Friday, October 30, 2015

He Who Laughs Last Misses Faith? Niebuhr on Humor

Reinhold Niebuhr loved to laugh. What's more, he enjoyed making others laugh -- though that's perhaps a little-known fact, hardly self-evident if one, say, peruses works such as Moral Man and Immoral Society.
As his biographer Richard Fox notes, Niebuhr enjoyed leading skits to entertain friends and family while retreating in Heath, Massachusetts.

Actually, though, Robert McAfee Brown's anthology contains a pretty interesting piece titled "Humor and Faith"; this piece, as it happens, is not funny in the least but is a fairly sober assessment of the laughter and its limtis that reveals both keen insights and theological limitations in Niebuhr's thought (The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, New Haven, CT: Yale, 1986, pp. 49-60).

Niebuhr's thesis is this: Humor and faith are deeply connected in that both seek to cope with the contradictions of existence that cannot be reconciled or even fully rationalized. The fundamental root of the incongruous human situation, according to Niebuhr, is that we are embedded in material life and historical contingencies, yet we are spiritual -- that is, we transcend ourselves through the exercise of our critical reason and freedom. The incongruity of this existential situation lures us into sin as either of the two poles dominate the other one. (Niebuhr develops this anthropological perspective at great length in volume one of The Nature and Destiny of Man). I would emphasize the point -- though I won't elaborate it -- that this is not Cartesian mind-body dualism; rather, there is only one life for the human subject, simultaneously embedded in contingencies and transcending them.

Both humor and faith, in Niebuhr's reading, deal with the same incongruous situation: At our best, we aspire for moral achievements that we cannot achieve and our failure to do so only drives the irony of life home further. But humor and faith deal with this reality at different levels. Niebuhr writes:

Both humor and faith are expressions of the human spirit, of its capacity to stand outside of life, and itself, and view the whole scene. But any view of the whole immediately creates the problem of how the incongruities of life are to be dealt with, for the effort to understand the life, and our place in it, confronts us with inconsistencies and incongruities which do not fit into any neat picture of the whole. Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence which threaten the very meaning of life (pp. 49-50).

Thus, when a pretentious person falls due to his or her own blunders, laughter is the appropriate response; political satire comes to mind here. Humor fails, though, when the stakes are higher. Niebuhr reminds his readers of the naive souls who thought they could laugh off Hitler and Mussolini. Laughter falls away when we face the ultimate congruity of existence -- our mortality. If we do try to laugh off death, then our humor takes on a bitter and cynical edge. Still, as Niebuhr notes, humor can be a defensive survival mechanism for those enduring severe oppression and degradation. To be sure, African slaves could not free themselves by secretly making fun of their masters. Only an active movement of liberation could do that. Still, such humor did help the slaves find ways to make their lives slightly more bearable and to deconstruct the pretensions of their oppressors.

When we face the ultimately incongruities of existence, the appropriate answer is not humor but, rather, faith. Faith for Niebuhr (or as I read him, at least) is a fundamentally transcendental leap into the arms of that abyss we can neither control nor even formulate. That is, faith steps beyond he limits of historical existence into the depths of an eternity where, alone, this incongruity is reconciled. Niebuhr, unlike the theologians of hope, does not posit this reconciliation in terms of an eschatological realism nor, with more traditional believers, does he speculate about personal conscious existence beyond the grave. In his view, we don't really know how God reconciles the deepest aspirations of our being within the arms of eternal love. We simply have to trust this is the case.

From a Christian perspective, as Niebuhr sees it, the ultimate symbol of this reconciliation of our profoundest incongruities is the cross of Jesus Christ, which unites perfect love and justice within an act of utterly sacrificial love. The cross, manifestly, is not funny; the only ones who find humor in the death of Jesus are the cruel mockers, who fail to see the reconciliation manifest in this horrific event.

Still, I am left with this question for Niebuhr -- and I am far from being alone in this -- if the cross does not provide a comedic resolution for our dilemma, might we hope to find this elsewhere?

In other words, what ever happened to the resurrection?


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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Hard World Communion Sunday to Preach: Revelation 7:9-17

[Author's note: Two things make me doubt the goodness of God: Cancer, and mass death by gun violence. On the week of World Communion Sunday, I had encountered both. The one more pressing for my sermon was the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. I knew I had to address it in my sermon, but I didn't really know how. I have strong thoughts on the gun lobby in the United States, and how we Americans all basically have blood on our hands because we are unwilling to stand up to the NRA when our sisters and brothers, neighbors, and our kids are shot down in cold blood by deranged white men with guns. But my thoughts are out of kilter with the context I preach weekly in. I have been blessed to preach weekly since March at a small Presbyterian Church in rural North Carolina. The people I accompany in ministry are good people, and although we are different in many ways, we have come together to worship the Lord. I can't let loose my vitriol against the gun lobby during the preaching moment, because in my opinion that would abuse the power of the pulpit. So on the night before World Communion Sunday, I sat down to reedit my sermon in light of what took place in Umpqua. This is not my best sermon, I would go as far as to say it isn't exactly a good sermon. But as I preached it, I cried, the first time I have ever shed a tear from the pulpit. I do think the Word of God was proclaimed, and I think these words of mine were used for good, Godly purpose. But I simply struggle--what can we say in light of violence except point to the cross and the truth of the revelation contained upon it?]

Today is World Communion Sunday, so I think it of some importance to explain just what this means. It is a Sunday where we take time in our worship to emphasize the unity of all churches around the world in our Lord Jesus Christ, despite our differences. It is a Sunday where we point out that those who claim Jesus Christ as Lord and those whom he claims as God’s children are one in him. And we emphasize on this World Communion Sunday that not only are we one on a heavenly level, but, ideally, we are one on an earthly level as well. All churches that claim Christ as Lord are Christ’s body on earth, and we all are called to try to live into Christ’s desire for us that we be one. This is what we celebrate on World Communion Sunday.

One of the scriptural cores of World Communion Sunday is found in the Gospel of John. In John chapter 17 verses 20-21, Jesus prays for us, his disciples. He prays that we may be seen by the world as one in him so that the world can see and believe through our unity that God sent him into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (NIV, throughout). Our unity is a witness to the truth of the Gospel. But when we look back on church history we can see that we have not always been one. Far from it.

Protestants and Catholics spent a lot of our mutual history hating each other, going as far as to killing one another. Now a lot of that has faded away, to the extent that even Pope Francis can get a rapturous welcome in the United States only fifty years after John F. Kennedy was openly asked if he could legitimately be president because he was Catholic. The assumption was that as a Catholic he would be loyal first not to the stars and stripes, but to the Pope in Rome. But our disunity in our history wasn’t only a Catholic-Protestant thing. During the Civil Rights movement in our country, some churches were pro-segregation, others pro-integration, and such terrible division had tremendous impact on our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Things are not perfect today by any means, but in the past forty or fifty years or so, Christian unity has been propagated and emphasized in ways that would seem unimaginable to someone living a hundred years ago.

Yet, there is much that still divides us. On World Communion Sunday we emphasize the strides we have made, while remembering the journey that we still have to go, so that the world will recognize that we are all one in Jesus Christ, just as Jesus and his Father are one. We strive for unity, we emphasize our cooperation, and we do this because it part of our witness to the truth of good news about Jesus, who is the son of God, son of man, savior of all humanity.

But our passage today, Revelation 7:9-17, seems to strike a different note than the John passage I read a few minutes ago. It is not a prayer of Jesus, but instead a vision of reality with Jesus. I want to talk about this vision, but let’s take a second to talk about the book of Revelation: what it is, and what it isn’t, and how it connects into our theme today of World Communion Sunday.

The book of Revelation was written around 80 to 90 AD by a man named John exiled to the island of Patmos, a Greek isle in the Aegean Sea. And here on this island, John had a vision. John was a prophet. And the book of Revelation is a book of apocalyptic prophecy. “Apocalypse” doesn’t mean the end of the world. It is a Greek word that means a lifting of the veil. In other words, an apocalypse is a revelation that depicts reality as it is, as it has been, and as it will be. For a time, the book of Revelation was called The Apocalypse of St. John.

Contrary to popular opinion and the Left Behind books, the book of Revelation does not predict the future. Prophets don’t predict the future. Prophets name reality. And so the book of Revelation witnesses to God’s reality: the reality where every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess, to the lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world, Jesus Christ. Revelation uses metaphorical language to paint pictures with words. It is a vision of God’s reality, our reality, as things truly are and will be.

And so this brings us to our passage. I’m going to read it now.

The Great Multitude in White Robes

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

“Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!”

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.15 Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

This is the Word of the Lord.

The world is scary place. We know this. Christians don’t live in a dream world. They see things as for how they truly are: war in Syria and Iraq, bombings and battles in Afghanistan and Ukraine, drug cartels in Mexico, school shootings in Oregon. According to initial reports, this past week, when an evil man went into the school in Oregon, he targeted Christians. But so what? When we get down it, what we are left with at Umpqua is yet another massacre by a deranged man with too easy access to a gun, a gun that leaves kids dead on the floor and all I can shout, and pray, and cry out is, “How long oh Lord!” How long!?” We have tolerated such violence for way too long, but the sad news that is if Americans can't see to it to pass comprehensive gun control after the Newtown, CT massacre which left twenty elementery school kids dead, why would we do so after college kids are massacred in Oregon? "Too long Lord, too long."

And then I remember: there is something distinctly wrong with the human condition. And only Jesus can fix it.

When we celebrate communion, as we will in a few moments, we remember our Lord’s death when Jesus fixed things, rejoice in his resurrection where he offers us the promise of new life, and look forward to his coming again where and when God will wipe away all tears from all our eyes. We give thanks that Our God is a God of resurrection, and we proclaim that in him we Christians, no matter where we are or what we look like, are united—are one—in him. That's the point of World Communion Sunday. In him and only in him, we are the body of Christ.

We are the Church, for what is the Church but the people sent by God to go into the world and be his body, to be his hands, to be his feet, to be his witnesses to a hurting, broken world? All around the world, throughout time and space, we are united together—Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist, Black, White, Latino, Asian, Indian—all of us united with our Lord who calls us to be his disciples, our Lord who invites us to take up our crosses and follow after him, come what may. This is what we celebrate on World Communion Sunday.

Our brothers and sisters, targeted in Oregon, massacred in Syria, persecuted in Egypt, slaughtered across the world, they are one with us and we are one in them, as we are one in the death and resurrection of Jesus. When you kill Christians, it is only the body that dies. We worship a crucified messiah, who is the power of resurrection. Easter Sunday shows that you cannot kill our Lord. Why? Because of God’s love for us. And when we eat the bread, and we drink from the cup, we remember this truth—this reality—that is so beautifully and poetically captured in our reading for today. All of us, around the world, past, present, and future, we will gather around the throne, and worship our Lord who has saved us. And

‘Never again will we hunger;
never again will we thirst.
The sun will not beat down on us,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be our shepherd;
‘he will lead us to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.’

Whenever we partake of Communion, we are saying to the world: Jesus’s got this. Jesus has got us. And Jesus has got you too. That’s what we say to the world—Jesus loves you. Christians know we are broken, and we know the world is broken. But Christians know that Jesus is making all things new, that Jesus is binding up the broken hearted, that Jesus is working his resurrection power even now. So we remember our brothers and sisters across the world, we remember those who suffer for the faith and in the faith. We remember and rejoice that we are one. And when we gather around this table, we recall, we remember, and we look forward to gathering around the throne. All of us from every tribe, tongue and nation, when we will worship gathered all together Jesus Christ, the lamb who sits on the throne—He who loves us.

And lo,

before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

==================================

Monday, October 26, 2015

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3:9–15

Malachi 3.9–15

[N.B. I’ve always used the TNIV in this series. That began more or less on a whim and I just stuck to it. However, I’m switching to the NRSV now.]

[9] You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! [10] Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. [11] I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the LORD of hosts. [12] Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts. [13] You have spoken harsh words against me, says the LORD. Yet you say, “How have we spoken against you?” [14] You have said, “It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the LORD of hosts? Now we count the arrogant happy; evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape.”

==========================

COMMENTARY: Calvin begins his commentary on these verses by highlighting the point that everything that happened to Israel, the curse that is lamented here, happened to them because they deserved it. And Calvin extends the category of who deserved it beyond simply the leaders of the religious establishment, which had been his focus in previous sections of the commentary. Now the issue is that the nation as a whole, or at least a vast majority of it, was guilty and deserved this curse. But what were they guilty of? “They trifled with God” (588) through the combination of withholding a portion of their tithes but acting as though they had given the whole. This is, in Calvin’s view, theft – and theft from God.

This is where things get interesting, though, and this ties in with the last installment of this series where we saw Calvin speaking very much like a liberation theologian. Calvin recognizes that God doesn’t need food. These tithes are not supplying God’s necessities, seeing as how God has no body and no necessities. So why the tithes, and why their importance? “Now as God needs not meat and drink . . . and as men in their grossness are ever prone to superstitions, he substituted the priests and the poor in his own place” (589; emphasis added)!!! In other words: God knows that he needs to have his people give a tithe of their goods to remind them where they come from and who they properly belong to, but God doesn’t want them thinking that God needs these things, so God has priests and the poor stand in God’s place as recipients of what is owed in grateful obedience to God! This puts me in mind of Matthew 25.40…

But this is only Calvin’s warm-up act, as it were, because the real theme of his commentary on these verses is the doctrine of providence. We see already that God, as it were, hides behind the priests and the poor. By giving to them, you give to God. Calvin goes on to talk about how God also hides behind natural processes. When verse 10 mentions God opening the windows of heaven, for instance, Calvin gives a long discussion on natural processes and how God works through them. Here is one quote where he pulls it together: “Though then rain descends naturally, we are yet reminded here that God sends it” (590). Note well: Calvin assigns two different causes to the rain – a natural cause, and the divine cause. Rain comes both through the immanent world system of cause and effect, the usual operation of the cosmos; and, rain comes because God sends it. What we have here is a gesture toward a non-competitive account of divine and human action, an account that Calvin sometimes struggles toward articulating in his Institutes (in my humble opinion). This sort of an account is, in my view, the heart of a properly functioning doctrine of providence.

As is his wont, and perhaps his strength on this doctrine, Calvin gives insight in his commentary on the practical value of the doctrine of providence. Sounding a note that he sounds often, Calvin articulates his conviction that the doctrine of providence is a comfortable doctrine, one that bolsters faith in God as a celestial parent looking out for you. “God shows here, that he takes constant care of us, and every day and every night performs the office of a good and careful head of a family, who always watches for its benefit” (592). I find this to be an interesting disconnect from the other practical consequence of providence that Calvin highlights in this passage (and elsewhere). Later he says that “in the service of God the chief thing is this—that men deny themselves and give themselves up to be ruled by God, and never raise a clamour when he humbles them” (596). Calvin’s ideas about what it means to be a caring head of a family are clearly different from our own. But he goes on concerning the last part about not raising a clamor. The reason why some people do raise such a clamor is “because they did not consider in how many ways they had provoked God’s wrath, and”—and this is the shocking bit—“what just and multiplied reasons he has for chastising his people, even when they do nothing wrong” (emphasis added). I suggest that Calvin let his rhetoric get away from him here, unless he has in mind original sin. But on the next page he suggests that what he really means is “even when we haven’t done anything wrong as far as we are aware,” or some such.

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that since we continue to afford many and various reasons to induce thee to withdraw thy blessing, and to show thyself displeased with us, —O grant, that we may patiently bear thy scourges, by which thou chastisest us, and also profit under them, and so contend with all our depraved affections and the corruptions of the flesh, that we may become partakers of thy paternal kindness, which thou offerest to us, and also so taste of thy goodness, which in innumerable ways is manifested towards us, that it may keep us in the pursuit of true religion; finally, may our tongues be consecrated to magnify thy judgment and to celebrate thy justice, that whatever happens to us, we may always serve thee through our whole life as our Father, and declare also thy goodness towards us, and confess that we are justly punished whenever thou visitest us with severity, until we shall at length reach that blessed rest, which is to be the end of all our evil, and an entrance, not only into life, but also into that full glory and happiness, which has been procured for us by the blood of thine only-begotten Son.—Amen.

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Friday, October 23, 2015

No Happy Mediums: Stringfellow on the "Afterdeath"

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
(1 Cor. 15:19)

He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.
(Mark 12:27)

Our blogging compadre, the PostBarthian (Wyatt Houtz), has created quite a buzz with two recent posts offering critiques of Karl Barth's (ostensibly) stern perspectives on the afterlife and eternal life; he cites two passages where Barth seems to rule out the possibility for a conscious, subjective postmortem existence for finite human beings.

These posts have elicited, in turn, spirited responses from Kevin Davis and Fr Aiden Kimel. The conversation has spilled over into Facebook and Twitter as well.

I was assigned, initially, the task of encapsulating this social media convo here, but since that task exceeds both my time and technical abilities, I offer something different -- some reflections from William Stringfellow, toward the end of his life, on the same subjects. Stringfellow -- attorney, activist and lay theologian -- had been living with his partner, the poet Anthony Towne, in their Block Island home for 13 years when Towne died suddenly in 1980. Out of his experiences of bereavement and healing, Stringfellow wrote a riveting, poignant memoir: A Simplicity of Faith (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1982). This is quite possibly the best book on death and grieving I've ever read.

Toward the end of the book Stringfellow offers "a view of afterdeath" (137-141). Like Barth, Stringfellow clearly worries that a religious sublimation of wish fulfillment fantasies undermines authentic biblical faith, supplanting it with cheap speculations; still, he approaches the topic in a way that is more personal and direct than the Barth passages PostBarthian shared. Indeed, Stringfellow is reluctant even to broach the topic of life after death at all, as it risks stirring "a mush of vain and pagan imaginings" (137). But inquiring minds and grieving hearts may find it impossible to suppress questions in this arena. That's how it is with me, at any rate. Stringfellow writes:
Any bereaved person, or anyone contemplating his or her own death, is likely to give some thought to what, if anything, happens experientially when a person dies. One reason such brooding is commonly incoherent or merely self-serving is that it presupposes the linear reality of time and does not probe the mystery of time, especially the relation of time to the bondage to death in the present age, in the era of the Fall, or the disruption of time and the emancipation from time that is implicated in conversion (137-138).
So do we have here something along the lines of the time-eternity dialectic in Kierkegaard and early Barth? Possibly, but it's hard to say. This sentence is too saturated for me to unpack here; suffice it to say that Stringfellow throughout his writings goes beyond the commonplace notion that death merely limits time to argue that the temporal realm, in and of itself and without remainder, is enthralled to the power of death.

Stringfellow draws a strong contrast between the Christian hope in the resurrection and the perennial doctrine of soul immortality, just as N.T. Wright and Jürgen Moltmann, among myriad other thinkers, have done more recently. The notion of immortality, in Stringfellow's view, in effect extends the remembrance for the dead into the sphere of speculations about personal survival after death. (What I know of the role of Sheol and Hades in ancient thought would seem to confirm this observation). Resurrection, by contrast, is altogether a different matter; but even the classic Christian faith in resurrection is not immune from ideological distortion. Stringfellow's characteristic move (though I can't explore it in depth here) is to demythologize the resurrection -- even at the cost of a certain caginess about the bodily resurrection of Jesus himself -- and to retrieve it as an existential, moral and even political reality that suffuses life and discipleship in the present. "Resurrection," he writes
refers to the transcendence of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life, and indeed, the fulfillment of life, before death (138).
The image of Daniel Berrigan being
arrested in Block Island was turned into a
poster posing the question:
"Which one was free?"
 (I hope Richard Beck doesn't
mind I filched this image from his blog.)
What Stringfellow means by resurrection, in this sense, is captured vividly in a famous photograph of his friend, the priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan, being hauled off to jail by two stern and stolid federal agents. In May 1968, Berrigan and eight other Catholic activists, including his brother Phillip, took over a federal office in Catonsville, Maryland, where they burned draft records with napalm in a liturgical protest against the war in Southeast Asia. Instead of turning himself into the authorities, Berrigan went into hiding; he sought refuge at the home of Stringfellow and Towne in Block Island, where he was eventually apprehended by the FBI. The photo shows Daniel Berrigan, flanked by two frowning officers clasping his arms firmly, virtually beaming with joy and defiance. This is an apropos icon of the deeper freedom that resurrection represents for Stringfellow. (For more on the "Catonsville Nine" see this fine post by Richard Beck.) Bill Wylie-Kellermann recounts that Stringfellow once epitomized resurrection as "Phil Berrigan in jail," referring to the freedom Berrigan and the other prisoners exhibited in contrast to stultified, dehumanized and bureaucratized dispositions of the wardens, chaplains, guards and other prison staff (See William Stringfellow: Essential Writings, edited by Bill Wylie-Kellermann. New York: Orbis, 2013, p. 26).

Point well taken. I affirm this close integration of resurrection and resistance to oppression. Still, I bump against a theodicy dilemma: Such authenticity, such freedom are fleeting and extraordinary experiences in human life. Dare we hope for something more? True resistance against the forces of death, it seems to me, must be rooted in a reality that transcends the limitations of human experience in this world. Ultimately, if I understand mainstream cosmology at all, every single thing in this cosmos will perish -- not just sentient life, but all living beings and, indeed, even the material conditions of existence itself. What will all this struggle have meant when the end finally comes?

Put another way, doesn't resurrection faith have something to say not only about living an authentic life but about what we might hope to find when we depart this mortal coil? Stringfellow eschews false consolation here. Interestingly, he himself had endured an uncanny near-death experience while he was in a diabetic coma in a Connecticut hospital years earlier; nonetheless, he did not think this experience yielded any particular insights into the hereafter. Stringfellow does, in fact, concede there may be some sort of personal postmortem survival, but he insists that whatever this might entail, resurrection categorically bespeaks something altogether different -- something "wholly other," we might say in Barthian terms. In fact, he worries that obsessing with the putative reality of such near-death experiences can lead one to neglect the gift of life in this world. Such preoccupations can assume a morbid quality that hardly befits and affirmation of the new creation. He continues, trenchantly:
That is more than an escapist doctrine, feigning to justify withdrawal, default or cowardice so far as life in this world is concerned; it issues in idolatry of death. And its denial of the efficacy of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is tantamount to blasphemy (139).
Stringfellow writes from personal experience here. He was a close friend and counselor of the notorious Episcopal Bishop, James Pike, the outspoken revisionist theologian and social critic. Pike eschewed Trinitarian language and denied the virgin birth but, perhaps more to the point, he called out the church for its hypocrisy vis-a-vis the civil rights struggle. Several efforts by church leaders throughout the 1960s to try him for heresy never came to fruition. In fact, Stringfellow and Towne themselves co-authored two books about Pike -- one about the bishop's heresy case and, later, a biography titled The Death and Life of Bishop Pike (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976). The bishop's intense life ended in double tragedy: He was found dead in the Judean wilderness while researching a book on the historical Jesus. Earlier he had pursued a frenetic quest to make contact with his deceased son, Jim, who died of a drug overdose. The grief-striken father, Stringfellow and Towne concluded, had been "importuned" and manipulated by unscrupulous spiritualists and mediums.

Stringfellow rejects any vain imaginings that would trivialize the meaning of resurrection. If we focus on what he denies, however, it is easy to miss what he affirms. I confess that for several years I read in such passages as this one a kind of capitulation to modernist agnosticism, the theological variety of this seeming to me to be the most insidious type of all. Resurrection means how I live this life -- and that's all? Does the image of Berrigan in Danbury prison replace the empty tomb and final judgment? Sometimes I have even thought I was done with Stringfellow altogether.

Then, and this only just recently, I reread this passage with fresh eyes. I had not fully discerned here the lineaments of a hope that transcends my own fears of death, a trust in the God who fulfills promises (Luther). Stringfellow concludes:
Biblical faith promises the consummation of all created life, in all its range and diversity, in the end and fullness of time, and it offers images, pictures, parables, and stories characterizing that consummation (e.g., Revelation 21). There is no timetable, there are no literal descriptions, the biblical witness is no horoscope of the Kingdom. The veracity of the promise, thus, is not dependent upon prooftexts, predictions, or tests of God like those conducted in seances or similar demonstrations, but upon the witness of the risen life in this history in this world, as the Church, where the Church is faithful, and as the Communion of Saints.
I am so persuaded that the resurrection means the accessibility, for human beings, on behalf of all of life, of the power of the Word of God, which the whole of Creation enjoys in being made, overcoming the power of death here and now, that I expect the consummation eagerly (139-140, emphasis mine).
Amen.

Now that hardly sounds like reductionist this-world-onlyism to me.

The Last Judgment, by Michelangelo

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Barth’s Word to the Captives: “Saved by Grace”

In his preface to Barth’s collection of sermons preached in the company of prisoners detained in Basel Prison, John Marsh claims that, “if anyone has read Barth’s theology and found it difficult to understand or to accept, let him read the sermon entitled ‘Saved by Grace’; for here is truly evangelical preaching” (9). In the blurb showcased on the back of Wipf and Stock’s recent republication of Deliverance to the Captives, John Updike quotes from this sermon to draw attention to the exemplary character of this sermon collection. Therefore, I think it appropriate to offer a brief yet close reading of “Saved by Grace” to examine not only Barth’s proclamatory technique, but to also draw from it insights as to how Barth’s theology can be appropriated in our contextual preaching practices.

“Saved by Grace” is yet another one of Barth’s “infamous” one-verse sermons, but in contrast to some of Barth’s early preaching, what we see in this 1955 sermon is a deep Biblical imagination at work as he crafts his words around the theme of salvation (as opposed to what could be called an existential imagination on display in his early sermons in Safenwil. See sermon preached on April 29, 1917, on 2 Peter 3:12a). Barth is clearly drawing on the deep world of scripture for the content of his sermon; although only referencing directly one verse (though he also quotes without attribution Matthew 7:7 at the end of the sermon), he has the entire salvation history from Creation to Eschaton in view. Barth employs Ephesians 2:5 in a manner akin to a rhetorical device (by my count, variations on “By grace you have been saved!” occur thirteen times). This is a purposeful strategy by Barth to get his listener to assent to the idea that when we gather on Sunday morning, “everything...is but an answer to this word [Ephesians 2:5] spoken to us by God himself” (36). Everything in the sermon, everything in our worship, everything in the lived life experience of a Christian, flows from the proclaimed promise, “By grace you have been saved.”

Four moves stand out and should be considered for conversation. First, Barth masterfully implies and operates under the assumption that he and the prisoners comprise the Church, which is nothing more or less than “the company of Christians, of human beings called and willing to listen together to the bible and through it to the word of God” (36). Their material location (as many behind physical bars, as one free to come and go as he pleases) is not determinative of their status as Church. Their gathering together as Christians is “needed” to spread this word of God “among us” (37). All need to hear this word from God. From the start of this sermon, Barth moves to stress their commonalities, a feature which will continue as he posits that all are captive to sin, and all are free in Christ, because “by grace [we] have been saved.”

Barth moves then to emphasize a common imprisonment by sin, a motif he stresses continuously. I find that Barth here is being deeply contextual, addressing his hearer both as prisoner behind bars and prisoner to sin, and not excluding himself as one imprisoned. We are all prisoners, according to Barth. “Believe me, there is a captivity much worse than captivity in this house. There are walls much thicker and doors much heavier than those closed upon you. All of us, the people without and you within, are prisoners of our own obstinacy, of our many greeds, of our various anxieties, of our mistrust and in the last analysis of our unbelief.” Yet common sin leads to personal grace. “Into the depth of our predicament the word is spoken from on high, ‘By grace you have been saved’!” Barth employs powerful imagery -- salvation is like a log being pulled from a burning fire! -- to drive home that we can be saved from the sin which imprisons us. “Yes you, yes we!” One can almost hear the verbal staccato, the rising of the preacher’s voice (37). It is Jesus who saves us. “He is the Word of God for us” (38). And this word is? “By grace you have been saved.”

From here Barth shifts into his Lake Constance illustration:

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down, horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider (38).

What I like about this illustration is that it is short, serves its purpose well, and doesn’t draw attention to itself but to the greater theological point Barth is trying to make. Lake Constance brings Barth to the cross. Imprisoned by sin, yes, yes we were, but now because of Jesus we are saved, and there is no turning back. We know the perilous road we have traveled only in hindsight, only once we find ourselves at the foot of the cross and receive the grace which saves us. “Look at our Saviour and at our salvation!” Look to God on the cross, not the icy lake we just crossed. Barth directly addresses his listeners:

Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our sake--because of our sin -- sharing our captivity [again note the prison reference] -- burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross (38).

Turn to God, and be free, because by this grace, the grace of Christ on the cross, we have been saved.

Then comes, surprisingly to me at least, an application phase of the sermon. When I think of Barth, application is not the first thing that comes to mind. But it is entirely logical that Barth turns to prayer, because if all we do is a response to the gift of grace, prayer is thus our first and necessary response to the Word, prayer is our first and constant application. And, strikingly, our prayer is not for our salvation. Our salvation is accomplished, Barth says, regardless if we pray for it or not. Barth closes his sermon with a challenge that our prayers not be for our salvation, but that we may pray to become more and more formed into the image of Jesus. Prayer is to be offered:

to believe, to accept, to let it be true for us, to begin to live with this truth, to believe it not only with our minds and with our lips, but also with our hearts and with all our life, so that our fellowmen may sense it, and finally to let our total existence be immersed in the great divine truth, by grace you have been saved, this is to be the concern of our prayers (41).

What could his original audience hear but the truth that even if in a physical prison, we are free to be immersed in the free and freeing grace of God, empowered to shine like a star in the night, humans saved by God on the cross so that we can be like Jesus. “No human has ever prayed for this in vain” (41).

In this sermon, Barth preaches gospel, not law, salvation, not perdition, deliverance, not captivity. His sermon is an invitation to live into hope. As the late Donald Capps wrote in one of his last published articles, in Barth’s view, “although his listeners are incarcerated for crimes that they have committed, we all, in effect, are living in prison houses of our own making and are in no less need of the liberating gospel promises based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Barth challenges the 21st century reader of the sermon to discover solidarity with the prisoner behind Basel’s bars by acknowledging the reality of sin that binds us together, and the free, overwhelming gift of Jesus Christ that which, that who delivers us all from our captivities.

This is a most excellent sermon, and most deserving of the praise Updike and Marsh assign to it. If anyone ever asks me how Barth’s theology can preach, I will point them towards “Saved by Grace.”

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Monday, October 19, 2015

What Am I Reading? Kevin Diller on “Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma”

This is an important book.* For evidence of this claim, one need only consult the back cover and the blurbs from an intellectually diverse group of scholars who laud the work as . . . well . . . important.

Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (IVP Academic, 2014).

Before I move on to further reflection, let's be clear on what this book is trying to do. Diller expresses the titular dilemma thus: "Christian theologians are required to adopt a high view of theological knowledge while also maintaining a low view of the unaided capacities of the human knower to secure such knowledge" (17). For Diller's money, the tendency is to emphasize one or the other of these. Such a move then results in unhelpful consequences. But never fear, Diller tells us, because it is possible to cut this Gordian knot by drawing on the work of Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga since "each provides a deeply cogent and theologically faithful response to the epistemological grounding problem in their respective disciplines but also that their responses are compatible and complimentary" (21). Consequently, Diller speaks in the second part of the book (after explicating each of these figures) of a "Barth/Plantinga" model or position with which he (Diller) is working. Anyone familiar with the broad scope of Reformed Christianity in North America, and with the challenges of theological epistemology, will recognize that any serious attempt to do what Diller sets out to do - and his attempt is, indeed, serious - would make for an important book.

That said, this was also a hard book for me to read.

Now, let me allay your fears. The book is very well written and clearly argued, even if the argument is complicated, multifaceted, [supply your favorite related term here], etc. But Diller writes well and clearly, and non-specialists will be able to profit from this book even if they may be forced to read slowly.

So I do not mean that this book is hard to read. No, it was hard for me to read.

Have you ever had the experience of reading a book that was very well done (which, as I’ve already intimated, this one is) and yet crucially just enough different from your own position to be the intellectual equivalent of fingernails scratching on a chalkboard? I have. This wasn’t the first time, but it was the most recent.

I’ve turned this over in my mind, and I’ve come to the conclusion that where I beg to differ from Diller is in his understanding of faith. This is not to say that I think his way of treating faith is incorrect. Far from it – his treatment has many salutary aspects. It is, however, distorted by the absence of one very important consideration: namely, the event-character of faith. Diller talks about faith as a gift. No argument. This gift involves a cognitive process. Sure. That cognitive process pertains to content, which he calls “deliverances.” Fair enough (although I have some serious reservations about this bit as well and would want to be very careful in determining precisely what these "deliverances" are). And all this can and must be positively related to the function of human reason somehow. Most certainly.** But faith is also – and, I would argue, first – an event. Faith is primarily something that happens to you. When it does happen to you, it kicks into gear a cognitive process that involves all sorts of creaturely factors including our material conceptualities – supplied by our communities, by scripture, etc. But all of this is secondary and derivative of faith’s event-character. It is all part of the entirely human response to God’s self-revealing activity, coordinated with it but different in kind. Furthermore, faith is something that happens for you not only once for all, but also again and again. Any account of the "more and more" in faith - the epistemological form of which is what I take much of Diller's work to be concerned with, at least in terms of providing a theoretical foundation for it - must be treated asymmetrically.

Perhaps another way of putting this is to say that Diller's reading requires a neo-Orthodox Barth rather than a dialectical Barth.

This has wide-ranging implications. It complicates many of the connections that Diller tries to forge between Barth and Plantinga, as well as the (in my view) somewhat too facile association of Barth’s thinking on these matters with folks like Kuyper and Bavinck. It also has consequences for Diller’s engagement with the questions of natural theology, apologetics, the place and importance of propositions in knowledge of God, and the doctrine of scripture (spoiler on this last point: Diller represents his unified Barth/Plantinga position as a “qualified inerrancy,” suggesting that this position has room both for those who do and do not think the biblical texts make what in common speech would be called factual mistakes, and himself [Diller] affirming that he has not seen any convincing evidence of such mistakes).

All of this is spoken as, admittedly, something like an unusually radical “Barthian,” and none of this is meant to take away from Diller’s accomplishment – which is very real and deserves to be engaged at first hand. As a certain kind of Reformed evangelical writing for others of his tribe, Diller has perhaps provided a tempting gateway drug to dialectical theology. If this encourages more such people to read Barth less defensively, so much the better and I commend him for it. But I’ll cross my fingers and hope that they all eventually get hooked on the hard stuff.

So I encourage you, gentle readers, to get your hands on a copy and check it out for yourselves. And I’ll be posting a time or two in the future to highlight some especially interesting sections, as is my wont. But I had to get this off my chest . . .

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* My thanks to IVP Academic for providing me with a review copy.

** I abstain from providing page citations because Diller’s indices are absolutely first-rate.

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

In Memory of Helmut Gollwitzer on the 22nd Anniversary of his Death

Helmut Gollwitzer—student and friend of Karl Barth, prisoner of war, pastor, activist, and public theologian—died on this day 22 years ago. It was a shockingly ordinary death that came at the end of what was anything but an ordinary life.

As regular readers here at DET know, I am currently working on a book on Gollwitzer. Indeed, I have been working on it for some time. My hope is to introduce Gollwitzer and his work to a North American context that has much to learn from his life and thought. I am currently in the drafting stage, and so Gollwitzer’s legacy has been laying even more heavily than usual on my mind. As such, I wanted to take this moment to commemorate him.

By Stiftung Haus der Geschichte (2001_03_0275.4240) [CC BY-SA 2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

If you don’t know much about Gollwitzer, I recommend to you his two volumes of sermons that have been translated into English: The Dying and Living Lord, The Way of Life.

But if you don’t want to wait for those books to ship to you, there are a number of things that I have written about Gollwitzer that you can access online. See the links below.


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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Ripped from the Headlines? Barth's Bremen Sermon (pt. 3)

Note: I've taken a long hiatus -- a few months, actually -- from this series. But I haven't forgotten about it and am ready to pick it up again. If you'd like a refresher, you can review my previous posts,  part 1 and part 2.

Karl Barth's theological existence was fully engaged with the world, and we should expect no less in terms of his ministry of preaching and homilectical instruction.
Raphael, "St. Paul Preaching in Athens"
In the evangelical sermon, as Barth understood it, the content of the biblical text and the lived contexts of its readers, auditors and interpreters should interpenetrate each other, within the free agency of the living Word; how this happens, though, is not necessarily self evident.

Barth explores this topic in a brief but tantalizing passage from his lecture cycle on preaching, delivered at Bonn University in 1932 and 1933 (on the "Actual Situation of the Text") (pp. 111-119). Some preachers may raise their eyebrows at some of the Swiss theologian's counsel -- for example, his rejection of sermon introductions; nonetheless, I've found myself warming to this material more than I expected. This passage, also, should help us clarify what Barth was attempting in his 1935 sermon at Bremen, during the weeks leading up to his departure from Germany.

The impetus of preaching, Barth reiterates, is explication of the witness to revelation, embedded -- organically, not mechanically -- in the Bible. This result ensues from a disciplined, sober and close reading of the text, rather than rhetorical bells and whistles, clever introductions and heart-rending confessions drawn from the subjective experiences of the preacher. The content of scriptural witness, though, is living and active, and extends itself into the worlds of preacher and congregation. Sound preaching entails not only explication of the text but "application" in the lives of hearers, though one must be careful in formulating the issue that way. "The preacher is not isolated when he proclaims the Word as a herald. It is part of the office to be very sensitive to the congregation and very intimately bound up with it" (p. 111). Barth continues:

The people we address are people with all kinds of anxieties and needs. It is in this very concrete situation of their earthly condition and situation that the call of Jesus Christ comes to them as people of the present age (pp. 112-113).

At first, Barth suggest that the relationship between explication and application that ensues in this situation can be described as the relationship between subject and predicate. But then he problematizes this in an interesting way. The issue is how to integrate, concretely and faithfully, "closeness to life" and "closeness to the text" (p. 113). "Each word that is to be proclaimed to the listeners must become a Word that is specifically and decisively addressed to our own present" (p. 114). This application requires courage, the willingness to risk speaking the Word within the contingencies of history. Though Barth does not invoke here a prophetic vocation in these pages, what he says does evoke that sense for me.

[P]roper application of the text demands a certain ordinary courage -- the courage that simply wants to help the content of the Word to find expression in all circumstances vis-a-vis life's external relations, a courage, then , which in obedience to the text ventures an assault on the concrete situation of life, and which is spared any responsibility for the consequences of this assault that is launched in obedience to the Word of scripture (p. 115).

More pointedly: "What the text has to say may be said unconditionally even if it costs the preacher his neck" (ibid.).

Or if not his neck, at least his job.

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Source: Karl Barth, Homilectics, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Donald E. Daniels (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1991).

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Once more on Calvin and Luther, this time with Christine Helmer

For whatever reason, reflection on the similarities and differences between Luther and Calvin has been a persistent preoccupation of my subconscious ever since I began studying theology. I’ve even blogged about it a few times, including some of Calvin’s own reflections on Luther (Bernard Cottret on Calvin and Luther; Calvin to Bullinger on Luther; Calvin to Melanchthon on Luther; and these are just the posts where this relationship is the primary theme – there are many others in which it arises indirectly).

At some level all trained theologians with an ounce of the historian in their blood (and only theologians with quite a bit more than an ounce of it are worth paying close attention to…) know that the vast majority of what gets said on this score is exaggeration, generalization, and stereotype. But we do it anyway. Why? Answering that question is one of the purposes of Christine Helmer’s article, “Luther and Calvin in Modern Protestant Theology” (in Hooker, ed., Calvin and Luther: The Continuing Relationship [V&R, 2013]). Here is how she sets up some of the ways that Luther and Calvin are often pitted against each other:

The contemporary divide, in at least the rhetoric, between Luther and Calvin is the division between them in terms of the preferred genre for theological writing. Luther is cast as an “occasional writer.” The evidence for this designation is that he wrote generally on an ad hoc basis, right in the midst of controversy, hastily composing outrageous responses to diatribes maliciously direct against him. Calvin in contrast is the “systematician.” He presented the edifice of Christian doctrines in a systematic form: The Institutes of the Christian Religion are neatly divided into four major sections, devoted to each person of the Trinity with a fourth division assigned to the church. The formal structure is then cross-divided in terms of content by the conceptual distinction between God the Creator and the Redeemer.

The difference in genre could be attributed to a difference in personality. Calvin tends to be represented as the cool one on the temperature scale . . ., while Luther is hot-blooded and hot-tempered. Calvin is the eminent Frenchman, an émigré to Switzerland, who represents the haute culture of his native land, while Luther embodies all the uncultured traits of a German peasant, from drunken mealtimes to scatological outbursts. Calvin is requested to gleefully return to Geneva, while Luther throws himself into controversy with reckless abandon, burning bridges. Calvin sets up laws that govern Christian behavior; Luther counts on an instinctual ethics based on the spontaneity that love’s indwelling in the heart causes. The choice of genre that represents one’s theology can thus be taken in the psychological terms that language expresses personality. The system privileges rationality and is identified with the one who betrays sovereign gravitas; occasional writing is correlated with one who is not master of his emotions, someone who is insufficiently differentiated from context, and can only react, not choose to act. (210–211)

All of this should be recognizable from intro to systematic or historical theology courses. The great thing about Helmer’s piece is that she immediately pivots (esp. on p. 212) and starts deconstructing this picture. For instance: Luther was trained in medieval scholastic theology, wrote a commentary on Lombard’s sentences, and functioned comfortably within the disputation. (Helmer even suggests that calumnies about Luther’s allegedly unsystematic work masks a polemic against the Roman Catholic scholasticism in which he was trained.) On the other hand: Calvin was trained as a humanist with textual rather than systematic emphasis, was a lawyer skilled in application of reason to particular issues, and close inspection of the Institutes reveals that its apparent systematicity is “a pretense.” The work “is a palimpsest, not a system.” So again, the question is: Why do we think about Luther and Calvin in these stereotypical ways?

It is not enough to blame Reformed polemics against Lutheranism. Why? Helmer doesn’t say so, but it is unthinkable that this would emerge in the 16th century. Calvin said too many nice things about Luther. (That said, the Reformed tradition is not reducible to Calvin and many of the not-Calvins at the head of the tradition had poor opinions of Luther, so there may be room for further investigation here.) Helmer does say that it can’t be the 17th century's fault because both Lutheran and Reformed theologians in that period valued and produced systems. Similarly in the 19th century: you have both Schleiermacher and Hegel and while they weren’t happy with each other, you can’t credibly accuse one or the other of not being systematic.

So, how are we to answer the “Why” question? I don’t want to steal Helmer’s thunder, but she finds the answer in the 20th century.

*cue dramatic music

Go read the essay.

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Thursday, October 08, 2015

All That Glitters: Teilhard de Chardin on Money

So does money have a spiritual dimension? If you're in a hurry, the answer is "Yes!" But if you want to know what a more eminent authority than I though about it, read on.

I recently ran across this striking passage written by the Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).
The French thinker is well known for his bold attempt to integrate a mystical Christology with the insights of modern evolutionary cosmology and anthropology. But North Americans most likely would have learned of him when the urbane and well-read Diane Chambers quoted him on an episode of Cheers. (Sorry, I can't find the quote or episode online, and I don't remember what she said. All I remember is that she made Sam look like a real doofus in that episode.)

This passage, quoted by one of Teilhard's major biographers, comes from a 1930 lecture, wherein we learn that even Jesuits, poverty vow notwithstanding, can have a taste for bling:

We may declare first of all that gold is something very beautiful in itself, something sacred, even.

(Right. I seem to remember that a story in the book of Exodus deals with that.) He explains:

Why so? Because everywhere it represents, to human beings, material energy in an easily handled form. Gold, then, equals oil, or coal, or art, or books, or a library.

(That last bit seems a little dubious to me, but I happen to know when he wasn't on scientific expedition in Cairo or Mongolia, Teilhard liked to read a bit here and there as well. When we hear Teilhard extolling the beauty of gold, we have to recall his lifelong passion for geology, the first area of study that really moved him as a child. So we'll let him continue.)

It is therefore, both the symbol and the medium of exchange of all these articles, and is thus the elementary factor of our economy. And so long as it is this, it is something wonderful.

(Nice. Something of a throwback to William Jennings Bryan -- just months after the stock market crash even.)

And yet the more it can do, the more wonderful it is, the more too...does it require caution.

(Finally. Thank you! Now I'll stop interrupting Teilhard so often.)

Gold, which is blameless so long as it is busy in service and so long as it helps along the current of humanity, becomes corrupt as soon as it stands still. It is lack of motion that makes gold -- a thing good in itself -- first fester and then infect other things. The moment that a man arrests this energy to make it serve himself, or turns it aside from its normal flow--the moment one renders it stagnant--it corrupts and becomes evil.... To abuse riches, to hoard riches, to make bad use of riches--this, I say, is not only a sin of injustice against your neighbour in need, but a sin against mankind, since for its proper life and development humanity has need of this material means in order to produce the spiritual....

The metaphor is interesting -- and telling, in the context of Teilhard's philosophy, which has a certain aversion to anything static. The meaning of cosmic and human evolution, in his view, is that it is going somewhere -- that all these processes, which now have become self-directed in human technological and cultural development, find their consistence and coherence only as they converge toward their ultimate goal (which he names the "Omega Point").

So, according to Teilhard, the positive spiritual value of money consists in the positive, other-centered uses to which it might be used. I'm not sure how this squares with current economic theory and I have some doubts about the philosophy and theology that underpin this passage. But Teilhard does seem to have articulated an insight here that resonates, at some level, with the way money is interpreted with the Gospels.

That is to say: Greed is bad.

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Source: Claude Cuénot, Teilhard de Chardin: A Biographical Study. Translated by Vincent Coldimore, edited by René Hague. (Baltimore, MD: Helicon) p. 28.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3:4–8

Malachi 3.4–8

[4] [A]nd the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. [5] “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. [6] “I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. [7] Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty. “But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ [8] “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings.”

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COMMENTARY: There are three themes or units in Calvin’s commentary on this passage that jumped out at me, so I want to highlight those for you, gentle readers.

(1) In the previous section, Calvin elaborated at some length concerning the attitude that Malachi finds in the religious establishment of his day. As I outlined there, such people believe God had given up his being as judge because God is not obviously punishing the people that the establishment see as their enemies. Calvin reads Malachi as suggesting that God maintains God’s office as judge precisely by judging these leaders. All this comes back again in the context of verse 5, where God indicates that he will come to judge his people and their leaders. Calvin gives us some great language here: “They expected God to be to them like a hired soldier, ready at hand to help them in any adversity, and to come armed at their nod or pleasure to fight with their enemies: this they expected; but God declares what is of a contrary character,—that he would come for judgment.” And judgment of whom? “They indeed wished God to put on arms for their advantage, but God declares, that he would be an enemy to them” (576). Far from coming to support the religious status quo and its perpetrators by judging those that such structures themselves judge, God will come to judge precisely those who take upon themselves the task of passing judgment. Those who claim and assert that God is on their side, those who act in the name of God but nonetheless against God, will be the ones to receive God’s judgment. This reminder is as important today as it was in Calvin’s (and Malachi’s) time. And note well that verse 5 goes on to say that when God comes, God will come quickly . . .

(2) If the members of the religious establishment expect God to act as their mercenary and be on their side, but they are mistaken, this raises the question of whose side God does in fact support. Continuing with verse 5 provides an indication: God is on the side of those that the religious establishment has defrauded: those who oppress workers, widows, orphans, foreigners, and the otherwise unjust. If Calvin had written what I’m about to show you in the last few decades, rather than centuries ago, I imagine that labels such as “preferential option for the poor” and “liberation theology” would attach themselves to his position.
For the orphans, widows, and strangers, we know, are under the guardianship and protection of God, inasmuch as they are exposed to the wrongs of men. Hence every one who plunders orphans, or harasses widows, or oppresses strangers, seems to carry on open war, as it were, with God himself, who has promised that these should be safe under the shadow of his hand. (578)
But Calvin doesn’t stop there. He returns to the theme in the context of verse 8 and its comments about robbing God with reference to “tithes and offerings.” Calvin understands this as evidence of how “openly sacrilegious” (585) the majority of folks had become insofar as “every one, bent on their own profit, neglected the temple and the priests.” But this neglect has a wider aspect as well insofar as “a part [of the harvest, the wealth produced by the community] also was required for the poor.” The consequence of all this means that depriving the needy of the support that they need amounts to withholding from God. Calvin concludes his commentary on this passage with the following, which is another word that we need to hear today (bold is mine as usual):
But we know that other sacrifices are now prescribed to us; and after prayer and praises, he bids us to relieve the poor and needy. God then, no doubt, is deprived by us of his right, when we are unkind to the poor, and refuse them aid to their necessity. We indeed thereby wrong men, and are cruel; but our crime is still more heinous, inasmuch as we are unfaithful stewards; for God deals more liberally with us than with others, for this end—that some portion of our abundance may come to the poor; and as he consecrates to their use what we abound in, we become guilty of sacrilege whenever we give not to our brethren what God commands us; for we know that he engages to repay, according to what is said in Prov. Xix. 17, “He who gives to the poor lends to God.”

(3) Verse 6 is a bulwark of the doctrine of immutability, i.e., the idea that God is unchangeable. This doctrine is intended as a comfort: since God cannot change, God will always be the highest being and – this is the critical bit – therefore able to save his people. Now, the interesting thing to me here is what Calvin does with this statement. In the theological tradition there is a tendency to interpret this notion of immutability as pertaining to God’s being: the divine being is defined by certain attributes (such as omnipotence, infinity, absolute goodness, etc.) including the attribute of immutability, which safeguards the rest by ensuring (or reiterating) their eternal persistence. But Calvin does not take this approach. Rather than emphasizing the unchangeableness of God’s being, Calvin stresses the unchangeableness of God’s will: this passage means “that God continues in his purpose, and is not turned here and there like men who repent of a purpose they have formed, because what they had not thought of comes to their mind, or because they wish undone what they have performed, and seek new ways by which they may retrace their steps. God denies that anything of this kind can take place in him” (579). The relationship of will and being, of course, is an intricate (and complicated) one. But I find it interesting (and perhaps revealing, or at least suggestive) that Calvin reaches for the one and not the other category here.

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that since thou has been pleased to choose us as priests to thyself, not that we may offer beasts to thee, but consecrate to thee ourselves, and all that we have,—O grant, that we may with all readiness strive to depart from every kind of uncleanness, and to purify ourselves from all defilements, so that we may duly perform the sacred office of priesthood, and thus conduct ourselves towards thee with chasteness and purity; may we also abstain from every evil work, from all fraud and all cruelty towards our brethren, and so to deal with one another as to prove through our whole life that thou art really our Father, ruling us by thy Spirit, and that true and holy brotherhood exists between us; and may we live justly towards one another, so as to render to each his own right, and thus show that we are members of thy only-begotten Son, so as to be owned by him when he shall appear for the redemption of his people, and shall gather us into his celestial kingdom.—Amen.

[Ed. note: I find it incredibly fitting and satisfying that an installment of this series should mark the 1000th post here at DET. It has been quite a run, and "digital theology" has changed quite a bit in the meantime. But we're still here reading, thinking, and writing about theology.]

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Thursday, October 01, 2015

What Am I Reading? Troeltsch on "The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches"

The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, by Ernst Troeltsch. Translated by Olive Wyon. (Reprint) Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960.

Some time ago, I acquired Ernst Troeltsch's 1910 classic two-volume text, a seminal work early work in the sociology and history of religion.
Troeltsch (1865-1923) served as professor in Heidelberg and Berlin as well as posts in the Prussian government. The German liberal Protestant scholar, as most of you know, was probably, next to Harnack, the preeminent theologian and historian from the history of religions school around the turn of the 20th century.

To be honest, though I've always respected Troeltsch, I've tended to approach his work with diffidence. During grad school I found his work of constructive dogmatics (The Christian Faith)a bit...tedious. Not so his seminal writings on theology and modern historical study, however, several of which are available in the the Fortress volume titled Religion in History (Edited by James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense, 1991). The critical questions Troeltsch poses for constructive theologians, even still today, are not to be lightly dismissed.

Somewhat as an act of procrastrination -- and I've been called out for this already -- I decided to take another look at Troeltsch in tandem with my increasing interest in Christian social ethics and political theology. One of Troeltsch's most accomplished advocates in the past century was H. Richard Niebuhr, whose early book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, is very much indebted to the German thinker's sociological writings. (See my post from last year). As Niebuhr notes in the preface to The Meaning of Revelation, he considered Troeltsch and Karl Barth to be his major teachers and he sought to integrate the insights from these two major thinkers, whose projects are often seen as irreconcilable.

Niebuhr wrote the introduction to my edition of Social Teaching. Despite its widespread influence in a number of fields, Niebuhr admits, reading the work cover-to-cover is not easy sledding, largely because its conclusions emerge through a meandering river of empirical studies. How many of you scholars and students have found yourself embarking on a new project because, after perusing ATLA or another database, you found that no one in the field had adequately dealt with the question animating you intellectually? This was Troeltsch's experience, and Social Teaching emerged as a series of discrete studies seeking to address a lack in the available literature.

Troeltsch was "a complex man and lived in a complex time," Niebuhr wries; yet there was an integrity to his overarching project; Troeltsch's massive interdisciplinary method was driven by an abiding desire to articulate a scientifically informed ethics. Niebuhr continues:

His practical, moral concern in the presence of pluralistic, centrifugal modern civilization is evident througout his total work. He lived and thought in the presence of the confusions and alarms, the hopes and threats that issue from class and party conflict, church and state tensions, international wars remembered and impending, from colonial imperialisms and rising nationalisms, from industrialism growing in extent and in power over the common life, from the spectacular development of the natural and social sciences, from the radical criticism of modern civilization by Marx and Nietzsche. Troeltsch, academician though he was by profession, experienced the need for ethical decision and action in this situation as the ultimate challenge (p. 8).

If any of these concerns still seem pressing a century later, we might learn to see Troeltsch as a contemporary interlocutor and not a mere museum piece in Western intellectual history.

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