Month: September 2009

what I said in my seminar on postmodernism

By popular demand, here’s the guts of what I said in my seminar on postmodernism…

View of Cairns from up towards Port Douglas

View of Cairns from up towards Port Douglas

If your university experience is anything like mine was, then lots of what postmodernists say can feel unsettling — if not downright threatening. Especially when it comes to their insistence on the limits of human knowing.

The modernist, so we are told, claimed unmediated access to absolute truth (usually through reason) as well as universally-binding knowledge about (and thus mastery over) … well, everything. The postmodernist: (a) doubts that such universally-binding knowledge — or unmediated access to reality — is available and (b) suspects that those claiming it are probably feathering their own nests.

All this can be threatening — particularly when flung with animus against Christianity. However, I want to suggest that Christians have nothing to fear from postmodernism.

I can think of at least three reasons why:

  1. Fear is a remarkably unproductive conversation-strategy. It tends to manifest itself either in conflict-avoidance or in a kind of ‘aggressive defensiveness’. (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve waded into a conversation that has tilted towards the postmodern with a demonstration of the incoherence of relativism or something like that. And you know what? It’s almost never convinced anyone!) The trouble is that when you follow the path of fear it’s difficult to learn anything about what the person who’s espousing postmodern — or postmodern-sounding — ideas means by them or what’s motivating them. Which also makes it hard to love that person.
  2. Lots of what postmodernism says should come as no surprise to us. Since when was the gospel message about giving us unmediated access to reality through reason or universal mastery through knowledge? Rather, it’s about us relinquishing our pretensions to precisely these sorts of things, putting our trust in Jesus, and repenting of our tendency to pander to self-interest. Instead of running and hiding or making excuses, we need to own up and ask for help to do better.
  3. I’m convinced that the postmodern critique moves out of a deep ethical intuition that Jesus alone satisfies. Postmodernism is shot through with a profound yearning for justice — explicitly so in Levinas and the later Derrida. But it struggles to marry this with its inherent suspicion of claims to universality or absolute truth (which it sees as disguised forms of the relative and partial). And here’s where the message of the Crucified Messiah goes one better. Jesus turned His back on securing worldly influence and entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly, becoming the paradigm for us as we take up our cross and follow Him.

stuff I wish I’d read earlier…

I constantly seem to have the experience of picking up a book and going ‘Whoa, I should have read that way back in x Year of College’. So these are books I wish I’d read earlier — not the ones I’ve actually read and found formative at each stage of my College career…

bookshelvesFirst Year

  1. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, R. P. C. Hanson
  2. Why Study the Past?, Rowan Williams
  3. The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, Jurgen Moltmann / Holy Scripture, John Webster
  4. Resurrection and Moral Order, Oliver O’Donovan
  5. The New Testament and the People of God, N. T. Wright

Second Year

  1. Iustia Dei, Alister McGrath
  2. The Five Theological Orations, Gregory Nazianzen
  3. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, Richard Hays
  4. The Art of Biblical Narrative, Robert Alter
  5. Jesus and the Victory of God, N. T. Wright

Third Year

  1. Church Dogmatics IV/1, Karl Barth
  2. Holiness, John Webster
  3. The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays
  4. The Resurrection of the Son of God, N. T. Wright
  5. Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

I readily admit that I tend to get excited by a bunch of these from the point of view I currently occupy, and thus ‘get’ them more now than I maybe ever would have back then. For example, I really appreciated reading Webster’s Holiness as a recap of 2nd and 3rd Year Doctrine.

But I make no apology for my bias towards Christian Doctrine and Church History. These are the things I’ve enjoyed most at College.

Christian identity: bounded or centred?

There’s a fascinating footnote in Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace where he picks up a distinction between a bounded-set and a centred-set — familiar from mathematics — and applies it to the problem of Christian identity.


A bounded-set approach focusses on distinctives (of belief and/or behaviour), whereas a centred-set approach to Christian identity sees it as defined by its overarching allegiance to the Lord Jesus.

To see something like this in operation, all you need to do is compare the beginning of the Westminster Confession with that of the Thirty Nine Articles. The Confession opens by expounding some key Protestant distinctives. In contrast, the Articles begin more traditionally — and far less polemically — with a treatment of God’s aseity and trinity before moving to His reconciling work in Christ.

Of course, you may be wondering if this distinction can stand close scrutiny. Doesn’t it have at least a whiff of ‘false disjunction’ about it? It’s all well and good to express a preference for a centred-set approach, but surely in the heat of battle we need defined boundaries (so we can tell who’s in and who’s out)?

Even so, a bounded-set approach is not without its problems, some of which the missiologist Paul Hiebert — from whom Volf culled thedistinction — highlights:

A bounded-set approach creates a well-ordered world with few ambiguities, but it has its implicit dangers. It can lead to an over-emphasis on defining orthodoxy in terms of a body of beliefs or practices, while overlooking the basic relational nature of the gospel. The Good News of salvation is first the restoration of fellowship between sinners and a holy God. This approach, because it focuses on characteristics intrinsic to the Christians themselves, too easily loses sight of the centre. The church, then, is in danger of becoming (as Durkheim put it), a group of people who look to their corporate body rather than to a transcendent God, and who replace worship with fellowship. (‘The Category “Christian” in the Mission Task’)

So what do you reckon — help or hindrance?

My top 10 data visualisation links

I have only recently come to realise just how much I love (and need) to recreate arguments and processes visually. I love flow charts and venn diagrams. As a kid, I used to pore over those cross-section books and Usborne historical adventures. Now, as an adult, here are my top 10 favourite links to do with data visualisation:

  1. Hans Rosling’s dynamic charting tool Gapminder which visualises change over time on various statistics to do with development around the world
  2. The Shape of Song which maps the theme and variations in music
  3. Blaise Aguera y Arcas at TED on Photosynth/Seadragon a mindblowing tool for harvesting online photos to receate 3D images
  4. Chris Jordan’s art (also featured at TED) which helps get a handle on the massive-ness of some shocking statistics
  5. The World Freedom Atlas (I had to include something geographic!)
  6. The blogs infosthetics and a beautiful www
  7. VizThink’s live online drawing tool
  8. Wordle, which turns content analysis into art
  9. The periodic table of data visualisation strategies for ideas about how to visualise stuff
  10. Indexed for entertaining and thoughful graphical interpretations of life

five things that softened me up

A couple of weeks ago Ben shared five things that toughened him up.

There are points where my experience overlaps with his. But over the last six or seven years life has felt more or less like an extended pounding with a meat mallet. Here are five things that have helped soften me up:

  1. Moving out of home for the first time. My first flatmate and I were very different people with divergent habits — and levels of mess-tolerance. But we had some great times. And I had to tackle some of the selfishness and the fixed ideas I’d managed to develope about truly irrelevant things.
  2. Marriage (and the dating process). What … you mean it’s not all about me and I have to work hard at listening!?
  3. Starting a new Beach Mission. I quickly learnt that the whole ‘planting’ thing sounds great but involves a whole lot of hard work and heart ache in practice. Especially when you realise that having recruited and dragged people along on your crazy, ill-conceived experiment, your biggest — and most demanding — responsibility is not preparing or planning programmes but frantically fighting impending relational breakdown on more fronts than you thought possible.
  4. Researching ‘hell’ for a doctrine essay. Spending a solid amount of time trying to understand people I didn’t agree with taught me to be at least sympathetic to the often quite visceral concerns that motivate them (not to mention the occasional legitimate critique of some traditional and popular ways of talking about hell).
  5. Being a Christian. It’s often hurt, but learning to live as a child of the Father — who trusts in Jesus and in whom the Spirit of God is at work — I think (I hope!) has genuinely made me a softer, gentler person. For one thing, I’ve become less afraid of exposing my vulnerabilities (after all, the fact that we’re not self-sufficient is one of the key things we confess about ourselves as Christians, right?).

Christ’s life of obedience … again

In fellowship group last night we paused to consider the significance of these verses in Hebrews 7:

For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect for ever.

One of the things that struck me was what the author makes of the (sinless) life of obedience of the Lord. It’s part of what enables Him to fulfil His office as the unique Messianic high priest ‘according to the order of Melchizedek’.

Unless He had lived such a life, he’d be in the same compromised situation as the Levitical priests — having to offer a sacrifice for His own sin before being able to make atonement for the people, and thus remaining embroiled in the endless succession of sacrifices.

Illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible

Illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible

The ‘active obedience’ of Christ’ incarnate life — the Son’s perfection in identifying with and suffering for humanity (cf. Heb 2.5-18) — underwrites the effectiveness of His ‘passive obedience’ in securing our forgiveness.

As a result, Christ’s life of obedience is meant to bolster our confidence in the decisive, Once-for-All-ness of His achievement!

a matter of theological taste? (part 3)

In order to illustrate the somewhat abstract suggestions about theological method in part 1 and part 2, I’d like to take up an admittedly controversial example: the question of whether the atonement is limited or unlimited in scope.

(from German wikipedia)

Things sometimes get out of hand when the rubber hits the road...

A few initial observations:

  • Both sides boast incredibly well-thought-through and articulate contemporary champions;
  • Both claim historic precedent — each has had a go at enlisting Calvin, for example;
  • Both cite plenty of biblical texts; and, on the flip side, both can cite texts that seem to stick in the other’s craw;
  • Both urge that the view of God entailed by their system accords best with His self-revelation in Jesus.

Consequently, things seem to have stalled. Although, to its partisans that’s no excuse to give up. This is no childish tussle over the all-time superior flavour of ice-cream after all. We’re talking about the heart of the Christian faith. Few things matter more!

Rather than tackling this dispute head on, though, I want to come at it sideways and ask, Why does it matter so much to us here and now at this time and in this place?

I want to ask this question because my hunch is that the answer it receives will point the way towards the fruitful application of my proposed guidelines for honing our faculties of theological judgement.

To begin with, it may help us locate analogous debates in the history of theology to illuminate our present dispute — both giving us models of excellent theology operating under similar conditions and answering to similar demands and sharpening any comparisons we might make.

In addition, it may also sensitise us to the dynamics of the systems we’re considering, helping us discover: how and why each one works the way it does, where they overlap, where they diverge, and what ‘extrinsic’ — contextual and especially pastoral — factors play a role in shaping each of them.

Without undertaking this kind of labour I doubt we’ll ever restart the engine on this debate. So what we need are people willing to give themselves to the discipline of careful, honest, irenic and contextually-sensitive genealogical analysis (see the entry under ‘Philosophy Dictionary’ at for what I mean — it’s the kind of thing Ashley Null does with post-reformation Anglicanism). Anyone up for it?

a matter of theological taste? (part 2)

FourDissertationsFrontispieceIn the previous post I began a little experiment in theological method by positing a parallel between the activities of aesthetic judgement — determining how good a work of art is (by asking: Is it well-executed? How does it stack up against other artworks? What effect does it have?) — and theological judgement.

What led me here was the observation that all we often seem to be able to appeal to in favour of one system over against another is more or less subjective preference. At the same time, we can’t shake the sense that there must be something more to say when it comes to theology!

Rather than backing away from this dilemma, I propose to adapt Hume’s guidelines for honing the imagination (the chief organ of judgement) in order to cultivate the necessary character of ‘a true judge in the finer arts’ — namely, ‘Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment’. Transposing these to the challenge of assessing a theological system, let me suggest four habits worth developing:

  1. Get acquainted with excellent theological systems — learn what makes them so good, try to figure out how they work, determine what they never fail to explain and what they never compromise on.
  2. Carefully exegete the theological system under scrutiny — even if it appears unaccountably bizarre to you, it’s always worth trying to figure out why someone thinks it makes sense; by the same token, welcome the questions put to your system by its opponents, and take them as an opportunity to think again about why (and how) your system makes sense.
  3. Don’t neglect the comparative task of historical theology — even if it means relinquishing the cherished notion that orthodoxy is unchanging or an entirely predictable and necessary development of an original deposit prompted by confrontation with instantly recognisable heresy.
  4. Pay attention to the context into which factors the theological synthesis you’re examining speaks — learning to sympathise with its motivating pastoral concerns in particular will enable you assess its strengths and weaknesses from the inside rather than just rejecting it because it’s unfamiliar.

They’re only a start, I know. I’ll attempt to show where the rubber hits the road next post. But can you at least see their potential for preparing our imaginations to engage in forming theological judgements?

a matter of theological taste? (part 1)

This painting ('Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket' by James McNeill Whistler was compared by one art critic with flinging a pot of paint in the public's face

One art critic compared this painting, ('Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket' by James McNeill Whistler) with flinging a pot of paint in the public's face

To seek the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter. According to the disposition of the organs, the same object may be both sweet and bitter; and the proverb has justly determined it to be fruitless to dispute concerning tastes.

That’s sceptical philosopher David Hume discussing the problem of judging works of art (Of the Standard of Taste). Although, it could just as easily be a commentary on the unfolding discussion over my suggestion about ‘the coherent incoherence of theology’, which threatens to descend into something resembling an argument over which flavour of ice-cream is objectively best. Impossible to arbitrate. A matter ultimately of temperament (‘the disposition of the organs’).

But Hume doesn’t just register the problem and leave us languishing in the relativism of taste. Acknowledging our intuition that there do seem to be general principles of taste enduring across cultures and through the ages (however elusive they may be), and thus aiming to keep our judgements at least inter-subjectively honest, Hume develops some guidelines for training that key ‘organ’ of taste — the imagination:

  1. Get acquainted with great artworks — Hume reckons that ‘the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty’ can help develop our imagination and hone our judgement.
  2. Pay close attention to the artwork in question — examine it closely, look at it from different angles, etc.
  3. Compare it with other acclaimed artworks — ‘One accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations’, Hume contends, ‘can alone rate the merits of a work exhibited to his view’.
  4. Learn to put yourself in the shoes of the artwork’s target audience — a clear sense of what the artwork can realistically be expected to do when viewed in the right light is an indispensable aspect of forming a defensible aesthetic judgement.

I’ll apply these guidelines to the activity of theological judgement in the next post. For now, I’m keen to know how you feel about the parallel I’ve posited between aesthetics and theology, and about my assumption that the imagination is the seat of judgement in both cases.

a surprising Christological discovery

monkeyrocksunsetLet me lay a bit of Calvin on you (it’s from Institutes II.12.1):

It deeply concerned us, that he who was to be our Mediator should be very God and very man. If the necessity be inquired into, it was not what is commonly termed simple or absolute, but flowed from the divine decree on which the salvation of man depended. What was best for us, our most merciful Father determined. Our iniquities, like a cloud intervening between Him and us, having utterly alienated us from the kingdom of heaven, none but…

I’m going to hit PAUSE here and ask you: What do you expect him to say next?

Surely he’s got to say ‘none but God Himself, reaching down to us…’ or words to that effect. Right?


Here’s what he actually says:

Our iniquities, like a cloud intervening between Him and us, having utterly alienated us from the kingdom of heaven, none but a person reaching to him could be the medium of restoring peace.

Of course Calvin knows that God Himself did have to intervene in order to redeem us, and he immediately goes on to say as much. But the way he chooses to say it makes it sound like God had to do it in order to ensure that our head did really represent us by sharing our nature, that He was ‘near enough’ to us give us genuine hope, that He could reach to God and make peace.

And this is no isolated incident. Calvin consistently invokes the divinity of Christ in order to uphold His genuine humanity.

That’s my surprising Christological discovery. The question now is … So what?