Month: June 2010

when did death come into the world?

I’d like to fly a theological kite (which I definitely wouldn’t go to the stake for):

The Apostle Paul famously declares that ‘sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin’ (Rom 5.12).

But I have to admit that I struggle to think of the second law of thermodynamics as simply the result of the Fall. Death — of a sort — seems to play an inextricable role in the life cycle of every cell of pretty much every known organism. Which seems hard to square with the suggestion (implied in the popular reading of Romans 5.12) that death was originally absent from the creation, only invading it later — and consequently becoming entangled with life at its most basic level.

Now, none of this would be in the least decisive if I didn’t have exegetical warrant for doubting the popular reading of Paul’s statement. In his book, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, James Barr helpfully highlights the significant — though often overlooked — stratum of Old Testament testimony to the naturalness of death as a matter of creaturely limitation. Even if I’m not quite ready to admit death’s naturalness, I’m more inclined to accept that there are things worse than death (just as there are illegitimate ways to oppose death).

Of course, this must also be set alongside other biblical strata that testify to the dehumanising and adversarial aspect of death — not simply as a matter of natural creaturely limitation but rather as the fearful implement of destruction wielded by one opposed to the living God. (Interestingly, it’s this aspect of death that seems most prominent in what follows immediately from Paul’s statement in Romans 5.)

In order to maintain these perspectives in an appropriately constructive tension I wonder if some sort of distinction between death and perishing might help. E.g.,:

Only man dies. The animal perishes. It has death neither ahead of itself nor behind it. (Martin Heidegger, ‘The Thing’ in Poetry, Language, Thought, p 178)

Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

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some biblical ‘angles’ on suffering

I’ve been pondering the problem of suffering as I prepare workshops for our mid-year Summit (our theme is In His Image’ on Genesis 1-3).

I find I’ve got lots to say. Far too much! Although, I’m convinced that information transfer is a lower priority than carving out the emotional space to wrestle honestly with the problem of suffering — a problem the Bible affirms rather than solves (or dissolves), pointing to God’s victory over it in Jesus rather than explaining it (e.g., as some sort of cosmic necessity).

The opening chapters Genesis are our key texts for the week. So I’m entertaining the idea of highlighting three intersecting biblical ‘angles’ on suffering that emerge from the pages of Genesis 3:

  1. Idolatry — The story of the first temptation sets the pattern we all follow: doubt God’s goodness and pin our hopes for fulfilment, satisfaction, and autonomy on created things rather than the Creator. This is the root of so much suffering because not only do created things inevitably fail to deliver (an ‘idol is nothing in all the world’, 1 Cor 8.4) but they also unleash powerful toxic — even demonic (see 1 Cor 10.19-20) — forces.
  2. Exile — The Genesis story suggests that lots of the suffering we experience is bound up with the fact that ever since our first parents were expelled from the Garden we’ve been in ‘exile’ — cut off from the source of life, estranged from one another, and blocked from enjoying the God-given order and harmony represented by the Garden.
  3. Salvation-through-Judgement — There are clear hints in Genesis 3 of God’s grace — not only in the midst of the judgement (e.g., providing Adam and Eve clothing, indicating the painful but still open possibility of ‘filling’ and ‘subduing’ creation, and promising that one born of the woman will eventually crush the serpent) but also in the form of judgement (e.g., limiting the potential for human sin to wreak havoc by ruling out access to the tree of life).

What I’d love from you is what your gut says about whether these ‘angles’ will help or hinder honest personal wrestling with the problem of suffering in light of God’s victory.

should we put faith in science or derive science from faith?

I’m sure you’ve noticed the two ‘going’ popular stories about the relationship between science and faith — particularly Christian faith. Matt has recently posed the question in relation to the resurrection.

On the one hand, there’s the one that plays faith off against science. In this story, reason and individual autonomy triumph over dogma and institutional authority. The so-called New Atheists love this story. Especially because it appears to justify their faith in science (and opposition to faith). Galileo is the hero here.

On the other hand, there’s a competing story which keeps telling us that we should — and that in the course of Western history we have in fact — derive our science from faith. In his book, God’s Undertaker, John Lennox sounds like he’s working with this story when he says:

…the rise of science would have been seriously retarded if one particular doctrine of theology, the doctrine of creation had not been present.

The Protestant Reformers are usually the heroes in this story.

My problem with both of these stories is that (as ever) things are more complex. For the faith in science story, I would have thought that even not very recent work in the history and philosophy of science had popped the Galileo = Science Trumps Faith balloon.

As for deriving science from faith, I wonder: if it’s belief in creation that’s the key to developing modern science then…

  • Why didn’t modern science develop long before it did (since Christians believed in creation well before the Protestant Reformation)?
  • And why did the Reformers — with the possible exception of Calvin — not actually have that much to say about creation (there are big gaps here in the Protestant Confessions, etc)?

how to avoid grimness at the gravesite

I stand  by the content of yesterday’s post. But I would like to add a cautionary note about it’s application:

Avoiding glibness at the gravesite shouldn’t mean that our default setting is ‘Grim and Humourless’.

There are, obviously, plenty of ways in which people use humour to circle around the reality of death (or otherwise avoid facing up to it). Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosecrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is — among other things — a brilliant, incisive and really very funny exploration of this.

But this doesn’t mean that the only appropriate mood in the face of death is unrelenting dourness. Humour is profoundly human — and humanising. It can testify to our solidarity with one another. And point to the very great value of life.

Even better, from a Christian point of view, an ability to maintain a degree of lightness in the face of our (often extreme) frailty and creaturely limitation can testify to the fact that death is not actually the ultimate reality. We may well all have to face it. But we don’t have to bow down before it. Because we’ve entrusted ourselves to the one who ‘died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them’ (2 Cor 5.15).

UPDATE — Andrew pointed me to Byron’s excellent series on things worse than death, where he says ‘The final silence of irrevocable parting has been broken by Easter laughter’. Awesome.

how to avoid glibness at the gravesite

I acutely remember the first time I shared a room with a coffin (it wasn’t all that long ago). At the time — and even reflecting on it now — I was seriously disoriented. Something in me cried out, ‘How outrageous is believing in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting in a situation like this!’

Now I don’t think I was questioning the Christian hope. I suspect my reaction had more to do with being confronted by the reality of death. And with the realisation that there’s no place for glibness at the gravesite.

This is something I’m getting a stronger and stronger grip on. I know that the Christian good news does have some significant things to say about death — and shouldn’t be cowed or reduced to awkward, foot-shuffling silence. But, at the same time, there’s this awesome and deeply painful reality to it — which should restrain us from giving pat answers (not simply as a matter of pastoral wisdom but rather as one of theological conviction).

I genuinely struggle to hold all this together. Yet I take heart from the ‘Order for the Burial of the Dead’ in the Book of Common Prayer, which works hard to do the following three things (and a whole lot more besides):

  1. To be honest about the reality of death — facing up to both its tragedy and its universality.
  2. To honour the memory of the deceased — which means speaking truly in a manner befitting the occasion (and so avoiding flattering falsehood and platitude).
  3. To point to the Lord Jesus in order to call upon all to put their hope only in the living God.

I’m still working on how to translate this for my preaching and conversation…

what Christians can learn from the American Museum of Natural History (NYC)

When we were in New York, Natalie and I were struck by something very distinctive about a bunch of the displays in the American Museum of Natural History:

Where there was debate, the displays would usually outline two alternative explanations.

Whether it was theories about how certain dinosaurs walked — ie. more like horses or more like lizards — based on conflicting reconstructions of the fossil evidence. Or speculation about what might have given Homo sapiens a competitive advantage over Homo erectus (or whatever). They wouldn’t hide the fact that expert opinion was divided. Rather, they’d just put it out there.

Now, I make no claim to prophetic insight into the precise motivations of the museum curators. Who knows how much their readiness to foreground debate has to do with the reputedly litigious culture of the US?

But I do think Christians can able to learn something from this. I think we can learn that it’s OK to be clear and confident in proclaiming the things we do know with certainty and — at the same time — to be honest where there are uncertainties or differences of opinion.

Of course, there’re lots of questions to settle about which uncertainties or differences of opinion are legitimate (it’s kind of the nature of the beast that the legitimacy of most of the issues upon which Christians are divided is contested by those who are doing the disagreeing). Just are there’re things to sort out about how exactly we communicate our differing degrees of certainty — without preventing us being clear about the matters that matter.

But I think it’s just a reality that ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children for ever, to observe all the words of this law’ (Deut 29.29). And so we’ll often bring our questions to the Bible only to discover that it doesn’t seem very interested in answering them — leaving us all sorts of uncertainty — because it has more important questions of its own to put to us.

a brief theology of nature (part 3)

In the previous two posts I argued that a proper theology of nature should be both apocalyptic and Christological.

Jesus’ encounter with the man possessed by a legion of demons provides a picture of this. There, Jesus reclaims part of God’s good creation — planting the flag of God’s future in the soil of human life by untwisting this man’s distorted humanity. Yet in disentangling this man from the evil, anti-creation forces that have claimed him, what is required is nothing short of a massive wrenching. In Christ, grace perfects nature apocalyptically.

This provides some leverage on the traditional thought that creation’s telos is to glorify God. Creation is indeed the arena in which God’s glory is displayed (cf. Rom 1.18-20). And so, as Augustine argued (e.g., in On Christian Doctrine), it’s to be used for the enjoyment of God not enjoyed as an end in itself.

All this is true and right, as is a recognition that creation is (in Colin Gunton’s terms) a ‘project’ — something open to the future and full of potential that human beings are privileged to be involved in drawing out (cf. Gen 2.5).

The danger in this emphasis is that it can cause us to skate over the fact that belief in creation is an article of faith. Creation is fundamentally determined by (and answerable to) the reality of God’s Triune being. More, Creation can only become itself and reach its God-ordained telos — glorifying the Father — through the Son (in whom divine initiative and human responsiveness perfectly coincide).

This is reflected in the sequence of thought in Revelation 4 and 5. The stage is set for creation to raise its voice in praise of its Creator by the end of chapter 4. But then there’s an inexplicable pause at the beginning of chapter 5 — no-one is worthy to open the scroll and implement God’s plan for the world. Not, that is, until the Messiah, the Lion of Judah who is also (shockingly) the slain Lamb turns up.

In short, it’s only once the Son makes his appearance, and does his work, that creation can be what it was created to be and do what it was created to do.

So an adequate theology of nature needs to be trinitarian (as well as apocalyptic and Christological).

a brief theology of nature (part 2)

As I continue to develop this outline of a brief theology of nature, I thought it would worth highlighting a common alternative to the misstep I identified in the previous post — ie. attempting to read off the natural teleology (purpose and design) of things from what seems natural and obvious.

The common alternative to this alternative — which is equally inadequate — has been dubbed the protological fallacy. It involves focusing on the beginning of the incomplete project of creation as the source of a pure, untainted natural teleology.

A number of factors confound this move. To begin with, I’ve often wondered why people who do this almost inevitably privilege the opening chapters of Genesis as the ‘literal’ creation narrative (not only relegating other narratives — e.g., in Job and some of the Psalms, to the status of ‘mere poetry’ — but also failing to reckon with the significant differences between Genesis 1 and 2).

What’s more, even the access Genesis 1-2 gives us to God’s original purposes for His world is unavoidably mediated to us by a document and in a language that doesn’t participate in this (imagined) original purity. That is, we only ever see it through the lens of the Fall.

Of course, we might try to correct this distortion with a kind of negative theology. Trouble is, all we end up with is a ‘negation of the negative’ not something positive and concrete. Further, any negative theology is implicitly anchored in a positive vision which tells us what we should (and should not) negate. And we always must ask what generates this positive anchor.

All of which is a long way of saying that we need to read the opening chapters of Genesis in the context of the entire Bible story — especially its centre: the kingdom of God inaugurated in Jesus. As Hill recognises, ‘it is only the final vision of the Kingdom of God revealed in Christ that enables us to see the picture that governs the whole of the moral life.’ (The How And Why Of Love, p 123)

Christ’s kingdom is the consummation of creation, and the definitive unveiling of its natural telos. It is thus to this kingdom that we must look to develop our theology of nature.

As a result, an adequate theology of nature will be thoroughly christological.

a brief theology of nature (part 1)

I’ve been working up some material about Genesis 1-3 for La Trobe Christian Union’s ‘Summit’ (our mid year conference). One issue I’m wrestling with is how the overall storyline of the Bible needs to set the agenda and constrain the answers we give — especially to questions surrounding creation and evolution.

To help me with this, I’ve decided to repost this short series (which I originally ran on my now dormant blog about the environment). I’m really keen for any feedback. So have at it!

When I was younger I attempted to read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I guess part of what attracted me to it was its title’s implicit claim to both brevity and exhaustiveness.

At risk of repeating such a futile gesture, I want to develop — in outline — a brief theology of nature according to Scripture. Central to this is the question: What creation is for? What’s its purpose (or telos)?
In this context, Michael Hill’s distinction between historical teleology and natural teleology is worth bearing in mind (The How And Why Of Love, p 28):

[T]eleological theories in ethics locate the telos by looking at the nature or the design. For obvious reasons this type of teleology is call natural teleology. By way of contrast, we may set ourselves goals (teloi) in our lives. These would be goals that we would strive to reach in the future. This type of teleology is called historical teleology.

There is undoubted value to this. But the danger is that when it comes to thinking about creation’s purpose and design, we end up casting around for what seems ‘natural’ and obvious — which may be cultural or even downright sinful — and treat it as what God intended. This can be disastrous (as the ‘naturalisation’ of Volk prejudice by the established Church in Nazi Germany attests).

We mustn’t pit God’s ultimate intentions (historical teleology) against His original intentions (natural teleology) — as though creation and redemption were somehow opposed! But we do need to recognise that when God graciously brings about creation’s consummation, He does so in a profoundly wrenching way, showing us that so much of what seems natural and obvious is actually distortion (e.g., Jesus’ correction of His disciples’ assumption that power brings privilege in Mark 10.41-45).

In short, an adequate theology of nature will be thoroughly apocalyptic.

‘the sting of death’

A couple of weeks ago I posted a pair of ruminations on death — insisting, in the first, that we should never make peace with death or otherwise imply it somehow belongs within God’s intention for human life; and, counterbalancing this in the second, by exploring some of the ways in which we refuse to confront the reality of death (and our own mortality) to our detriment.

Alongside this, I feel there’s a need to uphold the Bible’s teaching about how God (positively?) uses death as a good and just judgement upon human sin.

John Martin, 'The Seventh Plague'

I take it that Paul means something like this when he says that ‘the sting of death is sin‘, reflecting much wider biblical testimony to the deep connection between sin and death. Although we may not be able to draw direct lines in every instance, death is God’s punishment for sin.

But we need to be careful here too. We shouldn’t let this clear sense of death being an instrument which God uses to judge obscure the fact that it’s fundamentally an enemy he longs to defeat. For, in an important (and I think theologically primary sense), God does not desire the death of the wicked.

The way I think I want to do that at the moment is to remember that with God judgement is always the flip-side — or the means — of redemption. This is certainly the case in the Exodus: judgement upon the Egyptians is just part and parcel of how God redeems Abraham’s family. And this I think is part of Isaiah’s overall emphasis. Indeed, some have spoken of the writing prophets as all proclaiming a message of ‘the death and resurrection of Israel’ — judgement (death) in the service of redemption (renewed life for his people).

Perhaps a helpful way to hold all this together is to consider God’s judgements — especially death — as advanced tremors anticipating (or even helping to bring about) the final redemption, the renewal of all things.

What do you reckon?