Friday, April 11, 2014

Clergy and the Church’s Theological Responsibility - Paul M. van Buren’s “Austin Dogmatics”

Continuing on with what van Buren has to tell us about the theological task, today I would like to present you – gentle reader – with three selections from PMvB’s text. These selections get at the role of theology (dogmatics) in the church, as well as tackling some rubber-meets-the-road sort of issues. In particular, how in practice are we supposed to sort out that standard “Barthian” claim that all Christians are theologians? That is precisely where these selections begin.

Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, (Cascade, 2012), 10 (1st sel.), 17 (2nd sel.), and . Bold is mine.
In the church of God, there are no non-theologians. There are good theologians and poor theologians, but all, in one way or another, are engaged in the biblical, practical, and dogmatic task of the church—some for better and some for worse. But where ever there is language about God in the church—and we would be happier if sometimes there were less than there is!—where ever such language is, there the church in the person of those so engaged is now more, now less concerning itself with the theological tasks of the church.
So theology is necessary for the church because the church speaks of God, and every Christian is called to be part of the communal task of reflecting upon that speech about God. PMvB also points out that while everyone is a theologian, not everyone is necessarily a good theologian. In fact, many church people are self-evidently bad theologians. That is, they have not (yet?) learned how to take this task of reflection on speech about God with sufficient seriousness, and they have not (yet?) been trained to undertake that reflection with any kind of sophistication.

But theology is the task of the whole church because it is up to every Christian to be involved in proclamation of the gospel. This is its unique task and responsibility, and failure to take theology seriously as part of this task is nothing but a sign of irresponsibility. This second selection from PMvB brings out this responsibility:
The usefulness of the Church to God depends on its being totally at his disposal, and therefore being responsible to him alone. It cannot even begin to accept other responsibilities, however secondary it may choose to see them, without making itself to that extent useless to God, and therefore a church in name only. Dogmatics, as an act of responsibility, reveals in itself and its activity whether the church of any time or place is truly seeking to be responsible to its commission, and so obedient to its Lord, or whether in fact it is only saying “Lord, Lord” but proving itself of no value to God.
Those are strong words, but they are also an important wake-up call. But these comments also raise the question of how it is that Christians in the pew are to take up this task. How are they going to realize that it is a serious task? How are they going to get the training necessary to undertake this kind of reflection with some kind of sophistication? PMvB has some thoughts on that, too. And his articulation here gets at the heart of why Protestants have always supported a theologically educated clergy:
Properly speaking, dogmatics is a function of the church and should be performed by the church, that is, by all the people of God. And to some extent it is, in every partial form of critical and constructive comment by any and every Christian. There are no non-theologians. But practically, the clergy, not so much by virtue of their office as by virtue of their better training, must bear the chief responsibility in their parish, and also in their diocese. If they are wise, they will work hard to train at least some of their people, but even in this they will be giving the lead. Each one of you then, for better or worse, now well, now badly, must carry this dogmatic task for the rest of your working life. If you accept ordination, you will never again be free to say, “Oh, I’m no theologian.” All you will able to say is, “I am a theologian, even if a pretty poor one.” But in view of the importance of what is involved, I trust you will give if your best to be theologians for better, rather than for worse.
So it is the responsibility of the clergy, the theological educated professional leaders of the Christian communities, who have a special responsibility as theologians. But note well: this special responsibility as theologians includes the responsibility to train other theologians. That is, to promote the long and sometimes painful process of teaching the average Christian in the congregation to reflect with some sophistication on the church’s speech about God. And furthermore, this is a responsibility that the clergy cannot avoid. It is impossible to get out of it. It is impossible to NOT be an agent of theological formation. You are always engaged in it. The only question is whether clergy take this task seriously and do it well, or whether they fail to take it seriously and thus do it poorly.

Now, PMvB is lecturing in this passage to students preparing for ordination in the Episcopal church. That is why he emphasizes the role of clergy. One might just as easily castigate the “average” Christian for their lack of concern for theology, for their seeming indifference to or disinterest in thinking and speaking about God. But, one thing at a time . . .


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

In Which I Come Out as an Ethical Foundationalist (Sort of)

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness (Romans 1:14-15a, NRSV).
Imagine this scene, reminiscent of the Mad Max movies: It's a post-apocalyptic time in North America, a few years after some sort of military or ecological catastrophe. A caravan with hundreds of rag-tag vehicles -- beat-up school buses, box trucks with various gang symbols, taxicabs and souped-up motorbikes -- are inching along in convoy through a forlorn southwestern desert on an old U.S. highway. They are headed on a perilous 1000-mile trek toward Denver, which is reported to be the last real city in the former United States that's still standing -- where there is reported to be food and water, shelter and possibly even jobs. It has been years, and most of the travelers scarcely believe the stories are true. But they have no other prospects, so on they trudge, looting abandoned gas stations or siphoning the grease vats from old fast-food restaurants to power their dilapidated vehicles.

Suddenly, one lonely driver, a bald guy in his early forties, who is driving a green pick-up truck remembers something he was told many years ago, but he can't remember when or by whom. Suddenly, he makes a sharp left down a side road, breaking with the convoy. He's not even fully conscious why he's bolting from the tenuous safety of the pack to head down a path that leads to...he's not sure where.

I am that lonely driver. At least, that's how I feel as I write this post.

Denver is the quasi-utopian vision of the peaceful pluralistic commonwealth, a place where individual rights and social responsibilities are balanced, yet also where members of each group can concomitantly fully live out the distinctive moral vision of their own ethnic and religious communities unhindered by onerous compromises with competing groups. Denver is a postmodern dream of what a liberal democracy might look like, and it's something far better than the corrupt, unjust, inequitable and violent plutocracy that some still dare to call a republic. But -- and this is the important part -- Denver is a democratic commonwealth without any objective moral values to hold the variegated whole together. Indeed, not only does it lack some set of core values "set in stone," as it were, like the ridiculous statues of the Decalogue that adorn some courthouses: Rather, this city on a hill somehow manages to work without even the slightest notion of an objective moral order, transcendental or otherwise, that would serve as the condition for the possibility of any ethical discourse whatsoever.

Scarcely any one really believes in Denver anymore, I'm convinced; still, nobody knows what else to do but to keep driving towards it, nonetheless.

Many of you, gentle readers, are perhaps among the drivers. You are culturally sensitive, educated in theology or the humanities. Perhaps in your thinking you draw upon postmodern philosophy, anthropology or cultural studies. You are post-foundationalists, influenced by Barth, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and their progeny to be (rightly) suspicious of any claims to universality that sidestep the scandal of the particular. Maybe you work out of a post-colonial framework and you (justly) decry the culturally imperialistic aspects of the Enlightenment project -- the attempt to build a commonwealth upon the concord of rational subjects. Maybe you're a neo-pragmatist who thinks I'm out to lunch and just projecting some fantasy for order onto a chaotic world -- that we all would do well to deal practically with contingent realities rather than tromping out some hackneyed old transcendental arguments from Plato or Kant or natural law theory.

Since you're a DET reader, you might be a "post-liberal" or someone who embraces a the sort of confessionalist nonfoundationalism, where ethics is centered exclusively upon God's revelation in Christ and in the praxis of Christian community. Or maybe you're a college student or seminarian who has internalized -- and perhaps taken too literally -- Kierkegaard's dangerous dictum that "subjectivity is truth." Or maybe you're a kind of new age thinker, imagining yourself to be like the deceased artist played by Robin Williams who literally paints his own blessed afterlife from the wellsprings of his memory and imagination.

And why can't I drive along with you? Y'all are, by and large, much better company than the ruffians who populated Mel Gibson's dystopian world. I should like to do so; I share many of your concerns and commitments, but at the end of the day I'm thrown back upon this, my own "here I stand" declaration: I believe in a transcendent, absolute, categorical basis for the good. I just simply must, and I can't help it, no matter how much theory I read (and many of you have read much more than I have). That makes me a foundationalist, of sorts, even if I demur from trying to ground this claim in some sort of epistemology of the disinterested human subject. Now saying that is not the same thing as making a fully fleshed out philosophical argument. It's rather a cry, from the ruins, that somehow, somewhere there is some reason to believe that right and wrong have some sort of basis in what is really real.

Let me be clear: I'm not claiming that any individual or society can fully be in possession of the moral law. Any grasp of the good in this life must needs be partial. And I'm not trying to prove this conviction on the basis of empirical evidence at all, for example, by comparing the moral maxims of great wisdom traditions as C.S. Lewis attempts in The Abolition of Man. I'm not trying to retrieve and defend, necessarily, some version of the Golden Rule or Kant's categorical imperative. Rather, all I'm saying is that all moral and ethical shop-talk strikes me as vain without some notion of a good that's greater than any of us, individually or collectively. Something that is rock solid, not contingent. My claim here is not empirically based but almost purely transcendental. What's more, like Augustine, Luther and Reinhold Niebuhr, I'm a firm believer in the noetic effects of sin -- that, even in our wisest and best moments, all our reasoning processes are blinded and corrupted by individual and class interests. I believe no human being -- with one possible exception - is qualified to stand as judge and jury over the soul of anyone else.

I'm no great political activist, but I try at least to keep up with social justice issues and do something to help if I can. Or barring that I try to befriend and encourage those who are struggling on the front-lines for a more just, equitable and peaceful society by taking risks I'm unable or willing to take. I know that, as a white male, I have no right to claim someone else's suffering and injustice for myself, but I will admit that I was deeply shaken and moved the execution of Troy Davis in 2011 -- a murder case with so many holes in it that even conservative advocates of the death penalty were virtually begging the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the execution. I know that I'm a hypocrite (that's actually a doctrine of my faith) complicit with many awful things and a recipient of privileges that have been forcibly denied to other people and groups. Still, I can at least confess that these events had an effect on how I see the world.

On the eve of the execution, I attended a protest vigil put on by the American Friends Service Committee chapter in Northampton, Massachusetts, where we had just moved. As a result of these events and other events, I started becoming more alert to the effects of racism and classcism that riddle our criminal "justice" system. And then the Occupy Wall Street protests began shortly afterward, and I became more aware of issues of poverty and privilege, the widening income gap and the complicity of our government institutions with a corrupt and rapacious financial service sector. All of these heady events were feeding a certain political agitation within me that had been somewhat suppressed while I studied theology and was exploring various opportunities in lay ministry -- with one foot in the parish, one foot in campus ministry and one foot adjunct teaching. (Any working adjunct out there will tell you that two feet aren't adequate for what they're trying to do.)

Others are much more qualified to write on social justice issues than I, both from the sides of theory and of praxis. But my point here is that my own growing awareness of these myriad issues has heightened for me the need to seriously revisit the question of universal human rights, and how we might do a much better job as a society and world in trying to instantiate, support and defend such ideals. This is a huge topic, and I've only begun to scratch the surface, and that's not to mention the further complications of trying to integrate such a rights framework with my Anglican-reformed-evangelical-dialectical theological commitments. (Hence the quote above, lest one forget that this is a theology blog.) I still have a lot of thinking through to do with these issues.

So where am I headed with this, if not toward Denver? Jersualem? Athens? Königsberg, Germany? I'm not sure yet.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Karl Barth in Conversation – Teasers from David W. Congdon

Ever since this publication project got underway, I have described it as the “revised and expanded” proceedings from the 2010 KBBC. So I figured that I would put together a post or two that highlights the “expanded” part of that description. If what you see here sounds interesting to you and you would like to read more, buy the book

Here is a glimpse at what my good friend, colleague, and theologically-conjoined twin – David W. Congdon – got up to in his “Afterword: The Future of Conversing with Barth.”

W. Travis McMaken and David W. Congdon (eds.), Karl Barth in Conversation (Pickwick, 2014), 255–56.

The conversation with Barth is still in its infancy. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we are closing in on a century since the publication of Der Römerbrief, we are only just now seeing the creative possibilities in Barth scholarship. There are various reasons for this. Besides the sheer volume of his writings, there is the challenge posed by the diverse and complicated history of his reception. For many decades the academic dialogue about Barth focused primarily around the flash points of twentieth-century theology (e.g., “liberal theology,” “faith and history,” or postliberalism) and often labored under serious misunderstandings (e.g., Barth as neoorthodox, as lacking an account of human agency, or as lacking resources for a theology of culture). Certain confessional and ecclesial communities have had their own barriers to understanding Barth. For example, North American evangelicals received Barth initially through the myopic lens of Cornelius Van Til, and the still-ongoing “battle for the Bible” ends up missing the scriptural forest for the inerrantist trees. Roman Catholics, for their part, have to deal with Barth’s rejection of sacramentalism and the analogia entis—to name just two issues of theological conflict—in addition to dealing with the ambiguous legacy of Hans Urs von Balthasar within Catholic theology. The point in raising these examples is simply to indicate how difficult it has been to engage in a truly meaningful conversation with Barth.

The essays gathered in this volume signal the promise of a new generation of Barth scholars. A new generation, of course, does not guarantee superior scholarship, nor is it ever free from its own biases and interpretive blind-spots. But it does offer original vantage points, different angles of approach, fresh contextual concerns, and new dialogue partners. Not all of the dialogue partners in this book are new. Some, like Schleiermacher, are old friends. But the conversations are framed in new ways that will hopefully shed fresh light on Barth’s enduring significance for contemporary theological reflection.

The purpose of this afterword is threefold. First, I will discuss additional conversations with Barth that we as the editors hope to see others take up in the future. Second, I will identify some of the most significant barriers in the current theological scene, primarily within North America, to a responsible hearing of Barth’s theology. Third, I will offer a constructive clarification of three key aspects of his theology—its dialectical character, its understanding of metaphysics, and its basis in a revised supralapsarianism—to aid future conversations with his life and legacy.

David's afterword is full of food for thought. You don't want to miss it!


Saturday, April 05, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

I’m happy to say that this installment of links is right on schedule! Goo reads just keep flowing in. Here’s a selection to keep you busy this weekend. And if this isn’t enough, go back and work through the last link post.

Don’t forget that there are now two DET books available for purchase in the left sidebar. One is my monograph on Karl Barth and infant baptism, and the other is the revised and expanded proceedings from the 2010 Karl Barth Blog Conference (under the title, Karl Barth in Conversation). They’re both good reads, if I do say so myself . . . If you look carefully through all the links below you’ll find that there are other people who agree with me!

As usual, I’ll start you out with recent postings here at DET so you can catch up on anything you missed. New contributor Scott Jackson has been working at a great clip lately, and he has a number of posts in this list.

Here’s some links from elsewhere in the Theo-blogosphere:

See you next time!


Thursday, April 03, 2014

A story about Karl Barth and the Confessing Church, or . . .

. . . When Karl Barth pulled an “Aragorn.”


This is a story told by Gertrud Staewen, as recounted in Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler (Oxford, 1992), 22. The text below begins as a quote from Barnett, and then the extra indented part indicates that Barnett is quoting an interview with Staewen. This encounter occurred in the 1920s:
One New Year’s Eve, Staewen attended a gathering of religious socialists. By temperament a devil’s advocate, she had trouble remaining quiet at such meetings. One part of her longed for the intellectual community they offered; another part of her poked fun at the pretensions so often displayed. So it was on this evening. People stood up and expounded their theories or read poems or selections of novels they had written, as Staewen recalled ironically,
to promote socialism and improve human beings. A great deal of totally idealistic rubbish that wasn’t true was read aloud to make us all more Christian and more socialist.

Finally I jumped up and got angry, and said that no novel had ever led a person to Christ unless it was by Dostoevski. For him I’d make an exception. Now, besides us, there were several men toward the back whom we didn’t know. They were smoking dreadfully. As I spoke about Dostoevski, the curtain of smoke opened and a man stood up. At that time he was still quite young; he looked like a woodcut of a Swiss farmer. He asked me, “Do you know my friend Eduard Thurneysen?” I said, No, I didn’t. Then he said, “Read him!”
The man was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. After the meeting ended in the early hours of the morning, he drew Staewen into a deep conversation. Barth and his friend Thurneysen, a practical theologian, would lead a large group of young Germans into the church opposition to Hitler.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil" (1): Introduction

As of late, I've been interested in retrieving a theology of the "principalities and powers." The late New Testament theologian Walter Wink is justly famous for his pioneering work in this area. But I'm interesting in developing this constructive project along somewhat different lines, more in line with dialectical theology -- and that leads to me to one of Wink's major inspirations, the Episcopal lawyer-theologian William Stringfellow.

Now, there are a number of reasons Stringfellow can be difficult to interpret, and one of the key stems from the question: Just how does one place his work? In terms of situating him amidst dialectical thinkers, his personal friendships with Karl Barth and Jacques Ellul would certainly be relevant, and I've caught more than a whiff of Bonhoeffer here in there in the Stringfellow corpus as well. Still, and perhaps a bit tricky, is placing Stringfellow in another context, that of North American radical social Christianity. Numerous strands from this tradition permeated Stringfellow's life and work: His leadership in the World Student Christian federation, his advocacy work within the Episcopal Church, his personal friendships with radical peace activists and his legal work with the East Harlem Protestant Parish are a few key such points of contact.

I have some homework to do, and I might just as well hash some of it out here. Broadly speaking, I'd like to get more clarity about the emergence of modern social Christianity -- it's systematic theological implications in particular. To that end, I'd like to develop a sort of genealogical story about socio-political accounts of sin and salvation in modern and contemporary Christian thought, particularly in the Americas. Just how, I wonder, did such conceptions of social sin spring up on North American soil, seeded as it has been by the austere Augustinian piety of the Puritans, the revivalist pioneer spirit of the Second Great Awakening, and the flurry of pentacostal and charismatic tongues since Azusa? This question intrigues me, though an American church historian I am not.

In sketching such a genealogy, largely to situate my own project in some sort of intelligible framework, I'm taking a second look at the Social Gospel movement -- not in its broad historical contours so much, but in terms of its ramifications for systematic theology. The go-to source here is the great Baptist activist and theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. My basic text is his last, and some say greatest work, A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). Reinhold Niebuhr, whom most of us perhaps think of as one of the most strident critics of the Social Gospel project, nonetheless praised Rauschenbusch as "the real founder of Social Christianity in this country....It's most brilliant and generally satisfying exponent." (You can read this text online for free here.)

In particular, and in a few posts to follow, I plan to explore in some depth WR's doctrine of social sin, which he develops in chapters 4-9. What I think we'll see in these chapters is an incipient form of a theology of the principalities and powers, but one that is seeped in Rischl's ethical Kingdom theology and can be traced back, perhaps, to the real origin of modern social Christianity, the dogmatic theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Thanks for listening in.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Writing Theology in America Requires Prolegomena - Paul M. van Buren’s “Austin Dogmatics”

Certain theological circles has developed a distaste for prolegomena, comparing it to so much “throat-clearing” that is best circumvented. “Just start right in with talking about God,” some folks are wont to say. There is certainly something to this since prolegomena has been known to take on too much importance. But prolegomena performs an important function nevertheless. In short: prolegomena gives one a chance to identify which God one is talking about. For Christian theology, this means talking about “the God who has a history,” and not some abstract “God” in general.

In the following paragraph, van Buren seems to be something of a prophet insofar as he rightly placed his finger—approx. 55 years ago!—on a trend-line in American culture that has only gotten worse. As usual, bold is mine.

Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, (Cascade, 2012), 4.
No, here as elsewhere, it matters; it matters desperately to the whole life and work of the church that we know what we are doing and why. It matters that our account of how and why we come to our subject be taken just as seriously as church dogmatics as, for example, the doctrine of Christ. Prolegomena is also part of the dogmatic function of the church. So also today: once grant that the “God” in whom over 90 percent of the American people claim to believe is the same God that the church confesses; once grant that the “Supreme Being” faith in whim identifies an American, according to our president; once grant that this is any way the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, without most serious reservations, and the citadel is surrendered. I call to witness the tragic destruction of the apostate German Christians, as they were called, who gave in right at this point to Hitler and to the cultural religion of Germany, and paid the price. The church in our land is also under subtle attack by a powerful cultural religion, known as the “American Way of Life,” and unless we are clear about what is at stake, then like the church of Sardis (Rev 3:1), we may have the name of being alive, but we are as good as dead.
Go buy a copy and see what else PMvB has to say.