Sunday 2 October 2011

Theology & the future of humanity

The New College Lectures were concluded on Thursday evening with Dr Michael Jensen's talk 'Theology & the future of humanity: Smith's 'White Teeth' and Paul's Galatians'. My last post provides a short overview of the first two lectures by Prof John McDowell ('Theology & the future of education') and Dr David Starling ('Theology & the future of the Church').

Dr Jensen chose to contrast the views of humanity embedded in two sources, Zadie Smith’s 2001 novel 'White Teeth' and Paul's letter to the Galatian church. He unpacked the competing meta-narratives used in the novel to describe the future of humanity that is embedded in the work. He discussed three meta-narratives exemplified in the story's main characters: the epic, the tragic, and Smith’s own ‘comic-romantic’ vision. In doing this he highlighted how as Smith develops her story, she humorously critiques several competing futurisms – the religious, political and scientific all shown in differing forms of fundamentalism. We end up through Smith's eyes with two descriptions of the future, the materialist or the religious. For Zadie Smith the best humans are those who "..don't succumb to some fanatical programme for change, but just love." But as he pointed out, Smith’s alternative visions of the human future are hard to take seriously when she presents such twisted examples - scientists linked to a Nazi eugenicist and, Christian eschatology represented by Jehovah's Witnesses. He suggested that none of Smith’s meta-narratives offer satisfying accounts for ‘actual human experience…’.

Instead, Dr Jensen used Paul’s letter to the Galatians to offer a better vision, one that harnesses an apocalyptic eschatology to address the corrupting influence of a potentially destructive group within the Galatian church - the ‘circumcision group’.

Paul’s word to the Galatians offered them real hope, because it suggested that the future of humanity was in their reach. The alternative gospel of the circumcision group was to situate the gospel in themselves and a new form of tribalism. The circumcision group suggested an alternative gospel in which God commands repentance, signified by the circumcision and zeal for the law (Gal 4:17). Instead, Paul suggested to the Galatians that the gospel is not controlled by them as individuals and revealed by their efforts. Rather, God reveals it to us.  And this revelation Paul suggests finds its answer in and through Christ. The cross of Christ is where God makes things right with humanity and offers the potential to become the people he wants us to be. This is a gospel that frees them from the law by the crucifixion of the flesh.

The future of humanity has already entered the present. At the cross, God founds a new humanity—a community bound in faith and formed because of the sacrificial love of God. While Zadie Smith also proposes a priority be given to love, she proposes a randomness to reality, filled with the "faint hope that human beings can summon up enough tenderness for each to break the shackles of history that so weigh us down."

"For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." (Galatians 5:5,6)

"For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." (Galatians 5:13)

Further information

The three lectures are already available in slightly shortened forms within Case magazine, a publication of the apologetics centre CASE within New College. Associates of CASE will receive this in the mail next week. Others can purchase them online HERE.

The lectures will also be made available in audio and some video formats in a few weeks.

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