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.)