Search
  • 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.
Pages
Social networking

Entries in Theology (85)

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.

 

----

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

Monday
Sep122016

For the sake of our salvation - We need to learn again...

I am currently reading John W de Gruchy's latest book 'Without Apology: Faith, Hope and Love in a time of doubt, despair and violence' (Methodist Publishing House, Cape Town, 2016).

It is a beautiful collection of reflections that John wrote and delivered at the Volmoed Chapel, at Volmoed in Hermanus where he and Isobel are residents. The tone of these reflections is so beautiful. I am accustomed to hear John speak - which is always an inspiration. And of course I have read his academic books for years. His way of thinking has shaped my own. However, this book seems more personal, I not only catch glimpses of his magnificent mind, his wit and charm, but also of his deep spirituality. I can see his love for Christ and for all those people and things that Christ loves so much. It is a wonderfully inspiring book to read!

This evening I came across this quote which I thought I would like to share with you:

In a time when we know how to make war, but cannot make peace; when we can land people on the moon but struggle to find space for refugees; when we can build skyscrapers, but cannot build good houses for the poor; when we can transplant hearts and kidneys, but cannot eradicate hunger; when we have much information, but little wisdom, we need to acknowledge how, despite all our knowledge we are acting like fools, and putting the world at risk. We need to learn again to fear the Lord and affirm our humanity as we respect that of others.

John de Gruchy, Without Apology, (2016:12)

You can read more of John's work on his blog, and you can get a copy of 'Without Apology' from here.

Wednesday
Jul062016

Heading to the XII International Bonhoeffer congress in Basel, Switzerland

I am all packed!

In just a short while I am heading to Basel in Switzerland for the XII International Bonhoeffer congress where I am delivering a paper see:
http://www.mission-21.org/en/agenda/agenda/events-from-mission-21/archive/2015/August/article/bonhoeffer-kongress/

My Brompton bicycle is all packed and loaded! I love this bike!

All packed and ready to go to the #bonhoeffer Congress in #Basel with my #Bromptonbicycle @bromptonbicycle

A video posted by digitaldion (@digitaldion) on

I will ride to Nijmegen station, catch the train to Basel and ride to the conference venue - viola! Just awesome!

My paper is on Bonhoeffer and Mandela in conversation around (African) Christian humanism. I will post more details here and on Twitter @digitaldion during the week.

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…

 

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!
Thursday
Apr142016

Detrimental health? Just health and a just health care system

Prof Jean Pierre Wils delivered a paper at a biomedical ethics conference at Stellenbosch University in August last year (if I recall correctly). He made a deeply challenging and thought provoking point that contemporary ethics seems obsessed with just health care, but the more important ethical issue is just health. Simply stated, unjust societies contribute to illness among their populations. This is not just a matter of providing adequate health care, it is a larger issue, it has to do with gender, economics, access to a healthy diet, sexual and reproductive rights etc.

I was asked to write a paper in response to his paper - which I have done and it is currently under review for a special edition of the journal 'In luce verbi' in which his paper and mine will appear. I will let you know when they are published.

In the meantime I discuss the issue of just health care and the South African biomedical theological ethical context in this video entitle 'Detrimental to your health'. I'd love to hear your insights, thoughts and comments!

Thursday
Apr142016

Stellenbosch - The most unequal city in the world? Economics, inequality and justice

Is Stellenbosch really the most unequal city in the world?

Today I rode my Brompton through Stellenbosch - I had 25 minutes between meetings and wanted to get something for lunch. It was the first time I had been on the bike in more than a week. I came back form Johannesburg with a rather nasty flu and still wasn't feeling great. But it was awesome to be out in the sun and enjoying the fresh air and beautiful western Cape scenery!

As I was riding my bike I reflected on Stellenbosch, which is the most unequal city in South Africa (a country which is among the most economically unequal countries in the world).

Watch the VLOG for some beautiful scenery, and think with me about a better economic system in which no one has too much while anyone has too little.

I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts! Don’t you love my old folding bike? It goes with me when I travel.

Monday
Feb292016

Invitation to Steve de Gruchy memorial lecture by Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm

Professor Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church in Germany, and a close friend of the late Prof Steve de Gruchy, will give the Steve de Gruchy Memorial Lecture, on Tuesday 1st March 2016 at 19:00 at the Rondebosch United Church, Belmont Road, Cape Town. He will speak on the refugee crisis in Europe and the situation in the Middle East.

This is an open invitation to anyone who may be interested in attending. Prof John de Gruchy will also say a few words.

I hope to see you there!