Saturday, February 28, 2015

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Ok, so it’s been more like a month and a half since the last link post, and things have been fairly busy here at DET. For starters, we finished the guest series by Nathan Hitchcock on “Eschatological Business.” The series is now indexed with the rest of the DET serials, and two of the posts appear in the links below. But we’ve also had a lot of good material from our regularly scheduled programing. For instance, Scott has been working his way through Timothy Gorringe’s book on Barth, subtitled Against Hegemony (see the links below), and I’m looking forward to see what further reflection it will spark.

But before moving on to the links, I want to highlight a book that has recently been published on Barth’s theology. It is entitled The Only Sacrament Left to Us: The Threefold Word of God in the Theology and Ecclesiology of Karl Barth, written by Thomas Christian Currie who currently serves as a PCUSA pastor down in Louisiana. I’ve tried to embed a flyer for the book as an image (to the right), and I hope it will enlarge itself if you click it. Or you can surf on over to the publisher’s website to get all the details. I haven’t read it yet, but I met Thomas last year at the Princeton Barth conference and we had a good chat about it. So I’m looking forward to reading it, and you should be too!

Ok, now to the links. First, here’s what has been happening at DET:


And here are some links from further afield:


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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Gorringe on Barth: The Freedom of Theology vs. the Bondage of Worldviews

Karl Barth has bedeviled myriad interpreters, from existentialist theologians to orthodox Calvinists, with his tenacious and often strident efforts to keep theology free from the miserable conflict of "worldviews".


Timothy Gorringe, in his study Karl Barth: Against Hegemony (Oxford, 1999) helps us understand why the Swiss dogmatician was so resolute on this score. Essentially, as Gorringe reads him, Barth equates worldview with ideology, and theology must be bound only to the Word of God and not to any distorting human intellectual constructs. This does not mean, though, that that the issue is preserving theology per se from the fray of human conflicts and controversies; rather, the question is: Does theological ratiocination bind or loose believers for the concrete struggles of social and political life.

Gorringe writes:

Barth has rightly been described [by Clifford Green] as a "theologian of freedom". From one point of view the Church Dogmatics is a gigantic exploration of the meaning, presuppositions, and actualizations of human freedom. The negative, critical, mode of this exploration is the attack on hegemony, on world views which take over the freedom of the gospel. Further, to a very significant extent Barth believes that God frees us by liberating us from hegemony (p. 3).

Gorringe reads the thrust of Barth's theology, on the whole, as positive: The God of love and freedom emancipates human beings from bondage to sin and falsehood through Jesus Christ, thereby empowering them to enjoy communities of freedom and mutuality. Nonetheless, as Barth often pointed out, a "No" is encompassed within the overarching "Yes" of God to humanity in Christ. Much of the negative work in theology takes the form of ideology critique.

The foregoing point dovetails with how Gorringe (compellingly, it seems to me) interprets Barth's obsession with revelation, especially in the early years of his theological project, not as an enmeshment in the post-Enlightenment crisis in religious epistemology but, rather, as integral to the project of human liberation. He reads the trope of revelation as an arch that unites the Church Dogmatics from the doctrine of the Word of God to the explication of the role of Christ as true prophet within the doctrine of reconciliation. Gorringe writes:

The centrality of revelation in Barth's thought, not just in his early work, or in the first two volumes of the Dogmatics [meaning 1/1 and 1/2] but also in IV/3, means that the negative attack is also positive liberation. How do human beings take up their vocation of freedom? An important part of Barth's answer is: Through the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. But this means the issue of ideology is inescapable, and it does in fact recur again and again in the Dogmatics in the form of the attack on world views.

As Gorringe reads it, this aspect of Barth's thought is meant not to lead to aloofness from the realms of society and politics but, rather, is to serve as a catalyst for speaking truth to power and for mobilizing change. This stance against worldviews or ideologies colonizing theology was contextual and, thus, took different forms throughout Barth's career: In a context still in the throes of Harnackian liberal theology, Barth's protest took the form of a radical critique of religion. Later he attempted to confront the demonic ideology of Nazism with a resolute affirmation of the freedom of evangelical preaching and with a radically re-imagined doctrine of God. Finally, in the post-war period, Barth refused to enable the hysteria of western anti-Communism, offering as a counterpoint joyous treatises on the reconciliation of all people with God and each other in Jesus Christ.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

On “Aufhebung” in Barth’s Account of Religion

I’ve been working in Sven Ensminger’s book, Karl Barth’s Theology as a Resource for a Christian Theology of Religions (Bloomsbury, 2014), and the below stuck out as something that I wanted to share. I appreciated Ensminger’s careful attention at numerous points to the subtleties of Barth’s language, some of which is easily lost in English translation. Here Ensminger discusses the various connotations attached to the term Aufhebung in Barth’s treatment of religion in CD/KD §17. This is from page 52 in Ensminger’s book:
  1. Revelation will single out religion insofar as it bears witness to the name of Jesus Christ (this will be Barth’s argument particularly in the third section of §17 on the true religion).
  2. Revelation will restrain or suspend religion in order to ensure that it is aware that it cannot stand on its own (this will be Barth’s argument particularly in the second section of §17 on religion being unbelief).
  3. Revelation will uphold and preserve religion insofar as it is true to the revelation in Jesus Christ (this is slightly different from the first point as this is more an ongoing process, also evident in the third section of §17, but one of the central concerns of Church Dogmatics as a whole).

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Stringfellow's Critique of Marxist Theologies

William Stringfellow, the feisty and often trenchant Episcopal lawyer-theologian, was no ordinary biblicist. He reproached evangelical conservatives for their literalist hermeneutics (perhaps sometimes to the point of caricature) and eschewed efforts to harmonize apparently conflicting biblical testimonies within a univocal and overarching doctrinal framework.
In this regard, he was heir to the dialectical theology movement. Still, also like other dialectical theologians, Stringfellow stressed the importance of immersion in Scripture for individuals and communities and he sought to confront socio-political realities with the light of the biblical gospel.

Raised in a working-class New England family, Stringfellow began his early political involvements in church and society through leadership in the Student Christian Movement, in a vein we might nowadays call left-liberal; various engagements -- especially post-war meetings with European Nazi resisters, urban ministry in Harlem and anti-war activists in the Vietnam era -- pushed him in an increasingly radical position politically and theologically. (This reading of Stringfellow's vocation as becoming progressively more radical I owe to Anthony Dancer's book An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011). Despite such commitments, he nonetheless was a staunch opponent of what he considered to be ideologically controlled biblical hermeneutics and theologies. This commitment put him at loggerheads with the new political and liberation theologies that began emerging in the late 1960s and early 70s; in his view, such projects were ideologically tainted and even courted idolatry (if that seems unduly harsh, bear in mind that idolatry was a category he applied to a rather wide range of phenomena).

Part of his critique is aimed at Marxist theory itself, which he concedes offers useful tools for socio-economic analysis in the Latin American context of his day; he was no academic theorist, but he did study for a year at the London School of Economics and was an avid student and critic of socio-political issues. One problem with adopting Marxism as a worldview, he argues, is that it was forged amid the Industrial Revolution and is not supple enough to grapple with the complexities of a late 20th century technological society. (Not having investigated the matter in depth for myself, I wonder whether his views in this area were influenced by his friend and correspondent, Jacques Ellul). I would suspect contemporary Marxist theorists have resources for answering this criticism.

Of course, in considering Stringfellow's critique of the liberationists, one would need to keep some questions in mind: Are his criticisms really fair, and do they come from a close familiarity with the texts and movements and movements of liberation theology? (For context, recall that the early works of Moltmann, Metz and Gutierrez began were puplished in the late 1960s). In what ways might Stringfellow's own views be closer to those of other political theologians than he might care to admit? How have later liberation theologians taken this kind of critique -- e.g., that they reduce Christian theology to Marxism -- to heart and sought to address it in more critically nuanced proposals? Bill Wylie-Kellermann, in his expert commentary, suggests these comments in part stemmed from Stringfellow's own ideological blindspots -- perhaps a certain proclivity not to acknowledge how his own theology, all theology, is a construction from a particular, inherently limited perspective.


I find it helpful to read Stringfellow within the spectrum of dialectical theology, remembering, for example, Karl Barth's complex and somewhat fraught relationships with Swiss and German religious socialists of the 1910s-20s. As a confessing Christian, Stringfellow like Barth was committed to disclosure of the Word of God in the Bible as normative for believers. The message of the Bible, in his view, is dynamic and subversive, thus resisting all efforts to encapsulate it in a systematic theory. He writes, "My esteem for the biblical witness and my approach to the Bible should be enough to disclose my skepticism about current efforts to construct political theology according to some ideological model" (See William Stringfellow: Essential Writings, ed. Bill Wylie-Kellermann, New York, Orbis, 2014, p. 47). So what exactly is the problem here? He continues:

[E]ven in sectors of the Third World where Marxism may remain analytically cogent, the attempt to theologize, in biblical terms, ideology is untenable. Even that most venerable identification and advocacy of the biblical witness for the dispossessed and oppressed of this age does not render the biblical people ideologically captivated. The effort to distinguish a biblical apologetic for Marxism is no different from those which have sought to theologize capitalism, colonialism, war, and profligate consumption (ibid.).

Such attempts, he claims, "trivialize the Bible." Are these various realities really so equivalent as this list suggests? I wonder. But I think his distinction between the Gospel and ideology is always a point worth pondering. He writes:

In other words, biblical politics never implies a particular, elaborated political theology, whether it be one echoing the status quo or one which aspires to overthrow and displace the status quo. The Gospel is not ideology and, categorically, the Gospel cannot be ideologized (ibid).

Nonetheless, the position advocated here is not quietist resignation in the face of social injustice. Stringfellow was, after all, a strident critic of conservative and reactionary politics. Rather, what is in view here is a vision of the Christian gospel as inherently disruptive and revolutionary.

Biblical politics always has a posture in tension and opposition to the prevalent system, and to and opposition to the present system, and to any prospective or incipient status quo, and to the ideologies of either regime or revolution. Biblical politics are alienated [Could this be an intentional jab at Marxism?] from the politics of this age (ibid).

Unpacking the import of Stringfellow's anti-institutionalism would require an exposition of his theology of the principalities and powers; the powers, as he sees them, are not really quasi-independent realities not under intentional human control within the parameters of fallen existence. I think there could some interesting lines of conversation between such a theology of the powers and a liberationist perspective on the social and political structures that oppress and hamper human freedom. Suffice it to say for now, if I'm reading Stringfellow correctly, he is not opposing liberation theologies because their Marxism is too radical. Rather, I think, he is saying that in some respects they are not radical enough.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Luther’s Return to Augustine’s Doctrine of Divine Righteousness

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

In her book on Luther’s understanding of faith and love, Sun-young Kim refers to Augustine on a number of occasions. She does so in the introduction, for instance, in order to undermine a widespread but unfounded mischaracterization of the two figures: “Augustine, the theologian of love, and Luther, the theologian of faith.” The reality is a bit more complicated than that: “First, Augustine was a theologian of faith no less than of love, and Luther was a theologian of love no less than faith. Second, whereas Augustine employs love as the preeminent—but not exclusive—theological concept for the Christian’s relation to God, Lither uses faith” (3). I love Augustine. I disagree with him a fair bit, but I love him. And so it made me happy to see such mischaracterizations taken on.

But what is more, Kim taught me that Luther actually learned from Augustine at a critical moment in the birth of reformational theology. Although you can never distill things to a single moment or insight, Luther’s interpretation of the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1.17 is often identified as an important moment in his theological reorientation. Rather than understanding this reference to God’s righteousness as the righteousness by which God is himself righteous, and concomitantly as the righteousness that one must satisfy in order to be holy oneself, Luther came to understand this righteousness as the righteousness by which God makes sinful human beings righteous. Or, as Kim puts it: “Luther declares that the righteousness of God in Romans 1:17 is not the kind of righteousness by which God judges and punishes each person without exception but the kind of righteousness by which God in his mercy makes sinners righteous” (122).

The interesting thing is that Luther got this straight from Augustine! It seems that Luther scholars have known this for a long time, but it was news to me. Here is Kim’s footnote on the subject (122n12; I have scrubbed it of citations, so go look it up if you need those):
Luther accredits this liberating illumination to Paul, adding that it is affirmed by Augustine. Refering to Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter, Luther describes that “therefore blessed Augustine writes . . . : ‘It is called the righteousness of God because by imparting it He makes righteous people . . .’ . . . One of Luther’s Table Talks also reveals that Augustine’s concept of the righteousness of God reaffirmed his realization: “‘That expression ‘righteousness of God’ was like a thunderbolt in my heart. When under the papacy . . . I thought at once that this righteousness was an avenging anger, namely, the wrath of God. I hated Paul with all my heart when I read that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel [Rom. 1:16, 17]. Only afterward, when I saw the words that follow . . . and in addition consulted Augustine, was I cheered. When I learned that the righteousness of God is his mercy, and that he makes us righteous through it, a remedy was offered to me in my affliction.’”
Leave it to an Augustinian to actually dig back into Augustine and come up with something big…

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Love Trumps Fear

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love (John 4:18, KJV).

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he [Christ] himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15, NRSV).

Two films I've seen recently connect the themes of peace and violence, love and justice in a powerful way, and they have prompted me to ponder the nature of power in movements for social change. The first film is the current hit  Selma, director Ava DuVernay's stunning interpretation of the dramatic and bloody civil rights marches in Alabama that helped drive passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
(I'm not an historian and I won't enter into the controversies that have beset the film, unfairly in my view. All I will say is this: If you haven't seen it already, please do so.) The other film is Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, directed by Justin Chadwick, which we finally rented and watched on DVD. The latter film is a fine piece of work -- not as compelling as the former, perhaps, but still well worth watching.

Aside from the desire simply to understand some of the most monumental social justice struggles in the 20th century, there are many reasons for Christians in general and theologians and ethicists in particular to watch these films and ponder the questions they raise. Religious themes are more latent than explicit in Mandela. (Though this issue doesn't emerge in this work, Protestants in particular would do well to ponder the ways in which Kuyperian Reformed theology was co-opted to legitimate apartheid ideologically -- a linkage which the Africaner "Belhar Confession" , adopted by Reformed churches worldwide, radically redresses). One interesting point that comes to light in the film, though, is the claim that President F.W. de Klerk, the last white President under apartheid before the African National Congress came to power, was a staunch Calvinist who saw his mission to help end white rule as a special divine vocation. Of course, in the case of Selma, the importance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s vocation as pastor and theologian and the role of the African American churches for organizing, training and deploying non-violent protests is quite explicit (issues that are examined in depth by such scholars as Talyor Branch and Charles Marsh).

The question that keeps hitting me, though, as I reflect on these films is the always thorny issue of how violence relates to movements for radical social change. I don't want to rehash old debates around the question: Is the use of violence justified in the struggle to end oppression and rectify injustice? King, student of Gandhi, as everyone knows, was a firm advocate of non-violent social protest, while Mandela and the ANC only officially endorsed a peaceful end to apartheid after the combined forces of violent protest in the townships added to domestic and international political and economic pressures had made regime change virtually inevitable. In this case the actuality of violence and the threat of even worse bloodshed to come helped force the issue and pave the path to the transfer of power.

What is the key to the power behind a regime of violent repression? Arguably, more than sheer force itself, it is the power of fear that makes subjects docile. If this is true, the path to conquering such a regime will entail de-toothing it of the ideological force of fear. From a Christian perspective, the power that destroys the reign of fear is the power of love -- more specifically, agape. One of the key lessons these two films teach us is the truth that the path to sustainable love, justice and reconciliation entails the conquest of fear as the pathway to personal and social transformation.

* * *

Selma shows how King (David Oyelowo) and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, having been invited by local activists to organize and heighten the national profile of the voting rights struggle there, trained marchers to anticipate and endure the scorn and savagery they would almost surely face in the marches. (For an enlightening retrospective analysis of these events, check out this inteview with U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who, as an an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Selma, was one of the principal leaders of the Selma campaign; the part of Lewis in the film is played by Stephan James).  Indeed, the activists counted on this repressive reaction as a way to garner sympathy and support for their cause from the broader American public.
Jim Crow society was sustained by fear: the fear of white business and political leaders clinging to power; the anxiety of poor whites that people of color threatened their own tenuous social and economic survival, the fear of change bolstered by white citizens' councils throughout the South; the fear of actual torture and death at the hands of law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan. King and other leaders helped teach marchers and volunteers to overcome this fear and lean on the strength they had in God and in each other.

By casting their hopes on a greater reality, a divine realm of love and peace that ultimately transcends and defeats the evils of racist oppression, protesters were able to assume the risk of intensified suffering and even death in the short term. This conquest of fear is not about detached equanimity but, rather, involves a self-reflective struggle for individuals and communities. It is about grasping courage as an existential and social reality, a course of action that imbues struggle with deeper meaning. Watching Selma brought back to mind this piece by HamdenRice, who argues:

They [civil rights organizers] made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn't that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people [emphasis in original].

In the film, the fears of many of icons of white power in the film emerges in stark contrast to the African American protesters and their white allies. President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) -- who, it seems to me, is depicted in a more complex and sympathetic way than some critics have argued -- fears a revolt from the Dixiecrat power base of his party and, moreover, worries that failing to win the support of King and non-violent Civil Rights leaders will open the door for more "militant" groups (particularly, the Nation of Islam). Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) is a virtual archetype of fear, as is Sheriff Joe Clark, shown at one point huddling in his squad car clutching his rifle.

* * *

In Mandela, as pressure rises to free the political prisoner and open rebellion rocks the segregated townships, operatives from the white government hold secret meetings with Mandela (Idris Elba) to try to find a peaceful way to end the conflict. An equal vote for people of color, at least at first, is off the table: What would they do to us if your people come to power? the incredulous government officials ask, all the while violent protest is escalating. Mandela comes to the wise recognition that, if the ANC achieves rule through violence, without any protections or power sharing for the white minority, the cycle of violence will only be perpetuated in recrimination and retribution under the new regime. He tells his government interlocutors that he and his people cannot bear to live in the hellish prison of fear that entraps the white oppressor perhaps even more than people of color under apartheid.

A scene near the end of the movie has de Klerk (Gys de Villiers)and other nervous leaders watching a televised address by Mandela. "I have forgiven them," the aging ANC leader says of his former oppressors. "We can't win a war, but we can win an election." "So it begins," de Klerk observes. The scene cuts away to Mandela's militantly radicalized and estranged wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris), who glowers in disapproval of these words. The takeaway for me here is not some platitude about the inherent moral superiority of nonviolent to violent protest: As Reinhold Niebuhr recognized, even the nonviolent resistance of King and Gandhi entails a form of coercion. Nor is this an admonition for the oppressed to submit to injustice for the sake of some higher calling. Nor am I proffering any simplistic apologia for parliamentary democracy as a superior vehicle to armed revolution under in and all circumstances.

It is important to stress that Mandela was able to make this pronouncement from a position of hard won political strength -- from four decades of struggle, suffering and blood. My point again, simply, is that Mandella's strength flowed from a conquest of fear, which stands in stark contrast to the fear-driven reactionary politics of the white minority.


What truths from the films Selma and Mandela might help illuminate the gospel? From a Christian perspective, Christ's death on the cross destroys the power of death but not, this side of the resurrection, its existential reality. How can we begin to experience this, even now? It is the clear testimony, I think, of the New Testament and the early Christian movement before Constantine that the victory that Christ offers his followers in this life is not a deliverance from suffering -- at least, not usually -- but the ability to transcend, at least a little, the paralyzing fear of death -- the ability, even, to rejoice and mock death, facing its horrors squarely in the face.

If this is true, then the admonition for disciples to take up their crosses may be seen not as a form of masochism that glorifies suffering in and of itself but in being reconciled to the fact that it will actually increase if we challenge oppression openly. To face the forces of death squarely -- not superhumanly, but precisely in our ambiguous and vulnerable humanity -- is to begin to experience freedom from its vice grip of fear. How might our families, or churches and our civic society be different if more of us began to grasp this truth?

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Quiet Tuesday Morning

Hi Folks,

It goings to be a quiet Tuesday morning here at DET. I know, I know. I hear you, gentle readers. You have grown accustomed to a bracing dose of theological reflection, served up hot and tasty here at DET each Tuesday (and Thursday!) morning. Alas, today I must disappoint you. But I would not leave you entirely bereft...

You remember, of course, that we have recently concluded a deeply engaging guest series on the topic of "Eschatological Business" from friend-of-DET Nathan Hitchcock. If you haven't worked through that yet, I highly recommend it to you. There was some good discussion in the comments threads as well, so don't miss those. The series is now indexed on the DET "Serials" page.

Also, on Monday the Center for Barth Studies published a book review from yours truly, highlighting the recently reissued (in an affordable paperback!) volume from Kimlyn Bender entitled Karl Barth's Christological Ecclesiology. My review isn't anything special, but you may find it informative.

As Tigger says in the Winnie the Pooh shows that my young children sometimes watch (and don't ask why this popped into my head right now, because I have no idea...),

TTFN

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Thursday, February 05, 2015

Retrieving a Radical Barth: Gorringe's Reading

Recently I've been reading, marking and inwardly digesting Timothy Gorringe's excellent contextual study, Karl Barth Against Hegemony (New York, Oxford Press, 1999).
Copies of this book tend to be pricey, but my wife tracked down a copy -- from somewhere across the pond, I think -- for about $30.

The book, part of the Oxford series Christian Theology in Context that Gorringe edited with Graham Ward, offers a genetic-historical overview of Barth's theological development from his student days to his final dogmatic writings in Das christliche Leben (The Christian Life). Rather than focusing on paradigm shifts in Barth's thought (as Bruce McCormack does, for example), this text book presents Barth's theological work as, on the whole, exhibiting a more or less unified trajectory. In this vein, Gorringe draws heavily, though not uncritically, from the provocative interpretation of Barth proffered in the early 1970s by the German socialist theologian Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt.

In brief, Gorringe reads Barth as sort of proto-liberation theologian whose polemical and positive dogmatic claims were shaped by the Swiss theologian's profound commitment to human freedom and were aimed at fostering emancipatory praxis. According to Gorringe, Barth's commitment to freedom, expressed negatively as opposition to all hegemony and oppression, was forged in deep conversation with key socio-political events and crises of the 20th century -- the heady early days of European religious socialism and its demise during World War I; the creatively fertile yet ultimately disastrous period of the Weimar Republic; the wrenching German Church struggle and World War II; and the struggle for the soul of the post-War church during the Cold War. In the final chapter Gorringe draws connections between Barth's theology and the emergence of early Latin American liberation theology in 1968, the year of Barth's death. A challenge of this reading is that Barth's practical political views and engagements are not usually explicitly articulated in his dogmatic work; hence Gorringe seeks to draw those connections to the fore.


More exposition of the text will be forthcoming in future posts. For now, here is a teaser to whet your interest: A summary statement from the preface, which show's that Gorringe's intent in reading Barth this way is constructive and not merely historical:

[W]ith others who have attempted to read Barth "from the left" the study is is undertaken not primarily because of the intricate fascination and beauty of his theology, which I do not deny, but because, like Barth, I hope one day for a society which has escaped from capitalist hegemony. The Christian gospel is a vision of a society beyond all hegemony. Perhaps the situation where it is from each according to their ability to each according to their need is the kingdom, and we all know that no political programme is identical with that (p. ix).

The point I have highlighted in bold is, it seems to me, a crucial caveat. Gorringe continues:

Nevertheless, Barth insisted vehemently that provisional political goals, in which hegemony is resisted and overcome, were essential. And the great theme of his theology from start to finish, is that the reality of God, and faith as response to that reality, is not a prop for the infirm, an opiate for the masses, nor an optional extra in the culture of contentment, but an essential aspect of liberation, that without which human liberation cannot be achieved (p. x, emphases mine).

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Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Eschatological Business: Recreating the Earth

[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, and it is indexed on the DET Serials page.]



When Christians go to work, they do so to recreate the earth. They shape businesses to be more efficient and equitable, as in the manager who optimizes workers’ productivity with a wise employee manual. They develop the land with new technologies, as with the farmer who increases soybean productivity while curbing erosion. They contemplate the future of humanity with social critique and compelling embodiment, as with the dance artist’s inspiring performances. In anticipation of eternal life Christians exercise their “eschatological imagination,” hoping for “the world transformed in future time” (Garrett Green, “Imagining the Future,” in Future as God’s Gift, 82). In all their activities believers follow the lead of God, who recreates the world in His final work.

Looking forward to life in the world to come is the culminating hope professed in the Nicene Creed, and rightly so. Forgiveness and resurrection are unthinkable apart from the new earth. Personal redemption is unthinkable apart from a redeemed cosmos. In the coming Day, God’s grace will ripple through the universe, providing a suitable home for His saved people. While the Scriptures make provision for preservation in the intermediate state between one’s bodily death and resurrection, “going to heaven” is by no means the final destiny of the saints. The righteous dead come back to earth with Jesus at His return and are given resurrection bodies (1 Thes 4). Their eternal home is not heaven, but earth (Psa 37:11; Matt 5:5; Rev 20-21).

God’s final work involves the purification and cultivation of the earth. That is what the Nicene Creed means by “the world to come”: this world fully annexed by the kingdom of God, this world re-formed and rejuvenated so as to be the saintly habitation. When the Bible speaks of the new heavens and new earth (Isa 65:17; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1), it refers to this present created space refined and renewed. Creation abides as it is purified and cultivated anew.

The first aspect of God’s recreative work is purification. The world, wallowing in personal and social wickedness, requires cleansing from its perverse culture. The coming fire descends on all. The saints will have their works exposed (Rev 20:12). Even the works of the clergy will be tested by fire to see which parts of their ecclesiastical culture is suitable for the Christ-foundation (Mal 3:3; 1 Cor 3:10-15). And what will become of the godless, who invite the destruction of their works and their very person (Isa 66:24; Jude 13)? Nevertheless, the intent of God’s purification is not wholesale annihilation of the visible realm. That is why 2 Pet 3:10-13 speaks of the earth being “dissolved” so that it may be a place “where righteousness dwells.” Again, recreation does not mean incineration so as to establish a wholly new, immaterial abode. Rather, the fires of judgment prophesied in Scripture will come to refine the world, exposing all of its impurities so that the Holy One may skim off its dross.

The divine work of purification will leave intact various cultural artifacts of the present age. Significantly, the New Jerusalem will be the place where “the kings of the earth,” formerly subject to their own desires and the whore of Babylon, must bring their wealth (Rev 21:14). Apparently even some “secular” culture will be kept in place as acceptable human productions, for “[i]f the ships of Tarshish and the camels of Midian can find a place in the New Jerusalem, our work, no matter how ‘secular,’ can too” (Andy Crouch, Culture Making, 170).

Other artifacts will be utterly destroyed or radically repurposed, however. Weaponry is a good example of this, which has its end in destruction, as with the war-boots of Isa 9:5, or radical repurposing, as in the prophecy of Micah 4:3 (RSV): “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” War-culture itself is dross, and ultimately an activity contrasted with productive work. (One wonders what the Lord will make of the u-boat fortress at Lorient. The world’s largest espresso bar?) Likewise, Micah 4:4 hopes for the day in which “each man will sit under his own vine,” namely, a world in which ownership of production is restored to the worker. A purified economy frees workers to own the fruits of their works unhampered by war, extractive governments, and unjust business structures.

Purification is but the necessary precondition to the true expression of recreation, namely, cultivation. The new earth will teem with life, with wealth, with cultural riches. The agrapha found in Irenaeus captures well the sense of abundance: “In the coming days vines will bear 10,000 branches, each branch 10,000 twigs, each twig 10,000 clusters, each cluster 10,000 grapes, and each pressed grape will yield 25 measures of wine” (Ad. Haer. 5.33.3). Only God can supply and guarantee such bounty.

Furthermore, the Scriptures speak of the Lord Jesus, the master architect, revealing His masterpiece, the New Jerusalem. The “house” He constructs during His session (John 14) will come down from heaven to rest on earth (Rev 21:2). Around this architectural masterpiece a vineyard will sprout up. God’s cultivation means harmony. At the center of the recreated world stands a city in which conservation and development are brought together. “Notice how nature flourishes in the middle of the New Jerusalem, how nature is incorporated into the eternal city,” says Ben Witherington. “We will not have to choose between urban and rural, here and there, now and then. It will all be present at once and available to all” (Work, 122). God constructs a park system of monumental proportions. The Garden of Eden is recapitulated and improved upon in Christ’s city. Harmony triumphs.

The Scriptures make a point of God’s final work as sustainable, as that which last forever. In contrast to the corrosion and obsolescence of present human culture, the divine opus will endure. It will be beautiful forever: “The new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD” (Isa 66:22). The new world will endure forever because, to intone one of Daniel’s refrains, “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom.” The Lamb has secured for the saints a beautiful future, and He will soon reveal that beautiful habitation which shall last unto the ages.

Once more: How then shall Christians work? Beginning with the Church as such, Christians practice recreation through purification and cultivation. The purifying of the saints happens chiefly through word and sacrament, though also through discipline (cf. Belgic Confession, art. 29). Idols must be done away with. Lives must conform to the holiness of the Holy One. Therefore the churches practice repentance and confession, fasting and self-purification, knowing that “judgment must begin at the house of God” (1 Pet 4:17, KJV). Yet the various means of cleansing exist for the cultivation of liturgeia: the music arts, homiletics, educational courses, sanctuary aesthetics, theological texts and devotional writings and prayers, just to name a handful. Diaconal expressions of worship join in the recreation, from date night childcare to building programs to extraordinary potlucks. The Church cultivates all manner of beautiful things because it is itself “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:10).

Going out into the world, Christians exercise the vocation of purification. This goes beyond a vote or serving as a holy example. They cannot help but be salt and light (Matt 5:13-16), flavoring, disinfecting, sanitizing, preserving. Believers cooperate with God by refusing to make substandard products. They dare to be whistleblowers where they see systemic crime or oppression of the weak. They move into positions of power to influence company and governmental policies. They align to protest the powers. Not many years ago American Christians performed the costly Christian work of the Montgomery bus boycott, in which women and men exerted economic pressure to declare the righteousness of God against a discriminatory business. Could not the same be done against corporations systematically denying employee benefits, or against database server providers catering to porn syndicates, or against national governments unrepentant of war crimes? Christians are unafraid to decry cultures of corruption. They have beheld visions of the new economy.

More important, ultimately, is what Christians cultivate. They are possessed by a kind of entrepreneurial spirit, hungry for foretastes of the day in which “Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit” (Isa 27:6, ESV). They desire to see the world enriched by every standard: median income, life expectancy, access to goods, productive output, reported happiness. Christians possess in their very worldview the impetus for innovation. They need not apologize for their general optimism about the market, a buoyant energy which stems not from confidence in price mechanisms or state structures but by the hope of the King’s capacious economy.

In imitating God’s coming work Christians match output with harmony. Thus a developer of a new condominium complex in Tempe, Arizona addresses the needs of residents while working with the native desert environment. Thus a human resources executive imagines space on a college campus that best facilitates interaction between students, faculty and administrators. Thus a code enforcement officer works with contractors to promote long-term usefulness through better window installation. Thus an enterprising congresswoman works a minor miracle by actually simplifying a law to make it more effective. Christians are passionate about answering these kinds of questions because they anticipate the harmonious layout of the New Jerusalem. Admittedly, conservation plays a part in the Church’s agenda insofar as there are places and things on earth which cannot be improved upon. Yet the vast majority of things on earth invite stewardship that goes beyond protection: accentuation, recombination, restructure.

Worthy of attention is a worker specially ordained for the task of recreation: the artist. Often this laborer’s craft is diminished because of a perceived lack of constructive output, i.e., tangible goods or quantifiable capital. On the contrary: the artist’s aesthetic imagination is critical to discerning the hidden dynamics needing to be addressed in a given society. Art is always an act of seeing, and, in that seeing, an act of purification and cultivation. The visual arts inform a people how to see futurely, the musical arts how to hear futurely, the kinetic arts how to move in the world to come. In their own non-linear, supra-rational way, artists called by the name of Christ are equipped to help others imagine well.

On account of the not-yet of this age, Christian work will constantly run up against the ambiguity of cultivation. When does an attempt to purify society become puritanical? When does entrepreneurial progress degenerate into the worldly vicissitudes of business-as-usual? And how do disciples of Jesus expect to recreate a world which so regularly marginalizes them? Verily, the kingdom is here – but not yet.

Even so, Christians enact the recreation of the earth in anticipation of God’s final opus. They know the God who means to forge the new earth, the very same God who means to raise the dead and remit debts. In the Spirit, believers join Him in purifying and cultivating the world, preserving and transforming human bodies, eliminating bad debt and establishing good debt.

Christians sing as they go about their business. And why not? They work with the joy of those who know the end of the story.

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