Saturday, April 20, 2019

When truth, justice, and mercy meet

I really enjoyed the novel, The Day of the Lie, by William Brodrick. The central character is Father Anselm, who is a monk and lawyer. He becomes involved in a case in post-communist Poland, which struggles to find justice and healing after forty years of a police state which was riddled with informers, surveillance, torture, and murder of political prisoners. There are many unexpected twists and turns in the story. Who informed on who? Why? Who was a double agent? But it is really much more than a crime/political thriller. Brodrick is particularly gifted at capturing the nuance of dialogues, inner thoughts, conflicted feelings, and the complexity of relationships. Moreover, the novel wrestles with significant issues of justice, mercy, and redemption, particularly in the context of a society that needs to recover from decades of injustice. These issues are germane to many countries today set in post-conflict, whether Rwanda, South Africa, or Iraq.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Mental health in a fallen creation

The Garden of Eden in Genesis 1-2 represents God's ideal. There is harmony between God and humanity, between male and female, and between humans and nature. There is no struggle for survival. There is no shame. Everything in the creation is good.

Yet this is not the world we live in.
People are alienated from God: they lose identity, purpose, and hope.
Men and women are in conflict.
Work is hard and stressful. It is usually a struggle for survival.
Humanity is alienated from nature.
People are ashamed.
Violence (physical, sexual, and verbal) is prevalent. Violence easily escalates and is passed on to the next generation.
The mind is corrupted. People believe lies, including about themselves.
Disease and death are present.

This is the world introduced in Genesis 3: the fallen creation. Adam and Eve believe a lie: they can be like God: be rulers and know everything. They rebel and experience the consequences: the world described above, a world of alienation.

Mental illness is part of the fallen creation. Depression is characterised by a lack of hope.

The Bible does not present a simplistic or reductionist view of what a human is. The description in terms of ``mind, body, heart, and soul'' is not dualist or even quadralist! Rather the Bible presents a holistic Hebrew perspective that being human and being whole is multi-faceted. Hence, mental health requires an integrated approach. The causes are complex. The solutions are complex. There are spiritual, biochemical, social, and psychological dimensions to be addressed. These dimensions often interact with one another, either constructively or destructively. Healing and prevention may require a blend of prayer, counseling, drugs, exercise, diet, supportive relationships, community building, and lifestyle changes.

The mandate for Christians is to bind up the broken hearted, heal the sick, and set the prisoners free.

Friday, March 29, 2019

What is a university for?

On Saturday I am giving a talk in Sydney on this question at the annual Write conference organised by the Simeon Network of Christian academics. The talk is based on a paper that will appear in May in the journal IFES Word and World.

Two papers that are helpful were written by Professor David Ford of Cambridge.
They are here and  here.

Monday, March 11, 2019

What does Jesus death on the cross achieve?

Tonight at the theology reading group we are discussing ``The Nature and Basis of Salvation,'' chapter 11 of Christian Theology: An Introduction, by Alister McGrath.
The chapter explores different perspectives through history on what the death of Jesus on the cross achieved and what is the meaning and nature of the salvation that is linked to his death and resurrection.

McGrath helpfully points out that it is hard to separate the question of ``What did Jesus achieve?" from the questions of ``Who is Jesus?" and ``What is the nature of humans and what do they need?''



Some view the cross of Christ as only exemplary and subjective, i.e. it provides an example and inspiration for humans to be willing to suffer, particularly for a greater good beyond themselves. In contrast, an objective ontological view is that the cross achieves something objective (makes salvation possible); it actually changes reality.

There are different models and metaphors for the cross and what it achieves including that it is a sacrifice for sin, a victory over sin and evil, a provider of forgiveness, and a demonstration of God's love. Most of the writers McGrath that engages with seem to exclusively favour just one of these over the others. I find this a little strange; why can't they all be true? There are many dimensions to what the cross achieves. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This seems to be similar to the view taken by John Stott in his classic book, The Cross of Christ. The challenge, as always in theology, is to find a balance in emphasis between the different dimensions. Furthermore, the cross represents a profound mystery and so any ``model'' will be limited by human language and concepts.

There is also a range of views about what is the nature of the salvation that Jesus offers: reconciliation with God, reconciliation with others, deification (being made divine, particularly favoured in Eastern Orthodox theology), imputed righteousness, personal holiness (Wesley), authentic human existence (Tillich), spiritual freedom, and political liberation (Boff, Gutierrez).
Finally, when it comes to the appropriation of salvation, what is the balance between an extremely Western individualistic conception of personal faith and a communal and institutional conception, as extremely embodied in the Roman Catholic church. Again, the challenge is to find a balance in emphasis between the different perspectives.

One thing in the chapter that was completely new and intriguing for me was the views of Rene Girard, an anthropologist, who claimed that desire, violence, and scapegoats were integral to humanity, to religion, and the sacred. Girard states "Mine is a search for the anthropology of the Cross, which turns out to rehabilitate orthodox theology". For the context and extensive bibliography see here.

It is arguable whether this chapter would be better after chapter 14, which concerns human nature and sin. Most of those who deny the saving power of the cross (particularly Enlightenment writers) do so because they don't think people need to be saved (i.e. they are basically good) and deny that human reason is not corrupted.

This leads to a broader issue that is discussed by McGrath: the influence of historical and cultural context on people's theology. Living in contexts as wide-ranging as Hellenistic philosophical debates, a military dictatorship in Latin America, upper middle-class North America today,  or Catholic Germany at the time of Luther, do have an influence, for better or for worse, on the theological emphases and formulations that they produce.

Most importantly, the chapter would be more helpful if there was a deeper engagement with key Bible passages, particularly those that are hard to reconcile with some of the narrow views advocated by some of the writers reviewed. This is where Stott's book is helpful.


Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece. Karl Barth wrote most of his Church Dogmatics, with a reproduction of this in view.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

A theology of weakness

Today I am giving a talk, A Theology of Weakness, at Theology on Tap in Brisbane.
The slides are here.

I refer to a helpful journal article Wisdom and Weakness by Francis Young. I thank Vinoth Ramachandra for bringing it to my attention.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Reconciliation: one personal encounter at a time

On saturday night my wife and I went to see The Green Book. Today I heard that it got Academy Award for best film!
 I thought it was excellent and would highly recommend it. It is the heart-warming story of a very unlikely friendship, that between a coarse Italian American nightclub bouncer and a refined African-American pianist. As they travel through the Deep South of the USA in the 1960s they encounter blatant racism, harassment, and discrimination. This provides the backdrop for them to bond, learn from each other, change and adapt.

The movie has many lessons about human nature and aspirations. We all yearn for close personal relationships, for identity, for justice, and for righteousness. Yet we are capable of incredible cruelty and violence, particularly when we encounter those different to us, and/or those who threaten our power and lifestyle. We ourselves are also sometimes the obstacle to our aspirations.


One of the criticisms/controversies about the movie is the claim that it is in the white saviour genre trope, where a white person saves a black person/community. There are certainly too many movies in this genre, such as one I recently saw. However, I would not characterise Green Book that way. In contrast, the two characters have a mutually beneficial relationship.

Some of this is discussed in an article in Variety, Is Green Book woke enough? by Owen Gleiberman.
Those who are woke claim, through their very wokeness, to have allegiance to one thing: the transcendent morality of their cause. Yet woke culture, as practiced in America in 2018, also carries an undercurrent of competition. As in: How woke are you? Not as woke as me! I’ll see you one courageous, self-lacerating woke insight and raise you two! In this atmosphere of a never-ending contest of righteous one-upmanship fought out on Twitter, the middlebrow Hollywood liberal attitudes on display in “Green Book” can look like something from a vanished world of movies that pretend to liberate but really just pander. “Green Book” has been condemned, in certain circles, as if it were a racially stodgy and unenlightened embarrassment — the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” of 2018 awards bait. It has been called a white-savior movie — though, in fact, it is not. (The two characters save one another, which is a very different thing.) 
Again we see the yearning for justice and righteousness.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Start with emphathy

When I encounter new ideas and new social movements my first reaction is analysis and critique. This probably stems from being an intellectual, being male, and being a reflective personality. When I was newly married I went out for lunch with an older married friend and he gave me one piece of advice about relating to my wife, ``sympathy before solutions".  This eventually became a catch cry in our family. However, I think this idea has much broader implications, particularly in living as a Christian.

For all their faults, it is striking and challenging that Job's friends actually sat and wept with him for days before they presented their "solutions" to the suffering of Job. They entered his pain.
When Jesus saw the crowds, "he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless.'' He did not immediately lecture them about their "poor life choices" or their "wrong theology". There are countless scriptural examples from the Old Testament prophets to the letter of James that rebuke God's people for not listening to the cries of the oppressed.

Everyone has a story. Everyone's life has produced a rich raft of experiences, with a diverse mix of joy, pain, disappointment, struggle, ... These experiences shape their world view and response to their circumstances.
Many of my experiences are probably quite different. In particular, although my life has not been devoid of pain or struggles, I have had a privileged existence as a wealthy white male living in one of the most privileged countries in the world. I really don't know what it is like to be a Dalit, to live in a slum, to be an African-American living in the southern USA, to be a refugee, to live under military dictatorship in a poor Latin American country, to be a Muslim in Australia, to be a woman who has been sexually assaulted, ...

So when I encounter issues such as liberation theology, #metoo, economic inequality, racism, immigration, ... a challenging starting point is to listen and try and put myself in the shoes of those who cry out. What is their experience? What is their pain? How does that affect their perspective?
That does not mean I have to agree with absolutely every single detail of their agenda, their perspective, their claims, their politics, their theology, their methods, ....

In discussing the idea of "double listening" John Stott says
For the voices of our contemporaries may take the form of shrill and strident protest. They are now querulous, now appealing, now aggressive in tone. They are also the anguished cries of those who are suffering, and the pain, doubt, anger, alienation and even despair of those who are estranged from God. I am not suggesting that we should listen to God and to our fellow human beings in the same way or with the same degree of deference. We listen to the Word with humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to believe and obey it, but to sympathise with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it. . . .
The Contemporary Christian: An urgent plea for double listening, page  28.