Category Archives: Books

Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards (2)

In my earlier post on Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards I endeavoured to set forth sufficiently and sympathetically, the central tenets of his spiritual vision. It is a vision of ageing gracefully by finding a way—being led—to personal and spiritual maturity. The measures of this maturity are indicators such as being freed from the narrowness of self-serving ego needs, and of dualistic and exclusivist patterns of thought. The mature person has learnt to accept reality, and others, as they are, and have become more self-critical than critical of others. They have learnt that the secret of internal freedom and happiness is to ‘receive and return the loving gaze of God every day’ (159).

The book sets forth a range of perceptive insights and warnings that we do well to reflect upon. For example, Rohr insists that change and growth, movement and direction are integral aspects of a mature spirituality. Similarly, he warns that sin repressed or denied will surely break-out elsewhere. He wisely admonishes his readers toward practices of solitude and friendship, and reminds us that there is a connection between personal and spiritual maturity, and that we cannot ignore the one in the pursuit of the other. He speaks of the place of Jesus and of the church in his spiritual vision: ‘I quote Jesus because I still consider him to be the spiritual authority of the Western world, whether we follow him or not. . . . Jesus for me always clinches the deal, and I sometimes wonder why I did not listen to him in the first place’ (81).[1] The church he regards as ‘both my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home’ (80). The church functions like a cauldron:

A crucible as you know, is a vessel that holds molten metal in one place long enough to be purified and clarified. Church membership requirements, church doctrine, and church morality force almost all issues to an inner boiling point, where you are forced to face important issues at a much deeper level to survive as a Catholic or a Christian, or even as a human. I think this is probably true of any religious community, if it is doing its job. Before the truth ‘sets you free,’ it tends to make you miserable (74).

At the heart of his spiritual vision lies what he calls an ‘incarnational mysticism,’ a two-sided spirituality deeply grounded and engaged in the world and in ‘mystical union’ with God (75-78). It is incarnational as it is open to, inclusive of, and embracing the world in all its diversity, suffering, and beauty; mystical in its desire for immediacy, to abide in, as we have already noted, the loving gaze of God.

Despite the various strengths and claims of the book, I find I remain ambivalent toward this vision. Behind every exposition of spirituality lies a theological or philosophical vision of God and reality that in turn shapes the distinguishing features of the spirituality being proposed. As I understand it, Rohr’s theological vision is the product of a pluralist understanding of divine operations and revelation, and of human encounter with and participation in the divine. The spiritual quest is a universal impulse and Christianity is just one expression among many religious and non-religious quests for the truth. It is one expression of the primary spiritual insights which are found also in the writings of other religious leaders, poets, myth-makers, mystics, psychologists, and so on.

The portrayal of God in this book is remarkably thin and one-sided:

There is not one clear theology of God, Jesus or history presented, despite our attempt to pretend there is. The only consistent pattern I can find is that all the books of the Bible seem to agree that somehow God is with us and we are not alone. God and Jesus’ only job description is one of constant renewals of bad deals. The tragic sense of life is ironically not tragic at all, at least in the Big Picture. . . . Faith is simply to trust the real, and to trust that God is found within it—even before we change it (62-63).

The tactic applied here is not uncommon; find and emphasise the diversity of witness in the biblical documents and then use the fact of this diversity to discredit the reliability of the whole. This is lazy theology, though very convenient, for then one can introduce one’s own ‘reading’ as the explanation, or the meaning, or the key. In this case the knowledge we might have of God is stripped back almost to an empty abstraction. Is the gospel as vague and as bland as presented here—somehow God is with us and we are not alone? Is this really the extent of that for which we might hope? Is it the case that this ‘god’ exists merely to clean up our mess—and that we are those who will change the real? Somewhat ironically, just two pages earlier Rohr had complained that ‘organised religion has not been known for its inclusiveness or for being very comfortable with diversity’ (60). Although social diversity is an imperative, diversity in Scripture renders it questionable.

Rohr’s reading of Scripture and of the gospel thus appears somewhat reductionist, as he selects and emphasises only some aspects of the biblical-gospel narrative at the expense of other elements. His reading of the atonement, for example, is exemplarist and Girardian, and discounts the testimony and imagery of Paul, Peter, John, and Hebrews with respect to Jesus’ saving death on the cross (68-69). He interprets God’s forgiveness as a sign that ‘God is saying that God’s own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us’ (56-57). It seems to me, however, that this is precisely the opposite of what the New Testament declares, that the very act of forgiveness, together with its necessity, presupposes that the ‘rules’ matter a great deal. In this respect Rohr’s position not only diminishes the New Testament portrayal of the cross of Jesus, but also treats the idea of sin—which surely includes the inhumanity and abuse of some towards others—as something negligible or easily dismissed. The Bible, on the other hand, approaches all kinds of sin with great seriousness.

Rohr argues for a spirituality based in ‘Big Picture incarnational mysticism.’ The Big Picture is a mechanism for side-stepping the particularities and details of a biblical vision in favour of a few generic universal principles. The image of the incarnation is employed with a dual purpose. On the one hand it affirms a spirituality of service amid the harsh realities of life in the world—something I also affirm. On the other hand, however, Rohr also uses it to affirm Western cultural priorities as though these are a religious obligation. This is cultural Christianity, something he otherwise rejects when it differs from his own cultural preference. Mystic desire or experience grounds the spirituality as a religious phenomenon without tying the adherent to any particular portrayal of God beyond the notion of God as absolute and unconditional love.

In the end Rohr’s spirituality appears as related variety of the ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ that Christian Smith argued has become a major religious faith in North America. To me, this is not so much an exposition of Christian spirituality (and certainly not a biblical spirituality), as an exposition of a generic ‘spirituality’ suited perhaps for those who might claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious.’ This is a spirituality amenable for those who consider themselves ‘progressive’ whether religiously inclined or not. Richard Rohr himself is, of course, religious—he has been a Roman Catholic priest for most of his life, and finds his ‘most consoling home’ in the church. But he also admits that this is not a necessity per se. Other religious communities could just as easily assist and guide a person on their spiritual journey. I suspect, however, that some of his followers will not have the same degree of attachment to the church that he has, and may be led by this account of spirituality away from the God and the Jesus portrayed in Scripture, and into a spirituality and form of life of their own devising. Christians, whether Roman Catholics, Protestants, or disaffected evangelicals can do better much than this.

[1] It would be of interest, however, to assess Rohr’s understanding of Jesus in light of his more recent The Universal Christ (2019) in which he aims, according to one reviewer, to distinguish between Jesus and ‘Christ,’ with Jesus understood as limited, particular, and earthbound, while ‘Christ’ is unlimited, universal, and cosmic. I suspect that this move would allow him to displace the particularity of what Jesus actually says and does as recorded in the gospels, with an idiosyncratic content predicated upon his vision the universal Christ.

Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward:
A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

(San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2011), xxxvii + 199.
ISBN: 978-0-470-90775-7

Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but the whole thesis of this book is exactly the opposite. What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture (153).

This citation gives, I think, a brief definition of what Rohr means by the title of his book. Life may be considered in two ‘halves,’ though this is a conceptual rather than temporal division. Some people, perhaps even most people, never get to the ‘second half.’ The entry to the second half of life is conveyed by the sense of falling. One falls, perhaps on hard times, or perhaps ‘from grace,’ or perhaps from a high estate or a good reputation. Usually the fall is unsought, unheralded, and unwanted but occurs anyway. But such a fall can become the entry into a new broader and deeper world, where one’s soul is rediscovered, and one’s ethos, direction, and desire are fundamentally re-ordered. To fall upward is to discover our True Self, our inner connection to all things and all people, and to live, as Rohr says, inside the Big Picture of God’s love. The great purpose of life is to ‘grow’ our unique God-given self and return or offer it in love and service to God and the world. It is to be the me I was created to be.

The first half of life is concerned with what Rohr calls ‘ego needs’: identity, security, boundaries, order, safety, relationships, affirmation, and some experience of ‘success.’ In his view we all need our ‘narcissistic fix’ and without it, we will continue in and through life carrying a woundedness that often if not usually leaves us seeking to fulfil these needs in some other way. Somewhat paradoxically, these needs are fulfilled best when one is raised in a more traditional or conservative environment with an emphasis on law and tradition, loyalty, respect, and responsibility. Such an environment disciplines the ego so that it does not become an all-consuming drive. Becoming mature requires learning to live within the creative tensions of law and freedom, and so one must ‘learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly’ (citing the Dalai Lama, xxviii). The purpose of the first half of life is to ‘write the script’ or ‘build the container’ that we will, in the second half of life, enact or fill.

Yet despite the obvious strengths of these characteristics, there is more to life than identity, security, boundaries, order, affirmation, success, and so on. Somehow we carry an innate memory of ‘home,’ a deep-seated longing that can be assuaged only as our true self rests in union with God. Such a longing might call us to leave the security of our first-phase-of-life home in search of this true home. And so we begin a journey beyond the journey of the first phase of life. Or perhaps tragedy or suffering befalls us, a crisis by which our first-phase-of-life is up-ended and we are thrust out of our life, as it were, and into a further journey. Typically, suggests Rohr, we are led into the second half of life by an experience of loss, failure or brokenness we did not want, foresee, or choose, and which we cannot handle with the resources we presently have.

Nor does one arrive suddenly at the second half of life but grows into it, a process that continues through the rest of one’s life. Whereas the first half of life is characterised by ego-goals, the second half is concerned with ‘soul goals.’ In the second half of life one has ceased from self-defining, from the endless fighting and doing to make one’s way prevail. This person rests in God and simply is—being. They have become self-critical, though not self-loathing. They engage in ‘shadow-boxing,’ confronting the shadow-side that previously they kept well-hidden from others. They acknowledge and accept the truth about themselves, leaving go of pretence or subterfuge. They are able to live this way because they have found a friend or a Friend by whom they are ‘mirrored.’ They find that they are known deeply and fully yet loved and accepted anyway. And so a deep integrity ensues in which what one is, now is what is done. One enters what Rohr refers to as a ‘second simplicity,’ an innocence, a willingness to accept mystery, doubt, etc., and relinquishes the need for certainty or control because they trust in the overarching ‘coherence, purpose, benevolence, and direction’ of the universe. That is, they have a sense of underlying meaning, a Big Truth that satisfies the soul, even in the midst of continuing trouble, heartache or suffering. The gift they have now to offer is themselves.

*****

In this post I have provided a synopsis of Rohr’s book.
In a later post I will offer my reflections on what I have read.

Pierre Maury Sermon ~ The Ultimate Decision

Simon Hattrell’s recent book Election, Barth, and the French Connection (Second edition) contains two lectures and a sermon from Pierre Maury, the French Reformed pastor-theologian whose 1936 lecture in Geneva so influenced Karl Barth’s reconstruction of the doctrine of election. This sermon was preached in Lent 1937, in the Reformed Church of Passy, Paris. Maury gave a series of six talks of which this was one.

Maury begins with John 14:6 and asserts that Jesus is the (only) way, and as such, the only revelation of God. This is something requiring one’s commitment, something people often struggle to give for they continually seek to establish their own way. This they—we!—must cease to do, abandoning our efforts and accepting Jesus Christ himself as our (only) way.

The Christian life, from its beginning to its end, is decision, that is to say, unreserved commitment. . . . For, Jesus Christ wants to be objective in the sense that He claims to be an unreserved commitment of God on our behalf, and on the other hand He demands that we become unreservedly committed to Him. It is this double aspect of His existence that we are now going to examine (53).

To ‘choose’ or to commit to Christ is not analogous to other human choices between a range of options, or the self-commitment of one to an imagined absolute or cause. Jesus Christ himself is the Absolute who demands our unconditional submission in the obedience of faith; that is, a free submission. This commitment, suggests Maury, comes not by means of rational argument concerning the legitimacy of Christian claims. Rather, one is engaged in relational encounter with Jesus the Word, engaged in dialogue, hearing and speaking. One is to ‘hear’ Jesus Christ—his whole life and eternal existence is a ‘word’ addressed to us. Maury recalls an experience related by Pascal in Les Pensées to make his point:

As soon as faith is fixed on this person of past history, it is quite naturally brought to discover in him a personal intention—an interaction has begun. . . . Just as long as, like all the heroes of history, He remains for us an object of reflection, of admiration or curiosity, we do not know Him; He is not Him; he is only that which He wants to be (54).

When God speaks to us in Christ it is not in order to display a truth, but to reveal to us our situation before Him, and the attitude that He adopts before us (55).

As such, Jesus Christ is decisive. He is decisive in the sense that in him all are included and contained. Our existence is, eternally and in eternity, contained, enfolded, enclosed and included in his existence. It seems that for Maury, this is the content of proclamation: a divine decision has been made; humanity is the object of divine love—all of us, and each of us.

Jesus Christ is a decision of God, therefore without any recourse, as far as we are concerned, a decision of someone other than ourselves and of which we are the object; and that is to say, in the second place, that Jesus Christ calls for a decision on our part, a final (permanent) decision. . . . It is from all eternity, in eternity, that between Jesus Christ and us a relationship is established (56).

Again:

Marvelous revelation of an unfathomable mystery! When this child is born in a manger, when this man dies on the cross and rises again the third day, the eve of the Sabbath, it is our whole life that is swept up in this commitment, it is for our whole life that something happens. He is the one by whom—for whom also—we have been created, who is there. He is there, simple and immense, simple as the simplest of the sons of men, immense because the dimensions of His existence contain us all; He is the beginning and the end of our life. In Him everything is enclosed, kept, protected. When He cries out, ‘Come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden’ (Matthew 11:28), it is all our destinies that He is calling, because they belong to Him. When He stretches out His arms upon the cross, He says that it is ‘to draw all to Himself’ (John 12:32) because no one has existed without Him and outside of Him. When He rises and is exalted to the right hand of God, it is in order to present to God—eternally, and in eternity—those who—from all eternity, in eternity—have always been, are and will always be His. I have said, I have repeated: all (57).

Jesus Christ is thus decisive in the decision that has been taken by God concerning us, our entire existence. He is decisive, too, because in his incarnation and life we are encountered by the coming and work of God.

The real mystery of the action of Jesus Christ is that ‘he does nothing by himself’ (John 5:19). That which He does for us, and that which He does in coming to us, in giving Himself to us, in choosing us, is what no person can do: it is an act of God! . . . Such is the true relationship that Jesus Christ has with those who believe in Him: a relationship where God Himself legally binds Himself to us (60, 61).

This activity, the activity of his love—his coming to us, giving himself to and for us, and in so doing, choosing us—is election, and it must be understood as the testimony of his love in its most positive sense, and not at all negatively, as a sign of partiality (60).

Not only is Jesus Christ decisive, he is also ultimate. The divine decision concerning us is ultimate, not merely as divine but because it concerns the last—the ultimate—judgement. Yet the Judge is Jesus Christ—he who has come, given himself, and chosen us! In view of all this, Jesus Christ is ultimate also for he demands our decision, an ultimate decision in which we give ourselves wholly and without reserve to him. He comes to us indeed, though in his coming he is always Lord and Master.

We need to insist on the uncompromising nature of the essence of Christian decision. … If we choose Him, it’s because He has chosen us first; if we take Him up, it is because He has seized us. Such is the seriousness of His coming into our life that it dispossesses us completely. He only comes as Master. He is the Lord Jesus. . . . The intolerable, demanding nature of faith is the mark of grace which is ours in faith (64).

Although he does not use the language of ‘irresistible grace’ it is clear that Maury holds such a concept. Jesus Christ seeks us out, confronts us, and in so doing reaches our ‘true centre’ where our destiny is at stake, laying hold of our lives ‘where all possibilities of escape are closed except this one, this obligation to say yes or no, and never ‘perhaps’ . . . ‘If we do not give our consent, it’s because we haven’t been found’ (64).

The decision required of us is the response of faith, rather than correct knowledge or full understanding. The real question confronting us is not intellectual but existential. ‘We have to come to Him with our life, because it is with His life that He has come to us’ (66). To respond to Jesus Christ in faith is to give ourselves to him as he did to us—in complete simplicity, immediately, and without reservation (65).

Maury concludes his sermon by directing his listeners to the only place where they might look for and find Jesus Christ as their ultimate decision: to the Bible. ‘It is through the Bible alone that Jesus Christ is made our contemporary. If Scripture is holy, it is because it offers us the possibility of knowing the ultimate decision of our life with no looking back’ (67).

But one can also, from the beginning to the end of the Bible, hear the living Word of God, hear God speaking of Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ, and, having heard Him, one can—no, one must—decide for or against Him. . . . Whoever looks in these pages for Jesus Christ as their Lord, sooner or later, slowly or all of a sudden, will find what they are looking for (67).

That this happens is, in the final analysis, the work of the Holy Spirit, for in every case the human decision is grounded in and enabled by the grace of the divine decision made concerning us.

*****

The sermon is prefaced, in the book, with a record of a brief correspondence between Barth and Maury, and a longer note from Charlotte von Kirschbaum who translated the Frenchman’s sermon in German, translating it three times before she was (somewhat!) happy with it. Hattrell has given us the first translation of the sermon into English. My citations and pagination here are based on the first edition of the volume.

Pierre Maury on ‘Election and Faith’

In 1936 at the International Congress of Calvinist Theology conducted in Geneva to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes, French preacher-theologian Pierre Maury presented a paper entitled ‘Election et Foi.’ Karl Barth would later recall that the address had made a profound impression on him, providing the decisive contribution to his own thought on the doctrine of predestination.

Maury’s lecture has been recently translated and published in English thanks to the work of Simon Hattrell, in his edited volume Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election. The volume includes testimony from those who knew Maury, including Barth, as well as three lectures by Maury that provide a good insight into his thought concerning election, and a number of additional contemporary essays discussing the doctrine in Barth and Maury’s theology.

Over the next few weeks I will provide a summary of Maury’s lectures in order to make more generally available what he said that so impressed Barth. Of course, better yet would be to buy the book!

The 1936 lecture itself, is quite short. Maury begins by indicating the approach he will take to the doctrine, which initially sounds characteristically Reformed:

We did not give ourselves life nor will we be able to avoid death. We have not chosen to live; we cannot choose to not die. It is therefore not a question here of our choice, the one that we make, but the choice of which we are the object, that which is made (or not made) of us. These are those insurmountable limits, which are imposed on us, which election calls to mind (42).

Since the doctrine of election trumps all our categories of reason and wisdom, we cannot approach it philosophically but only in accordance with faith, led and guided by the Scriptures. Hence the title, ‘Election and Faith.’ Scripture will be the guide of faith and not a teacher of philosophy. “It will lead us in some points to not follow what Calvin heard in it. But that will not be being unfaithful to him; on the contrary, that will be truly Calvinist” (43).

When we begin with Scripture, however, we find that election is christologically ordered. For Maury, the eternal and the incarnate Christ is the origin, ground, and goal of God’s election. This election is entirely free, wholly God’s initiative, and yet at the cross it is shown to have cost God everything.

We will take our stand, therefore, in speaking of predestination, on this solid ground, where the hidden mystery of God becomes the revealed grace which is offered to us. We can truly say that outside of Christ, there is neither election, nor knowledge of election . . . Outside of Christ, we know neither who the God who elects is, nor those He elects, nor how He elects them (43).

Jesus Christ is not merely the point of the knowledge of divine election, but is in himself the election:

So the election is nothing else than the eternal and temporal existence of Jesus Christ, our mediator. For it is in Him, in Him crucified, in Him alone, that God has met us. Because it is in Christ, we know that election is not some unfathomable eternal caprice or whim, a game played out in the infinitely distant idleness of eternity but a concrete reality, our reality. It bears the marks of the historical and real life of Jesus Christ, living, dying, rising for us (46).

Election is, negatively, God taking all our sin and alienation on the cross. This is grace. Here, here alone, but here truly, we see that God is love. Election, therefore, consists in the rejection of Jesus Christ.

Before the cross, too, we understand this paradox: the price of free election. For election does not cost us anything, but God it cost His Son. For God to extend grace, to forgive, is to give everything, to give everything for us who cannot give Him anything. . . . This is the night of the ninth hour. What does this darkness mean? Revelation says: punishment. And the Son believes it: punishment, God’s wrath. The only one who will understand grace in election is the same one who understands that it is fulfilled in Christ dying, smitten by God, deserted by men. The only one who will understand how election is sheer pardon is the one who, before the cross, does not come with arguments or with good works, with religious emotion or objections, but who stands there speechless because they have nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to put forward (47-48).

The human response to this election is to choose, decisively, for or against. At the cross we see ourselves—and so judgement, rejection, and condemnation; and at the cross we see God—and so grace, acceptance, and justification. This is double-predestination, though in Maury’s hands it refers not to two separate classes of people (salvation for some, damnation for the rest), but is applied to each person. The church may and must speak of double-predestination but only in this way. That is, it may preach ‘the word of the cross.’ Indeed apart from the cross, double-predestination is solely an eschatological concept: we cannot sort anyone into these categories.

The elect, in their election, accept everything from the cross: condemnation and grace, judgement and forgiveness, demand and promise, renouncement and life. They accept, that is to say, they no longer have anything, they allow everything to be given to them . . . Predestination is therefore very much double (51, 52).

When asked, upon whom does salvation depend? Maury responds as expected: upon God, of course! Though this answer is known only in faith. Faith is a decisive human act with no opt-out clause. Faith is to risk everything in our reply to this judgement and grace addressed to us. “To accept Jesus Christ, to be chosen by God, means to choose to turn away from ourselves forever. That means to have from now on an absolute Lord . . . ” (50).

To look to the cross is to respond in kind. In choosing Christ we no longer choose ourselves but embrace a vocation to be conformed to Christ. There is a life that is appropriate to the elect: a life of continuing faith lest the believer transform God’s election into their own possession; a life of prayer since all depends on God—and the truest prayer is that which asks for the Holy Spirit; and finally, a life of obedience to the God who has and continues, to call them.

Pierre Maury, "Election et Foi (Election and Faith)" in Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a 'Decisive Impetus' to Karl Barth's Doctrine of Election." Edited by Simon Hattrell, 41-59. Second edition; Eugene: Pickwick, 2019.

4 3 2 1

Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1 (London: Faber & Faber, 2013) 1070pp.          
 ISBN: 978-0-571-32465-1

It seems I can only read a big novel when I am on holiday; life seems too busy otherwise. This is certainly the biggest novel I have read in some years, and although I enjoyed it, it is not as absorbing as I hoped it might be. Having said that, however, I should note that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2017, has received some very positive reviews, and it is possible that I will read it again one day, albeit differently.

Auster has written a long, sprawling account of one young life—Archie Ferguson’s—who was born on March 3, 1947 and continues through to around his twenty-second year of life. Set primarily in New York, the novel provides a kaleidoscope of images from mid-century American history, especially in the 1960s, and especially to do politics, Vietnam, and inevitably, a young man’s sexual awakening and adventures.

The unique aspect of the novel, foreshadowed in the title, is that it is not a single account of young Archie’s life, but four quite distinct though related accounts, four possible lives marked by different fortunes, turns-of-event, and outcomes. Chapter one provides the pre-history leading up to Archie’s birth before subsequent chapters are each structured in four parts providing the distinct accounts of the life, development, and adventures of each persona in each of the periods in view.

Auster’s portrayals of the “different Archies” is the strength of the book, together with the careful inclusion of historical detail which makes the era live with the vividness of a contemporary newspaper. Archie is both very lucky and deeply unlucky, both likable and unlikable, very normal and quite exceptional. I did find the accounts of the very young Archie a little far-fetched, too mature for a young boy, but perhaps that is more a reflection of my own very ordinary and quite mediocre upbringing and experience. I know nothing of Auster himself, but I wonder if there is any sense of the autobiographical in the story.

No doubt the fourfold structure was necessary for Auster to develop the book as he intended, and to build the tensions that wind their ways through the story. While I can see the need for this structure I also found it frustrating for the very mundane reason that I would forget where I was up to with respect to this Archie’s life, or might confuse developments with this Archie with those of a previous or another Archie. Should I read the book again I may read the story of each Archie in full before moving on to the next one. But I wonder if that approach might dilute something of the drama of the story, and especially, the sense that one does not know and cannot tell in advance what directions one’s life might take. While we are certainly not pawns in some cosmic game of chess, our agency is constrained and sometimes overridden by the flow of circumstance and event in which we find ourselves. Auster has reminded me of this, and of the preciousness of the gift and opportunity that is our life, and of the need to thus live consciously, thoughtfully, purposefully, and perhaps most importantly, hopefully.

The Iliad

Homer, The Iliad Penguin Classics (London: Penguin, 1987), lv + 460pp. ISBN:978-0-14-044444-5.

Finally I have taken down this epic of Western culture and literature, after its having sat waiting on my shelf for many years, and read it. What a tragic and yet noble story it is, full of human characters (and gods), some appearing fleetingly only to die, others who live on to tell the tale of what must surely be understood—in our day at least—as a tragic tale of wasted years and lives. The opening sentence of the story sets the context of the whole:

Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilleus, son of Peleus, the accursed anger which brought uncounted anguish on the Achaians and hurled down to Hades many mighty souls of heroes, making their bodies the prey to dogs and the birds’ feasting: and this was the working of Zeus’ will.

This is a tale of unrelenting human pride and anger which sets in train a great conflict. And yet, as the opening sentence signifies, even the will of mighty Achilleus is not determinative, for over against human will stands the unremitting and all-powerful will of Zeus.

What did I notice as I read this classic story?

First, it is a man’s world. Women feature in the story only as wives and mothers bound to the domestic sphere, although they may also appear as captives and as ‘prizes.’ Men act in public, in war and battle, and for glory. This action is often violent, and in the quest for supremacy, free rein is given for the expression of anger, revenge, etc.

Second, the definitive social ethos within which the narrative moves, is that of honour and shame. Honour is earned, especially in battle, but honour also exists by virtue of rank in a hierarchical society, and for the aged, so long as it is an honour accrued earlier in life.

Third, life ends in Hades or the grave. Thus the pursuit of one’s honour is entirely focussed on this world. All one’s hopes are here—for the accumulation of honour, a life well-lived, home and family, and so on.

Fourth, the gods are many, aloof, and yet also engaged in human affairs. They are somewhat capricious, and at war amongst themselves. They intervene in human affairs though human decision and agency is also significant though circumscribed. Nonetheless, fate rules human life even more than the gods. Each person’s fate is woven at birth, and so a sense of inevitability pervades life and undermines agency.

This is a portrayal of gods and humanity in which the former is made in the image of the latter, and for all its talk of honour, human life is brutal, fated, and tragic. How very different from the biblical-Hebraic vision of humanity made in the image of God and endowed with dignity, stewardship, responsibility, and hope!

The descriptive power of the book with its catalogue of recurring images, vivid metaphors, heroic characters, and endless adjectives remind one that it was likely written in order to be read aloud and performed. Even in the twenty-first century The Iliad remains a powerful story, and worth reading on account of its imagery, the rich characterisation and evocation of both the dignity and the depravity of humankind, the condensing of all of this life into four long days of drama, triumph, and anguish, and for its innate historical interest and civilizational impact. As Martin Hammond (translator) asserts in the introduction: “The Iliad is the first substantial work of European literature, and has fair claim to be the greatest.”

And now, sometime soon hopefully, the Odyssey and the Aeneid.

The Lost Letters of Pergamum

Longenecker, Bruce W., The Lost Letters of Pergamum (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). 192pp. ISBN: 0-8010-2607-5.

For some reason I was drawn again to this little epistolary novel which the subtitle tells us it is a “story from the New Testament world.” It is an imaginary tale based on the tantalizing fragment of Revelation 2:13, “Antipas, my faithful witness . . . was put to death in your city [Pergamum]—where Satan lives.” Longenecker, Professor of Early Christianity at Baylor University, has constructed a plausible account of this Antipas (about whom we really know nothing at all), and along the way provides us with a living window into the life and culture of elite Roman noblemen, Roman slaves, Christians, and others in the late first-century context. It is a work of fiction grounded in many years of scholarly research into the world of the New Testament, and will benefit those who read it with greater insight into this world, and into the life and challenges of the first Christian communities.

I do not want to spoil the plot for those who might read the story, but let me say this: not only is it a good, easy-to-read, and well-written story; not only will you learn things about the New Testament world that perhaps previously were only really known to scholars; but you may find yourself challenged and inspired as well. The little story is also spiritually edifying.

New Edition of “Election, Barth & the French Connection”

The second edition of Simon Hattrell’s (editor and translator) book on Karl Barth and Pierre Maury is now available from Wipf & Stock. This is an enlarged edition of the book with several additional essays including one by myself entitled “The Light of the Gospel: Election and Proclamation.”

I am both privileged and grateful to have been asked by Simon to contribute to this revised edition. I had purchased and read the first edition and found it a very fine addition to Barth scholarship, which will, I hope, now be improved with the addition of the extra essays and other materials.

Click on the link below for some more information about the book including an interview with Simon. You can also visit Simon’s website for more articles and details about the book and other topics.

Presskit for the 2nd Edn of Election Barth and the French Connection

New Book by Carolyn Tan

Congratulations to Carolyn Tan on the publication of her book, The Spirit at the Cross.

What was the Holy Spirit doing at the cross of Jesus Christ? Jesus’ death and resurrection are central to God’s reconciliation with humanity. Does the Holy Spirit’s work pause between Gethsemane and the resurrection? What does the phrase “through the eternal Spirit” in Hebrews 9:14 mean? In this book, Carolyn Tan examines the perspectives of John Vernon Taylor, Jürgen Moltmann, and John D. Zizioulas, from whom three views of the Spirit’s role at the cross are discerned: the Spirit as the “bond of love” between the Father and the Son; the Spirit as the Son’s coworker, enabler, and power; and the Spirit as the unifier who unites humanity to the Son. In addition, Karl Barth provides the intriguing concept of the Spirit as divine Judge (along with the Father and the Son) and specifically the one who carries out God’s judgment in Jesus Christ, the Elect. Integrating these theological perspectives with an in-depth examination of the manuscript and exegetical and hermeneutical history of Hebrews 9:14, Tan offers another way of understanding the role of the Spirit at the cross: Christ as the Father’s “pneumatic crucible” in whom sinful humanity is judged, destroyed, and reborn through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Carolyn worked extraordinarily hard over many years as she researched and considered this important question. Her book is significant for several reasons. First, the question itself is theologically and biblically important; what was the Spirit doing at the cross? Second it is important because of the way that Carolyn has engaged prominent theologians from different traditions as assistants in her exploration. This gives the book a substantial and respectful ecumentical flavour. Third, the book is important because Carolyn answers her question, and provides a powerful and carefully argued answer to her primary question. The Holy Spirit was present and active at the cross in surprising, gracious and transformative ways.

The argument of this book deserves a wide and careful reading, and I highly recommend it. You can purchase the book from Wipf and Stock.

Academic Argument

Brian Smith for The Chronicle Review

I was interested to read the chapter on academic argument in Winning Arguments by Stanley Fish.

That is what you have to do to earn your bona fides as an academic: enter an ongoing conversation about a topic deemed to be important—not important in the larger world (although it may be), but important in the academic world—survey the arguments now competing for attention, and put forward an argument of your own that corrects the others or outflanks them (by bringing them together in a ‘higher synthesis’), or reconfigures the field by arguing that your predecessors have asked the wrong questions; you, of course, have the right ones (167).

That is, the process of academic argument is to join a conversation that is underway before we come to it, detailing an intellectual problem and its outstanding issues, the present scholarly approach and arguments with respect to the problem, to set forth one’s own argument to persuade others that your own approach is superior in that it addresses the outstanding issues.

Perhaps more interesting is his claim that academic arguments ‘don’t matter.’ They are strictly ‘academic,’ concerned, that is, with the intellectual points at stake, and as such, not concerned with outcomes, real-world consequences or implications, and so on. Academic argument is neither activism nor formation. It does not seek nor intends to change the world per se but to understand it—pace Karl Marx (176). Academic argument does not seek to move mountains; it seeks rather to move the mind. An academic argument ‘shouldn’t be political, therapeutic, or exhortatory. It can, however, have political, therapeutic, and exhortatory effects, as long as those effects are not aimed at…’ (175).

Also of interest is the idea that not every topic is properly speaking, academic. Fish discusses several examples: holocaust denial, the attribution of Shakespeare’s plays to others, and creationism. Fish finds that in each case the academy has decided the topic is something else masquerading as academic: lies and distortions in the case of holocaust denial, or religious dogma pretending to be science in the case of creationism (180). This might be all well and good with respect to the particular matters raised, but it does appear that in contemporary universities, some positions of argument are being deemed out-of-bounds not on the basis of their academic demerit but because loud cultural voices are declaring that such-and-such a topic is illegitimate as a form of enquiry. It may be that argument is still required to determine what may be argued about.

With respect to theological argument, Wolfhart Pannenberg reminds us of the distinction between faith and theology—a distinction all theological students should note:

Individual faith is certainly not tied to this basic argument. We can believe without it. But faith of that kind is not theology. Only arguments count in theology. Theology cannot ignore the question of the foundation of faith in Jesus Christ. It cannot ignore the underlying relation that leads to the rise of faith and the statements of the christological confession. Theological argument neither here nor elsewhere makes faith or the Holy Spirit superfluous. Nevertheless, it is also true that appeal to faith and the Holy Spirit is not of itself an argument (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Vol. 2, 287; in subsection on “The Method of Christology”).