Month: February 2010

empire state of mind?

Natalie and I are about to jet off to New York, the UK and Rome for 5 weeks — it’s quite a prospect for two people thoroughly soaked in Hollywood’s glamorisation and contemporary critiques of empire! But we’ve got a couple of conferences to attend, friends and relatives to visit, and lots of God’s good creation to take in.

Blogging may become a little intermittent (just a warning).

Know which icons of empire you're looking at?

Until regular transmissions resume, I hope to post the last instalment of my series on creation stewardship as well as a serialised version of a sermon I preached a while ago as John the Baptist (by way of preparation for Easter). In parallel with this, Natalie will be sharing more of her reflections on disability and theology.

You might also want to check out what’s happening on some other blogs:

  • Andrew continues his campaign to be the most controversial Sydney Anglican by posting a critical review of the much-touted The Trellis and The Vine (in three parts — one, two, three).
  • Dan writes in praise of small talk.
  • I haven’t yet mentioned him (I was hoping to spring it on you when I reviewed his new book), but Melbournian Christian and cultural critic Mark Sayers has loads of fresh insights.
  • Ben Myers draws our attention to a spate of new material from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • Chris Guillebeau sums up how he achieved overnight success as a writer (in 279 days).

Au revoir!

disability and theology #1

Until a month or two ago, I had never reflected deeply on disability. I am now very sorry about this. But I was lucky enough to be able to read and write about theology and disability recently for work. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to share with you some of the things I learnt.

But first I’d like to share with you what the experience of engaging with this literature was like:

  1. It was uncomfortable. I was rebuked. A lot. I have not gone out of my way to befriend people with a disability, and for this I am (belatedly) very sorry.
  2. It made me sad. People with a disability suffer. A lot. I am sad that the church isn’t more radically counter-cultural in looking after people with a disability.
  3. It made me angry. Not at people with a disability! But at the way evil is perpetrated in this world against the powerless.
  4. It was confusing. More on this over the next few weeks, but suffice it to say, I am rather sick of the phrase ‘hold in tension’.
  5. It was encouraging. There are lots of people — and lots of Christians — who do care deeply. This was a great encouragement.
  6. It filled me with hope. I was reminded again and again of my own helplessness before God and the wonderful message of Scripture that God chooses what is weak and despised in the world to bring about his purposes.

In short, it educated my heart.

For some reason, despite growing up under excellent teaching, I had the impression that in order to be equipped to engage with ‘topical’ material, I needed to have a firm grasp of more esoteric theological systems/ideas. But I found that in engaging with such a tangible part of our present reality I was more challenged and delighted by theology than I think I ever have been before. I could see the practical implications of the doctrine of providence, God’s sovereignty, sin and suffering, theological anthropology, and the all surpassing importance of love. More importantly, though, I’ve heard the call to action.

‘serve only him’

The third and final temptation the devil reaches for, and — more importantly — Jesus’ response to it, helps us see the goal of stewardship:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’. Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” ‘.

Subtle, right? (Although, the devil may be playing on a less blatant misunderstanding of what it will mean for Jesus to be the Son — something akin to Peter’s foot-in-mouth incident following on from his startling recognition of Jesus as the Christ, and possibly something that’d even be able to claim support from passages like Psalm 72.)

Drawing yet once more on Scripture, Jesus meets the devil’s outrageous suggestion with his deep understanding of the aim of the responsible stewardship he’s to exercise as God’s true Son — Israel’s Messiah and humanity’s representative. The way he’s to handle himself, and God’s good gifts (including the creation), must be oriented towards worshipping and serving God alone.

For Jesus, this meant rejecting the temptation to pursue his own ambition and imperialistically make the world his servants — since ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Matt 20.28).

From this I derive the following litmus test for creation stewardship. Of any use of (or action towards) the creation, ask: ‘Does it serve God, drawing out creation’s potential to glorify him, or does it serve me, twisting and distorting it into my servant?’

Sound easy? Well, in some situations it may be readily discerned. But most of the time it’ll be much more difficult to work out which way your actions are tending. Imperial ambition rarely announces itself as Satanic at the outset. It kind of creeps up on you. And thus requires you to continually scrutinise yourself (and, as an aside, probably learn a thing or two from the postmodern ‘masters of suspicion’ about probing your own motives and the consequences of your actions).

This is probably too complex to do justice to in one (already over-long) post. But one point is worth mentioning. It’s a point Leslie Newbigin makes in his important essay, ‘The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel’ — namely, keep it as a ‘church’-thing and you’ve got a good chance of keeping it as a God-glorifying thing; farm it out and you’ll probably run into trouble.

Yet another reason to see Christians at the forefront of creation stewardship. Not because it’s the gospel. But because if we’re not doing it, it’ll become someone else’s gospel.

‘do not put the Lord to the test’

In the face of the next Satanic temptation, Jesus stands firm — again quoting Scripture:

It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’.

Just as with the first temptation — to turn stones into bread — the devil’s suggestion that Jesus claim the promise of divine protection by hurling himself off the temple plays on the question of his identity.

On the surface, it looks like an invitation to commit himself into the hands of the sovereign God, throwing himself upon the promise of deliverance — a promise, in context, about the Messiah’s vindication (more on that later). However, the devil is really trying to provoke Jesus to act with high-handed self-sufficiency. To claim the privileges of sonship — without walking the path of obedience it entails.

He’s effectively saying: ‘Go on, Jesus. Prove you’re the Son of God. God has promised to protect his Son, wrapping him in angelic cotton wool so that he won’t bruise his foot against a stone. If you’re the real deal, show us!’ And so, once again, it’s an issue of trust. It’s about whether or not Jesus will trust his Father’s vision of what it means to be the true Son (and true human being).

Consequently, Deuteronomy is the natural place for Jesus to turn. For the charter it contains for Israel’s national life insists on the point that God’s people are not self-sufficient. This, I suspect is why the Sabbath regulation is so prominent in Deuteronomy’s version of the Ten Commandments (and why it’s reworked in light of the Exodus and the prospect of life in the land).

And Deuteronomy 8, from which Jesus draws the quotation with which he wards off the devil, is a tour de force of this point. It underlines the non-self-sufficiency of God’s son, Israel. And outlines the shape of responsible stewardship, the main features of which are:

  • Receiving God’s provision thankfully,
  • Enjoying it simply, and
  • Sharing it generously.

Now, obviously there are tensions here. For example, enjoying ‘simply’ (or frugally) what God has provided is easier said than done. In our contemporary context of globalised poverty (in which we comfortable westerners are necessarily implicated), it can be challenging to work out the right relationship between enjoyment and frugality/simplicity. Distinguishing between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ might be a start. But what about when my children ‘need’ a laptop to flourish at school?

While we cannot be spared the trouble of reflecting and taking stock (and probably shouldn’t seek to be), I suggest these three aspects of stewardship work best in concert. So, rather than trying to draw lines to excuse our greed and materialism, imagine what our lives could look like if we asked of the resources and goods God entrusts to us: How can I receive these thankfully? How can I share them generously? And (consequently) how can my enjoyment not terminate on itself — or reflect a presumption of self-sufficiency — but speak of genuine contentment in God’s provision?

John Webster on creation

The latest issue of The International Journal of Systematic Theology contains a paper by John Webster that he’s apparently been delivering around the place. It’s called ‘Trinity and Creation’. And it’s classic Webster.

Here’s a taste of what I’ve read so far — having hammered the fact that God didn’t need to create the world, Webster draws out ‘two corollaries’ (p 13):

First, such is the plenitude of life enjoyed by Father, Son and Spirit that God does not create out of need, making good some deficiency. The world cannot complete God; creation is not theogony, because created being is derivative not subsistent being. God’s perfect triune life is not mere formless abstraction standing in need of realization by positing another as its counterpart. Second, God’s triune self-sufficiency means that his relation to created being is gratuitous. This marks the radical difference between, on the one hand, the immanent activities of generation and spiration, and, on the other hand, the transitive act of creation

Well-worn ground, no doubt. But worth treading again: creation doesn’t fill up some lack in God or make (necessarily) concrete some unrealised potential; rather, it is the gift of God’s grace from beginning to end.

I’m loving it!

‘not by bread alone’

One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Jesus’ response to the devil’s first temptation takes us to the heart of stewardship, which I’m suggesting is the key to our response to climate change. At root, stewardship is about trust. About taking God at his word. Relying on him to provide — in the way he (perfectly) sees is best.

In the face of Satan’s suggestion to satisfy himself (which is not purely external — as a human being, Jesus was undoubtedly hungry and thus vulnerable to such a suggestion), Jesus affirms his trust in God.

He does this by quoting Scripture. Obviously — and apparently easily — enough. But there’s something deeper going on here. Or rather, what it means for Jesus to quote Scripture in this context runs very deep. It runs to the essence of his identity and vocation. Ultimately, it’s about how Jesus is going to be the Son of God:

  • Will he choose to be the Son of God in the way Satan suggests? Will he look out for himself? Ensure his own comfort? And, in doing so, turn aside from the path of suffering that leads to the cross?
  • Or will he be the Son of God in the way that he implicitly took upon himself in his baptism? Accepting solidarity with his people — even in their rebellion and sin (John’s baptism was a sign of repentance remember)?

In their own way, each of the temptations with which the devil attempts to snare Jesus poses this question of identity and vocation. Thus, they throw up the issue of trust. Will Jesus trust God enough to walk the difficult path of obedience? Will he follow the trajectory that God has ordained and ratified in the announcement that this Son whom he loves is also the (suffering) servant in whom he delights?

For Jesus (at least) trusting God’s good provision and plan is not as obvious or easy as it might first seem. And it’s the same for us — we who share by grace in the sonship Jesus has eternally. Trust — which is the heart of stewardship — is easier said than done.

But it only takes a little imagination to begin to get a sense of what it will look like when it comes to our response to climate change. Doesn’t it? If we’re going to exercise trusting, Christ-like stewardship in God’s world, then on this issue (as on so many others) we must reject both paralysing fear and obsessive, proud, self-making survivalism.

In particular, I want to suggest, that we must refuse to play the ‘Let’s Endlessly Debate Who (If Anyone) Is Responsible So We Can Work Out Who To Blame’ game. Not that we won’t honestly acknowledge the various contributions made by different parties at different levels. But that we do so in order to determine how we can best move forward.

Wouldn’t it be beautiful if the churches led the charge on this?

‘if you are the Son of God…’

It’s (finally) time to kick off my series on responding to climate change. I’m taking my bearings from what the Bible says about stewardship — by which God invites us to share in his care for and rule over his creation, drawing out its potential to glorify him.

My intention is to move in a more practical direction while remaining theologically disciplined. Something I hope to achieve by dwelling on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in which he begins to confront (and overcome) the devil.

Before we get stuck in, let me explain why I think this incident sheds so much light on stewardship. Two reasons:

Theologically, God’s achievement in Jesus — climaxing in the cross and resurrection, but beginning when he took on flesh (as Calvin and the early fathers saw) — must determine our thinking about providence.

Of course, we mustn’t collapse God’s reconciling of the world in Christ into providence — as if there wasn’t anything particularly special or decisive about the life and work of Jesus. But the gospel does unveil the goal and purpose of all God’s interactions with his world and human life.

The encounter with the devil in the wilderness with which Jesus begins his public ministry, therefore, illuminates how God deals with us, providing for us in a way that neither undermines our freedom nor leaves us with nothing to do. Rather, we see here that God hands us the challenge of responsible sonship — hence the question with which the devil keeps hammering: ‘If you are the Son of God…’

Exegetically, this incident follows on from Jesus’ baptism, in which he freely identifies himself with his people as their representative. (Luke, of course, disturbs this sequence by inserting Jesus’ genealogy between these two ‘moments’. But this only serves to sharpen the presentation of Jesus as representative, emphasising his connection with Adam — ‘the son of God’.)

The cash value of this is found in the correspondence between Jesus’ forty days and Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. Just as for God’s people in the past, their representative must learn to trust God’s provision — that he has our best interests at heart. The fact that Matthew suggests a link not only to Israel’s wilderness experience but also to Moses — who stood in the breach for forty days and forty nights, desperately pleading with God to turn aside his anger against his people — reinforces this. Jesus, Matthew implies, will succeed where Israel failed. Where Israel doubted God’s provision and care, Jesus will show us what it looks like to be the true son called out of Egypt by God.

things I noticed

Here are a bunch of things I noticed this week:

  1. Michael, Byron and Michael Bird all recently blogged about what the Bible is and how we should read it. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you!
  2. Halden provocatively suggested that the Roman Catechism expresses ‘the “Protestant” instinct’ when it says of the church that ‘the unity of all its members with each other [is] a result of their union with Christ’ (p 789).
  3. The Australian Government’s ‘Government 2.0’ task force released their fascinating final report, telling the government to do taking their bearings from New Media practices like blogging, Facebook and Twitter in order to pursue genuine participation.
  4. Reporters like Miranda Devine reacted with glee to the cynicism (that supremely Gen X virtue) supposedly displayed by Q & A’s Gen Y audience towards Kevin Rudd on Monday night.

the gift of work

In his book Free of Charge, Miroslav Volf speaks about the gift of work. This is what he says (p 107):

[T]he gift of work is the primary means by which God gives what we have … God gives us life, powers, and abilities, and so we earn and possess. We’ll earn and possess so we can give, as when we share our food with the hungry; we’ll give even while earning, as when we create goods and offer services with dedication, care, and wisdom; and we’ll give even by possessing, as when we open our home for others to enjoy.

When it comes to work, the past couple of months have been quite unsettled and bitsy (particularly as Natalie and I transition a little unevenly from study for me and work for her to study for her and work for me). But I think God’s been teaching me that the work that enables us to earn a living — and share and contribute and extend hospitality — is something we have to be offered, given. Not something to which we’re automatically entitled.

More, it’s not something we can just make happen for ourselves — not only because any power or ability that we might have is given us by God (cf. Deut 8.11-18), but also because reality itself in the (God-given) concrete contexts in which we find ourselves working can either facilitate our labours or obstruct them.

I guess it’s ultimately about whether or not we’re working with the grain of reality. Whether we’ve been invited — given the opportunity — to work. Here. Now. With these people, these tools, this material, etc. Or whether we’re trying (presumptuously) to lay hold of it for ourselves.

a Christian response to climate change — 2.0

I’m aware that my previous post (about providence and climate change) was a bit of a tangled mess. Let me try to tease it apart a little and lay out the direction in which I’d love to see the conversation move.

What I’m proposing to do is:

  • Take another look at the question of how Christians should respond to climate change. In particular, I’d like to focus on some of the urgent, practical questions — about how to balance competing priorities, etc — that I never really got around to dealing with in my earlier reflections (such as THISTHIS or THIS).
  • Yet in turning to application I don’t want to turn my back on theology. I’ll continue to try to gather my thoughts around the topics of God’s providence — his gracious, sovereign and purposeful interaction with the world he has made — and human stewardship, taking Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as a touchstone.

Here (in a little more detail) is how I’m proposing to tackle it:

  1. ‘If you are the Son of God…’ — God’s provision and human stewardship
  2. ‘Not by bread alone’ — the heart of human stewardship
  3. ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ — the shape of human stewardship
  4. ‘Serve him only’ — the goal of human stewardship
  5. ‘They will bear you up’ — the un-looked-for satisfaction of stewardship

I expect to add further sub-points as I elaborate on each of these ‘theme-statements’, fleshing out what they might mean for our responsibility to care for God’s good creation (although, of course, they have wider application — and indeed, the fact that creation care isn’t the only game in town is something with which we’ll no doubt wrestle as we move forward).