Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Christian Responsibility to the New Creation: a sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25

Holocaust scholars and historians released a new study of concentration camps and ghettos in 2013. Contra the previous estimates of between 6 and 11 million deaths, the new study suggests that that number is actually much higher; likely between 15 and 20 million. Those numbers are absolutely staggering. Imagine the horror that these people had to face: being separated from their children, knowing they are going to their certain deaths; alone and scared; the torture and slavery these people were subject to for no other reason than their ethnic identity or religion or sexual orientation. Now imagine, yourselves, going through this as someone who believed in God. What kind of toll would this take on your faith? For some of us, our faith would be completely annihilated; obliterated by our horrific suffering which completely strips us of our freedom and agency. Some of us would, no doubt, maintain our faith to the very end, hopeful that God is still working.

And I think a few of us would still believe in God, but with anger and disdain. The Algerian philosopher, Albert Camus, called this “metaphysical rebellion”: someone who believes in, yet hates, God. Legend has it that on the walls of one of the cells in an Austrian concentration camp, a prisoner scribbled the words “If there is a God, he will have to beg my forgiveness.” I think, at this point in Israel’s history, this had to be what some people thought about God.

They’ve been the object of God’s wrath; they’ve suffered under the rule of so many bad kings; they’ve been enslaved in Babylon. There is no doubt that, at some point through all of this, the stories of God’s people passed down from generation to generation, slowly slipped away. By Isaiah's time, people stopped talking about the joy of YHWH's law, like the Psalmist loved to do. When the Israelites would tuck their kids in at night, they no longer told them the story about how the LORD brought them up out of the land of Egypt. Somewhere along the way, the Israelites were subjected to so much suffering, so much misfortune, that they forgot who YHWH really was.

Our passage this morning reminds us. In it we see the God who loves us and chose us. And just like the Israelites, we desperately need reminding. At the beginning of the text we read that God creates a new heaven and new earth; the new shall be rejoiced in and the old shall not even be remembered. Now this should sound pretty familiar to us. Paul uses this language; John uses this language. A LOT of the New Testament is one long commentary on Isaiah; Jesus even reads himself back into Isaiah. Though this does lend us a commentary on the importance of Isaiah for our interpretations of the New Testament, what’s even more important is what Jesus reads. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Christ proclaims himself to be the one who sides with the poor, the captive, and the oppressed. In other words, the God which brings the new creation and wipes away the old is the God of the powerless. Imagine how utterly powerless the Israelites were — the small, minority group which existed alongside sheer superpowers. God could have chosen to be the God of another mighty nation; a strong, fierce nation! But God didn’t choose the Israelites because they were numerous or strong or mighty — he chose them because he loved them! The God who created the universe loved, from eternity, this small group of the oppressed. It had nothing to do with their power, nothing to do with their abilities, nothing to do with anything they themselves could provide. But instead it had everything to do with what God could provide!

What a blessing, friends! What a blessing to know that we don’t have to manufacture our own hope! That our hope doesn’t rise or fall with the gross national product or the person sitting in the Oval Office! God alone brings peace and joy. God alone slakes our hunger and thirst for something more. God alone can deliver the oppressed. And God alone establishes the new creation where misfortune and suffering are not even remembered. God takes it out of the Israelites’ hands. No longer will they be forced to brace for the waves of misfortune that have crashed over them for so long.

The long description of the new creation is one long list of how God is striking misfortune from the lives of the Israelites. Children living long lives, building houses and living in them, planting vineyards and eating of them; these are all stipulations of covenants. These are the things at stake in waging a covenant with someone. And this is the reality Israel has been living with for generations. Consider the constant fear of breaking the covenant and losing your children and your home. Consider the sheer anxiety we would feel as people being subjected to a covenant made hundreds of years ago. It would be absolutely terrifying.

God creates the new heaven and the new earth because he doesn’t desire this fear and anxiety for his people. He desires a peaceful, loving existence. An existence where no one is poor and oppressed at the hands of another. An existence where the throne is occupied by YHWH's Messiah and him alone. And existence where relationships between all people are marked by love, not hate.

God alone can establish this new creation. We have no power to bring it about — not through human will or action. But we are the body of Christ. We participate in the divine life of the triune God. We are the instrument through which God works to ready the earth for the new creation. Christ is coming back but we have work to do before that can happen. And therefore we have responsibilities!

We have a responsibility to the poor and oppressed. If we want to be responsible Christians in the public realm, regardless of personal agendas or political convictions, we must have something to say about our brothers and sisters who live in fear. Fear for their bodies, fear for their families, for their dignity, for their next meal. The world is full of children, exactly like my beautiful, little baby boy, who are dying because they don’t have access to food and clean water. There are people all over the world being discriminated against because of their race and sexual orientation. We have a responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless, friends. The plight of the voiceless is, and always has been, the plight of the church.

And this responsibility isn’t always easy. It isn’t always comfortable. It can entrap us into very uncomfortable situations and conversations we often walk away from feeling vulnerable and unsure. But I encourage you, friends, to set aside those fears and allow yourselves to be led by the Spirit. This is a time for courageous dialogue and defense of the defenseless. This is a time to set aside our differences and come together in anticipation of the new creation God is working to establish and care for those on the margins.

It can be really difficult to acknowledge that these issues exist. And even when we do, it’s easy to feel like they are unconquerable because of how vastly they have penetrated our society and its systems. But we can take a stand against those parading the message which appeared on the front page of NewsWeek a few days ago: the message that says “Make America White Again.” A great theologian once said “Preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But interpret your newspaper from your Bible.” Well, this is our opportunity to interpret our newspaper from our Bible. This message and the people who perpetuate it are enemies of the gospel and the church of Jesus Christ. But we are not called to hate them. We are called to love them and that includes correcting. This is our opportunity to take a stand for the oppressed when that co-worker makes a racist remark at the water cooler or when we hear someone engaging in this kind of rhetoric. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.

The love of God has moved each of us. We are forever changed because we have been loved long enough and fiercely enough that we might offer ourselves to God. Upon offering ourselves to God, we become the instruments through which God loves the world and we are called to love this world, through word and act, deeply and heavily. We have a responsibility to the new creation, friends. Let us arise, and get to work. Amen.


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Monday, November 28, 2016

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.7: The Invisibility of the Church

Seventh Question: Is the true church rightly said to be invisible? We affirm against the Romanists.

Turretin seems a little put out in having to answer this question. He makes it clear that it is a question that arises in a primarily polemic context. Roman theologians of his time claim that Protestantism is false because it did not exist prior to Luther; Protestants retort that it existed, just not visibly. This is because “the true church [is] not to be measured by an external profession or subjection to the Roman pontiff, but by faith and internal piety alone” (18.7.2). He even has a nice quote from Bellarmine that seems to show agreement!

For Turretin, the church’s two-fold condition as both visible and invisible arises from the two-fold nature of God’s call: the external call made through visible instruments, and the internal call of the Holy Spirit (18.7.4). This is an interesting move because these are overlapping sets that are nevertheless unable to be reduced to either side. One might even go so far as to call this overlap between the visible and invisible church a paradoxical identity, but I digress from Turretin…

There are three ways in which we can think the church’s invisibility, according to Turretin’s schematic (18.7.5). First, there is the invisibility of form or essence; second, there is the invisibility “parts” (i.e., of the membership of the true church as opposed to the visible membership of the visible church structures); and third, there is the invisibility of the “signs” and “sacred rites” (i.e., the efficacy of the sacraments; Turretin readily admits that they are visible by their own nature). This allows Turretin to narrow the question at issue—it is the first mode of invisibility that is truly at issue. He restates the question: “Is the church, composing the mystical body of Christ, rightly said to be invisible, not by an invisibility of parts or of material or of signs, but by the invisibility of internal form and as such” (18.7.6)? In other words, Turretin focusses the question on the church’s very being (“form” or “essence” in his parlance).

It is at this point that Turretin starts giving arguments for his position, and he provides seven. Briefly: First, Turretin says that his point is proven by his discussion of what it means to belong to the church in question 4. Second, he does some quick and dirty exegesis to show that “the truth of Judaism” is also an internal, visible matter (18.7.8). Third, everything that “constitutes the church properly so called are internal and invisible: election and effectual calling, union with Christ, the Spirit, faith, regeneration and the writing of the law on the heart, the reasonable and spiritual worship” (18.7.9). The corollary is that people don’t belong to the church simply as physical beings, but they do so as spiritual beings who are “renewed by the Spirit.” Fourth, and this one is the kicker for me, “the head of the church is invisible; therefore its body also is invisible” (18.7.10). And lest anyone argue that Jesus was a physical being on earth, Turretin points out that while that is true, Jesus’s being the head of the church is not a function of his physical being. His headship is a spiritual reality, and so the church’s being as his body is also a spiritual reality. This is, in effect, the application of Chalcedonian logic to the being of the church: just as you can’t read Jesus’s divine nature off the appearance of his human nature, so also you cannot demonstrate the church’s true being by pointing to its external manifestation. This also made me think of how Barth speaks about Jesus Christ as himself the being of the church (in CD 1.1). Fifth, and this is a nice little rhetorical move, the creed asks us to confess belief in the church and, as Hebrews 11.1 says, faith deals with things unseen! Sixth, “the church is the kingdom of God” (18.7.12). We find in Turretin here the sort of realized eschatological for which the Reformed tradition is famous—namely, the idea that the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality experienced by the church as the body of Christ its head. One misses the sort or eschatological proviso that 20th century Protestant theology has been so keen to emphasize. Of course, we get citations of passages like Luke 17.21. Seventh, true worship of God is in spirit and truth (Jn. 4.23).

At this point Turretin, as is his wont, moves to explicate further sources or evidence for his position in general. Often this means that he is dealing with counter arguments. I want to briefly highlight five of these further points:

18.7.15 — Turretin brings up the “city on a hill” passage (Mt 5.14) and, in dealing with it, reveals a deep tension in the Reformed tradition: “Hence he wishes to show them how anxiously they ought to strive not to do anything which can offend men, but rather that they should diligently care that the light of their good works may shine before men that they may be influenced to glorify God.” It doesn’t seem to occur to Turretin that these good works might make folks uncomfortable, and perhaps should make folks uncomfortable.

18.7.17 — Here he uses the analogy from circumcision to baptism, saying that in each case it was not the external rite that mattered but an internal work of the Spirit. Given my work on infant baptism, I wanted to flag this.

18.7.19 — This point is interesting to me because Turretin builds of Calvin, without citing him. He’s speaking about the invisibility of faith, and argues that it isn’t important to be able to tell which people are true believers in order to identify the true church (which you can identify through the usual marks). Rather, one should exercise “a charitable judgment” with reference to those who claim to be Christians. Calvin uses this same phrase in Institutes, 4.1.8.

18.7.21 — The spectre of Mt. 16.18 rears its head, and Turretin argues that it is not Christ’s physical body that provides the foundation of the church, nor Peter’s physical existence, nor even Peter’s confession as a physical phenomenon, but rather the truth attested by this confession. Thus the foundation of the church is invisible. This ties in with point four above.

18.7.22 — This may be the best bit of the whole section, for here Turretin explains the difference between earthly kingdoms and the kingdom of God: “Hence it does not follow that if republics are always visible or consist in an external and visible government, that therefore the church must also.” Indeed, he has now argued at length that the church does not so consist. “Since its formal reason is in the mystical union of believers with Christ and with each other, the external union alone with him does not make anyone a member of the church; nay, without the latter union, true believers who dwell in separated places are members both of Christ and his church.” It is something of an extension of Turretin’s logic here, but one consequence of this – for my money – is that Reformed theology must have serious reservations about postliberalism and its turn to the culture or linguistic world of the Christian community. These are externals, and therefore not essential to the church. In theory, based on Turretin’s position, we can imagine the church taking any number of different physical / material / cultural shapes while remaining the one church because of its internal, invisible, being.


Friday, November 18, 2016

Eberhard Jüngel and Helmut Gollwitzer on Socialism and Solidarity: The Full Mon...I mean...Intro...

Something of a love-hate relationship exists between the liberation and “Barthian” theological movements. On the one hand, some proponents of the latter claim that Barth’s theology is not only contextual but liberationist, going so far as to argue that “it is indisputable that a direct line goes from [Barth] to the liberation movements and liberation theology.” On the other hand, some proponents of the former see Barth’s approach to theology as an impediment to contextual and liberationist theological approaches. James Cone is perhaps the most significant voice in this camp.

In his relatively recent book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone criticizes Barth for disconnecting theology from experience, and especially the experience of marginalized peoples: “Unless we look at the ‘facts of experience,’ . . . what we say about the cross remains at the level of theological abstraction, like Karl Barth’s Word of God, separated from the real crosses in our midst.” Cone’s criticism of Barth has stood for at least 30 years. In the preface to the 1986 edition of his A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone makes clear that he has moved beyond the “neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth.” Such theology is problematic because it appeals to an “‘abstract’ revelation” that is “independent of human experiences, [and] to which theologians can appeal for evidence.” Cone argues instead that “God meets us in the human situation, not as an idea or concept.”

A core aspect of Cone’s criticism concerns the relationship between theory and praxis. While Barth did not approach the issue in these, preferring more strictly dogmatic discourses, certain of those who have sought to do theology “after” Barth in constructive dialogue with his legacy have found it necessary to speak in these terms. Among the most prominent of these are Eberhard Jüngel and Helmut Gollwitzer, who typically represent opposing sides in the reception of Barth’s theology. Providing a comprehensive survey of Jüngel and Gollwitzer’s discussions of the relation between theory and praxis is too large a task to take up here. Instead, I will conduct a case study on the subject by focusing on an exchange of papers between them in the 1970s on the topic of political theology. First, I will explicate the essay from Jüngel that precipitated this exchange with Gollwitzer. Second, I will analyze the discussion that unfolds between the two theologians, highlighting the key themes of socialism and solidarity as they emerge. Third and finally, I will offer a concluding reflection on the distance between how Jüngel and Gollwitzer relate theory and praxis as seen in this exchange. We will see that Gollwitzer binds theory more tightly to praxis than does Jüngel.

[Ed. note: This is the full introduction from the paper that I'll be presenting later today at the Jüngel study group at the American Academy of Religion. Time restraints required that I only present a small portion of it.]


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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Coda on the Kingdom: Beginning at the Ending with Weiss' Eschatology

Johannes Weiss is justly famous for his role in bringing and end to the naivete of 19th century historical Jesus research. He constructed a plausible and compelling portrait of Jesus as an uncanny apocalyptic prophet that contrasted sharply with the Jesus of the liberal Protestant Zeitgeist -- that is, the popular image of the Nazarene as a conveyor of timeless wisdom and an enlightened ethical ideal based on the fatherhood of God and the siblinghood of all people (so Harnack).

Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom by Johannes Weiss. Ed. R. Hiers & L. Holland (Fortress, 1971).

In his conclusion, Weiss conveniently sumarizes his findings (pp. 129-131).
Johannes Weiss, with a child (Heidelberg, 1914)
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
My interest here is not to analyze his historical argument in detail, but a brief summary will help sharpen the constructive theological challenge his short work poses: According to Weiss, Jesus believed that the messianic end-time was imminent, and the signs of the future-yet-inbreaking Kingdom were manifest in supernatural victories against the realm of Satan. Against many interpreters before him and after him, Weiss insists that kingdom is not present -- say, in the faith of believers -- but is yet to come (in NT jargon, this position is called "consistent eschatology"). Jesus cannot bring in the kingdom; only God can do so. After a great cosmic conflagration that brings history as we know it to an end, God will establish Jesus as the "Son of Man" predicted in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel. Jesus eschewed any speculations that would fix the date of the end, but he remained convinced it will occur within the lifetime of most of his hearers. The disciples will become the viceroys of the new kingdom, ruling even the angelic spirits. At the end will come a great and terrible day of judgment, in which the dead will be raised to new life and God will separate the righteous from the unrighteous (recall Matthew 25). A restored Palestine will be the seat of divine rule over the nations, divided under the restored 12 tribes. Peace and justice will trump all sin and sorrow, under the Lordship of God, through his exalted Messiah.

Weiss' conception of the apocalyptic kergyma of the historical Jesus was incongruous with the ruling paradigm of the liberal Protestant world. Forged in the interface between Scheleiermacher's pietism and Kant's ethical idealism, theologians in the school of Albrecht Ritschl (who happened to be Weiss' faither-in-law), conceived the Kingdom as a commonwealth of peace and justice ensuing from the inner personal transformatoin of believers. The Kingdom of the great liberal heritage was seen and an ideal and project that humans would realize in this world, whereas Weiss presented Jesus' original preaching as imbued with ineluctable mystery, cataclysmic supernatural and natural events and absolute divine transcendent sovereignty.

Curiously, although he broke from the regnant interpretation of Christian origins, Weiss maintained his liberal, Ritschlian credentials in the realm of constructive theology. The end result is fairly negative, at least in terms of the normativity of Jesus' messianic consciousness and guiding worldview: Jesus' Kingdom vision, in the setting of its ancient worldview, cannot be retrieved -- at least not directly. The modern believer inevitably must need part with the Savior over the meaning of the Kingdom. The modern Protestant worldview cannot accommodate the eschatology of primitive Christianity:

We no longer pray, "May grace come and the world pass away," but we pass our lives in the joyful confidence that this world will evermore become the showplace of the people of God" (p. 135).

Eschatology becomes personalized, for Weiss, and the apocalypse is transposed into an expectation (or hope) for unending life beyond this world.

The world will further endure, but we, as individuals, will soon leave it. Thereby, we will at least approximate Jesus' attitude in a different sense, is we make the basis of our life the precept spoken by a wise man or our day: "Live as if you were dying" (p. 136)
Thus, Weiss, argues, we may no longer hope for a kingdom that brings a literal and dramatic close to this present evil age, but we can hope to be united in love with the faithful throughout eternity.

Unsurprisingly, Weiss' conclusions did not prove satisfying for everyone. It became apparent (to some thinkers) that he had not gone far enough. Albert Schweitzer, himself also cut from the cloth of Kantian idealism, stressed the discontinuties between Jesus and the liberal theologians in even more striking terms. Some would offer an even more radical critique and retrieval of eschatology -- a view that perserved the alterity of divine transcendence while refusing to historicize eschatology in terms of concrete, literal, supernatural events. Thus the "theology of crisis was" born, and the dead end posited by Weiss became, for some, the occasion for a new beginning.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Christiane Tietz’s "Theologian of Resistance: The life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer" - A guest review by Lauren Larkin

Christiane Tietz’s book, Theologian of Resistance: The life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is a great addition to the current landscape of American Bonhoeffer scholarship. It’s also a much-needed correction to current misconceptions and misappropriations of Bonhoeffer in American evangelical Christianity. Tietz’s economical discussion of Bonhoeffer’s life makes writing this book review difficult. I very much just want to say, “It’s 121 pages, just go read it. Trust me, you’ll love it.” But that would be the “cheap” rather than “costly” path…

Tietz’s approach is to track Bonhoeffer from birth to death while documenting how his life and thought fit his historical context. She deftly pulls three threads with equal tightness to give the reader a complete picture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: the historical facts of Bonhoeffer’s life, the socio-political events of Germany from 1933-1945 (the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich), and Bonhoeffer’s intellectual / theological development. Bonhoeffer in Tietz’s hands does not float free from his particular place and time. As a scholar, she rightly refuses to twist Bonhoeffer to fit a certain agenda. Her concise historically sensitive treatment of Bonhoeffer is refreshing.

Apart from chapter one--which is a fly-by overview of the first 17 years of his life covering: his family of origin, relatively happy childhood, and education up to deciding to study theology--the bulk of the book is broken in to brief time periods that have significance for Bonhoeffer personal and intellectual development. Here are the chapter titles:
Chapter Two: The Return from Tübingen to Berlin, 1923-1927
Chapter Three: Wider Horizons, 1928-1931
Chapter Four: Beginnings, 1931-1932
Chapter Five: The Beginning Church Struggle, 1933
Chapter Six: Pastor in London, 1933-1935
Chapter Seven: Director of a Preacher’s Seminary, 1935-1937
Chapter Eight: The Path into Illegality, 1937-1940
Chapter Nine: The Conspiracy Period, 1940-1943
Chapter Ten: Prisoner in Tegel, 1943-1945
Chapters two through four describe Bonhoeffer’s coming of age as a theologian: he earns his doctorate and post doctorate degrees, travels abroad (to Barcelona and New York), and begins his professional career (in the pastorate and the university) in 1931/2. Concurrently, the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) also comes of age: “in the July and November 1932 elections it reached 37.4 and 33.1 percent becoming the strongest force in the parliament” (p. 35). Bonhoeffer’s early adulthood and career are formed against the backdrop of the burgeoning NSDAP. Thus, chapter five is the hinge chapter of the book. Covering just one year, 1933, we see Hitler named Reich Chancellor, the state begin to put pressure on the church, the church divide under tension, and Bonhoeffer start to speak out. Chapters six through ten tease out the rest of Bonhoeffer’s life, which he increasingly lives as a theologian of resistance in direct conflict with the NSDAP. Notably, it’s during this latter part of his life that he produces the works, Discipleship (1937), Life Together (1939), Ethics (published posthumously by Eberhard Bethge in conjunction with his letters from prison, in 1949), Resistance and Submission (or Letters and Papers from Prison, also published posthumously by Bethge, in 1951), and Love Letters from Cell 92 (1992 in Germany and 1995 in the US). Bonhoeffer died on April 9, 1945, “only one month before the end of the war” (p. 110).

Bonhoeffer’s time-line mirrors the NSDAP’s timeline so perfectly that it is hard to resist the suspicion that he intentionally constructed his life to that end. Was it Bonhoeffer’s purpose to come of age personally and intellectually in the crucible of the tension between the State (the NSDAP) and the church in order that he would be the theologian of the not so distant past who demands that we, theologians of the present, not be seduced by the warm water that is our theological and political contentment? Such thoughts are undoubtedly selfish, and I know that the answer is a substantial: No. His life and thought certainly did have a significant purpose for his place in history. However, I can’t shake the feeling that his life and his thought—his voice—was one that was intended to have a timeless quality so that he would forever have something to say to us in our present, whenever that present may be. As Tietz writes in the Epilogue:
Faith and theology, for [Bonhoeffer], were not private or academic mental games; they had existential significance and immediate effects on action. The reverse was also true: Bonhoeffer constantly allowed his own faith and theology to be challenged by the circumstances of his life. He reexamined his own ideas and convictions when they no longer seemed suited for new situations. It was more important to him that his thought corresponded to reality than that he maintain some theological system. (p. 118)
While, Bonhoeffer’s example primarily demands that we be better theologians, it also demands that we be better neighbors in community as the church together and also as the church that is “‘there for others,’” also in no small part by “[reminding] the state of its duty to care for justice, order (and peace)” (p. 119).
Because its primary task stand outside the political realities, the church is able to remind the state of its own task. The Church should “keep asking the government whether its actions can be justified as legitimate state actions, that is, actions that create law and order, not lack of rights and disorder…. This does not mean interfering in the state’s responsibility for its actions; on the contrary, it is thrusting the entire burden of responsibility upon the state itself for the actions proper to it.” (p. 119–20)
Bonhoeffer is not a weapon to be wielded in our contemporary political battles. His life and his thought affirm neither mainstream American liberal politics nor mainstream American conservative politics (and especially not evangelical conservative politics). Rather, his life and his thought is that splash in the face of very cold water that jerks us back into reality, causing us to look around and ask questions (of the state, of the church, of others, and of ourselves). According to the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theological and political contentment is no longer a viable option for us. It’s time to wake up.

Maybe now’s a good time to say, “Just go read this book. Trust me, you’ll love it.”

[Ed. note: Lauren R. E. Larkin is a doctoral candidate at Universität Zürich in Systematic Theology and Social Ethics. She regularly contributes to theological blogs: Mockingbird, Key Life, and She is one half of EzerUncaged.]


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Friday, November 11, 2016

Back with Barth at Bremen: The Binding that Frees

Many months ago, I began a series of posts exploring a sermon Karl Barth preached in Bremen, Germany, in 1935, shortly before he repatriated to his homeland, Switzerland. The National Socialists were consolidating their grip on government and society. The leadership of the official state churches had capitulated to Hitler. After passing the groundbreaking Barmen Declaration (whose principal author was Barth) in 1934, members of the Confessing Church movment were seeking to discern the best path toward faithful opposition. (For some of the backstory, see my firstsecond, and third posts.) To be honest, I found the whole series kind of daunting, for a variety of reasons, and I put it aside for a while but I have wanted to dive a little more deeply into this text and probe its implications -- for Barth, for his original audience, and for us.

The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, trans. Chrisopher Asprey, ed. Kurt I. Johanson (Regent College, 2007).

Broad iron chain, by Toni Lozano
(Creative Commons, via Wikimedia)
I have extra incentive too: Kurt Johanson not only sent me a copy of the two-sermons volume; he also gave me access to the German text of the Bremen sermon.*

The sermon text is Matthew 14:22-33, the pericope in which Jesus walks toward his terrified disciples, who are sitting in a boat on the Lake of Galilee. The scene begins:
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he sent the multitudes away (v. 22).

According to Barth's gloss of this pericope, the disciples are under orders -- orders that they don't even understand and orders that are less than welcome. So too it is with us.

This tells us that the church of Jesus Christ is the place where there is a bond (Bindung) which regulates human activity, a bond which cannot be debated over, which we have not chosen for ourselves, and from which we cannot release ourselves, but on the other hand a bond in which we also have the security and consolation which enable us to go on our on way as we should (p. 46).

The word Bindung is etymologically related to the German thelogical term translated as "covenant" (der Bund). For me, this passage evokes Barth's rich theological account of how we are woven into a saving covenant bond with God through Christ and, concommitantly, can meet the world in radical openness, as a people utterly unfettered -- a binding that frees us to embrace and enter the struggles of the world. Perhaps the mature covenant theology that we find especially throughout volume IV of The Church Dogmatics is not yet fully formed at this point. Maybe my chain of thought is a bit of a stretch here. But maybe we are seeing seeds that will come to fruition later in Barth's work.

Being bound to Jesus Christ alone is not merely a matter of conventional piety; it has ethical and political ramifications. These implications may be beneath the surface in the Bremen sermon, but I believe a careful reading -- a reading that attends to the original context -- can ferret them out.

Disciples of Jesus are people who are answerable to Jesus and precisely for that reason answerable to no one else, people who are entirely bound (ganz gebundene), and precisely for that reason and in that bond, free people (ibid.).

But what does it mean to be free in this peculiar sort of way? Stay tuned, and we shall see.

* Barth's Bremen sermon was published in Fürchte Dich nicht! Predigten aus den Jahren 1934 bis 1948 (Munich, Germany: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1949), pp. 18-31.


Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Standing Rock, Capitalism, and Ontological Violence – A Christian Response to the Dakota Access Pipeline (Guest Post by Richard Allen)

At the time of this writing, violence is erupting on the plains of North Dakota. In response to protests from indigenous peoples and their fellow supporters to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, private security and local police forces have viciously defended their (prized) construct. Violence is erupting, almost exclusively on the part of the state in response to peaceful protests, but is it confined to the clashes between protester and the state? No—what we witness on the plains of the Standing Rock Reservation is violence, and one of ontology.

The pipeline in question is, on the surface, just another pipeline. It is one of hundreds elsewhere in this country, existing to serve an ostensibly simple purpose: the transportation of crude material for the fossil-fuel industry. It is, arguably, nothing special. Therefore, it is easy to relegate the Standing Rock protests to the binary of “environmentalism versus the free market.” Yet, this binary is the product of the capitalist framework in which these crises erupt. By relegating the protests to questions of mere public policy outside the bounds of ideology (e.g. whether or not the construction satisfies the public and private “interests”), any ability to address the construct which, by nature, thrives upon crisis to substantiate its control over society, disappears from our grasp. We must deconstruct and escape this framework to ascertain the metaphysical violence at work.

By Desiree Kane [CC BY 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
In short, the Dakota Access Pipeline is ontological violence because it is violence directed against the communal good by proxy of the pipeline, which has a state of being all its own. Its presence is far more than a physical construct—it is a metaphysical presence to both its constructors and its protesters. Far from being just another pipeline, it is representative of the capitalist abuse of land and people for the sake of profit. Supporters of the pipeline contend that increased access and efficient transportation of crude material will benefit “everyone” because of our collective dependence on fossil-fuel. Thus it should be no surprise that the state and the business class responds to these protests with such force—the pipeline is the ontological manifestation of their ideology, the object of their desire. For capitalists and the liberal state—which has no interest in limiting the inherent greed of the free market—the pipeline is the necessary tool by which increased profit and increased control of the market will arise. For the protesters, the pipeline is the instrument of death and encroachment upon a way of life. The pipeline is ontological and metaphysical violence.

Is there a Christian response to such violence? How should we understand this tension between the individualism and greed of our capitalist framework, with the abject necessity for the communal good? To the ontological dimension of the pipeline, is there a Christian response?

Let us be clear on this fact from the onset: Individualism has no place within the Christian tradition. Thus, ideologies which thrive upon exploitation of the communal good for the sake of the powerful one (or the fortunate few) are to be rejected. The psalmist declares that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Ps. 24:1-2), so to some extent, it could be argued that none of the land or its resources are “ours” to control, only something to steward. Furthermore, God views the abuse of the land and its people as sin:

As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? (Ezekiel 34:17-19)

The sin at work is the disregard of others for the sake of individual benefit. The pipeline is a physical manifestation of this vice, the vice of greed, made immanent and tangible. Simultaneously, by its own ontology, it ignores the plight of the people who depend on the land for sustenance, and disregards the land itself which survives by the work of the people it sustains; the two are inextricably linked. Likewise, consider the prophet Isaiah, speaking to the unrepentant Hebrew people:

Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land! The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing; Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah. (Isaiah 5:8-10)

Our current framework relegates land and people into objects for control, turning land into property for exploitation, and people into consumers (or obstacles)—there is no nuance or variance to be discerned. Thus, just as God responded to the abusive rich who horded the land only to find themselves—and their “property”—struck by ruin, Christians must resist the very ideology and the systemic propagation of this ideology. It is not enough to be “spiritually” opposed or distantly sympathetic—violence on this scale necessitates a tangible response.

By Shane Balkowitsch [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Resistance, however, should not be representative of the violence on the part of the state and the business class. Saint Paul admonished his churches to “overcome evil with good,” and what is good will never be indicative of evil. Protests, participation in our democratic process via legislation and elections, and material support of those most immanently affected by the pipeline—and others like it—are practical, God-honoring ways to uphold the value of the communal good, while not forgetting the individuals involved.

Standing Rock deserves our attention because it illuminates the policy-level, surface tension between the interests of the “free market” and the communal good; that the pipeline construction violates legal treaties is one example of this. But more importantly, it illustrates in very graphic terms the consequences of ideology hell-bent on the accumulation and control of material wealth. The resistance on the part of the state and private security firms to the peaceful protests are indicative of this metaphysical objectification of the pipeline. As mentioned previously, the pipeline is far more than a pipeline—it is the metaphysical actualization of greed and exploitation. The response from both sides is visceral simply because the ontological violence at work is egregiously potent.

The Christian response, borne out of a tradition which upholds the communal good as God-honoring, must be one of solidarity and peaceful resistance alongside our brothers and sisters who depend upon and revere the land for its life-giving potential.

[Ed. note: Richard M. Allen is a student at Regent University, pursuing a degree in Theological & Historical Studies. He writes on the intersections of Christian theology, postmodern philosophy, literary theory, and radical politics. You can follow him on Twitter: @rma_mt]


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Monday, November 07, 2016

What Am I Reading? Garry Wills’s “Font of Life”

So there I was, lecturing away on Augustine and his influence on the developing Christian tradition, when a student question stopped me in my tracks: “That Ambrose guy sounds pretty cool. What more can you tell us about him?” (paraphrase)

It turned out that the answer to that question at the time was: “Not very much!” But I have since remedied that situation with some further reading, including Gary Wills’s tidy volume, Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, & the Mystery of Baptism.

This has been an eye-opening read. For instance, I discovered that I have for years been beholden to an outdated view of Augustine’s relationship to Ambrose: the traditional story of Ambrose converting Augustine is rather off base! Other figures were much more instrumental, although – as Wills discusses – the pre- and post-baptismal catechesis that Augustine received from Ambrose seems to have been rather formative. Also, it seems that Augustine didn’t even like Ambrose all that much around the time of his conversion, and only later came to a greater appreciation for him after he (Augustine) had become a bishop himself.

In any case, for more on all that you should read Wills. I read this book in two sittings: it is well written, accessible, and very engaging.

Anyway, there are three paragraphs from Wills that I want to share with you. I always tell my students to note what passages jump out at them, and these jumped for me. The first has to do with the influence of Ambrose’s catechesis on Augustine (as usual, bold is mine):

The weeks of baptismal instruction Augustine received twice daily from Ambrose were of crucial importance to him. It was his most prolonged and convincing exposure to Ambrose’s method of using the Jewish scripture in typological senses, as prefigurements of the revelation complete in Jesus. This at last cleared up a long-standing problem Augustine had with the older parts of the Bible, which he had considered a primitive muddle. . . . Much of the medieval approach to the Bible as allegory would develop from this cross-fertilization of the minds of Ambrose and Augustine on the subject of biblical typology. (p. 15)

The traditional story has Augustine having his hermeneutical problems cleared up by listening to Ambrose’s sermons prior to his baptism. But, as Wills draws on more recent historical work to show, Augustine didn’t pay particularly close attention to Ambrose prior to his pre-baptismal catechesis and seems not to have attended services with any regularity.

Anyway, on to the next paragraph. This one, which immediately follows that quoted above, describes the converging influence of Ambrose and Augustine on the developing Christian tradition:

Much of medieval Christendom in the West acquired its broad contours from what took place here. The church would learn to act according to Ambrose’s ruling patterns—his development of doctrinal rigor (especially on the Nicene Creed), the centrality of baptism, liturgical expansiveness, monastic discipline, the cult of saints, and episcopal control. And the church would learn to think with the imaginative flights and intellectual daring of Augustine. (p. 15)

I can’t help but insert a silent “for good and ill” after the first sentence of that paragraph. But hey, I’m a Protestant. (*insert Seinfeld clip: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”*)

On to the next paragraph! This one has to do with Augustine’s relationship to Ambrose while in Milan, but it has the added benefit of giving us a sense of Ambrose’s workload. Like so many of the great theologians and church leaders in the Christian tradition, Ambrose seems to have been a high-functioning workaholic.

Ambrose tended to the construction and upkeep of all his churches while he was also preaching sermons (twice daily in Lent), writing theological treatises, maintaining a far-flung correspondence, hunting for heretics, promoting Nicene bishops in other places, going on missions to the imperial headquarters at Trier, or organizing councils at home or in in Aquileia. His army of scribes, secretaries, and diplomatic agents helped fill the days of his energetic time as bishop. It is no wonder that Augustine, while he was serving as court orator to Emperor Valentinian II, felt neglected when he tried to consult Ambrose on his personal problems. Ambrose had better things to do than listen to the queries of a man who had been a protégé of Manicheans and of the pagan Symmachus in Rome. . . . On the other hand, when Augustine became an applicant (competens) for baptism, he and his fellows were the objects of the most intense care and instruction. Ambrose’s secretary-biographer, Paulinus, says that Ambrose was diligent in performing all these exercises personally, so that five men had to replace him in performing the instruction of competentes after his death. (p. 26)

Whenever I come face to face with the amount of industry involved in these earlier periods of the church’s history, I can’t help but be surprised by how much of it was devoted to the theological-spiritual instruction of the people. Just imagine the effect of hearing sermons twice a day for about six weeks! What would happen if we managed to do that today? Would the members of our churches be able to, for instance, mount such an effective protest against police authority in the streets over a period of weeks that the police finally back down? Because Ambrose’s people managed it. Only they were facing down the Roman Imperial Guard rather than a police force in a democratic state. And it’s not like we lack things that need protesting . . .


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Friday, November 04, 2016

To Hell with Death!

Several weeks ago, I attended a very difficult funeral. (But are there easy ones?) It was for a beloved friend and supervisor, whom I had worked with for the past nine years. Pancreatic cancer. Very sudden.
Sorrowing Old Man, by Vincent van Gogh
(Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
She was a holistic nutrition enthusiast and one of the healthiest people, overall, I'd ever known. Devastating. What is a little disconcerting, though, after the initial shock wears off, is how quickly one begins to adjust to the missing person's absence.

But the pangs of remembrance strike at the most unexpected moments. For me, one of those came this past weekend. I was with my 7-year-old son at a Halloween event. The kids, having loaded their bags with goodies from opened car trunks, were decked in their All Hallows' Best, and we were marching around the museum quadrangle in Springfield, Massachusetts. We tromped through the Dr. Seuss sculpture garden, and into and through the history museum, past the Indian Motorcycle exhibit and the shrine to John Brown. Blasting its way at the lead was the exuberant Expandable Brass Band, an ad hoc outfit that headlines festive events throughout the Pioneer Valley. ("You guys get around," I quipped to one of the leaders. "Yes," he replied. "That's what happens when you're in a marching band.")

The booming tuba and the crashing drums brought New Orleans funerals to my mind, and I was thrust into a reverie about the events at work over the past several weeks. "It's so unfair," a shocked friend of the deceased's family had told me at the funeral. He seems to believe (or perhaps vainly to hope) that this universe is governed by some greater moral order or karmic logic. "I don't think fairness really plays into it," I said. (At least my theology degrees are good for something.)

New Orleans funerals, though.... Now, I've never actually been to one. I did live in the Crescent City, but I was age 2 to 4, and I don't remember going to any funerals. At any rate, Cajun funerals aren't exactly in the Southern Baptist style. I used to believe a New Orleans-style funeral -- featuring a brash and brassy musical bash, complete with parade -- would annoy or even offend me. Now I crave them. I wish folks in the Northeast and elsewhere could somehow learn something from this tradition. I long to see a funeral like this jubilantly epic procession in honor of the great Allan Toussaint, who died about a year ago. Toussaint: What a wonderful name to remember this week, don't you think? Very apropos of the liturgical celebration many of our churches just observed.

I'm no cultural anthropologist, but my sense is that this style of celebration taps into a foundational, transcutltural phenomon that expresses something essential about human experience. Celebrations surrounding Halloween, the Day of the Dead, Mummers' Parades and Carnival, and (perhaps?) Purim are in a similar category, if my hunch is correct. What such transgressive celebrations have in common is that they express the only really appropriate human and humanizing reaction in the face of the power and ubiquity of death -- defiance, but with humor. Yes, death is contemptible and worthy of our mockery and our scorn.

The lawyer and lay theologian William Stringfellow went on tour with his partner, the poet Anthony Towne, trailing a circus in a station wagon as "theologians in residence" (See Bill Wylie-Kellermann, William Stringfellow: Essential Writings, Orbis, pp. 207-210). Stringfellow was obsessed with circuses and collected circus memorabilia. He considered the big top to be an image of the Kingdom of God, in that its animal tamers evoke humankind's rightful but lost dominion over creation and its trapeze artists and stunt masters defy death, literally. That's exactly right.

Many folks nowadays, no doubt with the best of intentions, tell us that death is "natural" and that is part of our vocation to reconcile ourselves to it, to make our peace with it. Rubbish. If contemporary Christian writers and preachers won't challenge this heresy, perhaps we must turn to to the philosopher Albert Camus, an agnostic (or was he?):

In a man's attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills of the world. The body's judgment is as good as the mind's, and the body shrinks from annihilation (see "The Myth of Sisyphus" and Other Essays, Vintage Books, p. 8).

To be sure, I'm not denying that death entails chemical and physiological processes; I am, though, contesting the notion that death can be identified with and reduced to these processes. I am speaking of death dialectically, and I refuse to dignify it with any positive ontological status whatsoever.

Nonetheless, I am imagining that some of you, gentle readers, object: What about the times when death is welcome -- say when it ends an elderly person's long struggle with illness and chronic pain? I get it, but I think there is a misunderstanding here. What we are affirming here is not death itself, but the end of the process of dying, for death has been exercising it's ineluctable power throughout the course of the sufferer's struggle.

All this defiance of death may be understandable, some of you might say, but isn't it ultimately futile? Each of us must eventually face this primeval beast head-on, and death always claims the prize. Fair enough. Still, I pray that when it comes for me, I may be graced to face it with a resigned yet joyful defiance, clinging to the goodness that is life. Peace with God? I pray so. Peace with others and within myself? Lord, let it be. But peace with death? Nope.

To be sure, we can't defeat death. We might hope, perhaps, that Someone else will do it for us. For all we know, maybe Someone else already has. But whether you believe in that possibility or not, I can only recommend this procedure: Don that costume, blow those trombones, feast and party, "live humanly" (as Stringfellow admonishes). And, looking death straight in the face, shout: "To hell with you!"


For Further Reading: On the subject of death, check out ...
-- These posts from other DET contributors.
-- This funeral sermon by Henry Coates.
-- My post from last year: "No Happy Mediums: Stringfellow on the 'Afterdeath'"
-- My Review of John Heywood Thomas' Theology and Issues of Life and Death, over at Jason Garoncy's fine blog.


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Wednesday, November 02, 2016

What Have I Been Reading? Dale C. Allison Jr., "Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things"

Dale Allison is one of the most unique and thought-provoking professors I had the pleasure of studying with at Princeton Seminary. In the Spring semester of 2015 I took his course on “The Bible and Religious Experience,” and I got the impression of a seasoned, yet open minded, scholar who knows how to properly think a question through to the end.

All of Dr. Allison’s quirky brilliance shines through in his 2016 book: Night Comes: death, imagination, and the last things (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing). Based on the Stone Lectures he delivered at PTS in October 2014 (which I was sadly unable to attend), Night Comes is a deeply personal and penetrating reflection on some of faith’s most perennial questions—questions like: how are we to think about death, and what (if anything) comes after? And, what might a 21st century Christian do with ideas like resurrection, divine judgment, and the world to come? Written in a conversational style, and being—at points—autobiographical, sobering, inspiring, even comical, Night Comes will make rewarding reading for scholars, pastors, and any curious soul (are we souls?) desirous of a wise and capable guide to some of life’s greatest mysteries.

One hundred and fifty pages in total, Night Comes is broken into six chapters. In the first, Dr. Allison recounts his own close brush with death when he was hit by a drunk driver at the age of 23. Historical developments in Judeo-Christian thought, as well as in science and medicine, are ushered in as food for thought as he ponders our fear of death, and our evolving perspectives on it. In chapter two, he considers what 21st century Christians might make of the idea of bodily resurrection, and he explores the question of whether we are, in fact, only bodies.

Subsequent chapters address post-mortem divine judgement (how the idea has fared socially over the centuries, as well as its place in the Bible and Christian theology); moral, psychical, and epistemological objections to eschatology and the world to come; and the history of the doctrine of hell, along with Dr. Allison’s own deep-seated antipathy to the idea. He concludes with a chapter on heaven (an addition to the original Stone Lectures). Dissatisfied with the caginess many pastors seem to have when it comes to the topic, Dr. Allison challenges them to put forth a vision of heaven that is more responsible and profound than the kitschy and dubious images that proliferate in popular culture.
"Even if great circumspection is required at every turn, the last things needn't muzzle us. There's much to ponder, much to explain, much to criticize, and much to imagine." (p. 149)
Night Comes will not disappoint. As a careful and patient thinker - with a penchant for interdisciplinarity, and a remarkable capacity to resist jumping to conclusions - Dale Allison is the ideal guide with whom to explore these age-old mysteries. Tolle Lege!


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