Monday, January 30, 2012

New Center for Barth Studies Book Review

Darren Sumner reviews Hans Vium Mikkelsen, Reconciled Humanity: Karl Barth in Dialogue (Eerdmans, 2010). Darren is a good friend of DET, and is one of the primary forces behind the collaborative Aberdeen theo-blog, Theology Out of Bounds. His review constitutes a rather lengthy critical engagement with Mikkelsen's text, so it will be well worth your time. Be sure to check it out!


Thursday, January 26, 2012

An Introduction of Sorts...

“…we ought to ask, what political possibilities are the consequence of a radical critique of the categories of identity.”  - Judith Butler,
Gender Trouble

“As participators in this possibility, we are a riddle to ourselves.” – Barth, CD I/2, §16.2.

While my little description on the contributing authors page offers a small taste of who I am and my interests and such, I thought I would take a moment, as my first post on this site, to say just a little bit more about myself.

I am not quite sure where to start, however, because I am not quite sure how to explain myself. Actually, it is more that I don’t like explaining myself. Explaining myself means categorizing myself: Do I do theology or ethics? Political theology or theological anthropology? Feminist theology or queer theology? Am I a Marxist or a poststructuralist? A Thomist or a Barthian? A Freudian or a Foucauldian? (Ok, those last few are pretty easy to figure out if you know me at all, but you get the idea). Much of the work that I want to do in theology can be narrated in relation to these concerns about categorization—I’m really interested in thinking theologically about identity, about the different ways it is constructed (Black/white, male/female, gay/straight, sacred/profane, etc.), how those constructions are, well, constructed historically, how they are bound up in discourses of power, how they can be challenged/transformed, and how they impact ‘life together.’

Put another way, I am interested in exploring how the theological and social converge in the production of subjectivity, in the categorization of identity—in how this has been problematic, and in where it has been and can be liberative. My interest in studying boundaries, and in pushing against them has, ostensibly, found a few footholds theologically. As my now contributing to this blog suggests, Karl Barth is one of those. I find Barth’s emphases on revelation and the transcendence of God particularly generative in thinking theologically about power (which, is not saying much, but I figure I will have plentyof time to expound on what I mean later). The other theologian that holds a special place in my heart is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I like his stuff for many of the same reasons I like Barth—his emphasis on the transcendence of Christ and its ethical implications on power and on thinking through community. I’m also really interested in how both Barth and Bonhoeffer’s thoughts are shaped by their social contexts and vice versa. Another theological theme that I’ve found particularly generative is apocalypticism—what might it mean to think of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as the radical interruptive event that both grants history meaning and conditions it? How might that trouble how community and identity are conceptualized?

Not surprisingly, I am also really interested in interdisciplinarity, and in thinking theologically at and through things that are not part of the theological canon. One of my professors and mentors, J.Kameron Carter, summed this up in a particularly profound way in a comment on a blog book event (a blog that I also contribute to occasionally. This, when paired with my blogging here, itself perhaps indicates how I tend to eschew categorization...) on his book Race: A Theological Account. Here, Carter writes:
I approach many thinkers with theological issues in mind. And I also approach them trying to hear how theological concerns are being voiced by them. And so, for example, my work on Du Bois tries to takes seriously his wrestling with theological problems. This goes against the grain of Du Bois studies. But this isn’t Du Bois’ fault. It’s the fault of those who come to him with disciplinary blinders on and who’ve already determined what they will hear. The same can be said with reading people like Richard Wright or Fanon or Sylvia Wynter or Toni Morrison or Angela Davis or Walt Whitman etc.

I remember reading somewhere of a letter that Carl Schmitt once wrote to Jacob Taubes in which he said in celebration of the latter’s work that “everything is theology—except what the theologians are talking about.” Isn’t this a great quote?! As a theologian it challenges me to not be surprised who speaks the theological (“out of the mouth of babes and sucklings you, O God, have ordained praise”) and that most often it’s not the theologians who speak the theological.
The critical humanities, especially race and gender theory, have been particularly helpful interlocutors for me in these ways that Carter points to. I find Foucault’s genealogical method and its attention to discourses of power-knowledge alone enormously helpful in exploring the role of theological discourse in constructions of subjectivity. And that is simply brushing the surface…how he calls epistemological certainty into question, what he does in his later work in thinking about possibilities for recasting subjectivity, how he is taken up by theorists like Judith Butler to think through feminist theory and gendered identity…these are just a few of the many riches I find in Foucault. But I don’t want to ramble too much in this introductory post, so more on all of this later too.

Similarly, and finally, I also think experience is a ripe, and all too often untapped, site of and for theological reflection. Moreover, I think attention to experience, and to how experiences and social contexts factor into theological discourse, is connected to how theology operates in discourses of power and in the production of identities. Quoting W.E.B. DuBois, Emilie Townes notes  in her 2008 AAR presidential address "Walking on the Rim Bones of Nothingness”:
One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk and only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children, or that Alexander Hamilton had Negro blood, and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.

So. That is a little bit about me and my theological interests and such. I’m going to try to blog here on a pretty regular basis, though it is quite a busy semester for me, so we’ll see how that goes. But alas, I look forward to getting to think through some of these things—and many other things, of course—with y’all, and to learn from and with you, through this virtual space.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Hello, I'm Derek

To introduce myself here at DET I’m following in our founder’s footsteps and adapting his initial introductory post:

(1) Who are you?

As you already know, I’m Derek Maris and I’m in my first year of PhD work in Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul MN. While this is my first year as a PhD student, my family has lived here for approximately 18 months now, since I started as an MTh student for a year before transitioning into the doctoral program in the fall. Before moving to St. Paul I had already studied in several institutions, receiving a BS in Family Ministry at a small bible college in Manhattan KS, and an MA in Christian Ministries at Friends University in Wichita KS. I also briefly pursued a Master’s for a year at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City for good measure.

My aforementioned family consists of my wife Beth and our dog Max, and we have also been fortunate to have my wife’s retired father in the twin cities as well, so we are not completely separated from family while we are “up north.”

(2) What can you expect from me at DET?

Here I will shamelessly crib from our editor’s introduction and initially say “only God knows.” This is not merely evasion but an admission that although I’m a doctoral student I see myself as still being very much a work in progress as a scholar. Additionally, I look forward over the next several months to gaining insight into the specifics of the roles I will play and niches I will fill here at DET.

With these caveats in mind, I will say that readers can expect me to engage a wide variety of theological topics and thinkers as I continue to wrestle with traditional and contemporary theological concerns, though some will crop up more often than others (see below). Furthermore, I’m always attempting to strengthen and deepen my grasp of relevant secondary disciplines, so if I come across something interesting and within the scope of DET’s goals I will include that here as well. Also, I am very excited to learn from my other contributors so you can expect me to be a frequent commenter here.

Lastly, as is evident from my briefer bio in the “contributing authors” tab above, I have a deep concern with how what I do as a theologian aids in personal and societal transformation. The reasons for this are both theological and personal, and in due time may be explored when possible and/or appropriate. I anticipate that in reading my posts these concerns will often be discernible.

(3) Which theologians do you most like to read?

I first encountered Karl Barth in my MA program at Friends under the tutelage of Dr. Christian Kettler, a former student of the “Barthian” T.F. Torrance. Barth impacted me greatly then, and while not a hard and fast “Barthian” I anticipate Barth being a constant dialogue partner. My primary interest right now is in the work of Jürgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg is a thinker who is beginning to receive my attention as well.

With my interest in Moltmann and Pannenberg it is evident that eschatology is intriguing to me, and in that vein that I have a burgeoning interest in apocalyptic. In addition to eschatology I am also interested in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and over the next couple years I hope to explore how these two loci can be related in a way that aids in understanding how God works in transforming personal and societal life. Hopefully in that process of exploration a narrower topic for a dissertation will be discovered.

I look forward to writing and interacting with you here at DET, and thanks in advance for reading!


Thursday, January 19, 2012

“A doctrine for fighting men” – Augustine’s doctrine of Predestination

I’m teaching an intensive course on Augustine’s Confessions this month, so I’ve been reading a bunch about Augustine. As part of that, I read through Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, which is still (and deservedly so) a standard text in the field. It has been an experience, described at times by all of the following adjectives: refreshing, frustrating, enlightening, inspiring, baffling, sobering, and the list could go on.

Understandably, I wanted to share some of that with you, gentle readers. So, here is a bit on Augustine’s doctrine of predestination. Brown situations Augustine’s work on that doctrine in his biography, and in current events. Put briefly, North Africa was in serious trouble. A barbarian host was sweeping down the cost in late 429 and 430 CE, raping and pillaging all that stood in its path. One city that stood in its path was Hippo, and Augustine had the misfortune to watch the enemy host slowly progress through his diocese destroying all he had worked for and even besieging his city. He died (mercifully) of a fever before Hippo was overrun. What does this have to do with his doctrine of predestination?

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 406. Emphasis added.
What [folks who followed Augustine’s doctrine] gained was a belief that the world around them was intelligible, even if on a plane that surpassed human reason and strained human feeling; and the certainty that they would remain active and creative. Even if they were merely agents, they were at least the agents of forces which guaranteed achievements greater than their own frail efforts could ever have brought about.

For Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, as he elaborated it, was a doctrine for fighting men. A monk might waste his leisure worrying about his ultimate identity: to Augustine, such an anxiety was misplaced. A doctrine of predestination divorced from action was inconceivable to him. He had never written to deny freedom, merely to make it more effective in the harsh environment of the fallen world. This world demanded, among other things, unremitting intellectual labour to gain truth, stern rebuke to move men. Augustine, as a bishop, had thrown himself into both activities.
Skipping ahead to pp. 409-10.
In the early months of 430, Augustine will appear in church to tell panic-stricken crowds what he had already written…: that they would have to ‘persevere’ although love of life was still strong in them. For Augustine had lost none of his capacity to feel. In these few last sermons we realize that the old man’s horror at the evils of existence…was the obverse of his deep-rooted loves: he still knew what it was to love life wholeheartedly, and thus he could convey how much it had cost the martyrs to overcome this love. Like the martyrs, Augustine’s hearers, also, might have to follow in the footsteps of Christ’s Passion. Predestination, an abstract stumbling-block to the sheltered communities of Hadrumetum and Marseilles, as it would be to so many future Christians, had only one meaning for Augustine: it was a doctrine of survival, a fierce insistence that God alone could provide men with an irreducible inner core.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Evangelical Progressivism: An Open Letter to the Editors of Christianity Today

We applaud CT’s recent editorial [“No Taxpayer Is an Island,” December] for giving necessary attention to Elizabeth Warren, whose candidacy offers a breath of fresh air to voters disillusioned with the Babylonian captivity of American politics. Political discourse in our great nation has for too long been dominated by an economic vision that further privileges the already privileged and further disenfranchizes the already disenfranchized. Warren’s social vision challenges these politics as usual, and it is encouraging to see the editors of Christianity Today introducing her to evangelicals.

However, the editors leave us dissatisfied with the attention they gave to Warren. To begin, the editors seem to be of two minds about the relation of church and state as it pertains to Warren. For instance, they affirm that government’s role in society ought to be “limited” (although “not negligible”), and yet chide Warren – a public figure campaigning for government office – for failing to discuss “mediating institutions” as part of her proposals. Either these mediating institutions are within the government’s purview, and so deserving of Warren’s attention, or they are not. At the root of the conceptual dissonance here is a tenuous position on the place of religion in our society. The editors want religious institutions to play an important social role, but they also want them to remain distinct from the government and, perhaps most critically, they do not want government to replicate the services they provide. One detects here not insigificant traces of cultural (if not legal) Christendom, which many evangelicals might see as problematic.

Further, the editors make unnecessary and misleading assumptions about how evangelicals do and ought to relate to certain social visions. For instance, one gets a sense that evangelicalism and the Tea Party rightly go together, while evangelicalism and more progressive social politics are an ill fit, at best. They talk of “evangelical tea partiers” and of a “tea party conservatism that many evangelicals espouse.” On the other side, one finds reference to “secular progressivism that evangelicals rightly reject,” or to Warrren committing “the besetting sin of secular progressivism.” It is not difficult to see that the rhetorical posturing involved here predisposes the reader to view social conservatism favorably and social progressivism unfavorably. What is worse, the editors attach this unfavorable animus to social progressivism by using religiously loaded language: social progressivism commits a “sin,” and repeated descriptions of social progressivism as “secular” plays on the way many people unfortunately associate secularism and atheism.

In presupposing and promulgating these political value judgments, the editors fail to faithfully represent the true breadth of evangelicalism. The truth of the matter is that nothing inherent within evangelical belief necessarily inclines toward social conservatism and away from social progressivism. Indeed, one could construct a cogent case for evangelical commitment pushing one in precisely the opposite direction. We see evidence for this in the heritage of an institution such as Wheaton College, whose founder, Jonathan Blanchard, grounded his own quite radical social progressivism precisely in his evangelical faith. A progressive vision for American society need not be secular, nor need it involve a confusion between church and state that conflates the message of Christ with the platforms of a party.

So while the Christianity Today editors deserve appreciation for bringing Elizabeth Warren to the attention of their evangelical audience, they finally do their audience a disservice in the process. Instead of being an evangelical assessment of a political figure in light of the radical message of the Christian gospel, the editorial reads more like an exercise in political propaganda shrouded in evangelical piety.

W. Travis McMaken (Wheaton College, ‘04)
David W. Congdon (Wheaton College, ‘04)

[Ed. note - David Congdon and I wrote this open letter to the editors of Christianity Today. The context is self-explanatory. A shorter version was submitted to the magazine as a letter to the editor (it is worth noting, I think, that the word limit for such things at CT is unnecessarily restricting), but it does not seem to have appeared in the most recent issue (if the online version just posted is any indication), nor have we heard from the editors. And so we identify one really helpful aspect of theo-blogs - we have another option for getting this out, and now we're exercising it.]


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Die Evangelischen Theologen

Attentive readers may have noticed that there's something different about DET. Indeed, there is something very different. For DET has transformed from "Der Evangelische Theologe" to "Die Evangelischen Theologen."

You may ask, Why the change?

While I was in Princeton to defend my dissertation, circumstances and conversations lead me to reminisce about the "good ol' days" of theo-blogging and the current decline in the practice. Put simply, all the old theo-blogs that were my fellow travelers have ground to a halt and - indeed - my own work here at DET has slowed considerably under the strain of assuming the rigorous responsibilities of full time academic teaching.

This saddens me.

My experience as a theology blogger has been profoundly positive. For instance, I have "met" (both online and in the flesh) interesting people that I would not have otherwise connected with, and I have ceased to be surprised when an e-mail lands in my inbox from some heretofore unknown theological student who reads the blog and wants to discuss something with me or is interested to hear my thoughts on this or that institution to which they are applying.

But most importantly, theology 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.

This was an overwhelmingly positive and incalculably valuable development. But when I look around at theology blogs today, it is precisely this that I miss. Perhaps this continues to occur and I just don't know where to look, but it has all but disappeared if what makes it through the web to my terminal is any trustworthy indication (and quite a bit of things make it to my terminal from the far-flung reaches of theo-blogging-dom). So I decided to take action and foster such theological development in whatever small measure I could.

The changes here at DET are the fruit of that determination. Rather than remaining only my personal blog, I have invited a number of theological students from various stages of their academic careers to join me here in a communal endeavor to foster theological community through blogging. You can read about these intrepid individuals on the new Contributors page in the top menu. You may also read more about this renewed vision for DET in the new About page, also accessible in the top menu.

These contributors will be introducing themselves in the coming weeks (most of them are first-time bloggers) as we begin the task of theological engagement with one another. I hope that you, gentle reader, will join with us and make yourself an integral part of that undertaking. It can be hard work, but I believe that we are all up to it, and that the cost/benefit analysis is highly favorable.


Monday, January 02, 2012

“The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Barth”

As promised previously, here is the abstract for my dissertation. I present it here in the version that went to defense. Be warned – it is not up to my usual editorial standards (I threw it together rather quickly from various bits and pieces), and will be revised before the dissertation goes into the library / indexing services. Perhaps the significance of this blog’s visual theme now becomes clearer…

Abstract of
“The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical
Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Barth”

By: W. Travis McMaken
Committee: George Hunsinger (chair), Bruce McCormack, Bryan Spinks.

The question of infant baptism poses both practical and ecumenical problems within the Christian church. This dissertation‘s burden is to argue that these problems are helpfully addressed through the construction of a relatively new doctrine of baptism, within which infant baptism is considered an appropriate form of administration, on the basis of Barth‘s mature theological commitments. Such a claim is counterintuitive insofar as Barth famously rejected the practice of infant baptism in his concluding part volume of the Church Dogmatics. My argument thus contains two aspects.

First, I argue that Barth‘s doctrine of baptism – and specifically, his rejection of infant baptism – has not been given a fair hearing. Against those who would write-off Barth‘s work on this subject as a departure from his broader theological commitments, I argue that those commitments deeply inform his decisions in these matters. After laying the necessary historical groundwork in chapter one, I move on in chapters two and three to explore why Barth rejected the two primary arguments in favor of infant baptism offered by the tradition. These two chapters conclude with exegetical excurses which attempt an exegetical ground-clearing on these matters. Chapter four takes a more positive approach, explicating Barth‘s doctrine of baptism in Church Dogmatics 4.4 and showing the way in which his treatment is closely related to other prevailing aspects of his thought especially in his doctrine of reconciliation as a whole.

Second, I argue that although Barth himself rejected infant baptism, such a rejection is not necessary on the basis of the broader commitments of his mature theology. Indeed, his mature theology possesses significant resources for deploying a relatively new doctrine of baptism within which infant baptism is a fitting mode of administration. Chapter five undertakes to demonstrate this claim. Therein I reconfigure Barth‘s doctrine of baptism by taking his own insights and impulses regarding the Christian life to bear on the question of baptism in ways that he did not. Ultimately, I argue for understanding baptism as a form of the gospel proclamation by means of which the church shoulders its missionary vocation.

So if you know anyone who is attracted to Barth's theology but ultimately scared away by his rejection of infant baptism, or if you know someone who likes Barth generally but simply ignores Barth's rejection if infant baptism, the definitive answer is on the way! ;-)