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: Um....so....wh...wh...what 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: Well...um...there'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.