calm before the storm

Thinking about Elijah today: how does he know (in 1 Kings 18:41) that the rain is coming? (See thinking coram Deo for more on that.) I recongize that I am in a strangely quiet space: no blog posts, almost no tweets, hardly any writing even in my own journal–when pen and paper have so often been my tools for navigating difficult times. But the quiet isn’t peace–it’s like the eerie calm before the storm. I am just waiting to see whether this storm will be a violent thunderstorm or the soft summer rain.  

All I really know about the future, really know, is that God is there. That has to be enough.

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Tuesday of the fourth week of Lent

I have not been doing a very good job of reflecting on the Mass readings. Too many days, I feel, I have relied on the meditations I wrote a few years ago. Today, though (maybe because teaching has finished?), I have returned to my old friend, Psalm 46:10, at thinking coram Deo: ‘Cease striving, and know that I am God’. Thanks for reading.

 

It’s all good

Having read the thoughtful post from The Accidental Missionary, I considered the way I use ‘feeling blessed’. I don’t use it, actually. Not that I have objections; it just isn’t one of my stock phrases. The accidental missionary is absolutely right to point out that Jesus calls ‘blessed’ those to whom we might not apply the term as it is often used in Christian-speak; that is, it is when things go well that we are likely to say we’re ‘feeling blessed.’ We are less likely to say, ‘I was mugged this evening on the way to the bus stop, and the thief took all my money, my watch, and my mobile phone, leaving me with a bruised cheek and no way home: feeling blessed.’ But that seems more in line with the ‘meek’ and ‘persecuted’ that Jesus calls ‘blessed.’

My instinct, though, isn’t to refrain from using the language. Maybe, even, I should start considering myself ‘blessed’ a whole lot more. Pope Francis has been talking us through the the epistle of St James recently, in daily homilies and weekly audiences. James begins (following his greetings) rather disconcertingly, ‘Consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials.’ Trials and tribulations are to be welcomed, because the fruit of endurance is to ‘be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.’ That’s blessed–and here I am in complete agreement with the accidental missionary: the good stuff is not what makes us good. It’s not even evidence that we are on the right track.

In the middle of the book of Acts, Paul sets out to check on his church plants in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, where Christians have been experiencing some fairly intense persecution. Acts 14:22 reports on the content of Paul’s message to the fledgling communities. Paul and company ‘[strengthened] the souls of the disciples, encouraging them in the faith, and saying, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”‘ Not goodwill or success or growth, but tribulations are the evidence that the communities are on the way to the kingdom. (I have something more to say about this in the last chapter of my book, Rethinking Christian Identity, if you’re at all interested.)

That’s not, of course, to say that only tribulations are blessings: this morning’s invitatory Psalm (66 [67]) reads ‘the earth has yielded its produce’ as evidence that ‘God, our God, blesses us.’ Such logic is common in the Old Testament, though there are clues (see Job, for example!) that it is more complicated than that. So the way forward, I think, is rather to regard it all as blessing. One of my mentors, who has spent a lifetime as a Christian priest and theologian at the intersection of Jewish, Muslim and Christian thought, is very fond of the phrase alhamdulillah. Whether the news is welcome or unwelcome, God be praised! If we encounter challenges or enjoy success, thanks be to God!

It’s all good. Now, we don’t always know how it’s good, but that is a question of a different kind (see Wisdom 8.1 and Romans 8.28).

Deo gratias.

Thinking coram Deo

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that reading Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology has had on my life. No, I am not a Barth scholar. Nor have I read through the Church Dogmatics as I thought I would when I was twenty-something. But in reading that little book of Barth’s I fell in love with theology. Oddly, it isn’t a book I re-read–I’ve read Middlemarch three or four times now, but Evangelical Theology just the once. I recommend it, I assign it, I return to bits of it.


If there is one bit I return to more than others, it is the description Barth gives of theological grammar. Theology is a response; we have been addressed by God, and our reply is necessarily in the second person. The object of my study is not an object at all, but a subject; not an “it” but a “you”.


Sometimes I forget that, at my peril. I forget that thinking about God isn’t really possible– I mean, thinking apart from God, with some sort of critical distance. There is no such thing as critical distance, here. We are always thinking coram Deo, thinking in the presence of God, who is more present to us than we are to ourselves. There is no place for idle speculation here, there are no ‘academic’ questions. That isn’t to say that it’s not important to think hard, to read attentively (thanks, Ben Myers), and to speak clearly. But it is to say that all the hard work in the world won’t get us closer to God than we already are, won’t show us God more clearly. Only God can do that.

So Barth would have agreed, perhaps, with Evagrius–the theologian is one who prays. Maybe somewhere in the pages of the Church Dogmatics I haven’t read, he says so. Either way, I am glad of the reminder that, however much I doubt my adequacy for the task of theology, I can do no better than to respond, and begin nowhere else but in prayer: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.


Aristotle on the soul

This morning a strange thing happened: Lewis and I found ourselves in the car alone. No interruptions from the children, and Lewis about to teach on–you guessed it–Aristotle on the soul. I dug into the topic this morning in the car with an unusual sense of having a stake in the question. The question began as 'how is the soul the form of the body, for Aristotle?' That's quite a difficult question to answer, as it happens, and I expect more conversation will take place the next time Lewis and I have a l chance to take it up. If anyone happens to have an answer to hand, I would love to hear it.
 
Fear not: I am not going to rehearse here Aristotle's doctrine of the soul. My hunch is that it loses something in the process of being summarised. Besides, it is full of paradox and warrants a sort of attention I am not able to give it. But I should, and I will, because what I could recognise immediately in Aristotle's account of the soul is the way it shows up in the Questions on the Soul of St Thomas Aquinas. His account of the soul is, not surprisingly, full of paradox and has been the subject of at least one paper I have read recently, and two that I have given at conferences. Surely there was plenty of conversation about the topic last June at a conference on the soul in Oxford (which I was unable to attend, sadly).
 
The question of the soul interests me because I am very anxious to retain soul language in Christian discourse. No, I don't think it is much threatened in mainstream Christianity, but I do think it is widely taken for granted. That means we tend not to teach about the nature of the soul or its function in our Christian life. I think (not without some background, I promise) that 'soul' names an aspect of human life that is inseparable from body and mind, but not coterminous with either. It's important, because sickness in body and mind is not the same as sickness of the soul; weakness in mind or body is not the same as weakness of the soul.
 
It's important because the question 'In what sense do [people with profound cognitive impairment] have a soul?' (which Frances Young raises in Face to Face) needs an answer that is careful and deeply grounded theologically. I would argue strenuously that people with severe developmental and cognitive disabilities have souls, regardless of whether their engagement with the world around them has grown beyond the level of an infant. The soul is not the same as the mind, and not the same as the body. We are too used to thinking about our relationships with one another and with God as somehow dependent on our own agency. But it is not so, not necessarily so. An infant does not yet exercise the kind of agency that sustains the relationship into which he or she has been born; the relationship exists, to begin with, because a parent does the work of relating to and caring for the infant. Of course our relationships with one another can be mutually intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying, and such friendships are to be cherished. But if our relationships depended on others when we were tiny infants, so much more does our relationship with God depend on God.
 
I don't pretend to know exactly what the soul is. I cannot tell you in what sense it is the 'form of the body' for Aristotle. But I think that in saying that we have souls–that we are embodied souls, or ensouled bodies–we are affirming that there is a mysterious dimension to human existence. We are saying that God relates to each and every one of us as a parent to a tiny child, in the sense that there is a tremendous inequality between the parent's ability to understand, to care for, to bear with, and to meet the needs of the infant child, and the infant's ability to do anything for the parent. The idea of a 'soul' can remind us that we receive our very life from God, regardless of the capacities of our minds and bodies. The soul's capacity for God is not diminished by mental or physical incapacity, but by sin.
 
But sin is another topic entirely, best left for another day.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The Trinity for toddlers, part 2

Teaching theology affords an incredible opportunity to see how people cope with a doctrine that resists the intellect's instinctive attempts to solve it. It is not, as theologians like Rowan Williams and Thomas Weinandy (two very different thinkers, to say the least) have observed, a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be pondered. It's a mystery. Rowan Williams says, drawing on the resources of Eastern Orthodox theology, that 'the doctrine of the Trinity is a crucifixion of the intellect.' So it isn't surprising that students of theology, whether giving the lectures or hearing them, find it difficult.
 
But it doesn't crucify the intellect to no purpose, nor is it the most difficult of the mysteries of the faith. We might think that Jesus is the answer, but he raised a whole lot of questions for a few hundred years. The incarnation and the atonement present us with mystery just as irreducible as the Trinity. The intellectual life of the believing soul involves contemplating the truths of the faith while holding fast to the knowledge of God's ultimate incomprehensibilty. And nowhere is this more true than in that most difficult, deal-breaking area of theological reflection that we call theodicy. The problem of evil is not, like the Trinity might be, a stumbling block just for the intellect. It confronts us when inexplicable and unjust things happen to us or to those we love, things that make us turn to God in confusion, wondering how a God who is omnipotent and perfectly, completely good, could allow such things to happen. I understand how it ends up being a deal-breaker.
 
I used to wonder why I still had my faith, after all I did to lose it, and after it was challenged by my experience of life. Eventually I came to see that it wasn't 'mine' to lose, really: it is the faith of the Church, and I participate in it, I don't possess it. But that doesn't explain why I am still hanging around. Probably I owe that to my mother, who taught me lots of songs about Jesus when I was small. They're not the sorts of songs that survived the 1980's, but they impressed upon me a certain understanding of Jesus, one that stayed with me. The core of what I think about Jesus was formed before I was old enough really to be puzzled about how someone could be fully God and fully human.
 
So I am really glad that when my small son asked me, 'Who is God?' I answered with reference to the Trinity, with the sign of the cross, with the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I could have answered, as I supposed might be more practical, with something about God as the creator, or God as love. These would have been good. But at age three, my son never asked how the one I called God could also be called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It isn't like we grow up and suddenly the penny drops, and we grasp how three can be one, how one can be three; we don't mature intellectually such that if we wait long enough to introduce these difficult concepts, we will be able to understand them. Better to get used to a name that names something we don't understand from the get-go, and grow into appreciation of the mystery as we develop intellectually and spiritually.
 
Now I can imagine lots of objections to that, but they will have to wait for another day.