About coram deo at home

Wanted to save the world since I was six. Discovered I needed saving along the way. Became a theologian to join the signposting team, marking the way of salvation. Trying, together with my husband, to lead our four children along the road. Always looking for fellow travellers.

the weight of the world

I just finished lecturing on food in my ethics class. Food is a big problem, both for those who don’t have enough and for those who have plenty. The ways in which it is problematic for those who don’t have enough are well known, and well documented. Charities raise funds to fight world hunger; the UN has pledged to eradicate world hunger by 2030. So far, hunger is winning: from 2015 to 2016 the number of hungry people in the world increased by 5%. Have we forgotten about world hunger with all the crises of various kinds happening around the world? I wonder how much the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit campaign (and the aftermath of both) have distracted us all from the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.

The other food problem I spoke about today, though, was obesity. In the past three decades rates of obesity among adults and children have risen across the globe. Those increases bring in their train an increase in hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. This subject causes uncomfortable squirming amongst the college-age set (and probably the rest of us as well). We have been busy pushing back–and rightly so–against the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to conform our bodies to an unrealistic ideal. I grew up in Southern California, spending my summer days on its beautiful beaches, and lifeguard towerlearning to hate my body with a deep and abiding passion. I push back as hard as I can, for the sake of my daughters. I’m not sure my body-loathing will ever go away, but I’ll be damned if I let my girls grow up hating theirs.

Addressing the health crisis might well make for trimmer citizens. But I’d like to uncouple the body’s health from the body’s image. Good luck with that, says the other half of my brain: plenty of people have been trying to do that for years. Everyone who has been trying to do that ought to keep on trying, and the rest of us ought to join in, because this matters for the whole world. If we are ever going to tackle this problem, the very first thing we need to do is de-stigmatize obesity. The reason for the tension I felt in the classroom today? The phenomenon of fat-shaming. To begin with, that’s got to stop. Right now.

As a society, we have had some practice at de-stigmatizing. Alcoholism and mental illness are two diseases that, like obesity, are noncommunicable. But we no longer lay the blame for the illness squarely at the feet of the sufferer. It’s complicated. Getting better is hard work, but it isn’t self-flagellation. Some of us have health issues, and we need treatment and support to recover. Obesity is no different, except that we haven’t yet had the conversion that we have had with alcoholism and mental illness (which is still underway in both cases). We need to stop thinking of obesity as just ‘getting fat’ and begin to think of it as a complex phenomenon rather than something people inflict on themselves.

We also need to address the rise in obesity in the developing world. This global health crisis is being driven in part by the expansion of fast, processed food and sugary postobondrinks into new markets in the developing world. As US consumers drink less soda pop, new consumers need to be found to keep profits up. Fast food chains are popping up all over the world, and changing the way people see food. Packaged foods compete with healthier local food, and seem to be winning. The results of this corporate growth are devastating: rates of obesity are soaring in the developing world, and the health systems in developing nations are often having to address both malnutrition and obesity-related conditions.

I fear that the wealthy are preying on the poor. So it has always been, has it not? Did Amos not write of the Israelites, ‘they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals’? I fear that we don’t see it that way, if we see it at all.

Here’s what I would like to see: no more advertising ’empty calories’ as if it were food. Back in the 1970’s, the Marlborough man disappeared. Tobacco companies were banned from advertising, because smoking is bad for you. We know just as surely that processed food and sugary drinks contribute to obesity. Sure, not everyone who ever has a Coke or a McDonald’s cheeseburger becomes morbidly obese. But not everyone who ever smokes a cigarette gets cancer. Not everyone who ever has a drink becomes an alcoholic, yet we are warned about the health risks, and TV advertising is regulated or banned.

If we know about the health risks, and we surely do, then are we not negligent if we fail to inform consumers? The real risk here is doing nothing and seeing the global health crisis escalate. The alcohol and tobacco industries have survived taxation, regulation, and advertising bans. So would Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and all the rest.  Isn’t the health of the world worth it?

 

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the wrong job

Days like today, I feel like I am in the wrong job. Academics, I think, argue for things that matter in a scholarly way. So, for example, the point I am trying to make about liberation theology and theological reflection on intellectual disability matters because it contributes some clever new thing to the way we think about ethics or doctrine.

It might. It probably does. But that isn’t where my arguments naturally run. Left to their own devices (they’re incredibly resistant to my control), the arguments I tend to make all end up at the same place. Whatever it is that I am arguing for, in the end, matters because it shapes our discipleship. That is, it contributes to our understanding of what following Jesus entails.

This never seems very satisfying, when I am faced with the prospect of presenting my research in a resolutely academic setting. (And British universities are resolutely academic.) Because, you see, if you think that I am right…if I my argument has convinced you, you should not just say, ‘Oh, I see. Interesting–I never saw it quite that way before.’ Nope. If I am right, then you don’t just need to change the way you think, if you’re a Christian, you need to change the way you live. (Unless you happen to be Jean Vanier or you live with the poor already, in the case of the paper I am writing now.)

How do I say that the intersection of theological reflection on intellectual disability and liberation theology puts the preferential option for the poor squarely at the heart of what it means to be Christians–in an academic way? It always ends up sounding more hortatory than conclusive. If I try to say it in that ‘and so we see that…’ academic way, it also sounds pretty arrogant.

But what I have found in my exploration of the intersection of these two discourses, through the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez and Jean Vanier, is just that: the preferential option for the poor is not vital only for the poor in Latin America or in L’Arche communities. The poor are those to whom the good news is announced, not to those of us who help the poor (or argue that we really ought to do x or y with respect to the poor). It means that we are not actually hearing the good news properly unless we are hearing it with the ears of the poor. See? That’s not an academic conclusion, that’s a call to change your life.

It isn’t as impossible as it seems, though. If you have children, you have the poor with you always. Read what Jesus says about children: the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Hear the good news with the ears of your child. I have four children, and I find this incredibly challenging.

Or, if you’re me, you stay in the wrong job. Remaining in the academic world keeps me perpetually poor in spirit, as I worry and wonder whether I am actually suited to this world. I doubt anyone really thinks I have anything much to say. But I stay, and keep confusing exhortation for academic argument, flubbing my lines, and loitering on the margins of the academic world, hoping that from here I can overhear at least a word or two of what the Lord is saying to the poor.

Slow theology: John Swinton and Matthias Scheeben

Everything else seems to have a ‘slow’ version–why not theology? I feel as though ‘slow’ is just the way I do theology, more by necessity than by choice. Reading and writing happen slowly, and my ideas unfold over time. Sometimes I think I’ve got a giant percolator for a mind, one in which life experience accumulates (like coffee grounds) and then everything I read goes through it. Then, of course, experience filters through the whole mess of reading and previous experience, and so on. No wonder I read so slowly and write more slowly still. Mind you, I am not saying that this is a better way. It certainly isn’t, if what you want is to ascend. I’m not ascending; I’m barely treading water.

becoming friends of timeSince this is my mode of theological and intellectual operation, I found myself delighting in John Swinton’s recent book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. He calls out modern culture of efficiency into question, and suggests that God has given us the gift of time for love, not for achievement. In God’s time, humility and gentleness trump speed and efficiency. (Check out the symposium on Syndicate! ) It was in reading John’s book that I began to think seriously about the possibility of slow theology. There is a methodological slowness in doing theology as an intellectual practice that fits with my own (often frustrating) experience of academic-theological work, and gentleness is at the heart of it.

In a way, it is gentleness that appeals to me in the work of a no-longer-widely-read dogmatic theologian, Matthias Scheeben. My attempts to read my way into Scheeben’s work were revitalised by Bruce Marshall, who wrote a perceptive and hortatory essay suggesting that ‘Scheeben teaches us the virtues theologians need.’ These virtues, together, shape a practice of theology that takes time. ‘Dogmatic theology,’ Scheeben shows us, ‘must discipline itself to be about God in a specific way, one that draws us into the mysteries revealed only in Christ.’ Scheeben’s deep attentiveness to these mysteries shows through clearly in his (aptly titled) The Mysteries of Christianity. It’s a book that an mysteriesacademic theologian would have difficulty publishing today, I expect. His erudition (which Marshall describes as staggering) is balanced with an equally profound piety. Scheeben’s study of the mysteries of God, revealed in Christ, is a discipline at once ‘intellectual’ and ‘spiritual.’

Another aspect of Scheeben’s study reveals the second of the virtues Marshall identifies:

Scheeben does not lord over the past and judge it, as if the modern mind were in a superior position to know divine truths. Nor does he equate genuinely dogmatic theology with rigorous adherence to a past master, no matter how much we may learn from him. His use of the thirteenth-century scholastics, for example, is remarkably catholic. He does not play them off against one another, or adhere to a particular school, but makes constructive use of all of them, usually in mutually reinforcing ways. 

Although Marshall doesn’t name it ‘gentleness,’ the respect Scheeben shows to his interlocutors is just that: gentle. Much scholarship advances in less constructive and more critical ways, as if the only way to make an argument is to show where others have gone wrong. (I suspect that Scheeben would not have had much time for snarky comments on Facebook, but that might just be a little bit of hero-worship.)

The virtue that perfects the others, on my reading, is humility. Indeed, Marshall finds this to be ‘the most striking feature of Scheeben’s theological writing.’ In particular, Scheeben sustains this attitude ‘before the divine mysteries he seeks to understand.’ Scheeben’s attention to these mysteries shapes his engagement with his interlocutors and his understanding of the character of the theological task. His piety (which is an aspect of the first virtue) and gentleness (which is the essence of the second) are bound up inextricably with his profound humility before the mystery of God.

Scheeben wasn’t a slow theologian in the sense that his writing took a long time. (Neither is John Swinton, by that measure.) As Marshall points out, the foundations of his theological work were already mostly laid ‘by the time Scheeben published the Mysteries…at the age of thirty.’ But his attention to thescheeben divine mysteries had been formed by a theological culture marked, as Marshall puts it, by ‘breadth and sympathy.’ Scheeben might have been a fast learner, building a knowledge base in his twenties that I can’t hope to match if I keep at it until I am eighty. He was, however, measured in his judgements and not dismissive, never rash.

If there is any advantage in the glacial speed of my own theological work, it may be that I have no fast-track through my intellectual process: the knowledge I acquire drips slowly through the ‘grounds.’ This means that I have to say things like ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Let me think about that.’ And so, I lose arguments frequently, and do not seek them out. There’s no virtue in losing, of course. But there is some healing that comes with the realisation that winning–which tends to come by being the strongest and the fastest–isn’t everything. There is more to be said, much more, about the possibility of slow theology. But I’ll just have to let it brew.

 

 

 

 

A bit of UK politics: Tim Fallon’s resignation letter

UK politics is not something I know a lot about, actually. And it seems to be as much of a mess as politics in the US. But I noticed the resignation of Tim Fallon, leader of the Liberal Democrats, even though I hadn’t really followed the campaign closely. Fortunately, the letter was handed to me this evening, and I read it with great interest. If you care about Jesus, it’s worth reading, even if you don’t care about politics. So here it is (addressed to my husband, who is a member of the Lib Dems):

Dear Lewis,

This last two years have seen the Liberal Democrats recover since the devastation of the 2015 election. 
That recovery was never inevitable but we have seen the doubling of our party membership, growth in council elections, our first parliamentary by-election win for more than a decade, and most recently our growth at the 2017 general election.

Most importantly the Liberal Democrats have established ourselves with a significant and distinctive role – passionate about Europe, free trade, strong well-funded public services underpinned by a growing market economy.

No one else occupies that space.  Against all the odds, the Liberal Democrats matter again.

We can be proud of the progress we have made together, although there is much more we need to do.

From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith.  I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience.  Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.

At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again – asked about matters to do with my faith.  I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message.

Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit.  The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.

A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

I’m a liberal to my finger tips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.

There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it – it’s not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.

Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in.

In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.

That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I intend to serve until the parliamentary recess begins next month, at which point there will be a leadership election according to the party’s rules.

This is a historic time in British politics. What happens in the next months and years will shape our country for generations.

My successor will inherit a party that is needed now more than ever before. Our future as an open, tolerant and united country is at stake.

The cause of British liberalism has never been needed more. People who will fight for a Britain that is confident, generous and compassionate are needed more than ever before.

That is the challenge our party and my successor faces and the opportunity I am certain that they will rise to.

I want to say one more thing: I joined our party when I was 16, it is in my blood, I love our history, our people, I thoroughly love my party.

Imagine how proud I am to lead this party.  And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour.

In the words of Isaac Watts it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all’.

Thank you,

Tim

 

in the valley

I have always had days like this. More often, far more often than I would like. So my life’s path has been a crooked one through mountain passes. Some days are glorious, inside and out, and somehow then the valleys, seen from above, look less threatening.

In the valley, though, I usually keep my head down. I stay off the social media. I don’t blog. What on earth could I possibly say from down here? Words seem to die on my lips, and those that don’t simply fade into the darkness. But today I’m going to have a good look around, and see what I can see. I am not sure that it will help me get out of the valley, but having a map might at least remind me that this isn’t the whole landscape.

The first thing I notice about the shape of this internal valley is chaos–a sort of verbal chaos, in which I feel I cannot speak. It isn’t so much that I have no words, but that they’re all tangled up. Like Reepicheep (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), all the things that I might say paralyze me, and I fall silent. I might pick up a pen, and scribble madly in the darkness: but nothing I say there will ever be read by anyone.

The second thing I notice is the emptiness. There isn’t a soul around. Literally, at the moment, there isn’t anyone around–I am ‘working’ from home. Or at least I will be, when the internal fog lifts a little. But it is more empty than that. There is such a deep aloneness here. From this angle, I can see very clearly the despair that inspires suicide. It’s the most painful aspect of the darkness, the sense of being utterly and completely alone in the universe. I know that from outside, the total disregard for how others might ‘receive’ one’s death looks like selfishness. But from inside, the actual love is absolutely imperceptible. (Here my saving grace has always been my children, even before I had any–but that’s another story.) All those others who might miss me are lost to me already in the darkness.

Usually the emptiness overwhelms me, and I can look no more. Maybe this isn’t a bad exercise after all. The third thing that I notice in the valley, feeling my way along, is a sense of uselessness. I’m not actually good at or for anything. Here I discover the slope I slid down–almost always this is the place I fall in. In the world of social media, instant likes, and numbers of followers, this is a very, very easy place to stumble. It doesn’t help that I have a sought-after spouse. I have four small stalkers, but the rest of the world has absolutely no use for me whatsoever. I’ve lost sight, here, of the things I have done that have not been totally unappreciated, and the things I have been asked to do. I know they are there, but they, too, have disappeared into the blackness: if I did them, they weren’t actually any good; people are just too kind to me to say so. Anyone could have done better. (At the deepest part of this valley, I have no doubt that someone else would be a better mother to my children. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be there today.)

This is difficult, this mapping. This is why I usually shut the computer and find something to tidy. But I’ve started now, and I am too stubborn to give up. The next thing I notice is an eerie sort of timelessness. This moment–or this series of moments–seems isolated from the rest of my life, past and future. If I were to try to remember something that happened even yesterday, I’d struggle. I might be able to recall it, but that person in the past wouldn’t be me, at least not the same me that I am in this moment. As I think back on yesterday–just to try it–it’s like watching TV. I am not in the scene. Whoever it is that I am right now is not in the narrative of my life. Maybe that’s not exactly timelessness. Maybe it’s an aspect of something else.

The something else is a loss of gravity. Obviously, my feet are still on the floor. The laws of physics still obtain. But there is another sort of chaos. I’ve become separated somehow from my past and future, and my words have become jumbled. Nothing is where it ought to be; my thoughts have no foundation, no anchor. I cannot tell, exactly, internally, which way is forward and which way is back. And I cannot ask for directions. If I tried to speak, I wouldn’t say what I wanted: clear thinking is impossible.

This makes me feel slightly crazy. Also a little bit dizzy inside. I don’t know what to do next: this is the final thing, I think. This is the point at which I have to find something to tidy or I will do something bad to my computer. Because I can’t subdue this chaos by writing. I can’t make this darkness lift by describing it. When I was a teenager, this is the point at which I would fling my binder across the room. The rings would burst apart, and the pages of my life story (and some very bad poetry) would scatter around the room. Ah, then the outside would look like the inside, and in collecting and collating all those sheets of notebook paper I would somehow come back to myself.

As long as I can remember, it has been this way. Some days are worse than others. Some days the darkness nearly swallows me up for good. But something always intervenes, and for that I will be grateful. For probably a decade, I finished every single journal entry with the same verse from Ps 42:

Why are you downcast, o my soul? And why so disquieted within me? Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance                   and my God.

Maybe that’s the thing today, the thing that intervenes. Because I remember, really: I was there in that memory, even if it is a memory of utter despair. This is my story. Even if I can only see that I have often walked in darkness, I can see that I am still walking. And I think maybe, just maybe, I am not alone.

 

The Revolution of Tenderness: TED talk

Over the last decade or so, the TED talk – the 18-minute messages given by prominent artists, techies and other cultural figures – has become shorthand for showcasing the ideas the speaker most seeks to put into broad circulation. And at this week’s marquee conference for the program in Vancouver, the usual roster of celebs…

via “The Future Has A Name: Hope” – In TED Talk, Pope Seeks a “Revolution” — Whispers in the Loggia

Good Friday

Good Friday at our house is not the somber occasion I often think it ought to be. But we begin with Stations of the Cross with our local Faith & Light group, which is something, anyway. Tonight for supper, it’s pizza (no pepperoni!) in the shape of a cross–a request one of my sons made a few years ago. And I will listen to this a few more times, in quiet moments:

Pisces

Who said to the trout,
You shall die on Good Friday
To be food for a man
And his pretty lady?
It was I, said God,
Who formed the roses
In the delicate flesh
And the tooth that bruises.
                             -RS Thomas