Thursday, January 29, 2015

So What Difference Does Theology Make for Ethics, Really?

My non-stipendiary contract with DET stipulates that I publish every Thursday, so I wrote a post for this week.
This is not that post. The other post, frankly, was boring and not quite clicking. So you can read it next week, instead.

By way of substitution, I'd like to offer some musings on a topic that has exercised me considerably over the past several years: To wit, Do theological beliefs really have any decisive role whatsoever in determining ethical decision making? I have been writing posts around this topic pretty much solidly since I started blogging here regularly a year ago, but to be honest, I'm not sure I've made that much progress in answering that basic question.

The problem rears its head again and again with a rising, sometimes almost plaintive urgency in many blog posts and articles I've read in recent months. An increasingly common genre is the type of article that ponders whether an atheist can be an actually morally decent person, or the perennial piece about how membership in this or that religious community seems to correlate with climate change denial, scroogely ungenerosity, gay-bashing and the like. Is it true that without belief in God, everything is permitted? And now we have the privilege of having moral philosophers of the caliber of Bill Maher and Ben Affleck pontificating about the religious ethics of Islam.

The issue of how theology and ethics are related has arisen pointedly in the fine series of posts at DET by Nathan Hitchcock (click here for the most recent one, with links to the earlier two; and be sure to check out the lively comment threads.) In discussing the Christian practice of replacing "bad" debt with "good" debt as a form of faithfulness the mirrors divine action, Hitchcock writes:

Occasionally the heathen act surprisingly Christian, as in the remarkable case of Arunachalam Muruganantham in the documentary Menstrual Man, who has repeatedly sacrificed his own social standing in order to help businesswomen in rural India manufacture sanitary pads.

So what difference does one's theological orientation make in one's life praxis? Try out this thought experiment:

Imagine a community where the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society. As it happens, mine is such a community, and likely yours is too. Let's say a number of civic and religious leaders organize a meeting to consider the prospects for building a year-round shelter to mitigate this problem. A reporter for the local newspaper interviews several prominent participants of the meeting: 1) an American Baptist deacon; 2) a Buddhist monk; 3) a Roman Catholic priest; 4) a Unitarian minister (or whatever they're called), 5) a city councilwoman, who is a Rawlsian (John Rawls is liberal political thinker who argues that religious folks should keep their personal religious beliefs separate from their civic lives); 6) the mayor, who's a Machiavellian; 7) the president of the chamber of commerce, who's a Marxist (haha, just kidding!); and 8) U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, (R-Kentucky, a follower of philosopher Ayn Rand).

So the reporter asks each interviewee, "What motivates you to engage in this project?" Their answers are as follows:

  • American Baptist: "In the Gospels, Jesus instructs us to protect the powerless as a supreme act of devotion to him; and besides that, the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society.
  • Buddhist: "The supreme act of a boddhisatva is to demonstrate compassion by striving to decrease the suffering of all sentient beings; thus, we strive to relieve the persistent problem of homelessness, which remains a blight on society."
  • Catholic: "The church's rich social teachings, including pronouncements of popes and the magesterium as a whole (not to mention Jesus himself) instruct the faithful to care for the weak and destitute; thus we are moved to show charity by addressing the persistent problem of homelessness, which remains a blight on society."
  • Unitarian: "The enlightened spirit of humankind yearns for the equality of all people; moreover, how can that happen as long as the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society?"
  • Mayor: "In this year when I am running for reelection, it is important for all residents to remember that our city takes care of all our citizens. I commit the resources of this administration to building this shelter because the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society."
  • Chamber President: "The persistent problem of homelessness, which remains a blight on society, is also really bad for the economy, as it drives away tourists from the business district."
  • Councilwomman: "We should act now because the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society."
  • Sen. Paul: "The persistent problem of homelessness may be a blight on society, but what the heck does that have to do with the government?"

Get the point? Despite whatever secular or religious tradition each participant hails from, most of them -- at least in the context of this public discussion -- are guided by some sort of generic humanitarian or pragmatic impulse. Is this a Q.E.D. for the Rawlsians, then?

But this is a silly and simplistic thought experiment, you might object. I concede that the real world tussle of beliefs and actions is much more complex and fraught than this little exercise would suggest. Religious beliefs and ethical commitments are woven together into a much more complex tapestry than even Bill Maher's more sophisticated theories can explain.

But others might object that this example merely illustrates ad hoc moral reasoning on the fly; This is not a proposal for how to integrate formal systematic theology and ethics. Perhaps.
Ayn Rand, "Philosopher"
But what are theology and ethics if not somehow ultimately rooted just such quotidien experience? Even so, the project of unifying theology and ethics (including social ethics and political theology) is a common move among many paradigmatic modern and contemporary Christian thinkers -- such as Barth, Bonhoeffer, Gutierrez, Moltmann and Ruether. Following the great German sociologist Max Weber, I do believe that powerful ideas, rooted in yet also shaping social contexts, can provide a profound catalyst for directing human behavior. But how, exactly? Put another way, what does theology add to moral reasoning and action that's not already intrinsic in moral praxis in an of itself?

I'm not sure, but pondering this exercise makes me more suspicious of ethical reductionism. Schleiermacher, the father of modern theology himself, (in)famously posited (or "made up") this notion that all human experience is rooted in an priori, transcendental self-consciousness called "feeling" (Gefühl). The English term "feeling" is misleading here, as it intends something much more comprehensive than "emotion", as in the famous song by Morris Albert (So, Millenials,...Oh just nevermind!). But that's not important right now. What is significant here is that Schleiermacher distinguishes feeling from the faculties of knowing and doing (including morality) and claims that feeling is the true locus of religious experience. Christian theology, he argues, consists in the critical exposition of that religious experience as it has been molded and determined by the saving influence of Christ. Now whatever reservations one might have about this proposal, Schleiermacher might be onto something in this regard: Perhaps it's simply impossible to reduce theology to ethics, and perhaps the relationships between the two disciplines are more tenuous and subtle even for a DET post to untangle.

So no ethical reductionism then; rather, onward into the conflict of interpretations!

My apologies to the Kantians and (a little begrugingly) to the Rawlsians. But as for you Randians...I can't even!


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Eschatological Business: Raising Bodies – A Guest Series by Nathan Hitchcock

[Ed. note: This post is part of a guest-series by Nathan Hitchcock. Nathan is Associate Professor of Church History and Theology at Sioux Falls Seminary, and is the author of Karl Barth and the Resurrection of the Flesh. Click here for this series’ description; Introduction; Remitting Debts.]

When Christians go to work, they do so to lift up human bodies. They perform medical tasks, as in the nurse who provides rehabilitative care to a post-op patient. They study the physical body and its environmental conditions, as in the home inspector monitoring radon levels. They labor for the best distribution of services, as with the entrepreneur seeking to establish a network of hardware stores on reservations. In all their actions Christians emulate the God of the future, whose final work consists of raising the dead to everlasting bodily health.

The Church’s profession of hope for the resurrection of the dead is an extension of the belief that their Lord Jesus Christ is risen from the grave. The Church hopes for resurrection because it hopes in God. Who is God? “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt” (Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology I, 63). That is, Christians know God’s character and essence through His work, in part by the raising of the Israelites from physical and political bondage, in full with the raising of the Son from death. The complete healing displayed in Jesus’ resurrection affirms God’s intention to reconstitute and transform the human body. Truly, God is a physician. His vocation is healing.

Disciples of the resurrection-God contend that what happened to Christ on Easter morning will happen to them too (1 Cor 6:14; 2 Cor 4:14). God’s final work has not yet extended to the many as to the One; as of this time, no one but Jesus is resurrected. The general resurrection of the dead will only transpire at the cosmic return of Christ (Matt 24:30-31; 1 Thes 5) and therefore cannot be understood as a past event for anyone either in this life or in death (2 Tim 2:8; Heb 11:39). As it is, the living and the dead alike wait for “adoption,” namely, “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). Yet the day will surely come. The future resurrection will be corporate and corporeal, establishing a civic body through many individual bodies (Eze 37; Heb 11:40; Rev 20-21). At the parousia the Lord Jesus will work the total corporeal healing, rescuing the saints from death, raising them to unending life with Him.

The Bible sometimes emphasizes discontinuity between the present body and the body to come, stressing elements of transformation. Risen bodies will be deathless (Luke 20:36), glorious (Phil 3:21), even capable of superhuman transportation (John 20:19, 26). Such bodies will “shine like the stars” (Dan 12:3). That is, the eschatological self will enjoy new qualities and superadded capacities. The “spiritual body” of which Paul speaks (1 Cor 15:44) will be the human body fully dynamic in divine participation, fully glorified by supernatural help. Instead of life through natural, ordinary means, the resurrection body will be “a body animated by the Spirit of the living God” (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 354). It will be changed.

Scripture is equally insistent on continuity between this body and the future one. Judging by the appearances of Jesus, the resurrected body will be tangible (John 20:24-29), have the same basic physical features, and will be capable of eating and drinking (Luke 24:42). The risen human will not be ghost but “flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39). Let the philosophers puzzle! Resurrected bodies are the exact same former bodies healed. The confession of the subapostolic period captured in the Apostles Creed expresses the continuationist aspect more forcefully than the Nicene Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” In other words, the coming resurrection means the preservation of the selfsame body even in its glorification. It will be retained.

How then shall Christians work? By imitating the healing God in their own creaturely way. They cannot raise the dead, but they join in the anticipatory work of elevating bodies. By the Spirit of resurrection, in anticipation of the final day, Christians work to see thriving bodies.

The Church receives its primary practice in the context of the ecclesial body. In the congregations there are myriad acts of mercy (Acts 6:1-7; Rom 12:3-21) championed by appointed deacons. Women and men exercise spiritual gifts of healing (Acts 19:11-12; 1 Cor 12:28); elders anoint the sick with oil (Jam 5:14-15). Denominations and parachurch agencies conduct a battery of relief efforts. All are called upon to exercise hospitality to their brothers and sisters, prioritizing the needs of others above their own.

But how shall Christians work in the world? In accordance with the eschatological principles of bodily transformation and bodily preservation, Christians labor to transform bodies and preserve them.

Transformative acts of healing happen all the time in the medical profession, of course. Believing doctors and nurses and technicians administer care to improve bodily well-being. Some work with international organizations to innoculate against measles or perform cleft palate surgeries in remote areas. Many other Christian vocations advance bodily health. Athletic coaches train minds as well as muscles. Psychotherapists move sufferers of sexual trauma toward new identity. Christ’s disciples joyfully work with the disabled, walking with them in therapeutic ways and championing their access to the community.

Even the new products developed by Christian researchers gesture at the resurrection-future. If one grants Marshall McLuhan’s premise that technologies extend physiological capacities, then businesspersons selling hang gliders or handicapped-accessible doors, GPS units or eye glasses, bullet-proof vests or belt sanders are also enhancing bodies in their own way. In fact, nearly every occupation involves some sort of service that improves, either directly or indirectly, bodily welfare. Christians seize and utilize and maximize opportunities to elevate the psychosomatic whole.

Sanctified workers also pursue the tasks of bodily preservation. In emulating the God who heals, Christians take their stand against death. After all, the resurrection of the dead corresponds to the eradication of death in the lake of fire (Rev 20:13-14). Redeemed humans play their part in opposing the forces of disease and decay in this age, standing strong against the grinding forces of death. Therefore public health officials address water purity, nutrition in schools, and mold prevention. Others are called to serve as administrators who optimize the shipment of fresh foods or work with pharmaceutical companies to distribute antiretroviral drugs. Christians enter the marketplace to offer quality services and products that support healthy living. Likewise they pursue legislation that defends bodily dignity, whether by limiting factory work-weeks or securing critical medical services among the poor or militating against the exploitation of bodies, including and especially exploitation of the most vulnerable bodies – those of the unborn.

Because this age is not the age to come, Christians must grapple with difficult options. Is a nutritional guideline for elementary schools warranted, or does it unnecessarily take away culinary pleasures and personal agency? When does plastic surgery become a distortion of the body rather than an advancement of it? How does one steward antibiotics so as to prevent the rise of “superbugs”? Is the expansion of a certain clothing franchise providing worthwhile services, or just promoting vanity? The raising of human bodies cannot always be quantified easily, and other values may need to be considered when making decisions both personally and civically.

Still, Christians labor for physical healing, whether by transformation or preservation. They know the One who raises the dead and they tailor their occupations after the great Physician. By the Spirit they stretch forth their hands to care for the sick and needy, anticipating their revival. By their work bodies rise.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Maybe it’s time I dropped that “fortnight” business since, once again, it has been about a month since our last link post. One reason that it has been a while is that DET went on hiatus over the holiday season. But we’re back now and running, especially with our guest series – currently in medias res - with Nathan Hitchcock on the theme of “Eschatological Business” (which I have been trying to turn into a hashtag - #EschatologicalBusiness – however, so far it hasn’t quite caught on…). You’ll see links to the first two installments of this series below. I hope you’ll check this series out if you haven’t already done so. Nathan is giving us a preview of his current writing project, and at the same time he is workshopping it with us. So this is our chance to collaborate with him as he refines and develops his argument. Already we have had some good conversation in the comments sections, so join in!

Here are the recent links from here at DET:

Here are some links from further abroad that you might be interested in:


Thursday, January 22, 2015

What Am I Reading? Sun-young Kim on Martin Luther, Faith, and Love

Sun-young Kim, Luther on Faith and Love: Christ and the Law in the 1535 Galatians Commentary, Emerging Scholars (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).

I wanted to read this book from the first moment that I learned of its existence.* Lately I’ve been working on gaining a better understanding of Luther, for a variety of reasons, and his ethics has always looked like something of a mess to my Reformed sensibilities. But I had also encountered enough of it to know that some of the standard tropes against Luther on this point don’t seem to grow out of Luther’s texts. When I saw Sun-young Kim’s book, I hoped that I had found a volume that would package all this material up for me and provide clarity on the subject. In that hope I have not been disappointed.

I’ll be posting some interesting snippets from the book, as is my wont, but I want to provide a little context for the volume here. And I shall do so in three points.

  • First, the true heart of the book on my reading is well-articulated in the following passage from somewhere in the middle:
    Luther sought to replace the scholastic terminologies such as fides caritate formata, unformed faith, and the merits of congruity and condignity with biblical language and concepts. Luther does not abandon love itself in his theology, but the scholastic concept of love. (p. 159)
    The question for the heirs of Luther (i.e., all Protestants, one way or another) is whether he achieved sufficient success in this, or whether a return to some of the scholastic concepts and distinctions might not be in order. Kim does not address this more constructive issue, but she brings together much of the background analysis necessary to consider it fruitfully.
  • Second, Kim keeps one eye on the Finnish school especially with reference to framing her argument in the introduction and conclusion. Here is what she has to say about Luther and theosis:
    Although consenting to the Finns’ accentuation of Luther’s notion of Christ who is present in Christians through faith, I would suggest that the move from an appropriate appreciation of Luther’s notion of Christ who is present in faith to the contention that Luther’s doctrine of justification is identical to theosis is a conceptual-logical jump. I would underscore instead that, although he fervently insists on the real presence of Christ, Luther shies away from putting any specific label on the way Christ is present in a Christian through faith. In fact, . . . Luther himself acknowledges that he does not know how Christ is really present.” (p. 264)
  • Third, and more briefly, Kim includes in her conclusion a discussion of Luther on the question of the Law’s 3rd use (tertius usus legis, for any theology nerds out there looking to learn a fancy piece of Latin). Here she argues, more or less, that Luther’s thought contains the substance of such a use even if he avoids that language.

In short, I really enjoyed and benefited from this book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the various dimensions of the Christian life in Protestant theology. Stay tuned for more interesting snippets!

*Truth in advertising: Fortress press was kind enough to supply me with a review copy of this book. Coincidentally, it so happens that one of my own books is also in the Fortress Emerging Scholars series.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Eschatological Business: Remitting Debts – A Guest Series by Nathan Hitchcock

[Ed. note: This post is part of a guest-series by Nathan Hitchcock. Nathan is Associate Professor of Church History and Theology at Sioux Falls Seminary, and is the author of Karl Barth and the Resurrection of the Flesh. Click here for this series’ description; Introduction.]

When Christians go to work, they do so to forgive debts. They leverage their own honor to protect others’, as in the manager who takes the hit for a subordinate who violated company policy and lost a client. They challenge policies of economic exclusion, as with the city councilor simplifying procedures for start-up businesses. Sometimes they forgive in very explicit financial ways, finding a way to finance a home loan to someone with a ruined credit record. In all their work, Christians do meaningful labor by imitating the God who places Himself on the line to restore commerce.

The acknowledgement of one baptism for the forgiveness of sins is best understood through the eschatological lens: only those in Christ, those baptized into Christ, will God forgive in the end. Divine forgiveness extends to many instances through time, of course, but it is an act coincidental with the Last Judgment, properly speaking. The Bible depicts this moment as the day of reckoning: deeds will be exposed and rewards and punishments assigned (Isa 34:8; Mal 3:1-4; Matt 24:31-46; 2 Tim 4:8; Rev 20:11-15). At the great judgment, God deals conclusively with past accounts. At that time He will render a not-guilty verdict for the elect. He will end all alienation. Positively expressed, the Father will pour out on believers the inheritance belonging to them (Col 3:24; Heb 9:15; 1 Pet 1:4). That is God’s final work: to remit the debts of His people and enrich them so that they might be in royal fellowship with Him.

For all the western abuses of the doctrine of salvation, one may and must consider the forgiveness of sins a commercial idea. Contra well-meaning Orthodox soteriologists, the Bible is comfortable with the financial metaphor, speaking of sin in terms of debt, transfer, and restoration of credit (e.g., Lev 16:20-28; Psa 22:25; Matt 18:21-35; Luke 7:40-50; 2 Cor 8:9). God’s work is to deal with sin-debt by interposing His own wealth. The Church need not wring its hands when deciding whether to recite the Lukan “forgive us our trespasses” (Luke 11:4) or Matthew’s “forgive us our debts” (Matt 6:12). Neither should it be concerned over the nuances of the Greek eis aphesin hamartiōn or the Latin in remissionem peccatorum when professing the Nicene Creed. Trespasses are debts and forgiveness is remission – so long as one keeps in mind that all such terms deal principally with relational commerce. (The wrangling between west and east has been not about the use of forensic-commercial language, one might say, but the extent to which righteousness can be quantified.) In the end, salvation involves a transfer in which guilt, or bad debt, is eradicated and righteousness, or good debt, is established.

David Graeber in his remarkable history, Debt, argues persuasively that credit-debt systems (not bartering rituals) are the oldest and most fundamental ways of going about exchange. Even modern fiat currencies are largely matters of credit, as national governments invite (or coerce) persons to trust them as economic guarantors. The question becomes, then, not whether or not to have debt, but to whom one should be indebted and the terms of the indebtedness. In the divine economy God insists that we act as debtors to Him under the terms of the holy covenant. He eradicates our bad debt that we might take on proper indebtedness to Him.

The world is all too familiar with bad debt. Through unwise decisions or oppressive conditions, many end up in a species of obligation that can only be described as servitude. Unprotected by law, a tenant is reduced to subsistence farming. An elderly couple experiences health problems and amasses an insurmountable credit card balance. A drug dealer is unable to get out from under obligations to a criminal ring. A college student avoids her parents after crashing the family car. In all these cases monetary debt amounts to social powerlessness, whether through obligation to the wrong party, unfavorable terms, or a violation of trust. Bad debt is the cancer of social relations. It requires excision.

In the end God will purge such debt. The Lord of the “release” or “pardon” (Deut 15; Isa 61:1-4) will return to clean slates and destroy the evil economy with its creditors and merchants (Psa 94; Rev 18). Debt-remission is also a matter of dealing with humans’ own sins. Therefore the Lord who entered the business of “expiation” or “cleansing” of sin in the Levitical sacrificial system (Lev 4; Num 8:5-14) will perform the final purgation (1 Cor 3:13; Rev 20:14). Put in more social terms, God rightly demands honor, but sinful humans cannot pay the honor due Him. By their own doing sinners have distorted the generous terms of the covenant and are in default. The Father must apply the blood of the Lamb, “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (Col 2:14, ESV). Ultimately, God grants shalom by remitting sin and dropping penalties.

Forgiveness is also the establishing of good debt. Indeed, there is such a thing as good debt! Consider the practice of paying for a friend’s lunch: one person says to her friend, “I’ve got the bill,” to which the other says, “You didn’t need to, but thanks. I’ll get it next time.” By paying for the check one friend has indebted the other, but only in a way that affirms their friendship and calls for another meeting.

The Bible commissions various forms of good debt: the Israelites were to remember their “perpetual due” to the Levites through their offerings (Lev 7:36) and burn bulls and rams routinely in order to produce “a soothing aroma before the LORD” (Exo 29:25). Within the believing community married couples owe each other sexual gratification (1 Cor 7:3-5) and all Christians are to observe “the continuing debt to love one another” (Rom 13:8, NIV). Good debt involves the practice of genuine reciprocity. Therefore, forgiveness may and should be understood as the advancing of good credit so that proper exchange may resume. (Here is where Anselm’s honor-based model of the atonement is, well, more satisfying than later penal theories.) The taking away of bad debt, with its poverty and alienation and fear, is coincidental with the creation of good credit, with its wealth and community and trust.

The God of the future insists on relational commerce. He who put forward the hilasmos (Rom 3:25; 1 John 2:2) will consummate the fellowship with a joyful wedding (Isa 62:4; Rev 21:1-2). While all human deeds must be weighed, at the last judgment believers are ultimately reliant upon Christ who interjects His own credit to overcome their sinful debts (Rom 5; 2 Cor 5:21). By His costly and gratuitous work God makes friends and inspires them to reciprocate in thanksgiving: “O to grace, how great a debtor / Daily I’m constrained to be.” God summons more and more humans into His economy. God seeks to be all in all, Creditor to all.

How then shall Christians work? By joining God in His work of the remission of debts. Of course, the work of the Church is largely centered around the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which comes with the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. With the task of evangelism, the Church exercises radical generosity. The Bible contains numerous examples of the believing community practicing hospitality and debt forgiveness in its own ranks (Lev 25; Acts 2:44-46; Rom 15:25-27). The mutual remission of sins is the necessary catalyst for Christian unity.

More broadly, however, Christians go to their jobs with the intent of remitting debt. In the world too they are agents of forgiveness. By the Spirit they make their work a foretaste of the coming kingdom where trespasses are erased and good standing is established.

Christians work toward the goal of eradicating bad debt. Accountants root out the manifold places for corruption and account distortion, keeping internal and external business relationships above board. Administrators specializing in medical coding look to reform billing language so that it does not obfuscate. Directly or indirectly, many Christians are financial counselors. Various non-profit agencies champion the cause of immigrants, refugees, the disabled, orphans, rehabilitating convicts, and other exposed people groups. In the overtly political realm, Christians do the hard work of creating legislation dealing with health insurance, investment policies, and short-term lending reforms. They fight against various forms of slavery, whether it be the ensnarement of girls led into prostitution, coercive labor through confiscated passports, or the enforcement of impossible national debt repayment plans. Christians are bad-debt killers.

Positively stated, Christians forgive by restoring good social indebtedness. In the banking world one finds immediate applications, as bankers serve as intermediaries who keep businesses in good standing. They empower the poor through microloans and restructure corporations to make them just, sustainable, and profitable. They keep the economy lubricated. Other professions facilitate positive debt too. Military and police exert great impact on community relations when acting righteously (cf. Luke 3:14). Christian social workers take on the difficult task of situating children in the best possible family networks, and Christian business persons wager their good standing to secure initial jobs for ex-convicts to assimilate into the workforce. Christian managers place themselves on the line to restructure institutions in ways that “humanize” work for others, shaping companies to prevent “alienation” between the worker and the work itself (cf. Volf, Work in the Spirit, 165). Eschatological business leads to healthy debt, to deep commerce.

Sometimes the work of forgiveness takes place under suspect conditions. Here in America there is a Christian car dealership owner who sells inexpensive cars, all under $5,000, to persons with destroyed credit. Customers typically make purchases with no cash down. As the default rate on the loans they take out is one-third, the Christian owner has set the interest at a whopping 30% APR. Even so, his seemingly usurious rate is in fact a fraction of payday loan rates – and this rate falls to 15% after customers make two successful monthly payments. His automotive business exists to reap personal profit and get people back on their feet again. Many of the customers are single mothers desperate to find reliable transportation to their jobs. This dealer is one of the few in town who will work with them to include them in the economy.

Occasionally the heathen act surprisingly Christian, as in the remarkable case of Arunachalam Muruganantham in the documentary Menstrual Man, who has repeatedly sacrificed his own social standing in order to help businesswomen in rural India manufacture sanitary pads. By selling women his basic machine on credit, he frees them to develop a business network, hire other women, and maintain a livelihood independent of abusive husbands and oppressive employers. They are not independent so much as newly situated within society. Good debt replaces bad debt.

Because of the broken condition of the present age, Christians are always having to ask themselves if their well-intended labors are helping or hurting others. Is a certain philanthropic work lifting the needy out of poverty or disempowering them through handouts? Is a certain gesture an act of grace or movement toward a codependent relationship? What are the unintended consequences of inserting the kingdom economy into the world’s?

Even so, work exists for Christians to act out grace to their neighbors. They know their future with the God who remits sin. In the Spirit and under the shadow of the cross, Christians labor to do the same. They give. They forgive.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Stringfellow: Theologian of Freedom

This year I plan to blog a bit about one of my major theological interests and influences: The writings of William Stringfellow (1928-1985). Stringfellow was an Episcopal attorney, activist and theologian who was a major prophetic voice within North American Christianity from the post World War II era into the Reagan years, though his was often a marginal voice in relation to the churches and the academy. I will look at some key passages from his work in the hope of enticing you, gentle readers, into exploring his life and legacy for yourselves. But I want to start with a little teaser from Stringfellow's most famous advocate.

In the forward to his Evangelical Theology, Karl Barth recaps his tour of the United States earlier that year.
Among such worthies as Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr., Barth singles out "the thoughtful and conscientious William Stringfellow, who caught my attention more than any other person" (p. ix, emphasis mine). Stringfellow was close friends with Barth's son, Marcus, the New Testament scholar, and through this contact the young lawyer was able to make several connections between the Swiss theologian and a few folks in the States. Stringfellow helped to bring Barth to East Harlem, where the young activist had practiced law, and also helped set up a tour of the Riker's Island jail (See Dancer, pp. 169-171). Stringfellow famously stole the show as one of the interlocutors at Barth's panel discussion at the University of Chicago (stay tuned for more about this).

As I approach Stringfellow's work, I like to remember the famous admonition Barth gave to his American readers:

What we need on this and the other side of the Atlantic is not Thomism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, orthodoxy, religionism, existentialism, nor is it a return to Harnack and Troeltsch (and least of all is it "Barthianism"!). but what I somewhat cryptically called in my little final speech at Chicago a "theology of freedom" that looks ahead and strives forward (p. xii).

I don't mean to suggest that Stringfellow is the "child of promise"; in fact, I don't believe there ever has been or ever will be such a person, neither in the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Rome nor anywhere else. I mean rather to propose that the young theologian and troublemaker may have caught more than a whiff of that spirit of freedom to which Barth was pointing -- the freedom that the children of God have in Christ Jesus.


Barth, Karl, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1962).

Dancer, Anthony, An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow (Eugene, OR: Wiph & Stock, 2011).


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Eschatological Business: Introduction - A Guest Series by Nathan Hitchcock

[Ed. note: This post is part of a guest-series by Nathan Hitchcock. Nathan is Associate Professor of Church History and Theology at Sioux Falls Seminary, and is the author of Karl Barth and the Resurrection of the Flesh. Click here for this series’ description.]

Christians work toward a future. This is true of humans generally, who go about their business with some sort of telos in mind, possessed by (or searching for) some kind of hope. It is differently true for believers, who live in the light of divine ends. By the Holy Spirit they hope for God’s future in Jesus Christ. They move forward, stretching toward the coming kingdom. When Christians go about their work as welders, as property managers, as actuaries, as network technicians, as mayors, as retail clerks, they do so as end-time laborers.

The present series can be understood as a response to Tom Nelson’s pastoral plea: “If we are going to do God-honoring work, if we are going to be a faithful presence in our workplaces, then we must grasp in a compelling way that our present work fits into the future that awaits us” (Work Matters, 77). The following offers a constructive framework for the members of the Church to understand their work. It pursues the theme of eschatological business through the lens of the Nicene Creed, namely:
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
The forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and life in the coming world: these three elements constitute God’s final work. What He establishes involves the remission of debts, the raising of the dead to eternal health, and the utter renewal of the cosmos. These three purposes also guide human work. While humans do not and cannot perform such great deeds, men and women in the Spirit participate in penultimate expressions of God’s work by remitting debt, lifting bodies, and renewing the earth.

Before moving forward it is wise to entertain two noteworthy concerns about the project. First, why not ground one’s theology of work in the doctrine of creation? After all, concepts of imago Dei, vocation, stewardship, cultivation, and creation care offer a template for various careers and endeavors. Protology appeals to liberals and evangelicals and Roman Catholics alike, as it gets at a universal definition of humanity and humanity’s purposes on earth. Similarly, a doctrine of creation, rightly phrased, casts a common human pursuit among farmers and pastors and chimneysweeps.

One response is to assess holy scripture. Were Genesis 1-2 paradigmatically determinative for business, one would expect the rest of the canonical documents to harken to creation-principles at frequent intervals. This is not the case. Instead the reader finds a protracted narrative of God calling a fallen people to move forward in the covenant. In the Old Testament the Israelites’ work is usually framed within the Abrahamic or Mosaic parameters, prophetically summoned to a future, and oriented to the glorification of Zion. Likewise, in the New Testament the Church’s activities are usually framed within the mission of Christ, who between His ascension and return pours out His Spirit and opens up life in the end times. In the wake of their Lord’s resurrection the disciples must pursue business in the eschatological economy. No wonder John’s apocalyptic visions lead to an insistence on faithful deeds and a damning critique of the imperial marketplace. No wonder that Paul’s letters to Thessalonica, utterly eschatologically conditioned, are concerned with diligent labor in the here and now. No wonder that 1 Corinthians 15, the great resurrection-chapter, should conclude with an assurance that “your work in the Lord is not in vain” (v.58) and a word about finances (16:1-4). The biblical writers theologize work more in light of the end than the beginning.

Another response is simply to note that the eschatological perspective provides some much-needed balance to recent theologies of work, which tend to be very creation-centered. Exegesis and theological-ethical considerations of Genesis 1-2 are paramount to most of the recent ecclesiastical scholarship on work. Recent Roman Catholic productions such as Marie-Dominique Chenu’s A Theology of Work (1963) and Rome’s Laborem Exercens (1981) are grounded protologically. Liberal theologies such as Dorothee Sölle and Shirley Cloyes’ To Work and to Love (1984) or Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda’s Resisting Structural Evil (2013) operate out of an a priori doctrine of creation, circling around notions of innate human dignity and ecological responsibility. In evangelical quarters, representative volumes like Doug Sherman and William Hendrick’s Your Work Matters to God (1986) to Leland Ryken’s Redeeming the Time (1995) to Timothy Keller’s Every Good Endeavor (2012) bank hard on protological constructions such as the cultural mandate, vocation, and common grace. When evangelicals speak about working with hope, as they sometimes do, the eschaton usually constitutes a postscript of God’s creational designs or is subsumed into a detemporalized category of “kingdom.” Relatively little popular literature in the Faith at Work Movement addresses the teleological dimension at all. In fact, of the many Christian articulations of work-theology, there are only two dedicated monographs in English framing work principally in eschatological terms: Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit (1991) and Darrell Cosden’s Theology of Work (2004). If for no other reason, the eschatological perspective on work should be included for balance.

A second concern is more grave: Is not an eschatological theology of work smuggling in some sort of contentious political vision? Is it not suspect right out of the gate, knowing that it will likely presuppose a connection between the present world and the world to come, and therefore between an existing economic system and the kingdom of God? Whether conservative or progressive or revolutionary, talk of “God’s future” will in all likelihood posit illicit continuity between an existing earthly political mode and the eternal heavenly kingdom.

One does well to heed this objection without being crippled by it. In truth, every socioeconomic ideology attempts to underwrite itself with an eschaton. Many philosophies of laissez-faire capitalism lean upon the optimistic mythos of infinite progress via self-regulating market evolution, and constructive versions of Marxism usually cling to the mythos of the classless society through redistribution by an enlightened populace. In ecclesiastical circles, rather different futures are called upon to support the ideals of the prosperity gospel and the social gospel. Different millennial views prop up different political strategies. Yet in all this the real danger is not eschatology as such, but overrealized eschatology. The danger is not futurity as such, but an abstract future, that is, an eschatological vacuum into which anthropocentric imagination rushes. Given the abundance of utopian dreams, whether colonial or revolutionary, Christians should be all the more eager to posit the actual future of God’s people in Christ. By naming the concrete Christian hope (and with it, the hope for work), Christians are better equipped to resist fantastical futures.

In accepting the actual future of the actual God, the Church is forced to remember the Creator-creature distinction (or, in this case, the Redeemer-redeemed distinction). An eschatological theology of work necessarily speaks in the idiom of God’s ultimate work and humanity’s penultimate expressions. It acknowledges that God’s final work is unique and stands alone. From the sure work established in Christ, God will pour out the forgiveness of sins, raise the dead, and give life to the coming world. God will – and God alone. As for disciples of Christ, they themselves cannot forgive sins, raise the dead, or animate a renewed cosmos.

Yet there is an analogy between redeemed human work and God’s. Jesus’ disciples work to remit debts and uplift bodies and renew the world. They do so in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit opens up the analogy. Walking in hope, inspired Christians echo and anticipate God’s final work through their earthly labors. Their living is penultimate and even pitiful. Yet laboring Christians step toward the future insofar as they are in step with God, exerting themselves under the auspices of Christ’s triumph waiting to be revealed. In a dialectical way the Church humbly orients itself to the end, for “[e]schatology is the theological concept that reminds us of the reserve with which we must speak about any work in progress” (Knight, 95).

Again, the organizing thesis: theology of work draws from God’s eschatological work. Following the expressions of the Nicene Creed, God’s work is to forgive sin, resurrect the dead, and give life to the coming world. This three-fold reality is fundamentally complete in Jesus Christ. Yet those made in the image of Christ are those who in faith work cooperatively with God, remitting debts, elevating the body, and renewing the earth.

Why do Christians roll out of bed every Monday morning? Because they are called to the future.

They make coffee and get to work.


Thursday, January 08, 2015

Evangelical and Liberal: Roots of a Trajectory?

I've been reading the work of Reinhold Niebuhr again lately. Now here is a thinker who appreciated irony, and my own relationship with his body of work is a bit ironic -- both appreciative and skeptical. Niebuhr exhibits something of a two-sidedness, a dialectical form of discourse that seeks to keep the ideal and the real in a constant state of creative tension. He draws from the political idealism of the Social Gospel movement and liberal Protestantism, yet this is tempered and reconstructed by a realism about the fragile and fallen character of human nature which comes to expression, especially, in the agonistic realm of power politics.

Difficulties attend the old characterization of his theology and political ethics as "neoorthodox", neither completely liberal-modernist nor traditional-conservative but some sort of tertium quid. Back in the 70s, David Tracy (following Wilhelm Pauk) argued that "neoorthodoxy" was best understood a self-critical moment within the broader liberal tradition, and that makes sense to me [See his Blessed Rage for Order New York: Seabury, 1975), p. 27]. Nowadays the term "neoorthodoxy" itself is highly contested, but Douglas John Hall makes a good attempt at retrieving both the label and the thinkers who have been thought to exemplify it.

Wherever we place Niebuhr on the ideological spectrum, he was no poster child for traditional theology, pietist or otherwise; nonetheless, he does retrieve notions of divine transcendence and human sinfulness to distinguish his form of Christian realism from the liberal optimism of the Social Gospel movement. His realism, though, was was neither quietist nor resigned to the crappiness of the world order; his was to be a socially activist and engaged form of belief and practice. But this is tricky: Niebuhr's legacy is also ambiguous vis-a-vis radical politics, as he is often known as the fierce anti-communist and pro-establishment theologian of the early Cold War era. Nonetheless, as a young pastor and activist, Niebuhr was deeply invested in socialist politics and labor issues. (For more on my attempt to retrieve a more more leftist Niebuhr, see this post.)

To complicate matters further, it is also tricky to situate Niebuhr's ideas and commitments in religion and politics in relation to the ever slippery label "liberal", which means so many things, often contradictory, to different people. Moreover, "liberal" is something of a dirty word in contemporary politics. The sense of the term that is most attractive to me, names a position that puts a high value on free, critical inquiry and on the exercise and protection of basic human rights and dignity. Other senses of the term "liberal" are perhaps less felicitous, but it obscures the matter to nervously replace the word with "progressive". I think it is safe, though a bit vague, to characterize Niebuhr as a thinker and activist who is deeply immersed in various strands of modernism while also being sharply critical of the more idealistic strands of progressive thinking; to that extent, then, he qualifies as a liberal -- or a radical who turned liberal, or a liberal who became less radical, or a liberal who became "neoorthodox". But his perspective was a far cry, I'm convinced, from that of the neoconservatives who have wished to claim his legacy in recent decades.

So I discern a certain two-sidedness, a certain interesting complexity in Niebuhr's life and thought, a sort of dialectic easily missed in more breezy assessments of him. From what sources does he get this? Perhaps something of it comes from his father, a fascinating figure in his own right. Gustav Niebuhr was an immigrant who pastored churches in the German Evangelical Synod in Missouri, California and Illinois. (The Evangelical Synod was the predecessor of the Evangelical and Reformed denomination that later merged into the United Church of Christ.) Gustav's sudden death at age 50 catapulted the young Reinhold, still pursing his education, into the practical demands of the pastorate, as he temporarily assumed his father's post in Lincoln, Illinois. Reinhold was as restless and as driven as Bedford Falls' favorite son, George Bailey; still, unlike Jimmy Stewart's hapless character, the young Niebuhr got out of dodge as soon as he could to pursue his wonderful life further at Yale Divinity School before returning to the Midwest for an urban pastorate in Detroit.

Richard Wightman Fox, in his superb work, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 7), offers a fascinating, if brief depiction of Gustav as a Christian thinker who bridged two worlds:

Paradoxically Gustav was both liberal and Evangelical in his faith. He was liberal in his conviction that the Gospel was social as well as individual, that the Christian had to work for social improvement, not simply religious conversion. He was also liberal in his unconcern for doctrinal precision. He told his parishioners and his children that it was better to define faith as trust, not belief. And he was liberal in his ecumenical interest, his determination to break down artificial walls between the denominations. But unlike those liberal ministers who tended to reduce theology to philosophy or ethics, and to strip Jesus of his divinity in favor of calling him a perfect human being, he insisted on the divinity of Christ, the supernatural inspiration of the Bible, and the centrality of prayer in the religious life. He was a pietist, not a fundamentalist -- not every word of the Bible was literally true. Yet while he dismissed the fundamentalists, he was also enraged by liberal modernists who discounted the New Testament miracles.

Back in those days, before World War I, everyone who wanted to say something distinctive vis-a-vis Continental theology, had to go head-to-head with "the Man"; Gustav was not afraid to do so. Fox continues:

In his review of Harnack's Wesen des Christentums [The Essence of Christianity] in 1902 he [Gustav] praised the celebrated church historian's open-mindedness but ridiculed his contention, in Gustav's words, that "the stilling of the storm at sea is a violation of the laws of nature which no one should be expected to accept." Harnack was "a child of the times" who was prone to "subjectivism."

Of course, as students of modern theology know, behind "the Man" is "THE Man" (Somehow this patriarchal wording seems apropos.) Fox, again, still quoting Gustav's review of Harnack:

Like Schleiermacher in his time, [Harnack] feels impelled by the prevailing philosophy to declare as impossible a certain class of miracle, thereby limiting the omnipotence of God instead of defending the thoroughly Christian and true-to-the-Gospel proposition that God the law-giver stands above all law, including the laws of nature.

As the sketch of Gustav Niebuhr continues in the pages that follow, he comes to seem less liberal on the economic and social fronts: He favored a form of beneficent capitalism and was not stirred by the rising tide of socialism, and he was a vocal opponent of the burgeoning women's rights movement. So, as with his famous son, we can see Gustav as a figure straddling two worlds in a time of extensive transitions.

Reinhold, much more the Ritschlian liberal than his father, would demur from Gustav's bold supernaturalism, just as he would be more left-leaning in his socio-political views. But the son certainly followed the father's footsteps in another important arena: Gustav was convinced that the message of the Gospel belongs in the public sphere, and that means the theologian must actively confront social injustice. Clearly, a pastor-intellectual who would challenge the invincible Henry Ford over his exploitative labor practices in booming, 1920s Detroit, and would later run for public office as a Socialist in New York state imbibed something of the elder Niebuhr's evangelical fervor. So, without necessarily endorsing the view outlined above or drawing the battle lines in quite the same places that Gustav Niebuhr would, I would say his example might show how it is possible to be both evangelical and liberal -- or maybe even something a little bit beyond liberal -- that is, if one can learn to live with a little irony.


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

DET Announcements

Welcome back, gentle readers. I’m sure (read: I hope) that at least one or two of you missed DET while it was in hiatus . . .

In any case, we’re back now and there are a few things that I want to highlight for you.

  • To begin, DET got a little bit of a facelift. The previous template’s charms have been wearing off on me for a while, and I finally got to the point that I thought it was just too dark. So now we have a bit of a lighter feel and some nice earth tones. I hope you enjoy.
  • Next, the contributor page got revamped as part of the face-lift process. You can now find it on the top tab bar under the title About the Authors. If you click through you’ll see two things: (1) I have re-written my author bio, so you might have fun with some of the links there; (2) Scott Jackson has been promoted to Senior Contributing Author. Congratulations Scott! He will be taking on more of a leadership role which will include things like writing a weekly post, helping to run the DET Facebook pages, assisting with “programing” decisions (e.g., thinking with me about content, direction, tone, etc.), and assisting with “public relations” (e.g., communicating with readers, guest authors, etc.).

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed having Scott on board so far, and I’ve especially appreciated his content contributions. He and I share a taste for engaging the sorts of material that doesn’t often get engaged in the theo-blogosphere. So if you see Scott around the interwebs (e.g., on Twitter), be sure to say “Hi” and congratulate him.
  • There is a call for papers up at the Center for Barth studies for the 2015 Barth conference. The conference subject is: "Karl Barth and the Gospels: Interpreting Gospel Texts." So if you've got something kicking around on a relevant topic, send it in! Moltmann is scheduled to be at the conference . . . so . . . any excuse to go is worth it.
  • Finally, I’m very pleased to announce that DET will be hosting a series by sometime DET guest contributor Nathan Hitchcock. Nathan is Associate Professor of Church History and Theology at Sioux Falls Seminary, holds his PhD from the University of Edinburgh, and is author of Karl Barth and the Resurrection of the Flesh. He has written for DET twice in the past: he contributed to the Karl Barth Blog Conference back in 2009 with a post on Barth and Romans 1:3-4; and in 2011 he helped us mark Epiphany with a sermon on The Magi and Theological Method.

    Starting on January 13th, and continuing on every Tuesday until and including February 3rd, we will have a post from Nathan on the topic: An Eschatological Theology of Work, or Eschatological Business for short. I’m very happy to welcome Nathan in this capacity since this in material that he’s working through in preparation for a larger project along these same lines, so DET readers will get a chance to preview this material and engage with Nathan as he develops it. I know that I’ll be reading with great interest, and I hope you will too. And be sure to jump into the comments! I know that Nathan wants to interact with folks as much as possible. To wet your whistles a bit more, here is the abstract:
    The topic of human work has received considerable attention in recent years. Nearly all work-theology has been oriented to protology, however, casting human occupations in terms of God’s original creation. By contrast, the eschatological orientation of work has received sparing attention. Building on the work of Miroslav Volf and Darrell Cosden, this article begins with a justification for an eschatological theology of work before utilizing the Nicene Creed for a three-fold telos: the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and life in the coming world. God’s final work will be to remit debts, raise the dead to full health, and utterly renew the cosmos. While humans cannot perform these great deeds, those in the Spirit can effect penultimate expressions of God’s work through debt forgiveness, healing occupations, and sustainable culture-building. All Christian work can and must be done in hope.
    Stay tuned for the first installment of this series from Nathan, which will appear in just under a week!