Maundy Thursday, 17th April 2014

Paradoxial power

Bible readings: Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I have two boys, aged eight and ten and we have just spent a few days away together down at Philip Island, which has made for quite a different Holy Week in some ways. And yet, entering into the world of my boys has prepared me for this evening in a surprising way. Eight and ten year old boys are deeply into stories: big, mythological stories with dragons, heroes, battles and big, big themes about what is important in life.

These stories we read today, are our hero stories, our mythology, the tales we tell each other and our children, to bring meaning and order into our lives. We tell these stories because they bring light into our darkness, meaning into our mediocrity, love into our brokenness.

Jesus of course, was not just a story, he was a man who lived and breathed and walked the earth. He was born into a story though, and stories were born through him, through his prosecution, his death, his lying in the tomb, and his rising again to life on the third day. So let us consider these stories.

This Maundy Thursday liturgy is a remembrance of Jesus last supper with his disciples, a celebration of the Jewish Passover, and an invitation to a new kind of supper in the Kingdom of God. The Passover Feast of the Jewish people was a fairly solemn affair, with lots of readings of the old stories, symbolic lighting of candles, symbolic eating of particular foods to match elements of the story. It commemorated the evening that God rescued the Jewish people from a terrible life of slavery in Egypt. They were in dire, desperate circumstances, having lived four hundred years as foreigners in the land, the privileged relationship between Joseph and Pharaoh long forgotten.

On this evening God had given Moses instructions for the people, that they were to eat knowing they were about to leave, and be ready to depart their homes at a moment’s notice. Blood across the doorway to their houses would indicate to the dark angel of death that their household was to be saved from God’s judgment on the cruelty of Egypt. They were to be spared from death in order to embark upon a new life as God’s people, a life where they would worship God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and no foreign power would restrict them otherwise.

The Passover, like most stories that make sense of our lives, is a story about power. God is the hero of the story. God wields the strongest power. Worldly power, even that of the infamous Egyptians, is no match for this God. God will defeat injustice. God will vindicate the righteous. God is generous with those faithful to his way. God wants good and true relationships with this people of his own making. God alone is to be worshiped and honored. It is an image of God’s power that befits the ancient world from which this story comes.

In this last Passover though, when Jesus institutes a new story, or rather reinvents the ones of old, Power is described in very different terms. When we retell the story of that last meal with his disciples, like we have in the words from 1 Corinthians 11, we read about Jesus taking a loaf of bread and then after supper taking a cup. Scholars think that each of these actions are referring to specific symbolic actions in the Passover Meal. Before the meal, bread was prepared without yeast. All the leaven in the household is removed, as a ritual representation of consciously removing sin from the household. Jesus is the body from whom sin has been removed. A body to be broken, shared, consumed for the same of God’s people. The cup after the meal is most likely to have been the ‘third cup’ of the Passover, the Cup of Redemption. This cup reminded all who drank from it that they needed a gift from God, to cover all the unavoidable mistakes and shortcomings of being human. In ancient Israel God provided for this in the ritual sacrifice of a lamb. Jesus is initiating a new pathway, a pathway through his own sacrifice.

It is probable that the washing of the feet, which we enact again on this evening to remind ourselves of the type of God we worship, was also part of the Passover Meal, as it was a regular part of dining with God’s people. After an initial blessing, the diners would all ritually wash their hands to symbolize their religious cleanliness. That is, it was a declaration that one had obeyed the religious rules and done one’s best to come to the meal with a clean heart.

But Jesus takes on all the cleaning himself. He is the one who makes people clean, it is not something we do for ourselves, and probably the fact that the ritual hand cleaning was never a completed action should have informed everyone at the last supper of that fact. But they were still surprised that Jesus takes this on for himself.

Jesus takes on the dress of a servant to wash the feet. This is not the Mighty God who swept through ancient Egypt with the angel of death. This is the Compassionate God, who does WHAT EVER IT TAKES to bring his people to the place of worship.

Why the feet? Well, perhaps it was because it is the dirtiest part of us, especially in a world of dirt roads and open shoes. Certainly, Jesus went to the most extreme lengths to redeem the ugliest and most evil parts of humanity. Not a day after this meal he descends to the depths of hell, to redeem all who have fallen into the greatest pit of despair.

Perhaps also, I like to think, it has the metaphorical significance of walking with God. Our feet signal our intentions. The people of God had to walk out of Egypt, in order to go and worship. We too, need to set our feet upon the right path, and walk into worship of the Almighty, through the way of Jesus.

So when we tell this story of the foot-washing to each other and to our children, we tell of a hero who sacrificed himself. A hero whose love knew no limits. A hero whose sacrifice forged a new pathway to life

Note now though, if you haven’t already, of the very different kind of power in this story. This is paradoxical power. Power by service. Power by sacrifice. This is the power of non-violent protest. It’s not that Jesus is an anti-hero – that is, a hero who we are to learn from by what he doesn’t do – Jesus is a hero in whom we marvel, at the greatest power of all – the power of Love to bring us into worship with the God who is Love, the God who loves us, and has sent his only beloved Son into the world to redeem sinners.

This is power-in-vulnerability. Because Jesus is who he is, he doesn’t need to prove anything, he just needs to offer himself. He is God, he doesn’t need to do anything to become powerful, he just is, and so by making himself available to us, we are welcomed to encounter God in all God’s powerful majesty. Jesus unleashes his power upon us, just by being himself, just by opening his arms in welcome.

Now, centuries later, we who walk in his footsteps mimic this power in vulnerability.

An excellent example of this from the past week are the Christian leaders who staged a peaceful Easter “pray-in” in Julia Bishop’s office. They refused to leave until she answered their question on asylum seeker human rights. Last Sunday, thousands of Christians walked through the city in peaceful protest of a different kind, asking for a change in government policy over its treatment of asylum seekers. This is the power of love not violence. It will bring about change.

A different example comes from our inner walk with Jesus. In the prayers we experience in hard times, we discover a special power, gentle yet life-giving, which enables us to move on, even if its just the next step. In letting everything go and trusting that God hears the very cries of our heart, we discover the shape of the spirit there, we know God within, and we come to trust that the source of love is never far away in the darkness.

You see, this liturgy tonight, is an invitation to join Jesus in making yourself vulnerable. Vulnerable to God. If there is ever a time to embrace darkness, to embrace unknowing, to grieve for your losses, to feel the pain of disappointment, it is this next forty-eight hours. Don’t fear it, God is with you. Don’t avoid it, it is the pathway to resurrection. Just make yourself open to it. And let Jesus the Almighty, stoop to wash your dirty feet.

 

Sarah Coakley Colloquium

downloadable brochure here: Sarah Coakley Colloquim Sarah Coakley Colloquim

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Schedule

 

10.30am – 11.00am:    morning tea

11.00am – 12.30pm:   Keynote Address by Sarah Coakley

12.30pm – 1.30pm:    lunch

1.30pm – 2.30pm:      Benjamin Myers

2.30pm – 2.45pm:      afternoon tea

2.45pm – 3.45pm:      Chris Hackett

3.45pm – 4.00pm:      break

4.00pm – 5.00pm:      Teresa Brown

 

Abstracts

Professor Sarah Coakley (Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge): “Rational Sacrifice: Possibility or Impossibility?”

In this keynote address Sarah Coakley considers the massive resistances that have accrued in the modern period, and especially in the post-WWII era, to the idea of sacrifice as rational, productive or redemptive. Exposing the paradoxes at the heart of Rene Girard’s famous critique of the destructive violence of sacrifice, she turns the philosophical and theological tables back on this thesis in order to argue once more for a cosmological vision of productive sacrifice, one now illuminated afresh by evolutionary theory and made the more urgent by the ecological crisis that threatens human flourishing.

 

Benjamin Myers (United Theological College, NSW):

“Exegetical Mysticism: Scripture and the Spiritual Senses”

Drawing on the work of Gregory of Nyssa, Sarah Coakley has developed a rigorous contemporary account of the patristic doctrine of the ‘spiritual senses’. According to this doctrine, the soul has its own senses corresponding to the five physical senses. In this paper I explore the roots of the spiritual senses tradition in the work of Origen. For Origen, the ‘senses’ refer not to a wordless or non-thematic mystical experience, but to the spiritual practice of scriptural interpretation. Origen uses extravagant sensuous language to describe the process by which the soul is drawn more deeply into the life of God through the reading of scriptural texts. Based on this analysis of Origen, I consider Coakley’s retrieval of the spiritual senses, and raise some questions about the relation in Coakley’s work between spirituality and scripture, mysticism and exegesis.

 

W. Chris Hackett (School of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University):

By the Renewing of your Minds: The Theologian’s Task between Contemplation and Concepts”

The passage from theôria to theory that defines philosophical thinking is fraught with difficulties and provides the itinerary and challenge for a ‘way of life’. In religious-philosophical thinking, the difficulty is made all the more acute.  How does the theologian—defined in the first place as the one who speaks to God—properly speak about God without constructing an idol out of his concepts? We will explore this question in light of Sarah Coakley’s recent work and with special reference to St Paul.

 

Teresa Brown (School of Theology, Australian Catholic University):

“Reframing Trinitarian Theology: Coakley’s Essay On the Trinity

In this paper we will explore the ways in which Sarah Coakley reframes and reorients key insights from the classical tradition of trinitarian theology to present a theology which speaks to the contemporary Christian, particularly from the perspective of feminist concerns. Focusing on the first volume of her théologie totale, entitled, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, we will critically examine her project in light of the pressing contemporary questions she addresses: How to speak of God and name God in a contemporary, feminist context, and how to live in the world in such a way that we image God the Trinity, in whom we ‘live and move and have our being’.

Sarah Coakley lecture in Melbourne

Sarah Coakley flyer UFT

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Lamentations: a call to prayer

Oh my goodness!  How did it get from July 19 (my last post) till October 9?

Bertram_Mackennal_-_Grief

Bertram Mackennal [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, first of all, PhD land has its own particular time zone!  Second, it’s been a big couple of months for me, with my Dad passing away on July 28.  Grief has been a dominant part of my life recently, as it is a part of every life from time to time, sometimes a long time.   I mention that to introduce this post of writing that I did for a sermon last Sunday (lectionary readings for 6 Oct 2013), in the hope that you can note the theology done through experience: scriptures and life operating together in the crucible of prayer.

Actually, this is a sermon that is less about personal grief than it is about the grief involved in being the People of God, and that too has been a painful part of life for me, as it is for so many Christians.  The Church lets us down, Life lets us down, and sometimes we even feel like God lets us down.  So we need Lamentations as part of our prayer repertoire.

This was an important piece of writing for me, so I offer it in the hope that others find some encouragement.

With love,

Chelle.

Lamentations 1:1-6

How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
they have become her enemies.
Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.
The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival;
all her gates are desolate; her priests groan;
her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly.
Her foes have become the head;
her enemies prosper, because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
From the daughter of Zion all her majesty has departed.
Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture;
they fled without strength before the pursuer.

These are the opening lines of the Book of Lamentations, and I thought today I would say a few words about that book, because its not one we are often encouraged to read.  So, I would like to try and convince you today, that Lamentations might be something you want to open up at home and not only read, but pray with, reflect upon, and let God speak words of comfort to you through.

These verses we read give quite a good indication of what you will encounter in the rest of the book:

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!”

In the Hebrew bible, the books are labeled by reference to the very first word, and the first word of Lamentations is ‘ekah, meaning – Alas, how, or oooh – it is a cry of despair, a word whose meaning is conveyed by its sound, a deep, heart wrenching sigh -  argh.

Lamentations is a book of poetic prayer, about those moments in life when all seems lost.  In terms of the history of Israel, scholars believe that it relates to life after the fall of Jerusalem, when the Hebrews were sent into exile in a foreign land.  Theologically, the people were forced to question where God was, what happened that their God had seemingly abandoned them.  But coming to an intellectual understanding of God is never enough, especially in times of deep grief, so this is theology that must be done with feeling, and this language of poetic prayer is heart language.  It is the deep sigh of grief.

My father died in July this year, and a friend of mine warned me that when her father had died, amongst other things, she found herself walking around the house sighing.  Deep breaths in and almost guttural breaths out.  Oohhh.  Lament.

“Like a widow she [Israel] has become, she that was great among the nations!  She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.  She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks”

There are times in the life we live with God, where we find ourselves in grief.  It is a normal part of every life and every relationship.  When you experience grief in your relationship with God, you should take heart that is a sign of genuine connection with your heavenly Father!

In the verses we read from 1 Timothy, for example, we see a hint of difficulty that comes from running the hard yards – sometimes we need encouragement just to keep going, as Timothy is urging his readers – don’t give up!  Rekindle the gift of God within you.  Join with me in suffering for the gospel by relying on God.

In the gospel reading we have a different scenario hinted at in the sometimes troubling advice about the mustard seed.  Jesus says, you are like a slave in ancient times: a person who has no control over their own life, subject to the will of her owner.  He would not have intended the negative judgement we automatically read into this passage with our twenty-first century western lens, rather, he is simply stating the way things were.  There are slaves and masters.  One obeys the other.  It’s just he way things are.  And sometimes the way things are in our lives are pretty unpleasant but there is nothing to be done about them, and no judgment to make – the onset of serious illness, the happening of a tragic accident, unrequited love – they are all outside of our capacity to remove them.  We have only the choice to respond as best we can.

But God has the capacity to engage in the world of God’s creation.  Faith can move mountains because it is faith in God, and God can move mountains.  Deep grief comes to us in those moments when we experience the full impact of our own powerlessness in the world – when we are diagnoses with a serious illness, when a loved one is struck down in an accident, when a friend decides they don’t want to see us anymore.  Oohhh how that hurts.  We lament.

Lamentations assures us that deep grieving is part of life, and is urges us to make it part of prayer.

“among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.”

Not just her, singular though.  Lamentations is a book for public prayer, for grief is also a part of being the people of God, first the Hebrew nation, now also, the Church of Jesus Christ.

“Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.”

Israel were sent into exile because God judged them and found them wanting: that much is clear from the prophets Jeremiah and others, which we’ve also been reading in the lectionary lately.  So, we have to be careful not to turn self-indulgent in our grief, we have to be honest about our circumstances.  The Church of God makes mistakes, gets caught up in power plays, gets too involved with the world and hence subjected to ebbs and flows of the culture around it – we are not immune from being human.  But the response, the invitation offered by the book of Lamentations is, don’t resist the sadness – grieve and grieve well, it’s part of staying in relationship with God.

Every gathering of the Lord’s Church that forms community is subject to the same disappointments, and every church community is called to live the same life.  In the era of deep grief, we pray.

“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals”

[The pray-er is lamenting the fact that the city of Jerusalem is empty, because the people of Jerusalem have all been taken away into exile]

all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.”

We grieve our empty church buildings, we grieve the unbelief of our sons and daughters, we grieve the broken relationships in our fellowship.

“Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty.  Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.”

Grieve for what has happened, know your own part in the terrible mess, know the limits of your own part – for as much as some of it will be about your sin, it will also be about things much bigger than you!  Grief has an uncanny way of putting us in our place – we are as insignificant as slaves in the first century, when it comes to running the universe.  And so we cast ourselves onto God.  We trust fully in God.  We have faith in God, as the only place of redemption and new life, and then, we discover, that kind of faith, even in the midst of the deepest grief, can move mountains!  There is life after death!

Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ concept and the language of love

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a revised English Translation (Blackwell; Oxford, 2001) third edition.

I wont pretend to have read all of Philosophical Investigations thoroughly (though it was surprisingly easy to read) but I have skimmed the whole and digested the relevant bits as required for my research.  It became evident very early on in my PhD research that doing theology at this level is very difficult without a background in philosophy!  (Those first year BA lectures in 1989 where I zoned out and wrote bad poetry have come back to haunt me!)  Hence, I have taken crash courses in Wittgenstein, Hegel, Heidegger, Riceour, Plato and more!  Yes, it has been as hard going as that sounds and I have frequently felt overwhelmed!!

Anyway, I need to get into Wittgenstein because he presents a solution to the problem of the language of love.  Love is sometimes described as a game.  Now philosophers are not known for their frivolity, but with Wittgenstein, it is true: to speak of love is a word game.

The problem is that l-o-v-e, this four lettered word in the English language, basically defies empirical definition.  When employed as a noun it denotes different emotional and relational states of the human person.  When employed as a verb it denotes a range of actions towards others and within ourselves.  The phenomena of love is essentially multiform and complex.

I love my family, chocolate and Jesus – each of these experiences has a distinct feeling about them and the actions flowing out of my feelings are different for each one (except for the occasions when I eat my children!)  And yet, you seem to understand what I mean when I say each of these things.  I have deep commitment to the well-being of my family; I enjoy chocolate more than any other food; Jesus makes my world go around!

Affection, attraction, interest – these attributes of human relationship figure strongly in the experience of love, but without further clarification, these words do not get close enough to confining the dazzling array of  feelings, actions and propositions that love can entail.  However, that does not mean that we don’t know what we’re talking about whenever we deploy the word; on the contrary, we know what we mean, it’s just that we mean a lot more than the word can literally say!  The word evokes meaning, depending on its context.

In this sense, the word functions similarly to a whole range of abstract language that I am interested in for my research – beauty, God, prayer, mystical experience – and its not confined to English.  This category of words which defy empirical definition preoccupied the mind of Wittgenstein and, upon reflection, he came up with an illustration of what was going on based on the word ‘game’.  He shows how some words gain their meaning not through reference to a concrete absolute, but through a process he named ‘family resemblance’.

Here are the key paragraphs – #66 and 67 -  in Wittgenstein where he explains his concept of family resemblance in word games, which I think explain how we should understand the word ‘love’ in the English language (you can skip Wittgenstein if you want to short cut to my conclusions, but he is fun!)

Consider for example, the proceedings that we call “games”.  I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on.  What is common to them all?- Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’” – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.  To repeat: don’t think, but look!- Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.  Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear.  When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.- Are they all ‘amusing’?  Compare chess with noughts and crosses.  Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players?  Think of patience.  In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared.  Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.  Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared!  And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.  And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc., etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.   And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way.  Why do we call something a “number”?  Well, perhaps because it has a – direct – relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this may be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things that we call the same name.  And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre.  And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.    But if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions – namely the disjunction of all their common properties” – I should reply: Now you are only playing with words.  One might as well say: “Something runs through the whole thread – namely the continuous overlapping of these fibres”.

So, as Wittgenstein says, there is something that runs through the whole thread, whenever we use the term ‘love’.  It is a poetic word: a word that alludes rather than proscribes; a word that suggests rather than stipulates; a word whose meaning grows within its context.  When writers employ the word they rely on the ambiguous nature of the language to fill their work with colour; to paint a picture in the imagination; to evoke a memory of an experience.  It is a word that conjures a whole scene of meaning rather than a snapshot frozen in time and space.

Traditionally, theology has sought to confine the meaning of love to a particular sibling within the family of meanings.  C.S. Lewis canonised this approach for a generation of Christians through his explanation of four Greek words for love in his 1960 book The Four Loves.  For example, most Christians would confine ‘agape’ love to describe the love of God and ‘eros’ love as that between two sexual lovers.  Whilst it is true that agape is the preferred Greek word used in the Scriptures, and in fact eros is not used at all, the reasons for the original writers employing those particular terms did not intend to segregate meaning in the way that we have done in the scientific era.

Now, I’ve been wondering, what if the poetics of the word love is maintained in its usage?  At the very least it will change the way that I write about love.  But what will happen if I take seriously the actual phenomena and experience of love which is always complex, dense and messy?  Love is rarely experienced in any single form: even when I love my children, it is mixed in with love (or otherwise) of my parents, love (or not) of their father, love (hopefully) of the life that I lead with them, our friends, our activities, and the God whom I believe is involved with it all?

So, what if we reject a single dimension approach to love when it comes to theology?  What if God’s love is fundamentally and irreducibly multidimensional?

What if God’s love for humanity is eternal and unconditional, just because God loves us (agape), and God loves us because we are valuable (eros), and God loves as a family member loves another family member – as a father and a brother (storge), and God loves us because that’s the way relationships work best to produce mutually beneficial outcomes (phileo)?

To write of God and human love like this requires beauty, poetry, feeling, intelligence, slowness and openness.  We cannot do away with the stage upon which the love is spoken, the story within which love unfurls or the conversation into which the word is uttered.  That’s the theology of love I want to write.

Conditions of Love: a Philosophy of Intimacy by John Armstrong

John Armstrong, Conditions of Love: a Philosophy of Intimacy (Penguin; London, 2003)

“‘What is it to love another person?’ This is to raise one of the deepest, and most puzzling, questions we can put to ourselves.” (p1)

I’ve been wading through the difficulties of defining love for what seems like a lifetime but in reality is only a few months of PhD work.  How does one write sensibly about love when love is so uncontainable by words?  It is a problem preoccupying scholarship of various kinds in the present era and no less importantly a dilemma of the everyday that we all come across: how many times can I say to my children ‘I love you’ before it loses all meaning to them?  But how else do I communicate the ache in my chest which throbs with the urge to wrap them in my arms and squeeze them till they squeal?

John Armstrong is a British philosopher, who resides in Melbourne and is currently Senior Advisor in the Office of the Vice Chancellor, University of Melbourne.  His books are a delicious gourmet meal, though easily digestible, on topics of life, love, art, beauty and wisdom.  You can taste the delights of his writing on his website, where there are various articles written for a broad audience:  www.johnarmstrong.com

Twenty-two succinct chapters in this short book – each a morsel of goodness in and of itself – describe the nature and experience of intimate connection.  Love is a human experience which defies empirical definition, yet we all seem to know what we mean when we use those four letters strung together into a single word.  Armstrong invokes Wittgenstein to explain how this is not anything to be concerned about, as far as language is concerned, and I’m going to post about Wittgenstein’s word-game solution shortly, so stay tuned.  (It was exciting, gratifying and most of all a great relief, to discover the solution that I’d come up on my own is the one Armstrong suggests!)

Despite the difficulty of empirical definition when it comes to love, we can identify themes or key characteristics which we seem to assume when we use the word.  What we are referring to with the word ‘love’ is sometimes a feeling, sometimes an action, sometimes a moral principle.  Always though, there will be a seeking of positive human connection that can be described as ‘good’.

When we understand something about the ‘conditions’ under which love is produced, we discover we need not be parallelised by this defining frustration.  There are things that can be said about love.  For example, we grasp something of the nature of love through the (persuasive) evolutionary perspective about the development of love as a driver in the human species reproduction and improvement.  However, biology can’t tell us everything, as we can also observe that the human experience of love changes over time and place depending on the cultural context – expectations and judgements produce a morality within which the experience of love is shaped and shaded.  Furthermore, the individual human’s personal psychology, particularly the foundations of love laid in childhood and the creative capacity of imagination, will direct the particular manifestation of love in their experience.

There is much more in Armstrong’s book than what I pick up here.  I suspect each reader will take away some insight unique for themselves as they luxuriate in this beautiful piece of wisdom.  Apart from the book’s academic usefulness, I came away feeling encouraged in regard to my own humanity: I could see afresh my own capacity for love and the goodness of a life lived with love as its main pursuit.

Because I have enjoyed the style as much as the content of conditions of love, I’ll let Armstrong present you with his own conclusion:

“In this book I have tried to argue two things – each argument runs through the book as a whole.  Firstly, the need to love and to be loved is deeply placed in human nature.  It springs from certain inherited evolutionary characteristics but it is also bound up with much more recent developments of self-consciousness: we long to be understood, to be close to another person, to matter in another’s life.  These concerns may have had some rudimentary presence in the lives of our remotest ancestors, but they have been massively increased, and brought to the foreground of experience, only in recorded history.  And because they are aspects of culture, they vary to some degree from society to society – as these needs are variously interpreted.  It is, however, precisely the same factors – the factors which draw us into love – that constitute the roots of love’s difficulties.  We long to be understood, but it is often awkward to have another see too much of one’s inner troubles.  We try to be charitable, but we are susceptible to boredom and impatience.  Above all, we do not go through life with a strictly coherent set of desires, and anyone who charms us in one frame of mind may be annoying in another.

Secondly, love is an achievement, it is something we create, individually, not something which we just find, if only we are lucky enough.  But although it is a creation and an achievement it is not something which can be forced simply by effort.  You can’t just sit down and decide to love someone and, through doing this, find that you do really love them.  This is unsurprising if we reflect that love is dependent upon many other achievements: kindness of interpretation, sympathy, understanding, a sense of our own needs and vulnerability.  And these kinds of capacity and awareness do not spring suddenly into being.  Each requires patient cultivation: we have to take whatever fragile presence each has in our lives and build upon that.  If this is true of loving it is also true of being loveable.  Being loveable cannot really be separated from being a good person in general.  There seem to be counter-instances in which physical attractiveness or glamour make individuals the target of love.  But it is obvious that these characteristics play a much smaller role in generating a love that lasts – one which can weather the inevitable periods of disenchantment and dissatisfaction on both sides.  In our culture have become rather disinclined to pay attention to individual responsibility in loving.  We place too much emphasis on finding the right person and not nearly enough upon the cultivation of qualities which allow us to deserve love and which enable us to give loge – even when things are difficult.”

On Christian Doctrine by Saint Augustine of Hippo

As one does, when researching for a PhD in theology, I’ve had to dip into a bit of Augustine this past week!  On Christian Doctrine is a collection of four books from the fourth century Church Father outlining just how it is we get from words from a person’s lips, to true knowledge about God – or, when it comes down to it, about anything!

It’s a little surreal after reading so much twentieth century psycholinguistic theory over the past six months, to come to an ancient writer struggling with essentially the same problems and suggesting eerily similar solutions!  Augustine describes ‘words’ as ‘signs which point to real things’.  Jacques Lacan would say language is a system of Symbols, referring to the Real, through the interpretive framework of the Imagery.  There are differences, of course, and it would be a mistake to conflate such fundamentally different social and philosophical cultures into one.  Besides, it is Augustine that concerns me in this moment.

In book 1, Augustine explores ‘things’ (res in Latin).  Things can be ‘used’ or ‘enjoyed’, but Augustine urges the Christian to use things to enjoy God, and enjoy God alone, for enjoying things of the created order – be they self, another human, an aspect of nature or a human-man thing – is always idolatry.  It’s a description of reality that borrows heavy from Plato and betrays Augustine’s characteristically pessimistic anthropology.

In book 2, Augustine explains what he means by ‘signs’, with a particular focus on words, which he describes as ‘signs’ that point to ‘things’.  Some words are clear or ‘natural’ signs with a direct relationship to the thing, such as smoke is a sign of fire.  Other words are ‘given’ a meaning to their sign, by human beings who are desiring to communicate something of a ‘thing’ which has no material representation which can be plainly known to all by the use of their five senses.  This includes the whole task of theology, love, beauty and pretty much everything else I am interested in communicating about on reddresstheology!  Augustine argues that there is a connection between an actual ‘thing’ and a given ‘sign’, but the meaning of the sign is necessarily constructed through human mediation and hence the opportunity for miscommunication abounds.  Interestingly, he says that because true knowledge of God is held internally in the human person, the scripture is only a tool that God uses to stir up that truth within individual human beings and scripture is, therefore, theoretically unnecessary if God decides to reveal Godself directly to a person’s ‘heart’.

Book 3 suggests strategies for interpreting ambiguous passages in scripture: it’s not rocket science really, but it’s surprising how much we need to be reminded of these simple strategies when we encounter confusion in our understanding of the bible.  First and foremost, Augustine argues, we must work out what is figurative and what is literal.  Common sense says that if the text is nonsense when taken literally, then it must be figurative.  The rule of faith suggests that if all knowledge helps us to love God and our neighbour – if a text taken literally cannot lead us into love, then it must be figurative!  If the text still doesn’t make sense, then we look at context, including the immediate context of the passage within it’s text, the whole canonical context, and the context of ourselves as reader.  Ultimately, there is nothing in scripture which does not lead towards the double love of God and neighbour, so that is the ultimate standard by which all interpretations must abide, for love is the telos, the goal of scripture, just as love is the goal of everything God does, is and communicates to God’s creation!

The final book is about preaching, or the presentation of scripture to a learning community.

I could summarise the whole thing myself, but there’s a new book out from Matthew Levering, offering introductions to his most important works, which is so well written that I’m going to cheat and give you his two succinct paragraph summary of instead.

    In the Prologue of On Christian Doctrine, Augustine responds to “Christians who rejoice to know the Sacred Scriptures without human instruction.”  God could have revealed things directly to each individual human, and in some cases God has revealed himself directly.  But in almost every case, God has required that we learn from others.  Even in speaking to us directly in Jesus Christ, God ensured that we would learn Jesus’ words and deeds from others, who would have to interpret them.  The divinity of Jesus Christ is mediated to us through his humanity, and the biblical signs that testify to him are mediated to us through Israel and the Church.  The guidance of the Holy Spirit does not take away from the profound presence of human mediation and interpretation at the heart of God’s work of salvation.  Why did God choose this way to reveal himself?
Augustine’s answer is that given the needs and capacities of fallen human nature, God reveals himself through signs so as to train us in love.  Since we must learn about God through signs that have been given in history, we can come to God only within the community of wisdom and love built up by Christ and the Holy Spirit.  To learn from Christ in the Church means to learn how to move from sign to thing, so as to cleave in love to the unseen God who is revealed through signs.  those whose task it is to interpret Scripture for others must employ its signs for the purpose of leading others to love of God and neighbor.  This purpose does not mean abandoning the liberal arts or the methods of persuasive public speaking.  But it does mean redirecting such learning towards the goal of Christian wisdom.  If such a redirection is to succeed, Christian interpreters must not become puffed up by their learning and must practice what they preach.  In the school that is the Church, the labor of learning and teaching is at the service of the love of God and neighbor.

If you’ve been reading reddresstheology for a while and know something about my PhD topic – Love as Revelation – you will probably have seen the connections with that project: love is not just the what of Christian teaching, it is also the how, why, when and where.  However, what has struck me even more reading On Christian Doctrine at this time, is it’s relevance to Christians engaged in a conversation about the scriptural teaching on diverge gender and sexualities.

A productive conversation about sex and scripture fundamentally relies on a prior conversation about the conversation.  How do we read scripture in the midst of this difficult conversation with multiple commitments, complex emotions and shifting philosophical foundations for reasoning from texts?  Each individual in the conversation has an interpretive framework – whether they acknowledge it or not – which may or may not be a compatible with the interpretive framework of their conversation partner.  In stable societies and cultures individuals can assume a certain level of functional similarities across members of the same community, but his ceases to be the case during times of epoch transition that we are currently living through.

Why does Augustine help in this context?  Because he reminds us to focus on what is clear, before we focus on what is ambiguous.  What is crystal clear in scripture is the dual commandment to love God and neighbour.

“So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” (1.36.40)

This is a pretty indisputable starting point for Christians in disagreement as to how to read scripture:  can we agree that any interpretation we propose must pass a simple test?  It must be shown to have an outcome in reason and experience that can be described as loving.  It must promote love of God and love of neighbour.  If we agree to this hermeneutical principle, we can discuss how different interpretations of the text might best promote this higher, clearer goal of double love.

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