Sunday 30 September 2007

Mysticism versus rationalism: a tale of two sisters

Is it possible that each of us is genetically predisposed to either mysticism or rationalism? As a case in point, here’s a conversation I recently overheard between my two daughters (aged 3 and 5) – a clear case of unflinchingly nihilistic rationalism versus unwaveringly optimistic mysticism:

Younger sister: I would love to see a shooting star.
Older sister: Why?
Younger sister: So I could make a wish.
Older sister: What would you wish for?
Younger sister: A pony!
Older sister: But, you know, there aren’t any real shooting stars.
Younger sister: Yes there are!
Older sister: No, there aren’t. We call them shooting stars, but they’re just little pieces of space-rock coming through the atmosphere. [Gleefully] Just ugly pieces of rock.
Younger sister: Oh. [Long pause] Well, I will wish for a shooting star then.

Saturday 29 September 2007

Joke: a Barthian dilemma

A joke by Kim Fabricius

A Barthian is standing on the top of a cliff with a liberal and a member of the Religious Right. Whom does he push off first?

Answer: the liberal. Business before pleasure.

Alister McGrath in Brisbane

If you’re in the Brisbane area, you might like to come along and hear Alister McGrath on Monday night. He’ll be giving an evening lecture on “The Bankruptcy of Atheism”.

A blog scholarship

If you’re an American college or grad student with a blog, you can (believe it or not) apply for the $10,000 Daniel Kovach Scholarship. I reckon someone should nominate The Fire & the Rose, which has gotta be one of the finest American-student-blogs out there.

Thursday 27 September 2007

Rudolf Bultmann: Theologie als Kritik

Rudolf Bultmann, Theologie als Kritik: Ausgewählte Rezensionen und Forschungsberichte, ed. Matthias Dreher and Klaus W. Müller (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), 638 pp. (review copy courtesy of Mohr Siebeck)

Rudolf Bultmann was a great book-reviewer. But isn’t “great reviewer” an oxymoron? Isn’t the book review the most pedestrian and most insignificant of all literary genres (at least prior to the invention of blogs)? One can perhaps write a “fair” or “useful” review – but surely not a great one!

When we read Rudolf Bultmann’s reviews, however, we’re in the presence of true greatness. Engaging with new books was, for Bultmann, an important part of scholarly life. Between 1908 and 1969, he published over 250 reviews and reports on new research. And now Matthias Dreher and Klaus Müller have brought together 97 of these publications (written mainly in German, but occasionally in English) in a volume as important as it is massive.

As the editors point out, in these reviews we often glimpse Bultmann “on the way to one of his own great works” (p. xi). A striking example is his 1919 review of Martin Dibelius’ new book on form criticism. Grappling with Dibelius’ methodological proposal, Bultmann remarks rather offhandedly that he hopes to do more work on this topic soon (pp. 92-94). A prescient comment, since form criticism would remain a dominant theme throughout the rest of Bultmann’s career!

His reviews cross several disciplines – history of religions, Jesus and early Christianity, Paul and John, theology and church history, politics and ethics, philology and classical philosophy – but always we see Bultmann’s own gigantic intelligence at work. He is not only at the forefront of his own field, but his penetrating insight and systematic genius lead him to position and organise other fields as well.

For instance, in his 1926 report on current theological scholarship (pp. 156-66), he maps the fields of theology, Old Testament, New Testament, history of religions, and church history. Reading a synthetic account like this, one must realise that Bultmann is not merely perceiving the already-existing relations between the theological disciplines, but he is himself constructing those relations in a way that would prove determinative for generations of students and scholars. Bultmann, more than anyone else except Barth, was the architect of 20th-century theology – a thinker from whom modern theology received its fundamental form and structure, its questions and horizons.

Since Bultmann was at the centre of academic theology throughout his career, there are plenty of fascinating engagements here with major figures: dialectical theologians like Barth, Brunner and Thurneysen; biblical scholars like Bousset, Dodd, Gunkel, Jeremias, Kittel, Schlatter, Schweitzer and Weiss; church historians like Harnack and Holl; as well as other major scholars like Ernst Troeltsch, Rudolf Otto, and Max Weber.

Bultmann also engages with some of his own pupils. His review of Schubert Ogden’s famous Christ without Myth (1961) is especially important, since it highlights the fundamental gulf that separated Bultmann’s own theology from that of his radical “left-wing” pupils. Ogden insisted that Bultmann’s own demythologising programme was not consistent enough, and he called for a radical “dekerygmatising” of theology and a reduction of Jesus Christ to a mere “symbol” of authentic human existence. Against this proposal, Bultmann observes that the grace of God is never a philosophical “idea” but always “an act of God … in a historical event.” As such, God’s grace can only ever be “a stumbling block, a scandalon for rational thinking.” Thus Bultmann refuses Ogden’s proposal, and he observes that Ogden is in fact seeking to eliminate “the legitimate and necessary character of what the New Testament calls the stumbling block” (p. 506). General ideas and symbols are of no use; what I need is “a word which is addressed to me personally” (p. 507). As this critique of Ogden illustrates so vividly, Bultmann’s whole theology remained structured by the sheer irreducibility of the kerygma.

In sum, this is a book of exceptional importance, and it is an index not only of Bultmann’s own intellectual development but also of the development of the theological disciplines in Europe throughout the first half of the 20th century.

The volume provides ample proof that Bultmann was indeed a “great” reviewer – a voracious reader, a meticulous scholar, and a fiercely independent thinker. If Christian theology today must indeed take the form of Kritik, then we could do far worse than to sit – at least for a season – at the feet of Marburg’s great Kritiker.

Wednesday 26 September 2007

Bonhoeffer and the end of religion

“It is the advent of the reality of reconciliation – much more than the simple advance of secularisation – that has dissolved, for Bonhoeffer, the old antinomy of religious and secular. In the wake of God’s epoch-making incursion in Christ, the categories ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ no longer map onto reality as it has been remade.... It is possible for Christians to embrace the dissolution of religion as a historical development finally because human religion has already been abolished prospectively but ultimately in God’s act of justifying the ungodly.”

—Philip G. Ziegler, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer – An Ethics of God’s Apocalypse?” Modern Theology 23:4 (2007), p. 589.

Tuesday 25 September 2007

The wrong tree? Barth, Bonhoeffer, and knowledge of good and evil

A guest-post by Eric Meyer (who is currently researching Bonhoeffer’s ethics)

The glimmering moment of theological rapture that eventually launched my thesis found me buried in an armchair, well equipped with pens and coffee. Bonhoeffer’s phrase struck like Newton’s apple. “The knowledge of good and evil appears to be the goal of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to supercede [aufzuheben – cancel, dissolve] that knowledge” (Ethics, 299). The temerity required to dismiss a tradition that includes Kant and Mill still gives me shivers. Who knows if this bit of bravado would have been tamed for the final publication—it outlived its author in this form.

Accustomed to bucking the modern liberal establishment, Barth readily put similar audacity in print. Nigel Biggar’s book on Barth’s ethics begins, “When the serpent promised Adam and Eve that they would become as God, what he had in mind, according to Karl Barth was ‘the establishment of ethics’” (The Hastening That Waits, 7).

Here is the argument: Ethical systems of thought illegitimately put justification in human hands (to get the right effect you should almost spit the word “system”). To conclusively mark an action or person as right or wrong is to shove God off the judgment throne and presume to take a seat. Any abstract principle capable of substantial moral guidance is destructively deceptive because it promises the soothing self-sufficiency we have all been seeking since Adam and Eve strapped on fig leaves. We shelter ourselves by recruiting our own consciences to anticipate and obviate God’s judgment. “Why wait for God to sort things out when we’ve got the knowledge of good and evil right here – we’ll just get started and do it for him, eh?” Modern ethics, as an autonomous enterprise cut loose from “metaphysics and superstition,” is a wholehearted embrace of idolatry.

After thus taking the wheels off ethical casuistry, both Barth and Bonhoeffer tender a similar alternative. The fundamental ethical reality is God’s calling and command (and before that, his triune personality and character(s)). Ethics is obedience. As the positive response to God’s life-transforming call, ethics is a theological activity before it is anything else.

Put this simply, Bonhoeffer’s and Barth’s ethics are much easier to teach in Sunday School than Kant’s, but are unlikely to get positive attention anywhere else. Yet Bonhoeffer wrote Ethics as a pacifist involved in an assassination conspiracy; subtlety outstrips platitude by far.

An ethic centered on hearing and obeying God’s command is fodder for cynics, and I’m not sure that Bonhoeffer can (or should!) overcome all the criticism. The concreteness of God’s command (and tracing the epistemology behind it) remains thorny for both Barth and Bonhoeffer. The revelational alternative to modern ethics launches a host of questions:

How do we receive God’s command? Where do we go to listen? Given that direct epiphanies are rare (at best), how do we discern God’s voice from the multitude of other voices? Who speaks for God? How and when do I presume to speak God’s command? What ethical accountability do we have at hand when someone acts destructively with the conviction that they are following the command of God? Can there be any ethical conversation between Christians and those outside the church? On what common ground would such a conversation even begin?

The majority of Bonhoeffer’s writing life was devoted to these questions. The questions lurk beneath the surface of Discipleship, Life Together, Ethics, and even the Letters and Papers. Bonhoeffer strains to discern God’s command concretely, to proclaim it where he dares, and to describe the means by which others might take up the same labor.

Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran heritage (while he received it intermarried with hostile ideologies), encouraged him to recognize God’s commands concretely, perhaps more so than Barth. Luther’s affirmation that, by grace, the finite is capable of bearing the infinite undergirds all his writing, from the identification of the church as “Christ existing as a community” in his first dissertation, to his later conception of the “four mandates” – marriage, culture, government, and church as places to encounter Christ. His redefinition of the “natural” enables him to speak about human rights and the value of political and economic order without resorting to abstract or non-theological principles. Rather than a normative vestige of Eden, the natural is that which stands open to Christ’s return; the unnatural closes itself off or hides. Where there is hunger, injustice, pollution, alienation, or disregard for life, the gospel is hindered and Christ left unwelcomed. For Bonhoeffer, God’s command is inextricably social; ethics is no prayer-closet activity.

The ultimate goad toward concreteness in Bonhoeffer’s ethic of command remains the incarnation. Ethics means becoming conformed to the incarnate, crucified, and risen paradigm of real humanity; ethics is discipleship. Because God entered the complexity of human life in order to redeem and reconcile it, Christians cannot abandon any aspect of reality as irredeemable. In Christ, we can see God and the world clearly at the same time. Motives, principles, and consequences are all factors to be considered together in obedience (not isolated as single criteria). The “ultimate question” then is not one of moral justification – “how am I to heroically extricate myself from this situation without blame” – but of total responsibility – “how is the coming generation to live?” (Letters and Papers, 7).

As imago Christi, the responsible person acts for others without knowing her own good or evil. By joining the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer modeled his own enigmatic assertion that responsibility entails bearing guilt for others in trust and submission to God’s final judgment.

In his death, no less than his life, Bonhoeffer’s conformity to the Crucified witnesses to an ethic of courageous trust in God’s mercy rather than his own scruples. We can all be thankful that Barth’s witness took a less tragic shape. Both theologians help us begin to think ethically without biting into the knowledge of good and evil.

Monday 24 September 2007

Racism in Jena: the Szyslak solution

A guest-post by my good friend Jaggins

I was listening to the midday news the other day, and there was a story about racial unrest in the little town of Jena, deep in the south of the US of A.

Apparently one day in the local high school three nooses were found hanging from a tree in the school grounds following an altercation between black students and whites. Some time later, a group of black students allegedly assaulted a white student and were subsequently arrested and charged. No action had been taken over the noose incident, so demonstrations were being held decrying the double standards in the treatment of blacks and whites. A terrible story and nothing to delight in so far, but the very last line of the report said, “The tree has since been cut down.”

My mind immediately leapt to The Simpsons episode where the giant comet is hurtling towards Springfield, sure to destroy all life. It does, however, burn up in the polluted atmosphere and arrives “no bigger than a chihuahua’s head,” to the great relief and jubilation of the assembled townsfolk. It’s then that Moe cries, “Now let’s burn down the observatory so this never happens again!” – and the mob run off with flaming torches.

Bob Dylan once said, “You can listen to a Woody Guthrie song and learn how to live.” Presumably the good folk of Louisiana have adopted the same philosophy with The Simpsons.

Sunday 23 September 2007

Barth and history with Donald Wood

I’m currently writing a book about Barth as a historian of theology – a topic which hasn’t yet received the attention it deserves. But Donald Wood’s new book, Barth’s Theology of Interpretation (Ashgate, 2007), has just landed on my desk – and I’m delighted to see that it includes some sophisticated engagement with Barth’s theological historiography.

Anyway, stay tuned for a review of this excellent book – and in the mean time, here’s an excerpt to think about (p. 43):

The opening pages of Barth’s dogmatics “are occupied largely with the twofold task of recognizing and … relativizing the academic context in which Barth is operating…. God’s revelation places us in an impossible situation – or rather the only possible situation, but one from which we seek continually to escape, not least by insulating ourselves from scripture by turning to purely historical or short-sightedly practical questions. In an academic context, this means recognizing that theology must guard against the encroachment of standards of judgment or intellectual processes that are alien to its true subject matter, even or especially when those standards and processes are institutionalized in the academy and when they bear the cultural prestige of being identified as scientific.”

Saturday 22 September 2007

An interview with Kevin Vanhoozer

Interviewer extraordinaire and all-around-nice-guy Guy Davies has posted an excellent interview with America’s best conservative evangelical theologian, Kevin Vanhoozer.

It’s good to hear that Vanhoozer is currently working on a new book for the Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine series, entitled Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship. In this book, he’s arguing that the God-world relation takes the form not of causality but of communicative speech. Vanhoozer has already sketched this idea in First Theology – and I’ve often thought that this is the best of all his constructive proposals to date. (I wonder if Vanhoozer has ever come across Gerhard Ebeling’s little 1967 book, God and Word, which makes a very similar proposal, albeit from a Bultmannian direction.)

As Guy’s interview reveals, Vanhoozer is also planning a full systematic theology: “Everything else is but a tilling of the ground…”

Friday 21 September 2007

On Barth and Žižek

The October issue of Modern Theology was released today, and it includes some excellent articles. I was especially interested in Kenneth Oakes, “The Question of Nature and Grace in Karl Barth: Humanity as Creature and as Covenant-Partner,” Modern Theology 23:4 (2007), 595-616 – an article which is also relevant to yesterday’s discussion. Oakes offers a careful and sophisticated defence of Barth against the criticisms of Przywara and Milbank, i.e., that Barth separates nature and grace, with the result that human beings are construed as “closed and alien to the grace of God” (p. 597). Oakes shows that Barth was in fact remarkably close to de Lubac – in Barth’s own words, “man in the Bible is the being for whom, whether he knows it or not, it is necessary and essential to desire God; and he is the being who by his creation is capable of this” (CD, III/2, p. 413).

The same issue includes a fascinating reading of Žižek’s theological writings: Frederiek Depoortere, “The End of God’s Transcendence? On Incarnation in the Work of Slavoj Žižek,” Modern Theology 23:4 (2007), 497-523. Depoortere explores the Hegelian, Lacanian and Marxist coordinates of Žižek’s theological analysis, focusing especially on Žižek’s view that “the Incarnation should be understood as the end of God’s transcendence” (p. 498).

I thought the most interesting aspect of this paper was the elucidation of Žižek’s claim that Christ is “the ultimate objet petit a.” For Žižek, just as “money is the commodity as such, Christ is man as such” (p. 514). In the crucifixion, “a particular human being is stripped of all his particular characteristics and reduced to ‘man as such’. At that moment, he is disgorged by the symbolic order … and therefore he reduces to nothing but a piece of waste, the excrement of the symbolic order. Only at that precise moment, then, does Christ truly become Christ, the ‘ultimate objet petit a,’ the incarnation of the human excess as such, that excess which can never be contained within the symbolic order of exchange. And in precisely this way Christ effects our redemption” (p. 516).

Wednesday 19 September 2007

Pannenberg: the historicity of nature

One forthcoming book which I’m looking forward to reading is the new collection of essays by Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Historicity of Nature: Essays on Science and Theology, to be published by the Templeton Foundation Press in November (there are more details here).

Pannenberg’s approach to science is summed up in this remark from his earlier volume, Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith (WJKP, 1993), p. 16: “If the God of the Bible is the creator of the universe, then it is not possible to understand fully or even appropriately the processes of nature without any reference to that God. If, on the contrary, nature can be appropriately understood without reference to the God of the Bible, then that God cannot be the creator of the universe, and consequently he cannot be truly God.”

Personally, I think the opposite is the case: if God is truly God, then the processes of nature must be understandable without any reference to God. (Or to put it more sharply: God is himself the possibility of atheism). But in spite of that, I think Pannenberg’s fundamental insight is correct: in the question of the truth of theology, not only theology itself but everything else is at stake. And I reckon this is an absolutely indispensable correction to the Barthian tradition, in which theology tends to be neatly demarcated from all other disciplines.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

Alain Badiou and the truth of the Christian legacy

“In terms of recent theory, … the insistence on the superiority of Christianity (a very Hegelian claim) is peculiar to Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. Such a position clearly flies in the face of liberal pluralism; either you accept the truth that can be extracted from the Christian legacy, or you are wrong…. The doyens of difference start to hear alarm bells at this point. In my view Badiou’s defense of this argument is unassailable: what is at stake in reclaiming the truth of the Christian legacy is the very status of the universal itself; it is not a question of asserting the superiority of a closed coterie of true believers, for the Christian claim is precisely what challenges the closed community.”
—Liam A. O’Donnell, “St. Paul: Apostle, Militant, Communist,” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 2:1-2 (2006), p. 347.

“The fundamental question is that of knowing precisely what it means for there to be a single God…. Here Paul confronts – but also renews the terms of – the formidable question of the One. His genuinely revolutionary conviction is that the sign of the One is the ‘for all’, or the ‘without exception’. That there is but a single God must be understood not as a philosophical speculation concerning substance or the supreme being, but on the basis of a structure of address. The One is that which inscribes no difference in the subjects to which it addresses itself. The One is only insofar as it is for all…. Monotheism can be understood only by taking into consideration the whole of humanity. Unless addressed to all, the One crumbles and disappears.”
—Alain Badiou, Saint Paul (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 76.

Monday 17 September 2007

Karl Barth book reviews

Sunday 16 September 2007

New Testament theology with Mike Bird

My Aussie pal Mike Bird (who is writing about 100 books at the moment) is planning a new work which will integrate early Christian studies and New Testament studies – sounds like an excellent idea.

While you’re over at Mike’s blog, you can also see a recent photo of the two of us – I gave him plenty of wine, then tried to convince him that Bultmann is an important thinker (he didn’t believe a word of it). And I’ll be meeting up with Mike again at this year’s SBL/AAR meeting on The Faith of Jesus Christ Debate, where I’ll be talking about Barth and Paul.

Saturday 15 September 2007

Religion is a bargain

In a sermon posted over at Connexions, Kim Fabricius suggests that religion is all about bargaining with God: “Yes, religion is a bargain, but revelation is no bargain, revelation is grace, it is free. Nothing is necessary, all is gift.”

Collecting books? A note from Karl Barth

Kurt Johanson kindly sent me a copy of his delightful new volume, The Word in This World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth. And he included a facsimile of an inscription which Barth wrote in Klaus Bockmuehl’s copy of Against the Stream, back in 1954.

It’s such a nice inscription that I thought I’d reproduce it here – a timely reminder to all of us who like collecting books!

Meaning of life?
Collecting books? No, read them!
Reading them? No, think about!
Thinking about? No, do something for God and for your neighbour!
—Karl Barth, Basle, 2.11.1954

Thursday 13 September 2007

The mentally handicapped and the demonic

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

Anyone wanting to poke fun at the naïveté of the first-century worldview – and by implication the biblical texts shaped by it – will sooner or later bring up the “primitive” belief that those suffering from a mental affliction are actually beset by demons. As unremarkable as this jibe is, the comparisons that inevitably follow between their worldview and our own are even less interesting.

For instance: while the first-century world is full of magic, myths and demons, the modern world is determined by rationality, hard science and medicine. And so, whereas the ancients used exorcism to deal with mental illness, we use medication, precise treatment programs and various forms of supported accommodation. The implicit judgment that drives these comparisons is the superiority and benevolence of modern science and the health-care system, versus the cruel, more ancient practice of ostracising the sick from civic life.

But is the difference quite so clear-cut? As soon as it’s pressed, this double reduction (modern benevolence versus primitive cruelty) collapses.

To begin with, earliest Christianity – in which designation I include Jesus himself – did not simply accept the superstitions and religious palliatives supplied by its cultural surroundings. Instead, it consistently exhibited a remarkable capacity for theological imagination and an ethical intensity that released it from the clutches of nationalist idolatry and merciless ritual practices. The ethical freedom of early Christianity is nowhere better demonstrated than in the radical way that it presents and uses the notion of “the demonic”. Far from simply accepting the existence of malevolent, individuated personalities as an easy explanation for a variety of ailments, the Christian texts identify demonic influences as an effective mechanism of cultural and political critique.

For instance, in Mark’s Gospel, the commencement of Jesus’ public activity – in the form of the announcement of the redefined kingdom of God – is punctuated by the presence of “a man with an unclean spirit” in the synagogue. It is as if the Jewish religious system itself, governed by the demands of holiness and ritual exclusions, is possessed by something antagonistic to the presence of the kingdom of God. Similarly, it is hard not to pick up the political overtones in Mark’s episode concerning the Gerasene demoniac. As Dominic Crossan observes: “The demon is both one and many; is named Legion, that fact and sign of Roman power.” Toward the end of Luke’s Gospel, the nocturnal arrest of Jesus is depicted as the proper activity of “the power of darkness.”

And in Paul’s writings, not only are the Roman rulers reduced to impotent “powers” that cravenly plotted to execute Jesus, but the Jewish Torah itself is described as belonging to the stoicheia, the dark, elemental forces that exert their chaotic influence on this world.

What is crucial to notice here is the way that the demonic influence is mediated through political and religious structures as the means by which individuals are subjugated, humiliated, excluded, dehumanised. The message of the gospel is that these powers have been emasculated (as Karl Barth put it, demons “are null and void, but they are not nothing”), and that their effects must be opposed in the same manner by which they were defeated: in faith and by love. The powers are thus to be taken seriously, but disregarded as an act of faith. Here again, Barth captures the spirit of the Christian critique perfectly:

“Demons are only the more magnified if they are placed in a framework of the conflict between a modern and an ancient system.… The demythologisation which will really hurt them as required cannot consist in questioning their existence. Theological exorcism must be an act of the unbelief which is grounded in faith.”

The Christian attitude toward demonic powers, then, was not simple acceptance of their existence and influence on the world, much less a kind of primitive heuristic device for explaining what now is the domain of medicine. Instead, it represented a vital critique of those political, religious and even bureaucratic systems that subjugate the masses, and thus manifest a terrifying yet anonymous form of Evil.

But this sword cuts both ways. Just as the New Testament texts are neither naïve nor homogeneous in the way they speak of demons, our own world is hardly free from “demonic” influences.

What is needed is the theological clarity and moral courage to be able to identify these influences as such. And one need look no further than the diabolical effects that political neglect and bureaucratic indifference continue to have on the quality of mental health care. The dehumanising forces endemic within the mental health care system stretch from the woeful levels of funding – designed to maintain an already exceedingly tenuous status quo – to the high rate of staff turnover due to burnout and work-related stress. But Stanley Hauerwas has gone further, suggesting that the care of the mentally handicapped exposes the deep contradiction at the heart of liberal humanism:

“No group exposes the pretensions of the humanism that shapes the practices of modernity more thoroughly than the mentally handicapped. Our humanism entails we care for them once they are among us, once we are stuck with them; but the same humanism cannot help but think that, all things considered, it would be better if they did not exist.”

In his terrifying masterpiece of theological journalism, Hostage to the Devil, Malachi Martin insisted that it is the exorcist himself that must play the role of “the devil’s hostage”, by placing himself between the victim and the demon, by being an advocate for the one who has no capacity to resist. This is precisely the kind of faithful advocacy demanded from Christians today: to oppose Evil even in its most innocuous, anonymous and bureaucratic forms, and thus to enact the prayer, “Deliver us from the Evil One!”

Wednesday 12 September 2007

On remaining Protestant

In an excellent post, Halden observes: “protestantism is always the question, the objection, the provisional mode of protest that takes place within the wider presupposition of the givenness of the Catholic church. It is always protestants who must justify their identity as non-Catholics rather than the other way round.”

And this means that “we cannot assume the perpetual existence of protestantism. We must be open to the possibility of the end of protestantism if we are to be true to the aims of the Reformers themselves.”

Tuesday 11 September 2007

St Paul's journeys into philosophy

When Paul looked back on all his prior privileges and achievements, he could only exclaim: “I’ve lost all that now, like worthless shit, in order to gain Christ!” (Phil. 3:8).

Occasionally, one has moments like that in thought – when everything you had ever learned or known suddenly appears like mere “shit” (σκύβαλα) in the light of some new discovery, some unexpected gift or insight. That’s how I felt when, years ago, I first read Calvin; and I felt that way again when, a few years later, I picked up a dusty old book by someone named Karl Barth (it was his explosive early collection, The Word of God and the Word of Man). Suddenly and unexpectedly, everything I’d ever known was placed under judgment. As Bob Dylan puts it, “I got new eyes, everything looks far away.”

And I must admit, I felt a similar sense of shock and disruption and alienation – in a word, a profoundly disturbing awareness of theological σκύβαλα – when I recently read Alain Badiou’s astonishing little book on Saint Paul. My brain is completely submerged in Badiou’s works at the moment, and I’ll no doubt be posting more on him in future.

But for the time being, I was delighted to hear that Doug Harink – author of the brilliant study, Paul among the Postliberals – is organising a conference to explore the theological significance of the new readings of Paul by contemporary philosophers (e.g. Agamben, Badiou, Žižek) – and of Paul’s “readings” of them! The conference will be entitled “St Paul’s Journeys into Philosophy: Contemporary Engagements,” and it will be held in Vancouver, 4-6 June 2008.

Saturday 8 September 2007

A hymn for infant baptism: "O what a happy day!"

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Franconia / Carlisle)

       O what a happy day!
       We celebrate a death –
a dying into Jesus Christ –
       a girl’s/boy’s re-birth by Breath!

       All sin is washed away,
       now all is undefiled.
The Lord says, “I will be your God,
       and you will be my child.”

       Incorporate in Christ,
       and by the Spirit sealed,
this girl/boy will have a special place
       reserved for holy meals.

       Her/His bondage now is past,
       an exodus begins,
a pilgrimage in company
       of Christian kith and kin.

       This family of God,
       by water and the Word,
may all be found at journey’s end
       as faithful as our Lord.

More from Gerd Lüdemann

Recently we were discussing Gerd Lüdemann’s book on Benedict XVI. Now, Lüdemann has also pointed me to his new review in Free Inquiry, where he sums up some of his main objections to Benedict’s book. You can download the review here.

Friday 7 September 2007

Colin Gunton: The Barth Lectures

Colin Gunton, The Barth Lectures (London: T&T Clark, 2007), xxiv + 285 pp.

Reviewed by Kim Fabricius

I had the great good fortune and privilege of serving with Colin Gunton on the Doctrine and Worship Committee of the United Reformed Church during the second half of the 1980s. Work was stimulating, but the table-talk (not to mention the pub-patter!) was downright mouth-watering. Not long out of Mansfield College, Colin’s own alma mater, I still treasure his word of thanks for an article I wrote for our magazine Reform to celebrate the Karl Barth centenary in 1986. Colin could see how Barth touched my theological G-spot, and he too found the Barth experience breathtaking, but, well on his way to becoming a theologian of distinction in his own right, he was beginning to put some critical distance between himself and the man on whom he had written his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Robert Jenson.

Gunton, even then, anticipated one day writing a more seasoned and comprehensive book on Barth, who continued to be an elephant in his study. Alas, Gunton’s sudden death in 2003 meant that that particular tomorrow would never come. Fortunately, however, Paul Brazier, one of Gunton’s students at King’s College, tape-recorded the lectures that his teacher gave on Barth during the 1999-2001 academic years. This book is the result.

It is a book that you listen to rather than read, as you eavesdrop on Professor Gunton taking his class on a guided tour of Barth’s theology from its intellectual background and nineteenth century influences; through its development in the commentaries on Romans, the correspondence with Harnack, and the book on Anselm; and then on into the mature thought of the Church Dogmatics, where the focus is on theological epistemology, the doctrine of God, and the Christology-and-soteriology (the hyphens make a substantive point).

The lectures, of course, were well prepared, replete with handouts and diagrams, but what you hear is not only Gunton’s take on Barth but also his taking on Barth even as he speaks. That is, we not only get theology, we actually get theologising – Barth “is a great man to learn to think theologically with” – as Gunton probes on his feet, sometimes with touching tentativeness.

There are many memorable statements and expressions. Gunton, ever ready (I dare say too ready) with a poke in the eye of his bête noir, the bishop of Hippo, observes that the Augustinian tradition “replaces grace with gratuity” – a mistake that Barth does not make. That “God reveals himself as Lord” – this fundamental premise of CD, Gunton perceptively suggests, is Barth’s version of Anselm’s misnamed ontological argument. Gunton also pinpoints God’s aseitas as the key to unlocking Barth’s theology, and helpfully relates it to the divine transcendence and freedom. On the one hand, in explaining Barth’s aversion to natural theology, he emphasises that if God “makes himself known in Jesus, why bother to look elsewhere”; and on the other hand, in explaining Barth’s later “theology of lights”, he acknowledges that “Barth is open to God making himself known all over the place.”

Then there is the nice distinction Gunton draws between theology’s intellectual responsibility, which is non-negotiable, and theology’s intellectual respectability, which is of no concern whatsoever; and there is his useful differentiation between “the strategical precedence of sanctification and the tactical precedence of justification” in Barth’s soteriology. A final example – on one of the reasons why the British don’t “get” Barth: “Why won’t he argue, why does he just assert? Why doesn’t Mozart argue with us? – Beethoven does! That is Barth’s point.”

There are some idiosyncratic lacunae. A few are mentioned in the foreword by Christoph Schwöbel and the introduction by Stephen R. Holmes. Here are four of my own. First, Gunton’s account of Barth’s doctrine of creation is almost parenthetical. Second, while Gunton rightly and emphatically insists on the inextricable connection between doctrine and ethics in Barth’s theology, he gives hardly a for-example. Moreover, although he traces the impact of religious socialism on the “Red Pastor” of Safenwil, Gunton misleadingly declares that “Barth saw all forms of liberation theology as privileging one group” (my italics), quite ignoring (for all the caveats rightly to be lodged against taking him as a liberation theologian tout court) Barth’s scathing critique of capitalism, nationalism, and militarism, and his consistent insistence, from the First World War to the nuclear arms race, that a godly theology will be known by its political fruit of justice and peace. So no prizes for guessing that Gunton should be numbered among the right-wing Barthians!

Third, Gunton seems unaware of the huge importance of the final moves Barth makes in CD IV/4 for a judicious perspective on a project that he was always revising in via. And fourth, although I grudgingly accept its omission from an introductory course of lectures (even if the majority in attendance were graduate students), nevertheless I would like to have seen more than the rare reference to and conversation with some of the other big Barth players like Torrance, Jüngel, Hunsinger, McCormack, and Webster, if only better to locate Gunton’s own position in the team.

In late 2002 I wrote a largely rave review for a journal on Gunton’s collection of sermons, Theology through Preaching (2001). In March 2003 I received a letter from Colin, thanking me for the review – and reassuring me of our friendship despite my criticism of fence-sitting on some of the big issues of our times! Colin concluded: “It seems a long time since we met, & I hope that will be corrected some time.” And his final words to me: “I continue to enjoy the immense privilege of being paid to engage in the joyful science” – a quintessentially Barthian note. In less than two months Colin was dead. The Barth Lectures, with its enthusiasm and energy as well as its erudition, will, I trust, convince readers that the labourer was more than worthy of his hire.

What's wrong with Intelligent Design?

Thanks to Aric for this one.

Wednesday 5 September 2007

An interview with John Shelby Spong: "I am very orthodox after all!"

by Scott Stephens

My friend Scott Stephens, who recently posted a scathing critique of John Shelby Spong, also caught up with Bishop Spong for a Eureka Street interview. A small excerpt from the interview was published in today’s Eureka Street – and Scott has kindly allowed us to have the full transcript here. It’s a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation – they discuss Benedict XVI, Rowan Williams, Paul Tillich, Peter Jensen, religion, gay ordination, fundamentalism, evolution, and – of course – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

SS: Bishop Spong, this year has seen the publication of Benedict’s much-anticipated book, Jesus of Nazareth, as well as your own, Jesus for the Non-Religious. It would be difficult to imagine two more different treatments of the same subject, and yet both have generated a lot of public interest. I can’t resist asking whether you’ve had a chance to read Benedict’s book?

SPONG: I’m in the process of reading it now – probably about two-thirds of the way through.

SS: What do you think so far?

SPONG: I don’t think he and I live in the same century; certainly not in terms of biblical scholarship. It seems to me that he falls back on a kind of neo-fundamentalist mentality that says that you’ve got to test the truth of the Bible by the Bible. That is, you’ve got to view it as a whole, so that if you get a verse that doesn’t make much sense you’ve got to bring the whole Bible to bear in order to find out what the will of God is. To me, that’s simply a defensive mechanism that avoids facing the truth.

My publisher in America, HarperCollins, is going to put out the paperback edition of my book – probably in the second half of next year – and on the cover they’re going to market this book as “A Radical Alternative to Pope Benedict’s book on Jesus”! Now, I’m sure there will be a lot of people who disagree with me just like I disagree with the Pope. But that’s not what’s important to me. What’s important to me is that, if there are two polarities within the Christian world, the debate has to continue between these to polarities in order to get us closer to what I think is the realistic world we must enter as Christians in the twenty-first century.

SS: I can just picture getting on and discovering that you can purchase Benedict’s book and your own for a single low price if you buy them both together!

SPONG: [Laughs] I hadn’t thought of that! I’m not much into marketing. I just write. HarperCollins came up with the idea, and I told them to run with it.

SS: In your latest book, you reiterate the same pronouncement that you’ve been making for some years now: “The religion called Christianity is dying, the casualty of an expanded worldview. The God experience of Jesus – that experience upon which Christianity was built – is newly dawning and will in time create new forms through which that new vision can live.” I wonder, from your vantage point, are you heartened or rather more concerned by the recent prominence of such militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens?

SPONG: Oh yes, it gives me great heart. But so does the rise of this ultra-conservative, fundamentalist Christianity. As I see it, there are three responses to our contemporary crisis of faith. The first is the reaction of those extreme fundamentalists who close their minds and remain so fearful that they will ban or try to silence anybody that disagrees with them. The second is the emergence of what I call the “Church Alumni Association,” which is by far the fastest growing Christian movement – certainly much faster than right-wing fundamentalism in America, and I would bet in Australia too. These are people that can’t see an alternative to fundamentalism, and so they say that they just don’t want to be part of that whole ‘religious thing’. And the third response is this new wave of militant atheists who see religion as a positive evil. Now this is an enormous ferment, and I think it’s really an alive and fruitful and exciting time to be someone who is publicly addressing God and Christ and theological issues.

What I keep trying to find a way to do is to build a community between radical fundamentalism, or maybe rabid fundamentalism, and this disillusioned secularity. I happen to be what I would call a Christian humanist, because I think that the Christian faith, when fully understood, has got to be about enhancing the humanity of all people. I don’t believe that the way we’re proclaiming it today does that. My marching orders are in John’s description of Jesus’ purpose: “I’ve come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” I think that everything that the church does must be measured by whether it enhances life or diminishes life for anyone. That is central motivation behind my advocacy on behalf of homosexuals, and my struggle against the judgement that these are deviant people (as the Pope says) or that these are evil people (as some American evangelicals say). This is so desperately opposed to what I understand the Christian faith to be, that when I hear these kinds of declarations it is like a dagger to my heart.

While we’re on the subject, let me say that I’m a little jaundiced when it comes to people who threaten to split the church over these issues. I grew up in the South, and when black people came into the church there were all sorts of predictions that the church was going to split because white people weren’t going to put up with black people. And when we ordained our first women there were threats of a church split because Jesus didn’t have any female disciples, and this was a violation of two thousand years of sacred practice – I regard it as the lifting of two thousand years of sexist oppression. When we made women bishops there was outrage, but now we’ve elected a woman as presiding bishop, as Primate of the Episcopal Church in America! And then there was the furore surrounding the election of a gay man as bishop of New Hampshire…

Now, I know my church too well, Scott. I know that Gene Robinson is not the only gay bishop in the Episcopal Church right now. I won’t name the others, but I will say that among these gay bishops are some of the most homophobic voices that are raised within that church. I sit back and look at these people with bewilderment. I could name the gay bishops in the Anglican communion in England without any trouble. I know them! So it’s not that we have this new thing called a gay bishop. The only thing that’s new here is that we have an honest gay bishop. I won’t even begin to tell you about the feigned outrage and outright hypocrisy that surrounded Gene Robinson’s eventual election. And so when people threaten to leave the church over these kinds of issues, I feel like handing them their hat and saying, “What are you waiting for?” I’m not into blackmail.

Like I said, I grew up in the South, and I know that when there’s a moral principle involved – like slavery – you don’t compromise on that. Slavery is either right or it’s wrong. And you don’t keep unity in the church by keeping the slave owners happy. You’ve got to take a stand somewhere. The same principle holds today. I’ve said this to the Archbishop of Canterbury in person. If the issue were slavery he wouldn’t be waffling like he is. In my opinion, the issue of homosexuality is just as strong and just as morally serious.

So I see all these battles that we’re now caught up in, both inside and outside the church, as very exciting, even invigorating.

SS: Rowan Williams is an extraordinary theologian. And yet he seems to have refused to take that same acumen, that same imagination that distinguished him as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, and bring it to bear on the current crisis over gay ordination that is ravaging the Anglican Church worldwide. You must be disappointed.

SPONG: Very much so. I’ve known Rowan a long time, and he has been one of the strongest voices in support of ordaining gay people. He has ordained gay people. I don’t mind saying just how disappointed I am with him, and how disillusioned are the hopes that we had for him. The day that Rowan was appointed, I wrote a column for the newspaper saying that he was the best qualified Archbishop that we’ve seen for many decades. Maybe William Temple would be his equal. But we haven’t seen someone with Rowan’s academic ability and theological sophistication in that office in a long, long time. Not to mention that he was young – fifty-two years old – and so he could be Archbishop for maybe twenty years. I wrote that he has the opportunity really to shape the Anglican communion. But I closed that column by saying that I have only one anxiety: does he have to courage to stand up against opposition? I’ve never seen him able to do that. If he can’t, then he’s going to be a great disappointment.

In my opinion, he collapsed the day after he was appointed. He wrote a letter to all the Primates saying that as the Archbishop of Canterbury he would not act on his personal convictions but only on the Lambeth resolutions, which in effect gave away his leadership ability. The previous Archbishop, who was extremely homophobic, would never have done such a thing. He would never have said that he’s not going to act on his principles, because he believed that his principles were directly from God and it was therefore up to him to impose them on others. Liberals are always weak. Liberals can see two sides of an issue, and therefore are reluctant ever to impose a position on anybody. But if Rowan would just say: “This is my personal witness. I will try to preside over this institution with all of its foibles, but I need the world to know that discrimination against gay and lesbian people is wrong, and I think the church is wrong to be compromised on this issue…” This sort of position would still respectfully acknowledge the more conservative branches of the Anglican communion (for instance, in Nigeria and in Sydney), but it would severely limit them, cut off their ability to grow by refusing to be constrained by their bigotry.

So, yes, I am disappointed. Rowan has done some things that I find almost unconscionable. On account of his inconsistency, which at times borders on hypocrisy, he has infuriated liberals and the right-wing crazies in almost equal measure. I just don’t see how you can do leadership when you basically offend everybody because you don’t stand for anything!

SS: Let’s turn to your own work for a while. I often wonder about the ethical consequences of your version of Christianity, and why it is that your work has such appeal for so many people. Karl Marx was very aware that there is a kind of religious impulse or logic that is at the heart of capitalism. In other words, there are expressions of religion which are diabolically compatible with our modern self-centredness. These kinds are religion are idolatrous because they pose no real challenge to the way people live. For instance, aren’t Western Buddhism and even Pentecostalism disgustingly bourgeois forms of religion? With all of your talk of “being all that one can be,” of “the search for God as the search for oneself,” isn’t your vision of a “new Christianity” pandering to the same bourgeois temperament?

SPONG: I think that’s probably a legitimate criticism, because that’s the kind of world I’m trying to speak to all the time. And I probably do couch my message in language that is resonant with that way of life.

But let me say that I think human beings are helplessly and hopelessly religious creatures. The reason for that is that we are the only self-conscious creatures in the world that we know of. And to be self-conscious means that you feel the ache of loneliness in a great big world that you don’t feel a part of, that you feel separated from. Human beings know that they’re going to die. All living things die, but only human beings anticipate it and plan for it. And so we have to live with the shadow of our mortality, which is one of the things that fuels this religious impulse. But maybe on a deeper level human beings also live with the question of whether life has any meaning. So we are driven to seek meaning because there is something about life that, if it’s meaningless, then you might as well commit suicide and get it over with. So the quest for meaning is also a deeply religious thing.

I don’t believe that the world will ever be a religion-less world. I think that what happens is that religion is always going to be changing its face and changing its forms. We’ve done that before in the Christian tradition. Just think of the various theological re-incarnations that have taken place in response to an ever-expanding worldview: the birth of Christianity in the Jewish world as part of the Jewish understanding of God, Augustine’s translation of the Christian faith into Platonic terms, Aquinas’ reconciliation of Christianity with Aristotelian thinking, the Reformation’s wrestling with the Renaissance, which represented a huge influx of new ideas about God and religion and the world from the East.

Since that time there has been another revolution that changed the whole way that we see the world, and Christianity has got to redefine itself in terms of this new world. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo destroyed the dwelling place of God above the sky, and in effect the theistic definition of God with it. After the destruction of this God, we’ve got to find a new way of talking about God beyond theism. The only alternative to theism that our world seems to know is atheism. We’ve got to find a way of getting beyond that opposition. We’ve got to find a new way of talking about God.

SS: That, of course, is the very problem that Paul Tillich grappled with.

SPONG: Oh yes. Tillich is one of my shaping theologians. The next person in this revolution was Isaac Newton, who showed us that the world operates according to very precise natural laws. There’s not much room in the world for miracles and magic. And finally comes Charles Darwin, and he changes the way we have to look at human life.

I’m working now on the subject of life after death, and I’m convinced that Darwin is the chief person who punctures the conviction that there is life after death in the Western world because he relates us to animals. Before that we had thought of ourselves as created in the image of God with an eternal soul, but now we see ourselves as just a little higher than the apes. We had never attributed any value to animal life, and now we see ourselves as identified with animals.

I also think that Darwin challenges the primary way in which the Christian story has been told. Before Darwin we told the story of the Christian faith in terms of human beings that were created perfect in God’s image, but who disobeyed God and fell into sin, thus corrupting the whole created order. Human beings couldn’t save themselves. The law tried and the prophets tried, and finally God enters the world in God’s good time in the form of a saviour-rescuer. And that’s the story about Jesus, how he pays the price for sin on the cross, and so restores the fallen creature to what God intended them to be in the first place. That essentially is the theology of the incarnation and atonement that we’ve talked about for years.

But it doesn’t work, and it’s not true. We never were created perfect in God’s image. We were created as single-cell units of life and we evolved over four-and-a-half to five billion years into various stages until at least we achieved self-consciousness. We are survival-oriented people because we wouldn’t have made it through the evolutionary process if we hadn’t been survival-oriented. And so we are radically self-centred, survival-orientated creatures, and we had to be to win the battle of evolution. But once we’ve won the battle, then there’s no more enemy except ourselves and so we turn our survival-instincts against one another – in genocide, for example. What got us to this position of dominance in the world is not sufficient to get us to whatever the next stage is. What Darwin suggests is that none of us need to be rescued from a fall that never happened, or restored to a status that we never possessed. That whole way of telling the Christian story simply doesn’t work.

So instead of seeing Jesus as the divine saviour-rescuer who pays the price of sin, I think we’ve got to turn our whole Christology toward seeing Jesus as the kind of humanity that enables us to get over being the kind of survival-oriented creatures that we are and begin to give our lives away. I think that is dramatically powerful, and something to which people would be willing to give themselves if they understood it. And this is beginning to address your question.

SS: Yes it is. I find what you’re saying extremely interesting…

I don’t think that what I’m advocating is an easy sort of bourgeois feel-good gospel. I think what I’m advocating is a new humanity that will deliver us from our deeply competitive, tribal, prejudiced attitudes toward other human beings, and indeed toward other religions. So I think the role of the church is not to rescue the sinners, but to empower people to become more fully human. This is why Christ is so important to me.

The way I see Christ is not as the incarnation of a theistic deity, but as so completely human that he becomes a channel through which the way I define God can live completely and perfectly. So I still have here Christ as “fully divine” and “fully human”, but I get at it in a very different way because I define God as the Source of Life, the Source of Love, the Ground of Being – all my Tillichian stuff comes out here. When I look at Jesus I see a human being that is so fully alive that the Source of Life is visible in him, so loving that the Source of Love is visible in him, so whole, so capable of being himself that the Ground of Being is visible in him. And then I watch him live out a new kind of humanity.

When I look at the cross I don’t see a sacrifice where a victim pays the price of sin. I see a life that is so whole that he can give himself away completely. It’s a tough battle, but I think we’ve got to get people out of tribal religion and get them into a redemptive process that enhances our humanity instead of rescues us and makes us grateful.

I think when we become fully human, then we share in the very meaning of God. It means that we live with God’s Life and we love with God’s Love and we are with God’s Being. The problem with humanity is that there is no one that we love more than ourselves. I look at Jesus and see that he is able to lay down his life “for the least of these.” That’s God presence to me; that’s not human. And when he’s dying, he’s not whining or begging or cussing or fighting or screaming. He’s saying, “God forgives you for nailing me to this cross.” He says “God comforts you in your own mortality” to the thief. He says “God cares for you” to his mother. He’s giving his life away! And I don’t care if those biblical portraits are accurate or not. That’s the way that the early Christians remembered Jesus: as the whole one who could give his life away.

And, just to finish up this sermon [laughing], Mark’s image in the fifteenth chapter of his Gospel to me is a very powerful image. Jesus is dead and limp on the cross. A gentile soldier, who violates the boundary between Jew and Gentile, stands at the foot of that cross and points to that life and says, “That’s what God is like.” We translate that, “Truly this man was the Son of God,” as if he had just passed a test on Nicene orthodoxy. He didn’t know a thing about that kind of stuff. He was saying that in the kind of life he witnessed in Jesus, where he could give himself away, that’s the doorway that opens onto the way that God is and that’s the ultimate affirmation that God was in Christ. So you see I am very orthodox after all! I come back around to what is a very traditional, orthodox position, but my evangelical friends don’t see it because they see me as ‘eroding’ all of their security systems in the process.

SS: I’m going to have to pull you up here, because what you’ve just proposed is very different from one of your previous positions. If I may be perfectly blunt, your chapter on “Original Sin” in A New Christianity for a New World gave me a lot of trouble. In it you present a disturbingly New Age, quasi-Jungian image of the human being in which “God and Satan, light and darkness, good and evil, Jesus and Judas” etc. must be embraced as part of some greater “wholeness.” Now, I’m with you in your rejection of the traditional notion of original sin, and I am deep agreement with you in placing the Christian story against a Darwinian backdrop. But I don’t see how you can reconcile your compelling picture of human-animals caught in the survival-instinct, from which we must break away in Christ, with this amoral description of human wholeness. You’re saying very different things here, aren’t you?

SPONG: That was the most difficult chapter that I wrote in that book, and I was wrestling deeply with Carl Jung’s book, The Answer to Job. I am convinced that you don’t become whole by simply suppressing your dark-side but by accepting it as part of your being and redeeming it and living through it. And that’s really what I was trying to say in that chapter. I don’t know how it fits together. I’ve had people say, “That’s the dumbest chapter you’ve ever written,” and others say, “That’s a profound chapter that moved me more than any other.”

Retrospectively, I’m not sure that I knew what I was writing, to be perfectly blunt back at you. Except that I still believe that Jung was right when he said that it was a great day for Christianity when the Roman Catholics promulgated the doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary, because for the first time Mary was lifted into the sense of the divine. And then he said that God will finally be complete when the devil is lifted back into God and so God’s dark-side is also embraced in what is ultimately holy. That’s what I was trying to say about human life.

I think the problem with liberals is that they always minimize evil. It’s a historic problem for liberals, and I don’t want to be guilty of that. Evil is very apparent to me in this world. I think human beings do awful things to each other and they do these things so often in the name of “God”. Evil is easy enough to document, but the real question is what is its source, what is its cure? In the same way that President Bush will never destroy terrorism by killing terrorists, I don’t think Christians will ever reduce evil by condemning it. Christians can only reduce evil by understanding its source, by addressing its causes.

SS: I want to press you a little further on this. You most often refer to God, following Paul Tillich, as “the Ground of Being” and insist that we participate in God by becoming fully ourselves, by being all that we can be. But even Tillich was keenly aware that there are ways of “being” which are in fact delusional, inauthentic, even idolatrous. In your previous work you don’t seem to have factored in this aspect of Tillich’s thought. Haven’t you left the door open for all kinds of self-seeking idolatry in the name of one’s search for God?

SPONG: I don’t know quite how to respond to that. But I may have the makings of an answer. I’m currently working on the question of whether someone with my theological understanding can have a belief in life-after-death. And my answer is yes. Now, I’ve got to figure out a way of saying that, and I think that will be my next book. But along the way I’ve examined what life-after-death means to most people, and it is a fiercely self-centred kind of idolatry. Only recently, within the last month, I’ve reached the place in my thought about this subject that I don’t need life-after-death to be authentic, and I can let it go. But I still believe in it.

If the only motivation in my life for living fully and loving wastefully and being all that I can be is that I’ll get the reward of heaven or escape the punishment of hell, in whatever form you might look at either of those things, then it’s still nothing except a self-centred act. It’s a survival-oriented act, and I think the only way we get humanity to a new place is to get it over every part of its survival mentality. That is a form of idolatry the must be overcome.

If we can get to that place where true humanity is found not in just surviving but in freely giving its life away, and if we can get to the place where life-after-death is not just about reward or punishment, or even about the completion of an unfinished life, when it is something that we can say we no longer need, then I think we can start understanding what such a life-after-death really is.

SS: Bravo!

SPONG: I keep telling my publisher that I’m trying to describe something that is beyond time and space, and I haven’t yet found a language for it. And so this may be a one paragraph book! It’s easier to say what life-after-death isn’t rather than what it is. Maybe that’s the way I’ve got to go, and then leave the final paragraph of the book vague but hopeful. Not only is that the next step in my writing, it’s the next step in my personal pilgrimage, which I think is increasingly beyond any theological system into a kind of wordless mysticism.

SS: To conclude, I really must ask you about your relationship to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The title of your new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, is clearly invoking Bonhoeffer’s vision of a “religion-less Christianity.” And you are even presented as the heir to Bonhoeffer’s theological legacy. But here’s my problem: what Bonhoeffer means by “religion” and what you seem to mean by “religion” are two very different things. You seem to have in mind received orthodoxies, rigid church structures, organised religion, and so on. But, for Bonhoeffer, “religion” referred to the way that a complicit church and cheap grace had been absorbed into the bloodstream of German culture. The problem with “religious Christianity” was that it emptied the Christian faith of its ethical power and conviction, and became a way of indiscriminately baptising all of the godlessness of culture. And so, for Bonhoeffer, the solution to the perversion of religion was to make Christian liturgy less obscure, to make the Christian faith more concrete by wrapping it around “the Crucified” and the love for one’s neighbour. You however, in Bonhoeffer’s name, seem to be wanting to make the Christian faith and our understanding of God more obscure, more abstract. Don’t you think Bonhoeffer would have been opposed to your revision of the Christian faith?

SPONG: We may very well be working at cross purposes. I don’t know. The title of this book was certainly inspired by Bonhoeffer, and the idea of the Christian faith that had to emerge out of Judaism at one point and that now has to emerge out of religion in order to live is very appealing to me. But I really do think of myself much more as the heir to John A. T. Robinson than I do Bonhoeffer.

But let me say something about church structures, just to be absolutely clear. I am deeply committed to the church. The fascinating thing about my life, Scott, is that I don’t believe you can change the church unless you’re in it and I don’t give up on its structures. And I’m comforted by the biblical images that it only takes a saving remnant to be the salt in the soup and the leaven in the lump. You don’t have to win over the whole body. And out of the dying institution there always emerges the new “reformation” – whatever that word might mean.

In the Jesus Seminar in America, of which I’m a member, Marcus Borg and I are regarded as the two conservatives because we really believe that the church can be redeemed. For if you don’t have some kind of incarnate structure then everything about our faith dissipates into vapidness. It just disappears. I don’t believe you can ever start a new church. I think you’ve always got to evolve out of what you are into something new. And I don’t worry about whether it’s a big movement or a little movement so long as it’s a faithful remnant that will keep alive the hope of ultimate reformation. Maybe that’s the point where Bonhoeffer and I intersect.

You see, Bonhoeffer lived in a place where the Catholics were silent and the Lutheran Church was generally coopted by the Nazi government. So he saw no hope for religion as he was experiencing it. But I think Bonhoeffer was also a voice that rose within Lutheranism, and that in his death he acquired a greater pulpit than all of the other cooperative German Lutherans ever could. And that’s what I keep coming back to.

John Robinson said something in one of his last books that I agree with – I certainly think it’s true of me. He said that in another generation or two, the criticism of John Robinson or of me will not be that we went too far, but that we didn’t go far enough. It is up to the next generation to press boundaries that I cannot even imagine going beyond. That’s why I insist that the church is an evolving institution. If you stop the evolution, it dies. And that’s why the negativity of the right-wing is so frightening to me. They want to stops things where they are, which would be a death sentence over the church.

As I began by saying, I think that we – both of these polar opposites within the church – really need one another. We must keep this debate going. And so I even feel very appreciative of [the Archbishop of Sydney] Peter Jensen! I had an experience just this week that’s worth sharing. There is a person I met – I won’t tell you his name because it would be immediately recognised in Australian political circles – who bought my book after some of Peter’s attacks on me. He read it and called me up on the last day that we were in Sydney, and invited Christine and me out to his house for dinner.

This was a genuine invitation from somebody it would be nice to know even if the conversation was dull, and so we went. Over dinner, this man said that he had been a comfortable atheist for twenty-five years, and that the church means nothing to him. But he said that when he heard Peter Jensen declaring that what I say ought to be banned from churches, he decided that maybe I was someone worth reading! So he went out and bought my book. Then he told us, “You destabilised my atheism, and didn’t think that was possible.”

I don’t know where all this is going to lead that man. But this man is very wealthy, very well known, and politically related. His wife is very well known, and she’s politically related. But for them to find that the emptiness of their lives still cries out for something, and the fact that I’ve given them at least the possibility that they might find it in the church, that’s what I live for.

Two fine things

Here are two new series that you won’t want to miss: Halden has been running an excellent guest-series on varieties of Christian pacifism, and Jason has posted a whopping 10-part review of Matthias Gockel’s new book on Barth and Schleiermacher.

Monday 3 September 2007

Bonhoeffer versus John Shelby Spong

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

When it comes to theological brand-names, they don’t come any sexier, or more marketable, than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The inherent nobility of his short life, his blistering intelligence, and his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis places Bonhoeffer among the unassailable luminaries of our time. Even Christopher Hitchens – who savaged Mother Theresa in a vicious polemic entitled The Missionary Position – can’t find anything bad to say about him: “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by Nazis for his refusal to collude with them.”

Because of his near universal appeal, it was inevitable that Bonhoeffer’s demanding body of work would be made more available for popular consumption and reduced to an “Everyday-with-Dietrich” style anthology of sayings, sermons and other morsels of spiritual advice. But every now and then, one comes across an appropriation of Bonhoeffer that is so perverse that one is compelled to put one’s foot down and say, “Enough is enough.”

Anyone who has read John Shelby Spong – whose books I’ve always found very easy to put down, and almost impossible to pick back up again – will by now be familiar with his pretentious appeal to Bonhoeffer’s “non-religious Christianity.” His strategy, of course, is to position himself as the heir to Bonhoeffer’s legacy, the realization of his dream. But nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is it outrageous to pass off the bilious swill that Spong mass produces as being in the same league as Bonhoeffer, but Spong effectively destroys his own intellectual credibility by failing to recognize that he is implicated in Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion. Let me explain.

An important touchstone in any consideration of Bonhoeffer’s attack on religion is his remarkable book, Discipleship, whose manuscript was completed exactly 70 years ago this week. Unlike Bonhoeffer’s earlier books, written effortlessly in the unmolested surroundings of the University of Berlin, Discipleship reflects a deep sense of urgency, as though it was demanded by the reality of an escalating crisis.

There had been, in Bonhoeffer’s reckoning, a chronic malfunction in the church’s life which all but neutralized any effective witness it might have to the world. Somehow “grace” had ceased being the power which binds us to Christ, which elicits the repetition of the drama of death and resurrection in the lives of members of the church. It had instead been cheapened, and re-tooled so as to consecrate indiscriminately all the banality, idolatry and godlessness of culture.

When the church peddles a form of “grace” aimed at making people “feel more secure in their godless lives,” it frankly ceases being the church, insisted Bonhoeffer. Having forsaken its duty to be “salt and light,” the church whored itself to the state, offering its wares in exchange for financial security and the benefit of a quiet and peaceful existence. It was thereby reduced to the status of a mere service-provider, the state-sanctioned dispenser of sentimentality and meaningless assurance. He writes: “We gave away preaching and sacraments cheaply; we performed baptisms and confirmations; we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally.… When was the world ever Christianized more dreadfully and wickedly than here?”

This instrumentalization lies at the heart of what Bonhoeffer calls the “religion-concept” (Religionsbegriff). In so far as “religion” represents a mere expression of the human longing for transcendence and meaning, it can be employed by a culture as a pagan affirmation of the people’s inherent divinity. For Bonhoeffer, the shared category of “religion” was the means by which the church had been absorbed into the bloodstream of German culture, and thereby rendered complicit, impotent, idolatrous.

Bonhoeffer’s call for “non-religious Christianity” (Nicht-religiöse Christentum) had nothing to do with abandoning rigid dogma and other forms of traditional Christianity in favour of a more spontaneous communion with the Ground of Being. Instead, it stands for the church having the courage to be the church, to follow Jesus in his uncompromising concreteness, and not to seek refuge in the shadows of pseudo-theological, liturgical or ethical obscurantism. The irony, of course, is that the mishmash of pop-existentialism and flaccid pluralism that Spong urges upon the disaffected faithful is precisely the kind of cancerous religiosity to which Bonhoeffer was opposed. The following passage from Spong’s A New Christianity for a New World speaks for itself:

“God is the Ground of Being who is worshiped when we have the courage to be. Jesus is a God-presence, a doorway, an open channel.… These are the claims that will be part of the Christianity of tomorrow. I am hopeful that such a Christianity can be born and that with it an invitation can be offered to all people to step into their own humanity so deeply that they will find it a doorway into God.”

While Spong famously predicted that “traditional faith is dying,” Bonhoeffer would have pronounced this brand of “new Christianity” dead on arrival, a carcass from which the breath of the Spirit and the pulse of Jesus’ mission have long since disappeared.


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