Tuesday 29 March 2016

Jenson as teacher: an almost-review of A theology in outline

Robert Jenson writes and speaks neatly. Such a gift is rare within the academy. This generation’s greatest baroque theological stylist, David Bentley Hart, once lauded Jenson’s ability to produce “formulations of a positively oracular terseness”, even if this tone contrasts with Hart’s own “taste for the sesquipedalian and pointlessly elaborate.” (Jenson returns the compliment by observing that “Hart never uses one clause where twenty will do”). Such rhetorical reserve may appear casual—and frequently masks both the imaginatively spectacular and fervently orthodox character of Jenson’s theology—but it is in fact the sign of a strictly disciplined teacher.

Academics are often maligned for their delight in linguistic obfuscation. We will, we are told, always find the most difficult way to say something. Such judgements represent a deplorable misconstrual of the situation. Explaining a complex idea by the employment of technical and complicated language is easy. The great challenge is disciplining oneself to say something plainly. Why do academics speak and write incomprehensibly? Because we are not clever enough to speak neatly. Colouring inside the lines is beyond us.

Given this situation, there is no task more difficult for the professional theologian than teaching an introductory course in theology. In our cowardice, many of us take the painless option by giving a comprehensive historical survey of the discipline liberally peppered with Latin axioms and eloquent anecdotes: providing the students with dates, technical formulae, and names to memorise. The more difficult way to teach theology is to inhabit the world of these thinkers and their arguments, and attempt to speak plainly of their concerns and ours. This is how Robert Jenson teaches.

And we owe our thanks to Adam Eitel for allowing us to see this clearly as he invites us to sit with him in Jenson’s classroom during a series of undergraduate lectures given at Princeton University in 2008. The manuscript of these lectures, A Theology in Outline: Can these bones live?, shows that Jenson’s skill for “oracular terseness” extends to his extemporaneous teaching (as Eitel describes it in his introduction).

This is not Jenson’s systematics in brief. It is rather a public performance of Christian theology. Jenson describes it in his preface as something of a taster of Christian thought intended to whet the appetite. For this reason, the book bears more in common with a catechism than a standard academic introduction to theology. What Jenson introduces us to here is not theology as an academic discipline, but as a vocation. What do we receive from the tradition and the great thinkers of Christianity, “from Augustine to Hildegard of Bingen to Barth”? The exhortation to pray.

Jenson follows his usual method of explaining the tradition while simultaneously reinterpreting it and presenting it as a living option for present life. There is no need to summarise Jenson’s arguments: the book is short enough, so just read it yourself. Rather, it is Jenson in the mode of a teacher that is of particular interest. In all of his writing, Jenson asks us to evaluate how we undertake the theological task. 

A typology suggests itself here. Take a basic Christian claim: “Jesus is Lord”. Theology done in the usual way will consider this to be a densely-packed idea needing to be unfurled into elaborate theological rhetoric. Jenson’s theology, on the other hand, treats “Jesus is Lord” as a large billowing idea that needs to be compressed into theological claims to be shared. It is this compressive character of Jenson’s theology that leads Hart to write that a single phrase of Jenson’s might “detonate” if mishandled. Rather than expending his energy by expressing simple ideas through grand flourishes, Jenson saves the grandness and the energy for the ideas themselves.

This, I suggest, is what we learn from Jenson as a teacher. The basic stuff of Christian faith is conceptually grand: “Christ is risen”, “this is my body”, “your sins are forgiven” and so on. Moreover, they are grand in a metaphysical sense. Metaphysics is not to be contrasted with existence: “when we begin doing metaphysics—that is, when we begin asking questions like ‘what is it “to be”?’—we are not just playing empty word games. The questions we ask and the answers we give both express and shape the way we perceive and act in the world" (p. 108). Our metaphysical construal of such claims is the manner by which we decide how we will live. As Jenson treats the gospel, any word spoken about Jesus is simultaneously a telling of our own stories. A grand story, Jenson suggests, is one that makes room for all of us. Theologians might do well to foster more audacity in their thinking, and then they may be enabled to write neatly of the things of God.

A postscript on the “comprehensive” bibliography:
Eitel has enlisted the help of Keith Johnson to compile a very good list of academic works published by Jenson for inclusion in this volume, but it is a shame that it is not as “comprehensive” as advertised. Two of Jenson’s ALPB books are missing, Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, and On the Inspiration of Scripture. His book, Lutheranism, co-authored with the late Eric Gritsch is omitted, as is the volume of essays that Jens and I produced together, Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics: Essays on God and Creation. While essays from The Futurist Option (co-authored with Carl Braaten) appear, the book itself has no entry. Seemingly by design, Jenson’s occasional writings are left off the list (published letters and his many captivating editorials written for Dialog). And a significant number of essays are nowhere to be found: “What kind of God can make a covenant?”, “Deus est ipsa pulchritudo”, and many others. This does not reflect poorly on Eitel or Johnson, since Jenson himself has lost track of his publications. But it does seem that researchers wanting access to all of Jenson's writings will have to continue compiling their own lists.

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Jenson about Barth on Jenson on Barth: a review-anecdote

In a “review” of D. Stephen Long’s Saving Karl Barth published in Pro Ecclesia last year, Robert Jenson offers a corrective and an anecdote. Long, like many others, takes exception to Bruce McCormack’s view that II/2 forms the metaphysical centre of Barth’s theology. Students of Jenson will know that Jenson himself made the same claim—well before McCormack—in his PhD, which was revised and published as Alpha and Omega. Long claims that there is “no positive statement by Barth of II/2’s centrality.” Jenson is amused at this argument, since “there is in fact such a statement, and I am its most direct witness.”

In the summer of 1959 we moved our young family from Heidelberg to Basel in hope of my consulting Barth himself during the final drafting of my Heidelberg dissertation, which was on ‘The Election of Jesus Christ in the Theology of Karl Barth.’ Barth was open to this, reading a final version before we returned to Heidelberg. In it I argued, as bluntly as possible, that his doctrine of election in II/2 upended traditional understandings of the relation between time and eternity and thus inaugurated an innovative ontology, and that this complex was then—for better or worse—the ruling center of his subsequent theology. Barth invited me to his study, and after some conversation said, "Aber Herr Jenson—Sie haben mich verstanden," "But Mr. Jenson—you have understood me." A bit later an interviewer for the Christian Century asked Barth if anyone had grasped the real center of his thinking. Barth answered that there was ‘one, a young American.’ Subsequently I was identified by name in the journal as the one—not by me.

McCormack's theology is hardly identical to Jenson's, but they accord the same status to II/2. The result, Jenson claims, is that Barth's imprimatur extends to McCormack on at least this point. One who wishes to disagree with McCormack’s central thesis about election, Jenson concludes, is not discrediting McCormack, but “it is Barth’s teaching that is thus discredited.”

And so the Barth-wars continue.

Sunday 20 March 2016

Donald doodlings

“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.”
– Donald Trump [oops, sorry – Hazel Motes, in Wise Blood]

Of course Trump does not need to confess his sins. Or haven’t you heard of the Immaculate Deception? My wife – he makes her want to have a shower.

If you want to understand the phenomenon, go with the fact that Trump is not running a campaign but building a church. The ugly rhetoric and half-assed policy proposals are primarily a means to the end of selling himself as a charismatic Saviour. The traction of his teaching lies precisely in its apocalyptic promise to resentful and credulous marginalised and patronised white males, as well as to an assortment of chauvinists and bigots. Trump is the fearless frontier Übermensch who shouts “Fuck you!” to the establishment and “Trust me!” to the hoi polloi. What makes him so toxic is the combination of faux authenticity and can-do nihilism.

Trump has got it all wrong about asylum seekers. He should welcome them, while encouraging violence against them. “It’s good Yankee hospitality,” he could claim: “we’re making them feel right at home.”

Spot the homophonic error in Trump’s “Making America Great Again”.

I hear that 86-year-old Hal Lindsey is working on a new edition of The Late, Great Planet Earth. November 8th 2016 looks to be a key date in the End-Times scenario. Otherwise we can only be sure that the Last Trump will follow the first.

Three characteristics of the anal expulsive character are overweening self-belief, emotional dysregulation, and casual cruelty. And in his Assholes: A Theory (2012), Aaron James observes that the asshole is characterised by his failure “to recognize others in a fundamental, morally important way.” To coin a phrase, one might speak of the “anality of evil”.

Meanwhile, back at the Temple …“We thank you, God, that we are real Christians, living the Beatitudes, welcoming migrants, supporting ‘Black Lives Matter’, and not hypocrites, xenophobes, and racists like those (Re)publican Trumpvangelicals. Enlighten them, O Lord. Amen.”

The answer to an America full of lapsed Christians is a Christianity full of lapsed Americans.

Here in the UK, we are preparing for a wave of penitent prodigals, sick of presidential pig shit, returning from the far colonies later this year.

Three books being written about the Republican campaign for the presidency: From Ronald to Donald: The Decline and Fall of the GOP; Cruz Control; and O Rubio, Rubio, Wherefore Art Thou, Rubio?

The problem with Twitter is that it’s easier to hate than to love in 140 characters.

The doctrine by which the contemporary Church of Health and Beauty stands or falls is justification by face.

Everyone becomes a sacrifice. The only question is whether you are a self-offering or the immolation of someone else.

Love or certainty? You can’t have both.

Great novelists start by observing their characters and end by being observed by them.

It is said that belief in God begins with wonder. It ends there too.

Blessed are those who read and travel widely, for theirs is the kingdom of Odd.

The dead don’t haunt the living, but the living torment the dead.

We must handle our secrets with care and discernment, because some are to be cherished, while others are half way to being lies.

We are always trying to get away with something. Jesus never tried to get away with anything. I think that’s one way to parse his sinlessness.

Be a guitarist, not a guitar.

The reality of evil and suffering makes some people lose their faith in God. For me, it has the opposite effect.

I used to hate weeding, working with impatience. Now that I’m a drain on society, however, I identify with dock and dandelions, and I dispatch them reluctantly.

I once was lost, but now am found. Otherwise, I’m as screwed up as the next guy.

Thursday 17 March 2016

How the ontological argument succeeds

Anselm prays the ontological argument. Direct address to God is the perfect mode in which to argue for God’s existence. “Come now, O Lord my God. Teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you.” Anselm carefully crafts his argument, like a finely tooled machine. He then sets it within a cathedral. The wheels turn and the bell peals. In a hall already alive with the murmuring of prayers, the argument sounds. It adds its voice to petitions and supplications. The reverberations reflect off the surfaces of icons and the tombs of the Christian dead: praise to the God greater than all of our thoughts.

“This is not an argument that immediately compels assent.” (David Bentley Hart)

J. L. Mackie is unconvinced. What good is a necessary being, standing there in one of the darker corners of the universe, mocking our ontological mutability with its incessant there-ness? Such a being is only reflexively necessary, but not necessary for anything. An essence that requires existence evinces only a truncated necessity. The ontological argument is no cause for belief.

“I beseech you, Lord: let me not sigh in despair, but let me breathe hopefully again.” (Anselm)

Faith seeks understanding. Not blind, faith is a way of seeing. “I do not seek to understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand.” Faith seeks by peering into dim mirrors and contemplating arcane texts, it places its fingers on the surface of relics, feeling out the cracks where divinity seeps through.

Anselm presumes to define God. But he does so by describing a window that opens out into an inexhaustible mystery. The argument draws its strength only from God’s greatness — a greatness apprehended by faith. God exceeds thought: “you are not merely that than which a greater cannot be thought; you are something greater than can be thought.”

“That than which it is impossible to conceive anything greater is not a being among other beings, not even the greatest possible of beings, but is instead the fullness of Being itself, the absolute plenitude of reality upon which all else depends; and manifestly it would be meaningless to say that Being lacks being or that Reality is not real.” (Hart)

The argument has no apologetic utility. Abstracting it from its prayerful setting and dissecting it as a piece of pure logic is like removing the eye of a painted portrait and treating it as an anatomical diagram. Set properly within the face of prayer, it shines out as an expression of wonder at the divine greatness. 

Anselm names and renames his book. It is first fides quaerens intellectum. With no author beneath its title, the little work goes out to converse with the world. When it returns, ruffled and marked all over with marginal notes — new thoughts gathered from abroad — Anselm lifts it up and gives it a new name: proslogion. A word that journeys forth.

Anselm’s argument fails only when we treat it as an argument. It does not seek converts, but fellow pilgrims. As it turns our minds to God’s greatness and to prayer, it succeeds.

“Come now, insignificant mortal. Leave behind your concerns for a little while, and retreat for a short time from your restless thoughts. Cast off your burdens and cares; set aside your labour and toil. Just for a little while make room for God, and rest a while in him.”


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