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Preaching in the 'absence' of God

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 22 April 2014


Every Sunday thousands of sermons are preached in various Christian denominations all across the country. They may be off the cuff efforts or the product of a weeks biblical research and concentrated writing. This represents a significant artistic and scholarly output, Sunday after Sunday. Yet, while every shallow artistic expression of the latest artist determined to make his or her mark on the world is celebrated, this vast creative work, some admittedly shallow and ordinary but also some deeply expressed, goes entirely unreported. It is as if it does not exist, such is our general indifference.

There was a time when great books of sermons were treasured. We have the sermons of Augustine of Hippo (died 28th August 430). The invention of the printing press brought forth large collections that were available to a wider readership. Preachers who write their sermons still preserve them. They exist on thousands of hard drives and may be distributed at the click of a mouse. But by and large they are heard by a congregation and are never to be read or heard of again.

When the inevitable question comes as to how one earns a living how many of the ordained answer; "I am a preacher"? Yet preaching is central to ordained ministry. It is widely recognised that preaching represents the actual Word of God that goes forth into the world to create a new reality. Just as in the Priestly account of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis God speaks and it comes to be, and in the gospel of John Jesus is described as the Word of God made flesh that initiated a new creation, so when the preacher preaches this same Word is understood to be present and its creative power undiminished. Indeed, it can be said that the hearing of this Word is essential for life, and without it we plunge into the abyss of non-being.

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This means that preaching is no light thing and cannot be reduced to moralising or helpful hints about living. It is central to the life of the Church and to the new life that finds its expression in the Church. So why, in our time, is preaching almost universally ignored?

It is an almost universal decision in our society that preaching holds no promise. "Spirituality" is something we do in order to satisfy the urge for the transcendent and listening to sermons finds no place in it. Surely here we are at the heart of the crisis of Christianity in our time. Fewer and fewer people are listening.

If you wish to understand why this is so then reading a new book by the Reverend Bruce Barber will set you on the path. Bruce is a Uniting Church minister and self-confessed preacher. He has taught systematic theology and preaching at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne for more than twenty years. The title is a reference to Nietzsche's Parable of the Madman from "The Gay Science" of 1887 in which a madman lit a lantern at noon and ran to the marketplace crying that he was looking for God. The parable announces the death of God under the auspices of the Modern age.

Bruce's analysis is genealogical in that he traces the changes that have occurred in Christian theology from the early Church to the Medieval to the Modern and, for the lack of a better term, the post-Modern. This does not mean that there are no people who now understand theology in the mode of the preceding eras, but it does point to a succession in which theologies out last their usefulness. For example it is generally recognised, but not by everyone, that Augustine's Platonism was a problem, or that the Medieval obsession with the destiny of the dead got in the way of the gospel as grace. Similarly, Descartes' grounding of epistemology on self-existent thought produced a turn to the self that tended to displace all other authority, including that of the Church and Kant's reduction of Christianity to morality removed its existential orientation.

This genealogy of ideas goes some way towards explaining why in our day of the Modern-post-Modern cusp preaching has become largely unintelligible and alienated from general discourse. Preaching does not find a place in our time in which the material world is very much at the centre of our attention and usefulness the overall criterion. While the preaching of the charismatic success churches emphasis practical outcomes both in wealth and happiness, authentic preaching seems abstract and as useless as a corpse nailed to two pieces of wood. Listening to preaching requires an aptitude for assimilating paradox, irony, drama, poetry and a sense of history, all of which are being displaced by our increasingly technologized society.

But this is by no means the sum of it. As Nietzsche's Parable of the Madman indicates, the modern age is one in which God dies at our own hands. Certainly in Protestantism in the sixteenth century, God became just an extended part of the world and existed as an explanation. Even in Descartes God was used as the ultimate prop for logical thought. The ascendance of natural theology on the back of natural science resulted in a god who existed as an extended thinking substance (contra Descartes), the universe being his "sensorium". Such a god produced scepticism and finally unbelief. It is the tragedy of our times that this impossible God still holds a place in the hearts and minds of Christians both lay and ordained and, of course, in the minds of atheists. In other words, the Church of our time exists largely under the predicates of the Modern in which God has become impossible. It is not then surprising that our society at large have turned away from the Church and the very idea of preaching.

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When this god, named theologically as Monarchical Monotheism, is chased out of the world by natural science there is no basis for understanding preaching as the entry into the world of the Word of God as an extension of the incarnation. Preaching loses transcendence and becomes ordinary speech, the speech of the world. It is no secret that this god, who is an idol of our own making, must be replaced by the God who is three in one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in order for preaching to again become the Word of God.

Having affirmed the death of god under the program of modernity, the question becomes, how may preaching go about its business in the absence of this god? Firstly, it is necessary to clear up some basic mistakes about how preaching works. For example, the gospel is its own illustration. To include illustrations drawn from the world is exactly the wrong way around. It is the gospel that illuminates the world for what it is, not the other way around. The positivism of modernity that insists above all that facts are more important that metaphor is to be abandoned. The gospel speaks in parables, in metaphors, it is not concerned about whether something happened or not. Biblical research that is done in preparation for preaching should be left in the study. A sermon is a distillation of Kerygma, not a bible study. Its aim is to produce an encounter with the creative Word of God so that a new thing comes to be.

By far the greatest part of the book is devoted to 28 sermons preached at various locations between 2002 and 2010. The sermons are examples of preaching freed from the crippling necessities of modernity. Evidence for factual events is absent as is the universalist god that is founded on such facts. The sermons consist, instead, of connections between the metaphorical. For example, in a sermon at the beginning of Lent we find:

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This is a book review of Lanterns at Dusk: Preaching after Modernity, Bruce Barber. (United Academic Press)



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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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