Monday, August 21, 2017

Nihilisms

Every ideology with a nothing at the heart of it tries very hard to make everything else a nothing as well.  That is to say, nihilism annihilates.

Are we not surrounded on every side by nihilisms?

I am no expert on radical Islam, so you must take this not as a philosophical or theological analysis but merely a personal reflection; this is how it looks and feels to me.  I look at the giant monad at the heart of Islamist thinking and can't help thinking it's a nothing.  The radicalised monad sucks the value from all things, including life.  In theory this is because only the monad has value, or at least value-in-itself.  But is the gravity of the Islamist god actually the attraction of a black hole?  A nothing collapsing in on itself for all eternity, and all reality helpless before it...

Ostensibly opposed to this black hole, the re-emergence of neo-pagan blood and soil racism.  And we might play spot the difference.  In this quasi-Nietzschean cult of power combined with the whinging sense of perpetual victimhood of the spoilt child, what is there but emptiness?  The superman who is less than human, not even average.  Just a nothing.  Protect the white race, they say, protect our culture.  And yet there is no such thing, and in the sense they mean it there never was.  Burn your torches and march, burn your torches and pretend that you are light and fire.  There is a nothing in your heart, and you annihilate that which you claim to love but do not.

And meanwhile most of us here in the twilit West sit politely and drink coffee and worship the nothing.  Oh, we do.  We believe in nothing but personal autonomy, and to preserve our personal autonomy we have fed into the flames of nothing every sort of value and truth.  But in the end what will we have left to feed to this burning nothing?  Haven't we already begun to offer it the last of our fuel: our very capacity to choose?  To keep the world neutral, to maintain a space where we can be who we want to be, we have made a vacuum.  And now the nothing will take even our ability to be ourselves; we will destroy ourselves willingly, for fear that any sort of self might impinge on others.  The nothing collapses into itself, and we, who have become nothing, collapse with it.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

God's Long Word

God's Word took 33 years to say.  His Word was Jesus.

You can't translate God's Word, not really.  It takes a hundred, a thousand, human words to create an approximation of this one Divine Word.  Innumerable words have been spoken and written about God, and all the ones that were worth saying or writing are just partial allusions to the One Word.

There are perhaps three phrases that help us most in hearing the Word that God has spoken.  The first one, which brings us initially to the beginning of God's speaking and yet also stretches us to the end of it, is 'God with us'.  God is with us, because he has come as one of us, sharing in our nature, born of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit.  Once we hear 'God with us' spoken in the manger at Bethlehem, we are amazed to realise that 'God with us' is still being said at the cross of Calvary.  Not only God with us in our createdness, in our nature, but God with us in the pit of our un-nature, our condemnation.  God with us.

The cross brings out the second phrase which the Word of God requires from us: 'God against us'.  In the death of Christ, we see God implacably opposed to our godlessness and evil, our futility.  Opposed to the point of death.  He is against us as we are, against us in all that we have made ourselves.  He will not let the 'me' I have built up survive, but will put it ('me'!) to death at the cross.  And from the perspective of the cross we can see that throughout the long saying of God's Word it has always been 'God against us'.  The birth from the Virgin is the contradiction of every human possibility, and looking forward so too is the emergence from the tomb.  God against us.

But there is that emergence from the tomb, and at that point perhaps more than any other we hear the third phrase: 'God for us'.  Here is the triumph over death and emptiness, here is sin vanquished, here is evil exterminated.  Here is life, life for us, even those whom God has set aside at the cross in the burning fire of his wrath.  And of course we see now that God was always for us: for us Christ became man, for us he went to the cross.  God for us.

The life of the man Jesus Christ is God's first and final Word on all human history and each individual human life.  Infinite human words would not exhaust what could be said about this One Word, and yet what matters most is not those words but that the One Word has been spoken, that Christ has become the decisive factor in my life and (whether you know it or not) yours.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Worship, and life

This summer I’ve read a couple of books on the subject of worship – Worshipping with Calvin by Terry L. Johnson, and The God We Worship by Nicholas Wolterstorff.  They are very different books, with rather different agendas, although both are coming from a broadly Reformed theological point of view.  The subtitles give a clue!  Johnson’s book is subtitled Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worship of Reformed Protestantism, and it is exactly what the First Crusade would be if the First Crusade had been a book about worship rather than a military campaign in the Levant; Wolterstorff, on the other hand, offers An exploration of liturgical theology, and is much more tentative in tone and expansive in message.  Johnson wants us to change our worship, back to an earlier and in his view more biblical model; Wolterstorff just wants us to reflect a bit more on what it is we’re doing in worship and what it implicitly says about our view of God.

Both books were interesting in their different ways, and I will probably have more to say about each of them over the next few weeks.  One thing they have very much in common, which is interesting for me as someone who has inhabited a particular brand of evangelicalism for some years, is the rejection of the idea that all of life is worship.  Here is Wolterstorff:
It is sometimes said that the Christian life as a whole is, or should be, worship.  In this chapter I have assumed that this is not true.  The Christian life as a whole is, or should be, an acknowledgement of who God is and of what God has done, is doing, and will do – an acknowledgement of God’s surpassing excellence.  I have argued that worship has an orientation that sets it off from our work in the world, namely a Godward orientation.  Of course it is open to a writer to declare that he will use the word “worship” to cover everything [in the Christian life].  But that leaves us needing some other word to pick out what I have called worship…  And it has been my experience that those who declare that all of life is worship almost always downplay the importance of what I am calling worship…  (p39-40)
I agree with Wolterstorff – it is an unhelpful thing to label everything as worship.  It removes a level of meaning from the word, and leaves us with only clumsy formulations to explain what it is we do on a Sunday (‘corporate worship’, ‘sung worship’).  In my experience, he is right that those who talk a lot about all of life being worship implicitly denigrate this corporate worship – or at least, I don’t see much joyful expression of adoration in those churches, compared to those which talk about the purpose of a Sunday gathering in terms of offering worship to God.

I’d want to ask another question as well: does declaring that all of life is worship (and therefore at least implicitly that there is nothing very special about the gathering of God’s people to worship) actually lead to a more worship-ful approach to life?  Or might it be that the recognition of worship as a particular, distinctive activity leads to a life that is more full of worship Monday through Saturday?  This is analogous to discussions of the Sabbath, something which I note with some discomfort as a non-Sabbatarian.  But it is at least a question to be asked: has our declaration that we now have rest in Jesus every day and therefore don’t need to observe the Sabbath actually made our lives more restful, or less?  I have a feeling I know the answer, and I’m not sure I will like it.


One thing I take away from these very different books is the need for more God-oriented, adoration-filled gatherings of God’s people to offer worship – in all the forms which that takes, including praise, thanksgiving, confession, intercession, listening.  To come into God’s presence and worship.  How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!

Monday, July 31, 2017

He will be King

Preparing for yesterday's sermon at CCC on Daniel 2, I was struck by how important it is that we talk in the future tense, especially when we're talking about God's reign over the earth.

In chapter 1 of Daniel, the author has established that God is certainly still King, despite the catastrophic events of the exile.  It was Yahweh who gave Jehoiakim into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, and it was also Yahweh who enabled Daniel and his friends to flourish without touching the king's food, and Yahweh who gave these young men wisdom and skill.  The God of Israel is King in Babylon, King in spite of Nebuchadnezzar in all his pomp and strength, and perhaps most strikingly King in spite of his people's sin and fall.

So we can and should say: our God reigns!  He is King, in the midst of the muddle and mess and confusion of history.  He is King over the nations.  Remove the surface froth, the churning of human endeavour and wickedness, and underneath is the deep, clear water of God's sovereignty.  This is a comfort, and can surely be applied not only to the affairs of nations but also to the turmoil of our personal lives.  In spite of it all, God reigns.

But Daniel 2 says something a bit different.  In Nebuchadnezzar's dream, we certainly see the froth and the churn: one kingdom follows another, splendour comes and goes, strength and unity are mingled with weakness and division.  Nothing human lasts, and what, in the end does it all mean?  And of course the fact that God can reveal to Nebuchadnezzar, through his dream and through Daniel's interpretation, that this is the future state of his kingdom shows once again that God reigns.  But there is more.

In the dream, a rock - something fairly unspectacular to look at, compared to the glories of the statue representing the human kingdoms of the earth - appears.  It was not cut out by human hands; in other words, the origins of this rock are divine.  And it is flung at the statue, utterly destroying it, pulverising it.  The rock itself becomes a mountain, growing until it fills the whole earth.  Because God will be King.  He is not merely King-in-the-background, the undercover Sovereign, in control despite it all.  He is the King-who-is-coming, the King who will reign over all the earth, the King who will be acknowledged by every tongue and every heart.

So we must say: our God will reign!  Though the visible beginning of his Kingdom is just a little rock - the stone rejected by men, but in the sight of God chosen and precious - it will fill the earth.  And this matters.  We are not saying to the world, or to our own troubled hearts, merely that God is in control of all the mess and evil that we see (and commit!); we are also saying that he will end it, and will himself be all in all through his Christ whom he has installed on his holy hill.  It is not just that God's sovereignty limits evil; God in his coming sovereignty will overcome evil.

He will be King.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

No competition

Here is a question Barth faces in his discussion of preaching (and by the way, there is likely to be quite a bit of stuff forthcoming on Barth and preaching; dissertation reading, innit): when preaching in the Church becomes the Word of God (let's just assume for now that this is a sensible description of what happens), does it cease to be human activity?

Barth is clear that when the preacher stands up to speak, all he has is human words to say, in a very human way.  He aims, if he is a faithful preacher, at proclaiming the Word of God, but he can't do it.  He does his human thing, says his human words, and it is up to God whether this discourse actually is the Word of God, God himself addressing the Church.  But if it is, what then happens to the human element?  Is it displaced?  Or is hollowed out, leaving just a thin veneer of humanity around a basically divine event?  (Is it, then, transubstantiated?)

Nope.

"God and the human element are not two co-existing and co-operating factors.  The human element is what God created.  Only in the state of disobedience is it a factor standing over against God.  In the state of obedience it is service of God.  Between God and true service of God there can be no rivalry...  Where God is truly served, there - with no removal of the human element, with the full and essential presence and operation of the human element in all its humanity - the willing and doing of God is not just present as a first or second co-operating factor; it is present as the first and decisive thing as befits God the Creator and Lord."

(That's CD I/1, 94 for those reading along in their own Dogmatics at home.  You know who you are.)

Here is a thought which extends beyond preaching, and now seems so blindingly obvious, and yet I've never thought it before.  The question of the interaction of divine sovereignty and human freedom is only a question because of sin.  Take sin out of the equation, and there just isn't a problem.  So if we're wrestling with the dynamics of sovereignty and freedom, what we are really wrestling with is the most mysterious factor of human existence as we know it: sin.  In fact, sin might be considered to be the very act of raising the question: can my freedom, given me by God for use in his service, which service is perfect joy and freedom and leads to life - can that freedom be used contrary to God's will?  And so sin is exposed as a rebellious nonsense.

But between true service of God and God's own sovereign rule, there is no competition.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Doctor Who Cares?

Here is a rare foray into the world of popular culture, which given both my ignorance in the sphere and the fact that I can't imagine anyone cares what I think about it, I felt initially reluctant to offer.  But then I remembered this is a blog, and I regularly write about that things that I don't suppose anyone other than myself is interested in anyway.  So here, I wanted to offer some grumpy-old-man thoughts on Doctor Who.

This isn't about the new Doctor, or at least it's only indirectly about her.  Despite having watched Doctor Who since it's first reinvention, I found myself profoundly uninterested in who might be taking over the helm of the TARDIS, and I think the reason is that the last season of the show has persuaded me that I just don't want to watch any more.

Of course this last season hasn't been all bad.  Capaldi is a compelling actor, and a joy to watch; I guess he is the main reason I've stuck with it.  There have been some individually quite enjoyable episodes.  But the overwhelming feel has been a season-long preach, a constant crossing of the line between politically aware television and outright propaganda.

Doctor Who has two things going for it when it comes to producing propaganda.  Firstly, there is the character of the Doctor himself: vastly superior to humanity in practically every way, and in fact to all intents and purposes omniscient from the human perspective.  A god, one might say, but a god who spends his time pronouncing sarcastic moral judgement on the human race (whilst, it must be said, maintaining a certain fondness for and preventing our extinction multiple times).  The point is that when the Doctor pronounces the backwardness of human society and extols the virtues of liberal-left politics - which he does, a lot, in none-too-subtle ways - he must be right.

The second thing the show has going for it as a piece of propaganda is time travel.  This works whether the Doctor takes his companions forward or backward in time.  If he goes forward, he can show us that the logical end point of capitalism is to make people pay for the air they breathe, and that provides a great opportunity for a sermon about the evils of the economic system.  Of course, we know that the writers are just inventing the future - they don't actually have access to a TARDIS - but still, the idea sticks in the imagination, and capitalism is discredited by this apparently logical extrapolation.  If the Doctor goes back in time, on the other hand, we get to see that 19th century London was just as ethnically diverse as a modern cosmopolitan city, or that ancient Romans had sexual mores very similar to those of the early 21st century liberal left.  That is, of course, a falsification of history, which perhaps could be excused on the grounds of dramatic license, if it didn't once again feel so preachy.  We are being given the impression that those who don't toe the liberal line in the 21st century are just out of step, not only with our own time but with time as a whole.

Maybe I'm taking this all too seriously; it is, after all, just a light entertainment programme.  But perhaps that's the third thing that makes it the perfect vehicle for propaganda.  If the programme started with a notice along the lines of 'there now follows a party political broadcast on behalf of the 21st century liberal consensus', I guess we'd be a) a bit less likely to watch, and b) a bit more critically alert.  But you have to suspend so much disbelief to get into the TARDIS in the first place that you're probably not thinking about the view of the world that is being presented.  Perhaps the only thing that lets the show down as propaganda is that the writers are not able to be subtle enough about their biases to keep my critical faculties asleep until the end of the episode each week.

So, I don't think I care about the new Doctor.  It's a woman; jolly good.  Slightly put off by all the comments along the lines of 'it's about time', but perhaps only because in the light of the whole of the last season it all just feels like more of the same in-your-face gender politics masquerading as fun.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The disaster of untheology

I offer without particular comment this, from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p 77.  Paragraph breaks added and punctuation slightly altered for ease of reading.  Not difficult to apply to the present life of the Church despite the passage of 85 years...

How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretext, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta!  [the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered - the reference is to the Augsburg Confession.]  As though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre!  As though we could put ourselves in God's hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point!

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living "quite untheologically" for the demands of the day ("love").  As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard!  As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics!

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find no time should things become really serious and exciting!  As though there could be any more serious task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work!  As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency!  As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency!

Let there be no mistake.  Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance.  The whole Church must want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology.