Saturday, February 28, 2015

The end does not justify the means

My family is watching the final season of Foyle's War as it is currently available on ABC iview.
Foyle was a police detective in WWII, but after the war he works for the security agency, MI5. The cold war has begun and the UK government is trying to position itself in the Middle East. Besides the entertainment I like the show for several reasons.
It usually teaches some history and highlights diverse issues one may not hear much about: housing shortages after WWII, the difficulty of the Labour party of delivering on its promises of post-war construction, retrenchment of women who worked during the war, UK businessmen who supplied the Nazis, Nuremberg trial for German industrialists, anti-Semitism in the UK, ...
The show raises moral conundrums and ethical dilemmas.
It shows how Western governments get involved in or overlook dubious activities in order to promote their national interests, where business, oil,  or "security", ...

But, in the end, in the midst of all the complexities, I think Foyle does have a valuable and important message: "the end does not justify the means".


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Deconstructing the Trinity

I have found reading Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology by Colin Gunton rather challenging. On Monday we will discuss it at the theology reading group.
It is not easy reading, but at times I struggle to see why it all matters.
Here are a few rambling reflections.

Gunton mentions that the struggle to put something as profound at the Trinity into words can be constructive. It stretches and clarifies our thinking. But it pushes the words and concepts to their limits.

Yet, it can also be dangerous. First, we can delude ourselves that we actually fully understand something. Second, it can become unnecessarily divisive. History has certainly shown this to be the case. The words can mean different things to different people. Different emphases and balances take different priorities to others. Pride and misunderstanding can lead to confusion, conflict, and hostility.

After struggling through the opening chapters of the book I found it helpful to re-read the chapter on the Trinity in Alister McGrath's textbook Christian Theology: An Introduction.
Here are a few details I found helpful, particularly in understanding some of the key terminology.

homoousios vs. homoiosious
same substance vs. similar substance
The Father and the Son are of the same [similar] substance.
The former was adopted in the Nicene Creed [325 A.D.] after much debate.

Aside: The two terms only differ by an "i" or "iota", the smallest object in the Greek alphabet. Amusingly, this may be the origin of the phrase, "it makes not one iota of difference."

Filioque [and from the Son]. There was controversy about whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son.
This is one of the main differences between the Eastern vs. Western conceptions of the Trinity.

perichoresis. This describes the relation between each person of the Trinity.

The Economic Trinity. I tend to think "economic" means frugal or minimalist, but here it means "how the different parts relate to and interact with one another", just like economic/business relations between individuals, societies, and companies. It relates to the acts of the different persons of God in creation, redemption, salvation, and the personal experiences of believers.
It is the manner "in which we experience the diversity and unity of God's self disclosure in history".

The immanent trinity reflects the unity and diversity of God as it is in God.

The Cappodocians played a key role in the acceptance of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, which was formally endorsed in AD 381 by the Council of Constantinople.

Karl Barth was influential in stimulating renewed interest in the twentieth century in the Doctrine of the Trinity. He placed it at the beginning of his Magnus Opus, Church Dogmatics. He argued that it "undergirds and guarantees the actuality of divine revelation to sinful humanity."

Karl Rahner also played a key role, with the axiom, "The economic trinity is the immanent trinity, and the immanent trinity is the economic trinity.
I still don't really understand this.

It is all about balance. [page 79].
As in all theology, we are on a knife edge, or, we might say, a narrow path with precipices on each side. On one side, we deny the unity of God, and make it appear that there are three gods; on the other, we cause the distinctions of the three to disappear into some underlying undifferentiated deity.
What is the relation between God and the world? On the one hand God is sovereign and ruler of everything. All creation is completely sustained by God and completely dependent. Yet, on the other hand, human agents seem to be autonomous and can act independently. And the material world [ostensibly the creation] can be described and understood scientifically without reference to God. Is there a tension and/or contradiction? Gunton responds to the interaction of Robert Jenson [his Ph.D supervisor] with Jonathan Edwards. [page 95]
in connection with Jenson's query to Edwards' theology of Creation. `T[o] say that "God himself, in the immediate exercise of his power" is the creature' sole support and coherence, were we to take the proposition without trinitarian differentiation would cursedly threaten the distinct reality of creation' [Systematic Theology 2, page 41] The reason is that an authentically Christian theology must make two affirmations which so easily slip into contradiction of one another: that, First, God is the sole creator, and indeed, sole lord of what happens within that creations' history subsequent to its creation; and that, second, as creator and redeemer he is at the same time the one who gives to that creation its ... relative independence, ....
It is one reason of the modern world's rejection of the gospel that it has come to the conclusion that this is indeed the case. To affirm the world, and especially to establish the freedom of the human agent with in that world, it is has been thought necessary to deny God. That is almost an axiom of modern atheism, and indeed of much that affects to be a Chrsitain response to it.
Thus, a Trinitarian theology allows one to at the same time affirm the complete sovereignty of God the Creator and the independence of the creation.

Why does it matter? Should we care? Is it just word games?

Gunton has helped me see there are practical implications that do matter.

First, who are we? What is the meaning of a human person?
"God is one who has his being in communion" [page 15], following John Zizioulas. Similarly, with many careful qualifications, we only have our true being as persons in relation to others, in community. We do have a distinct individual identity but that cannot be defined or meaningful out of the context of relationships.

Second, the Trinity is all about balance. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of equal importance. Yet in the church today things tend to bifurcate to extremes. [page 79]
Conservative Reformed types barely mention the Holy Spirit, and focus solely on the Son, particularly on his redemptive death.
At the other extreme are Pentecostals, who are preoccupied with the Holy Spirit, often with little reference to the Son.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

When democracy and freedom are a sham

I highly recommend the movie Selma, based on the Selma to Montgomery marches that were key events in the USA civil rights movement, leading to passage of the Voting Rights Act, 50 years ago. It is moving, disturbing, and inspirational.



It seems hard to believe that only fifty years ago, it was virtually impossible for African-Americans to register to vote in southern states such as Alabama. Furthermore, peaceful protests were met with brutal violence. Yet that is true and so it is good to be confronted with it.

On the one hand, one can take comfort and encouragement from the fact that such blatant and systematic racial discrimination, intimidation, and violence no longer takes place. Furthermore, many African-Americans now hold political office, even President. On the other hand, it is very disturbing that there are still systematic/subtle attempts to stop certain social groups [mostly poor] from voting, through programs such as mandatory voter ID. And then there is police brutality, ....

Like any movie, based on historical events, the directors and writers have taken "creative" license to change some details, listed in great detail here.

The movie nicely captures how Martin Luther King Jr. was an inspirational figure, but human and struggling with fear, anxiety, relationships, and strategy. It also highlights the key role played by other leaders, such as Diane Lane, Andrew Young, John Lewis, and James Bevel.

Selma also highlights the dubious role played by the FBI who kept King and the movement under surveillance, including bugging their phones and sending intimidating letters and phone calls to King's wife.

The best quote in the movie: John Lewis says
‘I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam … and can’t send troops to Selma.” 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

I am unimpressed by public debt scare mongering

"If we don't drastically cut public spending we will all end up like Greece or Detroit".
Conservatives in Australia are often claiming this.

Yesterday, The Daily Telegraph, one of Rupert Murdoch's mouthpieces, ran a front page story, about a recent "report" from the accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers, claiming Australia is heading for a one trillion $ debt.


John Quiggin has an excellent blog post, critiquing this.
The first criticism is that this "report" is not even available to the public. If you are going to make such grandiose claims, and if a newspaper is going to report them, you need to make the document available so others can see the basis for the claim.

But, my main concerns are twofold.
First, Australia has one of the lowest debt to GDP ratios in the world. It is not even close to Germany or the USA, let alone Greece.

Second, I find highlighting these debt concerns by conservatives is inconsistent, insincere and hollow. Suppose there is an an impending crisis. Then we need to solve it. That means we need to cut all spending, including defence, middle class "welfare", tax breaks to business, dubious anti-refugee schemes [almost $1 million per person], politicians pensions, ....
and we need to increase revenue [i.e. increase taxes and cut tax avoidance].
Yet, I don't see that passion or concrete proposals in that regard.

If you look at the last Federal Government budget, there were proposals to significantly cut spending on education and health care, but proposals to significantly increase spending on other areas such as defence, medical research, paid parental leave, infrastructure projects favourable to large multinational corporations ....

Highlighting debt is just scare-mongering to achieve a different political and ideological agenda.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A common mistake newly elected politicians make

Arrogance.
Thinking that people have given them a mandate for any policy or action they come up with.
This mistake is shared by conservatives and liberals, regardless of the political party.

In my home state of Queensland we just had an election which just saw a massive swing against the government. At the previous election they held 78 out of 89 seats in parliament, the largest majority in Queensland history. Normally, governments with such majorities can survive at least one or two more elections. But, they did not. The Premier, Campbell Newman lost his own seat, along with 44 other members of his government.

What went wrong?

A chronicle of many of the controversial actions of the Newman government is here.

One commentator said:
a one-term government that ambushed the electorate with radical, unpopular and frequently confusing decisions driven by an arrogant and out-of-touch leader who was unable even to explain his agenda, let alone convince the voters of its merits.
But what is really going on in most elections in the Western world which are dominated by two political parties?

Roughly 70-80 per cent of the voters always vote the same way, regardless of the policies or performance of their favoured party. Then there are the 20-30 per cent of the population that are "swing voters". I think their votes are often negative not positive. They are disappointed in the current government and so vote against it. It is not that they are inspired by the policies or practices of the politician that they do vote for. Even if they agree with some of their policies they do not agree with all of their policies. Furthermore, it is increasingly common for politicians and parties, particularly in Australia, to actually campaign with few or just vague policies. After they are elected they then start to announce specific policies.

Yet, it seems to me a common assumption of newly elected governments is that they have a mandate for any and every policy they try to implement.
This is just arrogance.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Learning from past church history

Why do Christians believe what they do today? Where did current practices and institutions come from? How can we not repeat the mistakes of the past?

I am in a study group starting a short course on Early church history (up to about 600 AD), using a Moore College Correspondence course.

I thought this video was a nice introduction to the subject, both why the subject is important, and a few major events of the first century.



The second video in the series is here.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Biblical justice, reconciliation, and Majority world debt

My wife and I watched this excellent and challenging video. N.T. Wright first reviews the themes of justice in the Psalms and Jesus teaching on the Kingdom of God. Then he considers the case of Philemon and slavery. Finally, he makes a particularly insightful and poignant analysis of the problem of financial debt of the Majority world.