Defining an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise (ii)

Yesterday’s post asked what a spiritual exercise is. Today I continue unpacking Ignatius’ definitions to explore his intent for those undertaking the Exercises.

Ignatius gives the purpose of the Exercises: the overcoming of self and the (proper or ideal?) ordering of one’s life in relation to God. Expanded, this means that one undertakes the exercises to free oneself from ‘disordered attachments’ so that they may decide freely to dispose their life in accordance with what is good for the soul.

Ignatius presupposes that the self develops all manner of attachments which are detrimental to the spiritual life, although seemingly beneficial to the self. There appears to be a contrast between the ‘self’ and the ‘soul’ where the former identifies the person independent of their relation with God, while the latter speaks, as already noted, of the person in light of their relation with God. Ignatius presupposes that what is good for the self may not be good for the soul. What is good for the soul, however, will (ultimately) benefit the whole person. That Ignatius argues on Christian grounds is evident. He is presupposing a Christian understanding of life and after-life, of sin and salvation, etc., a worldview taken for granted in sixteenth century Christian Europe. What is good for the soul may in fact not appear to be beneficial for the self but makes sense in the light of eternity.

The word ‘attachments’ here is one of the “key terms in the psychological vocabulary of the Spiritual Exercises” referring to the feelings, judgements, and emotional structures and responses of the heart. Some attachments are positive while others are ‘disordered,’ perhaps opposed to reason and good judgement. These can operate in many ways and at many levels within the self, even to the point of altering perceptions of reality.[1] It likely is equivalent to what Jonathon Edwards and others referred to as the ‘affections.’ One’s attachments are disordered to the degree that they limit or hinder one from seeking and finding the divine will. Any commitment or judgement that constrains one’s response to God would, I imagine, be considered by Ignatius as ‘disordered,’ that is, as an attachment that is wrongly related to God and his will, and which functions therefore against the welfare of the whole person seen in the light of eternity.

Ignatius seeks an ordering of one’s life in freedom from disordered attachments. It should be noted that some attachments might preclude a decision to seek and find the divine will. The self is bound by its attachments in ways which turn or distract the person from relationship with God. It is also possible, however, that one might seek the divine will under the impulse of disordered attachments, by coercion for instance, or to find acceptance with one’s peers. Ignatius indicates that a true decision for God and his will can only be made in freedom.

Anyone undertaking the Spiritual Exercises or any form of spiritual discipline has already made a ‘decision for God and his will’ in some sense. Ignatius is obviously aiming at a deeper, whole-of-life, and transformational decision. He is aiming at the ‘overcoming of the self’ in its alienation from and resistance to God in favour of an existential deposition of the self into an entirely committed form of life—an existence wholly ordered toward God.

Then Jesus said to them all, “If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will save it”

(Luke 9:23-24).

[1]  Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean, ed. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics ed. (London: Penguin, 1996; reprint, 2004), xv.

Defining an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise (i)

In the opening paragraph of his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius provides a statement of purpose:

Spiritual exercises having as their purpose the overcoming of self and the ordering of one’s life on the basis of a decision made in freedom from any ill-ordered attachment [paragraph 21].[1]

In the first of his Annotations—directions given to those giving and receiving the Exercises—he writes:

The term ‘spiritual exercises’ denotes every way of examining one’s conscience, of meditating, contemplating, praying vocally and mentally, and other spiritual activities, as will be said later. For just as strolling, walking and running are exercises for the body, so ‘spiritual exercises’ is the name given to every way of preparing and disposing one’s soul to rid herself of all disordered attachments, so that once rid of them one might seek and find the divine will in regard to the disposition of one’s life for the good of the soul [paragraph 1].[2]

These two definitional statements provide an entrée into Ignatius’ intent with respect to the Spiritual Exercises. In today’s post we use these statements to understand what a spiritual exercise is. Tomorrow I will unpack the statements a little more to understand their purpose.

First, Ignatius tells us what a spiritual exercise is: any form of prayer undertaken for the specific purpose of the development, health, and strength of the ‘soul,’ analogous to physical exercises undertaken for the health and strength of the body. Although this is not a novel thought, it is useful. Paul the Apostle uses similar language in 1 Timothy 4:8 to affirm the superior value of spiritual endeavour: “For bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it hold promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

The familiar image of physical exercise applied to the spiritual life carries notions of regularity and consistency, focus on particular developmental activities, the nurture of health through practice, the pursuit of greater excellence, consistent performance, and other similar ideals. This exercise is undertaken for the good of the ‘soul,’ which is probably best understood here as a reference to the whole of one’s life and existence viewed from the perspective of one’s relationship to God. It is better to avoid the idea as a reference to some constituent aspect of the human person, some faculty or part of the person, distinct from their other ‘parts.’

These spiritual exercises primarily are forms of prayer, though other activities are also in view. One might think of such things later identified commonly as spiritual disciplines, including activities of service, or solitude or fasting or confession and so on. In this definition Ignatius identifies the examination of conscience, prayer, meditation, and contemplation. During his Exercises Ignatius will develop some of these at length.

[1] Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean, ed. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics ed. (London: Penguin, 1996; reprint, 2004), 289.

[2] Ibid., 283.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:18

James 3:18
And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (NASB).

And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace (NRSV).

There are several connections between this verse and the one that precedes it, most notably the references to peace and to fruit. The wisdom from above is ‘full of mercy and good fruits,’ while this verse speaks of the ‘fruit (harvest) of righteousness.’ More prominent is the reference to peace (eirēnē; εἰρήνῃ) which echoes—and amplifies—the second of wisdom’s characteristics. James commenced his reflections on wisdom with the question posed in verse thirteen, Who is wise and understanding among you? He concludes with a short aphorism that answers the question: those who make peace. This prominent characteristic stands in contrast to the disorder and evil that arises because of selfish ambition and jealousy (v. 16).

The ‘harvest of righteousness’ (karpos de tēs dikaiosunēs; kαρπὸς δὲ τῆς δικαιοσύνης) is an image used in both the Old and the New Testaments to speak of the blessings that attend the life of the righteous. It may be James has Isaiah 32:15-20 in mind. When ‘the Spirit is poured upon us from high,

The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. My people will abide in peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places’ (vv. 17-18).

While James does not mention the Spirit in this section, many commentators suggest that his references to the wisdom from above function in a manner similar to the work of the Spirit. The text in Isaiah brings together references to the Spirit ‘from above,’ fruitfulness, righteousness, peace, and sowing (cf. Isaiah 48:17-18; Proverbs 11:30; Amos 6:12). In Philippians 1 Paul prays that the church’s love might so abound with knowledge and discernment, that they would approve what is excellent, and so be ‘filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God’ (vv. 9-11). Both the Isaianic and the Philippians texts refer to a corporate blessing upon the community of God’s people in which they are both secure and fruitful.

Yet James’ text also differs from that in Isaiah. Whereas Isaiah speaks of peace as the fruit of righteousness, James speaks of the fruits of righteousness as ‘sown in peace’ (en eirēnē speiretai; ἐν εἰρήνῃ σπείρεται). Here the work of peace, itself a fruit of wisdom, is prior to the harvest of righteousness, and a condition for its growth. Further, this harvest is sown by or for those who make peace (tois poiousin eirēnēn; τοῖς ποιοῦσιν εἰρήνην). Almost all English Bible versions translate the preposition by, while many or perhaps even most commentators prefer to translate it for (Vlachos, 126). The former alternative, a rare construction in the Greek New Testament, lays the emphasis on the agency of the those doing the work of making peace. The latter alternative, more common in Greek, emphasises the blessings gained or to be enjoyed by those who make peace. To me, the context seems to favour the first, more difficult alternative. In contrast to the kind of ambitious leadership that fosters division, jealousy, and disorder, those who make peace create the environmental conditions in which righteousness can flourish. Or to state the matter differently: the fruits of righteousness cannot be nurtured except by those who serve in a righteous manner, that is, peaceably, and in accordance with the wisdom which is from above.

It will be noted that James’ words here echo Jesus’ seventh beatitude: Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God (Matthew 5: 9). Evidently, they shall be called children of God because their work of peacemaking makes them like God. They are doing the work of God, bearing the likeness and character of God, and exhibiting and carrying forth the priorities of God. The activity of making peace makes them like the Son of God who in and through ‘the blood of his cross’ was reconciling all things to God and ‘making peace’ (Colossians 1:20). The kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace (Romans 14:17). Therefore, all Christians are to ‘pursue what makes for peace’ (Romans 14:19), and indeed, ‘as much as it depends on [them], live peaceably with all’ (Romans 12:18). All this pertains because God himself is not the author of confusion but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33). Again, the coming of Christ intended ‘peace on earth among those with whom he is pleased’ (Luke 2:14),

because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79 ESV).

In a world filled with jostling, discord, violence, and war, God desires communities of peace, reconciliation, wholeness, and welfare. The task of the wise and spiritual leader, therefore, includes this task of nurturing communities of peace by working peacefully and unselfishly, seeking concord, practising humility and all the virtues enumerated in verse seventeen.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:17

James 3:17
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

In this verse James sets the ‘wisdom from above’ (hē de anōthen sophia; ἡ δὲ ἄνωθεν σοφία) in stark contrast with that wisdom which is ‘earthly, unspiritual, and demonic’ (v.15). The ‘from above’ echoes 1:17, and shows that this wisdom is one of the good gifts given by the father of lights. In fact, the verse picks up many themes already mentioned in the letter, showing that the whole of James’ letter is a sample of that ‘wisdom which is from above.’ If true religion is ‘pure’ (1:27) and gentle (3:13), so also is wisdom. Just as mercy ‘triumphs over judgement,’ so this wisdom will be merciful in its judgements. It is unwavering (1:6-8) or impartial and without hypocrisy (chapter 2).

I noted in my comments on verse 13 what wisdom is: “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). In this verse James will describe what wisdom does, or perhaps better, the effects true wisdom produces in the life of the one who embraces it (Moo, 135).

James speaks of wisdom not in terms of speculative insight into the mysteries of the world or the divine, nor pragmatic wisdom for success in life, but in terms of virtue. The virtues listed include some which are relational in nature (peaceable, gentle, and reasonable) and others which refer to the character or works of the agent (pure, merciful, unwavering, without hypocrisy, and full of good works). Together they provide a perspective into what characterises a wise and virtuous life.

The first and primary characteristic of wisdom is its purity (prōton men hagnē estin; πρῶτον μὲν ἁγνή ἐστιν), a term which for Moo connotes moral blamelessness (135), and for Davids, the unmixed motives of the single-hearted person who serves only God (154). Moo interprets the word in accordance with its use in the New Testament generally, where it refers to the inner purity and moral excellence appropriate for God and for his people. It is noteworthy that the Stoics also referred to the wise as the agnoi (BDAG, 11-12). Nevertheless, in view of the immediate context in which James challenges those who only appear spiritual but who in fact serve with impure motives, and in view of the reference to the ‘double-minded’ in 4:8, it seems better to follow Davids here, though without dismissing Moo’s insight that purity is also a key concern for James (cf. 1:27). That James refers to purity first and subsequently develops his list with a then (epeita; ἔπειτα῎), not only suggests that purity is the first in a series, but also the head waters from which the rest of the virtues flow (see Vlachos, 125).

The next three virtues listed by James (peaceable, gentle, willing to yield) all begin with an e sound, while the final two terms (without partiality and without hypocrisy) all begin with an a sound. James is presenting an alliterative and rhythmic list probably with the intent of rendering it memorable.

The first, ‘peaceable’ (eirēnikē; εἰρηνική) simply means peace-loving and is set in contrast to the disorder and contention spoken of in verse 16 (see NIDNTT, 2:780). It is a characteristic ‘conducive to harmonious and salutary relationship’ (Danker, Bibleworks). ‘Gentle’ translates epieikēs (ἐπιεικής) which BDAG gives a range of possible meanings: yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant (292; also Vlachos, 125 who suggests that in essence it denotes noncombativeness). The final term is eupeithēs (εὐπειθής), translated in the NRSV as ‘willing to yield’ or as ‘open to reason’ in the ESV, perhaps indicating a readiness to listen or to engage in dialogue, though see BDAG (324) where it is rendered obedient or compliant. Wisdom is peaceable because it is gentle and open to reason (Moo, 136). James certainly is not referring to contexts where false teaching is in play, or to a person without convictions, but the character of the wise and understanding person of verse 13 whose life displays this ‘meekness of wisdom.’

The second set of virtues mercy and good fruits (eleous kai karpōn agathōn; ἐλέους καὶ καρπῶν ἀγαθῶν) are coupled together with the word mestē (μεστὴ), ‘full of.’ If the uncontrolled tongue is ‘full of’ deadly poison (v. 8), wisdom is ‘full of’ mercy and good fruits. James has already spoken of mercy as that practical love which shows itself in action, in ‘works’ (2:8-13, 14-26). He uses the word fruit here in place of works perhaps to indicate the organic effect of wisdom, though the use of erga (works) in verse 13 clearly shows that the two terms are functionally equivalent.

A final couplet completes the list: ‘without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy’ (adiakritos, anupokritos; ἀδιάκριτος, ἀνυπόκριτος). These terms also clearly refer to the material dealt with in the second chapter: those who would be genuinely spiritual leaders cannot fall into the failures and sins addressed there. Adiakritos, however, might also be translated ‘unwavering,’ and so refer to the unstable person of 1:6-8. Both terms refuse any form of duplicity in one’s own character and in one’s relations with others.

The overall impact of James’ list is that the wisdom which is from above is characterised by relational virtues and practices that build community, foster relationships, make space for others with forbearance and gentleness, and is open to listen, reason, and dialogue. This wisdom seeks to benefit others at the expense of self, and as such is the equivalent of the love that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. Many commentators note that what James attributes to wisdom in this passage functions as the Spirit does in Paul’s writing (e.g. Davids, 154; Moo, 135). Earthly, natural, and demonic wisdom tears at the fabric of community, abusing relations and chooses rather to serve self. In contrast, the wisdom which is from above is an active wisdom, responding to the needs of others in mercy and generous service, without partiality, prejudice, or discrimination, and without pretence or insincerity. This is a wisdom that conforms the wise and understanding person to the life and priorities of the one God, and of the kingdom which is above. The wise person is meek and peaceable, good and generous, exhibiting the gracious character of the God from whom this wisdom comes, all the while exhibiting also the holiness and purity that befits his children.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:16

James 3:16
For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

In this highly compressed saying James reiterates and summarises the point he has made in verses 14-15 where he warned his listeners that jealousy and envy, selfish ambition and rivalry are a form of wisdom ‘from below’—‘earthly, natural, and demonic.’ The Greek text has no verbs and so heightens the emphasis on place: ‘for where (hopou gar; ὅπου γαρ) jealousy and selfish ambition, there (ekei; ἐκει) disorder and every evil thing’ (Vlachos, 124). There is a sense of inevitability in the admonition, a warning of an unbroken link between cause and effect. Wherever this kind of ‘wisdom’ is operative there will also be these effects which are destructive to the life of the community, and a contradiction of its essential nature.

The first of the effects is disorder (akatastasia; ἀκαταστασία), also translated in some versions as ‘confusion’ (NKJV) or ‘disharmony’ (NJB). The term is used in an adjectival form (akatastatos; ἀκατάστατoσ) in 1:8 and 3:8 to describe the instability of the double-minded man, and the restlessness of the untamed tongue. In 1 Corinthians 14:33 Paul uses it to argue that God is not the author of confusion (akatastasias; ἀκαταστασίας) but of peace, and in his gospel Luke uses it with reference to ‘tumults’ (Luke 21:9). Instead of a community life that is peaceable and well-ordered, there may be instead a fracturing of harmony with outbreaks of disturbances and dissension.

A second result of jealousy and selfish-ambition is ‘every evil thing’ (pan phaulon pragma; πᾶν φαῦλον πρᾶγμα), or perhaps, every evil practice (ESV, NIV). All manner of evil accompanies the outbreak of disorder in the community.

So, too, envy is particularly deadly. James, in these verses, may be influenced by Wisdom 2:24: ‘It was the devil’s envy that brought death into the world, as those who are his partners will discover’ (NJB). So, too, Matthew notes that ‘Pilate knew it was out of jealousy’ that the chief priests and elders of the people had handed Jesus over (Matthew 27:18). The final command of the Decalogue acts to counter the problem of envy. If Paul finds in the love of money the root of all evil, James sees it more fundamentally as the fruit of envy. The two concepts are not far removed from each other, and while James’ emphasis appears to be on would-be teachers and leaders in the community, their motivation is often the acquisition of status and the financial rewards that accompany such elevation.

Lockdown and Location

Image by Queven from Pixabay

Over the last year, we in Perth have looked on with some degree of horror at the suffering experienced by so many in different parts of the world, and even Australia, as a result of COVID-19. For most of us here in Perth, we have been only slightly inconvenienced.

Then this morning, after ten months of an almost COVID-free life, we find ourselves in a five-day hard lockdown. Things can change overnight!

Of course, we hope that the lock down will only go for five days, but much will depend on the results of testing and contact tracing over the next few days. But whatever happens, we are not alone, we are never abandoned, we are always accepted, and we are ever cared for by God. That’s part of the grace of being a Christian.

In Philippians 4:1-9 we are reminded that we are deeply loved and rejoiced over. Just as Paul loved and longed for his friends at Philippi, so God loves and rejoices over each of his children. We are loved with a love that is eternal, unconquerable, and deeply personal; we are loved.

Knowing that we are so loved by God is wonderfully liberating. Being so loved, we don’t have to expend endless energy seeking affirmation and validation or employ endless strategies of self-promotion and self-protection. Being so loved, our hearts can be liberated to trust and to serve. Being so loved we can, as Paul exhorts, stand firm in the Lord, agree in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord, and be at peace in the Lord.

The people of Western Australia have had a sharp reminder that we live in uncertain times. This is true. But while our times and circumstances are uncertain, God’s steadfast love is never uncertain, nor his faithfulness, nor his power. Whenever we are troubled or anxious, whenever we are challenged by circumstances beyond our control, we can turn with prayer and thanksgiving to the God who loves us and cares for us, and promises to be with us on this journey of life.

And nor is his love limited merely to us, for his love embraces the whole of creation, humanity, and history. And so with hearts liberated by love we can turn to God not only with our own concerns and anxieties, but also on behalf of those around us.

Paul is encouraging his friends—and us—to see, understand, and live our whole lives in the Lord. Certainly we live in the world and share all of its vicissitudes, joys and sufferings, but our citizenship is in heaven (3:20), our identity in Christ. We live in the world in accordance with the grace given us in Christ. As Jesus also said: “…in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

And so, wherever you are, and whatever your circumstances:

May the peace of God that passes all understanding
guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,
and the God of peace be with you.

Photo Credit: https://www.vperemen.com 

This Time Last Year

This time last year I spent five weeks in Germany, four in Dresden taking a language course at the Goethe Institut. On the weekends we tried to get out a little to see something of the country. This weekend we went to the sächsische Schweiz – the Saxon Switzerland, a national park on the Elbe River, about 30 kilometres from Dresden and close to the Czech border. I am sitting next to Maylis from Geneva who was not in our class, but in a higher class. Geneva is in the French-speaking section of Switzerland and Maylis was improving her German to improve her employment opportunities.

Next to Maylis is Tony from Saskatchewan in Canada. Tony was in my class, learning German as a hobby and perhaps reclaiming his roots since he has German forebears. Next to Tony was Donald, a very typical older New Yorker, bold, self-sufficient, a little crusty, and really quite remarkable, flying to another country to learn a new language at 82 years of age. He was in a beginner’s class, and so not in our class. Maybe I can still be travelling and learning at that age!

The next two women were also in my class. Anna, from Japan, was born in Germany because her parents lived and worked there when they were young. Now she has left her homeland to do the same. She was at the Institut for three months and then planned to move to München to find work. And next to Anna is Maria, originally from Spain but now working in a German-speaking area of Switzerland.

A couple of days after this Tony and Maria ended their course while Anna and I stayed on. Others in the class also left and it shrank from seven or eight members to three (there was another young man from Columbia, a cheeky fun-loving gay dude who had moved to Germany for work and the experience). I was left as the old bloke in the class…

This was a much better day than the previous weekend when we visited the historic town of Meissen, a pretty town a little down the Elbe from Dresden. That had been a miserable day, cold, rainy, pure east German autumn! 

We had a beautiful Autumn day for hiking in the rather spectacular hills here. The first photo is from one of the lookouts, looking up the Elbe toward the Czech border. The second is the bridge and view in the unusual hill formations that make this region famous.

It is really worth a visit if you are ever in central Europe. I would like to go again!

Just Arrived: Beyond Four Walls

Look what arrived in the mail this afternoon!

Good friend and partner in crime, Peter Elliott and I have been working on this for quite some time now, with a big push in the second half of last year, and then a final push just a few weeks ago. Wonderful to see it now in print.

Beyond Four Walls was the title of a Conference held at Vose Seminary several years ago; this is a peer-reviewed selection of the many papers presented at the Conference. The book has fifteen chapters including three by Scot McKnight, and other chapters by theologians and ministers from around Australia and New Zealand. I will blog excerpts and summaries of some of the chapters over the next few weeks and months. There is some great stuff in this book!

My own chapter is a theological interpretation of the Book of Jonah entitled “Jonah’s Wail: The Death and Resurrection of a Recalcitrant Church.” When I told a friend who is an Old Testament scholar the title of my essay, he just groaned and said, “Don’t!”

But I did!

Beyond Four Walls: Explorations in Being the Church is published by Wipf & Stock as part of the Australian College of Theology Monograph Series. We are indebted to the ACT’s support of this project, and especially the diligent and enthusiastic help of Megan Powell du Toit.

Vose Seminary will host a book launch for this volume, probably in the early evening of October 21, COVID permitting. I will advertise the book launch once details are finalised. Vose will place an order for the volumes shortly, if you would like a hard copy, or come visit us at the launch!

Listening to Books

Recently I have listened to three very interesting and enjoyable books. The first was Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology by Gary Dorrien. This is a large and somewhat sprawling book tracing the development of modern philosophical theology from Kant through Tillich, concerned mainly with the German idealists, but including other theologians especially from the UK, and of course, the melancholy Dane. Dorrien tells the story of this theology as though it was and remains the only game in town. Evidently, this is not correct, and one need not agree with his liberal theological vision to appreciate his achievement in this book.

The value of the book is the enthusiasm with which Dorrien tells his story, the detail he provides of their affairs and thought, peccadilloes and motivations; the rich biographical excursions illuminate the theologian’s thought. Dorrien traces the themes that characterise their work, and shows its development within this tradition of modern theology, explores the work of the well-known figures such as Kant and Schleiermacher, and less well known but still significant figures such as Strauss or Schelling or Temple. What I appreciated most about the book as I listened was Dorrien’s evident sympathy for his chosen topic and his heroes.  This is important, for even if in the end one does not agree with the substance of his story–that the idealist tradition is the substance and future of Christian theology–one must still understand these men on their own terms and in accordance with the convictions that animated their work. Anyone seeking an understanding of modern theology will benefit from this book.

The second book is Charles Curran’s The Development of Moral Theology: Five Strands, though it would more accurately be titled, the development of Roman Catholic moral theology. Like Dorrien, Curran takes an historical approach to his topic. His five strands in the development of moral theology are, in order, sin, reconciliation, and the penitential manuals; the teaching of Thomas Aquinas and his followers; natural law; the papal teaching office, especially its development in the twentieth-century; and Vatican II.

Curran is a distinguished and competent tour guide, pointing out the nuances, developments, and distinctions in this tradition. I found his discussion of natural law to be very interesting, especially his demonstration that there is no monolithic or consistent view of natural law in the history of moral theology, and his discussion of the modern prominence of the papal teaching office. Curran belongs to that group within Roman Catholicism that wants to be faithful to the Catholic tradition but not in a slavish sense. He argues that modern Catholic moral theology has an authority problem due to inherent tensions arising in the interaction of these various strands. He demonstrates and illustrates this problem with discussion of particular issues such as Roman Catholic teaching on contraception. Another good book that will repay careful consideration.

Finally, I listened to Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. The book is journalistic and sociological rather than theological,  though Burton does have a doctorate in theology from Oxford. This is a fascinating and for me, a quite disquieting book. Its central claim is that the early twenty-first century in the West is not a godless world as commonly claimed; rather our culture is in the midst of a massive development of spirituality in which traditional religion is not so much rejected as remixed in accordance with personal, idiosyncratic, and bespoke spiritual preferences.

Burton speaks of such things as fandom, witchcraft and wellness, social justice activism, alt-right atavism, and other prominent pursuits as ‘new religious movements.’ She argues that these movements provide a sense of community and belonging, rituals and practices, and in so doing provide a sense of identity and metaphysical meaning to make sense of one’s life and purpose. They function in similar ways that religion has functioned in previous generations. Burton writes as a millennial of millennials, at times perhaps overstating her case but also providing detailed descriptive portrayals of how these spiritualities are expressed in everyday lives.

Several things are highlighted and apparent in this telling: the spiritualities discussed are primarily amongst the young and the urban; I note the centrality of the internet and social media in these burgeoning movements; the similar centrality of marketing and a capitalist ethos that permeates, supports, and facilitates (exploits?) the expressions of these spiritualities; sex and sexuality are prominent in many of the spiritual expressions; and there is an ironic disparity between the idea of a bespoke religious experience or expression, and the fact that it is marketed to thousands if not millions of adherents.

I found the book very confronting. I cannot help but wonder at the seeming irrelevance of the church with respect to these movements. I am dismayed that failures in the church have contributed to the disconnect that this generation has with traditional – or even progressive – Christianity. But I also suspect that this is not merely a result of Christian failures, but also of the aggressively anti-Christian philosophy that has permeated our cultural institutions in the second half of the twentieth-century up to the present.

A final central thesis Burton argues is that these new religious movements are not merely ‘bespoke’ but are grounded in an intuitionalism that prioritises individual feeling and experience. At the heart of these movements is the individual and their own centrality. I suspect that this age-old temptation will not end well for most of the participants in these movements, or for the society as a whole. Some will grow out of what appears to be an adolescent fixation, though many may retain the adolescent fantasies for the whole of their life. Some will profit from the movements. Others will remain devotees. But many, too, will find themselves empty and frustrated at unfulfilled promises.

My hope is that the church will resist the siren call to adapt themselves to these spiritualities in hope of winning some of the adherents. My hope is that the church will resist the pull of intuitionalism and will continue to proclaim loudly and clearly the gospel of Jesus Christ as the true hope of humanity, and the true answer to their spiritual hunger because Jesus Christ is himself the Truth. And I hope, too, that churches might be and become vibrant spiritual communities of such love, holiness, and kindness that they become beacons of life, welcome, and hope for those who find themselves washed up on the shores of a soulless, commercialised or politicised spirituality that has promised the world and delivered – not much.

A Sermon on Sunday – John 5:1-20

At our church we have been reflecting on the seven signs of Jesus in the gospel of John. We are now up to sign number three, the healing of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (see John 5:1-20). I was given the task of introducing the sign by teaching, providing some background, giving an overview or account of the main features of the passage, and so on. Subsequent messages will then reflect on the sign from different perspectives such as its meaning or use with respect to prayer, discipleship, relationships, or mission.

As I prepared for the message I was confronted by the fact that I did not really ‘get’ the passage; it seemed weird to me. Of course I have read it many times in the past, and even preached on it, I think. But coming to it now, I found it disruptive, unusual, challenging.

And so did many in the congregation. We had a brief Q&A session after the message, and the folk raised questions about my interpretation of the passage. One person found themselves fuming while I preached because it was evident I was wrong! It was a great time of discussion and continued reflection. I love it that the Scriptures can still speak to us freshly, and that we as the church can discuss and debate our understanding, and come to a deeper apprehension of what God is saying to us through his Word. I am reminded of a saying attributed to John Robinson, one of the Pilgrim pastors, to the effect that “God has still more light and truth to break forth for us from his Word.”

And something else happened while I was preaching this message: unexpected humour. I had not planned on some of the things I said; it just happened. And in the dynamic between preacher and congregation something awoke and we were carried along together.

There’s a fine line to be observed here. I think that if I’d tried to be amusing it would have fallen flat. That was not part of my intent. I don’t mind humour, and in fact, can often appreciate it. Nevertheless, the intent of the preacher should never be to draw attention to themselves but to proclaim Jesus Christ.

On the other hand I was glad that the message went the way it did. I think it helped make the story come alive, to embed it more deeply into memory, to highlight something about it unfamiliar to those who have heard it all before.

Preaching is hard work, a never-ending challenge, and my hope is always to communicate faithfully the message I hear in the passage I am studying. That people receive it as God’s Word is not something in any preacher’s power, but something for which we can only pray. But it is fun, it is rewarding, when we sense the Spirit speaking his Word again, here and now in our time and place.

If you are interested, you can listen to the message here.