Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Barth on zoology in Genesis

Here is part of Karl Barth's reflection on Genesis 1:20-21 about the creation of bird and sea life.
There is as little zoological interest in this account as there is botanical in v. 11 f. or astronomical in v. 14 f. For instance, the question whether what we call amphibians are to be classed with fish, or whether insects are to be classed with birds, is quite irrelevant from the standpoint of this passage. It would thus be childish to press against the saga the question whether birds ought not to be classified with land animals in view of the fact that they too are warm-blooded creatures, and build their nests and brood and find nourishment on the earth. 
At this point, as at others, the Church fathers can only obscure what the passage is really trying to say when in their commentaries and sermons they try on the one hand to make use of all the natural science of their day, and on the other to attach to its constituent parts the most diverse edifying and naturalistic allegorisings: a greedy man being typified by the predatory fish; ideal nuptial love and fidelity by the viper and muraena; .......; the godlessness of worldly wisdom, etc., by the owl with its fear of light, etc. (Ambrose, Hex. V) 
If we are to understand the passage we must turn our backs resolutely on all scientific or pious considerations and look only in the two directions which it indicates, namely, the depth of the ocean and the height of the atmosphere, to learn that in these spheres too God has creatures and witnesses to His Word, so that when we look in these directions we need not feel strange or frightened, for here too and particularly God has creatures and witnesses to His Word in the form of independent living beings which are very unlike and yet very like man himself, who has been called to live in obedience to the same Word.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1: The Doctrine of Creation,  page 173

Monday, November 26, 2012

The poverty of proverbs

The Old Testament book of Proverbs contains much wisdom about life: relationships, money, work, speech,...
It can provide comfort and inspiration as we strain to achieve our Western middle class goals and aspirations.
But, perhaps we skim too easily over verses such as the following.
The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice. 
Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor. 
Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him. 
It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud. 
Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed. 
Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered. 
The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. 
Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor. 
Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty. 
Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, 
Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse. 
Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Does this sound like a modern political speech?

so long as it [the country] enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of peace, why should we worry?   What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place.  It is all right if the poor serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat and to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make use of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride; if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer them salutary advice; if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights; if kings are interested not in the morality but in the docility of their subjects; if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect. 
The laws should punish offences against another's property, not offences against a man's own personal character.  No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence,  against another's property, house or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his own, or with others, if they consent.  There should be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes, for the benefit of all those who prefer them, and especially those who cannot keep private mistresses.  It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink until they are sick; to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and of every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence. 
Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority:  he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living.
This "tongue in cheek" parody could be of many politicians in the Western world, both conservative or liberal, as they pander to our pagan whims and aspirations. 

However, this was was actually written 1600 hundred years ago by Saint Augustine as a parody of the pagan vision of Rome.
It is in City of God, Book II, Chapter 20.

Reading Augustine's City of God II

I enjoyed last weekends reading and discussion of Book II of Augustine's City of God. A few overiding impressions I was left with.
Paganism has little to offer.
You cannot build a society and community without justice.
Here are a few section headings which give the flavour of Augustine's argument.
Calamities befell the Romans when they worshipped the pagan gods before Christianity displaced them
Pagan gods had no moral teaching for their worshippers; in fact pagan rites were full of obscenities 
The conclusions of philosophers are ineffective as they lack divine authority. 
The Romans ought to have realised that gods who demanded obscene shows in their worship deserved no divine honours

Cicero and Scipio are invoked to press the point that one cannot have a commonwealth [=weal of the community] without justice. A community is
``not any and every association of the population, but "an association united by a common sense of right and a community of interest" (De Rep)''
The vicissitudes of history depend not on the favour or opposition of demons, but on the judgement of the true God. 
The evil spirits encourage crime by giving it the authority of their supposedly divine example.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The nightmare boss

My family have been watching BBC series The Brittas Empire on DVD.
It is ridiculous but amusing.
I am not sure it has much real social commentary. Perhaps, it is occasionally lampooning managerialism and bureacracy.

I think it is much better than The Office; I find both the US and UK versions tedious.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Are these gods worthy of worship?

This gives a nice overview of the Enuma Elish.
The contrast with Genesis is striking.
The gods get irritated at their noisy children. They are violent and in conflict. The sun and moon are gods; and lazy ones at that.
The earth is collateral damage from a heavenly battle.
Man's sole purpose is take care of the menial tasks the gods find tiresome.
Evil, chaos, and conflict is the reality.
Nothing is ever said to be intrinsically "good."

The violent chaotic creation of the Babylonian gods

This week I am in a study group that is going to contrast the Genesis creation accounts with the Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish. The goal is to have a greater appreciation of the Genesis accounts and the world that they directly addressed.
Here are a few preliminary observations.

The six days of creation in Genesis can be compared to the six generations of gods.
1. Tiamat and Apsu
2. Lahamu
3. Kishar
4. Anu
5. Ea
6. Marduk

There are some parallels [and significant differences] between the Babylonian gods and on what happens on the individual days. The main point is that the God of Israel, is greater and more powerful than these Babylonian gods.

1. Apsu is the god of water and Tiamat is the god of primeval chaos and associated with the sky and earth.
In Genesis, on the first day God creates the heaven and the earth, and overrules the formless void/darkness/watery chaos.

2. On the second day, God separates the waters to make sky and oceans.
Marduk slices Tiamat in two to make the land and sky.

6. Marduk makes man. In Genesis God makes man on the sixth day. But, Marduk makes man as a slave so that the other gods can rest. This is in striking contrast to Genesis where God rests, man is not a slave (but is meant to enjoy creation), and later humanity is instructed to rest.

Enuma Elish is concerned with the six generations of God.
Genesis is structured around eleven passages beginning with 'elleh toledot "these are the generations of" [Adam, Noah, Noah's sons, ....]

Overall there is a striking contrast. In the Enuma Elish, there are many competing gods. They are in conflict with one another. There is chaos, intrigue, and a lack of purpose. Humanity is subservient to the whims of these gods.
In contrast, in Genesis there is ONE supreme and all powerful God. Furthermore, this God is the one who has a covenant relationship with Israel. Humanity was created intentionally and has intrinsic merit and value.
The God of Genesis is so much greater than these fickle, struggling, overbearing, and immoral Babylonian gods.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

You don't have to be Einstein to understand this

Since October a message and set of photos including those here has gone viral on emails and blog posts with the following quote which is attributed to Albert Einstein.

"I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots."

I think the point is valid and the pictures are endearing [or pathetic or alarming?] and don't need to be backed up by the supposed authority of Einstein.

There is a further problem that there is no concrete evidence that Einstein ever said this. No source is provided. I did a search in The new quoteable Einstein and it yielded nothing.
In a similar vein see Out of all those quotes attributed to Einstein which ones are really his? How can you tell?

The issues this raises are similar to those in my earlier posts
John Piper plays chinese whispers with Einstein
Urban legends about science and religion

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Is Australia just a colony of the USA?

One thing that disappoints me about all Australian governments is the way they are so subservient to the USA government and "American" foreign policy and military interests. This was well illustrated during the Vietnam war.

Mr Harold Holt with President Lyndon Baines Johnson during the latter’s visit to Canberra on 21 October 1966. ‘All the way with LBJ’ had been President Johnson’s election slogan and Harold Holt’s use of the phrase during his visit to Washington in June 1966 created controversy in Australia.

 We sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan just because we were scared to say no to the US. Just because our interests aligned in WWII does not mean they do now. I also question the ongoing belief that in the long run violence/war solves rather than acerbates the complexities associated with terrorism and regional ethnic conflicts.

I was pleased to see that the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a speech last night questioning Australia's focus on pleasing the US rather than building harmonious relations with our Asian neighbours.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Biblical time is not scientific time

Genesis discusses the beginning of time. Furthermore, Genesis 1:14-18 describes the creation of the sun and the moon and implicitly the associated ordering of daily life.
What does this mean? How should we think about time?

Karl Barth suggests insight is gained by contrasting the Genesis account with the Babylonian myth, the Enuma elish.
Nor must we abstract from Gen. 1:14f. the fact that the history which it has in view, the content of the time which sun, moon and stars are created to measure, is not something indefinite, but the specific history of salvation which commences with the creation of light and receives its direction and purpose from the God of Israel. The relation of the creation of the heavenly bodies to chronology, and to that extent to history, is not unknown to the Babylonian myth, according to the fifth tablet of the Enuma elish.
But it is to be noted that in this case a metaphysical problem seems to be set in the forefront with the creation of the heavenly bodies. The sidereal world is supremely the abode of the great deities Anu, Enlil and Ea. And because the fundamental idea of Genesis is completely lacking, i.e., the separation of day from night as the action of sun and moon constituting time as day, all the emphasis falls, again with the precision of natural science, upon the phases of the moon dividing time into months- something which is not even mentioned in the present passage (note the complete absence of "month" in v. 14).
It is obvious that in the two accounts there is not merely a different chronology but a different conception of time. And it is to be noted that the specific biblical concept of time breaks through even where it is emphasised, as in Ps. 104:19, that God made the moon to divide the year. The day and time and history envisaged in Gen. 1:14f., and the reason why the luminaries shine from the firmament upon the earth to give signs and seasons and days and years, is made clear in v. 18, where day and night are again expressly interpreted as light and darkness. 
How does this effect the daily orientation and focus of humanity? Barth contrasts a preoccupation with this material world with a focus on the Creator and Covenant God.
The signs of the sky are of no value for the man who is merely concerned at random to orientate himself with the help of compass, clock or calendar, and to become the subject of any earthly history. They are of value only for the man whose day, season and history are to consist in his participation in the separation of light from darkness, because the God who separated light from darkness has created him in and as His own image, and because he was born and is called to be God's partner in this covenant.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.1: The Doctrine of Creation, p. 163-4

Scientific time and time without reference to God are both uniform and everlasting. Biblical time is ultimately eschatalogical. Humans live in it, are accountable for how they live in it, and must face judgement and eternal realities.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Will I or won't I?

My son and I have started reading together the book Just do something: a liberating approach to finding God's will by Kevin DeYoung.
There is an nice review by Tim Challies on his blog. He succinctly summaries the main points.

In some ways the book may be particularly helpful for the children of parents who need to read Ross Campbell's How to help your twentysomething get a life and get it now.

The book also reflects the social and personal problems which result from the affluence and aspiring upper middle class [that means probably means you!] of much of the church in the Western world.

The paragraph below gives the gist and tone of the book:

“So go marry someone, provided you’re equally yoked and you actually like being with each other. Go get a job, provided it’s not wicked. Go live somewhere in something with somebody or nobody. But put aside the passivity and the quest for complete fulfillment and the perfectionism and the preoccupation with the future, and for God’s sake start making some decisions in your life. Don’t wait for the liver-shiver. If you are seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, you will be in God’s will, so just go out and do something.”

Monday, November 12, 2012

Barth's non-scientific reading of Genesis

In discussing the first few chapters of Genesis Karl Barth suggests a balance must be found. One has to be wary of "historical", non-historical, and scientific readings. The texts need to be allowed to speak for themselves and kept in the larger context of the Old Testament.
The exegesis of these passages has ... to be on its guard against two errors to which easy access is far too often conceded. 
First, it must not overlook or explain away the fact that these texts deal with genuine events and not with timeless, metaphysical, or physical explanations of the world. It is true, of course, that God is the only actively operative Subject of these events, and that they include the beginning of time in which they also take place. This clearly distinguishes them from the later biblical histories. They are very definitely pre-historical. But this does not alter the fact that here too we have narratives, that no timeless truth is presented or proclaimed, but that accounts are given of once-for-all words and acts. 
If we will not accept this fact, then in respect of these passages we may well become entangled in the dilemma in which Augustine obviously found himself towards the end of his Confessions (XI, 3; XII, 18, 23, 31), so that he finally had to assume that these passages have many different senses, one of which may well be identical with that which according to his Neo-Platonic metaphysics he regarded as a true description of the timeless relationship of God to His creature. And if we take the same view, but like Basil and Ambrose (in their Hexaemera), and many modern apologists we are more interested in physics than metaphysics, we shall think it necessary to help the narratives by clothing what we think are the far too naive and scanty words of the Bible by the fulness of our own natural science with which we seek to harmonise them, as is also the case in qu. 65-74 of the Summa theologica I of Thomas Aquinas. But either way the biblical history of creation, which claims to be concrete history, is quite unable to say what it wants to say and thus to mediate any profitable perception. 
The other mistake which has to be avoided is that of a lack of attention to the connexion between the biblical histories of creation and what follows in the Pentateuch and the rest of the Old Testament.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.1: The Doctrine of Creation, page 64

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Economic and cultural shifts in rural Queensland

I am spending most of today in Warwick, a small town outside Brisbane. My wife is at a Council meeting of the Queensland and Northern NSW branch of CMS.
I noticed something striking and sad.
Most of the shops and restaurants on the main street are virtually empty. These appear to be largely locally owned and unique to Warwick.

In contrast, if you walk inside the shopping mall, also located on the main street, it is incredibly crowded and busy. Unfortunately, it looks like any other Australian shopping mall and comprise corporate franchises from the usual cast of characters...
I fear that in ten years only the shopping mall will be left.
I fail to see how this can be a good thing.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Should I do this?

Ralph Winter was a distinguished missiologist who was responsible for a number of initiatives that arguably significantly changed the practices and policies of Western mission agencies (e.g a concern with unreached people groups). According to Wikipedia one of his favourite sayings was:

Never do anything others can do or will do, when there are things to be done that others can't do or won't

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Keeping sin simple

The Weekend Australian carried a thoughtful and provocative column Sports pick a sin, any sin .. give themselves a free run at all the others, by Simon Barnes and originally published in the Times (London) under a different title.
He points out how sports (and implicitly society at large) don't want to deal with moral complexity: the "moral maze" is replaced with a "moral motorway" where there is just one deadly sin. Everything else is fine. But if your opponents commit the one sin [racist language in football, doping in cycling] then you have the right to destroy them.

An earlier post considered another column by Barnes with a similar theme.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reading Augustine's City of God

I have posted before about the theology reading group I am in. We meet every second saturday morning for about 90 minutes and discuss a chapter from a book we are reading. We have just started City of God by Augustine.

It is a robust defense of the Christian faith in the context of pagan and political hostility and instability. It presents a model for engagement with both the Bible and the surrounding cultural context. 
Today we discussed Book I. Augustine counters the claim that Christianity undermined the Roman empire leading to the fall of Rome in 410 at the hand of the barbarians.

He points out how non-Christians were spared from atrocities because they found shelter in Christian buildings. Given this what grounds do the opponents of Christ have to criticise what actually saved them. Furthermore, the same household gods failed to save the Greeks so why would they save the Romans.

Augustine critiques several historical Roman figures [e.g. Lucretia, Regulus, Cato] who were held as models of virtue.

There is a detailed discussion of the morality of suicide. It cannot be justified, even as a way to avoid terrible suffering and violence.

Suffering should challenge a Christian to humility, reflection, and repentance. Sometimes God uses suffering to expose sin and to rebuke. In contrast, the Romans have learnt little from their downfall, being ever so eager to return to their sinful lifestyle, particularly embodied in the theatre.

Augustine emphasizes the eternal perspective of the Christian. Nothing that happens in this life, including atrocities against the body, can damage the eternal soul and resurrected body of the Christian.

It may have been written 1600 years ago but it still resonates with issues of today.

Peacemaker training

These past two saturdays my wife and I joined a group of people from our church to receive training in helping people resolve conflict. The training was run by Piecewise, an Australian offshot of the US group Peacemaker Ministries started by Ken Sande, the author of The Peacemaker.
I highly recommend the training. It was very helpful, particularly the role plays.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Christian view about climate change II

John Quinn has an excellent article Finding truth in the climate change debate in the latest issue of CASE magazine. It is part of a whole issue on science.
The quarterly magazine is published by the Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education at New College, University of NSW in Sydney. You have to subscribe to read it.

Quinn encourages Christians to be humble acknowledging their limited technical expertise and to actually read accessible scientific summaries [such as one from the Royal Society] rather than listening to their favourite political commentator. He says
My view is that people ought to be skeptical when politicians and commentators present minority scientific views with fervour, and use these views as a justification for inaction on an issue with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Like John Cook, Quinn also emphasizes how Christians should be concerned that those who will suffer most from climate change will be the poor in developing countries.