Monday, October 31, 2016

The Greatest Gift of Christendom

Arguably one of the greatest challenges facing Christians today is how to respond to secularism. Whilst this is not a particularly new phenomenon, what Christians are finding in 2016 is that the plausibility structures which make faith seem possible have changed, shifting the conditions of belief. It's potentially harder to be a Christian now then it was 500, 100, or even 50 years ago because belief in God has not only been displaced as normative, but is now positively contested.

This age of contested belief is fuelled in part by what we might call the 'secular myth': modern society continues to progress and advance both scientifically as new discoveries are made and technology is increasingly harnessed to solve our problems, and morally as society becomes more fair and equal. This myth suggests that as society advances, religion is culturally replaced or displaced, demoted in importance to the point of redundancy. Our institutions (well, what's left of them) increasingly become neutral ground, forming an objective, unbiased, and a-religious sphere (broadly equivalent to the French concept of laïcité).

Behind all of this is what Charles Taylor refers to subtraction stories: accounts which explain the secular as merely the subtraction of religious belief, as if the secular is what’s left over after we subtract superstition. Subtraction stories are those tales of enlightenment and progress and maturation which see the emergence of modernity as jettisoning the detritus of belief and superstition. Once upon a time, as these subtraction stories rehearse it, we believed in sprites and fairies and gods and demons. But as we became rational, and especially as we marshalled naturalist explanations for what we used to attribute to spirits and forces, the world became progressively disenchanted. Religion and belief withered with scientific exorcism of superstition. And what we have left from this is the secular, modern world, devoid of such superstition.

It's a powerful myth. It's a shame that it has little correlation with history. In his book A Secular Age, Taylor goes to great length to argue that the secular is not merely distilled, but produced and created. That we could go from a world where disbelief in God was implausible to a world where belief in God was implausible is not the leftovers of a distilled society, but the accomplishment of new accounts of reality and meaning.

However I think that it is possible to go further. Secularism is in fact the one of the greatest gifts Christendom gave to the world. That is to say, secularism is not what comes after Christendom in spite of Christendom; Christendom was the first was the creation of the secular, the first implementation of a secular age. This might be controversial to say, because Christendom and secularism seem to be diametrically opposed to each other. The enlightenment project was a self-conscious repudiation of Christian political settlement which had preceded it. But there would be no secularism without Christendom - not in the sense that one the reaction to another - but perhaps in a more classical understanding secular, Christendom creates the secular conditions. Oliver O'Donovan puts this succinctly:
Jesus has ascended in triumph to God’s right hand; yet the subdued “authorities” of this age, St. Paul held, “persist” (Romans 13:6). This, he said, was to approve good conduct and “to execute God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” The reign of Christ in heaven left judgment as the single remaining political need. We should observe that this was an unprecedentedly lean doctrine of civil government. Judgment alone never comprised the whole of what ancient peoples, least of all the Jews, thought government was about. Paul’s conception stripped government of its representative, identity-conferring functions, and said nothing about law. He conceded, as it were, the least possible function that would account for its place within God’s plan. The secular princes of this earth, shorn of pretensions to our loyalty and worship, are left with the sole function of judging between innocent and guilty. 
The political-theological achievement of the Roman world in the fourth century was the recognition that the announcement 'Jesus Christ is Lord' is the announcement that he has dethroned the powers and authorities. It is this recognition which creates the secular. It is the government of the age, (knowingly or unknowingly) charged with task of judgment until creation's perfection at Jesus' return. This recognition dispels all government pretension to be the most true thing, the ultimate reality of totalitarian regimes. It dispels the possibility of theocracy, for Christ is the one Lord. According to O'Donovan again:
The most truly Christian state understands itself most thoroughly as “secular”. It makes the confession of Christ’s victory and accepts the relegation of its own authority... The essential element in the conversion of the ruling power is the change in its self-understanding and its manner of government to suit the dawning age of Christ’s own rule. 
Modern societies have inherited this political institution of the gospel, although they may not know it. This unintelligibly of secularism by secular states may account for the fraught socio-political situations we witness today as nations which had assumed one thing about secularism (such as its homogeneous nature) are confronted on the one hand with an increase of pluralism, and on the other different experiences of secularism around the world (secularism in India and China look different not only from each other but also from secularism within Europe or the United States).

The opportunity for the church as it negotiates with and responds to secularism will be to explain the political institutions and modes such as the secular which the modern world has assumed from ancient Christian world but does not quite know why it values them. In making the institutions of modernity intelligible to the modern world, the church will need innovative ways to announce and embody the truth of Christ's Lordship, and that the secular is no mere neutral space, but one which exists for his purposes in the world.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The Unnecessary Necessity of Arts Degrees

*This is developed from a recent talk I give.
His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature. – 2 Peter 1.3

Peter talks about escaping the corruption that is in the world because of desire, and as Christians we’ve been trained to read that as meaning the creation is evil. That is this world, this creation, the thing God said several times over at the beginning of time was good, good, very good, but which Paul's says in Romans has now been subjected to decay.  The world is corrupted; therefore the whole of material existence is evil. But that’s not quite where Peter takes it does he? That has more to do with Gnosticism or Buddhism than with the gospel of the resurrected, embodied, Jesus Christ. The world is corrupted not because of something inherently wrong with materiality, but with human desire and our malfunctioning hearts:

“In sin we divide the good world God has made into two “worlds”, one good and the other evil, and we make our own contingent perspectives the criterion for the division. And this gives a new, negative sense to the term “world”, which we have hitherto spoken of positively as God’s creation. This negative sense is characteristic of the New Testament, and points to the reality a constructed world, a world of our own imagination, pitched over against the created world and in opposition to it.”[1]

The Biblical account holds that God made all things not under compulsion or out necessity, but as a gushing forth of love. God's gracious action in creation belongs from the first to that delight, pleasure and regard that the Trinity enjoys from eternity, as an outward and unnecessary expression of that love; and thus creation must be received before all else as gift and as beauty. God is not grey; and he does not create a grey world. ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’ as English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. Creation wasn't just what needed to be done and no more; it was an excessive and even decadent act. It was more than a bit unnecessary.[2] 

Moreover, we must maintain that God entered into the world, and experienced pain and death to rescue the splendour of what he had made – including you and me. He did not sit idly by as creation was plunged into death and decay, as we fooled about fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, half-hearted creatures like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.[3] He condescended himself into our decay so that we might share his life.

This theological conviction concerning creation and redemption is, I believe, profoundly connected to the vocation of Arts students. Understanding the world rightly – that it was created by God, who loves his world, who sustains his world, who will one day rescue his world from sin and decay rather than allow it to slide in nothingness – that is what sustains the task of universities generally, and the B.A. more specifically. 

I spend a lot of time in my work with postgrads thinking about the university: what is the university? Why does it exist? Arts students are, in many ways, a relic, a fossil, from a by-gone era. The Arts degree is the remnant of the original degrees awarded by universities (developments of the Trivium and the Quadrivium), deposits of a time when universities where established across Europe by Christians in order to facilitate a depth of knowledge and insight into God and his world. That was the original vision of the university, interested in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge because all truth is God’s truth, and thereby holding together the ordered reality of the universe. It was a thoroughly Christian vision – one which has long since been replaced by universities driven by economic rationalism, where universities now exist on the one hand to develop the next generation of leaders of the welfare states which sustain the universities;[4] and on the other to facilitate the kind of research which will make money and fulfill that vague category of ‘being good for the nation’, which mostly equates to science and engineering.

For art students, their mere presence within the university is a constant reminder of the original purpose of universities: towering spires pursuing the knowledge and love of God. You can find slight echos of this even in Sydney University, which has always been secular. The next time you’re in the great hall, look up at the two angels that hover of the dais at the front, and try and make out the Latin on their scrolls. To the left: Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth; to the right: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Arts students are fossils to this vision. But much like the Wollemi Pine or crocodiles, they are living fossils, a very present reminder of a different age.

I want to place the emphasis on the word LIVING fossils. The university has plenty of inanimate sandstone around the place to pretend that it's Oxbridge and Hogwarts. Their vocation as Arts students is not exhausted by just turning up to campus 1-2 days a week. Instead their calling is testify to the goodness this rich and diverse creation by studying it at depth. Whether you study modern philosophy or Aztec philology, whether you research the events of history or the currents of political science, whether you're researching drama or music or gender or sociology, classics or anthropology, there is a dignity and worth in studying each of these thingsnot because our culture deems them to be economically viable or productive, but because they are each part of God's world. God’s world, which God is not indifferent to; his world, which he has created with complexity and meaning, and has endowed us with the intellect and brains to deliberate, to examine, to study all these things. It’s easy to pay Arts students out, by predicting their future as McDonald’s employees. (I somehow was offered the position of manager at a different fast food store on the strength of being an Arts graduate alone; I declined). 

But they are not studying just an Arts degree: their study is one of the most human things one could do [recalling especially Adam's task in Genesis 2.1920, which was not merely scientific, but required linguistics, hermeneutics, and so on). It’s part of our calling as God’s representative ruling presence in the world. Therefore be people who engage with your mind: read books which no one else in the university will read; read deeply and widely; talk to people across diverse disciplines. Immerse yourselves in your study of God's world. Engage well; Augustine was right I suspect when he said that to know something is to love that thing.

Their challenge is to not rest content with just learning things, but doing the hard, integrative work of connecting what your study with the gospel? How does modern history connect with the gospel? How does sociology, anthropology, or linguistics connect with the gospel? What does the death and resurrection of Jesus have to say about geography, or English? How does the gospel both affirm and challenge the stories my major tells about itself? How are all these things completed in Jesus? How can I use the logic of the gospel re-narrate what my discipline is to my friends in a way that is compelling?  The world is made up of languages and ideas, creatures and events.Study those things. Engage with words and ideas, taking every thought captive for the obedience of Christ. That is not where the problem of sinful desire lies. The problem is not with materiality. Don’t fall into the sub-Christian trap of thinking that God’s going to abandon his creation. As God’s representative ruling presence, and as Arts students, your calling is go about studying and knowing God’s world at depth. As I said a few moments ago, this is a sidebar, a discursive. But engaging with God means engaging him with our minds as well as our hearts, and necessitates engaging the world he has made. 

That God made the beautiful when it was unnecessary to do this is love. To study the logic and rhythm of that world in all its complexity and beauty is the task of the student, and the Arts student especially. 

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, ‘Admiring’.
[2] My thanks to Michael Jensen's second year doctrine lectures for some of these ideas.
[3] Cf. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: “…it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
[3] I owe this idea to Dr. Mark Hutchinson.