Theologoumena

the theology of open access

At least since Natalie stirred the hornets’ nest about plagiarism before Christmas (first HERE and then HERE), I’ve been thinking about open access.

The ethical stance and in-principle commitment it embodies has long attracted me.

It’s why I love this piece (warning: it’s long, but oh so worth it!) by Katharine Viner the Editor In Chief of the Guardian Australia. (Together with The Newsroom, she has me absolutely convinced I want to become a journalist when I grow up!)

Although, even more attractive is the way open access seems to be an ethical position begging for a theological treatment.

Not because it can’t exist without a theological treatment. And not because it’s somehow incoherent or logically inadequate without one.

But because I feel that a theological treatment of the cluster of issues around open access (and intellectual property) could unlock its sense and significance even more powerfully.

Without trying to do too much with thoughts that are still undercooked, let me gesture in the direction I want to move in.

To begin with, you could argue that IP has an antitheological origin. Carla Hesse begins her history of IP, ’The rise of intellectual property: 700 B.C. – A.D. 2000: an idea in the balance’ by noting this:

The concept of intellectual property — the idea that an idea can be owned — is a child of the European Enlightenment. It was only when people began to believe that knowledge came from the human mind working upon the senses — rather than through divine revelation, assisted by the study of ancient texts — that it became possible to imagine humans as creators, and hence owners, of new ideas rather than as mere transmitters of eternal verities.

While I’d want to do more with the very brief caricature of pre-Enlightenment thinking about knowledge and ownership (was there no understanding of authorship in the premodern world?), Hesse’s portrait does remind me of Tolkien’s notion of humans as ‘subcreators’.

According to Tolkien, as creatures, the strongest thing we can say about our human ‘world-making’ potential is that we are subcreators rather than full-blown creators (for only God is the Creator).

As a result, it would certainly be fascinating — not to mention possibly explosive — to follow through the implications of embracing some kind of principled theological refusal to identify human beings as creators in a strong sense.

What would this mean for our sense of authorship?

What about for ownership of ideas (or anything we might fashion)?

And how would this impact the people trying to make a living out of what they fashion — intellectually or physically?

Of course, this would need to be worked out within the bounds of a robust theological account of our creaturely agency — alongside and undergirded by God’s sovereign agency…

I sense a major — and no doubt collaborative — undertaking coming on!

(Or someone could pay me to write a PhD on it.)

doubting Jesus?

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Was Jesus ever troubled by doubts

This is the question that’s been nagging at me for a little while now.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’ve been gripped by it.

It’s more of an on and off thing. You know, just when my mind wanders around the possibility of marrying two of my passions: (i) helping Christians be honest about doubt (so they can deal well with it), and (ii) thinking everything through with Jesus as my starting point — particularly, the concrete stories about him from the Gospels.

But it’s not exactly a straightforward question. And I’d be keen to hear if you have ideas about where to turn in the New Testament.

Because, on the one hand, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are (only without tripping up into sin). And we see this explicitly in Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the wilderness.

So it seems fair to imagine that Jesus did wrestle with doubt — at least occasionally.

And yet, on the other hand, the whole question of Jesus’ self-consciousness — and therefore of what it is that he could have had doubts about — is notoriously controversial.

For example, some scholars have pointed out that many of the categories we would usually use to frame our understanding of Jesus’ person and work weren’t available to him (or in all likelihood to his first followers). Or at least they weren’t available in the — usually creedal — form that came fully equipped with the sort of metaphysical baggage that often invites doubt for modern minds.

What I mean is, if Jesus didn’t — and possibly even couldn’t — think of himself as ‘fully God’, ‘possessing a divine nature’, or whatever, then how could he doubt that about himself?

But even though those kind of doubts (on par with some of the doubts we may harbour) weren’t really available to Jesus, perhaps others were.

In particular, I wonder what kind of thoroughly human path his developing sense of mission and vocation (and thus of identity) took throughout his life? What questions did Jesus have to wrestle with as he studied and reflected on the Scriptures, as he met with opposition and misunderstanding, even as he laboured in Joseph’s family business (as he no doubt did) while being nurtured on his mother’s stories about his supernatural origin?

If we do decide to walk down this path, then I wonder what light it might shed on moments like the temptation in the wilderness. Or Gethsemane.

On the face of it, Gethsemane isn’t easy to view in terms of doubt.

Hesitation? Definitely.

Fear? Almost certainly?

Desperation? Highly likely.

But doubt? I don’t know… Maybe?

And yet — here’s an extremely half-baked thought — as Jesus pleads with his Father, giving us a glimpse of the enormous cost of willingly walking the path of obedient sonship, maybe we’re in the presence of deep doubt. Something more existential than intellectual.

This is doubt, moreover, being confronted with honesty. Agonised and agonising honesty.

And ultimately it’s faith. For here, as often, doubt is not so much faith’s enemy as the very thing that stirs it up. As it stirred up the Lord to struggle in prayer — surrendering to his Father’s good, pleasing and perfect will and entrusting himself to him who judges justly…

And another even less well-baked thought follows hot on the heels of this one:

Could Jesus even at that moment have been wrestling titanically with the nameless doubts that also assail us? Being overwhelmed and dislocated — physically and spiritually — by them? So as to secure a blessing for us?

on making do as we’re passing through

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Natalie and I have been road-tripping with our thirteen month old son for the last couple of weeks. We’ve been thoroughly blessed to have caught up with a remarkable number of dear friends and family.

But we’ve noticed more than ever before how our pattern of road-tripping is characterised by indulgence (of ourselves, and now our son) to compensate for the very real discomforts of the journey.

It seems like hard work trying to make sure we stay awake — and our child sleeps (or at least stays quiet) — at all the right times.

We’re forced to ‘make do’ with whatever goods and services are available wherever we find ourselves — no matter how average the coffee or how apparently unlikely the food is to appeal to a one year old.

But we get to be surprisingly indulged at the same time.

We’ve eaten far too many burgers. Our son has enjoyed his first single-serving sachets of sweetened yoghurt. And somehow we’ve managed to find some very decent coffee outside the major cities. All of us, including our son, seem to have put on weight!

And we get to experience some gratuitous freedoms too. For one thing, not only are we not doing any of the things we probably should be doing (cleaning the house, answering emails, etc) but we’re also not able to do any of that stuff.

As a result of this gift of time, we inevitably have our best conversations.

The whole experience has made us reflect on what it might be like for people who are always passing through by necessity — asylum seekers, migrants, temporary residents. Which is the experience the New Testament tells us should be the pattern for Christians too: we are aliens and exiles, according to the Apostle Peter.

People on such journeys are forced to ‘make do’ in much more extreme situations and discomfort all the time.

And yet perhaps that doesn’t have to mean that life is therefore reduced to a matter of mere survival and desperation (although even our road trip had moments of those!).

Here’s hoping our road trip has helped us appreciate a little better the complexities and compensations of passing through.

carried away on a flood of tears

After experiencing that shrinking feeling and then taking on titanic proportions when she nibbled a biscuit labelled “EAT ME”, Alice falls to weeping — and is carried away on a flood of tears.

That’s pretty much where I’m at now in my own adventure down the rabbit hole.

In earlier posts I shared how I’ve realised that simply knowing more stuff — or even having an integrated Christian worldview — just won’t do the job when it comes to spiritual growth.

After making me feel small and insignificant, I think this realisation has led me to (finally) begin to get the significance of the ‘self’ in biblical passages like this:

Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4.16)

Or this:

So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2.8)

This is what I think I was driving at HERE (in my typically roundabout and muddled way).

Sharing of ourselves — investing personally in others — is the indispendible context for making and maturing disciples of Jesus: that is, people who not only have the ‘right answers’ theologically or an integrated Christian worldview, but who worship and love and centre their lives on him. (This, by the way, is why I’ve come to see solid preaching as necessary but insufficient.)

But why are our (shared) lives so significant? And how?

As examples. Obviously.

But examples of what?

Not perfection I take it (otherwise I’m out). But growth and change. The biblical term for which is also that word that stands over the start of the Christian life… Repentance!

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1.15)

Repentance is often associated with tears. You know, groveling and self-laceration? Like in certain over-rated Puritan prayers…

But I like the theological tradition (which you can find in Calvin) that binds repentance — gospel repentance — to joy.

It is with my face streaming with joy. As I’m carried away (not ‘lifted out of myself’). Soul and body. Exulting in the fist-pumpingly good news of the kingdom (at last!), of life, of the resurrection, of God’s “Yes”!

That’s the kind of life we’re called to share. To embody examples of. Living, walking, talking appetisers for the glorious feast we’re awaiting in the kingdom of God.

And, to pre-empt where all this is heading, for this we need recalibrated inner compasses — reordered desires, loves untangled and set right, hearts gripped and filled and brimming over with right affections (enacted in right habits). And we’ll only ever get this by believing the gospel more and more…

But you’ll have to forgive me. I’m getting carried away.

beyond Pentecostal Christology (i)

When I outlined the Christological basis for Edward Irving’s move into what today we would call Pentecostalism, I promised that alongside my appreciation of its merits (which are considerable) I would also share a couple of reservations. Although, maybe ‘reservations’ puts things around the wrong way.

Rather than a dead end that we should notice but not walk down (a sort of theological cautionary tale), I believe Irving’s Christology is an incredibly fruitful and necessary step along the way to recovering a richer understanding of Jesus — and, consequently, of the shape and dynamism of the Christian life.

Let me explain how I see this working.

As far as our understanding of Christology, Irving has highlighted the significant role of the Spirit in Jesus’ incarnation, life, and ministry — raising questions about his humanity and to what extent he might be a role-model for us and not simply God stepping in and doing what we can’t. Instead of backing away from this, I think we should embrace it.

What embracing this means, on the one hand, is that we must affirm the trinitarian backdrop that makes sense of classical formulations of the full divinity of Jesus.

That is to say, what it means for Jesus to be fully God (as well as fully human) is that he shares in the unique divine identity with Israel’s God — co-eternal, co-equal, and united with the Father in essence and will. And Irving’s close work in the biblical text helps us see that Jesus does this by the powerful agency of the Spirit.

On the other hand, embracing the role of the Spirit in enabling Jesus to walk the path he does in his ‘incarnate career’ helps us see his representative humanity as a full and genuine humanity. So we can admit that in his life — and supremely and climactically in his death and resurrection — Jesus does do what we cannot do. And yet he does it as one of us.

This means his work for us isn’t detached from us — something God goes over our heads to do, merely wielding Jesus’ humanity like some fleshly instrument. Rather, it’s carried it out in deepest connection with us and our being.

As a real human being, Jesus is able to deal with our plight from within — getting to its heart by the power of the Spirit, and becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.

Likewise, as a real human being, he now lives and stands before God for us — sharing his risen life with us by the power of the very Spirit he graciously pours out.

I’ll try to tease out how I see this shaping and energising Christian living in the next post.

the roots of Pentecostal Christology?

Returning to my series on the fascinating theology of Edward Irving, I suggested in my introductory post that one of the things that propelled him out of the Church of Scotland and into his role as founder of a new Pentecostal denomination was his distinctive take on the Spirit’s role in the ‘incarnate career’ of Jesus.

That is to say, for Irving it all started with Christology — and with a desire to stick closely to the text of Scripture. So it’s worth asking what we can appreciate before I register a couple of my reservations.

(In case you think what follows is an automatic recommendation of Irving, let me remind you that Arius also began with issues of Christology — specifically a desire to secure a genuinely suffering Saviour — and a biblicist sensibility — “More Bible, less philosophy” seemed to be his mantra. And Arius ended up denying the Trinity.)

To begin with, Irving picked up on the significant — and often-overlooked — role the Spirit is given in all the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, especially.

And if you think about it the Holy Spirit really does get big billing at pretty much all the decisive moments in Jesus’ life: in his incarnation and virginal conception, in his baptism, in his confrontation with Satan in the wilderness, in public discussion of the significance of his mighty works, in his resurrection, and — tracking through into Acts — in the vindication of his ascended lordship as he pours out the promised Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Irving concluded from this that Jesus was enabled to do his mighty works not so much by virtue of his divinity as by his Spirit-powered (or Spirit-perfected) humanity. Hence, Irving began to wonder whether this power might be available not just for the unique God-man but for all upon whom the Spirit was poured out.

And it’s at least worth considering this prospect, isn’t it? I mean, didn’t Jesus say that his disciples would do ‘greater works’ than him once he’d gone to the Father and left them his Spirit (John 14.12)?

could there be an evolutionary argument for faith?

Some years ago, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga produced a famous evolutionary argument against naturalism (it’s famous enough to make it to the Wikipedia page dedicated to him).

Very roughly, it goes something like this:

  • If evolution and naturalism are both true, as the New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens assert, we have no good grounds to expect our brains to reliably form true beliefs about the world. For within a naturalistic framework, evolution tells us our belief-generating and -testing mechanisms are wired to promote survival not necessarily truth.
  • Hence this poisons the well of both evolution and naturalism. For why should we think these beliefs are exempted from the general conditions they themselves entail all beliefs are subject to?

I have to admit that ever since I stumbled across this argument, it’s left me cold. Mostly because it feels like a parlour trick — I’m left wondering what the logician is going to pull out of his hat next.

But the other day I came across something in Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel In A Pluralist Society (page 28) that might just breath life into Plantinga’s argument:

Why should we rule out the possibility that things are such that human life is intended to require the taking of risks? It seems, in fact, that both human and animal life requires taking risks. What grounds are there for thinking that [the] idea of total certainty is anything other than illusion, a piece of wishful thinking that has no relation to reality?

To be fair, Newbigin’s target here is the kind of rationalism that goes back to Descartes, which looks to human reason to deliver ironclad certainty — a kind of transcendence when it comes to knowing. Yet when you hear Dawkins or Hitchens compare their hard-nosed scientific approach to faith’s wilful (and destructive) ‘blindness’, it doesn’t feel too wide of the mark.

What I find interesting is how it’s Newbigin’s observation of the natural world — the very thing evolution is supposed to be par excellence — that cuts against the rationalist hankering for transcendence.

Of course, it also resonates with the Christian conviction that we’re creatures and so all our attempts to know unfold within creaturely limitations.

But perhaps there’s an evolutionary argument for faith waiting to be made here. Or if not for faith, then perhaps simply againstDitchkinsian‘ rationalism.

the future of forgiveness

A bunch of thoughts about forgiveness collided in my head over the weekend.

Let me share them with you — then you tell me whether you’ve glimpsed the creation of a whole new (highly unstable) element or something more like a five car pile-up:

  1. Forgiveness has a future. That is, forgiveness only makes sense in so far as it prepares the ground for the restoration of a wider moral and relational order in which life can flourish. This was the basic thesis of a lecture I attended late last week, ‘Forgiveness: Narrative and Lyrical’ by Kevin Hart — and it was what sparked off my chain of thought.
  2. Forgiveness provides a foretaste of the future. A strong case can be made for seeing the Lord’s Prayer as all about the future that Jesus’ resurrection secures. So it’s significant that the only present human activity it mentions is forgiving (as something inseparable from being forgiven).
  3. And yet the future holds more than forgiveness. Hence, Christians are called to engage in a variety of activities anticipating creation’s ultimate future. As we pursue things like justice, beauty, and responsible stewardship of God’s world, we’re not so much building the kingdom as establishing bridgeheads of the proper final ordering of things to the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit.
  4. But I’m less sure about how forgiveness relates to these other aspects of the new creation. How does Point 2 fit with Point 3? Whenever I talk about Point 3 with people, some get excited while others greet it with a degree of scepticism. This usually bubbles up in cautious questions about how the pursuit of justice or stewardship of creation (or whatever) should be prioritised with respect to evangelism — ie. announcing God’s forgiveness and urging people to be reconciled with God.

Not very concrete, I know. At least not yet.

But do please share your thoughts with me…

what if hospitality is the key to reading (and applying) the Bible?

Have you ever stared at a Magic Eye picture for ages before it’s resolved and you can see the image inside the pattern?

Or looked up at the stars searching out the relationships modern astronomers have discerned and clothed with ancient mythological names — Orion’s belt, Hercules, Andromeda?

You have?

Well, you know the moment just before everything resolves — where you know that there must be some sense, some coherence, but it’s hovering tantalisingly out of reach?

That’s how I feel about hospitality right now.

I feel like I’m close to a break-through. Close to seeing how hospitality may provide a key to reading the whole Bible. How it may in fact be the central interest and goal that draws together the various threads of the Christian story — of God’s own story.

Of course, it’s all tangled up with the practical question Christine D. Pohl raises in Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (p 150) — ‘If we use hospitality as a lens through which to examine our homes, churches, jobs, schools, health care, and politics, might we see them differently?’

(This is especially true because, for some months now, I’ve been working on some resources to help local churches harness hospitality to better connect with their communities in mission and service.)

Like I said, I’m not there yet. If there’s a break-through coming, it’s still waiting in the wings.

But stay tuned! Because I’ll have something for you — irrespective of whether or not the pieces all fall into place…

I promise this isn’t a Morbid Fascination With Death thing…

…but you have to check out this quote. It’s Colin Gunton commenting on how the goodness of our given/natural mortal constitution becomes that menacing predator, Death:

There is … a distinction to be drawn between death as the proper limit of our days on earth, and the death that breaks in to make them deadly; that which is the creator’s gift of limits to our days on earth, and that which turns that finitude into a threat of nothingness. Sin is that which causes the one to be the other, so that without Christ’s bearing of death upon the cross and the promise of resurrection, death as the cessation of all relationships, above all that with God, would be the final fact narrated of us, and so the final nullifying of God’s purposes in creation. (The Triune Creator, p 173)

There’s gold buried in them there sub-clauses!