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Monday 25 October 2021

Grace, or the power of possibility

Job 23.1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22.1-15; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31

The Book of Job has been called the most perplexing book in the bible, and with good reason.  It is the story of a prosperous man who is righteous before Yahweh even to the point where God boasts about him before a gathering of the heavenly powers.  We learn, in chapter 1, that an ‘Accuser’ approaches Yahweh to ask if Job would really be quite so virtuous if he lost God’s obvious favour and protection.  I quote:  ‘Does Job fear God for nothing?  Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?  You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.  But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has and he will curse you to your face’ (1.9-11).  Yahweh’s response is to grant the Accuser power to destroy the man’s possessions, his health, and even his family.  At first, Job righteously refuses to question God’s purposes in any of this.  But very soon, as the injustice of it all seeps into his being, Job’s resolve falters.  In all the words that flow from Job’s lips thereafter, in all the lament and heartache, the careful reader will discern that Job is searching for one thing, and one thing only:  the opportunity to wrest from God a convincing explanation or reason for his suffering.  But that reason, as much as God himself, eludes Job to the very end.

And that is where we find Job in the lection for today. Searching for an elusive God.   ‘Oh that I knew where to find him,’ says Job.  ‘I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.  I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me . . .  There an upright person could reason with God, and I would be acquitted forever by my judge.’  Note that the primary cause of Job’s distress at this point is not so much his suffering in itself, but rather the incomprehensibility of that suffering, the lack of an understandable story or framework in which his pain might be placed, and therefore begin to make sense.  Note also Job’s deeply held belief and expectation that God should provide such a framework, that God ought to guarantee and assure the meaningfulness of Job’s apparently innocent suffering.  It is crucial that we understand this point.  The naked suffering of Job, his loss and his shame, are terrible enough.   But what distresses the man even more is the fact that the God he desires, a God who gives meaning to suffering, refuses to present himself.  I quote again:  ‘If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.’

This distress of Job is repeated and finds its echo in the lament of Psalm 22:  ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.’  Like Job, the Psalmist is suffering, this time at the hands of evil men.  Yet, as with Job, his greatest pain is not physical, but existential.  Why doesn’t the God of Israel, the God who saved Israel from slavery in Egypt, now save this servant of his, a servant God has always looked out for, even from birth?  Here, again, we discover that the suffering body also initiates a suffering of the mind and soul, a veritable crisis in human meaning as such.  And God, who is supposed to guarantee the ultimate meaningfulness of things, again presents as one strangely absent or indifferent.

Now, this is all too familiar, is it not?  Most of us, I know, have faced exactly these questions. Some of us are perhaps facing them right now.  If God is a God of love, why does God leave us on our own at times of pain and suffering?  If God is a God of justice, why do the apparently innocent suffer, even the most vulnerable, who are unable to protect themselves?  Any way one might look at them, such questions are revealed as desperate enquiries into the ultimate coherence or meaning of our human lives. And we ask them of God, because we expect and believe that God is one who, in the final analysis, is able to undergird and support the meaning-structures we work with.  In that context, what I am about to say to you will probably sound like bad news, very bad news.  But it isn’t really, and I hope to show how that might be so in a just a moment.  For now, allow me to state what I have to say nakedly, as it were:  According to the Gospel of Jesus, God does not guarantee the meaningfulness of our lives.  Let me repeat that, in case you missed it.  According to the gospel of Jesus, God does not guarantee the meaningfulness of our lives.

What is meaning anyway?  Or, to put things a little differently, how is meaning made?  Meaning, I suggest, is that sense one has of there being a fundamental coherence between what is happening with oneself and what is happening with the rest of reality.  It is the capacity for seeing that one’s life is recognisably part of a more expansive schema, story or history which itself presents as ultimately meaningful.  If the story as a whole makes sense, and I can find my own role or place within it, then my own life can make sense as well.  Christianity is often said to be a kind of super-story in which all of us have a meaningful role.  Because each human being is loved by a God who is big enough, and powerful enough, to guarantee that the story will have a happy conclusion, then every single life engaged by that story is also guaranteed with regards to its own meaningfulness, even if there are tragic or perplexing moments to be negotiated as the plot marches towards its ultimate conclusion.  

Now, while I agree that a sense of narrative coherence is ordinarily crucial to both our sense of meaning and to our mental health, I must confess to being troubled by the theology so often invoked to support such a stance.  Namely, that God is the guarantee of human meaning.  For this is a theology which the bible itself cannot support.  We have seen, already, how both Job and the Psalmist desired such a God, a God who would eventually present himself as the foundation upon which their suffering would become meaningful, the ultimate guarantee that their suffering would contribute towards some higher or nobler end.  But we have also seen how neither text is able to deliver what its protangonists longed for.  In the Psalm, while God indeed shows up at the end as a saviour and liberator, it is certainly not explained how that God meaningfully coheres with the absent and silent God of earlier experience.  In Job, even though the opening chapters set the reader up to expect that God will eventually explain to Job that his suffering was a test of character, no such explanation takes place.  When God arrives on the scene, it is certainly not to explain, but rather to question Job’s desire for a God who explains.

Further evidence for the point I am making is plentiful in the gospels, although it usually takes a more positive form.  This is where the apparently bad news begins to look like good news.  Take today’s gospel, for example, where Jesus proclaims that while, from a human point of view, it is indeed impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, such a thing is not impossible for God.  Those who read this passage for ammunition against the rich (I am, myself, one who is constantly looking for such ammunition) are of course missing the point entirely.  The young man who turns away because he cannot give what he has to the poor and follow Jesus is not condemned by the evangelist, but rather held before us as an example of that person whom God may choose to save against all rhyme or reason of human justice.  Do you see the connecting theme, here, with Job and the Psalm?  In all three cases, human beings have a view of how things should work in the world.  They have a system of ethics which says that there are bad people who should suffer, and there are innocent people who should not suffer.  And in each case, God or his representative is called upon to guarantee that the ethical system, so established, will accomplish what it was designed to do: to punish the guilty and make them suffer; and to vindicate the righteous cause of the innocent against their foes.  In each case, God is called upon because God is believed to be the author and origin of the story in which these human beings live, and move, and have their being.

I put it to you, however, that each of these stories shows us only that God is not the author or origin, and certainly not the guarantor of any of our stories, whether they be personal beliefs, legal conventions, or even our most deeply believed religious myths.  Because they are not God’s stories, but ours.  And that, I think, makes the apparently bad news sound rather better, as the gospel reading clearly shows us!  Because none of us have a handle on God, because none of us can call on God to guarantee our own agendas in the world, God is free to treat people differently than we ourselves would.  Very differently.  God is free, for example, to treat those we would call ‘sinners’ like saints.  God is free to welcome those whom we would call ‘shameful’ or ‘ugly’  into the company of the honourable or beautiful.  God is free to make many who are running last in the rat-race, first, and many who are running first, last.  Doesn’t that fit our experience of God?  Isn’t it true that God often says ‘no’ to us when we are sure it should be ‘yes,’ and says ‘yes’ to us when we are sure it should be ‘no’?  The good news of the gospel is that God’s ways are not our ways, that God does not do for us according to what we either deserve or expect.  In this perspective, the story of Job takes on a new spin.  One can then see that Job’s prosperity was a gift in the first place, and when it is returned to him twofold, at the end of his story, this was not because he had virtuously passed a test of character.  His second round of prosperity is like the first.  Undeserved.  A gift, pure and simple.  Without reason or foundation.

There is a single word that sums up all this beautifully divine unreasonableness, and it is a suitably beautiful word:  Grace!  Grace is the opposite of karma, that most ancient and persistent of human laws which proclaims that we get what we deserve.  We do not get what we deserve, and thank Christ we don’t!  Grace, as Bono from U2 says, grace ‘travels outside of karma’.  Grace finds beauty and goodness where we see only ugliness and evil.  Grace grants redemption where no redemption seems possible.  Grace, as Eberhard Jüngel has written, is the bountiful surplus of possibility over inevitability.  Some of you will recall that classic scene in the first Matrix movie where Smith, the agent of the Matrix, has Neo Anderson, the messianic figure, in a headlock.  A train approaches, and Smith intends to throw Neo onto the tracks to finish him off.  ‘You hear that, Mr. Anderson?’ asks Smith, ‘That is the sound of inevitability’.  At the last moment, Neo throws himself clear, though it seems impossible that he should do so, and it is Smith who is collected by the train.  There is a parable in this for any who have the eyes to see!  The Matrix is our myths, those stories which tell us how things work, what is necessary and inevitable, and how we shall all get what is coming to us.  But the good news is this:  that the Son of Man has come to shatter all of that, to proclaim the unreasonable freedom of God to save those whom the world would condemn, and to make all that seems impossible to us, very, very possible indeed.  

Garry Deverell

Saturday 2 October 2021

Observations about the report 'Next Steps in Reconciliation' from the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne Synod 2021

Earlier this week a friend shared with a me a report that is to be considered at the Synod of the Melbourne Anglican diocese later in October. It can be found in the booklet 'Part-B-Final.pdf' on the Synod website, and runs from pages 22-25.  It is titled 'Next Steps for Reconciliation' and it is signed by Bishop Kate Prowd in her capacity as the 'Chair, Reconciliation Action Committee'.  The report is significant because it represents the diocese's first and only response to the motion Glenn Loughrey and I successfully put to the Synod meeting in October 2019.  That motion read:

This synod requests

  1. That Archbishop in Council make a considered formal response to: (a) the review of the diocesan Reconciliation Action Plan tabled by the RAP Working Group on Feb 20, 2018; and (b) the Statement to Provincial Leadership tabled by the Aboriginal Council of the Anglican Province of Victoria in November, 2018.
  2. That Archbishop in Council make an interim report of its responses by electronic communication to all Synod members by May 31, 2020, to be followed by a full report of its responses to the Diocesan Synod of 2020.

The documents our motion referred to, along with the details and rationale for that motion, can be found here. My speech to the Synod at that time can be found here.

Glenn and I were forced to bring this motion to the floor of Synod because the Archbishop had, to date, made no response to either the review of the Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) tabled by his own RAP committee or the subsequently offered Statement to Provincial Leadership tabled by the Aboriginal Council of the Anglican Province of Victoria (ACAPV). These documents, each in their own way, invited both Diocese and Province into a dialogue with the Aboriginal clergy of our church about ways to give concrete and practical form to the notion of 'reconciliation'.

After the motion was passed, very little seemed to happen.  Two months after the date when Archbishop-in-Council was supposed to have made an interim report to Synod members about progress on the motion, the members of the Archbishop's RAP Group were asked by Ken Hutton (the Archbishop's EA) to make some clarifying remarks as part of the preparation for a prospective AiC report on the matter. Glenn and I did so in writing, but heard nothing more until an ad clerum appeared from the Archbishop in May of this year advising that 'Our diocese is reframing its action plan for reconciliation under the leadership of Bishop Kate Prowd' and inviting parishes who are interested to join in the work of a newly established RAP Working Group of Archbishop in Council. 

I've recently been in touch with the seven other members of the previous RAP Group. Of those who chose to respond, only one person seemed to have known beforehand that a new RAP Working Group was being established. No one from the Archbishop's office or his Council has, in the meantime, been in touch to advise us on what the plan is. We are currently seeking clarity on that. The new report to Synod appears to imply that the old RAP Group is being replaced.

So that is some of the background.

But now I'd like to make some specific observations about this new report, prepared by Bishop Prowd for the October 2021 Synod.

First, the positives. I affirm the decision of Archbishop in Council to set up a dedicated Working Group to progress the cause of reconciliation. I affirm the decision to set up conversations with Indigenous consultants, traditional owners, the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission and with Bishop Chris McLeod (Aboriginal Bishop of the Anglican Church in Australia). I affirm the decision to work on an 'Indigenous leadership and advisory structure to progress reconciliation'. I affirm the decision to more closely align activities in this area with the diocesan Visions and Directions strategy, particulary when it comes to transparency of communication and accountability.

If any of this issues in reparations and the return of stolen land, the elevation of Indigenous voices and perspectives, and greater attention being given to our status as First Peoples in the whole business of the church, I will obviously support the Diocese in what it claims to be trying to do.

For all that, I find it very difficult to believe that our diocesan leadership has any real care for our people or really wants to work towards something resembling justice.  I say that because at no stage in the past four years has anyone from the Episcopate or Archbishop-in-Council or Provincial Council troubled to pick up the phone, or send a letter or email, or in any other way initiate a meaningful dialogue with the church's own Indigenous people about what we think, feel or pray for. On two occasions Glenn and I were able to speak briefly to the Archbishop about some of the written proposals we had already tabled as part of our work with the RAP Group and the ACAPV. On both occasions it was made very clear that what we had proposed was unacceptable and that no more correspondence would be entered into about those matters.  So there was no dialogue. There was simply a laying down of the law by the Archbishop and a call to compliance. This has been the pattern for the past four years. Either a refusal to talk with us, or rebukes from the Archbishop. 

From where we stand, therefore, it is actually very difficult to see the proposed initiatives as anything other than a public relations exercise. The church wants to look good in public, and to be seen to be doing the right thing. It claims to be 'open to further discussion.' All the while it continues to ignore, lecture and exploit its own Indigenous people, just as colonisers have done since they first arrived.  'By their fruit you will know them' (Matt 7.16). We see no fruit. What would good fruit look like? It would look like the measures we, as Aboriginal clergy of this province, have put on the table for consideration.

It is not surprising, then, that the diocese has no Indigenous candidates for Holy Orders. This is not the kind of church in which Indigenous people, least of all clergy, will be valued.

I sincerely hope that I will be proven spectacularly wrong about all this. But, in speaking with some of our older, now partly retired, Aboriginal clergy, the disrespect evident in current ecclesial leadership is completely consistent with the disrespect of those who led us in the past. We do not feel, therefore, that we can allow ourselves the luxury of hope.

All of which fills me with a deep, deep sadness about how far the church has strayed from the call of Jesus to love one another, especially the last and the least.

And now a few final comments for the sake of the public record. 

Glenn did not know that his report to the diocese would be incoroporated into the 'Next Steps in Reconciliation' document from Bishop Prowd. He feels that this incorporation might be read as evidence that he is in lock-step with the rest of the report. He is not.

The Mullum Mullum Indigenous Gathering Place was puchased from the church with more than 5 million dollars of government money. Glenn and I had strongly suggested that the diocese simply hand it back as an appropriate act of reparation for past acts of thievery.

The primary reason why the ACAPV has not met for some time has little to do with the pandemic. Rather, the Council was set up as a body that might dialogue with the Provincial Council and Diocesan Bishop's Councils about Indigenous matters in reponse to our written invitation. We have not yet received a response from any of these bodies indicating that they wish to commence a meaningful dialogue. Once we get a 'yes, we'd like to dialogue' from one or more of these bodies, there will be a reason to meet.

Bishop Prowd implies, in her report, that I have 'left the diocese'. I have not. I am a licensed priest of the diocese. I live in the diocese, I work in the diocese, and I worship in the diocese. I have not gone anywhere.

Garry Worete Deverell

Oct 2, 2021

Monday 19 July 2021

The Prophetic Voice of Country

Texts: Uluru Statement from the Heart; Wisdom 7.25-8.1; Matthew 13.31-32

Voice and ‘Spiritual Sovereignty’

The Uluru Statement from the Heart (2017) says, in part, ‘We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution’. While that Voice would take a particular form – most likely an elected group of national Elders who would offer advice to the Federal Govt on all matters affecting Indigenous people – let us not mistake the Voice for simply one voice amongst many voices.

The Uluru Statement claims that the Voice would speak from a place of sovereignty which, it says, is a ‘spiritual notion’:

the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished.

The voice is therefore, first of all, the voice of what our mobs call ‘country’. Country, for us, is a complex matrix of family or kin: land, waterway, sky, flora, fauna, and human beings. Country is made, in our dreaming stories, by powerful creator beings who both shape the landscape and indwell it. As human-animal hybrids, they are the common ancestors of both the human and non-human realms. They are also the connective tissue which makes all life part of one family. 

Linda Syddick Napaltjarri Desert Eucharist
Importantly, this matrix of inter-relatedness creates a sense of moral reciprocity between all the parts of the whole.  Country cares for us. Country provides everything we need to sustain life for ourselves, our human communities, both now and for countless generations to come. Equally, country needs us. We, as humans, have a responsibility to care for country, to ensure that country is managed sustainably, that we take only what is needful and work hard to live in harmony with the lore that country teaches us through its complex biospheric interactions.  Traditionally we have learned how to live sustainably as part of country by listening for its wise voice in plant, animal and season. That is why our dreamings and our ritual storytelling are full to overflowing with the adventures of our feathered, furred, beaked and scaled cousins.

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society, if you want to know who you are, to whom you belong, and what you are called to become, you listen to country. And the voice of country is interpreted by Elders who have lived within this eco-social imaginary all their lives and know its voice intimately. We do well to listen to our Elders, if we truly want to hear what country is saying.  But we should not expect Elders to speak with one Voice. For the Voice of country is pluri-vocal. Only by listening to the many and discerning its larger themes will you hear the One across and through the many.

Voice and Wisdom

There is, perhaps, a legitimately drawn analogy between ‘country’ and the figure of Wisdom we encounter in the book called ‘Wisdom’ from the Hebrew scriptures. 

Wisdom is not simply a creation of the Creator made, as it were, from the pure imagination of the divine. Wisdom is an ‘emanation’, the ‘breath’ of the divine. While differentiated from the divine as a feminized figure and form in and of herself, therefore, Wisdom is clearly derived from the divine in some deeply interfused manner. ‘Emanation’ suggests that Wisdom shares in the ontology of the divine creator, the very imprint of the divine DNA. ‘Breath’ suggests that she shares in the animating life or ‘spirit’ of the divine. Here we have the prototype of the emanations or processions of God that Christian theologians (principally from Cappadocia) will later call ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit’ and identify with the Jesus and Holy Spirit of the New Testament writings, principally in the Johannine and Pauline discourses.  It is as though Wisdom takes on a body which includes the whole world, the whole biosphere, and animates the whole living cosmos with divine breath or Spirit.

Amongst the works of Wisdom in the hymn we have read is this:

. . . in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.

These three lines tell us three interesting things about the way in which Wisdom raises her voice in the world. 

She raises her voice, first, through generations. Not, that is, just the once, in some especially holy and esteemed moment in history, but ever after silent. Some Jews and Christians would like to read the biblical material that way. No, Wisdom, we are told, speaks in every generation.  This means that we can legitimately listen for her voice in every time and place.

She raises her voice, second, by entering holy souls who become friends of God, prophets. Prophets, in this Hebrew tradition, are of course those who are chosen by God to be God’s voice, the voice of Wisdom. They do not choose this path for themselves. Indeed, they often run away from the very notion because allowing themselves to be so deployed will usually cause both they, and their communities, great trouble and suffering. For the truth Wisdom wishes to speak, is often the very opposite of what is good for either ourselves or our planet. We are an acquisitive and self-deceiving bunch, by and large. Indigenous and Hebraic peoples share a great many stories which are designed to dissuade and warn us away from giving in to our worst impulses. Which is why confession and lament form an important part of both traditions. The prophet, by contrast, is called to come close to the divine in ‘friendship’, to listen to Wisdom’s voice, to be remade in the image of divine country and therefore an agent of transformation for others as the prophet passes what they hear on to others.  By doing so the prophet becomes one who centers their sense of being in the whole cosmic unfolding of divine being, rather than in any sense of single-in-itself individuality. 

Centering oneself in personal power, rather than diffuse social and ecological power is, I would argue, the very essence of what the Christian tradition calls sin. Even the most well-meaning of liberation movements can be blind to the experience and suffering of others, whether those others be human or non-human kin. Indigenous scholars, for example, have critiqued white feminism for its serial forgetting of black, brown and Indigenous women, for its centering of liberation on whiteness and western-middle-class worlds. Such forgetting, far from being merely benign with regard to black, brown and Indigenous women, actually contributes to the suffering of these women, forming a constitutive part of the death-dealing structures of colonialism.

Finally, then, Wisdom raises her voice, by dwelling with prophets. Living with and around and in them so that the prophet is able to speak from a home bounded by God rather than a home bounded, for example, by a picket fence. Or a field. Or a mining company. Or a nation. Or a church. Or a white middle-class feminist collective.

That is not to say that Wisdom lives no where in particular, mind. Wisdom in fact lives everywhere in particular. And therefore prophets will also speak from a particular place and experience with Wisdom. Our mob say that you cannot speak to anyone beyond the tribe unless you have dwelled with the ancestors within the tribal boundaries of one’s given country. The universal, therefore, can never be address except in the particular. There must be enfleshment, there must be embodiment, there must be language, culture and place or country. Without these, there can be no voice.

To what end does Wisdom speak through the prophets?

To what end, then, does Wisdom (or, we would say, country) speak through Elders and prophets? Well, our recitation from the gospel according to St Matthew, offers one way of answering this question:

Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

Now, as with most of the parables recorded in the synoptic gospels, Jesus is here taking something very familiar and making it less familiar, he is taking common wisdom and rendering it differently so that it becomes prophetic or counter-intuitive. In this case, the trope of seed growing into a tree and the birds coming to settle into its branches is common wisdom, but the naming of the mustard seed as the smallest of seeds and its grown form as the largest of shrubs is certainly not. For the mustard seed was certainly not the smallest of seeds in the ancient near-east nor was it’s grown form the ‘greatest’ of shrubs. 

So, something else is going on here, and I propose that it has something to do with the connection between the ‘kingdom of heaven’ - the region, that is of God’s reign – and the birds of the air. Remember that earlier in Matthew’s gospel, in the homily known as the sermon on the mount, Jesus refers to the birds of the air as ‘they that neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.’ In contrast to the citizens of the Roman empire, who are encouraged by social and political convention to cloth themselves with the symbols of wealth and privilege, the birds of the air are fed and clothed by God. They do not sow or spin as a sign of their striving after a greater share of colonial power and largesse. Instead, they await the gratuity of the divine, universally given in creation for the sustenance of life.

So whatever the size and greatness of the seed or the tree given by God, wherever it sits in the economies of colonial empire or the common wisdom, it is given simply to feed and to clothe those whom empire forgets. The lowly, the least, the communities who live close to the humus of the earth and depend upon her gratuity. 

Thus, the kingdom of heaven is roughly analogous to country, as our mobs would understand it. She is given to all and for all.  She gives herself for our feeding and clothing. Yet, because the gift is universally given, there is an implicit ethic to its use which resembles both the manna given to Israel in its wanderings and in the eucharist by which Christians are fed. We are to take only what is needed. We are not to hoard its fruit into barns for a rainy day or for the generating of surplus wealth. We are to take only what is needful for today. For she gives herself at great cost, the cost of life as it is poured out in death, so that all who eat of what is dead may themselves be sustained in life.

So I leave you with this. There are analogies between Indigenous notions of country and the Jewish-Christian divine. I don’t believe we can ever legitimately claim that one IS the other in any literal one-to-one equivalence. What we can say, however, is that the realms of Wisdom and the kingdom of heaven are a lot like country. If we can therefore center ourselves in the home they create for us, rather than the little empires we would construct for ourselves against fear and chaos, we may well find that what is given us in country is enough; that the Voice we find in country and her prophets is enough. And perhaps we may finally, therefore, find the kind of justice that is able to make our broken humanity whole once more.

Garry Deverell

Friday 16 July 2021

Why I most often speak from my trawloolway, rather than my european, heritage

A friend recently asked, via social media: 'I am interested in why you have chosen to align yourself so closely with your trawloolway identity. How do other elements of your ancestry inform your identity, and why do you not speak so much about them?'

This is actually one of the most frequent questions our mobs are asked by non-Indigenous Australians. The answer, for me, involves an invocation of both historical-cultural and theological perspectives.

Every single Indigenous person on this continent is of mixed heritage. Before colonists came here, that heritage was mixed through entirely voluntary forms of intermarriage, diplomacy, and cultural exchange between nations. From the time of first contact with european colonists, that strictly local heritage was forcibly repressed by the removal of people from country and from each other. All of us, without exception, especially in the south and east of the continent, found ourselves in majority-white communities in which we were forced to repress our Indigeneous heritage and become honorary whites. It was also expected that if we must marry, it would be to white people. Of course, many of us were simply sterilised so that reproduction became impossible. The policy of colonial governments was, for 150 years, to 'breed out the blackness'. Blackness, of course, is not primarily about skin colour. It is about culture and identity. It was, and remains, a deeply archetypal cipher of everything that the european mind considers foreign and not entirely human.

This means that the perseverance of Indigenous identity in Australia is something of a miracle. Most of us have significantly more non-Indigenous DNA than Indigenous. Most of us have been immersed in british language and culture to a much more significant degree than our own Indigenous language and culture. Why? Because colonisation was, and remains, very effective in its genocidal logic. And yet.

Many of us with an Indigenous heritage - however fragile, however unwelcome - feel very strongly about identifying with that heritage in the strongest possible terms. Why? Because we feel a responsibility to give voice and form to that dimension of who we are which has suffered the most, which is least welcome in this community, which struggles the most and has less resources to hand to encourage such speech. By contrast, the heritage which we share with other members of the wider community - especially the white community - has no need to so assert its voice, because it already has a voice. That voice is reflected in every advertisement, every TV programme, every educational programme, every place of worship, every symbol of belonging, every social imaginary. It is not so with Indigenous heritage. Personally, I feel a long and deep responsibility to speak from my Indigenous heritage not only because I AM Indigenous - ontologically connected to the country where I live - but because it is my Indigenous self that is most fragile and at risk in colonial Australia. It is the dimension of my identity which needs the most support and encouragement.

If I might add a theological dimension to that, St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:26f, 

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

There is a call in my own, and every, Christian vocation to amplify those dimensions of identity and status that remain most despised by the powers that rule the world: those whom the world regards as 'nothing', of no or marginal value. Indigenous people, Indigenous culture, Indigenous identity, still occupy that place in colonial economy and society. But that is what joins us with Christ, who was sent to join with the weak and powerless to shame the strong. I also work from that place in the matrix of my identity because I am a Christian, and have been joined to Christ in baptism.

All of which is to say that giving attention and prominence to my trawloolway heritage does not feel like a choice so much as an irresistible calling, a call that comes from country and from Christ. Both.

Garry Deverell

July 2021

Saturday 29 May 2021

Why Thinking Indigenously is Important for Australian Theology

As I get around the Australian churches and their theological institutions I notice that most Christian theology remains culturally captive to a white western perspectives and means of production.  Senior denominational leadership remains steadfastly white, as do the core teaching staff of theological schools. The reading material set for classes in history, philosophy, theology, biblical studies and even so-called ‘practical’ or ‘missional’ theology is produced by white people for white people.  There are exceptions of course. I recognise, for example, that south-, east-, and south-east-Asian staff and perspectives are slowly finding their way into theology and even into the senior leadership of some churches.  I welcome the growing strength of Eastern European and North African Orthodoxy in Australia, as these communities remind white Australians that Christianity was a middle-eastern and north-African religion long before it was European.  Having said that, it remains the case that theological leadership in this country is overwhelmingly white. This is so despite the citizenry of Australian churches, consisting of those who actually turn up to corporate prayer and mission, increasingly and rapidly becoming anything but white. The same is true for our theological colleges. Increasingly, students who wish to study theology or train for ordained or commissioned ministries, come from more recent migrant communities.  In many colleges white students are very much in the minority.

‘What does it matter’, many persist in asking, ‘if theology is taught by white people?  Isn’t theology just theology? Don’t all potential church leaders, whatever their ethnic profile, need to have a basic understanding of the theological tradition in order to guide their people through the complexities of modernity?’  Whilst I heartily agree that every potential church leader needs to have a foundational understanding of theological tradition in order to help their people navigate the complexities of modern Australian life, I am not at all convinced that teaching a white version of that tradition is going to do the trick. For ‘theology’ is always and everywhere perspectival. The tradition does not speak with one voice, especially if that voice is taken to be white or western. Theology is forever shaped by the places, people and cultures in which it is written or performed. That is as true of the foundational theological texts found in the bible as much as it is for every subsequent iteration. And it is as true for so-called ‘second-order’ theology (academic-sounding reflections upon theological art or narrative) as it is for the more primary, symbolic, forms such as poetry, oracle, parable, painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, sacrament or ‘liturgy’ (a term which arguably encompasses all the others). Most white, western, theology recognises this fact as formally true. At the same time most white, western, theology appears blind to the powerfully unconscious filters at play in its own means of production, filters which seek to reduce and simplify as well as to appropriate and colonise theological formulations that come from other places and peoples.

This seems especially true when it comes to white, colonial, engagements with Indigenous people.  Here in ‘Australia’ (itself a colonial fiction) white theology has pretended for nigh on 200 years that Indigenous people do not exist. For 200 years the theology of the coloniser has worked hand-in-glove with the legal fiction of terra nulius which asserted, and still asserts in many pockets of the white church that, upon arrival, this continent was entirely without people or culture, that it was effectively a blank canvas which God had provided for the painting of an entirely white future. In this respect, white theology is, as a matter of historical record, remarkably similar to the Australian Constitution, which makes no mention at all of Indigenous peoples, either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. White theology, like the Constitution, was habitually written in the service of an entirely white, colonial, people with white, colonial, concerns. Many modern observers, particularly those who have come to Australian more latterly, may wonder at how theology could be as complicit in the Great Australian Silence about Indigenous people as the disciplines of history and politics, yea, even more so. But the reasons for this are obvious, are they not?  In addition to that more habitual form of white filtering that accompanied, and still accompanies, the expansion of colonial empires, here in Australia theology has been silent because of a secret shame that can barely, even now, speak its own name. The shame of knowing that – against every ethical principle that may be legitimately derived from the teaching of Jesus or his apostles - the churches were willing partners and agents in the attempted genocide of an entire people.  The colonial churches, and/or prominent members of those churches, both enabled and enacted the massacres, the removals, the enslavement, the incarcerations, the ‘re-education’ and the wholesale destruction of Indigenous agriculture, language, kinship systems, cosmologies and spiritualities. The churches did this, but their shame at having done so has rendered them silent, especially insofar as the church speaks through its theological performance. It is far easier to speak of the sins of others than of our own sins. It is easier, to cite a prominent example, to endlessly discuss the German theology that emerged from the Nazi holocaust in Europe, than to engage the reality of Australia’s original sin and founding act of violence. Or, indeed, its contemporary consequences across a myriad of social and spiritual indicators.

It is no coincidence, then, that white ‘settler’ theology in this country has barely begun to engage with Indigenous people. Arguably, it has only begun to do so because we, that is the Indigenous citizens of the churches, have begun to cast off the imaginative shackles made for us by our white gubbas and find our own voice.  Doing so is, of course, immensely complicated. For every Indigenous person in the country has been colonised, whether we are personally conscious of the fact or not. The tentacles of colonisation extend not only to the stealing of land and the destruction of culture, but also into the hearts and brains of colonised people. The colonial prohibition against talking and speaking and acting ‘like a native’ is, at the same time, a constant and unrelenting pressure towards adopting a white view of the world, a white social imaginary.  I personally know Aboriginal people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians and/or political conservatives who, whilst insisting they are genuinely Aboriginal, also seem to be completely comfortable with unreconstructed, entirely white, accounts of who and what they are, even to the point of baldly stating that colonisation was in fact God’s way of punishing Aborigines for our supposed wickedness.  In Aboriginal English, we call such people ‘coconuts’: black on the outside, but white on the inside. 

Actually, the situation is far more complicated than that in contemporary ‘Australia’.  For many of our most capable, and most radical, spokespeople ‘look’ white on the outside, but have decidedly black hearts and brains. The paradox here, which routinely seems to bamboozle even the most intelligent coloniser, is that the strongest contemporary critique of whiteness is today coming from Indigenous people who have studied history or cultural studies at the margins of white educational institutions, those ever-fragile margins where black, or other scholars of colour, have enjoyed a measure of freedom to interrogate who they are in their own terms. Here is a particular instance of modernity’s inherent capacity for self-contradiction.  By making even the smallest room for the other, even if that room is nothing more than a crack in the concrete that composes an urban footpath, in time that gap can enable a seed to grow, a seed that, in time, will transform itself into a large tree which, ultimately, may displace or even destroy the concrete slab. 

The Indigenous academics who tend such seeds are doing two kinds of work, simultaneously. We are seeking, first, to recover and reinterpret what can be known about our traditional, precolonial, way of life. In my own field of theology, this means that I soak up as much as I can about the cosmologies and spiritualities embedded in ‘dreaming’ stories, especially those that may be recovered from my own country. This work is frustratingly difficult, especially in the case of lutrawita/Tasmania, because the sheer ferocity of the war waged on our people in the early 1800s came very close to completely obliterating our knowledge systems. What remains, in the accounts of white colonists such as George Augustus Robinson and in a small number of articles apparently coming from the hands of my ancestors at the Wybalenna concentration camp, has to be read with a healthy dose of scepticism. Finding the authentic Indigenous voices woven between the layers of prejudicial memory and commentary is painstaking work.  But the usefulness for my people of what can be uncovered is beyond priceless. It helps us to understand how our ancestors lived out their sacred relationship with earth, waterway and sky. It also helps us to understand the ways in which our ancestors sought to share this knowledge with the invader, to translate that knowledge so that someone from another culture might begin to understand. There are clear analogies here with the work of historical-critical biblical scholars, who seek to recover and reconstruct more ancient voices and debates within the highly redacted texts we actually have.

The second way in which Indigenous scholars seek to water the seeds of a more just future is by offering a critique of the dominant paradigms, the white colonial ontologies and epistemologies by which truth is recognised and evaluated. This, too, is immensely complicated work. The first place from which such a critique might be oriented is, of course, our traditional knowledge, the weave of ritual storytelling that is now called ‘the dreaming’. But, as we noted above, recovering the tradition from its colonial overlays is quite difficult. Very often the Indigenous researcher simply has to rely on their innate capacity to discern a continuing voice, the voice of the ancestors, in order to find where the truth lies.  And you do not develop that innate sense unless you spend considerable time on country watching and waiting and listening to its wisdom, especially as that country is interpreted by its custodial elders. In my theological work, country certainly comes first when it comes to constructing a model of truth and truth-telling. And that means that my critique of other forms of theology, white colonial forms most prominent amongst them, also begins with country. For it is in country, first of all, that I discern the voice and activity of the divine. Country is, if you like, an Indigenous Christ.  It teaches us who we are, to whom be belong, and what our responsibility or vocation in the world might be.  By listening to this voice, I can offer a critique of the white-male-human centred theology that continues to dominate both the church and the society it helped to form. I can analyse their complicity in the destruction of the biosphere as well as its gender prejudice and racism. I can re-read the biblical texts so that they work with our people and what we know, rather than against us. I can uncover, under all the violence in Scripture, the voice of a God who loves the world and its people, and longs for their flourishing, their freedom, and their peace. I can identify there a God who is like our wisest ancestor-creators. I can even speculate that, perhaps, the God of Scripture and our ancestor-creators are one and the same. Though whether this is true or not, I could never say for sure.

Let me conclude, then, with some brief comments about why the study of Indigenous ways of doing Christian theology might be of first importance not only for my people, but also for the white colonial majority that still runs our churches. For Indigenous people, who remain invisible to much of the white church, the possibility of pursuing a sense of Christian vocation via an Indigenous-led pathway says, quite simply ‘we see you, we love you, we accept and acknowledge your world and your ways.’ Indigenous-led theological study will help us to raise our people from the pits of despair to which we are routinely relegated by white colonial programmes which say, in effect, ‘you and your ways are not welcome here unless you change and become like us.’ When Indigenous students can study with theologians who have trodden the same or similar paths themselves, they find that they are no longer alone and that there is, indeed, a place for them in academy and church. Which is very good news, I assure the reader, breathtakingly good news!  But that is not all. Studying Indigenous approaches to theology can also be good news for white colonists, the kind of good news that Jesus shared with Zacchaeus in Luke’s gospel (19.1-10). For it is clear now, is it not, that white ways and white knowledge have brought the whole of the world to the brink of ecological disaster and social and political implosion? The churches, with their dominantly white-male-human centred theologies, have contributed a great deal to the making of that world, a world in which even wealthy white men will find themselves the unwitting victims of their own blindness. The only way out of this bind, it seems to me, is to turn. To stop listening to the voice of empire and start listening to the people that empire enslaves. For our ways are not the ways of empire. Our ways are about honouring the earth and making sure that every creature under heaven knows their part is preserving its life. In that all people, even white people, will find their liberation and their joy.

Garry Deverell

This article was first published in Eureka Street (vol 31:9) on May 18, 2021.

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Abiding in God's love

 Texts: Acts 8. 26-40; Psalm 22.25-31; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15. 1-8

Just now we heard from the reading of Scripture that our love for God is shown and demonstrated in the love we have for our fellow human beings.  John says to us: 

Those who say they love God and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God who they have not seen.  The commandment we have from God is this:  those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Now, while I’m certain that everyone here would want to affirm that with all their hearts, I nevertheless find myself wondering why so many of us in the Christian Church  - including the Prime Minister, apparently - seem not to care particularly for people beyond the circle of our immediate friends and family.  On the one hand, we genuinely believe that our love of God is also a love of neighbour, while on the other we trace an unconscious circle about us, a circle which divides those worthy of being regarded as ‘neighbours’ from those who are not. Despite years of Christian teaching, I suspect that most of us still believe that the ‘brothers and sisters’ the apostle calls us to love are none other than those people with whom we are most comfortable.  Our closest friends and relations.

But the apostle has something rather more expansive in mind. Very early on in the Church's history, when the Christian community was composed entirely of ethnic Jews, it was forced to ask the same question that we are asking this morning, ‘who are our brothers and sisters?’  Luke’s story about Phillip and the Ethiopian official answers that question in a way that radically undermined the Jewish status quo, and threatens to do the same to our own.  We are told that an angel came to Phillip and commanded him to head south from Jerusalem to Gaza.  On the way he meets an Ethiopian eunuch who is treasurer for the Queen.  Clearly this man is sympathetic to Jewish faith, and has probably been to Jerusalem to participate in one of the Jewish festivals . . . but there is a problem.  According to the Scribal law of the time, a male person could only become a Jew through circumcision.  But this man was a eunuch, that is, his genitalia had been completely removed, probably as a child in slavery.  So, although he believed in Yahweh and loved the Hebrew Scriptures, and though he clearly desired to be part of the great company of God people, he could not.  The Scribal law had effectively constructed a huge wall in front of people like him, with a sign on the gate which said ‘Keep out, God does not want you’.   

Imagine this man’s joy, then, when Phillip shares a new interpretation of the Jewish faith with him.  Beginning with the Isaiah’s account of a suffering servant who, like the eunuch, was denied the chance of passing on his name to future generations, Phillip spoke of a God who vindicated the servant’s just cause by raising him from the dead so that his name, and his cause, would live forever.  And then Phillip invited the eunuch to become part of God's people, not through circumcision, but through faith in Jesus and the Christian rite of baptism, in which we die to worldly assessments of who we are and what we are worth, and are raised with Christ to the right hand of God!  In the preaching of Philip the man hears about a rather different God, a God who loves and welcomes everyone who believes, no matter what their ethnic or religious heritage (or, indeed, the state of their genitalia!).  And in the background of the story Luke, the theological innovator, is telling his hearers that because God love those outside the circle, so should they.  And so should we.

However . . .  like so many things in life, this is easier said than done. I think it has to be frankly admitted that it is very difficult to move with genuine love and concern beyond our own circle, the circle of our own comfort.  If we have grown up with a particular way of living life, and thinking about the meaning of our lives, it can be very threatening to be exposed to other ways of life, to other ways of thinking.  We feel safe amongst those who know us and understand not only our language, but also our basic assumptions about what is important and what is not.  So much so that when, on the odd occasion, we find ourselves bumping into people who look and speak differently to us, and who clearly have quite another set of values to us, we become quite naturally uncomfortable, or even afraid.  Why? Because the existence and perseverance of these ‘other’ ways, these ‘other’ people, implicitly calls into question our own ways, our own assumptions about life.  As a consequence, our foundations may feel less steady. 

Alongside that, psychologists tell us that in modern life, where we’ve all been seduced into tearing around all the time, we have significantly less energy for engaging with people who are different to us.  We tend to conserve our energy by sticking to interaction with a small, stable group of family and friends.  Rarely do we find the energy to move beyond that circle.  And when we do, the shock of the new is all the more a shock because we are tired, and therefore more vulnerable to having our foundations rocked.  No wonder we stick to what we know.  No wonder we stick to who we know.

For all these reasons and more, I have a great deal of empathy with any who say to me, ‘I haven’t the time or the energy to move beyond my own circle of friends, I haven’t the time or the energy to engage with other ways of worshipping God or thinking about the meaning of my life’.  I understand that.  I know that it is difficult and scary and energy-zapping to do so.  Its like asking people to break out of cocoon, or to leave the safety of our mother’s womb.  Yet . . .  this is precisely what God calls us to do.  God says ‘If your really knew me, if you really had my love down deep inside of you, then you'd want these 'others' to share in that love too.   And you'd be willing to open yourselves to the rich ways in which my life is manifested in their strange and beautiful ways . . .’

Today's lections challenge us to so locate ourselves in this love of God for those beyond the circle, that we absorb God's own compassionate drive, and own it for ourselves.  There is an interesting interplay in the passages from gospel and epistle between the language of abiding in God and the language of being sent beyond the circle to ‘bear much fruit’.  The love of God is described as a love which is not self-interested or self-directed.  Rather, it is the kind of love which looks upon the other, the world of people and their sins, with compassion.  The Father sends the Son into the world to be its saviour.  Yet even there, in the mist of the smeared, bleared world of darkness, betrayal and death, even in this place so very far beyond the circle of God's presence and power, the Son yet continues to abide with the Father, and teaches his people to abide with the Father as well.  How marvellous!  Here John is teaching us that abiding in God's love is not about locking yourself in a safe place and feeling the warmth, but actually taking that safe place with you beyond the circle, into the land of the 'other' which is not safe.  

The image of the vine and the branches is instructive.  The branches of a vine can grow a very long way from their source.  They are ‘sent out’ from the source in order to be fruitful, and they cannot be fruitful unless they are sent.  Yet even in their great distance from the vine, in the act of bearing fruit, they are nevertheless connected with the vine in a vital way.  Without this connection, they will die, they will bear no fruit.  So it is with us.  God sends us out beyond the circle to bear the fruit of love and justice in a world which has ceased to believe that these are possible.  It is not safe outside the circle.  Yet it is safe.  Safe because we carry the love of God with us, and the perfect love of God is powerful.  Powerful enough to cast the fear from our hearts and disarm our enemies.  It is the power of the resurrection, which is stronger even than death.

So let us examine our lives.  Are we able to go out from the comfort and safety of our own circle of friends, and our own ways of making meaning, into the alien territory of those who need God's love most of all?  Are we able to befriend the person from a different ethnic group, with a view of the world which is harsher and less privileged than ours?  How deep is our faith?  How much do we trust in the abiding love of God - a love which promises to hold us in life, even in the midst of alien terrain?  While it is absolutely true that God ask us to do an impossible thing, God seems not to be as troubled as we are by impossibilities.  God has promised that if we stay connected to him, then he will give us the power we need to do that impossible thing.  I am certain that if we abide with God in prayer, and in the reading of the Scriptures, and in the faith and communion of the church, then we will find that God also abides with us as we risk moving out from our comfort-zones into more difficult territory.  I hope this is a lesson the Prime Minister is able to learn as well.

It is appropriate, I think, that in this age of compassion-fatigue and economic rationalism that John the Elder should have the last word:  ‘Little children, let us love not in word or speech alone, but in truth and action’.

Garry Deverell
Easter 5

Scott Morrison and speaking publicly about, and from, faith

This week the news cycle has been all aflutter about the Prime Minister speaking publicly about his faith. Some commentators have concentrated on the content of what he said and made a variety of judgments about that. Many more have expressed dismay that a Prime Minister would talk publicly about his faith in a secular country. Afterall, faith is a private matter and should be kept entirely out of the public realm of policy and the governing of the nation. Or so the argument goes.

I will not be commenting, today, on the content of what Mr Morrison said. Others far more competent that I have made some very important observations about that. Rather, I should like to contest the notion (again) that a government figure should keep their faith and their politics entirely separate.

First, there is nothing in the legal apparatus of this nation that requires a person in office to remain silent about matters of faith. The jurisprudential principle about the separation of church and state simply prohibits any particular religious group being given a structural place in government. It prohibits, in other words, the establishment of a state church which, as a church, is able to review government policy from within the parliament. The principle does not prohibit individual members of parliament, even of government, speaking about and from their faith on matters of public policy and discussion.

A second point is theological, rather than jurisprudential, in nature. The Christian is called not to separate but to integrate their faith and their public presence, work or office. For every Christian is responsible to make sure that the ethical values at the heart of Christ’s kingdom are made incarnate is how we live and work, in all that we do and say. That's the meaning of this line in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven.’

Now, of course, we should never bully or bash our way into making others believe, or live their lives, as we do. For such bullying and bashing would be a repudiation of Christ’s call to love. But we are called to bear witness, in word and deed, that we belong to Christ and really believe that the human community would flourish more beautifully and fruitfully if it paid heed to Christ’s teaching. That call is ours whether we are clergy or laity, politician or cleaner, teacher or accountant. For the citizenship of heaven requires us also to work and to agitate for justice, peace and compassionate governance here in the world of flesh and blood and community.

All of which is to say that whilst I don't agree with Scott Morrison on much at all, I applaud his willingness to integrate faith and work. In that, if on nothing else, he is being genuinely and authentically Christian.
Garry Deverell
April 24, 2021

Friday 9 April 2021

On Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann's 'Dadirri'

Colonisation is not only about the annexation of land and the removal of those who live on it. It is also about the annexation and repurposing of imagination and thought. The ‘white possessive’ (a term from Aileen Moreton-Robinson) wants to own the brains and hearts of Indigenous peoples, as well as our territories and bodies. That is why the ‘welcome’ offered to Indigenous people into white institutions, especially institutions of learning, is deeply conditional. ‘You are welcome’ means ‘You are welcome so long as you submit to our (white) knowledges, our (white) epistemologies and our (white) ontologies’. Resisting the terms of that conditional welcome is fraught with difficulty because it is offered by the dominant, controlling, culture. It is a welcome backed not only institutional power, but also by the dominating imagination that animates that power. In this context, when a white teacher says ‘listen to me’, the invitation comes with a number of unspoken corollaries: ‘ . . . because I know the objective truth . . . because your truth is inadequate to the real (white) world you must face . . . because your survival as a worthwhile contributor to (white) society depends upon your listening . . .’ and so on.

Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann’s invitation to come listen (‘dadirri’) to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is therefore deeply radical. She is not inviting (white) people into a lovely, wafty, spiritual experience with ‘nature’, for example, the kind of experience that you can also get from a (white) Buddhism that is deeply compatible with, and supportive of, (white) middle-class suburban life. She is inviting (white) people to question and relativise the very foundations of the white possessive, including its imaginative power, its epistemologies and ontologies. What Miriam-Rose means by ‘dadirri’ is a deep and sustained process of conversion, of learning and unlearning: a learning about Indigenous practices of ethical relationality with the ancestor-creators who formed the earth, with country and waterway, with animals and plants, and finally with other people; and, with that, a subsequent unlearning of (white) practises that ignore and even abuse these deeply beloved kin. 

Conversion like this will certainly never happen if Indigenous knowledges and practises continue to be seen as interesting but marginal, pretty and decorative, like a dot painting on the wall of a suburban home that is otherwise entirely european in style. Conversion only comes, I believe, when the stability and apparent ‘success’ of a particular paradigm starts to come undone. I suppose I hope that the ecological emergency that is slowly starting to penetrate (white) Western consciousness, along with the collapse and imminent implosion of (white) churchly structures and their supporting theologies, may eventually create the kind of crisis in which Christian people will eventually turn to what the world’s oldest living cultures might have to say.

Insofar as the Christian faith can be an ally in that learning and unlearning, Miriam-Rose, myself, and many others are happy to be Christian. But the Christian faith we embrace will be necessarily different from the dominant (white) ways of being Christian. Our faith remembers that Christianity arose in a colonial setting as a protest against the excesses of the Roman empire and against the Jewish leaders who collaborated with empire in their oppression of ordinary people. Our faith remembers that Jesus was a keen observer of the processes and cycles of local ecosystems, and that he counselled his hearers to attend to the lessons he observed there in the parables. Our faith remembers that Jesus blurred the difference between bread and his body, wine and his blood, all these things being, for him, a dying and a mourning by which life and joy is given anew, as much in country and ecosystem as in human community. Our faith remembers that Jesus was concerned, most of all, with the last and the least, the forgotten victims of oppressive structures and regimes. In him we see ourselves, and we hear in his message the voice of our ancestor-creators who say that life is not yet spent, that there is hope yet for a better tomorrow.

With thanks to Prof Dorothy Lee who prompted me to write something about this.
Garry Deverell

Thursday 25 March 2021

Notes toward a liturgical theology of the arts in latin tradition

Theology is an art

Theology’s engagement with the Arts is at least as old as the Bible itself. For the Bible, theology’s norm for both the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of theology, is itself an artefact, a collection of literary works created in the whirling crucible of God’s encounter with human beings. Theology not only reflects upon art, but is itself an art. The Gospels, for example, are at once the very act of making the ‘body of Christ,’ but also a subsequent act of reflection upon that making. It is important to understand that both the making and the reflection-on-making are theological acts.

Art is making 

This implies a particular definition of the arts. Following Aristotle and Heidegger, I am content to say that art is simply ‘making’ (poiēsis in Greek). That definition, I suggest, is wide enough to include the productions of technology and technical know-how (technē in Greek) along with those of painters, sculptors, writers, performers and musicians.

Human art is not creative in any primary sense 

You will have noticed that I didn’t use the word ‘creation’ or ‘creativity’ to define the artistic process. I have my reasons for that, and I’ll talk about them later in more detail. For now, let me say only this: I am in agreement with Rowan Williams and Emmanuel Lévinas, amongst others, in believing that the really new only comes into being by an act of God. What we human beings do, by contrast, is work upon, and with, a reality already given, a reality which both precedes and exceeds our intentionality. What human beings can do (and in this is their dignity) is to receive what is given gratefully, and then to discern the shape and form of its eschatological becoming, working and moulding what is given in a profoundly mystical co-operation with the creative intention of the divine Spirit. Only the Spirit knows the mind of God. By participating in the Spirit’s creative power (dunamis), we are able to become partners and co-labourers with God toward the completion of God’s artistry.

God’s art is creative in the primary sense 

God’s art, by contrast, is really new. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo expresses exactly this fact. In an act of primal hospitality, God makes room within the divine being for that which is wholly other that Godself. Similarly, in the doctrine of Christ, the Father ‘others’ himself in the Son, a Son declared to be both the word (logos) and image (ikōn) of the Father. With the arrival of this word and image something entirely new and undreamt of comes to be. It is a new being, as Tillich properly says—so new that it is ‘an event without analogy’ (Moltmann). The doctrine of the Spirit also speaks of the new: the new creation in grace by faith, the new heavens and the new earth, a new community, the new commandment, new names,
identities and futures for those baptised into Christ.

Two dominant theologies of the arts

Two theological traditions have dominated Christian thinking about the arts. Both continue to operate in our churches, seminaries, and art-circles. Please note that I am claiming that they are dominant. I am not claiming that they are absolute. Other models have operated since New Testament times, but beyond the fourth century they were rarely influential.

The first is what I would like to call the Platonic Model. Its model of reality is hierarchical and dualistic: there is the Real (a hidden God) and the unreal (the sensible world). The spiritual is of far greater value than the material. Art’s role in this model is one of representation: to represent the higher realm of the absent or unseen (God, the spiritual) in sensible ways (painting, music, drama, etc.) This model tends to be logocentric, valuing the word (and onto-theology in particular) as a more faithful representation of the spiritual than other kinds of art. The visual arts tend to be used as illustration.

In this model, representation works by analogy: the material is said to be like the spiritual, but not exactly like. Every image of the unseen world ultimately needs to be negated in favour of more accurate images. The doctrine of analogy came to dominate theological thinking in the Scholastic period, and still dominates much Roman Catholic thought today. Key writers in this tradition are Pseudo-Dionysius, Bonaventure, and Aquinas.

This model grounds the possibility of artistic representation in a natural theology. God has left his imprint in the natural world, so that even those who have not heard the specific revelation of Christ are nonetheless able to reach toward the truth. There is a ‘divine spark’ in everyone, which enables them to represent something of the spiritual realm. 

Some versions of this model are highly iconoclastic. Iconoclasm can take several forms. It can be the suspicion (but appreciation) of all art characteristic of negative theology. Or it can be the suspicion of music and visual images in particular, as with many of the Reformers. Calvin, for example, permitted only the liturgical and bodily art of preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

The second model is what I will call the Enlightenment Model. It begins, roughly, with Descarte.Its model of reality is still dualistic and hierarchical, but now human beings themselves become the ‘measure of all things’: there is the inner world of human soul and consciousness, and the outer world of things. In the modern period, there have been many pendulum swings between the two as to which is the more essential or ‘real’ reality. The overall tendency, however, has been toward the privileging of the inner world.

Art’s role in this model is still to represent, but now its primary subject is the thoughts and feelings of human beings. Both impressionism and expressionism took human subjectivity as their object. Art now becomes a psychological or cultural projection of the inner truth or spirit of a people, time or individual.

Logocentrism continued to a large extent, i.e. analytical discourse was valued over the visual and symbolic arts. In late modernity, however, there was a reversal of that hierarchy. Some of the Romantics began to believe that thought was a poor and secondary mode of representation for what they saw as the primal realities of lived experience. For them, the visual and symbolic arts were closer in being to experience, and therefore more capable of representing it’s claims. Existentialism, particularly in its French modes, took up the cause.

Analogy continued as the preferred understanding of the way in which the primary subject of art, human beings themselves, are represented. It was still understood that the spiritual was hard to represent in material terms.

This model also grounds the possibility of artistic representation in a natural theology. But now it has become a thoroughly anthropological theology. God, if he or she exists, is coextensive with the world, and particularly with the spiritual experience of human beings. The ‘divine spark’ has become the human spirit per se, which means that anyone (not only Christians and Jews) can speak, write, paint, compose or perform something of God. The theology of Don Cupit is the most frank presentation of this tendency in much contemporary theology. See, especially,What is a Story?

Iconoclasm continues to be influential in modern theological theories of art, but now it refers mainly to the capacity of artists to represent the death of God or, indeed, in late modern art, the death of the human subject. Duchamp, for example, gave up the labour of painting and sculptor in favour of hanging toilet seats on the wall. This kind of iconoclasm is supposed to be about the abyss opening under the human project now that God is dead. If God is dead, so are the moral and aesthetic values. All that is left is the conflict of arbitrary notions of taste. There can now be no ‘higher art,’ because there are no longer any transcendent criteria.

Proposals in a liturgical mode

In my view it was always a mistake to theologise about the arts beginning with a doctrine of creation. Biblically, what we may know about God is that which is revealed to us in a specific address from God, an address which comes (always) in a material and therefore bodily form. Christ is the fullness of that address. He is named, biblically, as the Word and Image of God—God’s art, in other words. In Christ, God traverses the very great distance between the divine and the human. In Christ, God reveals that it is in the very nature of God to become material and human. It is also revealed that human beings are destined to share in the divine communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In this view, there is an artwork which both precedes and exceeds us. It also infuses our very life as human beings. It is the art of God. The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the Father as the technitēs, the architect or builder of a heavenly city which is the telos or destination towards which all the saints are journeying by their faith (Heb 11.10). In a parallel passage from Ephesians, human beings are called poiēma or artefacts of God, created in Christ Jesus to do the works of good (Eph 2.10). That phrase ‘in Christ Jesus’ is crucial for my understanding of the artistic vocation of Christians (note that I do not say ‘the vocation of Christian artists’). Christians are those who are putting off the project of self-expression and self-fulfillment in favour of their formation by God into the image of Christ. Christians are those who vow themselves for deconstruction by the Spirit of Christ in their inner beings, and reconstruction after the gloriously transfigured selfhood of Christ. Christians are those who allow themselves to actually become Christ, God’s masterpiece, and so participate in all that God is making of the cosmos, which is itself traversed and held together ‘in Christ’. Christian art is that which participates, willingly and vulnerably, in this work of God’s grace, which is a work of eschatological form/ation.

You will remember I said earlier that Christ himself is a work of human art. His portraits, even in the gospel, vary according to the genius of each evangelist, do they not? Yes, but he is also an artefact whose form and meaning continually escape our genius and intention. Christ is, if you like, transcendent to our projective genius and intention. The resurrection is the strongest statement of that fact in Christian theology. As Marinanne Sawicki says, the resurrection is a genric disruption of every schema human beings might use to domesticate Christ to our ideological agendas. In that sense, Christ is indeed 'iconic'. For the icon is painted, prayerfully, by a human artist. Yet this apparently human artefact seems to become, in its making, a site of interruption by which Christ escapes our intention, returning to undo the objectifying gaze of the human eye, thus re-making that person’s subjectivity after his own inscrutable intention. 

The point about icons, as Jean-Luc Marion notes, is exactly this: that in gazing we see nothing we may objectify, but are rather fixed in the gaze of a love entirely excessive to our human capacity to know or encompass. Thus it is that human art and artifice can become the occasion by which God does the work of an artist upon the material of our human selves.

The story of the gospel, as told in the embodied form of liturgy, is the school of Christian art. It is the place and time in which we learn to form ourselves and our world in concert with the eschatological art of the Spirit. The sequence of the liturgy is incarnational and missional. Having praised God, and invoked the divine presence, we listen for the Word which will become flesh in the eucharistic celebration. In the offertory, it is our world, our cosmos, and our own bodies which we offer as the material for this embodiment. Christ becomes these things, that they, in turn, might become Christ. “Let us receive what we are, let us become what we receive: the body of Christ”. Then we are sent, in the power of the Spirit, to participate in God’s formation of the world, God’s making of justice, peace, beauty and joy. 

In the liturgy we make a story which has already made us, and in doing so we offer ourselves to be re-made anew so that we might remake our world according to the vision of God. The liturgy is, therefore, a school for artists who are also disciples. It teaches us both the purpose and form of Christian art, which is not a specialist vocation, but rather a vocation and calling that belongs to all Christians by virtue of our baptism. By participating in the liturgy, we are trained to live, labour, love and make after the way of Christ with things. It is the liturgy which teaches us to discern the becoming of the creative Spirit, and so join with Christ in treating life itself as a liturgy, a work of art in which we participate with God.

Garry Deverell

January 2004

Monday 22 February 2021

Lent and reconciliation

Jeremiah 2.1-13; Psalm 26; Mark 14.1-25

As a child I was very talkative. At the edge of the vast estates of barley, wheat and potatoes which dominated the landscape where we lived, were small stands of native bush: atop hills, on the steep slopes of mountains and along creeks. Whenever the opportunity arose, this is where I would wander. And as I wandered, I would talk. Not with myself (though many might see it that way) but with the trees and the ferns, the crows and the hawks, the wallabies and the potaroos, even the rocks and the waterfalls, that I passed on my way. I would greet them all cheerfully and enquire about what kind of day each was having. I would pause to watch and to listen a while, finally wishing each well and offering a prayer or an incantation seeking their good and their well-being. Sometimes I would tell them about me, my troubles, my hopes, my bewilderments. And I would hear their voices speaking back to me. Not in English, mind. Whatever the language, however, I understood. I heard wisdom. I heard care. I heard guidance. And, after a little while, I would return to my family, my school, and all the complex negotiations of civilised life, somehow calmed and refreshed.

As a teenager, another conversation-partner was added. The bible. I became fascinated with its characters and voices, as many and as varied as I knew in the bush, though considerably more violent. Here were people I recognised. People who suffered great injustice, whose hopes and dreams were shattered. People who coveted all that belonged to another. People who stole, raped, murdered, and committed genocide in order to obtain what belonged to another. People who were afraid, but who were able to overcome their fears through faith in God. People who were able to change their hearts and their behaviour because they believed in the mercy of God. People who carried great wounds and flaws, and yet were chosen to become God’s emissaries. These days I marvel that a book as violent and as tragic a testament to our inhumanity towards one another as ever was written, could simultaneously bear a message from and about a God of love.  But it does. On every page. For what the bible finally proclaims, surely, is just this: first, that we are loved by God, even as we fail, consistently and repeatedly, to love each other; and, second, that because God has not given up on us, it is possible not only to recognise and learn such love, and also to abide in its mysterious power more deeply and consistently. 

 So, two conversation partners, two sources of wisdom for the living of life as a trawloolway man who is also a Christian. The one located in a sacred book, a book brought to this country by the coloniser, and the other located in a sacred landscape, a landscape that is alive with the presence of ancestor-spirits who can be spoken to, and who can speak.  Both book and country, in their own ways, are sacred texts. Both, being full of divine spirit, may be consulted for wisdom and guidance, if you know how. If I have a lament, this night, it is not (as some of you may perhaps expect) that the coloniser has attended carefully to the sacred book, and not enough to sacred country. No, my lament is a tad more comprehensive than that. That the coloniser has paid little attention to either.

 Here I want to draw your attention to the second chapter of Jeremiah which says, in part:

Thus says the Lord:
I remember the devotion of your youth,
   your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
   in a land not sown.

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
   that they went far from me,
   and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
I brought you into a plentiful land
   to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
   and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who handle the law did not know me;
   the rulers transgressed against me.

Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
   be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
   for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
   and dug out cisterns for themselves,
   cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

This oracle, first uttered in the presence of the last king of Judah, is uncannily prescient about where we find ourselves, right now, as a nation and as a church. It is true, is it not, that we have forgotten the ancient ways, the ways here described as a covenant, a marriage, a communion with the divine in the wild places, a country not sown or intensively cultivated by the invader. Is it not true, as the prophet says, that upon entering this country the colonists saw the land not as a cathedral in which God might be known and worshipped, but rather as a commodity to be exploited in exchange for wealth and influence? Did not the colonists clear the land of its owners and managers, its first peoples, in a manner that fundamentally fractured the terms of God’s law and covenant? Did they not covet what belonged to their neighbours, did they not steal and rape and murder in order to obtain what they desired? Does not that theft, rape and murder still continue to this day? Is not the lament of those of us who have survived that genocide also the lament of the land itself, and the ancestor-spirits who dwell therein, and of God’s own self? Are we not the voice of the crucified one who is, at one and the same time, both Christ and country?

By commodifying this country and removing those whom the divine Spirit placed here to manage and cultivate its fruitfulness, colonists have polluted the sacred stream God provided for all of us as a gift, the stream of sacred lore designed to sustain us in life over many hundreds of millennia. Instead we have dug cisterns for ourselves, cisterns so badly designed that they can barely hold water: practices and structures and policies which have brought us to point of ecological emergency, and to the certainly, certainly I say, of a fundamental implosion in the biological operating-system of our planet.  Unless. Unless we repent of our sin. Unless we turn again to the God whose wisdom and way may be discerned in both sacred text and sacred country.

In the world of politics and public policy, this means removing the puppets of capitalism from government and replacing them with people who are willing to listen to the still, small, voice of the divine Spirit. In our church it means jettisoning all that remains of that possessive, status-hungry, exclusionary impulse in every state-sanctioned church and replacing it with the disciplines of listening, hospitality, and prophecy. For unless the voices we generally exclude, ignore and belittle are welcomed to the table, then we shall be as guilty of killing the prophets and dancing on their graves as the kings of Israel and the priests of its temple. And we shall pay for it in the end by finding ourselves at the wrong end of the Magnificat: scattered to the bottom of the food-chain, rendered empty, nothing.

All of which is to offer an invitation for you all in this season of Lent. See, I place before you the way that leads to death and the way that leads to life. If you die to your self-importance, and the self-importance of the colonial imagination, you will be empty enough for God to fill you with life.  But if you hang on to such things, you will find that you are already dead. And your deadness will continue to infect the systems and networks of which you are part, both publicly and privately. As the spiral of Lent into Easter is properly a return to the waters of baptism, to receive there, through repentance and the death of self, the risen life of Christ; so may it also be, for you, a turning to the rivers and creeks of country, through which that same God’s speaks a word of grace that will renew not only your own life, but the life of the whole planetary eco-system.

Garry Deverell
1st Sunday of Lent 2021, Christ Church South Yarra