Monday, May 29, 2006

Take and Eat

From chapter 4 of Take and Eat – the art of spiritual reading, by Eugene Peterson. Published by Hodder and Stoughton, 2006.

It is useful for readers of the Bible to keep company with some of our master exegetes [interpreters of the Bible]; the easiest way to do it is to use their commentaries. Biblical commentaries are, for the most part, employed by pastors or teachers in the preparation of sermons or lectures. They are treated as ‘tools.’ But there are treasures in these books for the ordinary reader of the Bible. Among those of use who read – eat – this text not in preparation for an assignment, but simply for direction and nourishment in following Jesus, which means most of us, biblical commentaries have for too long been overlooked as common reading for common Christians.

I recommend reading commentaries in the same way as we read novels, from beginning to end, skipping nothing. They are, admittedly, weak in plot and character development, but their devout attention to words and syntax is sufficient. Plot and character – the plot of salvation, the character of Messiah – are everywhere implicit in a commentary and persistently assert their presence even when unmentioned through scores, even hundreds, of pages. The power of these ancient nouns and verbs century after century to call forth intelligent discourse from learned men and women continues to be a staggering wonder.
Among those for whom Scripture is a passion, reading commentaries has always seemed to me analogous to the gathering of football fans in the local bar after the game, replaying in endless detail the game they have just watched, arguing (maybe even fighting) over observations and opinion, and lacing the discourse with gossip about the players.

The level of knowledge evident in these boozy colloquies is impressive. These fans have watched the game for years; the players are household names to them; they know the fine print in the rulebook and pick up every nuance on the field. And they care immensely about what happens in the game. Their seemingly endless commentary is evidence of how much they care. Like them, I relish in a commentary not bare information but conversation with knowledgeable and experienced friends, probing, observing, questioning the biblical text. Absorbed by this plot that stretches grandly from Genesis to Revelation, captured by the messianic presence that in death and resurrection saves us one and all – there is so much to notice, so much to talk over.

Not all commentaries fit the bill – some of them are written by scholars who seem to have no interest either in God or the story, but there are enough that qualify to convince me that they provide welcome and indispensable companionship to all of use readers of the text who, as we follow Jesus, don’t want to miss anythign along the way.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Thinking Theologically in Aotearoa/New Zealand

From chapter 10 of Thinking Theologically in Aotearoa/New Zealand, by John Roberts, published by ColCom Press 2000. [For translations of Maori words, look at the end of this extract.]

The theology brought by the missionaries in the early nineteenth century arose out of the evangelical revival. Rua Rakena [Tumuaki of Te Taha Maori of the Methodist Church] considers that it tended to set sin rather than God at the centre of life. Some of the missionaries were inclined to conceive their task solely as a ‘rescue from sin’ operation. In the belief that Maori were pagans, the missionaries set out to undermine much of Maori life. They had many Maori carved figures removed from meeting houses in the mistaken belief they were idols. Ancestral karakia were also discouraged and so were many traditional customs and behaviours that were considered depraved. This was a destructive life-denying process.

Although the missionary cause amongst the Maori was slow to develop, the missionaries did make significant inroads into Maori society. It was not all negative either. When Pakeha settlers began to arrive in significant numbers in the 1840s, the missionaries closely identified with Maori and sought to protect their interests. [Later] Maori began to reject missionary teaching. But they did not completely abandon the scriptures of the missionaries. They favoured the Old Testament where in the exodus they found a story which reminded them of their own situation and which held out the promise of life beyond oppression. So they identified themselves with the Israelites. Te Whitio Rongomai saw the story of the Israelites as one embracing life and death: ‘There are two roads, one to life and one to death…God said to Moses, do not strive against me or you will die; by faith only can this tribe live.’ These words are reminiscent of the words of God to Moses, ‘I put before you lie and death…choose life.’ In the face of oppression and death, Maori were seeking a new theology of life. And that is the task we still have before us.

What does it mean to reject death and opt for the way of life in our churches today? Te Taha Maori of the Methodist Church has done some thinking about that. During 1989 and 1990 at its staff consultations the themes of ‘ka mate’ and ‘ka ora’ emerged as being of significance in thinking about the future. Discussion centred on how to move from ‘ka mate’ to ‘ka ora’ modes of theology, ministry and being church. It was then seventeen years since Te Taha Maori had emerged from the old Home and Maori Mission structure dominated by Pakeha personnel and ways. Nearly twenty years later it was a time for review.

Some of the realities that had to be faced were a reliance on the old forms of the past, including colonial understandings of what it means to be church, hanging onto old redundant church buildings that no longer served us, reliance on liturgies that were translations from those of the old prayer book, and dependence on the minister figure for things to happen. Going forward in a ‘ka ora’ way meant embracing Maori styles of Christian life, witness and service, new forms of liturgy rooted in Aotearoa and expressed in Maori, every member becoming a minister, everyone working at theology, centres that facilitate mission for today and enabling styles of ministry.

Tumuaki = used of someone in a position of authority.
karakia = religious songs/chants
ka mate/ka ora = death and life
compare: Te hunga ora me te hunga mate = The quick and the dead

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Songs from the Midst of Flames

From chapter 6 of Songs from the Midst of Flames, by David J Bromell, published by ColCom Press 1995.
It’s an important part of the Christian tradition generally, and of the Wesleyan tradition in particular, to insist that faith without works is dead. There’s not too much argument about that. The argument concerns whether ‘faith working through love’ is purely a private matter, or whether it extends to political action. In other words, is the Christian church a sect which exists as a group of dissidents who largely accept the existing social structures as a given, but try themselves to act differently so far as those structures permit? Or does Christian faith imply claims of universal validity, claims which reach out to embrace and to judge the social structures which, in a democratic society at least, we have ourselves created and for which we are responsible?

To give an example: Given that the social structures of Aotearoa/New Zealand today, including the structures of organised religion, still discriminate in certain ways against women, is it any business of Christian believers to bring the light of the gospel to bear on that discrimination and to work within the larger society for change? Or is the Christian response simply that of ‘leaving the world to the devil’ and trying, within our own small corner, to be less sexist within the church? Is our faith ‘catholic,’ in the sense of conveying a universal claim and a universal obligation, or is it ‘sectarian?’

The Wesleyan tradition has consistently affirmed a catholic faith. Consequently the Methodist Church world-wide has a long history of involvement in social justice. My proposal that a congregation’s mission include speaking out, taking sides, risking implication and involvement in social and political issues is not a ‘radical’ proposal. It’s a mainline Wesleyan response. It’s a mainline Christian response. What I have proposed really does not need justification. What needs to be justified is doing any less than this.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Looking into the Depths

From chapter 3 of Looking into the Depths, by Nancy Burgess, published by ColCom Press, 1996 (includes colour photographs).

The quest to reveal dimensions of spirituality in New Zealand short stories will now be pursued through thematic studies. Compassionate, selfless love offered without discrimination is the understanding of neighbourliness presented in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The word ‘compassion’ is derived from the Latin words ‘pati’ and ‘cum’ which together mean to ‘suffer with.’ The selection of stories written by Frank Sargeson and Joy Cowley present pragmatic situations calling for compassion. These authors offer attitudes to neighbourliness, and readers are left to measure these against the derivation of ‘compassion’ and the teaching of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In these stories neighbourliness is presented in different contexts, within different historic times and different climates of societal morality. In addition, each author has a different relationship with established religion. The Sargeson stories use a theme of neighbourliness to express the author’s conviction that the church is inadequate when it stands apart from human need and social justice. This dualism of proclaimed faith and faithless praxis is exposed for evaluation in a variety of ways. Cowley, on the other hand, addresses more directly the norms of societal and cultural perception which stultify the fullness of neighbourliness in any relationship.

Commonality of these authors is found in their understanding that the natural world is expressive of spirituality. Within his personal spiritual pilgrimage, Sargeson rejected established religion as the locus of spirituality. Grounded in early years in puritanical teachings of human-God relationships, Sargeson by his teens was unquestioning in his evangelical zeal and beliefs until he encountered his uncle’s vital spirituality centred in nature. Sargeson’s autobiographical writing reveals that nature became important to him: the bush of the Kaimai Ranges near Te Aroha, and trees stark on the horizon of the Mamaku Ranges, became symbolic for him in his own spiritual journeying.

Spirituality centred in nature for Cowley is conveyed as another exciting dimension with her Christian belief. As Fitzimmons’ states ‘there is no spiritual escapism’ in Cowley’s relationship with nature. Nature speaks in many ways to many people, and frequently nature draws a response from beholders as it speaks to their feelings, to their inner being. In the writings of these authors the importance of nature can be sensed. As implied above, spirituality centred in nature lies in the mind of Sargeson as he presents situations of human impoverishment. Nature, explicitly cited or implicitly present, offers parables of creation spirituality that contribute to reader understanding of the beauty and restorative power of neighbourliness in human relationships.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

In Some Sense the Work of an Individual

From chapter 3 of In Some Sense the Work of an Individual – Alfred Willis and the Tongan Anglican Mission 1902-1920, by Stephen L Donald, published by ColCom Press, 1994.

Beginning with the revision of the Catechism in 190, Willis consistently revised all the services produced by Baker [the former minister/missionary] which included Orders for Morning and Evening Prayer, Holy Communion, Confirmation and Baptism. Willis added the occasional services of the Burial of the Dead, Marriage, the Churching of Women and Private Baptism of Infants. In no way did he attempt to produce a Tongan liturgy. Like most of his Anglican contemporaries, he saw the Book of Common Prayer as the yardstick for the Church, and his aim was to produce what he considered to be the most accurate translation possible. Willis was dissatisfied with both translations of the Bible then in use in Tonga, and in the preparation of his Psalter and Lectionary, collated the two translations to produce what he considered to be the best possible form for use in worship.

On Dr Moulton’s translation he commented, ‘He has not kept strictly to the rules by which a translator should be governed and…I could never sanction the use of his translation in public worship.’ Moulton’s mistake was that he had used the then unpublished documents of the Revised Version in English, and not the Textus Receptus which, in 1880, was the recognised basis for all Bible Society translations. In addition, to this academic problem for Willis, the Moulton translation was only used by the followers of Wesleyan Mission and not the majority Siasi Tau’ataina, for reasons that had more to do with Tongan Church politics than accuracy of translation. Willis later attempted to produce a ‘corrected’ translation of the whole Bible by this collation method, on which he was still working when he died. This was never published, the West translation of 1884 remaining the accepted version for Tongan Anglicans.

Whilst the services of Baker had required merely revision, it was in the area of Church music that Willis made the most drastic outward changes. He was delighted by the new chants that Baker’s daughters had taught for the canticles, but not so enamoured with the ‘hymnody of the Free Church at present in use by our people.’ By 1905 he had translated over 100 hymns from Hymns Ancient and Modern, selecting what he considered suitable for the Catholic expression of the Faith. Over seventy of those selected were the products of hymn writers influenced by the Tractarian movement.

Willis, in response to a request form the petitioners, had brought new anthems with him to Tonga, and he continued to supply his Church with what he considered to be a suitable music for worship. The Tongan love of music suited Willis’ particular view of what was ‘proper’ in liturgy. A full choral service with use of vestments and two candles soon became normative Anglican worship in Tonga. R T Mathews, the Vicar of Suva visited Nuku’alofa in 1910 and later reported to the SPG: ‘Bishop Willis was priest and Yim Sang Mark deacon. Full vestments were worn and the service was excellently sung.’ E H Strong wrote in 1921 that ‘the use here has been lights and vestments.’ In true High Church style, Willis established a pattern of weekly Eucharist or Ante-Communion in Kolofo’ou, and considered that the only proper place for Holy Communion was following Morning Prayer.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


From chapter 2 of Ecclesion: the small church with a vision, by Dave Mullan, published by ColCom Press 1990.

Congregations who have a tenacious grip on the status quo are also alive and well – if that is the right metaphor – in this country. They have lost a rational belief in their own existence as part of the Body of Christ and the fellowship of the people called Methodists and have retained only a mindless commitment to the local setting and, usually, the local buildings. In respect of their belief that the buildings they have offer the only setting in which they can possibly worship Colin Williams once called them Morphological Fundamentalists; in respect of their commitment to their present styles of congregational life I once described them as Ecclesiological Fundamentalists.

The labels are unkind. But they are both part of the scenario of the future that means holding onto whatever you have got at all costs because there isn’t any other possibility that works. "Tenestas’ congregations believe they have the right medicine and in the face of all the evidence that it is actually killing the patient they continue to administer it. But they are the patient and the disease is terminal.

A difficulty with this scenario is that it is a temptation to confuse good and evil. Tenestas, as simply hoping that all will be well, is easily confused with Christian faith and hope. It can be like trusting God and then holding onto that trust at all costs and refusing to consider any other possibilities but the one sure foundation in which one is grounded. There is a perilously fine margin between continuing a congregation because it serves a legitimate need of an ageing community and refusing to change the style of worship and church life in a congregation which consists of aged people who do not, in fact, reflect the age groups and interests of the community in which they live.

This latter is the Tenestas congregation at its worst. It has closed its mind to the needs and the possibilities and hardened its heart and may have little place in any significant recovery of mission and ministry to a needy world.

What is wrong with the Tenestas congregation is not that it is dying but that it continues to act as if it were not when all the evidence is that a new scenario might get some kind of results. It is the avoiding of opportunities to make meaningful change that characterises these communities. This is a sad and desperate scenario because it is capable of change. All too many of our congregations have the potential to move but do not do so. There are still new areas of housing redevelopment, growing suburbs, new interest in a style of religion that invites the discipline of thought rather than unthinking obedience to a certain kind of ‘simple faith.’ All these factors will produce new growth opportunities for many local churches with a ‘Methodist’ style. But a Tenestas scenario will not be able to respond to these opportunities.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Considering Orthodoxy

From chapter 1 of Considering Orthodoxy – foundations for faith today, edited by Paul Trebilco, published by ColCom Press 1995. Chapter 1 is by Stephen May; other contributors include Harold Turner, Sue Patterson, Graham Redding and David Kettle.

I do not believe that Christianity excuses us from listening or facing up to difficult questions. From what I have written, you will have gathered that what Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza said annoyed me! But I would not want anybody to be so stupid as to think that the issues she is addressing are either unimportant, or that they will go away. In that sense, she is good for us. She jolts us into awareness that not all is well.

Another example. I remember in England reading books about this country about nine years ago when I was first appointed to my job here (as Anglican Systematic Theology Lecturer); they almost universally described new Zealand as a model of harmonious race relations. How things have changed! Or have they? Perhaps Maori always felt this way, but Pakeha never knew – or had never listened.

I actually believe that the responsibility of a double listening is laid upon us: to God and to human beings. Sometimes God speaks through human beings, telling us of things we need to know. It seems to me (how’s this for a massive oversimplification?) liberals like to think they are better than evangelicals at listening to the world; evangelicals would like to believe they are better at listening to God. I believe true orthodoxy consists in listening to both. As I rather severely lecture my Theology and Science course at the beginning of the semester, I get fed up with Christians thinking that because of their faith they have a short-cut to scientific truth. We have a responsibility not to avoid the hard questions, simply because they are hard.

Yet on the other hand, listening to the world is no substitute for listening to God. We have to do both. I do not believe that, in the words of the 60s, the world should set the agenda. As William Willimon said recently sometimes we should not worry too much about making the Bible relevant to the modern world. It doesn’t deserve it! Rather the modern world needs the Bible.

We indeed do need to listen. My understanding of Christian Orthodoxy is that it is based on listening –listening to the word of God which is given to us to utter. Those who are familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book on Christology, know that from the very beginning of that work, he says that the Church has no choice about the Word it is given. It does not choose the Word. It passes it on, as those who are equally recipients of it. As we proclaim it, we are silent before it. But in receiving it, we need to witness to it.

Christ and the Good Earth

From chapter 3 of Christ and the Good Earth - an introduction to ecological theology, by Ray Galvin, published by ColCom Press 1993.

A further shortcoming in von Rad's account is his failure to see the creation theme in the centre of the Exodus story itself. More recent scholars, such as George Landers and H Paul Santmire, have pointed out that the most natural reading of the Exodus story reveals a deeply held belief in God as the 'sovereign Lord of Creation.' Yahweh could not have delivered Israel from Egypt if Yahweh were not already the Lord of the Creation. How else could Yahweh have brought plague after plague upon Egypt, parted the waters of the Red Sea and sent manna and quails in the wilderness? When we read the Exodus story carefully, we cannot help but be impressed with the constant and repeated upheavals of nature that afflict the Egyptians, bypass the Israelites and are written into the story as the very means by which God's people are liberated.

Von Rad maintained that Deuteronomy 26: 5-9 was Israel's most ancient creed. This passage was recited by the Israelites as they brought an offering of the first fruits of the harvest. Its content, however, focuses upon the deliverance of the people of Israel from oppression in Egypt. It is clearly an expression of the Exodus theme. Yet even here, the activity of God as Lord over Creation is clearly stressed. The Lord 'brought us out of Egypt with a might hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders.'

So the deliverance of Israel was not just a human-centred thing, a psychologically induced event focussing only on the intellects and wills of human beings. It was an event that presupposed God's lordship and power over Creation.

My conclusion to this point is that there is an important balance in the Old Testament between human liberation, and concern with the wider Creation. The Exodus event sets the tone for Israel's ethical thinking vis-୶is humanity: there is not getting around God's preoccupation with the liberation of oppressed human beings. But the 'pagan' concern for nature in its own right is also reflected and affirmed in the Old Testament and must be held in balance and in tension with the more distinctively Old Testament concern for human liberation. We need further to keep in mind that Israel also saw the Creation as a means and the medium through which God worked to bring about this historical, ethical liberation of human beings. I would suggest this balanced account be used as an interpretive framework for gauging the significance of Old Testament passages about Creation. We can then look at Psalms, Wisdom literature, the Genesis stories etc and do our detailed study of these texts with this sense of their place in the overall shape of Israel's thinking about creation and redemption. This will also give us a sense of the wider significance of themes like stewardship, dominion over the Earth, and being made in God's image, to the larger picture of Old Testament thought.

This also points to the need to look closely at the notion of a bipolar ethic for our Christian concern for the world. We need to be concerned for both human liberation and the preservation of the Creation.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Trinity Fortune Affair

From chapter 4 of The Trinity Fortune Affair, by Dave Mullan, published by the Trinity Methodist Trust, 1981. 145 pp.

The feeling of the Meeting now centred on the chances of being physically able to commence the ‘alternative church’ concept from 1st February, 1978. We figured that if the Radio New Zealand Newsroom could not be made available we could perhaps use the Mission’s own Friendship Centre. Or we could possibly negotiate for the use of the large Broadcasting cafeteria in the Mission Building. These possibilities seemed to answer one of Christchurch’s objections to finalising the Lease with Fortune [Theatre]: we could find an alternative home and we could commence the new church programme by 1st February. Furthermore, in one of these centres we could have traditional worship for January so that, in effect, we could vacate Trinity immediately if we wished to.

The meeting was now unmistakably coming to the point where this was a general consensus. We returned to the proposition that seemed to be forcing us into a premature commencement. If the Administration Division was saying to us that we could not sign a lease with Fortune simply because we were using the church for a couple of hours a week then the sooner we vacated it the better. Once we resolved to cease using Trinity as our ‘home’ then, surely, there would be only gain in obtaining a reasonable financial advantage from it. In the words of one member of the meeting "If they don’t let us sign a lease we’ll send ‘em the key."

At five minutes before 9.30 pm, Superintendent Evan Lewis assumed the Chair, the motion was formally put and voted upon. This time the Meeting was virtually unanimous in support, only one or two people voting Neutral and nobody Against. It was all over in 3 minutes.

Having approached the meeting with a fervent desire to wind down the whole controversy, I was quite stunned. Now swept along on a current of determined enthusiasm I found it hard to acknowledge my feelings of three hours before. There was agony to come, to be sure, but we were apparently determined to suffer it. There would be criticism, but we would live with it. There would be misunderstanding of our motives, but we didn’t have to answer to others, only to each other and to God. This we had already begun to do.

We separated from each other with a mixture of shock and relief, of dismay and elation, of fear and faith. Now we had to try to get the hierarchy of the Church ‘on side’ with what appeared to be a reckless disregard for their authority.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

How on Earth Did Jesus become a God?

From chapter 4 of How on Earth Did Jesus become a God? – historical questions about earliest devotion to Jesus, by Larry Hurtado, published by Eerdmans 2005

Had Christians been ready to regard Jesus simply as a prophet, or had the view become dominant in which Jesus was thought of as entirely a heavenly/divine being like an angel, his earthly existence an elaborate disguise (somewhat similar to the way the earthly appearance and activity of the angel Raphael are presented in the book of Tobit), they would not have needed the time and effort that they spent on their Christological concerns. Likewise, had they been ready to adopt the apotheosis model, the human Jesus understood as made a new god in his own right, deified on account of his exceptional merit, their doctrinal efforts would have been much simpler. But no previous model seemed adequate, at least to those Christians whose efforts framed what became more classic Christological doctrine. What came to expression in the prolonged doctrinal explorations of the early Christian centuries was a remarkable, new conception: Jesus as remaining genuinely human and also genuinely divine and worthy of cultic devotion.

In these doctrinal struggles, especially in the second through the fifth centuries, Christians drew upon a wider body of conceptual categories, from biblical traditions, Jewish writers of the Second Temple period (especially Philo of Alexandria), and philosophical traditions of the day. But rarely did they simply appropriate religious or intellectual terms and categories, whether from Jewish or philosophical traditions of the time. More often they adapted traditions to express their convictions about Jesus, which, in the main, were decisively prompted and shaped by the earliest devotion to Jesus, this devotion to Jesus of Nazareth that seems to have erupted within the earliest moments of the Christian movement. It not only fueled fervent communication of the gospel message in the subsequent decades; this devotion also shaped and, indeed, required the considerable efforts of the next several centuries toward formulation of further Christian doctrine about Jesus and God. Moreover, in what became the dominant view, Jesus’ real human and historical activity remained as crucial as the heavenly glory that he was believed to share.

In the process of trying to articulate a view of Jesus, Christians also elaborated a new interpretation of the unity of the one God of the biblical tradition, a unity in which Jesus, ‘the Son,’ is integral. In the doctrinal language that began to be favoured in the second century and thereafter, the Son shares the same divine ‘nature/being’ (Greek: ousia) with ‘the Father.’ Of course, in the classic expression of Christian teaching about God, the doctrine of the Trinity, ‘the Holy Spirit’ comes to be included as well, as the third constituent of the divine triadic unity. But the main concerns in this long and complex

Disputation and development of the Christian doctrine of God were to express Jesus’ genuinely divine significance and status, and, equally firmly, to maintain that God is ‘one. In this latter concern especially, which remained crucial in the early centuries, we see the continuing influence of Second-Temple Jewish monotheism.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Decoding Da Vinci

From chapter 4 of Decoding Da Vinci – the challenge of historic Christianity and fantasy, by N T Wright, published by Grove Books 2006.

If the canonical Scriptures were written, or read, to curry political favour, they were ill-conceived – and dramatically unsuccessful. Those who were thrown to the lions in the second and third centuries were not reading [The Gospel of] ‘Thomas’ or Q or the ‘Gospel of Mary.’ They were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the rest, and being sustained thereby in a subversive mode of faith and life which, growing out of Apocalyptic Judaism, posed a far greater threat to Roman empire and pagan worldviews than Cynic philosophy or Gnostic spirituality ever could. Why would Caesar worry about people rearranging their private spiritualities? And when Constantine, faced with half his empire turning Christian, decided to go with the tide, what was the church supposed to do? Protest that it would be more authentic to remain a beleaguered and persecuted minority? Let comfortable western Christians think about what the church had suffered under Diocletian in the years immediately before Constantine – and what the church is suffering many parts of the world today – and ask themselves who has compromised, and with what.

In fact, the contemporary myth gets things exactly the wrong way round. It is not the case that the canonical New Testament is politically and socially quiescent, colluding with empire, while the Jesus who we meet in the Nag Hammadi texts and similar documents is politically and socially subversives, so dangerous that he had to be suppressed. It is the other way about, and this may be among the most telling points we have to recognise for today.

You may salve your own conscience by embracing gnosticism, by telling yourself how very wicked the world is and how you are going to escape it once and for all by following the path of spiritual self-discovery and enlightenment. But if Caesar takes any notice at all, all he will do is sneer at you and go on his way to yet more triumphs of sheer power. And if that happened in the second century, we can be sure it is precisely what is happening today. The theologians of the 1930s who tried out various gnostic-like theories to explain early Christianity (the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and the theologian Rudolf Bultmann) could not prevent Hitler. The great postmodern thinkers of the last generation, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault and their numerous disciples, cannot do anything to stop the new empires of today. Certainly those who are advocating a new kind of do-it-yourself spirituality, and claiming that Jesus is somehow in or behind it all, cut no ice on the political front.

The challenge comes, therefore, at the level of worldview. Yes, of course the church has often got it wrong, including in its views of women (where it has, basically, failed to see what was there in the New Testament itself). Yes, the Constantinian settlement was deeply ambiguous; but they knew that at the time, and it was only with the Middle Ages that things went so badly wrong. Yes, Christianity has – especially in the twentieth century – pretended that it is a ‘faith,’ unrelated to history. But its historical roots are rock solid, and the faith that is based on theme is not a loose, ‘whatever-works-for-you’ postmodern construct. This faith, and the worldview it generates, are the heart of the challenge.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Question of God

From chapter 8 of The Question of God: C S Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, love, sex and the meaning of life, by Armand Nicholl, published by Free Press 2002.

The Inklings happened to be all male. But Lewis had many female friends that he admired and with whom he kept in close contact. After his conversion, newly convinced that ‘there are no ordinary people,’ Lewis carried on regular correspondence with scores of people, most of them women. ‘It isn’t chiefly men I am kept in touch with by my huge mail: it is women,’ Lewis writes to a friend. ‘The female, happy or unhappy, agreeing or disagreeing is by nature a much more epistolary animal than the male.’ Lewis corresponded regularly with the British author Dorothy Sayers, the poet Ruth Pitter, novelist Rose Macaulay and the Anglo-Saxon scholar Dorothy Whitlock.

Lewis approached his letter writing with considerable diligence and faithfulness. He answered every letter sent him, from those by important leaders to those by a child or a widow he did not know. He answered them daily, before undertaking his hectic work schedule. ‘The mail, you know, is the great hurdle at the beginning of each day’s course for me,’ Lewis writes to this same friend. ‘I have sometimes had to write letters hard from 8.3 to 11 o’clock, before I could start my own work. Mostly to correspondents I have never seen. I expect most of my replies to them are useless: but every now and then people think one has helped them and so one dare not stop answering letters.’

Lewis’s conversion dramatically altered his assessment of others. He changed form an introvert who, like Freud, was highly critical and distrustful of others, to a person who reached out and appeared to value every human being. Every decision a person makes, Lewis asserts, will take him toward or away from a relationship with the Person who made him, the one relationship for which that individual was created. ‘All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.’

Freud, sadly, saw his neighbour as someone inclined ‘to humiliate him, to cause him pain.’ His neighbour was someone who needed to earn his trust and his love. He said, when almost sixty years old, that all of his life he had been looking for friends who would not exploit him or betray him. Before his conversion Lewis shared this cautious, defensive approach to people. Afterward, he saw every individual as living forever: ‘You have never talked to a mere mortal.’ He adds, that ‘Nations, cultures, arts, civilization – these are mortal.’ Our relationships with others must be characterised by ‘a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner’ and with ‘no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.’ Lewis’s concept of love clearly enriched his life and helped make him a profoundly different person – a ‘new creation.’