Monday, April 30, 2012

Assumptions behind Barth's Dialogue with Catholicism at Münster

Karl Barth can and has been characterized both as radically anti-Catholic and radically ecumenical. What makes it difficult to arbitrate such competing claims is that both are true of Barth at different times. One of the times that Barth was favorably disposed to Catholic theology was during his time teaching in Münster. As Amy Marga points out in the below quotation, Barth's theology at that time shared a number of important assumptions with Catholic theology in this period. As Amy further makes clear, however, Barth finally rejected these assumptions in his mature theology.

Karl Barth’s Dialogue with Catholicism in Göttingen and Münster: Its Significance for His Doctrine of God, 92 (as usual, bold is mine):
Barth started out with three assumptions about the Incarnation that made his conversation with Roman Catholicism in Münster an unproblematic one. First, he was working with the assumption that the Incarnation presupposes creation. Because the Incarnation is reconciliation, Barth was making the assumption that reconciliation presupposes creation. This assumption is the most significant one in his Münster lectures... The second assumption concerns hist affirmation of an "original relationship" between God and the human that is presupposed by the Incarnation. The flesh of Jesus Christ does not at this point in Barth's theology incorporate all flesh into this original relationship (as it would later on in his thought). Third, Barth assumed that the reality of the Incarnation, and therefore the reality of the event of reconciliation is a reality that coincides peacefully with creaturely reality. This relation produces a balance of grace and sinfulness in the human being. The presence of these assumptions in the Münster lectures at this point in time allows Barth to show a surprising degree of ecumenical openness; he even brings the Catholic terminology of the analogia entis into his orbit of thought. They are assumptions that Hans Urs von Balthasar thought he saw in Barth's later theology, but in fact, they are revised before the decade of the 1920s is through.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Call for Papers: Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School

This lull in DET productivity seems to be morphing into a season of announcements...

Some of you may recall my posting a year or so ago about a graduate student conference being held at Harvard. I even posted here at DET a contribution that I penned for their study booklet in lieu of attending. Well, it's time for another iteration. While I am no longer a graduate student and thus no longer eligible to participate, I wanted to do my part in getting the word out about this great opportunity for grad students from across a wide variety of theological disciplines to come together for cross-pollination.

I have included the official call for papers below in its entirety. A little more information is available at the meeting's website, and hopefully more will go up there as the event draws closer. If you are a graduate student in religion or theology, I heartily encourage you to consider submitting a proposal and attending this conference.


Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School
October 26-27, 2012
Harvard Divinity School
Cambridge, MA


The Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School invites paper proposals that interrogate the relationship between religion and epistemic practices. We seek projects representative of a variety of theoretical, methodological and disciplinary approaches, and that explore the nature, production and/or dissemination of knowledge, especially in relation to religious practices, subjectivities, identities, objects and authorities.

The conference aims at promoting interdisciplinary discussion of prevailing assumptions (both within and outside the academy) about the differentiation, organization, authorization, and dissemination of various modes of knowing and practice and different bodies of knowledge in relation to religion. We therefore welcome projects that utilize all sorts of theoretical tools including discourse analysis, gender theory, race theory, postcolonial theory, performance theory, and ritual theory. Papers may focus on a specific period, region, tradition, person or group, and/or on a set of practices, texts, doctrines or beliefs. Projects that are primarily theological, ethical, textual, historical, philosophical, sociological or anthropological are welcome, as are projects indebted to multiple disciplines.

Approaches to the conference theme could include, but are not limited to, the following: 1) an epistemological exploration of a specific way of knowing, being and engaging the world or particular discursive framework and its relation to different religious practices; 2) an historical, sociological and/or anthropological analysis of the cultural processes that support a specific religious or cultural discourse, its authoritative structures, and/or its strategies of inclusion and exclusion; 3) an analysis of gender, sexuality, race and/or socioeconomic class with respect to religious practices and performances; 4) a comparative examination of religious texts and/or their interpretations, with attention to the historical, sociopolitical, cultural, and/or intellectual contexts that mediate and delimit different interpretations; 5) an analysis of the interplay between religion and scientific, moral, and/or legal discourses and authorities; 6) a theological construction or analysis of a particular normative proposal, which critically and/or comparatively engages one or more religious traditions.

Sumbission Details

Proposals are to be submitted to


by Friday, June 29, 2012.

Please include with your proposal the paper or panel title, presenter’s name, email address and institutional affiliation. Notification of accepted proposals will be emailed out by July 20th.


Individual Paper Proposals: Please submit a 300-word proposal explaining the topic, main argument and methodology of the project. Individual papers will be organized into panels and should not exceed 20 minutes in delivery.

Panel Proposals: Proposals for pre-organized panels on a particular topic may include 3-5 papers. Please submit the following: 1) a 300-word summary of the focus and purpose of the panel and how each paper contributes to the panel’s theme; 2) a 300-word proposal for each paper as explained above; 3) the name and contact information of the panel organizer and the panel chair. (The panel can be chaired by one of the presenters. Also, discussants and chairs can be added to the panel after it is accepted)

Roundtable Discussions: Proposals for a pre-organized roundtable discussion should include 4-5 participants (one of whom will chair the discussion). Participants do not prepare papers but instead provide an overview of a current issue in a particular field of scholarship. The participants’ aim should be to engage the audience in an active and open discussion of a particular issue. Proposals should include a 500-word description of the specific issues to be addressed, precise enough to indicate the scope and intent of the discussion. Also, each participant should include a 250-word statement detailing her/his own approach to the topic under consideration.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Announcing the C. S. Lewis Essay Prize

This current lull in DET publication is an opportune moment for letting you all know about an essay prize that is currently running, sponsored by the University of Notre Dame's Center for Philosophy of Religion. The gory details are included in the website snapshot below; click on the image to surf over and poke around for yourself. It looks like a great opportunity to try and translate your writing into cold, hard cash, and such opportunities are not to be squandered. This particular prize is neat because it is aimed at writing done for general consumption on the problem of evil and related questions. So check it out and think about submitting your essay today!

Truth in advertising, I have been compensated for this announcement to the tune of a tidy little Amazon gift card...

Friday, April 20, 2012

An Epistolary Divulgence

My dear, gentle Reader,

My sincerest apologies for the radio silence, or at least significantly decreased transmission frequency, that has established itself here at DET as of late. On those emotionally and theologically cold nights when you sit alone with your internet surfing device, hoping against hope that you will discover a new DET communique, know that I am right there with you, in spirit, sharing in your pain and disappointment. The reason for this recent abatement is real, albeit rather mundane: DET's contributors are concluding their academic semester, hard at work writing papers, putting together presentations, and generally improving themselves intellectually. Fear not, faithful reading remnant, the rich vein that they are mining will soon enough be shared with you for the greater maturation of the theo-blogging community. As for your faithful proprietor, well, he can only beg your pardon in the face of his own special brand of year-end inundation. This year, that deluge includes attempting to make an 11th hour new faculty hire; ensuring that the powers that be are happy with the size of the margins, placement of page numbers, and other insignificant minutia related to my dissertation; and grading the hundreds of pages of student work that have been sneakily piling themselves up in out of the way corners of my office, waiting for the perfect time to pounce on their unsuspecting victim!

So once again I must entreat for a double portion of your sufferance. But know that an end to your weeping lies just over the horizon. For, low, doth your - doth our - deliverance stalk like a preying cat, awaiting the fulfillment of time when it will sweep down as a rushing river to carry away sorrow and replace it with joy. It is almost here, that blessed redemption, which we all call - Summer!


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Christopher Hitchens on “Atheism”

Christopher Hitchens (ed.), The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2007), xx-xxi.
There is an argument within the community of those who reject…this fantasy about the utility of the word “atheist.” For one thing, it is a pure negative: a statement of mere unbelief or disbelief. Dr. Jonathan Miller, for example, a distinguished physician and theater and opera director, is uneasy with the term for this reason: “I do not have,” he once told me, “a special word for saying that I do not believe in the tooth fairy or in Santa Claus. I presume that my intelligent friends do not suppose that I believe such things.” True enough—but we do not have to emerge from a past when tooth fairies and Father Christmas (both rather recent inventions) held sway. The fans of the tooth fairy do not bang on your door and try to convert you. They do not insist that their pseudo-science be taught in schools. They do not condemn believers in rival tooth fairies to death and damnation. They do not say that all morality comes from tooth fairy ceremonies, and that without the tooth fairy there would be fornication in the streets and the abolition of private property. They do not say that the tooth fairy made the world, and that all of us must therefore bow the knee to the Big Brother tooth fairy. They do not say that the tooth fairy will order you to kill your sister if she is seen in public with a man who is not her brother.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Augustine and Human Sexuality

I taught an intensive course on Augustine’s Confessions in January, so I read 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. 

I hinted previously that I would post something about Augustine’s views on human sexuality, so here goes. Perhaps I should also add that I'm plunging headlong into what could be a very sensitive topic...

Brown includes an epilogue in the most recent edition of his volume that takes note of more recent research and evidence (his book was originally written in the 1960s!), and wherein he reflects on aspects of Augustine’s life and work from the vantage of his own later studies. He spent a good chunk of his career after this book working on the rise and development of monasticism, which put him in touch with a much broader sample of Christian views on sexuality. This gave him a greater appreciation for Augustine, and compelled him to argue for a view of Augustine as a moderate on sexuality. Critical here is Augustine’s belief that Adam and Eve enjoyed a rightly ordered sexuality in the Garden of Eden, where most of his interlocutors envisioned them living an angelic (i.e., non-sexual) existence. Consequently…
Sex was tragic for Augustine because it could have been so very different. (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 501).
That is, Augustine had enough sexual experience (and he had a fair bit of it!) to recognize that human sexuality is a good thing, and he had enough sexual experience (and he had a fair bit of it!) to recognize that something has gone horribly wrong. 
For Augustine, the present world was always overshadowed by a great sadness. Married couples should walk, regretfully, through the recognizable ruins of a once perfect sexuality devastated by Adam’s pride (502).
While Augustine believed that married couples only rightly exercise their sexuality for procreative purposes, he was somewhat indulgent when they did not maintain this high ideal. Non-procreative marital sexuality was a much lesser sin in his eyes than adultery, and easily dealt with in the course of normal religious activity (giving some alms, participating in the Lord’s Prayer, etc.). It certainly wasn’t something to be crippled by guilt over. His rhetoric on these matters is much softer than that of, say, Jerome (who, coincidentally, seems to have lacked Augustine's close acquaintance with the subject).

I’ll conclude with Brown’s expert judgment:
On the issue of sexuality, we should be very careful not to ‘demonize’ Augustine. To speak of him as the ‘evil genius of Europe’, and to lay at his door alone the ills associated with the handling of sex in Christian circles up to our own time, is to take an easy way out – as if by abandoning Augustine we have freed ourselves, by magic, from a malaise whose tangled roots lie deep in our own history. We have made our own bed over long centuries. Augustine did not make it for us. Denunciations of Augustine usually misrepresent him and, in any case, they get us no further in the serious, slow task of remaking that bed. It is, indeed, an act of egregious cultural narcissism to believe that all our present discontents can be glimpsed in the distant mirror of one man’s thought…Aware of the slow and complex evolution of moral ideas over the centuries, and of the variety which these forms took on being set to work in regions and societies which Augustine could not have dreamed, historians should have no part in so facile a Schuldfrage - so facile an exercise in blame-pinning (ibid).


Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Update: Book's Purchased!

Thanks to everyone who commented on the last post and gave me suggestions of what to add to my library. There were some good suggestions, and I had fun thinking through them. Here's how things came out.

(1) Surprise, surprise - it turns out that I have a hard time resisting Calvin. The deal on the 7-volume tracts and letters set that Nathan pointed out was simply too good to pass up, so I marshaled some other resources and placed my order. I'm just hoping that when the volumes arrive I will not discover that I already have large portions of these texts in other editions... But that's what return labels are for.

(2) I've been wanting to read this book for some time, and it is an even better price-per-page deal than that Calvin set. Bellah is always interesting, insightful, and provocative.

(3) One friend suggested (outside the official comments thread) that I buy some more Bonhoeffer, and this was a very attractive proposal. But that would have eaten through my whole gift card allowance and that was not attractive. So I decided to go with Robert Jenson, which is never a bad idea. Since I'm a professor of religion now, teaching not only Christian theology but all the world's religions, the category of "religion" has become rather important for me and I've been thinking through (with people like Bonhoeffer and Barth) what to make of religion. We'll see what Jens has to add.