Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Powers in Acts I

I am in the middle of four book reviews. The first two concerned the priestly (relationships). The next two concern the kingly (economics). Since economics is also the sphere of the Powers, I begin below a three-post excursus on the Powers in the book of Acts.

This is the first of three posts.

9 years ago I was on a project to Nigeria.

One of our tasks was to show the Jesus film late at night.

My task was to count the number of Nigerians ... in the dark.

I quickly realised that the most opportune time to count was when they whooped and cheered – because when they whooped and cheered you could see everyone's teeth.

Now, what was interesting to me was that they whooped and cheered when Jesus performed a miracle. They whooped and cheered at the resurrection.

But they also whooped and cheered when Jesus engages the authorities – the Powers that Be – in Luke 20.

So I was wondering.

What place, if any, do the Powers have in the Acts of the Apostles?

Let me make a quick assumption.

Acts chapter 1 introduces the book as a whole. Chapter 2 introduces the first half, which is primarily to do with Judaism. And chapter 16 introduces the second half, which is primarily to do with the Roman Empire.

Chapter 2 also introduces the theme of the Powers. It does this in three ways.

First, unity. Pentecost reverses Babel. At the Tower of Babel, God divided people by dividing their language. At Pentecost, God unites people by enabling them to hear their own language. Babel connotes Babylon, so therefore connotes the Powers.

Second, subversion. Peter cites Joel, which was written when Israel – probably Judah – was in subjugation to the Powers. From this we can conclude that Pentecost will turn the world upside down like it is when being invaded by a foreign Power. 

Except, to reiterate the first point – unity – subversion will bring the peoples of the world together. 

Third, everywhere. Peter preaches about the subjugation of death – the final all pervasive Power. If the resurrection, which gives rise to Pentecost, can overcome death, then all Powers everywhere can be overcome.

So subversion will bring together people everywhere, even after death.

Judaism and the Roman Empire are both Powers. They have lords who are not Christ. So how does the early church engage them?

First, we recognise that the Powers run right through us. Paul never revokes his Jewish background or his Roman Citizenship.

In the same way, we are Communists, Consumers, Capitalists, whatever – the Powers run right through us.

Second, there is therefore hope for their redemption. The Powers might be redeemed through us.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Lamentations II

Robin A. Parry, Lamentations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), xii + 260 pp.

This is the second of two posts.

In an extended footnote, Parry deals adeptly with the exegetically difficult passage Lamentations 3:34-39. He concludes,

Whatever we suppose the authors intentions to have been, one inevitable effect of the way he has expressed himself is to slow readers down so that they explore various ways of construing the text. Readers must wrestle to make sense of the advice, just as they must wrestle to make sense of their situations [113].

So, for example, having listed three injustices in verses 34 to 36, the author ends with an ambiguous phrase [36b] that could mean either, “the Lord does not see,” or, “does not the Lord see?” Although immediate reflection might favour the former, further reflection favours the latter.

For example, 36b stands in parallel to 37b, “did not the Lord command it?”, which suggests that it is to be taken as a rhetorical question. The move from one to the other might well be designed to reflect our own thought processes during suffering.

Throughout, Parry plausibly holds together the books differing emphases. Whereas, for some, the hope of chapter 3 is held in tension with the more despairing chapters that surround it, Parry sees chapter 3 as the exemplary embodiment of suffering by an individual, which chapters 4 and 5 are yet to fully follow [132].

Lamentations ends with a plea for restoration [5:21] followed by a Hebrew phrase that is open to considerable interpretation. Verse 22 could mean “[restore us] unless you have rejected us … (negative ending) or “[restore us] even though you have rejected us …” (a little more positive).

Since it is clear from the rest of the book that God has rejected them, the latter makes more sense than the former. I suppose one could take the rejection here to be absolute – “unless you have rejected us forever” – but this goes against the covenantal context, which relativises rejection.

Parry continues by considering Lamentations in its canonical context. He notes the parallels between Lamentations and Isaiah 40-55 [162-168]. The exemplary embodiment of suffering by an individual in Lamentations 3 is surely taken up by the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. Isaiah 40-55 therefore provides a bridge between Lamentations and the New Testament (assuming that the Suffering Servant finds fulfilment in the person of Christ).

Lamentations then is to the exile and restoration of Israel what Holy Saturday is to the cross and resurrection of Christ [173].

The parallels between Lamentations and Isaiah 40-55 are striking. The latter alludes to all five chapters of Lamentations. For example, Lamentations cries out for a comforter [1:2, 9, 16, 17, 21], whereas Isaiah 40 begins, “Comfort, comfort my people …” The suffering individual in Lamentations 3:30a exclaims, “Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,” whereas Isaiah 50:6 begins, “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard.”

In the final third of the book, Parry considers Lamentations as a source for anti-semitism [174-176], anti-imperialism [176-180], the Christian faith [180-193], divine anger [193-201], theodicy (or not) and divine suffering [201-206], and human lament [206-236].

His discussions of divine anger and suffering might have benefitted from dialogue with Scrutton’s work on divine feelings (reviewed in previous posts). Scrutton discusses divine anger in the context of divine forgiveness, whereas Parry is keen to locate divine anger within the context of the covenant. And one wonders what a theology of divine grief might look like, should the two authors ever interact.

In sum, this is a stimulating theological commentary on the Hebrew text of Lamentations. For those who might prefer video over text, an accessible introduction to Parry’s commentary can be found here.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Lamentations I


The is the first of two posts.

We don’t hear much about Lamentations (the book of) in church. Parry writes,

Unlike our Victorian forebears, we are no longer shy about sex, and we have innumerable ways to speak about sexual intercourse but we are hopelessly lost for words when confronted with grief and death [1]

Without this vocabulary we become pastorally inept, liable to rub salt into the wounds of grief.

But, in my view, we also lack the vocabulary to change the world. Writing about Jeremiah – traditionally held to be the author of Lamentations – Brueggemann notes that nobody can hope ‘except for those who grieve ... Nothing but grief could permit newness.’*

Thus we must grieve that way the world is in order to hope for change. We must grieve in order to see the kingdom come.

(There are certainly connotations of this in Acts. In Acts 2, Peter misquotes Joel chapter 2. Joel’s “awesome” – or “terrible” – day of the Lord becomes [in 2:20] the “magnificent” day of the Lord.** So whereas Lamentations is dealing with the grief of a world turned upside down by divine judgement – the “awesome” day of the Lord – Acts should cause us to grieve for a world turned upside down by the divine Spirit [cf. Acts 17:6] – the “magnificent” day of the Lord. Again, as Brueggemann notes, we need to grieve the passing of the old order in order for there to be hope, and therefore change.)

Lamentations can show us how.

Parry pauses to reflect on the intent of the book. Is its emphasis to present Jerusalem’s pain, or to point out that Jerusalem got its just desserts (and therefore exonerate God), or some combination of the two? Parry opts for the latter.

Jerusalem knows it is guilty, but questions the severity of the consequences [29]. Indeed, more space is devoted to their suffering than to their sin – suffering that is expressed through a combination of dirge and lament. For example, in chapter 1:

it is no coincidence that the elements of the dirge form cluster in the narrator’s speech while elements of the lament cluster in Lady Zion’s speech. The narrator’s speech is dominated by the overtones of death even though Zion is not dead. Zion, however, is a survivor, and when she speaks it is in a lament straining towards life, and not a dirge looking back to death, that she employs [43].

This presentation of suffering not only serves to induce empathy – evidenced by Lady Zion’s call for a witness [57 cf. 231]: “See …” [or “Look …"] [1:9,11,12,20] – but its presentation also serves to show us how to lament ourselves. And since it is presented within the context of the covenant, there is an implicit glimmer of hope [31f.]

We’ll take up the rest of the book in the next post.

* Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 34, 43.
** Lamentations alludes to day of the Lord in 1:12; 2:1; 2:22.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Thinking Through Feeling (Again)

Anastasia Philippa Scrutton, Thinking Through Feeling: God, Emotion and Passibility (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), x + 228 pp.

This is the third of three posts.


Having considered divine compassion and forgiveness, Scrutton turns next to divine jealousy. And she notes six distinctions between jealousy and envy [122-124]:

JealousyEnvy
exclusive objectinclusive object
rightno right
lossno loss
personthing*
rarely unfriendlycan be friendly**
object rivalobject desired

* ʻjealousy is a far more personal and relational emotion than envy’ [123].
** Note the ʻLord Chancellorʼs envious appreciation of Pell in Charles Dickinsʼ The Pickwick Papersʼ (chapter 54) (italics mine) [124].

But, jealousy does not seem to be an ʻintelligent emotionʼ [127]. It is intense, and potentially blinding. If this is intrinsic to jealousy, then it cannot be divine. So Scrutton appeals to the biblical witness.

Divine qannaʼ is dissimilar to human qinʼah in that whereas human qinʼah involves negative instances and characteristics including racial hatred, lack of control and covetousness, divine qannaʼ is always just, within Godʼs control, and directed towards the good (the salvation of Israel) [128].

This is a form of love that is deeply involved with creation. But is not beneficence better since it remains detached? Rather than reiterating what she wrote about compassion, Scrutton argues that detached giving (which needs nothing in return) impoverishes the object precisely because the object is not needed [129-130].

In contrast, deeply involved love needs the beloved. Moreover, ʻto fail, as a lover, to need the beloved would (if through choice) be egotistical rather than gracious, and (if outside oneʼs choice) would represent a weakness rather than a strength’ [134]. Furthermore, to need the beloved is to value him or her as him or her. Without this, agape is arbitrary. Without this, why not need (and value) animals and stones in the same way as human beings? [135] Therefore she concludes that,

Godʼs love is both eros, a desire to be united with creation, and also agape, love that is gracious and forgiving … A corollary of this is that divine love seeks neither fusion with the beloved (eros), nor simply a relationship between individual parties (agape), but, rather, a union in which the lover and beloved remain distinct but cease to be separate [136-137].

In the closing chapters Scrutton considers emotions in relation to the will and to the body. The fact that emotions cannot be switched on and off at will does not mean that they are essentially passive. Rather, harnessing emotions is more like riding a bike [144]. We have an active – and therefore responsible – part to play.

Scrutton also discusses emotion in relation to the body. Does God need a body in order to experience emotion? No, responds Scrutton, for if an intelligent God needs no body, then nor does an emotionally intelligent God [183]. 
Although my précis of these last two chapters is rather brief, thorough engagement with Scrutton’s work is highly rewarding.

Next, we were made to be the image of the God who experiences emotion, so it is to our experience of emotion to which we now turn.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

(More) Thinking Through Feeling

Anastasia Philippa Scrutton, Thinking Through Feeling: God, Emotion and Passibility (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), x + 228 pp.

This is the second of three posts.

Having made a case that emotion is not only compatible with God, but also necessary for him, Scrutton goes on to consider compassion, forgiveness, and jealousy.

Since compassion is a particular kind of empathy (but only of “a particular kind” for a torturer might experience empathy without compassion) [76], compassion is involved with others whereas mere benevolence remains aloof [76-77].

Moreover, our involvement with others is marked by both judgement of similar possibilities (whereby, I can put myself in their shoes) and eudaimonistic judgement (whereby, their happiness is bound up with my happiness). 

(Perhaps we can say that the former – judgement of similar possibilities – is centrifugal, whereas the latter – eudaimonistic judgement – is centripetal.) The former can help us to attain the latter [83-85]. But in the case of God it amounts to the same thing by necessarily following from the latter [85]. Since God loves everyone, everyone’s happiness is his happiness (eudaimonistic judgement), which is to put himself in everyone’s shoes (judgement of similar possibility) [100].

Having argued that compassion is not incompatible with God, she goes on to argue that compassion is necessary for God to be a God. ‘Without compassion, there is simply no reason for benevolent action’ [91].

She then moves on to forgiveness via a comparison of Butler and Griswold [111-117]. For Butler, forgiveness is forswearing revenge, and for Griswold, forgiveness is forswearing resentment. For Butler, revenge is an abuse of resentment. But they understand resentment differently.

For Griswold, resentment is appropriate (more intense, as it were) to the atrocities of the twentieth century; whereas for Butler it is somewhat milder. So, for Griswold, Butler’s forgiveness model is incomplete, which is simply to moderate resentment rather than to give it up [118-119].

But even then, resentment – even of Griswold’s more “intense” variety – can be constructive rather than destructive. It can be a constructive “slow” re-sentment rather than a destructive “sudden” anger. The former is an affection, and the latter a passion [112 cf. 120]. After all, Forgiveness is a process and not an event for Griswold (although Butler does not deny process) [118].

The picture of forgiveness that emerges is rather like someone’s ongoing struggle to give up their addiction to smoking. It may make sense to speak of them as having given up while they still feel the urge to smoke, provided that there is an ongoing commitment to permanent non-smoking, combined with the aspiration to cease to have the urge to smoke altogether [118].

Two important theological implications follow on from this … First, that God not only experiences anger, but experiences the specific kind of anger that we call resentment. Second, that in attributing forgiveness to God, we adopt this model of forgiveness (forgiveness as personally involved) rather than the view that models forgiveness as juridicial pardon (and is therefore sufficiently emotionally removed to be devoid of anger) [119].

In the final post, we move from divine compassion and forgiveness to divine jealousy.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Thinking Through Feeling

Anastasia Philippa Scrutton, Thinking Through Feeling: God, Emotion and Passibility (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), x + 228 pp.

People who know me well will know my concern not to diminish the priestly and kingly dimensions of life. (The priestly concerns relationships, and the kingly economics.) So this is the first of four book reviews: two concerning the priestly, and two the kingly. On the priestly we’ll look at:
  1. Anastasia Philippa Scrutton, Thinking Through Feeling: God, Emotion and Passibility (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).
  2. Robin A. Parry, Lamentations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
And on the kingly:
  1. Danny Dorling, All That Is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster (London: Allen Lane, 2014).
  2. Felix Martin, Money: The Unauthorised Biography (London: The Bodley Head, 2013).
After this first one, which itself will be spread over three posts, they won’t appear in any particular order.

In his book From Passions to Emotions, Thomas Dixon argues for resurrecting the traditional categories of passion and affection, or at least for taking them into account during contemporary discussions of emotion. 

Whereas the negative connotations of passions (as something bad – hence the tradition of divine impassibility) find themselves conferred onto emotions, the positive connotations of affections (as something good) remain relatively neglected, presumably overpowered by the negativity of the former. The result is that we tend to have an overly negative view of emotion.

But by resurrecting the distinction between passions and affections, the affections gives us a category capable of a more positive view.

In Thinking Through Feeling Anastasia Scrutton explores divine affections. She notes that the continuum between passions and affections is mirrored by the contemporary continuum between emotions that are involuntary and non-cognitive, on the one hand, and those that are voluntary and cognitive, on the other. Therefore there is a case to say that God experiences emotion.

Having noted that some understandings of divine impassibility in the early church are compatible with contemporary understandings of divine passibility [2], she draws out what has really changed through the course of church history:
Rather than shifting from impassibilism to passibilism, Christian theology has shifted in emphasis from stressing the invulnerability and omnipotence of God to focusing on the emotional fullness of God’s life and the suffering of God. This is partly as a result of contextual demands. The early church needed to emphasize God’s otherness in reaction against perceived anthropomorphic conceptions of divinity in paganism. In contrast, modern theology has needed to speak to challenges to faith arising from our increased awareness of the extent of human and animal suffering [3].
Then, she not only argues that emotion is compatible with God, but also that emotion is necessary for God.
[E]motions are uniquely revelatory of value and so provide insight into the way the world is that cannot be gained without them. As such I suggest that emotions are integral to God's wisdom, understanding and intelligence, and that denying or neglecting them leads to an impoverished conception of divine omniscience [5].
In the remainder of the book, Scrutton explores divine compassion, forgiveness, and jealousy to illustrate her thesis. To these we turn next.

Friday, 30 May 2014

The Difference Between Spiritual Formation and Training

Much recent theology of work finds its locus in the Eucharist.* Bread and wine become Godʼs blessing to us through which we become a blessing to others. Since bread and wine are the work of human hands, we can say that, here, the work of human hands becomes Godʼs blessing to us through which we become a blessing to others. Is this a rhythm for life? Can we say that God works through us in our work, blessing us to bless others?

I think yes, but allow me to make a number of qualifications.
  1. The Eucharist cannot be reduced to an example of a general pattern. For that would dilute the uniqueness of Christʼs work for us. Rather, the movement of this unique work echoes in our everyday work.
  2. It echoes where our work contributes to the common good. This is not the invisible hand that alleges we all benefit from each otherʼs self-interest. (The failure of this is well captured in the failure of the British government to respond to the Irish potato famine because the self-interested market was left to its own devices.)** Rather, this is the invisible God transforming us and our work to be a blessing to others.
  3. Becoming a blessing because we ourselves are blessed is the sphere of spiritual formation rather than of training. Spiritual formation entails transformation, whereas training entails the transfer of information.
  4. This is very possibly why people being trained in workplace theology fail to make the connection between Eucharist and work. The connection is one of transformation and not information. Information that there is a connection is somewhat abstract, whereas the transformation that comes about through participation in the Eucharist is wholly concrete. The Eucharist does not inform us how we might change the workplace so much as change us to transform the workplace.
  5. Whereas training can take a lunchtime, spiritual formation can take a lifetime. We go through training once (or maybe twice), but are spiritually formed by a lifetime of repeated disciplines, like the Eucharist. 
  6. So perhaps we need more spiritual formation when it comes to work. For example, Agapé run a seminar called Witness@Work. But is it training or spiritual formation? The seminar entails speaking to strangers about Jesus. If treated as training, again, the connection between this and work is somewhat abstract. But treated as spiritual formation we are transformed to bless others as we step out of our comfort zone. That is what we take back to our work – ourselves transformed.
  7. God uses our gifts to him to transform us. He “multiplies” the gift in order to “multiply” us. In the Eucharist, physical sustenance becomes spiritual sustenance. In Witness@Work, our going despite ourselves in random encounter becomes divine appointment. In both cases we come away transformed.
  8. Indeed, the seminar exhibits sacramental contours. Theologically, a sacrament is the promise of divine presence. So when Jesus says “go and make disciples of all nations … And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” [Matthew 28:19,20] “going” is sacramental.
  9. So whereas the Eucharist focuses on the death of Christ, Witness@Work focuses on the last commission of Christ.
  10. And whereas the Eucharist emphasises the transformation of our work (the bread and wine) so that we can be transformed to bless others, Witness@Work emphasises our transformation so that we can be a blessing at work.
* For example, Esther Reed, Work: For Gods Sake! Christian Ethics in the Workplace (London: DLT, 2010), 47f.; David H. Jensen, Responsive Labor: A Theology of Work (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 72f.
** Felix Martin, Money: The Unauthorised Biography (London: The Bodley Head, 2013), 147f.