Friday, 16 December 2011

'Ethics in the Presence of Christ'

This past week has seen me very privileged in being invited to speak at two very different events. The first was James' Hardings ordination, the second, the launch of Chris Holmes' new book, 'Ethics in the Presence of Christ'

[Chris is a Senior lecturer in the Department of Theology at the University of Otago 
and Associate Priest at St John's Roslyn]

Here is my commendation - "Tolle, lege!"

When I first met Chris over a cup of coffee just a few months ago we soon got to talking theology, perhaps unsurprisingly and I gave vent to one of my ongoing laments, that we gave little time and theological energy to the PRESENT implications of the Resurrection of Christ – Put another way, if we listen to the words of the risen Christ to John in Revelation I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; the contemporary church may well ask, ‘So What? What does this mean for us NOW?’. I didn’t realize at the time that Chris was completing a book that would give a very suggestive theological framework as to how we might begin to answer that question – but more than just that, a book which suggests to us how the Risen Christ creates and indeed Is the Reality in which those answers are worked out

So much theology and the witness of the church in word and deed seems deals with Christ as a Past Presence and perhaps less so, a Future presence and tries to figure out what that might mean for the here and now and comes to some fairly confusing and often mutual contradictory conclusions about how we might live in the present. This approach I think best exemplified by NT Wright who effectively says, Well Jesus is the culmination of Israel’s story – he was born, died, rose again and ascended into heaven – he will come again and in the meantime we need to Improvise based on these two poles of experience. Or, it’s up to us

On the other hand we have those from all parts of the theological spectrum who are encouraging the church  - ‘to look out for what God is doing in the world and get in on it’. This exhortation I find troubling for it lacks any concrete apprehension of what we mean when we say ‘God’ and thus how we may recognize Him at work, a situation which I suggest resonates to a degree with the Germany of 100 years ago.

Thus Christian Ethics is effectively if not explicitly rooted in a theology of Christ’s absence where Human action is the primary thing -  and I think it is interesting and telling that Chris’s book opens with an account of the displacement of Christology and the lack of a Christological account of God’s present work in the world,.

Ethics in the Presence of Christ is a work which has no truck with any sense of the absence of Christ from the Present, rather we are led to contemplate the Gospel as descriptive “of the Grain of the universe, which is [no less than] the outworking in time of the life of the Trinity, specifically the Son” And that Christian ethics properly understood is no more than our seeking to align our actions with the Present work of Christ in creation, a Presence which has the Force of Law in a sense the same as the Law of Gravity – that in his exaltation to the highest place that which has happened in the past Has a Present reality of stunning significance,  that to quote St Paul ‘He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’ That it is Precisely because and ONLY because Christ is so Present and Acting, constituting the reality of the New Creation that Christian life is remotely possible and that in Loving Him we correspond to the Love that he eternally is

Chris considers three aspects of the Presence of Christ – the Presence of His Power, His Truth and His Love using passages from John’s gospel which are eternal in their nature, as Presently real as in the time of Christ’s earthly life – and throughout the text is dense and closely argued but at the same time Chris’s enthusiasm for his argument comes through in such a way that it moves beyond argument to appeal – it is in some sense apologetic in its tone – in other words an argument that compels, but without resort to rhetoric

What authenticated his argument for me was that as I read I found myself in mental discussion with all of the Scriptures and with the saints of the church down through the ages. Chris engages with amongst others Augustine, Barth and Bonhoeffer, Calvin and particularly helpfully I think engages and critiques the highly influential theology of Reinhold Niebuhr , but I found myself throughout making connections to the Church Fathers, the various medieval schools of theology, the Reformers and many and varied writers from our own era. Thus in part it was authenticated for me because of its Orthodoxy. I found myself saying 'Yes' over and again, In a sense this could not be otherwise for Chris’s subject is Christ who constitutes in Himself Reality and thus Orthodox faith, who is both God’s yes to human kind and humanity’s Yes to God.

I found myself reading also a compelling account of Freedom in Obedience to the Law that is Christ and what it is to Believe in Christ – an account that comprehensively bridged any Faith vs works divide – by locating both faith and works in the Present Christ and refusing to reduce Christ to ‘an ideal’. He radically disallows that the command can be separated from the person of Christ risen and Present, that we must not fall into the trap of wrongly describing reality apart from Christ’s Presence and Christian ethics in terms of conformity to Transcendent Ideals, that he is not merely as many tend to assume a model for human life, he is also by his Spirit, The Means and the Reality of Christian life

But what really sealed this book for me was that it led me to pray and it led me to desire to further align my own life with what is herein revealed. As he says in speaking of the presence of Christ’s Power “That we learn to live in alignment with the presence of this power which continually breaks our will [to power] and is so doing humanizes it, might just make all the difference for who we are and how we live” Whilst being a work of Academic theology it points us in an immensely Practical direction, a Way of Life – that of Christ..

In his invitation to me to speak today, Chris said my role was to say something along the lines of ‘this is the best thing since sliced bread’ Well I grew up in a household where sliced bread wasn’t allowed! Rather I’d say that this work is a far more wholesome meal than that – there are non of those junk filled Fast carbs here, rather a wholesome meal which deserves to be read, marked, learned and inwardly digested.

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