Fourth Sunday in Lent (almost)

I didn’t preach last Sunday, the fourth in Lent. And whilst I had planned to do the discipline of digesting the readings and writing few thoughts for the blog regardless, it didn’t happen and I let it go!

I have, however, been lecturing on LOVE in lent. Giving three lectures for the ecumenical council of Heidelberg/ East Ivanhoe. So it has occurred to me quite belatedly, to post a favourite snippet from last week’s lecture on “God is Love.” 

Here ’tis… Picking up from the observation that Augustine equated divine work of love with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

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Saint Augustine was so moved by the image of Romans 5:5—the outpouring of the gift of God-who-is-Love into the human heart—that he functionally equated the gift of Love with the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is, for Augustine, they are one and the same thing—the Holy Spirit is Love.

. . .

In the tradition of Christian theology across the centuries, generally speaking there are two suggested locations for the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. The first, which I would guess is the perspective most familiar to most of us, is that the Holy Spirit is present in the work of redemption. We receive the Holy Spirit in conjunction with receiving the testimony of Christ, as a seal of our salvation from sin in Christ. Hence, the Holy Spirit is primarily Christ’s spirit, as the son proceeded from the Father, so the spirit proceeds from the son.

There are a number of theological difficulties that. I believe that it has locked Christians into an hierarchical authority structure for both God and church. If there is no love outside of redemption then we are all doomed, so lets not go there.

There is another perspective that locates the Holy Spirit’s presence in the work of creation. At the foundation of the world as narrated in Genesis chapter one, the breath, ruarch, spirit of God enlivened the word of creation.

Some theologies, take this to be grounds for a kind of universalism. Love, the Holy Spirit, is the creative life-force, the universal energy that sparks life. I have many friends whose hold to this theological narrative. But if the weakness of love exclusively located in the Christian story is authoritarianism, for me, the weakness of love located in a single universal story is that it is in danger of ‘flattening out’ the rich diversity of human experience and difference is essential for love.

Love requires an ‘other’ to be in relationship with. Even when we speak of loving ourselves we assume we are talking about different aspects of our self. This relationship must be allowed freedom to from, or else it is not love, it is coercsion or control. Love is a connection with someone or something thing that is not our singular self.

Feminist Luce Iragaray, and actually Simone de Beauvoir before her, argued that articulation of the feminine is essential because of this of human tendency to reduce difference. If the feminine is not articulated then the default story is masculine. The same goes true for religious singularity. If only one religious story is spoken then only the most dominant story gets spoken. This is no ground for inter-faith dialogue. So, if we are to entertain a religious universalism, love demands that it is personal.

In Christian mysticism, the personal and the universal come together. In prayer, there is only the individual, perceiving body, and the experience of the moment or the encounter. So for the mystic, the separation of redemption and creation is not an option. These two possibilities of love in Christ and love in all creation find their integration and that was the subject of last week’s lecture.

So, in the wisdom of Catherine of Siena, the love mystics perceive:

All has been consecrated.

The creatures in the forest know this,

the earth does, the seas do, the clouds know

as does the heart full of

love.

Strange a priest would rob us of this

knowledge

and then empower himself

with the ability

to make holy what

already was.

 

To love in Christ is to come back to our true selves. Our true home. As Augustine said, ‘our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.’ The love present in creation and redemption are one single thread of divine love in the universe, not two separate strands. They are the same because God is the same.

I’m back

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Post PhD life!

Well, it’s been a while – and in truth a long road – but I’m back to blog at reddresstheology!

My PhD thesis has been submitted (cue: crowd roar) and I have spare headspace for the first time in 18 months or so. I am now awaiting examination (which will take a couple of months) and getting on to spruking my services and superior Phd intelligence (cue: rolling of eyes)!

So, stay tuned for a return to regular posts from me as I get myself sorted into a new post-PhD life, full to overflowing with exciting adventures.

Oh, and just in case you’re curious as to what I ended up writing about, here is my final thesis abstract. If you find the academic writing incomprehensible you’ve just discovered why I needed to take a break from blogging while I got this thing out of the way!!

Saint Augustine, the founder of Western theological hermeneutics, declared the double-love command of God and neighbour-as-self to be the key to Christian theology (On Christian Doctrine). Love is touted as central to theology, but love has a fluid range of meanings and its expressions are enmeshed within contextually specific forms. How can such a slippery concept form a stable guide for Christian theology, particularly in contexts where the sociocultural forms of love are in transition? 

Transparent Glass Sphere

The key image of my theological hermeneutic is a sphere of open-space.

This thesis develops a theological hermeneutic for contexts of change utilising liminality theory from the discipline of anthropology. First, it outlines the challenges for theologians in these contexts, and second, it directs attention to the theological resources required to negotiate these contexts. Central to liminality theory is a movement of ‘open-space’—a chaotic but creative opportunity where stable sociality falls away in order to be transformed into a new sociality, fit to express the complex relationship between the individual and the universal. By negotiating the cultural open-space via a spiritual open-space of contemplative prayer—an embrace of apophatic strategies for knowing without form and for the refinement of human wisdom—the theologian is equipped with the resources required to love in liminality. This can be translated into a theological method such as Rowan Williams has proposed, for theology as a conversation, where dialectical propositions are held as ‘thresh-holds’ to be traversed into a ‘liminal’ way of knowing, instead of limit-situations that are roadblocks to ‘rational’ knowing. Sarah Coakley’s methodological privileging of contemplation for the transformation of desire is shown to match liminality’s capacity for the transformation of sociality. This ‘contemplative communitas’ affects both an objective and a subjective transformation of theological knowledge.

Re-examining Augustine’s theological hermeneutic of love with these resources in place, it is argued that if love is to be a guide

I was getting my first hair cut in 6 months when I received news that the thesis had safely reached the Research Office in Wagga Wagga!

I was getting my first hair cut in 6 months when I received news that the thesis had safely reached the Research Office in Wagga Wagga!

for theology in contexts of cultural change, the conception of love itself must fall into liminality and be re-formed in the crucible of personal spiritual encounter with God-who-is-love. What results is a theological hermeneutic that loves from God, through self, to neighbour in continuous, life-giving connection.

 

 

 

 

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.