Saturday, 22 May 2010

The Holy Spirit: Theology for the Twenty-First Century

Well, our conference on the Theology of the Holy Spirit has come and gone. Quite a remarkable time in all kinds of ways. I’ll reflect more on it in time when the dust has settled. Meanwhile here is an article I wrote recently and which was published in the Church Times a few weeks ago.

What kind of theology is needed in the twenty-first century? Perhaps more than most, it is a theology of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit used regularly to be called the ‘forgotten member of the Trinity’. No longer. The last forty years has seen a whole host of theological work on Pneumatology from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Pentecostal theologians, at the same time as what many would call an outpouring of the Spirit on all kinds of churches around the world. Karl Barth, towards the end of his life, famously dreamed of a theology which would start with Pneumatology rather than Christology, but which he, like Moses, was only allowed to see from afar. Now is a time to imagine what such a theology might be like, not just because of the crises faced by the church, but also the world.

Contemporary societies desperately need cohesion and a deep sense of common life and purpose. The fragmentation of the former eastern bloc in the 1990s, the religious conflicts that have shaken global confidence since the rise of militant Islam, the continued growth in the gap between rich and poor, all make us painfully aware of division and disharmony. The search is not just for a common set of values (probably impossible to find in an irreversibly pluralist society like ours), but a deeper common spirit, a sense of kindness, peace, patience, gentleness towards one another. These of course are the classic Christian gifts of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is for Christians the source of all community and cohesion. At almost every church service Christians invoke the ‘fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ along with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God. The New Testament emphases the Spirit’s work in drawing what would otherwise be dissonant chaos into varied unity. The unity of the Spirit is not uniformity but harmony in difference – precisely what a divided world and church needs.

Then there is the ecological crisis. David Attenborough recently said: “I’m no longer sceptical. I don’t have any doubt at all. I think climate change is the major challenge facing the world today.” One of the central themes in biblical Pneumatology is that the Spirit ‘broods over the creation’ (Gen 1.2) and ‘renews the face of the earth.’ (Ps 104.30). The experience of the Spirit is a foretaste, deposit or firstfruits here and now of the new creation, the world that one day will come. The bold Christian claim is that the Holy Spirit is the hope for the future of the earth – that we are not alone in our attempts to save the planet. We are working with the Spirit of God who gives life and power to renew a damaged earth.

At the same time, the church, at least in western Europe, is also is dire need of a new start. Faced by scandals, moral and theological quarrels and numerical decline, if the church in this continent is to stand any chance of revival and renewal, it will need a fresh wave of the Spirit, yet one that breaks out of the narrow confines of the charismatic to infuse all traditions of the church. As Rowan Williams recently said: “It is the work of the Spirit that heals the Body of Christ, not the plans or the statements of any group, or any person, or any instrument of communion.” The church sorely needs a fresh breath of the Spirit who makes all things new.

Theology also needs the Spirit. Everyone knows how theological study can become arid, divisive and dull. Theology in the Spirit, as the Greek Fathers, for example, always envisaged it, is different. Rather than an object of theological enquiry, the Spirit makes engaged, worshipful theological enquiry possible, by bringing us into relationship with the Father and the Son – the God into whom we enquire with our minds. In other words, if we are to take the theology of the Spirit with full seriousness, it engages us immediately in the realm of encounter – the intimate closeness of being brought into the life and love at the heart of the Trinity, not just in theory but in practice and experience - so that our theology gets done within that experience, not outside of it. A theology of the Spirit will be a matter of the heart as well as the mind.

Pneumatology is not a rival to Christology. It merely offers us a new way into it, inviting us to know Christ through the Spirit, rather than just study him by unaided reason. J├╝rgen Moltmann once wrote: “The relation of the church to the Holy Spirit is the relation of epiklesis, continual invocation of the Spirit and unconditional opening for the experiences of the Spirit who confers fellowship and who makes life truly worth living." This sounds exactly what the church and the world needs today. In May of this year, Professor Moltmann, along with Miroslav Volf, David Ford and Rowan Williams all spoke at a conference on ‘the Holy Spirit in the World Today’ hosted by St Mellitus College, St Paul’s Theological Centre and Holy Trinity Brompton. It is a sign of the future. It is an example of the growing convergence of dynamic church life and theological work, a renewed exploration of Pneumatology in the context of worship and experience of the Spirit. This kind of serious reflection both on the rich Christian heritage of theology of the Spirit and on the experience of the Spirit in the church and the world has the potential to re-imagine a more holistic and dynamic Christian approach to the contemporary world. Pneumatology is theology for the twenty-first century.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The new Robin Hood movie is out soon. The story has such power that it gets re-told in every generation - Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner and now Russell Crowe.

Maybe the story has such power because it appeals to something deep within - a desire for things to be different.  The legend is well known – Robin Hood steals from the rich to give to the poor, lives in Sherwood Forest with the merry men and Maid Marian, and regularly manages to annoy the Sheriff of Nottingham. What relationship the story bears to historical reality is hard to tell. However, the context in which the story is usually set is significant. In the twelfth century England’s rightful king, Richard, had left the country to fight in the Crusades. In his absence, his brother Prince John had set himself up as king in his place. Not content with this, John had also inflicted heavy taxation on and curtailed the hunting rights of the peasants, who were already kept firmly in their place by a strict feudal system.

Robin Hood was the leader of a kind of resistance movement that refused to accept the rule of ‘King’ John,
and kept alive the hope of the return of the true king, Richard. When news began to filter through to England that King Richard was on his way home, and had in fact landed, Robin Hood and his followers began to whisper the news around to their fellow countrymen, who had by now given up hope, that the true king had not forgotten them, and that things were one day going to be different. For a while they still had to live under uncertainty and even oppression until ‘King’ John was finally defeated, but the news was out, and nothing could keep them quiet.

Robin Hood’s band of resistance fighters is a surprising, but not a bad image for the Church in the world today. They live under an oppressive regime, but have a sense of joy and lightness because they know that the present system is not the last word. They know that the true king is coming, and that things will one day be different. From time to time, they still remind the false powers that their rule is temporary and bogus, by acts of rebellion that recall the true king. They also whisper around the good news that things don’t have to be like this. The king is coming, in fact he has already landed, and we can happily defy the current powers and live instead under the laws and rule of the true proper king. It sometimes means they are out of step with others who haven't heard and think the current regime is all there is, but it's a much lighter, more positive way to live - looking forward to the day when all will be different and the usurper will be de-throned.

Political change can make a temporary and minor difference, but ultimately only divine action can bring in an entirely new realm. Christians are those who have heard news that there is another king, another kingdom, under whose rule things are very different. And this is the big story – the kingdom has come, in Jesus Christ. The king has arrived and if you look hard enough, you can see signs around that things are becoming different.

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