Saturday, 26 December 2015

Opinion - 26 December 2015

Natasha Moore The Drum (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) In defence of the nativity play

Rowan Williams ABC Religion and Ethics Where Faith is Born: Seeing Ourselves Honestly, Seeing the World Differently

Giles Fraser The Guardian The story of the virgin birth runs against the grain of Christianity
Archdruid Eileen A Canon Backfires

Some (arch)bishops’ Christmas Messages

Archbishop of Canterbury
Archbishop of York

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Primate of Canada - Archbishop Hiltz has also recorded this video jointly with the Lutheran National Bishop of Canada
Bishop David Chillingworth, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church (video)

Bishop of Chelmsford
Bishop of Gloucester, Bishop of Western Tanganyika and Bishop of El Camino Real
Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe
Bishop of Leeds
Bishop of Lincoln
Bishop of Liverpool - The bishop also has a separate video message.
Bishop of Sheffield

Bishop of St Asaph
Bishop of Bangor
Bishop of Swansea and Brecon

Anglican and Roman Catholic Primates of Ireland

Archbishop Philip Freier, Primate of Australia

Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, Primate of Uganda

And some sermons

Archbishop of Canterbury

Bishop of Bath and Wells
Bishop of Chichester
Bishop of Durham
Bishop of Guildford
Bishop of Leeds
Bishop of Southwark
Bishop of Taunton

Archbishop of Wales

Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral Glasgow Midnight Mass Christmas morning

Posted by Peter Owen on Saturday, 26 December 2015 at 11:05am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Opinion

Re Natasha Moore, "My own sense is that the depth and counter-intuitiveness of these truths suggest that the Christmas story is much more than simply a repository of human wisdom. That it may be, truly, Emmanuel: God come down to us, as one of us."

Perfect. Thanks for the link to her terrific article.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Saturday, 26 December 2015 at 2:45pm GMT

With all due respect to Father Giles Fraser - whose theological understang of gender and sexuality I normally approve of, I'm afraid I think he has completely the wrong end of the argument when he pours scorn on the virginity of Mary - before the Conception of Jesus, Son of God.

"before they came to live together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, beiung a man of honour, and wanting to spare her publicity, decided to divorce her informally..." - Matthew 1:18-19 -

The amazing mystery of Christ's Incarnation was not so much about the 'purity' of Mary, as her willingness to be the bearer of the Messiah. Mary's 'Yes' to God was her primary virtue, and for which she has been called 'Blessed'.

For Jesus to be 'both God and human' there has to be a divine partner in the act of generation. It has long been considered that the divine partner was God's Holy Spirit - as described in Scripture.

The real miracle here - I do believe - was that, in Mary, God found a willing vessel for God's divinity to be quickened into a separate new life as a human being - 'full of grace and truth' - Son of both God and Mary.

I must confess, I do have a problem with the prospect of the 'ever-virgin' Mary - if only because. post-partum - Mary was no longer a virgin. Only that could explain the presence of Jesus 'brothers', mentioned in Luke's Gospel, chapter 8, verses 19 to 21: "His mother and his brothers came looking for him".

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Sunday, 27 December 2015 at 12:19am GMT

Archbishop Justin uses the word apocalypse (once in its plural form) no less than ten times in his Christmas Day sermon. I wonder, does he know something that the rest of us don't?

Posted by: Father David on Sunday, 27 December 2015 at 5:39am GMT

Gibraltar links to Wales.

Posted by: cseitz on Sunday, 27 December 2015 at 1:20pm GMT

I've corrected the Gibraltar link.

Posted by: Peter Owen on Sunday, 27 December 2015 at 10:34pm GMT

@Father David

That is an interesting observation especially since the present Pope, more than any recent predecessor, has also talked about end times.

Posted by: Kate on Monday, 28 December 2015 at 1:24am GMT


Posted by: cseitz on Monday, 28 December 2015 at 1:02pm GMT

@ Father David, "Archbishop Justin uses the word apocalypse (once in its plural form) no less than ten times in his Christmas Day sermon. I wonder, does he know something that the rest of us don't?'

No, Father, I think he knows exactly what everyone else knows, you know, climate change with severe weather, terrorists looking for dirty bombs, loose cannons like Putin with nukes, and on it goes. But look on the biblical bright side, "wars and rumors of wars" but the end is not yet.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Monday, 28 December 2015 at 2:04pm GMT

@ Fr. Ron (27 Dec. 12:19). Enjoyed your comment. Fraser's articles are usually iconoclastic; but I share your assessment of this one.

Wondering if you have seen (Ian) John Macquarrie's book, Mary For All Christians (Eerdsmans, 1990)?

The ARCIC document, Mary:Grace and Hope in Christ is also very helpful. There is a useful footnote (2)to paragraph 18: "Given its strongly Jewish matrix in both Matthean and Lucan versions, and appeal to analogies with pagan mythology or to an exaltation of virginity over the married state to explain the origin of the tradition is implausible. Nor is the idea of virginal conception likely to derive from an over-literal reading of the Greek text of Isaiah 7:14 (LXX), for that is not the way it is introduced in the Lukan account. Moreover, the suggestion that it originated as an answer to the accusation of illegitimacy leveled at Jesus is unlikely, as that accusation could equally have arisen because it was known that there was something unusual about Jesus' birth (cf. Mark 6:3; John 8:41)and because of the church's claim about his virginal birth"

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Monday, 28 December 2015 at 5:06pm GMT

Thank you, Rod. Being 'old-fashioned' in some ways, I am thankful that I can still believe in miracles.
For me, the abiding miracle is that our Creator was interested enough to become part of the creation, giving us the prospect of new life from within.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Tuesday, 29 December 2015 at 9:24am GMT

@ Father Ron, "...the abiding miracle ...of new life from within."

Now there is a turn of phrase that caught my eye, turning up within the context of a conversation about The Nativity and St. Mary.

As an aging Anglican I have re-appropriated a few of the religious practices from my Roman Catholic upbringing.(Perhaps Erik Erikson would approve.)

One such practice is a devotion to St. Mary. A few years ago I crafted a prayer based on The Ave. I have been using it during Advent and Incarnation seasons. I find it adds to my appreciation of the collect for "Stir Up Sunday" and the Seasonal collect of Advent both of which I love. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Natasha Moore's article resonates.

The turn of phrase in your post caught my eye because of the co-incident phrasing with the last line of my little adaption which focuses the second extra-biblical part of the traditional Ave in a slightly different way.

The entire text is below. I reckon it is new fashioned and "old fashioned" all in one.

(Alleluia.) Rejoice with gladness daughter of Divine favour. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is Jesus the child of your womb.(Alleluia.)

Mary, sanctified, bearer of God, pray for us that we may be filled with new life.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Tuesday, 29 December 2015 at 2:33pm GMT

I find the comments on Giles Fraser's column in the Guardian just a little hard to understand. Fr. Ron suggests that Giles "pours scorn on the virginity of Mary - before the Conception of Jesus, Son of God." So far as I can see, there is not a scornful (or iconoclastic) word to be found in Fraser's column. All he says is that the emphasis on the purity of Mary goes against the grain of the story of Jesus, who associated with prostitutes and sinners, and in other ways violated the purity restrictions of Judaism. If the Son of God had to be born of a virgin, who herself was immaculately conceived and so untouched by the human, then Jesus did not become human in any sense in which Christians have understood humanity. I think Giles Fraser is strictly right, in theological terms, which is doubtless why I have always found Marian devotion perplexing (even disturbing).

I bear in mind Keith Ward's remark in his book "Ethics and Christianity," reflecting on Jesus' apparent arrogance and intolerance (as reflected in his utterances in John's gospel in particular):

"If one grants the existence of God and the unique status of Jesus in relation to him, these characteristics of his reported life become quite natural and appropriate." (p.28)

Christians have done their best to cocoon Jesus, in this way, so that he is perceived as quite apart from the humanity by which he is supposed to have incarnated God, so that he is as we are, yet without sin. But then he is not as we are, because the central fact about humanity in the Christian understanding of the human, is that we are sinners, and as Anselm so clearly said, guilty of a monstrous offence to God. We don't have to accept Anselm's interpretation of the atonement in order to agree that this is, indeed, Christianity's view of the human condition in relation to God (otherwise Jesus is simply otiose).

But if Jesus does not share this central feature of being human, then in what way does the exaltation of his *humanity* become the means by which our own humanity is exalted and redeemed? This is the question that convulsed the early church, when the alternatives of Arianism or Docetism beckoned. The problem was solved, I suggest, by refusing to think about the problem too deeply, which meant that the atonement was simply left as a mystery to which multiple answers could be given. The apotheosis of Mary tends towards Docetism, because it divorces Jesus' humanity from our own. The other alternative, which allows for the true humanity of Jesus, at the same time that he is accommodated to the divine, is Arianism. And traditional Christianity is caught on the horns of this dilemma, and it is only just that Giles Fraser should point this out, whether or not there is a satisfactory theological resolution of the problem.

Posted by: Eric MacDonald on Thursday, 31 December 2015 at 4:26pm GMT

@ Eric MacDonald, the introduction of the R.C. doctrine of the Immaculate Conception into the conversation is sleight of hand.

Natasha Moore in her article writes, "I happen to be a Christian, so I do think the story of Mary and Joseph, the stable in Bethlehem, the shepherds and wise men, is true; or, more accurately, I'm Christian because I think it's true." I agree with her. One wonders sometimes, how it is possible to remain a Christian and a member of the institutional church given the institution's ecclesiastical politics? The answer, for me, resides in its mythology, ( in the good sense of the term) and what are named, for example,in the traditional rosary as the mysteries, joyful, sorrowful, glorious. I remain a Christian only because our mythology trumps things like the male power grab of Primates' meetings for example. Interesting how much ink and hand wringing is spent on the boys of January and how little attention is devoted to International Anglican Women's Network.

Giles Fraser writes, "Outside the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke, the virgin birth plays no further part in the New Testament." The problem for Fraser is that the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke are gospel Christology with women as crucial personages. How impoverished our Christology would be without these stories.

You might spend less time worrying about Docetism and Arianism, the angst ridden dilemma of college dons, and read maybe some Joseph Campbell: "In mythology emphasizing the maternal rather than the paternal aspect of the creator, this original female fills the world stage in the beginning, playing roles that are elsewhere assigned to males. And she is virgin, because her spouse is the Invisible Unknown."

The mass was a once a boys' game. No wonder women said their rosary during mass but did not receive. It was an act of proto-typical feminism.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Friday, 1 January 2016 at 7:29am GMT

Rod, I see no sleight of hand in raising the doctrine of the immaculate conception. Nor do I find Natasha Moore's account of Christmas particularly helpful. First of all, she concentrates almost entirely on Matthew, since that allows her to play with the idea of Jesus as refugee (very timely, no doubt), which Luke's gospel does not. (Nor do I find her speaking of "truths" either reasonable or helpful when speaking in terms of myth, especially when she so sedulous confines herself to only one birth myth, and one that is less likely to have been true.) I think the twin appeals of Arianism and Docetism (and its close relative Gnosticism) are perennial Christian temptations, and no wonder, since it is almost impossible to give an account of a truly human Jesus. The problems are nicely laid out in John Knox's "The Humanity and Divinity of Christ," which is now consistently ignored, but bears attention. I have no idea why women said the rosary while not receiving communion, but I suspect it has to do more with the custom of receiving communion on high holy days, since the sacrament itself had become so spiritually elevated that ordinary people did not dare approach the holy mysteries on a regular basis, than it did with feminism.

The problem of the atonement remains one of the great unsolved problems of Christian theology, mainly, I think, because Jesus is a problem for Christian theology. We have no idea how to accept Jesus as truly human, and therefore no clear idea of what it really means to call him Lord. If Jesus was just slumming in disguise, then it is hard to see how he can be described as human, but if he is already the pre-existent Logos (as in John's gospel), then it is hard to see how he has taken our humanity upon him (as John's gospel makes so painfully clear). The mythology may make this question conveniently disappear, but it doesn't solve the christological problem, as the findings of iterated Church of England Doctrine Commissions make reasonably clear.

In trying to understand this the less emphasis that is placed on sexism the better, since this is simply irrelevant to the aporia of the incarnation. Raise Mary as high is you like, even to the point of being Co-Redemptrix and Queen of Heaven, and the problem remains. Joseph Campbell has no solution to the problem either, for the real question is not whether we are dealing with mythology or fact, the real question is whether the divine Logos could intelligibly take our humanity upon himself without contradiction, or whether it remained a being apart, despite all the language which intimates otherwise. Gregory of Nazianzus says that what was not assumed was not redeemed, and yet, if Jesus became straightforwardly human, then it is exceedingly difficult to see how he could have remained divine. That was Arius' problem, and you can see why so many people were attracted to his solution, that Jesus was not very God of very God, but somehow lesser, and therefore not unreasonably thought to be capable of becoming fully human, and thus becoming a mediator between God and the human world.

Posted by: Eric MacDonald on Friday, 1 January 2016 at 2:15pm GMT

@ Eric, I'll make an effort not to turn this into another 100 round duel.

"The problem of the atonement ...unsolved ..." Only if one is a problem maker and not a problem solver. The passion and death of Christ is an act of full and complete solidarity with the poor, the suffering, , the oppressed, the despairing. the dying.

'We have no idea how to accept Jesus as truly human..." Who is "we"? I have no problem knowing how to accept Jesus as human. Nor do a host of contemporary faithful artists, activists and care givers find it problematic.

I read somewhere very recently, can't quite put my finger on where, just to note its not my idea, that kenosis is not about subtracting something but about adding something. Insightful mythology.

"In trying to understand this the less emphasis that is placed on sexism the better..." On the contrary, its women in the bible stories the tradition has tried to cocoon. Yet Christianity's authenticity is inexorably linked to its subversive matriarchal strata from the beginning.

My friends in science tell me that a theory is simply that which gives the best account of the available evidence. In terms of the infancy narratives as text, Raymond Brown et al have the most plausible theories about the textual issues, about the construction of the story. However, one must then decide whether or not one accepts what the authors, properly understood, appear to be saying. I find what they have to say meaningful. That's where Giles Fraser went off the rails this time.

"... no idea why women said the rosary while not receiving communion..." It's a mini-passion play, an acting out the role of St. Mary and the other women at the foot of the cross, a strong spirituality.

Nicaea is what we would call today an exercise in modelling, although one tainted by politics. Don't fret too much about the old model and the problems connected with it. All will be well, all will be well.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Friday, 1 January 2016 at 5:44pm GMT

Well, Rod, as affirmations of faith, what you say is doubtless comfortably orthodox. As theology, it fails in ways that I already suggested, and does not account for the early controversies about the nature of Jesus, which, despite our more sentimental attachment to faith claims about Jesus, are still living theological issues. "The Myth of God Incarnate" didn't come from nowhere. Nor did Arius' language about Jesus become normative Christian doctrine by accident. Christian orthodoxy concerning the relation of Father and Son (homoousios) was simply an inversion of Arius' claims about that relationship. But the language itself never solved the problem; it just stated it in terms that would have to be rejected by Arius and his followers.

This is why kenotic theories don't really deal with the problem at issue, since it is, broadly speaking, a word salad in terms of which the problematics of Jesus relationship to the Father are concealed rather than resolved. Saying that "the passion and death of Christ is an act of full and complete solidarity with the poor, the suffering, the oppressed, the despairing, and the dying," simply cancels through by the problem that faced the early Christians who wanted to know how it was that Jesus not only showed solidarity with the poor and the suffering, but how, through Jesus, the transcendent God showed that solidarity. And suggesting that kenosis (despite its plain meaning) is a matter (according to someone's proposal) of adding and not subtracting something simply poses the problem, but does not offer a solution (as kenotic theories in general do however defined).

Indeed, in relation to all this, your statement that all will be well is a bit like Jeremiah's complaint that false prophets keep saying that there is (or will be) peace when there is no peace. In a little book Raymond Brown seeks to put "An Adult Christ at Christmas," in which he interprets the texts as retrojecting the adult Christ into the Christmas stories. This is all very well, but he also notes (as Giles does) that the emphasis on purity is really at odds with the adult Christ. He points out that "[t]he physical fact of motherhood gave her no special status according to the values Jesus preached. If she is remembered as the mother of the Christian community, it is not only because her womb bore Jesus and her breasts nourished him [words which keep him off the hook of the CDF] ...; rather it is because she believed the Lord's word in a way that gave her a prominent membership in his true family of disciples." (36)

Of course, there is very little scriptural evidence that Mary played this role (except in John's proto-gnostic gospel - unless you take the annunciation as a later expression of Mary's faith in her son's theophoric role), but even if she did, according to Brown, Fraser's conclusion that the birth stories run against the grain of the gospel teaching is substantially correct. But none of this really answers the christological problem, and thus the problem of atonement. These are still theological conundrums, however prepared Christians are to utter their faith convictions about Jesus' mediation without any satisfactory theological answer to the central questions of Christian belief.

Re the rosary and the eucharist, of course the eucharist is a mini-passion play. That was never in question. What is in question is why saying the rosary became normative for so many in place of receiving communion. It may indeed be a deep spirituality, but it seems, in general, at odds with what is going on at the altar, which brings us back to the question of christology again, though without any solution.

Posted by: Eric MacDonald on Saturday, 2 January 2016 at 3:42pm GMT

@ Eric,"...what you say is doubtless comfortably orthodox..." Orthodoxy is largely a political construct. I don't find it a useful self-description.

All will be well has nothing to do with Jeremiah. Its from Julian of Norwich. I'm surprised you missed it.

You seriously misunderstand Brown in terms of this discussion, and your citation from him does your argument in support of Giles Fraser no good. (See, Brown BM ( 2nd ed),Appendix IV B The Virginal Conception and NT Christology.)

You chose not to respond to my suggestion that Nicaea is a form of modelling. It attempted to conceptualize biblical data as then understood using particular conceptual tools. It did so under politcal duress. It's dated, although often still used by the "orthodox" an an attempt to disenfranchise others or at least control the conversation. It created a legacy of spin off problems many of which are now moribund. Newer models are more germane, Macqaurrie, Pittinger, Schillebeeckx, et al. Just focus on them as models rather than dogma. You may find that a challenge given the evident preference for sweeping absolutes in many of your arguments.

I've linked an article on Schillebeeckx by Louis Dupré that I think you may find interesting.

Giles Fraser and your good self are creating more problems than you resolve. Amputating the infancy narratives, or John's Gospel, or other parts of the NT gets us nowhere. I'm certainly not prepared to do that.

I've been analyzing your debating style. You tend to find the fine point of the most extreme evolution of an idea and make it bear the load of a wide spectrum issue that contains a range of nuance and detail. I wouldn't want you as my engineer or architect.

Your posts suggest that most of these issues are a proxy for a rejection of anything that approaches a new Christian synthesis i.e. faith in Jesus the Christ. I understand what you don't like. What would be of more interest would be an articulation of what you do like about the Christian faith that facilitates your continued participation.

Perhaps we will pick that up on a new thread?

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Saturday, 2 January 2016 at 6:18pm GMT

Rod, I am, in general, not a great supporter of those whose writings are preceded by the Vatican imprimatur. Raymond Brown is no exception, and I did not and do not pay much attention to his biblical exegesis. Thus his books on the birth and death of the Messiah have not received my attention at all.

As for my debating style, I think you would be hard put to show that I "tend to find the fine point of the most extreme evolution of an idea and make it bear the load of a wide spectrum issue that contains a range of nuance and detail." I do not think the early church controversy over Arianism, and the settlement of that dispute at Nicaea (the settlement may have been forced, but the terms of that settlement were not), is in any sense the fine point of the most extreme evolution of an idea.

And, of course it is modelling. All our language about God or Christ is inevitably modelling (or analogy, by any other name), but it must make at least some literal sense if it is to bear the weight of the "mythic" nuance and detail that we superadd to it when we speak of it in biblical terms. Which is why I think Sarah Coakley's article in the later discussion above is almost entirely self-delusion.

The same goes for your use of Julian of Norwich's 'All will be well, and all manner of things will be well' (or, if you like, the idea that angels like God can make the transition from myth to metaphysics). That's close enough (for me, anyway) to justify a Jeremiad at those who say peace when there is no peace. For everything is not well with the Christian understanding of the Christ, or many other fundamental beliefs which form the framework of ordinary faith. (I remember a young priest saying to me in desperation: "If I were to tell people what I really believe, they would not think me a Christian.") So, if you want to know what I believe, I have to say I have no idea, because I do not now understand either what the church wanted to say originally by making its doctrinal claims (in terms of the unity of Jesus and the Logos, and the Logos and God), or what the church today might mean by this in terms of what may be a new Christian synthesis.

In any terms that will make Christian sense, Jesus will still be an absolute, and from any reasonable standpoint, as Tillich pointed out, taking something finite as absolute is idolatry. (Of course, Tillich had tried to show that Jesus was somehow an eschatological figure, the timeless in time, the one who brings in the new eon, and in those senses other than finite, but it is not altogether convincing, and just as unsatisfactory as the idea of one substance in three hypostases.)

And, as for the new synthesis, you must at least take note of this in the article you link for my deliberation:

"The experience of those who lived at a time when the original impact of Jesus' appearance was still alive was in a unique way privileged. Yet that original experience reaches us exclusively through Scripture. Scriptural expression, then, must remain the final authoritative basis of our own experience."

But this also goes for the interpretive work that was done by the early Christian Fathers. For it was this that was as close as could be to the original Christ experience (if talking about Christ experiences makes any sense?). What I tend to find (and you express it from time to time) is that people want to retain hold of the emotion of their earlier (and often less informed) appropriation of faith, and do not see that the way we talk about experience is now very different. I think of that around Christmas time a lot, because it is only five days from my wedding anniversary (with Elizabeth), and I cannot capture the tingling sense of expectation or the quiet sense of assurance that I used to experience, and so experience and belief have come unstuck for me, though I think that is a widespread fact of the way that we perceive the significance of life (or its lack thereof) now. But one thing that I did experience during those years when Elizabeth's health was quickly fading, was that Christmas began to take on, in Giles' sense, the attributes of crisis, and I can now never experience Christmas except (as we celebrate it) as going against the grain of the gospel.

Posted by: Eric MacDonald on Saturday, 2 January 2016 at 10:44pm GMT

@ Eric, "..debating style..." your first paragraph is illustrative. Why would you make a masterful NT scholar responsible for your visceral reaction to the Papacy?

"I do not now understand ...what the church wanted to say originally ...its doctrinal claims..." While I tip my hat to Nicaea, I'm not entirely sure it isn't hollow which is perhaps why some theologians look for a different model. We certainly need something that better serves inter-faith dialogue.

" ..we superadd to it when we speak of it in biblical terms." You have it backwards. Nicaea is the superstructure.

Don't conclude I agree with everything Dupré says. "Scriptural expression ...the final authoritative basis of our own experience." I would prefer to say that its the final authoritative expression of someone else's experience.

I am not unsympathetic to the point Giles Fraser wants to make; but he is confused about the story of the virgin birth in relation to the Gospel as is your argument in defense of him.

Your point here is interesting,"..people want to retain ...earlier" That's a good thing provided one appropriates in a meditated way what was once immediate.

Your final paragraph is very compelling. I would feel somewhat irreverent commenting on it too closely, even if you have posted here.

All I can say is that I find it helpful to distinguish between faith and belief. Experience often requires us to face our beliefs and change them.

I have often wondered if my faith would hold in the face of existential crises . So Far, it has. Faith appears to be not just something I have but something that has me as well.

The crisis comes when experience and faith are at odds. I don't think we can reason ourselves or others either in our out of faith. All we can do is wait to see if faith is possible.

I find the spirituality of a late medieval woman like Julian very helpful. Judging by the religious art work of the time one would think despair was the only viable option.

All debating styles have their weak points. One of mine is not discerning when more than enough has been said.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Sunday, 3 January 2016 at 6:47pm GMT

Well, Rod, if my first sentence is illustrative of what you call my "debating style", then it is nothing like you describe it. Long ago, when, for some reason, the editor of Blackfriars (to which I subscribed when it was simply Blackfriars) became the target of the CDF, and the magazine (journal) was renamed, I resolved that I would read nothing that came with the church's imprimatur, since what is said in those conditions obviously comes with a caveat about openness and authenticity of belief (I cancelled my subscription at once, and wrote a letter expressing my dismay). That goes back to the early sixties, and it is a resolution that I do not break. This resolution was further confirmed for me by the "Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian". I do not have a visceral reaction to the papacy, but I do have serious reservations about the role the CDF plays in the disciplinary regulation of thought in Catholic theology (which makes it all of dubious parentage).

As to Nicaea being the superstructure, that is precisely what I said (its decisions do not qualify as the extreme evolution of a fairly subsidiary fine point of doctrine). But what Nicaea and other theology does is to try to express what is foundational for Christian faith, an attempt to get back to that original experience, and to understand it. But this, in some sense, instead of creating a genuinely new synthesis, provides a basis upon which we can be as unreconstructedly folksy in our expression of faith, as though theology is otiose and the biblical account can help us recapture the original experience. This, in my view, is a misunderstanding of theology and its role. Ordinary people should be much more upset than they are. It is also why contemporary theology is, to a large extent, simply ignored by the priest in the parish so as not to upset people's comfortable faith.

The virginal conception of Jesus is obviously mythic in structure, since there are two different and conflicting accounts of it. Welby makes use of the "flight into Egypt" to make it seem as though Jesus were a refugee (a shameless misappropriation of the story) in Nazareth, for which there is not a shred of evidence. If Herod had killed all the boys under a certain age this savagery would not have gone unreported. And Luke assumes that Joseph and Mary went back from Bethlehem to Nazareth by way of Jerusalem, where the appropriate sacrifice for the redemption of the first born was offered. The lovely Nunc Dimittis, however, is as much a mythic construction as the massacre of the innocents or the flight into Egypt. To what extent these accounts are midrash, or defensive constructions to deflect later attempts to discredit Christianity, is anyone's guess. The obvious clunking of the biblical machinery in the background and the subsequent history of Marian devotion obviously favours the latter (as one of the primary take away messages of the birth stories), since the purity of Mary is so sedulously developed; and to the extent that Mary is exalted, to that extent Jesus becomes more a docetic appearance of God, than a true human being. In this sense Fraser is right on the money. If Nazianzus was right, and what is not assumed is not redeemed, then we are left in our sins. And that is precisely, as I understood it, Fraser's point.

Unlike you, I never found Julian's spirituality helpful, and I also think it is possible to argue ourselves into and out of faith. I am surprised that someone who studied theology to the extent that you did should think otherwise. There is of course a difference between faith and belief, though the membrane between them is very thin and porous.

Posted by: Eric MacDonald on Monday, 4 January 2016 at 2:16pm GMT

@ Eric, your continued defense of your debating style just keeps building my case for me.

"The virginal conception of Jesus is obviously mythic in structure..." Of course it is. But, unlike you, I think it has meaning within the parameters of mythic consciousness.

" is possible to argue ourselves into and out of faith. I am surprised that someone who studied theology to the extent that you did should think otherwise. .."

Actually, I'm surprised that someone who has studied theology to the extent that you have would think it possible.

I'm less of a believer in the enterprise of "theology" than I once was. I'm more into a religious studies mode these days. Theology often looks like a guy doing religious studies except that its his own religion he is studying with the goal of arguing it is superior to the religion of others. Besides, theology and politcal rhetoric are pretty much indistinguishable these days. Instance the Kabuki theater that is our Communion at present.

After these debates I feel like I've gone the distance with Smokin Joe Fraser. So, continuing with that metaphor I'll crib a couple of lines from my hero Muhammad Ali,"The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life." and my favorite,"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, you can't catch me..." I'm pretty sure we'll have a re-match.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Monday, 4 January 2016 at 4:24pm GMT

Your last comment was obviously a farewell, so mine will be too. As for my debating style, I don't see how your characterisation of it is true to the way that I construct arguments - which is what I do, by the way, though you are a bit more staccato in the way that you deliver yourself of a number of largely unrelated comments.

First of all, theology cannot have the *goal* of reasonably claiming superiority for one's belief or faith tradition, since all traditions are human creations, just as myths are, though I think there are things to say in defence of the West which do not apply to the Muslim world, and I prefer Western (largely Anglo-Saxon) culture, fractured and superficial as it often is, to the religious excesses of other traditions.

I do not think, however, that it is really possible for most people today to live within mythic structures (though I have known Hindus who could). We are simply too knowledgeable and self-conscious for that. I do not know what you mean by 'having meaning within the parameters of mythic consciousness' (especially if you use 'parameters' correctly, which refers to mathematical limits and adjustments thereto). But the term 'mythic consciousness', while it might describe someone who is able to live entirely within the myth as somehow an account of reality, does not really refer to anything which makes much sense to me. From my point of view theology is largely the philosophical analysis of a faith tradition, and how that tradition encounters its own culture (and it is our culture which makes "mythic consciousness" virtually impossible for us, which is why Christmas is all tinsel and glitter now), other cultures and other faith traditions (so, religious studies by another name, though more philosophical in orientation than you had in mind, I think). Some have turned it into political rhetoric, since "mythic consciousness" has so little meaning within our culture, and political commitment provides a semi-scientific, Marxian, and self-conscious way of appropriating and living within a mythicised consciousness.

Unlike you, debates are mother's milk to me, and do not lend themselves to boxing metaphors. I am quite prepared to go on, but I see that you have come to the end of your patience with me, so, I bid you adieu, with gratitude for the opportunity to take my brain out for a walk.

Posted by: Eric MacDonald on Monday, 4 January 2016 at 8:40pm GMT

@ Eric, "Unlike you, debates are mother's milk to me, and do not lend themselves to boxing metaphors." What can I say, I grew up on the streets of a coal mining town. You can run away, stand up and slug it out or jab and dance around. I'm inclined to the latter.

“There are no pleasures in a fight, but some of my fights have been a pleasure to win.”
-Muhammad Ali. ( :

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Tuesday, 5 January 2016 at 12:32am GMT
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