Category Archives: Spirituality

Kierkegaard on Christian Scholarship

I found this marvellous quote from Kierkegaard in Richard Bauckham’s monograph on James:

Christian scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the New Testament, to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the New Testament come too close.

Bauckham cites Kierkegaard, and does so at the start of each chapter of his book because the first chapter of James was the Danish philosopher’s favourite chapter. He recognises Kierkegaard’s comment as an over-reaction, as a statement of hyperbole, necessary as a corrective, but an over-reaction all the same (Bauckham, James, 8).

He identifies Kierkegaard’s real target as the isolation of biblical studies, or more particularly, the biblical scholar, from subjective engagement with the biblical text. The aim of nineteenth-century biblical interpretation by means of historical criticism was the establishment of the objective meaning of the text, independent of confessional and dogmatic presuppositions. In Bauckham’s view, biblical scholarship has failed in its attempt to reach this goal. (I might note that many evangelical scholars also aim at establishing the objective meaning of the text, though by means of a different method.)

The trouble with the quest for objectivity, as understood by Kierkegaard in his own day, is that one relates to the Bible but not to Scripture. Such scholarship faces, and often succumbs to, the temptation to substitute study for faith and obedience. One only reads Scripture as Scripture if one takes it to heart and lives it.

One reason Kierkegaard appreciated James 1 was because of James’ use of the mirror analogy. The concern Kierkegaard has with Christian scholarship is that in the quest for objectivity, scholars spend their time examining the mirror. The purpose of a mirror, however, is not to examine the mirror itself, but to look at oneself. Thus Kierkegaard warns the scholar:

If you are a scholar, remember that if you do not read God’s Word in another way, it will turn out that after a lifetime of reading God’s Word many hours every day, you nevertheless have never read—God’s Word. 

Kierkegaard suggests that this is, in fact, the intent of Christian scholarship: to keep God’s Word at bay, so that it is not heard, so that one is not confronted by its claim and its command, so that one can continue as a Christian without hearing and taking to heart its message. Christian scholarship achieves this by raising so many questions about the text, about its context, about its interpretation, so many “new lines of supposedly objective enquiry that its effect is to postpone faith and obedience to God’s word indefinitely” (Bauckham, 3).

But our world is very different to that inhabited by Kierkegaard, and so, in a stunning adjustment, Bauckham has updated Kierkegaard’s provocation for our own age:

Biblical scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the New Testament, to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the New Testament come too close, or to ensure that one can continue not to be a Christian by not letting the New Testament come too close (Bauckham, James, 2).

A Prayer on Sunday

Girl at Prayer William Henry Hunt from Wikigallery.org

Creator Lord, who reconciled us to yourself by the death and resurrection of your Son, and made with us an eternal covenant; grant that we may show in our lives what we profess with our lips, to your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(An Australian Prayer Book, 60)

Reading Scripture as Spiritual Practice

A month or so ago I decided to read through some of the Old Testament historical narrative books, given that it has been sometime since I have done so. I decided to start with Ruth and read it a chapter a day several times before moving to 1 Samuel. One of my spiritual practices is to read a portion of scripture and then journal one page of reflections about it. For the last couple of years my attention has been given largely to Psalms and James, with other bits and pieces of scripture thrown in. With James I might focus on a single verse for days at a time, though I do prefer to work with larger portions of text. At present I am reading a chapter of the Minor Prophets and a chapter of 1 Samuel most days.

Alongside my reading of the biblical text, I like to also use a commentary or two. Typically, I read a passage for a day or several days, journaling as I go. And then I pick up the commentaries to see what they say. I find that I am often on a good track in my own deliberations. I find often that I learn new things about the text that enriches my reading and deliberations. I sometimes find I disagree with the commentators’ interpretations, or have gone in different directions in my own interpretation. Using several commentaries helps protect against singular views, bringing different perspectives into dialogue that mutually inform and condition the various readings.

My interpretations are no doubt idiosyncratic, though I do endeavour to practise good exegesis. I try to hear what the biblical authors were saying in their own context. I try to read with some degree of historical and literary expertise, though my historical knowledge is better for New Testament reading than Old Testament. The commentaries are indispensable for this kind of background work which often so illuminates the text.

Of course, I bring myself to the text as well. This is one of the benefits of dwelling with the same text for days at a time. After a few days of meditating on a passage, and having done initial exegetical work, all kinds of life-observations and questions that concern my present circumstances begin to surface. More importantly, I think, implications and applications, and theological, ethical and pastoral connections begin to show up and impress themselves upon me. The biblical passage starts to work its way into my consciousness and do its work. Sometimes this can be deeply instructive, or comforting, or challenging, or enlivening. The Spirit speaks through the Word, mostly unobtrusively, and so quietly—though sometimes not so quietly—shapes and reshapes my thoughts and imagination, my commitments and priorities, my intentions and behaviours. Often, I am led to prayer.

Reading the biblical text slowly, exegetically, reflectively helps me get past the “professional hazard” of reading just for information, or to tick off another occasion of legalistic accomplishment, or for sermon preparation. It also helps me get past a “merely exegetical” reading where I am slicing and dicing, examining and parsing, acting as though I am the master of the text, and it is simply a thing to be studied and understood, as though at a remove from my life. Journaling my understanding, insights, and responses slows me down further, helps me internalise the text, and draws forth thoughts and insights that I might otherwise have missed. I am often struck by what I write—not because what I write is a stroke of genius, but rather that things emerge that I did not anticipate. I usually start with ideas already known or anticipated, but as I write insights dawn, wisdom comes. Engaging the commentaries expands this process, slowing it further, introduces dialogue and further reflection leading to additional insight and creativity. Marinading in the text like this evokes a stillness and an openness to the breath of the Spirit, and to prayer. “Text” becomes Scripture. It becomes more of a “living word” that accompanies me through the day. It speaks.

I love this little cluster of spiritual practices that has so shaped and continues to shape, my life. It is a fountain of life and an opening of wisdom for me. I am not sure how it started, but I recall filling exercise books with my studies and reflections as a young Christian. Now I use a handsome leather bound journal because I want to keep the records of these encounters and reflections. I still only write a page a day – maybe 300 words, maybe 400. It is the only form of journaling that has ever “worked” for me.

Is there time enough simply to meditate my way through the entirety of Scripture like this? I don’t know, but I hope to try! This little set of practices, along with the practice of regular corporate worship, are those practices which have sustained my spiritual life over the years. I cannot do without either of them, and when one or the other slips, so too does my spiritual vitality.

A passage in Proverbs helps capture the vitality of the Word for me. The passage focuses on parental instruction, though in the book the “my son” texts seem to convey a divine as well as a human exhortation.

My son [my daughter], keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching. Bind them on your heart always, tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life… (Proverbs 6:20-23).

A Prayer of Confession

I came across this prayer in Ray Anderson’s On Being Human. Then I prayed it as part of the congregation at Evensong in Adelaide last Sunday. It is the last line of the first stanza that grabs me: and there is no health in us. The prayer is from the Book of Common Prayer (1928), “Morning Prayer.”

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father;          
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.          
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.    
We have offended against thy holy laws.        
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.

But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.          
Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults.      
Restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises
declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.         
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake
that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,          
To the glory of thy holy Name.           
Amen.

Doctrine as Life-Skill

In his excellent essay on “Providence” (in Kapic & McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology, 203-226) the late John Webster suggests that the classical doctrine of providence was not so much metaphysical speculation as practical theology,

Providing orientation and consolation to believers by instructing them in how to read the world as an ordered, not random, reality—ordered by divine love and directed by divine power for God’s glory and the creature’s good (207).

Thus the knowledge of providence is not theoretical or metaphysical knowledge, but

One of the skills required for and reinforced by living life in a certain direction. . . . Knowledge of providence can [console and direct] because it refers us to the objective realities of God’s antecedent purpose, present active care, and promises for the future (216).

When I read this I was intrigued by the idea of doctrine understood as a skill for Christian life and service. Those Christians equipped with a theological understanding of providence are prepared in some sense for living “in a certain direction,”—that is, toward God. The doctrine orients and consoles, provides direction and a framework for thinking about life’s blessings and difficulties, opportunities and threats. It provides assurance that life is fundamentally purposeful and in some way ordered, and so also encourages the believer to live purposefully and confidently in trust that the provident God sees, provides, directs and cares.

If this is true of the doctrine of providence, is it true of other doctrines also? Do they also provide certain “skills” for fruitful Christian living “in a certain direction”? Beth Felker Jones argues that this is the case in her Practicing Christian Doctrine in which she argues that theology and Christian life are bodily realities which press towards visibility in the world. Therefore the careful articulation of doctrine must issue in practice if it is to be faithful to its intent. Doctrines are not simply about intellectual development or “getting the faith right.” They are equipment for Christian life.

The corollary is also true: a Christian without doctrinal foundations may be considered “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Hebrews 5:13). We owe to ourselves and to our congregations to learn and teach good doctrine, and to reflect and deliberate on the significance and implications of these doctrines in the mundane affairs of daily life that we may become skilful with respect to Scripture, doctrine and life.

An Easter Vigil (Cont’d)

Let the dancing begin!

Let me continue my story of this vigil by telling how the time passed:

The first hour really was arriving, preparations (including learning some songs), and getting settled. Shortly after midnight we all (except mum) exited the building, and the lights were turned off. Outside a fire had been prepared and there was a short liturgy involving prayers and the lighting of the main candle, and then each of us with candles lit entered the darkened church, playing on and enacting the obvious symbolism of the gospels, especially John. The next two or three hours were given over to Scripture and worship. Nine readings in three sets of three were read, seven from the Old Testament, one from Paul, and one from Matthew’s gospels. Each reading was introduced with a short orientation and admonition, read, and then a song of worship was sung, the song itself echoing or extending the theme of the reading.

The readings included:

  1. Genesis 1 – Creation
  2. Genesis 22 – The Testing of Abraham
  3. Exodus 14 – The Crossing of the Red Sea
  4. Isaiah 54 – The Covenant Love of God
  5. Isaiah 55 – A Call to Repentance and Life
  6. Ezekiel 36 – A New Heart
  7. Romans 6 – Baptism
  8. Matthew 28 – Jesus’ Resurrection (the gospel, read by a priest)

There was obviously one other reading but I cannot remember it now. After the first set of three, participants were invited to “resonate.” This is to offer one’s own reflection on the readings, with a particular focus on how it is speaking to oneself. After the second set of three, children present had opportunity to ask their parents “tough questions” about faith. Some of the questions really were tough and put the parents on the spot! They answered well. The third set offered another opportunity to resonate.

Then one of the priests offered a short and encouraging homily. Two babies were baptised with the full liturgy of corporate prayer and response, the dipping (three times) of the naked babies in the font, including full submersion on the third dip, the anointing of the babies with oil, and their clothing in white, and the “splashing” of the whole congregation with the baptismal water in an act of baptismal renewal. There was evident joy in the congregation during this liturgy and bapism, including what appeared to me to be outbursts of spontaneous praise. It possibly was not spontaneous, but a practice cultivated in the community expressing their exuberance at “two new Christians tonight” as I heard one woman saying excitedly to another after it was all over.

Finally, the Eucharistic liturgy was enacted (sung, as was the gospel “reading”) by the priests, with communion in both kinds being offered to all in the congregation, sometimes several times (to drink “all of it”?). The kiss of peace with much mutual affection was given all round, and the celebration finished with the chairs all pushed back, and a kind of folk dancing with lots of movement, joy and laughter.

With mum

Early in the evening one of the younger women who has been a good friend to mum came up and said to her, “You are a hero!” I think she was referring to mum coming to stay all night to worship God, and wait on his Word. Another woman said to me, “You have the most beautiful mum.” Both women were right: I have the most beautiful mum, and she is somewhat of a hero. She has been walking faithfully with Christ for many years now, faithful in sometimes the most difficult of circumstances, faithful especially in her prayer, her consideration of others and her witness. It was mum who continually witnessed to and prayed for me, and her life and devotion continues to inspire.

After the dancing many would go on to have breakfast together as the light of Easter day broke. These, however, had been enlightened already. I took mum home, and then headed home myself, tired enough to miss the freeway exit! I missed church at my own church that day—which Monica tells me was a wonderful service.

But actually, I didn’t miss church at all.

An Easter Vigil


My mother has been a devout Roman Catholic all her life and raised me in the Church. Unfortunately, I have been a wayward son, leaving the Church for a different branch of Christianity, and migrating through several forms and denominations over the years.

My mother has had her own journey within the Church, the Roman Catholic Church being large and diverse enough to accommodate a variety of forms within its overall structures. In the early 70s she became an early participant in the Catholic charismatic movement. Later, she became more deeply involved in a covenantal community movement within the church although, on account of her family, she never actually joined the community. More recently, which means in the last decade or two, she has participated in the Neocatechumenal Way, or the “Neo-cats” as she sometimes calls them.

Each Easter Saturday for quite some time now, mum has attended an all-night vigil on Easter Saturday (after the foot washing on Holy Thursday, and Good Friday services!). We would arrive sometime on Easter Sunday for family get-togethers, and mum will have been up all night and still going, preparing the house and the food and welcoming us all in.

Mum is in her mid-eighties now, and though increasingly frail, still very much alert and sociable. But after a full day out with one of my brothers on Easter Saturday, she was tired and did not think she could attend the vigil; the logistics simply made it too difficult. I asked her if it would make a difference if I came along with her, stayed the night, and so, if she needed anything, I would be there to assist. She said she would have a rest and call me back. She called back within five minutes—no time to rest! I picked her up later that evening and we arrived at the vigil about 11pm as things were just about ready. Once mum was seated she didn’t get up for almost seven hours! (Getting up and down is pretty difficult.) Nevertheless, she loved every minute of it.

It was my first time at the vigil. So what was it about?

First, it was a combined celebration with, I think, four distinct catechumenal groups meeting: two from the Cathedral, one from Kelmscott (or were there two groups from Kelmscott?), plus the newest group, from St. Kieran’s in Tuart Hill, who also hosted the event. There were perhaps 60-80 people present, including a good number of children. It was very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, perhaps an indication of the strength of Catholicism in non-Western contexts, though there were also a good number of “typical Aussies” there (sorry for that; everyone there was likely an “Aussie.” I will have to find an expression that conveys accurately, those with an Australian heritage going back several generations!).

The evening seemed mostly led by laity, both men and women participating in readings, exhortations, and worship. A number of priests were present but their participation was quite limited apart from the formal aspects of the mass. It was clear that those present were very ordinary in terms of work, relationships, family, schooling, and financial responsibilities, dealing with the struggles and joys of life common to just about everyone. The youngest were infants, mum amongst those most elderly. There were not many teenagers, though I do know that a number of the young family groups became involved in the community when they were teenagers.

What set these otherwise quite ordinary people apart was their faith, their sheer devotion to Christ and to their Church. Also evident was a sense of genuine and at times quite exuberant joy, tempered but not constrained by the liturgical form the evening took. Also prominent is the love of the group which I have previously noted in the way the group cared for my mother after my father’s death, and the way in which they have long included her in their communal life, assisting that inclusion with very regular and practical support.

The Neocatechumenal Way emphasises liturgy, Scripture and community with a focus on Christian formation in the tradition of the catechumenate of the ancient church. Given that the Roman Catholic Church practises infant baptism, it is a largely a post-baptismal formation. They also emphasise worship and vibrant communal singing, for the evening was full of it. The worship style was a particular kind of folk music, based on guitar and percussion: not an electronic or electric instrument in sight. The simple rhythms made it easy for the kids to join in too, with each kid able to play a variety of percussion instruments during the night.

What I observed on Saturday evening-Sunday morning indicates the rich fruits of this formational activity, and suggests, to my mind, the crucial necessity of such formation in the increasingly hostile environment in which the church exists in the contemporary west. I could not help but be reminded of Stanley Hauerwas’s continual emphasis that the church must become of community of people capable of forming others in the practices that sustain a truly Christian existence and witness in a world torn and suffering and idolatrous.

A little anecdote captures something of the evening for me: during one section of the proceedings the children present were invited to pray (and many did), the community as a whole responding, “Lord, hear our prayer.” One little girl aged perhaps eight or nine, prayed for those present, for the babies who were baptised, and “for all those sick and suffering,” that they might be helped by God and by others. Already she was learning that to be a Christian is to pray, and to care, to be aware of the needs of others, and of the necessity of responding to their need.

So what did they do for over six hours? Stayed tuned!

Continued Tomorrow…