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Posts Tagged ‘calling’

To fight aloud, is very brave—
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe—

Who win, and nations do not see—
Who fall—and none observe—
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love—

We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go—
Rank after Rank, with even feet—
And Uniforms of Snow.

— Emily Dickinson

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“Abraham cannot be mediated, and the same thing can be expressed also by saying that he cannot talk. So soon as I talk I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me.” — Kierkegaard, Fear and trembling

* * *

Recently when I was reading Galatians I was struck with the unintelligibility of Paul’s call. Check out the words from the man himself:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! […] Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

(1:8, 10¹)

A running theme throughout Galatians is God’s plan and initiative above human tradition. Thus Paul can say right from the get-go in verse one that he is “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father”. He can say later that in light of his divine call the leaders in Jerusalem “contributed nothing to [him]” (2:6). And this also gives meaning to the later distinction between Spirit and flesh (eg. 3:3, 4:23, 5:16…).

You’ll understand when you’re older, mum.

Paul’s statement on who he’s trying to please needs to be held up to closer scrutiny. How can he make his essentially unintelligible call intelligible to others? Or why is his call unintelligible in the first place? This is Kierkegaard’s existential insight in Fear and Trembling: Abraham is called by the Lord to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In his very old age his wife, Sarah, (who, too, is a fossil) manages to bear a son, no doubt a blessing from God. How can Abraham make it intelligible to others that the Lord is asking him to give up his only descendent² and forfeit his name? Mary is visited by an angel and told she will bear the Messiah. “Hey guys, I’m pregnant, but don’t worry I haven’t been sleeping around, it’s just that God in human form is in my womb”³. Kierkegaard says of Mary that the “one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath”. I came across another example in church last Sunday when the speaker spoke of Joseph’s story in Genesis: Joseph was shown in a dream that he would rule over his brothers, so he thought it would be a good idea to tell them, partly contributing to his almost being killed and sent into slavery by them (Genesis 37). Calling, whether or not it can be made intelligible to the called, is immediately unintelligible to those around him or her.

Paul’s call is after his conversion, in Kierkegaardian terms, no longer a duty to God through the universal, which would entail all the practices he was obligated to under Judaism, but a duty to God through the particular, that which God calls the individual to. As soon as Paul attempts to justify his call to other people, it loses its particularity between God and himself and enters the universal. No doubt Paul does attempt to justify something to his readers, because he is involved in matters that concern a whole lot more people than merely God and himself. Paul needs to justify to the Galatians that they need not be concerned with circumcision and abiding by the law.

Yet Paul also attempts to justify his calling, but on what terms? He must make his appeal through the universal not to the particular, because that exists only in itself, between God and Paul. Any attempt to even describe it undermines it by electing a universal criteria with which to describe it, like language, or by saying there is some commonality between God’s call to Paul and God’s call to another (though that we can even say there is particularity shows that there is a universality to particularity). Paul must then make his appeal through the universality of language to, in this case, the universality of divine retribution4. He can therefore bind himself to an oath (1:8) and speak not just before his human audience, but before God (1:20) to assert his honesty regarding his call. Other than the possibility that Paul is speaking truthfully on pain of damnation, three other possibilities arrive. (a) Paul is blissfully deceived; (b) he is speaking deceitfully before both man and God; or (c) he  is appealing not to a commonality that he shares with his readers but to one only they share among themselves, in the same way that someone can walk under a ladder or open an umbrella inside as an act of self-sacrifice for their unwilling, superstitious friends.

This is a witch. If I’m lying then the witch is going to kill me in my sleep. You’ll just have to take my word and the cat’s face for it.

These possibilities show the ultimately inaccessible particularity of Paul’s call to the Gospel. On one level it is universal and can be made known to other people, but on another level, that of the possibilities above, Paul cannot make himself intelligible to his audience when speaking of matters between himself and God, namely that he is telling the truth. Why then is the Epistle to the Galatians still available to use today? Why didn’t it get burnt by Gentiles zealous for the law? How is it possible that Paul is seen as speaking truth albeit being ultimately impenetrable? It is not only that Paul takes his theology from scripture, appealing to the universal throughout the letter, but that the early church depended on the universality of particularity: The Holy Spirit.

This is an absurdity not just of Christianity, not just of religion, but of all belief systems: Everything rational is ultimately taken in faith. All objectivity is subjectivity in disguise. All truth is untruth. Christianity takes as its chosen untruth, the Holy Spirit. This is the absurdity of Paul’s call: “The gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). The writer of Acts renders Paul’s conversion experience in a certain way (Acts 9), but, as a rule, primary literature should first be taken into consideration. Paul claims that he has seen Jesus and later compares this to other post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (1Corinthians 9:1, 15:3-8), and his description of being caught up into Paradise possibly adds to this account (2Corinthians 12:1-4). What is absurd about Paul’s experience on which he bases his life purposes? What is absurd is that he privileges a particular finite means for access to the call of God. Some people may continually read the collected wisdom of thinkers ancient and modern to ascertain the meaning of life, some may view life as statistics and numbers and embrace the idiosyncratic nooks and crannies of nihilism, another may find their complete meaning in being in the presence of certain person. For Paul it is the experience of revelation which sits at the base of his call5.

It’s interesting to note that Paul’s call compels him to three years serving the Lord in Arabia, Damascus, and possibly other unmentioned places, before spending some time with Peter in Jerusalem and after another eleven or fourteen years on the mission field (the text is unclear) Paul returns to Jerusalem, surprise surprise, in response to another revelation (Galatians 1:15-2:2). Paul leaves it this long after his conversion to consult the leadership in Jerusalem, “in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain” (v.2). There’s a little bit of classic irony there, and I wonder if Paul himself saw the humour in his actions. Yet that Paul did this in response to a revelation will not be easily dismissed: revelation was still primary, though now it required supplement to be fully justified. His approval from leaders in Jerusalem was not something that revelation could be swayed by; his approval was commissioned through revelation. Notably, the individual nature of Paul’s call has not changed. What is the outcome of Paul’s Christian individualism? It is responded to and approved (2:7-9) by those who also, to some extent, work in the same medium of call as Paul does, and then supplemented by an appeal to a universal ethic, remembering the poor (v.10).

This is the universality of particularity. When both parties are responding to the call of the Holy Spirit then this call is common to both parties; it is universal. Thus Paul can say of those in Jerusalem “they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised” (2:7) because the leaders recognised that where God had been at work in their own lives and the lives of those around them, he had also been at work in the hearts of those who formerly actively opposed the Gospel (1:23-24). The only way that the conversion of their enemy was intelligible to them was through the work of God in their own lives. And this is the subjectivity, whether it be revelation in whichever of its infinite forms, which ensures Galatians in our modern biblical canon: The Holy Spirit was not just at work in Paul but in the hearts of his readers.

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¹All bible quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from the NRSV and the Book of Galatians

²Ishmael, born to Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, realistically doesn’t hold as much value in this position, considering ancient Near East perceptions of family, etc.

³Noting, however, that an angel appears to Joseph to clear things up (Matthew 1:20) and John the Baptist’s mother was aware of it according to Luke too (1:43). In light of the other examples, allow a little room for Mary’s story to be read as Kierkegaard reads it, for the sake of the argument. Even so, he may have understood Mary’s original call to bear the Messiah, before elucidation to others, as strictly between her and God, and this is what he is focussing on in the example.

4 I use universality quite loosely here to refer to any commonality among a group of individuals, and I realise that this is the proper use, as true Kantian/Hegelian (?) universality which Kierkegaard uses as a reference point is undermined by Kierkegaard himself and Nietzsche onwards: There is no universal morality, code, ethics, etc. This universality that people refer to is a fantasy and only exists to some extent (though in absolute terms to none at all) within different groups of people. Thus language expresses the universal as much as ideas are universally accessible through it, but it is an approximation of the universal as much as the individual’s subjective perceptions of language allow for infinite nuances in interpretation.

5 The other sources of call given may disregard revelation by, for example, openly rebelling against God in light of the revelation, attempting to the revelation, dismissing revelation as human fantasy, etc.

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“I now go away alone, my disciples! You too now go away and be alone! So I will have it.
Truly, I advisee you: go away from me and guard yourselves against Zarathustra! And better still: be ashamed of him! Perhaps he has deceived you.
The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.
One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil. And why, then, should you not pluck at my laurels?
You respect me; but how if one day your respect should tumble? Take care that a falling statue does not strike you dead!
You say you believe in Zarathustra? But of what importance is Zarathustra? You are my believers: but of what importance are all believers?
You had not yet sought yourselves when you found me. Thus do all believers; therefore all belief is of so little account.
Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.”

Zarathustra to his disciples in Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra (‘Of the bestowing virtue’, part one).

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Favourite picture of Nietzsche. Who needs philosophy when you’ve got a mo’ like that?

A couple of years ago, Nietzsche’s name for me was a symbol of intellectual insecurity. He was the kind of guy for the spiritual giants who fasted twice a week, prayed four hours a day and always ended up with the right amount of money (down to the cent!) from God at the last minute for whatever obscure purpose¹. They would love God too much to be swindled by some philosophical naysayer. Or Nietzsche was for those thinkers who had spent forty years doing so (ie. thinking), that when it came to the time to think about Nietzsche’s thoughts the words passed by devoid of all their original passion and challenge. But the attraction to Nietzsche came when I expanded my still-intellectually-secure reading list and began reading Christians who took Nietzsche’s criticism on board and agreed with him, mostly in the sense of saying that Christian theology (maybe not practice, but definitely a lot of theology) historically focusses on the beyond, the eternal, the unseen, the ideal, etc, to the detriment of the here and now, the temporal, the seen and the real². On reading these friendly faces, Nietzsche has become for me no longer a symbol of fear but one of creativity, and hope for a new voice in any stiff and outdated theologies, rather than a challenge that needs to be countered.
But, to be honest, I was quite disappointed. After potentially finding some ideas to contribute to more thoughtful theological practice, I just didn’t gel with the guy. The opening excerpt is one exception (there are a few more). As this post mentions the relative undangerousness of Nietzsche, I might also do a post in the future about why he’s not as cool as I thought he’d be.
* * *

What’s Zarathustra actually saying? First of all, here’s the background. Zarathustra/Zoroaster was a Persian prophet/philosopher and the founder of Zoroastrianism, an ancient and today dying religion from the same primordial ooze as Judaism, Christianity, Islaam, etc — the Near East. Nietzsche wrested him from his historical context and characterised him in said book. Thus spoke Zarathustra was viewed by Nietzsche as his most important work and a lot of his vital organs are contained in it. The text throughout mocks the bible, portraying Zarathustra at once as the new Messiah and Anti-Christ. One of my favourites was, “If we do not alter and become as cows, we shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (‘The voluntary beggar’, part four). The existentialist heart of the opening excerpt is important to the other key ideas in the work, albeit not Nietzsche’s most important idea, in comparison to the emphasis with which he puts on others.

And after all that, here’s in short what the puppetted prophet Zarathustra is actually  saying: “My philosophy does not ask you to believe in me and follow my ways, but to abandon me and find your own way. Those who abandon me and follow their own reality faithfully are most loyal to me and the ones I thus return to”. Zarathustra, in contrast to Jesus, asks not that we follow him and conform to his image, but that we abandon him and become like ourselves³. At this point you may want to re-read the quote at the start and realise its genius.

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A good (dead) friend of mine

But to what extent is Nietzsche’s critique of Jesus based on a caricature of him? Does Jesus actually want us to all be like sheep4? Or is Jesus more like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra than we think? Perhaps Nietzsche was not so much attacking Jesus as he really is but what the church had constructed of him. I’ll use an example from another name you may find difficult to pronounce. Kierkegaard, probably the best ever philosopher (who was not really a philosopher but more of a man of faith in my elevated, saint-canonising conception of him), also criticised Jesus for the same reason Nietzsche did, but with a different focus5: Kierkegaard recognised that it was the church and contemporary philosophy (rather than the saviour himself) that advocated conformity to a universal code of ethics, something that Kierkegaard criticised throughout his life as deeply non-Christian.

A biblical example of Zarathustra’s ‘abandon me and find yourself’ existentialism was used by Kierkegaard as the title to his landmark work on the subject, Fear and trembling:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV).

Paul, one of the most defining figures in early Christianity with lasting significance, is writing to the Philippian church while in jail. “Hey guys, I’m not always going to be there to hold your hand and look both ways for you before you cross the road. You’re big kids now and it’s not me you should be looking to for direction. And it’s not conformity with the ethical law that makes you a good person. Now that you’ve received the Spirit, God will work in each of you according to his purposes”. Kierkegaard takes the sentiment and writes a lifetime’s supply of philosophy on it: We discover that the will of God is different for every person.

But before I move on, I’ve got to call Nietzsche back over here for some input. While Kierkegaard would say that good determined by society or the Church should not deter the individual from doing the good to which God has called them, Nietzsche would say he has not gone far enough: good determined by society, the Church and God should not deter the individual from being faithful to their individual reality. Nietzsche would say that Kierkegaard’s theological weaknesses are trapping him from fully facing and embracing his reality. But I’m just the guy that drives the van.

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This is seriously the coolest picture of Moltres I’ve ever seen and a Moltres tattoo might be the place to start. Check out the rest of this guy’s work here: http://cockrocket.deviantart.com/ You can buy his prints.

Working in hospitality with a lot of travellers and passing-through-ers, and knowing a lot of people my own age, has generally brought me into contact with a lot of tattoos. And every now and then a stray thought (stray in the sense of a stray dog) tells me how cool it would be to get a tattoo. And then I’m totally pouring different glasses of wine for customers, and that beautiful aroma! But I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t see anything wrong with getting tattoos or having a drink; I just don’t do it. Herein lies the tension between the universal and the particular6.

The particular is what I’ve hitherto spent this whole essay explaining to you, whether Kierkegaardian, the call to follow the Holy Spirit7, or Nietzshean, the challenge to live faithful to your individual reality. But the particular can only be understood against the background of the universal. Universalism in this sense asserts things such as universal truth, and therefore universal ethics, the idea that the most virtuous person in society is he or she who conforms most closely to this code of ethics. For me, this idea stinks of mathematical simplicity and is in keeping with reducing people to numbers, statistics, and stick figures. But, necessarily, a dual embrace of the universal and the particular is required for living as a Christian. Most clearly, I think, and this example would be a common one, if in the universal I know that God is love and that the ideal person is loving, then in the particular I cannot say that God is asking me to kill someone. Note also, that in the same chapter to the Philippians, Paul first describes aspects of a unified community, the universal which he encourages his readers to conform to before he reminds them that God will work in them according to his purposes:

“Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:2-4 NIV).

Further, a mature understanding of the universal and particular requires the rejection of the two as a dichotomy. The rejection is based on who has claims to the universal. In some states in the USA, capital punishment is an accepted punishment for certain crimes. In other states, it’s no longer an option. Understand that there are particular claims to the universal. According to some, it is universally acceptable that those who commit certain crimes should be punishable by death; according to others it’s universally unacceptable. The individual therefore has the duty of constructing their own universal but living according to their particular. In my understanding of the universal, it is alright to drink and get tattoos, but it’s not alright to get drunk. In my particular, I have not been called to either drink or get tattoos at this point in my life. Not that I’m so righteous because I’m doing what the Lord asked me to do. I could tell you that he’s asked me to do a lot of things that by my actions I’ve laughed at. Tattoos and drinking are just two things I’ve yet been almost successful in.

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I leave you with this poem from the very existential and forever readable Emily Dickinson:

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity.

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¹It’s amazing how manifold these stories of divine providence are and they never cease to shock me and capture my imagination. I had a quick lazy look for some but I couldn’t find any so if you’d like to know what I mean then just ask.

²N T Wright, for example would be one of the writers that helps me identify with Nietzsche’s critique; however it’d be my guess that Wright’s not in direct dialogue with the man himself but rather listening to what the world around him and onto-it theologians are saying about the Christian heads-in-clouds-syndrome, which no doubt this critique has been inherited by secular academia and onto-it theologians from reading Nietzsche. Peter Rollins, another guy whose writings influenced me, on the other hand, seems to be in more direct dialogue with him.

³Paradoxically, Zarathustra’s disciples can either heed his words and abandon him (thus following him by taking his counsel) or, in weakness, continue to follow him (thus abandoning him by not understanding or being strong enough to take his counsel).

4A pun.

5It’s possible that Nietzsche, coming onto the scene a few years later, south of a couple of borders, read the holy philosopher as he seems to be denouncing him in some parts of Thus spoke Zarathustra. If so, Nietzsche took on board Kierkegaard’s existential ideas but pushed them beyond the realm of faith. However, I haven’t yet heard of any direct and verifiable evidence of Nietzsche’s speculated reading habits.

6I first came into contact with these terms through Kierkegaard, but they may be Hegelian. I really don’t know.

7A deliberately charismatic reading of Kierkegaard. Note that Kierkegaard acknowledges two possibilities in the particular, (a) the aesthetic, which means living according to your own desires and (b) faith, living according to your best understanding of God. Pentecostalism goes horribly wrong when faith is confused with the aesthetic, resulting in an heavily individualist approach to Christianity, a practice that fulfills all your spiritual and fleshly desires under the guise of faith.

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This is the concluding post in a series on theology of calling. Calling in the religious sense is pretty inseparable from following the Spirit, as I see it, which can also be expressed as following Jesus:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NIV). Now, it’s not my intention to be divisive (haha), but what if there is something in calling that in comparison to following Jesus is greater still? It could only be the greatest commandment(s): Love God; love others. There is more poetic value in saying that love transcends and is greater than following the Holy Spirit, whereas in reality (the ideal reality/ideality), following the Spirit is the expression of love.

Maybe Jesus puts loving God as the greatest commandment before loving people as the first realistically encompasses or leads to the second, whereas loving people may not necessarily lead us to loving God, although it could. However, a certain idea around the second commandment that is important in its original designation can actually point away from God and others when too much emphasis is put onto it: I think it was C S Lewis who said so, although I cannot find the reference, that to love others you need to love yourself. He points out that the reference for loving others in the commandment is the individual’s self. If you hate yourself then how can you possibly love your neighbour as yourself? So at the core of Christian ethics, we find a model for self care, even so that it is necessary for fulfillment of the second greatest commandment (or the first, which encompasses the second). The problem is that this is also symptomatic of an extreme in Christianity where you can use your theology to serve yourself, an individualistic model of following Jesus.

* * *

I apologise for any circumlocutory handling of the material here but let’s see if it works. Jesus goes further than just asking his followers to take up their cross and follow him. He gives an explanation for why this is important that gives us an idea of the nature of denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following Christ: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24 NIV). I am indebted to Peter Rollins for the following interpretation of this verse. We often read this as: If you want save your earthly life, you will lose it. Yet if lose your earthly life for Jesus, there will be heavenly life. Yet Jesus here makes no distinction between earthly life and heavenly life; they are both referred to as life, indicated by the pronoun ‘it’, because if you lose your life, you will save it. This leaves no room for denying yourself and taking up your cross to gain eternal life. If it does then you are among those who want to save their life, therefore losing it. The central point of following Jesus is Jesus, through denying yourself, etc. This is further indicated by Paul’s famous declaration: “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21 NIV), because living means to follow Christ and dying means to be with him. So to follow Christ means just that, to follow Christ.¹

The idea of calling, though, can be even less about Jesus, even less about eternal life, and more about our present needs and desires. No longer is Christ the centrepoint who will give you everything you need to follow him if you make that decision (Matthew 6:33; cf Psalm 37:4), but the needs of ourselves become primary so that calling is about what we want. A good example is in the Gandhi movie (in which the incident I am about to detail seems to be a representation of something mentioned in his autobiography) where Gandhi is talking to his wife about cleaning the latrine. She is offended by his asking her to do so because it is the work of the untouchables, whereas she is the wife of Gandhi, both of them members of a higher caste and involved in lawyer work. Why should the wife of a lawyer clean toilets when there are other important things she could be doing? Similarly, why should I play guitar in church if I’m called to be on the prayer team? (I will try to make these examples universal and not apply to any people I know so sorry if they do!). Why should I take the job with the troubled youths when my gifts are more in line with architectural design? Because the focus of calling is not our own desires and gifts, but whom we are following and working among. So you may not be very good at guitar, or you may not even enjoy it that much, but what if God is calling you to be a part of it for that time? You may be an amazing architect, but what if to follow Jesus means applying for that job with the troubled youth? And of course I need to pose these questions to myself also, considering the number of decisions I have made consulting my own needs before the Kingdom. To follow your calling means not to follow your needs and desires but to follow Jesus wherever he goes, as these will be met through that, even though that is not the goal.

* * *

Now I return to the second greatest commandment. The problem with having yourself as the measure for loving others is that if there are times when you do not love yourself then your measure for loving others is reduced. Not that self-care is unimportant. But maybe the type of self we should measure by is not so much the real self but the ideal self. This is reflected in a similar verse, where Jesus cites the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12 NIV). The self is not the real self (do to others what they do to you) but the ideal self, an ideal representation of how you would like to be treated. So in the same way, when Jesus asks us to love [our] neighbour as [our]sel[ves], why can it not be the ideal self, love your neigbour as you would love yourself? I cannot provide any evidence that the ideal self is implied in the second greatest commandment but I can only point to the Golden Rule, and I cannot say that this supersedes the second greatest commandment either, nor can I even say that there is no difference between the two. All I can say is that the reading of the Golden Rule should remind us of the real focus of the commandments, which is God and others, through love. The individual self is just a measuring stick.

* * *

¹Of course there is also room in Christianity for following Christ for eternal life. This is why Jesus came (eg. John 10:10) and Paul also endorses this (eg. Romans 2:7). But there is also the is prophetic value in calling God’s people back to the center of things, even if it is somewhat beyond us. The main point I am making here is not so much whether you want to be with Christ or go to heaven, but whether your wordly priorities are more important to you than following Christ.

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“God once had Bach and Michelangelo on his side. He had Mozart. And now who does he have? People with ginger whiskers and tinted spectacles who reduce the glories of theology to a kind of [?]. That’s what religion has become: a feeble and anemic nonsense,” Stephen Fry. Listen to the recording here.

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This follows on from last week’s blog looking at some theology we might have around calling and some alternative ways of thinking about it. In conversations with various Christians and reading books and random articles, etc on the internet sooner or later you will come across the (almost uniquely Pentecostal) rejection of higher learning in favour of more practical or useful pursuits. How many times have I been discussing some theological issue with a group of people when one or more dismisses the discussion with something along the lines of, “Oh who cares; it’s not that important anyway”? Who cares? Obviously the people who having been discussing this for the hour, few days, year, etc. But I can’t now dismiss this question by saying, “Who cares about the ‘who cares’ question; it’s not that important anyway.” The question is important for the fact that it points to an attitude that should underlie these discussions. In a sense, what we are talking about does not matter (eg. the authorship of Hebrews); there will probably be more pressing social and spiritual issues (practical/useful pursuits). But in the same way that the fighter of the good fight needs to stop to sleep and eat and toilet, and etc, and including even some recreation and rest on the side, is not also theology important? If Paul didn’t write Hebrews then doesn’t this affect the way you read the book? ‘Who cares’ then, is valuable for bringing God and our priorities back into focus, but it should never be an excuse to stop thinking.

* * *

Some time in the 3rd Century, Pope Dionysius of Alexandria converted from paganism to Christianity and with that was called by God to study the writings of the heretics so that he could refute them. He was warned by a priest of the danger in doing so, which is indicative of the general view at the time, an almost fear that reading the heretics would lead you away from Christ. And so it happens that today what we know of the heretics is only through reference to them in other writings of the early church, bar a few exceptions. The story of Dionysius is valuable because not only did he claim the Spirit led him to do something contrary to church norms, but this leading is confirmed by the fact that he was an influential bishop who did not later apostatise, as would be expected of a reader of the heretics, and was also the first pope to be called ‘the Great’, by Eusebius, the father of church history. If I may continue the example of higher learning, even ostensibly useless theological issues, can I say that it is not whether a bible college prepares you for ministry or overcrowds your mind with an intellectualised conception of God, but whether the Wind blows in that direction, whether it is in the will of God?

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There is a popular passage in Ephesians that is often used as a theological base for ministry, known as the five-fold ministry: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:11-13). The hermeneutical strength of this passage is akin to the aforementioned ‘who cares’ question. Paul not only lists a group of roles in the early church, but explicitly states their purpose, the purpose that should realistically underlie Christ-centered ministry. There is however a danger, the danger that people take Paul’s description of early church ministry as exhaustive. Is ministry today limited to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers? Clearly the writer of Song of Songs was a teacher. Give me a break, Kit Kat. Or maybe the erotic poem is intended to describe God’s love in human terms. Sure, after a rather forced reading you can come to this conclusion. Perhaps it is a little easier to fit the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes into the office of teacher, bearing in mind that the best (uplifting) teaching in Ecclesiastes is the hasty conclusion, and that Job and his friends’ discussions on the nature of God and suffering are altogether dismissed by their Lord in the end. This is a short argument, I know, but I would argue that the respective writers do not fit easily into the five-fold ministry, but rather the ministry of poet, expressing aspects of the human condition (love, doubt/meaninglessness, suffering, etc), which a healthy Church needs to acknowledge, in line with Paul’s measuring stick for good ministry (vv.12-13).

Depending on the intentions of the artist, other areas in art can be labelled as ministry as well, which is what Stephen Fry notes in the beginning quote and points out how the secular world has largely overtaken a predominantly Christian art world (in Europe). Another example is ministry that focusses on social issues. Perhaps in a sense they are prophets, denouncing the practices of a church and secular world who ignore the needs of the least of these. Or maybe they can be called pastors and their flock is the poor (although, there’s some homework — I’m not sure how closely the modern pastor fits with Paul’s conception of the 1st Century pastor, so help me out here!). Yet if you head up a Christian organisation with social foci, you are likely to label it a ministry. The qualifier for ministry is not therefore how much you can align the ministry with one of five of Paul’s examples, but how well does it “equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”¹

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Image from http://stdionysius.sca.org.nz/stuff/Dionysius.jpg

¹First footnote, yay! You may realise there is a flaw in my argument where I define social ministry as ministry in line with Paul’s qualifier because ministry is that it would equip the body of Christ, whereas social ministry is often among non-Christians. This is refuted when you see that Paul includes the office of evangelist in the five fold ministry, one that does not necessarily work among God’s people.

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After being away from home for three months I’m just settling into Auss with the intention of re-establishing some important routines like blogging. This series is an attempt to evaluate some ideas we have around calling (vision, scope and focus) and present alternative ways of looking at them:

Vision can be defined as the individual or shared intended outcome for a particular ministry. For example, part of a church’s vision may be to provide shelter for every homeless person in the city, or it may be more qualitative like to love those who have themselves not experienced much love. The assumption behind good vision, I assume, is to set the bar high enough to inspire good practice towards the attainment of the vision, even if, in a worldly sense, the vision is practically unattainable. The members of this church will faithfully love the unloved, despite the fact that, short of a divine restructuring of existence, not all those that are unloved will be reached. In good faith, however, this reality must not be conceded by adherents to the vision, and with that I agree.

Vision is a factor that empowers good ministry. In saying that, it can also be limiting. With vision comes commitment. It is in a sense binding on those who are under it. Not that commitment is a bad thing, as the fulfillment of vision depends on commitment. Furthermore, how could something like marriage be possible without commitment (although, as an unmarried man, I do in an ideal theological sense accept exceptions to the rule, for example)? Commitment to vision limits when it obstructs commitment to the Lord. Marital commitment is an expression of commitment to the Lord, in the same way that commitment to godly vision is commitment to the Lord. Yet in the same way that marital commitment limits a higher form of practical commitment to Christ (eg. 1Corinthians 7:32-33), commitment to vision does also.

Up until now I have used the example of the a church’s vision. But an individual may also have vision, for example to establish a school in an area with limited access to education. Throughout her commitment to this outcome, the Spirit of God may pull her heart in other directions. I am not advocating for religiously justified caprice, but rather the primacy of following the Spirit, against following the vision. Of course it is likely that the Lord asks her to see the end of something she has started, but his call is not limited by this. What if the call of God means not so much the endpoint intended, the vision, but the daily reliance on the Holy Spirit to provide the next step? Compare the woman who is called to say a three year project of establishing the school, with the woman who is one day called to start teaching in the area until, by grace of God and obedience to his daily call, she after three years finds herself running a school in the area as a result of the work. I think our theology of calling allows for both options.

An important passage for me is James 4:13-15:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (NIV)

This does not necessarily discount vision but determines the way we should approach it. You cannot claim something yet to be fulfilled as if has already been, unless of course you are given the faith to do so. When you are given vision, all you can do is acknowledge your reliance on the Lord to see its completion. In the same way, if you have not been given vision, you faithfully accept what God has given to you to do each day and trust that he will bring something out of it.

Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment (you can do so with Facebook) if you would like to offer feedback, further thoughts or any misgivings you have regarding the theology.

Image of Cyclops, a man of good vision, from http://iphonetoolbox.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/x-men-cyclops-f.jpg

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