Monday, August 23, 2010

Some thoughts on engaging politics as a Christian

Here’s a little outline of how I approach politics, how I decide which political party to vote for, and, more broadly, how I think about political matters as a Christian. I write this brief post - 1. Self-conscious that some of my friends are more politically and theologically literate than me. 2. Acutely aware that there is only so much you can say in a blog post. 3. Not claiming any originality in these thoughts (my thoughts on politics have been influenced significantly by John Rees, Jim Wallis, Walter Wink, Ronald Sider, Ernest Bammel, Stephen Mott, to name a few. See especially John Rees's article for Zadok Perspectives, “Approaching Politics”, No.72 Spring 2001. You'll note, if you read that article, how influential John Rees has been on my thinking in this area. All kudos to John - he was a mentor of mine while at theological college). 4. I am not going to suggest who you should vote for – just offer some thoughts shaping how I approach politics.

So here I go:

1. ‘Politics’ is a broader phenomenon than ‘party politics’, and whenever human beings live together in social groupings they are effectively involved and embedded in ‘politics.’ Human organisation, personal decision-making, allocation of power and authority, gender issues, articulation of values, formation and reinvention of cultural and social traditions – we are all swept up in ‘politics’ before we even begin to reflect critically on ‘party politics’

2. Biblical authority and interpretation, and theological hermeneutics, are crucial starting points for a Christian approach to politics. Yet we often manipulate and distort Scripture for our own ends, or, conversely, ignore Scripture altogether and make political decisions unreflectively or based on other concerns or convictions.

3. Scripture and biblical ethics can provide us with a rich source of information and conviction in our political decision making, but there are many particular contemporary issues where Scripture is silent. So we need to build a foundation on Scripture, when we engage in political discussion or decide who to vote for, while recognizing that we will have to move from this foundation into conversation with others (other Christians, other Christian traditions, and those who are not Christian) about particular political issues, as we seek to make an informed, mature, biblically-faithful, and Christ-honouring decision.

4. While we live in a world that is estranged from God and distanced from God’s original intent (there are many ways to talk about this theologically, so, please, feel free to fill in the blanks), my conviction is that our call to discipleship includes a political dimension, and the need to uphold, engage and even confront the political processes of the day, and of the society of which we are a part. We can’t avoid this. Peacemaking, confronting the principalities and powers, loving enemies, proclaiming the Gospel, heralding the Kingdom, advocating for indigenous rights, caring for the orphan and the widow, devolving power, advocating for the poor and powerless, building genuine community – these are profoundly political actions which, when done in the Spirit and for the sake of Christ, cannot go unnoticed politically. For me, these ‘political’ actions are augmented through voting and through cultivating an active voice in the theatre of ‘party politics’ (individually and as Christian corporately). My voting needs to demonstrate a real concern for the issues I have raised above (peacemaking, justice, compassion, truth, generosity, etc), but, more importantly, the whole of my life should be oriented toward reflecting the mind and passion of Christ in these matters.

5. Government authority is legitimate, but it is ‘under God’ and is never autonomous, since it is subject to the supreme authority of God. Hence, while it must be honoured, and even obeyed when it does not transgress biblical ethics or injunctions, it is to be confronted by Christians through their proclamation of - the Gospel, the characteristics of the Kingdom, the justice articulated in the prophets and the Law, the original creation intent, the eschatological vision of Scripture, and so forth.

I'd be interested in how you would develop, contradict or respond to these thoughts

Graham Hill

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Conversion of the Imagination

“Where there is no vision the people perish.” So begins the King James Version of Proverbs 29:18, half of a verse doomed, it seems, to be regularly ripped from its context and made to serve the latest ‘leadership techniques’ proponent—coming soon to a clergy seminar near you. It’s not that there isn’t a morsel of wisdom here, in recognising that people need common purpose to survive together; it’s that the proverb itself points to the need for an unveiling—a revelation—of God’s purposes for God’s people to flourish in a contrary world. There’s nothing esoteric or especially mystical about grasping revelation, but it’s no simple matter either.

But we like things to be simple. When things are simple we feel we can master them, and we can use them for our purposes. But revelation breaks into our world with the new, the unexpected and, despite our attempts of mastery, the untameable. We are often reductive in our use (note even the word ‘use’) of the Bible. But Scripture is diverse and complex—commands, stories, wisdom, visions, proclamation—and it is not meant to be mastered so much as we are meant to be mastered by the story it tells.

The great 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth spoke of the “strange new world” into which the Bible draws us. It is not simply the cultural, temporal and often geographical distance of the people who populate its pages that make it strange, but the unsettling and disturbing activity of God who summons us to new life through his ‘living and active word’. Living in that new life, in that strange new world, requires a conversion of the imagination. Not simply a change of beliefs, or assent to doctrines, or even just a new ‘worldview’ but a renewed imagination. This is not the ‘imagination’ of John Lennon—the wistful dream of utopian humanist possibility—but the deep, ongoing realignment of our hearts and minds, our affections and convictions, to the new reality of God’s coming kingdom, a new world already, subversively ‘on the way’ because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit.

But our everyday world is a taken-for-granted world. Even when Christians identify particular problems and decide they want to make a difference, it is often within the constraints of the wider ‘imagined community’, of the assumed way things ‘simply are’. As William Cavanaugh says, “We are often fooled by the seeming solidity of the materials of politics, its armies and offices, into forgetting that these materials are marshalled by acts of the imagination.” But these materials and these structures are not neutral, just waiting us to infuse them with new ‘values’. “Far from merely ‘secular’ institutions and processes, these ways of imagining organise bodies around stories of human nature and human destiny which have deep theological analogues.” Philosopher Charles Taylor calls these ‘social imaginaries’: the images and stories that are shared by a large group of people providing a common understanding that makes possible common practices and gives a sense of their legitimacy and perhaps the seeming necessity of this particular order of things.

Our imaginations are a theologically contested battleground. In Colossians Remixed, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat remind us that the early Christians lived in a world where images of the emperor—‘son of god’, ‘lord’, ‘saviour’—and imperial power, of the ‘proper’ gods and goddesses, were found in public squares, gymnasiums, baths, on coins, and even on many items for private use. The Roman empire not only colonised new territories but colonised the imagination of people; giving them a new ‘normality’ and socialising them into a new status quo. The more pervasive the images, the more invisible, natural and taken-for-granted the social order and its legitimating ‘theology’. The more natural the imagined community feels, the less obvious it is that is merely contingent and open to change or subversion. Into this world came Paul’s gospel of Jesus—the Messiah of Israel and resurrected and ascended as the world’s true lord. According to his gospel, the Messiah, the Christ, was the true image of God and the true lord in whom everything had its centre and held together. To those who were learning in Christ the new reality, the present order of things was seen not as normal but “passing away”.

The images and regimes of previous times seem obvious and problematic to us. But what are the ‘imagined communities’ and ‘social imaginaries’ of our time? In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith suggests that because our “worldview-thinking still tends to focus on ideas and beliefs” we do not fully recognise the “formative cultural impact of sites like the mall” despite our rather obvious denunciations of greed and ‘consumerism’. “Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall—the liturgies of mall and market—that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world.”

The Christian public response cannot simply be one of scolding wider society while we do not see through and tackle our tacit collusion with the status quo. How can we be enabled to see through the ‘passing’ reality and see God’s new reality afresh? How can our imagination be transformed? No easy answers here.

I was recently at a conference where a church leader and seminary lecturer asked how we could disciple people in this consumer culture. No one could give a substantial answer. It was as though the question had tapped into the uncertainty of the pastors present. But we must recognise this is a necessary long-term project for each congregation and not something rectified by a sermon series or an ad campaign. Our reconstruction, as Walter Brueggemann says, “is a slow, deliberate work done over time, one text at a time.” Hard work no doubt. However that’s not merely about ministers getting their exegesis right and then giving a few principles as ‘application’. We cannot live in the story of God unless we allow that story to live in us, to “let the message of Christ dwell among [us] richly as [we] teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). As we approach the Bible in congregations and small groups, we must be sure we are grasping the scope of the concerns of God’s kingdom and realise, like the early Christians, that Jesus Christ is calling into question the present order of things. And this engagement with Scripture requires us to radically question ourselves, each other and the world around us, even in its seemingly mundane aspects. Our workplace conditions and conflicts, our child-raising, our love of technology, our home design, our time on-line, our reading or lack of it, our conversation, our use of cars and energy resources, our recognition of the creation, our listening to others… there is no part of life that falls outside the concern of Christ. Activate your imagination as you give time to enter the world of Scripture with others and see the world afresh.

‘Wisdom’ is another name for this transformed imagination and wisdom does not come easy. Maybe that’s why we often lack it. Augustine recognised that Scripture is difficult and we should not shy away from that. The point of that difficulty was to keep us engaged with it together, struggling and learning and firing our imagination. As we tell and retell the story of the Bible, centred in Jesus Christ, gathered around his table of gracious hospitality and fellowship, in practices of servanthood and peacemaking, seeing each other as God’s new community, let our imaginations be mastered so we may see through the status quo and embody a genuine alternative for the sake of God’s world.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Ethics, 'Religion' and 'the Secular"

The question “How shall we live?” is, quite simply, a question that will not go away. Whatever our gains in scientific knowledge as we penetrate deeper into the structures of the natural world; whatever our advances in technical expertise as we attempt feats of impressive engineering and pioneer new modes of medical research; whatever our wealth amassed in business enterprise, we must return again and again to questions as ancient as recorded history: How can we co-exist with neighbours, with nations and with nature? And not merely co-exist but positively flourish together as communities of human beings? These are fundamental questions that have exercised the minds not only of the world’s great thinkers but concerned members of all societies, especially in times of crisis and social change. And, for the most part, these questions have been considered in relation to the ‘big questions’ of metaphysics, religion, and theology.

While these fundamental questions remain, undoubtedly the conditions within which they are asked have varied, as have the details of specific problems and aspirations as they have been shaped by specific cultures, natural environments, technological change and, in the last half-millennium, Western science. It is obvious that people of earlier times did not have to grapple with our complex economies and technologies, nor with the capacity of human beings to devastate the natural world to such a degree: so no suggestion of simple transposition of pre-modern norms is straightforward or sufficient. That is clear enough. What is less obvious to us—and even positively insulting to suggest to an ‘advanced’ post-industrial society—is that, overall, our capacity to negotiate our way through moral complexity is pitiable in contemporary liberal democratic capitalist society. In the face of the challenges that confront us, however, now is not a time for ‘chronological snobbery’ one way or the other but rather a reinvigorated conversation about the retrieval of ancient wisdom and its critical dialogue with particular modern and ‘postmodern’ insights.

However, as soon as we speak of “ancient wisdom”, a collection of issues often bundled up together under the vague label “religion” swings into view, immediately evoking a number of negative responses. In the deluge of media and ‘information’ we have to navigate our way through today, it is often difficult to distinguish between the responses worth a hearing and those, frankly, not. The cacophony of protest to almost anything resembling strong belief (except perhaps in ‘individual autonomy’ or sometimes nationalistic pride) inhibits the possibilities for conversations we need to have in a pluralistic society. So before we can even seek to make a case for something like a ‘religious’ basis for ethics, we have to clear away a number of preconceptions and unhelpful prejudices that have emerged and ossified in modern times.

It is important to recognise from the outset that there is no single, clear identifiable thing called ‘religion’. The various communities around our world with distinctive convictions, worldviews, practices, rituals, pieties and spiritualities are not all variations of one underlying common genus. When we use the word ‘religion’, we are using a term somewhat like the word ‘game’: and as Wittgenstein suggested, it is difficult to come up with a definition that can incorporate everything from chess, professional tennis, ‘catch’, hide and seek, solitaire and so on. So too, to organise Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other ‘religions’ under a rigid definitional scheme is highly problematic. And yet this mistake is commonplace. But its origins are in political arrangements and a cultural mythos rather than a metaphysical discovery. Something called ‘religion’ is widely held to be a private, individual matter not to be aired in public. Juxtaposed to this, something called ‘secular reason’ is lauded as the normal, natural language of public life. But this notion of the ‘secular’ and its positioning of ‘religion’ was not simply discovered as part of the nature of things but had to be invented and imagined. It is part of the modern social imaginary that emerged out of the breakup of the Medieval social order and the embattled creation of modern European nation states.

Despite its ubiquity, the word ‘secular’ is by no means self-evident in its meaning. Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding of all has been the notion that in essence it means ‘non-religious’. Secularism would have us believe
“…that religious descriptions of reality are always a sort of varnish which can be scraped away to reveal a more basic ‘secular’ account which was always already there underneath. The sleight-of-hand lies in the assumption that the ‘secular’ version of reality is not simply an alternative to religious accounts, but their underlying presupposition. According to modern secularism, all of us agree (or should agree) on a fundamental secular description of the real, whatever religious elaborations we may lay over it...”
Originally, the saeculum or ‘secular’ was juxtaposed with the ‘eternal’ rather than the ‘religious’. In this sense, it is widely agreed that government should indeed realise its mere secularity, recognising its limitations and avoiding the hubris seen frequently in the post-Enlightenment era such as in the violence of European nationalism and colonialism or mass collectivist experiments like Communism. (It is no surprise that the ‘powers that be’ are frequently associated with idolatry in the biblical tradition.) Hence the provocative political philosopher John Gray can declare
“Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion. The greatest of the revolutionary upheavals that have shaped so much of the history of the past two centuries were episodes in the history of faith—moments in the long dissolution of Christianity and the rise of modern political religion. The world in which we find ourselves at the start of the new millennium is littered with the debris of utopian projects, which though they were framed in secular terms that denied the truth of religion were in fact vehicles for religious myths.”
This gives us pause to reconsider one of the founding myths of modernity that has been perpetuated by the ‘standard account’ of the so-called “religious wars” of Europe. Such an account tells a tale of extreme violence and disorder, goaded by ignorance, irrational belief and ‘religion’, being finally overcome by the rise of a more rational, secular order and its primary institution, the modern nation State.

The lesson to be learned from this period of history, it is said, is that a secular and reasonable solution to the problem of (inherent) religious intolerance is required. Yet when this modern mythos is set aside and the historical evidence is re-examined, the story simply does not stand up. Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh cites episodes of Protestants and Catholics fighting on the same sides of battles and all kinds of surprising alliances. Without excusing in any way the violence of Protestants and Catholics or their misuse of doctrinal conflicts for political ends, these wars are best understood as the violent birth of modern nation states out of the collapse of the medieval order rather than the inevitable outcome of strong religious belief—see St Francis for a contrary example of ‘strong belief’.

Most importantly for our purposes here, in the midst of this violent reordering of Europe, the category of ‘religion’ as we now understand it was itself invented. Under the pressures of the Enlightenment and the rise of modernity, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others have been expected to view their core convictions—especially those about ultimate reality and purpose—not as ‘public’ truth claims but as private opinions or elaborations of private experiences: an “energizing and consoling aura added to the business of a life shaped by factors other than faith” —or non-verifiable sectarian creeds. Under the broad category of ‘religion’, a diversity of histories, peoples and convictions have been lumped together as different instances of the same ‘thing’. We need to give an alternative account.

Lesslie Newbigin opens up a different way of conceiving of ‘religion’ in relation to culture that opens up the key questions of meaning and purpose:

By the word culture, we have to understand the sum total ways of living developed by a group of human beings and handed on from generation to generation. Central to culture is language. The language of a people provides the means by which they express their way of perceiving things and of coping with them. Around that center one would have to group their visual and musical arts, their technologies, their law, and their social and political organization.

And one must also include in culture, and as fundamental to any culture, a set of beliefs, experiences, and practices that seek to grasp and express the ultimate nature of things, that which gives shape and meaning to life, that which claims final loyalty. I am speaking, obviously, about religion. Religion—including the Christian religion--is thus part of culture.
If our society is to discover and discern a moral vision that can speak about human action in terms of vocation rather than self-projection, exemplary modelling of character rather than self-assertion, and persons-in-relation rather than autonomous ‘individuals’, the public contribution of ‘religious’ communities in our pluralistic society cannot be ignored.

This post was drawn from parts of Ian Packer, "How Shall We Live? Probing Contemporary Ethics, Metaphysics and Religion", Viewpoint 2 (February-May 2010): 34-38, 47-48

Monday, January 11, 2010

Yoder, Constantinianism and the Church

Following on from Graham's post about Christendom, I thought I would post something on the related but not necessarily identical notion of 'Constantinianism'.

In “The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics,” John Yoder elaborates on a problem that he sees as endemic to the ambiguities of Christian faithfulness and the widespread failure to take up the discipleship call of Jesus. It is a theme that pervades Yoder’s writing. The ‘Constantinian’ problem derives its name from the first ‘Christian’ emperor Constantine who encouraged and received close cooperation between the Church and the civil powers. It is not Constantine himself who is named as ‘culprit’ for this turn of events since the trend was in evidence earlier than his reign, yet he is seen as a kind of paradigmatic figure of this kind of relationship between Church and Rulers. There was an earlier ‘incipient Constantinianism’.

Yoder’s process of deconstructing this problem of addressing the whole of society as though they were Christians is enabled through the series of contrasts that he draws between the primitive Christian understanding and that which became entrenched after Constantine’s time. A new ecclesiology resulted when the visible minority of convinced believers was subsumed in the religiousness of the social whole and made invisible. A new eschatology resulted from locating God’s primary action in the world through the powers, the new ‘servant of the Lord’. A new universality appeared that dealt with “Everyman” as he or she happened to be. A new metaphysic developed to account for the practical dualisms that emerge from such political arrangements.

Yoder recounts how, all too often, the effect of such an approach (as a trade-off for having some civil power) was to create a two-tiered ‘Christian’ ethic. There is firstly the standard ‘lowered’ for the ordinary person, a ‘mere morality’ of ‘goodness’ that asks for honesty where ‘realistic’ and conscientious attention to one’s social standing or ‘vocation’. Typically, such an approach seeks justification, again, in terms of ‘wider wisdom’ such as ‘nature’ or ‘creation’. Whatever the appeal, the effect is typically the same: the radical intervention of Jesus is relativised and minimised.

Then there is the higher calling for the especially enthusiastic who have the leisure or opportunity to put aside the ‘realities’ of the everyday and pursue the perfectionist vision of Jesus. But, as Yoder always seeks to remind us, the vocation to discipleship is not an option and ought not to be thought justified by an analytical split, say between justification and sanctification. Christian ethics, properly understood, in Yoder’s view, means addressing first the community of disciples and not ruling out the ways that ‘Christian ethics’ can speak more widely.

According to Yoder, this ‘Constantinian’ problem persists even though it has metamorphosed through history. Yoder’s task was to unmask this distortion and then to revision church and world in the light of the New Testament.

In his Stone lectures at Princeton, Yoder consolidated a number of earlier themes in scattered occasional articles to articulate more systematically an authentically Christian social vision that centred around the ecclesial community rather than the society at large but which turned the tables on H. Richard Niebuhr by suggesting that the Anabaptist vision and ecclesial practices were the true transformers of culture. Beginning with a section from the Church Dogmatics IV/2, Yoder claims that Barth is perhaps the only mainline theologian “for millennia” to take seriously as the “starting point for ethics” the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord: a confession that the Christian community makes but which the ‘civil community’ does not. It is the “only necessary dualism” for social ethics.

Christian social ethics begins with the exemplarity of the ekklesia as foretaste/model/herald of the kingdom. The embodiment of the Christian social practices in the Christian community means the kingdom is more than promise and implication since it has already begun by grace. In Barth’s terms, it means that social ethics, practices and institutions as the world sees them, have ceased to be the “last word.” There are instead new possibilities: “not merely in heaven, but on earth, not merely one day, but already.”

The Christian community in its own ‘order’ sets forth toward providing an exemplary social practice, provisional as it may be. It does not constitute another realm from the wider society or ‘the State’. In Yoder’s words: “The people of God is called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately.” Both ekklesia and State are public, outward, bodily, and historical. Further, they both fall under the lordship of Christ.
“What believers are called to is no different from what all humanity is called to. That Jesus Christ is Lord is a statement not about my inner piety or my intellect or ideas but about the cosmos. Thus the fact that the rest of the world does not yet see or know or acknowledge that destiny to which it is called is not a reason for us to posit or to broker some wider or thinner vision, some lower common denominator or halfway meeting point, in order to make the world’s divine destination… more acceptable or more accessible. The challenge to the faith community should not be to dilute or filter or translate its witness, so that the ‘public’ community can handle it without believing, but so to purify and clarify and exemplify it that the world can perceive it to be good news without having to learn a foreign language.”
The old 'sectarian' charge cannot properly apply when  this is understood. In Yoder's words:
“This should suffice... to state the confessional and christological logic of the claim that the order of the faith community constitutes a public offer to the entire society.”
If we do not take the vocation of the Christian community seriously to be an alternative but parallel society, planted in the midst of the present order, our witness will be reduced to a vapid recommendation of 'values'.