theology


Why on earth do religious events that happened abroad five hundred years ago have any significance for today’s world? Or for the church? Remember, France and Italy worked hard to omit any reference to the Christian history of Europe from the preamble to the Lisbon Treaty – purely for ideological reasons. How stupid can intelligent people get? You don’t have to sympathise with that history, but to write it out looks suspiciously like blanking Trotsky from the photos.

Well, I am in Wittenberg for an academic conference that goes with the exciting title of Faith and Theology: Basic Insights of the Reformation in Ecumenical Debate. Theologians from around the world have come together to explore from different perspectives how the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation speaks into the situation faced by the church today. In fact, after two introductory lectures – which demonstrated immediately the different cultural approaches to theological method in Germany and the USA – we broke into groups to consider the necessary contextualisation of faith and theology. My group heard from a Brazilian and an Indian who teaches in Australia.

One of the concerns that runs though the conference is a worrying tendency to relegate rigorous academic theological thinking and research into the realms of private interest and out of the world of public truth. In short, faith needs the critical distance and hard thinking of theology, whilst theology has no point if it is not rooted in commitment to what that theology addresses.

Tomorrow morning we will pray together in the Schlosskirche, onto whose doors Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses on 31 October 1517. Later we shall explore questions of faith, theology and exegesis, followed later with consideration of faith, theology and human action. We then continue into Thursday when the conference will end with papers on the ecumenical challenges presented by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin, the Ratsvorsitzende of the EKD, and me.

If it doesn’t sound very exciting, all I can say is: you have to be here. It is intellectually stimulating, theologically challenging, and the people are really nice to know.

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Turkey is not nice just now. And Nice is not how it sounds to English ears.

This is not facetious. The terrorist atrocity in Nice last night and the military coup in Turkey tonight are phenomena that should not surprise us. Look back in history and things constantly change. We just happen to find the latest revolution in world affairs the most frightening.

Which is not to minimise what is going on. It is simp,y to recognise that terror is always there. That regimes are regularly challenged or overthrown.

But, it is also to recognise that, notwithstanding the rejection of this by the Brexiters in recent weeks, the post-war peace in Europe is not to be taken for granted. Civilisation is fragile. Democracy is thin. What takes decades or centuries to build up can be demolished in minutes.

I tweeted earlier that we should not be driven by fear, but drawn by hope. For Christians this means not guaranteeing circumstances of comfort or convenience, but, whatever our circumstances, living now in the light of a hope that comes to us from the future: resurrection and new creation.

To be drawn by hope is simply to live now in the light of what is to come, and not to be fearful. This is not fantasy or wishful thinking. It is a deliberate choice to dance to a different tune – to march to a different beat. And it means not being afraid.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

Recently I was in Stuttgart and took part in a two-hour discussion with the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. The theme of the event – which took place before more than ten thousand people – focused on a question: is the world spinning out of control?

It's a good question, isn't it? Austerity at home and protests on the streets; financial and economic brinksmanship in Greece – with the implications for the rest of Europe of a Grexit; the continuing brutality of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; Ukraine and the confidence of a re-energised Russia; political instability and the threat of climate change. And that's just a sample from today's headlines.

The German Foreign Minister began by saying that the world has never been in such a dangerous place. Kofi Annan claimed that, actually, the world has never been safer. But, both went on to remind the audience of how the world was in the first half of the twentieth century, and only then compare with today.

I listened to this exchange and concluded that they were both right. It depends on your perspective. Only seventy years ago the world buried tens of millions of people who had died as the result of world war. Of course, this had been the second of these: we hadn't actually learned from the so-called 'war to end all wars' just a couple of decades before. I remember, as a small child, the Cuba missile crisis and the pervasive mood of fear. The Cold War itself, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, has also been quickly forgotten.

It seems to me that every generation thinks it might be the last. That the crises and challenges of today are the ultimate ones. That things have never been so bad. A bit like crime statistics: even if the figures go down, people for some reason still feel the fear. There are, of course, other examples.

Well, if you look at what fills the headlines and our screens, the world is in a pretty bad way. And it isn't hard to fuel the fear. But, hope has always defied this sort of thing. The Jews in exile in the eighth and sixth centuries BC faced the horrors of dislocation and alienation, but their poets fired their imaginations, helping them see beyond their immediate experience to what could one day come to be. Christian hope is rooted not in a simple reaction to the present challenges, but in being grasped by a vision of a different way – and then committing oneself to making it happen. The Christian vision of the Kingdom of God involves neither naïveté nor fantasy, but committed hope.

Perhaps what we need today is fewer analysts and commentators, and more poets: holding out a vision that fires the imagination and won't let us go.

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

Prince Charles in Ireland

Prince Charles's speeches in Ireland this week have been profoundly moving. It seems to me that he did three things.

Firstly, he identified with the suffering of Ireland over centuries and, particularly, more recently. He said simply that the island of Ireland “has had more than its fair share of turbulence and troubles.” Secondly, he set his own personal suffering in the context of a complex mix of politics, economics, tribalism and nationalisms. And, thirdly, he recognised the reality of pain and grief – borne by so many – whilst opening up the possibility of what an American theologian calls “newness after loss”.

The murder of Lord Mountbatten in 1979 struck to the heart of the British establishment, but for those involved in the bereavement, it was always more than a political matter. As Prince Charles put it: “It seemed as if the foundations of all that we held dear in life had been torn apart irreparably.” He had already spoken of the “anguish of such deep loss.”

This is the conundrum, isn't it? The political and the global collide with the individual and the private. Which is how grief always works – often biting through the veneers of self-sufficiency we paint on to the scars of bereavement and helplessness, and awakening the pain of personal loss in the face of a community's need to move on.

I think what the events of this week suggest is that the only way to tackle grief and the rage of injustice is for us to face those who were a part of it. In the famous Yad Vashem memorial to the Warsaw Uprising during World War Two one of the bronze reliefs depicts the Nazi guards without faces – apparently because to have given them faces would have meant humanising them. But, I thought that was actually the point. It was human beings – with faces and stories and families and hopes and dreams and regrets – who caused unimaginable pain to people who could not defend themselves. It is what we are seeing in Syria and Iraq as IS target innocent people with extreme violence and inhumane brutality.

What Tuesday's meeting demonstrated – backing up words with handshakes – was that violence and death do not have to have the final word. Realistic forgiveness – however long it takes and however immense the personal or communal cost – opens the door for all parties to be set free for a future that looked closed. Which is why, in the Lord's Prayer, any expectation of forgiveness by God is inextricably linked to my forgiving those who have grieved me.

Reconciliation is not easy and is never cost-free. The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer cried against notions of what he called “cheap grace”. But, it is in the cost of looking a person in the eye that freedom is secured – freedom to live again.

I have just returned from Jena in Germany where I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität on Tuesday evening. This was awarded for my contribution to ecumenical work between the Church of England and the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland and for work in practical theology.

As I said on the night, I find this remarkable and bewildering at the same time. I am too embarrassed to explain what the thinking behind the award was, but I am deeply grateful for the kindness, generosity and hospitality we received.

This university has been around for well over four hundred years and had on its teaching staff luminaries such as Hegel, Schelling and Fichte. It was here that Goethe met Schiller. And it is here that I delivered a lecture last year, prior to preaching in the Stadtkirche immediately after. Most importantly, it is a university that does what universities should do: it allows for a proper interchange between the disciplines, breaking out of the silos we sometimes see in Britain.

The former Rektor of the university, Dr Klaus Dicke gave a lecture on 'Theology and Humour'. Now, most non-Germans will automatically see this as a joke in itself – there is a prejudice that the Germans don't do humour. Of course, as with many prejudices, this is nonsense. Yes, the lecture was academic; but, it was also funny, clever and seriously informed. I felt a bit lightweight (I always do) when I responded by making two points: (a) theology is always practical – as John puts it in his gospel, “the Word became flesh and lived among us”, and the job of theology is partly to put the flesh back into word in order that others might discover the Word made flesh … and so the dynamic continues; and (b) there is no theology without humour – when Abram and Sarai hear the ridiculous news that they are to have a baby in their old age (Genesis), they laugh at God … and God doesn't resist or reject their laughter. In fact, their baby, Isaac, is given a name that means 'laughter'.

The event in Jena brought friends from Stuttgart, Schwäbisch Hall, Erfurt, Berlin, Hannover and elsewhere. Seeing them was wonderful. The opportunity to spend time with them on Tuesday evening and again Wednesday morning was wonderful, and I am inordinately grateful.

I find things like this puzzling. I do what I do (books, blog, preaching, lecturing, writing, journalism, etc.) because I like it and think the church needs to enjoy itself a bit more in the public square. We need communicators who enjoy the challenge of learning the languages of the world around us and speaking in a way that can be understood – even if, sometimes, we make a complete mess of it.

I might not be the sharpest theological knife in the drawer, but I am deeply grateful for the honour given to me by this prestigious and heavyweight German university.

 

The headline doesn't sound too promising, does it? But, it brings together the last couple of days before I return to Bradford tomorrow for a week of work before having a scheduled holiday the following week.

Having finished Ben Quash's excellent Found Theology, I intended to just spend the last couple of days reading German frivolous stuff. But, I started on Imaginative Apologetics, edited by Andrew Davison instead and got hooked. Serendipitously, it hangs together very well with the Quash book, although written from a different perspective and toward a different end.

Imaginative Apologetics recognises that the current irrational obsession of the New Atheists with what they think of as 'pure reason' (as if it wasn't mediated by a person who brings to the task a tradition and unargued-for presuppositions about the world, the way it is, and why it is the way it is) and 'pure science' (see above) does not need to be responded to on its own redundant terms, but that the premises of the argument can be questioned. And, to cut a long argument short, people need to be appealed to at the level of imagination and emotion – finding a consistency with real lived experience … which is more (but never less than) than 'rational' – and the Christian tradition has a huge amount to offer in this respect.

In fact, Davison himself makes the case right at the outset for Christian confidence when he writes:

The Christian faith does not simply, or even mainly, propose a few additional facts about the world. Rather, belief in the Christian God invites a new way to understand everything. (p.xxv)

He also cursorily quotes Yale's Denys Turner's observation that “the best way to be an atheist is to avoid asking certain questions”. The purpose of this is not to dismiss atheism or atheists, but to ask robust questions about the assumptions and presuppositions that lie before and behind assertions about reality and the absence of God. There is material here for good debate, if the theistic case is accorded some credibility and not simply dismissed prior to consideration. As Alison Milbank puts it, the apologetic task of the Christian is not to appeal to pure reason (as if there could be such a thing), but “to awaken in the reader this feeling of homesickness for the truth”. (p.33)

Each essay is worth reading in itself and I don't intend to go through the whole book here. However, the appeal to art, literature and the imaginative life of a human person (as well as communities) chimes in very well with the case being argued theologically by Ben Quash in his book. In other words, take culture seriously; explore and appeal to the imagination that takes reason seriously; be confident about the role of the imagination in comprehending reality.

Having read this stuff in a cafe in Basel yesterday, I then moved on to the Kunstmuseum Basel. I particularly wanted to see the Hans Holbein painting of the dead Christ (referred to by Ben Quash in his book) and the impressive Impressionist collection. There is nothing quite like an art gallery to make me feel ignorant and illiterate. I look at paintings and know that I don't know how to read them – I don't know the language. I had intended to scan the bulk of the collections and stay for longer with the stuff I knew a little about from my reading, but I found I had paid to see the special exhibition of James Ensor: The Surprised Masks.

I had never heard of James Ensor. I realised I had come across several of his works (The Fall of the Rebel Angels and The Entry of Christ into Brussels on Mardi Gras, for example) but I knew nothing about him or his art. It was stunning. The paintings were interesting, but it was the ink drawings that grabbed me. They explore death, dying, mortality and humanity – but with the sort of humour that had me laughing as I looked at them. It reminded me a little of how I felt when I read Robert Crumb's cartoon version of The Book of Genesis.

The point here is that art goes beyond pure reason (but entirely reasonably) into the imagination in a way that digs at 'truth' and pushes our perceptions of what we assume to be 'reality'.

And this, bizarrely, is what takes me on to immigration. If coming to Switzerland helped me escape some of the sterile immigration debates in England, I quickly got plunged back into them. Recently a referendum narrowly backed the view that restrictions should be imposed on immigration into Switzerland. This caused a huge storm both here and in the wider European Union: decisions have consequences. The political fall-out has been interesting to read whilst actually here in Switzerland. And 'imagination' – in the perverse, but common sense of 'fantasy' – has come powerfully into play in the rhetoric around the issue.

The friend I am staying with is employed by the Swiss Reformed Church to engage in industrial and economic matters (Pfarramt für Industrie und Wirtschaft). He was invited by the local newspaper, the bz Basel, to attend last week's opening night of a performance of Max Frisch's Biedermann und die Brandstifter and to be interviewed by the newspaper afterwards. You really have to know the play, but the performance had a twist in that the stories – in their own words – of immigrants to Switzerland were told to a surprised audience. The interview appeared today and Martin (Dürr) has been getting very supportive messages all day. In the interview – which is amusing as well as intelligent – he sharply calls into question the rhetoric propagated by the right wing that mass immigration is threatening the Swiss way of life. The right wing press (in some cases owned by the leader of the right wing party, the SVP) fan the flames of fear whilst simultaneously offering themselves as the saviours of the nation. Martin put it like this (my translation):

We have to draw a line. For many years the SVP has succeeded in building fears and resentments. The play exposes the mechanisms behind this. I believe there are some very respectable people in the SVP. But, the element that has the say has managed for years to present itself as both victim and saviour. This is a fascinating achievement… They present themselves as victims of the foreign masters in Brussels and of the Left and the Greens and even the remaining left wing press. These are doing terrible things to us and our Swiss identity is being destroyed – say the SVP. At the same time they get up and announce: “Comrades, don't be afraid! We offer you the antidote to this. We are the only ones to really fight to keep the Switzerland that has existed since 1291.”

Sound familiar? Create the spectre – regardless of facts and reality – and then offer a solution to the fear that you have created. It is an interesting and powerful example of political apologetics. It works on the imagination by conjuring a fantasy and then calling it reality.

We are not alone…

 

This 'away-from-home-and-reading' bit of my sabbatical is coming to an end. I haven't read as much as I had wanted to, but there is also a life to be lived (and football to be watched).

Before finishing with a couple of funny German satirical books, I spent the last couple of days reading Ben Quash's Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit. I am very glad I did.

Last year I asked Ben to be (Honorary) Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral and he agreed. He is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London and was formerly Dean and Fellow of Peterhouse in the University of Cambridge. Last summer I asked Ben to address my clergy on the subject of 'change' – given all the uncertainties about the future of the diocese in the light of proposals to dissolve three dioceses and create a single new one for West Yorkshire & the Dales (which, as we know, is soon to be a reality). In the morning he presented some of the material that is now set out in this book. (In the afternoon we had Pastor Sebastian Feydt from the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, to talk about radical change and its effects – he had experienced the changes in Germany from GDR to FRG at every level, including how such change affects or shapes your theology.)

If Ben had told me beforehand that he would begin with a brief study of modal auxiliaries in English language, I would probably have advised against it on the grounds that … er … it doesn't sound very … er … likely to enthral the busy clergy mind. It was absolutely riveting. Since then, I have waited for the book and for the time to read it properly – even though some bits made me feel a bit dim and slow.

I am not going to attempt to review it here. Suffice to say that this beautifully written book ranges through language, translation, art, poetry, the naming of cats, Bible, text, hermeneutics, history, philosophy, christology and pneumatology. And, yes, that was 'the naming of cats'. I rarely read a 'theology' from cover to cover, but I did this one. Basically, he wants the reader to see that the Holy Spirit breathes through the space that engages our imagination (in its proper meanings), re-lighting the past and shaping the future. En route he has important things to say or suggest about how the church is to handle new phenomena in the light of a proper reading of and handling of scripture – something pertinent to current ethical debates in and beyond the church.

I quote the opening of the first chapter on 'Historical finding':

The theology advanced in this book understands ongoing history as a gift of the Holy Spirit, to relate us to God in Christ, and it is energetically opposed to models of doctrine that assume for it any sort of ahistorical completeness; that assume it to be a set of securely held propositions from which all necessary implications for Christian belief and practice can then be deduced in any time and place. (p.1)

 

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