Thursday, 24 January 2008

The problem with primal harmony

“Plain experience and common sense inform us that no abstract Person can have made us as we are … without also wishing to delete us and start over (Gen. 8:21; Zeph. 1:2). Therefore, the existence of cruel and arbitrary nature, together with the universality of human sin, prevents us from beginning the theological enterprise with any concept of God that is distinct from revelation. All theologies of a cosmic harmonic principle shipwreck on the truths of tragedy, catastrophe, and injustice.”

—Paul F. M. Zahl, A Short Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 7.

Note: This is an unusual book. It includes some strangely arresting passages (such as the one quoted above), together with some strangely banal passages, such as this one (which is so bad that it is memorable): “The risen Christ has expanded to reach the frontiers of all human experience. Because he is nowhere in particular, he is everywhere in general” (p. 49).

9 Comments:

kerry said...

Paul Zahl is an interesting character. Trained in Tubingen (I'm not sure, but I think he wrote on Barth), he was Episcopal dean of Alabama's Cathedral Church of the Advent for a few years before becoming dean and president of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. TESM is relentlessly evangelical, intractably conservative, and just about as close to being fundamentalist as you'll find in the Episcopal Church. (The seminary, which lies just outside my diocese, is so notorious that my bishop won't allow persons preparing for ordination to study there.)

Zahl is intelligent and prolific (despite the occasional banality). He's not of the ilk of demagogues such as Pittsburgh's Bishop Duncan. But Zahl is one of the clerics whose writings is likely to lead to schism in the U.S. Anglican communion. Even though I found him personable the couple of times I've met him, I've little patience with him.

Erin said...

The quotes remind me of Berlinsky's "A Tour of the Calculus" -wonderful explanation in some places couched between descriptions that my roommate and I would burst out laughing over.

Brian said...

Ben, with all due respect, this passage is no more "interesting" than any given passage by Barth, Pannenberg, or someone likewise, which has been obfuscated to death with big modern theological prose.

Kerry, when an American Episcopal bishop refuses a candidate because he comes from TEMS, well, that says a lot about both institutions. I certainly would use this to brag about your bishop.

Anonymous said...

Hey, you could do all the divine attributes this way:

Omnipresence: God is nowhere in particular, and therefore everywhere in general.
Omnipotence: God can do nothing in particular, and therefore does everything in general.
Omniscience: God knows nothing in particular, and so knows everything in general...

Anonymous said...

Kerry, Paul Zahl is no longer dean of TESM. He resigned suddenly in 2007, and he's now rector of All Saint's Church, Chevy Chase, Maryland.

::aaron g:: said...

I picked up Zahl's new book "Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life" at AAR. It looks very good.

derek said...

Ben,

I found a cheap copy of this on amazon [you didn't dislike it that much did you :)], and am hoping that the arresting passages are enough.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Derek: yeah, I quite enjoyed it on the whole. It's certainly refreshingly crisp, energetic, and straight-to-the-point.

a. steward said...

I'm not sure I understand his point here. Does he mean to say that the theological task must not begin with an assumed understanding of what the primal harmony of God is? If that's the case, I'm of course all for rooting it Christologically. But if he's saying there in fact was no primal harmony, it's hard for me to imagine a non-harmonious beginning that isn't dualistic.

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