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.

Why Freedom is not what you think it is

I have always struggled to understand what Christians mean by freedom. There is quite a lot in the Old  Testament  about  Israel  as free...