"There is a pressing urgency to the work of justice and compassion. As long as there is a shred of hatred in a human heart, as long as there is a vacuum without compassion anywhere in the world, there is an emergency."
Heschel writes with poetic exaggeration, sees the world with uncompromising eyes, is impatient with political realism, thinks with determined trustfulness in the human capacity, helped by God, to change the world. But that doesn't make him wrong, or justify dismissing his words as rhetoric without practice. Few have seen with such piercing precision, as Heschel saw, the emergency situation of a world where compassion was discounted to shore up an unjust status quo, and where justice was not an option at our convenience but an urgent moral imperative.
I guess I'm troubled by the way urgency and emergency seem to be monopolised by the economic crises of recent years. No one needs to underestimate the scale of consequence and cost when an entire economic meta-narrative suffers near fatal internal critique and collapse.
But there are other recessions. Already pressure is building for the UK to reduce its foreign aid budget. That suggests a humanitarian recession, which cuts into our sense of global responsibility for those whose need is of a different order. When Heschel speaks of justice and compassion he speaks as an echo of Micah, Amos and Isaiah. Selling the poor, grinding the needy in the dust, exploiting the vulnerable, protecting the interests of the powerful and rich - and by contrast rivers rolling with righteousness, communities acting justly and loving mercy, - these were the two poles of prophetic protest and visionary hopefulness that glinted like lightning on the horizons of the Prophets. And the same concerns illumine with uncomfortable critique of our own time, the words of Jesus at Nazareth and his own stated purpose in coming as Messiah, as both message and messenger from God to the poor, those incarcerated by economic systems locked from the outside.
Whatever else the situation in Syria is, it is a humanitarian emergency given urgency by hatred. And non intervention is itself a political act open to the critique of justice, mercy and righteousness, three further recessional casualties in a world of economic stringency, moral insolvency and political expediency.
And what can we do? The Lord's Prayer grows out of the rich loam of Jewish faith and hope, and on Judaeo-Christian lips is a protest against the status quo, and a promised contradiction and reversal of those "principalities and powers" content with injustice as a static status quo. The Kingdom of God subverts stasis, confronts culpable complacency, levers against the stuckness of despair, resists self-serving inaction, opposes with an astringent holiness the worship of markets, money and the entire pantheon of economic idols.
So we can pray. And not muttered petitions vague in their content, or vapid in their emotional engagement, or as occasional as our personal convenience and preoccupied minds permit. To pray the Lord's Prayer is to yearn for a different kingdom, a world transformed by the will of the Father of mercies. It is to call in question the way things are, to recognise the emergency of hatred and the vacuum of compassion and to cry to heaven - to make our passion and compassion for God's children the world over, a gift on the altar of God. Christian prayer at times takes the form of passionate protest, persistent hopefulness and patient, resilient attentiveness to injustice. Such faithful prayer is one small part of what it means to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
I took this photo in Amsterdam, the same day I saw Van Gogh's Butterflies and Poppies.
Both capture the fragility and complexity of beauty, and life.
Theological reflection seems called for but perhaps contemplation, enjoyment and wonder are themselves forms of theologically productive attention, inviting thought to become prayer of grateful longing.
Calvin spoke of the created order as "The theatre of God's glory."
Aquinas, "Art is the promise of happiness, and the splendour of truth."
This summer, sometimes unintentionally, or as experiments that surprisingly worked, I have taken photos which have their own persuasiveness in the argument about whether there is a natural theology, a theology of nature in which the beauty and goodness and truth of God is glimpsed. Appreciation and interpretation of images that move us will always be inescapably subjective. Not all will see or agree with or even understand what it is that moves, and attracts, and opens us up to that which is beyond mere conceptualisation but which invades our complacency with an unexpected excitement, with moments of recognition that can change the way we see the world, if we pay attention to them. For in them is the promise of happiness and the splendour of the truth that lies at the heart of all that is.
The theological virtue of intellectual humility is a very different spiritual disposition from that intellectual form of immodesty which goes by names such as certainty, assurance, and even, often misused word, conviction. There is in faith a durability and endurability, a knowing that is more, and less, than full understanding: "the light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not" - I love the King James Version of John 1.
In addition to the two earlier posts - Simone Weil on Christ and truth, and Douglas Hall on the God who is not have-able, I was reading Marilynne Robinson's When I was a Child I Read Books, and was immediately and immodestly pleased with myself when I began to read words that articulate why it is that God who is Love reveals our blindness and blinds us with the revelation of a Love incomprehensible because eternal:
"God is of a kind to love the world extravagantly, wondrously, and the world is of a kind to be worth, which is not to say worthy of, this pained and rapturous love. This is the essence of the story that forever elludes telling. It lives in the world not as myth or history but as a saturating light, a light so brilliant that it hides its source,..."
In an earlier essay she says with the gentle poignancy laced with realism that our culture (and the church) have a tendency to "marginalise the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty...religion in many ways abetted these tendencies, and does still, not least by retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as condescension. Who among us wishes the songs we sing, the sermons we hear, were just a little dumber?" (pages 128, and 5)
Oh yes! It takes a novelist to remind theologians, and pastors, and worship leaders, that what happens up the front in a worship service is not the true, deep, soul-changing and soul-charging worship of the people of God. That is something deeper, far less in our control, the wild untamed beauty of a Love utterly beyond our words, radiant with life and light, made accessible only by the condescension of the Triune God who in love became incarnate, enfolding and embracing humanity and createdness. Makes no sense all of that - which is reassuring, and as it should be. Theology is done best not as logic, but as doxology - the God who is not have-able, is nevertheless the God who gives, without limit or calculation, a Love self-giving and eternal from One whose Being is inexhaustible and inexplicable, but in whom is life, and the life is the light of all humanity..."the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, and we beheld his glory.." To behold the glory of God is the true task of the theologian - and that beholding includes understanding, articulating, and then worshipping because we stand under Niagara with a thimble, yet drink our fill.
One of the most articulate and thoughtful books on the Cross is The Cross in Our Context, Douglas John Hall, (Fortress, 2003). I am drawn back to this book quite often when I need someone to remind me why I'm a Christian theologian, and a theological educator, and the responsibility to truth and intellectual integrity such a calling imposes. The book is a distillation of Hall's 3 volume Systematic Theology which doesn't find its way onto many reading lists, but ranks with Thomas C Oden's theology of the ecumenical consensus as a theology that, when taken togehter, gives due importance to past tradition and contemporary context.
Here is why I think Hall is worth reading, at least in this shorter version of his large scale theology:
"The theology of the cross cannot be a wholly satisfactory, wholly integrated statement about our human brokenness in relation to God; it can only be a broken statement about our brokenness - and about God's eschatological healing of our brokenness...The drive to mastery is perhaps never so great as when we try to master theology. Christian theology, particularly Christology, is perhaps a peculiar and poignant instantization of the original temptation: the temptation to have instead of continuing to live vis a vis this Thou who is not have-able"
(The photo is copyright, - it was taken at The Bield, in Perth, during a retreat in August)
A new intellectual biography of Erasmus by Anthony Levi is scheduled from Yale University Press in October. Erasmus is one of the most significant figures in European intellectual history. Roland Bainton's biography is still a great read, though dated in all kinds of ways. Erasmus' big argument with Luther on the freedom or bondage of the human will was one of the key controversies in early Reformation theology. A Christian anthropology still has to wrestle with the mystery, even the enigma of human freedom as a defining feature of a Christian anthropology.
But Erasmus' love for the Greek New Testament, even allowing for the textual limitations of his work, remains one of the great recovery projects of the Renaissance and of the history of biblical interpretation. Erasmus was passionate about going back to origins, recovering texts overgrown with diversities of later interpretations. And his motivation for doing so was deeply spiritual, theological and intellectual, and each of these was a strand in the conviction that texts have both an integrity to uphold and vulnerability to hijack. Here are Erasmus' words which are celebrated reminders of the extraordinary freedom he won for those who want to read the Bible for themselves.
Christ wishes his mysteries published as openly as
I would that even the lowliest women read the gospels and the Pauline
I would that they were translated into all languages…
I would that the
farmer sing some portion of them at the plough,
the weaver hum some parts of
them to the movement of his shuttle,
traveller lighten the weariness of the journey with stories of this kind.
It's the conference season and the past few days have been in Manchester and Malvern - the first with UK Baptist theological educators, the second with Regent's Pentecostal College as External Examiner. So a week to think about what theological education is, or should be all about.
Theological education outside the public funded universities is a loss leader for the church. The training of the mind to plunge deep pillars into the bedrock of Christian theology is a necessary way of loving God with our minds, and an essential preparation for a life of spiritual care, a foundation for responsible and responsive pastoral guidance, a commitment to personal growth in the impossible task of knowing the love of God that passes knowledge, and an inner disposition of being content to acknowledge both the limits and the possibilities of a heart that thinks passionately and a mind that feels deeply, and a life open to the truth of God that always comes to us as risk and opportunity.
Theological education like that is unaffordable, if what we mean is it pays its way in hard cash. The time and the investment of resources, by student and College, makes the deal a non-starter if what we are looking for is break even, let alone profit. So it becomes a question not of cost but of value. The things we value we pay for - the gain is in the benefit we purchase at a cost we think "is worth it". Which raises important questions for us a theological educators, and pushes questions just as urgently for our churches. We are all experiencing the destabilising pressures of a culture in which change, development, progress, growth, celebrity, security and wealth creation and possesion collide with the realities of recession, climate change, political and religious extremism, the reconfiguration of expectations based on a now defunct financial market, and the consequent slow evaporation of hope as previously planned futures look increasingly uncertain.
Who will be the community theologians in our churches? I don't mean the minister, pastor, ordained leader. Where are our thinkers, those of faithful imagination and thoughtful presence, informed and humble in their wisdom, sharpened and poised in critique and creative encouragement, of church and culture, and rooted in the permanent sub-stratum of the Gospel of Jesus. I mean how is the church responding to the need for minds trained in loving God, those called to a discipleship of the intellect, spiritually alert, theologically astute, pastorally agile?
How do you put a price on the presence in our churches of people who learn and teach, who share and give the gift of thoughful prayer and prayerful thought? Not all theological education is about forming people for ordained ministry. Nowadays many of our students are those who are seeking precisely this deeper rootedness in the Faith, working their way to a place where they know where they stand, and why. But not as minds closed - rather as minds that are open to the new things God is always doing. Horizon scanning was one of the gifts of the Hebrew prophets before it became organisational management speak.
Theological education is one of the Church's most important missional resources. To dialogue with the culture in which we are embedded, requires a clear grasp of our own faith, a living active commitment to the truth of God in Christ, and a humble but critical listening to what's going on around and amongst and within us as we live out the life of the the Body of Christ - the Light of the World.
To spend a day or two thinking about all of that - it's not time wasted, it's time invested. Likewise for those who sense God's call to come to College and study theology. Maybe we have to honestly recognise that God calls people to study in the school,of Christ - and of course it doesn't stop there. Study begins with information, then formation, and then transformation as good thinking and good practices are disseminated in the community of Christ.
The Caravaggio of the Emmaus Supper shows what happens when people walk the journey with Jesus, learn deeply, and discover life changing truth that they have to go and share with the world. .