Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Clearly we need clarity

In the post below I note a controversy over the appointment of a high-ranking Oz clergyman to the position of Interim Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome - a controversy arising because of remarks made about 10 years ago about the resurrection. The social media campaign about this led to some mainstream media news articles and that, almost inevitably, led to a refutation - what I do believe - by Dr Shepherd of the conjectures being aired about what he does not believe.

Here I am not particularly concerned with Dr Shepherd's views on the resurrection nor of those of his critics. But I am keen to reflect a little out loud on what we think we are doing as Christian pundits when we use the word "clear" (or clearly, clarity).

I tweeted a little about the controversy and in one tweet back this was tweeted:

"So give us clarity. Is it acceptable for a man that clearly denies the Resurrection to hold such a position of senior leadership?"

Irrespective of whether Shepherd himself "clearly" denied or affirmed any aspect of the Resurrection, the word "clearly" raises questions when we discuss theology in relation to Scripture.

I presume, for instance, that in 1611, if I were reading the Bible in contemporary English for the first time as a young man, I could exclaim, "The Bible clearly teaches that God made the world and everything in it in six (twenty-four hour) days" and, presumably, the only people to deny my confident "clearly" would be those who read Genesis 2 as well as Genesis 1 and engaged me in a discussion about time and creation within the biblical narrative itself.

But in 2019, post-Darwin etc, it is not so clear what what the Bible means by Genesis 1's six days of creation. Is the best we can do, the clearest we can be, to say, "Clearly the Bible is truthful and the descriptive language used in Genesis 1 must now, clearly, be understood in a way which corresponds to the complex, long duration of the world as we know it coming into being"?

That is, between 1611 and 2019, "clearly" on an aspect of creation has been forced to give way to a new, revised statement on what the Bible means. We need to take words such as "clearly" carefully when we talk Bible and theology, but we do not need to do away with them. Science makes no clear claim as to whether God created the world or not and the Bible in 2019 as well as 1611 makes a very clear claim that God created the world.

What is clear about the resurrection of Jesus?

I think we can make some incontrovertibly clear statements about the resurrection. For instance,

- Believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead made all the difference in the world to the first Christians.

- Appearances of the risen Jesus, as evidenced by 1 Corinthians 15, were widespread among the community of followers of Jesus.

- The four canonical gospels attest that the tomb of Jesus was emptied of his corpse.

- The witness of some accounts of appearances of the risen Jesus is that the risen Jesus engaged in physical acts such as speaking, eating and drinking.

- Combining the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul, the New Testament attests to "the" resurrection of the dead being a transformation into a form of being beyond our imagining (e.g. a form of being that will not lead to marriage; a form of being with as much or as little resemblance to our earthly bodies as a plant has to the seed from which it germinates).

- The words "physical", "spiritual" and other words such as "transphysicality", when used to discuss the form of body of the risen Jesus encountered by his followers and described in the gospel and 1 Corinthian 15 accounts, require careful elucidation and explanation if controversy and/or confusion is to be avoided.

- When, according to Scriptural accounts, people were raised from the dead (such as Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain) readers are not intended to presume they will not subsequently, eventually, die in the usual human way, thus such resurrections are resuscitations and not examples of "the" resurrection from the dead.

Readers will have noted that what I don't propose as "incontrovertibly clear" are statements such as:

- The tomb of Jesus was empty from the third day and that proves that Jesus rose from the dead.

- The four gospel accounts of the events associated with the resurrection of Jesus (i.e. the discovery of the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus) and the account given in 1 Corinthians 15 are easily harmonised into one seamless account.

- Considered together, the four gospels accounts of the events associated with the resurrection of Jesus and the account given in 1 Corinthians 15 should be read as reliable, consistent, trouble free, objective historical descriptions of a public event.

- All Christians agree that "physical resurrection" is the best descriptive phrase for what happened to Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion.

Now, I believe that we can be "clear" about a number of matters concerning the resurrection of Jesus. For instance, referring you back to the post below and my citation there from Robert Jenson, I am very clear that the tomb was emptied of Jesus' corpse on the third day after his crucifixion. My clarity flows out of both the scriptural accounts and other considerations such as Jenson brings to bear on the matter - considerations, for instance, that it is more likely the tomb was empty than not, given the lack of history of veneration of the corpse of Jesus at the tomb of Jesus. But I acknowledge that I cannot be incontrovertibly clear about this. It is always possible - as the Gospel of Matthew acknowledges, in its final chapter, that the empty tomb might be because of skulduggery with the corpse being removed from the tomb.

I also recognise that unclear statements and words or phrases within statements do not help us in discussion of the resurrection. The Shepherd controversy highlights that words such as "physical" and "spiritual" need explaining ... Jenson highlights that "body" needs elucidation ... Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 15, within another resurrection controversy, takes great care and trouble to work through what our resurrection bodies will be like.

We need clarity when talking about any great matter of doctrinal importance. Clearly this is so!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Holiday musings

As I resume blogging - approximately once a week in this new era in my life - I am also winding out of holiday mode into picking up the tempo as we go working mode. Here I will stick with "holiday musings", perhaps next week taking up "work musings."

Teresa and I, along with 4 million plus Kiwis were blessed this post-Christmas holiday period with some hot summer weather. It was not obvious before Christmas that this would be so. Nor, indeed, the day before we left Christchurch when I watched a day's cricket at Hagley Oval with a nippy wind in my face!

That eventual heat made us appreciative of opportunities - sometimes quite briefly -  to be in some of our special Down Under summer spots, with special reference to water: Kaikoura Coast, Tahunanui Beach, Pohara, Tata Beach, Gisborne, Tolaga Bay, Tokomaru Bay, Te Araroa, East Cape, Raukokore, Opotiki, Gisborne (again), Mahia Beach, Lake Waikaremoana, Napier. Also appreciative of cars with air conditioning!

Exploring the East Coast of the North Island was new to me. I had been to Napier and Gisborne before, but never driven the road between these two towns, nor driven the coastal route from Gisborne to Opotiki. Our journey took in some memorable places, generating some pics below.

Memorial to Sir Apirana Ngata, outside St Mary's Memorial Church, Tikitiki

Extraordinary stained glass window in east wall of St Mary's Memorial Church, Tiktiki. Two WW1 Maori Battalion soldiers kneeling at the foot of the cross, the crucified Jesus and slain soldiers set within Paradise.

Christ Church, Raukokore - the North Island's corresponding church to the South Island's Church of the Good Shepherd on the shores of Lake Tekapo?

Hicks Bay - one of a series of famous East Coast beaches.

Mahia Beach - arguably as nice a beach-to-have-a-holiday-home-beside as any beach in Aotearoa NZ!
The occasion of our visit to this lovely but remote part of Down Under was the Unveiling of the Memorial to Archbishop Brown Turei, at his marae and nearby urupa (cemetery) at Whangaparaoa, on Saturday 5th January. Everything went well and we were privileged to be participants in this occasion of great importance for Archbishop Brown's whanau, for Te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa and for our church as a whole. The following day, back in Gisborne we were also privileged to be guests of current Archbishop and Pihopa o Aotearoa, Don Tamihere.

Now, these brief reports do not tell the whole story of all places and churches visited recently, nor or people met and books and articles digested. And, in comments on my previous post, below, there continued to be much food for thought. And, and ...  I notice continuing "events" in the wider, global Anglican story of our times ... and I note that these mostly continue to be about That Topic. So my "holiday musings," here below, are not solely catalysed by our East Coast adventure.

Musing 1: holidays can be an opportunity to recall, again, what an extraordinary world we live in. I thank God not only that God created our wonderful world but also that we have One whom we can thank. A musing through these past few weeks has been about whether as church we bear witness to the God Whom We Can Thank for the gift of life and of love. We worry about whether atheists pray or not when in a foxhole on the battlefield, but what do atheists do when absorbing the beauty of an East Coast beach?!

Musing 2: holidays can also be an opportunity to be reminded that many Kiwis are happy and contented with their lives. Finding well patronised restaurants and cafes in holiday places, with happy, laughing patrons, or walking the beaches and meeting people enjoying sea, sand and sun, I find myself musing that the progress of the gospel Down Under is difficult because life here is so darn good for lots of people. Now - of course - I do not wish for misfortune to drive us back/forward to God but my musing is that we continue to have a huge challenge communicating to fellow Kiwis that God is worth bothering about, that the truest, deepest, enduring secret to life (Colossians 1:27) is Christ and not Kiwiana! Working also from Colossians - an epistle I have been reading especially these past few weeks - our question today is how we can make the secret "clear" to our fellow Kiwis (Colossians 4:4).

Musing 3: nevertheless, while not wishing this to be so, I have also been musing on whether we are very close to (climate) catastrophe? That same summer heat at times has felt unusually hot. We know the climate is changing. Recent news reports have talked about the heating of the planet's seawater and the probable acceleration of general global warming as a result. How close are we to a global catastrophe with respect to climate?

Musing 4: I have kept reading Jenson's Systematic Theology, including his chapter on the resurrection. Coincidentally, there is an emerging controversy over the newly appointed Interim Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, the Very Rev'd Dr John Shepherd, because of some remarks he once made about the resurrection (see news reports here and here). Jenson himself is very careful and nuanced about the resurrection and would have words to say to Shepherd's critics (to the extent, e.g., that they throw terms like "literal" around without nuance). But Jenson makes one of the best points ever about why the tomb was empty: concluding discussion on what "body" means in respect of human bodies, the body of Christ in sacrament and as the church, he writes

"The organism that was Jesus' availability - that was his body - until he was killed would have as a corpse continued to be an availability of this person, of the kind that tombs and bodies of the dead always are. It would have been precisely a relic, such as the saints of all religions have. Something other than sacrament and church would have located the Lord for us, would have provided a direction for devotion; and that devotion would have been to a saint, and so would have been something other than faith and obedience to a living Lord. The tomb we may therefore very cautiously judge, had to be empty after the Resurrection for the Resurrection to be what it is." (p. 206, Vol 1 Systematic Theology).

UPDATE: Shepherd has responded to his critics here. AND we could add this in here (Rowan Williams on John Spong ...).

Monday, December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and I am on another blogging holiday!

Dear Readers,

Thank you for reading through 2018!

This has been an extraordinary year for me personally, having no anticipation at its beginning that I would be elected a bishop before its end.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

As in previous years, I will be on a blogging holiday for a while, likely to resume service on Monday 14th January 2019.

As my new role Is already showing me how demanding it will be timewise, I am recognising that my aspiration to keep blogging will best be achieved by aiming to post once per week. And Monday mornings will be a good day to aim for making that weekly post.

Here is to Mondays in 2019 :)

POSTSCRIPT

I had some fascinating ministry experiences over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Two/four experiences illustrated the continuing reality and potential for the Christian faith to connect with many Kiwis and for "church" to be at the heart of communities. And two/four experiences illustrated the continuing reality and potential for many Kiwis to be disconnected from the Christian faith and for "church" to be at the margins of communities. We live in interesting times, with challenges and opportunities for the gospel.


Saturday, December 22, 2018

The season has a reason!

My friend and colleague, Spanky Moore, University of Canterbury Chaplain, was interviewed yesterday on "The Panel", and a recording is here.

It is incredible that we have this almost totalitarian approach to Christmas (see some remarks within an Andrew Sullivan article) with so little attention to the reason for the season.

The listener whom Jim Mora quotes near the beginning of the segment makes a marvellous point: something significant is at work in the birth of Jesus. After all, no one will be celebrating her birthday (nor yours, dear reader, nor mine) 2000 years hence!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Is Theresa May the most important person in the world today? PS: what about Jesus?

Thinking further about last week's post (immediately below this), I have been thinking about the importance of the resurrection to claims that the Christian message is true. In a world of competing religions, where religion can be characterized as that which makes human life meaningful in the face of death (that is, in the face of the fact that we humans know we are going to die and thus we think about what it means to exist and to cease to exist), it is noticeable that religions offer a vision of life after death.

A simple consequential observation, of course, is that our means of knowing which vision of life after death is true, are very limited. No one has ever come back from Nirvana to tell us all about it. No Islamic martyr has returned to confirm the number of virgins available to him in Paradise. Religions, in respect of life after death, either win our adherence because we believe what they say for other reasons (miracles, compelling logic, superlative example of the religion's founder, experiences of the divine associated with the religion, etc) or what is offered as a vision of life after death is simply compelling in its own right.

Christians claim that one person, Jesus, has come back from life beyond death.* Thus our claim that we can look forward to resurrection is undergirded by conviction that we have a direct witness to support that hope.

Having had a few thoughts along those lines, I find today that Andrew Sullivan has written further on the matter of religion and politics, taking on various critics. Here. But, as (nearly) always, discussion of religion, including evidence for religious truth claims, does not mention Jesus.

Incidentally, before you get to what Andrew says about religion, you can read a fascinating analysis of the significance of Theresa May's attempt to secure a Brexit deal. It might just mean she is the most important person in the world today ... apart from Jesus Christ!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Religion is what matters most and what matters most might be politics

Andrew Sullivan is a shrewd commentator and always worth reading. In this article, "America's New Religions," he argues

"Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided."

Along the way, Sullivan offers insights and bon mots on the nature of religion, its necessity for humanity because we of all creatures know we are going to die, and the follies and fallacies of (at least some) well-known atheists.

A challenge - it struck me - is what role does "religion" play in my own life. If religion is that which helps us to make sense of the meaning of life, then, yes, Christianity - the faith based on the gospel of Jesus Christ - is central to and dominating in my understanding of the meaning of life. But, what other things help me find meaning? Are other religions at work within me? As a Kiwi looking at a Trumpian America, aghast at the involvement of evangelical leaders in the "worship" of Trump, I can readily (according to my own lights) identify a certain kind of American tribalism as that which gives meaning to such Americans. And tribalism is always a false religion. But, then, I need to reckon that being a Kiwi also helps me to make sense of my life ...!

Incidentally, the comments at the foot of the Sullivan article are fascinating. Not everyone agrees with him.

Thoughts?

Monday, December 3, 2018

A new reformation?

Various convulsions in global Anglicanism over the past two decades or so, allied with a number of changes in Christianity (marked by conceptions such as "post-Christian", "post-evangelical" and by various shifts in ecumenical alignments and allegiances) have raised here and there commentary on the matter of whether we are undergoing another "Reformation". And the "we" can refer generally to Christianity (perhaps with subsidiary arguments about such major convulsions occurring roughly every 500 years) or, in some discussions, to Anglicans.

That is, splits in the Anglican Communion, the formation of GAFCON, etc are global Anglicanism undergoing a significant re-formation, comparable to the significance of the English Reformation itself, in which the Anglicans of the 16th century forged both a new governance for themselves and purified its doctrine of unscriptural accretions while retaining all that was good and true in doctrine and in practice from the ancient, universal church.

Now, we do not yet know how we will see these matters 100 or 300 years hence, so it is too early to make the call whether we are or are not undergoing a reformation which is comparable to the English Reformation.

But yesterday, participating in a well attended worship service in a parish which has recently experienced disaffiliation of congregational members and its vicar departing to form a new Anglican church, this thought struck me ...

In the history of Anglicanism there have been disaffiliations which, essentially, have been "new formations" rather than "reformations": Puritans and Dissenters leading to the modern Baptist church, Methodists, Plymouth Brethren are the most notable such new formations.

I further thought that these departures represent (it could be argued) an Anglicanism that could not contain the movement which moved towards disaffiliation and an objection to the breadth of Anglicanism that would not narrow itself to conform to the tidy uniformity of belief and practice which those disaffiliating required.

The former - as I understand it - especially applies to the formation of the Methodist church and the latter to the separation of Puritans and Dissenters from the Church of England. (I am less aware of the precise circumstances under which the Plymouth Brethren were formed.)

Now, of course, a very precise difference between these historic new formations and the current situation is that everyone is determined to remain "Anglican"!

But it does seem to me that while we may yet see a reformed global Anglicanism - say, 50 years from now, there is one Anglican Communion which is conformed to the Jerusalem Declaration doctrinally speaking and, perhaps, is united by an elected Primate as the focus of global unity - a different scenario is possible.

In that scenario, the broad Anglican Communion cannot contain GAFCON as a movement within it and GAFCON's objection to the breadth of the Communion means that, in the end, there is a parting of Anglican ways.

Now, and this is very important, a further thought is this: from an historical perspective, we can say that God has blessed all God's Anglican and Anglican-at-root churches: Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Brethren have all flourished.

Whatever the future historical judgement of the present time is, reformation or new formation, there is no need to be anxious about whether God is at work in all our midsts!

Certainly, from my own experience of yesterday, being present in four different events across four different parishes in our Diocese, I have no doubt that God is at work among us.

Note to commenters: please discuss this post without discussion of You Know What. That matter - again - has been discussed very thoroughly a couple of posts below this.

Update: after posting the above, I came across this interesting reflection on Anglican/Episcopal life in North America by Benjamin Guyer.