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Gunton on the Image of God and the Environment

November 12, 2009

Phil Jackson left a great comment on my Environmentalism post earlier this month:

 I want Christianity to be sustainable without need for extra biblical imperatives, to contain within itself such self-limiting principles as would moderate population, carbon, water, energy by it own understanding of ecology, economy and ecclesiology…

I was reminded of that when reading Colin Gunton’s essay on “The Human Creation” in his The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991). In dealing with the “image of God” in humanity he takes a ‘personal’ reading, building on the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, and argues that the image of God in humanity is not to be thought of as rationality or anything belonging only to the interior mental world, and touches upon the implication of this for human relation to the nonpersonal creation. It’s fairly involved, but worth it:

The merit of the approach to anthropology by means of the concept of person is that it relativizes so many inherited dualisms. Relations are of the whole person, not of minds or bodies alone, so that from all those created in the image of God there is something to be received, and to them something to be given. When the image is located in reason, or for that matter in any internal qualification like consciousness, problems like those of ‘other minds’ are unavoidable. The person as a being in relation is one whose materiality is in no way ontologically problematic, whatever problems derive from the way in which we relate in actual fact to others.
The contention that our realising of the image of God embraces our embodiedness as much as our intellect and our ‘spirituality’ leads into the further point that we are not human apart from our relation with the non-personal world. Much current misuse of the creation, with its attendant ecological disasters, derives from a lack of realisation of human community with the world. It is not the same kind of community, that of equals, as that with which we were concerned when speaking of the community of persons. But it is a fact that we receive much of what we are from the world in which we are set and from whose dust we come. It is the context within which we become persons, and it too, is in a kind of community with us, being promised a share in the final reconciliation of all things. Although it is not itself personal, the non-human creation is bound up with that of the human, and depends upon us for its destiny. It is not something which we stand over against in the sense that it is at our arbitrary disposal, as ‘technocracy’ assumes. It is rather, to use Polanyi’s metaphor, the reality which we indwell bodily, intellectually and spiritually. Here, being in the image of God has something to do with the human responsibility to offer the creation, perfected, back to its creator as a perfect sacrifice of praise. It is here that are to be found the elements of truth in the claims that the image of God is to be found in the human stewardship of the creation.
(pp.117-118)

I think that a lot of this is helpful in looking for the grounds of a Christian involvement in and attitude to the rest of creation. The planet, the plants, animals, seas, rivers, clouds, mountains and valleys matter and are in a kind of relationship with us. This isn’t to personalise creation in a Gaia-theory kind of way, but rather to recognise our relatedness to the rest of creation and our responsibility to care for it. We indwell creation and depend upon it, just as it depends upon us and is bound up with humanity and our personal relating to the personal, trinitarian God. There is an asymmetry to this relationship as the environment is not personal, but there is not such a sharp dividing line between humanity and the non-personal creation as we sometimes imagine.

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Lunchbar: Why trust the Bible?

November 9, 2009

Lunchbar last Friday at Nottingham University Christian Union was on the question “Why trust the Bible?” As our speaker pointed out, this is not only an academic question, but one of huge personal significance, and a really important question for anyone exploring or trying to understand the Christian faith.

What our speaker wanted to put forward was the contention that the Bible is what it says it is – that is, that the biblical writers were not mistaken when they said things like:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”
2Timothy 3:16

“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
2Peter 1:20-21

The Bible itself claims to be divine revelation and not human ideas about religion. But this is very different to the common perception of the Bible as irrelevant, contradictory and full of fairy tales. Is this correct?

In 1999, over 60 million Bibles, 90 million New Testaments and 1.5 billion parts of the Bible were printed – in 1999 it was the world’s most printed book. Apparently, in one year in the previous decade, this was not the case for the first time ever – and the IKEA catalogue actually had more copies printed. But few people would turn up to a talk and question and answer session on “Can we trust the IKEA catalogue?” – certainly not as many as came to the talk on the Bible, because the Bible is also important because of its content and the scope of its claims. It makes claims about the very nature of reality itself, and about the world we live in, and about how to know God, and about the future. So the question of what we do with the Bible is not an abstract one, but something really important. If the Bible isn’t trustworthy, we shouldn’t believe it – and if it is trustworthy, we should not only assent to its truth but also stake our whole lives on it being true. It’s that important.

So we’ve seen that the Bible itself claims to be divine revelation and trustworthy. But are there any other reasons that might help us trust that it is what it says it is?

  • There’s the whole scale of the Bible – written over many centuries by over 40 authors, but with a coherent storyline and a likeness and affinity between the individual books that make up the Bible. Individual books are distinct, but yet they have a wholeness and closeness to each other that you wouldn’t get, for example, by going to the “Philosophy” or “Religion” section in a bookstore and picking the first 66 books you found there.
  • There’s the historical rootedness and reliability of much of the Bible. A lot of the Bible is narrative, about people and events that are found in history – many of which can be known about from nonbiblical sources. These accounts are not like fairy stories at all, but check out historically.
  • There’s the matter of fulfilled prophecies – for example, the Old Testament prophecies which are undeniably more ancient than their fulfillment – many of these concern events in the life of Jesus.
  • There’s the huge influence the Bible and its message have – transforming people, societies and whole nations.
  • There’s the realisticness of the Bible. It doesn’t present a wholly flattering picture of its characters – even the ones it praises. The biblical writers are honest about the failures of even people said to be close to God: Jacob is the father of Israel, but Israelite writers call him a deceiver; David was Israel’s greatest King, but his adultery and conspiracy to murder are recorded; Jesus’ disciples stand behind the New Testament gospels which show them to be dull-witted and faithless, abandoning Jesus as he is arrested and killed. The Bible’s claim about human nature and sinfulness is also realistic. It tells us about a world that is true to life and readily recognizable.
  • The textual transmission of the Bible is reliable – that is, we can be confident that what we have now is essentially what was originally written. For the New Testament, particularly, the manuscript evidence enables us to be very confident. For the Old Testament Hebrew text, we know that the ancient scribal copying processes were rigorous and accurate, as witnessed to by the surprisingly small amount of difference between the Hebrew text as found in a modern critical edition and the Hebrew texts of Old Testament documents found among the “Dead Sea Scrolls” at Qumran.

This is a kind of “balance-of-evidence” argument, and none of these are knock-down arguments proving the Bible is the reliable and trustworthy word of God. But they are enough to convince many millions of people that the Bible is trustworthy. And perhaps they are enough to convince us to take it seriously and take its message about Jesus seriously.

These kinds of evidence don’t, however, prove our main contention: that the Bible is what it says it is. This is a circular argument – but then so too are all epistemologies (“Reason is the ultimate arbiter because it seems reasonable to me for it to be so”; “There is no ultimate authority because I do not know of any”) – so it is not “special pleading” but rather a case of which claim to authority we accept. The Christian’s claim that the Bible is authoritative revelation of God is, however, one that works – though that can perhaps only be seen by people who try it out.

University Challenge

August 3, 2009

This evening I was on an episode of University Challenge, representing the University of Nottingham. I’m a big fan of quizzes, and so getting a chance to appear on the great-granddaddy of all TV quizzes was not to be passed up! It was a close match against Girton College, Cambridge, and after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, we lost 145-180. I like to think that we gave them a good enough match to not besmirch our fair university’s reputation, and loved Jeremy Paxman’s little comment at the end: “Nottingham, I would have thought you’d have done a bit better than that”. Never mind. It was a great experience, and a lot of fun. In the UK, the episode is available to watch until next Monday evening on the BBC iPlayer.parrot