Worshipping a Slutty God: Salvific and relational implications of a non-monogamous God

All are welcome to this public theology forum during Wellington Pride Week to explore post-heteronormative ideas as they relate to Christian theology. It has now been well documented that the Bible traces a move from being monaltrous (worshipping one God in a pantheon of gods) to monotheistic (there is only one real God). This workshop explores the idea of a non-monogamous God, building on concepts of ethical non-monogamy and recent pop culture transgressions of heteronormative boundaries.

Wednesday 6 March 5:30-7pm
BYO beer or wine. Light snacks and non-alcoholic drinks provided.

Hybrid event. In-person at St Peter’s on Willis Garden Room.

Register below for Zoom link.

Palestine, Performativity, and Prophetic Action

The images and stories coming out of Palestine are horrific and shocking — but, as Susan Sontag wrote, do these images have any power to tell a story or change a mind or only to shock? When people share these stories, reports, and images, especially online, what goals are there other than awareness? Whilst it can feel disempowering and despairing when it seems all we can do is to share things on social media, are there ways outside of social media that we can orient our bodies and lives in a way that materialises into something deeper and perhaps more relational than awareness?

These questions and more will be explored in this conversation with Rev Dr Jordan Redding! All are invited to join us for this conversation and encouraged to bring your own questions, experiences doing protest, and your theological perspectives.

Thursday 15 March
7–8:30pm
Hybrid in the Garden Room @ St Peter’s on Willis, Te Whanganui-a-tara
Zoom (register below for link)

XIV International Bonhoeffer Congress Conference Report

Scholars from all over the world gathered in Sydney, Australia for the fourteenth International Bonhoeffer Congress. Known in some circles as the “Bonhoeffer Olympics” due to its every four-year occurrence, this iteration of the congress explored the theme “crisis and hope.” Taking place over four days (not counting the meeting of PhD students before the conference), the presentations were rich, diverse, creative, and challenging. 

Anne Pattel-Gray, indigenous Australian theologian, outlined how Bonhoeffer’s articulation of a call to discipleship showcases the moral failings of the Australian church in its inefficacy in presenting unified support for indigenous rights, most recently in the debates around the voice referendum. Eco-theologian Lisa Dahill pushed for a post-theistic, post-religion version of Christianity that moved towards pantheism. The following day, Dianne Rayson presented an eco-theology that pushed in a similar direction but ultimately held onto a transcendent God who remains other than creation. 

I have to confess, I was a bit disappointed that neither of these keynotes on eco-theology, nor any in the eco-theology panel, brought in that biographical aspect of Bonhoeffer that is most thrilling and confounding to so many: his alleged involvement in the conspiracy to blow up Hitler. I would have loved to hear a talk engaging Andreas Malm’s How to Blow up a Pipeline, Bonhoeffer’s theology of call to obedience, and eco-terrorism. If we are facing not only the extinction of homo sapiens but also thousands of other species, might the call of God be to challenge this genocide by blowing up a pipeline? But that’s not the fault of the conference! 

Willie Jennings at the XIV International Bonhoeffer Congress

My favourite keynote — due in part I am sure to my American-ness, but also to my theological interests — came from Willie Jennings, presenting on the limits of creatureliness and how the colonial logic at its heart seeks for limitlessness. During his talk, Jennings wove in poetry, pushing the boundaries of what “counts” as authentic and meaningful God-talk in an academic setting. One of my favourite quotes from his talk went something like, “When we’re sitting around deciding what courses to teach and what readings to include in theological education — and all education — we must ask first and foremost: what does this theology do for poor women around the world? Especially poor women of colour.” In a sense, this re-focus calls all theology and theologians to the witness stand and asks point blank, how are you proclaiming freedom and liberation to those entrenched in oppressive systems of power? 

Pushing this critique further, theological frames are of little use unless they push against oppression and unjust hierarchies. As a personal challenge, I have to ask myself how I can produce a theology that forms and not merely informs. 

Me asking an unintelligible question after Dr Jennings’s talk on heteronormativity and creaturely limit, probing whether Barth and Bonhoeffer’s love lives offer any hints at a move beyond heteronormative coupling. Photo credit Dr Rayson.

Many things to consider and think about! And I’m incredibly grateful to the conference organisers who did a tremendous job holding everything together, as well as all those presenters who offered up their own reflections to the theological discourse. There is also immense joy in meeting others from around the globe who are doing their best to follow that costly call of discipleship in their own work and lives. 

What does God Give a Sh*t About?

jesus looking at his phone on social media

One of the most popular news accounts on social media among young people is called Shit You Should Care About. Run by three twenty-something New Zealanders, the account has 3.4 million followers and hundreds of thousands of views on each post. I have to be honest and I have not tracked with the account for several years, but there was a time around 2020 when I followed quite closely. What I liked about the account was that this was a conscious effort by social media influencers to direct their followers’ attention towards things that matter, i.e. stuff we should care about. At some point in the last couple of years, I remember chatting with a friend during a run and bemoaning the fact that the original curatorial content of stuff that capital-M-Matters was not showing up on my feed as much. Whether that was due to the algorithm prioritizing mundane or pop culture content or a change in the priorities of the account, I’m not sure. 

Nevertheless, there are two really interesting aspects about the original premise that I want to muse on here. The first is that there is a moral and ethical duty to give a shit. The second is that in this globalised, networked world, there are specific things we should care about, and perhaps other things that should take a backseat in our individual and public consciousness.

The first aspect of a moral duty to give a shit about what goes on in the world seems intuitive. To love your neighbour means one should know what’s going on with your neighbour. Swiss reformed theologian Karl Barth was quoted in a 1963 Time magazine article saying, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” It certainly seems that Barth is advocating for a Christian life that is aware of what is happening in the world around us. How else can one know how to love one’s neighbours if one does not know what is happening with them or to them? To further complicate things, Barth refuses to give priority of loving the near neighbour over the one that is far. He writes in Church Dogmatics IV/3 (page 301):

As he [sic] holds his near neighbours with the one hand, he reaches out to the distant with the other. And so the concept of his own people is extended and opened out in this respect too. It is true that he belongs wholly and utterly to his own people. But it is equally true that the horizon by which his people is surrounded and within which it exists as his people is humanity. It is equally true that he himself belongs wholly and utterly to humanity.

What does this refusal to give priority of the near neighbour mean for the ways that one directs their attention, concern, and empathy? This gets us deeper into that second aspect of the premises behind Shit We Should Care About. 

Recently, religious journalism went nuts with an address from Pope Francis where he denounced the exploitation of women in surrogacy arrangements. What almost every one of those journalist pieces were missing was the rest of the address. In this address, he walks around the globe and denounces the conflicts that are happening from Gaza to Myanmar to Ukraine and then to those conflicts that—whilst deadly and horrific—do not make the Western headlines. He prays for Tigray, Sudan, Venezuela, Guyana, and Nicaragua. He prays for those places struck by natural disaster around the globe. Are these not things Christians ought to care about? Are these not things that Christians ought to do something about? 

One conflict that Pope Francis did not touch on is one in our backyard here in Oceania, that of the ongoing slow genocide of the indigenous peoples of West Papua by Indonesia. While the Pacific Council of Churches has repeatedly affirmed support for the liberation movement in West Papua, even calling for a boycott on Indonesian goods, that call has gone largely unheeded. 

What makes a conflict or situation worthy of our attention? What makes a neighbour worthy of making it above the line of shit we should care about?

Barth continued his Time Magazine interview by saying that he prays deeply for journalists. “Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him—either East or West. He should make it his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?”

In an age coloured by an obsession over authenticity and identity, there is an ever-growing desire to be seen as knowing the right thing and saying the right thing, and if one succeeds in those two endeavours, one becomes morally good. But perhaps, there is no singular bounded set of things that are the right things to care about. Perhaps, as Bonhoeffer wrote in his essay “Christ, Reality and Good” within Ethics:

“Whoever wishes to take up the problem of a Christian ethic must be confronted at once with a demand which is quite without parallel. He [sic] must from the outset discard as irrelevant the two questions which alone impel him to concern himself with the problem of ethics, ‘How can I be good?’ and ‘How can I do good?,’ and instead of these he must ask the utterly and totally different question ‘What is the will of God?’”

This complicates things for us. There is no “right” thing to give a shit about. What would God have us — Christians in a specific place in a specific time — give a shit about? In a hyper-connected age, whom do we trust to direct our attention? To whom do we trust to tell us what shit we should care about? 

I’m not completely sure. But I do think that listening to God in this starts with listening to our neighbours. Those both near and far. And attuning our attention to all those suffering—whether or not they make the instagram stories, headlines, or 6pm news. 

The Pope, Blessings, and Queer Visibility

Visibility matters. What’s on the outside matters. As a queer theologian, this seems like a given. But in the cartesian duality that permeates our social consciousness and conscience, it sometimes needs to be stated again. 

This week in religious news, the big headline is something like: The Pope Allows Same-sex blessings. The best reporting on this that I have come across is at the National Catholic Reporter. The historical context (at least the recent context) is that in 2021, the Vatican issued a statement regarding same-sex blessings. There, the Holy See office stated that God and thus the church “does not and cannot bless sin…the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex in the sense intended above.” 

The new statement, however, offers a slight change in tone to this question, though the underlying theology remains the same. The Roman Catholic Church stands by its position that marriage can only be an “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children.” However, priests may, at their discretion, bless couples who are in same-sex unions. 

This blessing, however, cannot look in any shape or form like a marriage. It cannot be a liturgical act. It cannot even be a semi-liturgical act. Whatever that means. It is worth noting the prohibited aesthetics that are not to accompany such a blessing:

In any case, precisely to avoid any form of confusion or scandal, when the prayer of blessing is requested by a couple in an irregular situation, even though it is expressed outside the rites prescribed by the liturgical books, this blessing should never be imparted in concurrence with the ceremonies of a civil union, and not even in connection with them. Nor can it be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding. 

(Dichiarazione “Fiducia supplicans” sul senso pastorale delle benedizioni del Dicastero per la Dottrina della Fede, 18.12.2023, 39)

In other words, the blessing cannot look like a wedding. It cannot use material that has been drafted by a conference of bishops (such as in Germany and Belgium). There can be no wedding dress or exchanging of wedding rings or handfasting (where the couples’ hands are bound together with a ribbon, cord, or stole). 

This stands in stark contrast to the situation in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia. In 2018, after years of debate, the church passed a motion allowing for the blessing of same-sex marriages. (Notably, the Church of England has just authorised a similar blessing of same-sex unions, though I have not caught up on the intricacies of this new position.) The New Zealand Anglicans, like the Roman Catholics, maintain in their doctrines that marriage is still only between one man and one woman. But unlike the Roman Catholic Church, there are no aesthetic or liturgical prescriptions nor proscriptions. Earlier this year, two such blessings took place in the parish of Te Aro, Wellington. The Anglican blessings could look like a wedding, with rings, vestments, wedding dresses, the whole nine yards. In fact, according to the passed motion, the service must be in a form authorised by a bishop. 

Whilst it has made substantially clear within the Anglican Church that these blessings are not marriages, there is a formal and aesthetic familiarity allowed within these ceremonies. Visibility matters. What’s on the outside matters. 

On the one hand, I rejoice for the seeming softening towards queer folk by the church universal, the church catholic and Catholic. But on the other hand, we need to recognise that this is still scraps from the table. As we stumble together, whether forward or backward, I rest assured we stumble into the arms of a loving God. 

Barbie’s Ken, men and Jesus

Dunedin Anglican Ollie Alexander heads to the cinema to ponder the state and meaning of masculinity – in response to a challenge from Student Christian Movement Otago.

Photo by Tara Winstead. Powered by Pexels.

Four Dunedin lads took up the SCM challenge to ask what it means to be a man in the eyes of the big Hollywood moviemakers in August 2023.

At first look, Oppenheimer with his cold calculations, conflicting convictions and ever-present pipe seemed like an obvious choice, but we decided that the Barbie movie might offer us the answers we sought. Either that, or we just wanted a good reason to enjoy Greta Gerwig’s pink and plastic wonderland.

Our masculine hero in the Barbie movie is none other than Ken, the beach doll played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling. As one Ken living among many, he seemingly exists to compete for Barbie’s fleeting attention and affection. We soon realise that with or without Barbie, he is still “just Ken” — an afterthought in the genesis of Barbie and her personal utopia.

On his adventures, Ken discovers a social structure based on horses and boy-clubs, horses and beer, horses and toys and easily impressed Barbies. Did I mention horses? Without revealing too much, I’m glad to say that the film provided plenty of laughs, a fantastic musical piece and just enough depth for us lads to dive into at the bar afterwards.

We acknowledged that masculinity is difficult to define and probably looks different across history and cultures, but we agreed that if masculinity represents the dominant version on the internet then we might be better off in Barbieland.

When male “influencers” take to Youtube, Instagram and other internet platforms they preach on what it really means to be a man, which too often ends with dominance, wealth and physical strength.

When people like Andrew Tate — a self-proclaimed misogynist with charges of rape and human trafficking against him — start to become leading voices in masculinity, then we need to pause and work out why.

Do men feel like they are losing control in a world of frequent change? Do we want to hold onto power as women strive for equal rights and income? Has an erosion in real-world communities and a rise in online echo-chambers exacerbated harmful male viewpoints?

“Jesus reveals a masculinity that chooses service over dominance, and calls us to be merciful peacemakers who grapple to love our enemies.”

Looking to Jesus and his followers, we find that Christian culture is not immune to shallow or distorted versions of masculinity. Many men would rather see Jesus with a high-income job, holding a rifle and a beautiful wife, than as a poor, celibate, former refugee who held a towel to wash the feet of his friends.

Jesus reveals a masculinity that chooses service over dominance, and calls us to be merciful peacemakers who grapple to love our enemies. Traits such as physical strength and productive skills are still desirable for Christian men (Jesus was a carpenter after all) but having deep-rooted morals and a sacrificial love for others is paramount.

We discussed the importance of mentors and role models in our own lives who show us good versions of masculinity.

Some of us mentioned fathers, grandfathers, teachers, and church members who have been stable examples for the better. Men who work hard to provide, but whose ego doesn’t need them to be “The Provider”, who respect and learn from the women in their lives as well as support them, who are willing to associate not only with the strong and triumphant, but with the weird and the stragglers, and who are even prepared to look weak or fail if necessary.

By the end of the night, we acknowledged how good it is to grapple with this topic together. Just like Ken we still have many questions, but we were better off for joining him on the journey — horse or no horse. 

2023 Anglo-Catholic Hui Reflection

My protestant roots run deep. Even after a near conversion to Roman Catholicism (what we colloquially call swimming the Tiber) ten years ago, I was hesitant when the theme for this year’s Anglo-Catholic Hui was announced to be the Blessed Virgin Mary. While I can affirm for Mary the theological title Theotokos, God-bearer, with the fifth-century ecumenical council of Ephesus, that thin line between veneration and worship gets awfully blurry on the ground in devotional practice. I have to admit, I hold some discomfort around some of the more Roman Catholic beliefs and practices around Mary. Yet through this Hui, I felt God in the discomfort—in the challenge.

We arrived to St Peter’s Cathedral in Hamilton on Thursday evening for a powhiri to kick off the hui. Following the call of the Karanga and the welcome, Rev Stephen King of St Peter’s Te Aro in Wellington gave the response on behalf of us guests, who had gathered from Te Whanganui-a-tara, Tāmaki Makaurau, Ōtepoti, Ōtautahi, and Waiapu. The weekend was rich in many ways—not least through the sharing of kai and whanaungatanga with others across the Motu. 

Statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, brought by Bishop Cherrington, first bishop of Waikato. Photo courtesy of Sarah King.

There were brilliant presentations and panels, and the historical and theological teachings was of the highest calibre. Archbishop Emeritus Sir David Moxon spoke out of his experience as former co-chair of The Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), repeating throughout that when we start with metaphysics not with the molecules, we find we have much in common. Pā Cruz Karauti-Fox spoke of Hākarameta, Sacraments, within a te Ao Māori framework. We also heard from Rev Dr Turi Hollis and Cynthia Piper.

Archbishop Emeritus Sir David Moxon looks on as Kawhia Muraahi and Chris Kay tell of the story of the whenua at Ōrākau from the days of Rewi Maniapoto to the sale of the land by the Kays to the Crown and the subsequent gifting of the land to tangata whenua. Photo courtesy Sarah King.

But the most sacred part of the hui for me was a pilgrimage or whīkoi through the Waikato through sites of colonial harm and indigenous pain. On this holy journey, we brought with us a print of the Blessed Virgin Mary, made especially for this hui by Rev Sarah Lea West. We started at Ōrākau, made our way to Rangiaowhia, and wrapped up at Old St John’s in Te Awamutu. The stories we heard were harrowing and tragic. Pā Cruz encouraged us at evensong that night to carry with us every tear, every drop of blood, every scream, and every bullet—not to dwell in guilt, but to acknowledge the reality of our history in this land. And to acknowledge a history that could have been.

The Blessed Virgin Mary that journeyed with us on our whīkoi in Old St John’s in Te Awamutu sits in front of a portrait of Irihāpeti Te Paea Pōtatau. Photo Courtesy Sarah King.

There’s a special kind of holy discomfort, unlike other forms of unease. The kind of sacred discomfort that we were invited into prevented us from rushing to centre ourselves in the story. It asked us not to focus on our own reactions and stories of pain, but to witness, acknowledge, and be truly present to the pain of others. The Evensong service at Old St John’s concluded with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the rite in which Jesus in the Eucharistic host is exposed to adoration. It was a holy moment—a holy moment that could only enter into OUR time and space through liturgy and sacrament. In that moment, we were brought together in practice and in the belief that through the work of Jesus Christ, these wounds and scars won’t have the final say in Aotearoa. Like the Blessed Virgin Mary, we bear witness to profound suffering. And yet we do not turn away. Like Mary, we continue to sing out for justice to triumph through love in this land. 

To find out more about the Anglo-Catholic Hui, visit https://anglocatholichui.nz/ or join the Facebook group: Anglo Catholic Hui.

Michael Toy

Public Theologian