Thursday, March 26, 2015

Karl Barth: Reformed Catholic?

From time to time, including recently, the interwebs are aflutter with questions like these:

How might we situate the life and work of Karl Barth vis-a-vis the historic schisms in Western Christianity between Protestants and Roman Catholics?
As a minister in the Swiss Reformed Church, he was vigorously engaged for 40 years or so in various ecumenical contexts: What do we make of that? Barth maintained spirited, intense and yet respectfl conversations with Roman Catholic interlocutors like von Balthasar and Przywara from the late 1920s onward: What does all this mean? Do we read him best as a thinker for the ages -- a Reformed Aquinas, let's say? Or is it better to see him as a champion for historic Protestant principles -- a Calvin redivivus, perhaps?

Moreover, in our own day, is the Protestant cause, or even Western Christianity as a whole, in danger of tanking, amid the rampant secularism and consumer capitalism of a decadent late modern society (cue disaster movie soundtrack)? And if so, is there a persistent tendency to construe Barth as some sort of "savior" figure (lowercase s, one hopes) for Protestantism or even, in some perverse way, for Roman Catholic Christianity?

Without attempting to answer any of these questions here, I offer the following remarks without comment and without prejudice. My source is Karl Barth, Final Testimonies, ed. Eberhard Busch, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).

* * *

During the last months of his life in 1968, Barth prepared a short radio piece about a Swiss broadcast he listened to each Sunday morning while convalescing from severe illness. The program featured one sermon from an Evangelical Reformed preacher and one from a Roman Catholic homilist, interspersed with music of varying quality. What he heard, it seems, pleasantly surprised him and helped to allay his anxieties about the ostensibly sorry state of preaching in both communions. He writes:

Serious work has stood behind all these sermons, although naturally with varying degrees of success. Among the Reformed some have been marked by prophetic power while among the Roman Catholic a series of fast sermons was characterized by mystical depth in the good sense (p. 43).

Apart from the occasional mediocre or off-putting offering that prompted him to switch his set off, Barth finds most of the sermons, from both communions on the whole thoughtful, edifying and engaged with scripture. His general impression was that preaching in the late 1960s was by and large improving -- perhaps especially in the wake of Vatican II and an energized ecumenical movement. He also concludes, from the sermons he audited, that the impact of "demythogizing and existentializing" New Testament scholarship was on the wane in the churches, which he counted a gain. (Again, I'm just the messenger here, folks.)

Most importantly, Barth writes:

What I have heard has been ecumenical preaching even when the term has not been used. I mean that there has not been any confessional debate, obviously not because of some tacit or express radio agreement, but because neither side has seemed to feel any need for it (p. 44).

Historically divisive issues like Mariology, Petrine primacy and the efficacy of works, he finds, are fading more into the background in the Roman Catholic sermons, while the Reformed have backed off from the trenchant "Here I Stand" broadsides ("Hiersteheichlichpredigten", I believe, would be the technical term) of earlier times. The sermons, from both sides, exude less of the spirit of dissent and more focused attention on proclamation of the Gospel.

I wonder what Barth would say today about these matters? What do y'all think, gentle readers? Is Barth prophetic here or more naive and overly irenic? Might we glean any hope from this piece?

In other words, why can't we all just get along -- IRD* funding notwithstanding?


____
*The Institute for Religion and Democracy. Good heavens, people, just type it into your web browser. Why should I have to explain everything?




==================================

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What Am I Reading? Ronald Osborn on “Death Before the Fall”

I recently read through Ronald Osborn’s engagingly written volume.* Those who follow me on twitter (if you don’t, feel free to make use of the link at the end of this post…) were able to join in the experience a bit as I tweeted out some of Osborn’s many pithy and memorable lines. One that has stuck with me, for instance, is his definition of theistic evolution: “Theistic evolution is, we might say, leisurely creationism” (p. 74)! Osborn’s obvious skills as a communicator are employed in this volume to make two points: first, “literal” readings of the creation narratives in the Christian tradition collapse if one starts asking questions; second, that the suffering of animals (especially but not only in theistic evolutionary accounts) creates an interestingly modulated theodicy problem for Christian theology, a problem that Osborn makes some gestures toward constructively addressing.

Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

Osborn’s book is certainly not groundbreaking. He is not a systematic theologian, and much of the argumentative core of the book can be found elsewhere. Indeed, and for instance, there were a few places where I found myself wishing that Osborn had drawn support from Ken Miller’s book, Finding Darwin’s God and other places. The more constructively-oriented second part of the book (on animal suffering and theodicy) also struck me as frustratingly suggestive although promising. But none of these minor criticisms undermine what Osborn has accomplished, viz., the provision of an eminently accessible theological reflection on the problems of “literalist” interpretations of the Christian creation narratives. This is a book intended for the evangelical laity—indeed, Osborn writes as a member of and especially for the Seventh Day Adventist church—and I hope that it finds the audience among them that it deserves.

I’ll be posting about this book a few times in the coming weeks. For now I want to leave you with two pieces to further whet your appetites. This first passage is from early in the volume when Osborn is exploring the positive theological payoff of alternative readings of the creation narratives:
If the reading I have offered so far is at all correct and God recruits the creation at each stage to play an active, participatory role in what follows, with Adam being charged with an especially vital task of “subduing” other parts of the earth, then there is a very good theological reason why God declares the creation to be “very good” rather than “perfect.” The creation cannot be perfect because, in an important sense, it is not entirely God’s work. There are principles of freedom at work in the creation, and animals, humans and the earth itself have a God-given role to play as his coworkers. There is also a strong sense that while the creation is in one sense “complete” at the end of the narrative, it is not yet finished. . . . When God tells Adam to cultivate the Garden it is thus entirely consistent with the language and narrative arc of the story to see this cultivation as including the idea of expansion or development—God wants Adam to increase the Garden, and there is a tension between the world inside the Garden and the world outside it. “To be a creature is necessarily to be incomplete, unfinished, imperfect,” writes Andrew Linzey in Animal Theology. “From this standpoint the very nature of creation is always ambiguous; it points both ways; it affirms and denies God at one and the same time. Affirms God because God loves and cares for it but it also necessarily denies God because it is not divine.” Hence, “the state of nature can in no way be an unambiguous referent to what God wills or plans for creation.” The fact that God “rested” or “ceased” from his work on the seventh day may therefore represent not a termination point but a deeply pregnant pause. There is more to come, and we must wait to hear God say the words “It is finished” (31–32).
I like this way of reading the narratives for a number of reasons, even if I would conceptually tighten a few points. Adapting such a reading among those who hold to more “literalistic” interpretations would have widespread intellectual consequences. This creates interesting problems for natural theology and natural law traditions, has consequences for environmental ethics, coordinates creation and redemption through a nice christological twist, etc.

Part of what it requires is taking creation seriously as we find it, rather than thinking or speaking of creation or “the natural world” in an idealized way. This idealistic reflex is another aspect of more “literalistic” readings of the creation narratives, and Osborn very interestingly ties this to what he calls the “Gnostic Syndrome.” So here is another passage elucidating some of what that means:
Knowledge of the course that history must run from beginning to end is what transforms the gnostic from a person of “mere” faith into a revolutionary [ed.: or, perhaps, reactionary?] filled with the missionary zeal of fanatical certainty. Whether formally acknowledged or not, one is saved in gnostic soteriology not by pistis (faith) but by gnosis (knowledge) that serves as a “liberating science” or “diagnosis-therapy” of the human condition and counter-explanation of material realities. The “liberating science” of Gnosticism is not the disciplined practice of empirical inquiry in openness to the world of material facts as they often stubbornly confront us, holding us accountable to reality in at times discomforting ways. It is instead a revolutionary [ed.: again, perhaps, reactionary?] “science” that frees the true believer from “false consciousness” associated with ordinary science, fallen human senses and rationality. Only those armed with the special hidden knowledge are able to correctly “read” material reality (91–92).
For an expansion on this latter passage, you might consult this previous DET post. But, of course, you ought also to consult the rest of Osborn’s treatment. I hope that you’ll give the volume a close look. More to come soon!

__________
* My thanks to IVP Academic for providing me with a review copy which, in keeping with academic practice, does not predispose me to providing a positive review.

==================================

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Does it Sink or Float? - Barth's "Titanic" Sermon

From first to last, Karl Barth was a preacher, as many commentators have pointed out. For nearly six decades -- from his days as student pastor in Geneva to his years in retirement from his university position -- Barth delivered myriads of sermons in churches, public meeting places and even prisons, and he always saw a key part of his vocation to be the renewal of evangelical homiletics in the churches. So why don't we have more of Barth's sermons available for the English reading public, asks Kurt Johanson? It's a good question.
I recently received a copy of the book he edited several years ago: The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth (trans. Christopher Asprey, Vancouver, Canada: Regent College Publishing, 2007).* This got me thinking about the ad hoc and sporadic character of the way Barth's occasional writings have been published in English.

Fortunately, since this helpful booklet came out, the older sermon collections Call for God and Deliverance to the Captives have been reprinted, and we also now have the fascinating collection of homilies from the Safenwil period, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon. Yet I count twelve volumes of sermons published by TVZ in the Karl Barth-Gesamtausgabe (the German critical edition, still unfolding), ranging from 1913 to 1967, so I suppose translators have a little catching up to do.

As we become more familiar with this material, I suspect longstanding stereotypes of Barth and his life-work will continue to totter. For example, take Barth's sermon that followed the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912 (This is the first of the two pieces in the Johanson booklet, and it is also available  online from The Princeton Seminary Bulletin.) This comes, of course, from Barth's early "liberal" period, and is a pretty quirky piece. I'm not sure whether modern pulpit stalwarts like Phillips Brooks or Harry Emerson Fosdick would have discerned the lineaments of their trade in this somewhat disjointed and puzzling homily.

Despite criticisms of this sermon by Willimon, who wrote an introduction to the booklet, and even Barth himself (in his somewhat red-faced reminiscence in his Homiletics), I actually rather like this piece, and probably for all the wrong reasons. What allures me is how it shows Barth to be at some level a regular modern guy (or what passed for one 100 years ago), worldly, perhaps a little bemused but also invigorated by a rapidly changing society and, overall, optimistic -- seeking pointers to the eternal kingdom amid the halting steps of God's fallible creatures. Maybe we're supposed to have rejected all that stuff post Römerbrief, but I don't. And I'm not even sure Barth would have wanted us to do so either. (If you think otherwise, take another look at God Here and Now and The Humanity of God and report back to me.)

I confess I've lost my copy of the Busch biography, and I haven't had time recently to grab the copy at the public library that I (alone, probably) check out from time to time. So I don't recall what, if anything, Barth says about his prep process on this one. Still, I could imagine Barth rushing to finish this sermon in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, having stayed up all night reading all the newspaper clippings and, perhaps, mulling over the week's stunning events in a fog of cigarette smoke with his buddy Eduard. What ensues from the pulpit is, perhaps, the fruit of that frantic conversation.

Let the neo-orthodox sniff, as they may; I know this sermon won't pass muster with them.
To be sure, here you have the young preacher with his Bible open (of course!) but if you expect answers to magically jump out of its pages, you will be disappointed. Truth is, the homilist doesn't know what God might be up to, if anything, in this disaster any more than anyone sitting in the pews.

And yes, I'll admit, though I'm probably not supposed to enjoy this aspect of Barth which, some claim, he sort of outgrew later, I enjoy how the Barth of the teens doesn't pass a ripe opportunity to take potshots at the evils of capitalism. (Like Barth, as I see it, I'm something of a crypto-Marxist. If you think I'm off base here, you might want to read Hunsinger's Karl Barth and Radical Politics, or Timothy Gorringe's book, or some of Travis McMaken's posts on Barth's protege, Gollwitzer, and then report back to me.)

To be sure, preachers, like everyone else, are often at a loss for words after a tragedy, but I find several aspects of this piece striking. To wit:

  • Barth engages current events with eyes wide open. The text goes on for several pages in vivid, almost journalistic detail about the ship and its extravagant amenities, its myriad passengers, the lighting pace of the beeline journey across the chilly north Atlantic, the hidden berg snapping the steel panels underneath, the band playing on bravely as water gushes into the hull, acts of selfless heroism amid the pitifully inadequate rescue operation and even the gunshots from the captain taking his own life. All that is missing to fill out the picture is Leo DiCaprio leaning out over the bow with Kate Winslet. But didn't his parishioners know most of these details already? Those of us who sometimes hypostasize Barth as some sort of Swiss Aquinas can occlude the fact that he was a practical and worldly man concerned with quotidian details. John Updike understood this about Barth, and he dug it. This sermon helps me picture the Swiss pastor who wrote newspaper op-eds, pored over labor laws and sought to organize textile workers.

  • Barth's socialist commitments are clearly evident. Barth is not one to wring his hands here and go cosmic -- Oh why, God, why? -- when there is plenty of blame to assign to human agents here. This tragedy was utterly preventable, he insists. Fundamentally, more than the captain's ineptitude or any other factor, Barth blames the avarice of the shipping company for the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage. "Indeed, this catastrophe is a crude but all-the-more clear example to us of the essential characteristics and the effects of capitalism, which consists in a few individuals competing with each other at the expense of everyone else in a mad and foolish race for profits" (p. 40). He notes ruefully that the captain and crew and two-thirds of the passengers perished horribly while the shipping company president was among the 700 rescued "unfortunately, we are almost tempted to say" (ibid.). And yet...

  • He affirms human progress and technology as fundamentally noble, godly even. Barth might have drawn the same conclusion in the wake of the disaster that others have drawn, as I will attest from having myself endured numerous sermon anecdotes to this effect: The supposedly unsinkable ocean liner might be seen as an emblem of human hubris run extravagantly amok. Pride goeth before a fall. Curiously, though, Barth here will have none of that. Rather, he affirms that the need to explore and expand the realm of technological mastery is central to God's created gifts to humankind. Pushing boundaries is integral to what makes us human.

    He writes: "It is entirely God's will that the world's technology and machinery attain to higher degrees of perfection. For technology is nothing other than mastery over nature, it is labour, and the divine spirit in humanity ought to expand in this labour to prosper" (p. 36). Recall that we're talking about Karl Barth here, not Teilhard de Chardin. And yet, living by this Promethean spirit is dangerous, to say the least.

* * *

So where was God in all this? This piece is, perhaps, a little thin on theological or even biblical insights, as the critics note. Barth offers a few vague platitudes about the fragility of human life and the inscrutability of providence. On the other hand, maybe Barth was right to focus more on concrete matters -- the practical and socio-economic dimensions of the Titantic disaster. Perhaps preachers and other Christian "thinkers" tempted to tweet some choice nugget of theodicy or perhaps a Bible "woe" passage when a tornado levels a Midwestern school or a hurricane batters a Caribbean island might yet learn a useful lesson from the early Barth's homilectical stammering.


_____
* Johanson sent me a review copy of this book. I am not required to write a positive review of the book. All opinions expressed here are my own.

==================================

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Will I see Jesus when I die? A Story in Search of a Sermon

Conversations about life and death tend to sound different when they take place between folks who are well than when they do between people who are sick. I’ve talked theology for countless hours with people who are healthy, but much less with those who are sick or are slowly dying. In those moments in which I have, I’ve noted that conversations about life, God, eternity, salvation tend to take on a different tone and immediacy when they happen with the terminally ill. They take on more weight. Our words seem to mean more. At the threshold between life and death, it appears to me that what we say matters to an extent unacknowledged when we are healthy.


One Wednesday evening when I was on call I was paged to a patient's bedside. I walked into the room and was confronted by a younger woman, slowly yet surely dying of AIDS and heart disease. The patient wanted a chaplain to talk to her about everything the chaplain knew about what the Bible says about life, dying, death, salvation. I sat at her bedside and with her Bible in her hand and my Bible in mine and we began a grand tour through Scripture. We read together, taking moments to pause when she had a question or needed a moment to cry. Together we explored the Word of God, and I do think it brought her soul some solace. Yet she had one pressing question, repeated over and over and over again, “when I die, will I see Jesus?”

I tried to strategically avoid giving her a direct answer, but the patient was incessant. I tried to get her to put into words why she so desperately wanted to know, but she saw right through that. She wanted to know what I believe. She wanted some sort of blessed assurance that death will not be some sort of entrance into an empty void, but rather will transition her into new life with God. As she approached her death she wanted to know that she will see with her eyes Jesus, welcoming her forward. She wanted Jesus and yearned to know that Jesus wants her.

Needless to say, I felt uncomfortable being put on the spot like this, because I’m not always sure what I believe and admitting this to the patient would put me in a place of vulnerability that I did not want to go towards. Yet I felt that in the face of her fearless honesty and questioning that I had to arise to the occasion and speak truthfully. She was looking to me for insight. My words mattered. I had to tell her the truth.

Will I see Jesus when I die? In my heart of hearts, I told her, in the deepest place of my belief, I have faith that the answer is "Yes." I may doubt, and I may question, but I hold as the central conviction of my identity, the crux of my hope, that there is nothing, not even death, which will separate me from the love of God in Jesus Christ for me. Sight perhaps will have a different meaning in the life to come after death, but in the resurrection I do believe that we will be with Jesus and see God face to face. She looked at me with eyes serene, and said, "Ok. Thank you." And I shivered.

I’ve had many conversations concerning eternity with the healthy. But it was only in talking with a woman who stares into the coming abyss that I was able to put into words what I actually believe.

==================================

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Luther on the "Inner Necessity" of Works of Love in the Christian Life

This point is, for my money, the heart of Kim’s work on Luther in this volume. There are two mistakes that one can fall into when thinking about works, according to Protestant theology. First, you can think that your works somehow contribute to your positive relationship with God (i.e., you can somehow earn or achieve your own salvation). Second, you can think that since you cannot contribute to your positive relationship with God, it doesn’t much matter what you do. The logic of Luther’s position—as Kim shows at length—avoids both of these extremes, instead binding justification and sanctification / faith and love together in an ordered relationship of inner necessity. In the below excerpt this is explained by way of Luther’s metaphor concerning the relationship of a tree to its roots.

Sun-young Kim, Luther on Faith and Love: Christ and the Law in the 1535 Galatians Commentary, Emerging Scholars (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).199–200.
The logical significance of this metaphor of tree and fruits is the inner necessity of every tree to bear fruits—namely, the external evidence of its being internally alive. In the same way, those who grasp Christ by faith in their hearts are like “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season” (Psalm 1:3). Concentrating on the inner necessity of a tree bearing fruits, Luther articulates: a person who has Christ by faith in his heart requires no external command to work, since he has an internal driving force originating from Christ in his heart. . . . The Spirit of Christ “does not permit a man to be idle but drives him to all the exercises of devotion, to the love of God, to patience in affliction, to prayer, to thanksgiving, and to the practice of love toward all men.” Although fruits do not make a tree but are produced by a tree, they are sure evidence of its being either alive or lifeless. Fruits are external signs of the identity and internal health of a tree. Righteous works likewise distinguish an authentic Christian from a fake and bear witness to the spirit health of a person.

==================================

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Top DET Posts from 2014

With the Oscars now out of the way, it's time again to refocus attention on the posts that have been performing well here at DET in terms of readership.

Here is the list of our hottest posts (drum-roll, please....):

Top 10
  1. So, You Want To Read Karl Barth?
  2. Demythologizing the Divide between Barth and Bultmann
  3. So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?
  4. Sarah Coakley defines Systematic Theology
  5. Comments Brought to Light: David Congdon on Bultmann, Barth, Heidegger, Scripture, Tradition, and Sache
  6. Helmut Gollwitzer and John Webster on Scripture, or, the problem of *ethical* biblical criticism – A guest post by Collin Cornell
  7. Karl Barth on Eberhard Jüngel’s “God’s Being Is In Becoming” - from a new book by Eberhard Busch
  8. To my deconverted friend – A guest post by Collin Pae Cornell
  9. Is God Dead? - Paul M. van Buren’s “Austin Dogmatics”
  10. Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) - Hegel

(For comparison, you might want to take a quick gander at the last top 10 post: Top 10 Posts from the Second Half of 2013)

What this "Top 10" confirms for me is that, although from time to time we've had a variety of content from a variety of theological perspectives, the bread and butter for most of our readership is dialectical theology -- especially (of course) the work of Barth and Bultmann and the thinkers and movements most inspired by these theological giants (e.g., read no. 9 to learn about the under-appreciated but seminal contribution of Paul van Buren to Barth interpretation.)

At number one is Travis McMaken's classic post from 2007 on "How to Read Karl Barth". (I will admit this is one of the few blog posts I myself have read multiple times over the course of several years.)

In a similar vein, at number three, is Brandy Daniels' intro to studying Bonhoeffer, in which an aspiring scholar and Vanderbilt theology student (and prolific blogger, mainly on...sigh...other websites) gives us a snapshot of her ongoing journey into one of the hottest, if not always best understood, subjects of research in Christian thought.

Another keen topic of research and in the field for the past 15 years or so has been the revisionist reexamination of the relationships between Barth and his Protestant predecessors and contemporaries. Two posts delve into the ways scholarship has been problematizing stereotypical accounts of how Barth is situated among the projects of his peers in the dialectical theology movement. An earlier post (no. 2) explores that, as does the riveting window David Congdon offers (see no. 5) into his own scholarship. I'm eagerly awaiting what I'll learn from reading Congdon's forthcoming book on Bultmann (even if I'm a little less excited about the list price for the cloth edition).

Guest contributor Collin Pae Cornell, a NT-scholar-in-training at Emory (one of my own alma maters), has gifted us with two impactful posts (at no. 6 and no. 8). It is refreshing to read his gripping letter to a "deconverted friend", especially in light of all the pabulum on the inter-webs these days about belief, doubt and skepticism.

Quick disclaimer: The links above are only page specific hits and do not account for those who read the post while it was on the main blog page.

* * *

Finally, I note that I soon will pass the one-year mark as a regular contributor here at DET, and it's been a fantastic ride for me so far. I've especially enjoyed some great pushback and amplifications from some of you in several comment threads that has helped me rethink and reframe both what I'm trying to say and how I say it.

Remember that we love to hear what's on your mind, gentle readers, so please don't hesitate to join the conversation.

==================================

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Background on the “Article by which the church stands or falls”

So here’s an interesting tidbit from Kim’s volume, Luther on Faith and Love. I’m sure that at least some of you, gentle readers, have encountered the stereotypically “Lutheran” notion that the doctrine of justification is the doctrine or “article by which the church stands or falls” (once more for the Latin-loving theology nerds amongst you: articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae). The interesting bit is that this formula cannot be found in Luther! Kim provides a footnote (which, coincidentally, is heavily indebted to Eberhard Jüngel) tracing the formula, and that’s what I share with you here. I’ve cut out the citations for ease of reading (and, honestly, I didn’t want to take the time to type them all…), so look it up in the book if you want to track these things down.

Sun-young Kim, Luther on Faith and Love: Christ and the Law in the 1535 Galatians Commentary, Emerging Scholars (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 11n21.
T. Mahlmann explains that the expression . . . is traceable to Franz Turrettini. Mahlmann also mentions that the spread of the expression was contributed to by Friedrich Loofs’s “failed attempt at finding the origin of this expression.” . . . Referring to Mahlmann, Eberhard Jüngel also points out in discreet words that, although similar formulae are found in Luther and this phrasing has indeed been employed to signify a high view of this doctrine, the exact phrasing does not appear in Luther. . . . Carter Lindberg draws attention to the usage of this formula by an eighteenth-century Lutheran orthodoxy: “In 1712, Valentin Löscher, the champion of Lutheran orthodoxy, termed the doctrine of justification the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae.” . . . Lindberg comments that Löscher’s context differs from that of Luther’s. Consequently, although Löscher’s formula is “comparable in intent to Luther’s position,” since Löscher was speaking in the wake of a period of confessionalization, the church to which he referred in his formula was “the Lutheran church as a denomination.”
Turretin! Who would have thought . . .

==================================