Wednesday 30 January 2008

John Milbank's poetry: the mercurial wood

For my own education and edification, I’m currently re-reading all of John Milbank’s works (some I’m just reading for the first time, e.g. The Suspended Middle and his doctoral dissertation on Vico). So anyway, I was surprised and delighted to discover that Milbank has also published a volume of poems, entitled The Mercurial Wood: Sites, Tales, Qualities (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1997), xiv + 69 pp. (Unfortunately, copies are very hard to find – I had to borrow it from the library.)

Nothing pleases me more than a theologian who also writes poetry. (In fact, two of my favourite contemporary poets are also theologians: Rowan Williams and Kevin Hart.) Even if Milbank is a better theologian than he is a poet, this is still a very nice collection, with moments of real beauty and insight. Take, for instance, the depiction of the liberating power of Christ’s beauty in “November: The First Advent”:

        True Siren, Whose voice
        Searing my ears,
        Slipped also my contracted bonds.[1]

Or take the beautiful evocation of the gift, in “Outremer: An Allegory of Rudel”:

        That is my end, a total gift
        To her, at last. Ripened
        Yet beyond the sun,
        And past the final sea,
        Besides, besides,
        In this return
        I give, am given,
        Learnt at last.[2]

But perhaps the most striking feature of Milbank’s poetry is its depiction of the relation between nature, time, and eternity. Under the sway of time, “nature’s thickets”[3] are dark, decayed, twisted. The bones and dust of time pile high, “Like the ruins of a school, / Scrawled across the night.”[4] Nature is threatened by a hidden, seething “war without blows” – “The world is turning in a catastrophe.”[5]

And yet there is always “a remainder / not chaos,” which can be glimpsed “behind things.”[6] If you look intently, you can perceive “the gateway / Where the Spring slips through.”[7] Behind and beneath nature’s thickets, there are sudden, startling appearances of a primal harmony, “something superadded”[8] – a lost innocence which is also the promise of eternal newness, creation’s long-awaited childhood.

One of the central images of Milbank’s poetry is thus that of spring – a spring which draws near from the future, full of promise yet “all unknown.”[9]

        And there stretch trees across the country,
        Like a scattered, shattered henge,
        Waiting the night of snow,
        While Spring waits for them.[10]

Here, strikingly, it is not the barren wintry trees that wait for spring – it is within their power only to “wait the night of snow” – but it is spring which waits for them, drawing them gently yet irresistibly, all “green and shoot and bud.”[11] The new spring which waits for creation, then, is nothing other than the primal harmony of eternity itself – an eternal love which transforms nature only by fulfilling it:

        But our last year’s forever changed
        In retrospect: eternal love,
        The creeping time of almost there
        And all unknown.[12]

Although this eternal love remains yet “unknown,” it pierces through creation in moments of startling, anticipatory revelation. Its strange otherness is nothing else than the world’s bringing-to-fulfillment – or rather, the world’s return to a forgotten childhood of perfect peace. Thus, in what I take to be Milbank’s finest lines, we read of such an epiphany “In the Roseland”:

        By night a black-stone setting
        For the three elusive silvers
        Named water, moon and sky.
        These tongues she offers to my tongue,

        Till lapping mouth to mouth we sing,
        Of twinings and of twinings back,
        Ways out to headlands as the one way home,
        While eyes are launched to undrowned dreaming.[13]

This extraordinary image – “lapping mouth to mouth we sing” – evokes a return to innocence, to harmony, to peace as the truth of creation and the secret beneath all things. We are lonely; but nature presses her mouth to ours in a kiss of peace. We are far from home; but the mystery of eternity gathers us up in a song of peace, and shows us “the one way home.”


[1] “November: The First Advent,” p. 41.

[2] “Outremer: An Allegory of Rudel,” pp. 31-32.

[3] “Rufford Old Hall,” p. 16.

[4] “Chalk-Downland: The White Dance,” p. 50.

[5] “Just after Fleetwood,” p. 6.

[6] “Wilmington Long Man,” p. 20.

[7] “At Duck’s Down Evening,” p. 49.

[8] “Ode to Grey,” p. 59.

[9] “November: The First Advent,” p. 40.

[10] “Tree by Night,” p. 63.

[11] “The Mercurial Wood,” p. 3.

[12] “November: The First Advent,” p. 40.

[13] “In the Roseland,” p. 27.

A few things

Tuesday 29 January 2008

Notes on a theology of boredom

Note: I was thinking of writing a proper essay on this topic, but I got bored with it, so I’ve posted a sketch here instead.

In Milan Kundera’s short novel, Identity (1998), the character Jean-Marc describes a visit to his dying grandfather. He hears a peculiar sound coming from the dying man’s mouth, “one sound, an ‘ahhhh’ that broke off only when he had to take a breath.” This “ahhhh” is not the sound of pain or of attempted communication; as Jean-Marc listens, he realises that the sound signifies an essential truth about human beings: “this [sound] is existence as such confronting time as such; and that confrontation … is named boredom” (p. 74). A bleak picture of our being-in-time, to be sure! One is reminded here of Heidegger’s massive analysis of boredom, where the strange indifference of “profound boredom” was identified as “the totality of that which is.”

So what might a theologian have to say about boredom? On the whole, theologians have harboured dark thoughts about boredom, and have tended to classify it either as somehow sinful or at least as a consequence of sin. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard famously remarked that “boredom is the root of all evil” (his argument is delightful: “The gods were bored, so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created” – and so on). Jacques Ellul’s work, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective (1969), identifies boredom – so “gloomy, dull, and joyless” – as one of the defining perversions of modern social life (p. 121). Ellul’s view here is close to that of Karl Barth, who similarly described “the signature of modern man” as neither serenity nor rebellion, but simply an “utter weariness and boredom.” In Barth’s view, “man is bored with himself,” and as a result “everything has become a burden to him” (Church Dogmatics III/2, p. 117).

More recently, Graham Neville has offered a theological analysis of boredom in his book, Free Time: Towards a Theology of Leisure (2004). Neville advances the depressing thesis that “the nature of boredom … corresponds to the monastic sin of accidie or sloth” (p. 100), and so he urges us to overcome boredom, or at least to allow the sinful passivity of boredom to be sublated by the more constructive passivity of “wonder.” Neville’s all-too-obvious identification of boredom with the medieval sin of sloth is anachronistic, however, since the word/concept of “boredom” had no existence prior to the 18th century – as Patricia Meyer Spacks observes in her brilliant genealogy of boredom: “If people felt bored before the late eighteenth century, they didn’t know it” (Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, p. 14).

So if we withhold for a moment the judgment that boredom is sin, we might find a more constructive way to reflect on this peculiar state of mind. I’m inclined to think that the Italian philosopher Giorgo Agamben (who looks suitably bored in this photo) has pointed the way forwards here. In an essay entitled “In This Exile” (published in Means Without End, pp. 121-42), Agamben speaks of “the essential inoperability of humankind,” that is, the fact that human beings “cannot be defined by any proper operation,” so that our humanness can never be exhausted by any particular identity or task. In this connection, Agamben speaks of “humankind’s creative semi-indifference to any task.”

Here, the “semi-indifference” of boredom is linked to an essential theological truth about human beings: we are not reducible to our work; we always exceed any given task. Or as Agamben puts it elsewhere, boredom discloses the essence of a “simply living being” (see his essay, “Profound Boredom,” in The Open: Man and Animal, p. 70). Between our work and our being there lies a gap – and boredom names this gap.

This theme of a gap between being and work has never been more beautifully articulated than in Andrew Marvell’s 1653 poem, “Bermudas”. The poem depicts an unfallen Paradise – and it ends with the lines:

Thus sang they, in the English boat,
An holy and a cheerful note;
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time.

The image here of prelapsarian labour is simple, but astonishingly powerful. They are rowing to keep time in their song, not vice versa! They are really working – but they exceed their work, and the labour itself is simply a needless embellishment, a fitting but absolutely non-necessary improvisation of their existence. Or to put it more simply, their work is pure praise: the rowing of the oars simply forms the background rhythm of their song. In Agamben’s terminology, the rower in this poem is a “being-without-work” – he really works, but his work is superfluous, since he utterly exceeds it.

But if Agamben rightly insists that human beings are irreducible to their work, he fails to note the (today more important) point that humans also exceed their leisure and enjoyment. If boredom names the gap between our being and our work, it also names the gap between being and enjoyment. At least in the affluent West, most of us would accept that life cannot finally be boiled down to work; the more sinister and more beguiling threat today is the reduction of life to enjoyment.

As Slavoj Žižek has frequently observed, late-capitalist existence is structured by an obscene and threatening superego imperative: enjoy! (see for example The Universal Exception, pp. 331-35). In its own way, this capitalist law of enjoyment also seeks to close the gap between our being and our works, except that here, our true and proper “work” – the work which the law demands of us! – is enjoyment itself. (The true horror of The Matrix of course lies precisely here: when Neo swallows the red pill, he discovers that all human existence has been secretly transformed into a monstrous technological production of enjoyment; it is “pure,” immediate experience, no longer mediated even by life – or rather, it is pure human enjoyment at the expense of humanity.)

In this late capitalist setting, the only absolute prohibition is indifference or boredom – or rather, the consumer-ideology itself generates boredom precisely in order to forbid it and alleviate it. The machinery of late capitalism thus functions like the medicine mentioned by Hegel: it is a wounding-and-healing poison which paradoxically “heals the wound which it itself is” (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, III, 55). We are always bored, and always being (forcibly) rescued from our boredom.

So just as a society which reduces life to social utility will prohibit boredom vis-à-vis work, so too a society which reduces life to enjoyment will prohibit boredom vis-à-vis leisure. If, at times, a truly radical resistance can only take the form of passivity and non-participation, then is it possible that boredom itself might be a crucial site of resistance today? As human beings, we are always in excess: we exceed our tasks, and we exceed our enjoyment. There is always a gap between my “works” – what I do, what I enjoy, which market niche I identify with – and my humanity. To be bored – without immediately seeking to transform that boredom into either productivity on the one hand or enjoyment on the other – is to hold open this gap, and to resist participating in its insidious closure.

To face both work and enjoyment with what Agamben calls a “creative semi-indifference” is, today, the gesture of the human being who stands before God and is recognised by God – the human being who is no longer under the law (neither the law of works nor the law of enjoyment), but under grace.

This human being – the human being under grace – is the one whose work and play can never be taken too seriously, since they are merely creative embellishments, non-necessary improvisations, which contribute to the harmony and peace of a life of praise. Like Marvell’s rowers, both our work and our play can thus find their true meaning only as they serve the modest role of “keeping the time” in our song:

And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time.

Sunday 27 January 2008

Theology in the 1960s

No question about it: there was some pretty wild stuff happening in German theology back in the 1960s. This morning I was thumbing through Dietrich Ritschl’s 1967 book, Memory and Hope: An Inquiry Concerning the Presence of Christ. It’s not a bad book actually, but you have to feel sorry for Ritschl when he makes the casual remark in his preface: “My manuscript was almost completed when two important new works came to my attention: Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope and Eberhard Jüngel’s God’s Being Is in Becoming.”

A bit like completing your definitive study on contemporary Irish literature, just as James Joyce publishes Ulysses.

Friday 25 January 2008

Human agency according to Augustine, Paul, and Lou Martyn

In his extraordinary book on the history of Christian spirituality, The Wound of Knowledge, Rowan Williams describes Augustine’s understanding of human agency:

“Augustine is less concerned than almost any of the Greek Fathers with freedom…. The human subject is indeed a mystery; no one could be more painfully and eloquently aware of this than Augustine. But the mysteriousness and unpredictability have more to do with the forces that act on the subject…. Augustine’s undiminished appeal to a post-Freudian generation has much to do with this aspect of his thought. He confronts and accepts the unpalatable truth that rationality is not the most important factor in human experience, that the human subject is a point in a vast structure of forces whose operation is tantalisingly obscure to the reason. Human reality is acted upon at least as much as acting” (pp. 82-83).

This reminds me of a provocative SBL paper in November by the great Paul scholar, J. Louis Martyn (he was in a session with Douglas Campbell and Susan Eastman, with responses from Darrell Guder and Telford Work). Martyn presented Paul’s understanding of human agency along these lines: the human agent has no subjective autonomy and no moral competence to choose her own path. She is under the sway of inscrutable cosmic powers – and will remain so except for the militant, apocalyptic interruption of a divine agent who vanquishes the enslaving powers and creates a new moral subject.

Further, according to Martyn (much to the displeasure of his respondent, Telford Work!), Paul’s apocalyptic conception of human agency is a deliberate critique of the “classic moral drama” which underlies much of the Old Testament, e.g. in Deuteronomy, where “morally competent” agents are said to stand at a crossroad between two possible choices.

For Paul, there is no crossroad, no moral competence, no “choose this day.” To be sure, there is a real alternative: slavery or freedom! But this alternative doesn’t lie in our power or depend on our agency. This means that God’s action cannot be said to “help” us or “enable” us – the divine action is a unilateral liberation which constitutes us as new agents.

After his paper, Martyn was asked: “Why are you so uncomfortable with the word ‘enable’?” He replied: “I’m not uncomfortable with it. It’s just wrong.”

Thursday 24 January 2008

The problem with primal harmony

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

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

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

Wednesday 23 January 2008

How to increase your blog traffic, and other curiosities

The folk at the GoingToSeminary blog have come up with a cunning and effective strategy for boosting blog traffic. (If I win the prize, I’ll donate it to a reader of F&T.)

Peter Leithart has a nice quote from Pamuk on “why we fall in love with only a few books in a lifetime.” And Brian is absolutely right to defend the importance of theological polemics: “Are not such oppositions entirely necessary, in order to demonstrate the kinds of decision (rather than syncretism) that conversion entails?”

Daniel Philpott writes about the relation between political theology and liberal democracy, noting that Mark Lilla’s argument in The Stillborn God “is driven by his own beliefs about theology as much as it is by his beliefs about the history of theology.” Fr Chris points us to a new First Things article by Avery Dulles on salvation outside the church. And Halden speaks of the pernicious domination of choice in the contemporary church: “The reality of choice, as constructed in late capitalism as the all-powerful arbiter of shaping life, must be met head-on by Christians.”

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Milton's 400th birthday

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton, the greatest poet who has ever lived. There will be lots of celebratory events around the world throughout 2008 (I myself am co-organising a conference here in Brisbane). If you’re lucky enough to be in Oxford this year, the Bodleian Library has a terrific exhibition entitled Citizen Milton.

And over at Cambridge, there’ll be an extraordinary range of events at Christ’s College (this was Milton’s own college). There’s a series of public lectures – the first, on 30 January, is by Quentin Skinner. There are two library exhibitions, Living at This Hour and Milton in the Old Library. And there’ll be performances of Comus and Paradise Lost, as well as a performance of Handel’s oratorio L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed Il Moderato (which is based on Milton’s poems).

Later in the year, keep an eye out for the release of a major new edition of Milton’s works, published by Oxford UP, as well as Yale UP’s new Milton Encyclopedia.

If you’ve never read his great poem, Paradise Lost, then you can’t even begin to imagine what you’re missing out on. If you’d like to read it, there’s an excellent online Milton Reading Room, or you might prefer to check out the lovely illustrated edition introduced by that lively modern Miltonian, Philip Pullman (who writes without fetters because he is of the angels’ party without knowing it). And one of my own essays on Milton is also available as a free download from the Milton Quarterly website.

In short, there’s never been a better time to get into John Milton. As far as I’m concerned, life without Paradise Lost would not even be worth living (it would not even be life) – without Milton, I could only sigh and pine:

        “How can I live without thee? How forgo
        Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
        To live again in these wild woods forlorn?” (PL 9.908-10)

Saturday 19 January 2008

Biblical theology and systematic theology

In a very interesting post, my Aussie pal Mike Bird protests against the tendency among systematic theologians to denigrate historical study of the Bible. Mike remarks that “systematic theology is the end process of exegesis and biblical theology”; and he cites Millard Erickson’s model of systematic theology, according to which theology takes place in three main stages:

1. Exegesis: analysis of the biblical texts in their historical and literary contexts.
2. Biblical Theology: situating exegesis in the wider context of each body of literature (e.g. theology of the Pentateuch or Pauline corpus, and then OT or NT theologies respectively).
3. Systematic Theology: the act of synthesising key motifs and ideas as they relate to the mosaic of Christian belief.

Mike’s main point is correct: systematic theologians have no business trying to hijack the findings of exegesis or biblical theology. But Erickson’s three-stage model (in all fairness, this sounds more like Grudem than Erickson, except that Grudem has never heard of “historical and literary contexts”) is absolutely false, and it displays a disastrous misunderstanding of the relation between theology and scripture. It has never been the case that dogmatics is merely “the end process of exegesis and biblical theology” – nothing could be further from the truth! A better model would be that of a continuing spiral in which dogmatics influences exegesis, and then exegesis exerts a critical influence on dogmatics, and so on.

You can see this clearly in the history of biblical theology. Biblical theology is always already shaped by dogmatics, and then it subsequently exerts a critical influence on the next generation of dogmatics. A good example here is the work of the great OT theologian, Gerhard von Rad. Von Rad’s biblical theology was profoundly shaped by Barthian dogmatics; and yet younger German dogmaticians like Pannenberg and Rendtorff were profoundly influenced by von Rad’s biblical theology, and they deployed this biblical theology as the basis of a radical critique of Barthian dogmatics. And so the spiral continues, with subsequent biblical theologies also being influenced by the new form of dogmatics.

In other words, there’s no one-way street from exegesis to dogmatics – the traffic always moves in both directions. And as Bultmann rightly insisted, there can never be a “presuppositionless exegesis,” in which the exegete confronts the text of scripture with a theological blank slate. Theology is always there already – indeed, it’s already inscribed in the texts themselves, and in the whole array of lexical, text-critical and historical tools which are used to translate and interpret these texts. It’s theology all the way down!

There’s no reason to lament this situation or to try to avoid it. The best we can hope for is that theologians will remain open to critical correction in light of new exegetical discoveries, and that exegetes will read just enough theology to dispel the illusion that their exegetical work is free of theological presuppositions.

Friday 18 January 2008

Theology highlights of 2007

Best theology book (academic): Rowan Williams, Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology (Eerdmans, 2007) – an extremely important collection of essays; this is Williams at his best.

Best theology book (popular): Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (WJKP, 2007) – a beautiful, compelling and exquisitely elegant account of Christian belief, all organised around the very simple and very beautiful idea that God is the one whom we can trust.

Best book (New Testament): Susan Eastman, Recovering Paul's Mother Tongue: Language and Theology in Galatians (Eermans, 2007)

Best book (Old Testament): Rudolf Smend, From Astruc to Zimmerli: Old Testament Scholarship in Three Centuries (Mohr Siebeck, 2007)

Best theology journal: Modern Theology. This journal really stood out from the rest in 2007; it published an impressive range of groundbreaking articles, e.g. Philip Ziegler on Bonhoeffer; Kenneth Oakes on Barth and de Lubac; Kevin Hector on pneumatology; Jeffrey McCurry on Rowan Williams and Augustine; Merold Westphal on Jean-Luc Marion; Frederiek Depoortere on Žižek; Oliver Crisp on Robert Jenson; and Daniel Barber on John Howard Yoder.

Best journal article: Hugh Nicholson, “The Political Nature of Doctrine: A Critique of Lindbeck in Light of Recent Scholarship,” Heythrop Journal 48:6 (2007), 858-77.

Best conference paper: Douglas Harink, “The Time of the Gospel and the History of the World” (a brilliant SBL paper presented in San Diego, November 2007 – a copy is available online here)

Best theology blog: Inhabitatio Dei

Best new blog: The Immanent Frame

Best TV episode: The final episode of The Sopranos

Best new TV show: East West 101 (a terrific new Aussie crime show)

Best comedy scene: the Chasers’ APEC motorcade stunt (I adore these guys: wonderfully anarchic Aussie comedy)

Best film: I’m Not There (admittedly I didn’t get to see many new films in 2007 – but I loved this one)

Best novel: Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead, 2007)

Best song: Bob Dylan, “Huck’s Tune” (2007) – from the Lucky You soundtrack; you can hear the song at YouTube. This is such a great song that I’ll end with an excerpt from the lyrics:

        “I count the years and I shed no tears,
        I’m blinded to what might have been.
        Nature’s voice makes my heart rejoice;
        Play me the wild song of the wind.

        I found hopeless love in the room above
        When the sun and the weather were mild;
        You’re as fine as wine, I ain’t handin’ you no line,
        I’m gonna have to put you down for a while.”

Thursday 17 January 2008

Some polemical entertainment with John Milbank

No matter what you might think of John Milbank, you’ve got to admit that he can be a splendidly entertaining polemicist. Here are a few notable examples:

1. During a recent discussion at Oxford, Milbank is reported to have said: “I reckon you could reduce Derrida to 5 sides of A4.”

2. In The Suspended Middle (which I’m finally reading at the moment), he speaks of “the sterile interest of the ‘Yale School’ in the no-man’s-land of ‘history-like narrative’ which at once abolishes real history and ignores the essential allegorical underpinning of Christian doctrine” (pp. 58-59).

3. And my own personal favourite (thanks to Doug Harink for alerting me to this): In his online essay, “Paul Against Biopolitics”, Milbank has a footnote which refers to “[Pauline] scholars like J. D. G. ‘Jimmy’ Dunn (who appear to have spent their lifetimes reducing the great apostle to banality).”

Wednesday 16 January 2008

American Theological Inquiry: a new journal

The inaugural issue of a new journal was published today: American Theological Inquiry. This first issue features articles by Thomas Weinandy, D. G. Hart, John W. Cooper, Samuel Lamerson, Tom Holland, Raymond Belair, and Joan Mueller. They’ve also reprinted a few of my F&T book reviews.

The best thing about this journal is – it’s free! So head over and check it out. You can also sign up to receive future issues via email.

Karl Barth: on why there is no such thing as a great theologian

“With horror I read [a] statement that I was the greatest theologian of the century. That really terrified me…. What does the term ‘greatest theologian’ actually mean? … As a theologian one can never be great, but at best one remains small in one’s own way…. Let me again remind you of the donkey I referred to [earlier]. A real donkey is mentioned in the Bible, or more specifically an ass…. It was permitted to carry Jesus to Jerusalem. If I have done anything in this life of mine, I have done it as a relative of the donkey that went its way carrying an important burden. The disciples had said to its owner: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ And so it seems to have pleased God to have used me at this time, just as I was, in spite of all the things, the disagreeable things, that quite rightly are and will be said about me. Thus I was used…. I just happened to be on the spot. A theology somewhat different from the current theology was apparently needed in our time, and I was permitted to be the donkey that carried this better theology for part of the way, or tried to carry it as best I could.”

—Karl Barth, “Karl Barth’s Speech on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday Celebrations,” in Fragments Grave and Gay (London: Collins, 1971), pp. 112-17.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

The world's best theologian?

Who is the world’s best living theologian? Cast your vote in the new poll.

Update: The winner was Rowan Williams (23%), followed by Robert Jenson (20%).

Providence in Aberdeen

For those of us who missed the Aberdeen conference on providence, Michael Jensen has been posting some summaries (here, here and here). Kent and Douglas have also posted on it, and Douglas has some photos too. So far, though, no one has told me what David Bentley Hart’s paper was like. So if you were lucky enough to be at the conference, perhaps you could leave a quick comment...

Sunday 13 January 2008

Robert Jenson and the question of being

In case you hadn’t heard, Robert Jenson happens to be one of the two or three best theologians in the world today. And here’s why:

“So what is it to be? … To be God is to anticipate a future self by an inexhaustible interpretive relation to an other that God himself is; to be a creature is to anticipate a future self, by a finite interpretive relation to an other that the creature is not…. Being is interpretive relatedness across time; that is, to be is to rise from the dead. Such is the description of reality that coheres with trinitarian doctrine of God.”

—Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God according to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), p. 182.

Saturday 12 January 2008

Against nature

Today I saw the extraordinary film about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There. Many of the lines (especially in the Cate Blanchett scenes) are quoted from early interviews and documentary footage of Dylan. One of my favourites is the remark about nature:

“I am against nature. I don’t dig nature at all. I think nature is very unnatural. I think the truly natural things are dreams, which nature can’t touch with decay.”

Friday 11 January 2008

Trinitarian reading for laypeople

A friend asked me yesterday about works on the Trinity which could be recommended to interested laypeople who have no theological background. I sent her this list of annotated suggestions – but I’d be interested to know if you have any alternative or additional suggestions:

  • Frederica Mathewes-Green, “The Old Testament Trinity,” in God the Holy Trinity: Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice, ed. Timothy George (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 83-90. [The title might sound dull, but this is a very beautiful little essay, written by the popular Orthodox writer. The essay is a brief meditation on Rublev's great icon of the Trinity.]

  • Cornelius Plantinga, “Deep Wisdom,” in God the Holy Trinity: Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice, ed. Timothy George (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 149-55. [Another chapter from the previous book: a rich and moving homily on the Trinity.]

  • Benedict XVI, “Introduction: An Initial Reflection on the Mystery of Jesus,” in Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 1-8. [A brief discussion of the Father–Son relation as the central dimension of Jesus’ human existence. The basis of the doctrine of the Trinity lies here, in the humanity of Jesus.]

  • Rowan Williams, “A Man for All Seasons,” Chapter 3 in Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 57-78. [Like the previous reading, this isn’t strictly focused on the Trinity, but it’s a superb, illuminating, jargon-free account of the relation between Jesus and God – which is the most important thing to grasp when thinking about the Trinity.]

  • Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Triune Life,” a chapter in Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 177-97. [A moving reflection on the mystery of the Trinity as the heart of ecclesial life.]

  • Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Introduction (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 36-50. [An important and accessible passage from one of the greatest modern Orthodox thinkers, focusing on the relation between the Trinity and human personhood.]

  • Kim Fabricius, “Ten Propositions on the Trinity”. I might seem a bit biased here, but you really can’t go past Kim’s post on the Trinity – it’s concise, profound, beautiful, and best of all true.]

Thursday 10 January 2008

Another update on Frank Nyameche

The donations to our friendly appeal have continued to come in – the total amount received for Frank is now $1205. I’m deeply grateful for this extraordinary generosity!

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Mathias Eichhorn: the state in the thought of Karl Barth and Carl Schmitt

Mathias Eichhorn, Es wird regiert! Der Staat im Denken Karl Barths und Carl Schmitts in den Jahren 1919 bis 1938 (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1994), 290 pp. (review copy courtesy of Duncker & Humblot)

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Or what could Karl Barth possibly have in common with Carl Schmitt? A Protestant theologian who passionately opposed Nazi ideology in the 1930s – and a Catholic state-jurist who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, and who was even briefly dubbed “the crown jurist of the Third Reich.” It would be hard to imagine two more unlikely discussion-partners – but in this fascinating study, Mathias Eichhorn brings these two towering thinkers into conversation with one another. Although this is not a new book (1994), I thought it would be well worth reviewing and discussing in light of all the current interest in “political theology.”

So anyway, why bring Barth and Schmitt into dialogue? First of all, Eichhorn argues that both thinkers made their fundamental intellectual decisions in the face of the catastrophe of 1914-18. Barth and Schmitt both believed that the catastrophe in Europe was a political consequence of the Enlightenment, with its liberalism, its rationalism, and its doctrine of progress.

In Schmitt’s view, the category of “the political” is constituted by the irreducible relation of friend and enemy (Freund und Feind). And according to Eichhorn, the closest structural relation between Barth and Schmitt lies here: the same accusation which Schmitt brings against political liberalism – that it is no longer capable of perceiving the distinction between friend and enemy – is directed by Barth against theological liberalism. While political liberalism pursues the dream of rational consensus and so pretends that there is no longer an enemy, theological liberalism similarly eliminates the category of heresy, so that the theological distinction between friend and enemy disappears.

And this disappearance of heresy, Eichhorn argues, has grave political consequences. In Barth’s view, liberal theology had forfeited the capacity to resist the National Socialist regime. Indeed, Barth’s own struggle against liberal theology was precisely an attempt to reintroduce the distinction between truth and heresy, so that a theological intervention in the state would again be possible (just think of the Barmen Declaration, with its profoundly political deployment of the concept of heresy). In short, Eichhorn argues that the (Schmittian) friend/enemy political distinction requires a (Barthian) theological distinction between truth and heresy.

Eichhorn thus points to a fundamental irony in Schmitt’s thought: in spite of his concept of the enemy, Schmitt refuses to recognise the validity of theological judgment as the means of distinguishing friend from enemy. His concept of the enemy thus lacks its internal theological criterion, without which it finally becomes arbitrary. Indeed, Schmitt was even tempted to regard the theologian as the fundamental enemy who endangers the state – even though the theologian, with his concept of heresy, is the only one who might have authentically distinguished friend from enemy.

And while the politically anti-liberal Schmitt was undecided about theological questions, the theologically anti-liberal Barth was able to be passionately committed not only to theology, but also to democratic politics. This difference, Eichhorn suggests, is not coincidental, since each thinker’s stance in relation to theology was constitutive of his understanding of the state. Indeed, when Schmitt “threw himself into the arms of Behemoth” in 1933, he showed that he had become incapable – theologically incapable – of distinguishing friend from enemy.

Drawing on Schmitt’s own remark that the enemy is always “my brother,” Eichhorn thus concludes this fascinating and provocative study with the poignant observation: “The enemy is always a part of me, not a stranger and not remote from me. In this sense, Karl Barth was – like no other – the enemy and the brother of Carl Schmitt” (p. 276).

Here and there

Steve Holmes discusses Bruce McCormack’s fourth lecture, and adds some critical reflections on the whole lecture-series. Halden is against Constantinianism, and he discusses John Howard Yoder’s view of the church as an interruptive community: “The task of the church is to make it harder, not easier to talk about God.” And he also nominates his best reads of 2007. Jason reviews Gunton’s Barth lectures, while Indiefaith asks whether a pacifist pastor could ever ask her congregants to relinquish their safety.

Meanwhile, Guy interviews David Gibson about his new volume on Barth and evangelicals; Christian Amondson discusses a Hauerwasian understanding of evangelism; and David Congdon (at last!) returns to his blog with a bit of demonic demythologising.

In the celebrity corner, Mark Lilla responds to his critics (including James K. A. Smith), while Stanley Fish (rightly!) argues that the humanities do not ennoble. The brilliant Princeton theologian Wentzel van Huyssteen now has his own blog, and the architectural theorist Michael Benedikt has released a new book which blends the genres of theology and poetry: God Is the Good We Do. I doubt I’d agree with much of the theology here, but I like the idea of poeticising theology. And Marc Batko has translated a couple of pieces by Eberhard Jüngel: Egoism vs Pluralism, and How God Comes to the World.

Monday 7 January 2008

Reconsidering Rudolf Bultmann

The new issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology includes my article on Bultmann: “Faith as Self-Understanding: Towards a Post-Barthian Appreciation of Rudolf Bultmann,” IJST 10:1 (2007), 21-35 (please email me if you’d like a copy). While Barthian theologians condemn Bultmann’s doctrine of faith for “reducing theology to anthropology,” I argue that Bultmann identifies faith with self-understanding precisely in order to maintain the distinctiveness of God’s reality. Here’s an excerpt:

“According to Bultmann, God and humanity are differentiated at the exact point of their togetherness (Miteinander) – namely, in the movement of faith which itself corresponds to the event of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In other words, God is distinguished from humanity precisely as the gracious God, the God who addresses us and claims us in the gospel. This formulation – which of course comes very close to Barth’s understanding – poses critical questions not only to overtly ‘objectifying’ theologies, but also to an ostensibly ‘Barthian’ construal of the divine freedom as sheer isolated autonomy over against the world.”

On a more general note, I reckon this is a very good issue of the IJST. As Paul Nimmo notes in his editorial, all the articles in this issue have a thematic focus on re-thinking the doctrine of God. There are articles on Descartes’ understanding of divine infinity, Wolf Krötke’s doctrine of the divine attributes, and the trinitarian theologies of religion of S. Mark Heim and Gavin D’Costa.

There’s also a provocative and important article by Adam Eitel: “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth and the Historicization of God’s Being” (pp. 36-53). He explores the relation between Barth’s theology of resurrection and Hegel’s, and he argues that Barth “conceptualizes the resurrection as the historical fulfillment of God’s eternal being,” so that “God’s being is both eternally a being-for-resurrection and eternally a being-for-us.” I think this is a brilliant proposal – and I love the luminous concept of an eternal “being-for-resurrection.”

Sunday 6 January 2008

Atheism: call for submissions

That excellent online journal of theology and culture, The Other Journal, is calling for submissions for its next issue on the theme of atheism. Since the journal publishes a wide range of genres, you can submit theology, philosophy and social justice articles; film, literature and music reviews; poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction; as well as films, paintings, prints, photography, music and sculptures.

You can find out more on the submissions page. Although it says here that “writers with an idea for this issue should send us their pitch by January 1st, 2008”, I’m pretty sure this deadline has been extended. They’re still seeking submissions – so what are you waiting for?

Update on the friendly appeal

Well, I was deeply moved by the generous response to my friendly appeal for Frank Nyameche: I’ll be transferring the total amount of $580 into Frank’s account later today. I’m extremely grateful for this generous response, and I know it will make a real difference to Frank.

Saturday 5 January 2008

Lieven Boeve: God interrupts history

Lieven Boeve, God Interrupts History: Theology in a Time of Upheaval (New York: Continuum, 2007), 212 pp. (review copy courtesy of T&T Clark)

Lieven Boeve is professor of fundamental theology at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. In his earlier book, Interrupting Tradition (Eerdmans, 2003), he analysed the relation between the Christian narrative and its postmodern context, and he argued for the openness of the Christian story to encounters with otherness. In this new work, Boeve continues to pursue this approach to contextual theology by developing a methodology of a contextual “theology of interruption.”

Boeve’s proposal is set against the backdrop of correlation methods in modern theology (e.g. Tillich, Schillebeeckx, Küng, Tracy). While theologians such as Barth and Milbank assume a discontinuity between Christian discourse and its secular context, the correlation method presupposes a fundamental continuity between faith and its context. But Boeve seeks to move beyond both these approaches by envisioning Christian faith as that which interrupts and reconfigures the context.

“Interruption” thus functions as an alternative to both continuity and discontinuity. On the one hand, interruption is opposed to correlationist understandings of continuity, since faith is a radical new intrusion into the existing context. And on the other hand, interruption is opposed to conceptions of sheer discontinuity, since the context which is interrupted is altered but does not cease to exist. Interruption is the event in which an existing narrative is sharply halted and problematised, in order then to be opened up and propelled in a new direction. There is thus both continuity (since the same narrative is reconfigured and redirected) and discontinuity (since the narrative is forever changed by this new incursion). Indeed, interruption occurs precisely “where discontinuity and continuity encounter one another” (p. 103).

So in contrast to any mere “correlation” between faith and its context, Boeve calls for a radical “recontextualisation” of faith’s context. This means that, although dialogue with the context can never be suspended, we must resist the correlationist longing “for harmony and synthesis between tradition and context,” and instead foreground the Christian faith’s own “particularity, contextuality, narrativity, historicity, contingency, and otherness” (p. 40). For Boeve, therefore, the fundamental datum for theological method is the fact that Christian faith is always one contingent possibility amidst a plurality of others. This confrontation of faith with plurality and otherness sets in motion the process of recontextualisation. Faith is neither a (discontinuous) “counter-culture” nor a (continuous) “partner” of secularised culture – instead, it is the irreducibly singular interruption which takes the cultural context and opens it anew towards the reality of God.

Boeve takes this model of “interruption” and uses it to rethink diverse themes such as religious experience, sacramental rites, the relation between faith and science, the apophaticism of contemporary spirituality (which he nicely describes as “something-ism”), and the place of christology in interfaith dialogue. But the richest and most valuable part of the book is his analysis of time and apocalyptic in the final chapter. Here, he rightly notes that the demythologising tendency to purge the Christian message of its apocalyptic dimension “introduce[s] a perception of time that makes it impossible in principle to authentically conceptualise the radicality of the Christian faith” (p. 188).

Following Johann-Baptist Metz, Boeve observes that the relation between God and time is structured apocalyptically: “God interrupts time” (p. 195). God is not part of the process of history, nor does God stand outside history. Rather, God is the boundary and crisis of history. Such a conception of time, Boeve argues, produces a “radical temporalisation” of the world, with “a radical awareness of the irreducible seriousness of what occurs in the here and now.” History thus becomes real history, and the future becomes a real future which cannot be reduced to a mere “seamless continuation” of progress, development or evolution (p. 197). The task of Christian theology is thus to submit to the interruptive judgment of God over history – and this is always a fundamentally political task, since the church must remind its cultural context that human history is also “a history of anxiety and the cry for justice.” In this way, Christian faith “disrupts the histories of conqueror and vanquished, interrupting the ideologies of the powerful” (pp. 201-4).

Although this book is shaped mainly by discussions in modern Dutch-language theology, I think Boeve’s methodological proposal is of much broader significance. The central argument is crisp and decisive, and Boeve’s thought is often fresh and energetic. Even though he mounts a compelling critique of correlationist approaches, his proposal might best be understood as an attempt to modify and nuance (and so to sustain) the liberal correlation method. After all, Boeve still perceives a fundamental correlation between faith and its context, but he adds the crucial qualification that this is a correlation between an interruptive faith and an interrupted context, a context which has already been radically altered and re-structured by the divine action.

Since one of my own interests is in developing an apocalyptic/interruptive model of divine agency from a Barthian direction, I often found myself wishing that Boeve would lean further in the direction of discontinuity, instead of returning rather hastily to a revised model of contextual correlation. But in spite of that, I’m very glad to have discovered this book. It presents a vigorous argument and provides valuable stimulus for contemporary work in theological method. In the end, I suppose my only complaint is that I would have liked to have seen even more interruption!

Thursday 3 January 2008

A friendly appeal for a friend in Kenya

We’ve all been distressed by reports of violence in Kenya over the past week. One of my close friends, a cheerful and good-hearted pastor named Frank Nyameche (pictured), has been right in the midst of all this – so I’m wondering whether you might like to join me in another “friendly appeal.”

I became good friends with Frank when he was studying theology in Australia several years ago. After his studies, he returned to Nairobi in Kenya, and he has been working there in the Kibera slum – the worst and largest slum in Africa, and the site of the worst riots and violence over the past week. Frank leads the Nairobi Believers Mission: he pastors a church in the slum, organises outreach and support for local children, provides micro-loans for the development of new businesses in the slum, and helps to run an orphanage in the neighbouring city of Kisumu.

Frank was able to contact me this morning with some news from the troubled region. With his usual good humour, he remarked that young children in the slum have “interpreted the last seven days of constant gunfire as countless balloons bursting!” Some of the kids from Frank’s orphanage were caught in the conflict, and had to hide “in a tin shed amidst bullets flying over the place” while thugs outside were “making people walk the streets as human shields.”

Although some basic commodities are now becoming available again, the drastic shortage of commodities has led to price hikes, so that it’s difficult to obtain food. And with many shops and businesses burnt down, the food supply to the orphanage has been cut. In addition, many micro-businesses in the Kibera slums have been looted and burnt, so that Frank will need to start again from scratch with the financing of these businesses.

Anyway, I’ll be sending Frank some funds to help him out – not as condescending “charity,” but just as a gesture of friendship and concern. If you’d like to join me in this friendly gesture, then please feel free to make a small donation by clicking the PayPal icon below. And you can learn more about Frank’s work in Kibera here.


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