Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Karl Barth’s Three "Words" to Atheism – More from Kimlyn Bender

Kimlyn J. Bender, Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

One of the chapters that I want to highlight from Bender’s volume is chapter nine, “Karl Barth and the Question of Atheism.” Atheism isn’t exactly an untouched topic here at DET. We’ve had a letter To my deconverted friend, an answer from Paul M. van Buren to the question “Is God dead?”, reflections from Gollwitzer on Christianity, Atheism, and the Existence of God, and even a post about Barth that addressed the question “Is atheism evil?” In this chapter, Bender takes up a number of the themes that appear in those posts and weaves them together by thinking about what “words” that Barth’s theology might speak to atheism.

  1. The first “word” is “The Word of God in Jesus Christ” (p. 272). This has to do with Christian particularity. Bender reminds his readers – by way of Barth – that any Christian response to atheism must be properly Christian, and not vaguely theist: “Theism may appear as a proper response to a growing atheistic secularism, but for Barth, such was fool’s gold. Theism may be an appealing alternative to a generic secularism for those who lament the loss of so-called Christian culture, but generic theism is helpless before a true idolatry” (p. 273).
  2. The second “word” is “A Word of Judgment” (p. 273). Here Bender draws on Barth’s criticism of religion to make the point that atheism is “but a new form of religion, which is itself a very old form of idolatry” (p. 273). This is why the proclamation of Christian particularity is the only proper response, i.e., because a programmatic apologetics “always takes unbelief more seriously than it takes revelation and faith” (p. 276). Bender is quick to note, however, that rejecting programmatic apologetics is most definitely not the same as rejecting “a hearty polemics within the dogmatic task” (p. 278).
  3. The third “word” is “A Word of Grace” (p. 278). Barth’s doctrines of election and christology, whose consequences reverberate throughout Barth’s thought, mean that there is a “Yes” to be spoken to atheists by God and attested by Christian theology insofar as atheism “is not left to itself to decide its own meaning” (p. 278). Rather, “God has eternally chosen to be with humanity in Jesus Christ and thus to be God for us despite our unbelief and rebellion” (p. 278).

Bender’s chapter concludes with some helpful clarity on Barth’s stance vis-à-vis atheism, especially as expressed in society through secularism:

Barth . . . did not see secularism so much as a threat but as a clarifying reality of postwar Europe that forced the church to confront the problems created by its having become wedded to culture and serving as its handmaiden. . . . For Barth, secularism was the shadow side of the church being the church, the lesser of two evils, the greater one being the conflation of church and culture. Therefore, as with atheism, Barth was less threatened by secularism than his contemporaries. . . . The great threat in Barth’s estimation was not the secularization of culture but the secularization of the church, whereby the church sacrificed its unique identity in merging with the society around it. (p. 280)

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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

It has been a month and a half, actually, since the last link post. I’m an academic, and it was summer. Not that I wasn’t working: I was chained to my desk by what are still relatively new administrative responsibilities. But I had to have a summer somehow, and going on something of a semi-formal blog hiatus was it. DET is back up and running, however, and you can expect the usual steady stream of posts. And we even managed to pile up some good stuff while on hiatus! Be sure to check up on anything you missed while enjoying the summer.


And here is a selection of what I’ve been reading on the wider interwebs, for your perusal.


Enjoy the reading. We’ll be back soon with more of the usual high-quality DET content that you’re used to.

*wanders off looking under chairs and behind benches for said content

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

What Am I Reading? The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Edited and introduced by Isabel Best. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.

On the last day of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon. In his lifetime Bonhoeffer was respected as a theologian and a teacher, a great mind who would surely leave a mark on Christendom. We in the twenty-first century recognize him as a Christian martyr to the evils of Nazidom. Above all other things, Bonhoeffer thought of himself as a pastor and a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer held tightly to the Christ who brought victory over Death and Sin and who remains "the living Lord who meets me" (208).

For those who live seventy years after he was murdered, Bonhoeffer remains somewhat of an enigma. Who exactly was he? And more importantly, if put more crudely, would he have watched Fox News or MSNBC? To paint in broad strokes, liberal or more progressive Christians tend to grasp onto the Bonhoeffer of the Letters and Papers from Prison, especially his musings on "religionless Christianity" that surely would emerge, in Bonhoeffer's view, in the Post-War world. Conservatives and traditionalists tend to grasp onto the Bonhoeffer of Life Together and Discipleship, with their emphases on obedience to Christ's commands and costly grace over cheap grace.

I'm not exaggerating here--as DET cultured readers are certainly aware, in the past five years books have portrayed Bonhoeffer as someone who was little different than an American evangelical culture warrior, or as a pro-abortion pacifist with universalistic tendencies. It's clear what's going on here. We want a Bonhoeffer who looks like us. We want the authority of the great twentieth century martyr against totalitarianism on our side, to defend our pieties, to excuse our excesses. Bonhoeffer is used as an ideological weapon in our broadsides against those with whom we disagree theologically. And the good thing about Bonhoeffer is that he is dead--he can't argue against us either way.

The Bonhoeffer of history is a bit more complicated, and this is captured well in Fortress Press's collection of 31 sermons of Bonhoeffer's, stretching from 1928 in Barcelona (where he was pastor to the German speaking community) to 1939 in Sigurdshof, Germany, (where he and his students took refuge after the outbreak of the Second World War). Each sermon is introduced with a paragraph setting the context of Bonhoeffer's preaching, as well as offering explanations of people or events that may be foreign to twenty-first century readers.

This is an excellently presented and edited collection of sermons. Karl Barth's influence on Bonhoeffer is apparent, as is Bonhoeffer's rejection of the liberal theology that so disgusted him during his time studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York. At the same time, in the sermons written after 1930, Bonhoeffer's experience of being a Sunday School teacher and youth leader at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church is never far below the surface of his preaching. Bonhoeffer's experiences in America left a notable mark in his development as a preacher. Yet what comes across in Bonhoeffer's preaching is that he was very much himself -- an early twentieth-century German pastor and theologian with a sharp mind and well-read disposition.

We interpret Bonhoeffer through our world and our contemporary disagreements and in turn do him and his very real accomplishments and insights a disservice. These sermons offer a well-needed corrective, and challenge readers of all stripes to take a look at Bonhoeffer afresh. Bonhoeffer took to heart the struggles of ordinary men and women to make sense of their lives, and through his sermons attempted to grapple with them on the search for meaningful Christian faith. He understood his sermons as a way of proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord over all, but also as "a prophetic means to call his church and his students to withstand the ideological spirit of the times" (x). Bonhoeffer agreed with Barth that a sermon is an event, an event that takes place in a specific place and time where God seeks to enter into the world afresh through proclamation of Jesus as victor and life-giver. As Best points out, at such an event Bonhoeffer believed that "the incarnation can happen anew" (xxvi).

Some may ask: Why should we read the sermons of some long dead German theologian? The answer, as Bonhoeffer might say, is we read sermons from the past because the Holy Spirit still speaks--through dead letters on a page-- a living Word that proclaims Christ is Lord. That is a witness that stays real and relevant throughout the ages. If you're interested in Bonhoeffer, if you're interested in German preaching in the light of Christ but under the shadow of Hitler, if you're simply interested in well written sermons, buy this book.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

On the Supposed Irrelevance of Religious Studies: The Case of Environmental Change

I cannot speak for all religion professors, of course. And I’m sure that there are places where this “narrative” holds sway even more than at my institution. Nonetheless, I often get the sense that in higher education today and in public consciousness (to the extent that the public these days can be said to be conscious…), the discipline of religious studies is met with something like the inestimable Mr. Wonka’s polite incredulity about its meaningfulness (pictured right). Indeed, sometimes this incredulity is far from polite. Like the humanities tradition in general, religious studies often seems to be backed into a corner and asked to justify its continued existence and consumption of relatively very modest resources in today’s universities.

Part of the problem, in my humble opinion, is that humanities professors – including professors of religion – have done little to contest this narrative, much less advance a compelling counter-narrative. It sometimes suits us to be considered irrelevant. Our classes get smaller, our advising duties get lighter, our voices speak very quietly on committees so who cares if we ever show up, etc. This leaves us more time for our “life of the mind,” “research,” or latest holistic hobby craze.

In terms of advancing a counter-narrative, the case can be made (and it isn’t that hard to do) that the humanistic disciplines are at least as important today as they have ever been, and perhaps even more so. Thinking within the late capitalist system (on life-support though it – hopefully – is), the mercenary-minded student might be interested to know that many major companies have realized that hiring business majors is a bad idea since while they may know how to use Excel and put together a business plan (thereby saving the company money in the short term by cutting down on training time required), they are not generally creative, flexible, well-rounded, critical thinkers (ultimately costing the company money long-term for all the sort of holistic reasons that are so hard to discreetly quantify; but, if I were to try, I’d start with money spent on re-training employees over time). Thinking with more depth, creative, flexible, well-rounded, critical thinkers are precisely the sort of folks we need if we are to envision a new more just, equitable, and sustainable system (admittedly, it isn’t hard to improve upon late capitalism on this score, but we might as well try to make the next one really good rather than just less bad…).

But I digress from my theme. While reading the JAAR today I came across the below which, it seems to me, not only articulates the sort of “irrelevance” dynamic that I noted at the start of this post but also indicating the sort of concrete, practical contribution that can be made by religious studies to “real world” issues – like environmental change. So with altogether too much ado already…

Sara J. King, "The End of the World as We Know It? Apocalypticism, Interdisciplinarity, and the Study of Religion," JAAR 83.2 (2015): 427.
I fear that scholars of religion have become so accustomed to others' belief in their irrelevance that somehow we have forgotten the importance of our knowledge, and what it can contribute. Many scholars of religion have seen "those" looks pass over the face of their academic peers as soon as the word religion is used, and are effectively silenced. . . . [But] if addressing environmental problems was simply a scientific issue, then human-induced environmental change would already be a thing of the past, since the scientific consensus has been so clear for so long. But somehow we humans have failed to act. The study of human experience - of culture and religion - helps us to understand how and why we are stuck, and then to see how to create movement, to bring change.

[Note: Although my Fall semester began yesterday, I meet classes for the first time today - two sections of REL 15000, World Religions, to be exact. I thought it fitting to mark the occasion with this apologia on the usefulness of such an endeavor.]

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Friday, August 21, 2015

Karl Barth, an annihilationist? A recent Twitter "conference"

It all started yesterday as I was reading through a bit of CD 1.2. My eyes lit upon a line and sparked something in my theological imagination. So, I did the totally reasonable thing and took it to twitter:

Our dedicated Senior Contributing Author, Scott Jackson, took note almost immediately:

And then things really got going. Enjoy this recap!






































PostBarthian summed things up appropriately:


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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Nine Lives of DET, pt. 3

In this expansive (or, as some might read it, interminable) series of posts commemorating DET's ninth birthday, we have highlighted one post from the past for each of the nine years we've been in publication. Recall that Facebook was only just catching on in 2006, so we made it in just under the wire -- right before the social media began the rapid process of subsuming all pubic discourse.

In my previous post we saw that the true spirit of  theo-bloggery thrives only in community. At some level, despite ideological differences and vocational rivalries, we live and move within a web or tapestry of threads as emotional, visceral and intense as the dedicated cadre of fans that cluster in musty gyms to enjoy roller derby. I want to (finally) conclude this series by reflecting on the power of community, solidarity, collaboration and pedagogically trendy stuff like that.

Year 7. Baal and Asherah on a Date

Opening up this website to outside contributors has resulted in some scintillating contributions. For example, take this history-of-religions piece from guest contributor Colin Cornell. His subject matter, sexual imagery in religions of the ancient Near East, stands pretty far outside any of my research areas, but I found this reflection on the place of corporeality in theology particularly striking:

[I]n a lot of literature I read, the contrast is strong between a “Hellenistic” and “incorporeal” god and the “corporeal,” “Hebrew” god. Besides the historical sloppiness of this binary, I also often wonder just how dematerialized and deanthropomorphized a God we (modern Christians) confess. Our theologians may have stopped referring straightforwardly to God’s “hands” or “right arm” or “backside” – but oftentimes notions about God’s “speech” or God’s “action” play a pivotal role in our theology, even of the most reconstructed and philosophical kind. And surely these and others like them are concepts that, ultimately, carry bodily traces. What is an immaterial word, or a wholly non-physical intervention?


Year 8. Tales of a Late Bloomer

Surely one of the greatest coups of my life is to move from almost complete obscurity in the theology world to slightly less obscurity as a DET contributor -- and eventually as (ahem) "Senior Contributing Writer" even.
I can't even (literally).
When I came on board, I was given (or perhaps took) great liberties in what and how I would write. The only ironclad stipulation was that I, under no circumstances, would blog about Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It's just as well: Everyone knows that field of study belongs to Žižek.
(If you think I'm joking, take a peek at The Fragile Absolute).

I proceeded to use this freedom by writing a series of posts on a theologian I'd never really seriously studied before. True, I had lectured undergrads on Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement. But those of you who've ever taught gen ed classes will attest that teaching a topic is not the same thing as having studied it. Writers use blogs in different ways. One of my favorite ways to blog -- apart from waxing whimsical -- is to explore new ideas, books and thinkers.


Year 9. Die Evangelischen Pastoren

This past year has witnessed several fine posts from DET contributor Henry Coates. He writes openly, directly and often quite vulnerably of his experiences in pastoral ministry. Of his posts, "Will I See Jesus When I Die?" is perhaps my favorite. During a field placement at a hospital, a dying woman asks Henry for reassurance that her death will not mean oblivion in a meaningless void, and this compels him to confess his faith even amid his own doubts and questions. Yes, from the depths of his heart that she would indeed be with Jesus on the other side of death. Henry writes:
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.
What would you have said had you been in that situation?

* * *

In conclusion, I've been reflecting a lot lately on the state of theo-bloggery today. Speaking freely, if I may, I'd say we live in a rapidly evolving theological landscape. In many respects, our current crop of theo-bloggers are increasingly postBarthian and -- in a very promising development -- we see an increasing number of women in theology. Truly, what has emerged is a great kaleidoscope of biblical and theological insight. Nonetheless, we must remember that possibilities and the uncertainties of these times is not unique. In the post-World War II era, Christian thinkers pondered what would ensue after existentialism, light or greater obscurity. Has the theological project itself threatened to become a burning boat on the verge of capsizing? Or should we seek to reinvigorate our discourse by sharpening the well-worn hatchets of polemic, as if each of us were, say, Huldrych Zwingli reborn?

Despite our differences, we must remember we live only through the cross to the light, and not vice versa. Whether you consider yourself an evangelical Calvinist or the practitioner of a tenuous, eclectic orthodoxy -- even if you're just nearly orthodox -- what we all have in common is that each of is practicing one form or another of experimental theology. Considered by itself, theo-bloggery might seem to be a fissiparous activity. Today we are receiving religion dispatches representing this or that agenda, a great flux of thought that might seem to lack a center. Will any of this yield any new insights, all this theo(co)mmentary?

Yet all our theological musings are relativized and established by the source of the fire and the Rose of Sharon, Jesus Christ. Following this light, this euangelion, may mean having to row against the stream of a late-modern, capitalist consumer society. You may not be a fan of process theology, say, or a Moltmanniac, but I guarantee that if you peruse the theo-blogosphere long enough, you'll find something that resonates with you, or piques your interest, or annoys you enough that you pen a new post of your own. If some of what we right seems out of bounds -- theology in a far country -- remember that our Savior has preceded us into that unknown territory through a sheer act of disruptive grace. Living into this covenant of grace, we seek to embody the titrate life, like the scientist attempting to achieve a balance between substances that might normally clash. We toil on, task by task, seeking to forge a resident theology for occupants of "this fragile earth, our island home." At the end of the day, what can we do but shout out "Kyrie Elieson"?

As incongruous as it may seem, theologians sometimes can be arrogant. I fear the presence of Twitter has done little to squelch such hubris. A little honest humility is like the scent of "Ocean Breeze" candles at an outlet mall. Too much transparency, on the other hand, and things get a little awkward -- as in the case of a couple who disclose to Dr. Phil on national television one detail too many about their marital intimacy.

If a too much honesty starts to make you uncomfortable as a writer, you can do what I do: Try to mask uncomfortable truths in the bait-and-switch of humor. Perhaps St. Augustine wouldn't approve of this strategy, but he's never offered to write anything for us. He does all his blogging for Faith and Theology.

Partly because Augustine of Hippo wrote so much, scholars today hotly debate
whether his thought should be classified as "Augustinian."


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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Nine Lives of DET, pt. 2

The blogosphere is so self-referential.
In my previous post, to mark the ninth birthday of this blog, I proposed to essay a kind of phenomenological account of what makes Die Evangelischen Theologen tick by revisiting nine representative posts, one each for each year of operation. The operative theory is this: If the indivisible eternal suffuses each discrete moment of finite existence, then it follows that each of these posts should offer a sort of microcosm for the whole. Upper management decreed this nine-lives concept should be stretched out (milked) over three separate posts. I'll leave it to you, gentle readers, to decide whether that was a good idea.

So then, let's continue.


Year 4. A Reformer for All Seasons

If you browse through the "Categories" column on the left side of the DET page -- You're here already, so you might as well do so now -- you'll find, not surprisingly, that Karl Barth trumps all other theologians in number of posts. By a long shot. Still, although a distant second to Barth, John Calvin weighs in with a almost 100 posts of his own. If I'm not mistaken (and I'm not paid enough to research it), Travis McMaken has written the vast majority of these posts, if not all of them.

For my part, what I find particularly endearing about so many of these posts is simply that they attend to what the reformer actually wrote and meant: In other words, the goal is to lift up Calvin -- pastor, exegete, teacher, systematician -- as a person and thinker in his own right, without fretting about defending or debunking some species of CalvinISM -- for example the Young, Rabid and Reformed club of recent memory.

I find this post particularly engaging. In it Travis draws upon a quote from Phillip Schaff, the Mercersberg theologian -- a fascinating figure in his own right -- to ponder Calvin's complex and fragile human experience. For example, Travis reminds us:

We must remember that Calvin was often severely ill (migraines, various digestive problem, kidney stones the size of walnuts that had to be dislodged through horse riding…just think about that one for a while), and that would put anyone in a cranky mood.

That's not enough, perhaps, to appease defenders of Servetus, but it certainly gives us a better sense of the Genevan reformer -- at the gut level.

And while we're on the subject of Calvin and the Calvinists....


Year 5. In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Charity,
In Politics...All Bets are Off

Reformed theologians, pretty much like any group of Christians, disagree vigorously over politics. Among Barthian-esque writers in particular, I could cite examples of radical socialists, on the one hand, and laissez-faire contributors to First Things.

In the very first DET post, as we saw last time, Travis proposes to stay out of politics, but the gloves come off when Evangelical Calvinist blogger Bobby Grow proffers a theological critique of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In framing his defense of OWS, Travis draws upon the work of Barth's pupil Helmut Gollwitzer. Bobby offered this rejoinder (By the way, if and when a book on Gollwitzer appears in the near future, you and all your friends should rush out to buy it.) Gollwitzer's words bear repeating, as we become even more acutely aware of economic equality and social injustice:

The conversion to which the Christian community is called daily through God's word also includes turning away from its bond in the dominant system of privileges and active engagement for more just social structures no longer determined by social privileges. Therefore the important primary question today is the question about the relation of Christian existence and capitalism, not the question of the relation of Christianity and socialism. Can one as a Christian affirm and defend the present social system together with its underlying economic order or must this system be intolerable for a Christian?

My purpose in recapping this post is not to embarrass either Travis or Bobby; I might well have followed the counsel of sages and let sleeping dogmaticians lie. Yet I think this is an interesting interchange, which I read as a spirited, polemical engagement, not an ad hominem attack, from either side. What's more, I wanted to demonstrate that even a "respectable" academic blog such as this one (ahem) might occasionally feature a prime example of that most beloved of bloggery genres: The Rant.



Year 6. No Theo-Blogger is an Island

2012 was a momentous year in world affairs. For example, President Obama was handily reelected and hardly anyone, including most pundits and pollsters, foresaw this drubbing because nearly everyone forgot that bit about the Electoral Collage actually choosing the President. (Civics 101 facepalm.) Still, this was an even more momentous year here for DET and its intrepid founder. This was the year the blog transitioned to a group blog with multiple regular (well, more like occasional) contributors: Thus "Der Evangelische Theologe" became "Die Evangelischen Theologen." Think of it this way: By itself mein is weak and lonely. It finds its true fulfillment in Gemeinschaft -- that is, in community. Okay, I'm a theologian, not an etymologist. In this post, Travis explains the matter more seriously and less tendentiously. He writes:

[T]heology blogging provided me with a community of theological fellow travelers at precisely the stage in my intellectual development that I needed them most. Through web interaction, a group of us identified each other, formed a sort of inchoate group identity, and proceeded in a dynamic and free-form way to shoulder the ever-important burden of discerning what we believed to be the pressing theological issues of our own time.

For a superb example from the collective project that year, check out "So You Want to Read Bonhoeffer" by sometime DET contributor Brandy Daniels.

In my next post, I'll continue to circle the wagons -- I mean, circle the square -- but looking at how DET evolved toward greater diversity and plurality of viewpoints.

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