Monday, September 16, 2019

So, how did we get to be religious, Charles Darwin?

Before we get to this week's main fare, a couple of important articles to link to:

(1) Last Thursday Teresa and I had the extraordinary privilege of attending the ordination of Waitohiariki Quayle, the second Bishop of Te Upoko o Te Ika, first female Maori bishop and first Aotearoa NZ born woman as bishop in our church. Taonga has an excellent article here with lovely photos.

(2) Do we ignore Pentecostalism Down Under style at our peril? This article explores "How Hillsong and other Pentecostal megachurches are redefining religion in Australia." But as pretty much every Christian in NZ knows, Hillsong is hugely influential in NZ also! Lots to ponder for Anglicans used to small congregation: we can get (to put church growth crudely) bums on seats if we define the gospel in terms of God's plan for your successful life. That is not something Anglicans (and most other denominations want to do) ... but in the meantime is Christianity in the perception of society around us being redefined? What if Pentecostalism a la Hillsong is perceived to be normal Christianity and Anglicanism a weird little sect?

So to the main fare.

Inter alia at our recent Synod there was a challenge in terms of evolution: when do we hear the bishops of our church asserting their belief in evolution? Does believing in evolution define (or not) whether we are "conservative" or "progressive"? Does not believing in evolution make Christians very weird in the marketplace of ideas?

 The latest Church Times has a very interesting article here by Mark Vernon.

It begins by setting out the issue of explaining the development of religious consciousness in terms of evolutionary biology:

"EXPLANATIONS for the origins of human religiosity have not escaped the immense fecundity of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many proposals address why people have believed in gods and other worlds as far back as archaeologists can see. To date, two ideas have tended to dominate.
One is that Homo sapiens needed “big gods” to survive. These deities threatened to punish people for their wrongs, with the upshot that large groups worked better together. It sounds plausible, except that our ancestors lived in large groups long before punishing big gods emerged; so the proposal nowadays is widely criticised.A second idea is that early humans were superstitious: they were readily inclined to interpret a rustle of leaves, say, as the movement of a spirit. They were wrong, it is presumed, but that doesn’t matter, because, every so often, a rustle of leaves had a real cause: it signalled the presence of predators. Evolution, therefore, selected for the superstitious because they survived."

But these two ideas have weaknesses, so:

"IN SHORT, the field is ready for a new hypothesis, and another is now gaining ground. Moreover, this hypothesis appeals not only to evolutionary biologists but also to sociologists and theologians. It feels less reductive than its predecessors, and may well cast light on human religiosity today, as well as in times gone by.Leading its development is the Oxford evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar. A recent meeting of the International Society for Science and Religion brought together experts in science and theology as well as archaeology and psychology. It made for a fascinating few days.The proposal might be called “the trance hypothesis”. In the middle palaeolithic period, perhaps 200,000 years ago, humans started to realise that they could induce altered states of consciousness. It marked a step change from the capacity to experience awe and wonder, which is something that we probably share with our primate cousins and other animals. The control of ecstatic states meant that what was revealed could be intentionally explored."

I will leave you to read on to get the further detail needed to complete the explanation of this new hypothesis. Moreover, Mark Vernon offers some striking thoughts about the difference between "spiritual/spirituality" and "religious/religion" worth noting in our age when we are concerned with how we reach people with the gospel or (so to speak) reach the gospel embedded in people already.

My question goes something like this (remembering that I am a bear of small brain and questions about how our faith developed in respect of the prophet Charles Darwin are at the edge of my linguistic, philosophical and theological competency):

If we accept that some such hypothesis as introduced above explains how, along the way of our biological development as homo sapiens, we reached a state in which we could consciously articulate religious thoughts and insights, on what grounds do we then discern that at least some of those thoughts and insights are "not our own" but come to us from outside of ourselves as a newly emerging community of religiously conscious people?

That is, how do we as evolving animals determine that we have received revelation, that God/gods are not our invention?

Monday, September 9, 2019

Mission for an asset rich cash poor church?

We held our Diocesan Synod over the last days of the past week - my first as President of the Synod. It was a full Synod - we finished a few minutes before the designated finishing time of 5 pm on Saturday. It was a helpful Synod - to me at least - because it helped chart some directions over the next twelve months in respect of strategy and planning for action towards my stated big theme for the Diocese: Regeneration through Christ.

In due course and through our official Diocesan media we will report on the Synod. Here I want to reflect generally on an aspect of church life, perhaps more peculiar to Anglican churches than other churches in Aotearoa New Zealand, which various discussions in the Synod touched on. This is the question of funding mission (say, new outreaches into society) and church development (say, building a larger church for a growing congregation to gather in) when the funds do not appear to be available, yet the overall assets of the church (in this case, a Diocese or region) are considerable.

Other ways of putting this include:
- We are asset rich and cash poor.
- We have churches in the wrong places in respect of how housing has developed in the past 50 years; what if we sold all our churches and started again?
- Why own church buildings at all when they consume so many dollars maintaining and repairing them and take up so much administrative time and energy?

But putting things like that raises the inevitable questions of what can and cannot be done.

For instance:
- can a Diocese make a plan, sell buildings over here and build new buildings over there? (Answer, in Anglican polity: mostly a resounding, No!)
- what difference does the heritage status of a building make to what might happen to it? (With related question of cemeteries on church land ...)
- would we settle for always using rented properties rather than properties we own?

On the one hand, it is pretty simple to put up so many questions and raise various issues so that we do nothing to change the status quo.

On the other hand, there is a will to find a way forward and an urgency pressing upon us to change the status quo.

As we sometimes observe to ourselves hereabouts, there is no point in being the last Anglican in the Diocese of Christchurch wondering what to do with several hundred million dollars of real estate.

Our Synod raised questions. This time we didn't settle on answers. A year from now we will come back to these matters. We will have done more work by then. My blog a year from now may or may not have some definitive decisions to report!

On the other hand

Monday, September 2, 2019

Round up of not insignificant things

(1) This past weekend Teresa and I have been in Nelson for the ordination of Steve Maina as bishop and installation as the 11th Bishop of Nelson. There is a good report with a small video and a photo or two here. The weather was amazing so the town procession referred to in the report was very pleasant. The two and a half hour service seemed not to take that long. It was a joy to be back in Nelson cathedral (one of my favourites).

(2) Bishop Steve's new role in the traditionally conservative Diocese of Nelson in part will be worked out against the backdrop of continuing outworkings of our GS 2018 decision on the blessing of same sex civil marriages. Although, in a sense, the "noise" since then has been about disaffiliations, there has nevertheless been a "quiet" progress in the development of a Christian Community, the option for staying within the polity of ACANZP while strongly signalling a certain distance from the GS decision. Taonga has an update on the development of the AFFIRM-based Christian Community as well as a rationale for it, here.

(3) How important is marriage? How do Christians respond to its breakdown? How should we respond? What is held in common about marriage across the great Christian streams (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox), and what is different? No less a figure than David Bentley Hart has some interesting things to say here, from an Orthodox perspective. His criticism of annulment in the modern age is my criticism. But is he correct in some other things he has to say? Thoughts?

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Perspicuous, puzzling, pleasant and painful passages: theological development across Scripture?

Prompted via an offline discussion of last week's post, I am going to continue digging into reflection on Scripture as the Word of God written.

Can we say, accurately and fairly, that the whole of Scripture is "God's Word written"?

Scripture, after all, is pretty much divisible into two kinds of passages: the perspicuous and puzzling (see last week's post on Psalm 17), and the perspicuous passages in turn could be divided into the pleasant (i.e. passages we like, which inspire and comfort us) and the painful (i.e. passages we do not like, for one reason or another, which are difficult to reconcile with our understanding of God and God's Word, as revealed in the pleasantly perspicuous passages).

Thus my interlocutor during the week mentioned passages I am calling "painful": 1 Samuel 15, Joshua 11 (passages about destruction of Israel's enemies) and 1 Timothy 2:13-15 (a passage with a dim view of Eve/women). There are many such passages.

We can, of course, attempt to respond by explaining such passages: they are not as bad as they seem ... the destructive talk was rhetoric, it never actually happened ... but even the best explainers among us have to admit that we are not going to deal with all such passages. My interlocutor's point was not whether we can minimise the number of such passages but whether the existence of even one such painful passage undermines generalised talk of Scripture as God's Word written.

Is it reasonable to speak of Scripture as God's written Word when it contains painful passages (i.e.  passages which raise the moral challenge of whether God is actually good) and puzzling passages (i.e. passages which raise the moral difficulty of why God communicates through words we do not understand)?

Note that this question is not an idle one for Anglicans because we are committed to reading Scripture in our public worship services, in our daily devotions when we follow Morning and Evening Prayer, and generally because of our commitment to Scripture through our constitution.

Thus, I remind myself and you, dear reader, of Article 6, "In the name of the holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testaments, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church ..." and Article 20, "... And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." The book we commonly call "the Bible" is the Scripture which is God's Word written.

What are we to say about the painful and the puzzling passages in Scripture: are they God's Word written, or not?

Another bit of inspiration for this post is a lovely three volume set of books which arrived at my front door this week: Robert Alter's three volume translation with commentary of The Hebrew Bible. Reading his superb apologia for why he is offering "yet another" translation, I was struck in a fresh way by the depth and width of the humanity (i.e. human authorship) of Scripture - a process across time, arising from community and experience, incorporating diverse sources and varied theologies.

In short, Scripture is NOT God's Word written because God dictated the words of Scripture in toto. (Clearly some of Scripture is a form of dictation because "thus saith the Lord" passages are composed with words the prophets believe have been dictated to them to say.) Whatever we make of the painful and puzzling passages of Scripture, we acknowledge that  the humanity of Scripture lies behind those passages and is expressed through them.

Then, reflecting further on the recognition of the humanity of Scripture, I suggest we need to account for the fact that Scripture's words are counted as "Scripture" by a community which received them. And the nature of that community has changed through the centuries. In the mists of time, for instance, the community of Israel received the Book of Judges as among its Scriptures, even though it includes the most horrible stories such as the story of Jephthah's Daughter (chapter 11).

In the not so misty period of ancient time, the Christian church has chosen to maintain such a story within its combination of Old and New Testaments. Yet dare any Christian today say that if we were compiling Scripture from scratch from ancient treasured documents for the edification of the church today, then we would include this dreadful story?

That is, our continuing reception of the Bible as the Scripture of the church (NT and OT), in continuity with the Scripture of ancient Israel (OT), involves some fancy theological footwork. We simply do not accept that the theology of Judges 11 (God blesses a man who takes a vow with tragic, terribly, terrifying consequences) is the final, completed - in the light of the whole of Scripture - theology of the church. Yet. Yet we do not expunge that chapter from the Scriptures we read, commend and reflect on. Why not? Why risk detriment to an understanding that Scripture is
God's Word written?

I suggest that we retain rather than exclude Judges 11 because a stubborn integrity acknowledges that in the history of God's people understanding who God is and what God is saying to us has developed over time as not only God has revealed more of himself but also as we have demonstrated capacity to receive more of that revelation. Even when God in Christ came into the world, there was a limited capacity to receive him as God's living and final Word (cf the gospels!! ... and the importance of Paul, on the one hand, and the writer of the Fourth Gospel on the other, in making sense of what God was saying in and through Jesus Christ). Judges 11 stands as witness to an impoverished and dangerous understanding of God's Word for that day but it stands in our Scripture as a witness to God's continuing patience with God's people as God spoke and spoke again to stubborn hearts and limited minds. As also do the prophets stand witness, in a different, centuries later era.

There is lots more to be said - books and books have been written on the topic, and by far better thinkers than myself -but I will stop here for now, with one final thought.

It is not necessarily the case that the latest writings to be written down which represent the greatest, clearest "Word" from God. The greatest, clearest Word is the message of divine mercy, grace, kindness and love. That message permeates Scripture. It is summed up in 1 John. God is love.



Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Anglo Catholic Hui

Last week I attended the first day of our church's second Anglo-Catholic Hui - hosted by the Wellington Diocese.

I really enjoyed (and was encouraged, challenged and inspired by) the main speaker, Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, England.

Taonga has a report here.

I am pleased to report that the next such Hui will be hosted by the Diocese of Christchurch.

Otherwise, I am working on another long post on Scripture as God's Word written ...

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Perspicuity, diverse readings of Scripture and Psalm 17

The perspicuity of Scripture is the clarity with which Scripture conveys to us the revelation of God. In part, the Reformation was about Scripture's perspicuity: is the message of the Bible (at least after translation into an understandable language) clear to its readers and hearers in its own right, or does it need the (formal/informal) M/magisterium of the church to clarify that message?

We can readily, with hindsight, conclude that what we have ended up with is quite a bit of "on the one hand ... on the other hand ...".

On the first hand, Protestantism both seized the right to translate the Bible from  the power of Rome, and unleashed the Bible from its Latin chains, enabling its treasures to be read in local languages across Europe (and, later, spurred the work of Bible translators around the globe). At the very least, as a consequence, the ordinary reader could determine for themselves whether or not Scripture was clear, whether in its overall message or in its details. To say nothing of the ordinary reader determining whether or not Scripture and church teaching were well aligned.

On the second hand, Protestantism soon found that some magisterial assistance was required to ensure that (so to speak) the right clear message from Scripture was received through reading and hearing Scripture in one's own language. Cue various statements/articles of faith, Luther's Works and Calvin's Institutes. And, in more recent times, cue Protestant resistance to false readings of Scripture as propagated through, e.g., Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons. For those who know their German Reformation history, both Luther and Muntzer read the same Bible, to very different political conclusions!

On the third hand, Rome agreed to Bible translations and (after some initial resistance in the early 20th century) has encouraged full engagement by Catholic biblical scholars in the enterprise of academic biblical scholarship. In the world of biblical scholarship today, there is an alignment of interests and concerns which was scarcely imaginable in, say, 1525. Note, as one instance, the incredible, common reception of the New Revised Standard Version across Protestant and Catholic worlds.

On the fourth hand ... in the comments you might like to add an observation or three!

In other words, Catholics and Protestants have learned a few things from each other through the centuries.

But there remains work to do on the role of the Bible in the life of the church. For instance, sometimes in Anglican settings, I come across promotion of a certain kind of scepticism about the Bible in terms of understanding that its words collectively amount to God's Word written - this scepticism prefers to put more weight on "hearing what the Spirit is saying to the church" than on "the words as written and as we read them." Of course I have also come across promotion of a different form of scepticism in which the role of the Spirit in illuminating the meaning of Scripture is downplayed. To get the balance correct on such matters is is challenging - much ink has been spilled over the years.

Not least in the challenge, is the question of the perspicuity of Scripture: how clear is Scripture?

I recognise that the Bible is a complex set of books, of genres, with multiple layers of messaging, which often falls short of perspicuity.

A recent case in point, for me, was reading Psalm 17:14-15 (initially, NRSV).

I will cite from verse 13, because in this version verse 14 is a continuation of a sentence begun in verse 13:

13: Rise up, O Lord, confront them [= psalmist's enemies], overthrow them!
By your sword deliver my life from the wicked,
14: from mortals - by your hand, O Lord - from mortals whose portion in life is in this world.
May their bellies be filled with what you have stored up for them;
may their children have more than enough;
may they leave something over to their little ones.
15: As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake I shall be satisfied,
beholding your likeness.

These verses struck me in this way: the psalmist sees around him satisfied, contented, materialistic, this worldly people (uncannily like many secularised Western persons in the 21st century) but is himself eager for something more, much more than that. The psalmist, verse 15, wants to see God.

Nevertheless this reading of verse 14 is at odds with verse 13: there the psalmist implores God to overthrow his enemies, whereas in verse 14 the psalmist seems quite comfortable with these same enemies having a good life.

Then I looked the verses up in some other translations and discovered some quite different translations of verse 14:

The Revised English Version (REB) has:

14: With your hand, Lord, make an end of them [= enemies of the psalmist];
thrust them out of this world from among the living.
May those whom you cherish have food in plenty,
may their children be satisfied
and their little ones inherit their wealth.

The first sentence here is in keeping with verse 13's diatribe. The second sentence changes the subject: no longer the enemies of the psalmist (and of God) but "those whom you cherish."

The Good News Bible (GNB) has a different translation again:

14: save me from those who in this life have all they want.
Punish them with the sufferings you have stored up for them;
may there be enough for their children and some left over for their children's children.

The first sentence continues verse 13 - the psalmist wants to be saved from his enemies, here described as those who have all they want in this life. But the second sentence is vindictive: may those enemies be punished and may the punishments stored up for them by God be sufficient to have punishments left over for their children and their grandchildren.

Between these three translations there is not much perspicuity in Psalm 17:14!

Looking up the commentaries, we find that the underlying Hebrew is difficult - so difficult that the MT has a marginal note or two, offering alternative readings. Hence the variations between English translations. Naturally this drives a reader to the commentaries (a form of magisterium) which are all united in saying ... that the Hebrew is difficult and one must wring one's interpretative hands to make sense of the passage.

The best of the ones I consulted is Goldingay, who offers a meticulously justified translation which is pretty close to the NRSV:

14: from mortals by you hand, Yhwh,
From mortals - in their lifetime will you fill their belly
with their share in life, with what you have stored up.
Their children are to be replete,
they are to leave what they have left to their offspring.
(John Goldingay, Psalms vol 1: Psalms 1-41, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006, pp. 236-37).

Incidentally, in relation to the NRSV, I have come across a comment that "stored up" means the punishments that God has stored up in order to mete them out to the enemies. But Goldingay's translation does not support that sense.

Thus Psalm 17:14 is a puzzle and underscores that Scripture is not always perspicuous. Simultaneously 17:14 illustrates that Scripture has within it diverse ideas, because each of the possible translations of this verse can be matched to other statements in Scripture re the fate of the ungodly.

By contrast, 17:15 is much clearer. Moreover, it sets out one of the great, recurring themes of the Bible: that God will be seen by those who aspire to do so and to whom God reveals himself ... Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Thus 17:15 illustrates that Scripture does have consistent theological themes, that we can reasonably expect to find in Scripture an understanding of God and the godly life, disclosed for our benefit and bearing witness to the character and identity of God.

Herein is something of a conundrum for those (such as myself) who lean evangelically within Protestantism towards an understanding of Scripture that Scripture is God's written Word - the whole of it.

Is it only God's Word when perspicuous? Does it remain God's Word when the text is somewhat mangled?

But here also is a possibility for evangelicals to sit more kindly within churches where diverse readings of Scripture are supported (such as many Anglican churches which belong to the Communion): acknowledging that Scripture is not perspicuous everywhere, that Scripture gives rise to multiple readings is a starting point for living with disagreement within the body of Christ.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

What the divine nature is not ...

I am working on a longer "all my own work" post but time has escaped me, albeit for some pleasant reasons, including a lovely wedding at the weekend.

But why bark like a gruff dog when the tenor lead can sing beautifully?

Edward Feser has a mind stretching, let's remember Aquinas was outstanding post on the theology (lit: study of GOD) of Herbert McCabe here.