Tuesday, February 26, 2013

My Most Recent Publications

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do one of these posts. They are always fun to write.


Anyway, for the one or two of you that might actually care, I’ve brought two more book reviews into the world. They appear in the most recent (January 2013) issue of Reviews in Religion and Theology. It looks like, at least for the time being, this issue is free for folks to access so surf on over and check it out. I’ve been writing for RIRT for a number of years and think it provides an excellent resource. Here is some more information on my two reviews in this issue.

W. Travis McMaken, review of Matthew Levering, Predestination: Biblical and Theological Paths (Oxford, 2011). Click here for the review.

W. Travis McMaken, review of Ronnie L. Littlejohn, Confucianism: An Introduction (I. B. Tauris, 2011). Click here for the review.



Friday, February 22, 2013

Karl Barth on the Trinity, Dogma, Scripture, and Revelation

I have read Barth’s CD material on the Trinity before, and I even wrote a paper about it once (a revised version of which is online here). But I have not read it since I owned a copy of CD 1.1, and so I’ve wanted to re-read it and get my copy marked up for easier use. There are some interesting things in there; for instance, the stuff from my previous post on  theology as rational and rationalistic

Take, as another instance, the following excerpt. Barth is here speaking about the relationship of the doctrine of the Trinity to dogma, scripture, and revelation. He expands on what he says here with a small print section that immediately follows, but I won’t go through the trouble of typing that all. You can look it up if you’re interested. It is really good stuff, though. The basic point is that doctrine must be done on the basis of scripture, but that doctrine is always a fundamentally imperfect attempt to say what the biblical text has said in a way that makes sense in our own time. I find it fascinating, and highly significant, that Barth felt the need to make this point with reference to the doctrine of the Trinity given the way that some folk make so much out of (what I consider to be a rather abstract version of) the doctrine. 

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.1, 308. As always, emphasis is mine.
The statement or statements about God’s Trinity cannot claim to be directly identical with the statement about revelation or with revelation itself. The doctrine of the Trinity is an analysis of this statement, i.e., of what it denotes. The doctrine of the Trinity is a work of the Church, a record of its understanding of the statement or of its object, a record of its knowledge of God or of its battle against error and on behalf of the objectivity of its proclamation, a record of its theology and to that degree of its faith, and only to that extent, only indirectly, a record of revelation. The text of the doctrine of the Trinity, whether we have in view one of its dogmatic formulations by the Church, or our own or some other theologic-dogmatic explication of the Church dogma, is not, then, identical with one part of the text of the biblical witness to revelation. The text of the doctrine of the Trinity is at every point related to texts in the biblical witness to revelation. It also contains certain concepts taken from this text. But it does this in the way an interpretation does. That is to say, it translates and exegetes the text. And this means, e.g., that it makes use of other concepts besides those in the original. The result is that it does not just repeat what is there. To explain what is there it sets something new over against what is there. We have in view this difference from revelation and Scripture, which the Church and theology must be aware of in their own work.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What if Marx and Engels had been Englishmen? Helmut Gollwitzer’s answer...

In his autobiographical reflection on life lived as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union after World War 2, Helmut Gollwitzer recounts – or, perhaps better, reconstructs – a conversation he had shared in during that time. In it he imagines how things might have been different had Marx and Engels been born in England. The resultant reflection, which I reproduce below, is both amusing and profound.

Helmut Gollwitzer, Unwilling Journey (SCM, 1956), 128.
The fateful thing about Marxism was that it had been founded by two Germans. If Marx and Engels had been Englishmen they would have planned a practical political programme for the liberation of the working classes and for the reorganization of society. As Germans, however, and above all as disciples of Hegel, they could not be pragmatists. Instead of contenting themselves with the discovery that in a capitalist society all political strife meant class-warfare, they immediately had to magnify this in the Communist Manifesto into a problematical teaching concerning world history; and instead of being satisfied at least with historical materialism, they must needs put it at once into a framework of dialectical materialism, and of an all-embracing dogma about life in general. As a result we were faced (ed.: in philosophical discussions within the prison camp) with the grotesque situation that any philosophical query—for example, whether like Kant I denied that one could recognize the essential nature of a thing, or, like Lenin, I held the opposite view—took on a political aspect, and a political discussion became a metaphysical one. As long as Marxism did not only base itself on Marx’s political economy but also on his philosophy, it was not in a position to allow genuine freedom of religious and philosophical belief, but had to endeavour to make real not only its political supremacy but also the supremacy of its philosophy of life.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Just under a Fortnight this time, I believe, so getting back to something like normal. I have found, however, that my recent practice of just providing post titles and links has made the process of putting these list together much easier. So my plan is to make that the status quo for the future. Of course, I will provide brief notes when necessary to highlight the unique significance of a particular link.

Collin Cornell and Kaleidobible

Now, to begin, I want to highlight the work being done by a (relatively) new blogger named Collin Cornell at hid blog, Kaleidobible. Collin has been featured in a number of these link posts before. He has kept up a fairly steady offering of rather thoughtful post, most of which have to do with the intersection of biblical studies (especially, Old Testament studies) and something like Barthian theology. This blog deserves more traffic, and you will definitely learn something from reading him. So add him to your feed reader, or whatever you kids use these days to get around the net. Why, back in my day… *caughs* Ahem. Yes, well. Here are some of his more recent posts that especially caught my eye.

And now for a few other posts from various places around the theo-blogosphere.

Until next time,


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Beza’s Last Testament to Calvin

As I mentioned previously, I’ve been working through Beza’s vita Calvini for the first time recently. I have now completed it, and I wanted to share with you all, gentle readers, the picture that Beza paints of Calvin after recounting the latter’s death. This is interesting because it tells us a bit of what Calvin looked like, what he personal habits were, etc. It is a sort of hagiography, true, but it is not an uncritical or dishonest one. So, without further ado, I give you Beza’s literary snapshot of the man he called (shortly after the bit I reproduce ends) “a kind of Christian Hercules”: 

Theodore Beza’s “Life of Calvin” in John Calvin, John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, 1.xcvii-xcix. As always, emphasis is mine.
He [Calvin] lived 54 years, 10 months, 17 days, the half of which he spent in the ministry. He was of moderate stature, of a pale and dark complexion, with eyes that sparkled to the moment of his death, and bespoke his great intellect. In dress he was neither over careful nor mean, but such as became his singular modesty. In diet he was temperate, being equally averse to sordidness and luxury. He was more sparing in the quantities of his food, and for many years took only one mean a-day, on account of the weakness of his stomach. He took little sleep, and had such an astonishing memory, that any person whom he had once seen he instantly recognized at the distance of years, and when, in the course of dictating, he happened to be interrupted for several hours, as often happened, as soon as he returned he commenced at once to dictate where he had left off. Whatever he required to know for the performance of his duty, though involved in a multiplicity of other affairs, he never forgot. On whatever subject he was consulted, his judgment was so clear and correct, that he often seemed almost to prophesy; nor do I recollect of any person having been led into error in consequence of following his advice. He despised mere eloquence, and was sparing in the use of words, be he was by no means a careless writer. No theologian of this period (I do not speak invidiously) wrote more purely, weightily, and judiciously, though he wrote more than any individual either in our recollection or that of our fathers. For, by the hard studies of his youth, and a certain acuteness of judgment, confirmed by practice in dictating, he was never at a loss for an appropriate and weighty expression, and wrote very much as he spoke. In the doctrine which he delivered at the first, he persisted steadily to the last, scarcely making any change. Of few theologians within our recollection can the same thing be affirmed. With regard to his manners, although nature had formed him for gravity, yet, in the common intercourse of life, there was no many who was more pleasant. In bearing with infirmities he was remarkably prudent; never either putting weak brethren to the blush, or terrifying them by unreasonable rebuke, yet never conniving at or flattering their faults. Of adulation, dissimulation, and dishonestly, especially where religion was concerned, he was as determined and severe an enemy as he was a lover of truth, simplicity, and candour. He was naturally of a keen temper, and this had been increased by the very laborious life which he had led. But the Spirit of the Lord had so taught him to command his anger, that no word was heard to proceed from him unbecoming a good man. Still less did he ever allow his passions to proceed to extremes. Nor was he easily moved, unless when religion was at stake, though he had to do with men of a petulant and obstinate temper.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Reflections on Teaching Karl Barth to Undergraduates

Over the past January, I undertook to teach my first class on Karl Barth at Lindenwood University. Furthermore, this was the first time a class on Barth has ever been offered at LU. Put those two things together, and it was a rather rewarding undertaking. So I thought that I would offer up a few reflections on the experience for you, gentle readers.

But first, allow me to set the scene. Lindenwood is a liberal arts school with historic ties to the Presbyterian church but now without a confessional status. I teach in the religion department, which means that all of our instruction is undertaken from a non-confessional standpoint. This means, as I tell my students at the beginning of every new class, that we study religious material without assuming that any one particular viewpoint is correct. Consequently, what the students go away thinking is not my concern; what concerns me is only whether they learn and can handle the material. That said, demographics dictate that the majority of our students have some kind of religious background, and our campus is about evenly split between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Added to the mix is a sprinkling of other religions (I include atheists here), especially amongst the considerable international student contingent. Indeed, I know of at least one Muslim student who was in this Barth class. All this makes for a rather interesting learning environment (IMHO).

The students in my class were primarily non-religion majors, and the students seemed to be about evenly split between generally interested parties and those who were there for various other reasons. My primary text was Barth’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.

So, on to the reflections!

  1. To begin, I’d like to make a few comments about the primary text that I assigned: Barth’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. I recommended this text as a good place to start with Barth in my oldie-but-goodie post entitled, “So, You Want to Read Karl Barth?” While otherwise genuflecting to my own list, Darren Sumner published a rival guide about 9 months or so ago. In his guide, he even had the unmitigated gall to disparage this text as a starting point. Almost immediately, I vowed that this insanity would not remain unopposed. So, here we are.

    Darren explains ET “generally strikes me as more rhetorical, spoken reflections and as less doctrinal in nature.” He is right in this characterization, but wrong in valuation of these two things. In other words, the most interesting thing about Barth is not his dogmatic genius. There are lots of places where one can find dogmatic genius (Origen, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Turretin - to name just a few). What is unique about Barth is what Darren calls his “rhetorical” contribution, or what I might call his existential contribution. That is, what Barth offers in ET (and in his theology as a whole) is an attractive way of conceiving of the theologian’s being-in-the-world. And without this way of being-in-the-world, one does not get Barth’s dogmatic genius. What Darren advocates is for the tail to wag the dog when introducing Barth. When introducing students to Barth, my conviction is that the emphasis must be placed on the altogether strange way (compared to the other ways on offer) that he approaches the task. This is what his Evangelical Theology: An Introduction communicates well, and that is why it is an excellent starting place for studying Barth.
  2. They can do it! Undergraduates who are not otherwise trained in theological or religious studies are perfectly capable of understanding Barth. This does not mean it is easy for them, but they can do it. It was very gratifying to see as the class went of how the students began to anticipate how he would approach different topics, and how he would answer certain questions. In fact, it might be easier to teach Barth to folks without any background just because they don’t come to it with the baggage of other theological orientations. They don’t need so much unlearning before they can understand what Barth is up to. This is, I think, compelling reason to try and catch people with Barth early on in their theological / religious studies formation rather than spending too much time trying to ensure that they have all the pieces in place to appreciate him more deeply. Instead, throw them into the Barthian pool and let them work out from there.
  3. Teaching Barth in an intensive short-term has its benefits. The downside is that students don’t have as much time to digest the material, sure. But the immersive experience might just be better for language acquisition. It is sort of like taking those suicide language classes over the summer in grad school. They may not be the best way to learn a language, and they certainly need following up on, but they also have a way of getting you into the language and giving you some functionality. So I threw my students into the deep end on this, and by the second half of the course—after 6 or 7 days, mind—they had started to pick up the language. They would answer questions in class, or go through their presentations, and I would hear Barth speaking. And this ties in with my previous point about getting to people without much background: if they don’t yet have firmly established theological linguistic habits, it is much easier for them to find their way into Barth’s. And I believe that doing the course as a 12-day intensive helped in this regard.
  4. Finally, I thought it would be worth pointing out some of the things they were most interested in over the course of the class.

    First, they really took to the doctrine of election / predestination. We began to bump into this question from various angles already in the first couple of days, but I purposefully put off discussing it until the end of the second weak. By then they were primed and ready, and I gave them a lecture on the history of the doctrine from Augustine to Barth. We had some of our best discussion in the discussion hour after that lecture. It was fun to see them grapple with the new and unusual possibilities for thinking that Barth’s doctrine of election opened up for them.[1]

    Second, Barth’s doctrine of scripture was a topic of much discussion. Again, demographics dictated that I had a few folk in class with typical 20th century North American popular Christianity views on the topic. So it was fun to show them how seriously Barth takes scripture (and Jesus, for that matter) while also showing them that he does so in an entirely different way than they are used to.

    Third, there was quite a bit of interest in Barth’s biography—not only his personal biography, or an account of his developing views, but his spiritual biography. It was interesting to discuss why that played such a small role in his thought, and the different ways that it did express itself (i.e., politics). This is just another way that Barth defies North American popular Christianity’s expectations.

    Fourth and finally, and this was a surprise for me, they really took to Barth’s actualism / dialecticism. It was a challenge for them—they aren’t used to saying Yes and No at the same time—but they also seemed to gravitate to the nuance and dynamism that this gives to Barth’s thinking. They seemed to like Barth’s emphasis on things actually happening and continuing to happen, and the unstable or at least never finished character that this can give to theology.

So, those are my reflections. I’d love to hear from others who have taught Barth in similar contexts…

[1] Just to be clear, my comments in #2 is thinking about a tendency out there to keep Barth from students until they are seniors or in grad school because of his difficulty level and / or because it is thought that one needs an extensive grasp of the background to understand him. I don't think there is anything wrong with providing servings of this background along the way as one teaches Barth to those earlier in their theological / religious education.


Monday, February 04, 2013

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

As I said in the last installment, I’m trying to catch up after months of not posting links to all these wonderful tidbits around the interwebs. So, once again I will only be posting titles with their links. Enjoy! 


Friday, February 01, 2013

February Book 'O the Month

Mohr, Georg, and Brian O'Connor, eds. German Idealism: An Anthology and Guide. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. 481 pgs.

If you have read, let's say, more than one book by a modern theologian or about modern theology, you probably know that the period from around 1780-1830 in northern central Europe was more than a little influential. This period — known as German Idealism —  can be captured as an encounter between some of history's greatest minds and worst grammarians. The former makes them worth reading and the latter makes reading them like spending the day in wet socks. But for anyone who is truly invested in much of the theology discussed on blog sites like ours, there is simply no way around such a task. Don't get me wrong, I have read plenty about Kant and would have been stuck in the swamp that is the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals for a long while if it was not for someone like Christine Korsgaard. Her introduction to the text highlights some of its most essential points (see the Cambridge version to the Groundwork). But there comes a time when one either wants to or has to get into the primary texts themselves.

And that, of course, is why I am putting a plug in for German Idealism: An Anthology and Guide. In this collection, Brian O'Connor and Georg Mohr give a broad sampling of readings from Kant, Schelling, Fichte and Hegel. The text is divided into seven sections on major topics ranging from freedom and morality to beauty and art to God and religion. Each section has three or four selected readings around 12 pages in length, perfect to get a taste for what German Idealism is about. Additionally, O'Connor and Mohr provide brief introductions to every selected text, following the broader trajectory of thought during the period. I would not be suggesting this book if it was not for their introductions.

The first time reader, for example, will undoubtedly see the way that Fichte and Schelling each appropriate Kant's deduction of the transcendental subject before this whole notion is given an overhaul by Hegel. Or, turning directly to theology, I could not help but notice that Schelling's description of the "unconditional I" in his "Of the I as the Principle of Philosophy" is laden with traditional designations for God (viz., God's aseity). The theological issue: Schelling is not talking about God, but us. And yet, two decades later in the fragment The Ages of the World (my favorite of all the selections), the reader will find Schelling's robustly articulate expression of the doctrine of God. The ideas of these thinkers, in themselves and as they were passed on, made up much of figures like Troeltsch's and Barth's thought world. No doubt, the period of German Idealism is a difficult one to enter, but if your interested, this anthology might make the task a little more manageable.