Life after the rapture – on grabbing the microphone

The biggest “Christian” internet event of the year so far was the prediction that the world was going to end on 21st May 2011 at 6pm in each time-zone. The reaction by Christians has been either to ignore it, to join in lampooning it as extremely stupid, to protest loudly that they have nothing to do with the speculations of Harold Camping or to grow increasingly depressed at the amount of media interest that such an example of a group of Christians being extremely (and publicly) foolish has generated.

Religions are developing an interesting relationship with the internet. It is now possible for any deviant trait within them to find a global expression which can attract the attention and following of others. This is so, not just in the case of Christianity (and the antics of the likes of Camping) but also for Islam, which has struggled with the way Islamists seem to have “grabbed the microphone” for the whole faith and have extended their appeal to young, impressionable Muslims searching for a way to construct their lives around a passionate expression of their faith, whilst only having an early, developing understanding of its theological subtleties. For both fundamentalist Christians and Islamists, it would appear that the internet is like an unguarded, very powerful public address system where the microphone can be grabbed by those who have the most high-impact (if untruthful) message.

This is an uncomfortable experience for Christianity. From the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century up to the Reformation (in the West), the Church had a sufficiently central role in society, with its own internal authority structure, to ensure that deviant voices claiming to speak on behalf of the whole faith could be marginalized and silenced. Even after the Reformation, the churches of Protestantism had a close enough relationship to the secular arm that, again, the most eccentric voices could not get much hearing or public credibility. After the Enlightenment, although freedom of religious practice and speech steadily grew, the mainstream churches had sufficiently allied themselves with the dominant power structures to qualify them as sources of a “rational” religion, as distinct from “irrational” enthusiasm. It was only in America, where traditional social structures were stretched at the margins of western expansion, that marginal, deviant approaches to Christianity could gain a significant hearing. For this reason American Christianity has never had anything like a social or intellectual elite, controlling the significance of which religious discourse was to be taken seriously and which was not. (Americans may wish to point to the constitution which enshrines religious liberty and freedom of speech, but similar constitutions have operated in Europe for almost as long, yet our religious discourses have usually been constrained by a social elite which have severely limited the extent to which deviant discourses have attained public credibility.) With the internet, however, everyone is equally mainstream, everyone equally marginalised. Privileged discourses are under significant threat, especially in the domain of religion. Even the Vatican and the Queen of England have websites which exist alongside those of religious fanatics and political extremists. The public address system is open to absolutely everyone and the microphone is unguarded, ready to be grabbed by the person with the most attention-demanding message. So, in this case, a message that THE WORLD IS GOING TO END AT 6PM ON SATURDAY understandably grabs the microphone of world attention.

There is only one previous situation where Christianity, as a whole faith, has been seriously challenged by eccentric discourses in this kind of way. In the century immediately following the death of the first apostles, the Christian communities, which were small yet globally-dispersed, had to cope with the fact that their faith was expanding into the Graeco-Roman world. That world was one where religious discourses were multiple and where diversity was unlimited. Before very long, the Christian community itself was struggling with the fact that divergent interpretations of its teaching were abounding within its communities. The teachings of those whom the Church came to regard as “heretics” – people like the Gnostics, Docetists and Marcionites – were sitting alongside more traditional interpretations. It was difficult for local Christians to know for certain whether the understanding of the faith held by their local community was the same as that which was held by Christians elsewhere, let alone that which was held by Jesus and the first apostles. Although the New Testament itself recognized that false teachers would emerge (and indeed were emerging) to lead people astray, it did not provide a thoroughgoing way of structuring the discourse of the Church in such a way as to prevent deviant interpretations of the faith of Jesus from eclipsing, or drowning out, authentic interpretations. This came to be a problem in the following century. The Christian concept of “heresy” grew alongside its key response to the problem, which was to develop an understanding of the Church as a structured community, with authorized ministers in each locality (bishops) who represented the local church to the wider community and the wider community to the local church. These bishops acted as points of accountability. They could be identified as sources of either authentic or inauthentic teaching by reference to other bishops elsewhere. Similarly, they could be trusted (by reference to their relationship with other bishops) by the local community as trustworthy teachers, thus inspiring confidence among local Christians that they were not being led astray.

This, of course, is the root of the Catholic vision of the Christian church and indicates that the Roman Catholic (and Easter Orthodox) churches may have less to fear from the internet than do the churches of Protestantism. Ultimately, the Catholic model was originally designed to cope with exactly the problem presented by the internet. Protestants have broken with this model as they believe it has gradually led the Church to a point where its authority is functionally (if not theoretically) independent of the original apostolic teaching which it was designed to serve and protect. Protestants point back to the Bible as the source of authentic Christian teaching. All other sources are second-order to it. However, the Protestant approach comes at the cost of allowing deviant interpretations of the Bible to thrive without any internal mechanism to marginalise them, except through forming allegiances with social and rational validators mentioned above. Yet it is precisely these “meta-validators” which are being systematically removed by the internet. In short, Protestantism has no functional validation mechanisms left to rule out deviant interpretations of the Bible from claiming that they represent the whole of authentic Christian faith. This is exactly what we had with Camping, whereby all that the rest of Protestantism could do was individually and privately to dissociate themselves from Camping’s claims.

What has worried most Christians is the way Camping’s obvious and crass stupidity has lent support to the claim by opponents of Christianity (such as Richard Dawkins) that Christianity is somehow inherently less “intelligent” than atheism. The existence of atheist parties celebrating Camping’s “prophecy” denoument shows that the point is not lost on Christianity’s detractors. Camping and his ilk are a massive impediment to Christianity’s credibility, and hence do severe damage to its mission. The question of validation – of whether a person is genuinely representing mainstream Christian belief – is therefore of considerable importance to all Christians, and especially to Protestant Christians in the age of the internet. It is easy for the Catholic Church to dissociate itself from Camping – after all, he isn’t a Catholic bishop – he doesn’t speak with the Catholic church’s authority. But few non-Christians on the internet are likely to be sufficiently motivated to engage with the only alternative Protestant Christians have in the validation stakes – to listen to a point-by-point rebuttal of Camping with reference to the Bible.

I am left with the conclusion that unless Protestants are able to come up with some kind of global system of validation – or, its converse, dissociation – then the widespread image of Christianity they are going to have to work with in their mission will be a random collection of absurd and less-than-absurd beliefs about what “Christianity” actually is about. Even if one Christian is able to make a coherent argument commending their faith to another person (either by teaching or practice), who is to say if that really is what Christianity is, or whether it’s about – say – a rapture which didn’t happen on 21st May 2011 at 6pm local time.

Sacraments: God’s kiss

Baron Von Hügel talked about the effects of kissing his daughter, ‘I kiss my daughter in order to love her, as well as because I love her.’ This is also a remarkable commentary upon the sacraments. Love requires physical expression. But does a kiss create love? Not exactly, but it is expected that kisses will cause his love for his daughter to grow. The physical display of affection is the means and instrument by which love is given the expression it craves and is given growth and strengthening in itself.

Leonard J. Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Downers Grove IL: IVP Academic, 2004) p.67; referencing Carroll E. Simcox, Understanding the Sacraments (New York: Morehouse-Gorham, 1956), pp.14-15.

New York

Silence on the blog was largely caused by a trip to New York and to Yale a week ago. It was my first trip there and was for fun. The theology took place in Yale where I was presenting at the Liturgy and Migration conference run by the Institute of Sacred Music and Liturgy.

We had a great time in New York, spending four days doing most of the obvious sights available to someone lodging in mid-Manhatten. But I was caught on the hop by my reactions to the Rockefeller Center. John D. sounds a thoroughly nice guy who liked to do things philanthropically, especially by taking a big risk building the Center with his own money when all other sponsors had pulled out in the wake of the stockmarket crash on Black Tuesday. By going ahead anyway, he provided much-needed employment at a time when noone else was hiring. All the more surprising, then, how negatively I reacted to the frescos within the center and Rockefeller’s credo which is placed on a stone at the front of the building.

The frescos in the Center are a celebration of the achievements of Man (sic) and human progress, which are unmitigatingly positive, combined with a sculpture of Prometheus. Rockefeller’s credo reads thus:

I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.
I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.
I believe in the Dignity of labour, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a liking but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.
I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business or personal affairs.
I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.
I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man’s word should be as good as his bond; that character not wealth or power or position – is of supreme worth.
I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.
I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individuals highest fulfilment, greatest happiness, and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His Will.
I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.

My inner reaction was one of initial sadness, then revulsion, and eventually growing horror. What on earth was wrong with me? After all, it is the credo of a man who is trying to work out what is best for his fellow humanity.

I had come face to face with my own Augustinianism. This was a wonderful creed, which aims at the best for everyone, but ultimately bases its faith solely upon the human being, albeit with some niche found for faith in the penultimate article. (There’s also a niche for Jesus in one of the frescos, although his teaching is largely re-interpreted as moral, subjected to John D’s meta-religion, rather than actually upon its content.)

The sadness-revulsion-horror was because I could not square this monument of 20th century rationalist humanism with the history immediately preceding and following it. The glorying in human cleverness was unremittingly positive, yet it had been preceded by the slaughter of WW1, the trajedy of the Great Depression and was about to be followed by the gulags, the gas chambers and nuclear vapourisation. What kind of blind faith manages to sing a triumphant hymn of praise to homo sapiens when sandwiched by such huge, appalling examples of the flawed nature of this faith’s subject+object? On the other hand, I was also disturbed by my own vehement reaction: was I also in danger of lurching into some kind of reactionary Manichaeeism?

I didn’t sleep too well that night – possibly I was still jetlagging. My dreams were filled with images of the frescos and all the hundreds of skyscrapers which characterise the island of Manhatten. That same day, earlier in the morning, we had stopped to look over Ground Zero. It’s one enormous building site at the moment, with little evidence of the atrocity which took place there. The aim is to open the memorial on the tenth anniversary this coming September 11th. Was all that terrible act caused by religion – of the kind which was probably fuelling my reaction to John D’s humanism? Or was it caused by human nature, masquerading as a religious impulse? Whatever the cause, the images of Ground Zero and the Rockefeller were overlaiden in my disturbed sleep.

These days, I am convinced that the most important philosophical and theological questions are around anthropology (the nature of human beings), since it is on this subject, paradoxically, that the big divide exists between theism and atheism – rather than over the nature of God. (The absence of divine phenomena is not an overwhelming problem for theistic religions. It would be really naive faith which hitched its theistic waggon merely to phenomena.)

The first twelve chapters of the Book of Genesis are a bittersweet story, commencing with the wonder of creation, then outlining the paradoxical nature of human beings and their broken relationship with the Creator. In it, we have the story of the first skyscraper, the tower of Babel. (Chaper 11). The text says, “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’” God, with the divine council, responds with a counter-concern (verses 6-8):

And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

As with many occasions in the Bible, God and humanity are struggling against one another. Human power is a real thing and God in this passage seems to see it as an increasingly negative thing, having no limit. So, the story tells us, the differentiation of speech was an intentional limitation upon the technological power and intellect of humanity, since such power and intellect was flawed, oriented to itself, rather than the creator.

Well, we build our towers now. The skyscrapers of Manhatten have served to raise, artificially, the height above sea level of the average New Yorker by about, say, 50 – 100 feet. If the tower of Babylon was left unfinished, the Rockefeller Center nevertheless scrapes the clouds in its triumphant proclamation of Man, with John D’s credo at its base acting almost as an exposition of Genesis 11:6. There is as much danger in having an overly negative view of our humanity (Manichaeeism) as there is an overly positive one. Concerns with a dangerously positive assessment of human nature should not lead to an equally (and possibly more) dangerously negative assessment, which results in misanthropism. All humanity is to be valued and cherished because we are created, not hated because of our obvious capacity for evil. The whole incident indicated to me the challenge of constructing a realistic anthropology which is honest about human evil, human genius and human beauty and love. Christian theology’s potential gift to the world is a system which can hold those things together. But to do that, still requires a submission to the Being of God as the origin of all things and, ultimately, the Lord of all things.

My final dreams lingered around the image of a little child building a sandcastle, then another coming along and kicking it over out of jealousy. Heaven help us: human nature, in all its beauty, needs some fundamental healing and the longer we walk this planet, the more obvious it seems to me, that we cannot fix ourselves by ourselves.

James Stocks reviews Windows 7

At Trinity College (where I work), they have abandoned Windows for Linux (Ubuntu) on the desktop. There are a few legacy Windows XP installations left over. People also bring in the occasional Windows 7 laptop, but these seem to refuse to play ball on a mixed-economy network (including servers running Windows variants and Linux). So we have been left with the impression that Windows 7 is a bear, except on Windows-only network topographies.

James Stocks has beautifully blogged his experience in installing Windows 7 on a networked computer in a similar network environment. After four days of messing around, he gives up.

The advent of mobile devices such has tablets and smartphones, running a range of operating systems, means that no operating system these days can assume it is the only player on the block and effectively refuse to co-operate with other technologies. The task for MS, if is to stay seriously in the computing game, will be to ensure Windows 8 is as multi-lingual in the network world as iOS, OS X, Linux and variants such as Android. (All these operating systems talk to all parts of our network without any problem.) Until this happens, Microsoft’s share of the market will continue to reduce, largely through the policy of sticking their head in the sand.

In the meantime, the wisest policy for accessible local networks, with lots of visitors (such as educational, rather than corporate clone environments) seems to be to continue to develop Open Source solutions as a sure way of maximizing access to the full range of operating systems.

When religion would have maddened men…

In truth, this vividly illuminates the provincial stupidity of those who object to what they call “creeds and dogmas.” It was precisely the creed and dogma that saved the sanity of the world. These people generally propose an alternative religion of intuition and feeling. If, in the really Dark Ages, there had been a religion of feeling, it would have been a religion of black and suicidal feeling. It was the rigid creed that resisted the rush of suicidal feeling. The critics of asceticism are probably right in supposing that many a Western hermit did feel rather like an Eastern fakir. But he could not really think like an Eastern fakir; because he was an orthodox Catholic. And what kept his thought in touch with healthier and more humanistic thought was simply and solely the Dogma. He could not deny that a good God had created the normal and natural world; he could not say that the devil had made the world; because he was not a Manichee. A thousand enthusiasts for celibacy, in the day of the great rush to the desert or the cloister, might have called marriage a sin, if they had only considered their individual ideals, in the modern manner, and their own immediate feelings about marriage. Fortunately, they had to accept the Authority of the Church, which had definitely said that marriage was not a sin. A modern emotional religion might at any moment have turned Catholicism into Manichaeism. But when Religion would have maddened men, Theology kept them sane. (G.K.Chesterton, Aquinas, Chapter 4: Meditation on the Manichees.)

Rob Bell on self-care in public Christian ministry

In a few weeks time, final year ordinands at Trinity will be focussing on self-care in public ministry. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I’ve touched on the subject before. In the meantime, a short interview with a lot of good, ministerial common-sense from Rob Bell. (HT John Coldwell.)

What can easily happen, especially for people who are in … church work, is they’re offering people and telling people and inviting people into a life that they’re not living.

Update: You can get the full interview in two parts -

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.

Is God ever surprised?

I came across this great blog post by Scot McKnight this morning, which draws heavily on John Goldingay’s latest book Key Questions about Christian Faith: Old Testament Answers.  Here’s a taster:

John Goldingay, in his new book, Key Questions about Christian Faith: Old Testament Answers, has a chp on a question many “fresh” readers of the Bible ask: Does God have surprises? Or does God know everything so that nothing surprises him?

Which brings us to part two in this series — God’s knowledge of the present and the past.

Goldingay distinguishes “innate” from “empirical” knowledge — the former what God knows as God and the latter what God discovers by searching.

For more, see Scot McKnight’s post.

Bishop Kenneth Stevenson, 1949-2011

Kenneth StevensonI attended the funeral of Kenneth Stevenson today. Kenneth had been Anglican bishop of Portsmouth from 1995 to 2009. However, I knew Kenneth first when I was an undergraduate at Manchester University and he was the Anglican chaplain. I was a member of the university Christian Union, which in the UK is a conservative evangelical constituency. Traditionally, at British universities then, Christian students were either of the “CU” or of the “Chaplaincy” and I was definitely of the former variety. Kenneth and I met because I wanted to write a final year dissertation on Edward Irving (1792-1834). Kenneth’s family on his father’s side were members of the Catholic Apostolic Church, a church which had been founded after Irving had been ejected from his ministry at the National Scotch Church in Regent Square, London (which was an outpost of the Scottish Kirk). Kenneth therefore knew the story of Irving well and was able to supervise me on the dissertation.

Kenneth, along with Sarah, his wife, had an amazingly hospitable personality and a tremendous sense of fun. He was not remotely “stand offish” about evangelicals and they happily welcomed me into their home where we spent many hours ransacking his extensive library for relevant reading material and discussing theology and Christian thought in general. At that time, I was in the early stages of candidating for the ordained ministry in the Church of England. Kenneth was wonderfully supportive and enthusiastic about my sense of call. He teased me for being over-serious but underneath it all took me very seriously. When you’re in your early 20′s and exploring big things like the possibility of giving your entire life up to public Christian ministry, encouragement is a critical ingredient. He had started a course on the History and Significance of Liturgy in the Faculty at Manchester, which he co-taught with Richard Buxton. I, however, was not much interested in liturgy at the time. But Kenneth’s fascination for the subject was infectious.

A couple of years later, after I had been selected by the Church to train for ordination, the recommendation came with the suggestion that my training should include work towards a postgraduate degree. I was hooked on the story of the Catholic Apostolics, who followed Irving. How could a group, which had begun in the controversy of an outbreak of speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy, so shortly afterwards develop one of the most ornate series of liturgies in the 19th century? Irving had spoken of the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” about 70 years before Pentecostalism was born. How did they understand the working of the Holy Spirit to relate to their seven liturgies of initiation?

A research topic was born, but to do it required access to Catholic Apostolic primary texts, which are enormously hard to come by, as most of their books were privately published for internal circulation. As the church began to die out in 1901 and had all but ceased by the 1970s, this was potentially incredibly difficult. However, Kenneth (who had himself done his PhD on the Eucharist of the Catholic Apostolic Church) was both my supervisor and my librarian. With his Catholic Apostolic family roots, he was able to provide key texts which rendered the project possible. As such, he was the main reason why I was able to tackle and complete my doctorate. Seldom do research students owe such a double-debt to their supervisor.

Kenneth was also a key supporter in the early years of my ministerial career. He was a referee in my candidacy process with the Church of England – I remember ringing him up long-distance from Manchester to Notre Dame University, Indiana, where he was taking a sabbatical, to ask him for the reference. He faxed it through to the church authorities within a day or so. He encouraged me to write after I had finished the doctorate and we co-edited (with David Stancliffe) an introduction to the Celebrating Common Prayer daily office called Something Understood in the early 1990s.

His encouragement, support and assistance are foundational to my present ministry. The debt I owe him is huge.

Of course, his achievements are much larger than this and have been widely reported in the church and secular press. (You can read Bryan Spinks’ obituary in The Independent here.) I simply wanted to put on record my debt to him. I am not alone. He was an encourager, supporter and enabler of very many.

Today’s funeral service took place in Portsmouth Cathedral, which was packed to overflowing. I’m sure Kenneth would have enjoyed the liturgy (he was not censorious, so it makes no sense describing him as ‘approving’ or ‘disapproving’ of a liturgy). Bishop John Gladwin did an excellent sermon – Kenneth had told him, ‘don’t talk about me, just preach the gospel’, but since there was so much gospel in Kenneth’s life, the two things weren’t incompatible. The choir and orchestra were on good form. For me, the most moving point was the Kontakion of the Dead which is one of my most favourite pieces of liturgy, ever, sung by the choir to the Kiev melody:

Give rest, O Christ, to thy servants with thy saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
Neither sighing but life everlasting.
Thou only art immortal the creator and maker of man:
And we are mortal, formed from the dust of the earth
when thou created me, saying,
‘Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.’
All we go down to the dust;
and weeping o’er the grave we make our song:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Constantine misunderstood?

Paul Fromont (again!) usefully highlights a new book, which respectfully takes issue with John Howard Yoder’s reading of Constantine. This looks as though it is a critical contribution to the concept of “post-Christendom” and “post-Constantinianism” in current mission thinking for western churches. The book is Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, published by IVP (USA) in 2010. It’s going on my read list.

God’s mission and the eucharist

An interesting short article by Ralph McMichael:

“God’s mission” is not a trope for doing what we really want to do, or feel we ought to do; it is not the pursuit of the already determined concept of the good or the just. God’s mission is not theological cover for our ambitions to “save” the world. God’s mission is about God. And if anything is about God, it is not about us, unless God makes it so.

The article helpfully distinguishes a biblical view of the missio dei derived Christologically in reference to the eucharist.

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