Category Archives: theology blog

God, learned implictly

Implicit learning is the learning of complex information in an incidental manner, without awareness of what has been learned. The result of implicit learning is knowledge in the form of abstract rather than verbatim or aggregated representations.

Learning to ride a bicycle or to swim are supposed examples of the nature of implicit learning and its mechanism. Not so in my case. I had to learn to ride a bicycle very explicitly and deliberately; it took days. And I still cannot swim.

Implicit learning is believed to differ from explicit learning by the absence of consciously accessible knowledge. Brain areas involved in working memory and attention are often more active during explicit than implicit learning. That being so, I cannot recall anything of significance that I have learned implicitly except, that is, for two most important things—some (by no means all) of my use of my native language (English) and a deep conviction and confidence, since earliest childhood, that there is a God, a heavenly Father, who loves me and cares for me. I would not say that confidence came explicitly from my parents in my early years, but it was certainly implicit in their care for me. And more recently I have tested it very explicitly through theological study.

In recent findings replicated across socio-religiously disparate samples studied in the U.S. and Afghanistan, implicit learning of patterns/order within visuospatial sequences (such as the outdoors, natural environment) were found by Weinberger, et. al. 1 to be predictive of (1) stronger belief in an intervening/ordering god, and (2) increased strength-of-belief from childhood to adulthood. This is consistent with research implicating this type of implicit learning as a basis of intuition, and intuition as a basis of belief. Do observation and implicit learning of patterns within life and the natural universe, thus lead to belief in ordering gods?

1. Adam B. Weinberger, Natalie M. Gallagher, Zachary J. Warren, Gwendolyn A. English, Fathali M. Moghaddam and Adam E. Green, “Implicit pattern learning predicts individual differences in belief in God in the United States and Afghanistan,” Nature Communications 11, 4503 (2020), doi:10.1038/s41467-020-18362-3]

Covid and hope

Christians are people of hope—hope in the resurrection life of Christ. I find that especially challenging at the moment.

Humans simply do not know how to manage viable societies in which people stay two metres apart except for couples and their dependents. It will take years to figure out if it is possible at all, at huge cost in life and livelihood. In the meantime, there are deaths and suffering. That is just how it is.

Even if a vaccine is found and can be manufactured in quantity, it will take years for the whole world to be immunized—unless there is a radical increase in political freedom and international generosity.

The consequence may be a significant drop in population, whether from disease or simply because fewer people make babies. That is what happened with the plague in Europe and Asia centuries ago; the Black Death resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. There were repeated outbreaks for centuries. Although we now have better care systems, they are seriously overtaxed. It is mindless arrogance to suppose we are exempt from pain and loss.

We look, therefore, for a hope that gathers up and surpasses human suffering and tragedy.

“It is not your duty to finish the work”

“It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

This saying does the rounds regularly on Facebook. It is a helpful thought for me as I try to plot my future as a theologian. But it peeves me when sources are not cited. So I dug it out.

It is a saying of Rabbi Tarfon, from Pirkei Avot, 2:16. Many Jews would know this, I discover, as Pirkei Avot is much used. it was composed in Talmudic Israel (c.190-230 CE) and its first two chapters trace the transmission of the Torah from Sinai down through history. Thus the rabbis of the Mishnah define themselves as the possessors of the authentic tradition. The aphorisms of Pirkei Avot include everyday ethics, advice to the wise, and sayings about the relationship between God and humanity.

רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַיּוֹם קָצָר וְהַמְּלָאכָה מְרֻבָּה, וְהַפּוֹעֲלִים עֲצֵלִים, וְהַשָּׂכָר הַרְבֵּה, וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת דּוֹחֵק:

Rabbi Tarfon said: the day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the laborers are indolent, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent.

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. אִם לָמַדְתָּ תוֹרָה הַרְבֵּה, נוֹתְנִים לְךָ שָׂכָר הַרְבֵּה. וְנֶאֱמָן הוּא בַעַל מְלַאכְתְּךָ שֶׁיְּשַׁלֵּם לְךָ שְׂכַר פְּעֻלָּתֶךָ. וְדַע מַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים לֶעָתִיד לָבֹא:

He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it; If you have studied much Torah, you shall be given much reward. Faithful is your employer to pay you the reward of your labour; And know that the grant of reward unto the righteous is in the age to come.

Abortive vaccines?

vaccine There is controversy in Australia and elsewhere about the ethics of using so-called “immortalized cell lines” in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine, principally because those cell-lines may be derived from cells from foetuses that were electively aborted decades ago.

It’s not simple. This article does a good job of sorting the bull from the wool. (Bethany Brookshire, “How making a COVID-19 vaccine confronts thorny ethical issues,” Science News, 7 July 2020.) It would be disastrous if public acceptance of a vaccine waned simply because people perceived it to be controversial without understanding the admittedly complex issues.

My hope is that scientists, public officials, church leaders and ethicists would come together to discuss (not debate) the questions in the search for an answer that advances the common good. Reasoning together will better serve the common good than beating one another over the head with science on the one hand and religion on the other.

Of course, there are some who would say that the common good simply cannot exist in defiance of what they understand to be the moral will of God. Others dismiss such concerns as irrelevant.

A motto?

“I have only time for eternity.” Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (San Diego: Harcourt, 1953), 120.
A goodly candidate as a motto.

Thanks for Rowan

Rowan Williams

It’s good to be grateful for one’s elders and teachers. The 14th of June 2020 is the 70th birthday of Rowan Williams — The Rt Rev. and the Rt Hon. Professor Rowan Douglas Williams, Baron Williams of Oystermouth, PC, DPhil, FBA, FRSL, FLSW. His writing and ideas have been my constant companion for nearly twenty years and will be food for study and prayer for the rest of my life. [Photo credit: The Times]

An Agenda for Joy

My PhD is done, and my degree was conferred yesterday. My thesis, “An Agenda for Joy: Rowan Williams’s Theology of Conflict, Unity, and Solidarity,” is available from Charles Sturt University’s open access portal at https://researchoutput.csu.edu.au/en/publications/an-agenda-for-joy-rowan-williamss-theology-of-conflict-unity-and-.

TestamurMy study seeks a theological understanding of disagreement and conflict in church and society through a reading of the work of Rowan Williams. Williams’s theology of church and his understanding of its unity are closely interrelated. The church itself and its unity are God’s gift. Williams argues that conflict and unity are not opposed but are essential parts of the struggle for mutual recognition and solidarity. Thus I propose solidarity as a category through which to understand the oneness of the church and its relationship with society. According to Williams, God creates and sustains a universe of immeasurable difference within itself. Williams employs Gillian Rose’s reading of Hegel to introduce a metaphysical understanding of such difference and our response to it. The communal work of truth-seeking requires unavoidable negotiation, self-dispossession and loss, without which there may be tragic misrecognition of our interests and those of others. I critically examine situations of conflict that exemplify and test Williams’s theology. Looking beyond the church, I then explore Williams’s theologically grounded proposals for solidarity in a pluralist society oriented towards the common good.

I am immensely grateful to those who have helped me achieve this happy outcome. My supervisor, Dr Benjamin Myers, gave unfailing wisdom, enthusiasm and valued friendship. I was helped by Ben’s careful perception of what I have been on about and workable ways to get there. He challenged me with penetrating questions and exposed muddled language and thinking.

My closest teacher and friend is my husband, James Kim, to whom I have dedicated this work. His love, courage, and care made it possible.

Years ago, my undergraduate mentor, Dr Graeme Garrett, told me that the greatest value of a doctoral project in theology would be whatever it did within the depths of my own soul. So it has been. Thus, in his doctoral thesis, Rowan Williams wrote of Vladimir Lossky’s insistence that “to do theology is to engage in an exploration of one’s personal encounter with God in silence.” I also echo Williams’s submission that “anything of value in the pages that follow belongs not to me but to the catholic communion of minds in Christ, mediated to me by my teachers and friends.”1 Without that, I would not have undertaken this study.
. . . . .

  1. Rowan Williams, “The Theology of Vladimir Nikolaievich Lossky: An Exposition and Critique” (DPhil. thesis, University of Oxford, 1975), xi.

Prayers in the bushfire crisis

Circulated by the Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.

A prayer written by the Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral. The Very Reverend Kanishka Raffel.

Lord of all days and years, and time and eternity, You made this land and have blessed us with its riches and beauty. You are a refuge to all who seek your shelter, our strong defence in trial and tribulation.
Send rain we pray to extinguish flames and heal our land. Mercifully protect life and property. Give help and hope to our neighbours assailed by fire. Comfort and provide for those who grieve. Uphold those who suffer loss, Give peace and hope to those bewildered and broken-hearted.
We thank you for men and women of courage and selflessness. We thank you for brave communities of care and support, We thank you for those who share your comfort and hope, We thank you for those at a distance giving and praying.
Lord, you sent your Son so that we would know your power to save, your presence with your people in this world of turmoil, and your promise to renew the whole creation. Turn our hearts to you, that we may have faith for this day and hope for eternity. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Intercessions prepared by the Dean of St Saviour’s Cathedral, The Very Reverend Phillip Saunders

At this time of bushfire emergency in Australia we cry out to God calling on his mercy, saying, Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We pray for those whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed in the bushfires. When they are weighed down by grief and loss, uphold them in your love. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We pray for those have lost loved ones in the fires and the families of fire fighters who have given their lives for others. Surround them with supportive family and communities to comfort them. Give them the assurance of your constant care. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We pray for emergency workers, volunteers, and chaplains who are giving their time and resources so freely, and who often feel overwhelmed and depleted of energy by the demands of these extreme circumstances. Grant them renewed strength and hope. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We pray for the work of Anglicare and other caring agencies as they strive to meet the immediate needs of those affected by the fires. For our church, that we may respond effectively to the crisis giving generously and compassionately. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We pray for our bishop Mark, Archdeacon Carol and church leaders in fire ravaged areas. Give them wisdom and energy they need to respond with the love of Christ. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We pray for the leaders of our nation. Give them a desire to lead us in this time of crisis with integrity and compassion and to make available the resources necessary to respond effectively. Give them the desire to work to restore balance in our environment. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Heavenly Father, the magnitude of this emergency overwhelms us. Remind us of the One we follow, who suffered and died for us and rose to bring us new life. Bring new life and hope in this dire situation. Bring rain, restore your creation and heal our land. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

A prayer request from The Reverend Doug Newman, Rector of Bateman’s Bay Parish

Pray that as a faith community we can exhibit the peace of Christ in these very challenging and anxiety causing times. That we can care for those who God gives us the opportunity to serve with love, grace and patience. Give thanks for the love of God that we have experienced, continue to experience and have seen as we walk among the community in these days of challenge.

Vocation

“By and large a good rule for finding out is this: the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. … The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. ” — Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. Revd and expanded edn. (Harper One, 1993), 118–19.