Monday, February 26, 2024

More on new "universalist" theologian-missioner

At the foot of this post I cite a couple of comments (parts thereof) from the previous post. They raise pertinent questions for my quest/plea in that post for a new Paul/Origen - a theologian with universal appeal and a message to unite us in response to the "new world" of this millennium.

First things first: whether we ever get what I seek here; and when that person "arrives" is beyond our control. While we wait, we can and should act well to do what we can to be better - better Christians, better church (see Liz's comment below). We male leaders can act better towards female leaders. We all can be better at welcoming the outsider into our midst. We can work on systems of accountability and of training on issues of the day in order to end abuse (of all kinds) in the church. We can be better and we do not need to wait for the new Paul/Origen.

Second things equally first ... Yes, a new "universalist" will have important things to say to people of other faiths (see Mark's comment below). Such things will of course involve great skills in listening to people of other faiths. But what shape are we in to have new inter-faith conversations if we are not renewed in our own faith? (Noted, of course, is that Christianity is not the only fissiparous global faith to be found in our world today!)

What kinds of things might we hear or read this putative Paul/Origen of our day saying?

First, and in line with Liz and Mark's comments, what we will see (what we could be looking for) is that which enables a radical new and uniting vision for what it means to be men and women in the one church of God and for what it means to be godly humans in a world of diverse global faiths. 

This "that" will - I presume - involve new (or renewed) thinking about what we now know about human life through discoveries of modern science, and, in turn, that will involve a new vision for the connection between knowledge through human experience and knowledge through divine revelation.

Secondly, and following from the first point immediately above, we will need to be led into a new vision for the role of Scripture in our faith. We need - desparately I believe - to understand Scripture as God's book of good news and not as God's book of rules. Only so will we escape from the incessant conflicts: creationism v evolutionary biology; "young earth" v astronomy/physics/paleonotology; complementarianism v egalitarianism; Calvinism v Arminianism; and paralysis or schism as responses to differences in human sexuality. That is, we need a "unified theory" of how Sciptural knowledge relates to other forms of knowledge. There can only be one truth!

Thirdly, and flowing out of the second point, we need a new vision of who the God of Jesus Christ is. Who and what and why is God? This must be a very big vision, one which moves beyond the many understandings of God today which seem (on close analysis) to be little more than projections of our human ideals for a "leader" or "lord." 

In all kinds of ways we Christians seem to fall prey to the trap of a limited vision of the Godness of God. We think of God as a Being among us beings and not as the ground and source of all being. We (being creatures with finite minds) limit the extent of the Love which is God and the God who is Love. 

A new Paul/Origen will excite us with new insight into those passages in Scripture which challenge us to expand the finiteness of our minds so we better grasp the infiniteness of God's Love (see, for instance, Romans 8; 1 Corinthians 2:9-10; Corinthians 15:27-28; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 1-3; especially Ephesians 3:18-21; Colossians 1:15-20; 1 John 4:7-21). 

The end of my post for this week. Comments below from last week's post:


Renewal of our global Christian mind needs renewal of our global Christian heart! +Peter, you did a post a while ago about unity and need for humility.. that has to be a good start. Reaching out to all means to welcome all and offer safe refuge, friendship, love, understanding and true justice. Universalism of Christianity might look like warmth of caring across racial and gender divides and across class, being informed about systemic injustice and power inequities, commitment to maintaining safe space for all. Diversity in leadership. Leaders of wisdom and character. Responsiveness. Transparency and accountability. Clear moral and behavioural expectations (and in the event of wrongdoing, a just response). When things go wrong.. holding leaders accountable for their actions and provision of practical and pastoral support for survivors/advocates. Learning from mistakes. Commitment to truth, and growing a healthy inclusive community. Integrity, courage and strength to resist divisiveness and power plays!


In terms of "universalism" and our contemporary age, I might see this question a little differently: we live in a time of unprecedented knowledge and contact between the great faiths. We can no longer claim ignorance of what other religions believe and practice, nor be in any doubt the people full of grace, truth, and with a deep, sincere commitment to God exist outside the boundaries of the Christian churches.

The ocean of grace has many shores.

For the sake of God, truth, and love, we need unifying, mainstream Christian voices that move us beyond hostility, limited conceptions of infinity (God), or merely thinking of our own patch (i.e. Christianity). The need for such a voice, in terms of current political and religious violence, is even more urgent and necessary.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Paul and Origen and the urgent search for their successor

For reasons I am not entirely clear about, I have started something of a quest to get to know Origen (c. 185 - c. 253) and his writings. I now have two different translations of his most famous work of systematic theology, De Principiis/On First Principles.I have also started reading a book which has been on my shelves for many years, sadly unread.

That book is J. W. Trigg's Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church (SCM Press - oddly, no date - it is the British edition of a book first published in the USA).

Trigg makes this observation at the beginning of the first chapter, p. 8:

When changed conditions call the church's message into question, a theologian must develop an all-encompassing religious vision that enables other Christians to interpret their experience. Two theologians, more than any others, have accomplished this for the entire Christian church. Paul of Tarsus is one of them. The other is neither Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, nor Schleiermacher, for none of them shaped the entire Christian tradition. The other is Origen, who lived at a time when the church's present divisions were, at most only incipient. 


[p. 9] Even if few Christians grasped Paul's profundity, the forcible divorce he effected between Christianity and the Jewish ritual law endured and made possible the spread of the church throughout the Greco-Roman world. Though few Christians, likewise, accepted Origen's entire theology, he made Christianity compatible with the highest aspirations of classical Greco-Roman culture. We have Origen, more than any other single person, to thank that Athens and Jerusalem belong equally to our Western heritage.

It is no purpose of this post to argue for or against Trigg's case for the seminal-and-universal significance of Origen. (I take it for granted thate all readers here agree on the significance of Paul!)

What I want to put before readers is that what Trigg says here highlights a question for today - a fractious day within the church, a testing day for the church in respect of its role in the global mission of God, and a day when, arguably, our fractiousness is a consequence of the pressure of change in the world external to the church - and that question is this:

Do we need a new Paul/Origen for our day?

A larger version of that question could be this:

In the early third millennium of Christianity, viewing many aspects of Christianity today (its divisions, including its divisions within globally significant churches/communions; its loss of adherents in the West [the greatest heir of Greco-Roman culture?]; its inability (seemingly) to be both counter-cultural (challenging the ungodliness of culture) and cultural (becoming like X in order to win X to Christ); its dicing with the powers of our age (Christian nationalism in all its forms, in nations as diverse as USA and Russia); its competing demands to be vigorous in combatting the growh of Islam, especially in Africa and vigorous in responding to change in social and sexual ethics in Western societies); its confusion around the vernacular of Christian discourse (noting movements as diverse as those promoting the BCP and the Latin Mass) - etc - is there an urgent need for a new Paul/Origen, for a theologian-missioner who can lead a renewal of our global Christian mind in a resetting of the agenda for church, for theology, for liturgy, for mission?

Critical - I suggest - to answering such a question is that such a theologian-missioner can form and articulate a message with universal import and universal attractiveness to world Christianity.

Paul was a universalist of this kind because he grasped (i.e. he received and did not let go of Christ's revelation to him) that Christ was for all people, for Jew and for non-Jew.

Origen (in my limited understanding of him and his theology) was a universalist of this kind because he took utterly seriously texts such as 1 Corinthians 15:28, "... that God may be all in all." (Cf. Ephesians 1:22.)

(Whether Paul and Origen were "universalists" of a different kind - concerning the putative salvation of all - is another matter and not a focus of this post.)

What might a new and renewed understanding of the universalism of Christianity look like in this millennium? If Christ is Christ for all, if God seeks to be "all in all", if the purpose of God's plan of salvation is "to unite all things in Christ" (Ephesians 1:10), how might we see that being articulated for God's people today? 

Monday, February 12, 2024

Finding our way in 2024?

To be honest, I haven't got much to say this week. Not much by way of any burning issues on my mind. It has been a busy week and all sorts of matters have come up, but if I may take today (as I write) Sunday as the last day of the busy week, then it has ended up on a good note.

The goodness of the note perhaps needs some background about the badness of our current situation!

Even since I wrote that last sentence I see that Trump has been reported this morning as saying something about Putin should attack NATO countries ... but the Putin/(potential) Trump/Xi Jiang axis, or Putin/Xi v (potentially very frail Biden) scenario of global disruption/war is terrifying (do we in the West care for democracy and economic well-being enough to fight for it?). Can anyone plausibly argue that Western civilization/culture - at least the version with the USA as its bodyguard) is not entering its death throes? (Sure, there is lots not to commend about Western civilization/culture, and lots to applaud in cultures the West may not understand well ... but the replacement of Western civilization would appear to be a very unfree society (or set of societies), including a lack of freedom to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to all people.

OK, that's a bit about the global scene. Things here in the Blessed Isles are not all as blessed as many would like. Many of us, and I am in the "us" are anxious about the turn of events where a significant part of our government is firing up all kinds of nonsense and several kinds of unfortunate prejudices within us in respect of our history of inequitable treatment of Māori. For this to end well is going to take very, very good leadership, and not only by the majority part of our Government - also by our Opposition parties (who are struggling to find their voice after their defeat in the recent election).

And, very generally, speaking, both globally and locally, the place of Christianity in Christian/post-Christian societies remains challenging and challenged: we do good (still recognised) and, or but, we have stories of horror (sexual abuse, abuse of power by leaders etc) and stories of stupidity (evangelicals supporting Trump etc). At best we are ignored by most of society and at worst derided, openly or behind our backs. Our church stats in the West are telling of our situation: belief numbers, attendances numbers at best static, at worst declining.

So, yesterday (as I write this morning), was a good daym a good note to end the last seven days on: two church visits, two growing congregations, those congregations with younger generations within them.

There is hope for the church. There is hope for the church that it will be renewed as the hope of the world.

2024 is going to be a wild ride. Let's hang in there and hold tight to Jesus!

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Two ways to read the Bible? And I, I chose the other way!

It is a curious thing being on social media - predominently X/Twitter, though posts there often take me to mainstream media articles in newspapers, magazines, churchy announcements, and the like. 

On the one hand there are amazing posts about amazing things like stupendously exciting moments in international cricket (two amazing tests last weekend, another this immediate past weekend involving out of this world bowling by Jasprit Bumrah for India). 

On the other hand there are sad posts about sad things like stupendously stupid (ok, that's my very personal opinion) analyses of current events (world and church) or quarrels (world and church) which seem, on the most charitable reading, to be people talking past each other, or, (in the case of the church) tragic misunderstandings of the core of the gospel.

On the third hand, incidentally, I appreciate X/Twitter provides news from around the globe which makes its way slowly into NZ mainstream media (or, not at all). 

Two of the church brouhahas observable in the past week or two - well, especially observable, they are not new brouhahas - have been:

- looking at North America, ongoing debate between (very/ultra/extremist) conservatives and (moderate, middling, nuanced) conservatives over things such as: Christian nationalism, transparency and accountability about sexual abuse by church leaders, whether a Christian might attend a gay relative's wedding, and, of course, whether Trump is God's anointed or a common, garden variety sinner.

- looking at the Church of England: the Living in Love and Faith (LFF) process, designed (in my understanding) to enable and empower the church to live with diversity on approaches to same sex relationships, has been and today intensively is discombobulated (for a variety of reasons I won't go into but links on this page at Thinking Anglicans give insight into the very recent reasons) - all this, of course, founded upon (and now, seemingly, foundering upon) long-standing differences in the CofE in reading Scripture and tradition (e.g. also on the ordination of women).

Reflecting on such matters, trying to understand why such differences and disagreements arise, even within church "tribes" (see here, for example, for a considered essay by a CofE evangelical, Phil Groves, articulating why "orthodoxy" as a rallying cry for evangelicals is not quite what people advancing the rally make it out to be), I wonder if a lot arises from how we read the Bible.

Across reports on X/Twitter (and the links made there), across continents and across more than "That Topic," what I think I am seeing to the fore are (broadly) two ways of reading the Bible.

One is that the Bible is a book of laws/rules. Apart from specific laws (e.g. in Leviticus, the Sermon on the Mount), laws may be drawn from any part of it, or, perhaps, we might say, laws may be drawn up from any part of it, according to our situation in life. 

A current contretemps on X/Twitter goes something like this: the priesthood of the church is for males only (similarly, motherhood is for females only), so any church allowing women to be ordained is letting the fox (of disobedience/heresy) into the henhouse of the church (hence all the problems of the church in the 21st century re enculturation into cultural Marxism). 

Of course, the Bible never specifically sets out priesthood as a "thing" in the life of the church, and it has varying things to say about women in leadership (in Israel, in the church): so the line outlined above is a rule "drawn up" from bits and pieces of Scripture (and tradition) and, in my reflection, because the Bible is this sort of book: a rule book with rules or potential for rules to be drawn up from it, not only are rules drawn up but severe human criticisms are made of those who (allegedly) keep neither the rules of the Bible nor the rules drawn up from the Bible (cf. also controversies in the Baptist world of North America, and generally amongst the Reformed of the world).

I think (if I am reading US politics/Christian engagements correctly), part of the attraction of a Trump presidency is that (irrespective of his own inability to keep any rules at all) he is the man to enforce a rules-of-the-Bible way of life in America.

And, with respect to That Topic, although the Bible offers nothing directly by way of engagement with our situation in life today re same-sex marriage according to civil law, there is an absolute confidence in sections of evangelicalism and Catholicism, in England, in Europe, in North America and in Australasia, that a rule may be drawn up from Scripture which (1) forbids the church participating in prayer and thanksgiving for any such relationship (2) determines that all kinds of threats of schism and/or demands for new "structures" may be consequentially made, and (at least in North America) (3) forbids any Christian from attending any such wedding, even for a loved family member.

All this might be quite plausible if on every other instance of our situation in life today we were similarly clear about rules drawn up from the Bible, but, in fact (and, see again Phil Groves' essay), this is not the case. Even among conservative evangelicals and Catholics there are differences over ... remarriage after divorce, women in leadership/ordination of women, euthanasia/abortion/IVF/surrogacy [at least at the level of whether such things should be legally permissible in a social democratic society], versions of the Bible, correct liturgies (BCP v modern Anglican liturgies; vernacular v Latin Mass.

I suggest the main point here is not that the Bible is not a book of laws/rules but that if it is, it is not a book of laws/rules such that we should be vicious and vitriolic about Christians who demur over what the rules are or over how the rules might be applied to life today.

But that (possible) main point leads to a second way of reading the Bible, which seems to fit the responses of a wide range of Christians: moderate conservatives, not-at-all conservatives and so on.

Two, the Bible is a book we should read prayerfully, carefully, creatively, communally and contextually. More simply, the Bible is a book of guidance (with some rules). Just as within the Bible laws/rules seemed to change (or, at least, some did) as contexts changed, so the Bible guides as to conclusions today which may (or may not) differ from conclusions reached in a previous generation. See: when situations for Israel changed (often in relation to whom its contemporary enemies were, what it would take to establish (Moses/Joshua/Judges) or re-establish (Nehemiah/Ezra/various prophets) the nation, and when ecclesial communities differed (compare the four differing gospels, Paul and James, early Pauline epistles and later Pastoral Epistles).

The Bible is a strong guide, not a weak one ("weak" meaning in the sense that we read it and then ignore it and do what is right in our own eyes). A strong guide because courses of action are clearly commended; the church has mandates for mission which carries forward the mission of Jesus; and the gospel is set out as a message needing to be proclaimed in word and in deed.

Yet, as a strong guide, the Bible leaves considerable room for engagement with the situation of our day.

It gives very strong guidance that life is sacred, for example, and we ought not, generally speaking, to kill another person. Left open, however, are questions of whether a Christian might participate as a soldier in military action in which that Christian might kill another person; or whether a pregnant mother's life is more or less valuable thatn the life of the child within her (should a medical intervention to save one of the two lives mean that the other will die); or whether the state might execute people for some categories of criminal offences.

At risk of offending Brethren and Quaker siblings in Christ, the New Testament leaves no doubt that the church ought to have leaders appointed in every place. Not at all clear is whetherthe NT is saying to all future generations of the church that the leaders with the most responsibility should be "bishops" or "presbyters" and, pace above, whether such leadership is exclusively for men only. Hence later differences between, say, Presbyterians and Anglicans, and, within the past century or so, within denominations as decisions have been made to ordain women as deacons, presbyters and bishops, or, for that matter, to reinforce restrictions so that pulpits only ever have men preaching from them.

The first approach to Scripture works well for those wishing to develop a rationalist system of propositions which deal with each and every situation in life, even those never envisaged in Scripture. The second approach is less comforting in that respect. It proposes deep engagement with Scripture while allowing for debate and discussion in the life of the church, along with possibilities for dissent and for difference - noting (as I have often done here) that Scripture's own diversity and differences within support a church of diversity of thought rather than uniformity of conviction.


And, look, if you don't like what I have written, you might find edification in this book review