Wednesday, April 30, 2014

New Center for Barth Studies Book Review

Collin R. Cornell – blogger, fairly regular guest-writer for DET, and doctoral student in Old Testament at Emory – has written a review of David F. Ford’s Barth and God’s Story: Biblical Narrative and the Theological Method of Karl Barth in the Church Dogmatics (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2008 [reprint]). Collin’s review is well worth the read, so surf on over and see what it’s all about.

Also, Princeton Theological Seminary’s library now has a Facebook page. In addition to being one of the premier theological libraries in the world, the PTS library also houses the Center for Barth Studies and its collection. So be sure to head over and “like” their new page so you can stay plugged in with what they’re up to.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Problems with Barth’s Exegesis on Baptism? - Mondays with McMaken

Today’s post comes from the beginning of my exegetical excursus at the end of chapter 2, “Election, Soteriology, and Barth’s ‘No’ to Sacramental Infant Baptism.” The burden of this excursus is to examine a few New Testament passages that are usually taken to support a sacramental view of baptism, leading to the suggestion that this is not necessarily the case. But the excursus begins with some comments on the reception of Barth’s own exegetical work in support of his argument in Church Dogmatics 4.4.

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth, Emerging Scholars (Fortress, 2013), 88–89.

I noted in the first chapter that many interpreters of Barth, even those generally predisposed to supporting his theology as a whole, take issue with Barth’s doctrine of baptism over his rejection of sacramental and infant baptism. Not a few register questions concerning his supporting exegesis in doing so. Many of these theologians appeal to a single essay by Erich Dinkler as support for their claims concerning the dubious quality of Barth’s exegesis, without taking the time to explicate the texts themselves at any length; often, they are not discussed at all. So far has this distrust of Barth’s exegesis penetrated the discussion surrounding his doctrine of baptism that John Yocum makes free to say that the “most fundamental flaw in Barth’s doctrine of baptism in CD IV/4 is its implausibility as exegesis of the New Testament.” He discusses Barth’s exegesis over the course of about three pages, relying heavily on Dinkler’s essay. What is more, Yocum asserts without corroborating argument that Barth’s exegesis is colored by “dogmatic pre-judgments” while also proclaiming that Dinkler “avoids bringing to the question any traditional framework.”

Three points must be registered concerning this state of affairs. . . .

Woah! What a cliffhanger!

DET readers will undoubtedly intuit that the three points that I go on to register will not be supportive of Yocum’s position. To learn what those three points are, go buy the book!


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Well, three weeks in this case. But it’s been a busy time here at DET since the last link post with some varied and interesting material. Here’s what you may have missed.

And now for some of the most interesting stuff from elsewhere:


Thursday, April 24, 2014

2014 Annual Kuyper Prize Lecture: Nicholas Wolterstorff on Art, Justice, and Liturgy

Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, is this year’s recipient of Princeton Theological Seminary’s annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life. As part of the prize, the recipient delivers the Kuyper Prize Lecture in the seminary’s Miller Chapel, the lecture serving as the inaugural event in a three-day conference to honor the memory of Abraham Kuyper. The conference theme this year was “Philosophy, Worship and Art.” I had the pleasure of attending Wolterstorff’s lecture Thursday evening and here offer you a brief summary of its content.


Wolterstorff’s lecture was a philosophical investigation of the affinity between art, justice, and liturgy. He opened his lecture with a brief discussion of Kuyper’s thought on these three subjects. He then drew special attention to Kuyper’s famous Stone Lectures on Calvinism, which treated “Calvinism and Art” in the fifth lecture of that series, as well as the fairly recent translation of Kuyper’s Our Worship.


Next, Wolterstorff offered an autobiographical sketch that tracked his own interest and work in the areas of art, liturgy, and justice. His interest in art began as a young man when he found his father’s old drawings and learned that it was his father’s unrealized dream to become an artist. This interest took shape early in Wolterstorff’s teaching career with his courses in the philosophy of art. It was his teaching of these courses, or so Wolterstorff supposes, that led his denomination, the Reformed Church in America, to appoint him to its liturgical revision committee in the 1960s. The theme of justice became a particular interest for Wolterstorff, one might say a calling, after he participated in a conference in South Africa in 1971, a conference in which the conversation often turned to the injustices of apartheid. It was on the plane ride home from South Africa that Wolterstorff began to experience his life as “fragmented” between his loves for philosophy, art, liturgy, and justice. This set Wolterstorff on a course to discover what synthesis or affinity might exist between them, and also set up the central problem for his Kuyper Lecture. In short, Wolterstorff set out to demonstrate how the enjoyment of art, the doing justice, and participation in liturgy each function as “modes of acknowledging goodness.”


In his treatment of art, Wolterstorff criticized the prevailing functionalist or instrumental view of art, which holds that works of art find their value in their ability to gratify the viewer’s aesthetic sensibilities. In contrast, Wolterstorff developed his understanding that works of art have intrinsic worth according to their ability to meet the standards of excellence that accord with their particular genre. Wolterstorff thus inverts the prevailing instrumental view and claims that art patrons find works of art aesthetically gratifying because they recognize the intrinsic goodness, excellence, and worth of the work they are enjoying. This means that reading poems, listening to music, and viewing paintings with “absorbed attention is a mode of acknowledging their worth.” You can read more on Wolterstorff’s view of art in his book Art in Action.


Next, Wolterstorff turned to a treatment of justice. Here, Wolterstorff rehearsed some basic claims from his book entitled, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, published in 2008. In his lecture, Wolterstorff rejected a Platonic conception of justice as “right order” and instead affirmed Ulpian’s conception of justice as rendering one his or her due, i.e. a conception of justice that views human beings as bearers of “inherent rights.” Wolterstorff then distinguished between two kinds of rights: permission rights (the right to do something) and claim rights (the right to have something done to one). As claim rights imply one’s responsibility to render certain goods to others, Wolterstorff went on to underscore the inherent sociality within his conception of rights. But what is the grounding for this conception of rights? According to Wolterstorff, one’s rights are grounded in one’s worth. While recognizing that some rights derive from one's achievements (for example, if you do well in a course, you deserve a high grade), Wolterstorff emphasized that the source of human dignity, the ground of one’s worth, is one’s status as one who bears the image of God. Thus, Wolterstorff offers a non-instrumental conception of worth, and therefore, a non-instrumental conception of justice. According to Wolterstorff, respect for another’s worth requires rendering that person his or her due. Therefore, treating others with justice, as we saw above with art, is a mode of acknowledging their intrinsic worth, their excellence, and their goodness as imago Dei.


Wolterstorff then turned to liturgy, a theme that he has pursued throughout his career, but one which he has recently developed in detail with his 2011 book entitled, Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and the World and his Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School entitled, “The God We Worship: A Liturgical Theology,” which he delivered earlier this year." Wolterstorff began this section of his lecture by noting the relationship between liturgy and justice made explicit by the Hebrew prophets (see Amos 5:21). He then distinguished between two understandings of liturgy: liturgy for the sake of pleasing or appeasing God (or for deriving some other benefits) and liturgy as an intrinsically good act. According to Wolterstorff, the Christian liturgy is non-instrumental, that is, Christians enact the liturgy to worship God, and to worship something is to respect it for its inherent worth. As a good analytical philosopher, Wolterstorff next clarified the borders between the concepts of worship, justice, and art. For example, worship and justice are not the same thing; while worship may be an instance of treating someone justly, namely God, treating someone justly does not necessarily require that one worship that individual. Next, Wolterstorff, clarified the distinctive nature of worship, which fundamentally includes a "face to face" orientation toward God. Wolterstorff here claimed that it is not enough to speak of God's excellence; that alone does not constitute worship. For Wolterstorff, worship requires a certain attitude, a certain regard for the object of worship, and he identified adoration as the requisite posture. But Wolterstorff pressed further to describe the particular character of Christian adoration. Christian adoration is awe inspired by God's glory, an awe suffused with reverence. Finally, Christian worship is characterized by gratitude, as the Christian acknowledges God's holiness, excellence, and worth in the enactment of the liturgy.


Wolterstorff ended his lecture with a brief reflection on his own vocation as a philosopher and its relation to art, justice, and liturgy as modes of acknowledging goodness. This brought Wolterstorff back to that moment of fragmentation that he had experienced on his flight home from South Africa. Wolterstorff concluded that philosophy too is a mode of acknowledging excellence, which, when rightly practiced, leads to understanding. It is Wolterstorff's hope that the understanding pursued by philosophy is a substantial good, thereby joining philosophy with art, justice, and liturgy as modes of acknowledging excellence.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

My Most Recent Publication – Review of Matthew Levering’s “Theology of Augustine”

Just quick note here in case anyone is interested in tracking what my keyboard has been up to elsewhere, and in addition to the two lovely volumes that you can see in the left sidebar. Here’s the info on one of my recent book reviews. Well, not that recent. But I haven’t had a chance to put together a post on it until now.

Anyway, here is the citation:
W. Travis McMaken, review of Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works (Baker Academic, 2013), Theology Today 70.3 (2013), 363–64.
You can access the review here if you have the right permissions.

For those who lack the right permissions, here is the review’s opening paragraph:
Matthew Levering, professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton and author of numerous theological books, ambitiously attempts in this compact volume to provide the reader with a novel entry point into the thought of one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity—Augustine of Hippo. The ambition and novelty in this approach rest in Levering’s decision to introduce Augustine by discussing seven of his most important works: ‘‘On Christian Doctrine’’ (chapter 1), ‘‘Answer to Faustus’’ (chapter 2), ‘‘Homilies on the First Epistle to John’’ (chapter 3), ‘‘On the Predestination of the Saints’’ (chapter 4), ‘‘Confessions’’ (chapter 5), ‘‘City of God’’ (chapter 6), and ‘‘On the Trinity’’ (chapter 7). An introduction, conclusion, subject and scriptural indices, and suggestions for further reading round out the volume. Levering thus enables those encountering Augustine for the first time to quickly gain a valuable bird’s-eye view of his intellectual contours, while also discussing a number of important themes in the process.


Monday, April 21, 2014

No, Bonhoeffer Was Not a Martyr

I'm a member of the Episcopal Church and our church calendar commends remembrances for "Holy Men and Holy Women" throughout the church year. I can't speak to how other denominations do this, but our list those commemorated, which is modified from time to time through our General Convention, is broader than the Roman Catholic definition of sainthood.

On April 9 we commemorate the life, ministry, writings and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "theologian and martyr", who was executed on this day in 1945 at Flossenburg prison. (See this blurb from the Episcopal Church website.) Like many of you, I find Bonhoeffer's life and writings deeply inspiring and provocative. But I think it's a label him a "martyr", and I wish we would drop that designation from our commemorations.

Of course, everything hinges upon how one defines a term. The Greek word martus literally means "witness," but in the early church the term came to be applied to those who suffered and died for professing the Christian faith. Bonhoeffer certainly was a witness to the faith: His writings -- especially such books as Life Together, Discipleship, the Letters and Papers from Prison edited by Eberhard Bethge and his unfinished Ethics have inspired millions. His work in the ecumenical movement was exemplary and his seminal contribution to the Confessing Church movement through his work on the Dahlem and Bethel confessions, his secret overseas missions to save Jews and his pastoral and educational work through the underground seminaries rightly establish him as a leading prophet of the German resistance. (By the way, if you haven't read it, I highly recommend you plough through Bethge's magisterial biography. It's a hefty thousand pages or so, but read it cover to cover.)

Bonhoeffer's theological and ecclesial commitments certainly are interwoven, through his biography and all-too-brief career, with the events that led to his death. But he was not killed because of his sermons or lectures on discipleship or even because he secretly mentored ordinands of the Confessing Church. Rather, he was executed because he was implicated in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a co-conspirator, along with his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi and other high-level dissidents within German military intelligence (the Abwehr) in what was to be a coup to depose the Nazi regime. It was the evidence in documents that implicated Bonhoeffer in this plot that ultimately led to his death sentence.

I'm not entering the debate about whether Bonhoeffer's involvement with the Abwehr vitiated his earlier pacifist commitments (he had once planned to study non-violent resistance with Gandhi in India). Nor am I making the claim here that violence is never justified, from a Christian perspective, in battling radical evil. I'm not going to get into debates about Romans 13 and the question of submission to temporal authorities.

Nor am I objecting to a broadened definition of martyrdom that includes sacrifice of life and limb for political and social causes rather than profession of the Christian faith in the stricter sense. I'm not trying to make any invidious comparison here between Bonhoeffer and, say, Felicitas and Perpetua, who like many other martyrs could have saved their lives if they had renounced their faith and embraced the emperor cult. I first vetted some of these musings in a Facebook post -- and I'm grateful for the pushback several of my friends offered on that thread. One friend lifted up other modern examples of those who died resisting injustice, such as the seminarian and civil rights activist Jonathan M. Daniels, who was murdered in 1965 in Alabama. The same friend also reminded me that the early Christians, by professing faith in Jesus the Christ, were themselves engaging in political protests against the Roman Empire.

Nor am I going to tromp out any Kantian or Augustinian scruples against lying. Still, for me, the fact that Bonhoeffer worked underground for the resistance and feigned support for the regime makes his actions something different from civil disobedience as it is usually understood. My question here relates more to the means used than to the ends sought.

By all means, let's continue to commemorate Bonhoeffer's life and work. But please let's stop calling him a "martyr", for doing so may divert us from facing the critical questions and challenges that pondering his example should raise for us: Under what circumstances may or must Christians employ the tools of violence and deception to fight grave injustice? From what I've read, I imagine Bonhoeffer would be deeply uncomfortable with this label, not out of any sense of false modesty, but rather because he was a Lutheran theologian with a profoundly tragic sense of human sinfulness who considered his involvements in the resistance movement to be extraordinary and demanded by the extremity of the times.

No. Bonhoeffer, though certainly an inspiring witness in many ways, did not die as a martyr. I prefer instead to think of him as an insurgent. He did not put such a great premium on his purity and holiness that he refused to bloody his hands in the guilt of his own people, whom he was trying desperately to save from self destruction. Sometimes, Luther taught, it is necessary to "sin boldly," and Bonhoeffer certainly exhibited great courage.

If he was a witness to anything, his death testified to brokenness of humanity and to the paradoxical hope of resurrection under the sign of the cross. Bonhoeffer bore part of the weight of the cross in solidarity with his past -- his identity as a German and a product of a compromised and complacent evangelical church and a member of a prominent and privileged upper-middle-class family.

And ultimately Bonhoeffer died like the rest of us -- naked, a sinner saved not by his actions or example but simply by the word of divine grace.

(While you're thinking about reading Bonhoeffer, take another look at this post Brandy Daniels wrote back in 2012.)


Friday, April 11, 2014

Clergy and the Church’s Theological Responsibility - Paul M. van Buren’s “Austin Dogmatics”

Continuing on with what van Buren has to tell us about the theological task, today I would like to present you – gentle reader – with three selections from PMvB’s text. These selections get at the role of theology (dogmatics) in the church, as well as tackling some rubber-meets-the-road sort of issues. In particular, how in practice are we supposed to sort out that standard “Barthian” claim that all Christians are theologians? That is precisely where these selections begin.

Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, (Cascade, 2012), 10 (1st sel.), 17 (2nd sel.), and . Bold is mine.
In the church of God, there are no non-theologians. There are good theologians and poor theologians, but all, in one way or another, are engaged in the biblical, practical, and dogmatic task of the church—some for better and some for worse. But where ever there is language about God in the church—and we would be happier if sometimes there were less than there is!—where ever such language is, there the church in the person of those so engaged is now more, now less concerning itself with the theological tasks of the church.
So theology is necessary for the church because the church speaks of God, and every Christian is called to be part of the communal task of reflecting upon that speech about God. PMvB also points out that while everyone is a theologian, not everyone is necessarily a good theologian. In fact, many church people are self-evidently bad theologians. That is, they have not (yet?) learned how to take this task of reflection on speech about God with sufficient seriousness, and they have not (yet?) been trained to undertake that reflection with any kind of sophistication.

But theology is the task of the whole church because it is up to every Christian to be involved in proclamation of the gospel. This is its unique task and responsibility, and failure to take theology seriously as part of this task is nothing but a sign of irresponsibility. This second selection from PMvB brings out this responsibility:
The usefulness of the Church to God depends on its being totally at his disposal, and therefore being responsible to him alone. It cannot even begin to accept other responsibilities, however secondary it may choose to see them, without making itself to that extent useless to God, and therefore a church in name only. Dogmatics, as an act of responsibility, reveals in itself and its activity whether the church of any time or place is truly seeking to be responsible to its commission, and so obedient to its Lord, or whether in fact it is only saying “Lord, Lord” but proving itself of no value to God.
Those are strong words, but they are also an important wake-up call. But these comments also raise the question of how it is that Christians in the pew are to take up this task. How are they going to realize that it is a serious task? How are they going to get the training necessary to undertake this kind of reflection with some kind of sophistication? PMvB has some thoughts on that, too. And his articulation here gets at the heart of why Protestants have always supported a theologically educated clergy:
Properly speaking, dogmatics is a function of the church and should be performed by the church, that is, by all the people of God. And to some extent it is, in every partial form of critical and constructive comment by any and every Christian. There are no non-theologians. But practically, the clergy, not so much by virtue of their office as by virtue of their better training, must bear the chief responsibility in their parish, and also in their diocese. If they are wise, they will work hard to train at least some of their people, but even in this they will be giving the lead. Each one of you then, for better or worse, now well, now badly, must carry this dogmatic task for the rest of your working life. If you accept ordination, you will never again be free to say, “Oh, I’m no theologian.” All you will able to say is, “I am a theologian, even if a pretty poor one.” But in view of the importance of what is involved, I trust you will give if your best to be theologians for better, rather than for worse.
So it is the responsibility of the clergy, the theologically educated professional leaders of the Christian communities, who have a special responsibility as theologians. But note well: this special responsibility as theologians includes the responsibility to train other theologians. That is, to promote the long and sometimes painful process of teaching the average Christian in the congregation to reflect with some sophistication on the church’s speech about God. And furthermore, this is a responsibility that the clergy cannot avoid. It is impossible to get out of it. It is impossible to NOT be an agent of theological formation. You are always engaged in it. The only question is whether clergy take this task seriously and do it well, or whether they fail to take it seriously and thus do it poorly.

Now, PMvB is lecturing in this passage to students preparing for ordination in the Episcopal church. That is why he emphasizes the role of clergy. One might just as easily castigate the “average” Christian for their lack of concern for theology, for their seeming indifference to or disinterest in thinking and speaking about God. But, one thing at a time . . .


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

In Which I Come Out as an Ethical Foundationalist (Sort of)

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness (Romans 1:14-15a, NRSV).
Imagine this scene, reminiscent of the Mad Max movies: It's a post-apocalyptic time in North America, a few years after some sort of military or ecological catastrophe. A caravan with hundreds of rag-tag vehicles -- beat-up school buses, box trucks with various gang symbols, taxicabs and souped-up motorbikes -- are inching along in convoy through a forlorn southwestern desert on an old U.S. highway. They are headed on a perilous 1000-mile trek toward Denver, which is reported to be the last real city in the former United States that's still standing -- where there is reported to be food and water, shelter and possibly even jobs. It has been years, and most of the travelers scarcely believe the stories are true. But they have no other prospects, so on they trudge, looting abandoned gas stations or siphoning the grease vats from old fast-food restaurants to power their dilapidated vehicles.

Suddenly, one lonely driver, a bald guy in his early forties, who is driving a green pick-up truck remembers something he was told many years ago, but he can't remember when or by whom. Suddenly, he makes a sharp left down a side road, breaking with the convoy. He's not even fully conscious why he's bolting from the tenuous safety of the pack to head down a path that leads to...he's not sure where.

I am that lonely driver. At least, that's how I feel as I write this post.

Denver is the quasi-utopian vision of the peaceful pluralistic commonwealth, a place where individual rights and social responsibilities are balanced, yet also where members of each group can concomitantly fully live out the distinctive moral vision of their own ethnic and religious communities unhindered by onerous compromises with competing groups. Denver is a postmodern dream of what a liberal democracy might look like, and it's something far better than the corrupt, unjust, inequitable and violent plutocracy that some still dare to call a republic. But -- and this is the important part -- Denver is a democratic commonwealth without any objective moral values to hold the variegated whole together. Indeed, not only does it lack some set of core values "set in stone," as it were, like the ridiculous statues of the Decalogue that adorn some courthouses: Rather, this city on a hill somehow manages to work without even the slightest notion of an objective moral order, transcendental or otherwise, that would serve as the condition for the possibility of any ethical discourse whatsoever.

Scarcely any one really believes in Denver anymore, I'm convinced; still, nobody knows what else to do but to keep driving towards it, nonetheless.

Many of you, gentle readers, are perhaps among the drivers. You are culturally sensitive, educated in theology or the humanities. Perhaps in your thinking you draw upon postmodern philosophy, anthropology or cultural studies. You are post-foundationalists, influenced by Barth, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and their progeny to be (rightly) suspicious of any claims to universality that sidestep the scandal of the particular. Maybe you work out of a post-colonial framework and you (justly) decry the culturally imperialistic aspects of the Enlightenment project -- the attempt to build a commonwealth upon the concord of rational subjects. Maybe you're a neo-pragmatist who thinks I'm out to lunch and just projecting some fantasy for order onto a chaotic world -- that we all would do well to deal practically with contingent realities rather than tromping out some hackneyed old transcendental arguments from Plato or Kant or natural law theory.

Since you're a DET reader, you might be a "post-liberal" or someone who embraces a the sort of confessionalist nonfoundationalism, where ethics is centered exclusively upon God's revelation in Christ and in the praxis of Christian community. Or maybe you're a college student or seminarian who has internalized -- and perhaps taken too literally -- Kierkegaard's dangerous dictum that "subjectivity is truth." Or maybe you're a kind of new age thinker, imagining yourself to be like the deceased artist played by Robin Williams who literally paints his own blessed afterlife from the wellsprings of his memory and imagination.

And why can't I drive along with you? Y'all are, by and large, much better company than the ruffians who populated Mel Gibson's dystopian world. I should like to do so; I share many of your concerns and commitments, but at the end of the day I'm thrown back upon this, my own "here I stand" declaration: I believe in a transcendent, absolute, categorical basis for the good. I just simply must, and I can't help it, no matter how much theory I read (and many of you have read much more than I have). That makes me a foundationalist, of sorts, even if I demur from trying to ground this claim in some sort of epistemology of the disinterested human subject. Now saying that is not the same thing as making a fully fleshed out philosophical argument. It's rather a cry, from the ruins, that somehow, somewhere there is some reason to believe that right and wrong have some sort of basis in what is really real.

Let me be clear: I'm not claiming that any individual or society can fully be in possession of the moral law. Any grasp of the good in this life must needs be partial. And I'm not trying to prove this conviction on the basis of empirical evidence at all, for example, by comparing the moral maxims of great wisdom traditions as C.S. Lewis attempts in The Abolition of Man. I'm not trying to retrieve and defend, necessarily, some version of the Golden Rule or Kant's categorical imperative. Rather, all I'm saying is that all moral and ethical shop-talk strikes me as vain without some notion of a good that's greater than any of us, individually or collectively. Something that is rock solid, not contingent. My claim here is not empirically based but almost purely transcendental. What's more, like Augustine, Luther and Reinhold Niebuhr, I'm a firm believer in the noetic effects of sin -- that, even in our wisest and best moments, all our reasoning processes are blinded and corrupted by individual and class interests. I believe no human being -- with one possible exception - is qualified to stand as judge and jury over the soul of anyone else.

I'm no great political activist, but I try at least to keep up with social justice issues and do something to help if I can. Or barring that I try to befriend and encourage those who are struggling on the front-lines for a more just, equitable and peaceful society by taking risks I'm unable or willing to take. I know that, as a white male, I have no right to claim someone else's suffering and injustice for myself, but I will admit that I was deeply shaken and moved the execution of Troy Davis in 2011 -- a murder case with so many holes in it that even conservative advocates of the death penalty were virtually begging the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the execution. I know that I'm a hypocrite (that's actually a doctrine of my faith) complicit with many awful things and a recipient of privileges that have been forcibly denied to other people and groups. Still, I can at least confess that these events had an effect on how I see the world.

On the eve of the execution, I attended a protest vigil put on by the American Friends Service Committee chapter in Northampton, Massachusetts, where we had just moved. As a result of these events and other events, I started becoming more alert to the effects of racism and classcism that riddle our criminal "justice" system. And then the Occupy Wall Street protests began shortly afterward, and I became more aware of issues of poverty and privilege, the widening income gap and the complicity of our government institutions with a corrupt and rapacious financial service sector. All of these heady events were feeding a certain political agitation within me that had been somewhat suppressed while I studied theology and was exploring various opportunities in lay ministry -- with one foot in the parish, one foot in campus ministry and one foot adjunct teaching. (Any working adjunct out there will tell you that two feet aren't adequate for what they're trying to do.)

Others are much more qualified to write on social justice issues than I, both from the sides of theory and of praxis. But my point here is that my own growing awareness of these myriad issues has heightened for me the need to seriously revisit the question of universal human rights, and how we might do a much better job as a society and world in trying to instantiate, support and defend such ideals. This is a huge topic, and I've only begun to scratch the surface, and that's not to mention the further complications of trying to integrate such a rights framework with my Anglican-reformed-evangelical-dialectical theological commitments. (Hence the quote above, lest one forget that this is a theology blog.) I still have a lot of thinking through to do with these issues.

So where am I headed with this, if not toward Denver? Jersualem? Athens? Königsberg, Germany? I'm not sure yet.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Karl Barth in Conversation – Teasers from David W. Congdon

Ever since this publication project got underway, I have described it as the “revised and expanded” proceedings from the 2010 KBBC. So I figured that I would put together a post or two that highlights the “expanded” part of that description. If what you see here sounds interesting to you and you would like to read more, buy the book

Here is a glimpse at what my good friend, colleague, and theologically-conjoined twin – David W. Congdon – got up to in his “Afterword: The Future of Conversing with Barth.”

W. Travis McMaken and David W. Congdon (eds.), Karl Barth in Conversation (Pickwick, 2014), 255–56.

The conversation with Barth is still in its infancy. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we are closing in on a century since the publication of Der Römerbrief, we are only just now seeing the creative possibilities in Barth scholarship. There are various reasons for this. Besides the sheer volume of his writings, there is the challenge posed by the diverse and complicated history of his reception. For many decades the academic dialogue about Barth focused primarily around the flash points of twentieth-century theology (e.g., “liberal theology,” “faith and history,” or postliberalism) and often labored under serious misunderstandings (e.g., Barth as neoorthodox, as lacking an account of human agency, or as lacking resources for a theology of culture). Certain confessional and ecclesial communities have had their own barriers to understanding Barth. For example, North American evangelicals received Barth initially through the myopic lens of Cornelius Van Til, and the still-ongoing “battle for the Bible” ends up missing the scriptural forest for the inerrantist trees. Roman Catholics, for their part, have to deal with Barth’s rejection of sacramentalism and the analogia entis—to name just two issues of theological conflict—in addition to dealing with the ambiguous legacy of Hans Urs von Balthasar within Catholic theology. The point in raising these examples is simply to indicate how difficult it has been to engage in a truly meaningful conversation with Barth.

The essays gathered in this volume signal the promise of a new generation of Barth scholars. A new generation, of course, does not guarantee superior scholarship, nor is it ever free from its own biases and interpretive blind-spots. But it does offer original vantage points, different angles of approach, fresh contextual concerns, and new dialogue partners. Not all of the dialogue partners in this book are new. Some, like Schleiermacher, are old friends. But the conversations are framed in new ways that will hopefully shed fresh light on Barth’s enduring significance for contemporary theological reflection.

The purpose of this afterword is threefold. First, I will discuss additional conversations with Barth that we as the editors hope to see others take up in the future. Second, I will identify some of the most significant barriers in the current theological scene, primarily within North America, to a responsible hearing of Barth’s theology. Third, I will offer a constructive clarification of three key aspects of his theology—its dialectical character, its understanding of metaphysics, and its basis in a revised supralapsarianism—to aid future conversations with his life and legacy.

David's afterword is full of food for thought. You don't want to miss it!


Saturday, April 05, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

I’m happy to say that this installment of links is right on schedule! Goo reads just keep flowing in. Here’s a selection to keep you busy this weekend. And if this isn’t enough, go back and work through the last link post.

Don’t forget that there are now two DET books available for purchase in the left sidebar. One is my monograph on Karl Barth and infant baptism, and the other is the revised and expanded proceedings from the 2010 Karl Barth Blog Conference (under the title, Karl Barth in Conversation). They’re both good reads, if I do say so myself . . . If you look carefully through all the links below you’ll find that there are other people who agree with me!

As usual, I’ll start you out with recent postings here at DET so you can catch up on anything you missed. New contributor Scott Jackson has been working at a great clip lately, and he has a number of posts in this list.

Here’s some links from elsewhere in the Theo-blogosphere:

See you next time!


Thursday, April 03, 2014

A story about Karl Barth and the Confessing Church, or . . .

. . . When Karl Barth pulled an “Aragorn.”


This is a story told by Gertrud Staewen, as recounted in Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler (Oxford, 1992), 22. The text below begins as a quote from Barnett, and then the extra indented part indicates that Barnett is quoting an interview with Staewen. This encounter occurred in the 1920s:
One New Year’s Eve, Staewen attended a gathering of religious socialists. By temperament a devil’s advocate, she had trouble remaining quiet at such meetings. One part of her longed for the intellectual community they offered; another part of her poked fun at the pretensions so often displayed. So it was on this evening. People stood up and expounded their theories or read poems or selections of novels they had written, as Staewen recalled ironically,
to promote socialism and improve human beings. A great deal of totally idealistic rubbish that wasn’t true was read aloud to make us all more Christian and more socialist.

Finally I jumped up and got angry, and said that no novel had ever led a person to Christ unless it was by Dostoevski. For him I’d make an exception. Now, besides us, there were several men toward the back whom we didn’t know. They were smoking dreadfully. As I spoke about Dostoevski, the curtain of smoke opened and a man stood up. At that time he was still quite young; he looked like a woodcut of a Swiss farmer. He asked me, “Do you know my friend Eduard Thurneysen?” I said, No, I didn’t. Then he said, “Read him!”
The man was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. After the meeting ended in the early hours of the morning, he drew Staewen into a deep conversation. Barth and his friend Thurneysen, a practical theologian, would lead a large group of young Germans into the church opposition to Hitler.