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  • Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
Download a few chapters of the book here.
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Entries in public theology (36)

Friday
Oct062017

Graduating with a 2nd PHD in Holland - the possibility of the (im)possibility of forgiveness!

I am so grateful to be traveling to the Netherlands tomorrow (with my wife Megan!) to graduate with my 2nd PHD at Radboud University, Nijmegen in Holland.

The graduation ceremony (and defence) will take place at 16.30 on Wednesday 11 October 2017 - if you read this beforehand you can watch the ceremony online via this link.

I started my research at Radboud University in December 2013. I worked on the project, and spent some wonderful months, at Radboud University between then and May 2017 when I completed the manuscript / dissertation. You can read all of my posts from Radboud and about this research (in reverse order!) via this link.

The research project is entitled:

The (im)possibility of forgiveness? An empirical intercultural Bible reading Matthew 18:15-39.(Click the title to read an excerpt from the book and see the table of contents).

In Holland it is required that the dissertation is published as a book. It has been published by African SUN Media in the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology series on public theology.

Here is the full reference:

Forster, D.A. 2017. The (im)possibility of forgiveness? An empirical intercultural Bible reading of Matthew 18:15-35. 1st ed. Vol. XI. (Beyers Naudé Centre Series on Public Theology). Stellenbosch, South Africa: SUN Press.

 

You can read the abstract below, and see copies of the cover of the book and the commendations in the attached images. If you would like to purchase a copy you can do so via African SUN Media.

I have some sections of the book under review for publication, and have already published the following article which is a shortened section of the Biblical exegetical component of the study:

 

Forster, D.A. 2017. A public theological approach to the (im) possibility of forgiveness in Matthew 18.15-35: Reading the text through the lens of integral theory. In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi. 51(3):1–10.
In this article I also discuss (in summary) the other theoretical component of my study - namely integral All Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) theory.

 

 

I made one or two short videos of some of the central concepts (see the bottom of this post for a discussion of the empirical qualitative aspects of the study, and a discussion of one of the primary theoretical components).

I am truly grateful to my promoters, Prof dr dr Jan van der Watt and Prof dr Chris Hermans. They were encouraging, supportive, and wonderful guides along the journey. I learned so much and I am so grateful for the findings of the research and the fruit that it will bear for the participating communities.

Here is a video I recorded at my home University (Stellenbosch University) where I discuss how I worked with the participants to gather and analyse the theological (qualitative empirical) data on forgiveness.

In this video (recorded in Nijmegen at Radboud University) I discuss one of the primary theories that I used in the study, namely inter-group contact theory.

Here is the abstract from the dissertation:

This project engages the complexity of understandings of forgiveness in Matthew 18.15-35 within the context of an intercultural Bible reading process. The study shows that concepts of forgiveness among South African Bible readers are diverse, containing nuanced, and even conflicting, expressions and expectations - a politics of forgiveness. Some have suggested since such entrenched differences in understandings of forgiveness exist in South Africa, that forgiveness may be impossible. However, in spite of this complexity it is suggested that South Africans, and South Africa, could benefit from a rigorous academic engagement with the theologically and culturally diverse understandings of forgiveness that emerge from reading Matthew 18.15-35 in an intercultural Bible reading setting. The knowledge gained from this study may help persons from diverse histories, cultural identities, racial identities, and economic classes, to gain more integral, shared, understandings of forgiveness. In this sense, at least, the possibility of forgiveness may emerge. 

Considering the above, the aim of this study is to produce rigorous, textured, and credible theological insight into the complexity of differing understandings of forgiveness in Matthew 18.15-35 from 'ordinary' Bible readers of different cultures who are members of the same Christian denomination - the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, Helderberg Circuit. This is achieved through structuring the study as a practice oriented research project in empirical intercultural Biblical hermeneutics.

Three theories informed the research design. First, Ken Wilber’s All Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) integral theory is used as a philosophical framework that provides language and structure to ‘plot’ the theological understandings of forgiveness in the text, and in the reading of the text. Second, intergroup contact theory is used to identify the mechanisms and processes for positive intergroup contact that inform the intercultural Bible reading sessions. Third, the Biblical text is engaged in a scholarly exegetical process so as to avoid collapsing the thought world of the text into the contemporary context. This is a critical aspect of a credible engagement with the Biblical text. This process allows for the construction of a hermeneutic bridge to link aspects of the text to aspects of the interpretive insights of the contemporary readers engaged in this study.

As anticipated, the findings of the research process agreed with some aspects of the research hypotheses and varied from others. The findings of the post intervention research data and analysis shows that to a large extent (except for minor variations which are discussed in the study) the participants of the intercultural Bible reading intervention developed more integral understandings of forgiveness. This means that participants were far more open to accepting understandings of forgiveness that were not held within their in-group, but were more common among members of the out-group.

The primary conclusion of this study is that more integral theological understandings of forgiveness are evidenced among the majority participants in this intercultural Bible reading process which was conducted under the conditions of positive intergroup contact. Moreover, this study shows that one can give credible empirical content to, and explicate, the theological perspectives, and the hermeneutic informants, of readers of the Biblical text. This helps the ‘problem owner’, (i.e., the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, Helderberg Circuit), to understand what some of the barriers to shared understandings of forgiveness may be. Moreover, it allows for the design of intercultural Bible reading interventions under the conditions of positive intergroup contact. The data shows that in this case, the participants of this study mostly became more open to a more integral theological understanding of forgiveness with the ‘other’.

This project makes the following novel contributions to scholarly knowledge and the construction of theory: In New Testament studies the research contributes towards a number of new hermeneutic opportunities that arise from reading the Biblical text from a social identity complexity perspective (informed by Ken Wilber’s integral AQAL theory). Moreover, in relation to intercultural Bible reading, the project provides new insights into how persons who hold different socially informed views of forgiveness may encounter one another constructively under the conditions of positive intergroup contact. In terms of empirical cultural Biblical hermeneutics this study is the first of its kind to provide insights into how Black and White South African Christians understand the concepts and processes of forgiveness in relation to Matthew 18.15-35. The findings show that there is a logic behind the socially informed theological understandings of forgiveness that are expressed by the participants. This holds value not only for Biblical Studies, but also for Systematic Theology in general, and South African Public Theology in particular. Then, from a methodological point of view, the interdisciplinarity of the theoretical approach that is employed in this research stimulates new avenues for scholarly theological study in relation to problems in practice.

Thanks for checking in and sharing in my joy! I appreciate it.

Tuesday
Aug012017

Religion and Public Life across the world? A week of teaching at Cambridge University

It has been almost two weeks since I returned from Cambridge. I had the privilege of teaching on a Doctor of Ministry course at Wesley House, Cambridge University. This particular degree is co-hosted by Wesley House and Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. My senior colleague, and friend, Prof Bruce Birch (the Dean of Wesley Seminary) had invited me to teach on the course. It was such a wonderful blessing to be able to visit Wesley House again. I have been a friend of the Principal of Wesley House, Dr Jane Leach, for more than a decade.

You can find out more about this magnificent doctoral course at this link - I can highly recommend it for anyone who desires to engage in relevant, critical, theological study that will make a contribution in Church, society and academy.

The 'cohort' of students that I had the joy of spending a week with were amazing. It was a diverse group of academics from all across the world (18 in total, one colleague from Liberia could not get a visa). Each of them had a particular connection to the Church and was seeking to develop as both a theological and ministry leader to better serve in their context. The class discussions were deeply challenging, lively, and of an extremely high level. I was so impressed by the persons, their experience, knowledge and preparation for the course.

The week on which I taught aimed to bring together an understanding of Christianity as an historically 'glo-cal' phenomenon i.e., a faith that is globally oriented, yet locally contextualised. During the week we considered a number of aspects of the history, theology, geography, culture and demography of different Christianities across the world and across history.

We read Kim, S. & Kim, K. 2016. Christianity as a World Religion: An Introduction. London: Bloomsbury Academic. It is a wonderful 'survey' text that traces the development of contextual expressions of Christianity across the continents of the world in historical and theological detail. I can highly recommend this book.

In addition we also considered the work of Taylor, C. 2009. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. And some exceprts on the role of religion in public life from the brand new book: Kim, S. & Day, K. Eds. 2017. A Companion to Public Theology. Leiden Bosten: BRILL.

It was just such a wonderful experience to be in community at Wesley House - it is truly one of the most remarkable places of learning - a true scholarly community with a deep commitment to academic excellence and spiritual discipline. I learnt a great deal from the colleagues on the course, and in my preparation to teach the course was once again inspired and challenged to think critically and carefully about the role of the religion (and the Church) in public life. It can be a great source for good, but also a space of struggle. I was reminded just how much good work Christians and Churches do, and how much more work there is to do in service of God's Kingdom and humanity and the planet's wholeness.

Below are two videos: First, is a video I recorded in Cambridge on the content of the course and some of our focus points in Christianity as a Global / World religion. My thoughts were a little scattered, and I was also a little destracted by the persons walking past. But, it gives some idea of what I was thinking.

Second, I would commend this video, recorded with Prof Jan Jans from Tilburgh University (about a year earlier) on the death of religion and the rise of spirituality in Europe. It is also a very interesting discussion! Jan is a great friend who visits us at Stellenbosch each year. I love his energy and insights!

As always I would love to hear your thoughts, and ideas. How do you express your faith in your context? What is the role of Christianity and religion in your community?

 

Wednesday
Jun212017

A matter of conflict? Politics and sustainable development? A reflection on my visit to Berlin

I am coming to the end of a magnificent trip to Berlin, Germany. I arrived here almost three weeks ago to speak at and participate in a number of events. The title of this blog post is 'A matter of conflict? Politics and sustainable development?' It seems, as I reflect on my time here, that I have given a lot of time to thinking about the relationship between an ethics of justice and an ethics of care - how do we work of a world in which no one has too much while anyone has too little? How do we transform economic, social and political systems for the common good AND at the same time care for one another and the environment. This is the 'site' of conflict, that intersection between justice and care. My colleauge Dr Carike Noeth is a specialist in this field of study (having completed a great PHD on the ethics of care (and justice!) last year. So, this has occupied a lot of my thinking.

Prof Torsten Meireis, a senior colleauge in Ethics and Public Theology - who is a Professor at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin - invited me to participate in some events here in Berlin during the summer. It has been such a wonderful and significant visit. I have had the privilege of participating in a number of academic conferences, the G20 meetings in Potsdam, visiting and doing a lecture at Bamberg University, and working on a joint research project with Prof Meireis.

So, I arrived in Berlin on the 6th of June to participatein the first event which is a joint 'Summer School' program that is hosted by the Humboldt University, Stellenbosch University (where I teach), the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN), and the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Each year we meet in South Africa in February or March, and then in Berlin in June.

It was so wonderful to be here with South African and German colleagues - the event was arranged by Dr Clemens Wustmans from the Humboldt University and our topic was 'Religion, sustainability and politics'. The presenters included scientists, literary theorists, development specialists, religious scholars and theologians. 

In this picture you will see Prof Meireis. As mentioned I was in Berlin at his invitation. In part it was also to work on a joint research grant application for a project that he and I will collaborate on. The project focuses in the ethics of 'Welfare pluralism' in South Africa and Germany - in particular how notions of welfare are conceived and who participates in the conception and expression of these concepts (the state, civil society and the religious sector, the private sector etc.) I really hope that this project will be successful! It will be a great development for my academic career, and it will also mean that I will spend a lot more time with Torsten and time in Berlin! So, I will keep you updated on how that develops!

At the summer school I presented a paper entitled 'Thinking 'olive' instead of 'red' or 'green': Seeking to bring together sustainability and development discourses in Southern African Methodist Ethics'. The paper will be finalised and prepared for publication. In the meantime, here is a short Youtube video from my series 'It's not a lecture... Just a thought!' on this topic. You will also get to see some of Berlin and my beautiful Brompton Bicycle on this trip!

Then, on the 12th of June I went to the University of Bamberg where I did a public lecture with Prof Thomas Wabel who is also an ethicist and Public Theologian. The purpose of the visit (other than the lecture) was to hand over the 'leadership' of the Global Network for Public Theology from Stellenbosch (where we hosted the last global gathering in October 2016) to Bamberg where the next gathering will take place in 2019. Thomas takes over as the hosting chair, and I will serve (at the behest of Prof Nico Koopman) as the outgoing hosting chair on the international commitee. Bamberg was amazing! It is such a beautiful city! The lecture itself went well, as did the meetings. I was so surprised to see my colleague Prof Smanga Kumalo from UKZN and Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary (SMMS) arrive at the lecture! He had come to the city for some meetings and heard I was doing the lecture and so attended. That was very special. Here is a poster for the lecture, and a picture of Smanga and I before the event. The title of my lecture was ‘The (im)possibility of forgiveness? Nelson Mandela and the Politics of forgiveness in South Africa’.

The lecture is based on two large research projects that I have just concluded (if you see my youtube channel you will find details of both). They are, the research and work that I have been doing on Nelson Mandela and political theologies in South Africa, and my 2nd PHD (which I handed in at Radboud University on 14 May 2017!) which is entitled ‘The (im)possibility of forgiveness? An empirical intercultural Bible reading of Matthew 18.15-35’. In that research project I did a 3 year qualitative empirical study on how Black and White South African Christians conceptualize, understand, and express notions and processes of forgiveness in contemporary South Africa with its significant economic, social, political and racial divides.

The lecture went off well and there was a lively discussion afterwards. The President of the Bamberg University, Prof Ruppert, attended the event which was a great honor. Here is a picture of myself and Prof Thomas Wabel, where the 'GNPT' Batik cloth was handed over.

After returning from Bamberg I came back to Berlin to participate in the G20 Interfaith Meetings in Potsdam. This was a wonderful opportunity to further discuss the role of religion in the G20 nations in relation to sustainable development and migration - which are significant and important topics currently. What I found so interesting is the very important role that the G20 places upon religion and the religious across the world. The Pew Researcher (Brian Grim) spoke about their research that shows that 84% of global citizens identify that they are religious. This is significant. Of course we know that religion is often a source of conflict and social division, even abuse. Yet, at the same time it is also a great source of transformation, care, development and change. I was so grateful to be at this event thanks to my colleague and friend from Oxford University, Dr Peter Petkoff (pictured here).

Now I am on the last stretch of my stay in Berlin. Today and tomorrow I shall participate in the opening conference of the Berlin Institute for Public theology (of which I am a member). I will be speaking on Public Theology, globalization, politics and economics tomorrow. My paper is written, but I feel that I still need to rework it a little before I present. By Friday evening I shall be home with Megie, Liam and Courtney! I cannot wait. 

Trips like these are always so wonderful and significant. But, my goodness, there is nothing quite like being home with my family!

 

Wednesday
Mar082017

Is the Church failing the nation? On Minister Dlamini and South African social grants

In our 3rd year Public Theology / Ethics class today we discussed the notion of a just society in which all citizens have the right to have rights, and the resources of the nation are shared for the common good.

We considered that a just society is one where power is used to safeguard the rights of the least powerful, and where economic policy is implemented, not for the benefit of the privileged or the elite, but for the benefit and protection of poorest of the poor. 

John Rawls's theory of justice was discussed, as was God's preferential option for the poor. In particular, however, we pointed out that in a country where 83% of our citizens say that they are members of the Christian faith, denials of justice and the abuse of the less powerful are failures in our witness and work as the church! 

Minister Dlamini is a member of a Christian church. Has her denomination held her to account for her poor servanthood, for her failure to be a good steward of the trust of the South African people? Have the members of her family, her community, her Church, reminded her that a nation is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, not its richest and most powerful?  

Christians in South Africa, we have so much work to do to witness to justice and work for the common good. We are called to do so - it is a responsibility.

I am grateful to be able to wrestle with these issues with colleagues and comrades in Christ. Thank you for your companionship on the journey!

Here is the article that prompted this post:

PAYMENT CRISIS 

Dlamini unwittingly gives grants support 

08 March 2017 - 06:57 AM Steven Friedman 

Poor people across the country owe a debt to Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini. Entirely by accident, she may have produced a national consensus in support of social grants.

Dlamini presides over perhaps the most disgraceful incident in the past two decades, an exercise in breathtaking contempt for 17-million people who receive grants. There are two possible explanations for the crisis her ministry has created for the grants programme.

Either it did not care, over several years, about making sure grants would be paid after the Constitutional Court overturned its agreement with Cash Paymaster Services — or someone sought to benefit financially from ignoring the order. Both explanations mean her department sees the people who are entitled to grants not as citizens with rights, but as a means to some other end. Which, of course, makes it all the more ironic that it has given grants an unexpected boost.

Before the grants story became national news, the programme’s only friends were a handful of academics, activist nongovernmental organisations and the poor themselves.

Elites here are divided on most issues, but not on prejudices against social grants, which are often derided as hand-outs that create dependency. The right complains that they place a burden on middle class and affluent people, who are expected to sustain others who lack their abilities. Many on the left, and within the governing party, see them as an embarrassing admission of defeat by a state that should be running employment programmes rather than giving money to the excluded.

Commentators across the racial and political spectrum join in this assault on grants, sometimes by spreading legends. A former ANC Cabinet minister claimed, without any evidence, that rural people avoided working the fields because they receive grants. A bank economist claimed that tens of thousands of women fell pregnant simply to receive grants: when asked for his information source, he said a friend told him.

Dlamini’s disaster may have changed all that. None of the commentators or politicians who have criticised her, which means everyone outside the ANC’s patronage faction, have questioned the need to pay grants. It could be a long time before it will again be fashionable to denigrate them. If the assault on grants ends, Dlamini’s scandal will be a disguised blessing for the economy as well as the poor. Grants are, with the programme to provide treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS, the country’s most important success story in the post-1994 era.

Research shows that, contrary to the urban legends, grants are not only a lifeline for poor people: they also help to kick-start local economies. Few people fritter grants away — they are more likely to use them to meet social needs. In some towns, before the grants programme was rolled out, men stood in line for a handful of mining jobs. After grants arrived, people were more likely to be standing in line at stores or, more importantly, buying and selling on the streets. No wonder that studies have found that grants are the most effective antipoverty tool introduced since democracy arrived.

One reason grants are effective is that the decisions on how to spend them are made by the recipients rather than policy makers.

One of the greatest blocks to development here is the gap between what many policy makers think poor people need and what the poor know they need. The more people are able to decide for themselves what their priorities are, the more likely is it that the money will not be wasted.

An end to the campaign against grants might also help the debate to focus on the real world. As this column has pointed out, millions of South Africans will remain outside the formal job market for a very long time, whatever we do and so they will require support to enable them to live productive lives.

Finally, the political costs of harming the grants programme may be severe. Research shows, predictably, that people who receive grants value them and would be angered if they did not receive them, so protecting grants is essential to maintaining a semblance of social calm. The fact that no one in the debate has denied that failure to pay grants would be a catastrophe suggests that this reality too is now accepted.

For all these reasons, if Dlamini’s indifference to those who receive grants has made them a source of national pride and their protection a priority across the spectrum, she will have made, despite her best efforts, a real contribution to the campaign against poverty.

• Friedman is research professor in the University of Johannesburg’s humanities faculty

Tuesday
Oct182016

Dangerous echoes of the past as church and state move closer in South Africa

Dangerous echoes of the past as church and state move closer in South Africa

Dion Forster, Stellenbosch University

The Global Values Survey shows that religious organisations remain among the most trusted institutions in South African society. They enjoy higher levels of public trust than either the state or the private sector. This trust should not be abused or manipulated.

This is a challenge in most societies in the world. South Africa’s particular circumstances are complicated by a difficult historical relationship between the church and the state.

The state has often abused the church to garner votes and misinform, or to silence, its population. The church, on the other hand, has at times given moral and religious sanction that allowed the state to perpetrate significant injustices.

The issue of church and state relationships remains important for a number of reasons. First, South Africa is a deeply religious society. About 85% of its citizens are Christian, while a further 3% belong to other faiths.

Second, it has a clear precedent where an inappropriate relationship between the church and the state led to wide scale human rights abuses in the country’s apartheid past.

There appears to be a reemergence of the abuse of the trust that South Africans place in religions. This is a dangerous situation. An example is the governing ANC’s courting of the largest mainline denomination - the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

When it does not find favour there, it reaches out to independent churches, which are the fastest growing religious groupings in the country.

The church and apartheid

The rise of apartheid politics in South Africa was inextricably linked to apartheid theology. It was the heretical theological views about how society should be structured, and whom God favoured, that gave the moral and religious sanction for a so-called “Christian” nation to perpetrate unimaginable human rights abuses.

At the turn of the 1900s the fledgling Afrikaners nation (Volk) developed a theology in which they viewed themselves as chosen by God for a particular task.

When the National Party came to power in 1948 they had the firm backing of the white Afrikaans churches. The churches – on the Nationalists’ behalf – used the bible and covenantal theology to construct a view that white Afrikaners had special rights at the expense of black South Africans, who according to the policy of apartheid, had none. Particular moral and religious values practised in the church and the home, became the laws of the nation.

Given the close relationship between the church and state, the moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church was jokingly referred to as the “second most powerful man in the country”, while the Dutch Reformed Church was referred to as the “National Party at prayer”.

This dangerous relationship detracted from the role of the state to protect the rights of all of its citizens, regardless of their faith. It also eroded the ministry of the church, which should hold the state accountable for its service to the people. The church also needs to be free to exercise its religious and moral mandate without political interference.

These religious and moral convictions separated people according to race and privileged a minority at the expense of the majority. We are still facing the consequences of those actions and choices.

Abusing public trust in religious institutions

Many gave a sigh of relief when the state and the church were disentangled at the end of the apartheid era. Sadly, that form of separation was short lived. Once again a governing party, in this ANC, is crossing that line.

Recently, Reverend Vukile Mehana, the ANC’s former chaplain general, defended President Jacob Zuma’s claim that people who voted for the ANC would go to heaven, while those who voted for other parties would go to hell.

Just before the 2014 elections Mehana, who is a very senior Methodist minister, encouraged pastors in Cape Town to solicit votes for the ANC, saying:

You cannot have church leaders that speak as if they are in opposition to government … God will liberate the people through this (ANC) government.

He would have done well to heed former Methodist Bishop, Peter Storey’s warning that:

the years since 1994 have surely persuaded us that democracy is not to be equated with the arrival of the reign of God.

So, how did this happen again? Of course there are many complex reasons that lead political parties to want the trust, and moral sanction, of large constituencies such as churches.

On the other hand, there are many church ministers and members who seek the power and opportunity that comes from being connected with political parties and party officials.

Mandela, the Methodists and unintended consequences

My 2014 research, showed that the path for the current abuses of church and state relationships came from former President Nelson Mandela’s relationship with his church.

It was not Mandela’s intention to co-opt the church, or abuse the trust that society places in religious institutions. But in a period in South African history when the narratives of reconciliation, forgiveness, hope and reconstruction were so central, he found a natural partner in the church for the project of rebuilding South Africa. He said:

Religious communities have a vital role to play in this regard [nation building]. Just as you took leading roles in the struggle against apartheid, so too you should be at the forefront of helping to deliver a better life to all our people. Among other things you are well placed to assist in building capacity within communities for effective delivery of a better life.

Mandela worked with faith leaders and church communities, and because he was viewed as a “good person” and a trusted leader, he won their confidence. Senior church leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, worked alongside President Mandela in nation building initiatives.

The state also became accustomed to working with faith-based organisations, which in many poor and rural communities are important, and necessary, sources of support, development aid, and social identity.

But, as successive political leaders, and their political parties, came to power, their intentions seemed less honourable. Many outspoken activists and church leaders had been co-opted into senior government and party-political posts. And formerly trusted allies, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, started facing a backlash whenever they challenged political corruption or ineptitude.

And so, South Africa once again finds itself in a precarious position where a powerful and important social institution is being co-opted by political power. Political leaders are losing their religious and moral impartiality to serve the interests of particular churches and denominations at the expense of others. Political independence and religious freedom are once again under threat.

Of course there are many honourable religious politicians, independent and prophetic religious leaders. But, South Africans would be wise to heed the caution of motivational speaker Rob Bell:

A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the Bible start holding hands. This is not a romance we want to encourage.

Dion Forster, Head of Department, Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Public Theology, Director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology, Stellenbosch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Friday
Sep232016

Why the 'loss of faith' in heroes like Mandela may not be such a bad thing

Why the 'loss of faith' in heroes like Mandela may not be such a bad thing

Dion Forster, Stellenbosch University

The legacy of anti-apartheid activists no longer has currency for many of today’s youth. They believe that they have been failed by the older generation of political leaders, including Nelson Mandela.

A recent Facebook post by the controversial Oxford University student and Mandela Rhodes scholar, Ntokozo Sbo Qwabe reflects this.

Older black people who want to silence us on the basis that they fought against apartheid need to shut the fuck up!!! We are here because you failed us! So please!

Qwabe is expressing a sentiment that is fairly common among contemporary South African student activists associated with the country’s “fallist” movements - including #RhodesMustFall #FeesMustFall .

One could say that they have “lost faith” in the legacy of anti-apartheid heroes of yesteryear and the supposed freedoms they have won.

Some may be unsettled, or even angered, by this loss of confidence in the liberation struggle heroes. But I am of the opinion that this loss of faith may not be such a terrible thing in the end. Losing a naïve and untrue “religious conviction” might actually be a sign of the emergence of a more honest and mature commitment to an ethics of responsibility.

South Africa is not unique in this. North American activist and philosopher, Cornel West, recently made a radical statement at a “Keep Ferguson Alive!” event. He said:

I come from a school of thought that believes that a certain kind of atheism is always healthy… Because what atheism does is that it at least cleans the deck because it claims that all gods are idols… We live in a society in which idolatry is so ubiquitous… So, for a lot of people who have lost faith in god it is probably a healthy thing! Because the god they have lost faith in was probably an idol anyway…

Losing faith in a false god is not such a bad thing. Many South Africans are losing faith in a very subtle and deceptive form of civil religion that held many in thrall during the last 22 years of democracy. As shocking as it may be, perhaps Qwabe and West are not far from the truth.

Civil religion

After the euphoria of the peaceful transition to democratic political rule in South Africa in 1994, this subtle civil religion emerged in popular culture.

Sociologist Robert Bellah suggests that religion in the civil sphere is possible when citizens begin to shape a belief into a transcendent narrative of about their social and political reality. They begin to use religious or theological symbolism to describe social, political or economic systems and processes. The purpose of the “civil religion” is to work towards the project of an alternative social reality.

The birth of the South African post-apartheid civil religion took place 27 April 1994 – the day of first South African democratic elections. This event was lauded across the world, as a “miracle” of peaceful transition in the midst of a hostile and precarious social and political situation.

Many doomsday prophets had predicted the eruption of a civil war in the lead to up the elections. Instead, post-election media reports reflected a widespread sense of euphoria and joy. It was framed in the dense and symbolic theological and religious language of peace, reconciliation and even “God’s blessing”. This is not surprising in a country where [around 84% ]of its population profess religious beliefs of one kind or another. Such language is familiar. It has meaning and currency.

Mandela the ‘messiah’

Of course, every religion requires a saviour, and the Messiah of this civil religion was Nelson Mandela. He embodied in his person a capacity to envision a new future for the divided people of South Africa. He was widely regarded as a leader who displayed great courage, grace and a reconciling nature.

His virtuous character was presented as an example to be followed by all persons who strive to be good citizens. Today many wonder about the negotiated compromises he entered into during his presidency and the transition to democratic rule. Perhaps, he was only human after all. Even if he was a remarkable human, he is not divine.

The high priest of the newly democratic South Africa’s civil religion was Desmond Tutu, who coined the primary discourse of the (civil) religion in the language of the “rainbow nation”. The character of the religion, and its doctrinal centre was an eschatological harmony based on national reconciliation.

This miracle was to be ushered in through a social event – a ritual. The ritual that served as a moral and psychological symbol of the civil religion was the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Sadly, the legacy of the TRC is contested. Perpetrators walked free while victims remained uncompensated.

 

 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Mike Hutchings/Reuters

 

 

The civil religion’s sacred text was the 1996 South African Constitution (1996) and the Bill of Rights. The hymn for the civil religion was national anthem, Nkosi sikele’iAfrika(God bless Africa]). But some worry that the constitution protects the rights of the privileged and does not go far enough in allowing for restorative justice for the poor.

So, what has become clear in recent years is that there is significant loss of confidence in the discourses of the new South Africa - the rainbow nation, and all of the saints, heroes, and rituals. People are losing faith in this civil religion. This disenchantment is most clearly expressed in the words and actions of the “born free” activists, such as Qwabe.

They believe that we find ourselves in a more deeply divided, more economically unjust and politically corrupt nation because of our beliefs in these persons, in their legacies, and in the institutions they established.

While many may struggle to agree with the methods of the ‘fallist’ youth, perhaps they are pointing us in the right direction? Yes, Mandela did something remarkable. But he is not our saviour. Tutu and the TRC are inspiring and important. But now we need something for this time. Yes, democracy is an opportunity for transformation. But the 1994 elections were not the end of our process. That was only the beginning.

And so, I am of the mind that we should lose our false civil religion and exchange it for an ethics of responsibility. The poet June Jordan said it most aptly, reflecting on the women’s march to the Union Buildings in 1956:

And who will join this standing up … We are the ones we have been waiting for.

The Conversation

Dion Forster, Head of Department, Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Public Theology, Director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology, Stellenbosch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

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You may find these two videos (related to Nelson Mandela, and the end of Civil Religion) interesting.

'Losing my religion (in Basel)'

Nelson Mandela and the Methodists - faith, fact and fallacy

Wednesday
Jun152016

The classroom - a room of class? On Theological education and justice

What is the purpose of learning and knowledge? Does it hold value in the world today? In what ways do we learn, and should we learn, for appropriate discipleship as Christians? What is the relationship between education and justice?
In this VLOG we talk about the different ways in which persons are formed for Christian life and consider some different approaches to theological learning. We look at the traditional knowledge, values and skills approaches (head, heart and hands) and discuss how each holds value. Moreover, we consider the different ways in which the discourse and discussion around Higher Education is shaped by the metaphor of geography (the models of the University as Athens, Berlin and Calcutta).

The papers that I mentioned in the show are:
Olivier, B. 2011. Ethical Challenges Regarding Globalization of Higher Education. US-China Education Review, 6(B):816–823.

Kinsler, F.R. 1978. Theological Education by Extension: Service or Subversion? Missiology: An International Review, 6(2):181–196.

This book by Stanley Hauerwas is a helpful resource on education and the ethical considerations, ‘The state of the University: Academic knowledges and the knowledge of God
And, this book ('Doing Ethics from the margins') gives a wonderful insight into how the two-thirds world thinks about education and justice, as De La Torre points out, the classroom is indeed a room of class (one can very quickly, and sadly, see how class impacts and plays itself out in contemporary higher education. Who gets to study, when they study under what conditions do they do so, what is their previous educational background etc.).

Find out more about Stellenbosch University (where I teach) at:

I'd love to hear your take on these thoughts! Leave a comment here, or on youtube.
Tuesday
May242016

An ethics of care? Gender, politics, justice and care


Is care tied to gender? What is an ethics of care? What are the political implications of care?

Today's VLOG is Part 1 of an interview with Prof Frits de Lange from the Protestant Theological University, Groningen on the Ethics of Care.

He introduces the topic for us, suggests some wonderful reading and we also get to see a bit of Groningen in the video.

My thanks to Prof de Lange for hosting us for a wonderful conference on Compassion, and for his willingness to be interviewed on his research specialisation.

In Part 2 of the video that will be released later this week Prof de Lange speaks to us about 'Loving later life: An ethics of ageing' which is his recent book. So keep an eye out for that. 

Enjoy the video - Frits is wonderful to listen to! I would love to hear your thoughts, ideas and feedback on this important topic!

Monday
May022016

We don't decide who's invited: The Church as inclusive Eucharistic community

 

Is the Church intended to be a closed (exclusive) community, or an open (inclusive) community?
Today I talk about an image of the Church as a Eucharistic community - and I show you some incredible views of the Helderberg mountains!
My views on this were shaped by the theology (and ethics) of the Anglican theologian Sam Wells, who I met first at Cambridge and then at Duke Divinity school when he arrived there in 2005.
The image is that of a the Eucharistic table - many contemporary Churches have structured themselves more like a restaurant table than a Eucharistic table. What do I mean by that? Well, at a restaurant table you decide who sits with you, you expect service and you are the center of the social attention, you pay for what you want, you are a client. I hear people using this language in relation to their Church, 'I don't like that type of person here', or 'The sermon and music were not very good', 'I am not feeling satisfied with my Church, it is not doing much for me'.
The Eucharistic table is very different, however, at the Eucharistic table we are not the hosts - Christ is the Host! We are invited. That means that we don't get to decide who is at the table. Our responsibility, out of love for Christ and those whom He loves and has invited, is to work out how best to love those around the table. They may be very different from who and how we are. But, like us, they have been welcomed in grace.
Watch the video if you can - I'd love to hear your take on this!
Remember, it's not a lecture, just a thought…

 

Thursday
Apr282016

Celebrating Freedom Day! Is South Africa post apartheid or MOST apartheid 22 years later?

As we celebrate Freedom Day in South Africa we have so much to be thankful for! We have a constitution that intends the protection of all our citizens. We have a functional judiciary, we have section 9 institutions that are still free and fair, we have an active civil society and faith based organisations, we have beautiful citizens and one of the most beautiful countries on earth!
Yet, the reality is that we are still facing such significant challenges in South Africa! As you will see in this VLOG we are more unequal (economically) than we were in 1994, the Reconciliation barometer of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation shows that there is growing distrust between the races. Our nation is not yet in a Post Apartheid condition - we are not yet free! 27 April 1994 won the possibility of Freedom, but as citizens we need to find ways to make that freedom a reality for all - where every person is free to excel and flourish, where there is both personal and institutional solidarity for life.
I'd love to hear your take on this!
Remember, it's not a lecture, just a thought…
I’d love you hear your feedback, comments, questions and ideas!

 

Tuesday
Apr262016

Can you trust everything YOU read? The Bible and Christian ethics

The Bible is the most important source for Christians in moral and ethical decision making. It should shape both our beliefs and our actions. However, it is often abused and dealt with in a careful and responsible manner when it comes to Christian ethics.
In this VLOG I talk about a chapter I wrote in a book called 'Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity' (Claassens and Birch, eds) see it here:  http://amzn.to/1Nvuw0w
My chapter is focussed around the notion of hospitality and the need to create some space for the 'other', in this case the 'other' of the text and the 'other' of different readers of the text.
I also share a chapter that I wrote in 'What is a good life: An introduction to Christian Ethics' http://amzn.to/232BPi5
This chapter shows that as Christians we sometimes forget that our gender, age, education, race, social class and a host of other factors shapes how we understand and read the text - and that our reading may not be the only one!
I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas!
Remember, it's not a lecture, just a thought…
I’d love you hear your feedback, comments, questions and ideas!
Please subscribe and like the video!
Thursday
Apr212016

The decline of religion and the rise of spirituality?

In today's VLOG I interview Professor Jan Jans from Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He was at Stellenbosch University to teach our Master of Divinity class and my third year Public Theology class on Secularism, Secularization and the decline of formal religion and the rise of spirituality in Europe. We learnt a lot of interesting things for our own context - you may find the same.
I apologize for my poor framing of the video in the first few minutes! I either need to learn to frame my camera better, or save up to get a camera that has a flip screen to see what my shots look like! It gets better and I am learning!
The books that are mentioned in today's VLOG are:
  • Linda Woodhead, 'Religions in the modern world: Traditions and Transformations' http://amzn.to/1Nm09tu
  • Diana Butler Bass 'Christianity after religion' http://amzn.to/1VlP7qH
  • Charles Taylor 'A secular age' http://amzn.to/2436WfS (This is a very important book! I get all my PhD students to read it). You can also read the following great 'introduction' and engagement with 'A secular age', entitled 'How not to be secular' by James K Smith http://amzn.to/1Wf43FZ
  • Peter Berger 'The Sacred Canopy' http://amzn.to/1VlPh1i and 'The desecularization of the world' http://amzn.to/1T0OxbU
I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas!
Remember, it's not a lecture, just a thought…
Please subscribe and like the video!