Two good articles on the financial bust

I read various economic blogs regularly (another aspect of my general geekiness) and thought you might be interested in these two articles, as they are comparatively clear about our current mess.

Number one: “The ticking time bomb in the U.S. banking system is not resetting subprime mortgage rates. The real problem is the contractual ability of investors in mortgage bonds to require banks to buy back the loans at face value if there was fraud in the origination process. And, to be sure, fraud is everywhere…”

Number two: “When big operators take on a lot more risk than they otherwise might — they drive faster, perhaps, because they know their car has anti-lock brakes — it tends to raise the danger stakes for the system as a whole. Millions of dollars of losses can break the bank at a few unlucky firms. Billion — or even trillion — dollar failures can bring down the whole house of cards, especially given the dense network of dependent relationships that exists in the global financial arena.”

I do think the sub-prime fiasco is the trigger for the fourth turning.

A point of clarification on conscience

Tim said in a comment “both sides in the current dispute claim to be [following their conscience], and yet you seem to be saying that somehow the ‘conservative’ side isn’t doing it right – or, they’re drawing the wrong conclusion from what they’re hearing. I’m just not sure on what basis you make that judgement, Sam – because make no mistake, it is a judgement.”

I think I need to expand on this, because I don’t want to argue that holding the conservative position is necessarily against conscience – I don’t believe that it is – I just think that one form of the conservative stance (possibly the dominant and most vocal one) seems unsupportable (that is, those who use this argument are precisely ‘not doing it right’).

I think there is a difference between these two positions (both forms of the conservative perspective):
1) the expression of homosexual desire is sinful; it is destructive of the soul and pernicious; and Scripture and tradition have unanimously taught us this from the beginning;
2) the expression of homosexual desire is contrary to Scripture, and therefore it is sinful, destructive of the soul and pernicious.

The first recognises some reality beyond itself, to which Scripture is a revelatory witness, and therefore implicitly recognises that IF it could be established that the expression of homosexual desire (in the context of permanent life-long union etc) were not sinful, destructive, pernicious etc THEN we would need to reinterpret Scripture. This I think is a position which is tenable and responsible and ‘on the same playing field’ as those who precisely want to argue that such a re-interpretation is right and of God. The community both for and against the change can thereby discuss what is right and true about Scripture and the expression of homosexuality and seek an understanding of God’s will. This, I think, is the position that Rowan is defending.

The second, however, does not recognise anything outside of “Scripture”; which then becomes reified and absolutised. There is no place from which it is possible to argue that – for example – Scripture is silent on the specific subject being argued about (which is a view I am sympathetic towards). It’s not possible to interpret Scripture creatively or in a new way. I see this approach as a) a breach with traditional forms of interpretation in and of itself and b) highly prone to subordination to political objectives. This seems to me to be the position adopted by a great many people in the debate, and I don’t recognise it as defensibly Anglican. (It may be defensibly Christian, but of a non-Anglican sort).

As I see it, the more thoughtful and reflective conservatives are arguing option 1), and Rowan in particular is arguing it from a position (assuming he hasn’t changed his mind) which doesn’t agree with option 1) but is ‘in the same ballpark’. That is, Rowan personally believes that our view of Scripture needs to change and develop, but that this change needs to be done in the right way – and he’s now embedded in an argument for that right way being established (and he sees the establishment of that right way as being more important than the public acceptance of LGBT ministry). I’m sure that what Rowan would like to see is a) an establishment of the Windsor Covenant, followed by b) an endorsement by that covenanted community – at some point down the line – of the acceptability of LGBT relationships etc.

My problem is with the advocates of option 2) which have, from my perspective, an anachronistic, Modernist and idolatrous understanding of Scripture, ie I think they’re fundamentalists. That’s why my longer post was about ‘The authority of Scripture’ as such – it’s independent of what position is held on the current dispute. It’s possible to hold both a conservative position and to hold that view of Scripture. It’s also possible – of course – that I’ve got it wrong. But that’s why the blog is so useful – I can rely on people pointing out errors of fact and logic in my position!!

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (1): Scripture

Neil (OSO) objected to my brief post on the VB where I said “it’s an extremely marginal belief and not essential to faith”. Well. Whilst I’m on the subject, let’s dig in a bit more. Or: I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb! I think there are two broad grounds for saying the the VB is a marginal belief, the first is Scriptural, the second doctrinal. The Scriptural side is short and sweet, which means I can fire this one off immediately. The doctrinal one may have to wait until after Christmas (dependent on how my sermon preparation goes today…)

The VB is testified to in 2 places in Scripture, the prologues to Matthew and Luke. It is not mentioned in Paul, Mark or John or any of the other writings. As such – given that we can be confident that they both had copies of Mark’s gospel in front of them – we can say that the account is a late development in Scriptural terms.

Yet the Scriptural point goes rather deeper than this. It’s not simply that the story is only mentioned in late strata, it’s that there is no ‘echo’ of the story at any other point. To bring this out, let’s compare the Scriptural witness to the Virgin Birth with the Scriptural witness to the resurrection.

The resurrection is testified to throughout Scripture, from the earliest to the latest, and, more crucially, it is testified to implicitly as well as explicitly. The text might rightly be described as saturated with the resurrection. It is the precondition for there being testimony about Jesus at all. Any recognition of Christ as Lord is dependent upon the resurrection in that without it he is simply a criminal condemned to a shameful death, and bearing the curse from God that results. Without the resurrection there is no gospel.

The same cannot be said for the story of the Virgin Birth. It is not a precondition for communicating the gospel – or else Mark and (most especially) John would have needed to give an account of it. Paul would have made some mention or reference to it; given all the things that he DID talk about it would be odd if something so allegedly central were not referred to, particularly given his appeal to a gentile audience (after all, it’s the sort of story that such an audience could expect to understand swiftly). Indeed there is at least an indication that Paul believes things in contradiction to the VB – consider Romans 1.3, when he says of Jesus that he was “as to his human nature a descendant of David” – how does that reconcile with Joseph not being involved in his paternity? There is no clear prophecy of it in the Old Testament either – despite Matthew’s attempts to find one, again, in contrast to other features of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

One can ask – if the story is removed from the New Testament, how much damage would be caused? (For comparison: if the resurrection were removed from the NT, consider how much damage would be caused!) For we would not need to remove all the details of the two (different) birth accounts; we would merely need to remove the word ‘virgin’ and the sentences reinforcing it. Would anything else be removed at the same time? Well, all the accounts about Joseph can be left in place. All the language about Mary saying ‘yes’ to God can still be in place, and the Magnificat is untouched (hooray!). If, for example, we hypothesise either an illegitimate union between Mary and Joseph, or, perhaps, a rape of Mary or something like that – ie something which gives rise to some ‘scandal’ and which needs to be overcome by angelic support to both Mary and Joseph – then I don’t see what of any substance is lost. We can still talk about God’s being the prime mover in a situation, and there’s no need to abandon any parallelism with the Genesis account of the spirit moving over the face of the waters.

To my mind, nothing is lost, and potentially a great deal is gained. But the gains can’t be considered without going into the doctrine, ie what is at stake in this insistence that the story of the VB is true? That’ll come later.

A sermon on the Virgin Birth

I preached this three years ago, on the texts that have come round again for tomorrow morning. After the service I was told that I was ‘very brave’, but reading it through again I’m not sure that I was…

20041219A virgin shall conceive

I like to think of myself as quite a conservative sort of Christian. That is, although I came into the church through the liberal door, I have found that the more I study the faith, the more comfortable I find myself with the classical formulations, and the greater weight I place on the Church Fathers and how they understood what Christianity is all about. However, although I’ve come quite a long way from my liberal beginnings – to the extent that I would now find it quite an insult to be labelled as a liberal – there is still one area where I can’t quite overcome that liberal inheritance. And our readings this morning bring my one remaining qualm directly to the surface.

Let’s begin with Isaiah. In our Old Testament reading this morning the Prophet Isaiah is predicting the birth of a child to a young woman. The political context is quite fraught, and I shall give a rapid explanation – those of you who have been coming to the Learning Church sessions will recognise some of this. Isaiah is writing in the 8th century BC, and this is a time when the united kingdom under David and Solomon had split into two Jewish kingdoms, Israel in the North and Judah in the South. Assyria was the rising local superpower, and Israel and the neighbouring state of Damascus were seeking Judah’s assistance in fighting against Assyria. The king of Judah, called Ahaz, didn’t want to go along with this, and so Israel and Damascus besieged Jerusalem, to try and engineer regime change and the installation of a more favourable ruler. Now the issue confronting Ahaz is whether he should seek a political alliance with the Assyrians, to defend his own position, or whether he should trust in God for protection – and as you can imagine, Isaiah is quite clear about the choice that should be made. Isaiah says to Ahaz that a young woman will give birth to a child, and before that child has come to maturity, the powers that threaten Ahaz will have been defeated. What Isaiah is doing is setting a time frame for how long Ahaz would have to wait – and, indeed, less than twelve years later, before such a child would have reached maturity, the kingdoms of Damascus and of Israel have been defeated by Assyria. So in Isaiah, there is no sense of the birth-process being somehow miraculous; indeed, had Isaiah wanted to make a point about virginity, he would have used a different word. That is, he uses the word ‘alma, meaning young woman, instead of the word betula, which would have specifically meant virgin.

So where has Matthew got his text from? For clearly, in verse 23 he is quoting Isaiah as referring to a virgin conceiving a child. The answer to this is quite straightforward. In the third century in Egypt, following the expansion of Greek culture after Alexander the Great, the Hebrew bible was translated into Greek, and it was the Greek text that Matthew was quoting from, not the original Hebrew. And the Greek text translated the word meaning ‘young woman’ with the word parthenos, meaning virgin. So, in the translation from Hebrew to Greek, the element of virginity has been brought in, and it is this which underlies Matthew’s text. For it is very important to Matthew to establish the way in which Jesus is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. Five times in these early chapters Matthew uses the expression ‘this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the prophet’. Matthew is talking to an audience of Jewish Christians, and he is very concerned to establish the connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament – think of the Sermon on the Mount echoing Moses on Mount Sinai for example – and this is guiding his interpretation here.

So where does that leave the doctrine of the virgin birth? Well, within Greco-Roman culture the story of the origins of an heroic figure was quite a well-established form. Hercules, for example, was given the story that his mother was impregnated by Zeus, and this accounts for his superhuman strength. And of course, in our own day, the same understanding can be seen in children’s comics. Think of Superman – his wonderful powers require an explanation, and that is given by his origin on the planet Krypton. The real truth about Superman is that he is not one of us.

Which brings me to what my real qualms about the virgin birth consist in. For the standard liberal argument against it is to simply say ‘that sort of thing doesn’t happen’. That doesn’t carry much weight with me, largely because I don’t give science and scientific explanations the importance that our culture does – they are much too partial and prejudiced to be substituted for religious truth. If the living God could raise Christ Jesus from the dead – which is something, let me be clear, I’m quite happy with – then I can’t see any reason why the much less difficult matter of a virgin birth should be beyond Him. No, my worries come from a different direction.

One of the images in the New Testament which means the most to me is the tearing of the curtain in the temple. I read this as the abolition of the dividing line between God and humanity, that in Christ, the one who is both fully human and fully divine, this division is overcome, and all of the religious obstacles that had been put in the way of a living relationship with God – all of the Pharisaic legal traditions, the money changing in the temple, the religious purity laws – all of these have been overcome through Christ who is, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. But Jesus can only do all this if he is in fact human in the way that we are human. The church father Gregory of Nazianzus put it like this: what he has not assumed, he has not healed. In other words, if Jesus was like Superman – who appeared to be from earth but was actually from the planet Krypton – then he cannot save. He cannot take on the burden of our sins and he cannot show us the way of life. For where Supermen can go, mere mortals cannot go. So my worry about the virgin birth is not at all that it was impossible. My worry is that it diminishes Christ’s humanity, and that means that he is no longer my friend, he is no longer the one who can speak to me as a brother; instead he is an alien, totally other. I can’t reconcile my faith with that.

However. I should reiterate that my worries on this score make me unorthodox, and that means that not only am I officially wrong on this, but, if the past is any guide, in a few years time I will, through God’s grace, have gained understanding of the mystery of the virgin birth, and accepted it. If that proves to be the case, I promise to come before you again and explain the how and why.

But in the meantime I struggle with texts like the one we had this morning from Matthew. I wrestle with my doubts, I try and reach some sort of understanding that will make the texts come alive with meaning for me, in the way that the tearing of the curtain in the temple speaks to me. What gives me joy is that I work in a church which isn’t afraid of this sort of exploration, that instead teaches us that our reason is a gift from God, which, if we let it, will lead us further into the mystery of our salvation, and the truth of the Incarnation of the Son of God, whose festival we shall be celebrating together at the end of this week. And surely that is the right way, for in Christ all truth finds its expression, and if we hold fast to truth, we will always come back to him. For Jesus Christ is our Saviour, the one ‘declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead’. May he guide us into all truth, throughout this Christmas time, and always. Amen.

A bit more about Scripture

Following on from that long post, I think part of the reason why I relate to Scripture as I do can be explained autobiographically. That is, I came to faith after being immersed in the critical study of Scripture. There never was a time for me – at least after attaining ‘the age of discretion’ – when I have seen Scripture as being absolute or without error. The critical study of Scripture actually allowed me to move through it and see what it was about. Consequently I don’t have anything at stake in whether the Bible contains errors or not; I’ve always understood that there are such errors, but that doesn’t make any difference to faith in the living Christ.

The key question is what Tim articulated: “how do we decide whether the voice in our heads telling us to do something which is against scripture comes from God or not?” Ultimately I don’t think there is a finite answer to that question; we have to follow our conscience – a conscience which is educated and informed by Scripture, Tradition and Prayer – but still conscience all the same. And that means, we follow our conscience whether we are accepting ‘Scripture’ or rejecting it – in other words, even for those who are explicitly being obedient to Scripture, they are in practice following the higher authority of their own conscience.

There are some very knotty roots in play here. One of which is the doctrine of utter depravity, because if you accept that then any reliance on conscience becomes objectionable. Yet that has all sorts of other frankly appalling consequences so I don’t propose to spend much more time exploring that strand.

The other one, though, is the search for certainty – very much the Modern predilection and neurosis – and this is driven, at least in part, by the seeking for security in salvation. But I don’t think that this form of certainty is available to us. Not simply because we walk by faith and not by sight but because we live by grace and not works, and whatever we do can be redeemed.

In other words, God allows us to get it wrong. And if we get it wrong but we are acting in good faith and humility and actively seeking the will of God then I have no doubt that over time God will reveal to us that we have got it wrong – and that, in fact, perhaps the ‘getting of it wrong’ is precisely what God was seeking (paradoxically) in that by growing through that struggle and finally discerning that truth then we will have reached a better place than we would have done without going wrong in the first place! Some things we need to learn for ourselves, even at the cost of making a mistake.

Which is why I am more and more of the opinion that, with respect to the current arguments, I should speak a little less and listen and trust a little more. When I read someone like Christopher, for example, I’m aware of a seeking after God. Those who reject TEC’s changes as ‘abomination’ or whatever are really saying ‘we don’t trust you to be honestly seeking God, and even if you were, we don’t trust God to be active in your life to lead you to the truth’. That seems faithless to me, let alone what it indicates about fellowship.

For who is harmed even if we assume – for the time being – that this will be a mistake? (ie accepting ministries from LGBT clerics). Why can’t we trust that God is in charge and active in this process – and trust and believe that even if we disagree with what is being done? It’s as if the objectors think that we mortals have the capacity to silence the stones!

I think I’m just becoming sensitised to the political use of the language of ‘Scripture’, and I don’t like it very much.