Tuesday, February 24, 2009

frosted leaves on winter morn

Published on the front cover of Portico 2009 - the Regent College Student Association's annual Offering of the Arts publication.

Friday, February 20, 2009

COMPS5: slow down and listen

[Read the intro to my "COMPS" project+give me your thoughts and questions...]

I have been told, that Regent College’s late Prof. Klaus Bockmuehl, was a very systematic and reserved Lutheran and ethicist, who in Listening to the God who Speaks makes a somewhat charismatic argument for walking in-step with the Spirit by listening for the God who speaks today - Klaus was trying to argue against an over-rationalised faith.

Bockmuehl traces how God speaks and how people listen through the Law and the Prophets, the Psalms, John’s Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, the apostolic letters as well as luminaries in church history. It is clear that God spoke and people listened throughout the bible, but does God speak to us today? Or is the closed biblical canon and the audible voice of God incarnate the final word?

Central to the book’s objectives, Bockmuehl addresses the Protestant reformers influence in these questions that have shaped much of the Protestant church today. Bockmuehl situates part of Luther’s reformation angst at several groups of Anabaptists who claimed to hear the voice of God. Thomas Müntzer, a so-called “heavenly prophet”, claimed to hear directly from God daily. Luther objected to Müntzer’s refusal to decipher these words from God in fellowship and to Müntzer’s preference for his prophetic ear over the scriptures, as Müntzer attitude was, “What Bible? One must withdraw into a corner and speak with God” (125). In reclaiming the Holy Scriptures for the people, Bockmuehl sees Luther’s conclusion as God speaking to his people today externally through the scriptures and internally through the Holy Spirit. However, Luther’s position also stated that “the external means precede the internal, so no one receives faith or the Spirit without - only through – the Word written and proclaimed” (126). Thus the protestant churches emphasis on the preaching of the word has obscured the possibility of God speaking to his people by his Spirit first.

Facing similar battles with the “spiritualist Anabaptists,” Bockmuehl accounts for John Calvin’s similar position on the way God reveals himself to his people as Luther. Calvin rightly sees the problematic nature of people receiving individual words from God that result in church fracturing and even anarchy. Calvin even sees a danger in personal bible study for the conclusions that may be reached. Thus, Bockmuehl summarizes Calvin’s position and influence as:
“Scripture and its official exposition are the sole instruments of the Holy Spirit, and God does not speak immediately to the individual. Judgments of this kind influence the attitude and theology of Protestant churches to the present day, long after original situations and reasons for Calvin’s concerns have been forgotten." (130)
Bockmuehl provides a way forward from the reformers over-reaction against their contemporaries:

"individual insight must always be concordant with Scripture... The Spirit always points back to Scripture. Indeed, true prophecy is the personal application of the biblical word in a new situation. Otherwise, all 'guidance,' 'prophecy,' or 'vocation' can be criticized as an illusion. When we test our insights against Scripture, however, we can live with confidence, experiencing God and his blessings." (150)
Bockmuehl’s concern is that we make ourselves available to hear God’s voice in order to build God’s Kingdom as God would have us build it:
“To act out of receiving, to be a people of prayer - that, and not intellectual brilliance - will build God's Kingdom. We can nevertheless all have our own part in this work of building God's Kingdom, because, in listening, we receive God's creativity, which knows no limits of natural talent. Such creativity is attained through human availability to God, which is the true meaning of sanctification." (152)
Out of this concern Bockmuehl warns against two typical Christian tendencies: that of activism – us doing God’s work without consulting God about the work he would have us do; and passivism, not hearing God’s call and retreating from doing anything in this world.
I asked myself several times, why am I reading Listening to the God who Speaks for my comprehensive exams? The answer kept becoming apparent… as I grapple with what the mission of God is in this world, and how the church and work, as well as all human spheres of activity contribute to that, much humility and patience is needed to first seek to understand what God is doing in the world - we must silence ourselves in prayer, listen and read the scriptures, and then when we hear and when we see what God is doing, we need to go and be part of it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

COMPS4: what does God call us to do?

In his study of “vocation” or “calling,” Douglas J. Schuurman concludes, “all of life’s relational spheres – paid work included – are religiously meaningful as places for service to God and neighbour” (47). Schuurman reaches this conclusion by analysing the two types of call presented in the scriptures, a call to: (1) become a member of the people of God, the “general” or “spiritual” calling, which is more prevalent that; (2) particular callings within church and society, the “external” or “particular” calling.

The call to become a member of the people of God is not in dispute (Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Cor 1:26-29). But, it is important for Christians to understand – we are primarily called to be God’s people and live out our lives, in all spheres, as God’s people would, essentially, but not simply by obeying the two great commandments. The calling to a particular role within a church isn’t in dispute either (Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:14-20).

The existence of a particular in society call however comes under fire from respected writers like Jacques Ellul and Stanley Hauerwas who “argue that protestant vocation is unbiblical and that it wrongly confers religious meaning upon secular life. They say that the biblical idea of calling confers religious meaning on church-related roles and activities alone” (xii). Schuurman argues that secular callings do have religious significance, by arguing for, firstly, the extrapolation of the callings that Paul urges the Corinthians to stay in after they became Christians beyond uncircumcised or slave (1 Cor 7:17-24). Secondly, the nature of the Paul’s household codes meant faith affected one’s relationships outside of the church with spouses, children and slaves (Eph. 5:22-6:9; Col 3:18-25). An additional thought to Schuurman here, is that in the NT world, the “household” for many people was the dominant place of social and economic life, unlike today where the household can sometimes become secondary to the workplace etc. Thirdly, a theological understanding “in which God’s purpose includes the redemption of human life in its entirety, including institutions, and even the cosmos, encourages Christians to sense God’s purpose and call in all of life” (36).

Schuurman offers a helpful corrective to an idea that I commonly come across, that being that God has a rigid plan for your life in regard to spouse, career, and in North America, locale. Rather, there is a freedom living as a called child of God, we are free to make choices for ourselves that fall inline with our citizenship in God’s Kingdom.

Throughout the book, Schuurman identifies the modern challenges to vocation: exclusion of Christian values from society, alienation of work, technology replacing craftsmanship, profit over relationships, fragmentation of life, the opportunities of choice, and the desire for independence. The abuses of vocation are also discussed: inequality, power struggles, justifying idolatry of work, providing a cover for injustice, and limiting the scope of responsibility of neighbourly love. Helpfully, Schuurman discusses how a correct understanding of:

"Vocation ought to transform asymmetric relations in at least four ways: (a) it should ground the authority of the more powerful party upon God's calling and gifts, not upon race, class, or gender; (b) it should require that the goal of authority be service to others, not being served; (c) it should demand that authorities respect the status of the one served as created and potentially redeemed by God; and (d) it should view the imbalance of power as temporary and dynamic, moving toward symmetry and mutuality" (114).
For most people, the area of vocation that raises the most questions is that of ones “particular” calling to work. Many a Christian has left their secular work due to a lack of a sense of vocation, for work in the church. Schuurman indirectly offers a corrective to this low view of work in the world:

“If Christians are to become faithful participants in the purposes and processes of creation and redemption, it is essential that they hold together the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular,’ the ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ aspects of experience, and that they do so in a way that affirms the importance and integrity of each” (52).
Turning the modern choice of: “living to work” or “working to live” on its head, Schurrman looks to Dorothy Sayers who argues “we do not work to live, but live to work". Schuurman says “work for Sayers is the medium by which people offer themselves to God” (134).

If work does have religious value as a calling and work does play a role in brining about God’s redemptive purposes, Christians need to think hard about the businesses they own and run and the people they manage as well as the influence they have over their sphere of influence in their role at work:

"For work to be a vocation, it must not be alienating, dehumanising work. Every job has its tedious, unpleasant, distasteful parts. Vocation invites us to do even these "for the Lord," and see them as holy. But it also challenges us to think creatively about job design and employee participation so that gifts are used as effectively as possible for the common good" (165).
Ultimately Schuurman thinks we need to see all of our callings, as children, parents, friends, neighbours, leaders, workers, bosses, pew sitters and clergy as being able to contribute towards the shalom that God intended creation to share in and will ultimately bring about in the new heavens and new earth (79-81). But this notion raises more issues for debate, including the question of our roles in helping usher in the kingdom of God both now and the lasting effects this may or may not have in the age to come.
This book provides another building block into my assignments argument on the importance of seeing God’s calling in all spheres of our lives, not just in churchy or evangelism related activities. The book also adds some helpful guiding points to the implications, for example: do we need to rethink the aim of pastoral ministry? Pastoral ministry perhaps should have a much larger role in helping people see how they can be effective agents of God’s kingdom work in all the spheres they are currently in, rather than adopting a church-centric outlook. The implications for transforming workplaces and the type of influence Christians can have in policy decisions are also evident, yet also highly debatable, as Christians have done some dreadful things under this charge in the history of the church.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

globalisation gone crazy?

I just made an online purchase with:
  • a United States eBay account
  • paid for with an Australian MasterCard
  • charged in Euros
  • the item is made in Japan
  • shipped from Hong Kong
  • shipped to Canada
6 countries, 1 purchase

Is this global access and convenience good?
Or is this why we need to get back to relational trade?

Friday, February 06, 2009

COMPS3: work in the Spirit (and for the new creation)

Developing a theology of work in the Protestant tradition is an ambitious goal. In Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, Miroslav Volf necessarily has to critique inadequate traditional approaches of understanding work, including simply examining New Testament references. These traditional approaches establish an ethic of work that is grounded in the doctrine of sanctification. That is, as a Christian matures, so will their work in relation to ethical temptations and quandaries that arise in the workplace, for example: being honest; not stealing; or working diligently when your ‘master’ is not watching. Volf’s aim is rather to develop a more systematic approach to understanding work, which is grounded in a broader biblical perspective of what God is doing in the world.

In a second critique, Volf examines Luther’s understanding of work that has been a foundation for Protestants’ understanding of work and finds it lacking on many fronts. Volf acknowledges that Luther made a valuable contribution by desacrilising the vita contemplativa and by bestowing equal value to the vita activa. However, Volf sees Luther failing contemporary workers by: not addressing the alienation of work, which can be used to establish an ideological justification for alienating work; viewing the static vocational station that one is born into as set, which is inappropriate for modern economies that see people work in a variety of roles in a range of industries throughout their working lives; and failing to guard against work transitioning from vocation into mere gainful employment.

For the majority of Volf’s intended educated Protestant audience (in particular he mentions economists), the need for a systematic approach will be understood. However, for some readers, Volf will be unconvincing due to the lack of “explicit exegetical support” (as Volf acknowledges, 93) that give weight to his arguments, and the vagaries that are (necessarily) involved in conceptualizing the new creation. Conversely, sticklers for direct biblical grounded-ness will appreciate Volf pointing out Luther’s well known exegetical mistake in 1 Cor. 7:20, which for Luther was the false foundation of one’s static station in life (109), and thus may concede to Volf’s adamant preference of a more systematic approach to developing a theology of work.

Into this necessary systematic framework, Volf first bases his theology of work in eschatology. Outlining two competing eschatological views - annihilatio mundi that devalues human work, with the exception of work that directly or indirectly contributes to the sanctification of people’s souls and transformatio mundi, that sees a continuity between the present earth, and the “new heavens and new earth” to come that the bible speaks of - Volf applies his theological frame to so that “the expectation of the eschatalogical transformation invests human work with ultimate significance. Through it human beings contribute in their modest and broken way to God's new creation" (92). Volf attempts to articulate human beings’ contribution to the new heavens and new earth through the work they do, by describing human work as the “‘building materials’ from which… ‘the glorified world’ will be made” (91). This description is not Volf’s own as he cites Berkof’s work Christ; the two are in good company with N.T. Wright who uses the same analogy.

Volf does a convincing job in arguing for transformation mundi by: discussing the nature of God’s Kingdom in Matthew as both “now and not yet”; the future earthly hopes in Isaiah 11:6-10, 65:17-25; Paul’s emphasis on the liberation of creation in Romans 8; the lack of theological consistency in God affirming the goodness of creation in Genesis 1 and then annihilating it; and our role in cooperating with the Creator through work, which Luther too identified. Volf confronts the key annihilist passage in 2 Peter 3:10ff, but does so not by offering an explanation of what Peter meant, but rather by contrasting Peter with Paul’s words in Romans 8:21.

Volf builds on his eschatological framework by linking it to pneumatology: “One cannot talk about the new creation without referring to the Spirit of God. For the Spirit, as Paul says, is the 'first-fruits' or the 'down payment' of the future salvation (see Rom 8:23, 2 Cor 1:22) and the present power of eschatological transformation in them” (102). Volf disagrees with a traditional view of the Spirit’s role as being restricted to the “spiritual, psychological, moral or religious life of the individual” (102). Instead Volf asserts that if a Christian is filled with the Spirit, we must have a charismatic understanding “of every specific function and task of a Christian in the church and in the world” (113), which cannot exclude human work. Volf gives Old Testament examples (Ex. 35:2-3; 1 Chron. 28:11-12; Jud. 3:10; 1 Sam. 16:13, 23:2; Prov. 16:10) of how “the Spirit of God calls, endows, and empowers Christians to work in their various vocations” (113-4), and explains that these passages, if read in the light of the new covenant, can help in establishing a pneumatological understanding that “all God’s people are gifted and called to various tasks by the Spirit” (114), thus broadening the scope of the Spirit’s gifts to equip God’s people for all work within the world: “the point is not simply to interpret work religiously as cooperation with God and thereby glorify it ideologically, but to transform work into a charismatic cooperation with God on the 'project' of the new creation” (116).

As the first comprehensive attempt to develop a theology of work in the protestant tradition, Volf’s Work in the Spirit, can be held in high regard as a substantial contribution toward a comprehensive theology of work. Much discussion amongst Christian people in the marketplace should result affecting business values and practices as well as policy decisions. Churches too, should be encouraged to appreciate anew the “mundane work in the Spirit” that their members do during the other six days.
Volf’s theology of work makes sense of the Christian’s every-day work in the world. Our work (to some extent) has eschatological significance and our work is empowered by the Spirit and directed towards God’s means and ends in the world. So then, how shall we work? What work shall we do? Shall we work by capitalism’s rules or God’s Kingdom rule here on earth? What values will we instil in our children and our youth group kids as they grow up discerning and preparing for their future careers?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

COMPS2: An important book

In Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church N.T. Wright seeks to realign what he sees has become the dominant Christian view of today, that you will be saved and go to Heaven when you die, to the authentic Christian hope that is portrayed in the scriptures and embraced by the early church. Wright’s view is that you will go to “Heaven” or “Paradise” when you die, but that is not what Christian’s should place their hope in. Rather, the Christian hope is to be found in “life after life after death” (168) that is made possible by ‘the resurrection of the Son of God’ (to quote the title of Wright’s previous ‘big book’).

Wright examines the early Christian hope within its historical setting of Greco-Roman culture. Wright claims "the word 'resurrection' in its Greek, Latin, or other equivalents was never used to mean life after death. 'Resurrection' was used to denote new bodily life after whatever sort of life after death there might be (36). Wright cites Martha’s reaction to Jesus, in John 11:24, when he promises that Lazarus would rise, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (41) to show her expectation in the bodily resurrection of the dead, little did Martha know, her brother would rise twice.

The significance of the Christian hope being correctly placed in “the resurrection at the last day” is key in Wright’s mind, and in the minds of great philosophers past, as what “you think about death, and life beyond it, is the key to thinking seriously about everything else” (6). Wright claims "English evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society (such as we find with Wilbeforce in late 18th/19th centuries) about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead" (27). Wright sees the miscontrual of Christian resurrection developing out of: "the influence of Greek philosophy… resulting in a future expectation that bears far more resemblance to Plato’s vision of souls entering into disembodies bliss than to the biblical picture of new heavens and new earth” (80); and the modern emphasis on the individual, that has shifted Western Christians focus away from the redemption of all the creation, to the salvation of the individual.

It is not Wrights purpose in writing to simply correct our doctrinal understanding of resurrection. Wright sees a biblical understanding of God’s redeemed people, resurrected into the new heavens and new earth (on earth), as our Christian hope, that can act as the driving force of the gathered churches mission in the world, and the scattered individual Christians work in the world. In other writings and lectures, Wright is consistent with an emphasis on breaking-down the false dichotomy between “soul-saving evangelism gospel” and the “social gospel”, as he is in Surprised by Hope:

"It's no good falling back into the tired old split-level world where some people believe in evangelism in terms of saving souls for a timeless eternity and other people believe in mission in terms of working for justice, peace, and hope in the present world. That great divide has nothing to do with Jesus and the New Testament and everything to do with the silent enslavement of many Christians (both conservative and radical) to the Platonic ideology of the Enlightenment. Once we get the resurrection straight, we can and must get mission straight." (193)
Tied-into a biblical understanding of resurrection is understanding what Christ accomplished when he rose from the dead. Through resurrection, Christ is exalted to reign over the earth. Christ’s kingdom reign has begun, and while it is not fully apparent in the “now but not yet”, Christ is reigning now, which has huge implication: "People who believe that Jesus is already Lord and that he will appear again as judge of the world are called and equipped to think and act quite differently in the world from those who don't." (144)

A some-what controversial element of Wright’s book is his position taking a continuity position (rather than discontinuity), between earth now and the new heavens and new earth that will come. An annihilist reading of 2 Peter 3:10-13 has had a powerful impact on Christian eschatology encouraging a ‘discontinuity’ position. Wright addresses this more directly elsewhere, and instead chooses to focus on other scriptures in Rom. 8 & Rev. 21-22 that give credence to a ‘continuity’ position. Wright’s sense (which in his admission can only be vaguely understood by us now) is that our good work in the world will be evident in some form in the new creation, which has the important implication that our work really matters.

Wright’s book is about being surprised by the wonderful hope that Christians really do have (rather than a half-baked soul-saving version of the truth). Understanding the resurrection hope that Wright is trying to open the eyes of Christians to transforms the “gospel” motivation from: being a Christian so that you can go to heaven when you die; to a genuine good news message: "Salvation, then, is not "going to heaven" but "being raised to life in God's new heaven and new earth" (198) – this is a hope and a gospel which is far bigger than what many Christians know.
Surprised by Hope and other works that affirm the bodily resurrection of the saints into the new heavens and new earth will become a foundation for my assignment. This hope holds that all of the creation is worth redeeming and that Christians have to live, work, create, dream, act, cook, build, buy, rest, relate, engage and hope in the world in light of God’s kingdom rule and the ongoing and coming redemption of all of creation - worth thinking through, eh?