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.


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

Nice Frames

I am currently a scholarship student at Institut Catholique de Paris, which sounds very impressive, but it actually means that courtesy of the Scottish Catholic Church, I spend the morning failing to learn how to count in French and I spend my afternoons reading Karl Barth in the shade at the Luxembourg Gardens.

Life can be very hard.

I eat an inordinate amount of bread and cheese and am regularly scandalized by how expensive everything is, how hot it gets, and by how friendly the locals are. I stay in a tiny little one room flat so that it feels like I go to sleep on the footpath every night. I am in class with nuns from Iraq and priests from Korea and undergraduates from America and for some reason I set the alarms off in the library simply by walking through the front door.

I wasn’t in France when the tragic attack occurred in Nice on Bastille Day. And Aberdeen is only a few hundred kilometres further from Paris than Paris is from Nice, but everyone I have had small talk with from cab drivers to airplane companions to colleagues in Aberdeen have gently raised the topic of terrorism’s threat with me. No one is actually frightened for my safety but most people now seem to equate France with threat.


I live here on a little lane-way between two main avenues, close to the metro and bustling bistros and a parish church that cultivates its gardens so that it becomes a little ad-hoc park for the locals. There is splendid street art adorning the walls and directly across from my front door is an entrance to an art college where, for centuries, the weaving and printing of fabrics has been slowly perfected. The staff in the boulangerie already recognise me and get in the way of my learning by using me to practice their broken English, much closer to being all-together than my fragmentary French. Paris is a lovely place to live.

You could live here a long time and never realise that France was approaching its 15th year occupying Afghanistan. You could probably be a tourist here every year of your life and no one would ever mention to you that French military forces are currently engaged in Mali and the Central African Republic. You probably know that France is one of several Western powers who regularly bomb targets in Syria and Iraq from supersonic jets that can fire missiles into houses from 800 miles away. France is a dangerous enemy to have.

It would knock me off balance if a cab driver framed “France” and “threat” in these terms.


When my niece heard about the Nice attack her instinctive reaction was to lament the fact that the police shot the driver instead of arresting him. We shake our heads and with a tone of quiet gratitude for her naive innocence we feel a need to interpret those words away. “She doesn’t understand yet.”

She knows more about the attacks than I do because I don’t listen to radio and I don’t buy newspapers and I don’t watch the television and I curate Twitter so that it is mostly about weird jokes and I only have a Facebook account so that I can see what’s happening on the Aberdeen Divinity page and when the dust settles on horrible things, I go back and read about the things that seem important. I patched this approach to media together after reading how the great 20th Century Catholic mystic Thomas Merton only ever read newspapers that were weeks and weeks old. The news is mostly noise. The staleness of old news allows whatever truth remains to rise to the surface.

When I told one dear friend who was expressing concern that I only vaguely knew what had happened in Nice, she was slightly appalled. Did I not think that to follow the news was a moral responsibility? I told her I found the news confused me and when it doesn’t confuse me, it either enrages me or terrifies me. Increasingly, it does all three at the same time.

My niece knows very little really. She can tinkle away at a piano and she can do some Irish dancing and she is learning how to play camogie but she would be lost with a calculus problem and she doesn’t know how to navigate a job search and she’s never been dumped and she can’t cook and her understanding of the philosophical roots of parliamentary democracy is rudimentary at best. She doesn’t subscribe to the Economist and she listens to no podcasts. She understands, however, that every human life that is brought to an end is a tragedy. She hasn’t learned enough to discard that. Sure, she doesn’t even understand what she knows, but who does. Who knows the weight of such tragedy?


Tomorrow, after school, I’m going to the Louvre. I’ll pay particular attention, as I always do, to the frames. The frame determines the piece. The edge of the canvas is the limit that gives meaning to what is inside the painting. When we frame things in certain ways, it makes certain creations possible and rules others out. You can’t establish a triptych in the same setup as a landscape.

How we frame the world limits what we think is possible. In a very concrete sense (far from Richard Dawkins asshattery) if you believe in God there are horizons available to you that are impossible to the most sincere atheist. If you insist that the world is plenteous, and not scarce, opportunities present themselves that otherwise cannot be conceived. If you make space to lament the death of the terrorist and his victims, your frame has allowed you to grasp something about reality that is too often excluded. If you make the space away from the data and the noise of news you can very quickly begin to imagine the families in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and the Sahel who were killed by stray French bombs or assaulted by exhausted, dehydrated French soldiers.

You can even begin to imagine the plight of the soldier who finds himself afraid and tired and stressed and somehow bashing a door in and punching a young mother in the face. You’ve never flown a jet, but you can empathise with the pilot who sweats at night considering whether that missile did in fact go astray.

And once you have stood in those shoes, it will be a short and inevitable walk to consider the people who decide to kill families celebrating Bastille Day or murder music fans while they listen to rock music. Remember, to imagine those reasons and inhabit them temporarily is not the same thing as condoning them or licensing them or validating them. It just means that ISIS are indeed your neighbours, in ways that will both terrify and console you.

You can see yourself in them and still love Paris and still mourn with France and still cry when you see the footage of the grieving families but you will remember all the grieving families that never get shown on your television and never get prayed for in your church and never get photographed for the front pages of your newspapers and like a little child you will stand baffled at how things could go so far that they couldn’t somehow talk it out.

If you practice this strange habit of framing things wide, you’ll soon fear more how Rupert Murdoch can make you scared than you will fear for friends living in France. This won’t stop terrorism or even stop the war on terrorism. It may not even dent the profits of Rupert Murdoch. But this patient business of holding complicated truths in tension will generate communities where bakers welcome Irishmen and landlords leave up beautiful graffiti and people from all over the world can live on the same street and be neighbours.

Your Correspondent, Puts anti-freeze in the wine

On Visiting Princeton

In what is surely the largest gathering of verbose dudes in gingham shirts happening anywhere in the Western hemisphere this year, the annual Karl Barth Conference finished up today at Princeton Theological Seminary. The theme of the conference was Barth and the Gospels. Since my PhD thesis is in a large part made up of discussions about Barth’s reading of the Gospel parables, I thought I would fly over and sit in.

It began on Sunday night. After 20 hours of exhausting travelling, myself and my buddy Taido made it on time to barge in on Jurgen Moltmann’s opening address. It might have been worth the journey alone to see the 89 year old saint present the legendarily complex teaching that Barth expounded on predestination and election. The key, he reckons, is to remember that freedom is not unencumbered choice, but relationality. Everything straightens out then, allegedly.

The next morning, Eric Gregory, a Princetonian giant laid out all the ways people read the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was a great way to show just how fascinating Karl’s reading was. Right after him came the Duke Divinity lecturer Willie Jennings, who considered Barth’s interpretation of the Rich Young Ruler and challenged us to unmask the power of Mammon in our life. It was such a great presentation that I enjoyed it, even though it trod right across the very fulcrum of my thesis.

The papers came thick and fast. Like everything that Americans organise, the conference seemed to assume that you can’t be using your time right unless you are busy. We got to listen in on great talks about Barth’s reflections on Jesus in Gethsemane, on the disciples on the road to Emmaus, on the Greek make-up of the first 18 verses of the Gospel of John and the parable of the Prodigal Sons. And that’s not even mentioning the myriad of fine papers delivered in break-out sessions or the conversations had over the fearfully bad coffee, or the talk by Bruce McCormack that may become the matter of myth in the coming years as he began with an extended discussion of a Jose Saramago novel as a set-up to present a mind-bending, intricate argument which says more but not less than that God’s love is generative of death.

I am sure there are people who would like to read a more detailed account of the conference, but I am not the person to write it. I never feel fully at home at an academic conference, because I am at heart not an academic. An exhaustion quickly settles when I have to navigate the strange terrain of conversation among graduate students and early career academics and established veterans. There is little small talk. There is just big ideas. There is little listening, but lots of nodding and hmming and uhhuh-ing. It is work, I suppose. We’re all at work, but for these three days our office is this strange space and we go to work with people who aren’t our colleagues.

Princeton Theological Seminary Library

What I did want to talk about though is America.

I promise to be brief.

Princeton is perhaps the most sumptuous place I have ever been. It is luxurious in a way I can’t communicate. It feels like a 5 star resort but for research. The theological library is the second biggest in the world. Their new books section is about the size of the theology library in its entirety in my home university. Everywhere is air conditioned. The shops all sell very stylish clothes, even if they aren’t fashionable. The houses are run down in the way that requires careful maintenance, invariably done by people with darker skin than me. I have seen more police cars in the 3 days I have been here than I would see in three months in Ireland. There are flags constantly in view, whenever you are out in public.

It is a wonderful place. But its greatness rests on such shaky foundations.

Palmer Square, Princeton

This all became very clear for me when I went to buy stamps for postcards (they have Karl Barth postcards here!!). Inside the beautiful little post office on the beautiful Palmer Square I found a mural. It was painted in 1939, as part of the New Deal, by Karl Free. It reminded me of the public murals you still find lingering from the Soviet era in eastern Ukraine. Whereas that public art was invariably modern and decisive, this is romantic and idyllic. Three white men stand on the left of the piece, dressed in the uniform of Englightenment-era philosophers. They are surrounded by symbols of learning – an antomical skeleton and a globe and Hellenistic sculpture. Their faces are impassively, stoically set towards the right hand side, where the future is found in all graphs. Above them, from the heavens, are angels bearing trumpets. The artist has caught them in the moment of annunciation. There is no Christian imagery anywhere in this painting and the angels are neither the cherubim of popular imagination or the more closely Biblical fear-inducing messengers. They are mature. Directly below them sits Columbia, with her shield of liberty at her feet, a bald eagle perched beside her and behind her the famous Naussau Hall of Princeton University.

The last element of the artwork are two “natives”. They are largely naked, coming out of a jungle of palms, and cowering under the glory of the trumpet ring that heralds the arrival of the book-carrying white men. The native woman is on her knees and might be pulling her man away, out of the scene, frightened to even engage with these civilised characters. Lest this visual feast does not satisfy you, the artist has explained it all in verse beneath:

America! With Peace and Freedom blest,
Pant for true Fame and scorn inglorious rest,
Science invites, urged by the Voice divine,
Exert thyself ’til every Art be thine.

Consider these words. There is no peace even in the image thus depicted. The America that looks upon this art when posting birthday cards to nephews back home and buying packing tape before moving to a bigger house is an America that today pants after fame, and so utterly despises rest – that basic commandment of YHWH – that they do not even assure maternity leave for pregnant women. The science whose invitation they have pursued has created bombs strong enough to kill us all and has been co-opted by an economic system that only staves off killing us because there would be no one left to buy things. The voice divine that animates this artwork is the Unmoved Mover of the Deists, not the God that took on flesh much darker than that of Columbia.

Columbia under the palms

Tonight there is a vigil in Princeton, starting at the local AME church, where the city will walk and stand in solidarity with the victims of racial violence. Then tomorrow they’ll go back to work and back to school and back to the post office and their lives might be exciting and ascetically dedicated to learning or back-breaking and devoted to mowing lawns but they will be so awash in the lies of histories never told that even prayer doesn’t seem to bring relief.

On the globe in the painting, America is literally the only country in the world. Imagine how sad living in that world must be.

I like visiting America. But I think I am very glad that I don’t have to call it home.

Your Correspondent, If you don’t believe him, believe in America!

ISIS, America, and the Return of Jesus

The cover story for The Atlantic this month is a 10,000 word piece by Graeme Wood about the religious motivations behind ISIS. What they really want, Wood asserts, is the end of the world. And this is an Islamic desire. So when people like Islamic leaders or Muslim intellectuals or the first Muslim President of America Barack HUSSEIN Obama say that ISIS is not Islamic, they are all talking out of the side of their mouth. Wood knows, because he talked to lots of people before writing his article. Some people were in ISIS. Another chap is an expert in Islam at Princeton.

It is important that we learn about the inherently Islamic nature of ISIS’ beliefs because having that knowledge will “help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.”

Wood has lived an interesting life, it seems. He is Canadian, and a graduate of Harvard, having first attended the prestigious, elitist anti-school Deep Springs College. He has lived and worked in the Middle East and Cambodia. He lectures now at Yale. He is a clear, cogent writer. And yet he blithely assures us that “Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes.” The validity of that sentence depends on where you think theology ends. If you grant that theology is involved in idolatry, then World War II starts looking like a pretty arcane theological dispute very quickly, as does the homelessness epidemic in Athens and Thessaloniki right now. The German finance gurus explicitly talk in religious terms; sacrifice and redemption.

My point here is not just that NAZI-ism might profitably be understood as a pagan religion. My point is that you need to be pretty sure of yourself to situate yourself as part of a society that used to kill over arcane theological issues but has seen the error of their ways, while talking about a society you claim still does that. You are necessarily setting yourself up as superior. You are offering an understanding of theology that is paper thin, almost as if you want to pretend theology isn’t alive and kicking in the cultures descended from a peace treaty signed in Westphalia in 1648 (the notional end of the religious wars).

Wood thinks that the West is beyond such religiosity and that we then export our assumptions to the Arab world, under the mistaken belief “that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.”

This is a critical sentence. Wood’s argument is:

    ISIS is religious.
    The West mis-reads ISIS by downplaying its religiosity.
    This mis-reading is dangerous.
    This mis-reading is caused by the fact that religion isn’t a big deal in the West.

Does this seem credible to you? Is religion not a big deal in the West? If that is true, then why have “tens of thousands of foreign Muslims” left “France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Australia, Indonesia, the United States, and many other places” to go fight for ISIS? It seems that if ISIS is religious, then large numbers of people in the West share that characteristic.

So a critical question we need to ask is: why are they not included in Wood’s understanding of the West?

Recall that list that summarised Wood’s argument up above. We have to flesh it out because the kind of religiosity that he claims ISIS represents is “apocalyptic.” Wood’s claim is that ISIS’ apocalyptic Islam leads them to hope for an “epic good-versus-evil battle” that will bring an end to the world. This might be true, but it is unfortunate that he doesn’t dwell more on this category of apocalyptic. Apocalypse literally means unveiling. It is a tradition present in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. When Jesus tells you to turn the other cheek, it can be read as an apocalyptic teaching; he is revealing the true nature of reality. Much of the apparently palatable teaching of Jesus relies on a claim about the secret nature of reality: the guys with the biggest sticks won’t win in the end, instead the grain of the universe goes with those who carry crosses.

The world teems with variety. And just as there are a bunch of different ways you can draw the globe, and there are South Korean versions of popular American sitcoms, your apocalypse might be different from mine.

And that is really my killer point. Woods can talk casually about people killed by America as “drone-splats” and he can carelessly throw it out there that Mohammed, “whom all Muslims consider exemplary,” also owned slaves. Did not the prophets of America own slaves? Jefferson, Washington, Ulysses S. Grant who was president as recently as 1877 – they all at one time or another “owned” people. Wood’s piece reflects practically everything I have ever read about ISIS. It dwells on their frightening and depraved violence, while sliding over our frightening and depraved violence. It stands aghast at their setting fire to people, while forgetting (or never learning) that America dropped 388,000 tonnes of napalm – a chemical weapon in the form of a gel that sticks to human skin and then incinerates – during the Vietnam war. I do not mean to make ISIS and America seem like equivalents. Such moral calculus is beside the point. Instead, what I want to suggest is that Jesus has many hard things to say to people who judge out of their self-delusion.

Ms. Entropy

Everyone who holds the Bible as their scripture is apocalyptic in some way because the Bible claims to tell you that the meaning of history will be revealed with the return of Jesus. My Christian faith is apocalyptic. If ISIS’ belief system is apocalyptic, that neither proves it is Islamic, nor demonstrates why that question matters. America is undoubtedly apocalyptic. It believes the meaning of history was prophesied in their Declaration of Independence and came to fruition with the collapse of the Soviet Union. History has ended. The perpetual present is our future; a world of neo-liberal capitalism, rhetoric about freedom, and increasingly rampant self-determination as our heavenly vision. The apocalyticism of Jesus tells you to forgive 70 times 7, to love your enemies, and to pray for them. That bears as little resemblance to America’s unveiling of the meaning of history as your local Mosque has to ISIS.

But when that fancy American magazine tells you that ISIS is religious, that ISIS is Islamic, that ISIS is apocalyptic, you should believe them?

Theology is not something that happens only in university departments and old-fashioned pulpits. It happens on battle-fronts and in war propaganda. That holds for ISIS and for NATO. If Christians do not learn how to read the ways in which their nation states are parasitically robbing and perverting their vocabulary, then they will never be able to see the world accurately. That blindness will be lethal.

Your Correspondent, Slow down sir! You’re going to give yourself skin failure!

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

‘Review’ of Captive to Christ, Open to the World by Brian Brock

Reviewing a book by a friend is a difficult thing, because you are already pre-disposed to like it. Reviewing a book by your PhD supervisor is practically impossible, because even if you don’t like it, you have to pretend you do (for a few years at least). So don’t think of this as a review. Think of it as an introduction to a book I think you should read. Because I really do like it.

Brock - Captive to Christ, Open to the World

In the introduction to Captive to Christ, Open to the World, Kenneth Oakes, the editor, shares one of the questions that Brian introduced him to: Who, exactly, owns the moon? Oakes beginning with the question about who owns the moon is totally appropriate. Conversations with Brian can be dangerous things. He reminded me with glee this week how one time last year, in a class full of undergraduates, a conversation with him ended up with me espousing an especially insane position whereby I advocated the murder of all the deer in Dublin. I never had any problem with deer, but I had serious problems with how I thought of animals. Brian’s conversations revealed that.

So the great strength of this book is that it is a collection of 8 conversations that we get to listen in on. The first two are conversations with Dutch theologians. The final 6 are conversations with Jacqueline Broen, who is now one of Brian’s doctoral students but back then was doing a masters in environmental theology. Like a conversation with Brian, this book is entertaining and illuminating and connections are made that you never realised were there.

The first chapter is a sort of introduction to the Brockian theological project, rotating around questions about his first book Singing the Ethos of God. I very much appreciated these sentences as a sort of summation of the key problem to be addressed by Christian ethics:

the way the theological academy teaches us to conceive our relationship to Scripture makes it difficult, if not impossible, to find our way from Scripture to the ethical questions of our real, lived lives, and conversely, we are taught that the people who are quite obviously doing this (like the Bible-believers I grew up with) were not doing so in an academically respectable manner.

So our job as theologians is to retrieve what we have lost. Earlier Christians could read Scripture and do theology hand in hand, they did their ethics as a form of theological commentary.

In the second chapter the conversation moves on to the topic of Brian’s second book Christian Ethics in a Technological Age. That is a sprawling giant of a text, full of meandering, illuminating conversations with philosophical and theological heavyweights. But in the new book, you get a sort of heavily compressed, verbal account of what is going on in that book. Technology is the repetition of the gesture by which Adam and Eve fashion coverings out of fig-leaves. It is our response to feeling the world is chaotic. Modern technology is a “fig-leaf reflex.” That is some deep theology pressed into a phrase.

This second chapter sees Brian speak about his relationship to Stanley Hauerwas, the technological wonders that mean that his son has survived leukaemia and the sharp end of our technological age. That sharp end is revealed when we consider how it is increasingly difficult to even conceive of the question that Christian ethics is about, namely: “How do we receive God’s sustenance?” My office-mate Taido joked yesterday that all the food in our local Tesco comes in plastic pods. In a world so habitually specialized, it is an imaginative effort to pray “Give us this day, our daily bread” and for those words to have meaning.

Chapters 3 through 8 are more general in nature, often discussing issues local to Aberdeen or St. Andrew’s and mostly hovering near an environmental agenda. But the range of issues touched upon is sort of staggering. What does it mean to do theology in a secular society (“in a public context you don’t have to make theological arguments all the time”), how church should relate to the world (“God does have something to give to us … the world needs the church to know who that God is.”), the utter dependence on cheap energy that gives our life shape, and how the false freedom of the market is revealed by a trip to Burger King are just some of the branches explored.

This book isn’t quite “Brian Brock for Dummies”. As I say, it is like over-hearing a conversation over coffee between him and other academics. As such, Nietzsche and Kant are referenced in answers. But so too are Donald Trump’s scandalous Aberdeenshire mis-adventures in environmental devastation for the sake of golf. It will tax the average Christian reader, but it will be richly rewarding. You’ll get a sense of how theology is done in Aberdeen: in worship, in dialogue with the world, in humility. You’ll better understand why my thesis or subsequent work won’t “solve” the problem of being wealthy westerners. And the reason why it won’t offer solutions isn’t just that I am nowhere near smart enough to do it. Rather, you’ll begin to see that to expect a “solution” falls short of what it means to be Christian. The theological ethicist’s job is “to allow theology to generate a different set of questions.” You’ll begin to see how the quest for Biblical principles that is so rampant in Christian discourse can be a way to evade God. After all, once we have the principles, we can discard the Bible and the living, active God. You’ll come to better understand what Brock means when he says that the core responsibility of the theologian is:

to teach students how to think and speak with one another as Christians.

Theology is no mere study. It is service to our neighbour as an act of worship. The goal is not to discover some ineffable truth and make it merely effable! It is truthful speech in love. It is action. It is service. It is worship.

Captive to Christ, Open to the World is, as such, a strange, different, curious little gem of a book.

Your Correspondent, His parents missed Woodstock, and he’s been making up for it since.

Asking In Your Neighbour, Praying in the Rain

Doing theology without friendship would be like making those little World Wildlife Fund toy pandas in a factory that pollutes rivers with mercury. It would contradict itself. Thankfully, Aberdeen is a place where the practices of making friends is woven into the day-to-day schedules of our lives so that we pray together and study together but also eat together and drink together and play football together.

The teaching staff are in on the act too and it has been a surprise to me that they actively pursue friendship with students – not just graduate students but even the lowly, meager, humble undergrads. My supervisor, Brian Brock, recently recorded an interview with a friend who started out as a student of his called Arni Zachariassen. Arni is Faroese and studied theology at Aberdeen. In the interview he and Brian (primarily) talk about disability theology. It is well worth 52 minutes of your time. You can get it at Arni’s website Theologues.

The conversation notionally begins with an explanation of Brian’s latest book which was intended to be a “critique of academic ethics as a sort of ivory tower discipline.” I’ll get around to writing a proper review of that book here before long, but even better than reading my waffle is listening to Brian and Arni.

When explaining the Christian response to disability in the interview, Brock has a lovely sentence:

The presence of those who can never aspire to be the icons of perfection and beauty for various reasons, actually draws us back to the essence of the Gospel.

This reminds me of my favourite sentence in the new book:

I would be very pleased to see the language of leadership drop entirely out of Christian discourse as well as executive management models, and I hope I’m not the only one who finds the language of ‘executive pastor’ physically nauseating.

– Brock, Captive to Christ, Open to the World, 105.

Very often, church members and even church leaders avoid “serious” theology because they think it is removed from their daily life. The thought processes at work make a sort of sense. They only have a set amount of time and energy and attention which is taxed and tempted and seduced from all sorts of angles. In such a world, simple, targeted books offering a 7 step guide to success or the distillation of Biblical principles seem like wise investments. (Even worse, some people skip books entirely and live off blogs.)

But the danger of such an approach isn’t just that those 7 steps lead you nowhere or that those Biblical principles are inventions, but that by reading things off the shelf we never get around to exploring the questions we need to wrestle with. The kind of “wrestling” we do is just short-circuiting. Too often, if we’re honest, we find ourselves asking the wrong questions, in the wrong way, and getting the wrong answers. The aversion to theology may be understandable from one perspective because so much theology is artlessly and obtusely written. It can be dry. But without theology, we end up swallowing crap.

For example: just trusting the best-selling authors that write for Zondervan (for example (a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire)) to help you navigate what it means to live as a Christian here and now will leave you blind to the connection between the (bogus) obsession with “leadership” and “management” and the inability to address disability in our midst. In that blindspot, we cannot see the disabled in our midst. In other words, in that blindspot, we are disabled. There is something about admitting that we aren’t able to manage on our own, that we have to be led, that we are not icons of beauty, perfection, or holiness that is a pre-requisite for Gospel transformation. Brock finds language of executive management leadership “nauseating”. It’s a funny exaggeration. Or it is the truth – we are reeling and incoherent as Christians in part because we value things that are value-less and leave our treasures neglected.

So listen to this podcast of two thoughtful Christians talking about disability, technology and the Christian life. Then consider whether it might be really wise to pick up some theology at its source. If you’ve never read Hauerwas, go buy A Peacable Kingdom. If you’re interested but terrified by Barth, check if the library has Dogmatics in Outline. If you really don’t have the energy, pop down to your local Veritas shop and pick up Michael Paul Gallagher’s tiny, explosive “The Disturbing Freshness of Christ“.

None of that theology is dry. And all of it will help you identify the crap.

Your Correspondent, Savours the joys of mortgaging his future