Monday, 29 March 2010

As We Enter Holy Week


As we enter Holy Week...

Lord, by every minstrel tongue
Be thy praise so duly sung,
That thine angels’ harps may ne’er
Fail to find fit echoing here:
We the while, of meaner birth,
Who in that divinest spell
Dare not hope to join on earth,
Give us grace to listen well.


From Palm Sunday by John Keble (1792-1866)
[Full text available here: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/palm-sunday/]
[Picture: Palm Sunday somewhere in southern India]

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Juxtaposition: Richard Dawkins & Isaac Newton

I really don't think I'm arrogant, but I do get impatient with people who don't share with me the same humility in front of the facts.
Richard Dawkins (1941 - ), Scientist (Evolutionary Biologist), Atheist, Popular Author & Public Speaker.


I know not what the world will think of my labours, but to myself it seems that I have been but as a child playing on the sea-shore; now finding some pebble rather more polished, and now some shell rather more variegated than another, while the great ocean of truth extended itself undiscovered before me.
Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), Scientist (physicist, mathematician, astronomer, optician, inventor), Natural Philosopher, Amateur Theologian, Christian (the orthodoxy of Newton's Christianity is under dispute by scholars, but there is no doubt that he was a theist and most probably a Christian, albeit perhaps an unorthodox one).

The upshot of this juxtaposition is that a Christian worldview, which Newton was heir to, promotes an attitude of humility and wonder in the face of God's creation, as exemplified by Newton's words, written shortly before his death; whereas atheism inculcates in its adherents an attitude of hubris - the "pride that blinds" one to the evidence of God's work in the world.

Note: A post on why I think Dawkins, who recently graced our shores with his presence, is so popular these days is in the works.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Can You Help African Lutherans?


While doing some further research of the growth of Lutheran churches in Africa, I came across a site called 'Bibles for Bondo Parish', run by a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation in Connecticut who are working to provide pew Bibles for the members of one multi-point African Lutheran parish and Study Bibles for its pastors. As one can easily imagine, the need in the areas of Africa where the Lutheran church is growing so quickly is great (not all the growth is through a high birth rate either, but also includes converts from Islam and animism in those parts of the continent where Christianity comes up hard against these two belief systems).

It occurred to me that this is an endeavour many Lutheran congregations in Western nations would be in a position to undertake without too much input required from synodical HQ. In our own LCA Queensland District, we have an unofficial missionary organisation called Asia Focus (http://www.asiafocus.org.au), formed under the initiative of Pr August Fricke, which has, despite its original focus on Asia reflected in its name, found itself drawn also to work in Africa, simply because of the demand emanating from that continent. How could they say, "No, we can't help you" when a request for modest assistance comes? (And the requests are always modest: Bibles, Sunday School materials, perhaps at most a light motor bike or scooter to enable the pastor to get around more efficiently; while the thanks are overflowing.)
Asia Focus, with their existing African contacts, could certainly serve as a conduit for any Bibles or other study materials supplied by local congregations 'down under'.
American readers might like to click on the post title to view the 'Bibles for Bondo' website, from which I borrowed the poignant pics (I hope that's OK). Given the generosity of Americans, and their passion for mission work, no doubt there is no shortage of similar operations in the US run by Lutherans of various synods.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Go Figure: Germans Lose Confidence in Pope & 'Catholic Church'

"Only 17 per cent of Germans polled said they still trust the Catholic Church, compared to 29 per cent in late January, just before the first abuse cases were made public, according to [a] Stern magazine poll.

Many Germans also have lost confidence in the pope, the poll showed. Only 24 per cent still trust him, while six weeks ago 38 per cent said they did.

Some 1,508 persons were interviewed for the poll last week. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 per cent."

Source: Bigpond News/Stern

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Go Figure: More Lutherans, Mostly in Africa

According to recent figures released by the LWF (Lutheran World Federation), the number of Lutherans associated with this body rose by some 1.7 million in the last 12months. The numerical increase was most notable in Africa, where its significance is such that it easily compenstates for losses in the USA, Latin American and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the Ecumenical News International report printed below notes that membership of non-LWF church bodies also rose by around 200 000.

According to LWF figures, the second largest Lutheran church body in the world is the Lutheran Church in Tanzania, while the largest is the Church of Sweden. But since people actually go to church in Tanzania, in contrast to Sweden, your humble scribe suggests that the church in Tanzania is actually now de facto by far the largest Lutheran church body in the world.

While Australia does not figure in the report quoted, I can happily report that according to the last Australian national census figures, there has been an increase in Lutherans here of 0.3%. I have no hard evidence to support the following, but I'm inclined to think that this modest increase here can be attributed to African refugee converts.

Here is the ENI report:

Geneva (ENI). For the first time, the total number of members in churches belonging to the Lutheran World Federation has risen to just over 70 million increasing by 1.6 million from the preceding year.

On its Web site, the Geneva-based grouping says that in 2009 membership of LWF churches in Africa and Asia increased, while churches in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in North America, experienced a slight decline.

In a statement, the communications' office of the federation said that the total number of members in churches affiliated to the federation in 2009 stood at 70 053 316.

In 2008, LWF-affiliated churches had around 68.5 million members worldwide, up from 68.3 million in 2007.

The total membership of Lutheran churches worldwide rose in 2009 by 1 784 556 to just under 73.8 million, representing an increase of 2.5 percent. In 2008, all Lutheran churches worldwide counted some 72 million members, compared to 71.8 million in 2007.

The number of Lutherans belonging to non-LWF Lutheran churches rose by 195 331 to reach 3 704 810, an increase of 5.6 percent.

Membership in churches belonging to the LWF in Africa in 2009 rose by 1 233 413, or 7.1 percent, to a total of 18.52 million. The membership of non-LWF Lutheran churches on the African continent was 196 989.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania is now the largest LWF member church in Africa, with an increase of around 670 247 members, or 14.5 percent, recorded in 2009. This brings the church's current total to 5 302 727, and makes it the second largest Lutheran church in the world after the Church of Sweden, which has 6.75 million members.

The third largest LWF member church is the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, whose figures increased by 267 336, or 5.3 percent, to 5 279 822. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia added 70 000 new members for a total of 420 000, an increase of 20 percent, in a country with 2.1 million people.

The total number of Lutherans in Asia rose by 200 955 in 2009 to 8.75 million representing an increase of 2.35 percent. Lutheran churches in Asia that do not belong to the LWF reported 189 653 new members, corresponding to an increase of 6732 or 3.68 percent.

Asia's biggest Lutheran church, the Protestant Christian Batak Church in Indonesia, reported 4 178 256 members in 2009, an increase of 178 256, or about 4.5 percent.

In Europe, the total membership of LWF member churches increased slightly by 250 062, or approximately 0.7 percent, to a current total of 37.16 million.

Membership in the world's largest Lutheran church, the Church of Sweden, declined further in the course of 2009, falling by 68 209, or 1.0 percent, to 6 751 952. The fifth largest LWF member church worldwide, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark, experienced a relatively small decline of 2468 members, or 0.05 percent, to 4 492 121.

The Lutheran Council of Great Britain said it had an increase of 43 700, or 33.5 percent, additional members for a total of 174 300.

The total number of Lutheran Christians in Germany in 2009 was 12.9 million, who do not belong to one single church but to a series of regional churches. Still, Germany continues to be the country with the largest number of Lutherans in the world.

The total membership in LWF member churches in Latin America and the Caribbean decreased by 198 to a total of 837 692. Membership in non-LWF churches in the region counted 285 331, a decline of 49.

Like most Lutheran churches in Latin America and the Caribbean, the region's largest Lutheran church, the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil, reported no change in its total membership, which remains at 717 000.

In North America in 2009, there were nearly 100 000 fewer members in LWF churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the LWF's fourth largest member church, had 4 623 301 members, a decrease of 86 653, or 1.8 percent.

The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (USA and Canada), not an LWF member, reported 2.4 million members for 2009, an increase of 16 916, or 0.7 percent.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada reported a decline of 8354, or 5.2 percent, and recorded 152 788 members.

• Full details of LWF statistics: www.lutheranworld.org/LWF_Documents/LWF-Statistics-2009.pdf.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Future: A Kafka-esque Nightmare?

Just recently I enquired of an on-line forum I'm a member of if they could assist me in tracking down a document I vaguely remembered was once discussed by the members. The manager of the forum - very helpful fellow that he is - managed to track down the document in question: it was on my computer! Or at least, I was the one who had posted it on the forum from my old computer several years before. He was even able to supply verbatim the discussion that provided the original context for posting the document. (Any computer nerds reading this will have to pardon my ignorance as they fall of their chairs laughing at my naivety.)

I was amazed, and it got me thinking about how the words we etch on the ethernet with nary a second thought may one day come back to haunt us. In the hands of an imagined malevolent authority with an anti-Christian ideological bent, equipped with some sort of super-computer, we could all be quite easily caught up in a Kafka-esque* nightmare in the future. "You are all guilty until proven innocent", the cyber-bureaucrats would say (add a German accent for extra authenticity), adding with menace "and we have your words to prove it!"

The thought lends new shades of meaning to our Lord's caution that we will be judged for every careless word.

Note: Franz Kafka was one of the most seminal novelists of the 20th century. Born to Jewish parents in Bohemia in 1883 (d. 1924), in the then Hapsburg Empire, his German-language novels and short stories reflect themes of alienation, guilt, absurdity, and humanity crushed by bureaucracy.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Atheist Pulpiteers Preaching to the Choir


I once read of a preacher who made a marginal note (a gloss!) in his pulpit manuscript to remind himself to raise his voice at a particular point in his sermon: “Argument weak; yell like hell!”, he wrote. The pulpiteers of popular atheism must have gone to the same school of rhetorical arts as the preacher, except their marginal note seems to go like this: “Argument weak; ridicule opposition!”.

According to reports appearing in the press here in Australia, the public addresses at the ‘Global Atheists’ Convention’ held in Melbourne last weekend, which drew an audience of 2500 to hear speakers such as Richard Dawkins, were marked by extremely disparaging ad hominem attacks on perceived opponents which were greeted with raucous laughter and applause by the audience. “The Pope“, according to Dawkins, was “a Nazi“, and Senator Steve Fielding (an Australian politician who is an unabashed evangelical Christian) had an intellect “somewhere below that of an earthworm.” “Are there any believers here?” asked another speaker, “then I’ll speak s_l_o_w_l_y for you”. You get the picture.

Now, ad hominem attacks have always been standard fare of rhetoricians, and indeed are still so today, as anyone who watches a televised parliamentary debate can attest, although modern tastes prefer the rhetoric to be toned down as compared with, say, medieval or present-day atheists' conference standards. But an audience trained to listen discerningly and critically can easily spot and disregard such tactics as irrelevant to any logical force the speaker’s argument may have. Which makes it all the more surprising that speakers as evidently intelligent as Richard Dawkins would resort to them, and doubly surprising that his audience of self-proclaimed enlightened ones would lap it up apparently so uncritically.

The general public, it seems, has not been impressed, and at least one high-profile Australian agnostic has said that the tone of the GAC has prompted him to want to re-consider Christianity, as it seems to be the only guarantor of civilised values left in the world. Not quite a conversion, granted, but the door is open...thanks Richard!

Perhaps it only goes to show that, widespread perceptions notwithstanding, professed atheism is no guarantor of a critical mind?

Monday, 15 March 2010

Good News for Australian Readers of Luther

When I was a student at Luther Seminary in Adelaide, our church history and Lutheran confessions lecturer, Maurice Schild*, did once, while talking about the impact of Luther's writings on ordinary people during the Reformation, interrupt his lecture in order to look wistfully out the window of the lecture room to where the leaves of the London Plane trees were falling on the street outside, and he then said to the class with a not uncharacteristic note of urgency in his voice, "Do you think there are bus drivers out there who read Luther?" (I can only suppose that a bus was passing at the time, prompting this otherwise enigmatic remark.)

Well, lo and behold, when I went into my first parish, I did have a parishioner who was a bus driver who did read Luther. Needless to say he was not a bad theologian, either. But he was hampered by how little of Luther is readily available in English to the (non-mythical) intelligent lay-person without forking out AUS$60+ for a volume of the American Edition of Luther's Works. All the non-scholarly reader has had to subsist on to date are John Dillenberger's and Timothy Lull's skimpy one-volume collections of extracts from Luther's more important writings.
Well, here's good news for any Australian bus-drivers or other readers out there who have ever thought of getting seriously into Luther but were hampered by not having access to a reasonably priced edition of his more important works:
Australian readers can now easily obtain a new edition of Theodore Tappert's old 4-volume set, 'Selected Writings of Martin Luther' through Koorong (for American readers, an Australian evangelical bookstore chain) for the very reasonable price of $34.95, which is substantially below even the American recommended retail price (the Koorong web-store price is $40.95, but I picked up a set at my local shop for the sticker price of $34.95. Why Koorong persist in having different prices on their web page to in-store is beyond me. I asked them about it once but their reply made no sense).

The individual volumes are paperbound and small enough to fit in a handbag, knapsack or brief-case if you wanted to read them on a train or bus while travelling to work, or they could be easily taken along in a caravan or camper without usurping too much valuable shelf space if you are a 'grey nomad' trekking around the continent in your retirement. Despite the compact size of the volumes the font is very readable (even if with reading-glasses, for those of us approaching or past middle-age!), and explanatory notes specifically written for the lay-reader are included. The volumes have been printed on acid-free paper in Canada (not China!) and the set also comes in an attractive slip-case. This is one of the best things Fortress Press have done in years; all of the essential Luther writings are here, all the writings I remember Dr Schild told us we must read! Indeed, there is enough substance herein to sustain a lifetime of reflection on the eternal verities of the Christian faith and how these truths apply to daily life.

Koorong has 50+ sets in stock at this price. Delay no longer!

(Click on the post title to view the Koorong order page for this set. No - I don't get a commission!)

* Dr Schild was Hermann Sasse's successor in this position. He did his doctorate in Heidelberg, where he sat at the feet of the esteemed confessional theologian, Peter Brunner, who had been imprisoned by the Nazis during WWII. Dr Schild, one of my favourite lecturers, was passionate about his theology; he used to often suggest that, instead of pastoral graduates being given church-funded loans to purchase a car for use in ministry, they should instead be loaned $15,000 to purchase a set of the Weimar Ausgabe German/Latin edition of Luther's works. I think he was serious, too! And why shouldn't he be? Quite ordinary people were once prepared to pay quite a high price, even to die, for possessing one of Luther's tracts or even a New Testament in German, or indeed Tyndale's English version, which owed much to Luther.

What's In A Name?

What's in a name? Quite a lot, it seems. David Schuetz over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia (the Ecclesia in question is the Roman Catholic Church, of course, although David used to think together with the ecclesia known as the Lutheran Church of Australia) has objected to the use of the term 'Roman Catholic Church' and its handy shorthand abbreviation RCC in the comments section of his blog, and will presumably refuse to permit their usage from now on as a matter of policy.

Now, I suppose David is perfectly entitled to do so, as he 'owns' the blog, but this new policy does seem more than a little illiberal to me, especially for one whose blog masthead proclaims that he is 'always proposing, never imposing'. Why, I have even allowed some of David's own quite inflammatory comments directed at the Lutheran faith and my eternal future to remain on my blogs unedited. As far as my own policy on comments is concerned, I would prefer not to censor commentators, and to engage in dialogue, as time permits, and seek to propose, rather than impose, an agreeable alternative, and if agreement should prove elusive, finally accept that not everyone in the world thinks as I do (thank heavens!). Only if a comment was beyond the bounds of civility would I refuse to permit it.

And so I just can't understand the problem with 'Roman Catholic'. It is certainly not beyond the bounds of civility. Why, I note, the Roman Catholic Church even uses the term itself, as one can see here:

http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/2007/documents/ns_lit_doc_20071124_titoli_en.html

and here:
http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/ch_orthodox_docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20000719_baltimore_en.html

and here:
http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/council-churches-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20030519_final-communique_en.html

and here:
http://www.bne.catholic.net.au/asp/index.asp

and it could go on, but you get the picture.

There is nothing inherently derogatory about the term, it is simply a neutral descriptor, and as the OED will confirm, it has for long been a standard term used in the Anglophone world to denominate the Church of Rome and those in communion with it from other church bodies which also claim catholicity.

Ah...perhaps that's the problem?

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Wendell Berry on Contrarianism


I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven's favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing for a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. "Dance" they told me
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
"Pray" they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth's brightnesses, and then stole off gray
into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said "I know that my Redeemer liveth,"
I told them "He's dead." And when they told me
"God is dead," I answered "He goes fishing every day
in the Kentucky River. I see Him often."
When they asked me would I like to contribute
I said no, and when they had collected
more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn't
and then went off by myself and did more
than they would have asked. "Well, then" they said
"go and organize the International Brotherhood
of Contraries," I said "Did you finish killing
everybody who was against peace?" So be it.
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don't know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.


Wendell Berry, The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer, The Mad Farmer Poems

[HT The Ochlophobist (http://ochlophobist.blogspot.com/)]

Since moving and unpacking my books I realise that I have misplaced my copy of Wendell Berry's The Art of the Commonplace, which loss is causing me no small amount of consternation. For those unfamiliar with Berry, he is an American farmer, from Kentucky in fact, Henry County to be specific, who also happens to be a poet, a prolific and well-regarded novelist (Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter et al), essayist and sometime philosopher and apologist for all things agrarian ...as well as being a full-time contrarian (i.e., one who takes a view or action contrary to the majority of his contemporaries.)
Contrarians, who are by definition rare, are precious; we need more of them in the world (if that makes sense!). Some folk think contrarians are contrary just for the sake of it, whereas in actual fact they are more often than not contending for an important, life or death principle or truth that others have long since lost sight of. Without contrarians, the world would be even more dangerous and out of kilter than it is, for, as Kierkegaard, another contrarian, once noted: truth seldom resides in a majority.

PS
As the pic of Mr. Berry shows, contrarians are not necessarily grumpy souls, but often as cheerful as those who are under the delusion that they are right simply because most everyone else thinks the same way they do. I ask you, how could you not like a man who wears a cardigan with such stylish aplomb?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Is the Roman Catholic Church Above the Law?

Is the Roman Catholic Church above the law?

That is a question which will surely be asked often in the coming days as news of a decades old sexual abuse scandal in Germany also sheds light on a growing litany of more recent cases of abuse of minors in that country by Roman Catholic clergy, and just as surely the question will be answered in the negative by all impartial observers.

The old sexual abuse scandal, which dates back to the 1950s and concerns a cathedral choir of schoolboys in Regensburg, is making news now principally because the Pope's brother, Fr. Georg Ratzinger, has been canvassed as possible a witness as German authorities conduct their own investigations 50 years after the events occurred - the now adult victims having gone public. Georg Ratzinger was director of the choir for 30 years from c. 1964. There are certainly no charges levelled against him personally, but he will possibly be interviewed by the authorities in regard to what he knew of these matters, as it seems that his predecessor was removed from the position in connection with the Vatican investigation of the matters at the time. To date Ratzinger has denied knowledge of these matters.

Which brings us to our question, is or should the Roman Catholic Church be considered above the law of the lands in which it functions? Does it have a right to regard itself as the only body qualified to investigate its own when criminal acts are alleged to have been committed? Most reasonable people would surely answer "No!". But that is precisely the official position the Vatican has held since 1962 (and unofficially before then). Even if such internal investigations actually uncovered the truth in these matters, there is a principle at stake here which we cannot allow to be subverted, no matter what divine prerogatives are claimed, and that is that the state has jurisdiction over criminal offences, and a refusal to notify the proper state authorities of accusations in this area, or a refusal to co-operate with their investigators when such charges are levelled, amounts to obstruction of justice in anyone's language. If Catholic apologists insist that the church has reformed its approach to these matters since 1962, one is entitle to then ask why the present German Government has accused the Vatican of suppressing the truth. On Monday Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the German Justice Minister, said that a "wall of silence" was imposed on Catholic-run schools by a 2001 Vatican directive which declared abuse cases "subject to papal confidentiality". This directive can only have come from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope, who was then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body which, under Roman canon law, has jursidiction over investigations into sexual abuse cases (a jurisdiction imposed even over the heads of local bishops).

When one is given to understand that the punishment imposed by the church on those who pleaded guilty but were contrite was merely transfer to another position, and that this practice has continued at least up until the 1990s, any confidence one may have had in the Roman church's internal justice system evaporates completely. It is no longer difficult to understand just how the sexual abuse of minors in the RCC could continue for decades even in relatively secularised countries like the US, Germany and Australia, not to mention Ireland, where the church held a much more powerful sway over consciences and allegiances.

We can at least be thankful for the voice of German Cardinal Walter Kasper when he said on Saturday that the RCC needs to be 'seriously cleaned up'. Regrettably for the victims whose lives have been devastated, including those who have committed suicide, it is too little, too late. "Sin is bound to come, but woe to that person through whom it comes..."

Monday, 8 March 2010

A Tale of Two Brothers

There is something almost Dostoevskian about this tale. It concerns two brothers who have an idyllic and privileged childhood marred only, it seems, by their growing antipathy to each other. Perhaps they are too alike, lacking the differences necessary to allow each one the room to grow and develop along their own path? Or perhaps at the root of their antipathy is a struggle for their birthright? Whatever the case may be, their lives unfold, they both attend university and upon graduation pursue the same career, journalism, at which they both excel, gaining national profiles in their own country. Journalism then becomes for both of them a stepping stone to the authorship of non-fiction books, through which they both become internationally known.

But that is where the similarities end. For as both entered upon maturity they came to almost personify the two separate paths taken by their generation in regard to the great question that confronts it to this day: the existence and nature of God.

The brothers are Christopher and Peter Hitchens. Strange as it must seem to the rest of the world, it was at their one and only public debate on the very question that most divides them, the existence and nature of the Christian God, held on April 3rd, 2008 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that the long, almost life-long quarrel between the two brothers was healed.

Click on the post title to read Peter Hitchens' article, 'How I Found God and Made Peace with My Atheist Brother', published today in the UK Daily Mail. It is well worth reading and sharing with others. Video of the brotherly debate is available on YouTube.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Christology: A Matter of Diphthongs

We've all probably heard the joke about medieval theologians spending their time debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. To many moderns, even, alas, in the church, theology has become a byword for obscurantism. It is regarded as a task pursued by bearded, tweed-jacketed men who rarely leave their studies in the ivory towers of ecclesiastical academe to set foot in the real world. At best it is harmless, but at its worst it diverts the church’s energy and focus from its mission by embroiling us in ultimately meaningless debates.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Theology is an exhilarating adventure in which we are blessed to think the thoughts of God after him. The study of theology raises our minds to contemplate the great truths which are foundational to our salvation, thus broadening and deepening our faith. Without sound theology the church’s mission (which is actually God’s mission, not ours) would flounder on the rocks of superficiality and anti-intellectualism.

But there are indeed times when our reception of a profound truth of Biblical revelation does rest upon a matter which could possibly be etched upon a pin head - a jot, a tittle, a iota, or even a diphthong. For the uninitiated, in phonetics a diphthong is a gliding vowel in the pronunciation of which two distinct sounds are joined or glide together almost imperceptibly, as in the English words day, sky and boy.

In the 4th century, the debate about the divinity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ came to centre upon a diphthong. The orthodox believers of the time confessed that Christ was homoousion, of the same nature as God, whereas the unorthodox contended, under the influence of Arius, that Christ was only homoiousion, of like substance, a holy man to be sure, God-like even, but, crucially, not fully divine. Thus, a mere diphthong, a gliding vowel, separated orthodoxy from heresy.

Was it, and is it still, an important matter? The answer to that question becomes apparent when we consider just what confessing the homoousion reveals about God. Jesus Christ was not just a man like God in his holiness, purity and righteousness, he was God in human flesh, who came into our world to take away our sin, a task which no mere mortal could ever accomplish; he also came to make us fit for heaven by granting us his own holiness, purity and righteousness. That is the essential content of Biblical Christology, and it reveals how much God loves us, in spite of our sin and rebellion against him. The homoousion is finally about God being for us, and not against us.

Thanks to the Nicene Fathers, who knew what was at stake in a mere diphthong, we can joyfully confess to this day that our Lord Jesus Christ is ‘God from God, Light from Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven…’

Amen!

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Slippery Slope


The idea of the slippery slope may not hold up to formal logic (it is technically a logical fallacy to argue from it in a debate), but it does hold a revered place in folk wisdom...and, it seems, among the Lords Spiritual of the Church of England (i.e., those bishops who sit in the House of Lords, the house of review in the British parliament).

In a landmark decision, the House of Lords has passed an amendment to the UK Equality Bill which will, for the first time in the UK, allow same-sex marriages according to church rites. At present, it seems to be only the Quakers, the Unitarians and some liberal Jewish synagogues that are proposing to act on the new legislation, but some C of E bishops are concerned that the UK is now on a slippery slope which will lead to Anglican clergy who refuse to celebrate such unions being sued or charged under the law.

As the UK Daily Telegraph reports:
Traditionalist bishops and peers fear that vicars could be taken to court and accused of discrimination if they turn down requests to hold civil partnerships on religious premises.
Their concerns have been raised following a landmark vote by peers that will allow the ceremonies for same-sex couples to be held in places of worship for the first time.
(Click on the post title to read the whole report.)

The formal fallacy in the slippery slope argument is its surrender to the intuitive sense that an argument or principle, once admitted, will proceed inevitably to its final and maximal expression. In other words, advocates of the slippery slope do not allow for a position holding the middle ground to halt the momentum of the original argument.

Be that as it may, we happen to think that the Lords Spiritual may well be proven correct in this matter. The present British government does not have a great record of holding the middle ground in matters of equality before the law, particularly in the face of vociferous activists. It is, perhaps, the most anti-Christian government in Britain's history.

In the meantime, as we await developments, you may like to ponder these words of wisdom from Charles Porterfield Krauth, a 19th century Lutheran theologian and sometime professor of moral philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Krauth is speaking of the church, not society, but mutatis mutandis his words could equally as well apply to society and its doctrines of morality and the role of government in legislating them.

When error is admitted into the Church, it will be found that the stages in its progress are always three. It begins by asking toleration. Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few and weak; let us alone, we shall not disturb the faith of others. The Church has her standards of doctrine; of course we shall never interfere with them; we only ask for ourselves to be spared interference with our private opinions.
Indulged in for this time, error goes on to assert equal rights. Truth and error are balancing forces. The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between them; that would be partiality. It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth. We are to agree to differ, and any favoring of the truth, because it is truth, is partisanship. What the friends of truth and error hold in common is fundamental. Anything on which they differ is ipso facto non-essential. Anybody who makes account of such a thing is a disturber of the peace of the Church. Truth and error are two coordinate powers, and the great secret of church-statesmanship is to preserve the balance between them.
From this point error soon goes on to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy. Truth started with tolerating; it comes to be merely tolerated, and that only for a time. Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points. It puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departure from the Church’s faith, but in consequence of it. Their repudiation is that they repudiate that faith, and position is given them to teach others to repudiate it, and to make them skillful in combating it.

Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation (Philadelphia, 1871) p.195ff.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Great Recession

This morning I came across the term 'The Great Recession' for the first time (click on the post title to read an article in The Washington Times that uses this term). American friends who are no doubt only too familiar with the term will have to pardon my ignorance. Australia is, as far as I am aware, the only developed country not to experience an economic recession as a result of the Global Financial Crisis, a state of affairs largely attributable to the very conservative (or so it seems by international standards) regulations our banking sector operates under in terms of capital that must be held in reserve against loans, and the bouyancy of our primary exports to China, which underwrites consumer confidence and spending (not to mention a governmental economic stimulus package which was probably overdone and maybe even unnecessary). Of course, we know the rest of the developed world is doing it tough, but perhaps because of our own present economic security and the relative isolation our distance from the rest of the world imposes on us, we just don't realise how tough.

The possible meltdown of the European Economic Community though Greece nearly defaulting on its sovereign debt payments, closely followed by both Spain and Portugal's looming crises, has been dominating the foreign headlines here, but oddly the situation of the US has received little or no attention in our press, perhaps because of an assumption that the US is too big an economy to go down. But, as the American press informs us, it now appears that, for the first time since the Great Depression that followed the stock market collapse of 1929, the American population are collectively receiving more money from their government in the form of welfare and unemployment payments than they are returning to it in the form of taxes. Given the state of the US government's balance sheet, that is obviously a situation which cannot last indefinitely.
As I heard one American financial pundit say on the radio, if there is no economic turnaround in the next 12-24 months, the consequences do not bear thinking about. Not the least of these consequences, he said, is that without an economic renewal the US cannot afford to pay down its foreign debt. Here's the kicker: much of that debt has been incurred over the last twenty years to finance consumption and speculation rather than to capitalise businesses and improve the means of production, so the means of effecting the sorely needed economic renewal may not be to hand. This is an ominous development.

If the 19th century was the British century, the 20th century was definitely the American century, and not co-incidentally, the final nail in the coffin of British decline was driven by the burden of its debt to the US incurred in WWII. But now, barely a decade into the 21st century and only twenty years after winning the Cold War, it already appears that American dominance in the world is receding, and once again a debt burden is the presenting cause.

Not that I greet this prospect with any joy, mind you. I am unashamedly, but not uncritically, pro-American; a firm believer that, on the whole, American hegemony in the world since WWII has been for the greater good. It is almost impossible for Australians of my generation to imagine a world without American leadership in the economic, political and cultural spheres. But whether we can imagine it or not, the reality of this new world order may, sooner than we think, be before our eyes.

This could be a Great Recession in more than an economic sense, it may signal a Great Recession of American power in the world. Some people may relish that prospect, but they should pause to ask the question, who will fill the vacuum? The US has been a particularly benign and generous super-power; those lining up to take its place may not be so magnanimous.

We at the old manse are thinking of and praying for our American friends and readers. May God in his gracious providence bless and protect you, your families and your country at this difficult time.