Sunday, March 30, 2008
Friday, March 28, 2008
A quick broadsheet newspaper round-up as I head for colder climes. First, a good Guardian piece from Seamus Milne (Religion is now a potential ally of radical social change), and a predictable set of uncomprehending responses. See also theologian Philip Blond (who is about to publish a book intriguingly called Red Tory) on The end of capitalism as we know it? in The Independent. Meanwhile, the Times has a story about an odd evangelical Christian financial service that "does not 'draw the ethical line'," but rather seeks to promote the party line. Then again, the Telegraph illustrates the unsustainable nature of a frankly unjust Act of Settlement in Britain, but somehow suggests that the nation's "fragile unity" depends upon it. Go figure. (Last but not least, a vicar finds a big financial hole in Channel 4 TV game show 'Deal or No Deal'.)
Thursday, March 27, 2008
[After completing this piece, which started out as something much shorter, I decided to cross-publish it on Ekklesia while retaining a big chunk of the original, with links here. This is something I don't usually do - though I do cross-reference and elaborate, obviously. I'm about to be taking a break from this blog and the rest of my work until early April, so it seemed a good place to draw a temporary line, among other things.]
To paraphrase Augustine, and subsequently John Caputo, "what is it that we love when we love our God?" I'm constantly amazed by what some people, both non-religious and religious, assume I must be committing myself to in order to "believe in God" (as I do, though not in the way they are thinking). Six intangible things before brunch, I guess - before resuming my near approximation to "life as normal".
So what lies behind this presumption, a clearly growing one, about the inherent incongruity of bothering with God? (God being a notion which more than a few people in my cultural orbit think less interesting or relevant than porridge, frankly. I don't blame them for that, given what I'm about to say).
Much of the agitated and high profile media to-ing and fro-ing about whether God is 'great, or not' presupposes the most astonishingly naive and positivistic forms of theological or anti-theological realism. Viewed one way, it is mind-boggling that someone as intelligent as Stephen Hawking can dismiss, as he recently appeared to, all philosophy and theology as essentially valueless. But for some it is becoming par for the course.
In a sense, this is not Hawking's fault. In the modern environment it is common for people to use a form of thought developed to accomplish one set of things in order to try to accomplish quite another set of things -- without noticing that this is what they are doing, that it may entail some very basic category mistakes (like thinking of God as a 'thing', for instance), that there are other ways of proceeding, and that we may lack the tools (which are philosophical) to diagnose and posit alternatives to the thought disorders that emerge as a result of our misplaced reductionisms.
Moreover, near ignorance as a basis for commentary on such matters as theology and religious stidies (a set of intra- and extra-disciplinary tools for reasoning about belief) has become almost a symbol of intellectual virility in some virtuously anti-God circles. As a consequence of this, and of the corresponding dominance of religious discourse by neo-fundamentalisms of various kinds, what is reckoned to be a debate about the plausibility or otherwise of the divine, hogged by the so called new atheists and their conservative religious polar attractants, is in fact nowhere near it. It is much nearer to nowhere, in fact.
In his sometimes astute and sometimes patchy New Guide to the Debate about God (SCM, 1992), following on to a certain extent from David E. Jenkins' 1966 Guide in the aftermath of John Robinson's Honest to God, Martin Prozesky made a very important point which has largely been overlooked recently. In the aftermath of Heidegger, Nietzsche et al, it is popularly supposed, he pointed out, that the post-Enlightenment world has pretty much reached the end of God-talk. In reality, however, we may be only just scrabbling to get out of the kindergarten.
If that were so - and the incapacity of much reasoning about matters of belief and rationality suggests it is - then the estimate of the whole situation about how we are trying to tackle 'religion' and its cognates changes significantly. Following falteringly in the footsteps of the the remarkable Nicholas Lash, I tried in 2007 to offer some semi-technical and semi-popular reflections on What difference does God make today? In the same vein, here is a further excerpt from another paper, What is radical about Christianity?, which was originally conceived in relation to a constructive series of discussions between humanists and religionists (it is of course possible to be both). It sums up where I am at on 'the God question', and why I don't think the present vituperation between a certain kind of non-believer and a certain kind of believer is very useful.... [continued here]
[Pic: Apophosis, (c) TheGroovyDude over at Renderosity]
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
At some stage tomorrow, OurKingdom (OpenDemocracy) will publish my piece 'Taking it on faith?', responding to the National Union of Teachers' proposal, as part of its policy on moving toward universal access standards in publicly-funded schools, to trade off an injection of confessionally-based religious instruction for pupils from different faith communities against the continued perpetuation of single-faith schools. In my view this is swapping one problem for another.
My own preference would be for a plural approach (1) recognising spiritual needs (both religious and non-religious) as part of the civic responsibility of schools, (2) replacing the provisions of the 1944 Education act on predominantly Christian RE with curriculum content about understanding the variety of beliefs and life stances shaping society as a whole, and (3) replacing its demand for 'collective worship' with civic assemblies. The basic point, acknowledged in different ways by the Church of England as well as the British Humanist Association, is that it is the job of schools to teach about beliefs and the job of communities of conviction (not just religious ones, incidentally) to propagate them. Confusing these two is a dangerous path from everybody's point of view and dilutes the distinctive roles of different kinds of institutions - one publicly-funded, the other voluntary.
From a Christian point of view, the point is that it is not the job of publicly-funded community-wide schools to 'be Christian' for us or to acting as our recruiting agents. On the other hand, it is a pedagogic responsibility of seats of learning to ensure that pupils go out into the world with an understanding about how religion and belief, as well as culture, social formation, politics, economics and the human and natural sciences, influence the way we think, act and behave.
Beyond embryonic politics, Simon Barrow, 26 Mar 08, on OurKingdom - an OpenDemocracy project. See also this on Networking democracy.
"All Christians, and all people of good will, want to revere and develop life. Whether ongoing decisions in [the] area [of the biosciences] can be taken by an appeal to human preference alone, framed purely by the language of rights and without a broader sense of ethical possibilities and restraints, is a fraught and contested question. Whether one answer to such questions is possible, framed independently of any particular tradition of moral reasoning, is even more tricky. Secular liberal ethics is in as much difficulty here as religiously grounded ethics, probably more so.
"But moral progress, in concert with the proper encouragement and regulation of scientific endeavour (together with its protection from voracious commercial interests), will not be made by shouting, seeking to pull rank, political manipulation or throwing the weight of our different lobby groups - religious or otherwise - around. We need to develop less confrontational political mechanisms and more serious civic ones to keep the conversation going." More here.
There are a number of reasons why 25 March always stands out from the calendar each year. And they go on being added to. On that day in 1807, the Slave Trade Act became law, as it happens, abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire. Toscani, Bartok and A.J.P. Taylor were among those born on what has been known as Lady Day. Primarily, however, I recall this day with affection because it is my later mother's birthday. Belle Padday (later Barrow), a very dedicated nursing sister who trained at "the old Guy's Hospital", died in 1978 aged 63. I have lived the majority of my life (and nearly all my adult life) without her, but she is often in my thoughts. The 25th was also the birthday of a dear friend and colleague, Ann Stricklen, who died aged 61 getting on for ten years ago. How time rushes by.
Ann Stricklen was community development adviser in Southwark Anglican Diocese while I was adult education and training officer there (1991-96). We did a huge amount of work together, including material for a Parish Profile Pack, which later became Planning Projects. Though her name is not as well acknowledged as some others in the field, she did pioneering work in the area of community ministry over many years - not least during her time in Sheffield. I am pleased that Trinity House, the diocesan HQ, has a meeting room named after Ann. When she fell ill I cajoled her into letting me re-write some excellent notes she had put together for a chapter in my book Expanding Horizons: Learning to Be the Church in the World (BCS, 1995).
Ann was forthright, loyal, had a great sense of humour, a mind as sharp as a knife and was pretty much what the word 'indefatigable' was invented for. Bearing the coffin at her funeral at St Faith's, North Dulwich, was a tremendous honour - and something that, along with many other matters great and small, she had planned from her hospital deathbed.
More happily, I have also discovered that my friend Stephen Brown in Geneva, who does a great job with Ecumenical News International, passed the age of 50 five days ahead of me yesterday, too. I told him to let me know if it was any good, so that I could make other plans if necessary. Last but certainly not least, March 25 is typically celebrated within the Christian tradition as the day of the Annunciation so long as it does not fall on a Sunday or during Holy Week or Easter Week - something I came to observe in a different way on account of my parish church in Brighton (1998-2003). Also, my good friend Henry Morgan is involved in an excellent 'spiritual direction' venture called The Annunciation Trust. I cannot recommend him, and them, highly enough.
[Pic: Fra Angelico, The Annunciation]
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Here's a good article by Gerard J Hughes (former head of the philosophy department at Heythrop College, University of London, currently tutor in philosophy at Campion Hall, Oxford) on the relation between the many questions which the Gospel accounts of 'the risen Jesus' leave unanswered, and contemporary issues in philosophy and the sciences concerning materiality, embodiment and consciousness. He comes to a position which is similar to my own. See also Hughes' books Aristotle on Ethics (Routledge, 2001) and Is God to Blame? (Veritas, 2007).
Monday, March 24, 2008
This is an excellent piece by Rowan Williams, and of course I very much value the work of Rene Girard. It is sad that some respondents, whatever their religious or (mostly) non-religious background, cannot even countenance the slightest possibility of learning something from this article... Our culture truly is a dialogue of the deaf (who of course have better ears than the self-regarding 'hearing'). The dear archbishop still hopes for 'a place' for the church within society, of course. From my perspective it would be better to look at how a 'society' (a different kind of social order) can be cultivated by a different performance of 'church' and offered in exemplary ways through partnerships, conversations, and yes, sometimes, confrontations. But not from a position of power or privilege, which contradicts the hope of which he speaks so eloquently. [Pic (c) Peacemala]
Starting from a non-religious viewpoint, Guy Rundle's piece, A question of humanity, is a good counterbalance to the marginalisation of core bioethical questions in some secular circles via an over-excitement about religious interventions. I don't agree with what he considers to be an adequate and unavoidable dismissal of the God-question, though this is par for the course among 'cultured despisers'. Even when the importance of conscience is recognised.
The work of Ian Markham might give an essentially Kantian rationalist pause for thought in this area, not least because he is close enough to that tradition as a Christian theologian to pose the questions and issues in ways which might be felt. Especially in Plurality and Christian Ethics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994; revised edition November 1999, SevenBridgesPress) and Truth and the Reality of God (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998). But the tenor of Rundle is a huge improvement on some of what's out there, and indicative of the fact that a reasoned conversation can be had.
Markham makes the point that, even if one eschews absolutism or any sense that we human beings can access the absolute, the issue of whether ethics can be rendered coherent without recourse to the the transcendent (I would prefer to say with Westphal, 'the gift') is one which, contrary to the casual optimism of many non-religious thinkers, cannot be dismissed. Finally I don't think it can, though that isn't to deny that the non-religious can and do behave morally and the religious (all too frequently) immorally. The difference made by God and the failure of those who name God to comprehend or respond ethically to that difference are not identical issues ontologically, but not finally separable practically either.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor (who I always though was a decent man when I knew him a little in ecumenical circles, though no deep thinker) shows humanity in his article 'We are made for more'. But, of course, he lets his own church off an absolutely enormous hook (its whole reductionist and morally one-sided stance toward bioethics), is seen to be trying to blame-shift towards atheists, and therefore has no chance of getting through with any of the rightful issues he may wish to raise. This is a good example of the fact that Church representatives need a wholesale re-think of their Christendom assumptions in both formulating and communicating their concerns.
This morning I was on BBC Radio Scotland's news programme at an unearthly hour (for a Public Holiday!), discussing why the style, assumptions and content of Church's heavy lobbying on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill leaves a bad taste in the mouth, even if you thinking an open vote and proceeding with caution are needed. I found myself in broad agreement on this with the president of the National Secular Society, who I was glad to hear did think the religious voices should be heard on such issues, even though he rightly objected to the Catholic Church throwing it's heavy institutional weight around. I have published a number of articles around this theme. There will be one on OpenDemocracy's OurKingdom (picking up the nature and trickiness of ethical debate, in particular) later today. I have done a piece angled towards the religion-and-politics dimension for LiberalConspiracy. More needs to be said about the theological issues concerning the life sciences, which I will probably pursue on Ekklesia, time permitting. Earlier today this appeared on CIF:
Cardinal vices and virtues Simon Barrow Guardian Comment-is-Free, Mar 24 08, 10:30am: Humility not hectoring is the religious virtue needed to tackle the sensitive and complex issues of embryo research.
"Without doubt the biosciences, including molecular and cellular research, embryology and reproductive technologies, pose the deepest possible questions about what it means to be human, how responsibly to use the power that is coming into our hands, where we fit in the web of the natural world, and how to receive the gift of life.Equally, there will be different estimates and different approaches to these questions, not just between the "religious" and the "non-religious", but within and across those (rather crudely drawn) constituencies, too. [...] Of course there can be arrogance and hubris, but there is also challenge and debate - as with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), whose 18 members encompass a wide range of expertise - including the thoughtful contributions of Lord Richard Harries of Pentregarth, a theologian and former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, who has has backed the government's bill calling for the regulation of scientific research in [the area] ... All of which casts the kind of intervention kick-started by Cardinal Keith O'Brien in a curious light..." Continued in full.
Some of the avowedly non-religious responses on the thread give an indication of the extent to which emotivism and irrationalism are not just religious problems: the judgement of Richard Harries without the faintest interest in the evidence of what he has said, how he has said it, and what his processes of reasoning entail, for example. Of course people who simply pigeonhole and throw insults, from whatever quarter, will do so whatever is said by those they have already decided are mad, bad or stupid; and thankfully, people who behave like that are a minority in the populace (albeit a vocal and influential one buttressed by the tabloidization of debate). But it does illustrate the need to up the discourse stakes massively, and that can only really happen when people meet as human beings and reflect on what is being said, not what they assume others think or want them to think (so that "we" are right). This just isn't the way politics or the media works right now, so you have to try and go against the flow of effluent.
The ethos of speech underlies any other attempt to be ethical, or indeed the refusal even to countenance an ethics coming from a tradition of thought other than our own.
At the heart of the Easter Gospel are a variety of New Testament texts which speak vividly but unevenly, and often to our eyes and ears confusingly, of the experiences of the Risen Christ which became a core part of the experience, message and life of the earliest Christian communities - and have resonated down the ages in narrative, liturgy, word, song, formulation, prayer and performance. They have obviously been subject to endless scholarship, dissection, analysis, reconstruction, and speculation concerning the intertwining of history and myth. But they keep bounding back to provoke and interrogate our affirmations and uncertainties. In the media this week, two renditions stand out, one on the radio and the other in print.
BBC Radio 4 presented Good Friday Liturgy: Daughters of Jerusalem. The words of Carol Ann Duffy, winner of the T.S. Eliot prize for poetry in 2006, were used to tell the story of the crucifixion from the perspective of the women who witnessed Christ's Passion. The narrative is recounted imaginatively, as if Mary Magdalene follows the whole sequence of events, including the trial, when she hears from Pilate's wife (whom she knows personally) her advice to her husband. An interlude with Veronica recalls the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Duffy is a good choice, because of the quality of her work, her critical relationship to the Catholic Church on account of her sexuality, and her characterfulness. Deirdre Good reproduces her poem Prayer here.
Then there is a good overview and thoughtfully generous interpretation of the NT resurrection appearance narratives from Brian Purfield, Head of Theological Education at Mount Street Jesuit Centre, on Thinking Faith. His approach is broadly consistent with my theological account, I think. Or vice versa. Purfield concludes: "Clearly each writer tries to affirm that Jesus’ bodilyness had very different qualities to ours. These qualities made Jesus unrecognisable in the first moments of his appearances and allowed him the freedom to move easily through, in, and out of space and time without restriction. Each evangelist affirms that the disciples do come to recognise the risen Lord in these appearances but only as Jesus addresses them in some way."
Incidentally, Sean the Baptist has been 'going some' on his blog over Easter. Here's a commendation from him: "Alan Lewis' Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday is one of the most profound and poignant theological works that I know. "
Occasionally, Ekklesia faces the charge of being The Guardian at prayer - perhaps from those who have not quite noticed the disdain directed at some of our associates on Comment-is-Free, or who have not registered our constant attempts to re-frame the standard 'liberal -v- conservative' standoff. Anyway, Jonathan Bartley and I have rather different political backgrounds, and I've made a conscious decision to do bits of commentary in the centre (OpenDemocracy) and on the centre-right (Wardman Wire). But when the splendid Sunny Hundal of Pickled Politics started up LiberalConspiracy, launched last year at the offices of Demos, I couldn't resist. My first piece, a long time coming because of other commitments is Manipulating politics through religion. I also entered the following caveat on my contributor's profile: "Simon has a particular interest in inclusive models of secular life, and in uncovering subversive and pluralistic strands within religious thought. He values liberality but isn’t sure about liberalism as an ideology." And, of course, for me the theological underpinning and shape of what I'm doing and thinking is central and determinative, though never anything but fallible (because it is mediated by me).
The question of how one develops and conveys theologically grounded convictions in an environment in which they are not readily understood and may often be contested remains a crucial one, of course. My basic outlook is that rationality, the ability to 'make sense' in a variety of ways, is tradition specific - but that traditions of reasoning, both religious and non-religious, overlap and coincide in persons and communities, as well as clashing and missing each other. This mean that there is communicability (an assumption of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, too), but more through heuristic and phenomenological means rather than systematic ones. There is no guarantee of translatability, nor a meta-language that we can all deploy or access. There are only attempts to live and codify the truth together; narratives that shape, explain, critique and create those attempts; and the Holy Spirit operative ("disturbing the comfortable; comforting the disturbed') within and beyond the community that recognises itself caught up in the ongoing process of Christian discernment. That is, the Gospel narrative / dynamic, understood from the 'underside' of history, where the Christ to whom it points is located. This paragraph, I suppose you could say, amounts to my hermeneutic, understood as a revisable working hypothesis.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
In the comfortable Western church, Easter can be a rather formulaic, even twee, affair. "Living outside the box" can be a matter not so much of life-and-death as 'feeling a bit pepped up'. It is salutary to be reminded that for many, many people in a world torn apart by violence, despair, sickness, death and injustice, the stakes look (and are) incomparably higher. On Monday we mark the 28th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down by El Salvadorean death squads for his stand alongside the poor. His prayer/poem Prophets of a future not our own remains, for me, an extraordinary declaration of the Easter vision - hopeful and yet profoundly realistic about limits. I'm doing the intercessions at St Stephen's in Exeter today, and will use it as a preliminary reading.
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Goodness, a flurry of posts. These are arising from the work I'm throwing myself into at the moment, in anticipation of a holiday coming up soon! Anyway, a friend of mine who has been very supportive of Ekklesia, and valuably involved with us, has just dropped a note to draw attention to the fact that The Anglican Examiner ‘Seeing Christ in Human Rights’ forum is now up and running. She writes: "I hope it will assist in exploring ‘an alternative social ethic as followers of Jesus, those who trust in his cross and risen life’ (to use your phrase)."
My friend (whose name I am only not mentioning because I haven't checked if it is OK to do so) adds: "I read with interest your articles on the resurrection and on [the church's] foreign policy. While I am not (yet?) a complete pacifist, valuable points are made, and Peter Selby’s piece is clear and timely."
Of course Peter wouldn't necessarily go where I do with this issue either. But I responded as follows, and offer this here as a clarification of were I'm coming from, as I do recognise that it is worrying for some people, and also a little contrary, I hope, to the way the 'war and peace' debate is conducted in mainstream Christian circles:
"My aim is not to persuade Christians to adopt an ideology called ‘pacifism’, but to recognise that ultimately the way of Jesus and the way of violence point in opposite directions. We, of course, are located in the mess produced by various attempts to prove things to be otherwise, and I recognise that this is dangerous moral, theological and political territory to occupy. I do think that the refusal of violence as far as is humanly possible (and certainly as a strategy, or as a means of securing the interests of the church) ought to become a key identity marker for followers of Christ in the modern era.
"However, in seeking that path, I want to face the real limitations and contradictions of peacemaking, and not to adopt either a morally superior attitude, a selective approach to reading the world’s conflicts, or a seductive idealism or romanticism. Or to despise those who think and act differently. That is what my forthcoming book is all about - the threat of resurrection and the difficulty of Christ’s peace, not a rosy piety about it all.
"Bonhoeffer is a great encouragement in all this. He very clearly saw the way of Jesus Christ leading away from trust in the power of the sword, yet he ended up embroiled in a plot to kill Hitler. He never sought to justify this theologically, or as a matter of church policy, but only said that we must do all we can to thwart evil and throw ourselves on the mercy of God. In a not dissimilar way, Gandhi (in spite of his limitations, well recognised by the Dalits) was surely right to say that it is more moral to fight against injustice than to refuse to do so, but that we are constantly invited to a better path. This is one that Christians would have to finally recognise as gift rather than something we can achieve within our own means and strength.
"Anyway, I do think we need a different register of conversation between those who have previously pigeonholed themselves as ‘pacifists’ or ‘just war advocates’. And my active Christian non-violence does have a role for just war theory as a way of advocating limits on political formations that are not Christian. That does not mean the Body of Christ should be in the business of killing, however. Our call is to witness to an alternative form and source of power, and to lose sight of that is to risk losing sight of the Gospel. That, in essence, is where I am at."
Even if you don't take the absolutist position of according an embryo the full moral status of a human person from conception (and I don't), the scientific and ethical issues surrounding the current Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill going through parliament, and what may follow in the future, are complex and sensitive. But when Cardinal Keith O'Brien chucks around alarmist terms like "monstrous", "Frankenstein", "grotesque" and 'hideous" over pre-embryonic research; when he likens it to experimentation on babies; when he marginalises the issue of life-saving treatment for suffers from diseases like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's; when he assumes that all Christians must automatically share his view; and when he regards MPs (notably Catholic ones) as troops to be dragooned in a war, he demeans the character of the debate, I fear. I've just written a piece on this for Guardian Comment-is-Free. Not sure when it will be published, but I will post the link here.
Following up my previous article on the meaning of resurrection, and picking up on the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, I have penned this piece (Ekklesia, 21 Mar 08) on Why the church needs a new foreign policy.
"Contrary to some popular Christian teaching, the way of the Cross is not marked by the justified infliction of violence, but its absorption and transformation in the person of Jesus, who is God's person for us. Likewise, the Gospel's anticipated vindication is not apocalyptic fury but the life-giving of God alone, which is called resurrection.
"In reality, this is as difficult, if not more difficult, for Christians to believe in practice (in the way we live our lives) as it is for anyone to believe in theory (as a matter of intellectual debate).
"The way of the sword, by contrast, looks like the kind of 'realism' we need when faced with terror, threat and injustice. But realism of what kind? The issue as to whether and how the God of eternal peace features in our picture of what finally constitutes reality becomes crucial at this point. Religious leaders often seem unable to contemplate that possibility as they make their calculations, showing by default that whatever is being believed in, it is not, it seems, the 'weak power' of the crucified and risen one.
"Inviting others to accept a gospel which does not seriously change our options or put into question the destruction upon which we base our security is, it seems to me, more than a little problematic." Full article here.
Friday, March 21, 2008
It is Friday afternoon. Jesus has cried his last and we head into the continuous silence of 'the long Saturday', where we live and shall continue to live, waiting for Sunday - or not. The Cambridge theologian Denys Turner, who has explored the apophatic core of traditional Christianity and has shown how it connects naturally to a radical political commitment, once wrote that "the characteristic form of God's presence is absence". The One who is closer to us than breath is also immeasurably beyond our senses and capacities, and the 'longing' that forms the bridge between the intimacy and the hope-beyond-hope of Christian believing looks for all the world like a gaping abyss. This is why authentic faith is closer to atheism than the 'new atheists' could ever imagine (not for nothing was that term coined for some early Christians as they refused the Roman pantheon).
On the other hand, final refusal of the gods (not least the ones who do not look at all 'godlike' or 'religious', but come to us as 'secular' liberators in the guise of science, progress, the market, the military, and so on) can perhaps finally only be sustained by recognising the unresolvable silence of the true God. Jesus is decisively silent, in a key moment in the Passion narrative, before what Turner calls, if I recall correctly, the "frivolous moralising" of Pilate. The Son of Man, the true herald of humanity, has nowhere to lay his head. He is made homeless by the world of manipulation and power. In this way the transcendent God, who is not the contradiction of what it is to be human but its mystery and promise, is "edged out of the world onto the cross", in Bonhoeffer's memorable phrase. Before all thought, all theology, all apprehension of the nameless forms of the divine, all prayer there is, says, Gustavo Gutierrez, the eternal silence of God.
A few years ago William T. Cavanaugh wrote a really interesting review article for Commonweal (13 March, 1998) called The god of silence: Shusaku Endo's reading of the Passion - a critique of the Japanese novel 'Silence'. It is ideal reading for this afternoon and tomorrow. He writes:
What Endo was really after, I think, was nothing less than a glimpse of a homeless God. Endo's work can be read as a profound exploration of the twisted logic of the Incarnation - the journey of God from heaven to be emptied into earthly flesh and the assumption of weakness by omnipotence. Endo's personal struggle as a Christian in Japan was the setting for his investigation of the paradox central to the lives of all Christians: the paradox of a crucified God. Thus Endo weaves together the spiritual anguish of his characters with an embattled and paradoxically orthodox theology. Here I want to examine Endo's theological search in his novel Silence and invite other Christian voices - including that of John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis splendor - into the novel's strange moral universe. More here.
'[W]hat is important for our church and for our religious institutes: that the powerful of this world look on us approvingly and support us, or that we be a cry of hope, good news for the despised of the earth? Jesus’ words – “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” – are applicable institutionally to the church and to ourselves.’ (Juan Ramón Moreno, Jesuit priest - killed in El Salvador in 1989)
In her excellent article Being on the side of the crucified, which will also appear in the Sewanee Theological Review, Savi Hensman raises questions highly appropriate to the narrative, message and calling of Good Friday. She asks:
"How highly do we prioritise the preservation of the current order and protection of existing patterns of wealth and privilege, which may benefit us individually and institutionally? In providing pastoral care to the privileged and powerful, are we able to remain detached from their outlook and encourage them to seek a higher good? Do we tend to adopt society’s values, dismissing as unimportant the hardship and injustice endured by the poor and marginalised, or are we bearers of good news even in bleak situations?
"When conflict escalates, can we resist the ‘militarization of the mind’? How willing are we to be transformed by a God of love, to look with unflinching compassion on those who suffer and seek to identify and address the causes?
"And how willing are we to risk losing what we have in order to gain what is incomparably better? Even when destruction and death seem to hold sway, can we trust in the new life which is to come and be heralds of hope?"[Pic: Women's Cross, El Salvador - from Lutheran World]
Thursday, March 20, 2008
No conjuring trick with bones by Simon Barrow (Ekklesia, 20 Mar 08). The modern temptation is to misunderstand (and dismiss) resurrection as childish fantasy, or else to reduce it to spiritualised sophistry. The shape of the core Christian hope is both more substantial and more subtle than that.
Though it can sometimes be infuriatingly truncated (Melvyn Bragg does a good job, but has an unassailable broadcaster's penchant for short-circuiting anything that might demand the elliptical in thought terms), In Our Time, on BBC Radio 4, is an absolute "must listen" for me. Last week it was the impact of the Greek myths, next week the ramification of the dissolution of the monasteries. Thinkers and events often simply bypassed, ignored, subsumed or dismissed today are traced back into life and thought by a panel of specialists, including new and innovative reflectors as well as more established voices. It is a fine, talking heads format. I wish it was twice as long, but the 45 minutes is rarely squandered.
This week (today in fact, some 15 minutes ago as I write this) it was a programme on one of my key influences, Soren Kierkegaard. What was particularly pleasing was that, although Bragg didn't invite a theologian to take part (Steve Shakespeare or George Pattison would have been great), Kierkegaard the Christian thinker, and indeed the progenitor of post-Christendom, was not marginalised - though the website intro doesn't mention it. Trying to understand the man without comprehending his disturbing faith and tortured discipleship is, of course, nonsensical. But I have heard a number of people attempt it. Satre, though in a different place, certainly knew better.
One of the many pleasing aspects of the programme was that it also questioned what is popularly meant by terms like 'subjective' and 'objective', as Kierkegaard himself did. And it spears the fatuous but common charge that he was somehow an irrationalist, just because he punctured the absolutist claims of a certain kind of 'rationality' (one hugely popular today), dismissed the primacy of the philosophic over the lived, and challenged the pretensions of a kind of systematising and unifying thought traceable back to Hegel. As he was quite right to do. A marvellous broadcast, and for me the best Easter present I could imagine.
Whatever you do or don't do today, download the podcast when it becomes available later today and give it a listen. Or you can just listen for again on streaming audio for a week (until next Wednesday evening). You will thank me, I hope! Truly inspiring stuff - a good introduction to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the waiting of Saturday and the promise of Easter Sunday - which for Kierkegaard (as for any mature reading of the Gospels and the New Testament) could never be some easy "happy ending".
Love, not 'fear and trembling' is the essence of Christianity, Kierkegaard believed. But that does not make it any more uncomfortable. (More on this to follow - there are some resources here.) Links: D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard; BBC/OU Open2.net - Philosophy & Ethics; Howard and Edna Hong Kierkegaard Library; Wikipedia.
In Our Time examines the history of ideas, discussed by Melvyn Bragg and guests, including philosophy, science, literature, religion and the influence these ideas have on us today. Broadcast weekly 9am - 9.4am, Thursday. Repeated 9.30pm.
See also: Thinking outside the system.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
The BBC1 drama programmes depicting The Passion (concluding on Easter Sunday) have elicited some contrasting reactions. Nothing unusual in that, obviously, but they nonetheless invite us to reflect on the relationship between the viewer and the viewed - and they are indicative of the way the climate about religion is going, with more and less, well, passion. More on my latest Wardman Wire column, Getting cross and bothered. One additional comment: when I merrily suggested that Channel 4 hadn't got some daft, publicity-seeking Easter documentary on this year I was technically right. But they have, it should be noted, unveiled The Secrets of the Twelve Disciples, which looks as if it's going to be a right mess.
The presenter is Robert Beckford (pictured), who has already done a couple of other pot boilers (on the Bible and Jesus' family)... as well as a creditable documentary on slavery, work with Christian Aid and Pressureworks, and a couple of stimulating books on Black Christianity. I can't help feeling that he's stretching the theologian moniker a tad too far in the direction of tabloid telly with some of this stuff though. He says, attempting to be charitable.
(Now for a bit of light, but not un-serious, relief... try another dose of The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus.)
Not so long ago I enjoyed a good discussion with the Oxford University Secular Society on "what the hell should we do about religion?" (or something along those lines). They are an interesting and open bunch, not affiliated to any one non-religious faction, and welcoming of people from different life- and belief-stances. It quite cheered me up about the possibility of thoughtful and non-rancorous conversation about "belief" and "non-belief", given much of the over opinionated non sense one finds in the papers and on the net these days, which is little more than cheap point scoring - without even being aware of that, half of the time. Anyway, Peter Hughes, a thoroughly good jurisprudence guy who plays a lead role in the OUSS, has written a response on his blog to my post yesterday on Kim Fabricius's sermon. Peter expresses (understandable) puzzlement at what looks to him like Christianity cutting its own feet from under it, and then wonders what sense one can make of classical claims about God anyway, and of motivations for apparently stepping outside accepted canons of 'proof'. It's an irenic and interesting contribution.
I think Kim's main point, with which I wholly agree, is that most of what are popularly thought of as the 'benefits' of Christian religion (neither my post nor his exempts Christianity from the criticisms we raise, incidentally) are in fact de-benefits, and have little to do with what is meant at a deeper level by elements of the tradition which are oft-quoted but little understood. Prayer, for example - which is not asking for cosmic favours, but learning to be 're-tuned' away from one's propensity to self-interest by engaging with a love which, being divine, is unconditioned and not bound up with self-perpetuation, because it arises from beyond the arena of competitive difference in which we are unavoidably embroiled. To be a follower of Christ is, from my experience and conviction, to discover possibilities of ‘life in a new register’ by simultaneously beginning to abandon (through the effect of what I can only call grace) the many efforts one may humanly make to 'grab' at it, along with attempts simply to avoid death. To do the reverse of what many critics of 'religion' think it is about, in other words.
As Nicholas Lash, a rather good theologian, points out - such ideas as these are entirely orthodox Christian ones, and the fact that they may not be understood by many inside and outside the churches is a symptom of just how deep the ignorance of reflective (and reflexive) Christian thought and behaviour has become in our culture. This is something for which I think the churches hold the greatest responsibility, on account of the way they (we) have allowed the Gospel vocation to be corrupted by the kind of interests of which Nietzsche and Foucault speak (albeit without hope of redemption, which is where I differ from them).
The rest of Peter's piece, Reasons for Believing, raises standard questions about the nature of belief in God, its status and its epistemic form, which, again, it seems to me, are widely philosophically misconstrued by both believers and non-believers. Some of the issues involved are tackled or alluded to in my essay 'What difference does God make today?', especially the second section. But I will try to give more succinct and focused responses when I have a bit more time. Disagreement on questions of belief are not going to go away, but it is helpful to distinguish between useful and non-useful lines of distinction, which is the spirit of Peter's approach too.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
I've just received a message from someone saying, "help, I'm preaching on Easter Sunday - and I'm scared." It is from a 'lay person', as the Church so quaintly puts it. (Laos simply means "the people of God", but they are not quite special enough for some!). Many clergy, I fear, are too anaesthetised to think like that. But Caroline is right. There is a terror to the Easter message, and it has nothing to do with resurrection as a 'get out clause'. We will come to that issue later. First, thanks to Rob Telford, I chanced upon Kim Fabricius's passionate Palm Sunday sermon, Lose Your Faith. There's a we bit of, um, overkill here, maybe (aagh... I can be very English), but the assault on sentimental religion and the recognition of Jesus' death as an assault on false gods, many of them perpetuated in his name, is sound. I have often described Christianity, rightly understood, as the most effective way of not believing the kind of nonsense perpetuated by so much religion, Christian religion included. But in the pity is also the possibility, the echo of a future not our own. That, rather than the consolation of magic, is where we en up later in the week. Meanwhile, Kim writes that the Cross invites us to:
'Lose your faith in the god that the cross exposes as a no-god, a sham god. Lose your faith in the god who is but the product of your projections, fantasies, wishes, and needs, a security blanket or good-luck charm god. Lose your faith in the god who is there to hold your hand, solve your problems, rescue you from your trials and tribulations, the deus ex machina, literally the “machine god”, wheeled out onto the stage in ancient Greek drama, introduced to the plot artificially to resolve its complications and secure a happy ending. Lose your faith in the god who confers upon you a privileged status that is safe and secure. Lose your faith in the god who promises you health, wealth, fulfilment, and success, who pulls rabbits out of hats. Lose your faith in the god with whom your conscience can be at ease with itself. Lose your faith in the god who, in Dennis Potter’s words, is the bandage, not the wound. Lose your faith in the god who always answers when you pray and comes when you call. Lose your faith in the god who is never hidden, absent, dead, entombed. For the “Father who art in heaven” – this week he is to be found in hell...
'No one puts it more starkly – or more honestly and truthfully – than Bonhoeffer. We must recognize, he wrote from prison, “that we have to learn to live in the world ‘as if God were not here’. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it… God would have us know that we must live as men and women who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us… Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross” – and then down from the cross and into the grave. “He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” God a Super-Power? That god is a demon, the devil. If that god is your Lord, this week is a call for “regime change”.' (Walter Brueggemann).
[Picture (c). Hans Holbein’s painting “Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”.]
"One should never forget about the temporary and transitory character of all physical theories and models. Even if some of them have successfully undergone the confrontation process with empirical data, they always can become a 'special case' of a future more general theory, or of a model. The new conceptual environment could make their present philosophical or theological interpretation no longer attractive, or even highly artificial. Scientific theories or models are per se neutral with respect to theological or philosophical interpretations. They can be interpreted in various ways as long as these interpretations do not contradict their mathematical structure. This does not mean that all such interpretations are on an equal footing; only that they cannot be refuted by arguments taken from these theories or models alone (because we suppose that these interpretations are not contradictory with their mathematical structures). Theological or philosophical interpretations of scientific theories or models can, of course, critically compete with each other. Karl Popper’s “criterion of disputability” clearly applies to them: any rational interpretation should be open for discussion and criticism by its rivals."
"...The question on ultimate causality is translated into another Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz’s question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (from his Principles of Nature and Grace). When asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes."
"Adherents of the so-called intelligent design ideology commit a grave theological error. They claim that scientific theories, that ascribe the great role to chance and random events in the evolutionary processes, should be replaced, or supplemented, by theories acknowledging the thread of intelligent design in the universe. Such views are theologically erroneous. They implicitly revive the old [Manichean] error postulating the existence of two forces acting against each other: God and an inert matter; in this case, chance and intelligent design. There is no opposition here. Within the all-comprising mind of God what we call chance and random events is well composed into the symphony of creation." - Michael Heller, cosmologist and winner of the 2008 Templeton Prize.
And in his New Scientist interview: "Everything depends on your concept of rationality. Science is a model of rationality. The question is whether the limits of rationality coincide with limits of the scientific method. If they do, then there is no place for religion or theology because everything outside of the scientific method is automatically irrational. On the other hand, if you agree that they do not coincide then there is a place for rational religious belief. If you look at the recent history of science and philosophy, you can see that the dominating philosophy in western countries was positivistic, it said that the scientific method is identical with rationality and that what’s beyond the scientific method is beyond rationality. Nowadays very few philosophers agree with this; we are more pluralistic."
[Picture (c) csmonitor]
Monday, March 17, 2008
"What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?" Ron Sider, Mennonite theologian in a talk which helped the coming into being of Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
As the world around him descended further into chaos in 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: "The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragment of our life how the whole was arranged and planned, and what material it consists of. For really, there are some fragments that are only worth throwing into the dustbin . . . and others whose importance lasts for centuries, because their completion can only be a matter for God, and so they are fragments that must be fragments."
Teresa Berger comments: "In the end, Bonhoeffer’s own life became a fragment, abruptly broken off yet pointing to wholeness. As Bonhoeffer had understood in his prison cell, if brokenness and crisis were to become 'that edge where change is possible,' this crisis would have to be sustained by something stronger than the human. In a world whose systems of meaning do not bring life and flourishing, the crisis brought by the fire of the burning bush might just constitute good news. [The] gospel calls us... to the crisis that is God’s consuming and compelling presence. Life cannot flourish without this crisis."
(Picture: Jesus entering Jerusalem)
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Ireland celebrated the Feast of St Patrick yesterday (early, as it cannot be celebrated in Holy Week). But what would St Patrick - arguably the most famous Celtic saint - make of the practices and beliefs called 'Celtic Spirituality' today? In the excellent online journal of the British Jesuits, Thinking Faith, Liam Tracey examines whether the Celtic church was really anything like the romantic picture often painted of it. Read the article here. This is a topic which has interested me from a number of angles over the years. The book I co-edited for CTBI in 2001, Christian Mission in Western Society, has an excellent article on the respective traditions of Columba and Augustine (usually portrayed as opposites) which unpacks the myths of 'the Celtic'. Its author, academic Michael McGraith comments, on passing a religious bookshop in Cambridge, that the enthusiastic books on Celtic spirituality are not very scholarly and the scholarly books are not very enthusiastic! Later in the same volume, Jay Kothare looks at how popularized versions of these traditions have been a surprisingly helpful resource in the multi-faith, inner city situations in which he was worked as an Anglican priest. The economy of the Spirit is, indeed, surprising and unpredictable. Incidentally, this summer my father-in-law, Willard Roth, is leading a pilgrimage around Celtic and other sites in Britain for a group of American Mennonites (as he done several times over the years). I hope to link up with them at some point. Oh, yes... the title for this post is from Kevin Scully's play (in case he is watching).
Friday, March 14, 2008
I am honoured to be chairing and facilitating an inter-faith meeting in Central London tomorrow (15 March 2008) looking at responses to British involvement in the war, occupation and its aftermath in Iraq. Among the speakers will be Phil Shiner, a leading lawyer (also a Christian as it happens, and the Law Society's current 'solicitor of the year') who has jointly represented survivors of an appalling massacre at Abu Naji in 2004; Mazin Younis, who heads up an Iraqi unity coalition and helped rescue a young orphan from Fallujah; and David Moore, a Methodist minister and artist. There is more information here and here. (Incidentally, and since I have already been cross-questioned about this: yes, of course I deplore the sectarian killing and violence by the various factions in Iraq, and those fuelling them from the outside. But the collusion of the West with Saddam Hussein's murderous regime and the subsequent decision to launch an invasion without real thought about the laws of unintended consequences, planning for the future or willingness to accept the moral and legal scrutiny of what developed have hardly proved an adequate 'answer' to the terrible wrongs that preceded them.)
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Lent is popularly thought of, if it is thought of at all, as a matter of "self-denial". Which in turn means "being hard on yourself". A better understanding, I think, is that it is a period when we have the opportunity to go straight to the heart of things rather than getting caught up in the house of twisted desires, to develop good habits in place of destructive ones, to seek nourishment in something more substantial than, er, fast food.
"Inherent in a fast is a feast. When we fast from divisive patterns of relating with others, we feast on the amazing awareness that each face we see is the face of Christ. When we fast from building social, economic, and political walls, we feast on our universal oneness with the One... When we fast from food, we feast on prayer and God’s bountiful love." -- Marilyn Brown Oden, Wilderness Wanderings
"Most of us have to taste our need in a fierce sort of way before our hungers jar us into turning our lives over to God.... In the Divine arms we become less demanding and more like the One who holds us. Then we experience new hungers. We hunger and thirst for justice, for goodness and holiness. We hunger for what is right... Most of us are not nearly hungry enough for the things that really matter. That’s why it is so good for us to feel a gnawing in our guts." -- Macrina Wiederkehr
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Good citizenship is not about flag-waving, metaphorically or otherwise. It's about the just practices, shared habits and practical ways of organising our public lives which enable people to belong to one another across boundaries like those created by nation states, not in subjection to them. What we need is global citizenship to frame our commitments to family, group and nation. In this sense, the government, which has found itself in a pickle over a suggestion by Lord Goldsmith that school pupils should swear allegiance to Queen and country, has got it the wrong way round. The bones of my response on behalf of Ekklesia are here: Good citizens question ‘national pride’, says Christian think tank. It will not escape people's attention, I hope, that there are profound theological questions bound up in all this. So I have written a fuller article called Which citizenship, whose kingdom? [Also on OpenDemocracy, What is 'national' pride?]
Monday, March 10, 2008
"They deprive the poor of justice in the courts." (Amos 5.12)
For many months, my wife has been wearing a badge on her coat in support of the Law Society's What Price Justice? campaign, highlighting the dismal impact of the UK government's legal aid 'reforms' - which are heading in the direction of the closure of public law centres, the exit of key professionals from an area of law vital to the most vulnerable, and the ongoing loss of adequate representation for those at the bottom of the heap. As Madeleine Bunting says in today's Guardian ('Labour's handling of legal aid makes a mockery of its rhetoric on fairness'), what is happening is an absolute scandal. Apparently, the Legal Services Commission, which has been shrouding the issue in smoke and mirrors, in spite of losing both the case and the argument for unified contracts at the Court of Appeal, is furious about this article. Expect another hand wringing apologia shortly. The LSC and the government are just not listening to the evidence. At a grassroots level, the Access to Justice Alliance (supported by community groups, national charities, lawyers, advisers and others) continues to press for a proper settlement for legal aid. [See also this linked blog on Ekklesia]
Many, many congratulations to Roberta Rominger, who has just been announced as the next general secretary of the United Reformed Church. She is a very good person (and I hope the fact that I say this doesn't undermine her!) and will guide the URC with a thoughtful, creative and gently firm touch, I am sure. Not that I would unambiguously wish church leadership positions on anyone I care for right now. It's a difficult time both internally and externally. But on the Free Church front (remember non-conformity, anyone?), having Roberta at the URC and Martyn Atkins, current president, moving into a similar position at the Methodist Church is very good news indeed. Both need support, encouragement, honesty, constructive criticism and prayer from those of us operating at the margins, as well as those within the institutions. They will, of course, seek to steer their ships securely, but they both understand that the way forward in a turbulent, dare I say post-Christendom, environment comes through discipleship not safety first. Anyway, go gal! And listen to these two people, not just your policy wonks, Rowan.
One of the many things I love about St Stephen's Church in the Central Parish of Exeter, where I have been a member for four years or so, is that every other week we have a lay-led liturgy and discussion - with space for group conversation and also for quiet reflection for those who need it. As a way of combining prayerfulness, socialising and an opportunity to be open, exploratory and thoughtful about faith and life, it sets a good example. Because we are quite small, it is also possible, and usually very fruitful, to sit in a circle rather than rows.
So far so good. The point of sitting 'in the round', picking up Letty Russell's image, is that it is inclusive, non-hierarchical and relational. And indeed that is the way that it proves, for those who are used to it and have some familiarity with 'the circle'. But if you are a visitor, it can be, ironically, worrying and excluding. This morning, not long after we had started, two people stuck their heads round the door. "Come on in", someone called out in a friendly way. Instead, looking slightly startled, they turned on their heels and fled. It would have seemed inappropriate to chase after them, but you can't help feeling a sense of regret. Had it been a "normal service", then it would have been possible for them to sneak in at the back. Something I have often done myself, in fact.
My point is not that St Stephen's should re-sculpt our Meeting Point events. Far from it. They work, for many people. Of course, we should (and do) make some effort to keep a space in the circle, a seat at the end, some spare chairs, and where possible, someone to say hello near the door. But it still won't be for everyone. No form or shape of church worship will, no matter how emergent or traditional (or something combining the two) it seeks to be. What's needed, it seems to me, is for churches with different aptitudes and styles to make the most of what they are good at, and to think of the 'entry point' in the context of what is on offer. Walking in on a circle cold will always be difficult for most people, but being introduced to it by someone you know, or through social contact is a different matter.
What's important is for us to realise that while inclusion and exclusion have their obvious patterns and dominant causes (especially when the church is deliberately being exclusive, as some are), both occur in far subtler ways, too. Blame or guilt about this, or some fantasy that there is a 'technical solution', isn't the issue. Adaptability, awareness and openness is.
Other pieces on the 'communities of conviction' theme: Communities of liberating conviction; congregating for a change; disturbing our power games; doing church differently.
Sunday, March 09, 2008
"Power understood as the ability to accomplish desired ends is present in human relationships no matter how particular communities or societies are organized. Nevertheless, Christian communities [should] recognize that the source of power in their life is the love of Christ which inspires and directs them. This is a style of power not of coercion but of empowerment of others.... It also connects to those at the margins of society who search for word of God’s love and justice." -- Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist interpretation of the church
"The function of the Holy Spirit is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable" -- John Wesley.
That latter quotation has long been my favourite rendition of the role of paraclete. I first picked it up years ago from one of Colin Morris's set piece oratorial master classes. It has been widely attributed but goes back, I'm told, to Wesley. That would make sense. There is, of course, both the comfortable and the disturbed in most of us, in most churches, most communities and most situations. The divine disturbance is frequently a reversal of expectations, an irruption of the excluded or marginalised into our best laid plans, a questioning of our answers, an antidote to our attempts to be "in control", a retort to the imprisonment of law and text, and a confounding of ecclesial and other power structures.
As I have often observed in relation to sentimental interpretations of Psalm 23, the word 'comfort' has resonances of 'advocate' in the Greek, paraklētos, and 'to strengthen' in the Latin, confortare ... so it isn't a matter of mere consolation. Those who think that "religion is a crutch" have clearly not seriously contemplated the Way of the Cross (we are a week away from Palm Sunday, when Jesus' entry into Jerusalem confirms the determination of the powers-that-be to do him down) or the profound disturbance of the Spirit, whose identity over and against false spiritualities, destructive Zeitgeists, lies in bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind (Luke 4).
Incidentally, just as the name Corpus Christi has been abused to name nuclear weapons systems (with court prophets called in to "bless" them), so Paraclete is also the name of a military superstore. "Armour you can trust". Not quite Zechariah 4.6, then.
[Picture © UrbisMediaProductions. The Paraclete watches over a derelict small-town church in Haliewa, Hawaii.]