It Really Is All About Sex: A Theological Exploration of Those Creatures We Call Human, Their Bodies, and Their Politics (Part, the First)

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I have always thought that those who teach ought to be both experienced and broadly knowledgeable.  I have also long thought that those who teach ought to be exemplary students – humble, curious, and open-minded.  Consequently, when I am challenged (in an honest and fair way) I don’t slink off to lick my wounds.  When I am challenged (by faithful friends) I don’t lash out in anger at having been contradicted.  When I am challenged (especially by students), I pause and retrace my steps, regarding the situation in question; and then I try to re-explain the concept.  I believe I am a humble, curious and open-minded kind of guy – at least, in regard to some things.

So, when I was challenged regarding some questions that I had about the Roman Catholic Church, Contraception, and the Obama Administration’s health care bill, I was relieved to have the help of a friend that could direct my study along the appropriate lines of inquiry.  Based on my exploration of Papal encyclicals, some rather dense philosophical content, and some slightly less dense theological writing, I am not left with much alleviation from my original perplexity.  However, I have a whole hell of lot more questions…of course (If you’re interested, I’ll link to the stuff I have been reading at the end of this post.  It will give you a sense of what I “know” and it may be helpful in guiding your own foray into the topics at hand).

As such, this post constitutes a first attempt to distinguish some important questions.  I still clearly see two issues: one civil and the other theological.  I am not saying that the theological issue has no bearing on the civil issue or vice versa.  I am saying that the theological issue somehow precedes the civil issue for me.  Therefore, I will spend some time doing two things: First, I will sort the theological issue from the civil issue (where possible); Second, I will explore the foundational ideas upon which the theological issue rests.

First, the issue of sorting the civil from the theological – here, I mean that I want to deal with loyalties to God and church without diluting that inquiry by mixing in national or governmental loyalties.  This stems from a personal belief that Christians are called to be loyal to Christ and the Christian community via the Christian ethos of citizenship in a heavenly kingdom ‘before’ or ‘above’ all other loyalties.  Namely, l feel like my faith ought always to be able to critique the State, and that they should not blend into a singular loyalty.  Yet, I have to acknowledge that while I can separate myself from the State, I cannot necessarily separate myself so cleanly from my place within society. 

It is a problem that seems to be addressed in what Andrew Shanks calls a civil religion or “Civil Theology.”  In his words, civil theology is “a ceaseless critical back-and-forth” that juxtaposes citizenship with Christian living in a kind of self-examination where one is “able to criticize one’s given identity as an adherent of that tradition, on the basis of one’s solidarity with one’s fellow citizens – including those of other faiths and of none.”  The ultimate result or goal being that a civil religion that transcends the confessional vocabulary of any single world religion would emerge as the status quo.  So, while I still maintain a certain Christian autonomy from governments past and present, I do acknowledge that there is the difficulty of living the Christian life as the citizen of a government in this present age.  Some might be tempted to quote Jesus here, “be in the world but not of it” or some such thing.  Provocative as Shank’s appeal to a new civil consciousness that utilizes the absolutism or authority of religion without allowing a singular religious confession to ‘rule’ the populace happens to be, I think it represents the very thing I am trying to sift out here.  In my opinion, a ‘civil theology’ must either come after or as an addendum to a theology (proper) of the Christian faith.  A civil theology would expound the ways in which the Christian faith interacts with society at large and the other articulates the actual content of Christian faith. 

And so, in my brain, being precedes doing and these kinds of issues raise questions about the ‘being’ of Christianity.  While I understand that much of the conflict between President Obama’s Administration and the Roman Catholic Church has to do with government interference in religious practice (and I don’t mean to downplay this element in saying so), I am currently more interested in establishing why there is an established and enduring theological position against contraceptives.

Finally, I arrive at the belated and ultimate point of the post.  The foundational theological issue underlying the cognitive dissonance I am having is one of anthropology.  Generally, how does Christian theology inform what we know about being human; and, specifically, how does Christian theology inform what we know about human sexuality?  It really does seem that in our generation, it all boils down to one protracted fight over sex.  I have done my best to read primary sources, to establish foundational systems of thought, and to evaluate arguments in their proper context.  Consequently, I am happy to pause here and hear from our community of readers about where I have gone astray, if anywhere.

Before I leave it to you, however, allow me to trace my thoughts.  I think the initial distinction remains important.  I think the voice of the Church will be a voice that speaks from a perspective not just inspired by the “spirit” of the Christian tradition, but also ‘Inspired’ by the Spirit of the Christian tradition; and this inspiration remains in tension with whatever broader social consciousness Christians all over the world may find as their context for living.  However, and this is important, I think you can expect Christian men and women to have differences of opinion regarding how to discern where that inspiration is leading.

Next, after reading Humanae Vitae, I think it is clear that while human sexuality is ultimately the issue at hand, the method for evaluating the appropriateness of human sexuality (and bodily function by proxy) is St. Aquinas’ robust view of natural law.  In fact, I have read many commentators that dismiss detractors in an out of hand sort of fashion, claiming that one merely has to have a background in Natural Law in order to see the unassailable truthfulness of Humanae Vitae.  I have found this to be a bit irksome, because it seems a bit arrogant to wave off nearly 750 years of development in philosophical and theological thought like it is an uninterrupted string of people who just do not ‘get it.’   As such, one of the initial concerns I have about a Church document like Humanae Vitae amounts to learning just how reliant it is on natural law theory.

I plan future posts in the series to deal with several things which Humanae Vitae involves, including but not limited to: Natural Law Theory, the ‘Majority Report’ received by Paul VI, Human Sexuality, and issues that subsequently seem related.

Here’s that list of some of the things I have been reading:

Humanae Vitae

Civil Society, Civil Religion

A Summa of the Summa

The God of Faith and Reason

What Isn’t Said in Humanae Vitae, Schott Steinkerchner, O.P.

Contraception: A Symposium

An Analysis of the Majority Report “Responsible Parenthood” and its Recommendations on Abortion, Sterilization andContraception

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Live at Radio City by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Part 2 [Theological Liner Notes]

james

Read Part 1

“Don’t Drink the Water,” a song which evokes images of both the South African apartheid and the persecution of Native Americans, is Matthews’ moving indictment of oppression and empire.  The song is narrated by the oppressor who possesses the other’s land with confidence:

“I have no time to justify to you/ fool you’re blind / move aside for me.” 

Toward the end, Matthews breaks into the first verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and then ends the song, still singing as the oppressor, who now explains how it really is with a disturbing clarity that deserves to be quoted at length:

“This land was made/ And I’ll build heaven and call it home/ And I’ll live with my justice, and I’ll live with my greed in me/ live with no mercy/ and I live with my friends at feet/ and I live with my hatred/ and live with my jealousy/ oh I live with the notion I don’t need anyone but me/ Don’t drink the water / There’s blood in the water”

These lyrics expose the poverty of the oppressor himself, who drives away, and crushes, and burns all others, so that he is finally consigned to a kind of hell—living with himself alone.

Implicitly, this song critiques wide swathes of Christianity that are historically responsible for going along with, and in many cases providing the ideological backbone for, oppression, and imperialism.  The condemnation is complete whether we are talking about the Dutch Reformed church of apartheid, the pietistic Protestants behind American expansionism, Catholic “missionary” activity among the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, or Anglicanism which “held the coat” for the British rape of several continents.  It is a crushing indictment of all those who believe they can build heaven on the backs of the poor and the dispossessed.

But the song is not without a subtle note of hope.  “Don’t the water/ There’s blood in the water” is surely a reference to the terrible slaughter of innocents that was the result of South African and North American apartheid.  These lyrics also make the historically accurate point that through brutality, the oppressor poisons the resources he fights so hard to take. However, I believe there is a biblical allusion in these lyrics.  Blood in the water references the Exodus narrative when God plagues Egypt for refusing to end the oppression of the Israelites.  So, Matthews evokes—perhaps inadvertently—that great story of liberation, how God freed the Israelites from slavery, how through Christ God “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” [Luke 1:52] and how, in the final shakedown, God will vindicate the oppressed and the downtrodden.

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As a self-identifying agnostic who writes lyrics replete with Christian and biblical themes, you would expect Matthews to insert a healthy dose of skepticism to his songs, and he indeed does.  In “Eh Hee,” in addition to that faith in love mentioned in part 1, we a find a deep suspicion of religious leaders and teachers:

“Be wary of those who want to try to convince you/ that they know answer no matter the question / Be wary of those who believe in a neat little world/ Cause’ it’s just fucking crazy, you know that it is.”

Could you ask for a more succinct and devastating critique of the Truth Project?  These lyrics comprise the warning label that every postmodern would put on the products of modernity, especially the Christian products of modernity.  These are the lyrics that keep Dinesh D’Souza up at night.

Of course, Christianity does not have to be that way.  Making truth claims, as the Church most certainly does, doesn’t mean you have to be an ass about it as some in the Church most certainly are.  It doesn’t mean we have truth completely figured out, nor does it mean that we’re the only ones who posses truth in our faith tradition.

“Praise God who has many names…” 

There is such a thing as absolute truth, but there are also truths that bend, truths that are not always true for everyone at all times (There, Baby Boomer generation of Christians, that wasn’t so hard, was it?).  Matthews lyrics call us, the Church, to stop focusing on being right and start focusing on overcoming evil with good (love).

Continuing with songs where Matthews directly engages with Christianity, we come to the “Save Me.”  In an imaginative retelling of Christ’s temptation in the desert, Matthews casts himself as encountering a man in the desert (Jesus), and becomes his “tempter;” he offers Jesus food and drink—a perfectly humanitarian thing to do, but he refuses:

“No, my faith is all I need.” 

To which Matthews replies,

“Then save me/ Mr. walking man/ If you can.”

As the song progresses, Matthews role as the Adversary who dares Christ to save him morphs to a humble person who wants to believe, who wants to be saved, but can’t figure out how, and wonders if it even still possible:

 “You don’t need to prove a thing to me/ Just give me faith, make me believe/…Save me, Save me/ Stranger if you please/ Or am I too far gone/ to get back on?”

Expressed in these lyrics is a real sense of longing, of wanting to find faith in God, but coming up short.  In the video recording of the Live at Town Hall concert, a totally hammered Matthews introduces the song in an interesting way: “This song is a comedy…song.  Maybe, no, maybe it’s tongue in cheek.  I don’t know, maybe it’s a plea for help from the heavens.  I don’t know. You decide.”

By the end of the song a third voice enters,

“You might try saving yourself.”

In this fractured soteriology, then, we have a God who doesn’t have time for sinners such as Matthews, we have a satan who cries to God for faith, and we have a Pelagian who tells the penitent to save himself.

There is a danger in the Church to write off such people as the narrator of this song.  Sometimes the attitude is that if you don’t simply have faith in God, if it doesn’t come easy, then there is no room for you in the Church.  But faith doesn’t always come easy.  Who hasn’t felt abandoned by God?  It’s not that Matthews didn’t have faith before.  He asks if it’s too late to get back on.  Matthews the agnostic and many like him are having an extended (permanent?) Dark Night of the Soul. The Church should not only welcome these folks, and encourage them, but we should also welcome their voices and opinions, and let them challenge our own over-confidence, our own self-assuredness.  Maybe we are afraid of them because they threaten to expose our own doubts and frailties to the members of our community and to ourselves.

Part 3 (coming soon, including some notes on the song, “Bartender”)

Live at Radio City by Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds, Part 1 [Theological Liner Notes]

james

I am pioneering a new sub-genre of theological writing, here.  Maybe Tony Hunt would care to follow suit with some of his hipster indie music, or even Shawn Wamsley with some his angry music (if he can find some that isn’t of the devil).

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At first glance Dave Matthews may seem like an unlikely source for discourse on Christian spirituality.  He grew up a Quaker, but in a 1998 interview Matthews spoke of how the death of his sister led to the losing of his faith, “I’m glad some people have that faith.  I don’t have that faith.  If there is a God, a caring God, then we have to figure he’s done an extraordinary job of making a very cruel world.” In 2001, he indentified himself as an agnostic.  However, in some ways he and his music are natural places to turn.  His songs are filled with theological references and biblical allusions; he is undoubtedly the heir to a long, venerable folk-rock songwriting tradition, which includes Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and others, and which is deeply conversant in Christian scripture, theology and spirituality.

Focusing on songs from his seminal 2007 RCA release Live at Radio City which Matthews recorded with long time collaborator, Tim Reynolds, I want to explore some themes in the lyrics of Dave Matthews’ music which speak about Christian faith and practice, and to experiencing—or more accurately, confronting—God in surprising and authentic ways.  Some of these themes are bluntly critical of certain aspects of Christianity, while others seem to document an authentic search for God, who appears in the music almost as an unrequited lover to agnostic Matthews.

Don’t expect to find anything systematic about theology a la Dave Matthews.  We’ll be relying on two sometimes-competing hermeneutical principles.  Sometimes Matthews makes overt references to God and the Church, several of his songs are directed at God specifically as agnostic prayers.  These we will interpret in a straightforward way, relying on authorial intent.  Other songs, however, allude to scripture or use theological language to speak about human relationships and experience without trying to say anything about Christianity or the divine.  In these cases, we veer toward a hermeneutic of audience created meaning, reading God and the Church in where Matthews probably did not intend.  If this methodology irks you, you should be reading Justice Scalia opinions, not this.

As an example of these two hermeneutical methods being used together in a single song, I will briefly look at one of my favorite songs on the album, “Two Step.”  The song itself is about two lovers celebrating life in all its bitter-sweetness.  The chorus offers this:

“Celebrate/ Celebrate we will / ‘Cause life is short, but sweet for certain/ Hey, we climb on two by two/ to be sure these days continue.”

“We climb on two-by-two” references the animals boarding Noah’s ark. By alluding to Noah’s mission of repopulating the earth after the flood, Matthews seems to be suggesting that it is our God-given duty to live, and enjoy life, and make babies.  So we arrive at a two-liner theology of sex that isn’t too far away from where Matthews intended to go.

Within the same song we find these lines:

“Hey, my love/ You came to me like wine/ Comes to the mouth/ Grown tired of water all the time/ You quench my heart…”

Here, Matthews is obviously making no allusion to God or the Divine at all, but that doesn’t mean I am not free to rip it from its context and find in it a wonderful bit of Eucharistic poetry. Doesn’t Christ come to us, like wine in our mouth?  I certainly grow weary of the blandness of a watered-down, purely symbolic understanding of Communion, and I certainly find my heart sated in taking the Eucharist.  It’s a completely unintended interpretation—Matthews would probably be appaled by it—but still provides an accurate and poignant theological reference point.

So, you’ve been warned.  I will play loose and free with lyrics.

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It is almost cliché to say that much of Matthews’ music is about love and sex (almost as cliché as it is to say that much of Matthews’ concerts are about pot).  Many songs are very simply rhapsodies in praise of having sex with beautiful women (i.e. “Two Step” above).  While some might find these conjugal hymns shocking, there is, with a few notable exceptions, nothing in the lyrics that explicitly denies biblical sexuality.  In fact, they are a site of resistance, an oasis of refreshment for those of us who have grown up dealing with the puritanical, and quite simply repressive body-hatred of certain parts of Evangelical church culture.

On the whole, love for Matthews is a keystone thematic principle that transcends sex.  Love is the only sure thing; the bedrock of life.  For example, “When the World Ends” is a song about two lovers who will endure the end of the world in each other’s arms.  Typical lyrics include:

“When the world ends/ Passion rising from the ashes,”

and

“When the world ends/ We’ll just be beginning.”

Matthews makes a bold claim here that love transcends catastrophe, even apocalypse.  In the song “Oh,” we find a similar theme, but this song is written not about lovers but Matthews’ grandfather:

“The world is blowing up/ The world is caving in/ The world has lost her way again/ But you are here with me/ But you are here with me/ It makes it okay.”

Love makes anything bearable; disaster and suffering lose their finality in the presence of a beloved one.

In a third song from the album, “Eh Hee”, Matthews makes the claim that, “with the love that my mother gave me/ I’m gonna drop the devil to the floor.”  Here love is martial.  Love does not simply make evil bearable, love destroys evil.  Back in the chorus of “Oh,” we discover that this love is intense, unstoppable, and gratuitous:

“I love you oh so well/ Like a kid loves candy and fresh snow/ I love you oh so well/ Enough to fill up heaven/ Overflow and fill hell.”

All three of these songs are speaking of human relationships with lovers, grandfathers and mothers; yet in each, Matthews’ images of love are couched in eschatological and theological language, leaving an opening for us to apply these ecstatic visions of love to God and to Divine love.  When St. John writes that God is love, and when St. Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of God, did they mean to go as far as Matthews goes?  Can the imagination of the Church keep up with Matthews’ imagination when trying to understand the unfathomable love of God?  Does God’s love for all of us “fill up heaven, overflow and fill hell?”  Some Christians’ definition of hell is precisely that place where God and his love end.  And yet Matthews’ love for his grandfather transcends that boundary, as did St. Paul’s love for his kinsmen (Romans 8).  If God is God, can his love for his children be any less?

When applied to love that God’s children are commanded to have for each other and the world, Matthews’ vision of love certainly stands in contrast to some prevailing notions in the Church.  Whereas, like St. Paul’s, Matthews’ concept of love overcomes evil, some in Christianity at least appear to believe that love is optional and that hateful rhetoric, militarism and the tea party will somehow conquer evil and end suffering in the world.  Can Matthews’ lyrics call the Church back to a place where indefatigable love for all people is truly our bedrock; where we stop striving with the weapons of this world and rely on the self-sacrificing love of Christ to transfigure everything with which it comes into contact?

Part 2 (coming soon, with reflections on “Don’t Drink the Water,” “Save Me,” “Eh Hee” & more!)

Review: Mark A. McIntosh, Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology

Tony Sig

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (December 4, 2007)
  • ISBN-10: 1405102713
  • ISBN-13: 978-1405102711

My thanks to Blackwell for the review copy.

Very often times it feels like the very last thing the world needs is another introduction to Topic X. Not least to theology. Aren’t intro’s just the easy way for a teacher to get published with very little work or creativity? And it’s not like there aren’t good ones out there. Alister McGrath is now into the 5th ed of his (mostly historical) Christian Theology: An Introduction (with a simpler version of it, as well as a Reader 4th ed, and an intro to historical theology). Christopher Morse’s famous Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief is also a great intro. (My thanks to David Congdon for the recommendation).

 Yet even in such a world, Mark A. McIntosh’s Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology offers something unique and irresistible. I found myself learning much more from this intro than I do often times from “academic” pieces. There were so many places to pause and reflect, to soak in a rich theological wisdom. And at a shy 252 total pages, it was really quite astonishing what he was able to fit in.

This brevity, among other things, makes this book a standout from a pedagogical standpoint. Being as short as it is, there is a significant amount of free room that a teacher could take to supplement and expand the book in whatever way is deemed necessary for the kind of school or class that they are teaching. Are you at a Pentecostal school? Feel free to throw some readings in on pneumatology. Are you at a Catholic school? Take the time and compare McIntosh’s readings of Saints Augustine and Thomas on Sin or the Trinity. Are you Anglican? Throw some Herbert in there… anywhere could do as the whole book revolves around the contemplative life of prayer as being taught by the actions of the Holy Trinity.

And this life of prayer as participation in and learning from the Trinity is the broad outline of the book, hence the title. McIntosh has much experience in this. His PhD work was in Balthasar and he has written several works on “mystical theology” (see here and here) and even a little book for teaching in Church on the Mysteries of Faith. He is an Episcopal priest and is now teaching at Durham (in England). He is also an Anglican representative at this latest ARCIC meeting between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

The beginning of the book functions as a sort of prologue for those led to be skeptical of theology as mere irrational nonsense. Can one understand theology and not be a believer?, he asks. His answer is, surprisingly, no, not really. One can come to acquire knowledge of a tradition and this can be taught, but McIntosh says to be truly taught by God, one’s own inner life must be made ready to receive this knowledge as a gift. To show how this is so, he introduces a method that he uses several times throughout the book. On the left third of the page, he has a text, here it is Romans 6.3-11 but he does this for several other Scriptural passages and also works like the Nicene Creed; and on the right he comments on it. It’s really quite helpful. Nevertheless he does address the relationship of reason and faith by way of an exposition of Cardinal Newman’s Oxford Sermons.

From this first part of the book, “How God Makes Theologians,” McIntosh moves onto the larger more constructive part “Theology’s Search for Understanding,” in which he begins with the Mystery of Salvation, to the Divine Life, and finally to Creaturely Life. This movement, he believes, represents the kind of shape that Christians have experienced from the beginning. Trinitarian reflection came from a deep meditation and struggle with what had happened to them in Christ and Pentecost. He would no doubt agree with David Bentley Hart that early Christian trinitarian thought was a kind of phenomenology of salvation. Among his teaching methods, at the end of each chapter, McIntosh pauses for “Landmarks” and “Pathfinding.” In this section on salvation he includes Irenaeus, Augustine and Anselm. While recognizing that there are exaggerated critiques of Anselm available, he ultimately agrees with Lossky that Anselm (and much subsequent Western reflection) focuses on the Cross to the exclusion of the entire movement of the mysteries of faith. In the “Pathfinding” section, he brings in Orthodox, Feminist and Girardian contributions to soteriology.

But this critical thought about salvation itself gives way to a deeper movement from how God revealed God in Christ, to how God has always been if this is the one God. This middle section on the Trinity takes up the bulk of the book and includes a comprehensive walk through St. Augustine’s entire book de Trinitate! These 20 pages alone are worth the price of the book. But he also includes Karl Barth on the “God Who Loves in Freedom.”

The final section on Creaturely life doesn’t disappoint either. He begins with the fact that it is Easter which gives the ultimate shape to creaturely life, drawing generously on James Alison. But the main section rightly revolves around Aquinas, yet he also brings Pascal alive in a way I hadn’t expected. The combination of the two acted as a kind of apophatic trinitarian anthropology, it was quite a surprise and ended the book well. I appreciate that he didn’t feel the need to begin with this section to “ground” theology in epistemology. In this way he followed the general shape of traditional dogmatics so that even a strident Protestant couldn’t protest too much.

The book is not confessional in any denominational sense. And while the book is clearly more on the “catholic” side of things, this lack of polemic or overt sense of identifying with any group means that Divine Teaching can be used profitably by anyone who wants to teach from within the Nicene tradition.

McIntosh’s uncompromisingly Christian and trinitarian approach means that this book might not be ideal for use in a school where there is generally taken the traditional “comparative religion” or “religious studies” approach. Yet, if a school was open to actually teaching Christian theology from a “post-liberal” (in the broadest sense of that word) position, this is precisely the book I would use; not least since approaching Christian thought from the position of prayer and “mystical participation” would likely connect well with my generation of kids. But in order to do this, one would have to supplement the book with something to do with other faiths, as this is one area not really addressed in the book. Graham Ward’s True Religion could fill that void quite nicely I imagine.

I don’t know what it says about the book, but, as I often meditate on how I would teach theology in the future, this book has jumped to the very top of the list. There are so many strengths to the book, many of which I’ve tried to point out. Chief among them is that this book is all about how we might actually learn about God from God, in our inmost being, not as bits of true information, but as an abiding light that will illuminate all other seeing and knowing.

Pentecost: End of the Law, Beginning of Judgement

Tony SigMoses and the Israelites received the Law on the fiery mount.  Israel was bound to it by covenant and its violation meant judgement upon them.  This Law governed all aspects of life from agricultural to sexual policy and marked the people as God’s own.  But the Law itself and the prophets too understood that the Law itself would one day be transcended (Rom 3.21).

The Church received the Spirit in the fiery upper room.  She was bound together by another covenant; and it was a covenant that has no Law but Judgement.  The Feast celebrated the giving of Torah, but in Jerusalem was given no new law, rather unfettered possibility of human and divine reconciliation under the one Lord in one Spirit.  John 20.19-23 means the book of Acts.  To bind and loose, to forgive and retain, these are not self-grounded proclamations of a new authoritative community – No!   There is no authority handed over to the Church to make a new Law; rather Judgement is the necessary way of living beyond the Law, and all judgements are provisional as even the apostolic ‘Council of Jerusalem’ is.  The Spirit blows now where She wills and perpetually gives Judgement, which the Church tries to discern.  The Spirit can fall before baptism; She can proclaim clean what was formerly unclean.

The Spirit is not bound by any Law whatsoever.

Thoughts on the Church Year II, as “Doxological Foundation for Irregular Dogmatics”

Tony SigIf we’re to take the traditional task of systematic theology to be, if not dead at least put strongly into question by critical philosophy and theology (notice for instance how Moltmann calls his work “contributions to systematic theology”), yet at the same time participate in a “second naivety” allowed by such thinkers as Ricoeur and Milbank, then the canonical shape of the Year can act as a doxological ‘foundation’ for irregular dogmatics.  We are used to pastoral reflections,  sermons and prayers for the Church Year, but it seems to me that the Year could offer more with regards to even academic theology.

The Year obviously gives room for the traditional ‘topics’ – ie. Eschatology, Incarnation, Atonement, etc… – but requires that appropriate theological speculation take the route taken by the Evangelists.  That way, when talking about, say, the Incarnation, after examining the horizon of interpretation given in the opening chapters of the Gospels, from there theological reflection could move in interesting directions.

[As a post script to my last post, I forgot to mention this Eastern Orthodox catechism which does precisely as I envisioned there.  I can’t wait to check it out.]

Anglican Identities: Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

james

In the tasty casserole that is theology there are many layers.  Some layers tend to be more important than others, but to forget any one layer always lessens the whole.  In theology, there are at least three layers: study, prayer, and action.  I think all three are vitally important for theology to really be theology.  But is one more important than the others?

The Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, while clearly a participant in the first two layers of theology as a profound thinker and educator and as a man of prayer, is perhaps best known as a theologian of action.  Beginning in the late 1970s, he non-violently fought an unrelenting war on the injustice of apartheid, preaching peace and justice ex cathedra (as bishop of Johannesburg, Lesotho and finally Archbishop of Cape Town), and preaching from the streets, amongst the protesters, risking his life on nearly a daily basis for two decades until he saw apartheid fall.  Immediately, he began working for reconciliation and forgiveness.  He chaired what is arguably the most extraordinary committee every convened by a government, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is credited for preventing a race-war that would have destroyed South Africa and would have had devastating consequences for the entire continent.  That work completed he moved on to champion the causes of eradicating HIV/AIDs and poverty in Africa, as well as continuing to call all people of the world to peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.  How beautiful the feet of them who preach the Gospel of Peace.

His theological action, as well as his career as bishop was preceded by a successful academic career, but still much of his theological writing has grown out of his lifetime of theological activism.  His themes are relatively simple, forgiveness, unconditional love, justice, peace and non-violence and yet these Sunday School ideas are lent a deep profundity by the power of Desmond Tutu’s witness.  It is his right theological action that gives him authority to speak.  Furthermore, these mainly ethical concerns of his are radically rooted in the theology of  creation, anthropology, and Incarnation; all good Christian ethics is really theology, and all good theology leads to good Christian ethics.

One central and influential theological concept that Archbishop Tutu is credited with bringing to the attention of the Church is the African theological concept of Ubuntu.  As Tutu puts it, Ubuntu means that “my humanity is inextricably bound up with yours, so that we can only be humans together.”  There is a no more elegant theology of the Other than Ubuntu theology.

I fear–partly due to recent controversy–the idea of Ubuntu has been written off by some as a liberal theological fad that has no root in orthodoxy, but before one makes hasty judgements one should consult Archbishop Tutu on the subject both in books like No Future without Forgiveness and in some of his recorded interviews (ignore the ridiculous guy in the beginning), speeches, sermons (like one linked to the word “liberal” below), and lectures.

Archbishop Tutu is one of the main reasons I began to look into the Episcopal Church.  He is, I believe, one of the finest examples of a Christian anywhere in the Church universal, and certainly in the Anglican communion.  While many in the Anglican communion, especially many of his brothers in the global south, feel that he is entirely too liberal, and while many in the Episcopal church may even feel that he is a bit too traditional, and while many others think he is just plain silly, I feel that he is quintessentially Anglican.  Aren’t we too liberal for some, and too traditional for others?  Aren’t we the “laughing-stocks” of Christianity (praise be to God)?

His life and example point to one of the things that fascinates me very much about this church: how does the Anglican church–which for much of its history was an imperial church, spreading the imperial gospel of English domination–how does such a church produce remarkable men like Desmond Tutu?  How did it turn itself around like that, from being a force of oppression and injustice to being one the most stalwart and proven means of their dismantling?  The Anglican communion may not always have the recipe just right, but one must admit that those three elements of study, prayer and action are vividly present in this weird, troubled, and hopeful church.  One should also admit that in Desmond Tutu the Anglican church has an incredible witness of God’s coming reign of peace and justice.