Thursday, December 20, 2012

Nagging Question

Dorothy Butler Bass has written this fine column for the Huff Post that I commend to you. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, she explores the two most common "answers" proposed to the "Where was God?" when such senseless things happen: 1) God was present in and with the sufferers, in and with the acts of compassion and courage, etc., in a loving and co-suffering presence. 2) God was absent as an expression of divine judgement for human sin.

Interestingly, unlike a number of liberal-progressive religious folk, Bass doesn't lightly dismiss option 2. Indeed, one finds biblical precedents for both conceptions -- in the prophets and the psalms, for example.
But her response is to pose a third alternative, proposing that God was not (exactly) present or (exactly) absent at the Newtown tragedy. Rather, God was "hidden." She evokes the classic theological tradition of the "hidden God" (Deus absconditus). It is an appeal to the mystery that permeates all of life and to the salutary notion that we human beings don't have "answers" for everything that happens -- perhaps we have explanations, ultimately, for very little.

A number of my former peers at Chicago have worked on the "hidden God" tradition with such scholars as Bernard McGinn, David Tracy, Susan Schreiner and Jean-Luc Marion. Luther and Calvin were strong proponents of a form of the hidden God argument -- Luther, for example, invoking the notion that divine providence is inscrutable in the face of such events as the advances of the Turkish empire (sorry, I don't know the appropriate textual references).

But my question for Bass (and other proponents of the hidden God notion) goes along these lines: My hunch, on the face of it, would be that the figures like Luther and Calvin would understand the Deus absconditus dialectically: They had no qualms about affirming divine presence and judgment as well.

But what of the contemporary theological interpreter? Why has it become increasingly difficult for many contemporary Christian thinkers -- I'm speaking in generalities here, not necessarily with Prof. Bass in view -- to articulate or even affirm, in any clear sense, notions of God as present in direct acts of providence or as withdrawn in judgment of sin and evil? I'm not just being rhetorical: I'd be interested to get some feedback on this question.

In other words, in our contemporary context (name it "postmodern," "late-modern," "postliberal" or whatever you prefer), what is the advantage of espousing a view of God as "hidden" over a plain, old-fashioned, consistent and more Occamite agnosticism? Is there a future for contemporary theology qua theology -- as something more than ethics, political theory or "religious studies" (whatever that is)?

How is the Deus absconditus superior to the God who simply is not there, just because....just because he just isn't?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Muisca 451: A Modest Grant Proposal

An Open Letter to
Mr. Rocco Landesman
Chairman, National Endowment for Arts

Dear Mr. Landesman:

What follows is a sort of rough draft for a NEA grant proposal. Despite my mercenary work as a bookkeeper, I'm actually not that great with numbers, so this is a grant proposal without any dollar figures. This seems apropos to me, given the looming fiscal cliff: It would be truly disheartening to see my pet project gutted along with the national defense, social services, money to keep poor people from freezing to death, etc.

"Experts" claim that the fossil fuel supply is finite and, thus, some day we will hit "peak oil" when our major source of fuel runs out -- I hate to bring up an awkward subject that the CEO of your corporation (the U.S. federal government) and his opponents in the G.O.P. would prefer not to discuss. And the scientists have probably made it all up anyway, as they are wont to do, to keep themselves occupied, since blogging in an of itself is not sufficient to do so. But just humor me.

Each year, the music industry, in both its non-profit and proprietary iterations, expends millions and millions of dollars in producing recordings, electronic broadcasts and podcasts, etc. The old timey crank-it-up phonographs being in short supply today, all of these recordings and broadcasts require electricity. But what will happen to all of this when the (ostensible) peak oil apocalypse occurs? Essentially, music lovers like you and I will be screwed. (Incidentally, I wouldn't put too much stock in that pipe dream they call "clean energy." I don't have a lot of confidence, for example, that scientists will ever come up with a way to convert the sun's rays into energy.)

So here's what we should do: Let's start redirecting our national resources away from the electronic media altogether.  Let's appropriate some grant money for the following projects:

1. Your bio on the NEA website doesn't say whether you read science fiction, but perhaps you'll recall Ray Bradbury's classic book, Fahrenheit 451, a distopic vision of the future, in which books are banned and are subject by law to burning. A secret cadre of subversives living out in the woods -- I know living in the woods is a physical impossibility, but this is, after all, a sci-fi novel -- where they memorize and recite entire books.

Why couldn't we do the same thing with music?  When our electricity is rationed and we can't run all our IPads and hi-fi systems 24-7 anymore, how will we be able to enjoy the world's music? We should pay musicians to memorize all the world's great music. When I was growing up, MTV taught me that even rock music -- well, some of it, at least -- can be rendered with acoustic instruments. I assume the same is true with country music as well, one of your own passions. (Alas, there will be no more Taylor Swift videos when peak oil comes! But her music may live on in the voices of young women for generations to come.)

Classical music (the experts tell me), blues and even jazz have learned to make due without electronic instruments. So let's have our best musicians in all genres allocate some of their practice schedules to memorization so they can make all manner of joyful noises when the end of civilization as we know it arrives.

2. In order to have enough musicians to memorize everything we need to have, well, more and better trained musicians. So we need to spend the money to train them.  And, since all those fancy computers that convert sounds into sheet music won't work without electricity, we also need to teach musicians how to read and write music. I've heard the theory that written music can printed on sheets of paper and even bound in books.  I'm not sure how printing will be possible without electricity, so I'll have to leave that problem for more mechanically minded people to ponder.

3. In the old days, people used to read something called a "newspaper." These newspapers used to have a searchable database of classified advertising that one could access (somehow) without a computer screen or keyboard. Such ads often had listings for used pianos and guitars that people were trying to unload. Well, why couldn't we put some government money toward buying up old musical instruments and reconditioning them and selling them at low cost to the new trained musicians (see no. 2 above)?

4. Finally, I propose we allocate some of this grant for the construction of front porches on houses (assuming anyone can afford to live in them anymore). Let's face it, when the power gets shut off, it's going to be too hot stay inside. So lets build front porches with rocking chairs so people can go out on a hot winter's evening in New England (which the "global warming" mythologists say we'll have to endure) and sing and play Taylor Swift songs on their reconditioned banjos and fiddles.

Your thoughtful consideration would be much appreciated.

Yours truly,
A Fellow Musicphile

Thursday, October 25, 2012

To Boldly Think What No One Has Thought Before

Recently I've been rereading a biography on a thinker whom I haven't seriously read for many years. His thought gets mixed reviews in my assessment.

But what is striking me most as I review this material is not so much the content itself as the way that it is described, the way many proponents of this man's views have received his ideas. Philosopher T (let's call him) is described as a "bold" thinker, a "visionary" thinker, an "original" thinker.

This gives me some pause. It sets off a warning signal.

Let's briefly consider the question: To what extent are boldness and originality virtues in the realm of thought. Of course, it all depends upon context. Clearly, when old ideas clearly are not working, creativity and nerve in exploring new options are the dispositions that the moment requires. Certainly, too, one can admire courage: the courage, for example, to claim one's convictions, to articulate difficult truths against opposition, etc.

What about "boldness" in the sphere of thought? I have philosophical and theological discussions in view primarily, but consider an analogous situation which calls for thought: You exhibit a bizarre combination of symptoms. Your physician can't figure out what's wrong with you, but makes a couple of tentative hypotheses. You get a second opinion, and the second doctor is confused too, but has his own theories. In utter frustration, you see a third position. This one is young and brash. He is "bold" both in his diagnosis and prognosis and in his prescription for a cure. He expresses his views with a confidence and clarity that the previous two professionals lacked. What's more, he recommends to you a "bold" new experimental procedure -- and a risky one, at that.

In this scenario, whose view do you trust? Of course, many factors come into play. The situation would seem different, too, if you had followed the first two doctors' suggestions and your suffering had only worsened. But there is a difference between boldness and desperation.

There's a difference between throwing the Hail Mary pass when your team is behind six points with 10 seconds left in the game and calling this play in the second quarter when your leading by six points and are just five yards out of your own end zone. In the first instance, the long pass is your only realistic hope of winning. In the second case, the call (most coaches would agree) is "bold" indeed, but idiotic.

This is my question: In the spheres of theology and philosophy (one might include the social sciences as well), which virtue, overall, is more a propos: boldness or humility? An unqualified answer is impossible, but much can be said for the latter option. My ideas are bold. But what if they're wrong? What if they're really wrong. Tyrants can be quite bold.

Another thing I've noticed in reviewing this thinker's following: He has quite a fan club. A well-organized professional society with scholars from a broad array of disciplines is dedicated to exploring his thought. Part of its mission statement is to "defend" Dr. T's ideas.

Really? Is this in keeping with the spirit of inquiry? Should a professional society of scientists, let's say, dedicated to the work of Einstein, Planck or Darwin strive to "defend" it's foundational thinker's legacy? Explore, certainly. Debate, to be sure, if any serious challenges to the theory exist. Such is the spirit of scientific inquiry.

As I understand scientific theory, it needs to be proven and tested continuously to account for new data. Eventually, if the data demand it and our tools for interpreting it improve, a paradigm shift might be in order, and that move may very well requires creativity, boldness and vision. But what if a group of followers is defending ideas that are basically fantastical or just plain crappy?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Listomania: Theologian Biographies

What would a blog be without lists? Here's my first one.

The topic: My favorite biographies of theologians (note, I didn't say the best available biographies, but rather, the ones that I've most enjoyed).

1. Peter Brown -- Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. This is indeed one of the finest books I've ever read. Simply essential, a masterwork. Since most everyone out there seems to agree with me on this, I don't really need to say more.

2. Roland H. Bainton -- Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. This choice may surprise some Luther aficionados, but in my estimation, this book delivers. The purist would perhaps lift up Oberman's work over Bainton's. Both, indeed, have a privileged place on our bookshelf -- the one in the living room, where most of the really good stuff (excepting Barth) can be found.

I think the attraction of Bainton for me is colored by a positive memory: In 2000 -- back before the terrorists had starting turning all of us into terrorists, torturers and the like -- I took a delightful study trip exploring famous Luther sites in Germany. The facilitator was the New Testament scholar Eugene Boring of TCU's Brite Divinity School. Prof. Boring assigned us two books for background reading -- the Bainton bio and the Dillenberger anthology. This pairing offers what is, probably, the most painless introduction to Luther you can get. I caught a G.I. bug when we were staying in Göttingen and was leveled flat out barfing miserable. You might say it was a bad case of Lutheran Anfectung.

Prof. Boring schlepped out in the middle of the night to the only emergency pharmacy in town to acquire medicine for me. For this virtuous deed, he had to endure the taunt of "Das ist nicht in Ordnung!" from the piqued pharmacist. One appreciates American pragmatism at such moments.

3. David Daniell -- William Tyndale: A Biography. Daniell is virtually a one-man guild of scholarship on the too-little-known English reformer. This book emerges, clearly, from a deep love for and devotion to its subject. It is a delight and a must read for anyone interested in the history of English vernacular Bible translations.

The work has two problems: One is the paucity of actual information we have on the elusive Tyndale. Daniell handles this lacuna admirably by giving quite a bit of background detail on early 16th century Oxford and Cambridge, Erasmus, etc. One also meets Thomas More in these pages (but, if you're a devout Roman Catholic, let me warn you: You aren't going to like the portrayal too much).

The other problem is that Daniell's apologetic fervor for his subject pushes the work dangerous close to hagiography. Now, I'll fess up and say that Tyndale is one of my heroes, so I don't mind it too much. But some of the exposition tends in the direction of suggesting "a greater than Luther is here."

4. William J. Bowsma -- John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait. This very readable book presents Calvin as a man of his own times. The portrait is about one half intellectual history and one half existential psychology. The consensus out there is that Bernard Cottret's biography is the standard work so far in this area (see this Calvin enthusiast, for example). I will admit, with embarrassment, that I had taken a copy of this out of the library but got kind of "Calvined out" that fall and ended up returning it unfinished. But Christmas is just around the corner!

5. Eberhard Busch -- Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts.  I would be remiss not to mention this text. My list was about to give you the false impression that I'm a Reformation historian and not a troubled (post)modernist like everybody else. Not so. The 20th century is my go-to period, for better or worse. This is the standard work for probing the life of the most important theologian since Schleiermacher.

But this is not an easy read. Because of his tremendous archival work, Busch is one of the most important Barth scholars alive today. This is a chronologically ordered rendition of biographical materials drawn, mostly, from Barth's own writings and tied together in a loose narrative framework. It is not a critical biography. Such a work, to my knowledge, does not exist. For my part, I really consider this more of a primary source than a secondary evaluation of Barth. But the material here is crucial for setting Barth in his historical context.

6. Richard Wightman Fox -- Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography.  Who would have guessed that this country's most important Protestant public intellectual of the past century was a driven workaholic with a persistent German-American immigrant's anxiety about fitting into American culture? An amazing, brilliant and (in some respect) tortured figure emerges from these pages: Deeply ethical, with a profound sense of political realism, with an early passion for social and economic justice so vigorous that it is vulnerable to morphing into the disillusioned cynicism of an old warrior. Nieburhr's life story is a window into every important social and political crisis from World War I to Vietnam.

To-Do List

In addition to Cottret, here are a couple other books I have dipped into without having yet finished them (but I hope to remedy that shortly): Diarmaid McCulloch's Thomas Cramner and George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Ontotheology* 101

S: "Do you believe that God 'exists'?"

L: "Of course."

S: "I mean, couldn't we say, with Prof. Jean-Luc Marion, that God transcends existence, that the one we call 'God' far exceeds the very category of being itself. That we can talk of God only as pure gift, absolute beneficence, pure self-giving love, utter agape beyond being? Just like some of the mystics of the past and some deconstructionist theologians today say?"

L: "I never bought into that."

S: (Voice rising) "You mean to tell me that we, mere creatures, share with the Creator of the universe the category of 'existence' as a predicate of our reality? Doesn't this subsume God within some overarching metaphysical schema?"

L: "Whatever."

S: "Well, I guess we could go the route of Thomism and say that God is self-subsistent esse, a pure unity of being and action, and that our creaturely existence is a finite participation in God's transcendent esse. But, again, that commits us to some sort of analogia entis -- some notion that there is within our existence as such something that links us existentially to God, by virtue of our very creaturehood and apart from Christ and  historic revelation. And I'm just not sure I'm ready to go there."

L: "I thought you were going to write about William Stringfellow. How's that going?"

S: "I really love this weather we've been having."

L: "Have you paid the phone bill yet?"

(* I haven't found online any clear, rough-and-ready definition of "ontotheology." I take the term generally to mean the attempt to relate the reality of God, the subject of theology, with a general metaphysical account of the cateory of "being" as such.)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Nevermind. Some Apologies are in Order.

I feel like this blog is starting(!) to lose its focus -- that I'm edging more and more into the "heat" rather than the "light" category.

So let me start today by making some amends, by way of an attempt to get back on track.

First, let me apologize to anyone who works on Hegel (though I doubt such folks would bother to read this blog). Despite what I've been saying, I'm not really going to engage him now. I'm 40 years old and, if I had wanted to seriously engage Hegel, I probably would have done so already. It was intellectual hubris on my part to suggest I can do a whiz-bang refresher course in 19th century philosophy and theology as a preamble to reading Barth. Grad school is over.

There has been a good deal of interesting work in recent years attempting to give a genetic account of Barth's development in relationship to its 19th century intellectual background. Prof. McCormack's work stands out in this vein. For now, I'll content myself with Barth's own book on 19th century Protestant thought and see where I go from there.

Second, let me also apologize for some snarky comments I made about Prof. Pannenberg, especially to any students out there who may be working through his imposing corpus. His work deserves careful and thoughtful engagement, but I'm not going to do that here, at least not anytime soon. So I had best be quiet.

I will admit that some of this snarkiness comes from a sensitive personal spot: The only exchange I ever had with Prof. Pannenberg was brief and did not go very well. During my qualifying exam year, the eminent  paid a visit to the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he gave a couple lectures. At an informal luncheon talk, during the Q & A, I embarrassed myself with a question that he lightly dismissed. Everyone got a good laugh out of it -- at my expense! I still think it was a good question and that he didn't really answer it. But the exchange probably failed because of my own failure to articulate it and to persist with a clarifying follow-up.

Third, and this is the most important point I want to make, let me apologize to the conservative Neo-Calvinists, again targets of my snarkiness. Several of my friends belong to this camp, so this requires eating a particularly bitter bit of crow. There is some serious theology going on in this area, and I might have some cause to engage with it at some point. Actually, some of the Neo-Calvinists have become pretty perceptive readers of Barth.

My undergrad alma mater is Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Down there, among the restive Baptists, some conservative Presbyterian money has built a fine conservative Protestant seminary called Beeson Divinity School. Amazingly, the div. school building was constructed from the ruins of my crappy first-year college dorm. Anyway, when I worked for the Samford student newspaper, I had the privilege to interview its dean, the very fine historical theologian Timothy George: What a kind, calm and reasonable man he is!

Part of my conflictedness, too, comes out of my own Southern Baptist roots. Though I'm a confirmed, prayer-book carrying Episcopalian, I'm still genetically Baptist. That's where the orneriness comes from. My dad has been a Baptist minister since age 17. Can you imagine that! We went to a lot of SBC national convention meetings during the height of the fundamentalist takeover of the denomination, the early '80s. Our side lost: Big time.

The intellectual leading lights of the SBC makeover were and are Neo-Calvinists, including the very prominent president of the flagship SBC seminary, who, through his amazing Internet presence, has himself become something of a phenomenon within evangelicalism today. Is there a little residual pique about all this informing my petulance? Probably. Some folks want to reenact the seventeenth century Synod of Dordt. I'm not sure I'm one of them, but who knows?

But I will say this, for now, about the Neo-Calvinist movement: Some of the rhetoric about gender -- about "biblical manhood" and "womanhood" -- that flies under this banner has me alarmed. I would urge all evangelicals to keep both their minds and their Bibles open. And also, if you want to know where my sympathies in the gender debates lie, please read Rachel Held Evans.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dueling Hegels / Dueling Barths?

So, as I mentioned before, I'm trying to remedy a longstanding neglect of Hegel's philosophy, with a keen sense of my own limitations. Hegel's impact on modern theology is extraordinary (Hodgson, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Altizer, Küng, the list could go on an on).

I have more than a little ambivalence (as you might have guessed) about this legacy, but I want to do a few more soundings to make sure I'm on solid ground.

I've been perusing this fine article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (This is a superb website, and for a couple years now it has been my go-to when I start to explore a new topic in philosophy. The articles I've read are of a manageable length, very readable, written by experts and peer reviewed.)

I'm learning about a significant controversy in contemporary Hegel studies. Some who follow a more "traditional" interpretation of Hegel read his system as being rooted, basically, in a metaphysical conception of God as absolute spirit. Others, though, read Hegel in a more anti-metaphysical sense, in a way that highlights his emphases on the concrete contingencies in the processes of history. The later, more materialistic way of reading Hegel brings him more into line both with Marxist and postmodernist sensibilities. I'm sure I'm not expressing it that well, but you can read the article for yourself.

The field of Karl Barth studies -- in the United States, at least -- has been embroiled in recent years in a controversy that seems, on the face of it, to have some interesting parallels with the debates over Hegel interpretation. Two major readings -- or, I really should say, two strategies of reading, for there is a fairly wide range of Barth interpretations out there now -- have emerged.

The issues are complicated, and I'm not going to name of the principle combatants here. But one of the central disputes is this: What is the proper place of metaphysical (or better, ontological) concerns in our interpretations of and appropriations from Barth? Should such questions be bracketed out or are they integral to a proper reading of Barth?

These issues are not arcane. Some very old debates about the proper relationship between philosophy and theology, about the very nature of God and about the Creator-creature relationship are surfacing within this debate. I became interested in this debate several years ago, but haven't been able to follow everything that has emerged from it.

But I do find the potential parallels between respective debates over Hegel and Barth interesting. In many ways, it seems, theology still lives in the shadows of the 19th century.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hegel, Schlegel!

Caveat (need I repeat this?): This is a blog post, not scholarship!

Let's recap where I'm heading: I started out to write a post titled "Why I'm not a Barthian." Then I decided I needed to check my theses by starting over (yet again) with some intensive reading in Barth. But since I've tried that many times before and tend to get lost in the forest, I decided I better clarify my questions a bit first. Then I thought, to really get at Barth, I had better first reread Feuerbach (then, perhaps, a little refresher in Schleiermacher and Luther).

So I started to read Feuerbach, the 19th century German philosopher who emerged mid-century from the circle of left-wing Hegelians. And there, already in the preface to the book, he's trying to distinguish himself from Hegel's absolute idealism.

I admit that I'm afraid of Hegel. Don't get me wrong: I'm not afraid that I'll ever understand him. Rather, I fear that if I started to trying again to read him I'll get lost forever in the thicket. That I'll become like Pannenberg, except without the brilliance and erudition. That I'll turn into that most dreaded entity, the ontotheologian. So I've tried to avoid Hegel since dipping into the bits required by my graduate education, but it seems to be impossible.

My wife was a philosophy major. But she didn't have to read Hegel, because, as she puts it, her advisor "didn't believe in Hegel." She doesn't read Hegel and absolutely (get it?) refuses to discuss this stuff with me. This is one of the reasons I married her, though certainly not the most important one.

In my view, the trajectories exemplified by Hegel and Schleiermacher represent the Scylla and Charybdis (sorry, I know that's hackneyed, but I just can't resist) of modern theology. I'm trying desperately to avoid being sucked into either of these directions without becoming a fundamentalist. It's hard. That's why I read Karl Barth, even though I'm not a Barthian.

But I'm not sure that Feuerbach's negative characterization of his master is fully reliable. So may I dip into a rough and dirty cram course on Hegel in a pinch, perhaps? I'll lean on an expert, Prof. Peter C. Hodgson. Maybe I can get by for now with his anthology.

This is my second plug in this blog for the Making of Modern Theology series. I'll be expecting my kickback check from Fortress Press to arrive in the mail soon.

Monday, September 17, 2012

It's Feuerbach

I don't have a lot of time. Now, I'm mainly just thinking out loud. I usually try to say something cute or clever, but there's no time for this today.

I think the best book to read at the outset of a thorough study of Barth's work is The Essence of Christianity (Das Wesen des Christentums, 1841) by Ludwig Feuerbach. The translation I'm looking at was done by George Elliot -- yes, that George Elliot -- which, I'm assuming, was the first translation into English.

(Apparently, Elliot enjoyed promulgating controversial texts, for she also translated Strauss' Life of Jesus. There are so many Strauss' out there in our cultural history: This is the one who put forward the idea that the miraculous material in the gospels is "mythological." Interestingly, according to this source, Elliot published the Feuerbach translation under her actual name, Mary Ann Evans. James Luther Adams, more recently, also translated Das Wesen, but somehow it seems cooler to carry around a book with Elliot's name on the cover. No disrepect is meant to Dr. Adams.)

I don't have any new groundbreaking insight into Feuerbach, whom most theology and philosophy students will have encountered, but I am rereading this work to refresh my memory on the basic argument. which goes like this: Theology is anthropology that doesn't realize this about itself. Theology is anthropology, perhaps, with a bad conscience. I think Feuerbach, were he alive, might level the latter against many theologians working today.

Feuerbach offers the classic modern reductionist account of religion. Religious discourse (theology) represents an alienation of human life and thought from its ownmost proper concern -- humankind itself. According to Feuerbach, all religious doctrines are projected from human ideals and from concrete realities, hopes and aspirations of human experience. Christian doctrines have true referents, but the referents aren't what theology claims them to be: "God" is a hypostasized projection of ideal human characteristics. Feuerbach's thought seeded the major 19th-20th century hermeneuticists of suspicion, that trinity beloved by critical theorists and angry undergrads alike -- Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.

A quick trip to wikipedia would yield all this info. So why do I bother with this stuff? Well, like I've said, I'm obsessed with Barth -- who quite possibly was less obsessed with Feuerbach than I'm supposing, but we'll see. And my thesis is that we need to understand Feuerbach's claims, various possible modern responses to his claims and Barth's assessment of these responses, to get a clear picture of some of the bigger moves in Barth's thought. So I'm relaying some groundwork here, hoping maybe to hit some new gem I never saw before in the dirt.

Then, once I get a better handle on Feuerbach, I might proceed thusly: Flashback to (the early) Schleiermacher, then maybe a quick look (if that were possible) at some Luther. It may be, as others have suggested, that there is potentially a problem in how Luther construes the divine-human relationship which Feuerbach has exploited. At this point, just maybe, I could construct a sort of ideal typology of possible reponses to Feuerbach.

I think this may take a little while. But, fortunately, my Christmas bonus is not tied to my theological work.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


So, I'm planning to write a blog entry with the title "Why I'm not a Barthian." And I've come up with four theses. But then I realize: Defending them is going to take some doing, so I better do my research. That entails digging into Karl Barth's work in a serious way.

My grad school advisor one said that beginning a project on Barth always involves starting at the beginning. I've tried that, many times. Why is this so difficult?

So, let's pretend I'm teaching a seminar on Barth (and you half dozen readers are my guinnea pigs: Fortunately for you, it's completely free). Let's make it a five-year seminar to make sure it's adequately thorough. Where would I begin?

How about this question: What is the ONE book I'd assign my students to read as background to reading Barth?

Here are the candidates:

1.) Schleiermacher's Speeches on Religion. After all, Barth's own teacher, Hermann, thought this was the most important theological book since the New Testament, and Barth expends considerable energy refuting the Berlin theologian's classic text.

A schoolmate once quoted Prof. Brian Gerrish as saying: "All roads lead to Schleiermacher."

But I'm not sure Barth was as really troubled by this book as he let own. I think, actually, the early Schleiermacher is something of a straw man for the early Barth (I don't mean the early-early liberal Barth or the late-early German university Barth, but I mean the middle-early dialectical Barth, the Barth of the second Romans commentary).

2.) Maybe, given the overall shape of Barth's Dogmatics, we should look at Schleiermacher's own dogmatic treatise, whose title is anemically translated in English as The Christian Faith. (Incidentally, my favorite conservative theologian, Michael Horton, has written a book with the same title. It's much more readable than Schleiermacher's text.)

Well, I won't diminish the importance of Schleiermacher's dogmatics, but reading that would require a seminar of it's own. Some scholars out there now are trying to show a deeper affinity between Barth and Schleiermacher than has previously been acknowledged. I'm withholding judgment for now.

3.) Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Please, please, not this! I'll quit Barth forever if he turns out to be an Hegelian.

4.) Marx's Capital.  Interesting idea, no? Well, this is probably not the the best choice: I do think, after all, it was God Barth was trying to write about. But we're getting warmer than you might realize. (I just gave you a big hint about where I'm headed.)

4.) Calvin's Institutes. I might be inclined to do this, if only to annoy the Young-and-the-Restless Reformed folk. But I think it isn't the best choice, even though Barth offers probably the most important response to Calvin in modern times. (No, silly you, Barth was a more important interpreter of Calvin than Max Weber was!)

5.) Luther's .... everything! The collected works. The whole 55 volumes (is it?) in the American Edition. See the problem here? There's no single definitive Luther book. "I don't see how anybody works on him," a smart teacher once told me.

Barth liked Luther. We'll just leave it at that.

6.) Aquinas' Summa -- if even the shorter Summa, just to be a little more reasonable. Well, if we went this route, we probably should read Thomas instead of Barth. Just raise the white flag and throw in the towel like Bruce Marshall and so many others have. Swim the Tiber.

But that's not for me. I'll try to read Thomas again only after I have some glimmer of a hope of arguing he was wrong on the fundamental moves. That is, only after I've read Barth, which will probably consume the rest of my natural life. So I'll read Thomas in heaven while he and the angels laugh at me.

Fortunately, my choice for the one book to read in preparation for our Barth seminar is much easier and more straightforward than all these other options. Even a first year undergrad can grasp the basic idea this author had. It's a book one might even potentially plow through in a week, even while riding the bus to work. (If you commute by car, I think you're out of luck, for this one has never been put on tape.) This is the book, I think, with which Barth was most obsessed.

But I better reread it myself before I tell you what it is.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Why I am not not a Barthian

The double negative is intentional.  This post is to be followed up (when I get up the nerve) by a post titled "Why I am not a Barthian." My goal here is to briefly signal several significant and common critiques of Barth that, to my mind, are either off-base or, even if legitimate, are not necessarily fatal to his project as a whole.

Three caveats, first.

First, Karl Barth is my favorite theologian. Augustine and Luther are not far behind, but I've been obsessed with Barth, especially, since my early 20s.

Second, attempting to write about Barth is the third hardest thing I've ever tried to do -- and, to be honest, I'm not sure how successful I've really been at doing it.

(The first and second hardest things I've done have been trying to raise a child and going out for junior varsity football in 9th grade after being almost completely sedentary for most of my childhood).

I do not brag, in the least, that I've "mastered" Barth. This comes not from false humility but from a genuine sense of being overwhelmed. But I have been trying to read think about his work for a while now. We've seen more than two decades now of some first-rate Barth scholarship being published.

By the way, if you've never read Barth, several bloggers have given helpful suggestions about how to read Barth (see herehere and here, for starters). If you do want to read Barth yourself, this is the approach I would recommend: Take something, anything, and just start reading. And keep reading. And then read some more.  Reading Barth is more like training for a marathon than winning the lottery (I don't imagine I'll ever experience either of these things).

If you're more of a browser, that's okay too: You might try Clifford Green's book. (There, I've done it: I've blurbed an anthology. That's probably enough for me to be blackballed from the Barth studies guild forever.)

Third, I'd welcome critical feedback from anyone. Please keep in mind that this is just a blog post and not a peer reviewed journal article. These are lines of inquiry, perhaps, for my to explore further. Reading Barth, you might have guessed, is not inlcuded in my day-job description.

Now, several reasons I'm "not not a Barthian."

1.) Barth writes some very troubling things about women and gay people.

I take this criticism of Barth quite seriously, especially with all the misogynistic and homophobic rubbish that is out there today. If Barth's attitudes on gender and sexual orientation are a deal-breaker for you, I respect that decision. But I think it is quite possible to find much in the main line of Barth's argument that can be used to bolster a liberationist agenda.

I have not studied too closely these aspects of Barth's ethics, but what I've gleaned suggests some rather severe limitations in Barth's perspective. Is he worse than other similarly situated white male academics and churchmen of his time? I'm not qualified to answer that.

Nonetheless, while I don't these issues lightly, I hope these passages might be excised from Barth's overarching theological project. That Barth can still speak something to us that helps to free rather than bind is, in my anecdotal experience, borned out by the significant number of social progressives who fruitfully engage Barth's work.

2.) Barth's theology, in its mature form, sidesteps the thorny questions of politics.

At the height of the Cold War, Reinhold Niebuhr criticized Barth as being a political quietist because he refused to enter the lists against Soviet-style Communism. Some have claimed that Barth's silence on Communist totalitarianism was inconsistent with his more activist stance against the "German Christians" in Nazi Germany. From the other side, some left-wing political folk fault Barth, during his academic career, for stepping back from his earlier activist work as a Socialist.

I won't get into it too much here, but I think the criticism of Barth as apolitical is unfounded. In fact, the German thinker Friedrich Marquardt argued that socialist commitments shaped Barth's dogmatic theology as a whole. (George Hunsinger edited a really fine book about this controversy. Timothy Gorringe and others have also examined Barth's political theology, and it is becoming a serious research interest of mine.)
James Cone, in his early work in black liberation theology, put Barth's doctrine of reconciliation to good use, no matter what flack he caught for it later.

Barth, in my reading, tries to engage political questions without having his theology completely subsumed by them. That's a fine line to walk. As he puts it in the preface to the first volume of his dogmatics, he thinks the dogmatic enterprise per se is necessary to give some true grounding to political engagement. Does it really work that way? I'm not sure. At any rate, I don't think it is Barth's intention to exempt theology from the rough and tumble of the real world.

3.) Barth's account of divine sovereignty leaves no real space for genuine human freedom.

I think this charge is just plain bunk, and John Webster's work should have put it to rest once and for all.
Barth stands in a long line of Christian thinkers -- Aquinas and the Protestant Reformers come to mind --who seek to articulate a non-contrastive account of dual causality that upholds both divine and human agency without explaining away this great mystery. Kathryn Tanner, my former teacher, has written some very good stuff on this topic. If you uphold what philosophers call a "libertarian" notion of human freedom -- that is, freedom as an indeterminate choice between alternatives -- you aren't probably not going to accept how Barth tries to frame freedom within the Christian story. But that is not the same thing as saying that Barth's account of divine sovereignty pushes a genuine creaturely freedom out of the picture.

(By the way, if you're a hyper-Reformed monenergist, please read Susan Schreiner's book on Calvin's creation theology and then let's talk.)

4.) Barth's theology sidesteps the challenges of inter-religious dialogue.

It is true that, for Barth, inter-religious dialogue is in no way constitutive for his theological project. He is not a pluralist in the contemporary sense of the term, and he doesn't engage in what we now call the "theology of religions." But this is not really a fatal problem for me.

I think Islam and Buddhism are fascinating, and I've enjoyed learning about even and trying to teach (very inadequately, I think) some things about the major world religions. But I don't expect the Christian theologian as such to try to speak for Muslims and Buddhists: Barth's notion of theology, like it or not, was very confessional. He accepted the risks that such a stance entailed

(Barth does discuss sometimes discuss other religions in the Dogmatics, especially in the excurses. Somewhere -- I forget where -- Barth does offer a brief reflection on the soteriology of Pure Land Buddhism. Sometimes when he talks about non-Christian religions -- as in a discussion of Islamic monotheism in CD II/1 -- one is inclined to wish he hadn't done so).

Overall, Barth was very ecumenical -- a pioneer in ecumenical dialogue, really, as I understand it -- and very interested in the humanities too (the hard sciences not so much). And I also understand, from reading Busch's biography, that Barth did read fairly widely in the field of religious studies. If this topic interests you, there was a whole conference in Princeton about "Karl Barth on Religion and the Religions" several years ago.

5.) Barth's uncompleted(!) Church Dogmatics is just too long.

Yes, it's probably true.

If you care enough to read Barth, you just have to get over it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Add to Favorites

Many thanks to Travis and the other good foks at Die Evangelischen Theologen for allowing me to post a guest reflection on their page.

This is a great site for keeping up with some of the recent highlights in the theo-blogosphere.  While you're over there, check out their extensive archives.  You can also find some great recommendations on how to read Barth, Bonhoeffer, Calvin and other theologians.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Qui Est Veritas?

So just what is "Truth" anyway? Well, that question might be too big for a blog post.
Today, rather, I want to ramble a bit about the issue of utility. My question, in a nutshell, is this: Could Christianity still be useful even if its claims weren't "true" -- and I mean "true" in the old-school, commensense sense. True in the sense of the "correspondence" theory of truth, if one must put it this way: My "true" statments "mirror" some external, "objective" reality. Truth in the sense upheld by the naive realist. True in the sense of the toddler who cries out, "Daddy, the bee stung me" rather than that of a  mediocre poet who opines, "Idaho is great!"

But I digress. This post is not going to be about epistemology, a thicket into which I'm not prepared to wade at this time. Let's just assume, for the sake of this post, the "commensense" notion of truth so I can get on with it. I mean true in the sense in which "I'm sitting at my desk" is not a metaphor for "I'm riding an aardvark", or vice versa. I mean true in the sense that the statement "Jesus rose bodily from the dead" cannot be confused as a metaphor for statement "He didn't."

I'm not really equipped right now to delve into the more constructivist notions of truth that one might find, for example, among pragmatist philosophers. So I won't do so. It would be impractical, and it would reveal rather painfully what a philsophical diletante I am after all.

So, then, "Qui Est Utilitas?"

(I don't read Latin, by the way, so if I've made a blunder, please cut me some slack. The internet deconstructs all grammatical conventions anyway.)

I once attended a discussion between two high powered intellectuals, who were both, at that time, faculty members at a prominent divinity school. The theology club there had invited the pugnacious atheist religious studies scholar Professor Eleanor Lane to join the theologians for a brown-bag lunch conversation. Representing the constructive theologians was Professor Penny Rigby, whom I great admire. (Names, perhaps even genders, have been changed to protect...well, me.)

Professor Lane, a Marxist and avowed secularist, is notorious for being adamantly opposed to constructive disciplines like theology and ethics having a place at the table in academic religious circles. For some reason, she had accepted the invitation -- I don't think lunch was provided, so it couldn't have be that.

Ms. Rigby argued very ably -- but rather ineffectually, I think, in this particular contest -- that Christian theology had a distinctive contribution to make within the context of the secular arts and sciences. Now this, on the face of it, seems resonable to me; yet this claim is not self evident to everyone who doesn't teach at the University of Virginia.

She gave a sort of pragmatic defense for theology as a discipline that might prove its usefulness by helping to promote human flourishing and social justice. Such an approach takes seriously and seeks to answer the common claim that religion as such is intrinisically oppressive.

Such a rehabilitation of theological discourse is promising. Indeed, it happens all the time. Intereligious discussions of ethics and justice come to mind. It's reasonable to expect theology to have some real-world value. This approach to theology appropriates one of the legitimate demands articulated by theologies of liberation: Make it real.

But is this really enough? For some of us -- even for Ms. Rigby herself -- theology means a whole lot more.
My question here is just how adequate a strictly pragmatic approach to the content of the faith could be, especially for the believer who has made a life-consuming commitment to this faith. I think my tentative answer has to be: Not so much.

At this luncheon, the atheist Professor Lane would have none of what Ms. Rigby and we bumbling theology students had to offer. In her view, she had nothing to discuss with the theologians. The  methodological vantage points and commitments of the secular theorist and the commited religious thinker were inherently contradictory -- or, as a postliberal might put it, incommensurable.

One of the theology students, a bright young man with long hair, seconded Ms. Lane's assertion:
Theologians are making claims based on an understanding of revelation. The secular oponent will never be able to concede this, so there is an impasse in the dialogue. We should all stick to an area in which we all could agree: The divinity school cafe had the best coffee on campus.

I found what this student said refreshing (Perhaps by now he's the star faculty member at some conservative Christian college, for all I know.)  Why is this? Possibly, in part, because we were in cramped seminar room where I had to sit on the floor, and I was a little grumpy. But maybe there's more.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that we conceive Christianity as a sort of salutary "myth." Here I don't mean "myth" in the more positive and nuanced sense often articuated in theology and religious studies; that usage, roughly, would conceive myth as conveying profound yet non-literal truths. No, I mean "myth" more in the sense of "I-can't-believe-you're-asking-me-to-swallow-that-crap." Like the myth that the Rothschild family secretly engineered the recent disasterious Facebook IPO. -- Okay, I just made that one up, but you get the basic idea. "Urban myths" aren't metaphors: They're baloney -- metaphorically speaking, that is.

Let's say one conceives Christianity as a kind of Santa Claus myth. (The last theological treatment of the Santa myth was in Miroslav Volf's superb book Free of Charge) Of course, all adults know that Santa Claus is not real (No, no, please calm down. I'm speaking hypothetically here). Common grown-up wisdom is that Santa is an imaginative construct in whom only young children -- and a few rather stupid teenagers, perhaps -- actually believe. Nonetheless, one might say, the Santa myth is worth perpetuating because it motivates children to behave, at least in the weeks following Thanksgiving. Santa is "real" in that Johnny believes in him and doing so makes Johnny behave well. Santa Claus doctrine and ethics have a certain social utility; therefore parents, toy manufacturers and advertizers are justified in perpetuating this myth.

(Actually, I think the notion that Santa faith actually makes kids act any better is more implausible than the actual story itself.)

Well, what have the critics of Christianity been saying? "Shame, shame, shame on you! What cynical people you are." Ludwig Feuerbach leads the chorus of whistleblowers, followed by his progeny: Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. Christianity is projected, all made up, manipulative, they say. And that's a bad thing. Words like "alienation," "wish fulfillment", "ideology", even "neurosis" enter the lexicon. Religion used to dupe and control a docile populace. Faith used to stunt your true potential. To avoid facing your mortality. False hope. False consolation. Pie in the sky by and by when you die. And so on.

Again, I'm not arguing about whether we can or should consider the positive, public, pragmatic potential of faith and theology. Of course we can. William James wrote that religious experience, in part, should be judged by its fruits. The Gospel of Matthew says something similar too, with a bit more gusto.

The question is whether such pragmatic criteria by themselves will be enough for the believer to be fully committed. What if it all turns out to be based on a lie? Is this a problem? I think so.

Christianity has a pesky way of conflating the good, the true and the beautiful. Something that isn't really true can't be ultimately beautiful, and the good subsists only in that which is true. And blindly following a lie leads you into a ditch, or worse.

Just check out the Gospel of John, for instance, where the Evangelist talks about "doing the truth." This "doing" flows from faith, and faith is rooted in the object of that faith, and that faith is Truth himself. And only within that Truth are faith and works -- and theory and practice -- ultimately unified.

Monday, August 6, 2012


This past weekend, I went with my wife and three-year-old son to an event marking the 67th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. This evening was not just a remembrance, though, of the of the victims of the atomic bomb "Little Boy" that killed or wounded an estimated 170,000 people. It was also a kind of pep rally to raise consciousness and bloster resolve for the political battle to rid the world both of nuclear weapons and of nuclear power.
Growing up, I had been taught in school that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were tragic measures that were, nonetheless,  necessary to end the war, potentially saving the lives who would be lost on both sides in an Allied ground invasion of Japan. I grew up never questioning these assumptions. I also grew up believing that a nuclear apocalypse was virtually inevitable.  I had many dreams about what it might be like for those of us who survived to crawl out of those bunkers after the attack.
On Sunday, the guest speaker read selections from her book chronicling the horrors of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. She drew the obvious connections between the horrors happening in Japan and vigorous local efforts to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a facility about 45 minutes due north of us on the Connecticut River. She passed around a New York Times clipping about some 200,000 people who had gathered in Tokyo to protest the country's nuclear power. I think that clipping was one of the most moving things I experienced all evening. 
The event was convened at a liberal Northampton Protestant church whose members are well plugged into the local activism scene. (On this sweltering summer evening, a discussion of climate change no doubt would have been received sympathetically too.) We put our chairs in one big circle -- there must have been at least 50 or 60 people in that crowded hall -- and went around the room, introducing ourselves and a giving brief statement about why we were there.  (There was good free food, an excellent incentive to make the trek in the drizzly heat.) In the room were political activists connected with all kinds of local organizations, some of whom have been at it for decades.
I have absolutely no activist credentials. At the very least, I try to learn what I can and to lend moral support to friends and acquaintances who have struggled personally with injustice or who are directly involved in Occupy protests or other causes.
My son slept in his Radio Flyer wagon for the first part of the event. His pillow was my backpack, which hid my main current main read, the outstanding biography of Reinhold Niebuhr by Richard Wightman Fox. I thought that Niebuhr probably would not have been too much of a hit with this crowd, ad that thought sparked a certain cognitive dissonance.
I felt a certain disconnect in the presentation itself too. I'm not trying to be dismissive here, not at all, but am just sharing an impression. On the one hand, the language about Fukushima and the effects of nuclear power was starkly apocalyptic. Pretty believable, actually, though I don't know the relevant science that well. The speaker talked about the effects of the wounding the earth receives from nuclear madness as lasting "for all eternity." I found that language interesting, disconcerting actually.
On the other hand, the vision of a nuclear-free future that animates the activism had a more of a utopian ring to it. I would like very much to believe in that vision, but why is it that the apocalyptic horror stories seem much more real to me? Many people in the room, who had been doing anti-nuclear work since the '60s and '70s, seem to really have expected that the warheads and power plants would have all been scrapped by now.
For idealists of any stripe (and I would include the neo-cons here as well), Niebuhr is a spoiler. Beginning in the 1930s, Niebuhr eschewed passivism as wistful idealism and articulated a "Christian realist" stance that claimed violence was sometimes necessary in pursuing justice within a fallen world. Later in life, he argued -- notoriously -- that a limited (!) use of nuclear weapons might be necessary in some circumstances. Perhpas Niebuhr, who died in 1971, would have known better if he'd had to watch the faux-reality nuclear apocalypse movie The Day After that kept me up late one night in 1983.
But I ask you, Professor Niebuhr: Just what is reality anyway? And how do you know?
I find Niebuhr's life and thought fascinating and frustrating -- an icon of the ambiguities that riddle liberal theology and ethics, on the one hand, and the critique of and use of American power in the 20th century and today, on the other hand. Our current President claims Niebuhr as a major influence on his poltical philosophy. One wishes, perhaps, our politicians would broaden their reading in religious ethics a bit more.
I've been thinking a lot lately about American politics and what the ethical scope and limits of political action might be. I've especially been puzzling over various models of integrating Christian theology and discipleship with political thought and action. I had better save my more stunning insights for the Major University Book Contract that is almost certainly around the corner.
For now, though, just some musings: Just what does it mean to walk around Northampton, Massachusetts, with Niebuhr in my backpack? 
And perhaps also a few extra unwelcome ions in my bloodstream.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Onward and ... Onward

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
-- Karl Marx's 11th thesis on Feuerbach

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
-- James 2: 26 (NRSV)

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
-- Matthew 6:33 (KJV)
Don't worry, gentle reader. I'm not advocating "works righteousness." I'm not trying to undercut the claim that salvation is the gift of sheer grace. My evangelical-reformed-Anglican moorings are still intact.

I'm not about salvation, directly, anyway.  Rather, I'm picking up the thread of several posts a few weeks ago on the question of what theology is.  Theology, I argue, is not faith itself, but a "work" of faith. Some postliberal theologians like to define theology as a "second order reflection" on the basic Christian confession. For reasons that might become more clear as we go along, I don't find this construal of the matter particularly helpful.

Back in June, I was exploring the classic definition of theology as "faith seeking understanding." Now when theologians are seeking to define and describe their craft (Hey, "craft" instead of "science" -- that suits my purposes nicely),  it seems to me they usually focus on one of the two terms , "faith" or "understanding", or perhaps on the relationship between these two.

So one might focus on "faith" as the affirmation of sacred truths deposited with the apostles and passed down by the church through the centuries. That, more or less, is how the Council of Trent understood faith.  Or one might counter, with Luther, that faith is more an existential attitude than a posture of intellectual assent.  Faith, in this view, is more like trust (which, conveniently for Protestants, is close to the meaning of the Greek term pistis). When you say you believe "in" God, that's analogous to what you mean when you say you believe "in" your partner; for example, you believe that she isn't cheating on you, or if she is, then she feels really bad about it. So faith is not so much about signing off on some abstract claims.

You might try out Calvin's attempt to offer a balanced definition of faith that integrates both knowledge and trust. If you want to go existentialist (if so, please do so on your own blog....Just kidding!),  you might echo Tillich's boringly unobjectionable definition of faith as "ultimate concern."

And what about "understanding"? Is the understanding that theology, ostensibly, illuminates more akin to theoretical knowledge or to practical wisdom? And how do you relate theory to practice? Liberation theologians claim to have integrated theory and practice into praxis -- knowledge-formed practice, if you will. I'm okay with that.  I do wonder, though, to the extent that they are still pressing this claim whether the liberationists are still presupposing some sort of theory-practice dichotomy. Since I'm not about to cite any actual texts right now, I'll just leave it at that.

Or maybe the understanding is not so strictly conceptual and objective at all but more like a kind light that suffuses the human capacities of intellect, feeling and wheel. That kind of claim would put you more in line with Romantics such as Coleridge or Schleiermacher, among the illuminati: You don't need Fox News to tell you like it is. You don't need Rupert Murdoch and his minions to show you what really matters in life. You don't need his reporters to tap your neighbors' phones so can know what they're up to.  All the items within your vision twinkle within the glow of a sort of deep, non-conceptual effervescence.

But when it comes to the question of theology, I propose to change the subject. My former teacher Kathryn Tanner's book Theories of Culture has helped me come to understand theology as a set of practices, as a series of processes with specific ends in view. Theologians are not just thinking about something: They are doing something.  More specifically, in more economic terms, they are producing something -- articles, books, lectures, podcasts, blog entries, etc. (There is a vast literature on this topic which I have barely begun to explore.)

I want to focus on that neglected middle term of that classic definition -- namely, seeking.

Theology seeks. I am skeptical, so I keep seeking. I am orthodox, so I keep seeking.  I am timorous and tentative, so I seek solidity. I am confident and brazen, so I (had better) seek humility and wisdom. If I don't seek humility, no matter: It has a way of finding me nonetheless. I am a theologian: Hear me question.

This seeking, as I'm envisioning it, goes beyond just "living the questions." It's more than just the personal faith journey. It's more than just contemplating the mysteries of life.  It's spiritual. And social.  And political. And transformative. And personal.  It's...well...revolutionary.

This seeking is not just the ambling journey through the meadows of life, stooping on occasion to sniff the flowers that sprout from the seeds of contemplation. No, the seeking the theologian (as I understand her) envisions is more like the engine of a steam locomotive.  It's driving something. It's pulling something. It's going somewhere. Theology is not just the script. Rather, it's script plus enactment. Theology is like the improvs they do at the Second City club in Chicago -- new, fresh, on the move -- before Lorne Michals and NBC come along and try to tame them.

But what might all this mean? What would it look like?

Seek and ye shall....

Monday, July 23, 2012

Twilight of the Gods?

We are witnessing an amazing turn of events unfolding in the wake of what has been at State College, Pennsylvania over the past few years.  (You can read about the extraordinary NCAA sanctions against the Penn. State football program here.)

Just a few of my initial observations, in the wake of the NCAA announcement today. (These comments are a bit off the cuff):

1) Kudos to the NCAA, at least, for acting quickly and decisively on the damning Freeh report and the recent conviction of Jerry Sandusky for sexual abuse of minors. Some of the penalties seem especially fitting -- especially the steep fine and the vacating of the wins (which bumps Paterno from his pedestal).  Of course, it's impossible to put a monetary value on the damage that has been done to the young victims.

2) Why not the "death penalty"?  (By the way, I don't like using that phrase to denote something as trivial as the disciplinary suspension of a sports program.  It calls to my mind images, you know, of actual people being put to death, which for me is a little bit more serious than anything the NCAA mete out.)  Perhaps, in some ways, these punishments are worse? I'm not completely convinced.

3) I have a lot of problems with the NCAA and am convinced that big-time college sports programs and their host institutions are exploiting student athletes for tremendous gain in money, status and prestige.  Migh we hope that today's announement is a sign that the culture just might be changing at the NCAA?  Might we expect a more chastened, responsible organization that shows it values the lives young people above all?  Or is this an exception, a blip in the screen?

4) We need to see some follow-up that shows the NCAA is prepared to enforce a zero tolerance stance on sexual abuse at sports programs.  I would want to see a clearly delineated sexual abuse/safety policy that spells out very clearly will happen to any other program caught allowing similar atrocities.  This case is unprecedented:  Let's pray it is unique.

*   *   *
5) It is a propos to discuss this repulsive and heart-rending scandal on a theology blog.
Christians (and Jews and Muslims) have a special kind of term for what has been happening at Penn State -- Idolatry.  (PSU is not by no means the only school where this false religion is practiced).

(Confession time:  I'm a lifetime fan of Alabama Crimson Tide football, and I "played" high school football, or at least attempted to do so.  So I feel I have at least some qualifications to make these observations.)

In this religion, salvation is equated with winning.  Having a winning program, annual bowl appearances and (for a program with the scope of Penn State) national championships.

The savior figure, quite often, is the head coach --  in this case, Paterno himself.  (Is it not ironic that the very name "Paterno" is etymologically rooted in the Latin word for "father"?  Think of the word "paternal.")  It will be very interesting to see how the university deals with the Paterno statute.  For some of supporters of "JoePa", no doubt, the events unfolding constitute a kind of martyrdom -- perhaps even a crucifixion. 

The priests of this faith are, primarily, the players themselves.  Just like the clergy of organized religions, the players are lionized, idealized and pulverized with unrealistic expectations -- as long as they are doing well on the field, that is.  When things go badly, the fans turn on the players pretty quickly.  As the high priest (normally), the quarterback is in the most precarious position within the life of the cultus.
The "church" or communion of saints is comprised of the the historic community of students, alums, donors and all others affiliated with or touched by the university and its football program, which includes many people who have never even set foot on the school's campus, much less matriculated there.

This religion comes complete with liturgies (e.g., pep rallies, game days) and feast days (homecoming / the bowls) and temples (stadiums).  Fans wear their "Saturday best" -- which sometimes means a painted bare chest.  Cheerleaders and marching band members serve as acolytes.

Of course, every religion demand sacrifice.  The ascetic rigor demanded of coaches and players in the gruelling summer preseason as well as during the seasons itself are well known.  And of course offerings are required for the faithful themselves -- money for tickets, products with the team logo and time off from work to attend bowl games, etc.  Donors give to support scholarships.  Professors make academic exceptions to accommodate the schedules of student athletes.  And so on.  In the case of PSU, top officials at the university were willing to put everything on the line -- even risking jail time themselves -- to cover up the scandal that threatened to rock the program.

Ultimately, even, like certain religions of the ancient near east, and even like some religions today, the football cult at Penn State made a very steep demand indeed -- child sacrifice.  And this extremity gives us a clue as to what kind of a god is actually worshipped in this sort of idolatrous religion.

The activist, lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow claimed that the "principalities and powers" exposed in the New Testament actually are embodied concretely in the ideologies, institutions and images that rule our world.  Ultimately, in his view, all of these forces are subject to falling under the power of idolatry.  But all idolatries and false religions worship one deity above all -- Death.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Summer Reading

Many bloggers like to post reading lists, and I'm a sucker for such lists.  So here several of my recent or current reads, followed by incisive commentary.  My mom always claimed I wasn't too good at leisure reading; this list has proven she was right.

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1. The Bible (King James version, with Apocrypha) (Penguin Classics). (

Not your grandma's King James Bible.  Actually, a several months ago, I finally succeeded in reading this tome cover-to-cover -- no small feat at a hefty 2,000 pages.  This took me two years and was much more difficult than I anticipated.  In case you think I'm bragging, keep in mind that my grandmothers have read the Bible through numerous times.

This is a literary-critical edition of the Bible, edited and introduced by David Norton, probably the leading expert on the Authorized Version.  This is not the KJV you would find typically at a bookstore or that the Gideon's might have dropped off next to your bed at the Super8.  That Bible is the text as it was standardized in 1769.  There were a number of variations among the early print runs of the 1611; this text is Norton's attempt to reconstruct the original.  To make the text more readable today, he has modernized punctuation and spelling (thus "begat" becomes "begot") and put the text in a paragraph form that's easier on the eyes than the two-column, verse-by-verse bullet style in most pew Bibles.

A 2,000 page paperback doesn't wear as well as ye goode old leather-bound Bibles, but this text has been my go-to for personal Bible reading for several years now.  Not that it has been easy.  Reading through I & II Chronicles is like hitting the 22nd mile of a marathon. And most of you Protestants have never had to contend with the apocryphal / deuterocanonical texts.  Those who like to extol the grandeur and majesty of the KJV (which sometimes includes me), need to spend half a day or so in  plodding through Ecclesiasticus or 2 Esdras and then report back.

The "King James only" phenomenon is somewhat preposterous, but fascinating nonetheless.  I know there are many weaknesses to this text.  But, for some unknown reason, I just can't bring myself to sit down to read any of the many fine contemporary translations.

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2. A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (ed. Bill Wylie Kellerman, Eerdmans).  (

I just finished reading this splendid anthology that, sadly, is out of print.  This is the ideal introduction to that quirky, pugnatious, passionate and incisive lawyer-theologian who practiced law in East Harlem, harbored the fugitive priest Dan Berrigan and defended the first women ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church.

There are anthologies that caricature the subject and there are those that illumine them, and this one is in that latter category.  Keeper of the Word is no mere introduction.  Wylie Kellerman, who knew Stringfellow well, has captured the essence of his mentor's writings with well-chosen excerpts organized topically.  These include generous excerpts, especially, from the autobiographical books and, especially, from the more programmatic books on Christian political ethics.  Also included are manuscripts from the Stringfellow collection at Cornell that are published only in this volume.  A couple of my favorite things are the famous exchange between Stringfellow and Karl Barth at the University of Chicago in 1962 and his open letter calling for Episcopal Presiding Bishop John Maury Allin to resign.

So try to get a hold of this book if you're terested in dialectical theology, radical discipleship, Christian political ethics and the North American theological scene of late 20th century.  I'm now working through Stringfellow's books, which happily are available here: (

You'll be hearing more musings about Stringfellow on this blog soon.  But, in the meantime, check out these excellent posts:, and

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3. The Future of Work in Massachusetts (ed. Tom Juravich, UMass press). (

Now this is a heady volume I picked up at the local public library.  It's so depressing that it may just have to go back there unfinished.  The essays came out of a conference of labor experts held at the University of Massachusetts several years ago.  The contributions are interdisciplinary, primarily from within the social sciences, and this book seems pretty thorough and solid (at least to a layperson like me).

Here's what gleaned, so far, from reading the introduction:  The major shift in the Bay State's economy in recent decades has been the deindustrialization that has hit several counties, including Hampden, pretty hard.  This is no surprise for anyone who has spent some time in the Holyoke-Springfield area.  The other piece is that many economic forecasts had overstated the potential growth in the high tech industries (which include many high paying jobs), whereas the greatest growth (of course!) has been in low-end service sector jobs.  This is not surprising, I guess, and I bet similar studies across the country must bear out the same trend.

A quick word to recent graduates:  Don't read this book!  Just go with what your commencement speaker -- or maybe Steve Jobs -- had to say, and keep on trucking.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Within You and Among You

"Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'"
-- Mark 1:14-15 (NRSV)
"The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."
-- Taizé chant.

Bible scholars of varying persuasions seem to agree, for the most part, that Jesus' message centered on the "Kingdom of God" ( the basileia tou theou).  Beyond that, the consensus starts to break down.
Just what is the Kingdom of God?

Certainly, if anyone knows the answer, a community of globetrotting ecumenical French monks must have it.  I like the Taizé chant quoted above, which I've sung and played in worship many times.  Repeating the chant can have a very soothing effect on the soul -- "The Kingdom of God is justice and peace."  But what does that mean?

"Justice" and "peace" are words I hear and use a lot.  The terms make us feel good on the surface; perhaps they shouldn't.  Just dig a little deeper.  What did the word "justice" mean to the late Troy Davis?  And what did it mean to the wife of slain police officer who was convinced Davis had killed her husband?  What does the word mean to our friend in Holyoke, Massachusetts, who is fighting to prevent the demolition of an historic low income housing complex?  What does "justice" mean to the father of Trayvon Martin, and does it mean the same thing to the father of George Zimmerman?  What does it mean to the firefighters who sued the city of New Haven, Connecticut, in a famous reverse discrimination suit?  

"Peace" is a word we all should be able to agree upon, right?  I grew up in a part of the country with a strong pro-military sentiment.  We all assumed that a large and well equipped defense was key to keeping the "peace" at home and abroad.  But I have radical Catholic pacifist friends who live down by the lake and who seem to have a quite different notion of what "peace" means.  And then there are the police officers who have been mobilized in cities across the U.S. to keep "the peace" in the wake of Occupy protests.  I've seen some pretty disturbing pictures of clashes that have ensued.

There are Buddhist styled meditation retreats engaged in Protestant parish halls with the stated objective of achieving "inner peace."  There is the ever elusive ideal state of "peace and quiet" that the mother of the three-year old boy seeks in vain.  But Jesus, for the most part, was anything but quiet -- except for those times when people desperately wanted him to say or do something.

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Whatever it might mean, the word that Jesus brings about the kingdom is not mere reportage or gossip but "good news" -- "Gospel."  But just what does the word "Gospel" mean?

I recently engaged in an online chat with a brilliant young theologian.  Somewhat impishly, I kept throwing question after question in his face -- much as I am doing to you right now.  He and I did agree that the central question was how one defines the meaning of the Gospel.  He gave a very clear and succinct statement of his position on this question, and I found I could affirm his statement nearly 100 percent.  Still, from what I've read in some of his writings and from his comments that day, I still had some reservations about the conclusions he seems to be drawing in unpacking that definition of the Gospel.  Why do we find it so difficult to agree about how to define the most important principles and concepts?

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Then a final question, for now, is how is the messenger related to the message.  The 20th century theologian Rudolf Bultmann posed the central question of New Testament theology this way:  How did the proclaimer himself become the proclaimed?  In other words, how did the message about the kingdom that Jesus preached become a message about Jesus himself?

His very way of stating the question, of course, contains an explicit challenge to many traditional ways of talking about the identity and significance of Jesus.  Still, I think, whatever her vantage point might be, the Christian theologian must allow herself to feel the force of this question, even if she disagrees with the ways that Bultmann and other modern scholars have answered it.