Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit 2016

In a day that was parallel to the Breakup of the Soviet Union, with immediate and long term repercussions in a year of interesting elections, came a result traditional polling with all it's money and methodology failed to catch, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. BBC coverage was lack-luster, with clumsy graphics, dull presenters and a absence of gravitas. Almost as if it began as a case of, "nothing to see here, we'll put this euroskepticism to bed". Not only is this a big deal for British history, there is a delightful philosophical good news as well. But first a word about left and right wing-ism. The actual voting, apart from Scotland, wasn't along party lines, but there is a media narrative that being pro-leave, is somehow mean and racist. In good times, people have a chance to be kinder and explore the ambiguities of life. If life is tougher, you want the tough guy to be on your side and your suspicious of the outsider. This is why with improved life-expectancy societies tend left. The xenophobia we saw a bit of in the lead up to the vote has a long sad history and the murder of that young politician, Jo Cox, last week is a sad example.

But here's the philosophical upside. The tendency in the modern technological era is towards centralised bureaucracies and specialised experts. "Don't worry, the government knows best." The European Union is built on a system of technocrats organizing things. Now don't get me wrong, good things can come out of collaboration, the economies of scale and experts. But generally good things occur in-spite of human nature, not because of it. And in the lead up to Brexit there was a chorus of politicians, celebrities, various professional bodies and business groups telling people not to leave the European European Union. So it's really refreshing to see the devolution of power on such a grand scale. You don't often see so many people rejecting the advice of their betters on such a large scale and you don't often see the winding back of centralization.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Subordination Dust-Up: my two cents

The Subordination dust-up, or "civil war" as Mike Bird gleefully calls it, is chronicled heresummarised here by Andrew Wilson and explained over here by Christianity Today.

One of the benefits of Feminism apart from helping women, is that it forced Complementarians not to be lazy. Rather than relying on chauvinism to enforce male-only-ordination, we had to have actual theological reasons. The modern movement of Complementarianism was born in the second half of the twentieth century, to explain why the Apostle Paul might instruct only men to have authority within the church or tell them to take responsibility as husbands. If this principle of male leadership is trans-cultural, applicable across time and space then it needs a profound basis, a really good foundation. So the idea of different roles but equal value was traced back to the fact that within God three persons exist but only one being.

But because God is holy and true we want to get this tracing-back-of-our-ideas-to-God really accurate and clear. So we take seriously the accusation that "it sounds like we're making Jesus subordinate to the Father". (Arianism alert.) That since there is only one divine will (The Son takes on a second human-will when he is conceived as Jesus in Mary's womb), how can the Son be described as obedient or even having a different role prior to the Incarnation? Two concepts are often used; the 'eternal generation' of the Son or the 'pactum salutis' a covenant between the Son and the Father, to demonstrate the origin of Jesus' earthly obedience. The jury is still out on whether one or both of them can carry the weight of affirming unity while distinguishing usefully between Father and Son.

It's worth wrestling with these dangers because the dangers in the opposite direction are just as worrisome. If the persons become indistinguishable then we run the risk of 'Modalism' - one god wearing three masks. The other danger is saying that Jesus' obedience was "temporary", that Jesus' gender, race and family "tell us nothing about who God is", that God remains forever unknowable, which is essentially Docetism - a form of Gnosticism. So as you read through the debate keep these three principles in mind:
  1. Differences and unity exist in God- ad intra
  2. These themes are communicated to us
  3. These themes form the philosophical basis for our life and faith. 
That means that there is unity (divinity/all the attributes of God) and diversity (three persons) ad intra - within the internal operations of God. (I'm still figuring which concept best expresses the three persons without veering into Tritheism. "Substances" sounds clinical but has enough ambiguity while maintaining some sense of distinction without becoming individualistic. I'm looking to Andrew Moody over at TGC-Aus to solve this one.) But loosely paraphrasing Bavnick, the Trinity is a word that means "who God is and how God saves." God reveals himself to us in through history, Scripture and Jesus. God is unfathomable but not unknowable, God's a God of communication. (Which is how I personally interpret Rahner's Rule.) Lastly if God is both Creator and King, then our faith and life has it's origin and maintenance in the Trinity. Our world is wonderful and coherent because the Trinity is wonderful and coherent first.

Furthermore, a helpful way to keep a Trinitarian balance as you read the gospels is to be reminded of how God in Jesus experiences all the aspects of our humanity. We treat Jesus and the Son as a single person with two natures, the divine being and a Jewish body. Sometimes it might be useful to zoom in and discuss how Jesus expresses his supernatural power or experiences ignorance but always keep in the mind the larger framework of God in Jesus experiencing all the aspects of our humanity. After all, that God is revealed in Jesus is the secret of the Universe

A revised and extended version of this article is published over at Thinking of God.

[Francesco Cairo La Santísima Trinidad by Francesco Cairo, 1630]

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Measuring the Australian Church

Robert Wuthnow outlines the limits of measurement and religious polling by first observing the sheer scale of American political polling.
Polling is now a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Currently there are more than 1,200 polling firms in the United States. During the 2012 presidential election, these firms conducted more than 37,000 polls. In total, these polls involved more than three billion phone call.s A typical phone in a typical household was machine-dialed twenty to thirty times. And a majority of the calls were made at dinnertime when pollsters hoped a few of those called would answer. ('In Polls we Trust', First Things (Aug/Sept 2015): 41)
Here in Australia we understand the power of political polling, we're up to our fourth Prime Minister because of them. Interestingly, the betting markets often more reliable insights because people either put money in what they really think will happen or have some sort of inside knowledge of current events. Wuthnow then goes on to observe that "Religious leaders' earlier skepticism towards polls was now notably absent. Instead of questioning the validity of polls critics called for more polling." (41)

Wuthnow rightly finds this troubling because he's already noted the difficulties in collecting and analyzing political poll data. If there are issues in an already well established industry that should give religious pollsters pause. He concludes by writing this about religious polling:
Polling about religion purports to tell us the facts by conducting scientifically reputable studies. Even with low response rates and complicated weighting schemes, the studies sometimes generate credible broad-brushed descriptions of general patterns. But polling should not be confused with painstaking research that takes months and years to complete and that relies on historical, ethnographic and theoretical knowledge as well as numbers for its interpretation. (44)
The Christian population in Australia is smaller and occupies a different historical place than in America. This means that religious pollsters in Australia have a different and smaller population to survey and make observations about. Along with all of Wuthnow's concluding caveats, finding significantly large data sets would be one problem amoung several.

Now it may be tempting to say, 'well why do we need religious polling' and eschew a business model of number crunching, but we need big picture religious polling. We need an accurate big picture so that we know what the cultural horizon of Australia looks like and so that we can then make sensible assessments of our own local situation. Wuthnow concluding caution is correct, measurement is a tricky process that done well requires significant resources. And all the while tempering our measurement with the rhythms of the stories we are a part of, God's big one and all His local subplots.