23 July 2013

Radical Christianity: property is theft

I imagine most people in (post)modern capitalist Western societies think the phrase ‘property is theft’ is a Marxist sentiment. In fact, the phrase was coined by the nineteenth-century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Marx was critical of the idea on the grounds that the concept of theft entails a concept of property and therefore ‘property is theft’ is self-refuting.

The phrase may come from a nineteenth-century anarchist, but the underlying sentiment is much older and has been recognized as a core part of Christian social teaching by some of the greatest Christian theologians. Thus, speaking of giving to the poor, Ambrose could say:
You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.
Drawing on this, Thomas Aquinas argued that anything we possess above and beyond what is necessary to satisfy our reasonable needs ‘is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance’ (Summa theologiae II-II.q66.a7). Indeed, Aquinas goes even further:
It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need. (ibid.)
Putting that in twenty-first century terms, it is not theft when someone goes shoplifting to feed their children. Nor (contra agri-businesses like Monsanto) is it theft when a third-world farmer saves and re-plants seeds from a GM crop.

This piece of traditional Christian teaching puts Francis of Assisi in a rather different light. Modern biographies often present his persistent giving away of possessions to the poor as a (possibly eccentric and certainly unusual) virtue. And contemporary works on Christian spirituality often treat such simplicity/self-imposed poverty as something most of us can only aspire to. But, from the perspective of Ambrose and Aquinas and most theologians before the modern (capitalist?) era, Francis was simply doing his duty as a Christian.

I don’t know about you, but I find that scary. I call myself a Christian (and a Franciscan), but perhaps in light of the above that means I need to listen more literally when Jesus says to the rich young man, ‘go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ (Matt 19:21, NRSV).

22 July 2013

God of love or God of wrath?

Several things have conspired to make me think a little about the wrath of God recently:

  • I am currently learning the tenor part of Mendelssohn’s Elijah for a performance in October., and one of Elijah’s arias, ‘Is not his word like a fire?' contains the very insistent and scarily memorable lines 'For God is angry, angry with the wicked ev’ry day’.
  • From time to time I drop in on Louis Kinsey’s blog, Coffee with Louis. Recently he asked the question ‘“Sometimes God gets Grumpy” Doesn’t He?’ [The short answer is ‘no’, grumpy is not a word that can appropriately be used of God.]
  • And while reading through a couple of psalms the other day I was struck by: ‘They provoked him to anger with their evil deeds’ (Psalm 106:29).

One of the perennial challenges for Christians is reconciling what the Bible has to say about the wrath of God with what it has to say about the love of God (e.g. ‘God is love’, 1 John 4:8). Are we sinners in the hands of an angry God? Or sinners in the hands of the God who is absolute love?

I think the way forward is precisely to emphasize that God is absolute love. Implicit in such an assertion is an assertion of the holiness of God. A God understood as absolute love is quiet simply incommensurable with evil. God and evil cannot coexist. And I read the Bible’s talk of God’s anger as a vivid way of expressing this ontological intolerance of evil. God and evil cannot mix. If God is love, for God to tolerate evil would be for God to cease to be God.

20 July 2013

Current research interests

I started writing this blog entry about a week ago. When I started, the idea was to say something about my current theological research interests and writing projects. The point of the exercise was to make me focus. Otherwise, I am liable to flit like a butterfly from one interesting subject to another without stopping to do anything worthwhile.

Here’s the list I started with:

  • Franciscan spirituality
  • Environmental theology
  • Relational understandings of the Trinity
  • Duns Scotus
  • Physical science and theology
  • Violence and religion
Faced with that list, I had to admit to myself that I no longer have the energy and I certainly don’t have the time to pursue more than half a dozen parallel lines of research. I need to concentrate my energies on just one. And that one has to be Franciscan spirituality, partly because the Franciscan movement has been an important part of my life for over twenty years and partly because a project on Franciscan spirituality (and the associated theology) should also embrace significant aspects of most of my other interests.


A lot has been written on Francis and the Franciscans in recent years (and the new Pope’s adoption of the name Francis I means there is likely to be no let up in such publications), so why waste time going over such well-trodden territory? What (I hope) will make my contribution distinctive are the following:
  • a focus on the relevance of Franciscan spirituality for Christian life in a postmodern culture;
  • and a recognition that the Franciscan movement is much bigger than Francis (or even Francis and Clare); so I shall be paying more attention to some of the later shapers of Franciscan thought, prayer and action.

And just how will I work my other interests into a project on Franciscan spirituality?
  • Environmental theology: I began my theological research here, and it was my interest in this that first led to me exploring the Franciscan movement. In fact, it is almost a cliché to associate Francis and Franciscans with environmental concern. I need to revise my early research and publications, which were strongly informed by a stewardship/earthkeeping ethic, in light of the deep sense of relatedness to the rest of creation that one finds in Francis (and to a lesser extent the early Franciscans).
  • Relational view of the Trinity (sometimes misleadingly called the social view of the Trinity): Thanks to Colin Gunton, this approach to the Trinity underpinned my original research on environmental theology. Since Colin’s death it seems to have become rather unfashionable in British theology, which I think is a pity. As for connecting it with Franciscan spirituality, Franciscan approaches to spirituality have usually been strongly Trinitarian, and somehow a relational approach seems more appropriate in this context. (There is also the fact that Colin thought that the theology of Duns Scotus had important things to say regarding both the Trinity and creation.)
  • Duns Scotus: Since I want to broaden my approach to Franciscan spirituality beyond the usual tight focus on Francis and Clare, the most significant theologian of the Franciscan movement seems a natural person to get to know better.
  • Science and theology: Another perennial interest of mine. And how does it relate to Franciscan spirituality? I think it is very significant that it was the Franciscans who were largely responsible for the explosion of interest in natural philosophy in the thirteenth century. More specifically, it has sometimes been suggested that Duns Scotus’s approach to metaphysics played an important role in laying the foundations for the development of modern Western science.
  • Violence and religion: Another of my long-standing concerns has been the perversion of religion into abusive and violent forms. This is the very antithesis of the Franciscan ethos: Franciscans are called to be peacemakers. But what does it mean to be a peacemaker in a culture that seems to be wedded to the myth of redemptive violence? And how do we make peace across ethnic and religious divides when the powers that be in our own societies are bent on responding with violence (e.g. the ‘war on terror’)?

12 July 2013

No longer linked in

People keep telling me that to market my editing and writing effectively I need to be actively involved in social networking website like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Twitter has never attracted me; I abandoned Facebook because of privacy (and copyright) concerns.

Now my experiment with LinkedIn has come to an end: I closed my account last week after I started receiving messages from complete strangers saying that they had accepted my invitation to link with me. It did occur to me that perhaps LinkedIn was automatically extracting email addresses from my gmail account and sending out invitations on my behalf. But I checked the latest example – someone from Dublin who works in telecommunications – no sign of her email address anywhere in my gmail account!