Month: August 2010

busting the myth of religious violence

In a recent piece on the ABC Religion and Ethics portal, William Cavanaugh takes on Christopher Hitchens’ infamous claim that religion is necessarily violent. The article really is worth getting stuck into. Here are a couple of nibbles to whet your appetite:

The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about secular violence. A sound approach to the study of violence would be resolutely empirical, investigating the conditions under which any kinds of ideologies and institutions produce violence – not just jihad and the sacrificial atonement of Christ, but also the “invisible hand” of the market and the belief that liberalism and secularism are the destiny of the whole world.

What counts as religion and what does not depends on how power is configured in any given society, including our own. The idea that “religion” is susceptible to violence, in ways that “secular” ideologies are not, authorizes certain kinds of power.

Cavanaugh turns Hitchens’ secularist critique on its head — and suggests putting an empirical approach in its place, asking: ‘What particular beliefs — religious or otherwise — have fed violence in which particular circumstances?’

Of course, I’d like to think there’s something even more positive to say for Christian faith. My hunch is that we may be able to make the case that belief in the Crucified and Risen Messiah has the potential to give us the very space secularists long for — namely, a public space for peace and co-existence. In short, that Christian belief may show us how to put tolerance on a new basis.

As I say, it’s just a hunch right now. I’m planning to do some more work on this. So stay tuned — or at least read the article and tell me what you think!

what stops us admitting we’re racist?

Over the past year or so, I’ve had repeated cause to wonder why we Australians struggle to admit we’re racist.

Racism’s been in the news often enough. First it was violence against people from subcontinental backgrounds in Melbourne. Then there was the notorious ‘blackface’ incident on Hey Hey, It’s Saturday. And, over the weekend, we hear that Ken Wyatt — who will quite probably be the new member for Hasluck in WA — received rafts of hate mail from people claiming they wouldn’t have voted for him if they’d known he was an indigenous Australian.

Every time it hits the headlines, public figures are quick not only to distance themselves but to claim that Australian’s aren’t really racist. So what stops us admitting that racism is deeply ingrained in us?

When I pose this question in conversation, I’m typically greeted by a ‘Yes, but…’ response. Someone will agree that racism is simmering away in Australia. Yet with the next breath they’ll cite all manner of contextual factors — not to excuse it but simply to help me understand.

Up to now, my tactic has been to suggest (following Raimond Gaita) that it isn’t necessarily un-Australian to be ashamed of something in our collective experience — past or present. Shame isn’t only compatible with love for our country. It can be a form of love. A way of claiming ownership. For if I didn’t identify as Australian, why would I care that we seem to have this racist streak?

But I’m thinking about taking another angle, adopting Slavoj Zizek’s description of a “postmodern” racism that follows a distinctive trajectory when confronted with racial violence:

He or she of course begins by expressing horror and repulsion at the … violence, yet is quick to add that that these events, deplorable as they are, must be seen in their context: they are actually a perverted, distorted expression and effect of a true problem, namely that in contemporary Babylon the experience of belonging to a well-defined ethnic community which gives meaning to the individual’s life is losing ground… In short, the true culprits are cosmopolitic universalists who, in the name of “multiculturalism”, mix races and thereby set in motion natural self-defence mechanisms. Apartheid is thus legitimized as the ultimate form of anti-racism, as an endeavour to prevent racial tensions and conflicts… (‘The Violence of Liberal Democracy’, Assemblage 20 [April 1993])

Maybe what stops us admitting we’re racist is … our racism.

too much unity can be a very bad thing

Last week I tried to suggest that without a strong sense of the unity between Father, Son and Spirit, the logic Christian good news begins to unravel. I argued that it was precisely a sense of this unity that ‘Nicene theology’ sought to protect using the technical term homoousios.

The importance of this unity is dramatically evident at the cross. You see, if Jesus wasn’t really one with the Father — if he wasn’t included in the unique identity of the God who’d revealed himself to Israel — then how can we escape the charge that the death of Jesus in our place was a horrendous perversion of justice (a case of an angry Father taking his wrath out on an innocent third party)?

La Trobe University at dusk

But our emphasis on the unity of the persons in the Godhead ought not to obscure their ‘threeness’. Too much unity — or, rather, the wrong kind of unity — can be a very bad thing. It can eclipse the particularity of the Father, Son and Spirit. And if it does that, then I think the logic of the gospel also unravels.

It unravels because if we ditch the idea that God is eternally three persons in loving, other-person-centred relationships with one another, then we end up struggling to see why God didn’t have to create and save us. That is, if God was purely singular — rather than three-in-one — then he didn’t have anyone to love until he’d created us. Worse, he’s at risk of losing someone to love unless he saves at least some of us from our sin. The hands of this God would seem to be tied.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, things get really topsy-turvy when we try to follow this through into our thinking about who God is. For if God is love but is not eternally three persons in relationship, then he couldn’t actually be himself without us to relate to. He couldn’t show love or experience relationships. Instead of being free to create and then save us, he would be forced to. In an ultimate reversal, instead of us being dependent on him for everything that makes life worth living, this God would be dependent on us!

But the good news is that God’s hands aren’t tied. The God we meet in the Old Testament — and get to know intimately in the story of Jesus — doesn’t need us to be himself. He is love because Father, Son and Spirit are eternally bound together in relationships of mutual love (expressed in distinct and particular ways — as we glimpse in the different roles they each play in the one work of creation and salvation).

Most gloriously of all, God’s majestic and lovingly executed work in creating everything and rescuing human beings (and the world along with us) is not something he’s forced into. It’s all grace. Free and full of delight. It is God the Father’s pleasure to create and save us through his dearly-loved Son and in the power of his Holy Spirit…

drumroll for the (new) blogroll…

One of the coolest record stores Natalie and I ever visited (yes, we still buy our music in hard copy — consider us old school), categorised its CDs along the following lines:

  1. Things you probably know about
  2. Things you might know about
  3. Things you don’t know about (but probably should)

I suppose it was especially gratifying was to see how many CDs in the third category we already owned!

In a similar vein, we’d like to unveil our new blogroll (we haven’t had one for a while — to our shame). Drumroll please…

People we know (or have at least met):

Other stuff we read:

do you know Australian secrets?

Greens Pool, Denmark, WA

I found it interesting that Chris’ post yesterday about an Australian heart language elicited a couple of comments that reflected pretty iconic Australian images (e.g. the coast, the outback, Les Murray).

I’ve recently come across a theory in anthropology that suggests that you really only understand a group (nation, sub-culture etc) if you share with them in ‘Cultural Intimacy‘ (proposed by Michael Herzfeld). So, for example, the theory proposes that in many nations there is a idealised representation of the nation which covers over a bunch of secrets that we protect from outsiders and which really constitute nationalism. Herzfeld did his research in Crete, and he discusses the way that in Crete, sheep-stealing is a symbol of Greek manhood that exists in tension with the representation of Greece as a modern (and also ancient) law-abiding democracy and that animal theft is therefore hidden from outsiders. And it elicits a weird combination of shame and pride.

These ‘secrets’ – the things that we know about ourselves as a people or group, but which we keep hidden behind the facade of our group imaginary – are what actually define us as insiders.  The group imaginary is how we represent ourselves to outsiders, but the secret tensions reveal our self-knowledge. The secrets are how you can say “Oh, she just doesn’t understand, she’s not one of us….”

The Australian national imaginary includes things like this… we’re an egalitarian country, full of larakins who don’t play by the rules, shaped by the harsh and dangerous environment of the Australian outback, full of adventurers who enjoy our outdoors lifestyle. But I think this belies a bunch of Aussie secrets about deeply entrenched inequality, a love for obeying the rules (we hate ‘queue-jumpers, for instance), and that most of us live pretty safe, suburban lives, are overweight and spend more time in front of a screen than in the sun.

Tim Winton and Les Murray to some extent buy into (and even help create) the Australian national imaginary — I wonder what parts of pop culture reveal Australia’s secret self-knowledge?

do you speak Australian?

A couple of weeks ago, Natalie and I had a terrific conversation with some friends that’s been percolating away in the back of my brain ever since.

One thing we talked about was the idea of the Australian heart language.

‘Heart language’ is a concept that Bible translators and missionaries would be familiar with. It’s traditionally carved out in opposition to the trade language. It’s like the Kriol into which the Bible was finally translated in 2007 so that indigenous Australians could encounter God’s Word in a more direct and meaningful way.

But I’ve been wondering whether the concept’s got wider application to helping us promote Jesus in contemporary Australia. Basically, I’m not sure we’re hitting the mark when it comes to presenting the good news in terms that connect deeply and directly with people.

Let me give a personal example. A few years ago I read North American novelist Don Delillo’s book Falling Man, which is set in New York City in the wake of 9/11. It contains explicit, extensive discussion of the problem belief in God in the face of such large-scale suffering. It’s language and register is very close to what you’d find in articles and online. But it left me feeling cold.

In contrast, a novel like Tim Winton’s Dirt Music resonated much more powerfully with me as it handled similar issues. It just seemed to speak much more directly to my heart.

Reflecting on this sort of experience has got me thinking about whether I speak a language other than that in which most Australians think and feel as I seek to communicate the good news of what God has done in Jesus. I’ve started asking myself: Are the words, images and stories that I typically reach for when speaking of Jesus recognisable? Or are they too ‘high culture’ — or, worse, too evangelical Christian sub-culture?

What I’d love from you are suggestions about novels, TV-shows, radio-programmes — anything really — that you reckon speak the Australian heart language? I urgently want to tap into them so that I can get better at promoting Jesus to the people I know!

why the Trinity isn’t all Greek to me!

You may have heard someone suggest that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity — and specifically belief in the deity of Christ — only came about as a result of a conceptual tangle. People who argue this, think that the Christian belief in Jesus as God is an unintended side-effect of transplanting an essentially Jewish message — about the Jewish Messiah (‘the Christ’ or ‘Son of God’) — into Greek philosophical soil.

On this view, when Christians declare (in the words of the Nicene Creed) that Jesus is ‘of one Being with the Father’, they’re betraying the New Testament story of Jesus. Worse, they’re allowing philosophy — mere human guesswork — to take centre stage, shunting what God has revealed about himself off to one side.

What’s interesting is that the fourth-century Christians who opposed Nicene-style theology also felt like this. They objected to the key word homoousios — which was drawn from Greek philosophy and meant something like ‘one being’ or ‘the same substance’. To them, this implied that God was something physical like Coca Cola — a liquid that could be poured into different bottles. Either that or something worse — like the idea that God was really a nameless and unknowable oneness which simply wore the different ‘masks’ of Father, Son and Spirit as necessary.

These fourth century Christians rightly worried about both of these ways of picturing it, sensing that they created big problems. Problems like: How can we know we’re really in touch with the real God when we’re dealing with Jesus and the Spirit? How can we know that each bottle contains the same liquid? How can we know we’re actually connected with God if all we see are masks?

But the defenders of Nicene theology replied: ‘This is exactly what the word homoousios is meant to safeguard! It acknowledges Christ’s genuine identity with the one and only God.’

This Greek word (of dubious heritage) is supposed to help us do justice to what we see in the New Testament story. It assures us that we know we’re really in contact with God when we’re dealing with Jesus and the Spirit precisely because they share in one being.

how to stare reality full in the face

We’ve been wrestling with Ecclesiastes at La Trobe Uni recently. I especially appreciate the Teacher’s — sometimes brutal — honesty about life. And although I never feel like I’m doing it justice, I find I can just keep talking about it!

I’ve been pondering what allows the Teacher to be so honest about life.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously accused Christianity of nihilistically denying life. In ‘How the Real World at last became a myth’ (in Twilight of the Idols), he cites the way an emphasis on the hereafter can drain the colour out of life, leaving people living for an imagined — and, in Nietzsche’s view, wholly imaginary — future rather than living to the full here and now.

However, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes sees life with profound clarity. You glimpse this when he speaks about power and oppression (Ecclesiastes 5.8-9):

If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But all things considered, this is an advantage for a land: a king for a ploughed field.

It’s like Foucault before Foucault! Injustice is deeply stitched into the structures of society. Even — or especially — those we can’t live without.

Some would call this cynicism, perhaps stemming from the Teacher’s haziness about God and the afterlife. But, in my view, the Teacher joins hands with the prophets in cleaving to God as Creator and Judge — both the giver of life and any power we have to work (and enjoy it) and the one who sets limits to our existence (both positively and negatively).

I think it’s the Teacher’s confidence in this God that enables him to be so brutally honest about life. It’s what frees him. For it means that he doesn’t have to sugar-coat injustice or desperately snatch at every passing experience offering distraction. And, while it can be harder to spot, it also lets him see how to find genuine enjoyment in work, relationships, and all manner of human endeavour.

will you pray with me?

The idea that I might be asked this question when in the field next year simultaneously fills me with delight and trepidation. I hope to do anthropological fieldwork in churches with Christians. But I feel just a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of engaging with research participants in prayer.

As an anthropologist, prayer is fascinating. It can reveal the inner desires of the heart. It puts emotions and longings into words. It connects the pray-er’s understanding of God and God’s will with their own actions and desires. As a source of data – and as a relational expression of having connected with your research consultants, to be invited to pray together seems like a (forgive the pun) holy grail of anthropological research with Christians.

So, why do I feel uncomfortable with praying with Christian consultants when it is something that is both natural to me and an anthropologically rich source of data?

It’s taken me weeks of incidental conversations and reading, and I’m still not sure I’ve framed this properly, but here’s my attempt at framing my discomfort…

When I pray I am oriented to God and when I do cultural analysis I am oriented to the speaker, to the world. As a Christian, I share both the ritual practice and the belief that what I am doing in prayer is directed to God. To turn away from God towards another person during that act, I think, makes a liar out of me when I say “yes, I will pray with you”. I do not know if it’s possible to both pray and analyse, and I suspect I will only find out in the field!

To read more, check out the full transcript on my project blog On The Way Home.

inventing the Trinity?

The novel The Da Vinci Code infamously suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t ‘invented’ until the fourth century. One of the characters, Leigh Teabing, claims that no-one considered Jesus to be God until the Council of Nicea in 325AD.

Lots of people have documented how far off the mark this is historically. And contemporary scholars like Richard Bauckham and N. T. Wright (and many others before them) have charted how the New Testament constantly presents Jesus as being and doing what only God could be and do.

At the same time, the New Testament does present Jesus’ relationship with the Father as a genuine relationship between one distinct ‘person’ and another.

What the Council of Nicea did debate — or, rather, what it commended as the solution to the pre-existing debate — was how these two things fitted together: ie. How can we say Jesus is God while at the same time acknowledging that Father and Son are distinct?

In historical terms, it was a key moment in resolving the Arian controversy. Arianism (a not very well organised movement named after its leading figure, a young preacher called Arius) admitted that Jesus was divine — but not in the same way that God the Father was divine.

According to Arius, God had always existed, whereas the Son (or Word) came to exist at some later point. He’s therefore inferior to God. And his role is instrumental — it’s through him that the transcendent God made and relates to everything (without needing to get his hands dirty). So the Word, for Arius, was a sort of half-way house between God and the world.

It’s important to see that this way of putting the pieces together isn’t totally outrageous. For the New Testament doesn’t unambiguously call Jesus God. And it does present him as distinct from the Father, relating to him as an obedient Son and as one through whom God creates and redeems.

What’s more, given some important assumptions people were used to making about God and the world, the Arian view plausibly explained how it was possible for the transcendent and eternal God to interact with a finite and time-bound creation.

It was only by overturning these assumptions that the road was paved for Christians to do justice to both sides of the New Testament presentation of Jesus. As a result, the form in which we now comfortably confess God as Trinity — saying, for example, that the Son is one in being with but personally distinct from the Father (and the Spirit) — bears the historically specific and contingent marks of this controversy…