I’m John Owain Jones. I’m a Church of Scotland Minister on the Isle of Bute. This is where I’ll post my sermons, which I understand as having to be preached to, and so having to come from, that shared human space which I understand God to claim and Christ to fill, in worship. Let’s call it “real life”.
One of my very favourite passages from a theologian comes from the New Testament scholar Ernst Kasemann: Looking at the then-contemporary sixties scene, and the situation of Christianity within it (and we’re a lot further down the road now!) he says:”[W]e brought this on…ourselves. It is inevitable, if Christians fly from everyday reality (which ought to be the true place of their worship) behind church walls and into whatever is piously edifying. He who surrenders reality in the slightest degree is treating the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as dead…” (1)
So – reality. Where we live. A pliable, media-saturated, communications-overloaded 24/7 contemporary reality. Where we are, where we have to try to hold it all together, where we’re going to have to meet God, if we are going to meet God, if at all. Where – faith says – God meets us. Faith in Jesus oughtn’t to protect us from reality, but to immerse us in it.
Being disciples ought to implicate us in the world, and drive us to take responsibility for it, economically, socially, ecologically. Love, we must grasp, is, as I once heard an Antipodean person put it, bloody dangerous! Because it was a bloody and deadly dangerous business for Jesus, yet no other path but open-eyed determination to do what love demands leads anywhere but back on itself. Whereas love is a re-treading back to its source of God’s path to us in Jesus.
There’s a bit more about where I’m coming from below. Don’t bother with it unless you want to. The sermons should, of course, speak for themselves. But they might not. If they don’t, please let me know. It’s kind of important that I do…
Oh, and if you get no further than this, God bless you anyway!
Where I’m coming from…
I’m currently 55, but almost certainly won’t be in 3 years time, when it dawns on me that I haven’t updated this page for 3 years. Anyway, 1957 was a pretty good vintage, and I’m proud to be five months older than the Space Age.
Actually, astronomy calibrated the universe for me, and set the scale of my theology. Brought up, and eventually ordained, in the admirably broad culture of Welsh Nonconfomism (the Welsh luvvie who wrote treacherously about the “Stalinism of the Chapels” in some chattering-classes broadsheet hadn’t a clue what he was talking about) I never, EVER felt a conflict between science and religion. Rather, I can remember “falling into” – it WAS an almost physical sensation – an astronomy book that my father had mail-ordered from somewhere in the early sixties, when I was six. It was called “The Universe”, was by one Charles Hatcher, and I couldn’t have understood a tenth of it. I DID grasp, vertiginously, something of the unimaginability of the scale of the universe, and beyond that, the scale of God. A good summary was “If the UNIVERSE is THIS BIG, how big must GOD be?”
Like John A. T. Robinson, I am one of the “once-born” among Christians, not one of the “twice-born.” Apart from two very short and silently traumatic periods in my early teens, when there was a brief and appalling breach in the continuity of faith, I have always believed – that is, trusted – in God, which is to say that God-language has always made sense to me.
To that, university added a sense of the importance and beauty of the structure that theological traditions bring, as context, to faith. Inevitably, we do our theology, and our believing, in the contexts of traditions. I say “contexts” and “traditions” because I don’t believe that it’s sensible or healthy to believe that theological traditions, and the contexts they provide, have claims on us deeper than those of our generic Christian identity, which is primary, and something we all share, across all traditions. It’s Jesus who is the canon of our catholicity, qui semper, qui ubique, qui ab omnibus creditus est – “who has been believed everywhere, always, by all…” Certainly Christian traditions have logics of their own which, if we want to be rigid about it, are sometimes incompatible and on specific points mutually exclusive as to the options they permit. But if we’re willing not to be rigid and exclusive, and if we’re willing to be a tad postmodern, we can – as long as we are also meticulous, and know what we’re doing – hold traditions up to each other, see their incompatibilities as aporetic, [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aporia] and glimpse something of the God-given Christian knowing of God that escapes the smaller logic of our systematic “theologies.” That, it seems to me, is when we are actually, really, doing theology.
I’ll give you a for-instance. In terms of tradition and formation, I’m a Reformed Christian (that is, a Christian in the broad Calvinist tradition, not a recovering ex-Christian!) I ought to have big problems with many Lutheran theological emphases. But I find many of them indispensable. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communicatio_idiomatum] I find that they correspond to gaps in the Reformed theological repertoire that is a shortfall in catholicity, which is a big, big, lack.
And a more detailed for-instance. It would be hard to resist the assertion that something like Penal Substitutionary Atonement has had an abiding place at the centre of Reformed thought. PSA always made me shudder, even as one among the vast range of Christian understandings of the atonement – the at-one-ment, what it is that Christians believe God did in Jesus Christ to overcome our alienation from Godself. And I found that I never shuddered in this way when I reviewed the broad palette of understandings of Christ couched in the languages of sacrifice, which you find in Paul.
I think I should say at this point that I’ve discussed this with several people I have no hesitation in recognizing as good and devout Christians of deep faith, who nevertheless insist that Penal Substitutionary Atonement is, for them, the very heart of their faith. I mean no offence whatever, and am not impugning their faith or their intellect, when I say that after much conversation I simply don’t believe that what they are calling PSA actually is that. They deploy the rich sacrificial imagery of the Old and New Testaments, they plead the necessity of knowing that the objective ground of their guilt before God is dealt with and removed, they insist that for them as much for me the great themes of “Christus Victor” and the cross as the articulation, manifestation, exemplar and substantiation of God’s suffering love are as much in play for them, in their theology, as they are for me in mine. And all of that I accept – and couldn’t, in fact, deny, having listened to all they say.
I just don’t believe that what they say is Penal Substitutionary Atonement actually is PSA at all.
I’ve been driven increasingly to the conclusion that PSA isn’t just a docrtrinaire, totally unscriptural distortion of Pauline and Old Testament themes into a sixteenth-century courtroom mould (with a nod to Anselm’s feudalism) but that it’s the theological equivalent of grey squirrels, or Japanese Knotweed. It takes over everything…And it drives out all other understandings of atonement, all the Biblical assertions that Christ dies and rises again destroying our captivity and transforming the darkness of our world into the desperate exertions of an enslaving, alienating power defeated once-for-all in Cross and Resurrection, (“Christus Victor” – google for Gustav Aulen) all the Biblical explorations of Jesus as love destroying evil by absorbing all that evil can do to it and dying and overcoming even the ultimate estrangement. (Abelardian atonement “not scriptural” my eye! Far too many systematic theologians, even of renown, are astoundingly incompetent in Biblical interpretation…)
“Christus Victor”, then, I got from a Lutheran, (Aulen) who says that it isn’t just Luther’s understanding of the Atonement, but the “classical” pervasive understanding of early Christianity.
So I feel completely confident in removing PSA from my theology, as I would a cheap, failed component in an expensive car, and replacing it with what should be there, and should have been there all along, the panoply of Biblical understandings, sacrificial, exemplary, incarnational, and, yes, forensic (have a squizz at Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament vol. 1) of a hugely overdetermined, ultimately ineffable, event about which, ineffable or not, we have to say something…
(This says a bit more about where I’m coming from on this. http://owizblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/02/washing-up-chernobyl-and-the-atonementsermon-kilbarchan-east/) This isn’t irrelevant, either: http://owizblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/fire-from-heaven-sermon-1st-july-2007/
And there’s a bigger undercutting, for me, of allegiance to tradition. My instincts have never been conservative, and for me the primacy of the claims of a critical Biblical study undercut the claims of any theological tradition – in other words, to pretend that it’s OK to specify in advance, and on the basis of a tradition, what the Bible is, is deeply dishonest. What the Bible is, is what the Bible presents itself to be, and the tools for establishing that, were forged by a religious tradition - mainstream Protestantism – that did something that no other religious tradition has ever done, in the history of the world. It forged the most powerful critical arsenal the world had ever seen – and turned it on itself.
The bottom line to any claim that we profess a Biblical faith is that we are true to what the Bible is – and isn’t. Paul didn’t write II Thessalonians, Peter didn’t write I or II Peter, Moses didn’t “write” anything that we have, and the prophets (unlike the apocalyptists!!) didn’t write ANYTHING as such, but exist in the deposit of an oral tradition – as does the “Jesus Tradition” of the Gospels. No amount of waving and brandishing of Confessions or books of dogmatics can alter that.
Nobody who knows any Greek at all could plausibly claim that the person who produced the text we call Galatians also produced Hebrews, or I Timothy. But that’s OK. Biblical inerrancy isn’t something the Bible teaches. How could it, when the Bible has no conception of “the Bible”? Our faith isn’t dependent on the inerrancy of the Bible. Our faith isn’t in the Bible. It’s in God, whom we encounter in Jesus Christ, the Jesus Christ John’s Gospel says is the Word – the utterance, the self-articulation of God. And the Biblical witness is a complex, sometimes downright contradictory, staggeringly rich, chorus of witness to the encounter between the community of faith, and God.
I was taught that in the seventies, in a Scottish Faculty of Divinity.
As I say, we all stand in traditions in some way or another, and Christians stand in overlapping traditions. I’m a (very left-wing!) Reformed Christian - a critical Catholic Reformed sort of Reformed, that would be me. I admire people like Sebastian Castellio for the humanity of their faith (and note that George Wishart, burnt at the stake in St Andrews by Cardinal Beaton, derived the authority of his preaching not so much from impeccable Reformed theology as from “his Christ-like kindness to the plague victims of Dundee”.)
I only cease to be suspicious – equally suspicious - of both tidiness and untidiness in theology when they co-exist and converse. Gratuitous unorthodoxy irritates me as intellectual untidiness even when I find it endearing as a cluttered passion for truth. Gratuitous orthodoxy infuriates me as a substitute for real, courageous thought, either from laziness or from intellectual cowardice. Unposturing honesty is always endearing to me, whatever it says.
In terms of faith, though, I’m stuck with it. In fact, a lot of my understanding of my own theological position derives from my Calvinist sense of being stuck with my faith.
By the way, I understand “Calvinist” and “Reformed” to be, respectively, a style of theology derived, at a long remove after four and a half centuries, from an interesting, brilliant and deeply flawed guy who lived in Geneva, and a theological framework co-ordinating grace, faith and the love and mercy of God in a particular way.
So don’t worry, dear reader,that I may presume you to be reprobate and damned if you disagree with me! I’m not that sort of Calvinist. Another item in my wayward portfolio of allegiances is Origen of Alexandria. I am not a professing universalist - I don’t think we human beings of flesh and blood can make good theology out of an out-and-out universalist position, (though Origen comes within a whisker) and we certainly never seem to do justice to the cruel darkness within us from such a position. (Yet it may be how things actually are with God, and grace, and so how it will be with us…)
And then, there’s sin…
There is sin. It isn’t an abstract affront to a splenetic and hate-filled God, who shows his “love” towards us by killing someone else when it’s really us he wanted dead, so that he can forgive us if we get our religion and theology right. It’s what starves children in a world of plenty, spills the blood shed in war and conflict, binds us to our own interests, and those of our group, and reflects, in our sundering each from the other, such a radical sundering from God that it disempowers and kills God to overcome it.
I’m not a humanist, very much an anti-humanist – yet “contempt for the human” is equally something that distresses me theologically as well as emotionally. So many theological anti-humanisms represent arrogance, or sleekit suck-up timidity from the second row of the bully’s gang – or some other face or form of that very loveless, trustless, cravenly anything-for-a-quiet-life conformity to the monstrous, that self-centred, save-my-own-life-by-grovelling (cp. Mark 8:34ff.) sundering from God, that actually is sin.The only safe model for a (profoundly necessary) anti-humanism is Jesus: “ O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Luke 13:34)”Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Compassion!
(Compassion and pessimism are the authentic heart of Christianity, said Schopenhauer. If he’d been in a position to throw in the exchatological, he’d have been practically spot-on! Well, as spot-on as an atheist can be. There are certain things you just can’t see from out there… No offence…)
Prejudices, then? Clearly I have enough and to spare. The contrivedly-conservative “Calvinism” on the theological right I see as a species of life-denying antiquarianism, and the opposite of theology, since it talks about itself, and not about God. Conservative-evangelical “bibliocentrism” I understand as Bibliolatry, and a theoretical, practical and functional substitution of the Bible for Jesus Christ as the Christian revelation – and by that, I mean “God’s self-revelation in and through the Christian tradition” not “God’s revelation to the world as owned, patented and sold under license exclusively by Christians…”
Oh, and I’m also a convinced Freudian. Whether that comes from six years studying and five years teaching Hebrew and Old Testament at university, or from my expansive catholic Calvinism, and the obvious homologies among Judaism, Calvinism and psychoanalysis, I don’t (yet) know…
And, like Glenn Gould, I believe Mozart to be chronically over-rated, and Mendelssohn scandalously under-rated.
But that REALLY IS prejudice. (At least the Wolfgang bit. Felix really IS under-rated…)