For Hair-Splitting

“Theological distinctions are fine but not thin. In all the mess of modern thoughtlessness, that still calls itself modern thought, there is perhaps nothing so stupendously stupid as the common saying, “Religion can never depend on minute disputes about doctrine.” It is like saying that life can never depend on minute disputes about medicine. The man who is content to say, “We do not want theologians splitting hairs,” will doubtless be content to go on and say, “We do not want surgeons splitting filaments more delicate than hairs.” It is the fact that many a man would be dead to-day, if his doctors had not debated fine shades about doctoring. It is also the fact that European civilization would be dead to-day, if its doctors of divinity had not debated fine shades about doctrine.”

G. K. Chesterton
[The Resurrection of Rome]

ETE11_AVR16_ChM004

randonnée refuge du Varan – vue sur le Massif du Mont-Blanc

Advertisements

Be at Leisure to Know God

Gregory the Theologian (or Gregory of Nazianzus) 329-389 AD, one of the Cappadocian Fathers, speaking of God and those who would study God (i.e. theology!), in quite astonishing and uncompromising ways.  Challenging -yes.  But what a read…

 

“Not to every one, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God; not to every one; the Subject is not so cheap and low; and I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits.

thNot to all men, because it is permitted only to those who have been examined, and are passed masters in meditation, and who have been previously purified in soul and body, or at the very least are being purified. For the impure to touch the pure is, we may safely say, not safe, just as it is unsafe to fix weak eyes upon the sun’s rays. And what is the permitted occasion? It is when we are free from all external defilement or disturbance, and when that which rules within us is not confused with vexatious or erring images; like persons mixing up good writing with bad, or filth with the sweet odours of ointments. For it is necessary to be truly at leisure to know God; and when we can get a convenient season, to discern the straight road of the things divine. And who are the permitted persons? They to whom the subject is of real concern, and not they who make it a matter of pleasant gossip, like any other thing, after the races, or the theatre, or a concert, or a dinner, or still lower employments. To such men as these, idle jests and pretty contradictions about these subjects are a part of their amusement.

Next, on what subjects and to what extent may we philosophize? On matters within our reach, and to such an extent as the mental power and grasp of our audience may extend. No further, lest, as excessively loud sounds injure the hearing, or excess of food the body, or, if you will, as excessive burdens beyond the strength injure those who bear them, or excessive rains the earth; so these too, being pressed down and overweighted by the stiffness, if I may use the expression, of the arguments should suffer loss even in respect of the strength they originally possessed.

Now, I am not saying that it is not needful to remember God at all times…I must not be misunderstood, or I shall be having these nimble and quick people down upon me again. For we ought to think of God even more often than we draw our breath; and if the expression is permissible, we ought to do nothing else. Yea, I am one of those who entirely approve that Word which bids us meditate day and night, and tell at eventide and morning and noon day, and praise the Lord at every time; or, to use Moses’ words, whether a man lie down, or rise up, or walk by the way, or whatever else he be doing Deut. 6:7 — and by this recollection we are to be moulded to purity. So that it is not the continual remembrance of God that I would hinder, but only the talking about God; nor even that as in itself wrong, but only when unseasonable; nor all teaching, but only want of moderation.”

(Oration 27. 3-5)

At the intersection between scones, nudity and theology…

And then, as we were serving tea and scones in the dining room, my brother David, in a heavenly voice, said without recourse to any current or prior conversation:

“I think that the problem with nudity, the reason it seems offensive, is not so much the sight of genitals (which are hardly what you’d call offensive), but because clothes help to designate our place in society.

Public nudity is in this sense highly a/anti-social, kind of like a denial of normal social codes because there is no place for it except in the brief intermediary space of the changing room. It isn’t the imagined threat of another’s sexuality that offends, but their taking up of a position outside of considerations of status or social context.

We need to be able to place people, and clothes go a long way to helping with that. Since we rely on social codes all the time to function, someone stepping outside of them is equivalent to having two fingers stuck up at the bulk of humanity. Personally, I don’t care if people want to go around naked, and I actually like swimming nude, but doing it in public seems a pointless and immature thing to insist upon, like growing ridiculously long fingernails or not washing – you’re free to do it, but what kind of freedom is that?

Also, just to add a theological note on this (which, naturally is by far the most offensive thing anyone can possibly do!), the animal skin clothing that God made for Adam and Eve in the bible was not particularly about making sure we covered our naughty bits up to satisfy a strangely schizoid deity’s need for modesty. It was meant to be read allegorically as a sign that our attempts to hide our shame (a consequence of the knowledge of good and evil) are inadequate, and so God replaced our fig leaves with something he provided for us. The twist in the story is that, in Christ, he is himself the lamb-skin that protects us.

But anyway…”

But anyway indeed.  More tea?

Reduced Laughter: A Review

Reduced Laughter by Revd Dr Helen Paynter.

A Review by Richard Matcham

91223

 

Chapter 1 – Introduction

My title:  In Defense of the Comedic

Using Private Eye as a great introductory example, one thing is sure – humanity loves humour, and we love humour that subverts the way things are, the high-and-mighty, etc.  The Bible hasn’t had good fare in recent millennia regarding all things funny.  The Bible is a serious book, and is found to be read (when it is read at all), to be read by serious people.

 

Our Western rationalism in general, and 19th century German scholarship (p.5) in particular, riding on the back of Plato’s suspicion that humour is malicious; and Aristotle’s warning that while humour is necessary, it should be ‘kept in check’, is missing the point that humour can be ‘a route to truth’ (p.3).

 

On the contrary, humour is not the opposite of sadness or seriousness, a useful observation of what de Sousa calls a ‘category error’ (p.4).  Thank God!  I have come to realise that my own use of humour is directly related to my serious side.  They are two sides of the same coin.

 

All this is carried over into our Bible reading.  Our culture may ‘Think Bike – Think Safety’ but we certainly do not train ourselves or our churches to ‘Think Bible – Think Humour,’ and I for one would love to try.   Admittedly, this is not easy – the Bible is a very serious book(s), with lots of weighty, eternal, salvific images, multi-genre & theological categories, stories and truth claims.  Thus, as a default setting, we ‘are more likely to under diagnose humour than over-diagnose it’ (p.6), and this means we will likely miss it altogether.

 

A taster-example is offered via the Naboth narrative (1 Kings 21), and how the Hebrew word describing the sulky and vexed Ahab is related to the Deuteronomic stubborn and rebellious son (21:18-19).  Here, the son is the one killed, whilst in Kings, it is Ahab who kills.  ‘This subtle, darkly humorous, allusion will only be apparent to the attentive reader or listener’ (p.8).  I wish I’d been more attentive in my reading!

Helen then offers some ‘ground rules’ for textual interpretation.  The text itself assumes a ‘literary or aural competence’ (p.8), and this requires competent hard work.  Highlighting wordplays and ‘hidden polemics’, the careful reader is able to see the ‘subversive, and deliberate partial concealment’ (p.10) of the narrative, using the ‘useful guidelines’ for the ‘methodological criteria’ outlined by Yairah Amit on page 9.

 

Finally, Helen’s hermeneutical approach leans heavily on the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, someone who refers to seriocomic literature as ‘playful, irreverent, multi-voiced, subversive and outrageous’ (p.11).  I have already guessed in my own reading that the Bible is all of these things, but what I hadn’t reckoned with, is that it is more deliberately so, and far deeper than I gave credit.

Continue reading

Thinking About Theology

It’s always helpful to have working definitions of theology interacting with each other, rather than one, flat, bland and bloodless offering; a few definitions are floating around this blog somewhere or other!  Michael Jenson has got a great little book out called ‘How To Write a Theology Essay‘ designed to help new theological students write good essays.

essay

His chapter titles suggest a keen focus on practicalities, such as ‘How not to lose heart before you start’, ‘What is a theology essay’ and ‘Types of argument for your essay’, among many other great short chapters.

I like his question:  ‘What is Theology in any case?’ and his response:

Continue reading

Against Self-Sufficiency

ACTI have finally laid my mitts on a veritable gold mine – A. C. Thiselton’s Systematic Theology.  There will likely be many snippets from this surprisingly little book in the future, so here’s the first one, concerning ‘Theological Principles Relating to Ministry’:

“The most profound of a number of principles concerns the mutuality or reciprocity of the church and the ministry, as against self-sufficient individualism and autonomy.  We have already identified this as a key principle in relation to the church.  Whatever the seductions of post-Enlightenment secularism about a self-contained, self-sufficient individual, no Christian individual possesses all the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  For a healthy Christian life we depend on others, especially the teaching and guidance of Christian ministers, as Paul stressed in 1 Corinthians, and Calvin in his Institutes….

…The qualities expected . . . . are enumerated in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 . . . . These include at least the following seven:

  1. being skilled in teaching (Gk. didaktikos);
  2. being level-headed or avoiding extremes (nephalios);
  3. disliking conflict (and so constituting a focus on unity, amachos), or, in other words, managing conflict resolution;
  4. being self-disciplined, or prudent (sophron);
  5. being gracious, tolerant, and courteous (epieikes);
  6. being able to win people’s approval or being dignified, in the sense of having gravitas or weight (kosmios);
  7. having ability to manage (proistanai), whether a household or a church.

Other passages also suggest:

8. being a leader in mission (Matt. 28:19), and;

9. having a pastoral heart (John 21:15-17).

To be a “shepherd” implies not only “feeding” but also protecting the flock against enemies and marauders. . . . .

. . . . .Everything rests on mutual dependency and lack of self-sufficiency.  In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul explains to the church in Corinth that either by rejecting specific ministers or by limiting themselves to the ministry of choice favourites, they are depriving themselves of what God wills to give them.  Paul writes, “Do not deceive yourselves. . . .All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas. . . . all belong to you” (1 Cor. 3:18, 21-22)”

p. 321-325

yellow flower opening

I think this photo – © me – would also make a better cover than the one on the book!

Nothing to Proclaim

Last night I attended the excellent ‘Holy Ground’ event put on by Exeter Cathedral.  It was only my third visit but whenever I can’t go I often hear reports of what was on and how it went.

I really like the willingness of the Exeter team to reach beyond the pre-existing boundaries, to host speakers who will challenge and dare I say, yes I dare, upset/offend.

holygroundpostcard2

As a worship experience, God is worshipped in wonderful Trinitarian language, and Christ is proclaimed through thoughtful, contemporary liturgy.

Last night after the Eucharist service, we listened to the guest speaker, Tony Windross.  I’d never heard of Tony, an Anglican minister somewhere in Cornwall.  He presented his case as his book title says, The Thoughtful Guide to Faith’. 

I sat there and listened; I tried to really listen, and see if I could hear anything worth dying for; indeed anything worth living for; anything that didn’t tear up my epistemological foundations with sweeping assumptions and generalities.

But it seemed to me that Tony had nothing to proclaim.  I totally agree with him that the Church-in-the-pews for too long has lived in the toxic environment of infantalisation and anti-intellectualism.  I myself have commended a book arguing the same things in Relating Faith, a book written by one of the cleverest Christians I know!

Continue reading