Sunday, May 01, 2016

Remembering Helmut Gollwitzer on May Day, with Jürgen Moltmann

May Day, or International Workers’ Day, has rolled around once again. I commemorated this day back in 2013 with a post about Gollwitzer, and I thought that I would do so again this year. But this time I have Moltmann to help me.

Moltmann reflects on Gollwitzer in the context of his (Moltmann’s) editorial work with the periodical Evangelische Theologie, on whose editorial board Gollwitzer also served. These comments from Moltmann give a good sense of Gollwitzer as a particular human being as well as an influential (and sometimes controversial!) theologian and public intellectual. I hope that you will join me in remembering him today. As usual, bold is mine.


Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place (Fortress, 2009), 245–46.

In order to describe the inner relations of the editors of Evangelische Theologie, I must talk about a man who, after Ernst Wolf, became the secret spiritus rector of our periodical: Helmut Gollwitzer. His all-embracing human kindness and his youthful capacity for enthusiasm kept us together and at the same time drove us apart. The rebellious students of 1968 had divided the editorial committee of our periodical as they had the university faculties. Helmut Gollwitzer embraced their concerns as well and declared himself to be on their side. When their leader, Rudi Dutschke, was shot, dying later as a result, he took the funeral in the midst of the outcry of the protesting students; for Rudi was a sincere Christian. Gollwitzer accompanied the squatters into empty apartment houses. He expected a renewal of the universities with a democractic basis from everyone, from us too. He wrote splendid contributions for the periodical. But not everyone was able to go along with his generosity of heart. We lost some of the co-editors, who had misgivings.

Then at the beginning of the 1980s came the era of the peace movement. The discipleship of Jesus made of Helmut Gollwitzer an unremitting friend of peace and an opponent of rearmament. He had spent four years in Russian prison camps. In the periodical and in the Gesellschaft für Evangelische Theologie (the Society for Protestant Theology), we declared ourselves to be decisively against rearmament and unequivocally committed to the service of peace ‘without weapons’—not simultaneously ‘with weapons,’ too, as a Heidelberg declaration said, hoping to satisfy both sides through this complementary formulation. But who can make a decision in complementary terms? . . .

The person who was behind the criticism which Helmut Gollwitzer had to face in the periodical after 1968, and again after 1980, was an old Barthian friend of his, Helmut Traub . . . . Traub considered this politicization of the gospel to be a betrayal of Barth and of the periodical’s tradition. Through Ernst Wolf’s son, . . . he suggested that we ought to remove Ernst Wolf’s name from the imprint and abandon the periodical’s name. With this Traub caused considerable unrest among the editors, because no one really knew whom he had goaded on, and who had been taken in by him. However, we survived and kept faith with Helmut Gollwitzer until his death, as he did with us.

May 1 is also a significant day in Gollwitzer’s biography. It was on this day 79 years ago, in 1937, that he arrived in Dahlem to take up his post as assistant pastor under Martin Niemöller. Niemöller would be arrested by the Gestapo on July 1st, at which point Gollwitzer became the de facto pastor of the radical Confessing Church congregation until he was himself silenced by the Gestapo in 1940.

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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Or, the past **two** fortnights in the theoblogosphere! It has been four weeks since our last link post. But, as usual, we return from riding the range of the interwebs to bring you some of the best in thought-provoking reflection.

Here’s what we’ve been up to here at DET:


And here is some good stuff from elsewhere:


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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bender on Schleiermacher: Will Science Trump Creation Doctrine?

I recently was reading Kimlyn Bender's essay, "Christ, Creation and the Drama of Redemption: 'The Play's the Thing...'" when I came across a claim that grabbed my attention. Bender writes that Friedrich Schleiermacher told a friend not only that advances in modern natural science entail a reinterpretation of the Creator-creature relationship, but also that science might eventually render the Christian doctrine of creation moot altogether. Prescinding from this essay as a whole, with which I find much to agree, I hone in on this particular claim.

Bender writes:

[I]n his [second] letter to Lücke, Schleiermacher relates that the very notion of creation itself may need to be abandoned in light of a new scientific understanding of the world, which was that of a closed deterministic universe. Schleiermacher held that scientific advancement would lead to a comprehensive view of the world, a prognostication that has not come to pass, while the conception of a closed universe that so influenced Schleiermacher had in fact passed away (p. 302).

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

With my layperson's limited familiarity with science, I certainly can get the claim that modern physics, especially, has rendered a Newtonian mechanistic view of the universe problematic. But the passage from Bender raises two questions for me, apropos of Schleiermacher interpretation: 1) Just how entangled is Schleiermacher's account of creation with the presupposition of a closed universe? And 2) how does this notion that science might subsume creation doctrine comport with his own attempt to render a "non-contrastive" account of theology, which (as I had thought) secures theological claims from being degraded by the specific cosmological theories of the day by keeping the realms of faith and empirical science strictly separated? Since I haven't read Schleiermacher's account of creation in a while, I decided to do a little remedial digging into the question.

For starters, I should briefly define what I mean by a "non-contrastive" or "non-competitive" model of the Creator-creature relationship. Bender himself sketches this earlier in the essay, where he summarizes the early work of Kathryn Tanner. The basic claim is that divine action occurs at an ontological register that transcends the realm of finite cause-and-effect; consequently, theological claims, rooted in faith and its divine source, are incommensurable with empirical descriptions of the natural world. (This kind of position has a venerable pedigree in the history of Christian thought. In her book God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny and Empowerment?, Tanner examines the logic of this creation theology, with Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth receiving special attention.)

For years I have understood Schleiermacher's theology of creation to be non-competitive in that sense. In that vein, he writes in the thesis statement of par. 42 of The Christian Faith (trans. H.R. Mackintosh & J.S. Stewart, T&T Clark, 1989, p. 152):

If the conception of Creation is to be further developed, the origin of the world must, indeed, be traced entirely to the divine activity, but not in such a way that this activity is thought of as resembling human activity; and the origin of the world must be represented as the event in time which conditions all change, but not so as to make the divine activity itself a temporal activity.

I don't see how any change in scientific cosmology could falsify or render otiose a doctrine of creation stated in such formal terms, in which divine agency is not identified equivocally with any temporal sequences or agencies. God is not some demiurge, whose mythic and minute ministrations are shoved off the stage by modern Enlightenment. Rather, in an incomprehensible way, God's one eternal decree is fully and perfectly instantiated through the sum total of secondary causes throughout the total history of creation, which culminates in our redemption in Jesus Christ.

Actually, for that matter, I'm not quite convinced that the notion of "closed universe" is that important for what Schleiermacher argues overall about the cosmic nature system; certainly, I need to check into this matter further. To be sure, this may well have been part of the modernist intellectual furniture of the German theologian's milieu -- as, arguably, it would seem to be a common sense notion for many folks today. Still, though I'm not prepared to vet the argument here, I wonder whether Bender might be overplaying here the import of this conceptual framework for Schleiermacher's project. Does a commitment to a closed cosmology really threaten to derail the first great dogmatic theology of the modern era?

At any rate, the second question intrigues me more: Could advances in the natural sciences render the concern of classical creation doctrine obsolete. I'll freely admit to being a little confused about what is being claimed here. Certainly, a number of recent cosmologists and philosophers think that's the case. Recall Bonhoeffer's "God of the gaps," in which divine providence serves as an explanatory, causal hypothesis, ever retreating into obscurity and implausibility as advances in the sciences progressively explain more and more about how the world works. (For more on this, see my recent review of Kevin Vander Schel's book.)

To try to clear matters up for myself, I turn to the specific passage Bender cites in the quote that opens this post.
The text is On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr. Lücke (trans. James Duke & Francis Fiorenza, Scholars Press, 1981, pp. 60-63). This book as a whole is a sort of progress report and assessment of the early edition of Schleiermacher's dogmatics, in which the Berlin theologian is keen to answer critics of his work. He begin the section on the challenge of modern natural sciences thus: "Just think of the present state of the natural sciences as they increasingly develop into a comprehensive knowledge of the world" (p. 60).

(I don't have current access to the German original to parse further what "comprehensive knowledge" might mean.) Schleiermacher predicts -- prophetically -- that the burgeoning modern scientific worldview will initiate profound crisis within Protestant dogmatics. Predictably, reaction is bound to set in, as guardians of orthodoxy seek to wall off church doctrine from the corrosive onslaught of modern scientific thinking. But, at the end of the day, it won't work:

I can only anticipate that we must learn to do without what many are still accustomed to regard as inseparably bound to the essence of Christianity. I am not referring to the six-day creation, but to the concept of creation itself, as it is usually understood, apart from any reference to the Mosaic chronology and despite all those rather precarious rationalizations that interpreters have devised. How long will the concept of creation hold out against the power of a world view constructed from undeniable scientific conclusions that no one can avoid, especially now, when the secrets of the experts concern only the method and detail of the sciences, but their great results will soon be accessible to every enlightened and knowledgeable person throughout the general public (p. 61, emphases mine).

This passage raises many issues I can't pursue here. Suffice it to say, these are the worries prompting Schleiermacher, it seems to me, not to abandon the notion of creation but to redefine it in terms that should be, in principle, immune to scientific critique -- a kind of account, rooted in the faith in the Whence of all creatures, that is not grounded or in any way dependent upon empirical descriptions of cosmic process. To be fair to Bender, he clearly recognizes that Schleiermacher's argument for the cosmos is a unified whole -- a "totality," if I may invoke a little postmodern jargon here -- is embedded in a broader set of theological commitments: Schleiermacher argues, in particular, that the conception (or perhaps "perception" or "intuition"?) of the universe as a unified whole is coterminous with immediate self consciousness. One can "know" oneself only as part of a "world," a nexus of causes and effects. More importantly, this claim for the unity of creation is entailed by piety itself (that is, by the feeling of absolute dependence), with a concomitantly vigorous doctrine of providence as being fully and perfectly expressed in everything that exists and happens (See Bender's concluding "Postscript" on Schleiermacher's Christology, especially pp. 361-364).

Bender's main worry is that Schleiermacher's doctrine of creation rules out the miraculous, and that this move is particularly devastating in a Christology wherein the appearance of the unique Savior can only be relatively rather than absolutely supernatural. To tip my own hand a bit, I share Bender's worries about Schleiermacher's Christology, and agree this challenge must somehow be answered, tricky as that may prove to be. Bender has boldly attempted to do so, whereas I, for the time being, am punting.

Be that as it may, Schleiermacher was hardly the first Christian thinker to employ such a non-competitive strategy to protect the transcendence of God from entanglement with the vicissitudes of creaturely finitude. Arguably, he stands in a venerable line traceable back through Protestant and Catholic orthodoxy, and articulated classically by Thomas Aquinas and even by the second-century apologists Tertullian and Irenaeus, who helped to hash out the orthodox Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo as distinctive -- as sui generis. (Were you duly impressed that I plugged two Latin phrases into one sentence?) If that's the case, perhaps Schleiermacher's doctrine of creation -- at least in terms of the traditional Creator-creature distinction -- is, albeit quite radical, not as novel as might appear on first blush.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What Am I Reading? George Hunsinger, “The Beatitudes”

I’ve been waiting for this book for over two years. I’ve had it pre-ordered on Amazon for over a year. I’m not sure why, but I decided to look it up last week to see if Amazon had a shipping estimate yet. When I did, I saw that there were two different listings for it. The one that I had pre-ordered was for a paperback, and its status remained unknown. But now there was another, a hardback, that – much to my chagrin! – was published back at the end of December!* Thanks to the wonders of Amazon Prime, I was able to get a copy in my hands expeditiously and I read it even more expeditiously. It was worth the wait!

George Hunsinger, The Beatitudes (New York: Paulist Press, 2015).

This is a very mature piece of exposition. Hunsinger has poured the gleanings of his career as theologian and churchman into producing a spiritually deep set of meditations. Here all his best theological tools are put not just to systematic but to practical, pastoral, and pious use. The exposition is seldom surprising for one who knows Hunsinger's thought well, but it is nonetheless often moving.

True to form, he also weaves social justice themes throughout and this gave rise to what I found to be some of the best and most spiritually stimulating material. Hunsinger displays a rhetorical sophistication that at times borders on the exquisite. Consider the following paragraph, which highlights the basic injustices in the contemporary world, and especially the last sentence (as usual, and throughout the post, bold is mine):

The vast majority of the world’s population suffers from lack of clean water, inadequate sanitation and hygiene, and an inferior diet. This ocean of misery, hidden in plain sight, goes largely ignored by the affluent world. The better-off know little of how ‘the other half’ dies. (12)

Wow.

On the very next page Hunsinger makes clear that these social justice issues that plague our world will succumb to no simple fix. Necessary is a whole new way of being. Here he is again:

Because of the magnitude of the problem, . . . initiatives by citizens, churches, and nongovernmental organizations, while indispensable, will not be enough. Large-scale structural changes are needed in the prevailing economic system or systems, so that these disastrous social results are not perpetuated. Church people who get involved at a personal level—as for example in a local soup kitchen or a hunger action program—often start asking larger questions, which can bring challenges of their own. “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint,” wrote Dom Hélder Câmara. “When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” (13)

And for those who are tempted to think that all of this is an interpolation of non-theological concerns that are foreign to the Beatitudes, allow me to share just one place where they touch down—the beatitude of the peacemakers who will be called God’s children. The primary theological insight that Hunsinger works with throughout is that the Beatitudes are first and foremost descriptors of Jesus Christ. Then, working out from Christ in concentric circles, they are descriptors of believers first and then a wider circle of not-yet- or not-obviously-believers. And then, finally, they are imperatives. In any case, here is what he has to say about peacemaking:

As Christ abolishes the division between Jew and Greek, so he also abolishes every unacceptable social contradiction. His cross has overthrown the domination between slave and free as well as between male and female. Whether openly or secretly, every movement for liberation has Christ at its center. He is its active source. (83)

There is much more that could be said about this wonderfully tidy theological treasury. For instance, each chapter begins with a reproduction of an evocative work of art, and the volume includes a study guide in the back that makes it easily accessible and useful in church educational contexts.

Do yourself a favor and tolle lege as soon as possible.

__________
* I hate to wreck the illusion, gentle reader, but DET doesn’t always publish in real time. It is not unusual for me to have posts waiting for months to be published. This post was written near the end of February, 2016.

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

What Am I Reading? Wink's Naming the Powers

I've recently reread the provocative and fascinating opening volume of the the "Powers" trilogy by the late Walter Wink. The brevity of this book belies its erudition, its subtlety and its singular contribution -- to my mind, still not fully tapped -- toward a potential retrieval of the phenomenology of power pervading the New Testament.

Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Fortress, 1984).

The book has three sections. The first part casts a wide net, surveying the major terms and concepts of the principalities and powers found throughout the Gospels and Epistles. Part two offers a close exegesis of the most "disputed" passages relating to the powers, almost all of which are found in the Pauline and deutero-Pauline corpus. The final section, which could well stand on its own, outlines a bold, speculative and constructive framework for demythologizing the biblical powers language and reinterpreting it in light of the socio-political, psychological and even physical forces that shape, direct and tragically oppress human beings and the natural world today.

This work as a whole -- a tour de force -- is a compelling apologia for reading the biblical texts wholistically and realistically; Wink eschews what he considers to the be reductionism of many modern interpreters, who, in his view, explain away the core spirituality of the New Testament, paring it down to the stifling categories of modernist materialism -- a rationalist worldview that is no more self evidently true than the credulous supernaturalism it ostensibly surpasses. He convincingly interprets the principalities and powers, thrones and dominions, angels and demons as simultaneously, even interchangeably spiritual, transcendent and cosmic, on the one hand, and socio-political, psychological and terrestrial, on the other hand. The constructive piece, which draws upon process theology and depth psychology, is the section that elicits some of my own reservations about the project. As a thought experiment in integrating the inner and outer dimensions of experience holistically, however, it is fascinating, if not (to me) completely convincing at the end of the day.

Wink -- an ordained United Methodist minister, who taught biblical interpretation for four decades at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City -- was also a seminal political theologian, environmental activist and inveterate champion for nonviolent resistance. In the preface to Naming the Powers, he recounts the personal crisis from which this book emerged. While finishing a related volume on the powers in the early 1980s, Wink took a sabbatical with his wife, June, in several benighted Latin American countries (including such hot spots as Argentina, Peru and Nicaragua), where he experienced first-hand the ravages of U.S.-backed military dictatorships. He writes:

We stayed in barrios and favelas, talking with priests and nuns struggling with the everyday crush of oppression. We interviewed a lawyer who represented the families of people who had "disappeared." We spent an excruciating evening in dialogue with a woman who had been tortured (p. ix)

Wink grew increasingly angry and despondent, succumbing to physically illness. He despaired that his book could make any dent on the blight of such profound systemic injustice and suffering.

The evils we encountered were so monolithic, so massively supported by our own government, in some cases so anchored in a long history of tyranny, that it scarcely seemed that anything could make a difference (ibid.)

Amid this distress, while working through a review of a NT colleague's book on the powers, Wink reached a breakthrough that forced him to re-frame the New Testament material from top to bottom. He groped his way toward answering the question that also motivates my own reading of his work, still as relevant and probative today as was three decades ago:

How could the writers of the New Testament insist that Christ is somehow, even in the midst of evil, sovereign over the Powers? I wrestled with this assertion with all my might. Gradually an answer began to shape itself. What I found may not strike anyone else as amounting to much, but for me it was the thin margin of hope, and I clung to it desperately.

And somewhere in the midst of the writing and the wrestling, I was given the gift of my tears (x).
The Deserter (1916), by Boardman Robinson
(wikimedia commons)

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Why do christology? H. R. Mackintosh has 4 reasons (via Purves)

One of the things that Purves highlights in his discussion of H. R. Mackintosh is the way that theology and piety are inextricably linked. Theology arises from a certain kind of experience, we might say. Or as Purves himself puts it, “faith is the fruitful soil of doctrine” (79). Theology, then, develops as the church’s attempt to describe the experience, or dynamics, or way of being in the world engendered by – faith. Some of this comes to expression when Purves discusses how Mackintosh answers the question of why christology – or, detailed reflection upon the person of Christ, i.e., who he is – developed in the early Christian centuries. So, without further ado, here are Mackintosh’s four reasons to do christology.

Andrew Purves, Exploring Christology & Atonement: Conversations with John McLeod Campbell, H. R. Mackintosh, and T. F. Torrance (IVP Academic, 2015), 76.

Why do Christology? Mackintosh suggests that four motives may be found in the New Testament itself. (1) It was believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and that God’s revelation ended with him. If so, who was / is he? (2) Jesus’ exaltation and his gift of the Spirit mean that he is Lord, begetting in believers a transcendent life and a hope in his coming again to be revealed as central and omnipotent. If so, who was / is he? (3) The apostolic church, extending the mission beyond the Jewish circle, discovered that Jesus was for the whole world. His significance was universal. If so, who was / is he? (4) The self-witness of Jesus quickened the thought of his awareness of a unique sonship, which raised all manner of questions concerning his relationship to God. If so, who was / is he?

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Thursday, April 07, 2016

Got General Revelation? Well, Isn't that Special!

Well, it's the Easter season, and we've been on hiatus here at DET. My blog-typing fingers have atrophied a little. May I be permitted, then, to do a little preachin' to the choir? The topic of today: What of our seemingly inexorable quest for general revelation?
Is God revealed here? Possibly, says Barth.
Boshevik (1920), by Boris Kustodiev (wikimedia commons) 


I recently wrote a review of a fine book that, in one chapter especially (but really throughout the text) interrogates and questions Barth's ostensible rejection of natural theology and general revelation. In my hands now is another book -- you'll hear about it here soon enough -- that offers a spirited attempt to retrieve and reconstruct a robust account of general revelation, amid a vast array of liminal religious, aesthetic and moral experiences. Crucially, these experiences are framed in terms of pneumatology rather than Christology and are deemed to be encounters with the divine in daily life, apart from the economy of saving grace. (But is there really such thing as real human life apart from saving grace? Perhaps I shall revisit this question in due course.)

To be honest, I'm starting to feel a little beleagured and bemused by all this natural theology talk. I mean, if God's presence is so self evident in all this, why do we have to defend and debate all this data at such length? Barth, of course, famous (or notoriously, depending on your perspective) wrote hundreds of pages on this topic -- a good deal of it in terms more strident than this little post. Moreover, the question of Barth's stance on natural theology has been the subject of many monographs, articles and blog posts, including more than a few "hoary summations." All this evidence demands a verdict, to be sure, but I can only attempt a summary judgment here: Little truths reflecting the Big Truth, sure ... but as for revelations that in are certifiably Christ-independent? Nein!

Barth found Mozart's flute concertos
to be divine. Or at least the next
best thing.
When it boils down to it, I think it's hard to beat Barth's summary of his own position in this winsome clip posted at the Center for Karl Barth Studies website. Not only is this a terrific, and very direct, statement of Barth's view, but it also has a side benefit for those of you working on your German (God bless you): Barth speaks slowly, and you can match up his words with the subtitles. Be warned (Achtung!): If you think you've pinned down the fluttering wings of divine revelation "hier und dort," then Barth has an admonition for you.

A caveat: Must Barth really play the Nazi card? We might merely be seeking shimmering glimmers of the divine in sunsets and serenades here. Why invoke völkisch romanticism? So over the top, Barth! Well, for my part, I tend to avoid playing the Hitler card. But it was, in Barth's case, truly a card dealt with the hand. Arguably, the deck as a whole was stacked (the Germans, recall, didn't have the expedient stopgap of a "brokered convention" to derail a potentially devastating demagogue).
As someone who worked under, railed against and received a pink slip from the regime, perhaps Barth knew something about this business that you and I don't. Not everything, but something.

Another thing: Apologies to the death-of-God theologians, past and present. It's Barth's own decision, perhaps following that of the psalmist, to label you folks "fools" (die Toren). Don't blame the messenger, please.

English subtitles are available in the clip, for anyone who doesn't speak German or who, perhaps, works at the World Council of Churches and might be afraid or embarrassed to pipe the audio through your desktop speakers.

(P.S.: For any of you wiseacres out there in webland who suspect this all is just a obsequious plug to get the KBC to tweet my post as one of their top five posts of the week, I won't dignify your accusation with comment. Perhaps some day I'll dedicate a post to the question: "How to Get a Thumbs Up from the Barth Center Twitter page, When Jedi Mind Tricks Don't Work.")

Love it or hate it, this is vintage Barth. Enjoy.



It is not lost on me how churlish, how insensitive, how exclusivist such comments might strike the student of Rahner or Tillich, of Ogden or Pannenberg, of Ruether or Tracy. What is clear to me is what is stake for Barth is not some general theory of religious epistemology, or some hermeneutical suspicion of religious or aesthetic experiences as such; rather, what drives him is the heart of the Gospel, as he understands it. Others thinkers might see Jesus prime exemplar of a universal ideal or, at best, the very pinnacle of a series of "small i" incarnations throughout human or even throughout cosmic history. For Barth, though, the heart of the kerygma hinges upon the irreplaceable identity of Jesus Christ as a person -- note carefully: not of the mere story of Jesus, or the person-forming reverberations of history throughout a diverse human community, nor the his life-event as historical moment (though these are pieces of the whole, to be sure), but in his personal identity.

But was Barth right? In my own sometimes halting, sometimes incredulous way, I will hazard the answer -- yes.

(The God not only of dead dogs, but also of he living )
Golden Retriever eating raw pig feel. By Denhulde (wikimedia commons).

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