Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Why I love Schillebeeckx

Among modern Catholic theologians, there’s no one I like better than Edward Schillebeeckx. I pay visits to Rahner and Balthasar and Ratzinger, but I come home to Schillebeeckx.

Why do I love Schillebeeckx? There are many reasons. His whole theology is derived from a direct wrestling with the biblical texts. He has the most extraordinary way of perceiving exactly what Christian faith and practice really mean, what they really demand. In contrast both to unthinking conservatisms and sentimental progressivisms, he develops a profound and unflinching christological revision which issues in a rigorous and tough-minded theology of liberation.

Besides that, he also has the most delightfully cumbersome name in the entire history of theology – his full name is Edward Cornelis Florentius Alfonsus Schillebeeckx (and, as a novice of the Dominican Order, he added Henricus as an additional name). No one with fewer names could have written such enormous books, or written so many.

Anyway, here’s a quote:

“The crucified but risen Jesus appears in the believing, assembled community of the church. That this sense of the risen, living Jesus has faded in many [churches] can be basically blamed on the fact that our churches are insufficiently ‘communities’ of God…. Where the church of Jesus Christ lives, and lives a liberating life in the footsteps of Jesus, the resurrection faith undergoes no crisis. On the other hand, it is better not to believe in God than to believe in a God who minimizes human beings, holds them under and oppresses them, with a view to a better world to come.”

—Edward Schillebeeckx, The Church with a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1985), p. 34.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Denkwürdiges Geheimnis: Festschrift for Eberhard Jüngel

Ingolf U. Dalferth, Johannes Fischer, and Hans-Peter Großhans (eds.), Denkwürdiges Geheimnis: Beiträge zur Gotteslehre: Festschrift für Eberhard Jüngel zum 70. Geburtstag (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 653 pp. (review copy courtesy of Mohr Siebeck)

This extraordinary collection of essays was presented to the Tübingen theologian Eberhard Jüngel on his 70th birthday. For the past four decades, Jüngel has distinguished himself as one of the world’s leading dogmatic theologians, and as the most brilliant and creative of all Karl Barth’s pupils.

In their foreword, the editors offer a succinct and acute summary of the central themes of Jüngel’s theology. More than any other theologian, Jüngel “placed God’s advent at the centre of his thought. Since God comes, we must speak of him and we can think him. Without God’s advent, there would be no faith, the Christian would have nothing to say, and Christian theology could not think any truth” (p. ix).

Although God comes always “from himself, to himself and through himself,” he nevertheless comes “to the world and to humans.” Indeed, God comes “as the mystery of the world by showing himself as the human God” (p. x). And this coming of God as the world’s mystery is by no means a “worldly necessity” – on the contrary, it is “more than necessary.” God’s coming “does not follow from any conditions inherent in the world, nor does it fulfil any preceding human needs” (p. x). In other words, God is neither merely possible nor necessary for the world – instead, he is actual, since he freely comes to the world. And because God comes to the world again and again, “we must always speak of him further, and we can never be done with thinking of him” (p. xi).

This has always been Jüngel’s central concern – to engage in the difficult business of thinking God; to think God as the coming one, the one who relates to the world in sheer freedom and actuality, and therefore the one of whom we can truly speak.

In honour of Jüngel, the editors have thus gathered a massive collection of 32 new essays, all centred on the theme of “God and the thinking of God” – since this is the central theme both of all theology and of Jüngel’s entire career (p. xii).

The list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary academic theology: there are biblical scholars like Martin Hengel and Rudolf Smend; ecumenical theologians like Kasper, Küng and Lehmann; German dogmaticians like Pannenberg, Moltmann, Dalferth, Krötke and Rendtorff; as well as three leading Anglo-American theologians: David Ford, Bruce McCormack and John Webster (whose essays are written in English).

The papers collected here span several disciplines – Old and New Testament, church history, philosophy, dogmatics, practical theology, hermeneutics, world religions – but they are united by their focus on “God and the thinking of God.” Moreover, alongside the most rigorous forms of academic theology, there are essays here on preaching (together with a sermon by Rudolf Smend). This is especially fitting, since much of Jüngel’s thought has turned around the concrete situation of preaching. And while it is customary for German theologians to cap off their careers with a multi-volume work of dogmatics, it’s no accident that Jüngel’s career has culminated in several volumes of sermons – sermons which demonstrate vividly Jüngel’s underlying conviction that the God of advent truly “comes to speech” (i.e. becomes an actual event in our world) in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In sum, this volume is not only a superb tribute to one of our greatest living thinkers; it is also a profound and important contribution in its own right to contemporary reflection on the doctrine of God.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Update on the friendly appeal

Thanks to all of you who have contributed to our friendly appeal for Joey. Together, we’ve raised US$152.93, which Joey will use to buy some very nice theology books – I’ll list the titles here once he has made his order.

Meanwhile, it has been a delight to see so many leading publishers getting involved in this appeal. Joey will be receiving some fantastic donations from T&T Clark, Cascade Books, Baker Academic, IVP Academic, and Hendrickson.

Within the next few days, I’ll post the details here of all Joey’s new books. In the mean time, just to whet your appetite, here are the works which IVP will be generously donating:

Thanks again to all those who have gotten involved – stay tuned for the next update!

A very short dogmatics: eight theses

  1. “Father!” The whole of Jesus’ life, together with his death, is expressed in that one word.
  2. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the Father’s reply: “Son!”
  3. The breath by which these words are uttered is the Spirit.
  4. The Holy Trinity is the occurrence of this discourse, the history enacted in these utterances.
  5. The creation is the free and surprising opening-up of space and time by this divine discourse.
  6. The church is the community enfolded in this discourse, swept up in the breath of these utterances.
  7. The final consummation is the animation of all creatures by the breath of this discourse.
  8. All Christian speech and action therefore begin and end with the same word: “Father!”

Friday, 27 July 2007

Slavoj Žižek as theologian

In my struggle to make sense of the entertaining but baffling thinker, Slavoj Žižek, I’ve been reading several articles in the new International Journal of Žižek Studies.

One of the essays by my friend Scott Stephens offers a helpful account of the central theme of Žižek’s work. In this essay, “Žižek, My Neighbour: Regarding Jodi Dean’s Žižek's Politics,” International Journal of Žižek Studies 1:1 (2007), Scott characterises Žižek as the quintessential theologian of global capitalism.

“[T]he theological dimension of Capital is the fundamental determinant of Žižek’s work, the inert mass around which his entire conceptual apparatus orbits. The planetary metaphor here is not, in fact, entirely inappropriate. For as Jacques Lacan put it, the Real – the immutable is-ness of reality as such – is, like the stars, always-in-the-same-position (toujours à la même place). When Žižek states unequivocally that Capital is Real, he is making a serious claim about the ontology of our global situation: the specific nature of Capital demands an appropriate form of philosophico-political activity. Direct intervention inevitably gets folded back into the existing economic order, such that even the harbinger of the demise of global Capital – the threat of ecological cataclysm – can be transubstantiated into an expression of Capital itself. The only proper activity now is to think Capital, not as it actually exists, but theologically, at the level of its substance” (p. 3).

Scott thus insists that Žižek is not at all concerned with proposing an alternative political system to global capitalism. Rather, “the one question that matters” for Žižek is: “What do thinking and writing, as opposed to prescription and action, mean…?” The endless act of writing is thus itself Žižek’s politics, i.e., his theology. “If Marx was the one to analyze (indeed, to theologize) industrial capitalism, then Žižek is the theologian of late- or virtual-capitalism” (p. 4).

And speaking of Žižek and theology, you might like to check out this excellent online lecture by Žižek: “Why Only an Atheist Can Believe: Politics on the Edge of Fear and Trembling.”

Thursday, 26 July 2007

And the winner is...

The votes are in, and our friend Ann Chapin is the deserving winner of the Barth poetry contest! In second place was David Wright’s beautiful poem on Barth and Bonhoeffer.

A little Spanish theology, anyone?

I’ve been talking lately with José Luis Avendaño, a Lutheran theologian from Chile who is currently working with Latino immigrants in the United States. As a resource for Hispanic theological education, José is writing a small book (in Spanish) on Christian doctrine – and he’s interested in getting some feedback on the work. So if you read Spanish, and if you’d like to see a sample chapter of this book, please email me so that I can put you in touch with José.

Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt from an English-language talk which José recently gave on the mission of the church:

The church has generally presented two perspectives on the Christian mission: on the one hand, there is a presentation of the gospel which only encompasses the spiritual dimension of the people; and on the other hand, a presentation with an almost exclusive focus on the social dimension. In the first perspective, it is thought that the church’s only mission is to save the individual souls of people and to make them useful for the internal work of the church. However, in this way the mission of the church excludes attention to the urgent tasks and responsibilities of society, as though the only thing of interest was the “spiritual life” of the people, and not their lives as flesh and blood people living in concrete society.

On the other hand, in the opposite understanding of the church’s mission, there is commitment only to the social liberation of people from structures of political, economic and cultural oppression. Certainly, the church cannot be absent from these struggles and from the denunciation of these forms of oppression, especially when dealing with sectors of society that are more vulnerable to abuse. However, history has shown, specifically in Latin America, that these struggles often run the risk of forgetting the specifically Christian discourse, with an almost exclusive focus on the instruments of mediation. Here, it is forgotten that the transformation of the human being can only happen from inside out – and this cannot be realized by any political or sociological theory, but only by the power of the gospel.

The way I see it, Christian discipleship has to do with concentric circles. First is the personal decision to follow Jesus, then this decision is expressed in communal life, and finally the community takes on its social responsibilities.

More on the friendly appeal

If you haven’t yet contributed to our friendly appeal for Joey, there are still a few days left – and every dollar counts!

Meanwhile, I’m delighted to say that some leading theology publishers – T&T Clark, Cascade Books, and Baker Academic – have also offered to support this appeal by donating books to Joey. If any other publishers or book distributors would like to get involved, just send me an email.

Update: IVP Academic and Hendrickson have also joined in.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Is God a story?

A new book has just landed on my desk, and it looks remarkable: Francesca Aran Murphy, God Is Not a Story: Realism Revisited (Oxford University Press, 2007). The author offers a critique of narrative theology – especially in the work of Frei, Lindbeck, Herbert McCabe, and Robert W. Jenson – and she draws on Hegel, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and film theory to present a new “dramatic” form of Thomist realism. Sounds fantastic! Stay tuned for a review.

Acting responsibly in an entangled world

“Perhaps the responsibility of individual humans may reside most significantly in one’s response to the assemblages in which one finds oneself participating – do I attempt to extricate myself from assemblages whose trajectory is likely to do harm?.... In a world where agency is distributed, a hesitant attitude towards assigning blame becomes a virtue…. Outrage will not and should not disappear completely, but a politics devoted too exclusively to moral condemnation and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do no good. A moralized politics of good and evil, of singular agents who must be made to pay for their sins – be they Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush – becomes immoral to the degree that it legitimates vengeance and elevates violence to the tool of first resort. A distributive understanding of agency, then, reinvokes the need to detach ethics from moralism, and to produce guides to action appropriate to a world of vital, cross-cutting forces.”

—Jane Bennett, “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout,” in the stunning new 800-page anthology, Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, ed. Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), p. 615.

Monday, 23 July 2007

A friendly appeal: books for Joey Dela Paz

I’m sure many of you will be familiar with Missions and Theology, the excellent blog of Joey Dela Paz. Joey is a Filipino missionary living with his wife and three children in Mae Sai, northern Thailand. He pastors a growing church, as well as running a primary school and kindergarten. Together with some other local pastors, he recently opened a new Missions Training Center to equip Thai and Myanmar church planters and leaders in the region. As you’ll know if you read his blog, Joey is a gifted and capable theological thinker, and the intercultural dimension of his ministry provides a rich context for theological reflection.

But Joey’s geographical location and ministry commitments mean that his access to theological books is very limited. So I thought it might be fun if we joined together to buy some books for Joey. This is not, of course, about “charity” – it’s just a friendly way of sharing our resources. If several of us were to contribute just a couple of dollars each, I’m sure we could raise enough to send Joey some good theological books.

If you’d like to contribute, just click the PayPal icon below (you don’t need a PayPal account to donate). Alternatively, you might like to choose a good book from your own library to pass on to Joey – if you’d like to do this, you can email me for his shipping address. I’ll keep this appeal open until later in the week, when I’ll announce the total amount raised.



Saturday, 21 July 2007

Mark R. Lindsay: Barth, Israel, and Jesus

Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (Barth Studies Series; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), xx + 124 pp. (review copy courtesy of Ashgate)

In his remarkable History of the Jews (1978), the American writer Chaim Potok stated: “The Jew sees all his contemporary history refracted through the ocean of blood that is the Holocaust.” The central argument of Mark Lindsay’s new book is that Christian theology must likewise be “refracted” through the horrors of the Holocaust – and so he interrogates Karl Barth’s theology to find out whether it meets this fundamental requirement.

For Lindsay, the Holocaust is a theological criterion in the strict sense. Christian theology as a whole has been “decisively ruptured” by this historical event (p. 2), so that it is impossible to carry on doing theology in the same way as before the Holocaust. The book thus locates Barth within the context of post-Holocaust theological discussion and recent Jewish–Christian dialogue.

Interpreters of Barth have tended to be sharply critical of his theological understanding of Israel and the Jewish people. In her influential work, Katherine Sonderegger has argued that Barth’s theology is underpinned by a deep supercessionism and anti-Judaism. But Lindsay marshalls substantial evidence to rebut this claim. For instance, in the 1940s Barth “was intimately involved with resistance efforts from Switzerland on behalf of Jews and Jewish-Christians” (p. 33) – indeed, within his own household, his secretary Charlotte von Kirschbaum was co-ordinating the assistance of Jewish and Jewish-Christian refugees.

But the most interesting question is whether Barth’s dogmatic theology was altered in any way by the horrors of the Holocaust – whether, that is, Barth became more open to the possibility of divine revelation through events in world history. Lindsay himself believes that there must indeed be a natural theology of the Holocaust, so that this event becomes “determinative for doctrine” (p. 55). He notes with regret, however, that Barth’s critique of natural theology was never withdrawn, and that he was not willing “to embed the lessons of the Holocaust deeply into his theology” (p. 38).

But although Barth never retracted his insistence on the absolute distinction between revelation and world history, his mature dogmatics includes a recognition that some events in history can have theological significance. In CD III/3, Barth described certain “signs and witnesses” within history which stand in a special relationship to revelation. The four signs and witnesses, he said, are the history of scripture, church history, the history of the Jews, and human mortality. It was in this connection that Barth famously described the Jewish people as “a riddle” – and interpreters have generally assumed that this terminology reflects Barth’s supercessionist outlook. But Lindsay convincingly argues that this is a misreading: it is not because of any commitment to supercessionism that Barth speaks of the Jews as a “riddle”; rather, Jewish history is a riddle precisely because it bears witness to God’s secret lordship in history. Indeed, for Barth, “the Bible, the Church and the limitation of human life are riddles in exactly the same way” (p. 75).

In short, although Barth at times succumbs to a form of “allosemitism,” i.e., to an abstract idea of the Jew as “a radically different other” (p. 81), he must nevertheless be credited “with an unambiguous repudiation of secular and theological antisemitism, a thoroughgoing endorsement of the Jews’ continuing status as God’s chosen and beloved people, and a realization of the necessity of [Christian] solidarity with them” (p. 83). In Barth’s own words, in order to be elect, we ourselves “must either be Jews or belong to this Jew,” Jesus Christ (CD III/3, p. 225).

Further, Barth criticised the notion of Christian missions to Jews. He perceived that the possibility of fellowship with God is wider than the walls of the Christian church, and he insisted on a fundamental soteriological continuity between Jews and Christians. The church can exist only as “a guest in the house of Israel.” To evangelise Jews is to misunderstand the Jewish–Christian relationship entirely, since we are the ones who have already received everything from them (p. 103). In Barth’s view, there is therefore a continuing dialectic between church and synagogue. His point is not merely (as Sonderegger has argued) that the synagogue depends on the church; it is also that “the Church has no independent existence as the people of God apart from the Synagogue” (p. 105). (In passing, it’s worth noting that Hans Küng’s immense labours in Christian–Jewish dialogue were first inspired by the discovery of this Barthian dialectic.)

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Lindsay’s book is his analysis of Barth’s political view of the state of Israel. I myself was surprised to learn that Barth was strongly supportive of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. And according to Lindsay, it was precisely Barth’s theology which “formed the basis of his political support for Israel” (p. 85).

Lindsay himself is clearly also supportive of the state of Israel – and his political understanding of Israel rests on the explicit basis of his theological conception of the revelatory character of the Holocaust. To my mind, this raises a whole cluster of questions. In the first place, is it possible to speak of the state of Israel without addressing, in the same breath, the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people? And, more importantly, is the church authorised to supply direct theological validation of any geopolitical entity? Formally speaking, is not Lindsay’s natural theology of Israel only a hair’s breadth away from the form of natural theology which the “German Christians” embraced during the 1930s?

Lindsay’s profound concern to foster Jewish–Christian dialogue is admirable, and his wide-ranging command both of Barth and of recent Jewish theology is impressive. But I’m left with the niggling concern that the development of this new natural theology might in fact undercut Jewish–Christian dialogue, rather than bolster it. Is not the distinctiveness of the Christian message itself one of the basic resources needed for a rich mutual dialogue with the Jewish faith? And is not the problem with natural theology – as Barth saw – precisely that it erodes this distinctiveness?

These are, however, questions rather than answers! Lindsay has offered a remarkably fresh challenge to the Barthian stricture on natural theology – and, most impressively, he has presented this challenge in the context of a warmly sympathetic reading of Barth’s own complex (and often conflicted) understanding of the significance of the Jewish people. If Lindsay’s own proposal leaves me feeling uneasy, it is only because he is raising questions that are of fundamental importance – not only for Jewish–Christian dialogue, but also for the way in which the Christian community understands its own identity and calling in a post-Holocaust world.

Another late night at Hogwarts

The great day has finally arrived. I doubt I’ll be getting much sleep tonight….

Friday, 20 July 2007

Encounters with tradition (7): Why I am still a Wesleyan

A guest-post by John Mark Poling

I was born in 1950, and grew up in an environment that was something of a mix between suburbia and Appalachia. My parents were both former Methodists who became Nazarenes in the late 1940s. So I am a product of the American Holiness Movement, Phoebe Palmer, 19th-century revivalism, the Camp-meeting movement, and to a lesser degree the teachings of John Wesley and other pietist movements. You must add to that mix a father who had an emotional breakdown in 1952, a rather frustrated and sometimes angry mother (adult child of an alcoholic), and the 1960s – which began for me with the Beatles and the assassination of JFK on my 13th birthday. C. S. Lewis died on that day as well, but it was another 13 years before I ever heard of him. I struggled with legalism (the original sin of our movement), and perfectionism (both real and perceived – our Achilles heel) for many years.

I have to confess, however, that I tended to be very self-righteous, and I assumed, as many conservatives did in the 1950s, that we were most likely the true and living church, so that any other group was regarded as highly suspect.

Today I am a Nazarene pastor. Quite frankly, I never expected to end up where I am. I did not study theology in college, although I did get a minor in religion. Our educational requirements are not as rigid as those denominations which demand an M.Div. for ordination; much of my education was through the extension program of the university where I already had a degree. I think that is why I enjoy reading Faith & Theology – it “puts the cookies down on the lower shelf” generally, plus I just find the topics interesting.

But I am not the Wesleyan I was. What changed me, more than anything else, was the world of books. Not until my mid-twenties did I discover Tolkien, Lewis, and Francis Schaeffer. Perhaps more than any of them, however, was a book entitled In Quest of the Shared Life by Bob Benson, which opened up a whole new world for me. This was in the 1970s. In recent years Philip Yancey, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and Henri Nouwen have been lights along the way.

Today I find fellowship in what would have been very unlikely places. For example, I spent a morning recently with a charismatic Episcopalian and a charismatic Catholic: you can’t imagine how unlikely that would have been 40 years ago. And to discover that Wesley himself supposedly had a glass of vino now and again – for a prohibitionist like me, well, that was a real eye opener.

I remain a Wesleyan for the most part because of people such as Dennis Kinlaw, whose preaching, teaching and (rather limited) writing convinces me that there is something to what has been called “the deeper Christian life.” I realize that stories of “conversion” to a different tradition are far more glamorous than mine – and even more so when the person has had intense theological training! But I do represent a certain type of believer: those who have been disillusioned with their cradle affiliation, and have made peace with it.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Speaking of angels

“We don’t get to the end of being baffled and amazed [by the universe]. I sometimes think that this is the importance of talking about angels in Christian teaching. Odd as it may sound, thinking about these mysterious agents of God’s purpose, who belong to a different order of being, can be at least a powerful symbol for all those dimensions of the universe about which we have no real idea…. We’re so used to trivializing angels – they are often reduced to Christmas decorations, fairy godmothers almost…. But in the Bible angels are often rather terrifying beings occasionally sweeping across the field of our vision…. Now whether or not you feel inclined to believe literally in angels – and a lot of modern Christians have a few problems with them – it’s worth thinking of them as at the very least a sort of shorthand description of everything that’s ‘round the corner’ of our perception and understanding in the universe – including the universal song of praise that surrounds us always.”

—Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville: WJKP, 2007), pp. 51-52.

Barth poetry finalists

The finalist poll is now open over at The Fire and the Rose, so head over and vote for your favourite poem.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Ten propositions on faith and laughter

by Kim Fabricius

1. Let’s face it: the Bible is not exactly a barrel of laughs. In the Old Testament the Lord laughs a few times in the Psalms – at the nations’ rulers in Psalm 2:4, at the wicked and godless in Psalms 37:13 and 59:8 – but it is a disdainful, derisive laughter. As for human laughter, the preacher in Ecclesiastes 2:2 calls it “foolish” (GNB), “mad” (NRSV), even if it does have its “time” (cf. 3:4); while Job’s so-called comforters Eliphaz and Bildad console their friend with the promise of laughter if he repents (5:22, 8:21) – but we know what God thinks of them (42:7).

2. Is Sarah an exception? She laughs when God promises her a child in her dotage, but beneath her breath (Genesis 18:12). But the Lord hears her giggling – “Yeah, right!” she is thinking – and he is not amused at her doubt, so in fear she denies that she laughed (18:15a). “Oh yes you did!” the Lord replies (18:15b). We should remember that Abraham laughed too when told that Sarah will bear him a child (17:17), but evidently our (sexist?) Lord was more indulgent with the old man than with his old lady. One thing is for sure, juxtapose the two scenes and you have the stuff of situation comedy!

3. And then there is the name “Isaac” – “the one who will laugh.” Does giving the child of promise such a sobriquet suggest that God has a sense of humour after all? And perhaps we should not overlook the additional syllables that God adds to the names Abram and Sarai: they become AbrAHam and SarAH. “An onomatopoeic ‘Ha-Ha’”? (Simon Critchley).

4. There are three explicit references to laughter in the New Testament. In James 4:9 the complacent laughter-become-mourning of repentance; in Matthew 9:24 (par. Mark 5:40, Luke 8:53) the dismissive laughter of the crowd at a funeral that Jesus crashes; and in Luke 6:25 the smug laughter of the powerful – and in Luke 6:21 the eschatological laughter of the powerless. The eschatological laughter is promising, even proleptic. For if the verbal abuse of Jesus’ enemies at the foot of the cross surely included cruel and mocking laughter, may we not suggest an Easter laughter – risus paschalis – that rings out with resurrection joy?

5. Did Jesus laugh? The fictitious dispute in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose “is more than fiction. It reflects a line of tradition which really existed, from John Chrysostom through Augustine to Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugo of St Victor, of the Christian denunciation of laughter” (Karl-Josef Kuschel). Nor is such a “theology of tears” limited to the world-denying, death-obsessed zeitgeist of the Middle Ages. John Wesley once disciplined a preacher on the charges (in ascending order?) of heresy, adultery – and the man’s proneness to “break a jest, and laugh at it heartily.” Here, from Beckett’s Molloy, Moran debates the issue with Father Ambrose, who sides with Eco’s Jorge (a Dominican – who is blind):

“What a joy it is to laugh, from time to time, he said. Is it not? I said. It is peculiar to man, he said. So I have noticed, I said. A brief silence ensued. […] Animals never laugh, he said. It takes us to find that funny, I said. What? he said. It takes us to find that funny, I said loudly. He mused. Christ never laughed either, he said, so far as we know. He looked at me. Can you wonder? I said.”

6. You laughed, right? Christ, I reckon, would have cracked up too! Did he not have a Beckett-like sense of the absurd (gnats and camels, logs and splinters), the ironic (calling Simon a Πετρος, telling fishermen where to fish), and even the coarse (suggesting that one go starkers in court [Matthew 5:40], insinuating that the Pharisees are full of crap [Mark 7:15]). And is anyone going to tell me that a man who likes to party, with a reputation to go with it, doesn’t like a laugh? So with many a Renaissance Humanist, Eco’s William of Baskerville (a Franciscan, one of God’s “merry men” – who can see because he wears spectacles) was surely right: of course Jesus laughed! A limerick comes to me:

    In the O.T. our God the Most High
    in his folk put timor Domini,
    but in Jesus his Son
    he earthed Word-play and pun:
    like a mushroom, he was a fun-guy.

7. The only serious theological question is not “Did Jesus laugh?” but “Did Jesus laugh in his divinity as well as his humanity?” As with suffering, the doctrine of the divine impassibility would suggest not. If, however, revisionists like Moltmann and Jüngel are right, then, if God can suffer, surely God can laugh. The resurrection event is crucial, as it identifies, even defines, if it does not constitute, the very being of God. In any case, the grammar of faith allows, and (I submit) the substance of faith demands the statement: “God laughs” – and not only with scorn for his enemies but, above all, with joy for his friends.

8. Ergo, an Easter people cannot act like lemon-suckers. Chesterton said that “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly,” and no less an authority than the Angelic Doctor himself “leaves the Christian with a wide field for his fun. He does so on the authority of the Philosopher” – revelation and reason in perfect harmony – “who, we are reminded, ‘posits the virtue of eutrapelia, which in Latin we call jucunditas, enjoyment.’ His conclusion rejoices smiling Christians” (M. A. Screech). Alas, St Thomas set limits to Christian frivolity: no dirty jokes! Calvin agreed – but not scatologically-minded Luther. And Erasmus, while keen on wit, disapproved of tickling – which, in my view, comes close to advocating child abuse!

9. There is a political dimension to laughter, namely laughter as protest and resistance, disarming tyrant or terrorist with ecstatic power. “Laugh and fear not, creatures,” declares Aslan. “For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.” Humour has been particularly important in sustaining the children of Moses in the wilderness of oppression, not least in the face of Christian anti-semitism. Hence the extensive corpus of Jewish jokes about Christians, doleful and yearning, yet also acerbic. Like this one:

The priest says to the rabbi: “There are three things I can’t stand about you Jews: you wander about the synagogue, you pray noisily, and your funerals are chaotic.” The rabbi replies: “We wander about the synagogue because we feel at home there. We pray noisily because Yahweh is old and hard of hearing. And as for funerals, we too prefer the Christian ones.”

And there is the Jewish character, figure of fun, known as the schlemihl: a rather weak, inept, and vulnerable guy who takes on the chin whatever goys throw at him, who gets knocked down again and again, but who always gets up, dusts himself off, and gets on with life without a grumble. There is a Christian version of the schlemihl: his name is Charlie Brown. In the schlemihl, laughter is not only polemical critique, it is also therapeutic self-critique lest the oppressed becomes an oppressor.

10. Finally, the liturgical dimension of laughter: is there a place for laughter in worship? W. H. Auden suggested that “The world of laughter is much more closely related to the world of prayer than either is to the everyday secular world of work,” and Reinhold Niebuhr actually said that “Laughter is the beginning of prayer.” But Niebuhr also said that “there is faith and prayer, and no laughter, in the holy of holies.” So it’s okay to crack a joke in the pulpit perhaps, but not at the altar? But who has not laughed during the scrum that can be the passing of the peace? And if there are children at the table, well, as Art Linkletter famously put it on his American TV show, “Kids say the darndest things!” And although the eucharist as anamnesis of the meal “on the night he was betrayed” is certainly a solemn moment, does not the eu-charis-t as anticipation of the Messiah’s wedding feast invite making merry? Donald MacKinnon rightly pointed to the tragic elements in the Christian story, but his mentor Kierkegaard, depressive Dane that he was, called it “the most humorous point of view in the history of the world.”

A personal anecdote. During my training for the ministry I was leading morning worship at Mansfield College, Oxford. Lesslie Newbigin was present, so I wanted to be word perfect. The Old Testament lesson, from I Samuel 14, was about Saul slaughtering the Philistines. I came to verse 15, which reads: “There was a panic in the camp.” But this idiot read: “There was a picnic in the camp.” As I prayed for the earth to open, all eyes turned to the great man. How would he respond? He laughed, of course!

St Theresa prayed well: “Lord, preserve us from sullen saints.”

Monday, 16 July 2007

Gerd Lüdemann on Benedict XVI

Jim West alerts us to Gerd Lüdemann’s forthcoming book, Das Jesusbild des Papstes (July 2007), which offers a detailed critique of Benedict XVI’s recent Jesus of Nazareth. Jim also provides us with a sneak preview of Lüdemann’s epilogue (in English translation), entitled “Ten Objections to Joseph Ratzinger’s Book on Jesus.” These “ten objections” make it clear that Lüdemann’s critique is concerned not only with historical method, but also with church doctrine.

Anyway, the publishers are sending me a copy of Lüdemann’s book, and I’ll be posting a review when it arrives. I’ll try both to evaluate his criticisms of Benedict, and to offer some general remarks about the strengths and weaknesses of the pope’s book. If you haven’t yet read Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, I’d encourage you to check it out.

More chocolate theology

Aaron has now greatly enriched our understanding of the theology of chocolate by producing a brilliant Willy Wonka Version (WWV) of Galatians 5:13-26. Here’s my favourite part: “if you are like Charlie, the scrumdidlyumptious Spirit will produce these lollies in you…”

Sunday, 15 July 2007

A theology of chocolate

Now here’s something worth chewing on: David offers a theology of chocolate. Chocolate, he says, “carries on its own ‘ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Cor. 5:18) by resurrecting dead taste faculties and offering nougat-filled glimpses into the grace of God.” Ain’t that the truth.

To enter a little French or Swiss chocolaterie – the sight! the smells! mon Dieu, the taste! – is one of life’s most sublime experiences. The development of existentialist philosophy in France and of neo-orthodox theology in Switzerland can, in my view, be traced directly to the quality of the chocolates of those regions. (On the other hand, the dour humourlessness of the Religious Right in America can perhaps best be explained by unwrapping a Hershey bar.)

As for all those cheap supermarket chocolates: their theological significance is very limited. They are for puritans and ascetics and fundamentalists, for those who want nothing more out of a chocolate bar than a little “mortification of the flesh.” And I will not even mention Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies – those outrageous bags of packaged leftovers, those lumps of grinning malevolence, those confections which ought to bear witness to the resurrection, but which invariably look and taste like stale pesticide. If anyone today still believes in Easter at all, it is precisely in spite of these ubiquitous parcels of unbelief.

Let us listen for the Word

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Buckland or Vienna)

Let us listen for the Word,
as we hear it read and preached,
sharper than the sharpest sword,
sweeter than the sweetest peach.

Scripture sings in different keys –
hymns of praise and mournful cries,
letters, legends, histories,
guidance from the worldly-wise.

Written with imperfect scores,
pitched for people culture-bound,
scarred by old barbaric laws –
scripture makes discordant sounds.

Yet a love-song, with refrain,
resonates from all around;
sunshine breaks through cloud and rain,
flowers bloom from barren ground.

God whose Word is cruciform,
as we hear it preached and read,
may our hearts be strangely warmed,
and our souls raised from the dead.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Philip Clayton and Paul Davies: the re-emergence of emergence

Philip Clayton and Paul Davies, ed., The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 344 pp. (review copy courtesy of OUP)

A guest-review by Ross McKenzie

The concept of emergence in science has been attracting considerable attention recently. In particular, several books have appeared that are oriented towards a popular audience, including:

  • J. Holland, Emergence: From Chaos to Order (2000)
  • S. Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
  • (2002)
  • H. Morowitz, The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex (2002)
  • R. B. Laughlin, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down (2005).
The current book arose out of papers delivered at a multi-disciplinary conference on the topic held in Spain in 2002. The book offers an excellent introduction to the diverse perspectives on this subject. The 13 authors represent the specialist fields of quantum physics, astrophysics, philosophy, anthropology, astrobiology, psychology, biology, and theology.

So, what is emergence? It depends who you ask. Broadly, it’s the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. For example, the carbon atoms in diamond and in graphite (lead pencils) are identical. Both materials have identical building blocks. But graphite is black and soft, while diamond is hard and transparent. Properties such as colour and hardness cannot be ascribed to individual atoms. Rather, these properties are “emergent”; they are properties of collections of atoms. Consciousness is often given as the ultimate example of an emergent phenomenon.

What, then, is the “emergentist hypothesis”? It is a form of strong emergence which first arose in philosophy and is sometimes equated with vitalism. It claims that there are emergent phenomena such as consciousness which cannot be reduced to nor understood in terms of lower level phenomena. Hence, mind and brain are two distinct entities. In his excellent introduction to this volume, Philip Clayton describes four key features of this emergentist hypothesis: ontological physicalism, property emergence, the irreducibility of emergence, and downward causation.

Weak emergence, on the other hand, is a much milder position. Many scientists (especially in biology, chemistry, and condensed matter physics) would support this position. Essentially, they acknowledge that collective systems have emergent properties that cannot be reduced purely to properties of lower leves. Furthermore, although the principles (e.g., symmetry breaking) which describe these emergent phenomena can be deduced from theories describing the constituents, these principles are in practice virtually impossible to deduce or predict from the lower level theories. Hence, scientific progress is made from the top down. For example, progress in theoretical chemistry is made by formulating emergent principles and concepts (such as aromaticity and electronegativity) from chemical experiments and then seeing how such principles might follow from the laws of quantum physics.

Although this volume conveniently brings together work from a diverse range of disciplines, it’s unfortunate that the section on theology does not really present a broad range of perspectives. All three authors in this section (Peacocke, Gregerson, Clayton) offer a perspective that is deeply influenced by process thought, and their concern is mostly with philosophical issues rather than with the actual content of theology. For a different perspective, readers might find it helpful to supplement these essays with Alister McGrath’s account in his recent book, The Order of Things: Explorations in Scientific Theology (2006), chapter 5.

Readers may also find it helpful to consider work on emergence by scientists such as Laughlin, Anderson and Hoffmann, as well as other work on emergence in condensed matter physics and chemistry. Such work is not explored in this volume, but I believe it holds significant promise for the dialogue between science and theology.

Theological interpretation of scripture

The other night, I enjoyed sharing a bottle of wine with Mike Bird, and we chatted a little about the theological interpretation of scripture (I tried – unsuccessfully – to defend form criticism as a valid way of interpreting scripture theologically).

Anyway, Mike has now posted an excellent piece summarising the nature of theological interpretation: “I understand theological interpretation to be the model of interpretation that focuses on the ecclesial context in which Scripture was written and on its utility for answering the theological questions confronted by its ecclesial readers, ancient and modern, when reading these texts. That means that one consciously approaches the NT not simply as a historical artefact as any other, nor as a source book for creating religious dogma, but as a document created by Christians and for Christians that speaks fundamentally a word from God and about God.” Well said!

And speaking of Mike, if you want to feel very lazy and undisciplined, just take a look at his list of recent publications….

Friday, 13 July 2007

How to read Karl Barth: advice from Bonhoeffer

In 1931, when Bonhoeffer was leading a seminar at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he told his students: “I do not see any other possible way for you to get into real contact with Barth’s thinking than by forgetting everything you have learnt before.”

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften, 3:111; cited in Mark R. Lindsay’s excellent new book, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), p. 20.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

A tip for athletes

Kim and I have been discussing Samuel Beckett’s novel, Molloy (1951), which I think is one of the funniest novels ever written (I admit it: I love everything by Beckett). Here’s one passage to ponder – it’s nothing to do with theology, but I couldn’t help myself from posting it:

“Perhaps he was afraid I would run after him. And indeed, I think there is something terrifying about the way I run, with my head flung back, my teeth clenched, my elbows bent to the full and my knees nearly hitting me in the face. And I have often caught faster runners than myself thanks to this way of running. They stop and wait for me, rather than prolong such a horrible outburst at their heels.”

—Samuel Beckett, Molloy, in Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1997), pp. 162-63.

The witness of chaplaincy

I posted a link recently to Scott’s critique of military chaplaincy. My friend Cam has now responded with a post defending the legitimate witness of chaplaincy. He writes:

“Whether or not one believes that the exercise of violence is ever legitimate, … the presence of violence in any culture does not preclude the possibility of legitimate Christian witness…. The vocation of chaplains is integral to the formation of witnessing communities in the military which legitimately use its particular language and culture to demonstrate and proclaim the shalom of God’s kingdom.”

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Who's afraid of the social Trinity?

Halden offers a brilliant critical reflection on social trinitarianism – and he’s right on the money:

“Our personhood is ultimately not realized in bearing the image of the Trinity, abstractly conceived as a circle of pure relational bliss (the social trinity) or perfect self-contemplation (the psychological trinity). Our end as persons is to bear the image of Christ through union with him by the Spirit of the Father and Son. Our personhood is not so much an echo of the Trinity as a non-necessary and gratuitous intonation of the Trinitarian discourse…. In Christ, the One God speaks to us, and in so doing brings us into the circle of speech and response that is the Triune discourse of infinite koinonia.... [T]his is the gospel, not that we inherently resemble God’s personhood, but rather that in our very difference from God, even in the wicked difference of sin, we are rapt in Christ, our humanity enfolded into God. And as such we live in Triune communion, which is to say that we are persons because we participate in the history of Jesus in whom the Triune God embraces the world.”

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Encounters with tradition (6): from Restoration to Orthodoxy

A guest-post by Daniel Greeson

I grew up in a small sect (non-institutional churches of Christ) within the Stone-Campbell Movement, known otherwise as the “Restoration Movement.” My grandfather and father are both ministers within this movement and at the age of 16 or so I began the process of preparing for a life of preaching. I was that kid who sat in high school with a commentary on Isaiah and an open Bible, fiercely scribbling notes for my next sermon. I was shown a lot of grace those first few years at my home congregation and other congregations throughout the state of Arkansas.

It was during these formational years that I ran across C. S. Lewis and quickly devoured The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. This was the first time I had seriously engaged with someone from outside of my tradition, and I came away having learned a lot and questioning a lot. In the group I grew up in, we were the only ones who had the Truth, and all other denominations were wrong about pretty much everything. It was also at this time that a girlfriend’s father introduced me somewhat hesitantly (I now know why!) to philosophy.

I was soon off to Florida College where I spent two years in the Biblical Studies program. Here, I was first faced with the problem of modern biblical criticism. I did not feel that biblical criticism was ever critiqued adequately at the college. Basically, biblical criticism was “liberal,” and therefore wrong. Similarly, my theology classes exhibited a poor understanding of the texts and a superficial engagement with other interpretive traditions. At this time, I began researching the history of the Restoration Movement, and I found a lot of disconcerting things (e.g. what the founders of the Restoration Movement actually believed and did!).

Outside class, I was exposing myself to folks like Yancey, Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann, Barth, and other evangelical voices. I have posted on a former blog of mine that Yancey saved my soul. It was Yancey who introduced me to Bonhoeffer, Barth, and other writers. And it was really St Paul and Yancey who taught me about grace. I also began reading about the “emerging church,” and I found a resonance with postmodern sensibilities. What was helpful was not Brian McLaren et al., but what they were reading. I began the summer after my sophomore year reading N. T. Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Hays, John Howard Yoder, Lee Camp, Miroslav Volf, Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Grenz, Marva Dawn, and others.

I transferred for my junior year to Western Kentucky University, majoring in Religious Studies and Philosophy. It was at Western Kentucky that I began making my break with the tradition of my youth. I soon ended up in a progressive evangelical church. It was here that I learned very quickly that I was not really as “progressive” or “evangelical” as I thought, and I became disillusioned with the emerging church. I discovered that it felt and reasoned a lot like liberal Protestantism.

So I began the process of trying to discern which tradition made the most sense to me, and which tradition I would feel comfortable ministering in (not that ministering is ever comfortable!). This seems a bit pragmatic now, and I freely admit that it was. I visited Disciples of Christ, Methodist, and Episcopal churches. But I felt at odds with what I found at each church, especially with a poor view of Scripture and of the basic orthodox Christian doctrines.

I was basically a sacramental and liturgically minded Anabaptist wannabe (kind of Hauerwasian, eh?). But when a friend said that he was prepared to stay evangelical even if it meant reforming almost every church he pastored, I knew that I needed to join a historical Christian tradition. I immediately turned to Orthodoxy (having already read Fr. Schmemann’s For the Life of the World), and began devouring books about Orthodoxy (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Vladimir Lossky, Fr. Georges Florovsky, Daniel Clendenin, Fr. Thomas Hopko, Frederica Matthewes-Green). I also attended my first Divine Liturgy, and after that experience – and talking with converts from Lutheranism and Anglicanism – I was on my way into a serious investigation of Orthodoxy. I have not been to another service besides an Orthodox Liturgy since.

Why Orthodoxy? I became Orthodox because I finally found a tongue in which I could converse and pray. It was a tradition that made sense of history, theology, ethics, and a sacramental life. In Orthodoxy I found all the positive points of my childhood faith (prayer, ethics, holiness, doctrinal focus) melded with the concerns of my newly found adulthood (philosophical and theological sophistication, beauty, and community). It was in an Orthodox church that I was able, for the first time, to worship God “in spirit and in truth.”

I did not become Orthodox to escape Western problems or to run into a cultural ghetto (God forbid!). I became Orthodox because I felt that I had encountered the early Christian Church. I became Orthodox because I had to repent to enter the kingdom of heaven. I became Orthodox because I found a spiritual father in my priest. I became Orthodox because I knew that through the grace of God one could actually become a saint. I became Orthodox because I became – in a real sense – contemporaneous with the Fathers of the Church.

I am grateful for all the Christian traditions that have shaped me. But I’m joyful about my entrance into the Orthodox Church, and I fervently pray for the salvation and unity of all.

“For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.” —The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom

Larry Hurtado in Brisbane

Good news for those of us Down Under – Larry Hurtado will be visiting Brisbane later this month to speak on devotion to Jesus in early Christianity. Aaron has the details.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Translating Barth into German

Several months ago, Bruce McCormack’s book on Barth’s development became the first English-language work on Barth to be translated into German: Theologische Dialektik und kritischer Realismus: Entstehung und Entwicklung von Karl Barths Theologie, 1909-1936 (TVZ, 2006).

Now, George Hunsinger’s book on how to read Barth has also been translated into German: Karl Barth lesen: Eine Einführung in sein theologisches Denken (Neukirchener, 2007).

So, which Barth scholar should be translated into German next? Cast your vote in the poll below:

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Two years

Faith & Theology is now two years old! In the past two years, this blog has had:

  • 1,211 posts
  • over 100 guest-posts
  • 37 book reviews
  • 261.5 propositions by Kim Fabricius
  • 322,480 visitors (574,029 hits)
  • 296 current feed-subscribers (in Google Reader/Bloglines)
  • 52 direct email subscribers
  • 4,090 links from other blogs (according to Technorati)
  • and, best of all, hundreds of lively theological conversations
It’s especially the readers and commenters who make this blog so enjoyable – so thanks to all of you!

Friday, 6 July 2007

Matthias Gockel: Barth and Schleiermacher on the doctrine of election

Matthias Gockel, Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Systematic-Theological Comparison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 229 pp. (review copy courtesy of Oxford UP – and there is also an online edition)

The exact nature of Barth’s relationship to Schleiermacher is one of the most complex and far-reaching problems for historians of modern theology. Barth himself took pains to distance himself from Schleiermacher, and he insisted that his own theology represented a fundamental break with Schleiermacher’s thought. But Barth was often an unreliable interpreter of his own theology. And, misled by Barth’s own representation of his relationship to Schleiermacher, subsequent generations of interpreters have often presupposed an unbridgeable gulf between these two Reformed theologians.

In this new book, Matthias Gockel offers a groundbreaking new evaluation of Barth’s relationship to Schleiermacher. Instead of painting with a broad brush, Gockel restricts his study to a close and acute analysis of the development of Barth’s doctrine of election in relation to Schleiermacher’s doctrine of election.

Schleiermacher’s most original contribution to the discussion of election was his conception of “a single divine will and decree” which effects both faith and unbelief (p. 26) – a conception which completely revised the older model of a twofold divine will of election and reprobation. This revision, articulated in Schleiermacher’s early work, was developed more fully and rigorously in his mature doctrine of election in The Christian Faith. Here, the doctrine of election is conceived as a single divine decree of salvation in Christ. Schleiermacher rejects the idea of particular relations between God and different individuals, in order to move beyond particularistic accounts of individual redemption and to emphasise the “divine unity and the unity of the world” (p. 101). Schleiermacher thus regards reprobation as only a temporary passing over. In spite of such temporary reprobation, all unbelievers remain predestined to salvation: “God sees all human beings, not only the believers, in Christ” (p. 102).

Barth’s early revision of the doctrine of election, Gockel argues, is strikingly similar to this Schleiermacherian account. In Romans, Barth emphasises the dialectical unity of God’s decree: “God’s reprobation (of the elect) and God’s election (of the reprobate)” are “one and the same in God” (p. 118). There is a real duality here of judgment and grace, but it is the duality of God’s unified action, an action which affects all human beings alike. It is thus impossible to conceive of the church and the world as “two separate groups of persons” (p. 125). This revised model of double predestination is developed further in Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics. Here, Barth emphasises the teleological ordering of election and reprobation. God judges in order to be gracious – the way of predestination leads us “through damnation, even through hell, to salvation and life” (p. 156).

In both Romans and the Göttingen Dogmatics, then, Barth has developed what Gockel calls a “Schleiermacherian reconstruction” of the doctrine of election. For both Barth and Schleiermacher, the divine decree is to be understood in the context of the historical decision between faith and unbelief; for both of them, election articulates the sheer initiative of the divine act; and for both of them, there is a teleological movement in time from reprobation to election. Above all, both theologians focus not on “individual predestined human beings” but on “the predestining God” (p. 157). Surprisingly, then, Gockel argues that it is “precisely the anthropocentric outlook of traditional views” which motivated not only Barth’s revision of election, but also Schleiermacher’s (p. 12).

Barth did, however, revise the doctrine of election a second time, and it is this decisive “christological revision” that is developed so expansively in CD II/2. Now Barth comes to think of God’s twofold decision of election and reprobation as a decision about Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is reprobated for the sake of election. And, crucially, the divine decree “is not made in an abstract eternity” prior to Jesus Christ, but “precisely in the life of Jesus” (pp. 163-64). Jesus Christ is both subject and object of election: the Logos is identified with Jesus of Nazareth (p. 203).

Further, Barth’s earlier (Schleiermacherian) doctrine had focused on humanity as the object of God’s decision. Now, in the Church Dogmatics, his focus is on God’s self-determination – God himself as the object of his own decision. This decision is not merely revealed in Jesus Christ, but it actually takes place in him – he “constitutes God’s gracious choice as the self-determination to be God for His people and the determination of humankind to be the people of God” (p. 169). Barth’s doctrine of election thus effects a remarkable systematic integration of christology with the doctrine of God, so that it becomes possible to understand God’s own being and decision “exclusively in the light of the history of Jesus Christ” (p. 170).

Gockel’s reading of Barth thus leads him to support Bruce McCormack’s controversial interpretation: “the idea of the immanent trinity depends on the concept of predestination” (p. 177). There is no difference between God’s decision in time and God’s decision in eternity – they are precisely the same event in Jesus Christ himself. And Gockel observes that Paul Molnar’s critique of McCormack – resting as it does on a strict separation between God’s being-in-himself and his being-for-us, i.e., between triunity and election – represents “the very opposite of what Barth intended” (p. 180). Indeed, Gockel suggests that, if we take Barth’s own christological revision seriously, we will have to ask whether the doctrine of election should stand not only within the doctrine of God, but “at the beginning of dogmatics as a whole” (p. 180). This is, after all, exactly Barth’s point: Jesus Christ is the first word that must be spoken about God!

Further, Gockel notes that Barth’s christological revision leads him to abandon his early strictures against universalism. While he had previously rejected the idea outright, he now “joins Schleiermacher in leaving open the possibility” of universal salvation (p. 188). But the fact that Barth never embraced universalism leads Gockel to raise a series of pointed questions. Is Barth’s appeal to the divine freedom consistent with his own understanding of God’s self-determination to be God-with-us in Jesus Christ? Does Barth’s refusal to commit to universalism tear open again the abyss of the decretum absolutum – as though God’s decision about any particular person might still be different from the decision which God has made in Jesus Christ? Is there not a certain kind of “necessity” in God’s acting – the self-appointed necessity of God’s own self-determined faithfulness and grace? After all, Gockel concludes, both Schleiermacher and Barth would agree that “the truth of the doctrine of predestination can hardly be different from the truth of eschatology” (p. 211).

Matthias Gockel has given us a remarkably profound reading of Barth’s theology, as well as the most sophisticated study to date of Barth’s relationship to Schleiermacher. He convincingly shows that “Barth’s theology is not just a repudiation of Schleiermacher but an expansion of his predecessor’s work in a new framework” (p. 13). And his own critical engagement with Barth models exactly the kind of close dogmatic scrutiny that Barth’s own thought both deserves and demands. This is certainly the best work on Barth to have appeared within the past year or more, and it will prove to be an immensely valuable resource for contemporary constructive work on the doctrine of election.

An apologetics of imagination

The new issue of the Sydney magazine Case (published by the Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education) features articles by Richard Bauckham, Michael Jensen, Greg Clarke, and others. It also includes my essay on “An Apologetics of Imagination,” where I argue that “what Christian apologetics has often lacked is an ethics of apologetic discourse, a probing ethical investigation into the modes of speech that are best suited to apologetic dialogue.”

Against certain forms of apologetics, I suggest that “the task of apologetics is not one of rational coercion, but of imaginative invitation. It is the invitation to envision – or rather, to re-envision – the world through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ…. The fundamental mode of such apologetic discourse, therefore, is one of peace and freedom. It is, in the words of David Bentley Hart, a ‘rhetoric of peace,’ grounded on an awareness that the gospel itself has already crossed the closed circle of an ‘economy of violence’ and a ‘war of persuasions whose guiding impulse is power’…. It is precisely by resisting the irresistible – by choosing rhetorical peace over a rhetoric of violence and coercion – that we allow our hearers to be opened to the compelling imaginative power of a Christian vision of the world…. Such apologetic dialogue thus finds its goal in the authentic expression of human freedom and selfhood – in a fully personal response to the liberating message of the gospel.”

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Go and vote!

David’s “as Barth” poetry contest is now open for voting. You can vote in three separate polls in the sidebar. You might like to vote for Kim and me (see the full list of entries) – but first, make sure you read the latest entry in the contest, which is magnificent (and written by a real poet!).

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Ten propositions on spirituality

by Kim Fabricius

1. “Spirituality” is a word suffering from runaway inflation. Let’s try to stabilise the currency. Historical amnesia, false dichotomies, and fashionable therapies bedevil the subject.

2. Philip Sheldrake observes that the noun spiritualitas “only became established in reference to ‘the spiritual life’ in 17th century France – and not always in a positive sense,” principally due to its clerical associations (in the Middles Ages the clergy were “the spirituality”). “It then disappeared from theological circles until the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century when it again appeared in French in reference to the ‘spiritual life’…. [B]ut it was only by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s that it began to dominate and replace older terms such as ascetical theology or mystical theology.” Then in the 1970s the term took off, and now, set to the key of the so-called New Age, spirituality has become the mood-muzak of postmodernity.

3. I’ve got nothing against psychology as such – to the contrary, I minored in the subject at university – but on spirituality circuits that revolve around the gurus Myers-Briggs and James Fowler I often sense an approach to spirituality that lacks both a proper Christian concept of the spirit and an orthodox understanding of faith as not just fides qua but fides quae creditur. At the very least it takes a semantic sleight of hand to reduce the “soul” to the “self” to the “personality,” and to equate human potential and growth with sanctification, let alone to assume that in exploring ourselves we are exploring God the Holy Trinity. By the way, for the life of me I do not understand how Christians can prefer Jung to Freud as a theological resource (though it’s probably due to our preference for naivety to suspicion).

4. Theology without spirituality is empty, spirituality without theology is blind. When theology is “thin,” it is often because it is not steeped in prayer; when spirituality is “lite,” it is usually because it is theologically vacuous. Only in the West, and only during the 12th century, when the theological enterprise moved from the monasteries to the new universities, did Christian thinking begin to become an activity distinct from askesis, while contemplation, in turn, tended to become separate from both eucharist and ethics. Since the High Middle Ages, Roman Catholics and then Protestants (Puritan, Anglican, and radical Reformed) have been working in different ways to stitch together what should be a seamless garment of the affective, the intellectual, and the active – to reunite the speculative theologian and the practical saint.

5. Spirituality is theology with attitude, theology with soul – but not a soul without a body. A truly Christian spirituality will be incarnational – but it will not idolise health. And it will be cruciform – but it will not glorify pain. Fasting has been called praying with your body, but feasting should be praying with your body too. Biblically speaking, the opposite of πνευμα is not σωμα but σαρξ. Nor, needless to say, are the “sins of the flesh” essentially sensual (cf. Galatians 5:19ff.). Notwithstanding insidious Neo-Platonic, even Gnostic influence, a couple’s bedroom as well as the monk’s cell can be a place where heaven and earth get it on (the Song of Songs’ X-rated eroticism is often lost through censored translation). In fact, the material as such is (forgive the pun) a spiritual matter.

6. Spirituality has been called theology on its knees, but it is also theology on its feet, in labora as well as ora. “Bread for myself is a physical matter,” said Nocolas Berdyaev, “but bread for my neighbour is a spiritual matter.” Any authentic Christian spirituality will have shalom – peace-and-justice – at its heart. Hans Urs von Balthasar said that “Whoever does not come to know the face of God in contemplation will not recognise it in action, even when it reveals itself to him in the face of the oppressed” – but is not the reverse equally and emphatically true (Matthew 25:40, 45)? Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.” It is no coincidence that liberation theologies are deeply committed to combining experience, reflection, action, and prayer/worship/eucharist.

7. So what is “spirituality”? Perhaps spirituality is one of those things that is easier to show than to say. If so, Rowan Williams, who sees thought itself as a practice of askesis, is the finest contemporary guide I know to what spirituality might look like, not least in his own personal and theological life (and he has written acutely on Augustine and extensively on the Desert Fathers, the Carmelite tradition, and iconic prayer). Williams suggests that we understand spirituality in terms of “each believer making his or her own that engagement with the questioning at the heart of faith.” But spirituality is “far more than a science of interpreting exceptional private experiences; it must … touch every area of human experience, the public and the social, the painful, negative, even pathological byways of the mind, the moral and relational world. And the goal of a Christian life becomes not enlightenment but wholeness – an acceptance of this complicated and muddled bundle of experiences as a possible theatre for God’s creative work.”

8. In an important sense, then, “spirituality” is almost synonymous with discipleship, with starting from exactly where you are and taking the next step in following Jesus wherever he leads. Hence a good deal of holiness has to do with discernment, with attendre (Simone Weil). As John Webster says at the end of his little gem Holiness (2003): “A crucial aspect of holiness is an increase in concentration: the focusing of mind, will and affections on the holy God and his ways with us.” Spirituality, then, as watchfulness, being alert to the present moment, disabused of illusion and fantasy and seeing what is really there – the toil to be truthful, the struggle against self-deceit, the purification of desire. Unlike many of the Pelagian nostrums on offer, Christian spirituality takes sin seriously.

9. Authentic spirituality is an exilic practice, for nomads on a journey: “Exile, the home I have with God; God, the home I have in exile” (Marc Ellis). Peace and perfection are redefined in terms of strain and growth, what Gregory of Nyssa called epektasis (from Philippians 3:13). To Augustine’s famous image of the cor inquietum, add Gregory’s image of the vertigo one feels at a cliff-top, with the abyss below and the beckoning yet ever-receding peaks beyond. Divine darkness and human incomprehension become themes that will be explored in the night theology of St John of the Cross and the theologia crucis of Martin Luther. Frances Young writes: “It is this whole complex context which demands that we move beyond the easy spirituality of well-being, comfort and happiness to rediscover the wilderness way that lies at the heart of the Bible.” In place of the New Age bandwagon, the desert caravan.

10. “It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream…. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference [between monks and ordinary people] was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed aloud.” Thus Thomas Merton, a pioneer in explorations of ecumenical, inter-faith, and ecological spiritualities, who yet knew that there is no view from nowhere, no traditionless practice, no unmediated interiority, no silence unhaunted by speech (and no separation between spirituality and institutional religion, yet another trendy dichotomy that crumbles under scrutiny). In the end, if spirituality is about “me” at all, it is about my dispossession and transformation into a proper human being, my becoming a living hermeneutic of the Great Commandment, loving the Other and the other. As a saying attributed to the Desert Father known as John the Dwarf has it:

“You don’t build a house by starting with the roof and working down. You start with the foundation.”
They said, “What does that mean?”
He said, “The foundation is our neighbour whom we must win. The neighbour is where we start. Every commandment of Christ depends on this.”

Describing trinitarian theologians

Halden has posted an entertaining list describing trinitarian theologians. He has come up with so many clever descriptions that I can hardly think of anything to add. But here are a few possible additions:

Bruce McCormack: the most actualistic trinitarian
Edward Schillebeeckx: the most sacramental trinitarian
Rowan Williams: the most grammatical trinitarian
Hendrikus Berkhof: the most modalistic trinitarian
Bernard Lonergan: the most scholastic trinitarian
Gerhard Ebeling: the most Schleiermacherian trinitarian
E. L. Mascall: the most analogical trinitarian
Kim Fabricius: the most concise trinitarian
Wolfhart Pannenberg: the best trinitarian

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

2007 Karl Barth Conference

If, like me, you were at home last week feeling miserable when you should have been at the Karl Barth Conference, you’ll be glad to read David’s overview of some of the highlights. The conference theme was the relationship between Barth’s theology and American evangelicalism – a fascinating and complex theme!

Barth himself had little good to say about the more conservative side of American evangelicalism. When in 1961 he was asked to respond to criticisms by Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark and Fred Klooster (to be published in Christianity Today), he replied: “The … presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest!” (Barth, Letters 1961-1968, pp. 7-8).

If you’ve ever read any of Van Til’s stuff on Barth, then you’ll know exactly what Barth is talking about! By a happy irony, though, America is now the land of Barth-studies – these days, students from Europe have to travel all the way to Princeton (or Scotland, of course) if they really want to study Barth....

Monday, 2 July 2007

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead

Prompted by recommendations from both Kim Fabricius and Stanley Hauerwas, I finally got around to reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (New York: Farrar, 2004), an exquisite portrayal of three (or four) generations of preachers in a decrepit little town in Iowa. (In a lecture, Hauerwas describes this as “the first Barthian novel” – a fine description, except that John Updike has been writing “Barthian novels” for decades!)

The novel is extraordinary in every way. It’s a narrative of fragile beauties, luminous insights, mysterious silences – all related in a prose as spare and understated as the dustbowl town itself. And there is plenty here for theologians to think about as well. You wouldn’t be far wrong if you said that the whole novel is an account of the power and beauty of blessing.

Our narrator, John Ames, tells us that he became a minister not for any of the usual reasons, but because it gave him the opportunity to confer blessing. When he baptised a family of kittens as a young boy, he discovered that “there is a reality in blessing”: “Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing…. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.” Ames describes this as one of the “advantages” of being a minister: “Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you” (p. 23).

To confer blessing – that is the purpose of existence, that is how we honour all those “precious things [that] have been put into our hands” (p. 246). More than that: to confer blessing is required of us; it’s an obligation placed on us as soon as we really encounter another person. Ames remarks: “there is nothing more astonishing than a human face…. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it” (p. 66).

It’s fitting, then, that John Ames’ own life should culminate in a simple moment of blessing. Sitting at a dusty old bus stop, he places his hand on Jack Boughton’s brow and blesses him. And he tells us: “I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment” (p. 242).

Gilead is itself just such a moment – the novel is a gentle intrusion of grace, a warm hand on your brow, a moment when the world stands still and blessing is conferred.

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