Month: May 2010

refusing to come to grips with death

If there are illegitimate ways of coming to grips with death, there are equally pathological ways of refusing to come to grips with death or face up to our powerlessness before it:

  • We can attempt to bury the recognition of our powerlessness by proving our potency — e.g., by relentlessly pursuing achievement so we can churn through that list of necessary successes: university degree (or two), travel abroad, career, spouse, mortgage, etc. All the while measuring ourselves against others. Congratulating ourselves when we’re out in front (because we’ve risen above our circumstances) and mentally qualifying the achievements of others out of existence (because they had an unfair social, financial or genetic advantage).

    It's just a bit empty...

  • Or we can do it in search of security — finding that ideal person or job, the respectable equivalent of an underground concrete bunker kitted out so we can survive the harshest nuclear winter. If not that, then perhaps we cling to being free from attachment, risk, commitment. Never opening ourselves up, making ourselves vulnerable, or trying something at which we might fail. Impoverishing ourselves, for sure. But never getting hurt in the process.
  • Or we can try to cheat death in pursuit of pleasure — throwing ourselves out of aeroplanes or into anonymous sex or into a never-ending parade of experiences (food or wine or whatever). Grasping at every passing scrap of enjoyment in an otherwise nasty, brutish and short life. And certainly not trading it in for more long-term things like character, integrity or investing in people.

Not that achievement, security or pleasure are necessarily bad things. Far from it. They’re good gifts from God. Rather, it’s the sheer desperation with which we tend to pursue them that’s the problem.

This desperation speaks of our headlong flight from our powerlessness before death, our failure to own our creatureliness and limitation — the fact that we’re dust and destined to return to dust — and our refusal to join the Psalmist in asking God to ‘teach us to number our days aright’ (Psalm 90.12). And its consequences are just toxic as too readily coming to grips with death.

coming to grips with death

That’s what I was trying to do for most of last week. I gave a talk about our powerlessness before death (launching from Mark 5.21-42) for the La Trobe Uni Christian Union on Wednesday. And I’m in the thick of drafting two seminars for this year’s mid year Summit, ‘In His Image’ (on Genesis 1-3) — one on creation, evolution and all that; the other on suffering.

And it’s quite current, I guess. Hard core fans and curious onlookers learned last week that coming to grips with death — or failing to come to grips with it — was what the TV series Lost has been about all these years. Which, while probably not as cutting-edge and postmodern as some might hope, makes for interesting territory to explore.

Because there are all sorts of illegitimate ways to come to grips with death. Ways that short-circuit things. Like refusing to permit yourself to grieve. Or simply writing death off as natural — one more link in the endless chain of causes and effects, something that may hurt if you’ve got too involved or lost touch with reality, but nothing unusual or tragic.

But I for one don’t want to let go of the tragic ‘wrongness’ of death (as much as it’s a pretty much a universal constant, affecting us all eventually). There must be a sense in which it’s right to ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ with Dylan Thomas — especially when the living God makes promises like this:

And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25.7-8)

No. Coming to grips too readily with death doesn’t quite make sense for those who trust in a risen Saviour!

that’s a wrap!

You’ve probably noticed that Natalie and I have (finally) wrapped up a couple of different lines of thought we’ve been pursuing for some time now.

We flick back and forth between different topics so often — and so erratically — that we thought it’d be worth gathering them in one location…

the Redeemer’s cross

It’s time to round off my sustained attempt to tie what we say about God’s achievement in the cross to the reality of who Jesus is. So I want to say a few things about the cross belonging to the Redeemer.

First, if we believe that the cross is the Redeemer’s then we also believe it belongs to the God of the exodus from Egypt.

This connection shouldn’t really surprise us. Israel’s prophets spoke kept pointing to the exodus as the paradigm for God’s future action for the sake of his name, people and creation. And when Jesus was transfigured before the eyes of a handful of disciples, what he discussed with Moses and Elijah was the ‘departure’ (or exodus) he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.

But this means that we not only have to reckon with the fact that in Jesus we’re dealing with the same God who defeated Pharaoh, sanctified a people for himself, promised them a land (in fulfilment of an earlier promise) and instructed them in the way to live. We also have to reckon with the fact that Jesus is on about the same things: defeating evil, liberating human life, constituting a people for fellowship with the living God, and — if we take the link back to the Abrahamic promise seriously, setting it in the universalising context of Genesis 1-11 — healing and reclaiming God’s broken world.

Second, the cross, however, speaks a decisive word about the Redeemer’s character — putting a whole new spin on it.

The might and strength he uses to effect this new exodus is exerted in what we can only call (humanly speaking) weakness, brokenness and failure. It’s the might and strength of love. A cross-shaped omnipotence that plumbs the depth of human cowardice, disgrace and even monstrosity. And in doing so it re-etches the coin of our common humanity at the point where it is most defaced. More, it pieces together a renewed people of the living God out of the shattered ruins of their rejection of him. And it unleashes the power of the new/renewed creation as the promised Holy Spirit is poured out.

Third, and as a result of this, the cross discloses the deepest truth about redemption itself.

Ultimately, God’s achievement in Christ is not about replacing the tyranny and distortion of sin with an equal and opposite tyranny and distortion. Rather, it’s about freeing us. Striking off the chains of fear and petty ambition. And enabling us (finally) to be who we were created and destined to be — to worship God and share in perfecting the creation…

disability and theology #10

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James 1:27

And let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.
Titus 3:14

The people of God are repeatedly called to care for the vulnerable, oppressed and in urgent need. People with disabilities and those who care for them far too often fall into one or more of those categories. Providing for people with disabilities and their carers in material ways is just the start of our love for them. The church should be the model of accessible community.

The community around us (in Australia, at least, I can’t speak for the rest of the world) has been progressively working at creating spaces that are physically accessible, and I reckon the church should be a community leader in this regard as a pragmatic demonstration of the welcome we offer to all people. We ought to delight in the ways in which our community has come to respect and honour people with a disability rather than grumble about the burden we might have to shoulder to be open to all. When we fail to provide access for people with a disability, or when we use language that is archaic or acts as an unnecessary stumbling block to unbelievers, we ought to repent.

In the gospel of Mark  (2:1-12), we hear of some friends who are so desperate to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus that they cut a hole in the roof of the house Jesus is in. Now, I’m not saying church is the only place we ‘meet’ Jesus, nor that this passage is speaking directly about providing physical access. But I do think that the heart of desperate concern for the friend with a disability, and the desire to share with them the freedom Jesus provides, is something we ought to imitate. And I suspect that includes making sure they can be part of Sunday services and life in and around our church buildings.

The love that Christians are called to show each other and the world is abundant, gracious and relational. The picture Jesus paints in Luke 14:12-24 of the way God pours out His abundance on broken people is the same abundant generosity His church is to display: we are called to show hospitality especially to those who cannot repay our generosity. The love that we enact ought to open up possibility for (if it does not already embody) genuine relationship and affection.

The responsibility that the church bears to uphold people with a disability is great. It may be tempting in the face of an overwhelming challenge either to despair at the magnitude of the problem or to shrug it off as an inevitable part of the Fall. Neither of these responses is adequate, for the gospel fills us with confidence, power, patience and diligence. We can seek justice for the oppressed, patiently working and fully trusting that in siding with the weak we are siding with God — endeavouring to do His work in His timing with His power by His Spirit for His glory.

View the complete archive of posts in this series HERE.

Download a list of references HERE.

splashing around in the (spiritual) shallows…

I’ve recently kicked off a bit of a personal R&D programme. This year, I’m planning to invest a significant — although not necessarily major — portion of each week in thinking through the person and work the Holy Spirit (appropriately enough off the back of Pentecost, which for the liturgically-uninformed was this Sunday just past).

I’m already under way. Although, I definitely feel like I’m splashing around in the (spiritual) shallows. There are some serious depths to explore. Depths that I also find vaguely terrifying — better people than me have drowned in them!

Such pretty colours!

So far I’ve accumulated a small stack of ‘must read’ books — at this stage mainly to help me wrestle with the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit (appropriately enough again in view of the fact that this coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday!).

You’re looking at:

  • Oliver Crisp’s Divinity and Humanity and God Incarnate,
  • Jurgen Moltmann’s The Spirit of Life,
  • Paul Molnar’s Incarnation and Resurrection, and
  • Church Dogmatics IV/2.

If you’ve got any suggestions/favourites you’d add to this list, please let me know!

an incompetent anthropologist

An abridged transcript from my trip home on the tram last week:

Burmese Guy: You are Australian?

Me: Yeah…

Burmese Guy: I am not. I am foreign.

Me: That’s…good?

Burmese Guy: Can you explain for me Australian culture?

Me: Ummm… I don’t know. It’s what you see all around you. I’m not sure I can sum it up in a couple of sentences.

Burmese Guy: What about you? What do you do?

Me: I’m a student.

Burmese Guy: What do you study? What speciality?

Me: Anthropology.

Burmese Guy: And what is that? Anthropology?

Me: Ummm… the study of … culture.

I console myself with the fact I’ve only been ‘doing’ anthropology for a month!

who’s afraid of redemption?

The other day I spoke about ‘Evil’ at La Trobe. I anchored my wrestling with this big topic in Jesus’ encounter with the man possessed by a legion of demons (using Mark’s version).

For my money, it’s the puzzling little details of this encounter that yield the most insight when pressed. Things like the strange fact that Jesus permits the unclean spirits to destroy the herd of pigs (I’ve blogged about this before).

And as I read it this time, it was one of the details I hadn’t really noticed before brought me up short (vv. 14-15):

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.

Why are the locals afraid I wonder? What about this man’s redemption freaks them out?

Maybe this is too postmodern, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact this man’s redemption ‘rehumanises’ someone who’s been systematically marginalised and dehumanised — by the locals.

No doubt there were only a few individuals who had actually wrestled the man to the ground or handled the chains used to restrain him (vv 3-4). Yet weren’t they all complicit in the fact that this was very probably the closest thing to human contact the man had experienced in years?

And no doubt they probably had their reasons — compelling, thoroughly comprehensible reasons. Like: ‘That guy’s going to hurt someone unless we restrain him’. Or: ‘Can’t someone put a stop to that endless howling so I can get at least one good night’s sleep this week?’ Solid, respectable, self-preserving reasons.

But it all adds up. As ordinary and recognisable as it may seem. As much as it unfolds one sensible, insignificant step after another. The outcome is … well, evil. As evil (in its way) as the legion of demons who’d got their hooks into the man.

Which means that if Jesus is in the business of defeating evil — and redeeming human life — then maybe it makes sense for those who’ve become complicit in it to be afraid…

the Judge’s cross

For 1st century Jewish monotheism, the belief that God was the Ruler of everything included the conviction that he was Judge. The one who was originally responsible for creation and who continues to be responsible for it would also be ultimately responsible for it.

And, unsurprisingly, the New Testament presents the cross in terms of judgement. According to Romans 3.21-26, God freely set forth Christ as the atoning sacrifice for sin on the cross ‘in order to demonstrate his justice/righteousness and justify the one who has faith in Jesus’.

On the one side, the cross is God’s decisive act of self-justification or vindication. It’s the holy God’s definitive condemnation of sin. It proves that he doesn’t leaves sin unpunished or tolerate wickedness forever. Here, the Creator of all the world does right. And reclaims and restores his broken creation.

(This is thrown into even sharper relief by following Mark Seifrid’s suggestion about how to conceive the courtroom setting of Rom 1-3. In the contemporary criminal courtroom, the judge is a more or less disinterested party weighing the merits of both sides of the argument — prosecution and defence. But not only is it odd to position God as disinterested when it comes to his creation, it’s pretty clear in Romans that God is the one bringing the charges against us, Gentile and Jew alike.)

On the other side — and as a corollary of the first — the cross justifies the ungodly. It’s the act in which God shows himself right in declaring right those who are wrong.

How can this be?

In order to expound this paradox popular piety has reached for formulations like ‘God punished Jesus in our place’. And the logic of substitution seems to demand something like this. However, it may be better to employ Barthian language and speak of ‘the Judge judged in our place’.

Jesus is no innocent third party. He’s the Judge. For he’s profoundly united — identified — with Israel’s God the Creator, Sustainer, Ruler and Judge of all. In fact, as P. T. Forsyth would have it (The Justification of God, p 187), the cross is the supreme moment at which we behold Jesus as Judge:

[T]he justification of God is not given us by Christ; it is Christ; who under the judgement from man took His native place as the judge of all the earth, justifying the God of holy love in His justification of all the world.

excuses, excuses

I spent a chunk of the weekend getting back into P. T. Forsyth as I started working on the next post in my Christology series — dealing with the Judge’s cross. I’m desperately trying to resist throwing up a patchwork of quotes from The Justification of God.

But I won’t be able to get to it until after I speak at the La Trobe Uni Christian Union lunchtime ‘open talk’ tomorrow. I’m speaking about evil.

And I’ve found Terry Eagleton’s new book, On Evil, really stimulating as I’ve got stuck into preparation. Take this cracker, for instance (p 123):

Traditionally, evil is seen not as sexy but as mind-numbingly monotonous. Kierkegaard speaks of the demonic in The Concept of Anxiety as “the contentless, the boring”. Like some modernist art, it is all form and no substance. Hannah Arendt, writing of the petit-bourgeois banality of Adolf Eichmann, sees him as having neither nor any demonic dimension. But what if this depthlessness is exactly what the demonic was like? What if it is more like a minor official than a flamboyant tyrant?

When it comes to my talk, this is my rough plan at the moment (I’m launching out of Mark 5):

  1. Incomprehensible? Evil events (like 9/11) are greeted with cries of ‘incomprehensible’. And we’re right to resist attempts to explain them away with excuses drawn from extenuating circumstances, etc…
  2. The evil reality of evil. Yet we can drive the incomprehensibility thing so far that we end up with no way to condemn evil. If evil just happens — mysteriously, inexplicably — then its evil reality is undermined.
  3. God’s response to evil. In Jesus God doesn’t so much resolve the riddle of evil as confront it, plumbing its evil depths and overcoming it, signing its death warrant (for it has no ultimate future in the world Jesus has reclaimed).

What do you reckon?