Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why the Niebuhrs Still Matter (Part 2)

Modern Christian ethics, like modern Christian life, is riddled with ambiguities. The Christian moral thinker, much like Kierkegaard's knight of faith, is torn between two competing visions of what is really real. On the one hand, her faith teaches her to trust the God of creation and redemption, whose secret providence governs the ultimate course of human history, directing it to its appointed consummation in the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, both her mission of reconciliation and her solidarity with the rest of humanity in joy and suffering plunge her into the conflicted, broken and often violent affairs of the world -- the real world of spirit and matter that God supposedly has created and still loves, though truth be told, it's often hard to find clear evidence of that. Theology and ethics fall into error when they sidestep the tension in that dialectic by choosing one term over the other.

Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr understood that dialectic. They wrote about it and lived it through two World Wars, the Korean War, the Cold War and, in the case of Reinhold, the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Southeast Asia. As I wrote in the first post in this series, Scott R. Paeth's survey -- The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014) -- does a fine job of tracing both the commonalities and the divergences between two leading Protestant thinkers. Nowadays, the two brothers are often lumped together -- often, I suspect, by commentators who haven't read too much of either of them. That's a pity, because they did have significant disagreements that augured debates in theology and ethics that continue to this day.

Japanese Soldiers in Manchuria

In the spring of 1932 the Niebuhr brothers carried out one such debate in the pages of The Christian Century (The exchange can be accessed here). During the previous fall, Japan had invaded Manchuria, thereby sparking a crisis of conscience among liberal pacifists about how the United States should respond. In those days, pacifist leaders were opposed not only to military action abroad but to any coercive intervention whatsoever, including economic sanctions. The Century, whose notoriety had been boosted exponentially by Reinhold's unsigned editorials and by-lined articles, was a leading sounding board for such pacifist views (For a deeper appreciation of these contexts, see Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Cornell University Press, 1996.) (All my Niebuhr quotes are from the UCC website, and I have edited them to fix what seem to be typographical errors.)

Richard fires the opening volley of the debate with a theological essay extolling "The grace of doing nothing" (March 23, 1932). How does the social ethicist respond when there are no good options for addressing a tragic situation in public affairs? Not all forms of inaction are equal, apparently. Richard gives short shrift to the inactive stances of the ideological pessimist, who smugly views her worldview as vindicated in the rapid dissolution of the social order or of the conservative advocate for the status quo, who believes all nation-states act out of a totalizing self-interest in the tussle of the will to power. Richard also criticizes the moral indignation of the idealistic pacifists, who find in their inactivity an occasion for self justification. Closer to a proper Christian view, he claims, is the inactivity of the Communist -- the orthodox Marxist who has a broader confidence that history moves inexorably to a resolution of inequalities and injustices. The Marxist's belief in secular progress is analogous to, or perhaps parasitic upon, the traditional Christian belief in providence. (I'm not sure if most Marxists would accept as accurate this characterization of their views on human agency in history.) In the end, Richard endorses the inactivity of the theist who puts all her hope in the invisible hand of providence. He writes:
Those who follow this way share with communism the belief that the fact that men can do nothing constructive is no indication of the fact that nothing constructive is being done. Like the Communists they are assured that the actual processes of history will inevitably and really bring a different kind of world with lasting peace.
In short, God is working out both judgment an redemption in and through the conflicts of history, even if we can't discern how the final chapter of the human story will be written. Richard admits: "[I]f there is no God, or if God is up in heaven and not in time itself, it is a very foolish inactivity." In an interesting argument that prefigures postliberal communitarianism, Richard advocates for cell groups of "radical" believers who gather in prayerful hope in this God of ultimate redemption.

Reinhold believes in this God too, of course, but he is not satisfied with his younger brother's quietism in the face of naked imperialist oppression. He counters with the question "Must we do nothing?" (March 30, 1932). Reinhold shares Richard's critique of an idealistic pacifism that would deign to rise above the brutal conflicts of history, and he affirms his younger brother's ultimate eschatological hope as a rightful antidote to a paralyzing pessimism. He dissents, however, from Richard's counsel to simply wait out conflicts like the one in Manchuria, confident that God is acting providentially in and through the brutalities of imperial self-interest. He writes:
I do not see how a revolution in which the disinterested express their anger and resentment, and assert their interests, can be an instrument of God, and yet at the same time an instrument which religious scruples forbid a man to use. I should think that it would be better to come to ethical terms with the forces of nature in history, and try to use ethically directed coercion in order that violence may be avoided.
Consequently, Reinhold advocates economic measures to pressure the Japanese to relent; no military intervention is envisioned here. For Reinhold, authentic ethical action emerges from the dialectic between the ideal of agapic love, whose purity can never be instantiated in human history, and the imperative to strive for relative social justice within the compromises and limitations of social processes marred by sinful self-interest, especially on the part of collective entities such as nation-states. History, in Reinhold's view, is inevitably tragic, but even amid this tragedy we can still work for a more just social order. Doing so, however, may we temper our ethical idealism and sin boldly in the cause of justice.

Paeth writes:
What is striking about this exchange between the two brothers is not simply that they offered very different prescriptions for Christian moral action in the world, but that those prescriptions grew out of the same ground -- a disillusionment with the love, idealism, and naivety that had become central to the social gospel movement by the early 1930s. Both brothers perceived clearly that whatever the way forward for Christian ethics might be, the remedies proposed by the liberal Christianity that had been so influential for both of them were no longer effective for dealing with the pressing issues of their time, if indeed they ever had been (pp. 57-58).
The debate between the Niebuhr brothers remains relevant because this tension between idealism and realism is as intrinsic to Christian ethics as it is to life in the world per se. This dialectic also riddles the project of liberal democracy that has shaped all of us, from the peace activist who splatters blood on nuclear warheads to the drone-dispatching Christian realist (if that's what he really is) who inhabits the White House. Still, this doesn't necessarily mean that all cats are gray.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Upcoming Interview with DET Founder & Editor, W. Travis McMaken

Good morning, gentle readers, or good whatever-the-time-of-day-is-that-you-read-this.

I thought that I would post briefly to let you know that on Thursday October 23rd, at 10pm CST, I will be participating in an online interview with the mind behind “Karl Barth for Dummies” (twitter / facebook). KBfD has done a handful of these interviews before, most recently with Kait Dugan who curates the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary (click here to read that interview).

Long-time readers may recall that David Congdon and I participated in a similar sort of thing (a reddit AMA) a couple of years ago (click here if you’re interested).

It should be a good interview. KBfD will have a set of questions for he and I to work through, and there may also be time for questions submitted “by the audience” (as it were), and I’ll certainly be dropping back around in the following days as much as I’m able to field such questions.

So mark your calendars if you’re interested, and I’ll look forward to having some of you along for the ride on Thursday night!


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Ok, it has been more like a month since the last link post. It’s a very busy time of year. But then again, what time of year isn’t very busy these days?

Anyway, we’ve had some good posts here at DET, including the beginnings of a pair of new series by contributor Scott Jackson. So be sure to check those out. In any case, here is the full list:

Here’s some interesting stuff for you from elsewhere:


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Jesus and the Kingdom: Three Paradigms (Part 2)

Paradigm 1. Jesus as the proclaimer of the kingdom.

One line of thought holds that Jesus is the key messenger who proclaims the kingdom in life and deed. He might, for example, be best understood in the mode of a Hebrew a prophet. Like Amos, called away from his farming gig, Jesus receives a specific prophecy that may not have much to do with his personal characteristics or previous vocation. In his prophetic vocation, Jesus' message points beyond the messenger to a greater, more encompassing reality, whether that reality is understood primarily in ethical, socio-cultural or eschatological terms. The message itself is what matters; the messenger, not so much. So too if Jesus' significance rests exclusively in his roles as preacher and teacher.

Anonymous Cynic Philosopher

Though this attempt to draw a strong distinction between message and messenger seems fairly marginal in the history of Christian thought, such accounts have been more frequent since the Enlightenment. A fairly straightforward and dramatic example of this approach would be Thomas Jefferson literally snipping out the miracle stories from the Gospels and retaining what he understood to be Jesus' core ethical teachings. Recent years have seen new, revisionist proposals for interpreting Jesus primarily in terms of his example, teaching and praxis. John Dominic Crossan, a leading voice in the Jesus Seminar, provides a fascinating and provocative portrayal of Jesus as a radically egalitarian, counter-cultural and peripatetic teacher analogous to a wandering Cynic sage. My interest here is not in that portrait per se but rather in Crossan's clear rejection of the notion Jesus proclaimed himself as the gateway to the kingdom: Crossan sees Jesus' kingdom as a radically anti-institutional and anti-hierarchical form of liberated human social existence available, in principle, at any time or place. He writes:
The Kingdom of God was not, for Jesus, a divine monopoly exclusively bound to his own person. It began on the level of the body and appeared as a shared community of healing and eating -- that is to say, of spiritual and physical resources available to each and all without distinctions, discriminations, or hierarchies (p. 113).
Further, Crossan writes, anticipating my typology beautifully:
The historical Jesus was a peasant Jewish Cynic....And lest he himself be interpreted as simply the new broker of a new God, he moved on constantly, settling down neither at Nazareth nor at Capernaum. He was neither broker nor mediator but, somewhat paradoxically, the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or between humanity and itself.
Now, Crossan's unwashed peasant agitator may seem a far cry from Jefferson's enlightened moralist, but what interests me here is the formal similarity vis-a-vis how Jesus relates to the kingdom. Whatever form it might take, if we accept this paradigm -- we might call it, following Kierkegaard, "Jesus as small-t teacher" -- most traditional christological problems simply dissolve in its wake. Accessing the meaning of such a Jesus doesn't require us to wait for Constantine to convene the bishops at Nicea.

From the standpoint of historical scholarship, the question becomes: How does the interpreter account for the personal veneration Jesus himself receives throughout the New Testament witness and subsequent history of Christian belief and worship? Rudolf Bultmann offers the classic formulation of this hermeneutical problem: "He who formerly had been the bearer of the message was drawn into it and became its essential content. The proclaimer became the proclaimed--but the central question is: In what sense?" (p. 33). Crossan and other like-minded scholars who make liberal use of the hermeneutic of suspicion tend to read the development of ideas of Jesus' dignity and uniqueness largely as a process of wish fulfillment that occludes and distorts the Nazarene's original radically socio-political message. However one sorts out these challenges, it is clear that constructive christology has much more than a merely historical interest riding on them.

Works Cited:

Bultmann, Rudolf, Theology of the New Testament: Complete in One Volume (New York, Prentice Hall, 1970).

Crossan, John Dominic, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994).


Monday, October 13, 2014

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 2.6–9

Malachi 2.6–9

[6] “True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was on his [Levi’s] lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. [7] For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. [8] But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the LORD Almighty. [9] “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.”


COMMENTARY: Calvin is preoccupied in his commentary on these verses to explain the failings of the priests against whom Malachi’s prophetic word comes and, as the flip-side of that indictment, to sketch a picture of what a proper priestly ministry looks like. Implicitly – and explicitly at various points – this material is a criticism of Roman Catholic clergy. The central factor that Calvin focuses on, taking his cue from the passage, is the teaching office that accompanies proper priestly ministry.

Calvin begins by emphasizing the “mutual” or “reciprocal” (523) character of the covenant made between God and Levi (who stands in for the hereditary line of the Jewish priesthood). Calling back to verse 5, Calvin points out that this covenant was one of “life and peace, because the Levites had found that God was in every respect kind and bountiful, whenever they performed their parts” (523). Things can change, however, if the priests fail to keep their end of the deal. But what does it mean for the priests to do their part? Moving to verse 6, Calvin writes that “the chief duty of a priest is to show the right way of living to the people” (525). This does mean simply living a proper life; rather, “Levi taught the people” (my emphasis, 525). To faithfully exercise the office of priest and thereby to maintain the reciprocal covenant with God must include providing instruction to the people. As Calvin elaborates: “nothing is more preposterous, or even more ridiculous, than that those should be counted as priests who are no teachers. These two things are, as they say, inseparable – the office of the priesthood and teaching” (525). This is a clear assault on the medieval status quo since the majority of Roman clergy did not teach. Mass would be said in Latin and generally without a homily. If commoners heard sermons, they would have been delivered by members of the different mendicant orders who would travel around preaching. For his part, Calvin understands preaching and teaching to be the central task given to church leaders.

This emphasis continues in the discussion of verse 7. Calvin understands this verse to mean that the priests’ lips should act as a “store-house” of truth, not in the sense that it should stay locked up there but in the sense that everyone comes there to get it. The image that Calvin paints is of a pantry or wine-cellar in the house where victuals are stored by the house’s master so that all those in the house can be nourished. Furthermore, this verse speaks of priests as messengers of God. Calvin takes this opportunity to further emphasize that being a priest and engaging in teacher are inextricably linked. Indeed, “it is a monstrous thing when any one boasts himself to be a priest, when he is no teacher” (528).

A negative shift occurs in verse 8, moving from the positive depiction of Levi to the indictment of the priests in Malachi’s day. Calvin likewise makes a negative shift. He identifies how verse 8 mirrors in negative fashion what have been said positively about Levi: Levi enjoyed peace and righteousness while these priests depart from the path; Levi turned many from sin while these priests cause many to stumble.

The problem, identified in verse 9, is that the priests had “shown partiality in matters of law” (above trans.). In my mind, given the context of Malachi, this suggests that they did not apply the law equally to all people but perhaps favored the wealthy and oppressed the poor. This would fit with the material at the end of chapter two and beginning of chapter three. Calvin instead argues that the partiality in play here is preference for themselves, that is, the priests have elevated their own status and arrogated to themselves the prerogatives of God: “the priests in vain glorified in the honour of their office, for they had ceased to be priests of God” (529).

I think Calvin gets a little too far from Malachi in this train of thought, but it makes sense in his context. For Calvin, as for Luther, the problem with Roman Catholicism is the way that clergy had taken it upon themselves to bind the people’s conscience with laws and observances, purgatory, indulgences, etc., holding one’s salvation hostage at gun-point (as it were). As a counterpoint, Calvin and the Reformation maintain that only God can bind consciences and that clergy have only subordinate authority. So Calvin in the present discussion: “Priests are not to abuse their right, as though the highest power were granted to them; for God will not have his Church subject to tyranny, but his will is to reign alone in it through the ministry of men” (530).


(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that since thou has deigned to take us as a priesthood to thyself, and hast chosen us when we were not only of the lowest condition, but even profane and alien to all holiness, and hast consecrated us to thyself by the Holy Spirit, that we may offer ourselves as holy victims to thee, - O grant, that we may bear in mind our office and our calling, and sincerely devote ourselves to thy service, and so present to thee our efforts and our labours, that they name may be truly glorified in us, and that it may really appear that we have been ingrafted into the body of thy only-begotten Son; and as he is the chief and the only true and perpetual priest, may we become partakers of that priesthood with which thou hast been pleased to honour him, so that he may take us as associates to himself; and may thus thy name be perpetually glorified by the whole body as well as by the head. - Amen


Monday, October 06, 2014

Jesus and the Kingdom: Three Paradigms (Part 1)

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt. 4:11, NRSV).
Scholarly portraits of the life and ministry of Jesus run the gamut from devoutly credulous to the stridently skeptical in terms of how the canonical Gospels and other early Christian sources are handled.
Still, most interpreters seem to agree that the kerygma of the kingdom of God was the central content and focus of Jesus' teaching and ministry.

Of course, debate persists about just what the basilea tou theou might have meant for Jesus and his original audience: Is the kingdom a pious disposition ("within you") or a form of community life ("among you")? Or both? Is coterminous with the visible community of believers itself, the church catholic? Is it an ideal construct that spurs and shapes discipleship? Or is it a present possibility or a coming concrete socio-political order? These issues are very technical. Perhaps we can explore ways of relating Jesus' identity and vocation to the kingdom without defining the later term too rigidly. At least, that's what I want to try to do.

Christian interpreters throughout the centuries have sought to show how the kingdom, however defined, relates to the person and work of Jesus, both in his original self understanding and in the subsequent witness of the New Testament, to the extent those are consciously distinguished. This is a complex question, of course, but what I will be offering in the posts that follow is a rough typology of how Jesus himself might relate to the kingdom
  1. Jesus is the proclaimer of the kingdom.
  2. Jesus is the bringer of the kingdom.
  3. Jesus himself incarnates the kingdom in person.
In the posts to follow, I will be blurring distinctions between historical-critical treatments of the life of Jesus and constructive or systematic theology. Earlier figures like Karl Barth and Günther Bornkamm will find themseves -- perhaps against their own inclinations -- in conversation with the likes of E.P. Sanders and John Dominic Crossan.

Are you excited yet? Please stay tuned!


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rosemary Radford Reuther on Counterrevolutionary Latitudinarianism

I believe I told you before, gentle readers, that I’ve been buying and reading a lot of used theology books from the mid 20th century. Well, the below passage is another fruit of such labor that I thought you might be interested in. So without further ado…

Rosemary Radford Reuther, The Radical Kingdom (Harper & Row, 1970), 39-40:
The earliest school of rationalism arose in England after the Restoration when, wearied of religious controversies, she tried to pull herself together around her traditional religious and national institutions. The mood was summed up by the term “latitudinarian”; a mood not so much of toleration as of narrowly rationalistic prejudices about what was, in fact, “tolerable.” What was intolerable was the enthusiasm and fanaticism, the bickering over points of religious doctrine, the apocalyptic messianism that had characterized the period of the Puritan revolution. What was cultivated was a pedestrian sort of Christianity in which the watchmaker God, who was the architect of the Newtonian universe, served as sanction for the decent-law-abiding morality of the English possessing classes. In fact, the traditional Christian distinction between reason and revelation was commonly interpreted in this period as a class distinction. It was said that the content of Scripture and revelation was essentially identical with that of reason and natural religion, but, for the sake of the ignorant masses, God has revealed this religion of nature in a simple colorful form complete with miracles to impress their imaginations, whereas the enlightened classes did not stand in need of this revelation, being able to attain this knowledge by their own intellects. In effect, the Christian doctrine of the Fall and the debasement of man’s reason had here become a doctrine applicable only to the lower classes.

Such latitudinarianism, far from being revolutionary, was in a sense counterrevolutionary, and was not infrequently espoused by the most impeccable of English high-churchmen. . . . In the hands of these latitudinarians, rationalism did not so much challenge as it sought to bulwark traditional religious and political institutions, and its energies were expended in proving the full and complete harmony of traditional revealed religion with reason and natural religion.
One wonders how far we’ve really come . . .