Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Gospel According to Mozart

This quote from the movie Amadeus recently stopped me in my tracks:
I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theater, conferring on all who sat there, perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable, making my defeat more bitter with every passing bar.
The narrator is the composer Antonio Salieri, Mozart's chief rival in the competitive Viennese music scene of the 1780s-90s. This 1984 film, based on Peter Shaffer's play of the same title, was a childhood favorite of mine, and I find it still speaks to me. Amadeus won eight Oscars, including one for best picture and a well-earned best actor nod to F. Murray Abraham for his superb portrayal of the troubled Salieri.

In case you don't remember, this is the basic storyline: A young Salieri bids God to grant him a world-class talent with which to praise the Creator. Later, while serving as composer at the court in Vienna, Salieri waits with rapt anticipation to meet the young Mozart, who has by now become a world-renowned prodigy. Salieri is shocked and scandalized, however, at the famous composer's crude, risque and foul-mouthed demeanor. Why would God bestow such stunning abilities upon this frivolous little man while the ever dutiful, yet less inspiring Salieri languishes in the wings? The jealously that consumes Salieri leads to him to go mad as he conspires to drive a sickly Amadeus to his early death.

The play and movie are dramatic explorations and not historically accurate depictions of Salieri and Mozart, who are reported to have collaborated amiably. The message, however, is timeless and one of the best cinematic depictions of the Gospel I've ever seen. One might well view it as a creative retelling of Jesus' parable of the two brothers (Luke 15:11-32). (I wonder if Karl Barth, who wrote a short book on Mozart, would have approved of the film? Somehow, I think so.)

The "true forgiveness filling the theater" of our petty little lives is pure gift. There's no bargaining with the Giver, period. The absurdity of trying to parlay the gift in exchange for some service rendered drives us inexorably toward hell (in Salieri's case, the hell of the insane asylum filled, as he sees it, with "mediocrities" such as himself). The gift is "unstoppable" -- or as a Calvinist might put it, "irresistible." Each of us is Salieri. Each of us tries and fails to parse out the gift for our own selfish ends.

And what about Amadeus himself? He is each of us as well -- the younger brother, the prodigal, the profligate and punk who has no business playing in the prince's house. The "little man" of Salieri's sneer -- that's you and I.

This shitty world of ours -- that's what we've made of it --  marches toward dissolution and death minute by minute and day by day. And what does God do about it? Scandalously, shockingly, offensively, God keeps on singing absolution.

And God will keep on singing until the last note rings out and when the curtain drops on all the musicians and the prince of Vienna (thank heavens!) and those of us in the audience -- a the point when, finally, the real concert will begin.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

If You Called me a Racist (or Sexist or Homophobe), Would I Blog Against You?

I should hope I would not do so.

A controversy has been brewing in the blogosphere, especially within emergent Christian circles, about the phenomenon of White Dude Defensiveness regarding issues of inclusivity and diversity. Some dudes, who might want to be identified as "liberal" or "progressive" have been facing tough questions about their own complicity in racism, sexism, heterosexism and class privilege and the ways in which such complicity shapes their writing, speaking and practice. (For an excellent entree into this controversy, with many of the relevant links, read the intrepid Brandy Daniels' fine post on the "Women in Theology" blog.)

I don't identify myself as an "emergent Christian": I'm just too traditional, conventional and boring for that. But I have friends who are involved in emergent Christianity, and because I care about them and about the future of the church, I try to listen in to their conversations as best I can.

Now, I'm not going to name names or weigh in on the acrimonious (though not unhealthy) debates that center on particular individuals and their posts, articles and talks. But I would offer this general advice to any white dude out there who ever gets caught up in such a crossfire and feels the urge to rush to his own self defense:

Grow up.

For the record, I've rarely faced such accusations personally, and my first impulse no doubt would be self defense if I did. This post is my attempt to lay out, rather, what I hope I would do and say. Although I'm not nearly important enough to ever be flattered with an attack on something I've written or said, I have thought about how I hope I would respond if someone ever did charge me with cashing in on my white, male, heterosexual privileges to the disadvantage of others. I've come up, so far, with three basic steps:

1.) I listen. I don't argue. I don't rehash my credentials as a solid progressive ally to the oppressed. I don't, above all, rush to defend myself. I shut up and really try to listen. Stephen Covey advised: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

2.) I acknowledge that I'm a sinner saved by grace alone. Not only am I guilty of personal sins, but I'm a beneficiary of systematic structures of oppression that are beyond my personal control. If I take advantage of such privileges -- and who doesn't? -- is there not at least some sense in which I must acknowledge: "Yes, I am guilty of racism. Yes, I am guilty of sexism. Yes, I am guilty of classism. Yes, God help me and try as might might not to be, I am guilty of homophobia." Because of that time I didn't stand up to hate when I should have done so, because of that time I laughed at that joke that I knew was beyond cruel, the blood of all the innocent victims is on my hands as well.

And what should I do? Should I complain about the "unfairness" of this situation? Should I bemoan this body of death in which I'm trapped? Why, indeed, would I have any basis for complaining when Jesus himself, who was guilty of none of these things, not only bore all my sin -- all our sin -- but became our sin itself (2 Cor. 5:21). I'm in no position to justify myself, for I stand condemned too, in sinful solidarity with all human beings throughout history.

That's all well and good, but it's not enough. The gospel has more to say to me on this issue and so, finally:

3.) I repent. Not necessarily in sackcloth and ashes, lest I risk making a show of my contrition. Rather, this means I commit myself to renouncing, as best I can though usually haltingly, the web of privileges from which I've benefited. I enter the painful path toward solidarity with the oppressed. Such repentance and effort at change does not justify me. It doesn't make everything okay. It is, simply, my due response in gratitude for what I've been given and for what I've been forgiven.

None of this will be easy for me. Am I a hypocrite? Yes, indeed. And I have an ego too. At some level I probably care more about impressing you with this blog than I do about really tackling the difficult personal decisions that such a divestment of privilege would entail. Still, it is how I feel called to respond.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

All I Really Need to Know about Remythologization I Learned in Kindergarten

Richard Beck of "Experimental Theology" fame has given us the definitive blog post on a subject very dear to my heart: the classic original cartoon series Scooby Doo: Where are You?

I endorse his reading wholeheartedly, but I demur only on one particular: While I concede that the original series of 1969-71 remains superior to later series within the franchise, I have grown fond of the most recent incarnation, Scooby Doo, Mystery Inc. I think the latter makes a brilliant contribution to a genre that includes such notable programs as Lost and the The X Files and offers plenty grist for the mill for those who cast a critical eye on late modern capitalist-consumerist society.

My own neo-Marxist-Weberian-Stringfellonian interpretation of Scooby Doo, Mystery Inc. is forthcoming on these pages and will be available just as soon as I can clear a few much less important projects out of the way.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Nazis and Natural Law

In doing some research into the life and thought of William Stringfellow, I came across a fascinating (albeit brief) discussion of debates over natural law theory in the aftermath of World War II. In the post-war period, Stringfellow studied at the London School of Economics and traveled throughout western Europe, where he met members of the resistance movement. It was at this time he decided to pursue a law degree, which he would later earn at Harvard.

My source is Anthony Dancer, An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011). Dancer quotes a work from 1946 (A.R. Vidler and W.A. Whitehouse, eds., Natural Law: A Christian Reconsideration) as follows:
While many writers among the United Nations would say that the Nazis threw over the conception of a Natural Law...Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party organization, said: 'We National Socialists sat before ourselves the aim of living as far as possible by the light of Nature:  that is to say, by the law of life. The more closely we recognize and obey the laws of Nature and Life, the more we observe them, by so much the more do we express the will of the Almighty (Dancer, 38, emphasis mine).
As a number of scholars have shown, Karl Barth's vigorous repudiation of natural theology in the early 1930s and his very public and acrimonious break with other members of the dialectical theology circle was driven largely by his strong political opposition to National Socialism: In other words, Barth was deeply worried that any form of natural theology or any appeal to a "point of contact" between the Gospel and some ostensible human capacity for revelation would serve to aid and legitimate Nazi ideology. The foregoing quote helps illustrate Barth's cause for alarm.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

And I Would Have Gotten Away with it too, if It Hadn't Been for You Meddling Christians

In my last post, I raised the question: Is an evangelical theology of liberation possible? One might well also ask: Is such a project desirable? Who would attempt such a thing, and why? I want to back into that question gradually, by means of indirection: I want to look at potential objections first and, in the process, begin to explore how a distinctively evangelical theology and piety might find contemporary expression within a agenda of social and political liberation.

Let's start with potential objections from an evangelical perspective. The question of social and political activism has always been deeply divisive within Protestant Christianity -- within the Christian tradition as a whole, really -- so I want to show acknowledge the complexities here. But one common objection to such an engagement can be stated pretty simply: As evangelical Christians, entering the political fray of this fleeting world is none of our business.

I live in western Massachusetts, where a push is on to get a resort casino located in one of three local cities. Opposition is heating up in Springfield, where the mayor and city council are enthusiastically supporting a bid to get a casino built downtown. My parish church, the Episcopal cathedral (where, it must be noted, not everyone is of the same mind on this issue) is hosting an anti-casino rally featuring a former Congressman from Connecticut. I read some of the Facebook coverage for this event, where one disgruntled fellow admonishes us to stick to our main business -- "saving souls." "Some church you guys are," he writes, proposing that people drift away from the church because "someone is always meddling in someone's business."

Meddling is precisely what many good church folk, both white and black, accused Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and other pastors of doing by interjecting the churches directly in the civil rights struggle. Numerous progressive movements in U.S. history, in particular, were driven by committed evangelicals. (Of course, the same is often true of more reactionary stances as well.) Some churches, for example, provided asylum to central American refugees during the 1980s.

I don't want to minimize the potential force of the objection to the Christian propriety of an activist praxis. For example, one can take a more traditionally anabaptist line on socio-political controversies and argue that the church gives the best witness to the world by keeping its own house and order and by staying out of the compromising fray of public controversies. This was perhaps the best possible stance that many early Christians could pursue within the Roman Empire.

For good (sometimes) and for ill (very often), evangelicals historically have been meddlers. True, there has always been a more quietist strain within this spiritual heritage, as some interpret a Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine to draw a sharp distinction between the realms of the church and the public sphere. Any battle must be engaged carefully, thoughtfully and with due prayerful introspection. A careful and biblicaly grounded theology of the principalities and powers will be essential in checking the urge to demonize political opponents.

But we just have to take this risk and get involved with the key issues of our time. The Gospel, as I understand it, demands such a faithful engagement. The Gospel can't be reduced to politics, but it embraces and includes transformation within the public realm. The Gospel centers on the Kingdom of God -- or "realm" of God, if you prefer -- and the contemporary biblical and theological scholarship on the basilea tou theou I've been able to engage suggests that the notion is intrinsically political and inclusive off all creation -- the polis as even the cosmos as well as the individual person.

Evangelical Christians must be clear about justification through grace. Ethical action and speech must be motivated by gratitude for divine beneficence and not express a futile attempt at self justification. We must affirm the provisional and inherently sinful character of all human ideologies and movements. We are all justified sinners. Whether the issue is climate change, economic disparity or racial injustice, our hands are already dirty. It's impossible to not be involved. There is no such thing as an apolitical stance: To remain quiet and passive in the face of injustice is a political endorsement of the status quo.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Is an Evangelical Liberation Theology Possible?

The late John Stott (somewhere) wrote questioning why evangelicals as a group had not taken up the boldly  activist affirmation of social justice concerns that characterizes theologies of liberation. The implication, of course, is that they should.

(One of the attractive features of contemporary British evangelicalism is the way it's leaders have not been enmeshed with the right-wing political establishment to the extent that so many evangelical leaders and organizations in the U.S. have been since the 1980s. That said, I do see some encouraging signs  among many evangelical leaders on this side of the Atlantic, even among some who are fairly conservative theologically: Key evangelical leaders in recent years have begun to talk openly and non-reactively about climate change, women's equality, poverty, war and peace and even marriage equality. It might be that, in coming election cycles, the GOP might have to rethink its smugness about having the "evangelical vote" automatically in its pocket, while more and more folks are trying to creatively outside the partisan box that mired DC in an almost farcical gridlock. But all this punditry stuff is not really what I want to talk about today....)

To my embarrassment, I haven't tracked recent trends in evangelical academic theology as closely as I would like to do. Probably somebody -- I would hope a goodly number of able-minded somebodies -- are working on just this question. I would love to be flooded to find an embarrassment of riches in evangelical liberation theologies. I won't be made if some of you kind readers expose my ignorance; indeed, I will be most grateful.

I will attempt a basic definition of "liberation theology": A organic approach to Christian thought and discipleship 1) that holds up human liberation -- in its socio-economic as well as individual dimensions -- as central to the gospel and 2) that seeks to integrate theory and practice within an activist standpoint that doesn't so much describe human social, political and religious experience as to effect liberating change in those realities. One common, and more simple, way to define liberation theology is in terms of a "preferential option for the poor" (and other marginalized groups) -- that is to say, liberation theology takes up the cause of the oppressed against the oppressor. I'm down with that definition too, as long as it is interpreted to carefully exclude any notion of retributive justice. The Christian model is reconciliation, not retribution. Liberation theology is 1) activist (not quietist), 2) political and social (not individualistic), 3) practical (and not detached or abstractly theoretical, though high flown theory can play a role) and 4) situationally specific and concrete -- "All theology is contextual," as many argue today, a lesson we've all learned from Latin American theologians.

But I must clarify my meaning, for such terms as "evangelical" and "liberation" can be ever so slippery. I take a bifocal approach to the term "evangelical": In the broad sense, the term can indicate the movements that emerged from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century -- Western Christians characterized by such distinctives as the doctrine of justification by faith through grace, an emphasis on scripture as the norm for faith and practice and the priesthood of all believers. This is the kind of evangelicalism Barth associates himself with in his Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.

It isn't hard to find liberation theologians within this broader historical movement. James Cone, in my book,  counts as an evangelical in this sense, as would many other black and womanist theologians. So too would Moltmann and a number of feminist theologians.

But because of its great breadth, "evangelical" in this first sense is not particularly helpful in addressing my question. What I'm really interested in is any attempt to forge a theology of liberation within a second, narrower use of the word "evangelical." Evangelical faith and theology, in this second sense, relates to movements in late modern Protestant (especially Anglo-American) that stem from the two great awakenings. This is the evangelicalism that includes Edwards, Wilberforce and the Wesleys; Wallis, Packer and Stott;  Campolo, Graham and (if she doesn't mind owning the label) Rachel Held Evans. The basic distinctives include strong emphases upon personal conversion, prayer and discipleship; the impetus of all Christians to be evangelists; and the sufficiency of Jesus' work for human (and perhaps even cosmic) redemption.

On the face of it, I find nothing inherently problematic in the notion of an evangelical theology of liberation. In my reading, evangelicals were the early pioneers of social justice activism in Colonial America and the United States. Evangelicals were a driving force within the temperance movement, abolitionism and the promotion of women in ministry leadership. One might plausibly place the Social Gospel movement, very broadly, within the post-awakening evangelical broad tent, and then you get into the question of what sense evangelical concerns might be integrated with more classically liberal concerns. That would lead you, naturally, to the work of Gary Dorrien and you would be in impeccably happy company with the liberationists.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Ontotheology 101 (Session 2)

Moses squirmed a bit as the hot sand burned his toes. He looked up and, shielding his eyes, took a furtive glance at the fiery apparition before him.

Moses: if they ask me, "What is his name?" Then what do I tell them?

The LORD: I AM WHO I AM. So just tell the Israelites: I AM has sent you.

M: Okay, I get it. The One Who Is. "Being Itself", or something like that....Mmm...but...

L: Yes?

M: Well, you see, we Hebrews are an historical people. We deal with concrete events and people, in the here and now, salt of the earth and all that. We don't much get into the metaphysics and the abstract ontological categories like "Being Itself" and so forth.

But, yeah, this notion of self subsistence is a pretty powerful idea, and it does sort of give you an edge over Ra and Isis and the other ones.

L: Okay. (Pausing, slightly annoyed, but with an indulgence fairly uncharacteristic for the time). What would you suggest?

M: Well, I might be jumping the gun here a bit historically. But how about Esse? Esse sent me. As some Scholastics will unpack this, It is a concept that unifies perfect being with perfect action within the simplicity of the godhead.

L: Sure, but it still doesn't seem all that dramatic to me. I thought we wanted to heighten the dramatic aspect. And don't forget particularity issue too: A deity who acts in specific ways at specific times and places. I'm not sure Esse is that much of an improvement.

M: Well, okay, maybe we could call you The One who is "Being-There" (Dassein). The Hebrews are kind of "thrown" beneath the wheel of Egyptian oppression. And there you are too, alongside them, thrown beneath the wheels of history too, your divine essence being realized, moment by moment, in the here and how. And there you are to help us, you know, actualize our freedom in the moment, or something like that. Existence comes first, not the abstract question that the Greeks like to fret about so much. Dassein. It's kind of weighty but also punchy, no?

L: Nope. Don't like it. Too depressing. I'm an agent after all, and the Liberator, at that. I need to be doing something. I get involved in stuff, clog up the chariot wheels of history, so to speak. Dassein just seems to passive to me.

M: Yeah, right, the athletic kind of image. A doer, not just a sufferer. I get it. Pure act. How about I say "Becoming" (Werden) has sent me?

Or, if that seems a little heavy handed, something like "The Principle of Novelty" or "Creativity" has sent me? That way, we can subvert this captivity thing a little less violently. We can rally the Israelites to be "co-creators" with you. Lure them in with beauty, and save the ethics and political stuff for another day. We could make something artistic and beautiful with those pyramids -- a little flavor of our Levantian heritage that will knock the Pharaoh's sandals off.

L: Here's an idea. In several thousand years, a thinker named Mary Daly is going to write this book titled Beyond God the Father. She's going to argue that "God" should construed not as a noun (like "being itself") but as a verb, to get at these issues of concrete agency and freedom.

Of course, one could quibble with her: In her native language, this idea doesn't make much literal sense, grammatically speaking. You would have to have an infinitive like "to god" which would have to be conjugated -- "I god...she gods...they god", etc. But she won't be the type it will do much good to argue with, especially if you're coming from this male sky god kind of angle. But I think her basic point fit what you were just saying.

M: Father? Don't think I want to go there. You know I have these issues with Papa Ramses, as he always wanted us to call him at the palace. Father? Really, why do we want to complicate this even more and bring in family systems theory?

L: Well....That's okay. We don't have to get into that for another few hundred years.

Anyway, enough of this! You've got a job to do. Now get to it. And when you go down there, stand up straight, hold up the staff and....

M:'s this other thing, Lord. It's the public speaking thing. I have this performance anxiety. Do you think, maybe, I could get a language therapist or a speech coach or someone like that?

L: (* Facepalm.)

Friday, May 17, 2013

All About Eve (and Adam)

When did I last treat myself to a precis of Barth's theology as a whole? Well, I'm doing so now, as I reread John Webster's superb short volume, Karl Barth. (A second edition was released in 2004, but I'm not sure what all changed in it from the original 2000 edition I own.)

One point that Webster drives home particularly well is that Barth is something of a trickster figure in modern theological discourse. That is to say, whenever a topic is up for examination -- be it revelation, the being and attributes of God, election, the "problem of evil", etc. -- Barth is often (usually) subverting one or more dominant paradigms of modern theological discourse. This feature helps make Barth's theology both bedeviling and intriguing.

Case in point: Barth's highly distinctive treatments of the doctrines of creation and anthropology in Church Dogmatics v. III. Barth resolutely refuses to interject modern cosmological and biological perspectives and scientific speculation about human origins at the center of doctrinal reconstructions. His treatment of these topics -- for example, his exposition of the Genesis creation "saga" (in CD III/1) -- is grounded in basic doctrinal claims centered in Christology, and he doesn't get mired in the ongoing (interminable) debates about human origins and evolutionary biology. Nor does try to retrieve ancient-medieval notions of causality as a Thomist might do. (Now that is a rather broad claim that would require loads of unpacking and defending. But I'll just pin it on Webster for now.)

I think Barth's moves here bothered me more than I realized when I was first seriously reading his stuff. You see, I have this cosmological itch. I was attracted to the natural sciences as a kid -- mathematics, not so much (so, of course, I pursued the humanities!). Remember when people thought the Space Shuttle was a good idea? And when Reagan wanted us to develop a special program to shoot down ICBMs? Yeah, that's when I grew up.

And another thing that was happening throughout my childhood was the major conservative turn in my native Southern Baptist Convention. One of the litmus tests of orthodoxy that emerged from this controversy -- as it had in the 1920s -- was whether a seminary prof, missionary, pastor or whomever affirmed the narratives in Genesis 1-2 as (essentially) historical. And you know what I'm not going to do right now? I'm not going to engage those debates here. But I gather that the issue is still (forever) a hot topic -- as one can see in all the books and articles stemming from the "historical Adam" debates. I don't read those books, but occasionally I do dip into Peter Enns' blog posts.

My point, again, is that I've always had this cosmological itch. When I first started studying Barth with some seriousness, I had just finished my master's thesis on Teilhard de Chardin. A thinker more opposite to Barth one can scarcely imagine -- and that applies especially in the area of cosmological speculation. So I suppose I had this (not fully conscious) desire to scratch that itch, but now with Barthian materials. Of course, Barth will have none of that.

So here I am. I can't get anyone to give me a straight answer about what the Higgs boson particle is. I've read (at a very basic level) about two possible cosmological scenarios for where our universe is headed, and I don't like either option. And though curious about all this stuff, I really question what Christian theology can offer up here -- Due apologies are rendered here to all the folks at the Zygon Center, all those at Claremont and the prestigious Templeton Foundation (which will never, never, never in a million years give any grant money for any research project someone like me would pursue). And Keith Ward too. And John Polkinghorne. And Wolfhart Pannenberg. And lots of other very smart thinkers.

My Teilhard books are boxed up in the closet (It was a compromise: My wife wanted me to sell them.) I don't really have anything to add to the religion and science discussion. So I read Barth instead.

When the Gifford committee tagged Barth to give a set of lectures on natural theology, his response was (I paraphrase) "You've got to be kidding me."

So when I get the cosmologo-evolutiono-anthropological itch and my head starts to swim, I just reach for the Psalter or take a walk on the bike path. Always good for what ails you.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Robinson Crusoe Needs Bifocals, Pt. 2

To Recap: My post last week explored the question: What books would you take with you to the proverbial "desert island"? I explored an approach inspired by Eugene Peterson: Choose 50 or so close companions for your spiritual and intellectual journey, but try to do so with an informed awareness of the "classics." This strategy, by the way, coheres well with the basic spiritual pedagogy of the Renovaré group, based on the vision of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard and others, with whom Peterson collaborated in a major annotated study Bible. There is power in this basic vision, but today I want explore an alternate strategy for the desert bibliography.

If memory serves me, I recall that Hans Frei (in The Identity of Jesus Christ, perhaps?) wrote he would like to retire to a desert island with a copy of Immanuel Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). Now this is not Oprah's Book-of-the-Month Club material, to be sure, but it seems a sensible choice in this case, given Frei's proclivities and interests.

If the Petersonian approach aims at a sort of comprehensiveness, then Frei's comment suggests a more intensive, focused engagement with a classic text centered upon some set of central questions or concerns. So what if one took, say, ten key works by classic Christian thinkers and put them into conversation with each other about the basic issues of the faith? The problem with this exercise, for me, is that I tend to get too ambitious and broad. What I get is yet another list -- another castle in the air -- rather than a doable project.

But how about if the bibliography were very short, say, only four or five books -- really good ones? One of Frei's pupils, Kathryn Tanner, wrote the title essay for the edited volume Why Are We Here? Everyday Questions and the Christian Life (edited by William Placher and Ronald Thiemann). This is a fine volume, not too long, that would be useful for a parish adult Christian ed class, or perhaps even a college course. (Perhaps I will review it here some day.)

When I read essays such as these, I love to go to the "recommended reading" section. At the end of her piece, Tanner lists four books that might be especially helpful for sorting out the basic questions of existence from a Christian perspective, though she also notes that such a list is illustrative only: Any number of theological texts might well be included. This is her list:

  • Augustine. The Confessions.
  • Pascal. Pensees.
  • Schleiermacher. The Christian Faith.
  • Kierkegaard. Training in Christianity.
This list offers a breadth of perspectives -- though it wouldn't be broad enough for some, to be sure -- while focusing on texts that get to the heart of the matter. One could through these books in one's backpack, along with a couple of composition notebooks, and have an interesting and fruitful spiritual retreat.

So what books would I take to a desert island -- or perhaps a wilderness retreat, if I wanted to wrestle afresh with the meaning of life and the nature of faith? Here they are:

  • Augustine. The Confessions.
  • Luther. Galatians (1535).
  • Edwards. The Religious Affections.
  • Schleiermacher. The Christian Faith.
  • Barth. The Epistle to the Romans.
What books would you take?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Robinson Crusoe Needs Bifocals

What a crappy week we're having in domestic and world events: Massive earthquake in the Middle East, exploding fertilizer plant in Texas, gruesome violence in Boston, floods in Chicago and more stonewalling from our do-nothing Congress.

When I'm feeling down -- which seems to happen a lot lately -- I take refuge in my desert island. It's not an actual island, of course, no actual refuge off the coast of Cape Cod or Dubai but, rather, my fantasy desert island. And my desert island is rather sparse: I'm not too interested in things like spear fishing, harvesting coconuts or building lean-tos -- I can't even fix the kick-stand on my bicycle, and every houseplant we've ever had withers from neglect (fortunately not so the cat, who lets his presence be known through plaintive begging or acts of passive aggressiveness).

All I really care about on my islands is what books I've brought along. As this is not "Library Island", nor that famed island where Ricardo Montalbán would provide martinis, creepy seances, four star accommodations and the like, I've had to be somewhat selective about what books I bring. When I don't, in real life, have enough time read -- that is to say, always -- I like to occupy myself with bibliographies and listomania.

What fuels such fantasies, of course, is the desire to get back to basics: What is really essential? What feeds me intellectually, emotionally and spiritually? Not content to have Harold Bloom or Charles van Doren tell me what's important, I feel some obligation to figure these things out for myself.

So how might one go about developing one's own desert island list? (Some iterations of this exercise throw in free copies of the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare so you won't have to be quite so pretentious). Let me lift up two approaches.

The first way let's call the "personal canon" approach. In the realm of spirituality, it is exemplified in Eugene Peterson's book, Take and Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List. The author lists 63 classics of devotion, reflection and fiction that have been especially important to him as well as to Christians more broadly. Peterson proposes the reader might start out with this list and modify it over the course of five years or so until she has developed her own personal canon.

This is an ambitious exercise indeed. I've made several attempts at doing this, and have found it, at times, pretty frustration -- but, clearly, Eugene Peterson is much more patient and steadfast than I am. I have developed a "long obedience" to reading the Book of Common Prayer and, each year, when McDonald's brings back its green-colored Shamrock milkshake, I make sure to have at least one. But aside from these continuities and a few others, I'm just to fickle. I fear I'm stuck in the Kierkegaardian realm of the aesthetic: Variety is the Shamrock shake of life.

So, for example, when I review books that have made a tremendous impact upon me at key times of my life, I find that they no longer have much affect upon me. For example, I made the mistake of rereading Teilhard de Chardin's Divine Milieu, I book that really rattled my coconut tree 19 years ago and, eventually, developed into the basis for my master's thesis. But today, please pardon me, I find it a well-written but absolutely unconvincing mix of works righteousness, speculative gnosis, and fantastical nonsense. Re-reading this book recalled to my mind the experience of hearing that dreadful hymn we sometimes have to sing in church: "Come Labor On."

One of the most impactful books I read in my whole life was Asimov's I Robot. That was during fourth grade. But I can't see listing it next to the works of Dostoevsky and other momentous books that my overweening superego would insist on including in my desert island. And I devoured Lolita -- but not in fourth grade! -- with a relish that embarrasses me somewhat now.

I guess I'm not going to make a great poster child for the Great Books curriculum. Either I include the books that I'm "supposed" to read, or else I come up with a list that's too personally idiosyncratic and shifts too much with my development. I loved the Screwtape Letters, but how many times can a person really read that. I read The Varieties of Religious Experience with delight on the beaches of the Florida panhandle. Could I make it to the end today? I'm not so sure.

So the Peterson way is a little ambitious. But there is another approach to the desert island book list that I'll explore in my next post.

Monday, April 15, 2013

What's Really Ailing Us?

So does a commitment to a theology of the "principalities and powers" entail a radical paradigm shift for Christian theology in the West? Or is some sort of adjustment of the main line all that is required?

A starker way to pose my question might be: Is Augustinian anthropology dead?

Walter Wink proposes (Somewhere. I can't recall where -- probably several somewheres) that the recovery of New Testament depictions of principalities and powers, the demythologizing (or de-supernaturalizing) of these P&Ps, and the radical reinterpretation of this language in terms of a new type of biblical realism that address contemporary society and politics, represents a new wave of Christian thought -- the future of authentic theology, in fact.

After reading the work of William Stringfellow off and on for the past three years, I'm tending to think he would have agreed with Wink. Stringfellow doesn't cite sources often, and mapping his dependence upon theological figures would be a tricky business, but somewhere (again, I can't remember where) he expresses his admiration for Augustine and Luther.

To be sure, Stringfellow's portrayal of radical grace seems to me to be well in line with the Reformers and their Augustinian roots. One might also plausibly read Stringfellow as defending a modern version of sola scriptura -- stripped, to be sure, of any inerrantist or fundamentalist presuppositions.

Nonetheless, it seems to me, one major piece of this Augustinian-Lutheran-Reformed legacy is basically discarded in Stringfellow's work: The anthropology of the divided/bent/bound will, the human heart turned in upon itself (incurvatus in se), and the hamartiology (account of sin) and soteriology that flow of of these ideas.

Stringfellow, in my reading, radically redirects theological discourse away from traditional tropes of sin and salvation and the classic Western preoccupation with evil that traces back (at least) as far as Augustine's row with the Manicheans. Instead, in Stringfellow, the basic problem that emerges is idolatry -- which he understands to be noetic and existential bondage to the fallen P&Ps, and, through their mediation, to death itself, the ultimate power and paradigm of all that opposes God and God's good creation.

Now, again, one can point to Luther's profound meditations on Christ as victor (as Aulen showed us long ago in his classic Christus Victor), a lively sense of Sin, Death and the Devil as our cosmic-existential enemies -- and even the Law, too, to the extent that it is bent to serve those powers (the 1535 Galatians is a good place to see these themes played out).

But Luther -- and Calvin too, in a big way -- have also this notion of sin as a corruption of the will, something more than, or distinguishable from, bondage to powers conceived to be "external" to the self, the realm of the non-human or the demonic. And this is precisely what -- at least according to the impression which I've gotten so far -- Stringfellow gets rid of or perhaps, at least, plays down.

Are there, then, two separate strands within Western atonement theology that don't sit well together, that can be distinguished, or perhaps even are mutually exclusive? Such an inquiry raises some key fundamental questions, and I can't explore all of them here.

Maybe this example will make the point at issue a little clearer: Stringfellow insists that the P&Ps are created by God (or the "Word of God" to use the language he eventually would prefer) and not by human beings. What makes this claim odd is that the P&Ps include institutions, ideologies and images. But don't human beings create these, in some sense, even if such entities do take on a life and a power of their own that transcends the intentionality of human agents (and who can deny this)?

But if there is a "fall" of the P&Ps that is somehow anterior to or independent of subjective human agencies, and if, consequently, all of us are tied up in the webb of these P&Ps that serve as "acolytes of death" (to use Stringfellow's pregnant phrase), does the traditional problem of human culpability dissolve?

What the Jesuits were unable to destroy of Augustine's old-school anthropology, the Enlightenment and Romanticism pretty much demolished. Then Schleiermacher gives classic dogmatic expression to a modern, post-Augustinian framework in his Christian Faith. So I'm used to the notion that Augustine's notion of the bound will is basically dead in the oldline Protestant churches (and perhaps also in many of the "evangelical" churches too). If you bring up a the topic of total depravity, most Episcopalians will look at you like you have lobsters crawling out your ears. (There are exceptions, especially among readers of Robert Capon and Paul Zahl.)

Or am I trying to impose concerns on Stringfellow that don't do justice to what he was trying to do -- what he often does so beautifully: Retrieve powerful themes from the Bible to address concrete struggles in church, society and politics.

But these two conceptions of the human (and cosmic) predicament -- if they must be distinguished -- must go back to some source deep in the tradition. I seem to remember there was a New Testament writer who talked both about the cross and resurrection of Christ as the defeat of the powers of sin and death and also explored the problem of the divided will. Perhaps his writings might shed some light on my questions.

Now what was his name?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Word for Wort

What's in a book title? Please allow me to extoll what seems (to me) to be a positive recent trend in the translations of academic works into English -- in theology texts, at any rate. Recent translations seem to be attempting to render titles in a way that actually reflects the titles as they are in the original languages.

In the old days -- during the 20th century, I mean -- it seems that publishers believed English speakers would be reluctant to buy a book without a title that sounded good to anglophone ears. Or perhaps they thought were less intellectual than the Germans, for example, and needed a little help to understand what the book was about. Take for example Albert Schweitzer's classic work, rendered in the zippy English title as The Quest of the Historical Jesus. The German original, Von Reimarus zu Wrede: eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, is slightly more intimidating. The publishers in 1910 perhaps judged that Reimarus and Wrede weren't exactly household names in England or the United States. (I doubt the situation has improved much since then.) And "research" (Forschung) is not quite as sexy as the ever popular "quest."

Ah, but the purists among us can celebrate some promising recent examples of a more recent trend (This is not an advertisement: Please keep in mind I'm just talking about the titles and not commenting on the new translations of the texts themselves).

The Word of God and Theology by Karl Barth, recently re-translated by Amy Marga. That is a literal rendering of Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie. In the older translation by Douglas Horton, the title is rendered The Word of God and the Word of Man. (I'm proud of my copy of the Horton text. I think we paid, maybe, ten bucks for it at a used bookshop somewhere in upstate New York. Thank heavens I didn't shell out $79 to buy it through Amazon.)

The older title, I think, is too vague and misrepresents the subtlety of Barth's thinking on the problem of what we now somewhat breezily refer to as "god-talk." In fact, I would argue that Barth has virtually no interest whatsoever in the question of how human language relates to the Word of God (meaning divine self-revelation) in general. Such a consideration would belong in a general epistemology or philosophy of language, and Barth doesn't really play those kinds of games. The old title almost has a dichotomous ring about it -- The Word of God vs. the Word of Man -- which is quite misleading in terms of Barth's intentions as well.

The good folks over at Augsburg Fortress have done us a tremendous service in the recent critical translation of Bonhoeffer's works. The title Nachfolge is now properly rendered simply as Discipleship, rather than the more familiar The Cost of Discipleship. To be sure, Bonhoeffer famously portrays grace in this work as "costly." But by now anyone who knows anything at all about Bonhoeffer knows that believed following Jesus, to say the least, entails some difficulties and risks. At the very least, anyone who has remotely attempted discipleship in her own life knows it ain't easy; thus, the old title is -- at best -- redundant.

Teilhard de Chardin's Le Phénomène Humain, which the old translation rendered as The Phenomenon of Man has been improved to The Human Phenomenon in Sarah Appleton-Weber's updated edition. That's fitting in light of more recent conventions for language inclusivity. Whether Ms. Appleton-Weber was able to make the ideas in the book any more believable today than they were six decades ago is another question.

(By the way, in case you don't recognize the painting above, it's The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Or perhaps we should call it: The Really Big Building with Lots of Different Languages.) 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Not-So-New Atheists

Check out this new post from Die Evangelischen Theologen in which Barth discusses three kinds of "atheism." From this quote, and from what I know of Barth in general, I'm guessing he would not be too worried about the so-called New Atheism movement. Christians should get there own house in order before they get to arguing with "sceptics", and since that's not likely to happen anytime too soon....

Not that Barth is incapable of turning a critical eye toward contemporary society as well. Check out this zinger. Had Barth been alive to witness Occupy Wall Street, it would have been interesting to get his thoughts on the matter, though I don't think Time Magazine would have been too happy to published them.

Friday, March 22, 2013

On Modern Alchemists

In 1937 the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers gave a final public lecture before being silenced under the Nazi regime. He spoke of radical paradigm shifts in the natural sciences in the early 20th century -- the emergency of quantum theory, for example -- that had seriously undercut the absolutist pretensions of 19th century scientific positivism to explain everything about the world with complete objectivity. He then said this:
Analogous though less magnificent phenomena occurred everywhere in the special sciences. Every absolute pre-supposition collapsed. For example, the nineteenth-century dogma of psychiatry that diseases of the mind are diseases of the brain, was called into question. With the surrender of this confining dogma, the expansion of factual knowledge replaced an almost mythological construing of mental disturbances in terms of entirely unknown brain-changes. Researchers endeavored to discover to what extent mental illnesses are diseases of the brain, and learned abstain from anticipatory general judgments: while they enormously extended the realistic knowledge of man, they still did not capture man.*
I wonder what he might say if he were alive and speaking in the United States today?

* Karl Jaspers, "Introduction to Philosophy of Existence," in Richard Kearney and Maria Rainwater (eds.), The Continental Philosophy Reader (New York: Routledge, 1966), p. 58 (emphasis in the original).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Death Came to the Archbishop

Theology of Freedom salutes Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, gathered to eternity on this day in 1556. (If you don't know his story, the Wikipedia article will suffice for present purposes.)

And why? Because the blog author is an Episcopalian? Indeed. But that's not a very interesting reason.

My real point here is this: Cranmer's ambiguous life story is an emblem of the fraught character of human existence. In contrast, the hagiographies surrounding a character like, say, Francis of Assisi, tend to cut a figure who sort of floats above the crappiness of our everyday lives and our venal compromises -- the stigmata, sparrows perched in the hand, bucolic crèches, and the like. (I don't mean to demean St. Francis, Pope Francis, my Franciscan friends or anybody else: My point is that the way the Italian saint's beatitude is depicted cuts a figure that often seems larger than life. Larger than our lives, at least.)

On the one hand, Cranmer was a genius in church leadership and diplomacy. As the principal architect of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer belongs among the ranks of Tyndale and Shakespeare in his impact upon the modern English language. As an evangelical theologian (in the old-school sense) on principle, Cranmer forged a path that moved somewhere along the spectrum between Luther and Calvin. He was a masterful homilist and one of the great divines of traditional Anglican doctrine.

On the other hand, he was a politician as well as a church leader -- at a time when church leaders were civic leaders and an upstart king declared himself to be the pope for his realm. Politics is dirty and ugly. Politics entails compromise...or martyrdom (or in Cranmner's case, both).

In some ways, Cranmer was a tool for a greedy and self-absorbed Henry VIII. He rose to prominence for his work advocating abroad for the king's divorce of Catherine of Aragon. Whatever you think about these events, you have to admit there is something sordid about the way Catherine was treated. As archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer was Henry's yes man at Lambeth.

Let's review some of the lovely events that transpired during the archbishop's incumbency: The executions of Thomas More because he refused to give an oath affirming the king's headship of the church. The consecrating of Henry's adulterous relationship with Ann Boleyn. The "trial" and execution of the same Ann Boleyn. The pillaging of monasteries to fill royal coffers. (Incidentally, I've visited the ruins of the monastery established by Augustine in Canterbury, the first beachhead of Christianity in England. It's mostly just a pile of rocks now, thanks to Henry and his henchman Thomas Cromwell.) I'm no historian, and I'm not going to get into the complexities and mitigating factors that a real historian would bring up, but I think I can fairly conclude that Henry was a greedy and very insecure man. Cranmer's presence on the Privy Council -- though rare, perhaps, it was --sacralized the king's agenda.

Well, the 16th century was not as enlightened as the 21st, of course, you might well point out. It's not as if all opponents of the kings plans had clean hands either. Recall what happened when Mary Tudor came to power and the tables were turned. Now, after the evangelicals had made such strides under the sickly boy king, Edward, they were now the hunted and harassed, and Cranmer was stripped of everything. Many martyrs in those tumultuous decades -- both Protestant and Catholics --  went to the pyre with a firm and unyielding profession of the faith. But Cranmer, in a bid to save his life, recanted his own Evangelical convictions. To his great credit, in the final moments Cranmer recanted his recantations, insisted that the hand by which he had betrayed his faith should be burnt first.

So here's to Thomas Cranmer. The saint for the rest of us. The saint for all of us. Skilled politician. Poet and priest. Tool. Hero and martyr. Traitor to his faith, if not his country. A coward (Did I mention he had a secret wife?) A schmuck. A Christian man. A real human being, living under God's sun, just like you and I.

And like all the rest of us, he was a marked man. For on this day in 1556, he died. And this fate is ours too.

Cranmer's sainthood, to me, signifies that whatever measure of grace we enjoy in this life and whatever mercy we enjoy at the end has absolutely nothing to do with either our failings or our accomplishments.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wherefore Anselm?

There's just something about Anslem (1033–1109), that early Scholastic theologian and archbishop of Canterbury who gave us, perhaps, the ultimate rejoinder to the "new Atheists." For many Christian thinkers today, his most famous essay, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human) is a foil for debates about substitutionary atonement. But, as important as such questions are, they are not what's vexing me right now.

Philosophers of religion, I think, mostly know Anselm as the source of a curious defense of the existence of God known as the ontological argument (See this article for an overview). This argument, as best I can summarize it, goes like this: 1) It is impossible for the mind to conceive anything greater than God. 2) If God is conceived as nonexistent, then an existing entity is greater than God, but that contradicts principle no. 1. 3) Therefore, God must exist: A denial of God's existence is impossible. This kind of theistic proof has been roundly trounced by philosophers and theologians ranging from Thomists to Kantians to postmodernists. (You can read a clear and concise exposition of the argument by Peter Kreeft here, no. 13 among his 20 types of arguments for God's existence.)

Karl Barth thought Anselm's argument in the Proslogium I-V was fundamentally important for Christian theology. And if Barth's reading is correct -- my understanding from Professor Bernard McGinn and other folks is that medievalists tend to find Barth's interpretation kind of weird -- the philosophers are missing the main point of this treatise. The key issue here, one might say, is not the elaboration of an abstract argument for God's existence but, rather, the particular character of the understanding of the divine reality that stems from the nature of faith itself. A conceptual grasp of God's reality, if that's the right way to put it, is preceded by and determined by the believer's invocation: Lord, please help me know you. In other words, Anselm is explicating God's existence from within the inner logic of faith itself rather than trying to present a convincing argument from some supposedly neutral standpoint.

Barth, in fact, claimed that his own book on Anselm (1930) was pivotal to how he came to understand and elaborate the Christian knowledge of God in his Church Dogmatics. The tendency of earlier Barth interpreters (including, famously, von Balthasar and Thomas Torrance) was to stress this study of the Scholastic thinker as the pivotal point in Barth's transition from a more "dialectical" theological method to a more "analogical" approach -- from a way of negation to a way of affirmation in claims about our knowledge of God, if I may be allowed to oversimplify a bit. Barth's own comments on the matter abetted this older reading of the genetic development of his thought. Nowadays, in the wake of revisionist scholarship from Germany that masterfully introduced into Anglo-American Barth studies by Professor Bruce McCormack, interpreters tend to see the real story as a bit more complicated than Barth himself and his earlier interpreters would have it. (A fairly recent book by Keith L. Johnson, discussed over at the DET blog, apparently deals in some depth with Barth's reading of Anselm. The book has gotten some pretty good press, but I admit -- alas! -- I haven't read it yet.) But now I'm starting to get a little far afield.

My main point is this: There's something about Anselm's "ontological argument" -- something that Barth found quite important. But just what is that? And why is it so easy for contemporary thinkers to misunderstand what the great Scholastic thinker was trying to do? These are the questions stirring today in my quasi-caffeinated brain. Barth's Anselm book, despite its deceptive brevity, is actually a pretty difficult text to analyze (at least I find it so), and I have never worked on it with the care it deserves. In part this is because the argument clings very closely to the primary texts, which he quotes copiously, and (alas) I don't (yet) read Latin.

But...aha...I do have fine English translations of Anselm's works, so maybe I can start there and try to sort out some of these questions afresh for myself. The Proslogion does strike me as a pretty unusual text. But I had better save my thoughts on this for later.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Powerful Trio

Was Karl Barth the father of contemporary theologies of the principalities and powers? Perhaps he was, from a certain perspective, and quite literally so.

Let me explain.

First, (for anyone who doesn't follow these things) there is a strand of thinking in recent theology, biblical studies and social ethics that seeks to retrieve the language of "principalities and powers" found throughout the New Testament and relate it the social and political realities of our current context. According to this way of thinking, institutions and ideologies are more than just the products of human individual agencies: They have a reality all their own. They have, in some sense, a "spiritual" reality. Or better, they just are spiritual realities as incarnate in concrete social, political, economic and ideological structures. Probably the most famous proponent of this highly influential line of thought was the late Walter Wink, who passed away just this past year (You can read Professor's Wink's obituary in the Sojourners blog here.)

Wink acknowledged his debt to the earlier work of the Episcopal lawyer, activist and theologian William Stringfellow (1928-1985). Stringfellow, it's hard to deny, is the fountainhead of the theology of principalities and powers.

So now I've been reading Anthony Dancer's book on Stringfellow, An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow. In chapter 6, I'm learning some fascinating things about Stringfellow and the development of his mature theology. If you've read Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, which is primarily the fruit of lectures he gave in his trip to the United States in 1962, you might recall that Stringfellow gets a shout-out in the preface. Famously, when Barth spoke as part of a panel at the University of Chicago, he admonished the audience to "listen" to the spirited young lawyer. Stringfellow, alone among the panelists, had no credentials with an ecclesiastical or academic institution, and in the 1950s he had given up prospects for a more lucrative career in order to live, practice law and advocate for the poor and oppressed in East Harlem. Stringfellow's affection for Barth is evident in the younger theologian's writings.

What I knew nothing about, however, before reading this book is that Stringfellow had a close friendship with Barth's son Markus, who himself became an eminent New Testament scholar. The two had a lively correspondence which has never been published but can be found in the collection of Stringfellow's papers (which I've never seen) at Cornell University. Stringfellow credited the younger Barth -- especially his Anchor Bible commentary on Ephesians (1-3) -- with giving him keen insights into the principalities and powers. (Stringfellow's friendship with Jacques Ellul is also quite significant).

So you see, one way or the other -- like I've always said -- preacher's kids inevitably cause trouble. This seems to be especially true when they pay close attention to the Bible, the most dangerous text that's ever been published.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


I'm sort of a collector of books by and about Karl Barth, and I've done pretty well. I especially like ones that I can find used. Or some of the old ones that I can from church libraries (Trust me: Nobody else is going to want to read these particular ones.) My wife, Leah, has a keen eye for scope out used bookstores and uncovering gems. (Going to used bookstores is no longer any fun for me alas. For by the time I make it through my first shelf, she's ferreted out all the good stuff. All she wants to know is how much money will be left in the bank account after the rent and utilities are paid and the groceries are bought. Well, you can always use the powdered milk and save four more bucks.)

Here are some of the gems she has scored from the used bins: Berkhouwer's Triumph of Grace; The Word of God and Theology (the old translation: two copies, one of which has long since disintegrated); Evangelical Theology (one paper and and one cloth, thank you very much!); The Faith of the Church; The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (That one is a riot, in which Barth plays a cruel but brilliant joke on the Gifford Lectures committee: They invite him to discuss "natural theology", a topic which he dispenses with curtly in one paragraph, and then he goes on for the rest of the book give a very un-Gifforidian exposition of...wait for it!... the Scot's Confession).

And then there's the so-called Shorter Commentary on Romans, Barth's third attempt at a complete commentary on the epistle, in which he finally gives up his stunningly brilliant and creative earlier attempts and tries to write about what Paul, perhaps, was actually trying to say.

There have been moments of heartbreak, as well. Once, when we moved, a precious copy of Küng's Justification disappeared mysteriously. The night before, I had made a desperate trip to what we called the "magic yellow box" -- a mystical receptacle at the Seven-Eleven where one could deposit one's...ahem... "donations" for the "needy." I don't want to think about what might have happened, the hours of reading pleasure I might have squandered.

And soon enough -- but I'm going to make you wait for it! -- I'm going to regale you with some short reviews of some dusty old secondary Barth studies that, I can pretty much guarantee you, you will not see discussed anywhere in the blogosphere.

Friday, January 11, 2013

That's Amore!

The scene etched in my mind comes from the 1980 film A Christmas Without Snow, starring Michael Learned and John Houseman. In the film, Houseman plays Ephraim Adams, a strict choirmaster striving to inspire and coach a rag-tag church choir in inner-city San Francisco into rendering a tolerably decent performance of Handel's Messiah.

One choir member is the high-strung Mrs. Burns, a professionally trained opera singer, who is overconfident that she, with her eminent qualifications, would easily land the soprano solo parts in the oratorio. To Mrs. Burn's evident pique, Adams taps the modest, sweet-voiced Mrs. Kim as the soloist. Mrs. Burns storms out in a huff, dissing the choir as a "bunch of amateurs."

Then comes the choirmaster pep talk:

Mrs. Burns is right, of course; you are amateurs, unlike certain pseudo-professionals like myself who insist on slave wages. Your voluntary and steadfast attendance at these rehearsals fully qualifies you for any definition of the word "amateur". What Mrs. Burns and many others are wrong about is the meaning of the word, which has to do with motivation, not quality. Remember "amo, amat, amas", the Latin verb "to love". The meaning of "amateur" is "he or she who does a thing for the love of it". There is no higher reason for singing than the love of doing it. In that respect, you do qualify as amateurs. And I salute you for it.
(I'm not meaning to diss professional musicians, by the way.)

A little cloying, to be sure. But today I'm in a (slightly) less cynical mood than normal, and the scene captures something about why I -- try as I might to extricate myself -- still find myself loving and studying theology. I'm coming more and more to see my relationship with theology as, well, a relationship -- and one that bears the status "it's complicated."

To help frame this, I've tried to create an ideal, personified image of theology, just like Boethius does with philosophy. Inevitably, though, all my mind can conjure up is the portrait of some wrinkly white male divine, such as Bultmann or one of the Niebuhrs -- an image that puts the kibosh on any kind of Eros for theology.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of my serious interest in modern theology, an interest that was sparked and then fanned into flame while I was an undergraduate studying journalism. All this has given more grist for my reflections on the question: Why do I do pursue this stuff, anyway? The answer just is: I can't help it.

In the opening pages of his Protestant Theology in the 19th Century, Karl Barth argues that historical theology must be treated as a theological project, whereby the researcher enters the living stream of an ongoing conversation rather than merely day-tripping through a museum of antiquated thought systems. In other words, the serious student of 19th century theology must share a kind of existential commitment to the theological enterprise to really understand what her theological forbears were trying to accomplish.

All that's required, Barth is suggesting, is a passion for the subject matter, not any kind of specific positive beliefs or intellectual commitments. Thus, even a skeptic such as Feuerbach belongs in the story of 19th century theology: Even if his own theological conclusions were expressed in largely negative terms, he was still existentially related to theology and it's problem. The stance of objective outside observer was simply an impossible one.

Paul Tillich, I think, is expressing the same matter -- albeit a bit more abstractly -- when he writes about the thinker who remains within the "theological circle" despite (or perhaps because of?) entertaining the most withering intellectual doubts about the contents of the faith.

That's exactly right.

So now I find myself, at the start of this 20th anniversary year, "coming out" as an "independent scholar." I do so without any disrespect for my friends and mentors who are employed as full-time academic theologians. But I do so, especially, in solidarity with other folk out there:

  • Pastors, religious education workers and other church-employed folks who read and write books, articles and blogs and attend theology conferences with very little support (or even comprehension) for these pursuits from their colleagues, denominational leaders or members of their parishes.
  • Confessional theologians who have to wear the hat of the "religious studies" scholars to make a living, including those driven to teach the Analects of Confucius (not that there's anything wrong with it!) in order to feed their families and pay their student loans.
  • Curious "laypeople" who probe ever deeper to find out just what the faith is all about and who pester their pastors with all those questions nobody really seems able to answer.
  • Independent scholars (like me) who are just stuck, who just own too many books and are just too damn invested to get unstuck, even though we earn our bread by tent making outside both the church and the academy.

  • Here I stand. I can do no other.

    All you need is love.