Monday, 5 September 2016

Luther is to Blame for Modernity, Right?

Religiously motivated anti-modernists, which is to say traditional Roman and Anglo Catholics (and a smattering of Eastern Orthodox) have often placed the blame for modernity - particularly secularism and the paramountcy of the freedom of the individual - at the feet of Luther. But it is impossible for anyone with some actual familiarity with Luther's life and writings that goes beyond the caricatures of his enemies to accept the basis for such a charge. Those sympathetic to Luther have instead pointed the finger at the Renaissance, a charge which on the surface at least has more plausibility.

But what if the truth is infinitely more complex than either of the above theses allows for? What if secularism and the freedom of the individual actually developed inexorably out of the Western Christian tradition itself, with apostles, medieval theologians, friars, bishops, canon lawyers and even popes all playing their parts?

That is the thesis which the scholar of intellectual history, sometime Oxford lecturer in political thought and Fellow of Keble College Larry Siedentop sets forth in his latest book, which describes how modernity and the paramountcy of the individual that is the hallmark of Western liberalism developed over two thousand years (without once mentioning Luther!):
"The view that the Renaissance and its aftermath marked the advent of the modern world - the end of the "middle ages" - is mistaken. By the fifteenth century canon lawyers and philosophers had already asserted that 'experience' is essentially the experience of individuals, that a range of fundamental rights ought to protect individual agency, that the final authority of any association is to be found in its members, and that the use of reason when understanding processes in the physical world differs radically from normative or a priori reasoning. These are the stuff of modernity."

Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual, The Origins of Western Liberalism (Allen Lane, 2014)

To expand upon a 'new media' adage, if politics is downstream from culture, then culture itself is downstream from religious belief, and this book demonstrates it with copious examples, beginning with the somewhat stifling cult (i.e. system of religious beliefs & devotions) that surrounded the family in Greek and Roman antiquity. Siedentop paints with broad strokes - he has to to cover so much spiritual, psychological and intellectual history in 400 or so pages - and specialists in the areas he covers will undoubtedly have their quibbles, but anyone vitally interested in the spiritual history of the West will benefit from reading this book. His omission of the Reformation is a curious lacuna, but it at least goes to show that a major scholar can account for modernity, secularism and liberalism without invoking an old trope.

An inexpensive paperback Penguin/Viking edition is available where good books are sold. Recommended!

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name: The Disappearance of the Christian Intellectual from the Public Sphere

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind..." Luke 10:27
"Half a century ago...serious Christian intellectuals ...occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now. It would be worth our time to inquire why they disappeared, where they went, and whether — should such a thing be thought desirable — they might return....The Christian intellectuals of World War II found their society shaking at its foundations. They were deeply concerned that even if the Allies won, it would be because of technological and economic, not moral and spiritual, superiority; and if technocrats were deemed responsible for winning the war, then those technocrats would control the postwar world. (It is hard to deny that those Christian intellectuals were, on this point at least, truly prophetic.)"
The whole thing is worth reading: Alan Jacobs on the disappearance of the Christian intellectual from the public sphere.

Jacobs is thinking of people of the calibre of T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, the Niebuhrs, et. al.. All of them had questionable idiosyncratic doctrinal positions, but nonetheless were adept at taking the Faith into the public sphere and addressing it not only to their fellow but faithless intellectuals but also to the thinking lay person. The last figure in this line that Jacobs identifies is sometime Missouri Synod Lutheran come Roman Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus (+2009). It's not that there aren't Christian intellectuals today, of course, but they have retreated from the public sphere...or have they been forced out (see more from Richard Reno below)? Whichever the case may be, it is difficult to conceive of a middle brow magazine like Time featuring a Christian intellectual like T.S. Eliot, replete with communion symbolism, on its cover these days - but that probably tells us more about the shift in our culture over the last two generations than about Christian intellectuals per se

More here from Richard Reno.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Theologians I Have Met: Theodore Dieter

The first in a projected series of posts on theologians I have had the privilege of meeting over the years. I begin with some theologians presently at the Luther 500 conference in Melbourne, Australia.
Profile courtesy the Luther 500 Conference, Melbourne, Australia, 2016:
"Professor Theodor Dieter is a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Württemberg and a distinguished international ecumenical theologian and teacher. Following his service as a lecturer in theology and social ethics in the Protestant Theology faculty at the University of Tübingen, he was appointed a research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Stassbourg, where he has also served as director since 1997. He also serves as a consultant to the International Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and to the Lutheran-Mennonite-Roman Catholic trialogue on baptism.
Professor Dieter’s publications include Der junge Luther und Aristoteles (2001) and a long list of articles on Luther’s theology, social ethics and Lutheran ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church.  He played a leading role in the work done by the Institute for Ecumenical Research on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran churches all around the world in 1999. He is at present working on a joint project of the Institute for Ecumenical Research and the Johann-Adam-Möhler-Institut in Paderborn, Germany: a multi-volume commentary on Luther’s ninety five theses, to be published in 2017, marking their 500th anniversary.  He also contributed to the Lutheran-Roman Catholic document From Conflict to Communion, a resource for the ecumenical celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
A notable international ecumenical speaker and lecturer, Professor Dieter was the guest of Pope Benedict XVI at the annual theological gathering at Castelgandolfo in 2012, where he presented on Luther’s theology and on Lutheran-Catholic relations over the last fifty years. He is also a regular lecturer for the international ‘Studying Luther in Wittenberg’ seminars hosted each year of the Luther-decade by LWF."
The distinguished German theologian Dr Theodor Dieter presented at the Luther 500 conference in Melbourne on the topic of Luther's 95 Theses: Reconstructing a debate which did not take place. His paper introduced and summarised research being undertaken in the joint project mentioned above of the Protestant Institute for Ecumenical Research, Strassbourg and the Roman Catholic Adam Moehler Institut in Paderborn which is attempting to reconstruct the debate  between Luther and his contemporary theological opponents concerning issues raised the the 95 theses. It was a fascinating paper which I will digest fully over time! 
After the presentation I had the opportunity to chat with Dr Dieter for about 10 minutes over coffee. He appeared to me as the typical (or imagined?) image of the German academic theologian: meticulous in attention to theological detail and considered in his responses. My first question to him was sparked by an interest in Mohler: I asked Dr Dieter whether, in his experiences with his Roman Catholic interlocutors, Mohler was still a lively influence as his 19th C. contemporary John Henry Newman is in the English speaking world (Mohler and Newman each developed theories of doctrinal development around the same time). This question was perhapss a little outside of Dr Dieter's present professional interests, but he answered politely. Mohler was only of historical interest to Roman theologians, he said, the ecumenical discussion having moved on since his time. Dr Dieter didn't mention or show any particular interest in Newman, and the discussion then turned to another topic. This makes me wonder whether Newman only has a lively influence upon English speaking theological circles?
My next question related to a topic Dr Dieter brought up in his paper: the fear of God, which was, of course, a major theme in late medieval piety. I mentioned that I rarely encountered the fear of God in pastoral work, particular when death is approaching. I wondered whether this reflected a wholehearted confidence in the Gospel, in which case of course it was a good thing, or whether it reflected a lack of awareness of the seriousness of sin. Dr Dieter suggested that contemporary Christian piety was indeed weak in regard to sin and that, furthermore, the medicalisation of death in the modern world intrudes and often prevents the subject of the dying process from fully coming to grips with the spiritual reality of what is happening. He mentioned the need for a revival of the 'art of dying' concerning which Christians once used to consult written spiritual manuals. I wondered whether this interest in piety, not always so readily met with in academic theologians, stemmed from Dr Dieter's background in the church of Wuerttemberg, which I believe still retains the influence of Pietism, but I did not have time to pursue that question.  
I thank Dr Dieter for his kindness in answering my questions. 


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Taking the Shine Off Bishop Sheen

 "America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance. It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so much overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broad-minded. The man who can make up his mind in an orderly way, as a man might make up his bed, is called a bigot; but a man who cannot make up his mind, any more than he can make up for lost time, is called tolerant and broad-minded...

Another evidence of the breakdown of reason that has produced this weird fungus of broad-mindedness is the passion of novelty, as opposed to the love of truth. Truth is sacrificed for an epigram, the Divinity of Christ for a headline in the Monday morning newspaper. Many a modern preacher is far less concerned with preaching Christ and Him crucified than he is with his popularity with his congregation. A want of intellectual backbone makes him straddle the ox of truth and the ass of nonsense, paying compliments to Catholics because of “their great organization” and to sexologists because of “their honest challenge to the youth of this generation.” Bending the knee to the mob rather than God would probably make them scruple at ever playing the role of John the Baptist before a modern Herod. No accusing finger would be leveled at a divorce or one living in adultery; no voice would be thundered in the ears of the rich, saying with something of the intolerance of Divinity: “It is not lawful for thee to live with thy brother’s wife.” Rather would we hear: “Friends, times are changing!” The acids of modernity are eating away the fossils of orthodoxy...
 The final argument for modern broad-mindedness is that truth is novelty and hence “truth” changes with  the passing fancies of the moment. Like the chameleon that changes his colors to suit the vesture on which  he is placed, so truth is supposed to change to fit the foibles and obliquities of the age. The nature of  certain things is fixed, and none more so than the nature of truth. Truth may be contradicted a thousand times, but that only proves that it is strong enough to survive a thousand assaults. But for any one to say, “Some say this, some say that, therefore, there is no truth,” is about as logical as it would have been for Columbus who heard some say, “The earth is round”, and others say “The earth is flat” to conclude: “Therefore, there is no earth.” Like a carpenter who might throw away his rule and use each beam as a measuring rod, so, too, those who have thrown away the standard of objective truth have nothing left with which to measure but the mental fashion of the moment...

In the face of this false broadmindedness, what the world needs is intolerance. The world seems to have lost entirely the faculty of distinguishing between good and bad, the right and the wrong. There are some minds that believe that intolerance is always wrong, because they make “intolerance” mean hate, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry. These same minds believe that tolerance is always right because, for them, it means charity, broadmindedness, and American good nature...The Church is identified with Christ in both me and principle; She began thinking on His first principles and the harder She thought, the more dogmas She developed. She never forgot those dogmas; She remembered them and Her memory is Tradition. The dogmas of the Church are like bricks, solid things with which a man can build, not like straw, which is “religious experience” fit only for burning. The Church has been and will always be intolerant so far as the rights of God are concerned, for heresy, error, and untruth affect not personal matters on which She may yield, but a Divine Right in which there is no yielding. The truth is divine; the heretic is human. Due reparation made, the Church will admit the heretic back into the treasury of Her souls, but never the heresy into the treasure of Her Wisdom. Right is right even if nobody is right; and wrong is wrong if everybody is wrong..."

Bishop Fulton Sheen, The Curse of Broadmindedness, 1931

Let me say at the outset that I agree with most of what Sheen has written above, which displays eminently logical thinking on the question of truth (by the way, if anyone wants a short and easily digestible philosophical defense of the unity of truth amidst the plurality of religions I refer you to Mortimer Adler's 'Truth in Religion' (New York, Macmillan,1990), most of which is available on Google books).  My purpose in including such a full quote, aside from the innate value of most of Sheen's thoughts, is to juxtapose the clear thinking displayed in most of the above above with the erroneous principal of the development of doctrine which Sheen espouses in these words:  

"The Church is identified with Christ in both method and principle; She began thinking on His first principles and the harder She thought, the more dogmas She developed. She never forgot those dogmas; She remembered them and Her memory is Tradition."

I have undertaken this critique because Sheen's words above are being circulated presently in the Lutheran blogosphere. 
A confessional Lutheran cannot accept that dogmas are the result of the church "thinking on" and "developing" "first principles" given by Christ. This approach loosens the church from the anchor of holy scripture and leads to the Roman dogmas of the immaculate conception and assumption of the virgin Mary, neither of which has any foundation in scripture, but both of which are justified by Roman theologians on the grounds of their being "necessary" developments of doctrine in their system. They are in turn founded upon the authority of the infallible teaching office of the papacy, another dogmatic development "necessary" because Rome does not believe the Word of God written is a clear and sufficient authority for Christian doctrine and life. Pope Benedict, when still Cardinal Ratzinger, likewise proposed that purgatory was a "necessary" dogma that would have to be invented if it did not actually exist (!).  Each of these of these dogmas serves to buttress Rome's synergism, which is one of her mistaken "first principles". Luther, on the basis of scripture, vigorously opposed this synergism in his epochal debate with Erasmus on t-he bondage of the will.

It may seem to us today, with our modern historical consciousness, that dogma has developed, but what has actually developed - 'deepened' may be the better word - is the church's understanding of the deposit of faith given in scripture, not the faith (fides quae) itself. All that the church later explicitly came to confess is already implicit in the simple NT confession "Jesus is Lord", the doctrinal content being explicated for us in the Gospels and epistles. The notion of a development of dogma/doctrine was proposed by the Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism, Cardinal John Henry Newman (pictured), as a means of deflecting criticisms already made by the Reformers, but bolstered by the scientific study of church history in the early 19th C. that Roman Catholicism had introduced doctrinal innovations that were unknown to the early church. Rome initially rejected Newman's theory, correctly viewing it as incompatible with its view of Tradition (i.e. all Tradition was Apostolic in origin), but from about the time of Vatican II it rehabilitated his theory, thus involving itself in a fatal contradiction as to its claims to authority.  

Friday, 12 February 2016

The Wartburg Project: A New Lutheran English Bible Translation

Scholars from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), two US based Lutheran synods, are working on a new English translation of the Bible to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 2017.

More information on this interesting and, we hope, worthwhile project, including links to samples on Amazon, can be found here.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Resources for Pastors

Books and educational materials are expensive, especially when you have to factor in unfavourable exchange rates and shipping costs to the other side of the world! Hence I'm always on the lookout for good, free resources for pastors. Here's one such site: Chad Bird's new web page. Chad is a gifted teacher of the church (LCMS) who has hundreds of resources, including articles and videos, freely available here.

 For other free resources see the column of links on the right. If there are helpful resource sites you use please let me know so that I may assess them.

Meanwhile, check out the 19th C. study pictured at left (looks like a picture of C.F.W. Walther's study I once saw - contrary to claims that Walther embodied a narrow culture he was actually a very well read man)...while digitisation drastically reduces the number of books required for a theological library in comparison with a hundred years ago, in my experience there remains the problem of software platforms being rather quickly superseded, thus rendering digital resources unusable.  

A blessed Christmas season to readers!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Reformation Day, 1917

"I still remember that cloudy, misty Autumn morning in northern Germany. The Divine Service in the open air would be for many of those present their last celebration of holy communion. Straight after the celebration, we were plunged into one of the bloodiest battles of Flanders...Surely that Jubilee deserved something better. But with it there arose a new appreciation of the central article of faith of the Lutheran Reformation. It is as though the tremendous gravity of war, the encounter with death and the experience of God's judgment that it brought, were needed for modern man to grasp again the message of the Reformation: the justification of the ungodly by faith alone."
From The Message of the Reformation in Changing Times, a talk given by Hermann Sasse in Erlangen, Germany on 10th November, 1942.

Sasse is writing in 1942, reminiscing about Reformation Day, 1917, the 400th anniversary of the Reformation. 
There were three great battles in Flanders during WW1; Sasse is referring to what is known to English speakers as The Battle of Passchendaele, which concluded in early November, 1917 with half a million casualties on both sides. During this battle, Sasse, a sergeant in the German infantry, earned the Iron Cross (2nd Class), the second highest battle honour in Germany at the time. Since soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) were heavily involved at Passchendaele, it is possible that Sasse saw action against his future countrymen. Today - 11th November - is observed as Remembrance Day among the the British Commonwealth of nations, marking the end of World War I and remembering with thanksgiving those who served - among whom I number two great uncles. 

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Original Sin is Foolishness To Men

"Original sin is foolishness to men, but it is admitted to be such. You must not then reproach me for the want of reason in this doctrine, since I admit it to be without reason. But this foolishness is wiser than all the wisdom of men, sapientius est hominibus. For without this, what can we say that man is? His whole state depends on this imperceptible point. And how should it be perceived by his reason, since it is a thing against reason, and since reason, far from finding it out by her own ways, is averse to it when it is presented to her?"

Blaise Pascal, Pensees, #445

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Did Luther Intentionally Post the '95 Theses' on All Hallows Eve?

Did Luther intentionally post the '95 Theses' to the church door in Wittenberg on the eve of All Hallows (a.k.a. All Saints), or was it a happy coincidence? I suspect it was intentional as that was a spiritually charged date in the church calendar, a fact Luther would have been all too aware of (not to mention that the Schlosskirche was dedicated to All Hallows, which, combined with its extensive collection of relics, would have had the town humming with visitors that day). All Hallow's Eve marked beginning of Allhallowtide, a three day festival period in the medieval church which, by the late middle ages, had come to be swathed in superstition. These superstitions arose from the practice of devoting this time to praying for, offering alms for, doing works of penance for and purchasing indulgences for the souls of the dead in Purgatory.

This focus on the dead led to the telling of ghost stories becoming a popular custom at this time. Ghosts were believed to be a visitation of the dead to this world to remind relatives of the need for prayers and other religious works to be offered for them - including, most importantly, the sacrificial work of the mass - so that their souls might obtain sufficient merit to pass from Purgatory to Heaven. While we may be temtped to consign these superstitions to the past, they in fact persist to this day in some Roman Catholic circles: a parishioner advised me in all seriousness that a Catholic relative received a phone call from her dead husband admonishing her for not having masses for the repose of his soul said! 

It was not for nothing, then, that Luther labelled "poltergeists" as the fifth in his list of abuses of the church of Rome which had thankfully been rooted out among the Evangelical churches (Exhortation to All Clergy Assembled at Augsburg, 1530, LW 34:54). Luther's rediscovery of the Gospel freed the church not only from the false doctrine of salvation by works (or faith + works) but also from these related sub-Christian superstitions and practices by which a fearful people were held in bondage to a false notion of the way of salvation. 

One does not suggest that the Roman hierarchy today approves of such superstitions, but it should be noted that the whole apparatus of Purgatory, including the efficacy of masses, alms, prayers and penitential works offered for the "poor souls" there, remains very much a part of Roman doctrine and practice (cf. 'Catechism of the Catholic Church', para. 1032). How all this co-exists after the much touted "breakthrough" of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which supposedly achieved "substantial agreement" on the doctrine at the heart of the Gospel, is something I've never received a clear answer to from either Lutheran or Catholic theologians who support it. The usual response is the admonishment to be patient for "Rome takes time to change". Rome change? Is she not rather semper eadem? Rome will never change what it erroneously regards as a part of the deposit of faith entrusted to her. In light of this, celebrations of Reformation Day are not out of date, but as relevant as ever - for the sake of the Gospel.  

Monday, 26 October 2015

Confession Means To Agree With God's Verdict: Guilty!

"Justification is both a problem and solution. Oswald Bayer has described human existence as forensically structured. That is to say, that life demands justification. Listen to the way people respond when confronted with a failure. It is the language of self-defense, rationalization, or blaming. No human being wants to be wrong. Or listen to the eulogies delivered at the memorial rites for unbelievers. They are, more often than not, attempts to vocalize why the deceased person’s life was worthwhile. They seek to justify his or her existence. If one is not justified by faith in Christ, one will seek justification elsewhere in attitude or action.
To confess your sin is to cease the futile attempt to self-justify. Rather it is to join with David in saying to God: “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you might be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4). In confession, the sinner acknowledges that God is right. It is to agree with God’s verdict: Guilty."
John T. Pless, A Brief Introduction to Confession and Absolution
Read the whole thing here.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Revelation or 'Enlightened Common Sense'?

'The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we should expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call supra-rational. There ought to be something in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it—as the facts of sex and sense on the natural level are opaque. And that is the real issue. The Church of England can remain a church only if she retains this opaque element. If we abandon that, if we retain only what can be justified by standards of prudence and convenience at the bar of enlightened common sense, then we exchange revelation for that old wraith Natural Religion.'
 C.S. Lewis, Priestesses  in the Church?

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Contemporary Worship Is In Decline

"Contemporary worship is in decline. Some months ago T. David Gordon wrote a post entitled “The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music: Eight Reasons” that continues to be widely read and shared. While I don’t agree with Gordon on every point, what he says gives us hope for the future of the worshiping church. Alongside his reasons, here are the three main reasons I see for the decline (if not demise) of the contemporary worship movement.
Baby boomers are losing their influence. Or, as Gordon more bluntly put it, “my own generation is beginning to die.” Your parents, not your kids, are the biggest proponents of contemporary worship. I’ve seen this in my own ministry. The most committed (and often the most obstinate) defenders of contemporary worship is rapidly becoming the older generation. While their influence remains in many places, it is waning. Within a few short years, contemporary worship will have lost its original impetus and driving force."

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Apologetic Power of Original Sin

In Christian theology the term 'mysteries of faith' is applied to truths which humankind could only attain knowledge of through revelation. For example, the chief mystery of the faith is the revelation that God is a triune being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Other mysteries are creatio ex nihilo, the incarnation and the atonement. It is the mysteries of the faith which give Christianity its religious power, so to speak (see my definition of 'religion' below), making it so much more than the intellectual and/or moral idealism that inept churchmen have often reduced it to.  It is the apprehension of the mysteries through faith which can render a simple believer a better practical theologian than the professional equipped with a doctorate and which sustains martyrs in their time of trial.

While these mysteries can certainly be explicated by human reason, that is only after the fact of their revelation in holy scripture. Actually, one can concede that the human mind and heart could perceive aspects of the mysteries of faith apart from their revelation in scripture, as, for example, Aristotle postulated a first cause, an unmoved mover who must be responsible for creation. But such heights of apparently unaided perception of divine truth can only be attained because of the revelation of God in nature, including the human nous and psyche, and they remain limited.

One of the mysteries of faith is original sin. I think it was Chesterton who wrote that original sin is the mystery of the faith for which there is the most empirical evidence. The world and human nature are clearly not the way they should be. As creatures animated with souls we seek an explanation for that apprehension. Either God does not exist - the seemingly inexorable conclusion to which atheists like Stephen Fry have come in the face of human suffering at the hands of human and natural evil; or God exists but humankind has turned from him in some act which has brought about calamitous results in the created order.

It is the second belief, which is essentially the doctrine of original sin, that atheists like Stephen Fry - who is on my mind not because he is the best exemplar of the new atheism but simply because I saw an interview with him on the television at the weekend (from which comes the clip) - seem unaware of. His conclusion that the existence of God is inconsistent with the existence of evil does not account for original sin. That lacunae in his thinking may well be accounted for by the low stocks of the doctrine of original sin in much of contemporary Christian preaching and teaching. This, one suspects, is the case in the Church of England (at least outside of evangelical circles) which Fry would have been exposed to growing up. It is certainly so in much of  the broader Christian mainstream. I well remember listening to a radio interview c. 2000 with one of the leading clerics of the Anglican Church in Adelaide who opined that he couldn't believe in the doctrine of original sin - notwithstanding its presence in the Church of England's historic Articles of Religion - because it was "creepy" (I'll come back to this observation, which is more astute than the clergyman probably realised).

Presumably such preachers resort to a sort of Teilhardian evolutionary schema in which humankind is "falling upwards", beckoned by God towards a state of perfect union with him through spiritual exercises and devotion to good works (which in contemporary mainstream Christianity are often expressions of particular political beliefs). This dovetails nicely with the contemporary desire to be "spiritual but not religious" - as if one could have the spirituality without the religious doctrine! - and no doubt provides a welcome supplementary income stream for those who conduct workshops and retreats focusing on spirituality. But without a doctrine of original sin this version of Christianity is semi-Pelagian at best and neo-Gnostic at worst. Mere spirituality is not enough to save us from ourselves. Indeed. the realm of spirituality can be just as much subject to the twisted egocentricity that results from original sin as any other area of life.

It is extraordinary that large swathes of what was once Christendom should thus abandon a doctrine with such apologetic power, by which I mean the power to not just explain our predicament, but to enlighten us and set us on the path to redemption. Having been dismissed by liberal theology in the 19th century as primitive and opposed to the prevailing doctrine of the day, which was evolutionary progress, original sin enjoyed a brief  revival in mainstream Christianity in the first half of the 20th century thanks to the so-called neo-orthodoxy proposed by Karl Barth, who was reacting to the unspeakable horrors of  World War One. But by mid-century Barth's neo-orthodoxy had developed into a political theology of the Marxist Left, a dead end if ever there was one, not least because it neglects one of the fundamental and inescapable tenets of the belief in original sin - fallen humankind is not perfectible in this life.

To be continued...

Note on 'religion'
The term 'religion' and 'religious' are so much open to misunderstanding these days that some Christians think their use should be abandoned, at least in reference to Christianity, lest the uniqueness of the Christian revelation be seen to be put on the same level with the other world religions. I see their point but I disagree nevertheless, and for what it may be worth I offer here my reason for doing so. I use the terms religion and religious in what is perhaps their most ancient sense as far as the Latin term from which the English word is derived goes, and that is to denote the rule of one's life or the beliefs by which I am bound in living.

This understanding of the term, I think, has the virtue of not being an abstraction. It can also be applied to the various 'religious' beliefs of humankind without necessarily implying that Christianity is on the same level, so to speak, as other religions. The fact is that while religions are not all equally valid, all human beings are religious - even the tiny minority of Western educated atheists are obsessed with God and with what rule of life they should follow if he does not exist.          


Monday, 24 August 2015

Two Views of Tolerance

"Two Views of Tolerance
Under the traditional view of tolerance, two aspects were required: first, that you respected the right of the person or individual in question to hold his beliefs and voice his opinions; and second, that you had a right to disagree with those beliefs and contest them both privately and publicly. As D.A. Carson paraphrases it in The Intolerance of Tolerance, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” You do not have to like the person with whom you disagree, but you do have to respect and tolerate his right to speak.
This conception entails tolerance toward the person while allowing intolerance toward beliefs. Since beliefs are abstract objects communicated through propositions in written or spoken language, they have no inherent dignity in themselves. It does them no harm or offense to disagree with them or offer a rebuttal. Disagreeing with or being intolerant of a belief, in this view, is fundamentally different from being intolerant or hateful toward the person who holds that belief. In other words, this definition is built on a clear and obvious distinction between a person and his beliefs.
The traditional understanding of tolerance reflects a certain epistemology: namely, that there is such a thing as truth, it can be known, and the best way to discover the truth is through debate, reflection, and investigation. The pursuit of truth requires mutual cooperation, serious consideration of opposing beliefs, and persuasion through the use of reason. Coercion, exclusion, slander, and threats of force have no place in the search for truth.
Over the course of the last century, however, the old view of tolerance has been slowly transformed. The emergent new tolerance holds that persons who are truly tolerant accept the views of others and treat these individuals fairly. The key distinction is that under the old tolerance, one would accept the existence of other views even while rejecting some views as false; but under the new tolerance, one accepts these other views. In other words, all views are seen as equally valid and true.
The new tolerance rejects “dogmatism and absolutism,” affirms that each person has the right to live by his convictions, and eschews imposing one’s views upon others. Yet underlying this view of tolerance is a fundamental contradiction. Is not this concept of tolerance being imposed on all peoples and cultures, in direct violation of one of its own tenets? And as Carson points out, “does not the assertion, ‘Tolerance . . . involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism’ sound a little, well . . . dogmatic and absolute?"
Therefore, despite its appeal and aplomb, the new tolerance is both intolerant and internally incoherent."
From an article by Ben Crenshaw.  Read it all here.
Note on the illustration -  Non-American blog readers may be puzzled by the illustration. This internet meme - which adapts a scene from the wonderful 1980s film The Princess Bride - refers to several American city councils banning the establishment of restaurants of the Chick-Fil-A chain because the chain's owners have taken a public stance against same sex marriage on religious grounds. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Lectionary Reform, Anyone?

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is a good illustration of the power of editors. When one considers what has been left out of both the lectionary (the imprecatory Psalms, Jesus' conflict with the religious authorities in Matthew & John, the stoning of Stephen, the Apostles' miracles, Biblical teaching on marriage and get the idea) and individual lections it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that such decisions have been influenced by the liberal theology of the editors, who were representatives of mainstream Catholicism and Protestant churches in North America. At the very least, the lectionary seems designed not to offend progressive sensibilities. The result is that we have an apparent feast of readings over a three year cycle which, nonetheless, almost invites the preacher to depart from it if the whole counsel of God is to be taught. 

Pastors and others who must prepare Divine Service week after week can also testify to the odd choices in the RCL that make their life difficult, like the present focus on Jesus' bread of life discourse in John 6. I appreciate the opportunity to preach through this chapter slowly, but I know many pastors don't and opt instead for a series of topical sermons during this time of Year B.           

What chance, then, of lectionary reform? 

Slim, I think. Despite murmurs here and there in both liberal and conservative liturgical circles, most churches have apparently far bigger issues on their plate at the moment, not least being steeply declining attendance and the difficulties of passing on the Faith to the next generation. But Lutherans do have a ready made alternative if they're prepared to address the question of lectionary reform.

There is surely a case to be made on several grounds for Lutherans reverting to the historic one year lectionary:

Firstly, the educational benefit of increased repetition at a time of increasing Biblical illiteracy - 'repetitio est mater studorium'. The editing of the RCL assumes a familiarity with Holy Scripture which simply doesn't exist among our people anymore (if it ever did); too often, as a result, hearers are unaware of the context of a reading and unable to make the connections the editors seem to expect. A one year lectionary would enable hearers to become more familiar with key Biblical texts - and let's face it, for many of those in the pews the lections are the only scripture they are exposed to.    
Secondly, historically Lutheran homiletics and hymnody was to a large degree shaped by the historic one year lectionary of Western Christendom, providing contemporary preachers with a wealth of material to draw on, even in English translation - the sermons of Luther, for e.g..

Thirdly, it would re-align, so to speak, the lectionary readings with the traditional Collects, which follow a one year cycle based on the traditional Christian year. The power of the Collects, which are an important part of our catholic heritage, is obscured by the RCL readings and I'm afraid most alternatives I've looked at designed to fit the RCL readings don't come close to them in language or content, although versions of the traditional Collects slightly revised for modern usage are helpful. 

There are also other benefits like the full restoration of Palm Sunday (for many years now I have simply reverted to the one year readings for that celebration, as the Palm/Passion mix of themes in the RCL just doesn't work, in my view). Palm Sunday may be only a late medieval development in Western Christendom but long before that it was one of the Twelve Great Feasts in the Eastern church's calendar and for an obvious reason: its observation best serves the liturgical celebration of the unfolding narrative of Holy Week. It also provides rich homiletical material for the preacher heading into Holy Week.

Of course, there are advantages to the RCL which  a one year lectionary cannot match; the question is, which option best serves the church's needs at present and in the future? I am leaning towards the option which will promote a deeper knowledge of the Holy Scriptures among our people and which offers historical continuity, both features which seem to me to be particularly important as we head into the "post-Christendom" era.