Yesterday I was privileged to participate in a seminar on ‘brain death’ and organ donation run by a reflective clinician.
It was deeply fascinating. The content itself was tremendously stimulating — covering the historical, philosophical and medical as well as the thorny ethical and pastoral aspects of the topic. But almost more interesting were the reactions of the doctors, nursing staff and chaplains in attendance.
One particular debate really grabbed me: the issue of what to make of a family that insists on keeping their loved one on respiration — against overwhelming medical evidence of its ‘futility’ — or refuses to permit organ donation — even when the patient is a consenting donor.
I’d like to share three slightly random observations:
- There was a consensus on the pastoral significance of this issue. The feeling was that the assertion of ‘rights’ over the patient’s body was either part of the family’s grieving process or their attempt to wrest back some control in a largely disempowering process. This was generally seen as something to be worked with rather than as a hurdle to leap (or an irritation to endure). What a relief that today’s clinicians recognise that there’s more than just a rational calculus to be applied in situations like this!
- There was an acknowledgement that a patient’s personhood includes his or her body. This acknowledgement emerged from the frequently reported conflict between the stated desires of the patient (e.g., to be a donor) and the feelings of the family. The fact that this was taken seriously showed me that no-one thought our bodies can be easily detached from our personhood — even if they can’t be simply identified with or reduced to it. As a believer in the resurrection I was cheering.
- There was almost a glimmer of recognition that personhood is as much about embeddedness as embodiment. It’s as deeply connected to our relationships as it is to ourr corporeality (actually, the two are linked — our corporeality is the key to our corporateness; it’s through our bodies, or extensions of them, that we relate to others). Indeed, this is why the family’s wishes and sense of obligation to their loved one must be factored. The relatedness these things express is an essential part of what makes the patient a person.
Ahh… Yes. The bottom line. (Watch the stats go through the roof on this one. No-one wants to know how to become a moral moral reader and only a few think it’d be worthwhile becoming less anxious. But more efficient? Bring it on!)
This time it was a Political Science lecturer who inducted me into the deep mystery of efficient reading. And here it is — just between you and me: the best place to begin reading is … at the end.
If what you’re reading is written well (and having just put together a sustained 15000 word argument, that’s a big ‘if’), then you should be able to rip out the guts of it by reading the conclusion — and then working backward, picking up the first sentence in each paragraph. It’s all about finding the main thread of through the text and pulling.
I guarantee this strategy will make you a much more efficient reader.
But isn’t this pure pragmatism? Aren’t I betraying my own principles by suggesting that you read like this?
Well, I guess maybe I am. Although, I’m not sure that this approach necessarily rules out the strategies for respecting the text’s otherness that I’ve already suggested. For example, I can imagine hitting some puzzling or unexpected turn in an argument as I’m reading this way, stopping to take some time over it, but not getting so hung up on figuring out this detail that I start anxiously trying to wring out every last drop of meaning.
You see, the intuition underwriting this reading strategy is the (charitable) assumption that the text has a logic and coherence and is more or less effective at sustaining its argument from beginning to end. And this need not compete with the intuitions underlying the other strategies. They can coexist — even if they demand some effort to hold them in the appropriate tension…
Reflecting on my last post, I realise that reading with slow, painstaking care may not always be a virtue. (It certainly doesn’t feel like a virtue when you’ve got a stack of reading to knock over before class!)
And it would probably just be paralysing to get bogged down in every puzzling detail or surprising expression that some writers come up with. I’m thinking particularly of certain fiction authors — James Joyce and Umberto Eco spring to mind — and philosophers — the chief culprits in my experience would be Wittgenstein and Derrida.
Which brings me to another piece of advice a different English Literature lecturer once gave me: just relax.
This really is the key to becoming a less anxious reader. Sometimes it’s best just to let the prose wash over you. Or, less poetically, to stumble ahead in the fog desperately hoping it’ll clear up before you do yourself too much damage.
And it’s really true. You can’t read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations or On Certainty by stopping whenever you hit something perplexing or unexplained. Really. You can’t. (I’ve tried.)
Instead, you’ve got to trust that things will become clearer, that the same theme will reappear again (and again and again), that a different metaphor might break the insight open for you more effectively.
What’s more, this is as much a moral issue as learning to notice what you hadn’t noticed you’d noticed.
I suspect that it’s those readers who hammer at a text with utter desperation — trying to force it to yield up its meaning — who are at the greatest risk of doing violence to the text by refusing to allow it its (sometimes infuriating) otherness…
I still remember the English Literature lecturer who taught me how to read attentively. He put it like this: you’ve got to notice what you didn’t notice you’d noticed. Sounds great. But what does it mean?
When I’m reading, I’ll often stumble over something in the text. But my usual reaction is simply to press on. (I’m not really sure why. Maybe because I consider myself a ‘strong’ reader and don’t want to admit confusion or difficulty with some argument, detail or unfamiliar word. Or maybe because I’m reading to a deadline. Or hunting for something in the text and don’t want to get hung up on irrelevant details.)
But for me, reading well involves paying attention to these ‘Huh?’ moments. I need to stop and notice — and maybe even re-read — what I’d already noticed (because I’d stumbled over it even though I didn’t want to admit it).
There are some pretty obvious benefits to this strategy. Not only does it help me isolate those words or arguments that I don’t quite grasp (for whatever reason). It also forces me to give enough space to the author to surprise me. To say things that I don’t already know. To put things in fresh and unfamiliar ways. To make connections I wouldn’t automatically make. To take the argument that I probably thought I could have made myself in new and adventurous directions.
Better than all of this, learning to notice what I didn’t noticed I’d noticed helps me become a more moral reader. It does this because it demands that I recognise that what I’m reading is other than me. And this makes me relinquish my assumption of mastery over every idea or domain of discourse.
But maybe that’s just me…
Sam posted this cracker of a quote (from a grammar):
[Earnestness] builds a case; flippancy gets to just dance entertainingly on a case. One is the way you talk to people who get you, the other is the way you explain yourself to people who don’t.
It spoke to me. And helps explain why I don’t dance at parties.
A thought occurred to me though: surely the holy grail is to build a case entertainingly — or at least with enough of it to keep your audience on board…
Integration — it’s one of those things I’m sure I understood at High School even though I wouldn’t have a clue about where to start these days.
But the kind of integration I want to talk about involves biblical and systematic theology. On the face of it, the difference between the two seems fairly obvious. This is reflected in familiar characterisations of this difference — e.g., along the lines of studying plants ‘in the wild’ as opposed to studying them in the organised and thematised context of a botanic garden.
Nevertheless, all sorts of complications lurk just below the surface. Taking biblical theology first up: it has been understood and practised in a variety of different ways throughout its relatively brief history. Yet at a broad and fairly minimal level, we might best see it as an attempt to account for the unity of the Old and New Testaments in terms of the overarching story of God’s action.
Equally, systematic theology doesn’t always commend itself to contemporary mind. Nevertheless, as a number of theologians have recognised, the core doxological activities of the church already tilt in a recognisably systematic-theological direction. As Rowan Williams would have it (On Christian Theology, xii), ‘A person seeking to shape their life in a specific way, seeking discipline and consistency in relation to God, is theologizing, forming a reflectively consistent speech for God’.
Understood like this, systematic theology need not make grandiose claims to finality, exhaustiveness or closure. At the same time, it retains the scope to accommodate many of the more abstract and metaphysical concerns which tend to be teased out in times of crisis when its consistency or coherence of our confession seems to be at stake.
Ultimately, however, the challenge is to specify how biblical and systematic theology might legitimately converge so that they are integrated with one another — drawing upon and informing each other. And that’s a tougher ask altogether.
I’ve been vaguely aware of this strange creature called ‘political theology’ for a while now. But I’m only just beginning to feel like it’s coming into focus for me.
Political theology, as I currently understand it, is on about tracing the implications of the good news of Jesus not just for individuals but for the whole world — via the church. (No doubt I’m grossly oversimplifying things.)
It refuses to understand Christ’s achievement as effectively removing us from the world and history (e.g., by relating us to a transcendent, stable, atemporal point outside of it so we’re sheltered from its ups and downs). Instead, it sees that God is in the business of forging a new community, gathered around the risen Jesus, and commissioned by the Spirit for its witness and work in the world.
And just in case you think this is a hopelessly abstract point to argue over, listen to what Jurgen Moltmann says (in The Future of Creation) about what effect we should expect such a theology to have:
If it is only taken by itself as healing power for sinners and the miserable, without criticism of what is and what considers itself of importance, the gospel becomes the uncritical compensation for existing evil.
Theology like this will have teeth!
It’s probably worth recapping as I wrap up this short series.
- I began by asking: How (and why) is Jesus Christ relevant today?
- Instead of adopting the typical response, ‘Because He’s divine (not just human)’ — which tends to downgrade His thoroughly human history and concrete identity — I’ve chased down what the New Testament says about the enduring relevance of Jesus.
- In particular, I examined two representative passages — Philippians 2.5-11 and 1 Corinthians 15.22-28 — where Jesus’ incarnate identification with humankind in obedience to His Father, climaxing in His death on the cross, is presented as: (a) vindicated in His resurrection, and (b) still awaiting ultimate implementation, when all will recognise Him and He ‘hands over the kingdom’ to the Father, His mission accomplished.
One final paving stone needs to be laid to complete the path from our initial refusal to set aside the particular human history of Jesus of Nazareth to the recognition of how He is relevant today.
We need to ask, How are our own particular histories related to His? How do our lives, unfolding now between the decisive achievement of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and its ultimate implementation, come to participate in this achievement?
And the answer, I suggest, is by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The groundwork of this is the Spirit’s role in passages like Rom 1.1-4 and Acts 2 as well as Heb 9.14 and the prominence of the Messiah’s anointing by the Spirit in Luke. The Spirit is the power — or, better, the effective agent — enabling Jesus to be the Messiah and complete His mission.
On this basis, the risen and ascended Lord Jesus pours out His Spirit. For there’s more to grasping Jesus’ relevance than simply understanding that He is relevant.
Something has to happen in us — at the deepest level of our beings. And in such a way that it works itself out in the total reordering of our beliefs and affections and relationships and behaviour. This is what Jesus does by His Spirit at work in us.
This, ultimately, is how Jesus Christ is relevant to you and me today.
I want to tackle one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of my affirmation that the particular, historical person Jesus has contemporary relevance as a result of His relevance into ‘eternity future’ — what 1 Corinthians 15 says about the end of history:
22[A]s all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet … 28When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
Does this mean that Jesus — the Second Adam, the Messiah — abdicates when He gets to the end of history and ‘hands over the kingdom to God the Father’?
I don’t think that’s quite it. What we get a glimpse of here is not the termination of Jesus’ rule — and relevance — but its perfection.
'Jacob's Ladder' by William Blake
Trying to bring this picture into focus, my hunch is that it’s about the universal implementation of the victory Jesus won in His resurrection. And that the final outcome of history doesn’t involve a departure from the pattern of Jesus’ obedient life but its consummation.
Thus, it results in the final manifestation of God’s Fatherhood ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. And the eclipse of the ignorance and indifference that meets Jesus throughout His ministry — then as now. And the completion of Spirit’s work of liberating creation to be itself, glorifying the Father through the Son.
Such is the enduring relevance of Jesus. All that remains is to tease out the implications for us here and now. And for that we’ll need to say something more explicit about the work of the Spirit in bringing our particular human histories into intimate connection with His…
I stumbled upon this in John McLeod Campbell’s The Nature of the Atonement (1878):
[H]ow often have the points of agreement between the type and antitype been dwelt upon, as if to see that agreement was to understand the atonement, although the fullest recognition of that agreement leaves the questions still to be answered – Why must He who is to be the atoning sacrifice for sin, be Himself the Holy One of God? How does His being so qualify Him for bearing our sins? In what sense could they be, and have they been laid upon Him? Being laid upon Him, how is the shedding of His blood an atonement for them? How is His moral and spiritual perfection so connected with, and present in His bearing of men’s sins, and in His tasting death for every man, as that “we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins,” because He, “through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God?”
These questions are not answered by tracing the points of agreement between the type and the antitype, and therefore the seeming progress made in the understanding of the atonement by such tracing is altogether illusory.
Campbell sharply poses the question I’m tackling in my project: What is the relationship between biblical and systematic theology — between an interest in the grand narrative, longitudinal themes and typological correspondences in the Bible on the one hand, and a more philosophical, even ‘metaphysical’ concern with the ontological presuppositions of what has been fulfilled in Jesus on the other?
Suggestively (for my purposes anyway), it is precisely in relation to the person and work of Christ that Campbell finds biblical theology deficient — that is, exactly where we’d like it to carry us the furthest!