivable but that the child Christ did not imbibe the Biblical fluency of his mother. Sometimes my sermons can be mistaken for attempts to mimic Trevor Morrow even though I have a Dublin accent. Well, consider the Magnificat again and you will see that Jesus’ sermons are more heavily indented by his mother’s influence than I have been by the preacher from Lambeg.

Jesus’ primary Bible teacher was a woman.

*

On Easter Sunday I read the resurrection accounts. I was struck with fresh force by the significance of the eye-witnesses. None of them had penises. The angels didn’t have penises, obvs. Neither did the humans.

In fact, Wife-unit and I both broke out into inappropriate giggles in church that morning, as the account in the Gospel of John was read aloud. For whatever giddy reason, both of us saw the text in a new light that day and realised the humour in it. You could almost say Jesus is pranking Mary.

Let me explain: Mary is weeping because the body is gone. She tells the angels that she doesn’t know where it has been taken. When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t recognise that it was Jesus. And he doesn’t enlighten her. Instead, he says, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” This is Punk’d, Bible-style. Jesus knows why she is weeping. He knows who she is looking for. It is almost as if John is sketching this as a scene where Jesus was drawing out the wonderful reveal for dramatic effect. He plays his role with deadpan proficiency so that she turns to him, “supposing him to be the gardener” and pleads, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

There is comedy, both in the formal sense of a story with a good ending and in the informal sense of the japery between humans that elicits laughter in this passage.

But the whole thing hinges on a woman being told to go and tell. To proclaim what she has seen. To preach about what she now knows. To teach people things they do not yet know. She hears the call of her Lord and she answers it: “Go to the brothers and tell them.”

*

On Sunday I stood in a pulpit. I was largely unknown to the congregation. Many of them couldn’t place my accent. They didn’t know about my penchant for flamboyant socks. Or that I was the nerd who was always on the school team sent off to the televised table-quizes. Or that I was a pacifist who refuses to attend church on Remembrance Sunday. I did not have to prove myself to them before they all sat and let me talk, at some length, about the most important questions humans wrestle with. And there is a list larger than the congregation gathered on Sunday of women I know who could do everything in the world to prove themselves and still would never be invited to do what I get to do for free.

I don’t have to prove myself. I won’t have to work as hard as my mother did. I don’t have the countless experiences of blatant rejection that the woman who brought me to faith has now endured. The old acquaintance I was re-acquaintanted with has a PhD and years of teaching and a long list of publications and a diverse range of research interests. She is ordained. I am not. But before I left it was me – a bumbling student – that got pulled aside by a fancy professor, who pressed his card into my hand and told me that the next time I was in his city, I should look him up.

*

I won’t be looking him up.

Your Correspondent, Folds faster than Superman on laundry day

Church, Society

My “Spiritual Blindness” On Stephen Fry, the Internet, and Apologetics

One night last week, I battled for an hour and a half over a blog post. That is about 15 times longer than I usually spend on writing something here and the time wasn’t taken up (just) fixing innumerable typos. I was trying to address or re-dress or just fully recant my recent foray into apologetics. My little screed about the Stephen Fry interview was the most visited piece I have published on this blog since I stopped updating regularly. But I had all sorts of anxiety after writing it. I published it at the encouragement of Wife-unit and then when it went live I had even more ambivalence about it.

I realise I am inventing a peculiar kind of obscurity when I navel gaze about a post written for a Theological Ethics blog read by 11 people.

So to work out my tension, I wrote this thing about why we can never declare people “spiritually blind” and why the objections that Fry raised were not brave and were not serious. By extension, what I was trying to write was that my apologetic endeavour was a waste of my time.

It went live for 5 minutes and then Wife-unit said I should really take it down and re-write. In trying to say that it is a waste of my time, I ended up saying it was a waste of everyone’s time. Which ultimately could come across as saying “you are a waste of time” to anyone who wasn’t as effortlessly sophisticated as I am.

Whatever good was in that tortured and confused writing was based on a reflection about how important Francis Spufford’s last book, Unapologetic, is for Christian leaders. I had quibbles with that book when I first read it but as the years have gone by, I am more and more convinced that it is a book that every pastor needs to read and study carefully.

Francis Spufford

Spufford’s book re-orientates apologetics so that it is carefully and intentionally disciplined in the face of “proof” questions – the kind of arguments that present themselves as philosophically robust but have no strong connection to lived human existence. Refusing to grant legitimacy to the “gotchya!” dilemmas that internet atheists are so fond of, Spufford’s Christianity still “doesn’t exist in blatant defiance of some obvious demonstration of its groundlessness.” (68)

So Spufford engages the problem of evil that Fry raises, but he does it in a way that gives credit not to the outlying horrifying instances of child-hunting parasites, but the sort of things people normally suffer:

From meteor strikes to car crashes, falling masonry to early-onset Alzheimer’s, anything can happen to us and to the people we love. At any moment you can have it sharply demonstrated to you that where we live, events are not governed by what people deserve. (89)

The responses available to the believer, Spufford suggests, are self-deception, argument, or the other option that is the lived reality for most mature, serious Christians. This is a long quote, but it is important:

We take the cruelties of the world as a given, as the known and familiar data of experience, and instead of anguishing about why the world is as it is, we look for comfort in coping with it as it is. We don’t ask for a creator who can explain Himself. We ask for a friend in time of grief, a true judge in time of perplexity, a
wider hope than we can manage in time of despair. If your child is dying, there is no reason that can ease your sorrow. (105)

The horrendous secret of atheism is that it has no better explanation for the lived experience of suffering than Hindus or Scientologists, Raelians or Presbyterians. No reason can soothe the grief of the death of your loved one, whether it comes calmly in a bed surrounded by people who adore them or suddenly and painfully on a spring morning. To expect reason to account for this is a tragic category error.

When Spufford writes about suffering, or about repentance, or in the book’s glorious high-point, about Jesus, he bypasses these dead-ends. He does it because he has done the hard work of listening to his culture, his church, and himself. He has ears to hear, and as a result he has words to speak that make surprising sense.

Spufford is wiser than me and he didn’t comment on the Fry interview. He did offer an explanation of why he didn’t weigh in, however. Quoting the New Zealander Elizabeth Knox, Spufford shares:

Go back into the quiet room, the room empty of everyone but yourself. Go for a walk. Stand still and stare at something inhuman and alive, or inanimate and kinetic, like a river. Be with yourself and think, ‘Who am I apart from all this? What is the world to me? What is my life to me?’ Put out your hand and touch the top of the skull and think about life, what a short time there is in which to be yourself – your good self – and do good.

We get distracted so easily. We have a short time here. The only true apologetic is love, and love looks like Jesus. Let Fry rail about gods that don’t exist. Let Dawkins tweet about freeing the Muslim world with porn. The work of the people of God is quiet prayer and gentle hospitality and patient listening. Seeing, and hearing, and welcoming without wanting to win is the work we should be doing.

Your Correspondent, Frequently checks credit at Moral Bank hole-in-wall

Church, Television, theology

Stephen Fry and the gods No One Believes In

For those of you not from the British Isles, Stephen Fry is an English comedian and gameshow host who is very erudite and much loved. Gay Byrne is an Irish talkshow host and road safety authority who is very skilled and considered a sort of historic cultural figure in Ireland.

They feature together in an episode of a series Byrne hosts for the Irish state broadcaster called “The Meaning of Life”. I don’t think they ever invited Terry Eagleton on, which is unfortunate because he is funnier and smarter than Fry and more skilled than Byrne, and he literally wrote the book on the topic.

Anyway, if you missed the controversial bit, here it is:

Many people believe that Fry hit the nail on the head. He spoke the truth. How can the delusions of faith stand in the face of such articulate and elegant reasoning? I watched it and thought, “He’d never say that if he was around for dinner with me and my friends.” Well, of course he wouldn’t. It would be rude. Wife-unit and I would have made him a lovely aubergine parmigiana and some brownies. How churlish it would be. But it would also be laughable. Maybe he would still think it, but such pomposity doesn’t play well when you are dining with atheists who became Christians.

That is all Fry’s comments are: pompous bluster. There is no god that he is referencing, except that vague god that atheists sometimes think Christians and Jews worship. (Have you ever noticed that for all their talk about how heinous Islam is, atheists still seem to think that Muslims worship a different (worse) god (that doesn’t exist) than Christians?) There are many philosophical problems with what Fry lays out and I am sure there are hundreds of pieces already written that enumerate them. One such problem is that putting God in the dock requires an expectation of God that seems to demand a metaphysical explanation for goodness. In other words: if we fail God for not being good, where does the standard of good come from?

Just as a side-point: that is not the same thing as saying that we need a god to generate good. The knotty problem I have alluded to doesn’t get resolved quite so simply. It is a variety of Augustine’s contention that the problem that the human is faced with isn’t why is there suffering, but why is there joy? The grand puzzle of reality is not so much the horror of the burrowing insect as the satisfaction of a cold glass of water on a hot July day. That and why did I not enjoy that film “500 Days of Summer” because looking at Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt for an hour and a half sounds like something only the blind could find boring.

My interest isn’t (any longer) in such philosophical tinkering. It has its place, but that place isn’t at my dinner table. In our gaff, we’re very, very interested in Jesus.

When Christians talk about God, they are talking about Jesus. Jesus reveals who God is. God reveals Himself in Jesus. The God that Christians expect to meet when that time comes is a God who comes to us as, in one particularly disturbing image in the New Testament, as a slaughtered lamb. He comes to us as a Palestinian tradesman with a gash caused by a Roman sword down his side, and nail holes in his arms and ankles, his forehead scarred by a cruel joke and his back lacerated by a whip. That God, that Christians worship, is not a God who will be impressed by rich white Englishmen saying “How dare you?!” The 1st century equivalent of rich white Englishmen hung him from the tree. That bunch of men encountered this Godman and decided that if they banished him, their life would become “simpler, purer, cleaner, and more worth living.” It didn’t. They didn’t know what they were doing. That pattern continues. Always expect the powerful to prefer their gods like the Greek deities. Those titans supported power instead of subverting it.

There are many problematic things about Christianity, perplexing and troubling things. Early on, the church developed or adopted big words to cope with all of them. Election. Trinity. Incarnation. Personhood. Kerygma. Parousia. Eschaton.

It is very significant that it was well into the Englightenment before we had to come up with the word theodicy, that Fry references at the beginning. Still, most of us prefer the simpler word suffering. Contrary to the widely propagated myth, Christian people are not running from suffering. The torture device they use as their visual calling card should remind you of that.

There are many problematic things about Christianity. There are weak points where opponents can score points. Suffering isn’t one of them. The God that the Christians declare is one who revealed his divinity in momentous suffering.

There is a basic rule of argumentation that holds that you cannot be making a good point if your opponent cannot recognise her viewpoint when you describe it. Fry makes the mistake of the new-atheists. He does not respect his opponent enough to hear them. Ironically, this is the mistake Christians made when they were in the cultural ascendancy in an earlier age. The kind of “gotcha!” argument that Fry deploys is the kind of argument that swallows itself. It works when you are up against Gay Byrne on a tv camera. It falls to pieces when you are sitting across from the people in my congregation who can testify from their suffering to their conviction that no human has ever been more human than when the Godman suffocated under his own weight.

The new-atheists never try to kill that God. He’s already died. He sides with the suffering and the broken, the oppressed and the downtrodden. He is most welcomed by the people oppressed by men bearing Union flags, Stars and Stripes, and the 12 golden stars of Europe. He is many things, and in many ways confounding, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about him being defeated by suffering. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Your Correspondent, Young, rich, and full of sugar

Church, Society

Irish Churches and Primary Schools

I was home in Ireland over the weekend. I was struck by the political anxiety of the people I talked with. Dyed in the wool captains of industry were out marching against the commercialisation of water provision. Retired grandmothers were cheering on the new Greek government. A Beckett play in a small Marxist theatre was practically sold out, the diverse crowd greedily buying books beforehand by Marx and Connolly and Klein.

In the midst of this popular agitation, the Irish media continues to have conversations that miss the point. This morning, the Irish Times offered a critique of religious schools by the Cork-based philosopher Desmond Clarke. The basic contention is:

Children have a right not to be taught in an uncritical way about values and convictions.

From that premise, we are to understand that the school system in Ireland should be secular – meaning disconnected from churches – because that is how to ensure critical reasoning about values and convictions.

The article does not offer a definition of critical thinking, assuming instead that we all understand what it means. Furthermore, it does not interrogate what is meant by “values” or “convictions”. How are they similar? How are they different? These basic reading comprehension questions leave the, dare I say it, critical reader, confused as to how the argument is constructed.

But the very interesting thing for a Christian reader, who is trying to be self-critical, is how the philosopher has understood the experience of being religious. Again and again, the state of having Christian convictions is presented as a state of being uncritical. At one point, Clarke says “The Catholic Church, through canon law, requires parents to send their children to a ‘Catholic’ school.”

The relevant canon is 793 which reads as considerably less demanding than Clarke suggests:

Parents, and those who take their place, have both the obligation and the right to educate their children. Catholic parents have also the duty and the right to choose those means and institutes which, in their local circumstances, can best promote the catholic education of their children.

Irish political discourse in the press and on the TV is obsessed with following the liner notes provided by the status quo, even in the face of a popular conversation existing which is much more suspicious. Irish social discourse is similarly in thrall to the cues and stage-directions set by a certain kind of powerful account of ethics – the one which is uncomplicatedly certain that a thing exists called “Western, liberal values”.

That example from Canon law demonstrates there is a vast amount of wriggle room for the devout Catholic between what their church actually teaches about education and the version of that which gets published in the Irish Times. This limp attachment to the lived reality of religion in Ireland is a defining point in conversations about “secularity”. We do not need to investigate or listen. We do not need to be critical of our own assumptions. There is something about the logic of Irish discourse about religion that assumes that everyone gets born with a familiarity with what the whole thing entails and we can just write it off without knowing our Radical Reformation from our Orthodox.

The Presbyterian churches with which I am most familiar might leave me with a biased perspective, but the one thing that doesn’t hold in Christian communities is “uncritical” belief. Sermons are too often dominated by apologetic concerns. Home Bible studies are sites of existential exchange over the difficulties of being human. The dreadful worship music that the Protestants love often sings of doubts and trials and the boring spiritual disciplines that the Catholics love often obsess over the authenticity of the individual in their values and convictions.

If these churches are running schools, then it is highly unlikely that they are teaching, in formal curricula or more importantly, in the actual classroom, some unreflexive claptrap.

An example of how complex lived religious identity in Ireland actually is, can be grasped by paying attention to one interesting sentence from Clarke’s piece. He says:

If one insisted that publicly funded schools should always reflect the beliefs of the majority, then the results would be obvious in a state where a voting majority is Marxist, Muslim, Mennonite or Calvinist.

If you drew a Venn diagram with those four belief systems, I would have one foot squarely in Calvinism and the other foot overlapping with the other three. Between Islam and Calvinism, I share a firm monotheism. Between Calvinism and the Mennonites, I insist that Jesus is what that deity looks like. Between the Mennonites and the Marxists, I insist that we should always have a profound suspicion of the powers-that-be. And between the Marxists and the Muslims, I too agree that justice based on equity is the only viable way to establish societies.

I am a typical Irish evangelical Christian. I do not fit inside the boxes that get uncritically deployed by proponents of a thing called “secularism”.

More worryingly, the philosopher does not seem to know that Mennonites are a separatist sect and do not easily do business with the state. The results would be anything but obvious if the majority living in an area were Mennonites, because a majority of Mennonites wouldn’t even bother to vote, nevermind send their kids to schools where they have to sit still for hours on end and learn about nutrition from drawings of pyramids instead of in kitchens, chopping celery.

Irish Christians need to recognise the profound mess they have made of the educational system through their involvement in it. I long for the day that the last few notionally “Presbyterian” schools get disconnected from our General Assembly. They can go off and become the pure and perfect factories for social advancement that they yearn to be. I wish the Catholic bishops would recognise that Old Nick himself couldn’t come up with a more destructive discipleship programme than forcing people to baptise their children to secure places in schools where they will be taught the parables of Jesus as anemic morality tales as part of an assembly line process where they receive the sacraments not as apocalyptic events of divine revelation, but milestones towards puberty.

Calvin, Hobbes, school

Christianity is about action. It is insufficient to think that we are educating our children by exerting control over schools so that we can compel a vague notion of some of our ideas along with teaching them long division. But because Christianity is about action, the account of Irish political secularism fails catastrophically to even engage with the lived reality. When the churches are kicked out of the system and schools are liberated to finally be hothouses of critical reasoning and incubators of entrepreneurship and microwave ovens of active and concerned citizenry, the very same malaise will set in. Turning vibrant ideas into standardised curricula advocated by teachers who don’t believe it and enforced by parents who can’t care less about it… the noble march of neo-liberal secularism will find itself caught in the same bogland the Catholic church is in now.

Christians can let go of schools. Not because the arguments from political secularism are any good, but because our ideas lead to action, that spill out of the classroom, into the schoolyard, across the street into the housing estates and over every square inch of the good world we get to inhabit.

Your Correspondent, May be a little chemically imbalanced but he’s been right about a lot of things