Saturday, April 25, 2015

My Most Recent Publication(s)

It has been a while since I did one of these posts, but far be it from me to miss a chance to promote some of my work. That’s what blogs are for, after all.

In any case, some of you may have noticed that I tweeted this information out a few weeks ago. But I thought that I would put up a quick post for those who don’t pay attention to Twitter. And even for those who do – if you blink, you miss stuff on there.

Anyway, I’ve had two articles appear this year. You can check them out a bit on my page. I have stubs up there that give you the abstract, publication information, first page, and even a link to the journal issue in question. So be sure to take a peek if you haven’t yet.
“‘Shalom, Shalom, Shalom Israel!’ Jews and Judaism in Helmut Gollwitzer’s Life and Theology,” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 10.1 (2015): 1–22.

“Definitive, Defective, or Deft? Reassessing Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism in CD IV/4,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 17.1 (2015): 89–114.
Be sure to follow me if you’re on Who knows, I might publish something else someday . . .


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Augustine's "One-World" Solution

In reimmersing myself in Augustine's Confessions, I pulled from the shelf a fine introductory text -- Language and Love: Introducing Augustine's Religious Thought through the Confessions Story by William Mallard (Pennsylvania State University, 1994).
This work, lucid and accessible, would make a helpful companion volume for an adult education forum or undergraduate class on Augustine. In the introduction Mallard offers a succinct precis of the Confessions and of the north African bishop's lifelong religious quest.

As Mallard frames the matter, Augustine's basic problem -- the abiding source of his "restless heart" -- is that from a very early age he was presented with two incommensurable worlds: "the world of his mother's religious faith, and the world of everything else" (p. 2). In one of these worlds, a loving and provident creator sends Jesus Christ to save believers from sin and death; in the other world, human beings hone their skills to get ahead and to "win" in a world of competitive selfishness. Mallard writes:

To live in two worlds and talk two ways about life disturbed Augustine as a child and youth. Even his mother, Monica, added to the confusion in some ways. She taught him that nothing and no one was a important as his Father in heaven. Yet she did not have him baptized (p. 3).

Augustine was enrolled in the Catechumenate and presumably would be baptized eventually. Nonetheless, Monica's failure to call a priest when her 11-year-old son was potentially on his deathbed haunted Augustine into his middle-aged years (Augustine wrote his Confessions at age 44). As a young adult Augustine pursued several dead-end paths to resolve his insatiable quest for meaning and to achieve identity closure. He immersed himself in his career as rhetorician and teacher that his parents urged upon him. He also, famously, sought affirmation from his peers and release through romantic love: "I came to Carthage and all around me hissed a cauldron of illicit loves.... I was in love with love" (Confessions III.1, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford, 1991). For a time he sought answers for his questing heart and mind in an heretical eastern sect, the Manicheans, but the dualism of their cosmology and soteriology only heightened the sense of an unbridgeable chasm between heaven and earth.

Augustine's solution, as Mallard puts it, was to embrace and pursue the reality of a unified world -- that of a loving and all-provident God who creates and directs the course of the finite world and redeems the faithful from chaos and dissolution. Yet Augustine realized that people would still have a foot in two realms, as it were, and surviving and thriving in this life would entail patience and risk. The Christian life is a long haul rather than a quick exit. Hence the Augustinian emphasis on forming habits that lead the believer toward the Creator and obsessive fixation on the realm of creation. Mallard continues:

Augustine came to believe in one essential key to living in God's good, but dangerous, created world: learn to do it gradually. There has to be steady practice, day by day and year by year, which starts small and patiently lives in the world, hoping to grow (p. 6).

Isolated individuals will be unable to take this path alone; they need a safe space and time to cultivate their life with God in God's one good world. Sadly, families are often divided, and can even be the locus of violence and unsafety. What human beings must have to flourish, in such a precarious world, is a larger community, a surrogate family -- composed not of perfect individuals, to be sure, but a group of people who attempt to follow the Creator's rules and travel the path together. Enter Christology and ecclesiology. What Mallard writes about this is so beautiful and succinct it deserves to be quoted at length:

The Creator's church, then, was like a family, a family Augustine did not experience in his early life, but discovered after much struggle. This family offered closeness and warmth, personal nurture, as well as discipline. Augustine, finally, held that the Creator actually had appeared on earth to provide what the family needed: authority, self-giving, trust. That seemed like a mythological tale, and it was a long time before he could grasp it. Yet mythology deals in a two-world outlook, the immortal gods and mortal humanity, while the Creator's appearance was God uniting with humanity, in Christ, even dying, to accomplish a one-world outlook. This appearance as a human being, and the onset of the Creator's church, were local and particular; they had to be if they responded to humanity's need for a place to start again. Yet people of every nation and race on earth were invited to participate (p. 6).

But what if the church itself is not a safe place but, rather, a source of hurt and trauma, a place where authority is abused, where the suffering of the marginal is compounded and fundamental human needs remain unmet? Augustine, of course, was aware that the church is compromised, comprised of fallen individuals, afflicted with confusion, greed, double-mindedness. The church is meant to bring healing to a broken and unjust world, but what if it becomes, structurally and not just as an aggregate of individuals, more part of the problem than part of the solution? To be sure, unlike some Christian utopians, Augustine recognized the fallibility of the church. My persistent question, from the standpoint of what I've read and people I've known, is whether this recognition goes far enough.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Method, Politics, and the Supreme Court: More on “Literalist” Creationism from Ronald Osborn

Once more into the breach, dear friends!

In this installment, I want to highlight an interesting sequence of thoughts that I came across in Osborn. These are all tidbits that I noted as I read so that I could share them with you, gentle readers. But the more that I reflected on them, the more I realized that they are tied very closely together. So come with me for another hop, skip, and jump through Osborn while we consider whether “literalism” with reference to the Genesis creation narratives is a question of method or of doctrine, the consequences of “literalism’s” answer to that question, and an alternative way of thinking. As always, bold is mine and italics are in the original.

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

To begin, what is the real engine of “literalist” understandings of the Genesis creation narratives? Are folks in this camp concerned with maintaining a particular set of doctrinal positions, or are they more concerned with theological method? Here’s Osborn:
The reason literalists read the creation narratives and other parts of Scripture the way they do is because they are already committed to a very specific philosophical and theological research program, namely, to a kind of foundationalism that owes its lineage to the ideas of Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers as much if not more than to the ideas of Scripture. The burning heart of modern creationism is not a doctrine but a method. Doctrines will be creatively reinterpreted or even rewritten without hesitation by literalists in order to sustain this methodological project. What must be protected from change at all cost is the paradigm of philosophical foundationalism-cum-literalism itself, which ground the literalist’s sense of certainty and security in an uncertain age. To change this would mark the collapse of the literalist’s research program and require a significant paradigm shift – and there is no greater fear among creationists than the fear of paradigm lost. (74-5)
Talk about a great concluding line! I’m sure that many of you, gentle readers, threw up your hands upon reading this passage and thought that’s bad enough. But wait, there’s more! Because the primary concern here is methodological rather than doctrinal – that it, it has to do with a way of being in the world rather than with particular conceptual positions to be maintained – it cannot be defended by mere argument. It is tied up with a set of values in which people are emotionally invested, and which therefore (so these folks’ thinking seems to go) must be defended. As a result, this sort of fundamentalism is a political entity:
Fundamentalism, then, is not simply a way of reading texts. It is a plan for political action. And fundamentalist political action in secular as well as ecclesial realms has often lead to violence, whether in the form of the righteous crusade against “heathen” outsiders or the scapegoating of “heretical” insiders. Once it becomes clear to the fundamentalist that he cannot win the day by citing verses alone since other stubbornly read the same verses differently than he does, he will move to create a centralized political power of ecclesial body with the authority to suppress rival interpretations, to monitor for unacceptable thoughts, to denounce infidels and to vigilantly police the boundaries of the community. Yet even as the fundamentalist sows great destruction and inflicts real violence on the Other . . . he invariably thinks of himself as a victim of the Other’s aggression. . . .

The mere fact that others disagree with the fundamentalist’s interpretations and openly offer other ways of thinking about the text is felt by the true believer as a direct existential threat to themselves and to the entire community – a sinister danger that must be exposed and cleansed. . . . As a form of foundationalist philosophical reasoning, fundamentalism declares that failure to hold fast to the “correct” interpretation of any one of the fundamental beliefs must necessarily unravel all the others [ed. note: precisely b/c it’s a method not discreet positions that matter], spreading rings of contaminating influence throughout the community and finally toppling the entire faith. As a totalizing political narrative . . . , fundamentalism declares that the dissent of even one member pollutes the body.

But fundamentalists readings of Scripture are of course precisely that: readings that may be challenged . . . (80-81)
Against the sort of creeping totalitarianism that North American fundamentalism seems hell-bent on becoming, one way or the other, Osborn offers a different way of thinking about theological disagreements within church groups. This is especially pressing in the realm of higher education, where subtle but nonetheless blood-thirsty political battles are often fought over these issues and people’s reputations and livelihoods often become casualties. What if, Osborn asks, we think of authority in these contexts not on a centralized industrial model (e.g., a shoe factory), but in terms of a different model?
Unanimous Supreme Court decisions are rare. Practically every US Supreme Court ruling on every major issue includes one or more dissenting opinion(s). These dissenting opinions are clearly and publically articulated and might in the future influence the overturning of an earlier decision. The health of a democratic polity that is oriented toward questions of truth and justice, the framers of the American legal system understood, depends not only on consensus but also on dissent. And a dissenting judge is not being “unpatriotic” or defying the law by disagreeing with the majority opinion. They are in fact upholding the deepest meaning of the law in the very act of raising principled objections to it. So here is a question we might ask those who have become convicted that institutions of higher education are corrupting the youth: What if Christian colleges and universities – even those affiliated with traditions with highly literalistic doctrines of creation – embraced a picture of unity in the body of Christ that included the concept of necessary loyal dissent within a framework of basic respect, transparency and honest searching for truth? Communities that instead strive to model their inner workings on pictures of corporate power and control will in the end come to resemble . . . oppressive authoritarian regimes. (114-115)
Well now, this post has gotten quite long. But this certainly is an interesting train of thought . . . And one that can be applied for the sake of Christian unity not only in conservative ecclesial circles but others as well . . .


Thursday, April 16, 2015

To Love without Burning: Augustine's Tantalizing God

When I first read St. Augustine's Confessions back in the day, I was into process theology. Of course, I recognized in this classic fourth century work by the north African bishop a work of great genius, spiritual profundity and psychological acuity.

Yet I judged Augustine's doctrine of God to be fundamentally mistaken. After all, wasn't his project a prime example of the fruitless quest to integrate biblical doctrine with Hellenistic philosophy -- in his case, Plotinian metaphysics? Wasn't God, in Augustine's view, essentially static, timeless and impassible?

For the first time in a number of years (too many!), I'm rereading the Confessions cover-to-cover, this time in the splendid translation by Henry Chadwick (Oxford, 1991). I'm revisiting the question whether God in Augustine's conception, if I may draw upon Barth's terminology here, is a prisoner of God's own divine aseity. Many of you are familiar with how the work begins -- and if you're not, I urge to leave this post immediately and start reading the book for yourself. In the opening pages of Book I, Augustine begins doxologically, with a meditation on what it means to praise God and how this relates to knowing God. He then proceeds to what, on the face of it, might seem to be an unpromising line of inquiry: metaphysical speculation on how an infinite divine presence can be said to fill all created things with the wealth of God's fullness without being exhausted or partitioned.

So who is this God and how might God be named?
Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and 'leading' the proud 'to be old without their knowledge' (Job 9:5, Old Latin version)" (I.4).
So far it sounds like a prototype of the classical theism that would dominate medieval Scholastic thought. But note the polarities -- I'm not sure of a better way to put it -- that Augustine uses to describe God as the list of attributes continues:
always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity. searching even though nothing to you is lacking: you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you "repent" (Gen. 6:6) without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil (ibid.).
Now this God, in my reading at least, seems not at all inert but supremely active, transcendent yet more immanent than any creaturely reality. To be sure, this deity is not enmeshed in creaturely finitude and suffering, as theopaschites ancient and modern have sought to conceive God; yet neither is God aloof or disinterested in the lives of God's creatures. This God is a far cry from the proverbial Unmoved Mover. In a word, it seems to me that the way Augustine describes God -- in this brief passage at least -- is not univocal but rather a bit more...dialectical.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

“Literal” Creationist and Nominalism (Voluntarism)? Scholasticism, the Matrix, and more from Osborn

Today I want to share with you what may be one of the most penetrating insights on offer from Osborn and his recent book (pictured right). What insight is that, you ask? Why, that “literalist” readings of the Genesis creation narratives, and the theological constellations that insist on them, inadvertently demand a nominalist conception of God.

“Nominalism” is a concept that can get thrown around carelessly in theological discourse, especially with reference to late medieval scholastic theology (think Scotus, Occam, etc.). It is hard in that context to pin down exactly what “nominalism” is, and it tends to be taken as a far more totalizing concept than I tend to think is warranted. And this expanded discourse occurs especially when the question of the Reformation arises, with some folks on both the Protestant and Catholic side interested in painting reformational theology as nominalist and others interested in refusing that designation.

In any case, the core of nominalism is “voluntarism,” which is best seen when paired with its technical opposite, namely, intellectualism. Broadly speaking, the antagonism here is a question of which mental faculty takes precedence in the mind of God. Is it God’s willing (voluntarism, as the conceptual core of nominalism), or is it God’s knowing (intellectualism)? I’ll speak now simply to the application in the doctrine of creation: a voluntarist / nominalist thinks that God created as God did just because, as an arbitrary exercise of will; an intellectualist thinks that God created in a way consistent with God’s self-knowledge, that is, in a way consistent with the sort of God that God is which, in this case, is not arbitrary but loving, etc. (fill in the blanks here with revelation). Of course, as is always the case in theology, decisions on these sorts of issues have far-reaching consequences . . .

So, with that background, we turn to Osborn. Bold is mine, italics are his:

Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).
The goddess Athena, according to the Greeks, sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus. Not to be outdone, young earth creationists have conceived a Creator who pulls fully formed rabbits and people from out of the soil on day six of creation. But while this would be an impressive feat, we must ask what sort of picture of God emerges from this vision. Is this not a strictly nominalist or voluntarist God whose ways may indeed be stupendous but whose creation – as an inscrutable performance of sheer will – must now also be seen as a kind of deception or sleight of hand? What should we make of a God who creates a universe, an earth, plants, animals and humans with the appearance but not the actuality of age? How many days old did Adam appear on the first day of his creation? Those who would say more than one are positing a basic incongruity between the reality disclosed in Scripture and the realities of the physical world that stare us . . . in the face. . . . Existence at a very fundamental level, in this way of thinking, cannot be believed or trusted. It is at bottom an artificial stage production. Reality has the ontological properties of unreality or surrealism and did so from the very start. (133)
Osborn now turns to how this picture of God and creation swings back around to shape thinking about what it means to be human, and especially what it means to be in relationship with God (i.e., what faith is all about):
What the nominalist Creator seems to require of us is not belief in the superabundance of divine love that opens the possibility of the miraculous as a revelation of what is in fact most natural and most real in God’s inbreaking kingdom – the kind of hyperreality that might even raise a man from the dead. Instead, what the nominalist deity demands of us is a performance of sheer will in turn: the will to believe; fideistic mental compliance to purely propositional assertions in the name of protecting the Bible’s internal coherence; unquestioning acceptance of a creation that now contains the arbitrary and surd elements of an unbelievable magic show (thousand-year-old trees that are really one second old, day-old humans without any memories who nevertheless know how to speak to one another in a fully evolved human language, apparently downloaded directly from the mind of God like preinstalled software).
If you’re like me, gentle readers, the thought that jumped into your mind when you finished the last sentence of the above quote is that “literalists” basically believe in the Matrix. Follow the white rabbit…

[Ed. note: Wow, from medieval scholasticism to the Matrix. This is a post for the DET record books.]


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Ripped from the Headlines? Barth's Bremen Sermon (pt. 1)

When I read the sermon Karl Barth delivered at the Frauenkirche in Bremen, Germany, in 1934, I can't avoid seeking the Nazi elephant in the room.
(The text is in The Word in This World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth. ed. Kurt I. Johanson and trans. Christopher Asprey, Vancouver, BC, 2007.*) After all, of course, those were dark times for Europe generally and for Barth personally. I will explore that context more fully in my next post. Suffice it to say, the Confessing Church movement was beginning to coalesce, spearheaded by Barth's principal authorship of the Barmen Declaration earlier that spring. He would soon be dismissed from his post at the University of Bonn for what the powers that be would interpret as an act of civil disobedience: A refusal to pledge, without qualification, his loyalty to the Fuhrer.

How, according to Barth, do biblical text and contemporary context come together in the sermon event? Barth lays out his own methodological views on preaching in his Homilectics lectures, which also come from his Bonn period. It might seem natural, then, to try to use his explicit homilectical theories to parse what is happening in the Bremen piece. That is the approach taken by William Willimon, an attentive student and interpreter of Barth's sermons. In Willimon's view, this sermon exemplifies Barth's rigorous commitment to be a preacher of the biblical Word, to let the living words of the text recontextualize and reframe the contemporary context. If this is correct, then it is best not see Bible and newspaper as two foci of an ellipse -- a more Gadamerian model, we might say; rather, the events of the day are radically relativized and subsumed through an unapologetic and thoroughgoing expository sermon. The preacher finds the center of gravity in the biblical witness to Christ in scripture -- a testimony that brooks no competition for any of the lesser lights (or better, darknesses) of the created realm.

The juxtaposition of this piece with the 1912 sermon on the sinking of the Titanic (which I discussed here recently) suggests a strong contrast between early and middle preaching of Barth, not only in terms of rhetoric but also in terms of fundamental method. Whereas the "Titanic" sermon is consumed with contemporary events, the strict biblio-theological focus of the Bremen sermon yields a sort of calm trust in the transcendent One.

In his introduction to this volume, Willimon compares the Bremen sermon to Barth's later homilies to prisoners (a few of which are collected in Deliverance to the Captives). He finds this piece from the Bonn period, based on the story of Jesus walking on water in Matthew 14, to be "more detached from the congregation than those [prison] sermons, more studiously committed to a verse-by-verse commentary on a biblical text, longer, and full of serious intent" (p. 20). Of course, it is difficult to deny this fairly formal description. Willimon makes his point more explicit:

Preached under the gathering storm clouds of Nazism, there is no mention of Nazis or Hitler. Here is Barth following his own advice to the German Church when he was expelled from his professorate at Bonn -- "exegesis, exegesis, exegesis." He is preaching, as he urged, "as if nothing had happened." The "nothing" is Hitler and Barth refuses to let him or his minions enter the sermon (ibid.).

Ever since Karl Adam, in his review of the Romans commentary, famously quipped that Barth had dropped a bombshell in the theologians' playground, many interpreters of Barth have be drawn to images of things falling from the sky and/or exploding. What might we infer from this phenomenon?....Nah, I had better not go there. At any rate, the metaphor apparently works with sermons as well as Bible commentaries. Willimon writes: "It feels as if the text has just been dropped, like a meteor, in the middle of a congregation" (p. 21). If I might vamp on this trope a bit, the preacher (ostensibly) is more like a geologist scrutinizing an uncanny extraterrestrial object than a poet ruminating on some aspects of everyday experience; certainly, for heaven's sake, he is not interjecting his subjective experiences and emotions into the sermon, in which case we would be thrust back into the paradigm of the misty-eyed Schleiermachian parson, and all would be lost.

What is putatively liberating about this more stern and disciplined preaching method is that the messenger finds her self-absorption and social myopia submerged in an ocean of divine meaning. The exegete schools the journalist: "Here is a preacher who is more fascinated by the ancient text than by the contemporary congregational context" (ibid.). Willimon shows his debt to postliberal theology. The strange new world of the opened Bible absorbs the world, not vice versa. This sort of thinking has roots in the Reformation, to be sure, and at is a perfectly plausible and responsible way to read the Bremen sermon -- a way that takes Barth's musings on methodology at face value.

Still, I just don't find this take on the Bremen sermon completely convincing. I suppose, through personal inclination and some corrosive exposure to contemporary hermeneutical theory -- I studied at that other school, you know -- I take a more genealogical approach to reading texts, sermons included. I want to dig deeper, and if a speaker or writer claims that some biblical or theological content is determining her presentation in a univocal way, I tend to be a little skeptical of her claim. Or let me put it this way, so that I might redeem myself a little with DET's loyal postliberal readers: I would attempt to unpack this sermon via a close reading of the text enveloped in a thick description that tries to situate the piece firmly in its original context.

Forunately, Willimon is a more subtle reader of Barth than the foregoing paragraphs might suggest, and he catches himself here: Clearly, there is more going on in the Bremen sermon than a surface reading might suggest. Perhaps the situation has grown so desperate in Germany that the typical resources of Kulturprotestantismus are shown to be vacuous, just as had been the case in 1914.
Barth is seeking a living God who is powerful enough to speak and act in a liberating and saving way amid a regime of radical evil. Barth seeks a theological answer to the dilemma of himself and his congregants, just as a nascent Confessing Church is trying to cobble together a faithful response to the idolatrous insanity of the German Christians. Willimon writes: "The way to counteract paganism in the form of National Socialism is by close, obedient attentiveness to another God" (ibid.). The living word of text and sermon are ballast in the storm.

Barth claims, in this sermon, that we need not fear. God will speak to us, in the night, in the storm. And the word of God is a life-giving, victorious word" (ibid.).

Amen. Who would want to disagree with that? And yet, I think there is still more to be said about how text and context are related in Barth's Bremen sermon, but exploring that requires me to risk a close reading of this sermon for myself, with some gestures toward its possible resonances within its original historical context. But I you want to read that, inquiring readers, you will have to stay tuned until my next post.
* Johanson kindly 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.


Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Karl Barth on what it means to pray “Give us this day our daily bread”

Karl Barth, Prayer, 50th Anniversary Edition (Westminster John Knox, 2002), 51–52. As always, bold is mine.
We must . . . say: “Act in such a way that thou dost not give it us in vain, so that we may truly receive this bread which thou has prepared on thy table in the holy Communion, so that we may take from thy hands this bread which thou hast created for us and which thou givest us. Help us, then; illumine us. May we not behave like well-satisfied bourgeois or like greedy creatures at the moment when thou bestowest upon us anew this incomprehensible and incompatible gift, this gift of thy patience, and of our hope. Act in such a way that we do not squander and destroy this gift. Grant that we may each receive our bread without dispute or quarrel. Grant that all who have a surplus of this bread may know by this very fact that they are appointed as servants, as dispensers of thy grace, that they are in thy service and in the service of others. And grant that those who are particularly threatened by hunger, death, and this precariousness of the human condition may meet brothers and sisters who have open eyes and ears to feel their responsibility. How shameful is our social ingratitude and injustice! How senseless it is that in this humanity surrounded by thy gifts there are people still dying of hunger!