Thursday, 25 August 2011

Theology and the future: A practical matter


Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons
As I wrote in a previous post, the New College Lectures this year will have the theme 'Theology and the Future'. They will be held on the 27-29 September at New College at the University of New South Wales. This is an important series of lectures of great practical significance. While for some, the title might suggest otherwise, our speakers will tussle with this very practical theme, and demonstrate that theology has great relevance for life. What we believe about God should influence how we understand the past, live within the present and contemplate the future.

In an edited collection of essays in honour of J├╝rgen Moltmann titled 'The Future of Theology' (1996) Miroslav Volf suggests that Theology is important not just to think "..from the perspective of God's future but also towards a new human future." Volf frames this collection of essays by outlining a few of the serious challenges of theology:
1. Plurality - We inhabit a plurality of often contradictory social worlds and we are surrounded by a plurality of cultures that are moving ever closer. This is associated with a plurality of theologies.
2. Marginalisation of theology - There has been a progressive marginalisation of theology in the public discourse (I have discussed this in previous posts here & here).
3. Increased specialisation and abstraction - Academic theology has seen increased specialisation that has led to narrower areas of research and scholarship and higher levels of abstraction that fail to connect with parishioners.
4.  The challenge of social issues - Beyond the moral challenges of our time, we need to consider how theology addresses significant social issues such as concern for happiness and misery, the life, death and suffering of millions, ecological crisis, poverty, issues of gender and sexuality, intersecting and overlapping forms of oppression and so on.

The challenges that Volf and others identified in 1996 are still some of the many challenges we face today, in fact, some are more intense than ever. Where should theology focus its attention? Volf asks:

"Do these problems singly or together require a radical rethinking of classical Christian perspectives on God, humanity, and the world, or would attempts at minor adjustments or even retrieval of genuine Christian tradition be more appropriate?"

Theology is an immensely practical pursuit. What could have more relevant for the Christian than understanding what they know of God and the implications this knowledge has for their relationship to him, their life in the world and indeed, their future? It isn't trivial to say that our theology has a relationship to how we dress, how we drive, how we parent, pay our bills, plan our futures, choose partners and so on. Tim Chester has even discussed the theology of washing up! But does the average Christian think this way? Why do so many (even within the church) fail to see the practical implications of theology for life and our future?

Volf asks the question:
"Could it be that the problem is not so much that theological language is foreign but that theologians themselves are deracinated - they have severed their ties with concrete communities of faith, the sole crucibles in which the virtues and practices of which they speak can be forged in culturally specific ways, and become free floating intellectuals, proudly suspended by their superior knowledge above the hustle and bustle of ecclesial life, speaking from nowhere to nobody in particular?"

Volf is writing for theologians but the laity cannot escape the claims. Is part of the problem of Christianity's loss of relevance in the public square that far too few of us consider what our theology is, how it is supported by Scripture and what relevance it has for our lives? How often do we fail to comment on all manner of social issues? How seriously do we apply our theological understanding to life? Indeed, how different are our lives to those who completely reject theology?

I can't promise that our lectures will answer all these questions (they cannot), but they are not to be missed because I have no doubt that they will be challenging.

New College Lectures

The three speakers we have chosen to share their perspectives on this theme are:

Prof John McDowell (Newcastle University) will consider 'Theology & the Future of Education'
Rev Dr David Starling (Morling College) will consider 'Theology & the Future of the Church'
Rev Dr Michael Jensen (Moore College) will consider 'Theology & the Future of Humanity'

Each speaker will be followed by a discussant who will respond briefly before we have open questions. The discussants will include Archbishop Peter Jensen.

27-29 September, 2011 at New College, UNSW Sydney, 7.30pm - 9.00pm

Special Edition of Case Magazine

We have also asked our lecturers to write articles based on their addresses for the September edition of Case Magazine (this will be released just after the Lectures). In addition to the above speakers we have asked two other theologians to write for the same edition of the magazine:

Dr Greg Clarke (Bible Society) will write on 'Theology & the Future of the Bible'
Dr Rhys Bezzant (Ridley College) will write on 'Theology & the Future of Worship'

The above edition of our quarterly magazine will be available to regular subscribers and on sale as a single issue just after the New College Lectures.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Acts of God

The latest edition of Case Magazine is out with the theme 'Acts of God'. As I outlined in a previous post:
"One of the marks of a Christian must surely be the response of sympathy, identification with others who suffer and, action to help and serve others. We are to be disturbed by suffering and the calamities that befall our fellow humanity."
If you are a CASE Associate you receive Case magazine quarterly. If you'd like to sample the content we always provide one of the articles and one book review as free downloads. On the CASE website you will find:

Death Porn? Media Ethics in Disaster Zones (Paul Richards, Mark Hadley & Dominic Steele)

No Room for Evil (Andrew Errington) - A review of David Bentley's book 'The Doors of the Sea

If you enjoy these samplers why don't you become a CASE Associate for just $55 per year (or $35 for students) and support our work. You can also purchase single copies of each quarterly magazine HERE

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Asking the Second Question

I have the privilege of being Master of 'New College' at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. We have regular formal dinners for all residents when we eat good food together, enjoy a musical item by talented residents and listen to a guest speaker. One of my tasks is to identify the speakers, invite them and introduce them to our residents. I try to find people of varied backgrounds, interests, life experiences, cultures etc. At our June dinner I invited a remarkable 27 year old man to speak to us - Dr Sam Prince. I asked him to speak about his life as a doctor and his entrepreneurial activities building a chain of restaurants and initiating varied projects designed to fight inequities of one kind or another.

He shared many interesting things, but one idea in particular has stayed with me. He suggested that as a young many he has learned that it is important to ask people the 'second question'.


What did he mean by this? Something quite basic, but in it's own way, quite profound. As an innovator, entrepreneur and consummate networker, he had found that it's easy to ask one question, hear the answer, then keep talking about your self, or move on to the next person. He suggested that it was important to 'listen' well enough to ask the right second question. He shared several powerful examples of strangers he had met and with whom he now had significant relationships after asking a second question. He stressed that each of these conversations could have ended with just one question. But it was the second question that often opened the door to more substantial discussion. While I assume that Sam Prince isn't the first person to think about 'second questions', it is a helpful reminder.

I should stress that he shared his insight, not as an apologetic strategy for any faith. In fact, I don't think he has a religious faith of any kind. But his insight about the second question is of immense relevance to apologetics. There are many books and blog posts that talk about asking good questions, leading questions, tough questions and so on. But the role of the question is to hear what someone says, particularly what's on their heart. Our questions should hopefully open a door that allows us to understand the person we're talking to, and understand their deepest needs.
What is troubling them?
What are their fears?
What are their hopes?
In what do they put their trust?
What do they see as the need of the hour?
What are their passions?
Often the first question we ask of anyone - friend or stranger - is simply an opening. How are you today? Having fun? Been here long? Are you okay? Questions of this type often receive a response, but frequently they offer little and sometimes are not even truthful. "How are you?" "Oh, I'm fine". But the good friend, neighbour or work mate will assess the words of response in the light of other things. Is he or she really 'fine'?

It is remarkable how many times I have approached a friend and received a response like 'fine' and then followed it with a second question that has elicited a different response. "Are you sure you're fine, you look tired?" To such a second question I have often received a much more honest response. "Not that flash really." Such an honest response might lead to a significant conversation that opens the door to those deep fears, troubles, hopes, passions and so on. It is only if conversations get to the 'second question' and beyond that you will have the opportunity to share your own hopes and the God in whom you have placed your trust.