The Politics of God’s Plenty

I’ve posted over on the Political Theology blog again, this time on Isaiah 55:1-5 and the politics of God’s plenty.

This passage confounds the logic of our capitalist economies. As if the owner of a great market, God summons his people to buy, yet ‘without money and without price.’ Wealthy or penniless, all are called to the waters in the same manner, invited to share in the Promised Land’s riches, its wine and its milk. Those who have been weighing out silver for things that do not sustain them and expending their wages on items that do not satisfy are called to delight in God’s abundance and to feast on the good things that he offers.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in Bible, Culture, Economics, Guest Post, Isaiah, OT, OT Theology, Theological | Leave a comment

The Loss of Pastoral Credibility in the Age of the Internet

Rockwell - Freedom of Speech

The Internet has introduced a new level of visibility to areas of our social life, exposing certain uncomfortable realities. Rod Dreher recently wrote a perceptive and troubling piece on the way that the Internet reveals corruption and abuse within the Church and other institutions, provoking a reaction of distrust and a loss of these institutions’ effective authority. While the dramatic collapses of trust in the institutional authority of the Church following the exposure and scrutiny of cases of abuse may receive the most attention, there are other ways—albeit slower and more gradual—in which this trust is being eroded. Perhaps the most significant of these in my experience has been our greater exposure to Church leaders and their thinking.

On Twitter earlier today, I remarked that the Internet exposes the fact that most people were never trained to function effectively in the context of an argument. As forms of discourse such as debate, disputation, and oral cross-examination are largely absent within people’s education, relatively few have the ability to keep a level head in an argument, to have a close rein on their passions, to spar with opposing viewpoints, to open their strongly held beliefs up to questioning and challenge, or to operate well in contexts that allow for the expression of many different perspectives and arguments.

Many contemporary forms of education privilege non-agonistic modes of discourse, seeking to avoid confrontation, combat, and threatening challenge, and to foster an inclusive, egalitarian, affirming, and safe community. People trained within such contexts are affirmed and protected from exposure to direct, forceful challenge and opposing voices. The modes of discourse privileged and taught within such contexts are heavily weighted towards the non-oppositional and involve little direct disputation or interaction between opposing voices. As Walter Ong has observed, the individual voice of the essay displaces the conflicting voices of the disputation. While other voices may be represented within the essay, they are much less directly engaged.

All of this leaves people singularly unprepared for the world of the Internet, where they are exposed to opposing viewpoints and have to engage with them more directly. People who can appear to be brilliant in non-oppositional forms of discourse can crumple when subjected to critical cross-examination or manifest themselves to be emotionally incapable of interacting in a non-reactive manner with contrary perspectives. No doubt we can all think of many instances of this online. However, my concern in this post is to draw attention to how commonly I witness this failure in pastors and church leaders.

On the Internet, one soon discovers that many respected church leaders are quite unable to deal directly with opposing viewpoints. In fact, many of them can’t even manage meaningful engagement with other voices. Their tweets may be entirely one-way conversations. They talk at their audiences. They can talk about other voices, but fail to talk to them, let alone with them. Their representations of opposing viewpoints reveal little direct exposure to the viewpoints in question. They may talk about ‘postmodernism’, but one has good reason to believe that they have never read any postmodern philosopher. They make bold generalizations about ‘feminism’, but you can be pretty certain that they don’t know their Butler from their Greer or their Irigaray. When they are actually exposed to an intelligent and informed critic, they reveal themselves to be reactive and ignorant. Their views are quite incapable of withstanding the stress-testing of disputation.

Around this point, it can start to dawn on one that many church leaders have only been trained in forms of discourse such as the sermon and, to a much lesser extent, the essay. Both forms privilege a single voice—their voice—and don’t provide a natural space for response, questioning, and challenge. Their opinions have been assumed to be superior to opposing viewpoints, but have never been demonstrated to be so. While they may have spoken or written about opposing voices, they are quite unaccustomed to speaking or writing to them (not to mention listening to or being cross-examined by them). There are benefits to the fact that the sermon is a form of discourse that doesn’t invite interruption or talking back, but not when this is the only form of discourse its practitioners are adept in.

Many church leaders have been raised and trained in ideologically homogenous cultures or contexts that discouraged oppositional discourse. Many have been protected from hostile perspectives that might unsettle their faith. Throughout, their theological opinions and voices have been given a privileged status, immune from challenge. Nominal challenges could be brushed off by a reassertion of the monologue. They were safe to speak about and habitually misrepresent other voices to their hearers and readers, without needing to worry about those voices ever enjoying the power to answer them back. Many of the more widely read members of their congregations may have had an inkling of the weakness of their positions in the past: the Internet just makes it more apparent.

A system is only as effective as its weakest component in a particular operation. The same is true of the human mind and the communities formed around thinkers. Where the capacity of agonistic reasoning is lacking, all else can be compromised. If one’s opinion has never been subjected to and tried by rigorous cross-examination, it probably isn’t worth much. If one lacks the capacity to keep a level head when one’s views are challenged, one’s voice will be of limited use in most real world situations, where dialogue and dispute is the norm and where we have to think in conversation with people who disagree with us.

The teachers of the Church provide the members of the Church with a model for their own thinking. The teacher of the Church does not just teach others what to believe, but also how to believe, and the process by which one arrives at a theological position. This is one reason why it is crucial that teachers ‘show their working’ on a regular basis. When teaching from a biblical text, for instance, the teacher isn’t just teaching the meaning of that particular text, but how Scripture should be approached and interpreted more generally. An essential part of the teaching that the members of any church need is that of dealing with opposing viewpoints. One way or another, every church provides such teaching. However, the lesson conveyed in all too many churches is that opposing voices are to be dismissed, ignored, or ‘answered’ with a reactive reassertion of the dogmatic line, rather than a reasoned response.

I believe that there are various problems in the Church that are exacerbated by this. Where they are led by voices that can’t cope with difference or challenge, churches will tend to become fissiparous echo chambers, where people are discouraged from thinking critically about what leaders are saying and doing. The integrity of the Church’s theological conversation will not be tested through criticism and challenge. Churches that are led by such leaders will habitually develop polarized oppositions with their critics.

Growing attention is being given to the problem of engaging men in churches. I suggest that developing contexts of dispute, debate, questioning, and challenging dialogue in churches is one of the solutions to this. It has often been recognized that men have a particular affinity and appreciation for oppositional and agonistic discourse. An over-reliance upon the pedagogical form of the sermon leaves persons who learn and think best through sparring in dialogue without a good context within which to learn, or to develop skills of thought and argument that could be of immense benefit to the Church.

Finally, as many young people leave our churches, claiming that their questions were never taken seriously, it seems clear to me that the incompetence of church leaders when it comes to interacting with opposing viewpoints is a crucial dimension of the problem. Young people are less shielded from opposing viewpoints than their parents, especially given the role played by the Internet in their lives. They are more likely to realize just how incompetent church leaders are in their attempts to deal with critical and dissenting voices (to whom the Internet has granted a voice) and how heavily their credibility has formerly rested upon the absence of the right to talk back to them.

The crisis of moral authority that Dreher identifies is thus accompanied by a crisis of theological authority. In both cases the only answer will be found in the formation of new patterns and structures of leadership and the raising up and training of leaders who can survive this new level of scrutiny. While difficult in the short run, in the long run this could be of great benefit to the Church.

Posted in Controversies, Culture, On the web, Society, The Church, Theological | 91 Comments

Podcast: On Divine Accommodation

Mere FidelityIn this week’s Mere Fidelity podcast Derek Rishmawy, Andrew Wilson, Matt Lee Anderson, and I discuss the doctrine of divine accommodation and its immense importance within several contemporary debates, from discussions of the Bible and science, to the morality of God’s actions in the Old and New Testaments, to the applicability of various scriptural teachings, to the dangers of certain forms of apophatic theology, to the concept of cultural relevance and contextualization. Early in the podcast, Derek reads a quotation from Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2: God and Creation, which encapsulates this doctrine forcefully and succinctly:

1. All our knowledge of God is from and through God, grounded in his revelation, that is, in objective reason.

2. In order to convey the knowledge of him to his creatures, God has to come down to the level of his creatures and accommodate himself to their powers of comprehension.

3. The possibility of this condescension cannot be denied since it is given with creation, this is, with the existence of finite being.

4. Our knowledge of God is always only analogical in character, that is, shaped by analogy to what can be discerned of God in his creatures, having as its object not God in himself in his knowable [sic.] essence, but God in his revelation, his relation to us, in the things that pertain to his natural, in his habitual disposition to his creatures. Accordingly, this knowledge is only a finite image, a faint likeness and creaturely impression of the perfect knowledge that God has of himself.

5. Finally, our knowledge of God is nevertheless true, pure, and trustworthy because it has for its foundation God’s self-consciousness, its archetype, and his self-revelation in the cosmos.

Hope that you enjoy the podcast and, as usual, leave your comments beneath this post or, even better, beneath the post on Mere Orthodoxy. We’ll do our best to answer any questions or engage with any thoughts that you might have.

Posted in Doctrine of God, Podcasts, Revelation, Scripture, Theological | 7 Comments

A New Icon of Marriage

Old Couple - Flickr-Candida-Performa

Candida Performa via Flickr

I just had a conversation in which I was reminded of this beautiful passage in Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World:

In movies and magazines the ‘icon’ of marriage is always a youthful couple. But once, in the light and warmth of an autumn afternoon, this writer saw on the bench of a public square, in a poor Parisian suburb, an old and poor couple. They were sitting hand in hand, in silence, enjoying the pale light, the last warmth of the season. In silence: all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace. The whole life was behind—yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands. Present—and ready for eternity, ripe for joy. This to me remains the vision of marriage, of its heavenly beauty.

Marriage is typically discussed from a protological perspective, from the vantage point of the creational institution and its blessed vocation of filling and subduing the earth. The couple who marry are like Adam and Eve, standing at the beginning of a history. One of the things that I love about this passage is that it draws our attention to the neglected seam between this age and the next and presents us with an ‘icon’ of marriage from an eschatological perspective.

In Luke 20:27-40, Jesus answers the Sadducees’ question about marriage in the resurrection, arguing that there will be neither marriage nor giving of marriage in the resurrection. As N.T. Wright and others have recognized, Jesus’ argument here rests upon the assumption that procreation is essential to the purpose of marriage: once humanity has multiplied and filled the earth and death is no more, the purpose of marriage will be completed. This does, however, raise the question of what becomes of people’s marriages in the age to come.

Schmemann’s ‘icon’ can be helpful here. This is a marriage that has fulfilled its vocation and is ready to enter into its rest. At this point in a marriage, the couple is no longer presented with the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage principally as a prospective task, but increasingly as realized ends to be delighted in. Marriage has united the couple together, richly interweaving their lives over many decades, in their common history, legacy, and life. They will bear no more children of their own, but can now enjoy the fruit of their procreation, as they witness their grown children raising their grandchildren.

A frequent image of the eschaton is that of a great harvest. The present age is one of sowing, while the age to come is one of enjoying the harvested fruit of our current labours in Christ. The elderly married couple experience small foretastes of the reward of this harvest. As marriage enters into this stage, the distinctive character of the vocation of marriage starts to be less pronounced, its purpose largely complete. More prominent now is the dimension of friendship as the married couple—‘heirs together of the grace of life,’ both that given through procreation and the life of the eschaton—begin to enjoy their heritage together. As I’ve argued in the past, friendship has a peculiar eschatological significance. The vocations of marriage and family are passing, belonging to this period of development and maturation: it is friendship that endures.

It is in friendship that that we come into a realization of what it means to be peers, of what fellow-ship is. In friendship, different generations become contemporaries. In friendship, the force of sex—which holds men and women as poles apart, even as it draws them together—fades as companionship comes to the foreground. In friendship, the tribes, tongues, and nations can transcend the differences of their origins and stand alongside each other. The forces and histories of our origins and development are never effaced, but they are taken up into something greater. In the eschatological communion of the Spirit, all will become ‘fellows’ and contemporaries. Marriage will be no more, not because it is destroyed, but because it is fulfilled, its natural bonds elevated into the new bonds of glorious eternal fellowship in the Spirit. The practice of friendship in the Church can thus serve as a prophetic witness.

Held alongside common protologically oriented ‘icons’ of marriage, not only does Schmemann’s icon present us with a richer vision of what marriage is, it also offers us a means by which to recognize the mode of passage between the ages.

Posted in Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological | 5 Comments

Open Mic Thread 8


The open mic thread is where you have the floor and can raise or discuss issues of your choice. There is no such thing as off-topic here. The comments of this thread are free for you to:

  • Discuss things that you have been reading/listening to/watching recently
  • Share interesting links
  • Ask questions
  • Put forward a position for more general discussion
  • Tell us about yourself and your interests
  • Publicize your blog, book, conference, etc.
  • Draw our intention to worthy thinkers, charities, ministries, books, and events
  • Post reviews
  • Suggest topics for future posts
  • Use as a bulletin board
  • Etc.

Over to you!

Earlier open mic threads: 123456, 7.

Once again, I can’t promise to respond to comments myself here. I am hoping to post something this evening and want to prioritize that.

Posted in Open Mic, Public Service Announcement | 44 Comments

Podcast: On Marriage and Donated Gametes

Mere FidelityThe latest Mere Fidelity podcast was posted earlier today. This week’s episode is on the subject of gamete donation or, more particularly, artificial insemination by donor (I expect that a later episode will focus upon IVF). This is a particularly important issue, raising a number of questions that are seldom studied closely. Unfortunately, given the limited time we had, we could only scratch the surface of the issues raised by this. I dealt with some of the matters in more depth in this comment, which some of you may be interested in.

As I observe in the podcast, one of the most important matters for me is the relationship between the manner in which we bring children into the world and the way in which we perceive them. For instance, I have argued in the past that we need to recognize the practices and institutions that sustain our phenomenology of unborn children. The phenomenology of children involves reflection upon the manner of children’s arrival into our world, the meaning that can be perceived within this, and the ethical character of our proper engagement with it (James Mumford’s recent book, Ethics at the Beginning of Life, provides a helpful treatment of some dimensions of this). With the introduction of new modes of conception we are doing more than merely making a relatively insignificant change to a process, while securing the same results: we are establishing the basis for a new phenomenology.

The conception a child through the loving mutual gift of the bodies a husband and wife pledged to each other before many witnesses at their marriage is a profoundly personalizing fact—the wife is bearing her husband’s child. From the very dawn of its life, the child is situated in a tight web of loving relationships, being itself a concentrated expression of these bonds, not least a concrete expression of the loving one flesh union of its parents. The child is also a physical manifestation of a union to which its parents have pledged their lifelong commitment. The child thus enters the world as one afforded a natural welcome and accorded a natural claim upon both of its parents.

When a child is conceived with the donated gametes of a third party, anonymous or not, the child is not begotten from a profoundly personal loving gift of pledged bodies. Rather, its origins are now situated in a less personal realm of economic transactions, legal decisions, and medical procedures, in the realm of human construction. The donated gametes are not the expression of a loving marital gift of self, but depersonalized genetic ‘material’ from which the baby is to be formed. It shouldn’t require much reflection to appreciate the problematic impact that this can have upon the way that the child’s arrival in our midst, its identity, the manner of its being, and the being of children more generally will be perceived. Conversely, to the extent that we are morally formed by close attention to the natural phenomenon of conception through the loving procreative union of man and woman, will we readily countenance the use of such procedures as artificial insemination by donor?

Anyway, over to you. Leave any comments that you may have beneath this post, or over on Mere Orthodoxy.

Posted in Ethics, Podcasts, Society, Theological | 4 Comments

Mere Fidelity Page Added and Some Miscellaneous Reminders

I’ve just added a Mere Fidelity page, which you will be able to see beneath the blog header, between Larger Projects and My Guest Posts.

For those of you who haven’t yet taken a look at the pages, there is a lot to explore there, if you are interested and have some time to spare. They provide a location where material that would otherwise be lost in the archives can be kept more accessible.

If you hover over Larger Projects, you will see a drop down list of a dozen series that I have written. For instance, if you wish to see all of my recent #Luke2Acts posts, my posts on John are gathered here and my posts on Luke are gathered here.

My Guest Posts currently links to 31 posts of mine from the last two and a half years on other sites and blogs.

I occasionally post photos on my blog and these are brought together on Photos and Travel. For instance, you can see photos and read a description of my visit to America in 2012 here, here, and here.

Hosted Posts contains links (currently only one link) to posts from other persons that I have hosted on my blog.

Other things of which you may or may not be aware:

  • I tweet using the handle @zugzwanged.
  • My Delicious account can be found here (the last five links can be seen near the top of this blog’s sidebar).
  • I have a Tumblr—Postcards from the Oubliette. Don’t expect much seriousness to occur there.
  • I have a second Twitter account, @adversarialinks, on which the links from both my Delicious account and my Tumblr are tweeted.
  • There are thirty-two different header pics on this blog. They are all photos that I have taken within thirty minutes’ walk of where I live. How many of them have you seen?
Posted in Podcasts, Public Service Announcement | Leave a comment