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Colloquium 31.2 (1999)


 

BOOK REVIEWS

SELF AND SALVATION: BEING TRANSFORMED

David F. Ford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

298pp. ISBN 0 521 416078 (hb), 0 521 426162 (pb).

This book is one of a series of works published by CUP as Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine, edited by Colin Gunton and Daniel Hardy. The purpose of the series is to "engage critically with the traditional doctrines of Christianity" and to "locate and make sense of them within a secular context." In this case Ford takes the doctrine of salvation and attempts to give his readers a post-modern reading of that doctrine in light of the work of contemporary thinkers and movements.

The work is divided into two parts. The first is a dialogue with three contemporary post-modern thinkers, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the Christian theologian Eberhard Jüngel and the French (Protestant) philosopher Paul Ricoeur. In this first part Ford seeks to develop the basic themes with which he will develop a Christian theology of salvation. The central theme is that of the "face" and "facing" in relation to the other, as found in the writings of Levinas. Beginning with a meditation on the "face" Ford’s dialogue with Levinas leads to the development of the notion of the "hospitable self" with a strong ethic of responsibility. Jüngel is brought into the dialogue to explore how the Christian notions of substitution and sacrifice can co-exist with Levinas’s fear that they undermine notions of responsibility, the fear that "infinite pardon ... encourages irresponsibility" (59). Continuing the dialogue, Ford seeks to unite Levinas’s philosophy of responsibility with Jüngel’s theology of joy in one notion of "joyful obligation". To do this the third dialogue partner, Paul Ricoeur is engaged to develop the notion of the "worshipping self".

The second part of the book utilises the notions developed in the first part to examine Christian text, doctrine, practices and persons. A study of Ephesians leads to the notion of the "singing self" as a way of communicating God’s logic of superabundance. A chapter on the eucharist explores the eucharistic habitus, of improvisation and non-identical repetition which produces a practical way of knowing Christian existence. In this chapter is some very interesting material from Nicholas Harvey on the significance of the death of Jesus (147-48). There are two chapters on the face of Jesus, both as a human historical face and as a dead face on the cross. Key issues are whether this is a dominating face or an idolatrous face. Two chapters consider the contributions of two Christian saints, Therese of Lisieux and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the question of "facing". The book concludes with a chapter on feasting – the aesthetics, spirituality and ethics of feasting – as a symbol of flourishing.

If you enjoy the thinkers with whom Ford is engaging you will enjoy this work. Personally I do not enjoy them, though the work of Ricoeur I found more appealing than the others. While the metaphor/symbol/notion of "face" can be evocative, the more it was pushed, the more I felt it lost its impact. I kept asking myself "What would this mean to a blind person who has never seen a face?" (a similar observation could be made of the notion of the "singing self" and the deaf). For in the end the phenomenological approach adopted borders on a refined empiricism. It remains trapped in categories of space-time-matter. This was summed up for me when Ford declares "It is possible to imagine [the face of Jesus] relating limitlessly in a non-coercive way" (184). Of course it is possible to "imagine" many things, things which may in fact be impossible (read any fantasy novel!) or incoherent. It is not a question of what we can imagine, but of what is in fact so.

I have three more specific concerns:

1. Despite the stated intention of the series to "engage critically with the traditional doctrines of Christianity" there is little serious engagement in this book with the traditional sources of the doctrine of salvation. Don’t expect a treatment of traditional themes as found in Aulen’s Christus Victor, or the more modern treatment such as Michael Winter’s The Atonement or Leonardo Boff’s Passion of Christ, Passion of the World.

2. Despite the stated "subsidiary aim" of the book "to relate Anglo-American and continental European intellectual traditions", the work moves almost exclusively within Protestant intellectual traditions (Levinas and Therese of Lisieux apart). Apart from von Balthasar, who only is drawn upon to reject his analysis of Therese, Catholic authors such as Rahner and Schillebeeckx receive only passing comment (though to be fair, so does Moltmann despite his major contribution to the issue of salvation).

3. In developing the notion of the singing self Ford asks how the "complexities of the human and natural sciences, the humanities and the arts, economic activities and politics, languages and cultures, relations between humans, animals, plants and matter, the dead and the living, the fragmented interiority of each person and much else" might be interrelated in Christ? (120) Now this is a very good question but it is not clear to this reader that the book comes close the shedding that much light on an answer. The categories are too diffuse, too interpersonal, too metaphorical to deal with substantive issues at depth.

Overall the work belongs to a particular school or style of theologising, as indicated by the editors of the series, Gunton and Hardy. Within that paradigm I’m sure it works well to fulfil the expectations of readers, with many creative and even artistic moments. Outside that paradigm it might struggle to find an appreciative audience.

Neil Ormerod

 

BARTH, DERRIDA AND THE LANGUAGE OF THEOLOGY

Graham Ward, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

258 pp. ISBN 0-521-65708-3

One might be excused for being a little surprised that the names of Karl Barth and Jacques Derrida appear juxtaposed in the title of a book. On one hand, Barth is often remembered for his acute wariness of natural human reason and fully cognisant of the danger that philosophy, which does not presuppose faith, can so easily undermine the theological task. On the other hand, Jacques Derrida is the champion of deconstruction which is seen by many as a threat to the stability and certainty of not only religious knowledge in particular, but absolute truth and universal meaning in general. Yet the relationship between these two great thinkers of the twentieth century, coming from very different backgrounds and working within the distinct fields, does provide a fascinating and very fruitful study. What they have in common, of course, is the struggle to understand more clearly both the validity and the limitations of human discourse, especially when our language endeavours to speak of the unspeakable - namely God. Graham Ward’s book is a scholarly and perceptive contribution in this regard, his main thesis being that Derrida’s notion of différance provides Barth’s theology of language with an important philosophical supplement, whilst Barth provides Derrida’s economy of différance with a theological supplement.

The work is divided into three main sections. The first focuses on Barth’s doctrine of analogia fidei, placing it in the context of the philosophy of language tradition. Ward begins with a detailed analysis of Barth’s thoughts as expressed in chapter five of the Church Dogmatics. Barth advocates a two-fold origin of human language since it is both an aspect of God’s creation and thus divine, but also the result of social construction and thus tainted by human alienation from the Creator. Ward then goes on to discuss the various theories of the origin of human language in writers of the "hermeneutical tradition" such as Hamann, Herder and Humboldt, as well as the diverse approaches of Cassirer, Heidegger and the dialogical school. Ward’s aim is to show that Barth’s problem of God-language is the same as these writers in that they are all attempting to clarify the transcendental condition for language. But Barth’s awareness of the "agonistic" nature of discourse - that is, the tension between endless mediation and immediacy, between pure semiotics and pure semantics - "draws Barth into the orbit of postmodern thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida" (p.103).

The second section is devoted to a comparison between Levinas’ philosophy of "Saying" and Barth’s theology of the Word. Ward notes many parallels in both authors: the need to move beyond ontology to ethics (the Good beyond Being); the need to redefine analogy given the "primordial distance between self and the other"; the rupturing of Kantian anthropology and a re-emphasis on ‘the other’. There are also differences such as Levinas’ understanding of each and every ‘other’ as the Messiah contrasted to Barth’s stress on the uniqueness of Jesus as the one Christ. In the end, Ward argues that both writers propose a similar grammar of signification - "both thinkers establish that discourse is only possible when understood in terms of its difference-in-relation to a metadiscourse . . . There is in the logic of signification, both suggest, a moment which is ineluctably theological" (p.170).

It is only in the third and final section that Ward turns explicitly to Derrida, indicating that it is Barth who is his primary concern and starting point. Derrida takes over here because, Ward claims, he turns our attention to the textual interface between Levinas’ "Saying" and "the said". This interface is the continuous recontextualisation of the text by the reader and it is in this interface that alterity is always at play. Because each reader comes heavily laden with presuppositions and previous contexts, then the transfer of meaning is "always slippery and not necessarily progressive" (p.174). One of Derrida’s basic objections to Levinas is that the latter’s appeal to an "absolutely other" is an implicit act of faith and thus a transgression beyond the proper boundaries of philosophy into theological territory. This is like freezing the play of differences and becoming dogmatic. Then, calling Barth back into the conversation, Ward argues that Barth’s position on the limits of theological language is very near to Derrida’s warnings about a slide into dogmatism by Levinas. Barth admits that revelation is itself a human concept and that there will always be a simultaneous mixture of security and insecurity, of consolation and destruction in our religious knowledge and faith discourse. The ambiguity that Barth acknowledges in all theological speaking is, according to Ward, a "precursor" for Derrida’s différance. If this term connotes some historical, causal connection between the ideas of Barth and Derrida then it is debatable, but Ward’s main point is that, in hindsight at least, we can see that Derrida’s economy of différance´ offers a "coherence" for Barth’s theology of language. In the light of Derrida, Barth’s theological discourse appears as a "rhetorical strategy" stating both the need to do and the impossibility of doing theology. Both authors can be understood as supplementing the other, but Ward is aware of taking this too far - thus he denies that Barth now has a "philosophical foundation for his theology" or that Derrida’s différance "offers a basis for natural theology" (p.xviii). Surprisingly, in this postmodern age at the end of the twentieth century, a powerful spokesman for the sovereignty of God and the frailty of human reason emerges as a highly relevant figure.

Admittedly, this is a demanding book that certainly requires some previous knowledge of the key figures involved and their major positions. Yet Ward writes with a graceful English and provides a structure of argument which is clear and ordered. Ward draws on a wide range of philosophers, and considerable space is given to Levinas in particular, despite Derrida enjoying some prominence in the title. For those who are interested in the work of Karl Barth, and those who grapple with the knotty question of God-talk, this work is certainly an insightful and original contribution to the ongoing conversation.

Paul Gwynne

NOT WITHOUT MY NEIGHBOUR: ISSUES IN INTERFAITH RELATIONS

S. Wesley Ariarajah (Geneva, WCC Publications, 1999)

130pp. ISBN 2825413089

It is an accepted fact that the world has gone irreversibly interfaith. As communities live in close proximity and face common issues and problems, they are under an enormous pressure to pool their resources, both material and spiritual, in dealing with them. Isolationism in our day can be an option only to those who are prepared to opt out of society or willing to participate in it on their own terms. In a religiously plural situation the question naturally arises: what is the nature of our relationship with neighbours of other religious traditions? In the World Council of Churches discussion on the subject, "dialogue" emerged as an appropriate concept to describe that relationship. For the last two decades the WCC has called the attention of members churches to the need for interfaith dialogue. A large number of books in the field of dialogue and religious plurality have appeared in recent years.

The book under review is not about dialogue itself, although it strongly advocates interreligious dialogue. According to the author, dialogue is a ministry, a service aimed at facilitating life in the community. It is a fundamental part of Christian service within the community (p.84). The book is addressed to some of the practical and pastoral issues that face interfaith movement as it seeks to draw people into a new relationship. The book deals with issues such as: is it alright to engage in interfaith worship? How do we handle marriages across religious traditions? Should we engage in dialogue with neighbours who do not respect the rights of women as we understand them? How do we engage in a dialogue on justice and issues of human rights? How do we deal with religious conflicts? There are no unanimous answers to these questions in the Christian Church.

In an increasingly multifaith world, as the author mentions, we constantly face situations that demand new initiatives and new ways of holding our faith in relation to others and hence these questions need careful consideration by all religions. For example, the questions, can we pray together?, is no longer an academic one. Participation in inter-religious prayer is not an optional activity restricted to an elite group but an urgent call for a growing number of Christian today. The author points out, "It is no wonder that most people who have ventured into other spiritual traditions have found their own faith enriched and those who are involved with other faiths see interfaith worship as something that churches should take with great seriousness." Similarly interfaith marriages have increasingly become a common practice. It seems that none of the major religious traditions have any meaningful way of addressing the issue and in most cases the couple who enter into interfaith marriages experience a feeling of being abandoned by the religious communities to which they had belonged.

The debate in the World Council of Churches about interfaith dialogue has raised a number of questions about Christian faith and Christian missions, and has resulted in misunderstanding of the WCC. One such criticism is that the dialogue programme will lessen the urgency for Christian mission. The last chapter of the book is devoted to this issue. The author points out that there is a tension between dialogue and mission. But he says that the tension is not about whether we should engage in dialogue or mission. "Rather, it was about God and our neighbour. Are we in mission because God has not revealed God’s self to the neighbour or in spite and indeed because of it" (p.107). According to him, the "tension" itself constitutes the theological agenda for a new understanding of mission in pluralistic situation. It needs to be pursued within the practice and in the spirit of dialogue.

Wesley Ariarajah was the director of the sub-unit in Dialogue in the WCC for a number of years and was also a Methodist minister in Sri Lanka for several years. He writes from his personal involvement in the dialogue programme and in the pastoral ministry. The book offers a challenging introduction to some of the issues that are constantly faced in interfaith contexts.

T. V. Philip

CHRISTIAN UNITY: AN ECUMENICAL SECOND SPRING?

Michael Hurley SJ (Dublin, Veritas, 1998)

xvi, 420pp. ISBN 185390354X

Michael Hurley is one of the giants of the modern ecumenical movement and has made a unique contribution to the ecumenical scene in Ireland since the early 1960s. As the new millennium approaches many in Ireland have grown suspicious of ecumenism and there are calls for a new realism in relations between the Churches. Yet good things have happened between Christians in Ireland in recent decades and Michael Hurley has usually been at the centre of them.

The current work is a collection of essays and addresses from the last two decades that Hurley hopes will illustrate the possibility of "an ecumenical second spring" that will lead the Churches to be bolder in their approaches to each other. Hurley believes that if there is currently a stalemate in relations between the Churches, this is due in large part to a lack of vision and a lack of initiative. What is needed is a ‘Re-visioning" and a programme of revitalisation.

He is honest in stating that the hope of one united Church is too hypothetical at this time to engage our energies. Instead, we should see ourselves as "Churches in process of uniting", accepting the present separation, while making every effort to promote the ecumenical opportunities that are currently available. His work shows just how many opportunities may arise if or eyes are open and our hopes firm. He divides the volume into three parts: "Ecumenical Vision", "Ecumenical Issues" and "Ecumenical Initiatives".

Part I illustrates some of Hurley’s holy impatience. Who in their right mind would seriously be hoping for Christian unity by the year 2000 (When writing in 1999)? Yet he is echoing the call of Pope John Paul II in several recent writings. To set a target date is "to capture our imaginations and energies in the service of ecumenism, to make us become ‘inventive and courageous’ in the cause of Christian unity" (p.53).

The two chapters in Part II on the origins of the Irish School of Ecumenics (1970) and the setting up of the Colombanus Community of Reconciliation in Belfast, are of particular interest. If they demonstrate the prophetic genius of Michael Hurley, they also show that his originality is rooted in his Jesuit vocation of constantly discerning where God’s Spirit is leading personally and corporately. Here is his description of Colombanus: "the idea is this: that I try to establish in Northern Ireland a sort of Irish Taize: an interdenominational religious community of men devoted to the promotion of peace and unity but with the whole wide world as their parish. The community would be a cross between a Benedictine monastery and a Jesuit house". Of course much changed: women became part of it, membership became temporary, but it was inaugurated in 1983 and continues today to be another beacon of hope in Ireland. In similar fashion Hurley conceived the idea of the School of Ecumenics and persevered with it in the face of considerable opposition. For over thirty years it has formed people for the ecumenical ministry of the Churches and also pursued two other paths of inter-faith relations and Peace Studies.

The occasional sermons and essays which comprise this volume have been carefully revised. They record the enthusiasm of a remarkable man and will open up fresh horizons for many readers.

Peter R Cross

 

GRACE IN GALATIA: A COMMENTARY ON PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIANS

Ben Witherington III (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998)

xvii, 477pp. ISBN 0802844332

Galatians, so the author announces, "is in many ways a perfect subject for a socio-rhetorical study", and his intention is to approach this commentary along those lines. He pays tribute to H. D. Betz’s landmark work on the rhetoric of Galatians, but whereas Betz sees Galatians as basically apologetic, Witherington sees it as polemical. For the uninstructed the Introduction includes a useful short course in the nature of rhetoric, largely by courtesy of Quintilian, and since is to be a socio-rhetorical study, it also outlines the social setting of the letter. Here Witherington’s guesswork (for so much of this section is) is largely dependent on his date of AD 49 for Galatians. In arguing his case for this date (well argued but not totally convincing) and for a southern Galatian destination (a much more convincing case), the author is to be commended for taking seriously the evidence of the Book of Acts, while being rapped over the knuckles for a couple of silly blunders. He has Paul proceeding through Mysia to Ephesus on his second missionary journey (p.5) and on his first journey travelling west from Pisidian Antioch to Iconium and Lystra and east on his return (p.13).

True to his intention, the commentary is largely devoted to explicating the rhetorical nature of the epistle against the assumed background of Paul’s recently completed first missionary journey. Witherington makes a convincing case that Paul was using the conventions of deliberative rhetoric, but insists that this was not done merely as an intellectual exercise, as was so often the case in that world, but that Paul was in deadly earnest. This is his desperate attempt to rescue by letter the Galatian Churches which were sliding into the arms of "another gospel". The gospel, Witherington maintains, is the sole concern of Paul’s polemic. The question of his apostleship is not at issue. But, having said this, he further maintains that Galatians is not so much about how the gospel works to get us into the people of God as about how it should be expressed in the lives of God’s people. This, of course, raises the "hot potato" of the relation of the low to the gospel and Witherington has a most interesting discussion of this question in an excursus in which he surveys the views of various scholars and propounds his own.

Witherington is more concerned in this commentary with the broad strokes of Paul’s brush than with the fine details. Nevertheless, he does comment on much of the detail of the letter – her the mood or the voice of a verb, there a preposition or the case of a noun, especially where such comment serves his socio-rhetorical interest. These comments never fail to be interesting and are often enlightening. Their appreciation, of course, depends on a knowledge of New testament Greek. Another useful feature of the commentary is that it is peppered with excurses on themes related to the matter in hand. These cover such topics as conversion, community, Paul as exegete and the law as childminder and guardian.

This book will certainly be a useful addition to the shelves of the scholar and one might even say a necessary addition with the growing recognition of the importance of rhetoric in shaping the documents of the New Testament. It is a fine piece of work.

David J. Williams

 

THINKING THROUGH OUR FAITH: THEOLOGY FOR 21st CENTURY CHRISTIANS

David C Grant (Nashville, Abingdon, 1998)

128 pp ISBN 0687017270

If Christian faith is to be a living faith it is essential to think it through and live it out within our contemporary world, argues Grant in the introduction, "Knowing as much as we can about the best thinking done in all realms of thought". What follows is an exposition of three significant aspects of current thought (part 1) and an indication of how these should lead to rethinking the faith in three particular areas.

In part 1 he gives an account in largely non-technical language of the impact of historical thinking (drawing especially on Troeltsch’s three principles of critical history), of the new world-view that contemporary science opens us to us, and of the post-modern move away from authoritative conclusions toward a plurality of perspectives. Part two discusses the way in which our rewarding of the bible is affected by recognising its historical context and varying literary forms, using the creation stories of Genesis to illustrate. He then draws out implications for an understanding of Jesus and our appropriation of God’s grace.

This is very much a book for those just beginning to think seriously about the Christian faith, and is a useful introduction. It has, however, some limitations. There is no indication of the legitimate role of Christian faith critically to assess aspects of contemporary thought, conveying the impression that all such criticism is reversion to the "old-time religion". Issues involved in the relationship between historical reflection and Christian faith are not adequately dealt with, leading to conclusions that those being introduced to the faith should not be encouraged to draw. For example, the role of the Gospel writers is badly distorted in the assertion that "each author’s view of his Gospel is like the icing on the cake: as an ingredient is easily scraped off and separated from the finished pastry" (p.84). And to conclude that "the significance of Jesus in Christian faith is not historical but existential" and that the subject of our religious assertions about Jesus "is not Jesus in his being in himself, but rather Jesus in his meaning for us" (p.85) overlooks a century of biblical and theological reflection on the issue. These quotations seem to belong more to the nineteenth century’s Liberal theology of Strauss and Schleiermacher than to the insights that should be leading us into the twenty-first century.

Norman Young



REVIEWERS

Dr Neil Ormerod, Dean of Studies, Centre for Christian Spirituality, Sydney.

The Revd Dr Paul Gwynne, Rector, St Mary’s Seminary, Melbourne.

Dr T. V. Philip, Fellow the Brisbane College of Theology, Visiting Professor at Griffith University.

The Revd Dr Peter Cross, Lecturer in Systematic Theology, Catholic Theological College, Melbourne.

David J. Williams, Vice-Principal and Lecturer in New Testament Studies, Ridley College, Melbourne.

The Revd Dr Norman Young, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.



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