Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ripped from the Headlines? Barth's Bremen Sermon (pt. 2)

[B]y this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. -- Matt 14:24 (KJV)

What was supposed to be a brief review of a short book is turning into a persistent preoccupation and a burgeoning series of posts, with no immediate end in site. (Thanks for your indulgence, gentle readers.)
I recently told my bus-commuting companion I had become fascinated by a sermon that Karl Barth preached in Bremen, Germany in 1935, after the National Socialists came to power and had taken over the state churches (See Barth, The Word).

I explained that I have been combing through this sermon and reviewing the details of Barth's life and the German Church struggle to situate this piece in its historical context, and that I have been trying to discern the interconnections between scriptural text and lived context. Though he is not a theologian and is no longer a Christian, my friend is adept at modern European history and tracked my train of thought easily. He remarked that the struggles of the fledgling Confessing Church resistance brought to mind the Gospel story where Jesus walks across the choppy lake of Galilee to join his disciples, terrified and huddled in a boat.

I had never told my friend that that was precisely the text Barth used for his sermon.

* * *

In what way does a particular biblical text become "relevant" within a concrete life situation (Sitz im Leben) through the mediation of a sermon? In the hermeneutical event where text and context meet -- if I may vamp on the old cliche -- which is the tail and which is the dog? A sermon by Karl Barth, from the period when he had just rebooted his dogmatic theology might seem like an unpromising place to explore such questions. After all, this was the time when Barth was beginning most explicitly to press the notion that proclamation and dogmatics, properly conceived, were to be driven by the free event of divine revelation rather than apologetic exigencies; the Word speaks to the world. In that vein, some commentators seem to take at face value Karl Barth's claim that, while Germany and Europe as a whole were cascading toward cataclysm during the early 1930s, his primary response was to preach, teach and write "as if nothing had happened." Interpreters such as William Willimon defend him on this score (see my previous post). To be sure, Barth believed that such a disciplined focus would best equip the church to meet the challenges of the day with courage and resolve. Not everyone is satisfied by this as a practical stance, however. So George Buttrick, in his forward to Barth's Homiletics, writes:

Perhaps the most disturbing of Barth's polemics [in this work] is his attack on relevance." For example, he regrets ever having mentioned World War I in his sermons (p. 9).

In his preface to the same work, Geoffrey Bromiley states the issue with some subtlety: "His practical counsel, especially the plea for expository preaching and his polemic against theme preaching, testifies to his basic confidence in the normative prophetic and apostolic witness and his belief that closeness to life, important though it is in the sermon, must not be at the cost of closeness to the text" (ibid, p. 14).

So does this mean, then, that text subsumes context, much as a postliberal writing today might frame the matter? If we turn to Barth's own lectures on preaching (1932-1933), and hope to find there a defense of the sermon as a catalyst for socio-political activism and resistance, we will be disappointed. He writes:

The church is not a tool to uphold the world or to further its progress. It is not an instrument to serve either what is old or what is new. The church and preaching are not ambulances on the battlefield of life. Preaching must not attempt to set up an ideal community, whether of soul or heart or spirit (Homiletics, p. 63).

* * *
Thirty years later, at the end of his academic career, Barth would grasp hands with Martin Luther King Jr. in a famous photo op. What would the Barth of the Bonn years (1930-1935) have made of King's masterful deployment of preaching to indoctrinate protesters in the practice of non-violent resistance -- or of his invocation of the prophet Amos to spur passage of civil rights legislation? Certainly, one could say many more things on this question, if space allowed. One obvious place to start would be to review Barth's own organizing activities with the Confessing Church in the months leading up to his expulsion from his academic post in 1935 (I will return to this fascinating topic in my next post).

For now, suffice it to say I don't think it is reasonable to suggest his views of theology and preaching are meant to enable escapism, quietism or diffidence toward social struggles. Rather, I think, the issue for him is one of vocation: The preacher and theologian best serve the needs of the world best by fulfilling the concrete demands of their callings. Barth says as much in his preaching lectures as well as in his contemporary explorations of dogmatics as a tool in the service of proclamation; after all, he suggests, proclamation is not identical to social work or political organizing -- though, he ads, the minister might very well engage in those activities as well (See Homiletics, p. 69. Cf. CD 1/1, p. 81)

If I wish to take a different slant on the Bremen sermon (or anything else Barth wrote, for that matter) -- that is, if I wish to read his preaching and doctrinal writings with a more intentionally contextual focus and to examine how a sermon text seems to be working materially (rather than just relying on the theory of how a sermon should work -- I'm not suggesting duplicity on his part. Rather, just as as the logger uses two strokes to cut the log, one with and one against the grain, so perhaps the reader needs a two-fold hermeneutic in approaching Barth's preaching. Perhaps we need to read the work of Barth, and other great theologians as well, against the grain as well if we want to really pry these texts open and learn what they might teach us.

"Saint Peter preaching the Gospel in the Catacombs" by Jan Styka, via Wikipedia

Maybe Barth's own words can help us here. In addition to other criteria for the sermon, including attentiveness to the Word of God as an event that speaks in and through the canonical scriptures, Barth himself stresses that the preacher does not declaim from above but, rather, is embedded in solidarity with the congregation in concrete lived existence. "If preaching is to be congregational," he writes, "there must also be openness to the real situation of the congregation and reflection upon it so as to be able to take it up into the sermon" (Homiletics, p. 84). "The congregation is waiting for the light of God to shine upon its troubled life, not for the preacher to blow horns that are being blown already" (p. 85).

What might happen, I wonder, if we tried to read between the lines a bit? Might it be that, rather than simply expounding a sacred text, Barth in his Bremen sermon has a rather pointed message intended for an insider audience, a message couched in language unlikely to set off alarms with the censors of the German Church and the Reich? Two caveats: First, this investigation is necessarily a bit tentative and speculative on my part. Second, attempting to interpret Barth, particularly in the pre-World-War-II period, is a complex and intricate affair. With my limitations, the best I can do in these posts is to rehearse the basic details of Barth's life situation that might help us make sense of the Bremen sermon, and that will be my modest goal for the next post.

This blog's illustrious editor brought to my attention a fairly recent monograph that seeks to situate Barth's homiletical work vis-a-vis the church struggle: Karl Barth's Emergency Homiletic, 1932-1933: A Summons to Prophetic Witness at the Dawn of the Third Reich by Angela Dienhart Hancock (Eerdmanns, 2013). I look forward to reading this. In the meantime, here is a link to a review of it.


Works Cited:

Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, vol. 1/1, trans. George W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975).

----- Homiletics, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley & Donald E. Daniels (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1991).

----- The Word in This World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth. ed. Kurt I. Johanson and trans. Christopher Asprey, Vancouver, BC, 2007.
(* Johanson kindly sent me a review copy of this book. I am not required to write a positive review of the book. All opinions expressed in these posts are my own.)


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Theology = Worldview? Christine Helmer on the Problem with Contemporary Approaches to Doctrine

I picked up a copy of Christine Helmer’s book, Theology and the End of Doctrine at AAR because . . . deep sales on books are terrible things to waste. Anyway, a colleague had told me about the book a few months before and I was curious. I’ve been reading it here and there since then, and I have really enjoyed it. It is a tight piece of argumentation and tackles the important issue of how doctrine functions in theology. The broad structure of Helmer’s argument moves in two parts: first, demonstrate that doctrine has become disconnected from the reality of God; second, advance a constructive proposal for how to reconceive doctrine’s connection to the reality of God. In this post I want to highlight a culminating moment in the first part of her argument.

This material comes at the end of Helmer’s discussion of the way that Bruce Marshall conceives of doctrine. She takes him to be paradigmatic of a trend in late 20th century and early 21st century theology, which she labels more precisely as the “epistemic-advantage model” of doctrine. But I’ll let her make the point herself. As usual, italics are original and bold is mine.

Within the epistemic-advantage model, doctrine has lost its dialectical relation to Scripture and proclamation. Instead, it has turned into the dogmatism of a regula fidei by virtue of asserting its production in the analytic relation between church and creed. There is no other church, no other interpretation. There is only the one Scripture, read through the regula fidei that the church has produced. This is what grounds the church’s identity as a Bible-reading community with a distinct doctrinal hermeneutic. Once the church has garnered the prerogative of the truth of a worldview, however, it is cut off from the living possibility of being open to God’s word. God’s word has been rendered in human words from the past – assertions and doctrines – so that they function as predictable norms for any future theological articulation. The Deus dixit is framed as doctrine that constitutes a Christian worldview authorizing itself. All the Holy Spirit may now do is convert people to it (or not). Theology as system grounded in God’s reality is replaced by Christianity as a worldview, with theology’s function restricted to pointing to doctrines in their epistemic function with that worldview. (104–105)

The payoff?

At this point, doctrine has come to an end. Doctrine without dialectic, theology without discovery, church without history, and language without meaning – this is what is left when doctrine loses its transcendent reality and becomes the norm of its own truth, a self-enclosed system incapable of communicating to others on the outside.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

My Most Recent Publication(s)

It has been a while since I did one of these posts, but far be it from me to miss a chance to promote some of my work. That’s what blogs are for, after all.

In any case, some of you may have noticed that I tweeted this information out a few weeks ago. But I thought that I would put up a quick post for those who don’t pay attention to Twitter. And even for those who do – if you blink, you miss stuff on there.

Anyway, I’ve had two articles appear this year. You can check them out a bit on my page. I have stubs up there that give you the abstract, publication information, first page, and even a link to the journal issue in question. So be sure to take a peek if you haven’t yet.
“‘Shalom, Shalom, Shalom Israel!’ Jews and Judaism in Helmut Gollwitzer’s Life and Theology,” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 10.1 (2015): 1–22.

“Definitive, Defective, or Deft? Reassessing Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism in CD IV/4,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 17.1 (2015): 89–114.
Be sure to follow me if you’re on Who knows, I might publish something else someday . . .


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Augustine's "One-World" Solution

In reimmersing myself in Augustine's Confessions, I pulled from the shelf a fine introductory text -- Language and Love: Introducing Augustine's Religious Thought through the Confessions Story by William Mallard (Pennsylvania State University, 1994).
This work, lucid and accessible, would make a helpful companion volume for an adult education forum or undergraduate class on Augustine. In the introduction Mallard offers a succinct precis of the Confessions and of the north African bishop's lifelong religious quest.

As Mallard frames the matter, Augustine's basic problem -- the abiding source of his "restless heart" -- is that from a very early age he was presented with two incommensurable worlds: "the world of his mother's religious faith, and the world of everything else" (p. 2). In one of these worlds, a loving and provident creator sends Jesus Christ to save believers from sin and death; in the other world, human beings hone their skills to get ahead and to "win" in a world of competitive selfishness. Mallard writes:

To live in two worlds and talk two ways about life disturbed Augustine as a child and youth. Even his mother, Monica, added to the confusion in some ways. She taught him that nothing and no one was a important as his Father in heaven. Yet she did not have him baptized (p. 3).

Augustine was enrolled in the Catechumenate and presumably would be baptized eventually. Nonetheless, Monica's failure to call a priest when her 11-year-old son was potentially on his deathbed haunted Augustine into his middle-aged years (Augustine wrote his Confessions at age 44). As a young adult Augustine pursued several dead-end paths to resolve his insatiable quest for meaning and to achieve identity closure. He immersed himself in his career as rhetorician and teacher that his parents urged upon him. He also, famously, sought affirmation from his peers and release through romantic love: "I came to Carthage and all around me hissed a cauldron of illicit loves.... I was in love with love" (Confessions III.1, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford, 1991). For a time he sought answers for his questing heart and mind in an heretical eastern sect, the Manicheans, but the dualism of their cosmology and soteriology only heightened the sense of an unbridgeable chasm between heaven and earth.

Augustine's solution, as Mallard puts it, was to embrace and pursue the reality of a unified world -- that of a loving and all-provident God who creates and directs the course of the finite world and redeems the faithful from chaos and dissolution. Yet Augustine realized that people would still have a foot in two realms, as it were, and surviving and thriving in this life would entail patience and risk. The Christian life is a long haul rather than a quick exit. Hence the Augustinian emphasis on forming habits that lead the believer toward the Creator and obsessive fixation on the realm of creation. Mallard continues:

Augustine came to believe in one essential key to living in God's good, but dangerous, created world: learn to do it gradually. There has to be steady practice, day by day and year by year, which starts small and patiently lives in the world, hoping to grow (p. 6).

Isolated individuals will be unable to take this path alone; they need a safe space and time to cultivate their life with God in God's one good world. Sadly, families are often divided, and can even be the locus of violence and unsafety. What human beings must have to flourish, in such a precarious world, is a larger community, a surrogate family -- composed not of perfect individuals, to be sure, but a group of people who attempt to follow the Creator's rules and travel the path together. Enter Christology and ecclesiology. What Mallard writes about this is so beautiful and succinct it deserves to be quoted at length:

The Creator's church, then, was like a family, a family Augustine did not experience in his early life, but discovered after much struggle. This family offered closeness and warmth, personal nurture, as well as discipline. Augustine, finally, held that the Creator actually had appeared on earth to provide what the family needed: authority, self-giving, trust. That seemed like a mythological tale, and it was a long time before he could grasp it. Yet mythology deals in a two-world outlook, the immortal gods and mortal humanity, while the Creator's appearance was God uniting with humanity, in Christ, even dying, to accomplish a one-world outlook. This appearance as a human being, and the onset of the Creator's church, were local and particular; they had to be if they responded to humanity's need for a place to start again. Yet people of every nation and race on earth were invited to participate (p. 6).

But what if the church itself is not a safe place but, rather, a source of hurt and trauma, a place where authority is abused, where the suffering of the marginal is compounded and fundamental human needs remain unmet? Augustine, of course, was aware that the church is compromised, comprised of fallen individuals, afflicted with confusion, greed, double-mindedness. The church is meant to bring healing to a broken and unjust world, but what if it becomes, structurally and not just as an aggregate of individuals, more part of the problem than part of the solution? To be sure, unlike some Christian utopians, Augustine recognized the fallibility of the church. My persistent question, from the standpoint of what I've read and people I've known, is whether this recognition goes far enough.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Method, Politics, and the Supreme Court: More on “Literalist” Creationism from Ronald Osborn

Once more into the breach, dear friends!

In this installment, I want to highlight an interesting sequence of thoughts that I came across in Osborn. These are all tidbits that I noted as I read so that I could share them with you, gentle readers. But the more that I reflected on them, the more I realized that they are tied very closely together. So come with me for another hop, skip, and jump through Osborn while we consider whether “literalism” with reference to the Genesis creation narratives is a question of method or of doctrine, the consequences of “literalism’s” answer to that question, and an alternative way of thinking. As always, bold is mine and italics are in the original.

Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

To begin, what is the real engine of “literalist” understandings of the Genesis creation narratives? Are folks in this camp concerned with maintaining a particular set of doctrinal positions, or are they more concerned with theological method? Here’s Osborn:
The reason literalists read the creation narratives and other parts of Scripture the way they do is because they are already committed to a very specific philosophical and theological research program, namely, to a kind of foundationalism that owes its lineage to the ideas of Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers as much if not more than to the ideas of Scripture. The burning heart of modern creationism is not a doctrine but a method. Doctrines will be creatively reinterpreted or even rewritten without hesitation by literalists in order to sustain this methodological project. What must be protected from change at all cost is the paradigm of philosophical foundationalism-cum-literalism itself, which ground the literalist’s sense of certainty and security in an uncertain age. To change this would mark the collapse of the literalist’s research program and require a significant paradigm shift – and there is no greater fear among creationists than the fear of paradigm lost. (74-5)
Talk about a great concluding line! I’m sure that many of you, gentle readers, threw up your hands upon reading this passage and thought that’s bad enough. But wait, there’s more! Because the primary concern here is methodological rather than doctrinal – that it, it has to do with a way of being in the world rather than with particular conceptual positions to be maintained – it cannot be defended by mere argument. It is tied up with a set of values in which people are emotionally invested, and which therefore (so these folks’ thinking seems to go) must be defended. As a result, this sort of fundamentalism is a political entity:
Fundamentalism, then, is not simply a way of reading texts. It is a plan for political action. And fundamentalist political action in secular as well as ecclesial realms has often lead to violence, whether in the form of the righteous crusade against “heathen” outsiders or the scapegoating of “heretical” insiders. Once it becomes clear to the fundamentalist that he cannot win the day by citing verses alone since other stubbornly read the same verses differently than he does, he will move to create a centralized political power of ecclesial body with the authority to suppress rival interpretations, to monitor for unacceptable thoughts, to denounce infidels and to vigilantly police the boundaries of the community. Yet even as the fundamentalist sows great destruction and inflicts real violence on the Other . . . he invariably thinks of himself as a victim of the Other’s aggression. . . .

The mere fact that others disagree with the fundamentalist’s interpretations and openly offer other ways of thinking about the text is felt by the true believer as a direct existential threat to themselves and to the entire community – a sinister danger that must be exposed and cleansed. . . . As a form of foundationalist philosophical reasoning, fundamentalism declares that failure to hold fast to the “correct” interpretation of any one of the fundamental beliefs must necessarily unravel all the others [ed. note: precisely b/c it’s a method not discreet positions that matter], spreading rings of contaminating influence throughout the community and finally toppling the entire faith. As a totalizing political narrative . . . , fundamentalism declares that the dissent of even one member pollutes the body.

But fundamentalists readings of Scripture are of course precisely that: readings that may be challenged . . . (80-81)
Against the sort of creeping totalitarianism that North American fundamentalism seems hell-bent on becoming, one way or the other, Osborn offers a different way of thinking about theological disagreements within church groups. This is especially pressing in the realm of higher education, where subtle but nonetheless blood-thirsty political battles are often fought over these issues and people’s reputations and livelihoods often become casualties. What if, Osborn asks, we think of authority in these contexts not on a centralized industrial model (e.g., a shoe factory), but in terms of a different model?
Unanimous Supreme Court decisions are rare. Practically every US Supreme Court ruling on every major issue includes one or more dissenting opinion(s). These dissenting opinions are clearly and publically articulated and might in the future influence the overturning of an earlier decision. The health of a democratic polity that is oriented toward questions of truth and justice, the framers of the American legal system understood, depends not only on consensus but also on dissent. And a dissenting judge is not being “unpatriotic” or defying the law by disagreeing with the majority opinion. They are in fact upholding the deepest meaning of the law in the very act of raising principled objections to it. So here is a question we might ask those who have become convicted that institutions of higher education are corrupting the youth: What if Christian colleges and universities – even those affiliated with traditions with highly literalistic doctrines of creation – embraced a picture of unity in the body of Christ that included the concept of necessary loyal dissent within a framework of basic respect, transparency and honest searching for truth? Communities that instead strive to model their inner workings on pictures of corporate power and control will in the end come to resemble . . . oppressive authoritarian regimes. (114-115)
Well now, this post has gotten quite long. But this certainly is an interesting train of thought . . . And one that can be applied for the sake of Christian unity not only in conservative ecclesial circles but others as well . . .


Thursday, April 16, 2015

To Love without Burning: Augustine's Tantalizing God

When I first read St. Augustine's Confessions back in the day, I was into process theology. Of course, I recognized in this classic fourth century work by the north African bishop a work of great genius, spiritual profundity and psychological acuity.

Yet I judged Augustine's doctrine of God to be fundamentally mistaken. After all, wasn't his project a prime example of the fruitless quest to integrate biblical doctrine with Hellenistic philosophy -- in his case, Plotinian metaphysics? Wasn't God, in Augustine's view, essentially static, timeless and impassible?

For the first time in a number of years (too many!), I'm rereading the Confessions cover-to-cover, this time in the splendid translation by Henry Chadwick (Oxford, 1991). I'm revisiting the question whether God in Augustine's conception, if I may draw upon Barth's terminology here, is a prisoner of God's own divine aseity. Many of you are familiar with how the work begins -- and if you're not, I urge to leave this post immediately and start reading the book for yourself. In the opening pages of Book I, Augustine begins doxologically, with a meditation on what it means to praise God and how this relates to knowing God. He then proceeds to what, on the face of it, might seem to be an unpromising line of inquiry: metaphysical speculation on how an infinite divine presence can be said to fill all created things with the wealth of God's fullness without being exhausted or partitioned.

So who is this God and how might God be named?
Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and 'leading' the proud 'to be old without their knowledge' (Job 9:5, Old Latin version)" (I.4).
So far it sounds like a prototype of the classical theism that would dominate medieval Scholastic thought. But note the polarities -- I'm not sure of a better way to put it -- that Augustine uses to describe God as the list of attributes continues:
always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity. searching even though nothing to you is lacking: you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you "repent" (Gen. 6:6) without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil (ibid.).
Now this God, in my reading at least, seems not at all inert but supremely active, transcendent yet more immanent than any creaturely reality. To be sure, this deity is not enmeshed in creaturely finitude and suffering, as theopaschites ancient and modern have sought to conceive God; yet neither is God aloof or disinterested in the lives of God's creatures. This God is a far cry from the proverbial Unmoved Mover. In a word, it seems to me that the way Augustine describes God -- in this brief passage at least -- is not univocal but rather a bit more...dialectical.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

“Literal” Creationist and Nominalism (Voluntarism)? Scholasticism, the Matrix, and more from Osborn

Today I want to share with you what may be one of the most penetrating insights on offer from Osborn and his recent book (pictured right). What insight is that, you ask? Why, that “literalist” readings of the Genesis creation narratives, and the theological constellations that insist on them, inadvertently demand a nominalist conception of God.

“Nominalism” is a concept that can get thrown around carelessly in theological discourse, especially with reference to late medieval scholastic theology (think Scotus, Occam, etc.). It is hard in that context to pin down exactly what “nominalism” is, and it tends to be taken as a far more totalizing concept than I tend to think is warranted. And this expanded discourse occurs especially when the question of the Reformation arises, with some folks on both the Protestant and Catholic side interested in painting reformational theology as nominalist and others interested in refusing that designation.

In any case, the core of nominalism is “voluntarism,” which is best seen when paired with its technical opposite, namely, intellectualism. Broadly speaking, the antagonism here is a question of which mental faculty takes precedence in the mind of God. Is it God’s willing (voluntarism, as the conceptual core of nominalism), or is it God’s knowing (intellectualism)? I’ll speak now simply to the application in the doctrine of creation: a voluntarist / nominalist thinks that God created as God did just because, as an arbitrary exercise of will; an intellectualist thinks that God created in a way consistent with God’s self-knowledge, that is, in a way consistent with the sort of God that God is which, in this case, is not arbitrary but loving, etc. (fill in the blanks here with revelation). Of course, as is always the case in theology, decisions on these sorts of issues have far-reaching consequences . . .

So, with that background, we turn to Osborn. Bold is mine, italics are his:

Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).
The goddess Athena, according to the Greeks, sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus. Not to be outdone, young earth creationists have conceived a Creator who pulls fully formed rabbits and people from out of the soil on day six of creation. But while this would be an impressive feat, we must ask what sort of picture of God emerges from this vision. Is this not a strictly nominalist or voluntarist God whose ways may indeed be stupendous but whose creation – as an inscrutable performance of sheer will – must now also be seen as a kind of deception or sleight of hand? What should we make of a God who creates a universe, an earth, plants, animals and humans with the appearance but not the actuality of age? How many days old did Adam appear on the first day of his creation? Those who would say more than one are positing a basic incongruity between the reality disclosed in Scripture and the realities of the physical world that stare us . . . in the face. . . . Existence at a very fundamental level, in this way of thinking, cannot be believed or trusted. It is at bottom an artificial stage production. Reality has the ontological properties of unreality or surrealism and did so from the very start. (133)
Osborn now turns to how this picture of God and creation swings back around to shape thinking about what it means to be human, and especially what it means to be in relationship with God (i.e., what faith is all about):
What the nominalist Creator seems to require of us is not belief in the superabundance of divine love that opens the possibility of the miraculous as a revelation of what is in fact most natural and most real in God’s inbreaking kingdom – the kind of hyperreality that might even raise a man from the dead. Instead, what the nominalist deity demands of us is a performance of sheer will in turn: the will to believe; fideistic mental compliance to purely propositional assertions in the name of protecting the Bible’s internal coherence; unquestioning acceptance of a creation that now contains the arbitrary and surd elements of an unbelievable magic show (thousand-year-old trees that are really one second old, day-old humans without any memories who nevertheless know how to speak to one another in a fully evolved human language, apparently downloaded directly from the mind of God like preinstalled software).
If you’re like me, gentle readers, the thought that jumped into your mind when you finished the last sentence of the above quote is that “literalists” basically believe in the Matrix. Follow the white rabbit…

[Ed. note: Wow, from medieval scholasticism to the Matrix. This is a post for the DET record books.]


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Ripped from the Headlines? Barth's Bremen Sermon (pt. 1)

When I read the sermon Karl Barth delivered at the Frauenkirche in Bremen, Germany, in 1934, I can't avoid seeking the Nazi elephant in the room.
(The text is in The Word in This World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth. ed. Kurt I. Johanson and trans. Christopher Asprey, Vancouver, BC, 2007.*) After all, of course, those were dark times for Europe generally and for Barth personally. I will explore that context more fully in my next post. Suffice it to say, the Confessing Church movement was beginning to coalesce, spearheaded by Barth's principal authorship of the Barmen Declaration earlier that spring. He would soon be dismissed from his post at the University of Bonn for what the powers that be would interpret as an act of civil disobedience: A refusal to pledge, without qualification, his loyalty to the Fuhrer.

How, according to Barth, do biblical text and contemporary context come together in the sermon event? Barth lays out his own methodological views on preaching in his Homilectics lectures, which also come from his Bonn period. It might seem natural, then, to try to use his explicit homilectical theories to parse what is happening in the Bremen piece. That is the approach taken by William Willimon, an attentive student and interpreter of Barth's sermons. In Willimon's view, this sermon exemplifies Barth's rigorous commitment to be a preacher of the biblical Word, to let the living words of the text recontextualize and reframe the contemporary context. If this is correct, then it is best not see Bible and newspaper as two foci of an ellipse -- a more Gadamerian model, we might say; rather, the events of the day are radically relativized and subsumed through an unapologetic and thoroughgoing expository sermon. The preacher finds the center of gravity in the biblical witness to Christ in scripture -- a testimony that brooks no competition for any of the lesser lights (or better, darknesses) of the created realm.

The juxtaposition of this piece with the 1912 sermon on the sinking of the Titanic (which I discussed here recently) suggests a strong contrast between early and middle preaching of Barth, not only in terms of rhetoric but also in terms of fundamental method. Whereas the "Titanic" sermon is consumed with contemporary events, the strict biblio-theological focus of the Bremen sermon yields a sort of calm trust in the transcendent One.

In his introduction to this volume, Willimon compares the Bremen sermon to Barth's later homilies to prisoners (a few of which are collected in Deliverance to the Captives). He finds this piece from the Bonn period, based on the story of Jesus walking on water in Matthew 14, to be "more detached from the congregation than those [prison] sermons, more studiously committed to a verse-by-verse commentary on a biblical text, longer, and full of serious intent" (p. 20). Of course, it is difficult to deny this fairly formal description. Willimon makes his point more explicit:

Preached under the gathering storm clouds of Nazism, there is no mention of Nazis or Hitler. Here is Barth following his own advice to the German Church when he was expelled from his professorate at Bonn -- "exegesis, exegesis, exegesis." He is preaching, as he urged, "as if nothing had happened." The "nothing" is Hitler and Barth refuses to let him or his minions enter the sermon (ibid.).

Ever since Karl Adam, in his review of the Romans commentary, famously quipped that Barth had dropped a bombshell in the theologians' playground, many interpreters of Barth have be drawn to images of things falling from the sky and/or exploding. What might we infer from this phenomenon?....Nah, I had better not go there. At any rate, the metaphor apparently works with sermons as well as Bible commentaries. Willimon writes: "It feels as if the text has just been dropped, like a meteor, in the middle of a congregation" (p. 21). If I might vamp on this trope a bit, the preacher (ostensibly) is more like a geologist scrutinizing an uncanny extraterrestrial object than a poet ruminating on some aspects of everyday experience; certainly, for heaven's sake, he is not interjecting his subjective experiences and emotions into the sermon, in which case we would be thrust back into the paradigm of the misty-eyed Schleiermachian parson, and all would be lost.

What is putatively liberating about this more stern and disciplined preaching method is that the messenger finds her self-absorption and social myopia submerged in an ocean of divine meaning. The exegete schools the journalist: "Here is a preacher who is more fascinated by the ancient text than by the contemporary congregational context" (ibid.). Willimon shows his debt to postliberal theology. The strange new world of the opened Bible absorbs the world, not vice versa. This sort of thinking has roots in the Reformation, to be sure, and at is a perfectly plausible and responsible way to read the Bremen sermon -- a way that takes Barth's musings on methodology at face value.

Still, I just don't find this take on the Bremen sermon completely convincing. I suppose, through personal inclination and some corrosive exposure to contemporary hermeneutical theory -- I studied at that other school, you know -- I take a more genealogical approach to reading texts, sermons included. I want to dig deeper, and if a speaker or writer claims that some biblical or theological content is determining her presentation in a univocal way, I tend to be a little skeptical of her claim. Or let me put it this way, so that I might redeem myself a little with DET's loyal postliberal readers: I would attempt to unpack this sermon via a close reading of the text enveloped in a thick description that tries to situate the piece firmly in its original context.

Forunately, Willimon is a more subtle reader of Barth than the foregoing paragraphs might suggest, and he catches himself here: Clearly, there is more going on in the Bremen sermon than a surface reading might suggest. Perhaps the situation has grown so desperate in Germany that the typical resources of Kulturprotestantismus are shown to be vacuous, just as had been the case in 1914.
Barth is seeking a living God who is powerful enough to speak and act in a liberating and saving way amid a regime of radical evil. Barth seeks a theological answer to the dilemma of himself and his congregants, just as a nascent Confessing Church is trying to cobble together a faithful response to the idolatrous insanity of the German Christians. Willimon writes: "The way to counteract paganism in the form of National Socialism is by close, obedient attentiveness to another God" (ibid.). The living word of text and sermon are ballast in the storm.

Barth claims, in this sermon, that we need not fear. God will speak to us, in the night, in the storm. And the word of God is a life-giving, victorious word" (ibid.).

Amen. Who would want to disagree with that? And yet, I think there is still more to be said about how text and context are related in Barth's Bremen sermon, but exploring that requires me to risk a close reading of this sermon for myself, with some gestures toward its possible resonances within its original historical context. But I you want to read that, inquiring readers, you will have to stay tuned until my next post.
* Johanson kindly sent me a review copy of this book. I am not required to write a positive review of the book. All opinions expressed here are my own.


Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Karl Barth on what it means to pray “Give us this day our daily bread”

Karl Barth, Prayer, 50th Anniversary Edition (Westminster John Knox, 2002), 51–52. As always, bold is mine.
We must . . . say: “Act in such a way that thou dost not give it us in vain, so that we may truly receive this bread which thou has prepared on thy table in the holy Communion, so that we may take from thy hands this bread which thou hast created for us and which thou givest us. Help us, then; illumine us. May we not behave like well-satisfied bourgeois or like greedy creatures at the moment when thou bestowest upon us anew this incomprehensible and incompatible gift, this gift of thy patience, and of our hope. Act in such a way that we do not squander and destroy this gift. Grant that we may each receive our bread without dispute or quarrel. Grant that all who have a surplus of this bread may know by this very fact that they are appointed as servants, as dispensers of thy grace, that they are in thy service and in the service of others. And grant that those who are particularly threatened by hunger, death, and this precariousness of the human condition may meet brothers and sisters who have open eyes and ears to feel their responsibility. How shameful is our social ingratitude and injustice! How senseless it is that in this humanity surrounded by thy gifts there are people still dying of hunger!


Thursday, April 02, 2015

"Just as I am" - A Lenten Sermon about Repentance

Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidd'st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come. I come.

You know that song? It's the old revival song, sung at countless Billy Graham crusades and various altar calls throughout the world. Some of you here know a bit about my past, that I grew up attending a Baptist Church in New Jersey for thirteen or so years of my life. What you don't know was that at the age of 14 I accepted that I was washed by the blood of the lamb and repented of my sins and came forward to a thousand-person choir singing "Just As I Am" at the Creation Music Festival. Creation is a Christian music festival that gathers every summer up in Pennsylvania. They like to call themselves the "Christian Woodstock". Let me tell you, it isn't nearly as wild as Woodstock was! I wasn't at Woodstock, mind you, but I've seen the movie. But on the last night of every Creation Festival, there is an altar call. "Repent, repent!" The preacher cried, "and come forward!" And so I did. Just as I am, I came forward. And I knew, in that moment, at the age of 14, my life was forever changed.

But of course it wasn't. I was fourteen. I was just in High school. I was a holy roller on fire for Jesus for about a month when I got back from Creation (I actually threw away all my rock and roll records! Crazy! I know!), but things soon settled back into their routine. Looking back, it wasn't much of a surprise. I still went to Church. So what if I repented of my sins? I didn't know what repentance was. I didn't know why I went forward at Creation. In fact, I didn't know who I was. I didn't know fully what life was about. I just went about my days, doing my thing, saying I was a Christian, and I was! I loved Jesus. But it wasn't like I turned my life around. I didn't know how to. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know what repentance was all about. And you know, for the longest time, I mocked myself for going forward at that alter call. I mocked myself, for singing just as I am.

* * *

I think a lot of people are confused about repentance. What is repentance? What does it mean? How do I repent? Doesn't that have to do something with sin? When I was in seminary, people would tell me, "Henry, we know you have Baptist roots, but don't talk about sin so much." In our culture as a whole, we don't talk about sin all that much. We don't really have a concept of what sin is. So I guess that means we can't talk about repentance then, right? Because they go hand in hand.

In churches I've been a part of, we don't talk about sin all that much, perhaps because we consider it an outdated concept that doesn't really apply anymore. But Jesus clearly wants us to repent. He tells us so, very clearly: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." When Jesus says repent in Mark 1, it is not a quiet whisper from Jesus to a close friend; it is a booming call to anyone within earshot. In our passage for today, Jesus declares and compels, rather than explains and persuades. He speaks: Repent, and believe.

The Christian season of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday, is a time of preparation for Good Friday and Easter. It is a four-week period when we reflect, repent and turn towards the cross of Christ upon which Jesus set us free. Lent leads us into Holy Week. Jesus is walking towards Jerusalem. We are heading towards the cross with him. Nothing can change that. Lent prepares us to stand before his cross and see our sins forgiven in and through and by his sacrifice. And to stand before the cross, Jesus seems to say to us in our passage, is to repent. But what is repentance, and what does it have to do with anything?

This week I took a poll on Facebook. I asked my friends, both Christian and non-Christian, what they thought about repentance. I was surprised by the level of thoughtful response I got. A good friend of mine, an artist atheist who lives down in New Orleans wrote,

Repentance means to humble oneself after a transgression. To abandon pride, hear grievances without defense, acknowledge your own wrongdoing and submit to the mercy of those whom you have wronged. To commit to choosing a different path, and continuing to follow that path regardless of your need and suffering.

That's what my friend Becky wrote. Pretty good, right? Another friend, a lapsed Catholic, wrote,

Ask for forgiveness of a known and accepted sin, and actively work to avoid it happening again. If the sin is against someone else, attempt to gain forgiveness from them as well.

An academic theologian friend of mine paraphrased Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Repentance is turning your heart back to God, away from yourself." A friend from college called repentance "the ability to recognize one's own thoughts." Another friend, a Presbyterian minister who was feeling a bit frustrated that her Ash Wednesday service was canceled because of the weather, wrote quite honestly, "I think our emphasis on grace often allows us to gloss over our need to confess and repent (turn away from that which turns us away from God." "To recognize and verbalize." All these are, very good, very insightful. But then one friend, a youth worker up in Manhattan, wrote only two words. "Turn around." And you know what? He's right. Repentance means to turn around. It means to turn from something towards something else. Repentance is a turning from and a turning to. It is a turning away from sin and toward God.

Before we can talk about repentance, we have to talk about sin. Here is a basic definition of sin: Sin is all that which separates us from God and how God wants us to live. It is all that stops us from truly loving God and neighbor. Sin can be a behavior, a mindset, or an action.

The good news of the Kingdom is that Jesus dies on the cross to reunite us with God so we can live as we were created by God to live. We were created by God to live in love. True love. Repentance is the human response to God's initiative and forgiveness. It involves a total restructuring of one's life toward God, towards loving him with our whole hearts, minds and souls, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. For Jesus, repentance is not a mere acceptance of a set of beliefs but rather a turning, a turning towards God in all aspects of our lives. In recognizing how he lived and died for us we can truly be transformed to live as we were created to live before sin separated us from God. Repentance is a turning. A turning from and a turning towards. Away from sin towards God. Repent.

Lent-- a season of repentance. Examine. Look. Search. Listen. Turn away and turn towards.

Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt:
fightings and fears within, without,
O lamb of God, I come. I come.

In Lent we prepare ourselves to stand before the cross, just as we are. The cross constantly leads us to repent because it is the ever standing reminder of God's reign, God's truth, God's love in the world. And what is this truth? That Jesus was born, Jesus has died, and Jesus has risen from the grave so that we might live and be with God. And he will come again. The ultimate sign of the Kingdom in the life of this world is the empty cross. Repent! Why? "Because in Jesus, God makes it possible for God's people to do more than rerun the past. That is the gospel, the good news, the glad tidings toward which Jesus invites us to stop, turn, or turn again, and hold on to for dear life." "Repent!" says our Lord; "things do not have to stay the way they are now!" In fact, to follow Jesus means that things cannot stay the way they are. To follow Jesus means to repent.

We will repent. And then we will mess up. We will sin again. We will allow something to come between us and God. We will allow something to take the place of God in our life. It might be anger. It might be hate. It might be lust. It might be greed. It might be gluttony. It might be apathy. It might be pride. We will sin. And then we will repent again. Repentance is not one and done -- remember how the old song goes, "morning by morning new mercies I see!" We stumble, we fall, but he has mercy on us. He will always show mercy on us. He loves us. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote about what repentance does. It reminds us that we are loved and forgiven by God:

A person reposes in the forgiveness of sins when the thought of God no longer reminds him of the sin, but of the fact that it is forgiven, so that the past is not a recollection of how much he offended, but of how much he has been forgiven.

* * *

This is a congregation that has been in transition. There is no shame in this, nothing embarrassing about recognizing ourselves in transition. What will happen to us if we listen to Jesus' demand and repent and believe? We can dream. We can dream what God can do with us here, in this place, as individuals and as a community of God's own making.

I have a dream for this church. We can be a church where we tell our stories, and see where, when, and how God has called us to repent. We can be a place where people can lovingly share without fear of judgment what they have turned from, or what they are turning from. Or perhaps that from which they are hoping to turn. And then we can share with each other and to the world Him to whom it is we turn to. He who loves us. He who died for us. He who lives for us. He who calls us to repent and believe.

So we as individuals and as a community can repent and believe in him who guides us, leads us, loves us, and saves us, just as I am. Just as we are. Repent, and believe. Repent and see what God has done. Repent and see what God is doing. Repent and see what God will do.

I don't tease myself for singing "Just as I Am" anymore. After I graduated from college I wandered for a couple of months before I found myself in New Orleans, rebuilding houses with Habitat for Humanity that had been destroyed by hurricane Katrina. After a year doing that I signed up to be a young adult volunteer operating out of Nairobi, Kenya. I worked as a photographer. In Africa I saw some beautiful things. I saw some dark things. Yet in the midst of all that I felt called by God to go to seminary, and so when I returned to the States I entered into a Masters of Divinity program at Princeton Theological Seminary. I threw myself into my work and I never dealt with the dark things I had seen and experienced in Kenya. I fell into a deep depression. I made poor choices. When I graduated and things didn't go as I planned, I fell apart. I grew extremely angry with God. I felt that God had betrayed me. But what I didn't recognize, what I couldn't recognize at the time, was that my pride didn't let me go get help. My pride had allowed me to lie to myself that I wasn't hurting. So I grew close to my rising anger and pushed God away.

One weekend when I was visiting my parents in New Jersey we went down to Ocean Grove. Ocean Grove is a Methodist Retreat village right alongside the Jersey Shore. In the center of Ocean Grove is a giant wooden tabernacle church, built in the 19th century. It truly is a wonder to behold. Anyway, we went down to Ocean Grove, and a pastor I always liked was preaching that evening in the Tabernacle and we decided to go hear him. And he preached a sermon about repentance. He preached a sermon about the promise of God's love. And he proclaimed a good word of God's forgiveness offered to us on the cross. And he closed with a song. And I went forward.

Just as I am, thou wilt receive;
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
because thy promise I believe,
O lamb of God, I come, I come.