Sunday, February 27, 2011

The cross is a scandal for modernism

I am really enjoying reading Miroslav Wolf's book, Exclusion and Embrace.
I particularly like the way the following passage describes modernism and contrasts it to the implications of a world view centred in the Cross of Jesus Christ:
The inner logic of the cross demands acceptance of two interrelated beliefs that are deeply at odds with some basic sentiments of modernity. First, modernity is predicated on the belief that the fissures of the world can be repaired and that the world can be heeled. It expects the creation of paradise at the end of history and denies the expulsion from it at the beginning of history. ... Before the dawn of God's new world, we cannot remove evil so as to dispense with the cross.. None of the grand recipes that promise to mend all the fissures can be trusted. Whatever progress actually does take place, it also "keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of the feet" of the angel of history, as Walter Benjamin wrote..
Second, modernity has set its high hopes in the twin strategies of social control and rational thought. "The right design and the final argument can be, must be, and will be found", is modernity's credo (Bauman, 1993)... The "wisdom of the cross", to the contrary, teaches that ultimately salvation does not come either from the "miracle" of the right design or from the "wisdom" of the final argument (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). We cannot and ought not dispense with "design" and "argument"... But, ...[they] themselves will themselves need to be healed by the "weakness" and "foolishness" of the self-giving love. This "weakness" is "stronger" than social control and this "foolishness" is "wiser" than rational thought.

Collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge in 1940 due to a design flaw.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Does the Mars Hill address endorse natural theology?

In Acts 17 there is a famous speech of Paul in Athens where he identifies with the local residents, beginning with their "unknown God" and moves towards proclaiming the Risen Christ. I was recently asked whether this passage provides support for natural theology, particularly because it starts with a "point of contact" with the non-believers. How does this relate to my previous post, promoting Karl Barth's perspective, that one should move from faith in Christ to faith in the Creator, rather than the reverse.

I looked to see what Barth's perspective is on Paul's speech and found the following discussion. I include some of the preceding material because it helps put Barth's position in context. I am not sure I completely follow his argument, but it does seem to emphasize that one cannot separate natural theology from Christology. Furthermore, much is hidden unless the self-revealing God discloses himself.
We cannot conclude this whole discussion, however, without some indication at least of what kind of faith it is that, as faith in Jesus Christ, contains within itself the knowledge of the secret of creation, the Creator and the creature... is the presupposition on which Jesus Christ becomes the known quantity in face of which the reality and relationship of Creator and creature cannot remain hidden from us.....
Faith in Jesus Christ is a life in the presence of the Creator. No matter who or whatever else is there for the believer in Him, there can be no doubt that Jesus Christ is there for him as the Creator: an absolute new beginning brought about by God; an absolute new beginning of his existence; an absolute new beginning of all things; an authority which is posited basically and decisively before all others; a power which has not only illumined and altered and improved his whole reality but completely transformed it....  
...according to Mt. 1125, Jesus addresses God as "Father, Lord of heaven and earth," and praises Him as such, "because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight." It is the act of the good-pleasure of the Lord and therefore the Creator of heaven and earth that there is this concealment on the one side and disclosure on the other. 
And reference to the need for a point of contact in natural theology is not enough to explain why, in his speech on Mars' hill, Paul described the God whom the Athenians worshipped but did not know as supremely the One who created the world and all that is therein, and then went on to say that this "the Lord of heaven and earth dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life and breath and all things." An address which is to close ( v. 31) with the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead must obviously begin with the creation, and there is no natural theology either in the one case or the other. In the New Testament to meet the Messiah Jesus is always implicitly or explicitly to meet the secret of God the Creator, and faith in Him always means acceptance of the secret of His presence. If we are not prepared to take account of this relationship it is difficult or impossible to realise either the fact or extent that faith in Him really contains within itself the knowledge of creation.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1: The Doctrine of Creation, pp. 31-34 

So my position would be something like the following. The non-believer observing the world around us should be in awe of its beauty and intricacy. This should lead to a questioning and searching for answers as to the meaning and purpose of it all. This might lead to an investigation to the person of Jesus Christ. But, such an investigation is not logically compelled by observations about the natural world. But, faith in Christ as a Saviour can then lead to an understanding of the natural world as a Creation with a purpose and meaning.

Such an approach is nicely taken in Alister McGrath's little book, Glimpsing the Face of God: The Search for Meaning in the Universe.

Light Echoes From Red Supergiant Star V838 Monocerotis – Hubble Space Telescope - October 2002

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Turning a blind eye to oppression and corruption

Thanks to Wikileaks and US diplomatic cables we can read in the New York Times all about the antics and corruption of the sons of "The Leader and Guide of the Revolution in Libya". It is easy to laugh and condemn until we acknowledge where all the money comes from. It comes from sale of oil to the West and "deals" with multi-national corporations such as Coca-Cola. Furthermore, it seems pop singers such as Beyonce and Mariah Carey seem to have been willing to accept very large sums of money to entertain the "dear leaders" offspring... 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Where the Cross leads

I have a joined a reading group at church (initiated by Luke Glanville) that is going to work through Miroslav Volf's book, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Otherness, Identity, and Reconciliation. This was listed by Christianity Today as one of the 100 most influential Christian books of the twentieth century.
Hopefully, I will post more in the future. Here is just a snippet. With regard to the metaphor of "embrace" Volf states (page 29):
the most basic thought that it seeks to express is important: the will to give ourselves to others and "welcome" them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgement about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Organised religion par excellence?

1 Chronicles 23-26 describes how King David organised the Levites, the Priests, the Musicians, the Gatekeepers, Treasurers, ... The magnitude and size of the organisation must have been very impressive. This is what many denominations, mega-churches, and Christian organisations aspire too! As some previous posts show I am an enthusiast of policies and procedures particularly with regard to accountability and finances.
But, how the mighty have fallen! Within generations this structure had fallen apart. Moreover, its actually goal, worship of the living God, had been lost. By the time of the boy King Josiah they did not even know there was a book of the Law! The perfect structure does guarantee the purity of our own thoughts and desires.

Even David knew the dangers, exhorting his son Solomon to watch his heart and mind:
9"And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will cast you off forever. 10Be careful now, for the LORD has chosen you to build a house for the sanctuary; be strong and do it."

Monday, February 21, 2011

The minority rules the majority

The majority of Christians in the world are now in the two-thirds world. The majority of missionaries are now from these countries. Yet, almost all books on mission are written by people from the west. What is a two-thirds world perspective on mission? Can anyone recommend such a book? It was recently suggested to me I should start reading the African Bible Commentary to get a different perspective. An extract can be read here.

Blood on his hands

This morning I read the following account in 1 Chronicles 22:
7David said to Solomon, "My son, I had it in my heart to build a house to the name of the LORD my God. 8But the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 'You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth. 9Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest. I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. 10He shall build a house for my name. He shall be my son, and I will be his father, and I will establish his royal throne in Israel forever.'
The image is of David's charge to Solomon, a woodcut from a book by Martin Luther.

I have often found this somewhat puzzling. What should we make of this? Perhaps the key is not to focus on the negative of David's reign (warfare, bloodshed, and judgement) but rather on the positive of Solomon's (rest and peace). YHWH, the God of Israel, is ultimately to be worshiped as a God of peace, rest, and redemption.

Also, it is one rare case where "peace and quiet" characterises the children rather than the parents!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How does cultural context shape theological education?

Theological education in the west occurs in a context of affluence and irreligion. In contrast in the two-thirds world theological education occurs in a context of poverty and religion. What difference should this make? Any ideas?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Investing for the Kingdom

A couple of years ago I read a fascinating article in Christianity Today about a US-based group MinistryWatch, that evaluates financial practices of Christian ministries. One thing they do is each publish a list of their 30 Shining light ministries, who they think are particularly honourable. They also publish a list of 30 donor alert ministries, which engage in dubious financial practices. [A minimum requirement is that the organisation should post an audited annual financial statement on a public website].
One noticeable thing is that in dubious list, 12 of the 30 have the leaders name in the name of the ministry (e.g. Benny Hinn). In contrast, this is the case for only one of the 30 Shining light ministries.
I wonder how groups in Australia would stand up to some of these standards?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Faith seeking understanding

One approach to arguing the case for Christian belief is to start with examining the natural world, argue its beauty and complexity must be due to a creator, and then move towards the case for faith in Christ. This is the domain and approach of natural theology, Intelligent Design, "creation evangelism", and a host of popular books...

I favour a different approach. Before discussing the details of his Doctrine of Creation, Karl Barth stresses that belief in Christ leads to belief in God as creator, rather than the reverse. Section 40, “Faith in God the Creator” has a distinct Christological focus, with the summary:

The insight that man owes his existence and form, together with all the reality distinct from God, to God's creation, is achieved only in the reception and answer of the divine self-witness, that is, only in faith in Jesus Christ, i.e., in the knowledge of the unity of Creator and creature actualised in Him, and in the life in the present mediated by Him, under the right and in the experience of the goodness of the Creator towards His creature.
Church Dogmatics 3.1, The Doctrine of Creation, p. 3

The four and twenty elders casting their crowns before the divine throne, by William Blake (1803-1805). Inspired by Revelation 4:

9And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
 11 "Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
   to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
   and by your will they existed and were created

Monday, February 14, 2011

Corporate sports journalism

It is well known that the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Belusconi owns newspapers, TV stations, the government, and a football team. Hence, one does not exactly expect his media outlets to provide objective coverage. (This is nicely chronicled in the book How Football explains the World.) But, nothing like that could ever happen in Australia, could it?

In most cities if your local football team won the league and had an unbeaten run of 25 games (the most in any football code in the history of the country!) you would expect to see a picture of them with their trophy on the front page, or at least the back page. However, I regret that did not happen this weekend in Brisbane, my hometown. Why would not the city newspaper The Courier Mail want to do that? Well it is worth reading a blog post, Our Premiership and not Yours by Michael Flynn on Four Four Two. A commenter on that post suggests the likely reason that the Courier Mail prefers to not cover real football, and instead fixates on the local rugby league (NRL) team, the Broncos:
The problem is, of course, that the city only has one paper, and that paper is owned by News Limited, and News Limited owns the Broncos...

Broncos as a result get more coverage then any other club in the country, Sydney NRL clubs individually don't get as much coverage in Sydney papers, Melbourne AFL clubs individually don't get the same level of coverage in Melbourne. Unless you live in Brisbane you really can't get your head around just how much over the top coverage the Broncos get here in Brisbane, and as a result the other clubs here struggle to get a look in.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The identity of the creator

In his wonderful book, Karl Barth, John Webster  gives a nice overview of the content, context, and significance of Barth's doctrine of Creation. He points out that Barth's doctrine is distinctly different from that of other modern theologians. Specifically, it is not apologetic. It is trinitarian. It is not prolegomena, i.e. it is not just introductory material to more substantial doctrine. Furthermore, Barth freed the doctrine from abstract debates about ``causality.'' The doctrine is “not simply an account of origins, the doctrine …. talks of the creator’s identity rather than of some opaque act undertaken by a nameless force.”

God separates light from darkness, Raphael (1518-1519).

The absolute standard of ethics

I have been reading though the book of 2 Kings which records the steady decline and eventual end of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. In describing the many different kings the assessment is either, "he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD" or "he did was right in the eyes of the LORD."
It is interesting to me that the text never says anything like, "he did was good for the people" or "he had a good heart but was a bit selfish" or "he was a much admired leader" or "he consistently applied his own ethical standard".
This also reminds me of how the period of Judges is described as
  In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Judges 21:25
The engraving is Josiah reads the Book of the Law aloud to the elders.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What Abraham could not see

5And he [the LORD] brought him [Abraham] outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." 6And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
Genesis 15

The above photo was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. I recommend looking at the amazing gallery of images. Indeed, my response is

 The heavens declare the glory of God,
   and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Psalm 19:1

Monday, February 7, 2011

The farce of science

Steven Weinberg is one of the worlds leading theoretical physicists. In 1979 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1977 he published a popular science book, The First Three Minutes: A modern view of the origin of the universe. [This a decade before Stephen Hawking made publishing such books an attractive option for prominent scientists.] The end of Weinberg's book is widely quoted because of the eloquence of its pessimistic atheism. I reproduce it here:
Some cosmologists are philosophically attracted to the oscillating model, especially because, like the steady-state model, it nicely avoids the problem of Genesis...
However all these problems may be resolved, and whichever cosmological model proves correct, there is not much of comfort in any of this. It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning....
It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.
But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things which lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.
Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (Basic Books, 1977), pages 154-155.

On one level I actually agree with Weinberg because his views resonate with the book of Ecclesiastes. Science without God is like "Life under the sun"; there is no point or meaning in the equations that describe the beginning of the universe. That meaning and purpose comes from outside science.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Freedom, rest and joy on the Sabbath

2And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. 
Karl Barth has an interesting exposition of this beginning of Genesis 2, all that it says about the Sabbath for man:
It is not a question of recuperation after a toilsome and well-done job. Even the Sabbath rest of man corresponding to the divine rest does not have this sense in the Old Testament, but means negatively a simple cessation and abstention from further work. The freedom, rest and joy of the Sabbath consist in the fact that on this day man is released from his daily work. On the Sabbath he does not belong to his work. Nor is it merely a question of having to recuperate from the work that lies behind him and to fortify himself for the new tasks that are ahead. On the Sabbath he belongs to himself.
Whether he be farmer, artisan, servant or maid, he is just the man who for six days had to be these things and to perform the corresponding tasks, but whose being and existence are more than all these things .... that his work cannot devour him but consists of steps towards this goal, is confirmed at the end of each week by the proffered freedom, rest and joy of the workless Sabbath which he is granted. It is this which gives perspective and depth, meaning and lustre, to all his weeks, and therefore to his whole time, as well as to the work which he performs in his time.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1: The Doctrine of Creation, page 214.

So on the Sabbath we can celebrate and enjoy that our work and employment (or lack of ) does not define us or have to consume us. There is freedom and joy in that.

The watercolour is God blessing the seventh day by William Blake.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Expect the unexpected

We all have pre-conceived ideas about how God should and should not act. A case in point is Naaman, as recorded in 2 Kings 5. He had definite ideas about the way that the LORD, the God of Israel, should heal him from his leprosy: it should be very dramatic.

10And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean." 11But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, "Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper.12Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?" So he turned and went away in a rage. 

The Prophet Elisha and Naaman, Lambert Jacobsz (ca. 1598-1636). I found this image at Biblical Art on the WWW, which is particularly useful because you can search under specific Biblical passages.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I believe in one world

I do believe the world exists. This may seem like a silly claim, but it engages with serious theological, scientific, and philosophical issues. Not only is the existence of God a contestable hyphothesis but so is the existence of the world.

In the Preface to Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics 3.1: Doctrine of Creation, the Editors Bromiley and Torrance state that Barth considers the radical position:
the supreme problem of theology is not the existence of God, as natural theology supposes, but the independent existence of creaturely reality.
Barth asserts that the whole doctrine of Creation is an article of faith, both that God exists and that the world [a creaturely reality independent of God] exists. Specifically, Barth writes:
the whole history of theology as a continuous fighting retreat in face of the irresistible advance of a rational and empirical science which on the very different grounds of a triumphant human self-conceit is quite sure of its subject. In preoccupation with only one side of the question, there has been a dangerous failure to realise that the question of creation is not less but even more concerned with the reality of the creature than that of the Creator. 
 Church Dogmatics 3.1: Doctrine of Creation, page 6.
When Barth wrote this more than sixty years ago, most scientists would have considered this quite silly. Today, logical positivists such as Richard Dawkins, would still take the view: the world is a non-contestable hypothesis, God is a contestable hypothesis. But not all scientists today have such a view.

Tony Leggett (who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2003) has thought long and hard about quantum theory and the picture of the world it presents. In a short article in Science, The Quantum Measurement Problem [Is Schrodinger's cat dead or alive?] he makes the intriguing statement: 
Personally if I could be sure we will forever regard Quantum Mechanics as the complete truth about the physical world I think I should grit my teeth and plump for [the view that] Quantum Mechanics is the complete truth (in the sense that it always gives reliable predictions concerning the nature of experiments) but describes no external reality.