Friday, March 16, 2018

Latest talk on Science and the Bible

Tonight I am giving a talk on "Science and the Bible" to FOCUS, a Christian group for international students at UQ. I look forward to a lively Q&A session.

The slides for the talk are here.

Monday, March 5, 2018

What I learnt from early church history

Here I want to go back and review some of what struck me from the Early Church history course.

The early church lived and grew in a context of a violent society.
The Romans maintained their power and the stability of their empire violently. Christians were persecuted as a threat to the empire and an object of ridicule for their weakness.
This video graphically illustrates this.  (Warning: it is violent!)

This violent environment was true until 313 AD when the Edict of  Milan by the two Emperors [Constantine (West) and Licinius (East)] freedom of conscience in worship. In 380 AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.

How did Christianity spread so widely and effectively throughout the Graeco-Roman world?

In 1917 T. R. Glover, a Cambridge University lecturer, published The Jesus of History, which examined this question and included the following much-quoted sentences on page 71:
Here we touch what I think one of the greatest wonders that history has to show. How did the Church do it? If I may invent or adapt three words, the Christian "out-lived" the pagan, "out-died" him, and "out-thought" him. He came into the world and lived a great deal better than the pagan; he beat him hollow in living....
Appreciating the violent context of the early church one can also better appreciate the context of the Book of Revelation. It is not some secretly coded prediction about the course of world history. Rather, it is a call for Christians to persevere faithfully in the face of suffering and persecution. Justice will be done. The humble and faithful will be vindicated. The rich, powerful, arrogant, and violent will be judged.

The limitations of language.
Concepts such as the Trinity and the co-existing divine and human natures of Jesus are so profound, complex, and subtle that any short statement is going to be somewhat inadequate, lacking some completeness and precision. That does not mean that we should not try. But, we should be humble and be mindful of the limitations.

Doctrine does matter.
Ideas and beliefs have consequences.
For example, the Donatist controversy, became entangled with differing
ideas about the nature of salvation and qualifications for church leadership.
This affected very practical and personal matters such as
who was allowed to remain in leadership and whether Christians who had
failed in the face of persecution were allowed back into fellowship.

Doctrines can divide.
Furthermore, personalities and power struggles an become entangled with disagreements about beliefs. People become so enraged at their opponents that they will resort to violence.

Hairsplitting about words?
The Arian controversy came to a head in the Council of Nicea in 325 and concerned the true nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son. In was encapsulated in a preference for
homoiouios [similar substance/essence]
homoouios [same substance].
The only difference between the two words is the letter i [iota] in the middle.
This is arguably the origin of the common phrase used today “it does not make one iota of a difference.”
The Arians [anti-Arians] claimed the Son was of “similar” [same] substance as the Father.

The disjuncture between belief and practice, i.e. hypocrisy.
Divisions about doctrine, sometimes about subtle wordings, even led to violence. For me the most striking and disturbing was the case of a bishop who was murdered at the altar following a council debate.

The mixed legacy of Constantine.
Following his conversion in AD 312 the emperor changed his attitude to the church. He eventually made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. This totally changed the nature and role of the church. Constantine changed the status of the church from a poor marginalised and persecuted community to a well resourced and respectable institution with strong links to government. Prior to Constantine, becoming a Christian or a church leader could lead to suffering and an early death. The church had no money or buildings. After Constantine, becoming a Christian or a church leader could lead to prosperity and social status. The church eventually had significant buildings and wealth.
On the one hand, the stability and resources provided by Constantine, helped the church consolidate, spread, develop institutions, and facilitate theological debate, writing, and publishing.
On the other hand, the church lost its identification with the marginalised, had to struggle with the corrupting forces of wealth and power, and was no longer purified by persecution. (Note, these were things that were all central to the life and teaching of Jesus).
This era does provide insights into the complexities of the appropriate relationship between the church and governments. Christians should be wary of what they might aspire to.

There is nothing new under the sun.
On the one hand, ancient controversies associated with Gnosticism, Docetism, Marcionism, Donatism, … may seem a long way from today’s issues. On the other hand, the core issues of some of these controversies are not so far away. Given our common humanity and frailty, we do keep repeating mistakes. On the positive side, we can also learn from the wisdom and "best practise" of the past.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

God's global mission

I liked this talk by the late Paul Joshua, an Indian theologian.
One great line is "Today the average global Christian is not a white male in the West, but a woman in the slums of the East."

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Learning from Historical Theology

A few years ago I took a short course on Early Church History.
I am now re-engaging with this topic because in the theology reading group we are reading through Historical Theology by Alister McGrath.

McGrath emphasises the distinction between church history and historical theology.
The latter is concerned solely with ideas and intellectual issues.
Theology is basically the study of God. How does one understand God and talk about
In contrast, church history has a broader concern with events, personalities, and institutions. It considers how the ideas were influenced by these and visa versa.

Why do church history and historical theology matter?

Much of what Christians believe today has been shaped by this early period.
The canon of scripture was defined and the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds were formulated then. This shaped ideas about the divinity of Christ, sin, the Trinity, grace, methods of interpretation of scripture, church structure, sacraments …

McGrath quotes Karl Barth
"With regard to theology, we cannot be in the church without taking responsibility as much for the theology of the past as for the theology of the present day. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher and all the others are not dead but living. They still speak and demand a hearing as living voices, as surely as we know that they and we belong together in the church." 
We can learn much from the past. Some of the early theologians were brilliant minds and some lived exemplary lives. Augustine has had a significant influence on philosophy as well as theology.

Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.
This is a painful and tragic truth that happens in the church, politics, science, and personal life again and again.

Theology always occurs in a context: social, cultural, political, economic, intellectual, .. We cannot deny that the context has an influence on the issues discussed, controversies,
emphasis and neglect, language, method, …
However, that does not mean that the context is determinative or that the ideas or statements produced are or are not relevant in other contexts.
Somehow we have to discern what is and what is not relevant in our own contexts.
Christianity is global and historical. Consider these very different contexts:
1. the persecuted church in the third century of the Greco-Roman world
2. upper middle-class Australia today
3. slum dwellers in Latin America in the 1970s under military dictatorships
4. Dalit Christians in India today.

Finally, at least for some of us, the topic is fascinating and stimulating.

Last week we covered the Patristic period (approx. 100-451 AD). Here is the chapter and a short introduction to the corresponding chapter in another McGrath text.

Later I will review some of what struck me from the reading and from the Early Church history course.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Why societies need a free press

I really enjoyed the movie, The Post, which is based on the role that the Washington Post, and particularly the Publisher Katharine Graham, played in publishing the Pentagon Papers after the Nixon White House obtained a court order stopping the New York Times from doing so.

One intriguing aspect of the movie was it showed how much the world has changed since 1971, particularly with regard to technology and gender issues.

Newspapers and secret military documents were all hard copies. This made stealing, copying, and distributing the latter difficult. Articles were written on typewriters and newspapers were mechanically typeset. Photocopies were done page by page. The only phones were land lines and pay phones.
It is a long way from today's fast-paced and highly connected world of the internet, email, Wikileaks, and mobile phones.

The journalists and politicians were largely middle-aged white males. The movie shows what a pioneer Katharine Graham was and how hard it was for her to be taken seriously. She had the added obstacle that she had been belittled as a child and as a wife and so struggled to overcome her low self-confidence. Meryl Streep brilliantly shows this increasing confidence. The movie also shows how Graham became much admired by younger women.

The movie briefly mentions how Graham's husband died by suicide, leaving her to take over the newspaper. It does not discuss the associated mental health issues.

The main issue in the movie is resolved by a 6-3 ruling of the US Supreme Court, which allows further publication of the Pentagon papers. Justice Black wrote:
In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.
Some of this is quoted in the movie. I also recommend the earlier movie, The Pentagon Papers, which focuses on the role of Daniel Ellsberg who was the source of the leak to the New York Times and the Post.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Where did universities come from?

This video nicely answers the question, showing how many universities, even in the non-Western world, had origins that were rooted in the church, mission, theological education, and service.

Today many of these universities have quite different goals and values. Some seem to want to deny their origins or are embarrassed by them.
Important questions that this raises include:
Are these origins irrelevant today?
Has something been lost?
Are the many problems universities do have today, particularly those associated with the focus on money, metrics, management, and marketing, due to the loss of a theological basis for their mission?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A classic movie confronts anti-intellectualism

During the holidays my family watched the classic 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, loosely based on the infamous Scopes trial, held in 1925 in the USA.

Only after I watched the movie and read the associated Wikipedia page did I learn that the movie was not meant to be so much about the issue of Evolution vs. Fundamentalism. But rather was meant to cast a poor light on McCarthyism, which was happening around the time the movie was made.

There is much in the movie that one could be concerned about, particularly from a Christian point of view. First, it is not historically accurate. This problem and all the nuances of the trial were discussed in detail in the Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Summer for the Gods, by Edward J. Larson.
Second, the Christians in the movie are "red-necks" who come across as unthinking and unfeeling. On the other hand, unfortunately, there are Christians who do act like some of the characters in the movie.

The title of the movie is based on Proverbs 11:29

Whoever brings ruin on their family will inherit only wind, and the fool will be servant to the wise.

This is quoted during a powerful and tragic scene when a fundamentalist preacher verbally attacks his own daughter.