Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ideas for a Theology of Decline

Well, I am finished! Yesterdays post is the last in what is probably the very first - though very small - systematic theology of the blogosphere (if anyone can direct me to one that beat me to it, please do so, otherwise I claim my place in the history books).

Ok, obiously this isn't even comparable with the Barths and Pannebergs and Tillichs that take up over shelf-space, but this is a new medium and this is about the size adequate for this medium I think.

Also, part of the medium, I think, is the fact that it has been thought out as it was written. In other words, I did not have much of an idea of were it would end up when I started it. I just wanted to explore the idea of theology in the context of a culture in decline. This also means I have dealt quite briefly with some areas of the Christian doctrine (The trinity and Christology come to mind), because the guiding principle has been to treat those areas of the doctrine that are seem relevant in this context.

There has been much discussion of the texts as they have developed. This has been enormously helpful, and this obviously is a real strength of doing theology this way. Thanks to all who have taken their time to read my thoughts. If someone would want to take the time to read the whole thing through and post some thoughts on that, it would be incredibly fun.

Finally, Ill be doing some slight editing of the texts, mainly correcting bad spelling and adding some links forward. I'd like to apologise to my feed subscribers who will get a lot of old posts the coming days.

Anyway, here it is:

Ideas for a theology of Decline

God and Creation
Sin and the Forces of EvilThe Eschatologial Nature of the Faith

The Human Existence and SalvationThe SacramentsThe Church

Sermon online

The very few of you that read Swedish may read a sermon by me posted at the site of the music and arts festival at which I preached a while ago.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Church in a Declining World

In what way, then, is it helpful to participate in the Church when one is living in a culture that is in decline and even approaching its destruction?

Well, first of all, let me say that I do not believe that the Church will be able to do something very substantial towards reversing this trend, or even reducing its effects. I think we are beyond the point where there is very much that can be done, be it about the environment, the intellectual climate or the humanitarian situation. Obviously the Church have to do all it can in order to minimize the effects of this development, and especially in caring for those that will be most severely affected by it, i.e. the poor. But at this point, to hope that we will be able to "save" the world, is probably counter-productive.

What we need is a way of life that can handle living in a culture that is self-destructing. And it is this I think the Church can offer.

First, what does such a life look like? Obviously this is very speculative, but I think the key would be to found one's identity on values that are not threatened by the decline in culture. This is fairly obvious when it comes to material things. If owning fast cars and lot's of books (ouch!) are important to you, a collapsing economy will not be a pleasant place to be. But then I think humans are very adaptable when it comes to these things, so that will probably not be most critical aspect of decline. But in a situation where resources are lacking, any life that is built on what you do and what you have will be severely threatened.

On the other hand a person who's identity secured and fairly autonomous in relation to the workings of society will do much better. A person that is not depending on what other people think but rather is focused living one's life in open relationships with other humans will probably be able to deal with the difficulties that will come.

A person that has learned to find meaning in whatever he or she does will not loose the sense of purpose when society undergoes drastic changes. Such a person finds joy in even simple tasks, and can find encouragement in small things. That can be the key to surviving.

And obviously, a person that is working towards overcoming the fear of death will not be easily paralysed if bad times come. Such a person finds strength in the freedom of Christ, and is able to live life in a meaningful way even when society is collapsing.

In other words, a person that is living the reality of the future salvation here and now will be able to stand apart from the collapsing culture and not get - spiritually - dragged along with its fall.

As I have tried to show, this is the kind of person the Church can foster - this is the outcome of a person becoming transformed by the gospel. By entering into communion with others in the Church, we are reminded of another existence and we are able to see the relative value of this one. Thus we can separate ourselves from a culture that is destroying the creation, and together with God, the creator, give hope to other human beings who are suffering in this decline. This, too, creates meaning.

A person who is has overcome the problems of Identity, death and meaning will be able to stand against the forces that are bringing our world towards destruction. It may not be possible to stop them, but it may be possible not only to save one's own soul, but also the souls of our brothers and sisters from perishing in that destruction.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Where is the Church?

The Church, theologically, is not the same as the sum of people who are Christians. This is something agreed on by most. But how do we "locate" the Church without getting caught in some symbol-game, throwing around terms as "body of Christ", "Kingdom of God" and "People of God" without any obvious contact with that particular group of people? I will no return to this fundamental question of ecclesiology.

A person belongs to the Church if he or she participates in the life of the Church. This means that the person believes that the life of the Church is fundamentally significant for his or her own identity, as I said in an earlier post. There I used the formula "biblical narrative, sacraments and worship" in an attempt to be as inclusive as possible. Personally I am no sure that a congregation that focuses on the preaching of the Word of God can be equated with a congregation that focuses on the sacraments or on worship (clearly all three are present more or less in all Christian churches, with the exception of the sacraments, which is a real problem no matter how cool the Quakers generally are.) Personally I feel the Sacraments are the best way to preach the Word of God and worship. While focus on the Sacraments naturally includes (or should include) the Word of God and worship, this cannot be said about a service focused on the Word of God or worship. In such traditions the sacramental aspect is reduced.

That said, the Church is more that a "thing" where people preach, celebrate the Eucharist and sing hymns. And this is the heart of the problem: It is not these outer signs that constitutes the Church, but what they signify. This means that although the Church can be said to always be present where people meet to hear the Word of God, participate in the celebration of the sacraments and worship, this is not the only place where the Church is present. Because the true mark of the Church is the content of Word, Sacraments and Worship, the Gospel, the Church is present wherever the Gospel is interacting with people.

The Gospel is not something that can be easily put into words. I have tried to do so in this blog. A person that encounters the Gospel becomes more secure in his or her identity, overcomes fear and finds meaning in life. This is just one expression of the Gospel, there are other that are as valid or more so. The point is that the Gospel is bigger than any religious ideas about life. We have to believe that God with the gospel genuinely want to help people with their lives, not primarily turn them into Christians. This means that wherever people find themselves, security and meaning, there the gospel, and thus the Church is present. It may be in any organisation or institution, or in a group of close friends or in solitude reading a book or watching nature. The Church may be present anywhere, also in other religions than Christianity.

And obviously, there are many houses that says "Church" on the door where the church is seldom present, because the gospel has bee forgotten. Here again I think a sacrament-centred service is harder to "destroy" than another form of service.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ten Propositions on Authority in the Church

Lists of propositions seem popular so here goes...

1. No particular way of governing the Church can be historically traced back to Jesus or the apostles.

2. The Church should at any particular time in history be governed in such a way that the method of government reflects the Gospel in that time.

3. Continuity throughout the ages is part of the identity of the Church, part of its message and part of its raison d'être. This can be communicated by the way the Church is governed, i.e. by a distinct continuity in its ministry.

4. The form of government in the Church is part of the spiritual Identity of the Church. It is not "merely administration". It must conform to the general rule that should always be a mark of the Church: that it reflects what the Church believes life will be like in the coming world.

5. The Church needs authority with various geographical scope. There needs to be governing with local, regional and global jurisdictions. The primary function of the different levels of Authority in the Church is to be a symbol of the catholicity of the Church.

6. The notion of a hierarchy in the sense of a ladder of power where everyone submits to those above and rules over those beneath is at odds with the general sense of just government today. Since it is not based on the bible it should be avoided in the Church today.

7. The notion that some people have authority over others based not on merits or insight but on office is incomprehensible today and should be avoided.

8. The general principle of distribution of power in the Church should be to try to minimize central authority and maximize local authority: The Church should trust its regional and local bodies to be able to make informed decisions that maintain orthodoxy. Again, the primary role of the global authority is symbolical.

9. The general principle of local authority should be to trust and support the individual to make choices in his or her personal spiritual life.

10. The Church should strive to reduce the power of individuals over other individuals in all areas and at all levels of the Church. This way she fulfils the commandment of the gospel that "if you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others".

Cool Theology?

Ok, who googled "The coolest theological blog"?

(Mine came in fifth, but the only blog to beat me was alastair.adversaria.)

Btw, a good place to look for theological blogs, cool or otherwise is, of course, Theology Blogs.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Who belongs to the Church?

Ecclesiology must try to answer not only What the Church is, but also the Who and the Where of the Church.

Who is a member of the Church? I think this question has to be answered differently depending on who asks the question. We need, on the one hand, some kind of objective answer that the Church can use do decide who is a member and who is not. But this answer may be different from the subjective answer to the question "Do I belong to the Church?".

Regarding the objective answer we must first ask why the Church as an institution needs an answer to this question. The reason must not be in order to know who to serve and who not: The Church must show the same kind of love to all humans regardless if they are Christians or not. A Church that turns away a person in need, spiritually or physically, is no church. This, I feel includes rituals such as the Eucharist. The Church can uphold a practice of admitting only Christians to the Table, but not turn away someone that wishes to participate based on some objective criterion.

The reason there needs to be a kind of objective criterion of Church membership is that the Church needs to respect that some people do not want to be treated as members by the Church. This refers to people belonging to other religions, as well as people that feel the need to protest against the Church for one reason or other. These feelings are rooted in a searching for identity, a search that the Church in such cases may support the best (thus fulfilling the Church's mission) by stepping back. But the Church should not deny anyone what it has to give in any situation. Love knows no other way. This objective criteria is obviously baptism, no other criteria is possible. (Churches that do not have baptism obviously must find some other solution)

The subjective answer to the question "do I belong to the Church?" is much more difficult to address. Here baptism is not enough, such an answer does not answer the problem formulated in the question. This is especially true because of the practice of paedobaptism. If a baptised person does not feel secure about being part of the Church, this is not a question about objective membership but a question of identity.

A person belongs to the Church if he or she believes that the use of the biblical narrative and the participation in the sacraments and worship of the Church is helpful in overcoming the existential problems encountered in life. This is a technical way of expressing what can in religious language be expressed as to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord. The biblical narrative and the sacraments and worship ultimately aim at making the life story of Jesus Christ an internal part of the individuals life story.

There is room for variations of emphasis here: while one tradition puts the emphasis more on the "Word of God" another may emphasize the sacraments. The point is that I feel it is difficult to call someone a Christian (except in the sociological sense) unless a person believes that being Christian benefits him or her in some way. But there is no way of objectively establish who fulfils this criterion and the Church should not try to do so. There are obviously indicators ("holiness"), but these are not foolproof and the Church, as an institution should not base its practice on them.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Extraordinary Christians

Check out Darrel Pursiful's League of Extraordinary Christians from the patristic era.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Schillebeeckx on Galatians 3:26-28

The Greek literally reads, 'the male and the female no longer exists' - a clear reference to the Septuagint translation of Gen. 1:27, 'male and female he created them'. In this line of thought the baptism of the Spirit is the eschatological restoration of an order of creation with an equality which was destroyed historically and in society - it is 'new creation' (Gal. 6:15). The baptism of the Spirit removes historical discriminations. The three categories of those discriminated against are clear from the Jewish-Christian perspective: the Gentiles (discriminated against in favour of the Jews), the slaves (discriminated against in favour of the free), and women (discriminated against in favour of men). Nowadays we could add yet more categories. In principle, Christian baptism completely removes all these social and historical oppositions within the community of believers.
Edward Schillebeeckx: The Church with a Human Face, p. 38. (Ten crowns in a used book store!)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Being busy.

That's what I have been the last weeks and what I will be this week. The rest of the ecclesiology series will just have to wait.

This blog is usually low on personal content, but I'll tell you this: I am right now in "Sweden's Oxford" Lund, for a four-day patristics conference. I will present my research on Thursday, and its the first time I have done such a presentation to a wider audience that actually will know what I'm talking about. So I will have to concentrate on that for now.

Anyway, the theme of the conference is Eros and Agape - Benevolence, Love and Mysticism in the Early Church. If there are any papers that particularly catch my ear I may give you some short reviews. So far I can only say this: Lund is a very nice little town, With lots of Used Book Shops and small streets to loose you orientation in. Highly recommended!

Monday, August 07, 2006

What is good ecclesiology?

We're having blackouts here today, which leaves us not only without light and internet-connection (my laptop still has some life in it), but the doors don't work either. It's amazing how power-dependent we are.)

Anyway, WTM posted a comment to my last post on ecclesiology, asking what is the criteria for a good model of the Church. Is it a model that works? Or is it one that is theologically correct? Well, to me it seems that the problem is that neither of these alternatives is right. Even if a model "works" according to some criteria (church growth, doctrinal  unity , whatever)  it can still be a false model. And even if a certain model has a sound theological theory behind it, it can still fail to fulfil its mission.

I actually did give a kind of definition of the church in an earlier post: The Church is the acting out of the hope of the future world in this world. And this is the criteria. If a model fails to do this it is a bad model. This means that if you have 100.000 new members a month, but fail to be an Icon of the kingdom of God, your model is not good enough.

Now, as I have shown in my posts on the sacraments, these rituals are the most important ways in which the Church can reflect its hope in the future world. But even if "The Word of God and the Sacraments" are present in a church, the model used may be failing unless that particular church fails to communicate this to the world. This means that the Criteria of a "good" model of the Church has an element of cultural relevance to it. In some way the model that is in use must be adaptable to a particular cultural context.

This means that it may be difficult to find one model that works all over the world in our time, but this is part of the problem, because at the same time the Church has to be catholic - there has to be an element that identifies the Church in every culture and in every age.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

I'm not Luther (either)

Well I am glad I got high points on most alternatives, since I feel the disputed questions are the wrong one's to ask anyway. I feel 100% comfortable with "symbol" language as well as transsubstation language. Maybe that was what Luther meant too, he didn't want to limit the ways we can enter the mystery. For more on my understanding on the Eucharist, see my recent posts on the subject: Communion and Community, The Eucharist as an Exercise for the Next World, The Body of Christ, The Eucharist and Salvation.

You scored as Luther. You are Martin Luther.
You'll stick with the words of Scripture, and defend
this with earthy expressions. You believe in an
orthodox Christology. You believe that the
bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Christ,
but aren't too sure about where he goes after
the meal, and so you don't accept reservation
of the Blessed Sacrament or Eucharistic devotions.











Eucharistic theology
created with QuizFarm.com

Ways to See the Church

The concluding part of my "theology of decline" will be devoted to ecclesiology, that is, the doctrine of the Church. I feel this subject is extremely difficult, for it is my belief that if the present problems in the Christian Church is based on doctrine, it is in the notion of the Church that the heart of the problem lies. I can only hope that the 21st century will be the century of ecclesiology, much like the fourth was the century of discussion on the trinity, the fifth on Christology and the 20th was the century of discussion of the relevance of history for theology.

The problem of the Church is in theory very simple: We have this group of people. And we have this theological concept of the Church. How do we relate this group of human beings to the theological concept? This in essence in the ecclesiological question. In this first post I will approach the question negatively: I will point out the - rather obvious - problems with the current models. If there is anything left of my blog and theological self esteem after that, I will try to bring something positive to the table.

Now, I know that the below discussion is very simplified, it is not to be read as an accurate description of how the different denominations understand themselves. The names are of lesser importance, it is the ideas that count.

1. The Roman Catholic Model
The Church consist of people who belong to the worldwide institution of the Roman Catholic Church. You are a member if you are baptised and accept the authority of the hierarchy of the Church from the pope down, including in matters of doctrine and teaching. All those that confess unity with this organisation, personified by the Bishop of Rome make out the "people of God".

Now this model is in crisis today because people do not see the reason to accept this authority. People in our culture are thought that the right thing to do is to think for yourself and to make your own mind up about matters of faith, and it is thus difficult to see the reason that people belonging to the priesthood would have an inherent authority in such matters. Since the Roman Catholic Church has lost most of the "worldly" power it once had, people do not understand why they should submit to it in "spiritual" matters.

2. The Eastern Orthodox Model
The Church consist of all those people that express the true faith through the traditional liturgy that is more or less the same everywhere and always. The organisation that exists to uphold this tradition can look a bit different in different nations, but as long as it upholds the tradition from the fathers expressed by the continuity of the hierarchy it is considered part of the true Church. The authority in matters of doctrine lies in the hands of the entire Church: not even a synod of all the bishops of the Church can make a decision in a doctrinal question unless the Church as a whole (the believers) accept the decision.

I must confess that I'm partial to this model. However, history has shown that the autonomous "state churches" that make up the Orthodox Church do risk to become pawns in the hands of ruthless worldly rulers. Also, to make doctrinal decisions today is practically impossible, which may be a problem in face of the difficult questions that face believers today. Also, there is a tendency in the Orthodox tradition that shuns contact with culture, which makes it difficult for the Church to react to times of sudden change in the cultural climate.

3. The Protestant State Church
Far from being one model, this system has worked out different ways in different countries. At the core is at any rate a kind of opt-out system of membership as opposed to the opt-in of the other models. In other words, in countries such as England, Sweden or Finland, you belong to the State Church unless you decide not to. Of course, signs like baptism are present, but in reality you belong to the church in most cases based on the nationality of the land on which you happened to be born.

Since this is the predominant system of the my country I have obviously thought about it a bit, but I'll try to keep it short. The model has some clear advantages: Since the vast majority of the population are members, the servants of the Church can assume that all people they meet are members, which means that there is no "us and them" mentality, and all people will thus be treated with the same respect. However, the system has lead to a situation where ceremonies such as weddings and funerals are often seen as more important in the life of the Church than the services where the Eucharist is being celebrated. This is already a very serious ecclesiological problem. But it has also lead to a situation where a vast portion of the members do not feel related to the Church at all, even though they are members, and essentially see the Church as a kind of institution that offers services at certain times in life, without any sense of community at all.

4. The free Church model (traditional)
There are new models for being a church cropping up every minute, but this is the more traditional Congregational model. You belong to the church if you chose to accept the doctrine and lifestyle of the particular group you wish to join. The emphasis may vary, but usually there has been a rather strong emphasis on how ethics rather than dogmatics.

The model has the advantage that it very easy to say who is in and who is out. That's very practical. But the model has many deep flaws. First of all, the actual criteria that decides if a person is deemed acceptable can be almost arbitrary and often based on more on cultural prejudices than biblical teaching. The model often fosters an ugly "us vs. them" mentality and a black-and-white worldview to accompany it. Since the groups can be pretty isolated they can easily turn into sect-like scenarios if a person with an inflated ego becomes the leader. Finally, it seems that these kinds of congregations have a surprising difficulty to adapt to the changes of culture, and they thus tends to become pockets of backwards thinking in areas such as ethics, leadership and gender roles.

5. The free Church model (recent)
Under this heading I'd like to lump together a whole bunch of more recent ideas, that are being tried around the globe right now. The actual criteria are similar to the ones in the above model, but the actual group can look very different. For instance, some kind of network model can be used, thus combining the free church model with a catholic like hierarchy, where the unity of the church is guaranteed by the formal or informal connection to some leadership figure(s). These new models do not really escape the traps of the more traditional model, they are usually developed for different reasons such as church growth.

Well, as I said, these are all caricatures, so please do not be too offended. My point is just to illustrate how important this question is in the Church as a whole today.

Sci-Fi Theology

This is not what it looks like, but I'm actually going to link Sci-Fi theology a second time in the same week... The reason is pretty obvious, Alex has a post on Isaac of Nineveh, whom I spend my days studying.

Most of it is wrong, of course, bu it will have to suffice untill my book is published in 2008... ;)

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Theology Blogs reaches 50 blogs

Theology Blogs now includes, with the latest additions, 50 blogs with theological content. This is still, I think a rather small part of the theological blogosphere, but the increase is steady, and the blog has proved to be especially useful as a place that keeps track of new blogs on theology.

If you haven't yet added your blog, head over and do so!

However, according to technorati only 23 links to Theology Blogs are found at the moment... It would be nice if a few more would consider to add the list to their blogrolls.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

New blog: Sci-fi Theology

I'd like to direct you to a fairly new theology blog worth visiting: Alex Thompson's Sci-Fi Theology. Alex has been quite active since early July, and particularly his ongoing series of "Text's in time" is worth reading (1, 2, 3, 4).

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Firefox Extensions for Blogging

OK, this is off-topic, but I just thought I'd share some tips in case someone out there hasn't found out about these. Firefox really is an amazing browser, and by adding extensions you can make it do almost anything. Here are a few I find useful.

First of all, Spellbound is an absolute must! It is a spellchecker that works inside any text box  you write in on the web. Yes, including those that you write your blog posts in. Actually I found this only yesterday, but expect my texts to be a bit less irritating in the future. (Isn't a bit ironic, though, how the word "blog" is always considered erroneous?) There are loads of free dictionaries available too.

I'm currently trying out the Performancing for Firefox, a text editor for blogging. The idea is that you can have a window on your lower half of the firefox window and write you posts in that. Compared to bloggers built in editor it is great, much faster. I have had some problems with it so far though, it seems it has difficulty to connect to the blogger server. Anyway, it is well worth checking out. (HT: connexions)

Finally there is a great little extension that lets you create an HTML link from a page with a mouse click, and then paste it anywhere you want to. Very useful.

Of course, there are several reader extensions for Firefox, but I haven't been too impressed with any of the one's I have tried.

Any more tips, anyone?

Adversaria: Sinfulness

Alastair has a thoughtful post on Sinful Nature, Justification, Sanctification and the Spirit, well worth the time to read.
Christians are not to think of themselves as those with a fallen nature, but as those who have died to Sin. Such a way of speaking about our nature is a description of our nature as it appears to sight. The Scripture, I believe, speaks differently. For the Scripture our true nature is found in Christ. Whilst Christians certainly sin, when they do so they are living in conflict with their essential nature. Sin, whilst undoubtedly present in our lives, is a very much an alien and ‘unnatural’ presence

I wrote a post on sin a couple of months ago that has some similar ideas in it.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Creativity and Holiness

Tillich has a wonderful definition of the holy. Something is holy only by negating itself in pointing to the divine of which it is the medium.

In other words, when something or someone is holy, it (he/she) becomes transparent for a deeper reality, it opens up and shows the presence of God. To be holy is to point towards God by being what one really is.

In my last post I explored the connection between Creation and Revelation, to concepts that seem to be very closely related. If to create is to reveal, than to be creative is to be holy.

The opposite of holiness, for Tillich, is the demonic. A holy object becomes demonic when it stops pointing towards something beyond itself and instead points to itself. This too is applieable to human creativity. When we use our creativity to point towards ourselves, to lift ourselves up, our creative act is not holy but demonic. This is what happens in our culture all the time. Music and art, when it is good, opens up reality and gives us a deeper understanding of it. But when it becomes commercialised and turned into entertainment it instead covers up the depths of reality and presents the superficial as the real content. And what is worse, it teaches us to mistake the experience of the superficial for a real experience of reality. This is why entertainment can be so dangerous - at least in the amount we are consuming it today - it numbs the natural tendency in us to look for meaning, and makes us satisfied with what is merely entertaining. Instead of living we are, as Thom Yorke sings, just passing time. Demonic indeed.

But the beauty with creative living is that it too is contagious. When we meet someone who lives creatively in some way, we are inspired to be creative in our own way. When we meet someone who is transparent for the deeper reality, for example by genuinly engaging in performing a song, it gives me the listener, a longing to express the same reality in a way that corresponds to my personality, by living in a creative manner.