John Swinton – Practical Theology

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I think that this is my first lecture report for 2016, John Swinton’s inaugural address to the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership.

I guess Practical Theology is something like practical witchcraft.  It has moved on from the days of “When you throw a clump of earth on the coffin make sure it doesn’t contain stones.  The sound will offend the family and other mourners.”

It’s a contrast of academic and faith-based theology.  Academic theology is knowledge of god; systematic, observed knowledge, scientia. Faith-based theology is knowledge about god, wisdom based on loving god and the people who love god, sapientia.  (Is this knowledge subjective?)

What is love? Whoever does not love does not know god, for god is love, 1 John 4:8. Love is god.  An action.

Doctrine shapes our imagination. Take every thought captive to Christ.

What happens when personality changes?  For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in god, Colossians 3:3. We are who we are in Christ — and that is hidden from us. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known, 1 Corinthians 13:12.  Self is always a mystery. We tend to create our identity in self-sovereignty, what we know about ourselves.  Jesus Christ is died and risen again for us. Christ has done it all. Life is hidden for now.  Uncle Karl’s new orthodoxy speaks again.

We move from what was to what is, the bridge is Jesus.

The river washes downstream — the riverbed remains.


John Swinton, University of Aberdeen, at Knox College, Dunedin, Photo: Steve Taylor


Bearing the Unbearable: Trauma, Gospel and Pastoral Care

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Hunsinger_van_D_DeboE75689(1)A lecture from visiting professor Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger.  She was visiting Australia and was hosted by the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Otago for a week.  She proved to be an excellent speaker and gave a rewarding lecture.

Christians are called to participate in God’s care for the world through Jesus Christ, through prayer.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an inescapable stressful event that overwhelms our stress mechanisms.  The nature of the event does not guarantee a traumatic response.  None of us have the exact same experience.  Each of us is individual and our mental structure that enables the response is individual.  Each one is a valid experience.  “Get over it” is not going to work.

Any kind of emotional or physical shock has the chance of psychological consequence.  We have a high alert to threat.  When flight or fight are not options we enter the altered reality of freeze mode: time slows down, we become immune to pain, detached; quite literally an out-of-body experience.  It interferes with our narrative and memory.  The intrusive memory is split off from our consciousness.  It comes back in obcessive ruminations, in nightmares or flashbacks.  The memory is triggered by a smell or a sound.  We are left on permanent alert.

To keep the trauma at bay we constrict our worlds to avoid encountering its triggers, take up addictive habits.

What do I get from replaying the injury?  All violence is an effort to do justice or undo injustice.  Traumatic behaviour is cyclic.  The victim relives the trauma by recreating new victims.  How do we break free from the cycle?  Whatever we are afraid of requires our attention.  We need the company of another to piece together a coherent narrative to bear healing or mourning; to create a web of meaning while remaining fully connected to the listener; to connect to feelings without being overwhelmed.  We don’t know who or how we will come out.  Talking about trauma can make matters worse without being in a safe domain, anchored in the present. The slower you go the faster you get there.

Creating a spiritual framework to post-traumatic growth takes time, choosing life over death many times: understanding the self, facing pain, reaching the next level.

Christianity wrenches us inside out.  God is in hell — the victim and the risen lord of redemption who suffers on our behalf and for our sakes.  Trauma no longer separates us from God.  Healing is set in the context of God’s salvation — both for perpetrators and for victims.  One who died for all who do harm, love stronger than death or hate.  Overcoming the world Christ saves us.  We do want to forgive, to lay aside rational payment for pardon, but we don’t know to forgive.  Go down into the pain, the wounded Christ is our healer.

Our grief will be in community, restoring hope and trust, our worship the lament.  God bears what cannot be bourne.  While the churches appear as people who have got it all together, we still have to come back each week.

Why Listening Matters for Mission and Ministry

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An open lecture from Lynne Baab for the launch of her new book, The Power of Listening.

As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

John 17:18

Go into the community, see where the work is, and join in.

For her study on Listening Lynne Baab conducted interviews in 31 churches in America and Britain, and two New Zealand Methodists who happened to be on hand during her interviews.  In the majority of cases church people were not practising intentional listening.

She cited the case of a foodbank in Seattle where a church foodbank put on a meal to provide a space to sit down with their clients.  After five years of doing this the providers became aware the major need of Seattle’s poor and homeless was work and housing.  When they began to listen in this social space the thrust of their mission changed.

Spire, First Church of Otago, Dunedin, by Dave Baab, 2008

Spire, First Church of Otago, Dunedin, by Dave Baab, 2008

Congregations vary widely in their commitment to listening to the wider community.  They listen to themselves and provide support.  There is a lot of work going on there.  Intentional listening to the wider community may be thin on the ground; and we need to identify and recognise our wider communities.

Most of the interviews were not working on debriefing after listening to the wider community.  What was happening was a lot of reflection and the use of contemplative prayer, usually at an individual level.  This was not related to listening for mission.  The decision on communal mission is not rushed.

Lynne raised the confusion between consensus and discernment.  Consensus means a situation in which there is general agreement; and any number of motives behind that proposal.  Discernment is the prayerful reflection leading to understanding of direction.  Discernment should have a high level of agreement.  It doesn’t have to be 100%.

Many obstacles keep Christians from listening well: we don’t want to hear because of institutional fear; we don’t have the resources available to respond to voiced needs.  The obstacles need to be addressed.

Pastoral care listening is integral to mission.  It shows up in the life of Jesus in the gospels.  In a diverse society we don’t share the same language of faith, so we need to listen harder.  We cannot assume that we know what motivates other people or what their needs or desires are.  Our leaders need to be listeners.

How the Blood of Christ causes salvation in Thomas Aquinas

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I caught this title for an open lecture from the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the last moment when I checked my gmail account this morning.  A visiting lecture gave the opportunity for an open lecture at the last moment.  I’m glad I caught the lecture.  I think it includes ideas that I will find formative.

Professor Eugene Rogers went looking for the role of the Blood of Christ in the theological writings of Thomas Aquinas.  It led him to a study of the eucharist in Dr. Aquinas’s theology.

The sacraments descent from god to effect our salvation.  God joins us to god in the divine metabolism of becoming human.  The spirit rests on matter.  The passion and the pneuma are in the blood, the fire in the wine.

Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day say again the words: This is my Body.

And over every death-force which waits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again your commanding words which express the supreme mystery of faith: This is my Blood.

I see I shall be meditating on The Mass on the World by Teilhard de Chardin again.

Christ is incarnate in the eucharist.  He makes it an instrument of his agency, divine things done with bread and vineously.  His flesh gives life because of the word it is united.  We are uniting in drawing together into god, stretched out into god as god offers contact.

In the squares of white bread and shot-glasses of anemic grape-juice it is not the digestion that nourishes us; it is the act of eating and drinking that regenerates us.  God requires us to willingly act and receive.  I find this idea helpful.  The ingestion is not the communion; the participation in the act is.

And afterwards the disciples gather up the remains, the noa from the tapu.

God in the Art Gallery: artist’s images of Jesus and the anti-ascension of the Christ

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Much to Jason’s horror I took some notes of his talk on images of Jesus from the Roman Empire to the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Apparently he paints as well as does poetry.  A man of many talents is our Jason.

The anti-ascension of the Christ sounds like Jesus trips and falls flat on his face which would be the point of The Virgin Spanking the Christ-Child Before Three Witnesses.

The Virgin Spanking The Christ Child Before Three Witnesses by Max Ernst

The witnesses seem unconcerned to this child abuse going on before them.

We make the Christ into our own image in each generation.  When we encounter the stranger god he becomes a reflection of our own imagination.  When we portray the Christ, we must slay it!  In Roman times the Christ was the emperor, or a sage, in a toga, a citizen of Empire in a costume that had already become old-fashioned.  Another generation and he had become the Christian Soldier in a centurion’s leathers, bearing the cross like a sword and the Bible as the shield of faith.

It is a small step from these images to the icons of Greek and Russian Churches.  The Trinity is dancing in each other’s way.  The Cross is the Axis of the World from god and the angels in heaven breaking through Adam’s skull into hell.  Christ is on the Cross but does not suffer.  He seems impatient or bored.  The pain of Christ on the Cross is most strongly expressed through images of liberation theology because Christ the image of the poor is crucified daily.

The Chocolate Christ

This is my body, indeed!

The Lonely Christ c. 1520

He looks sad.  I understand that visitors respond emotionally to this sculpture.  I think he is sitting on the toilet.  A lot of people go there when they are sad and want to be left alone!

And speaking about toilet stops…

Piss Christ

Christ enters post-Christianity.  He is caught in the golden light of degraded matter.  The crucified one enters into our own suffering and persecution yet again.  Perhaps as Christ continues to fall on his face in this descending into art he will continue to inspire new and beautiful imagery.

The Crucifixion as Wisdom: Exploring the Ideology of a Disreputable Social Movement

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We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of god and the wisdom of god.  For god’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and god’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:23b-26

John Barclay is a regular visitor to Dunedin.  This would be his third time.  He gave a fascinating lecture before he left.  Nearly 2000 years of venerating the crucified man has ameliorated the horror of the punishment of crucifixion.  It is a slave’s death, or a traitor’s death.  It is not the execution of citizens, unless a citizen is virtually unpersoned.  The victim is ironically ‘raised up’ to a lingering death of pain, hunger and thirst, until through exhaustion, the victim succumbs to suffocation and dies.  The corpse is left as food for carrion-eaters.  The bones are scattered and left unburied.  It is a death by torture, to dishonour.

The fool in the literature and drama of the Roman Empire was the antithesis of the elite citizen: ugly; stupid, uneducated, immoral and venal; low-status.  This fool was no holy innocent.  He deserved to be punished and brought down.  That was the model of social order.

The people represented in the Corinthian church were people like this.  People from the margins of good society, expendable nobodies.  The wisdom of god was not superhuman.  The wisdom of god through the sign of the crucified fool subverted the values of the elite of the empire.  It questioned the values of society.  The crucified fool is the powerless god of the victims. Christ the Beneficiary.  The church originating from such a gospel should not ape its betters.  The church founded on the cross is on the margins, among the critics of society.

The theologian is in a difficult place, using the educated words, trying to explain the ugly event.

Dying to Live: A Theology of Migration by Dr Daniel Groody

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Two open lectures this week.  Excellent.  Here is a report on the first.

We have been migrants since we left Africa.  We may live a lifetime in one place.  Our genes passed on after us travel onwards with the next generation.

We encounter otherness in the migrant: perhaps the other is someone to fear, or someone to use, or someone with which we can connect.  It is our choice to respond to the alien with a fortress mentality, or a hospitality of need.  Our levels of population mean that there is more migrants alive today than at any earlier point of past time.

Border patrol agents are human beings.  They can do their task of patrolling borders at risk of life, injury and well-being.  It is also true that migrants seeking a better life, security and work opportunities are people who practice faith and ideology, and have their families too.

People of faith associate natural rights with the likeness of god.  The question gets asked, Which part of the law don’t you understand? Usually the law of good conduct which is dictated by those who feel that native culture is under pressure.  (For native culture read “culture that broke out of Europe 400 years ago”!)  The longest migration that between the head and the heart and back again, between understanding and feeling, and creating spirituality which we can live by.

I found Dr Groody interesting when he started talking theology.  God is the ultimate migrant.  In the Christian incarnation god migrated to reconcile us and bring us back to the homeland.  The migrant is the image of god.  The inception of Jesus was illegal, announced to Mary, betraying marital fidelity.  Then Jesus invited everyone to his table, he rejected rejection.  (I really want to see a religious picture entitled Jesus Teaches His Disciples How to Party!)  We are connected to the human family.  The body of Christ is One, it crosses borders.

The spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.

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