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.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Why do we gather? (1)

I think there are three live understandings (in my context, at least) of what it is that Christians are doing when they gather on Sundays.  In this and the following two posts, I will no doubt caricature them, but perhaps it might still be helpful as a way of thinking through how we engage with Sunday services.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, when Christians gather together as church on a Sunday, they are doing salvation.  "For it is in the liturgy, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, that 'the work of our redemption is accomplished..." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1068 [citing here Sacrosanctum Concilium]).  The explicit connection to the Mass will render this view unacceptable to most evangelicals, and rightly so.  "In Christian tradition (liturgy) means the participation of the People of God in the work of God" (Cat. Cath., 1069).  In so far as this definition of liturgy is accepted, the word itself had better be rejected.  There can be no sense of the church participating in the salvific work of God in the way here anticipated.

That being said, evangelicals would be unwise to completely shut the door on the idea that we gather together to 'do' salvation.  The biblical link between baptism and salvation, which clearly ties a human-liturgical action into the economy of salvation means that the door has to remain open.  Similarly, reflection on the fact that preaching is also an essentially liturgical action leans in this direction.  The word of God preached is the seed of the faith that saves.  So, just replacing the Mass with the sermon?  Not quite.  The sermon (like baptism, actually) represents the witness in the church to the accomplished work of Christ.  It is not a participation in his work.  That God, by the Spirit, lifts up this human work to make it the means of applying that completed work to the individuals gathered is a very different thing from the Roman Mass.  This is the difference: we are recipients, not actors.

Nevertheless, it would be helpful for us evangelicals to take seriously the fact that when we gather on a Sunday this is the place of salvation.  This is where the Word of God is, in Scripture read, the gospel preached, the sacraments administered.  If church has become a bit of a chore; if we find ourselves wondering if it was worth getting up for this Sunday; if we think that perhaps we'd get on with the Christian faith better by ourselves: perhaps we need to remember that Sundays are for salvation.