Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Christians in Syria

Christ was born in Palestine, but Christianity was born in Syria.
Bashir al-Assad, President of Syrian Arab Republic
This quote is not significant for its theological or historical value, but because of its context and who said it. The Syrian President Bashir al-Assad said this during the visit of pope John Paul II in Damascus, and it is a line often repeated by Syrian Christians as a symbol of the good relations the Christians enjoy with the Syrian government (and a great deal of pride at their long Christian tradition, of course).

There are about two million Christians in Syria, they make up a significant part of the population. Since they are divided into so many denominations (Greek-orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian-Orthodox, Greek-Catholic, Syrian-Catholic, Latin Catholic, Armenian-Catholic, Caldeans and Maronites, and some scattered protestants), you are about as likely to find a church as a mosque while walking in the major cities.

The first thing any Christian leader will tell you is how good the relations are between the various churches (the Greek-orthodox and the Syrian-orthodox share communion), as well as between Christians and Muslims. Mor Matta Roham, the Bishop in Hassake, told us during our trip which took place during the end of Ramadan, that the clergy of the city would, for the festival, go around to the leaders of the Muslim tribes and offer their congratulations. At Christmas and Easter (national holidays in Syria) the Muslim leaders would in turn visit the Bishops. In Aleppo we were told that during the celebrations of Aleppo as the capital of Islamic Culture in 2006, a public seminar would be held where one of the priests in the Syrian-Orthodox community had been invited to lecture of the role of Christians in the formation of Islamic Culture.

In other words, as things are now, Syria is probably the place in the Middle East were the Christian minority is best off. Of course, you could hear it in the way that the Bishops and Patriarchs we met emphasized their good relations, that they are fully aware (and want us to be aware too), that this will change the day the first American bomb falls over Damascus.

The Syrian Christians see themselves as having a crucial role in the relationship between east and west. "As long as we are here it will not be possible for the muslims to equate American and European foreign policy with Christianity. As long as we are here the muslims can see that they are not the same thing, that it is not Christianity that motivates the hostile acts of the west", Patriarch Gregory III Laham (Greek Catholic) told us.

I must confess that some of the Christian communities I visited in Syria seemed more dynamic and alive than anything I've seen in the West. In Hassake, the Syrian-Orthodox have recently finished building a huge school-building, and are already working on the next. They have well over a thousand students (about 20% are Muslim children). The positive side to the exodus of Christians from the Middle East is that those who stay receive financial support from those that leave for the west. But they certainly seem to put the money to good use, building up not only the community of their own but fostering good relations with other communities as well.

The overwhelming feeling I got when travelling around Syria was that if the west would only leave this part of the world alone, they would be fully competent to sort of their problems themselves.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

I'm Back

Yes, back from a extremely interesting two week trip to the Middle-East. I will post some of my impressions soon. I have no photos since I did not bring a camera, (I never do), but many of my co travellers did, so I may point to some of those.

It was great trip, but it is good to be home.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Off-line time

I'll be doing some travelling the next two weeks, in the Middle-East, so I do not know if I will be able to post anything at all. And I won't take my Tillich with me (I bet this comes as a surprise to some off you), so the Reading Tilllich series will have to wait.

I'll be attending a PhD Course about Early Syrian Asceticism and be travelling to very interesting places. The Course is lead by professors Samuel Rubenson, Risto Uro and Susan Ashbrook Harvey.

If I'm not back by the beginning of November, call the UN. ;)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Reading Tillich 25: Ecstasy

The church must prevent the confusion of ecstasy with chaos, and it must fight for structure. On the other hand, it must avoid the institutional profanization of the Spirit which took place in the early catholic church as a result of its replacement of charisma with office. Above all, it must avoid the secular profanization of contemporary Protestantism which occurs when it replaces ecstasy with doctrinal or moral structure.
Systematic Theology III, 117.
Tillich's talk of ecstasy was difficult to "get" back in the fifties, it may be even worse now, when most people think of a pill when they hear the word. On the other hand, the concept has found a place in theology since then, Pannenberg uses it a lot (without giving Tillich any credit...)

In honesty, what Tillich says in this particular quote is not that radical or original. I think most people living in the church has a similar opinion, that true faith is neither submitting to religious authority nor to doctrinal or ethical rules. What is special is that Tillich really places this thought in the centre of his theology, and it goes right through the system. He acknowledges that religion is an ambiguous phenomenon and has to be so.

Homosexuality discussion

Things are, as expected, heating up at "Shadows of Divine Things" where T.B. Vick is discussing homosexuality. In his latest instalment, he argues from what is natural (based on Romans 1).'

The problem with arguing for or against anything base on it being "natural" or "unnatural", is that it is essential aspect of being human to transcend the "natural", the given. Not to embrace that which lies outside our given biological nature is to sink beneath what is human, to exist as an animal. It is nothing "natural" with using my fingers to press down buttons that produce text on a screen. Still no one would take this as a reason to judge it unnatural. So basically, when one is criticizing homosexual behaviour because it is against nature one is at the same time criticizing human culture as a whole.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Reading Tillich 24: The Unity of Morality, Culture and Religion

In accordance with their essential nature, morality, culture and religion interpenetrate each other. They constitute the unity of the spirit, wherein the elements are distinguishable but not separable.
Morality, or the constitution of the person as person in the encounter with other persons, is essentially related to culture and religion. Culture provides the contents of morality - the concrete ideals of personality and community and the changing laws of ethical wisdom. Religion gives to morality the unconditional character of the moral imperative, the ultimate moral aim the reunion of the separated in agape, and the motivating power of grace.
Culture, or the creation of a universe of meaning in theoria and praxis, is essentially related to morality and religion. The validity of cultural creativity in all its functions is based on the person-to-person encounter in which the limits to arbitrariness are established. Without the force of
the moral imperative, no demand coming from the logical, aesthetic, personal and communal forms could be felt. The religious element in culture is the inexhaustible depth of a genuine creation. One may call it substance or the ground from which culture lives. ...
Religion, or the self-transcendence of life under the dimension of spirit is essentially related to morality and culture. There is no self-transcendence under the dimension of the spirit without the constitution of the moral self by the unconditional imperative, and this self-transcendence cannot take form except within the universe of meaning created in the cultural act.
Systematic Theology III, 95.
I fell the connection between religion and culture that Tillich describes here is particularly interesting. It is a relation of interdependence. Culture needs religion to have "depth" or "substance". Religion needs Culture to create a universe of meaning in which it can exist. Culture provides religion with a form.

It should be noted that Tillich avoids to create a hierarchy of morals, religion and culture. Essentially they are one. Under the condition of existence they are separated, but they are still connected.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Ethics quiz

Quizzes are fun, aren't they? Here's one on ethics. I'm so absurdly bad at ethics that I have no idea if I should be happy with my result or not. Man, I really ought to take some of those undergrad classes again. The descriptions of the various philosophers seem a bit dodgy, though (see for example Nietzsche), so I don't know how accurate the quiz is... Still, good, if a bit nerdy, fun. (HT: Klippt och Skuret)

1. Aquinas (100%) Click here for info
2. St. Augustine (89%) Click here for info
3. Kant (73%) Click here for info
4. Jean-Paul Sartre (73%) Click here for info
5. Spinoza (66%) Click here for info
6. Aristotle (61%) Click here for info
7. Ockham (60%) Click here for info
8. Stoics (60%) Click here for info
9. Ayn Rand (59%) Click here for info
10. John Stuart Mill (59%) Click here for info
11. Jeremy Bentham (51%) Click here for info
12. Nel Noddings (49%) Click here for info
13. Nietzsche (49%) Click here for info
14. Plato (48%) Click here for info
15. Cynics (41%) Click here for info
16. Prescriptivism (38%) Click here for info
17. David Hume (35%) Click here for info
18. Epicureans (31%) Click here for info
19. Thomas Hobbes (12%) Click here for info

Reading Tillich 23: Art

A work of art is a union of self and world within limitations both on the side of the self and on the side of the world. The limitation on the side of the world is that although in the aesthetic function as such, one, otherwise hidden, quality of the universe is reached. Ultimate reality, which transcends all qualities, is not reached. The limitation on the side of the self is that in the aesthetic function the self grasps reality in images and not with the totality of its being. The effect of this double limitation is to give union in the aesthetic function an element of unreality. It is "seeming"; it anticipates something that does not yet exist.
Systematic Theology III, 65.
What Tillich is trying to do here is to give arts a theological role, while at the same time separating it from the religious experience. A work of art can give an experience of unity between the individual and the world - it can overcome the estrangement effected by sin. But it does so only in a way that shows that such an unity is possible. The experience of a great work of art (and I am mostly thinking about music myself) is not a fulfilment of our deepest longing, but a kind of comfort: that fulfilment is possible. I'm not sure if Tillich did notice the parallel between this kind of theology of arts and the eastern theology of Icons. Icons are not properly art, but they have this function of pointing towards that ultimate reality.

What do you think about this suggestion of Tillich's? (I know some of you show great interest in art) It's interesting to read his theology of culture, because since it is not a traditional theme for theology, one does not have very set views coming into it. I for myself have very strong experiences when listening to music (lately this video has completely shaken me). I guess I have always kind of connected this experience with The Holy in some way, although I have not really thought about the nature of this connection. But I suppose this is the way I feel about for example Radiohead. I realize that Thom is not an angel of God, it is not the ultimate reality I experience, but is goes in the right direction. Tillich says that what I experience is just one - otherwise hidden - quality of the universe, and I think that is about right. When listening to "2 +2 = 5" i do feel a deep sense of truth in the way it describes the state of our world right now, and it fills me with an intense sense of Being Here Now. But it is not a complete experience of the world, because there are other perspectives as well, and, according to Tillich the experience happens through images, not directly.

There is obviously a risk involved here; that is, the denial that there is an experience that goes beyond the aesthetic function. This is largely the state of our society today, at least in Europe. Then the arts risk becoming idols instead of icons. But it seems for the most part those involved in creating the art tend to counter this tendency, by stating that the creativity is not coming from themselves but from "somewhere else".

Maybe beauty will still save the world some day.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Reading Tillich 22: Morality

The act in which a man actualizes his essential centeredness is the moral act. Morality is the function of life by which the realm of the spirit comes into being. Morality is the constitutive function of spirit. A moral act, therefore, is not an act in which some divine or human law is obeyed but an act in which life integrates itself in the dimension of spirit, and this means as personality within community. Morality is the function of life in which the centered self constitutes itself as a person; it is the totality of those acts in which a potentially personal life process becomes and actual person.
Systematic Theology III, 38.
This is a definition of morality I can live with. Moral acts are all those things I do that make me into who I am. I act immorally when I do things that goes against who I really am.

Some would say that this is an awfully self-centered view of morals. Isn't morals about who we relate to each other? It is, but that is not what morals is, but what good morals is. As Tillich write, when life integrates itself in the dimension of the spirit, this means that it becomes a personality within community. A person cannot be except in connection with others, it is the effect our acts have on our relationships that determine who we are.

This is why ethical discussion on an abstract level so often is pointless, if not evil. Morals is a concept relevant only in that web of relationships, one cannot separate oneself from it and discuss morals objectively. Such discussion - though I realize a community need norms for acceptable behaviour - so easily turns into a kind of manipulation of these relationships in order to override our essential morality. If our "rules of ethics" say something is ok, we do it event if we know it will hurt people.

The Age of Terror?

While we are discussing the theological problem of war, take 20 minutes time to read this report by Robert Fisk - one of the few westerners that really know what goes on in the Muslim world, and you will have a more accurate - but bleaker - picture of our world.

Might have to get that brick of a book he just published, too.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Patrologia Graeca at Google books(?)

Mike Aquilina tells us that Google apparently has scanned Migne's Patrologia Graeca.

It seem to be true, even if I recently heard about someone planning to make the series available commercially. Those people must be pretty angry now. Anyway, I'm not sure how useful this is, since it seems to be impossible to find anything in it. As you know Migne is not the most well-organized work in existence, and it does not seem like Google has made the text searchable in any way. At least I can't get it to work.

Also, I'm not 100% sure they have actually scanned the lot of it. PG fills a fair-sized wall, and scanning that is not done in an afternoon.

The PG has its faults of course, but a lot of patristic texts are available nowhere else.

Yet another meme

This meme thing is getting way out of hand... But here goes. This one was dreamt up by Alex.

  1. The best place in the world is…
My home. We have lived here for little less than a year, but the joy this place is giving me knows no boundaries.

  1. The best book I’ve ever read is…
What kind of question is that? Ok, It's really close between Paul's Romans and Tillich's Systematic theology.

  1. The best joke I know is…
I'm not really a joke person. I make up my own jokes.>

  1. The best person in the world is…
My wife. Enough said.

  1. The best friend I’ve ever had is...
Micki, he is just 100% reliable.

  1. The best way to show you care is…
To listen, I guess.

  1. The best date I’ve been on…
Dating was not really a part of our culture when I was in the right age.

  1. The best way to break up is…
No good way to do that.

  1. The best food I’ve ever eaten is…
I like pizza and hamburgers.

  1. The best website ever is…
This is like "best book" except there is no inspired websites. Radiohead at ease would be a fairly safe choice.

I'm not tagging anyone, by principle, but feel free to join in.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Thom Yorke interview

Well, it's Thom's birthday, and I don't have a theological thought in my head today, so here's part one of the best interview I have ever seen with Thom. I'm sure you'll be able to find parts II and III yourself.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Faith and Theology: Peace and War

Kim Fabricius has posted ten propositions on peace and war at Faith and theology. Good stuff.

I had a few posts on the subject some weeks ago, with a very interesting discussion following. The theme is clearly relevant today.

Also, do consider Dan's Ten propostions on Hell.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Loney, Dear - The City, The Airport

This is a clip with an amazing Swedish band. Remember the name (and where you heard it first)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Theology Blogs' Blog of the Month

Well, who else but Ben Myers's Faith and Theology. It's not like I could have chosen it for the second or third Blog of the Month. Well, check out my presentation of the King of Theology Blogs here.

Reading Tillich 21: Acceptance

Indeed, there is nothing in man which enables God to accept him. But man must accept just this. He must accept that he is accepted; he must accept acceptance. And the question is how this is possible in spite of the guilt that makes him hostile to God. The traditional answer is "Because of Christ!". ... It means that one is drawn into the power of the New Being in Christ, which makes faith possible; that it is the state of unity between God and man, no matter how fragmentarily realized. Accepting that one is accepted is the paradox of salvation without which there would be no salvation but only despair.
Systematic Theology II, 179.
Faith, then, is about a certain way to see oneself. It is to see oneself as one is, faults and all, and realize that one has the right to exist just like that. A person that is able to do this is a person that is "drawn into the power of the New Being in Christ". There is no cause an effect here, the both are one and the same. Unity with God is not something that can be achieved separately from a person's being reconciled with oneself, all this is one and the same.

More Tillich Discussion

If me quoting Tillich in five out of six posts lately, here are a few more recent posts about Tillich's theology.

At Theology in the 3rd Millennium Steve Peterman has an interesting post on what he feels is an ontological mistake in Tillich's theology. I'm not sure about that, and I'll post my reply over there.

WTM has a whole little series of posts on Tillich here, here and here.

Finally, do not miss this excellent post by Joey de la Paz on Tillich and Mission.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Reading Tillich 20: Deliteralisation

In our earlier treatment ..., the basic point was that Christological symbols are the way in which the historical fact, called Jesus of Nazareth, has been received by those who consider him to be the Christ. These symbols must be understood as symbols, as they lose their meaning if taken literally. In dealing with the Christological symbols, we were engaged not is a "demythologization" but in a "deliteralization". We tried to affirm and intercept them as symbols. "Demythologization" can mean two things...: It can mean the fight against a literalistic distortion of symbols and myths. This is a necessary task of Christian theology. It keeps Christianity from falling into a wave of superstitious "objectivations" of the holy. But demythologization can also mean the removal of myth as a vehicle of religious expression and the substitution of science and morals. In this sense demythologization must be strongly rejected. It would deprive religion of its language; it would silence the experience of the holy.
Systematic Theology II, 152
Tillich understood his own theology to be a search for a third way beyond liberal and conservative. We see this here: Tillich rejects the conservative tendency to take biblical and theological text literally, since they distort the message, they do not allow the symbols to speak; but he also rejects the liberal tendency to remove symbols and try to extract ethical teaching from them, because then religion ceases to be religion.

I've been reading St. Ephrem the Syrian lately, and I'm struck by how similar his theological attitude is to Tillich's. Ephrem speaks only in symbols, he makes no attempt to turn them in to legal or dogmatic propositions. He would whole-heartedly agree with Tillich's belief that the only way to speak about the holy is with symbols. As soon as we stop talking in symbols, we either fool ourselves or create idols.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Reading Tillich 19: Christology

Human nature can mean man's essential or created nature; it can mean man's existential or estranged nature; and it can mean man's nature in the ambiguous unity of the two others. ... Under these circumstances it is imperative to dismiss altogether the term "human nature" in relation to the Christ and replace it by a descriptions of the dynamics of life - as we have tried to do.
Systematic Theology II, 147.

Tillich has a similar criticism of the term "divine nature". His point is that these terms, as we normally use them are totally inadequate when it comes to describing Christ today. It is important to stress that Tillich does not reject the Calchedonic  theology, merely it's formula. In fact he defends the divinty of Christ against liberals such as von Harnack. But on the other hand, not to recognize that the traditional formulas are problematic is to retreat from the claim of a gospel relevant for today into a Christian sub-culture.

For more on Tillich's Christology, check out this post by "WTM" at "der evangelische Theologe".

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Punk Rock Hallelujah!

Andrew Careaga is now producing a Theology of Punk. Apparently, he has unsuccessfully tried to offer this idea to the corporate machine, and has no decided to give it away for free. It looks very promising so far.

Personally I tend to get bored rather quickly with pure punk rock music, (London Calling being the obvious exception), but I do agree that the punk rock attitude is very important, and indeed Christ-like.

And Careaga seems to have much more up his sleeve than this rather banal observation of mine, so do check out "Never mind the bibles".

(HT: Connexions)