Metaphor and Mystery

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A lecture by visiting theologian Paul Fiddes,

We are juggling semiotics.  Whatever semiotics means.  Ah, semiotics means signs.  The meaning of signs is hidden.  We are venturing into territory where my understanding is weak.  Nothing transcends a world of signs.  “The heavens are telling the glory of God” disagrees with semiotics.  Signs cannot point to the beyond-sign. 

Is “the way of a man with a girl” relational or sexual.

Of course, nobody has told nature that and nature is more flexible over it.  The world is measured in height, breadth and depth, the x, y, z axes, and god knows the position and spin of the atom.  Nature, the book of the world, is encyclopediac because it contains the whole.  The observer is not separate from the whole.  We are part of the order.  The hidden order of the world should stimulate us.  How does x relate to y? you decide.

Undertones . . . overtones . . . (wombling free!)

Is the author hidden in the text, does the creator indwell the creation as presence.  “No appearance of god is more over-whelming than this non-appearance”.  This talk sounds to me that we are back at the school of thought that our god-shaped emptiness places us on a journey to recognise the absense of god, and we journey together as a community that recognises this brokenness within us.  It’s a funny old world.

fahrenheit451In Fahrenheit 451 for books to survive the firemen secret communities have memorised them.  They have become living books.  If Mr Simpson has memorised Marcus Aurelius, then which one is he? an man with a book in his head, or the sign of the memoirs of a Roman emperor?

Let us go then, you and I

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table

The dying of the light?  The evening fading like a patient’s consciousness…  So that is how that line can be read.

Mystery engages us to empathy.  See through the world to the purpose of god.  The father gives godself to the son through the spirit.  Each are vanishing for the sake of the other.  The signal is empty.  God is in the movement, the dance, the flow, opening up the relationship, moving to the end-goal of god’s purpose.  God draws us into the dance of life.  Everything is open to inexhaustible meaning, engaging in the life of god, shaped in the story of Jesus.  How can we know the dancer from the dance indeed!

The sense of the text is not behind the text, but in front of the text (in the reader? in the author?)  The true world is ahead of the text.


A Post-Christendom Theology of Democracy by Jonathan Chaplin

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In the contest between principles of modern democracy and doctrines of faith, democracy and the rule of secular law must always win.

Janet Daley, 2008

Why should it matter?  Secularists have a fear of theocracy — religion with authority over the will of the people.  At the same time democracy is under attack by the challenge of global markets and transnational institutions.  Active political participation is in decline.  We fear debate.  Popularist common sense will not tolerate dissention.

The motivation of religious faith has produced malevolent groups: the Lord’s Resistance Army, and communalist chauvinism in Hinduism and Islam.  It has also produced people like Malala Yousufzai.  Q. What is the most terrifying thing to a fundamentalist?  A. A girl with a book!

What is Democracy?  Chaplin defines it as a popular election of political rulers, protective of liberty and rights, situated in and limited by robust constitutional order.  It can also violate justice.  The Irish Famine happened after the liberalisation of Britain by the People’s Charter.  As did the expansion of the British Empire under democratic leadership and the suppression  of the first nations of North America, Australia and New Zealand.  In South America it happened under Spanish democrats.

In Christian thinking, and other theistic worldviews, political authority cames from god.  Should there be an active role for the people?  People form human communities.  From the people, after Him.  The divine right of the people was formulated before the divine right of kings.  Justice should come above rulers and people.

Any government that negates these fundamental principles forfeits its god-given right to rule

Declaration of the Church Leaders of Zimbabwe

According to Reinhold Niebuhr we have a capacity for justice and an inclination to injustice.

A natural consequence of human dignity is unquestionably their right to take an active part in government

Pacem in Terris

All human beings have an equal potential to pursue justice.  The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers means we are equal in the eyes of god, equal to understand the word of god, and equal to participate and advance the commonwealth of god.  Popular will is subjected to a higher authority, a wider framework of principles.

God has a preferential option for constitutional democracy.  A participatory representation, constitutional democracy in which popular consent is an essential ingredient; in which both government and people are held accountable to transcendent norms of justice and common good, the co-responsibility of citizens and government.

Three principles:

  • justice, not just us: a Post-Christendom Theology of Democracy includes peoples of all faiths and peoples of no faith.
  • learn to speak Christian in public, without embarrassment or constraint.
  • parity, not privilege: don’t Christianise the constitution.  Work from the bottom up, not top down.

When questioned on a definition of Christendom, Chaplin described it as a state of privilege for the Church, recognised by the government.

Four years ago, I heard a Muslim address the Peace Lecture of the Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group.  He spoke about translating Non-violence into Arabic as a positive value and used the phrase, Jihad al-Madina, which I would understand in Christian terms as ‘Civic Discipleship’.  I think with a Post-Christendom Theology of Democracy we are a step closer with creating an identity for Civic Discipleship.

Seeking the Welfare of the City: The Contribution of Theology to New Zealand’s Public Square


This was the farewell address given by Andrew Bradstock before returning to Britain.  Andrew has been the first professor of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues in Dunedin.  It has proven to be a successful appointment which has placed the Centre directly in the public domain.  He was applauded twice before he spoke and then twice after he finished.

The title comes from the prophetic writings.  Interestingly enough the admonition is to the believers living in the exile.

Some thoughts:

Where is New Zealand’s public square?  What voices does the public square engage?  The whole point of deliberative democracy is that is it based on the idea of deliberation. Let New Zealanders decide who these voices are.  New religions are going to step in and be heard in New Zealand. Do we welcome them as citizens or do we label them as the Other and the Outsider.  Can we grow an enlarged and diverse public sphere?

Religion is an option against an ideology of self-interest.  Our theology is based on god living as the incarnation, giving value to human and natural life.  All people are created in the image of god.

The market cannot make a moral judgment on sex trade or the trade in body-parts.  They are just another commodity.  I admit I am suspicious of anyone who uses the phrase ‘the sanctity of life’, what does that mean in a society with no definition of sanctity.  However what is the value of a human life?  Why do members of society say at a certain point embryonic human potential has value and after that point, until its natural death, it may not be killed?  What is the value of life beyond sanctity?

The story of Eden speaks profoundly to us. [Edit: I have separated this line from the previous paragraph as it not related to it as a conclusion to it and refers to another quote made by Andrew Bradstock.]

Each speaker has a right to speak.  It is up to each one of us not to dominate the narrative or stand on privilege.

Recovering the Common Good

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This was a forum hosted by the Centre for Theology and Public Issues on Tuesday.  The panel was made up of Campbell Roberts, Jenny Te Paa Daniel, Graham Redding, David Clark and Kevin Toomey.

Andrew Bradstock opened the discussion for the forum.  Are there shared or public values that transcend individuals?  How do they relate to our context?

Is there a sea-change that business leaders want to hear about values rather than economics.  If it’s coming down to the Aunties versus the Market, then my money is on the Aunties.  Aunties are a force of nature.

Whose values? How do they operate? Whose narrative?

If you are going to be a Christian, you are going to be a Socialist.

– Pauline O’Regan

Contrast between the values of living in a hotel and living in a whanau.  The hotel is the place of alienation, everyone in their own room.  Living in a boarding house made me wonder  if that is totally true.  The limitations of when whanau go bad was also acknowledged.

The values of libertarian freedom comes with its own morality of failure.  If you fail, you were at fault.

Both sides of the political debate, left and right have given over social responsibility to the big brothers, either government or non-government organisations, the churches and the charities.

Let’s learn how to do civics.  Let’s have the conversation.  The poor are inviting the business and political leaders to come and live with us.  Let’s find agreement rather than competition, before we make changes.

Good earnest discussion, the question came from the floor, How do we make the common good sexy again?

Plant fruit trees!  Vote!  Participate and talk!  Eat inside your community; eat outside your community!

The Monstrosity of Christ

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This book by Žižek and Milbank has been my evening reading for the last month.  I think it is more likely the change in season that has left me more exhausted in the mornings.  I can’t rule it out.  I made some notes.

When the arch-rebel is unmasked he/she will be revealed to have the same face as the tyrant who makes our laws.

You have heard it said…, but I tell you…  Jesus doesn’t overthrow the rulebook, he rewrites the plot to become a contra-book.

Žižek cites The Prestige where a man is willing to step into a teleportation machine to maintain the magic even though the device will kill him, unmaking and killing him to remake him at rematerialisation.  I wonder what he would make of the same act in Kraken by China Mièville where the protagonist does the same act and is conscious for the rest of the story that he is not the same person.

‘Joe Hill ain’t dead’, he is the concept that cannot die.  Recent events with Ports of Auckland and Talleys show that he’s currently active in New Zealand.  Like a Hammer Horror vampire he rises again and again to rally us to struggle.

Insurrection by Peter Rollins


That’s what I meant to do today, write up my notes from this book:

  • We expect god to be interventionist and therapeutic.  (Somebody cue Nick Cave at this point!)
  • If the cry from the cross becomes the starting point of our theology then Jesus’ final words become God, are you there?
  • Participation in the community of faith becomes a placebo for lost belief.
  • Eternal life in life beyond death is no substitute for eternal life in the here and now; what lies beyond the veil is the kingdom of the black robes.
  • God planted a garden, in Babylon.  (Just ask Jeremiah.)

Now I have to figure out how to find a copy ofThe New Materialism.

Radical Political Theology by Clayton Crockett: some thoughts


In such a theology god equals freedom (not necessarily the same thing as goes on religion!)

I suppose secularism can contain religions as interfaith.  It is the framework for the survival of religions.  Will there be space for them to co-exist and flourish?

Crockett looks on radical political theology as an academic exercise.  I work in a perception of religious practice.  There is no talk of this in the book.  I wonder if I’m being too nostalgic?

It comes out of work based European experience, which I don’t normally see or read, now trans-Atlantic.  It subverts the Whiggish tradition being parallel with the inheritors of that tradition and not necessarily travelling alongside them with the same agenda.

Crockett talks about the distinction between ideology and theology in religion.  The distinction is too slippery and weaselly for me to understand as he describes it.

Can god undo godself and exist by agreement?  There is the famous quote of Nietzsche: God is dead out of pity for mankind.  God has stopped being all-powerful to be all-potential.  As the Daoists would have it: Wei wu wei, to act without acting.  If god is all-potential then future becomes advent (my word).

In the clash of civilisations the threat of capitalism on democracy is overlooked.  The end-goal of the private sector, the new oligarchs, is to become the new principalities and powers for the state.  Secularity has its own immanence: the triumph of the singularity over society.  The man of violence is the law-giver.  The hero enforces the law through his own authority.  Grace, love, justice lie outside the law.

In the end all we have is that we once were.  I find it interesting to consider that the personality is not immortal.  We exist for a period of time between conception and dissolution.  We are finite beings in time.  We live because we die.  Which brings us back to the advent event.  Maybe progress isn’t linear.  Maybe the Doctor got it right.  The plasticity of time makes it wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.  Instead of closure, more alternatives become available to us.

This was a hard book to read, despite being so short.  There was language and meaning in it that beyond my understanding even after picking apart sentences several times.  I was hoping that this would be a manifesto for a new movement for an alternative to neoconservative thinking.  It wasn’t that.  I don’t see a post-secular society emerging in New Zealand yet.  It’s not going to be a bestseller except possibly among the pointy-headed, and there are few of those here who can think theologically.   We are too pragmatic and fearful of intellectuals.  Instead it’s an introduction, and it invites me to do further reading, and further investigation.  Could be fun.