Friday, 31 October 2008

Art and incarnation: the art and theology of Edward Knippers

Next week, Theology Forum will be hosting a “blog exhibition” showcasing the art of Edward Knippers. Starting Monday, they’ll be posting several pieces of Knippers’ work each day, accompanied by short essays which engage theologically with these paintings.

My own essay on “Knippers and the Resurrection of the Body” will be posted on Wednesday. I’m very excited to be contributing to this excellent series – so make sure you stop by next week at Theology Forum, and join the discussion about God, paint, and bodies.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Caption contest winners

Thanks for all the terrific entries in our latest caption contest. Since the contest is a celebration of Nate’s new book, I asked him to pick the two winners. So here are his selected winners:

Aniu was a clear winner, with his extraordinary and hilarious list of 50 captions from Dylan’s song titles. You can read all 50 captions in Aniu’s comment – here are a few highlights:

Bob: ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’

Pope: ‘Tell Me That It Isn’t True’

Bob: ‘Saved’

Pope: ‘I Don’t Believe You’

Bob: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’

Pope: ‘Idiot Wind’

Bob: ‘You’re Gonna Quit Me’

Pope: ‘Going, Going, Gone’

Bob: ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’

Pope: ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’

Bob: ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’

Pope: ‘Up To Me’

Bob: ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’

Pope: ‘I Shall Be Free’

And the second winner is Kurt, with this delightful caption: “The fact that the former pontiff did visibly shake to the noise emanating from Bob Dylan’s guitar turns out to be the greatest obstacle to his speedy beatification. The proponents of the ‘santo subito’ movement continue protesting that this is in no way a hint of devilish influences, but that the Pope already suffered from Parkinson’s disease at the time and, to the contrary, his calm demeanour during this gruesome torture is paramount to martyrdom and should further their cause decisively.”

Kurt and Anui will each receive a copy of Nate Kerr’s book, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission, courtesy of the good people at Cascade Books. (Kurt and Anui, please email me with your shipping address.)

Although there’s no runners-up prize, I’d also like to give an honourable mention to the following captions:

Dylan, unaware that the guest of honor in the white dress was a male, dedicated and then played his most heartfelt rendition of Lay, Lady, Lay. (Ken)

The Pope, bored out of his mind, thinks to himself, “Next time I see him coming I better run…” (Discard)

The new series “Vatican Idol” kicked off with a bang last night as judge JPII appeared bored during Bob Dylan’s performance. The Pope quipped that the folk legend simply lacked the triple threat that the Vatican was looking for: singing, dancing and acting. Dylan was eliminated and Beyonce later advanced after a glowing endorsement from JPII. (Mike)

It may look boring here, but let’s just say that when the dust settled and the after party wrapped up the next morning, somehow JP went home in the cowboy hat and Dylan was wearing the fancy dress. (Chad)

Pope: “This is such a nice reception for Stanley and John. I wonder how they booked Dylan?” (Tim – referring to a previous contest)

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Around the traps

Monday, 27 October 2008

Caption contest: Bob Dylan and the Pope

Thanks to the kind folks at Cascade Books, I now have a couple of giveaway copies of Nate Kerr’s new book. So it’s time for another caption contest – here’s a photo of Bob Dylan’s performance for Pope John Paul II in Bologna, 1997:


The best two captions will win a free copy of Nate’s wonderful book, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Nate Kerr: Christ, History and Apocalyptic: the politics of Christian mission

As a regular contributor to our discussions, Nate Kerr is well known to F&T readers. His forthcoming book Christ, History and Apocalyptic is one of the most exciting theological works I’ve read in quite some time. This is mind-expanding, first-rate stuff: it’s both a brilliant critical reading of modern theology (moving through Troeltsch, Barth, Hauerwas and Yoder), and a compelling constructive argument for an “apocalyptic” approach to Christian theology. Really, it could be read as a kind of manifesto: it points the way towards a new way of doing theology, and towards a distinctively theological way of thinking about history and the church’s mission. The book will soon be released in the UK by SCM (as part of their new Veritas series), and in the US by Cascade (as part of their new Theopolitical Visions series).

Nate has kindly given me permission to post an excerpt here. So let me whet your appetite – this sample is from Chapter 5, entitled “John Howard Yoder: The Singularity of Jesus and the Apocalypticization of History.”

Nathan R. Kerr, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (SCM/Cascade, 2008)

Throughout his oeuvre, Yoder struggles to articulate an understanding of the Incarnation in terms of the human-historical or lived character of Jesus’ identity with God. In doing so, Yoder aims to eschew a too easily assumed ‘metaphysical’ or ‘logological’ sense of the Incarnation, which would make of the idea that Jesus is ‘the Word become flesh’ a mere representation to us of some metaphysically conceptualized relation of the Logos to God, according to which conceptualization we might then proceed ontologically to ‘locate’ or ‘emplot’ history within a mediated hierarchy of eternity and time. Against this, Yoder argues for what he calls the ‘historical’ or ‘Jesulogical’ sense of the Incarnation:

When the Jewish writer of the Fourth Gospel sang ‘the word became flesh and tabernacled among us … he meant to describe the setting for the entire earthly work of the man Jesus, fully human, vulnerable, to whom that other John pointed as the ‘Lamb who takes away the world’s sin’. ‘Incarnation’ then means that in the concrete historical reality of the life and death and rising of Jesus, the otherwise invisible God has been made known normatively.’
What I take Yoder to mean here is that we can only speak of Jesus as God – but not only that, of the eternal Logos itself – from within the density and angularity of his constituent life-story. Yoder remarks, for example, that the statement at Jesus’ baptism, ‘Thou art my Son’, is ‘not the definition or accreditation of a metaphysically defined status of Sonship; it is the summons to a task. Jesus is commissioned to be, in history, in Palestine, the messianic son and servant, the bearer of the goodwill and the promise of God.’ The words of Rowan Williams help to sum up Yoder’s point here: ‘There is no sense in thinking that we can talk about the Incarnation without talking of the whole course of Jesus’ life, the whole historical identity of Jesus’ – with all the ambiguity, uncontrollability, and contingency that such an identity entails.

So for Yoder, we clearly do not rightly conceive of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth if we persist in thinking of Jesus’ unity with God as some kind of already realized, unshakeable, ‘eternal’ given. Instead, who Jesus is emerges for us ultimately in the resurrection and ascension of this crucified one, as the history of the one who was hounded by this body of religious ideologues, as the one who is put to death by this Roman government – that is, he is the risen Christ as inseparably bound up with the social and political concerns that are at work in the world wherever he appears most concretely as this human being, with all of the specificity and contingency that entails.

Yet as we saw in the previous section, Jesus emerges thus as the one who lives this specificity and concreteness in a way that absolutely refuses the temptation to gain control of these social and political circumstances, as the one who ‘unhandles’ these human realities (and so unhandles ‘history’), such that, in Jesus’ singular historicity, history itself is paradoxically ‘held open’ by, and to, the free and unpredictable coming of God. 

In other words, what the cross reveals is that Christ is involved in the contingencies of history as one whose identity and action is inassimilable to any immanent ‘historical’ arrangement of these contingent ‘givens’. Rather, Jesus lives in and through the contingencies of history as that one whose life of perfect love is entirely coincident with (because entirely given over to) the more and new that God gives to history as God reaches into history from beyond. And precisely here, in this human life, as it comes into view as a life lived in and through the contingencies everywhere surrounding his journey to the cross, Jesus, as this human being, is singularly and unsubstitutively identified as ‘God’ and ‘Lord’. For here on the cross hangs one whose entire identity is dependent upon the irruption into history of an event which no immanent concatenation of historical contingencies is able to determine or produce: Jesus’ resurrection to new life in the power of the Spirit.

There is surely much that could and must be said here to try and justify this exposition, not the least of which has to do with the extent to which all this resonates with the various elements of a classical Chalcedonian ‘high Christology’. But our immediate focus here has especially to do with the force of Yoder’s apocalyptic Christology with respect to the question of ‘historical contingency’. Specifically, it is my contention that we are here presented with one way of beginning to develop the kind of ‘radicalized and transformed’ notion of the contingent that Donald MacKinnon has suggested is required by any properly ‘high’ Christology. For what God does, for Yoder, in becoming Incarnate, is break through our standard definitions of human historicity and give this historicity a new, normative definition in the historicity of Jesus. Jesus, ‘by living a genuinely free and human existence’, at once relativizes and intensifies the question of historical contingency.

To put this more pointedly, the radical character of Christ’s apocalyptic historicity is not that it re-projects the questions of contingency and particularity onto an altogether different ‘universal-historical’ horizon, per se, but rather that it recapitulates the question of ‘history’ within an apocalyptic-eschatological framework, thereby inaugurating a mode of historical contingency that resists the possibility of being fully captured by any given ‘universal-historical’ logic whatsoever. This is not to abstract from, or to eschew continuing involvement in, the ongoing contingencies of history, but rather to insist that Christ’s apocalyptic historicity (and so a genuine ‘apocalyptic Christology’ as such) has as its counterpart a new vision of history, which entails a new contingency rooted firmly in the apocalypse of the crucified and risen Christ. […]

So, to end this section where we began: Jesus in his singular, apocalyptic historicity is also, in his cross and resurrection, Word and Logos, the ‘inner logic of things’. But as such, this ‘logic’ can itself only be rendered rightly by rethinking the idea of the incarnate Word in terms of the concrete outworking of this apocalyptic historicity – of Christ’s cross and resurrection. The relation of Jesus to history is precisely that of a crucified Logos, the logic of which is the cruciform interruption of history and its radical exposure to the excessive life of the Spirit that is the power of the resurrection as the sign of the coming reign of God – a reign that is now the ‘truth’ of all of life’s radically contingent historicity as the ‘truth’ of Jesus’ own apocalyptically contingent life as God.

As such, this crucified Logos ‘carries a proclamation of identification, incarnation, drawing all who believe into the power of becoming God’s children’. Thus Yoder can say: ‘The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come’, while also affirming that the cross is the key to all of history. For in the cross, God’s interruption of ‘history’ and the very grace by which we are given to live vulnerably in history, by way of the excess of God’s agapeic love which comes ever anew from ‘beyond’, uniquely coincide – in the singular, narratively specific apocalyptic historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. […]

If my analysis is correct, this logic is that of what I have named the ‘apocalypticization of history’: the singularity of Jesus as the excessive historicity – the more – of history itself. What a full-fledged ‘apocalyptic historicism’ gives us, then, is not another ‘universal history’, but rather the singularly catholic historicity of Jesus Christ, to which we in our various contingencies are bound by God’s perfect agape through the work of the Spirit and by which we are interwoven into the single cosmic fabric that is ‘cross and resurrection’, and by which we ourselves are inscribed into the action of the ‘original revolution’ that is God’s perfect agape.

This kind of Christian ‘apocalyptic historicism’ thus addresses the modern historicist crisis in a manner that positively surpasses the residual idealism of Barth’s apocalyptic Christology as well as the antiliberal and anti-Constantinian functionalism of Hauerwas’s apocalyptic ecclesiology. At the same time, this apocalyptic historicity ‘holds open’ history in a way that is irreducible to the kind of transcendental-historical ‘opening to the future’ that Derrida and postmodernism assume as the ‘given’ ‘universal structure’ of apocalyptic/messianic experience. Rather, history ‘breaks open’ – is irrupted – according to the singular logic of a concrete political action, which is operative in history as the excessiveness of singularity itself. It is according to this dual logic of ‘singularity’ and ‘excess’, I am suggesting, that Christian apocalyptic articulates the kind of action by which alone we make the kind of passage from historicist political ideology to the revolutionary transformation of history that we find Walter Benjamin calling us to in his conception of ‘Messianic time’.

What this finally means, however, is that the Christian apocalyptic vision is not finally sustainable or even theorizable apart from our own participation in God’s singular, revolutionary action, apart from the living Christ being made visible in the very political ‘unhanding’ of history as it occurs in those converted by and to the inbreaking of God’s reign into their own actual and contemporary-contingent histories. In a typically rich passage, Yoder puts it thus:
The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the swords are not as strong as they think – true as that is: we still sing, ‘O where are Kings and Empires now of old that went and came’? It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe. One does not come to that belief by reducing social process to mechanical or statistical models, nor by winning some of one’s battles for the control of one’s own corner of the fallen world. One comes to it by sharing the life of those who sing about the Resurrection of the slain Lamb.
It is by way of doxology that we move beyond ideology and come to participate in the lived ‘Messianic time’ that is the singular political act of Jesus. And so it is according to this mode of doxological action that I shall seek to follow the political logic of the ‘apocalypticization of history’ as it occurs in Jesus’ historicity on its way to becoming an ‘apocalyptic politics of Christian mission’.

Readers outside the US can get the book at a discount here, and North American readers can get it a discount here.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

How to read Karl Barth: George Hunsinger's foreword to the German Edition

A guest-post by George Hunsinger

[This is the foreword to the new German translation of his book, How to Read Karl Barth – the German edition is titled Karl Barth lesen: Eine Einführung in sein theologisches Denken, and will be published next month by Neukirchener.]

This book started out twenty years ago as my doctoral dissertation at Yale, written under the supervision of Hans W. Frei. I had already developed the idea of “motifs” as a way of introducing students to Barth. When I sat down to write my dissertation, I had expected to discuss them only briefly in the preface. As it turned out, however, the preface took over the work!

Since then I have continued to read Barth and teach his theology on a regular basis. I have found that explaining these “motifs” still helps students to gain a better grasp of his theology and to read him without becoming discouraged by the difficulties. It is almost always better to read Barth than to read about him. But reading him, as everyone knows, is not easy, and it helps to have some guidance. Since he is one of the greatest – and most inspiring – theologians in the history of the church, the richness of his work repays every effort to understand him. I keep reading him, because I keep learning from him. I find that the more I know, the more he has to teach me. I also find that when I feel depressed, he cheers me up!

At least three new insights have emerged for me in reading Barth, and my students have also found them to be helpful.

The first is rather simple but well worth knowing. Every “paragraph” in the Church Dogmatics is written around a single main point. Even when the Absatz may run on for more than one page, as sometimes happens, the rule holds. What this means is that it becomes possible for the reader to reconstruct Barth’s overall outline. Reconstructing the outline is not only a very good discipline, but also a way of not getting lost. By looking for the outline, one keeps one’s head above water. Every page of Barth’s dogmatics is literally teeming with ideas. It is all too easy to get diverted by an arresting point or by mistaking the part for the whole. I find that by digging for the main point of each Absatz and writing it down, I can help my students follow Barth’s argument much more readily than would otherwise be the case. Then, of course, it also helps to look for the sub-points within the Absatz, of which there are usually quite a few. All this may seem rather pedestrian, and indeed it is. Nevertheless, I have found it to be a most valuable procedure in reading the Church Dogmatics.

Another deceptively simple point for the beginning reader is to keep an eye out for the antecedent to Barth’s pronouns. Almost everyone has had the experience of reading Barth, feeling that one is following the train of thought, and then suddenly getting to the bottom of the page and finding that one is hopelessly lost. At this point it is easy to give up with the sense that Barth is just too hard to understand. Very often, however, all that has happened is that the reader has lost track of the antecedent to Barth’s many pronouns. (I can’t imagine what it would have been like to try to follow this material, which began as classroom lectures, by ear.) In any case the pronouns are like the bread crumbs in “Hansel and Grettel”. One only needs to trace them back in order to get out of the forest. For an especially vexing passage, I sometimes underline the antecedent twice, once I have retrieved it, while then underlining the subsequent pronouns once. The passage is then much easier to follow if I need to revisit it for purposes of further study or instruction.

Finally, there is the matter of actualism. Even as I was writing this book, I felt that I didn’t have it fully worked out. Now after all these years I think I have a better grasp of its peculiar complexities. Much of what is distinctive in Barth, as well as much of what is difficult, hangs upon it.

Since not everything can be unpacked here, a few remarks will have to suffice. Barth’s proposal that God’s being is in act is an idea that expresses the heart of his actualism. Barth regards salvation in Christ as a perfect work (opus perfectum) that is also a perpetual operation (operatione perpetuus). The perpetual operation adds nothing new in content to the perfect work, which by definition needs no completion. Yet it belongs to the perfect work’s perfection that it is not merely encapsulated in the past. On the contrary, it operates perpetually to make itself present for what it is, again and again. Barth would sometimes articulate this idea in terms of Heb. 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever.” The event of Jesus Christ, he would say, is not only “a past fact of history,” but also “an event that is happening in the present here and now,” as well as an event that “in its historical completeness” and “full contemporaneity” is also “truly future.”

As these comments suggest, Barth saw the person of Christ in his finished saving work as subsisting in three tenses. The past tense of salvation – consisting of his life, death and resurrection – was always definitive and constitutive. By virtue of his resurrection and ascension, however, those events of the past did not remain merely past. Through Word and Sacrament, in the power of the Holy Spirit, they continued to occur in a new and different form in the present. Salvation’s present tense, however, could give only a secondary and derivative form here and now to what had already been constituted there and then. The past-tense form and the present-tense form were seen as two forms of one saving event, or better, as two forms of the one person of Christ in his saving work.

There was, however, also a future-tense form, which was final and unsurpassable. The promised future would bring the glorious revelation of Jesus Christ in his universal saving significance. It is important to note, however, that Barth has often been misread here. Throughout his dogmatics, revelation always involved an ontic as well as a noetic component. With regard to salvation’s future tense, the ontic element meant that the universal unveiling of what had been hidden would also mean the radical (ontic) transformation of all things. Unveiling would mean universal transfiguration. The present tense of salvation was not only secondary and derivative. Relative to the promised future, it was always provisional and anticipatory as well.

The result was a kind of double asymmetry. On the one hand, the past-tense form of salvation (which Barth called “reconciliation”) served as the ground for which the future-tense form was simply the consequence, because the past tense-form was necessarily always constitutive. On the other hand, however, salvation’s future-tense form (which Barth called “redemption”) was the goal and fulfillment for which the past-tense form was simply the necessary precondition. Beyond these two relational patterns, there was no higher synthesis. The person of Christ in his work was a complex event that always formed a unity-in-distinction. Although the ground/consequence pattern dominated Barth’s dogmatics, he did not live to finish the project. As intimated at various points along the way, the precondition/fulfillment pattern was the great conceptual reversal that would have dominated Barth’s unwritten volume V on the doctrine of Redemption.

Barth also conceived of the one Jesus Christ in his threefold temporal form (Heb. 13:8) according to the logic of the trinitarian perichoresis. What he once said in a more limited application indicated the logic of the three forms as a whole. “Each of them also contains the other two by way of anticipation and recapitulation, so that without losing their individuality or destroying that of the others, they participate and are active and are revealed in them.” Each form of Christ’s person in his work was seen to dwell in, and be active in, and be revealed in the others. Each contained the other two by way of anticipation or recapitulation. They were three temporal forms of one and the same saving event. They did not differ from one another by degree, nor were they three parts adding up to a larger whole. They indicated three different forms of one and the same person of Christ in his unique saving work – yesterday, today and forever. Barth’s actualism was a matter of one indivisible event in three dynamically coinherent forms.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Learning from the past: George Marsden responds

A guest-post by George Marsden (responding to my recent post)

Since this has been an interesting ongoing discussion, I guess it would not be out of place for me to clarify what I said. Below is the text of what I said on the point in question. I did not use the core and husk image, but rather said that in a tradition there are some ideas that have shone through in a tradition in many times and places but these are sometimes “intertwined” with outdated social and political views of a particular time and place. Example: the beauty of Christ’s sacrificial love being intertwined with the belief that the Pope is the Antichrist. A brilliant exposition of the former resonates today, but a brilliant exposition of the latter does not.

These lectures were about what we can learn from Jonathan Edwards today. In my two biographies of Edwards (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards), I adopted just the stance that Ben cites from Rowan Williams. But in these lectures I was attempting something different. So my thanks to Ben for his good comments which I basically agree with, except with respect to what he thought I was trying to say. Here is what I said:

“What can we expect to learn from someone whose views on many important subjects seem so bizarre, outdated, and perhaps even offensive? Probably in this place [i.e. Princeton] where there is an appreciation for the long-term Christian heritage it will not take extensive argumentation to answer this question. If we excluded from our mentors all those who held views on some social or political issues that to many today seem bizarre or offensive, we would have to dispense with just about everyone in the history of the church as well as all the biblical writers and stick with just the wisdom of the very recent past and our own contemporaries – which is a truly depressing thought.

“Second, as I think will also gain general assent here, theologians present a special case. Theologian work within traditions and, although traditions are shaped and modified by historical contingencies, they also (by the nature of the case) contain elements that transcend the faddish outlooks of particular times and places. Hence they contain insights and challenges to our own assumptions and outlooks, just because they offer rays of wisdom that have shone in many other times and places.

“Nor is learning from the greatest proponents of a tradition an all or nothing enterprise. In our specific case of Edwards and the Reformed version of the Augustinian tradition there are some emphases – such as the eternal flames of hell, or God’s eternal decrees to election and reprobation – that some Reformed and other Christians today find very off-putting. But I think it is also most important not to be so off-put by these dimensions of the outlook of a great expositor or a tradition that we miss the truly grand insights of that expositor. As I said, I don’t think that point will require much argumentation at this seminary, where there is already appreciation for the likes of Edwards or Calvin, even among those who are not strictly Edwardseans or Calvinists.

“But beyond that, I want to argue that we can also gains some valuable insights and challenges to our culture and or cultural assumptions from the likes of Edwards. In order to do so we need to be alert to be able to sort out the lasting insights of the great minds of the past from the non-essential assumptions of another era with which those perennial truths may be intertwined. Learning to do that is, it seems to me, one of the great values of studying history. We try to understand another era not to simply dismiss it as curiously different and inferior to our own, but to be able to takes its peculiarities into account so that we can learn from its greatest thinkers.

“In fact sometimes we can gain some great insights from the profound thinkers of the past about our own times just because they lived in times so different from our own. Listening to them in their own contexts may have an effect similar to refreshing insights that we might gain from living for a time in a foreign country.”

Saturday, 18 October 2008

On political theology, Jacob Taubes, and Picasso

Thanks to Danny for pointing us to the latest issue of the New German Critique, a special issue on political theology. There’s some great stuff here – loads of Schmitt, Benjamin, Agamben, and Taubes.

I especially liked Nitzan Lebovic’s excellent article, “The Jerusalem School: The Theopolitical Hour,” which explores “the strange reappearance of Carl Schmitt in the context of German Jewish thought after 1940.” Lebovic focuses on the relationships between Buber, Bergman, Taubes, and the right-wing former terrorist Geulah Cohen: “Political theology was where antinormative critics from the radical Left and the radical Right met, cooperated, and learned from each other before going their separate ways.” The relations between the work of Schmitt and these Jewish thinkers constitutes the necessary background for understanding Agamben’s project.

Speaking of Jacob Taubes, I’m very intrigued by this strange character (and his even stranger thought). Right now I’m reading the autobiographical novel, Divorcing (1969), by his wife Susan Taubes – the book describes her relationship with Taubes, and his many eccentricities. (She committed suicide a week after the novel was published.) At the Princeton University Art Museum, I’ve also been spending some time looking at this Picasso painting, which was presented to Jacob Taubes in 1957:

Around the traps

Friday, 17 October 2008

Once more on historical method

Here’s a quote from Quentin Skinner’s Visions of Politics, Volume I: Regarding Method (Cambridge, 2002) – probably the best work available on questions of historical method (written by one of the world’s most brilliant historians):

“The golden rule [of intellectual history] is that, however bizarre the beliefs we are studying may seem to be, we must begin by trying to make the agents who accepted them appear as rational as possible…. If as historians we come upon contradictory beliefs, we should start by assuming that we must in some way have misunderstood or mistranslated some of the propositions by which they are expressed” (pp. 40, 55).

And if you want to know more about why George Marsden’s methodology is flawed, Skinner has an entire chapter (chapter 4) devoted to demolishing the notion that historical writing should uncover the “timeless wisdom” of certain “universal ideas” – in a nutshell, his argument is that the results of such writing “may be classified not as histories but more appropriately as mythologies.”

Monday, 13 October 2008

Resurrection as God's self-determination: a note on Adam Eitel, Bruce McCormack and Rowan Williams

Earlier this year, Adam Eitel published an important IJST article on “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth and the Historicization of God’s Being”, which argued for a more Hegelian reading of the relation between Trinity and resurrection in Barth’s thought.

According to Eitel: “God’s eternal triune act of being and Christ’s resurrection from the dead are not peculiar or separate acts. Rather, Christ’s resurrection was the historical continuation of God’s eternal being-in-act…. Put another way, the resurrection was nothing less than the historicization of the intra-triune activity of God’s own being.”

To paraphrase Eitel’s argument, God’s being can thus be described as a kind of being-towards-resurrection; the resurrection of Jesus is the goal of God’s eternal self-determining action. In this historical (or better, this history-creating) event, God becomes what God eternally is – and this is just because God eternally is what he becomes in this event.

I think this is a brilliant and compelling way of interpreting the relation between resurrection and the doctrine of God, and of extending Bruce McCormack’s important thesis on triunity and divine self-determination. Interestingly, this analysis of the resurrection had already been anticipated by Rowan Williams in his stunning 1982 book, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (2nd ed.; Pilgrim Press, 2002). Here’s what Williams has to say:

“Jesus’ life is historical, describable…. But there is a sense in which the raising of Jesus … does not and cannot belong to history: it is not an event, with a before and after, occupying a bit of time between Friday and Sunday. God’s act in uniting Jesus’ life with his eludes us: we can speak of it only as the necessary condition for our living as we live. And as a divine act it cannot be tied to place and time in any simple way. It is, indeed, an ‘eternal’ act: it is an aspect of the eternal will by which God determines how he shall be, his will to be the Father of the Son…. The event of resurrection, then, cannot but be hidden in God’s eternal act, his eternal ‘being himself’; however early we run to the tomb, God has been there ahead of us” (pp. 89-90).

The resurrection is an eternal act in which God determines the kind of God he will be. It is an act in which the trinitarian persons are differentiated: Father, Son and Spirit relate to one another in this event. The resurrection is God’s determination to be the triune God – so that God’s decision about his own being is fulfilled not in the abyss of eternity, but in this unique occurrence within human history.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Kim Fabricius in Princeton

Contrary to popular belief and nefarious rumour, Kim Fabricius is not an alter ego or pseudonym of Ben Myers. Even I myself have occasionally doubted this – but we now have photographic evidence! Here’s Kim and me hanging out in Princeton:


And here he is expounding a few propositions…


... while some Princeton bloggers listen, and my daughter has a good laugh:

Thursday, 9 October 2008

George Marsden and Jonathan Edwards: on learning from the past

The American church historian George Marsden is currently delivering the Stone Lectures here in Princeton. (The lectures are being blogged – see the series of links here.) Marsden, author of the great biography on Jonathan Edwards, is creating a dialogue between Edwards’ thought and contemporary theological issues.

Although I admire Marsden’s work on American church history, I was very disappointed by the methodological framework which he set up in the opening lecture. He asked how we can learn from someone like Edwards, whose views are obviously outdated and offensive in many ways. Marsden’s answer was that we can access Edwards’ lasting insights by distinguishing between his great “perennial ideas” (e.g. his doctrine of the Trinity) and his outdated nonessential ideas (e.g. his biblical literalism, his millennialism, and so on).

I realise that Marsden was only sketching some brief remarks on historical method, but I think this represents a deeply flawed approach to the question of how we can learn from the Christian past. If we learn from the past by distinguishing the timeless “perennial core” from the nonessential (i.e. flawed) elements, then we’re acting as though our own commitments are the final arbiter of history — we’re assuming that history has found its goal in us. And one of the unfortunate side-effects of this approach is that we’re no longer in a position to be critiqued by history. This would explain the strange fact that Marsden didn’t find any contemporary critical significance in Edwards’ millennialism, his doctrine of progress, or his theology of the election of nations. (Seriously, isn’t all this just a little relevant to American identity and to US foreign policy?)

In contrast, the point of historical study (as Rowan Williams has compellingly argued in Why Study the Past?) is to encounter the past in all its irreducible strangeness — and yet to perceive this strangeness itself (not some timeless “core”) as something that was actually possible for the Christian church. In other words, we need to recognise even Edwards’ most unpalatable ideas as things that it was possible for a Christian to think and say. If we can do this, then we’re placed in a position where Edwards can challenge and question our own most basic assumptions about what counts as “Christian”.


As Karl Barth remarks in his work on 19th-century theology: “I have to count all these people as members of the Christian Church and, remembering that I and my theological work are in the Christian Church only on the ground of forgiveness, I have neither to dispute nor even to doubt that they, like me, were ultimately concerned with the Christian faith” (p. 28).

Once we perceive that a thinker like Jonathan Edwards was “ultimately concerned with the Christian faith,” it becomes impossible to distinguish between any timeless “core” and the mere “husk” of culturally-bound ineptitudes. Instead, by encountering the strangeness and offensiveness of Edwards’ ideas, we are encountering something new and unexpected about the nature of Christian identity itself. And this means that our own assumptions about Christian identity have also become less certain and less secure. Edwards is now not merely a curiosity or the source of a few timeless verities; now, he becomes a question to us.

Analogy of being

The next issue of the Princeton Theological Review will be devoted to the analogy of being and questions of natural theology, with special reference to the dialogue between Przywara, Barth and Balthasar. They’ve issued a call for papers for articles, reflections or book reviews – more details here.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

On Kurt Cobain and Karl Barth: the possible impossibility of theology

I’ve always been intrigued by artistic forms in which the very possibility of art becomes an open question. The most striking example is the work of Samuel Beckett: his plays posit the absolute impossibility of drama; his work is hugely preoccupied with the urge to tell the truth, yet all his writing foregrounds the impossibility of truthful speech. In his late plays and fiction, Beckett stages and enacts the end of literature – its paralysing “endgame” – and yet in precisely this way, Beckett breaks open the possibilities of literary aesthetics, generating new forms of speech and writing.

Or, for a more recent example, take the music of Nirvana, the great “grunge” band of the 1990s. The band’s music emerged as a violent protest against the possibility of music itself. Just think of Kurt Cobain’s trademark harrowing shriek; the way his lyrics suddenly implode into tortured incoherence; the way the songs tend to collapse spontaneously under the weight of their own impossible demands. Witness the exhausted aggression of the band’s stage performances – performances that routinely culminated in the destruction of stage, amps and instruments. Nirvana didn’t merely represent another drug-induced cry for social disengagement (although obviously that’s one side of the story) – above all, the band was raging against music itself. On stage they were enacting the end of music: the final shriek of the wrecked and wasted human voice, the metallic howl of dismembered guitars, the dying moan and hiss of gutted audio speakers.

Nirvana’s protest against the possibility of music became even more pronounced after the massive commercial success of their 1991 album, Nevermind. With this album, the band had achieved international fame as the centre of the new Seattle “grunge scene” – and so the band turned all its fury on grunge music itself, and on the fans who had become consumers of this new sound. As one of their early songs, “Aero Zeppelin”, rather brutally put it: “You could shit upon the stage, they’ll be fans…”

And so Nirvana’s next (and final) studio album, In Utero (1993), represented an astonishingly aggressive attempt to alienate the band’s own devoted fans. (The gesture of this album was rather like the celebrated incident in Bob Dylan’s 1966 electric concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in England. In response to the angry cries of his erstwhile folk fans, Dylan turned to his band and growled – surely the greatest single moment in the history of rock – “Play fucking loud,” before launching into a devastatingly vehement electric performance of “Like a Rolling Stone.”) Nirvana’s In Utero opens with its most difficult and most confronting songs. The chorus of “Scentless Apprentice”, for instance, consists of nothing but the repeated scream, “Go away, get away,” before the song dissolves finally into the heavy hiss and oblivion of electric distortion.

Like Beckett’s great play Endgame, Nirvana here enacts the impossibility of its own artistic form – In Utero is not only the greatest album of its decade; it is the end of music itself, the collapse of any possible harmony into the undifferentiated violence and anarchy of mere noise. As Kurt Cobain had put it in the 1991 song, “On a Plain”: “It is now time to make it unclear…”

Okay, it’s a bit of a stretch – but I wonder whether this can provide some help in understanding that most difficult and most confronting work of modern theology, Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans (1922). This was a sustained piece of theological writing which announced the impossibility of theology. Indeed, Barth’s prose was itself an enactment of God’s shattering apocalyptic judgment on all theological speech. If the miracle of modern literature is that writing still proved to be possible after Beckett, and if the miracle of contemporary music is that music did not cease entirely with In Utero, then the miracle of modern theology is simply that Barth’s commentary on Romans was not the last work of theology ever written.

In Barth’s commentary, theology uttered it final dying word – and yet against all odds, this proved also to be a word of resurrection, a word that both shattered and reinvigorated the possibilities of speech about God. Reading Barth’s commentary is, perhaps, rather like attending a Nirvana concert: the spectacle of sheer destruction, the violent conflagration of an entire tradition – and yet, amidst the ashes, a sudden surprising glimpse of something new.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Why I don't like harvest festivals

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Isaiah 5:1-7. It’s known as “The Song of the Vineyard”. The prophet Isaiah, who lived and ministered in Jerusalem during the latter half of the 8th century B.C., stands at the city gates, playing the part of a minstrel who sings a ballad to the joyful crowds who are dancing their way to the Temple to celebrate the autumn vintage, that is, their Harvest Festival. He sings of a “friend” who had a vineyard. With tender loving care he did all he could to ensure a bountiful crop and an excellent wine – digging, clearing, planting the finest vines; putting a hedge around it and watching from a tower for crows and thieves; and, finally, digging a pit, a vat, all ready to tread the grapes. Alas, the grapes are withered and puny, the Beaujolais will be sour. “What’s gone wrong?” Isaiah’s friend plaintively cries. “What more could I have done?” So he vents his frustration on the vineyard itself: “I’ll turn it back into a wasteland – no hedge, no wall, no tower for protection; no hoeing, no pruning, and” – who is this guy? – “I shall make sure that next year the rains don’t come.” Now the pilgrims are edgy: has Isaiah’s mate gone mad? Like he can command the clouds! And then Isaiah delivers the punch line: his friend turns out to be God, and the vineyard is Israel itself. The song is a love song – but the love is unrequited. The Lord expected his people to yield a harvest of justice; instead, while the rich revel in conspicuous consumption – “bank robbers”, if you like, idolising the free, deregulated market, stripping assets, short-selling, whatever makes a profit – the streets are full of people begging, scrounging for food, searching for shelter – and ultimately carrying the can for the irresponsibility of the greedy. Harvest: a time of divine judgement on the affluent and powerful.

Matthew 21:33-46. We’re still in Jerusalem, but fast-forward eight centuries. Another prophet – and more than a prophet – is in the precincts of the new, re-built Temple, not singing a song, but telling a story. “There was once a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, built a tower, dug a pit …” And the people listening are thinking, “We’ve heard this one before!” Well, yes and no. For like all good storytellers, bringing a traditional tale up to date, Jesus re-imagines the plot and the characters. This landowner lets his vineyard to tenant farmers and heads off to the Costa del Sol. The crowd boo and hiss: absentee landlords, often outsiders, buying up the countryside, turfing out small farmers – they were not popular in first-century Palestine. But hang on – in the original story, doesn’t the landowner represent God? So are the tenants the good guys? And hang on again – when the landowner sends his rent-collectors, the tenants murder them; when he sends more, the tenants murder them too; and when he finally sends his own son – surely they won’t kill him too! – but they do. Who are these tenants? Well, whom is Jesus specifically addressing? Not the common folk but the chief priests and Pharisees – they are the tenants, the leaders the Lord has put in charge of his vineyard, his people Israel. It turns out that this landlord wasn’t trying to exploit the tenants, he was entrusting them with land that might produce fruit for all those whom Roman economic policy had made homeless and broke. And those rent-collectors – they are code for prophets. And the son – he, it turns out, is the storyteller himself. And chief priests and Pharisees – they get the message all right, that they will pay for their faithlessness and wickedness with their lives. They would have Jesus arrested but for fear of the crowds, the peasant-poor whose champion Jesus is. Harvest: a time of judgement on the affluent and powerful.

I don’t like Harvest Services. But it’s not because – as I know it is with some colleagues – because the worship can be nostalgic, sentimental, or simply, for city slickers, quite out of touch. I mean, what do most of us know about a contemporary harvest? How much of what we eat is local? And where do we get most of it? From Sainsbury’s or Tesco, now often bought on-line and delivered to our door. But, no, the reason I don’t like Harvest Services is because of the biblical image of the harvest – it’s an image of judgement, and judgement makes me nervous. Because – note well – in Isaiah and Matthew judgement falls on Israel, not pagans but believers, and for “Israel” read “Church”; and indeed not just on believers but on the leaders of believers, on their “chief priests”, that is, their ministers – and that means me! That’s why I don’t like Harvest Services: they tell me that God is not happy with my life and my leadership – and with good reason:

  • My eyes light up at a new pair of £100 trainers – “outsourced” is the word, they’re made in southeast Asia by child slave labour, kids working in sweathouses twelve hours a day. Of course it is difficult to buy any textile that doesn’t have a sordid history behind its production, but that doesn’t let me off the hook, it rather emphasises just how inextricably trapped I am in an unjust system that benefits me while condemning millions to abject poverty. 
  • My church has a Commitment for Life project in partnership with Jamaica – yet when I holidayed in nearby Antigua I stayed in a posh hotel that amounted to a gated community, passing shantytown after shantytown to get there. Who knows in what conditions the staff lived or how much they earned? We left a big tip. Big deal. 
  • And my country – and your country – western governments – have once again reneged on promises and betrayed the south: in August trade talks collapsed in Geneva, with developing countries still being offered nothing that would correct the unjust rules of international trade. On the one hand, we subsidise our farmers and over-tax food imports. On the other hand, we insist that indebted nations grow food for export for my well-fed face, and even when the prices are good, it’s the transnational corporations that reap most of the profits. Thank God for Fairtrade, and for more and more people buying Fairtrade goods – last year the volume was more than double the year before. But then the question becomes: Why can’t all trade be fair trade? For isn’t the opposite of fair trade unfair trade? And isn’t unfair trade a sin?
No, I don’t like Harvest Services. But then I guess we’ve all lost our innocence when it comes to food. And it’s not just trade issues. Binge-drinking is now a moral panic of a social problem, perhaps over-stated but nevertheless a growing drain on hospital and police services, costing a couple of billion pounds a year. You can’t read a newspaper or watch a breakfast programme without hearing of more alarming statistics about obesity, while it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t on a diet, or at least adjusting their diets due to high blood pressure or iffy cholesterol levels. Chefs are now celebrities, as are style gurus who have the “talent”, however fat we are, to make us look thin. Okay, I’m a grumpy old man – or at least I will be tomorrow when I turn sixty! – but it’s hard not to be cynical.

But for one thing. Though it’s probably down to Matthew rather than Jesus, the first evangelist incorporates into the parable one of the early church’s favourite Old Testament proof-texts for the resurrection, from Psalm 118 (vv. 22-23):

        The stone which the builders rejected as worthless
        turned out to be the most important of all.
        This was done by the Lord;
        what a wonderful sight it is!

So the word of warning, the message of judgement, it contains at its heart a promise: the vineyard owner’s slain son, death cannot hold him and he returns, not reaping revenge, but heaping forgiveness on his deniers and betrayers, who in turn are called (in the words of the hymn) to “Take seeds of his Spirit, [and] let the fruit grow.”

I still don’t like Harvest Services. I feel like mugwort reacting to weed killer. But then when the gospel strikes, the first reaction of a sinner is always recoil. But deep down I know that the project of our gracious gardener is not just a weeding but a feeding, that we may all bear a rich harvest and good fruit. So why be a sour grape? He who is the Living Bread and the True Vine – even now he invites us to his table.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Carl Schmitt on war and the power of the state

Carl Schmitt’s 1936 book on Hobbes is now available in English: The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol (Chicago, 2008). I read it just last night, and it’s an astonishing work (published here with a very fine introductory essay by Tracy Strong). Chapter 4 may well be the most brilliant – and most “contemporary” – analysis you’ll ever read on war, the power of the state, and the state’s demand for obedience. Here are a few excerpts:

“With the incredible development of the technical means of disseminating communication, information, and weaponry, the power of the state’s command mechanism grew in a manner that was astonishing. One can thus believe that the power of a modern state in comparison with that of ancient communities is proportionately much greater and more intensive, as, for example, is the range and piercing power of modern artillery in comparison with the effectiveness of a crossbow or a siege machine.” (p. 42)

“The state machine either functions or does not function. In the first instance, it guarantees me the security of my physical existence; in return it demands unconditional obedience to the laws by which it functions…. Resistance as a ‘right’ is in Hobbes’ absolute state … factually and legally nonsensical and absurd. The endeavor to resist the leviathan, the all powerful, resistance-destroying, and technically perfect mechanism of command, is practically impossible…. [Resistance] has no place whatsoever in the space governed by the irresistible and overpowering huge machine of the state.” (pp. 45-46)

In international law, “wars become pure state wars, that is, they cease to be religious, civil, or factional…. From this follows the question of the just war, for such an interstate war is just as incommensurable as the question of just resistance within the state. In contrast to religious, civil, and factional wars, wars between states cannot be measured with the yardsticks of truth and justice. War between states is neither just nor unjust…. The state has its order in, not outside, itself…. The state absorbs all rationality and all legality. Everything outside of the state is therefore a ‘state of nature’. The thoroughly rationalized mechanisms of state command confront one another ‘irrationally’…. There is no state between states, and for that reason there can be no legal war and no legal peace.” (pp. 47-49)

Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs

Bob Dylan’s forthcoming album, Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased, 1989-2006, is now available for free online listening – a week ahead of its release!

This isn’t just a random collection – it’s a stunning album with its own very distinctive style and flavour (the first disc is especially good). There are some wonderful songs, including two outtakes of the 2001 masterpiece, “Mississippi”. (Is “Mississippi” the best song ever written? Yes.)

One of the new songs, “Red River Shore,” has got me completely smitten. Here are some of the lyrics:

Now I’m wearing the cloak of misery
And I’ve tasted jilted love
And the frozen smile upon my face
Fits me like a glove
But I can’t escape from the memory
Of the one that I’ll always adore
All those nights when I lay in the arms
Of the girl from the Red River shore
...
Well, I’m a stranger here in a strange land
But I know this is where I belong
I’ll ramble and gamble for the one I love
And the hills will give me a song
Though nothing looks familiar to me
I know I’ve stayed here before
Once, a thousand nights ago,
With the girl from the Red River shore

Around the traps

  • A Spectator piece by Rowan Williams on market idolatry
  • The new Bulgakov blog-conference is now up and running at Land of Unlikeness
  • David has completed a brilliant series on missional theology, where he argues that the future of Barthian dogmatics lies with the concept of “mission”
  • And speaking of Barth, this guy is working his way through the Church Dogmatics five pages at a time: apparently five pages a day will get you through the whole work in five years
  • In addition to the excellent Theological German blog, Celucien Joseph has now kicked off a new blog for Theological French
  • Halden’s latest posts are engaging theologically with the Fourth Gospel
  • A. N. Wilson interviews Rowan Williams about his (absolutely wonderful) new book on Dostoevsky

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