Tuesday, March 10, 2015

College Event: Gender, Sexuality, and the Church

Here's a glimpse at the college event I'm running next week. On day one I'll be lecturing toward a theology of gender and sexuality, on day two we've got a lecture from our Principal, a film and a couple of panels who will lead us into discussion about gender roles and norms; on day three and four we've got presenters from both sides of the Church of England's same-sex marriage debate, and on day five we finish off with a film to help us reflect on the kind of people and community we want to be as we carry forward in love.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Marriage and Family as 'Covenant and Calling' (according to Robert Song)

As its subtitle says, the argument of Robert Song's 2014 Covenant and Calling is oriented Toward a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships. I won't be talking about that here right now, but I do want to highlight one of the running threads throughout this book which--regardless of whether I'm persuaded by the book's overall argument or not--I find to be rather evocative and enlightening. 

In the excerpts below I've tried to pull out and arrange the quotes that highlight this thread most clearly. It has to do with our understanding of marriage and family (or not-family) as particularly-discerned callings, the content of which is filled in by our primary covenant with Christ.  I think you'll see there are all sorts of things one could talk about here (so let me know if you'd like to do just that).

'For the sake of clarity, in this book I will regularly refer to faithfulness, permanence and procreation as the [created] goods of marriage. 

By faithfulness, I mean not just the commitment of the partners to forsake all others and stay faithful to the marriage bed, but also to provide mutual support, protection and love. By permanence is meant not an indissoluble, sacramental bond which makes divorce ontologically impossible, as found in Roman Catholic teaching, but the moral bond created by the promise of faithfulness so long as both partners shall live. By procreation I mean an openness to having children as the result of the couple's sexual relationship, mindful of the fact that not all marriages will in fact be fertile' (7).

Today's evangelical Christian typically views only the first two of these as essential to Christian marriage, but on Robert Song's observation still tends to construe 'childless marriages' according to a 'deficit model, defined by what they lack.' This leads him to ask: 'Might we not be able to imagine an alternative response to the place of deliberately childless marriages that hints at something altogether more constructive and hopeful?' (33).

'[I]f marriage is in part constituted by its procreativity and yet procreation is not possible, it is not clear what feature of marriage will ensure that such couples will be oriented to the good beyond themselves that is ordinarily embodied in children.Children symbolize, and in their demands on their parents they actualize, an openness to hospitality that prevents marriage collapsing into an egoistic and complacent coupledom' (34-35).

'Could [childless couples] also bear eschatological witness to the goods of faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness, and thus participate in the corporate ecclesial discernment of vocation, in which some are called to bear witness to the goods of creation [via procreation], and others to creation's fulfilment in the coming Kingdom [via other kinds of fruitful hospitality]? (36).

'Might it be that after the birth of Christ covenant partnership is the deeper and more embracing category, with procreative marriage now being the special case?... All covenant partnerships would be characterized by faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness, but in some cases that fruitfulness would take the specific form of children from within the couple's sexual relationship, in other cases it would take the form of any number of kinds of works of charity...

This would bring out the theological truth, and not just the moral exhortation, in Gregory of Nyssa's counsel that once children have left home and a couple's immediate responsibilities to them have died down, the couple themselves to works for the poor...

It would revivify the Christian understanding that marriages are always for something beyond themselves, not just for the personal fulfilment of the couple. Just as we saw that covenant partnerships must always be characterized by fruitfulness in doing the works of the Lord so as to avoid the dangers of an égoïsme à deux, so we would understand that procreative marriages are also always oriented to procreation as a species of fruitfulness and therefore oriented beyond themselves.

Marriages too carry the danger of forming introverted happy families, and need to be reminded that children are a good in themselves while also pointing beyond themselves, inasmuch as they are tokens of the hospitality and openness to the other that all marriages are called to. 

The witness of the Christian Church in marriage would then clearly be demarcated not as a paeon to the nuclear family, let alone to patriarchal models of marriage, but rather to the avoidance of self-centred and consumerist models of marriage and family. Marriage enriches society and strengthens community, yet it does so not by raising new generations of consumers, but by nurturing people who are capable of love' (89-90).

Thursday, February 05, 2015

'Death before the Fall': Creation perfected through suffering?

I've been thinking about the creaturely expanse of God's creative and redemptive plans, including the (possible) place of animal suffering within those plans (not least because I'm preaching on 'Knowing God in suffering' this Sunday). If you find yourself wondering about things alluded to here, I do recommend Osborn's Death Before the Fall and David Clough's On Animals.

'As unsettling as it may be for some readers to discover, nowhere in Genesis is the creation described as "perfect." God declares his work to be "good" or tob at each stage and finally "very good"--tob me'od--at its end.... 

In Deuteronomy 32:4, we read that God's "work is tamim" or "perfect" ... [but when we read it] in its full literary context, for example, we find that God's tamim work of creation--his "fashioning" of the children of Israel--is revealed precisely in the long, perilous and conflictive process ...

If the reading I have offered so far is at all correct and God recruits the creation at each stage to play an active, participatory role in what follows, with Adam being charged with an especially vital task of "subduing" other parts of the earth, then there is a very good theological reason why God declares the creation to be "very good" rather than "perfect" ...

There is ... a strong sense that while creation is in one sense "complete" at the end of the narrative, it is not yet finished. God "ended his work which he had made" (Gen 2:2)--that is, he completed what he had completed. But the story of God's creative purposes for his world has in fact just begun....

The fact that God "rested" or "ceased" from his work on the seventh day may therefore represent not a termination point but a deeply pregnant pause. There is more to come, and we must wait to hear God say the words "it is finished."'

- Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall, pages 28-32
(paragraph spacing altered for blog-readability)

Osborn spends far more of this book contesting young earth creationism than I cared to read, but he does offer a compelling reading of the Bible along the lines indicated above. That said, there are aspects of this which don't quite 'sit right' with me--so you're not alone if this causes you some consternation!---but I think this needs thinking about, and I'm happy to carry thoughts and discussions forward rather than close them off in pre-emptive conclusions. 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Intro to Ronald Osborn's 'Death Before the Fall'

Fresh off of reading David Clough's On Animals: Part One, Systematic Theology -- which got me thinking about the creaturely expanse of God's creative and redemptive plans -- I've turned to Ronald Osborn's Death Before the Fall in an effort to think further about some of the pressing concerns implicit in confessing Jesus Christ as the 'Word made flesh' and Reconciler of all things. Thus far I have only read the Introduction, but I do find myself resonating with the tensions raised in these lines:

'Like millions of Christians, I was raised to believe that God created all of earth's creatures in six literal days in the relatively recent past. In the beginning, there was no mortality and no predation of any kind. The natural world -- my parents, pastors and elementary school teachers all sincerely believed and taught me -- was radically altered as a result of Adam and Eve's decision to eat the forbidden fruit. The blame for all death and all suffering in nature thus fell squarely upon rebellious humans. This was why lions now killed Cape buffalo in Mana Pools and why there were crocodiles and bilharzia parasites in the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. 

But of course no human action could have produced such an instantaneous change, not simply in instincts but also in the anatomical structures of countless creatures. The idea that the lions in Eden were docile vegetarians with dagger-sharp claws originally designed by God for tearing the bark off trees appeared downright silly. Somehow those massive canine teeth and retractable claws for taking down living pray had got there

This seemingly left only one possibility: God himself was responsible for the transformation of all nature in what amounted to a hostile second creation after Adam and Eve's fall. All mortality and all predation in the animal kingdom were the result of a divine punishment or "curse." 

The vexing question of the justice of such an act -- of why God would inflict death and suffering on innocent creatures to punish sinful humans -- did not enter my mind as a child. I simply assumed that older and wiser people whom I loved and trusted had done the hard theological work, and that there were no deeper questions about the creation left to be asked. The task of believers was not to raise difficult problems but to provide confident answers.'

- Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall, page 16

(paragraph spacing altered for blog-readability)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

'Discipleship' according to Bonhoeffer

When I first read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Discipleship some twenty years ago its impact was mainly personal and vocational. It was the abridged paperback entitled Cost of Discipleship and it had a huge hand in compelling me to take the Christian faith seriously, indeed even to give my life to the service of Christ. You can see why based on just a few quotes from the first chapter, 'Costly Grace':

'Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways' (43).

'[Such] grace takes care of everything by itself.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ' (44).

'[O]nly those who are obedient can believe' (47).

It is pretty easy to see how this chapter can serve as a call to wake from slumber and cross the line from religion to active faith.

Reading it again at Trinity College this week -- this time in the unabridged fresh translation provided in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works --  I am struck again not only at its personal impact but also at how resistant Bonhoeffer is to letting it be merely so. Indeed, this is a book that is profoundly social and political -- so much so that one can hardly conceive of Christianity any other way.

Consider excerpts such as these, not only for their timely call to public, protestant Christianity, but also their polemic against the dutifully secular relegation of faith to the privacy of the inner life:

'The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost. The world was Christianized; grace became common property of a Christian world. It could be had cheaply' (47).

'Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace. But because the church tolerated this protest and did not permit it to build up to a final explosion, the church relativized it... For now monastic life became the extraordinary achievement of individuals, to which the majority of church members need not be obligated' (47).

from the movie 'Luther'
'For Luther, on the contrary, a Christian's secular vocation is justified only in that one's protest against the world is thereby most sharply expressed' (49).

'Luther's path out of the monastery back to the world meant the sharpest attack that had been launched on the world since early Christianity. The rejection which the monk had given the world was child's play compared to the rejection that the world endured through his returning to it. This time the attack was a frontal assault. Following Jesus now had to be lived out in the midst of the world. What had been practiced in the special, easier circumstances of monastic life as a special accomplishment now had become what was necessary and commanded for every Christian in the world' (48).

'Grasping at forgiveness was the final radical rejection of self-willed life; the acknowledgment of grace itself was his [Luther's] first really serious call to discipleship' (50).

Keep in mind that Bonhoeffer is writing these things before the Nazi threat had become obvious to the world; when the church was a well-meaning frog slowly boiling in the kettle of lordless powers. Before the imprisonment and hanging that made Bonhoeffer a Christian hero, he was exiled by his country and church. By elevating him as a hero rather than hearing his insistence on normalcy, do we distance ourselves from his call to discipleship?

(quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4,
translated by Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss
and published by Fortress Press in 2003).