Month: July 2010

we believe in the Holy Spirit … don’t we?

Each Friday for the next 5 weeks I’ll be sending out some pre-reading for a course on the Trinity, which I’m aiming to post here too.

Some Christians appear unusually reticent to talk about the Holy Spirit. Indeed, at times, you might be forgiven for thinking they’re suffering from ‘Spirit-phobia’. Others, however, have the opposite problem — a kind of ‘Spirit-mania’. These Christian can sound like they’ll never run out of things to say about the Spirit!

For centuries, Christians have declared that they believe in the Holy Spirit alongside the Father and the Son. In fact, those who confess their faith using the words of the ancient Nicene Creed, have said:

We believe … in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorifed, who has spoken through the prophets.

But do we really mean this? Sometimes the way we summarise the Christian message can suggest that there isn’t much need for the Spirit (or really any cause to make much of — let alone worship — the Spirit). My hunch is that this tends to happen when the problem that the gospel solves is laid out like this:

  • The main problem that has to be dealt is, How can the transcendent and holy God be present within a time-bound and sin-stained creation?
  • The assumption is that there’s a gap between ‘God’ and ‘the world’ that must be bridged. The question is therefore, By who (or what) can it be bridged?

Although there is obvious truth to this way of putting it, there are also some problems.

For instance, when you give the obvious answer to the question of who can bridge the gap — someone with a foot in both camps (ie. God in the flesh) — you’re left without a clear idea about where the Spirit fits in. But if you flip out to the other extreme and start claiming that it’s actually the Spirit who bridges the gap then you’re immediately in danger of denying what the New Testament says about the completeness and effectiveness of what God has done in Jesus — e.g., ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ (2 Cor 5.19).

I think we need is a much clearer sense of the Spirit’s role in the story of Jesus — the story of the Spirit-anointed Son sent by the Father — and, by extension, a clearer sense of the Spirit’s role in making us a part of that story as adopted sons and daughters of God. Only if we can manage this will we be faithful to the New Testament, and be able to avoid both Spirit-phobia and Spirit-mania.

waking up to politics (3)

The Chi Rho christogram

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been stalling on this series. This is largely due to a niggling doubt about whether I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said (e.g., by Matt or John Dickson or Greg Clarke).

I’m still not sure I have much to contribute. But I want to unpack the slightly cryptic comment I finished with last time — about the church’s role in relativising human political institutions.

When I said that 1 Peter was on my mind.

Here, briefly, are what I take to be the most relevant aspects of what the Apostle Peter says about the church’s identity and relationship with society:

  • We’re not to belong to the society we find ourselves in. Peter addresses his readers as ‘exiles of the dispersion’ — scattered among the nations (not gathered in a single political body like ancient Israel), we don’t really belong in the societies we inhabit. The reason we’re out of joint is because God has chosen and worked through Jesus and the Spirit to take hold of us, setting us apart to belong to him. We can’t just ‘fit in’ or ‘go with the flow’.
  • We’re to engage with society not separate from it. Peter repeatedly underscores the difference belonging to God should make — producing a radical break with past patterns of behaviour, etc. And yet one of the expected outcomes of this is that ‘though [non-Christians] malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God’. We can’t choose to ‘opt out’ (even if that promises to make things less complicated).
  • We’re to relate freely to society’s power structures. The radical implication of this teaching is spelled out in 2.16-17: ‘As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor’. In a society where the emperor called for worship (a demand from which only ethnic Jews were exempt), to place Caesar below God was a huge deal — although that relative status was all he could legitimately claim. It might mean we cop it, but we can’t allow the absolutisation of good-but-not-absolute things — even democratic structures — to go unchallenged.

I would like to have a go outlining what this might look like in our context. So there’ll be one or maybe two more posts in this series…

a window into the heart of God

I’ve had the very great pleasure of hearing Ephesians 1 preached on twice in the past few days. I love the way Paul seems almost to stumble over himself in his rush to mark out the dimensions of God’s immeasurable grace in verses 3-14 (infamously a single sentence in the original Greek).

For now, I want to dwell on the way Paul draws together two themes in verses 4 and 5 — election and God’s character:

He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will

A little while ago I shared a few observations about election, highlighting some of the suprising connections the Bible keeps making (between God choice of some and his desire to save/bless all). But this blows that out of the water! For by placing election and God’s love side by side, Paul opens a window into the heart of God.

God doesn’t choose us because we’re impressive (or attractive). Nor does he choose us because we’re ugly and unlovable — although, morally speaking, we often may be.

It’s love that fills God’s heart. He’s motivated only by his pleasure and will. Neither setting his love on us because that’s only natural and right (given our record of achievement, etc). Nor summoning up some forced affection or pleasantness — as though through gritted teeth. Rather, God loves in freedom. Not the freedom of arbitrary decision mind you. But the freedom echoed by faithful lovers, giving themselves wholeheartedly to another.

Ultimately, the only explanation for this — if you can call it an explanation — is that this one who chooses is love. Eternally. Existing in the perfect movement of self-giving love between Father, Son and Spirit. Before we were even a possibility. And yet spilling over in the joyful decision to create, redeem and perfect — through the Son and by the Spirit.

That is how deeply the doctrine of election can take us into the heart of God.

what do you want to be when you grow up?

I’m genuinely interested in the answer to that question — and I’ve deliberately used the present tense for whoever, like me, is still trying to figure this out!

When I was going through my (protracted) childhood dinosaur phase, my unhesitating answer was, ‘paeleontologist’. I loved the idea of unearthing things, digging up their prehistory.

Which is why one of the displays at the Ashmoleum museum in Oxford grabbed my attention. According to the display, the term ‘prehistory’ was coined in the 1830s. But it didn’t attain wide currency until 1859 — the year John Evans and Joseph Prestwich confirmed some important findings in Somme valley gravel pits. Alongside fossils of organisms they didn’t recognise, they found flint tools — evidence of human habitation and activity massively antedating any recorded history!

What I find compelling about this story is the idea that a seemingly obvious notion like ‘prehistory’ can itself have a history. It’s not a necessary concept, fallen from the mind of God. People didn’t always think this way. They had to feel their way towards the idea in order to account for the otherwise puzzling evidence before them. It’s ‘necessity’ was contingent on the situation and the more or less deeply felt need to solve the puzzle.

I haven’t grown up to be a paeleontologist. But I’m still fascinated by unearthing things, digging up their prehistory. These days, it’s concepts that I love to uncover, brush the dust from, and scrutinise to determine their function — whether psychological, sociological, ethical or whatever.

That’s why I’m setting out to read Charles Taylor’s magisterial Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Taylor promises to unearth the prehistory of our modern western sense of self — visible in our remarkably tenacious sense of ‘inwardness’ and individual agency as much as in our more common anxieties over identity.

I’m hoping that in doing so Taylor sheds light on how this sense of self functions, revealing what needs it meets. If it can do this, then Sources of the Self has the potential to break the deadlock between those who brandish the fruit of western individualism and those who feel they’ve solved (or rather dissolved) every problem when they’ve chased it back there — to its supposedly tainted source.

Either way, I’m looking forward to doing some digging!

use your imagination

As a teenager (and, let’s face it, as an adult) I read science fiction. Perhaps as a result, for a long time I thought that in order to write fiction you had to be imaginative in the sense that you ‘made something up’. I thought being creative had to do with ‘letting go’ and moving beyond myself, the present, this world. But I’m slowly realising that being creative has a lot to do with disciplined mastery and that being imaginative is all about seeing clearly and unveiling reality.

That is, if you are trying to figure out why the custard is curdling, or why the car won’t start, or why the community isn’t using public transport, you are in the process of using your imagination to try and unveil what is really going on. As Matthew Crawford insists (Shop Class As Soul Craft p 100), both the artist and the mechanic get outside their head — use their imagination — not to escape the world but to join it.

In short, even when it’s set on an alien planet, good fiction will help you see reality more clearly.

Literature is not simply a replica of reality; it penetrates the surface layers and reaches deep into the inner workings of reality. It removes false illusions, looks down from great heights at ordinary happenings and, with broad perspective, reveals these happenings in their entirety.

Of course, literature also relies on imagination, but this sort of journey in the mind is not just putting together a whole lot of rubbish. Imagination that is divorced from authentic feelings, and fabrications that are divorced from life experiences, can only end up insipid and weak.

Gao Xingjian (translated by Mabel Lee) (2006), The Case For Literature, Fourth Estate, p43.

waking up to politics (2)

A word of clarification about my previous post may be in order. When I suggested that the experience of physically waking up to recent political announcements had also ‘woken me up’ from a blissful ignorance of all things political I was perhaps overstating my case. I’ve actually been in the process of waking up to politics for a little while — although I’ve been sort of addicted to the snooze button!

Even that’s probably overstating it. You see, I’ve often had thoughts about politics. It’s just that I’ve been so busy trying to resist the temptation to Constantianism that I’ve ended up with relatively little that’s distinctively Christian to say about politics. For example, I share the disappointment/frustration expressed by Byron (and Bob Hawke) at our Federal leaders’ apparent willingness to rubber stamp the popular misconception that voters should get to chose the PM. But I’m less certain about how to articulate a positive alternative — let alone one informed by the Christian narrative of God’s world-reclaiming action in Jesus.

I don’t want to make a virtue out of this uncertainty. (The whole point of asking what I should make of contemporary developments in Australian politics as a Christian is to help me sort this out.) But I do want to be clear that I’m in fundamental agreement with Matt when he declares, ‘my loyalty isn’t to a certain political persuasion, but to our Lord Jesus Christ’.

My primary allegiance is to the crucified and risen Messiah Jesus. He is the Lord — the primary reality in the universe. Among other things, this means that we must be ever ready to re-open the question of which human institutions are most transparent to this reality in any given circumstance. (I’m talking about entire systems as much as particular policies or parties.)

I feel that the church should be given primacy in this. In the most important book I read but didn’t understand last year, Christ, History and Apocalyptic, Nathan Kerr explains why: ‘the “church” is not so much an “alternative society” or even an “alternative to society”, but a kind of subversive challenge to society or to “politics” as such’ (p 175).

It’s through the church that the Spirit reminds human institutions they’re not ultimate. At least, so long as the church stays true to its missionary calling and open to the reforming voice — and transforming presence — of its Lord…

waking up to politics

It’s happened to me a couple of times recently. Like many other, I’ve woken up to politics. Tuning in to one imminent political announcement after another. First it was the change of Prime Minister. And now we’ve had the announcement of the August 21 Federal election date.

Whatever else I might want to make of either of these events, I’ve been shocked by how gripping I’ve found them. For me, this is largely personal — stemming from my long-cultivated studied disregard for politics. A studied disregard that was fuelled and given legitimacy by some reservations I’ve had about the church getting mixed up in politics (to promote ‘kingdom values’ or something).

Now I get that it’s not really possible to produce a universally tolerant regime — even the most progressive, most enlightened societies have shown themselves ruthlessly intolerant at points, excluding those people and groups that they feel threaten their very existence. I also get that if you believe (as I do) that the Christian good news points you to the best way to live, then that is actually true — true true, not just true for believers but not for anyone else.

I guess I’ve just tended to be wary of what some theological ethicists label ‘Constantinianism’, referring to the way the conversion of Emperor Constantine (and, nominally, the whole Roman Empire with him) opened the door for people to adopt Christian ‘values’ as a matter of political expediency rather than as a genuine response to what God’s done in Jesus. And I’m still wary of this.

All of which makes how gripping and interesting (and occasionally appalling) I’ve found recent developments in Australian Federal politics slightly puzzling to me: Why am I so fascinated? As a Christian, what should I make of these developments? And how should I respond? These are the sort of questions I hope to take up — and (tentatively) answer — in the coming weeks…

why receiving God’s gifts thankfully is easier said than done

This year at La Trobe Christian Union, we keep circling around the theme of idolatry — or, put positively, of how it is we can trust in and put the living God above all.

I’ve suggested before that if we want to take seriously the biblical call to combat idolatry, then we must resist the temptation to refuse to have anything to do with any created thing that can be elevated to the position that God alone deserves. But our response to the recognition that some good created thing — like family or alcohol or sex — can be idolised ought never take the form of radical renunciation, a refusal (on principle) to have anything to do with it. For this would be to pit God against his good gifts to us in creation.

The obvious alternative is to receive God’s good gifts thankfully. And so to affirm the gift character of God’s creation. Thus relativising it before the one who graciously gives us every good thing to enjoy and share. That is the way to combat idolatry — not to reject alcohol, for example; but to receive it as God’s gift and to do with it as he wisely dictates.

But all this is easier said than done, isn’t it? The deep-rootedness of idolatry — which I would suggest we glimpse in a phenomenon like addiction — tells us as much. In his important article, ‘How to say YES to the World’, Andrew Cameron has a go explaining why:

We could almost say that God has made his world “too good”. We attach ourselves to aspects of it too hard: voraciously, intensely, obsessively, and destructively. The young man loves sex and freedom so much that he won’t give himself to a woman to welcome her babies, and both a sex industry and a strange logic of de facto relationships grow up to give him what he wants.

It’s not the objects of our desires that are suspect. Rather, it’s the way our desires run chaotically to excess. This is what explains why asceticism won’t work and why idolatry is so profoundly difficult to root out.

on redemption and horror – redux

If you’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and wished, like I did, that there was more nuance to the terror, something that resembles character development, and an ending that is believably hopeful, then can I recommend you pick up JG Ballard’s The Drought instead.

McCarthy’s vision of a dry and dusty landscape pales in comparison to Ballard’s drought stricken countryside. McCarthy doesn’t respond to any of his readers questions of why any of this is happening (maybe that’s part of his point) and, while Ballard doesn’t answer everything, he at least creates a world you can imagine coming into reality. And it’s terrifying.

Also, it actually feels like he cares about landscape and knows a little bit about science; he’s thought about what desolation would look like and how the new environment he’s created would actually work. It’s not all grey and dusty. There’s beauty in the detail:

Under the empty winter sky the salt-dunes ran on for miles. Seldom varying more than a few feet from trough to crest, they shone damply in the cold air, the pools of brine disturbed by the inshore wind. Sometimes, in a distant foretaste of the spring to come, their crests would be touched with white streaks as a few crystals evaporated out into the sunlight, but by the early afternoon these began to deliquesce, and the grey flanks of the dunes would run with a pale light.

It was written in 1965 and feels creepily prescient as a result.

between delight and wisdom

I’ve been thinking a bit about the possible connections between science, delight and wisdom. And I’ve been particularly stimulated in this by two different lines of thought — although they’re yet to fully coalesce for me.

On the one hand, my attention has been drawn to Psalm 111, in which a celebration of God’s covenant provision for his people is bookended by a call to delight in the works of God at the beginning and the familiar biblical insistence that it’s the fear of YHWH that’s the beginning of wisdom at the end. Apparently, verse 2 is emblazoned over the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.

In response to this I want to say something like: investigation of the natural world — or indeed of any of the works of God — ought to unfold in between delight and wisdom. It should spring from delighted attention to what God has made and done. And yet it can never be carried on in a moral vacuum — it must fall within the ambit of the wisdom that humbly acknowledges our place before the maker of heaven and earth.

On the other hand, I’ve been mulling over Oliver O’Donovan’s tantalising remark on the way Solomon provides the template for that key characteristic of modern experimental science, disinterestedness (from Common Objects of Love, p 12):

To detach oneself and one’s interests from events into which one enquires, to assume the posture of an impartial researcher, clambering into an eyrie of observation where one renounces an interest in affecting the course of events, that is an achievement of civilization, borrowed, we should note, by the sciences from the political skill of judgement. Solomon and the two women [in 1 Kings 3:16-28] is a paradigm not only for juridical discernment, but for every kind of experimental enquiry. (Emphasis added)

Once again, the moral (or God-ward) frame of reference that biblical wisdom brings with it seems to be crucial here. In Solomon’s case, his ‘impartial’ testing of the women was an investigative strategy that answered to his thoroughly interested and moral imperative to achieve a true and just outcome.

Lots more interesting thinking to be done…