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.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Who is Jesus Christ?

The Christian doctrine of the person of Christ sets out to explore why the church believes that the little piece of human history called "Jesus of Nazareth" holds the key to the nature of God and of human destiny. This area of theology, often referred to as ``Christology'', sets out to locate Jesus of Nazareth on a conceptual map. It attempts to place him along the coordinates of time and eternity, humanity and divinity, particularity and universality, and answer the question of how an event which took place at a specific time and place can be relevant for all people and all times.
This is the beginning of a chapter in Christian Theology: An Introduction, by Alister McGrath. It is the subject of the theology reading group will be looking at this month.

I found the chapter particularly interesting and stimulating. It highlights the many different dimensions and richness to Christology. Human language and concepts are inadequate to simply give a definitive description of such a great mystery, inevitably leading to debates, controversies, and divisions. History also shows how certain ideas and debates keep resurfacing. I think some of the issue with such a complex subject is that different people want to emphasize different perspectives. The question is how does one find balance.

A few of the things I found particularly interesting in the chapter are the following.

It is debatable to what extent one can separate ideas about Christ, about salvation, and about human nature (Christology, soteriology, and anthropology). Charles Gore said, ``Inadequate conceptions of Christ's person go hand in hand with inadequate conceptions of what human nature wants... The Nestorian Christ is the fitting saviour of the Pelagian man.''
[This is an allusion to Nestorius who emphasised the humanity of Christ and saw Christ as largely a human example. Pelagius  considered humans capable of doing good without any divine help.]

A second insight concerns how Adolf von Harnack raised questions about whether the desire of the patristic writers (early church fathers) to interpret the Gospel in terms of Greek thought was helpful or not. In particular, he considered that the concern with abstractions, particularly in fine debates about the meaning of the incarnation, distorted the "simple" practical message of salvation and living that Jesus presented. I would agree that Harnack ultimately took this in unhelpful and extreme directions but it is an important question to consider.

Another helpful insight is to consider the diversity of terms/names used in the New Testament to describe Jesus: Messiah, Lord, Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, God, Word, ....
I would add Suffering Servant, Redeemer, and Rabbi.
Each adds a different dimension and perspective, highlighting the problem of a narrow reductionist or one-dimensional perspective that too many seemed to have advocated over the centuries.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Slow living in black and white

My wife and I watched (endured?) the movie Roma, which chronicles the life of a maid living with an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City in the 1970s. It is hard to know what to say. On the one hand, the photography (in black and white) is amazing. It encourages the viewer to slow down and engage with the moment, whether water going down a drain or the pain of betrayal. On the other hand, it is very slow! There is a social justice dimension but this was not as strong as I hoped. There is a certainly a message about how women cannot depend on men!
Perhaps for me, the most interesting thing was learning about the Corpus Christi Massacre; a black operations army group (trained in the USA) killed more than 100 student protesters. This was part of Mexico's "Dirty war".

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

What is the nature of morality without God?

If there is no God, how should we live? What are the foundations and framework for morality? How do we determine what is right and wrong?
Personal conscience, intuition, social consensus, utilitarianism, .... ? How do we decide?
Individuals must decide. Communities must decide, on both social expectations and legal requirements.
To me, the lack of clarity on this issue is one of the intellectual and practical problems with atheism.
In contrast, Christianity provides a clear foundation for ethics and morality. That does not mean that it is therefore true; just that this is an appealing feature.
I recently realised there is more to this issue.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis considers the problem of morality. In his characteristic clarity he introduces the analogy of a fleet of ships traveling to a destination.
There are three practical issues relevant to a safe and successful journey:

How do you make sure each individual ship is seaworthy?
How do you stop the ships from colliding with each other?
How do you decide on the destination and the route to get there?

A brief summary of Lewis on this is here.

The corresponding moral questions are:
How do individuals decide on their private morality? i.e. what they think and do when alone.
How should individuals interact with each other in a way that is not harmful to one another?
What is our moral vision for society? How do we head in that direction?

Most discussions of ethics and morality, and the relevance or not of God, focus on this second question. However, I now realise that a compelling attraction of Jesus is the vision he offers of a just and loving society, and he claims to offer the power to make it happen. This is the Kingdom of God he talked so much about.

For me competing visions from atheism, materialism, Marxism, neoliberalism, religious nationalism, ... are impoverished.

Jesus does not just offer a foundation for morality but a compelling vision for a moral society.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Weathering the storms of life in rural Australia

My daughter gave me a copy of the novel, The Dry by Jane Harper. It successfully achieves several things that one rarely sees in a novel: a captivating and clever murder mystery, wonderful prose, a story of people coming to terms with the trauma of their past, and a picture of life in a specific community: a small town in rural Australia suffering in a drought.
The novel was praised in a New York Times review.

Monday, January 28, 2019

What does theology have to do with a secular university?

I was asked to write an article ``What is a university for?'' for the journal IFES Word and World. Here is the current version. Comments welcome.
Here is a good video introduction.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Anger and isolation in the city

I enjoyed watching the movie Can you ever forgive me? based on the life of Lee Israel, a struggling writer who found "success" by forging and selling personal letters from famous authors.


The lead character is played well by Melissa McCarthy, who I am more used to seeing play buffoons.
It is a great story. But the movie also catches some of the angst, internal struggles, alienation, and anger of someone who is so alone because they just cannot get along with others.
God's ideal is that we live in community but we are too often our own worst enemies. We yearn for this too but others disappoint us and hurt us and so we lash out in anger and the spiral continues...
The cycle is only broken when grace, mercy, and forgiveness breaks through.