Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Aahhh... The Good Old Days....


There is a myth so dear to most Christians that we have developed various versions of it to comfort ourselves with. It goes like this:
Once upon a time the Church was perfect. Unfortunately in [A] [B] happened and things have never been the same since. For [A] substitute some date in the dim and distant past. If you don't know the date, a vague nod in the general direction of some past century or other will do. For [B] substitute the name of whatever it was that ruined things. A helpful list follows:

* the fall of Jerusalem
* the end of the New Testament era
* the Apostle Paul
* the suppression of the Gospel of Thomas
* the Reformation
* Vatican 2
* Sunday sports
* Constantine
* St. Augustine

The last two are particularly popular as villains because they each mark significant turning points in the development of the Church, very few people are as knowledgeable about them as they give the impression of being, and it's not difficult to find incriminating proof texts. I spent today listening as Andrew McGowan tried, and in my view, succeeded, in putting each into their historical context, and discussed each as an exemplar of a particular strategy for relating temporal power to spiritual authority. As Andrew pointed out, the Church has been conflicted and ambiguous from day one, as is to be expected of those who gather round one whose strength is demonstrated principally in an act of vulnerability and weakness.

The implications of the lectures we have received here have been discussed in caucus groups; yesterday I talked to other bishops and today was in a men's group and a group of people in their fifties. Discussion has been warm, and occasionally profound. Talking has helped me assimilate the material from Andrew and relate it to the not unrelated stuff I had been serendipitously reading before coming here. One of the theses emerging is the resonance between issues emerging around the formation of Christendom, and those emerging around its ending; a resonance important not because it marks out some golden era to which we should all strive to return, but because it shows the sorts of struggles we are likely to encounter as we learn to be a different sort of church than has ever existed before.
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Monday, 30 August 2010

Beginnings



The flight from Dunedin left early so I was up at 5 and driving to the airport in the dark and wet. Wellington was cloudy and Auckland, when I arrived slightly misty and, by Dunedin standards, warm, but that doesn't seem to stop the wimpy locals banging on about how chilly it is. I picked up my bargain basement rental car- an aging Nissan Sunny with the performance and handling of a slug negotiating a plate of porridge- and navigated my way across the city with surprisingly little bother. With an hour to kill before the powhiriri I found a cafe near the Orakei basin and bought a large and good and inexpensive latte. I sat and looked out at the streets around which, 35 years ago, I had jogged with a pair of adidas on my feet and a pained but determined expression on my face. This was a neighbourhood near which I had lived during that period in my life when I had first been truly happy, and now it was at once familiar to me and as foreign as Honolulu or Beirut.

Through long remembered streets I drove to St John's College, where the theological hui is being held, parked the glutinous Nissan and entered the Wesley building. There are heat pumps and a data projector now, but otherwise, it was wall to wall Deja vu: same carpet, same curtains, same tutkutuku panels, and even some of the same people, although, poor old dears, they have aged so much they found it hard to recognize me.

This college is where so much began for me: theology, the Biblical languages, liturgy, more friendships than I can now recall, preaching, contemplation, snooker, a collection of books, diaconate and priesthood and even, in a way, episcopacy. After lunch I walked the kilometre or so down to Abraham Place and past the tiny flat where my marriage began and also my son Nicholas. I walked back up the hill over which I used to run and thus over the ground where my knee problems started. And I sat and listened to Andrew McGowan, who is one of the best lecturers I have heard in many a long year, speaking about Perpetua and the start of Christianity as we know it.

As Andrew pointed out, the 2nd 3rd and 4th centuries were when much of Christianity had its beginnings. The New Testament found its shape then as did the creeds, baptism as we understand it, and the eucharist and the form of ministry into which I was shaped, in this building, 35 years ago. He reminded me of the surprising relevance of the development of Christendom to us who are witnessing its unravelling.

Perpetua was a catechumen, that is, an apprentice Christian, who was martyred in 203 AD for her refusal to sacrifice and acknowledge the genius of the Emperor. It seems that the Romans were quite tolerant when it came to religion. You could believe in what you jolly well pleased and participate in any act of worship that took your fancy as long as you still paid homage to the official state cult. That is, you were fine as long as your faith was a private affair and didn't interfere in your duties as a citizen which included a public affirmation of the deity - that is the ultimate importance and authority - of the Emperor. Perpetua refused. For her, faith encompassed all her actions. For her, allegiance to Christ took precedence over all other allegiances. She was a citizen of the kingdom, and could not therefore pledge undying loyalty to something as limited and flawed as a mere earthly nation. For this conviction she was prepared to risk all, even her own life. "Jesus is Lord" was the first Christian creed: an allegiance so total and so exclusive that it crowded out all others.

Lately I have been reading Marilynne Robinson and Terry Eagleton and David Bentley Hart on the nature of modernity and of modernity's virtual deification of tolerance: of the tendency for contemporary people to regard the very act of acceptance as of supreme importance without giving more than passing thought to the content of that which they are tolerating. Modernity tends, by affirming everything, to affirm nothing, except the desirability of affirmation. Accordingly, who amongst us moderns has anything to which we hold so dearly that we would face the wild beasts rather than forsake it? Perpetua's defiant conviction at the start of Christendom raises an uncomfortable questions for us at its end: can we still proclaim "Jesus is Lord"? And if we can, what on earth do we mean by it?

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Friday, 27 August 2010

The Day Thou Gavest Lord has Ended


I look at the date at the top of my last post and realize how long it was since I put anything on here. There's a reason for that. There are in fact a dozen reasons for that and I can't mention one of them. In the parish I dealt with people's life issues on a daily basis and was trusted to share their struggles and concerns and joys and pleasures. Once in a while, maybe once every couple of months or so, there would be something big; I would be invited into one of those issues which, when the narrative of that person's existence was told, that event would have a place in the story. Sharing those issues was both compelling and draining, requiring me to plumb the limits of my reserves of empathy and understanding, but also invigorating me with fresh insights into the workings of us, peculiar, sentient islands of consciousness that we are. Now, in this office into which the Holy Spirit has, for bizarre and obscure reasons called me, I share such moments on an almost daily basis. Today there were four of them.

I can not, will not speak of these things except, in a limited way, to my supervisor and  those to whom the people involved have given me permission to speak. So for the most part I keep my trap shut and find ways other than gossip and conversation to earth the loose wires which such sharings discover within me. I have been reading a lot. I have been kneeling on a mat with an old cloak around my shoulders, keeping as still, inside and out, as I can manage. I have taken up my old regime of reading 4 chapters of the Bible every day. I have also, slowly, been shaping a plan for the diocese and trying to acquit myself well in the duties required of me. I have been slopping paint on the walls of my newly build study and looking forward to the time when I can fill it's shelves with the books that have been piled in the garage for months now. Unfortunately, the Lord hath not seen fit to comply with my special pleading and order the universe around my whims, so the day he giveth endeth after only 24 hours and some things which might have helped have gone undone. I haven't been taking any photos, and in fact haven't seen my camera's battery charger since it got lost, months ago, somewhere amongst the cartons of books. I haven't been fulfilling my obligations to Taonga magazine. And I haven't been posting on Available Light.

Today's duties ended at 8:30 this evening. Whew. The darkness falls at thy behest, and thanks for that.

Tomorrow it's a drive to Invercargill and an Ultreya and a conversation in a cafe and a drive to Dunedin and a party. Sunday it's Otago Peninsula and evensong with the girls from the Tolcarne boarding hostel. Then on Monday I head for the theological hui in Auckland which means three days of  listening to learned discourse and intense discussion of the same: i.e. a rest cure. I' ll see if I can write about that. Really I will.

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Monday, 2 August 2010

Atheist Delusions: Another book review

In Beirut airport there is a smallish bookstore containing a smallish English language section, containing a few John Grisham novels, some travelogues, a good number of books on Islam and this: Atheist Delusions, The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, by David Bentley Hart. I bought it immediately, and discovered at this point that my Visa card was still in an ATM back in Ashrifiyeh, but that is another story. I started to read the book on the plane and discovered a new hero.

David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox (note the capital)theologian of immense erudition, intellectual capacity and wit. I have now ordered some of his other works, but this one proved to be a great way to fill the long hours drifting above the clouds. His way of dealing with the challenge of the new Atheism is one I warm to immensely. I have long known that the best way of dealing with Atheist splutter is to use their own non-arguments against them ( I used to be an atheist but in my early twenties found that I no longer needed the emotional crutch of atheism...) Hart does it better. He knows what many of us timid and polite and nice Christians simply don't: that most of the atheists who beset us with such assurance and confidence simply have no idea what they're talking about. So people with the skimpiest knowledge of history, and no understanding whatsoever of the history of science will regale us with absolutely confident and convinced opinions on, say, the trial of Galileo. People whose knowledge of the Middle Ages comes exclusively from some half baked TV documentary or from one or two badly researched best sellers will argue earnestly about the end of the Roman Empire and the theological and moral development of Europe. With style, panache, élan, learning and relentless logic David Bentley Hart demolishes... no, blends, powders and atomizes... the arguments raised not so much by the serious philosophical atheists (of whom, incidentally there are precious few about), but by the fashionable poseurs, the headline makers, the publishers of cheap and cheerful splentetic tomes, and the ABWFI (Adolescent Boys With Father Issues [my phrase]).

The style of the book is bold, confident and assured. It is a wonderful piece of Christian apologetic, but it is much more besides. It is an interesting potted history of Christianity and of the development of Scientific thinking, written by a man acknowledged as one of the world's foremost scholars of religion. It is a devastating critique of the West, and of Modernism as the prevailing philosophy of the West. It is a hope-full analysis of the Christian Gospel and a statement of its contribution to the intellectual and moral development of Europe and, indeed, of the world. The book is backed by impressive scholarship, properly footnotes and referenced, and all this presented in a readable, and even racy style.

Hart's analysis of Modernism as resting on a particular concept of freedom is an intriguing one, and this is an idea I have spent the last few weeks unpacking for myself. Hart describes the Modernist concept of freedom as being entirely about the individual: that is, MY development as an individual is the highest good, and anything which compromises MY right to do exactly as I please is to be resisted. I believe he is accurate in this, and I am alarmed to consider how far this particular view of freedom has infiltrated the church and influenced the way we organize ourselves and the way we think about life, the universe and everything. We have lost, in large measure the freedom described by Paul in Romans which is freedom from my own self absorption and from the impulses and half conscious powers and principalities which hold me locked down tight in bondage.

This is a book I am savoring until The Beauty of the Infinite arrives. It's one I recommend highly, but don't expect me to lend you my copy. Not just yet, anyway.