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]:

exclusive objectinclusive object
rightno right
lossno loss
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.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The City as Tree: Operational and Relational Approaches to Urban Mission

Christena Clevelandʼs excellent post on surburban pastors “reaching” urban areas got me thinking about Avatar. (Sorry to lower the tone. But this could have been a half-decent film had it ended with the destruction of Hometree – the giant tree home to the indigenous Naʼvi.) Humanity, who are outsiders to the Naʼvi community, destroy the tree because they reduce it to a resource.

The parallels with surburban pastors “reaching” urban areas may be stretched but they are there. The city is often treated as a resource rather than as a home. It is to be mined for “capacity” (for which read “money” or “people”, although I suspect that people are harder to come by – too busy surviving to be put to use to some other end). Or the city is to be used to reach the nations or as a blueprint to reach other cities.

Yes, the city can be a means to all of this. But what about the city as an end-in-itself?

Too often we jump too quickly from the city as an end-in-itself to the city as a means. We forget about the city itself. And even when we do think about the city as an end-in-itself, we can make it sound more like a project than a home. We can make it sound solely like something “to be reached”. Jumping too quickly over the city-as-home is the same premature jump from the operational to the relational that I highlighted in point 9 here. I wrote,

There is a tendency in the church to jump too quickly from community to organisation, from private relationship to public event (such as an evangelistic meeting). This is because, first, relationships are hard work, whereas events are easy; and, second, because the former is like watching paint dry, whereas the latter are like fireworks. However, fireworks fizzle, and without the community roots that sustain life, events become drift-wood.

So whether the city is treated as an operational end (a project) or as an operational means (to some resource), we sometimes forget about the city as home – as something relational.

What difference does it make?

When I am inside someoneʼs home I am outside of mine. I am subject to their hospitality or, rather, their “hospital-ity”. The hyphen hopefully helps us to see the connotations of healing here. Good relationships heal. So the city as home can be a place of healing, even if only glimpsing the new heaven and the new earth.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.*

So as we engage with the city, several questions come to mind? In our discourse about the city, do we allow for the city to be home (as well as resource and project)? If so, is it something that we allow to change us (epitomised by healing)** or is it something solely to be changed by us (through our projects)?

If the latter, then I suspect that we have only superficially engaged. We have not fully engaged with those who call the city home. (Have we even listened to them?) For that would bring about change in us. And since our relationship with others is irreducibly bound up with our relationship with God, it could, by extension, bring about change in how we see him too.

So if the former – is engagement with the city something that we allow to change us? – then perhaps the key question concerns our vision of God. How has the city changed that vision as we engage with those who call the city home? For example, Kester Brewin talks about seeing God in organic bottom-up growth, rather than in industrial top-down strategising.***

Again, if we cannot answer that, or merely resort to Monty-Python spirituality – “O Lord you are SO big, because the city is SO big” – then have we really moved beyond some conceptual theology of the city to doing life with its inhabitants?

* Revelation 22:1-2.
** For example, Bryant Myers notes that engaging with the poor has less to do with our agenda concerning poverty, and more about recognising that our own poverty needs transforming too [Bryant L. Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999)]. Similarly, engaging the city has less to do with our agenda concerning the city, and more about our transformation with the city. For that, we at least need to be there, to live there, to listen.
*** See Kester Brewin, The Complex Christ: Signs of Emergence in the Urban Church (London: SPCK, 2004). A précis of the book can be found here.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Whence “Organisational Movements”?

Elsewhere, I have noted the incoherence of equating “organisation” with “movement”. So whence the penchant to equate them in my neck of the woods?

Two observations.

The first is not so much a reason as a correlation. There has been a shift away from the old mission statement to a new vision statement. The old mission statement talks about helping to build spiritual movements in order to realise the vision; whereas the new vision statement simply talks about dreaming the vision.

Although this is not necessarily a reason for the equation of organisation with movement, a safeguard to help prevent the equation of the two has been lost. If the organisation is helping to build spiritual movements, then those movements are presumably bigger than the organisation itself. Organisation cannot simply be equated with movement.

So the shift away from the old mission statement correlates to the equation of organisation with movement in its organisational rhetoric.

The second observation perhaps reflects the organisationʼs psyche. Whereas movements that it helps to build are bigger than the (organisational) identity of those helping, equating the organisation with a movement becomes its identity. It comes to understand itself as a movement.

So the shift from old mission statement to new vision statement reflects a shift from identities-being-relative-to-movement to identity-being-movement. Movement was the main thing for which several identities helping one another were necessary. Now identity as a movement has become the main thing.

Q: What explains this shift from movement to identity? A: Perhaps a crisis of identity caused by a change in relation to another whom it was helping (and being helped). If it is not now in relation to this other then who is it? If it is no longer has its identity in helping (and being helped) toward some common goal (a movement), then perhaps its has turned inward to reflect upon its own identity, and so subsequently reinterpreted “movement” as the answer to its search. Movement is now determined by identity, rather than identity (as “helping helper”) being determined by the common goal of movement.

That would explain the shift from movement to identity. And, again, it correlates to the shift from old mission statement to new vision statement, from helping-towards-movement to being movement.

It would also explain the shift from a relational understanding of multiplication to an operational one, from one whereby we sacrifice ourselves so that others flourish – in order for them to sacrifice themselves for other others – to an understanding of multiplication whereby we simply extend our own brand.

It all begins to make sense.