Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Incarnation and Anthropology

As Christmas draws near, we begin to think again of the significance of what CS Lewis called “The Grand Miracle”. It has been said that the early Christian debates were all about Christology, the Reformation debates concerned Soteriology and modern debates are all about Anthropology: what it means to be a human person. In our modern (or postmodern) world, we are all struggling to work out what true humanity looks like, especially when faced with the man-made destruction we see in Yemen, Aleppo and the rest of Syria. And it is at this time of year that we focus on the Christian answer to that question. 

Athanasius, in his great work De Incarnatione, describes human nature as so damaged that it is barely recognisable from what it was originally meant to be. He offers the wonderful image of a portrait that has become so defaced by stains and dirt that the artist needs to sit down and re-paint the image in all its original glory. This is what God does in the Incarnation: “He, the image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind made in his likeness.” 

CS Lewis uses a different image of the descent of the Word into human flesh – that of ‘a diver, stripping off garment after garment, making himself naked, then flashing for a moment in the air, and then down through the green, and warm, and sunlit water into the pitch black, cold freezing water, down into the mud and slime, then up again, his lungs almost bursting, back again to the green and warm and sunlit water, and then at last out into the sunshine, holding in his hand the dripping thing he went down to get. This thing is human nature, but associated with it, all nature, the new universe.

In Jesus Christ we see not only the face of God the Creator, we also see our own faces as they were meant to be and as they one day will be. We see human nature restored, redeemed and refreshed - re-booted as we would say now - with the invitation to be radically re-made in the image of the one born in Bethlehem. As John Chrysostom put it: “For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His Spirit; and so he bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life.” The invitation for us this Christmas is to celebrate the rescue of humanity, to hold out the hope of human life made glorious again, to look again into the face of Jesus, the one complete human – one who touches lepers, sits with the mourning, forgives sinners, weeps for those who have lost their way, confronts the powerful and raises the dead – so that we, in our own unique ways, might be redeemed and come to resemble him. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Why I am voting to remain

The past few months have been a bruising one for our country. The debate over our continued membership of the EU has divided opinions significantly, just as it did in Scotland over the independence debate. The tone of the debate has been unpleasant, and will leave a damaged government, a fractious nation, and contribute to a dangerous trend of a more polarized world. While the USA flirts with a version of politics that threatens global stability, the last thing we need here is an angry Britain, with hurts that may take years to heal.

The main lines of the debate have been gone over many times. Each side has its own stronger points – the economic arguments seem to lean towards the Remain campaign, with most financial analysts and commentators arguing for the merits of staying in. Immigration however remains a significant concern for many people, especially perhaps those whose wages might be undercut by immigrants from other European countries who are willing to work for a lower wage. I fully respect the views and integrity of many good friends who will be voting to leave, but I will be voting to remain, for three main reasons:

1. If we pull out, a great deal of government time and energy over the next few years will have to be out into re-negotiating trade deals with European countries and beyond, and establishing new policies in a wide range of areas. This is at a time when we are facing some massive global issues which need our full attention - the migrant crisis which will not disappear quickly, religious terrorism and the threat of IS, not just in the Middle East but with the potential of attacks happening nearer to home, and the ever-present problem of climate change, perhaps the biggest threat to our world over the coming years. While the rest of the world will be trying to tackle these major issues, we will be wrapped up in the lengthy task of re-organising our relationships with the rest of the world, with little energy left to look outwards.

2. The EU is far from perfect. As I argued in an article in the Times on Saturday, it has lost its original expansive Christian vision, has become excessively bureaucratic, focuses too much on the single market and needs reform. However, it has been extraordinarily successful in one major area - it has helped prevent a European war for the past 60 years where the previous 40 years had seen two devastating conflicts that had left millions dead. Our neighbours on the continent are nervous that if we leave, it could lead to the unravelling of the whole EU project, and who knows where that might end up? Countries who trade and talk regularly and whose economies are interdependent are much less likely to go to war. That reason alone is worth voting Remain.

3. Much of the Leave case has been based around the right of Britain to govern itself. It is worth remembering that the nation state itself is a relatively recent creation, and from a Christian point of view, easily becomes an idol. We are called to love our neighbour, not our nation. That means our individual neighbours who live near us but also our national neighbours. The big issues that face us globally – terrorism, climate change, global poverty - are ones that cross borders and boundaries. They can no longer be confined to the nation state, nor dealt with on that basis. A Christian’s first loyalty is not to his or her nation, but to the Kingdom of God, which transcends borders, and to a holy church that is truly international. The Christian vision is that we live best when we are interdependent not independent. Leaving the EU feels like a withdrawal from partnership and interdependence, reneging on an earlier solemn commitment to contribute to and make a difference within Europe. It feels like a rejection of our neighbour, not a love for our neighbour. It says we are better on our own, without you. And that does not seem the way of love. 

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Future of Theology

I have just been in on a series of fascinating discussions on the future of theology in Yale Divinity School in the USA. The premise we were there to discuss was that theology needs to re-think itself as the ‘secular’ world no longer listened to theologians (they don’t produce anything useful, scientifically verifiable or economically profitable) and church didn’t much either (churches being more interested in pragmatic leadership training and no longer read theological books). As a result, theology has tended to drift into the descriptive mode of ‘religious studies’ and lost interest in God. The suggestion was that theology should ultimately be about ‘articulating visions of human flourishing’.

It was a fascinating 24 hours. Broadly speaking the thesis held up. Guilty as charged, the theological guild does often come over as talking to itself in ever-smaller circles about ever more abstruse subjects, and did need a new vision of itself and its purpose. The idea that we live in a secular world, however, was roundly challenged. We are no longer so much a secular world but a plural one, where religion is reviving around the world, with the odd exception of Europe, but even there & in the west generally, the real divide is not between secular and religious views of the world but between transcendental ones (including but not uniquely religious) and ‘closed systems’ which saw the world in reductionist mechanistic terms.

My own observations were firstly to suggest that the proposal needed a broader horizon than just human flourishing. Our fortunes depend on the fortunes of the whole natural order, so theology needs to concern itself with the flourishing, not just of humanity, but of the whole creation, not least because without clean air, a healthy environment and food to eat, well, we just die. Perhaps more importantly, we are integrally linked to the creation - according to Genesis 2.15, our central calling is to nurture and care for the rest of the natural world, so that any account of human flourishing must involve the flourishing of the whole created order as well.

Secondly it was to suggest that the thesis needed a stronger account of sin. There is something in us that perversely resists the flourishing of others, the flourishing of creation, and even, in cases of self-harm, of ourselves. Any account of theology that paints a picture of the good life has to take into account our propensity to destroy life and resist goodness.

The most interesting question concerned whether the goal of the theological enterprise was God per se or the Kingdom of God – what life looks life when God is king. I found myself increasingly drawn to the latter suggestion. Jesus says: “Seek first (not God, but) the Kingdom of God. The end result of all our journeying will not just be the beatific vision, being enraptured with the vision of God, with the implication that creation falls out of view. It is not in some Platonic sense finally to escape the body and physicality to embrace a spiritual contemplation of the divine, but instead we hope for a new heavens and a new earth. The pictures the Bible gives us of the end are very material – a feast, a new city descending from the heavens, a resurrected body – they indicate a new order of being, a new set of social relations. It is created life finally reaching maturity, healed of sin, bathed in the love of God, saturated with grace, a renewed creation.

So perhaps the vocation of theology is not just to describe God – although it is that – and certainly not just to describe human experience of God - but to describe God as he relates to us, and us as we relate to God (or more strictly, creation as it relates to God). I found myself returning to the theological genius that is John Calvin: “What is God? Men who pose this question are merely toying with idle speculations. It is more important for us to know of what sort he is, and what is consistent with his nature. What good is it to profess with Epicurus some sort of God who has cast aside the care of the world only to amuse himself in idleness? What help is it, in short, to know a God with whom we have nothing to do?
For Calvin theology is not reflection on human experience, nor speculation on the inner being of God, but knowing God as he relates to us, as he has revealed himself to be in Creation and in Christ. Theology necessarily involves a vision of well-lived human life, or as he puts it a little later in that first section of the Institutes: “God is not known where there is no religion or piety.” Theology leads to piety, or to put it in more contemporary language: flourishing. In fact you can’t have theology without flourishing in the realities of this life, both now and in the eschaton.
There is a kind of theology which is conceptual clarification, a philosophical clearing of the ground, but constructive theology proper, theologia, involves the whole person in the quest. It does not just have God in view, but God as he relates to us – how life is to be lived under the rule of God. It requires the exercise of spiritual, theological imagination, in the light of God’s self-revelation in Christ, to envision what life in the Kingdom, life at the wedding feast of the lamb, life in the new Jerusalem is and will be like. Theology describes a life lived in healthy, nurturing relation to others and under the dominion, protection and care of God: a flourishing life.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Why Lent is a 'Yes' to life

One of the characters in Bruce Chatwin's novel 'Songlines' says: “If the world has a future, it has an ascetic future.” The point was that unless we learn the disciplines of self-denial there is little chance of a future for the human race, and indeed the very planet on which we live and depend. We know this with our bodies – unless we learn to limit our intake of unhealthy food, our health and wellbeing will suffer. The same is true for the whole world. If we continue to disregard the deep rhythms of creation, consuming all we can of the earth’s resources without limit, we will destroy ourselves, our communities through competition over increasingly scarce resources, and eventually, the very earth God has given us to sustain life. Our culture often subtly treats us first and foremost as consumers – we exist to consume food, wine, TV, clothes, gadgets and all the rest, and so keep the economy afloat. And we can just as subtly buy into that agenda, thoughtlessly consuming our way through life, trying to quench our spiritual hunger with things, when it can only be satisfied with God. As Jesus himself said facing his own ‘Lent’ in the desert: ‘One does not live by bread alone,  but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." Lent can seem a life-denying period of austerity.  And in some ways it is a time when we learn the habit and skill of saying ‘no’ to desires which can so often mislead us. Yet looked at another way it is time for positive witness. By denying ourselves some of the things we usually take for granted, and especially when we give more time for prayer, we are saying publicly that we are NOT first and foremost consumers, we are people made for relationship with the God who loves us in Christ and whom we are learning to love. It is a way of saying that there is something, or better, someone who is more important to us than chocolate, wine, gadgets and Facebook, however good they are. It is a time when we re-assert our true identity and loyalty, both to ourselves, because we often forget who we are, and to the world, because it needs to know the liberating message that we are not here primarily to consume but to love and be loved. And the way we do that is to re-connect with the One who loves us, with the Giver behind the gifts.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Black Friday, Migrants and Islamic State

The Christmas decorations are emerging from their year-long hibernation and appearing in our streets. Christmas card lists are being prepared, presents planned. The average British person will spend £350 on presents this year. This year £16.5bn will be spent on Christmas in the UK. A walk in Knightsbridge, glancing into shop windows brings a reminder of the luxuriant affluence of this part of the world. Black Friday sweeps all before it, and the financial crash seems a distant memory.

This affluence provokes very different reactions. Over recent months we have been painfully aware of two major crises facing us: the migrant issue and the incursion of Islamic radicalism onto the streets of western Europe. One of the reactions that western wealth provokes is envy. People become migrants for all kinds of reasons. Some are fleeing exactly the kind of murderous terror that the citizens of Paris experienced, and yet many others come from north Africa, or other Middle Eastern countries not directly experiencing IS terror, and they do not head for Russia, or Southern Africa – they head for western Europe, drawn by the promise of a better life, with jobs, money in their pockets, and a slice of the pie that is our wealth and prosperity. The extreme contrasts between life in Eritrea and England are much more visible and enticing now through social media that globalises disparities and narrows the distance between the very poor and the very rich – you can look into Knightsbridge shop windows from your mobile phone in Kampala or Kirkuk.

The other reaction that the west evokes is hatred. Islamic State is the latest and most deadly of a series of movements in the Muslim world that identifies the west as a great enemy. This trajectory has been growing for a long time, dating back to the rise of Wahhabism in the C18th, and much of it is fuelled by a deep sense of grievance towards the west and its cultural dominance of the world. It is no accident that the Paris attacks appear to have been planned from the notorious Belgian district of Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels marked by poverty, social exclusion, and a high rate of unemployment. Of course, IS is fuelled by much more than poverty. Yet poverty, allied to the proximity of the lavish, extravagant wealth of the west, provides a fertile seedbed for radicalisation of what the religious historian Philip Jenkins describes as the typical jihadists: “second generation Muslim youths suffering from an identity crisis, with few prospects and plagued by the thought that the Islamic world is being suppressed."

These twin reactions, of envy and of hatred have brought the problems of poverty and inequality right to our doorstep. In the past we could watch TV footage of famine and poverty, or news items of bombs in Beirut or Baghdad and furrow our brows trying to understand the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam. Now these problems are literally knocking on our doors.

There is much to do to address these twin crises. But underlying both is the running sore of inequality and poverty. There are hopeful signs. Earlier this year, the UK government was the first G7 nation to enshrine in law a commitment to honour the UN development target of 0.7% of GDP to be spent on foreign aid. In the private sphere, the new Marshall Institute for Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship at the LSE is a bold venture encouraging the revival of philanthropy among the west’s wealthy. Yet the contrast between the sometimes ostentatious affluence of the west with the poverty of so many nations, now only a tweet or a website away, will continue to provoke extreme reactions until the gap is narrowed. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s well-known 2010 book ‘Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ argued that inequality hurts not just the poor but the rich as well. The last few months have only served to prove the point even more starkly.

Our government debates the bombing of Syria, which may or may not be a short-term solution. But it will only ever be short-term. It will not address the roots of the problem. A serious renewed will to apply our best minds and imaginations to tackle the startling contrasts of wealth and poverty in our world is one of the most urgent tasks facing our governments today.

Monday, 27 October 2014

New Book - The Widening Circle

I have a new book coming out,called "The Widening Circle", published by SPCK - it comes out on November 20th, and the theme is Priesthood - not in the narrow sense of ministers (although it does get onto that in the end) but looking at the broader theme of priesthood in Christian theology. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting excerpts here on this blog to give you a bit of a taste of the whole thing.

First up: Created for Joy

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis do not tell us why God created the heavens and the earth. They just tell us that he did. To find the beginnings of a reason, we need to look elsewhere, to one of the other Old Testament books that develops a theology of creation: the book of Psalms. There, the creation exists as a reflection and expression of the goodness and glory of God himself. Psalm 19 begins with the classic statement of this idea: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” (Ps 19.1). Psalm 104 is perhaps the greatest creation Psalm in the collection, and here, creation is simply depicted as an act of joy. The poem is a litany of overflowing goodness, fruitfulness, creativity, which climaxes in v31-34 with this:

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
as I rejoice in the Lord.

The creation is made so that in it the glory of God can be seen and ‘endure forever’, but even more, that God can ‘rejoice in his works’. The picture painted here is not particularly serious or earnest. Creation does not have to exist: it is contingent rather than necessary. And yet it does exist, simply because God wanted it to, as a cause for and source of joy and praise. Yet this picture of God rejoicing over his creation is only half the picture. Joy is not just the property of God, but of creation itself, in a kind of virtuous circle of enjoyment. This joy requires not just the act of creation, but involves a dynamic relation between God and the creation. The earth is not an inanimate object, an inert, dead thing that is incapable of response. Instead, it is called upon to reflect back to God its own joy in being created.  Psalm 148, for example, depicts the entire creation in unison, praising God without words, but just by existing: “Let all things praise the name of the Lord, for at his command they were created. “ (v5) As Richard Bauckham puts it: “all creatures bring glory to God simply by being themselves, and by fulfilling their God-given roles in God's Creation.”  Psalm 96 similarly depicts the creation itself praising God, but here, the same note is sounded: that of sheer unadulterated joy:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord (Ps 96.11-13)

The creation exists for no other purpose than joy. It is not a means to an end, an instrument through which God can fulfill certain tasks, or even an accidental by-product of conflict among the gods, as the ancient Babylonian story of Enuma Elish imagined it. The world exists to elicit joy, both from God and from within itself, directed back to God in praise. As Genesis puts it, the climax of creation is when God sits back, looks at what he has made, and declares it ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31).

More to come later...

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Why Assisted Dying needs to be resisted

Should we legalize Assisted Dying? The debate will last some time, but there is one historical factor that might make us pause before making such a step, however minor it may seem at the time, and however many safeguards surround it.

Michael Burleigh's book, 'Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda' is a long read, at times depressing and inspiring, but always impresssively erudite. One of the most interesting sections is on the Nazis extermination policies in the 1930s.

It started with the gradual acceptance of the idea (shamefully agreed to in 1930 by the 'Inner Mission' one of the main Protestant welfare agencies), that sterilization was 'morally legitimate', even perhaps an act of duty towards future generations, a necessary means of social progress. It seemed at the time a fairly harmless move, only voluntary, with no indication that it led anywhere else. 

The next step was the decriminalization of voluntary eugenic sterilization in 1932. That again seemed a fairly harmless step. After all, no-one was forcing it on anyone, it was only for those who chose to have themselves sterilized on racial grounds, opening up the possibility that someone might choose to stop themselves bearing children in the future, and thus perpetuating their own race. 

The next stage was the possibility of sterilization at the consent of a guardian, for those whose own behaviour indicated that their children could end up being 'anti-social'. Once the earlier rubicon had been crossed, this didn't seem too bad either. After all, if the principle of the benefits of sterilization had been established, then a legal guardian worried about a teenager's behaviour might choose to save society the trouble and cost of future aggro by preventing any possibility that promiscuous delinquent youths might give birth to other promiscuous delinquent youths. It wasn't a huge step then towards the legalisation of compulsory sterilization at the decision of the local Party, who decreed that certain elements of society should be nipped in the bud and no longer allowed to replicate themselves.

From there it became feasible to imagine not only the enforced sterilization of undesirables but their extermination. After all, if you are stopping a particular kind of person from reproducing, why not go a stage further back and stop them living?

The point is that Nazi Germany did not suddenly go from a 'normal' society to one that could tolerate mass state murder of its own citizens overnight. It happened gradually, incrementally, step by step, almost while no-one, even 'good' people, noticed. It is to my mind one of the arguments that should make us pause before legalising Assisted Dying, however desirable it may seem to stop someone's pain. You never know where it will lead once you step out on that path.