Tuesday 24 September 2013

Stanley Hauerwas - 'Thinking, Writing and Acting Politically'

Prof Stanley Hauerwas delivers the 2013 New College Lectures

We have just completed the 2013 New College Lectures that were delivered by Professor Stanley Hauerwas from Duke University. His lectures had the title 'The Work of Theology: Thinking, Writing and Acting Politically'. In the three lectures Professor Hauerwas revisited positions he had taken in the past, and reframed them to help clarify and understand how he has engaged in theology as a practical discipline. Hauerwas suggested that the talks were in a way inspired by Karl Barth who wrote an essay entitled, “Rudolph Bultmann—An Attempt to Understand Him.” However, Prof Hauerwas suggested that they might best be characterised as a series of thought experiments entitled, “Stanley Hauerwas—An Attempt to Understand Him.” There were three lectures in all on consecutive nights (17-19th Sept) preceded by a shorter address to the residents of New College at a formal dinner prior to the lectures (16th September). You can download the lectures plus the formal dinner address HERE.

‘How I Think I Learned to Think Theologically’ – In the first lecture Professor Hauerwas explored the character of practical reason as an exemplification of the kind of reasoning that is intrinsic to the theological task. In this first lecture he drew heavily on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and MacIntyre's argument that if we are to consider questions of justice and rationality, then we must recognise that such questions are not the same for all people. Hauerwas (acknowledging MacIntyre) argued that "...a person of practical reason is able to think for themselves only by thinking with others." He suggested that this will also depend on who you are and how you ultimately understand yourself. The ideas explored of course owe much to Aristotle and the way he distinguishes between scientific knowledge and practical wisdom. Having provided an account of practical reasoning Hauerwas then turned to a reflection on how he might have learned to think theologically drawing in particular on his memoir 'Hannah's Child'.

‘How To Write a Theological Sentence’ – In his second lecture Hauerwas drew heavily on Stanley Fish’s book ‘How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One,’ and explored how difficult it is to write a sentence that expresses what we should say theologically about God. Before discussing Fish he again reminded us that how we understand and communicate theology reflects '...how Christians find themselves in the world' and that for theological writing to have impact it must make the familiar strange. Theology also needs to be writing about God rather than writing about what theologians in the past have said about theology. He explained that one of the key foundations of the theories of Fish is that syntax has an inexorable logic '...a ligature of relationships that makes a statement about the world that we can contemplate, admire, or reject'. He then used this to consider effective theological thinking and writing. In doing this, he drew many examples from the work of Robert Jenson. For example, his sentence 'God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt' was unpacked and the power and work of 'whoever' discussed. Theology he suggested frequently confirms the familiar and that a sentence like Jenson's makes the familiar strange and engages us. This he argued should be the quest of any theologian.

‘How To (Not) Be a Political Theologian’ - In the final lecture Professor Hauerwas considered how politics has been at the heart of the first two lectures by drawing attention to current developments in political theology and in what ways he is, and is not, a political theologian. Of course, whether he is a 'political theologian' as some claim, will depend on how one defines 'political theology'. In the first section of his talk he considered how in Christian America there has been a sense of 'moral obligation to be political actors in what [is seen] to be democratic politics.' This talk drew heavily on John (Howard) Yoder's work, a critique of the work of Richard Niebuhr on 'Christ and Culture', and Walter Rauschenbusch's argument that the social gospel is the '...religious response to the historic advent of democracy.' With this as a backdrop he explored the relationship between Christianity and politics and suggested that, in a sense, the development of Christian thinking about politics and government resulted in '...the loss of the politics of the church.' Hauerwas suggested that Yoder's thinking is a strong counter argument to Niebuhr and Rauschenbusch and that the church can serve democracy by being a community that respects adversaries within and outside the church, rather than simply becoming a '...tributary to whatever secular consensus seems strong at the time'.

A section of the audience of almost 400 on the first night of the lectures
The lectures where challenging and yet very practical. As always, Professor Hauerwas provoked all in attendance to examine varied assumptions and offered insightful and enjoyable critique, analysis and synthesis of the work of some key thinkers. He engaged the work of these theologians as he tussled with the challenges of thinking, writing and acting politically by using himself as a case study and backdrop to his thinking. Once again, you can download all three lectures plus his after dinner address below.

The lectures and after dinner address

'A Theologian at Work', address to New College Formal Dinner, 16th Sept, 2013

How I Think I Learned to Think Theologically’, New College Lecture, 17th Sept, 2013

'How To Write a Theological Sentence' - New College Lecture, 18th Sept, 2013

How To (Not) Be a Political Theologian’ - New College Lecture, 18th Sept, 2013

Presenting the New College Lecture's medal to Prof Hauerwas

Professor Stanley Hauerwas is an American theologian, ethicist and public intellectual. He currently teaches at Duke University serving as the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School with a joint appointment at Duke University Law School. He is considered by many to be one of the world's most influential living theologians and was named 'America's Best Theologian' by ‘Time Magazine’ in 2001. His work is frequently read and debated by scholars in fields outside of religion, theology, or ethics, including political philosophy, sociology, history and literary theory.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Who Am I?

In recent times, I’ve experienced the fascination of exploring who I am in our family tree, as my daughter has researched our ancestors across six generations. There have been many surprises. We have discovered political activists, paupers, convicts, farmers and even a missionary couple to Van Dieman’s Land. But the most significant insight has been that across four centuries God has been at work in our family, intervening in lives, turning people in different directions, rescuing some from disaster, and sending others to places unknown.

My identity partly reflects the lives of ancestors – actions, goals, desires, values etc - but ultimately I am the work of the one who has searched me and knows me, He who ‘… created my inmost being…[and] …knit me together in my mother’s womb’ (Psalm 139). My God has ordained my purpose and continues to work in my life to mould and shape me by his Spirit as I live in the world. And he does this even though I am so easily distracted by the world and by those who don’t know me as he does.

In the well-known Australian children’s book ‘The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek’ a creature climbs out of a muddy creek, sits on the bank and immediately asks of himself and anyone who will listen, ‘What am I’? A passing platypus helpfully tells him that he is indeed a ‘Bunyip’! But this isn’t enough. He needs to know not just what he is, but what he looks like, and ultimately, who he is? Some witnesses run away in fright when he enquires about his identity, but eventually he bumps into a scientist who informs him that he looks ‘like nothing at all’ because ‘Bunyips simply don’t exist.’ The Bunyip ultimately finds peace when he comes face-to-face with a female bunyip and understands something of what and who he is by seeing another of his kind.

Like the bunyip, humans thirst after an understanding of who they are, their purpose, and why they are here. And like the bunyip, we often seek such an understanding through the eyes of others and our life circumstances. We even try to reshape ourselves to match the expectations of those who think they know best about our identity. Sadly, while humans are made in the image of God with a purpose that he ordained for us before we were born, we often spend much of our short lives searching for who we are, and why we are here in surprising and pointless places.

Our latest issue of Case magazine explores the theme 'Who am I?'. Our identity is a topic that all of us have a direct interest in. But what does the Bible say that might help us to negotiate the tricky waters of who we are?  Michael Jensen kicks this edition off with his reflections on what is perhaps the most fundamental distinction of all in regard to identity: what makes me a someone rather than a something? While this is a distinction we all feel we can make instinctively, it is not easy to spell out how it is that we identify ‘someones’. Ultimately, it is the knowledge of who we are in relation to God that gives us a way forward.

The other articles in this issue all deal, in one way or another, with the consequences of the human failure to understand our significance and identity in relation to our creator, saviour and Lord. Like the Bunyip, we often seek identity in the wrong places as we define ourselves by lesser things as sexuality, personality traits, sporting success, and the groups we belong to. The results are damaging both to individuals and those around them. No doubt, it has always been the case that people’s self-identity has been caught up with sexuality to some degree, and now the connection seems stronger than ever. The obsession with being sexy/skinny/buff—whatever is the flavour of the month in sexual desirability—means sexuality can easily become the chief characteristic determining who we are to others and even yourself. Kamal and Patricia Weerakoon seek to contrast popular views of sexuality with the Bible’s view, and see how each stacks up against current sexological research.

Sports doping and asylum seekers have been hot topics in the Australian recently, and both have connections to personal identity. Every few weeks, a new revelation is made about drug use in sport, tainting past glories, and calling into question each new achievement. Edwina Hine and Dani Scarratt explain the what, how and why of sports doping, and outline a Christian response that sees the problem as going deeper than cheating to the very heart of who we are. The groups we belong to (and shun) also contribute to self-identity.

Mark Glanville puts recent Australian asylum-seeker policy under the microscope of Deuteronomy, and finds it seriously at odds with the ethics of the Old Testament Law. This is challenging and important reading for those of us who serve a God who cares for the oppressed and the outsider.

In our ‘Books and Ideas’ section. Craig Josling delves into issues of personality with his discussion of two recent books on introversion, one from a Christian perspective and one secular. Finally, I review the long-awaited book from Megan Best Fearfully and wonderfully made which comprehensively explains the many medical and ethical issues surrounding the beginning of life. I hope there is something to interest and challenge everyone in this issue.

If you would like to subscribe or simply purchase this single issue of Case, please visit our website HERE.