Tuesday, December 9, 2014

If you give a birthday party for Jesus....

If you give a birthday party for Jesus
just be aware he might show up
not the gauzy gazed at infant
not the gaudy glowing saint
but the fleshy mess of breath and bones
holding banners, singing in the cold
what would happen if he came inside
the room, the candles would they sputter?
or turn to tongues of flame?

-- Leah C. Gregg

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Bible in one hand, The Nation in the other

In the thick of the Detroit auto boom in 1927, the young pastor Reinhold Niebuhr wrote this entry into his journal:
I believe every preacher ought to take several radical journals, preferably the ones which are extremely inimical to religion. The ethical ideals of Christianity are so high and the compromises which the average church and the average minister has made between these ideals and the economic necessities of society are so great, and self-deception is so easy, that we need the corrective and perhaps cynical evaluation of religion in modern life.

I should like to recommend this kind of reading who are so easily obsessed by a messianic complex because of the compliments they receive. Let them remind themselves that there are astute observers who think that all their preaching is superficial and never touches the fundamental defects of modern society, and that these critics are at least as near the truth as their too generous devotees (Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Meridian Books, 1957, p. 204.)
Were you aware, gentle readers, that Niebuhr wrote prodigiously for such secular journals as The Nation and The New Republic as well as the newly established Christian Century? If you wish to take up Niebuhr's advice, doubtless you can find what you need via the blogosphere and Twitter. But if you are still a little perplexed, allow me to get you started with this.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Niebuhr at the Supermarket

I wish to report to y'all, gentle readers, that I've had a genuine moment of (Reinhold) Niebuhrian self transcendence to report in my own life.

This weekend, while shopping at the local Pause-'n-Pay Grocery Store(™), I deliberated briefly between two options in the dairy case: Should I buy the store-brand milk and save money or spend an extra dollar for the Local Hero option (I don't typically consider myself a hero, local or otherwise). Then it happened: In a moment of genuine self transcendence, poised between the existential polarities of my finitude and freedom, I allowed my narrow self interest to be checked by the demands of a higher, more universalizing ethical framework -- an action that would have been virtually impossible for me had I been representing a larger social aggregate, such as a nation state, wherein collective egoism -- typically masked by the machinations of ideology and hidden power plays -- thwarts any such self-sacrificing ethical behavior.

In other words, I opted for the local brand.

Alas, though, for I am undone! For now, gentle readers, my own self interest has become an (unjustified, I think y'all will agree) occasion for bragging rights and an overweening sense of my own superiority vis-a-vis the woman next to me who bought the cheaper milk (that's the "sin of pride," people).

The only solution? A countermeasure: Please excuse me while I bury my head in a vat of Cheese Flavored, Partially Hydrogenated MSG Puffs(™) (oops, that's the "sin of sensuality").

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Little Niebuhring

I'm rereading Reinhold Niebuhr, which I admit I haven't done to much of for a little while -- say, about 15 years or so, though I did get a lot out of reading the fine biography by Richard Wightman Fox a couple of years ago (I mentioned that reading here. I'm reading him with fresh eyes -- or perhaps I should say somewhat jaundiced eyes. Apparently, if David Brooks and President Obama are any indication, it seems there is no way around dealing with Niebuhr for anyone interested in what Christian faith might have to say today about the political order.
I both sincerely admire this man and am deeply ambivalent about his political theology.

My recent read is late Niebuhr, Man's Nature and His Communities (1965). I admit that I find it somewhat difficult to come to terms with Niebuhr once and for all: Once I start to find myself disagreeing strongly with a particular point, he then tries to counterbalance it with an opposing perspective. One key area where this plays out is the way he seeks to balance political realism (that is, a commitment to accurately describing the dynamics of power and collective egoism in the real world) with idealism (the conviction that these power dynamics are somehow checked within a more encompassing sphere of ideal ethical principles).

This book, of course, was written during the thick of the Civil Rights Movement. Niebuhr argues that the individualistic, evangelical religious heritage in the United States (at least, up to that point) had offered precious little aid in the struggle against institutional racism. For my part, as someone who grew up as a white Southern Baptist, I really want to push back against that claim; yet, I have to admit the force of it. But I hope this is not the last word on the subject. For my part, I am seeking resources for answering Niebuhr's, constructively if not historically. Maybe some of the recent, promising conversations in evangelical post-colonial theology can help me here. I'll write more about all this later.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nobody Writes About Prayer Like this Anymore

Here's Rauschenbusch on prayer (emphasis mine):

If the moral demands of our higher social thought could find adequate expression in prayer, it would have a profound influence on the social movement. Many good men have given up the habit of praying, partly through philosophical doubt, partly because they feel that it is useless or even harmful to their spiritual nature. Prayer in the past, like the hiss of escaping steam, has often dissipated moral energy. But prayer before battle is another thing. That has been the greatest breeder of revolutionary heroism in history. All our bravest desires stiffen into fighting temper when they are affirmed before God.

As is often the case with WR, I'm not quite sure what to make of this.

I think his theology is mostly mistaken.

And I think he's probably a bit naive about the nature of power politics.

But I find his social acuity and passion for justice contagious.

Go figure.

Source: Walter Rauschenbusch, For God and the People: Prayers of the Social Awakening (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1910) pp. 11-12.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Secret Revealed At Last

What was this secret that made this eminent German Church historian lose sleep at night?

Get ready for the bombshell that's going to rattle the playground of the theo-blogosphere.

I'm about about to share with you, loyal readers, the real reason this blog exists. (Come on, you were starting to wonder: Admit it.)

First the context:

Some time back in the 1920s, Karl Barth wrote a letter to his best pal, Eduard Thurneyson, grousing because Adolf von Harnack, the great church historian, had labelled Barth as a reincarnation of the Gnostic heretic Marcion in a review of Barth's Romans commentary.

(You can read about this, I think, in the volume of Barth-Thurneyson correspondence titled Revolutionary Theology in the Making. But I can't remember the page number. I'm good, but I'm not that good.)

Well, as it happened, Barth stumbled into an evening gathering where loyal doters were arrayed around the great Harnack and, apparently, the U of Berlin scholar had just been disposing of Barth as some sort of flash-in-the-pan enthusiast who would probably found some sort of prophetic cult and then, essentially, fizzle out.

What is not recorded in that correspondence or in the Barth biography by Eberhard Busch that also relates the incident is what happened next.

The young Barth walked right up to the eminent Harnack and whispered something in his ear -- the definitive answer to the scurrilous (as it used to be back in those days) charge of Marcionism that made the elder scholar veritably quake in his boots.

This answer is so secret and amazing that Helmut Gollwitzer, Eberhard Busch, Eberhard Jüngel and some other student of Barth named Eberhard made a secret pact that the message would never be revealed.

I'm in possession of this secret message and I'm ready to disclose it to you:

(Now lean in.) There are now 55 published pieces on this blog. (There are 28 pieces that are in "draft" mode that are simply just too awesome to publish here. Sorry, you'll just have to wait until I'm dead to read those). Scroll through the post titles and take the first letter of each title and write it down. At first blush, it will seem like gobbledygook, like ancient Greek manuscripts before the spaces and punctuation are added by diligent scholars.

Be patient and persevere. Never give up. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Stranded Bibliophile: Can You Help?

This is a very personal plea on my part to you, gentle readers of the interwebs.

You see, I commute by bus to the day job. Today I was running late and I ran out the door without any books to read on the bus! And to make matters worse, I don't even have the dog-eared Gideon's New Testament (KJV) that's in the pocket of my winter coat, since spring has finally sprung (sort of) here in western Massachusetts (emphasis mine) and I've traded out my coat for a crimson-red hoodie. Moreover, I don't know how to access the interwebs on my very un-smart phone, where I could, at least, read Slate's "Dear Prudie" column and calm myself down a little.

So I'm not "stranded" exactly, but you get the idea: I'm in need of serious help.

My best friend has graciously offered to text to me a copy of a major work of systematic theology that's approximately 9,000 pages long. (I'll keep the text anonymous for now, to avoid the possibility some of you might get turned off and not hear out my request). She has unlimited data for texting, she points out.

But that's way to much for one person to do. So I'm enlisting you, my readers (all half dozen of you) to help her out. Would y'all, each of you, agree to text at least a portion of this major text? I'm not tech-savy -- I've only just this month learned how to make paragraph breaks in HTML -- but I can say this is what you'll need, should you choose to accept this assignment:

1. At least three type-faces.

2. A Greek font.

3. A "cut-and-paste" feature would be most helpful, as this work is agonizingly repetitive.

4. A good sense of humor, as someone who enjoys laughing with the angels.

5. A solid collect of Mozart CDs. (That's not really essential. It could be anything, really, whatever suits your taste: e.g., Cold Play, Willie Nelson, Shostakovitch -- well, maybe not that. But maybe it's just good to go along with the Mozart as reputable scholars claim this text resembles his music.)

6. A quaintly odd predilection for typing longish Latin quotations from 17th and 18th century Dutch Reformed federalist theologians.

7. An certain sort of disposition that doesn't mind typing several thousand pages or so before stumbling, to your delight, upon a small-print passage in which the author has inserted an excursus on Pure Land Buddhism. For no apparent reason. (It is the only passage on Buddhism I can recall seeing in the entire work, but I may be wrong. If you're really fond of Eastern religions and philosophy, this may not be an assignment for you to take on.)

8. But if you are into world religions, and you're game for this task, you may have to endure a longish discussion, about 1,500 pages in or so, about why religion is bunk. Then you might come to find out that number of scholars are now saying that, no, in the original German he's saying pretty much the opposite of that. But you're typing directly from the English. So deal with it.

9. Some sort of quick, key-stroke macro that will automatically insert the name Jesus Christ, because, let me tell you....

So now you're really curious and dying to know what this text is?

Here's one little hint: It's not this one.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Die Evangelischen Theologen: Snatched from My Bookshelf

Some of my winter reading, recapped over at DET blog.

Die Evangelischen Theologen: Snatched from My Bookshelf: One friend of DET has issued an appeal for all of us to communicate more about what we're reading, so to honor the spirit of that requ... ==================================

Friday, March 21, 2014

Cranmer Redux

Here's something I wrote last year to commemorate the feast day of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Death Came to the Archbishop

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Credo (By Way of Some Anecdotes)

The pain of the world moves me -- the rat-cage of our late-modern, imperialist, consumerist, capitalist "civilization." Especially its sheer brutality and utter disregard for any genuine human values. The vapidity and indolence of its popular culture and the aloofness of much of its "high culture." Another friend, or friend of a friend, has contracted some form of cancer. Another acquaintance has lost a young member of her family, snatched away from life too early by caprice or malice or negligence. (On everybody else's behalf) all the indignation of the wounded agnostic wells up in me, and I cry out: "What sort of a provident god would set things up this way!"

But to whom am I protesting so virulently?....Check.


It's a rainy summer morning, and I'm running to catch the bus for work. I have no boots. Or raincoat. Or umbrella. I'm angry, partially at myself. But at someone else as well. Who? (I recall the Zen saying where a boater feels the jolt of another boat crashing into his boat. Anger wells up in him and he jerks himself around only to find that the other boat is completely empty.) It rains on the just and unjust alike.

Still, by the time I get to work, grumpy, I've worked up myself to quite a lather. In my mind, I began cursing, and pounding on something. That something is a wooden stake.

And the cross is not empty, but I'm pounding the person affixed to it to a bloody pulp....Check.


Another time, back when we still had a car, my wife and I have the 1:30 a.m. munchies, so I hop into the minivan and head down the street about one mile to the closest 24-hour convenience store, where the clerks make less than $15 an hour, to purchase an ice-cream-cookie sandwich wrapped in cellophane (for me) and a bag of smart food (for her). It's snowing, and the flakes are making long streaks like comets in my headlights. I'm listening to the overnight classical station. It's something from the Renaissance.

And time stands still....Check.


It's a Sunday morning at a church we used to attend. One of the grumpiest persons in the community, one I can never seem to get along with, is kneeling next to me at the communion rail. The Eucharistic ministers comes to her first and offer her a wafer and a sip and say a few words.

Then they come to me and offer me a wafer from the same plate and a sip from the same cup and they say the same words....Check.


Flash forward to earlier this week. A friend who struggles calls in the wee hours of the morning. She's in the ER with severe pain. Her toddler is staying with the neighbors. She doesn't know whether she'll be admitted or not. "Surely, they'll just admit her, at this hour of the night, when there are no buses and the cab companies aren't running. And it's single digits outside," I assure my wife. (Because I speak with authority.)


I awaken with my early alarm and realize I'd missed her call. We find out she's still in the ER waiting room because, of course, they wouldn't admit her. We give her a number for the cab company and offer to pay the modest fair when she comes. When she arrives, she's wearing one thin layer of clothing and is wrapped in a sheet. She's in almost too much agony to climb the three steps to our front stoop. She slouches onto our couch to get a little sleep and wait five hours until she can call another friend to come pick her up.

That morning she texts me while I'm at work, thanking me for our hospitality. I smile because, what did we do anyway? It wasn't really that much of an inconvenience. Just a little cab fare.

"Hospitality." I smile because, actually, she doesn't know me that well, really. The day before when we had a house full of people, I hid upstairs and buried my head in my blankets. I just couldn't face anybody.

She doesn't know me, really. If it were just up to me, truth be told, I'd probably never let anyone into our house at all.

If it was just up to me....Check.


Flash back about nine years ago. An older couple had moved into town just a year or two before. To enjoy their retirement. They had come to our church and gotten very involved. We all became good friends and got together in their home frequently.

Then one day, he complains that he's not feeling well. Then there are tests. And a diagnosis. And a shock. And a temporary remission. And gratitude for some time to prepare and say goodbye to his children and grandchildren. And there's much sadness, but still he has such a zest for life, clinging with a certain resigned joy to every last minute of it. He recounts that a priest had said to him, "You already died long ago when you were baptized."

Toward the end, we're together with our friends. He's at peace. He's smiling. He talks about a walk in the woods. He can see something I can't see, but I see the reflection in his face. But I want to see it too. And somehow I know I will see it too.



Wednesday, March 12, 2014

DET: My New Gig

Ce n'est pas un théologien.

I'm delighted to announce that I'm going to be blogging from time to time at Die Evangelischen Theologen. Check out my first post, complete with an embarrassing mug shot. (The editor included that picture with a solemn warning: If I fail to produce posts on a regular basis, he's going to copy and upload additional pictures from my Facebook page).

Even though I'm going to be over there (presumably) a lot, I'm still going to post some stuff here at Theology of Freedom. Actually, the spatial metaphor "over there" is somewhat misleading. Both blogs show up on my Blogger dashboard as tabs that are only about one centimeter apart. So you might plausibly think of the two sites as one really one blog. And since it's common now to think of theology as a collaborative effort, and postmodern thought has so problematized the notion of individual authorship, it's plausible to think of the 900 or so posts at DET, in some sense, as my very own work as well.

You will still find content here on this blog for your reading pleasure and edification (or bemusement), though the focus might be a little different. Here you might find material that wouldn't survive an editorial override (such as this post, for example).

To ease the transition for some of you gentle readers who may not be familiar with DET, I've provided this rough guide for the newbie:
  1. Don't let the title fool you: The blog is actually written in English, not German.
  2. Nonetheless, a number of contributors and guest posters study German theology and will throw in the occasional word or phrase auf Deutsch.
  3. The basic function of German terms in Anglo-American theology -- and this is important -- is to cover up the fact that we don't really know what we're talking about.
  4. Perhaps no theologian really knows what she's talking about (you know, "learned ignorance" and that sort of thing.) Nonetheless, the Germans have developed particularly adept idioms for naming what no one really understands. Throw in or take away an umlaut and you can turn one meaningless concept into two very easily. And you have also thereby created a "distinction" (theologians from Aquinas onward have always loved distinctions).
  5. And while we're at it, let's parse the blog title itself: "Die" is (fortunately) not cognate with English. It's just the plural form of the German definite article (so translate it simply as "the"), and it signals the editor's intent that the blog be a truly collaborative enterprise. That makes good sense, as some of the better blogs out there are group blogs. One of these blogs goes by the name of "Itself". Now that has always puzzled me. But the authors read and write a lot about Continental critical theory, so I chalk it to being a postmodern thing. Another group blog, one of my favorites, goes by the acronym WIT, which I find to be cunning and a propos. Another great blog is mainly a collaboration of two fellows, an older and a younger guy. Still, I've sometimes wondered if the older guy character (his name seems made up) is a literary construct and alter ego of the younger one, or maybe there's some sort of Kierkegaardian-type thing going on here with pseudonymity. But I'll just take the blog at face value and leave it at that.
  6. The German Evangelische differs so markedly in connotations from the term Evangelical has in North America that I don't even know where to start, and it's getting late.
  7. The German "Theologen" is pretty much cognate with English and means, basically, individuals who write learned things about matters no one understands. 
But seriously, I am excited about this new blogging opportunity. DET is actually a fairly respectable site.

Or at least it was until yesterday.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Rauschenbusch at the Oscars

Your meditation for Oscar night:

The idealization of evil is an indispensable means for its perpetuation and transmission. But the most potent motive for it's protection is its profitableness. Ordinarily sin is an act of weakness and side-stepping, followed by shame the next day. But when it is the source of prolific income, it is no longer a shame-faced vagabond slinking through the dark, but an army with banners, entrenched and defiant. The bigger the dividends, the stiffer the resistance against anything that would cut them down. When fed with money, sin grows wings and claws.
-- Walter Rauschenbush (The Theology of the Social Gospel.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1917, p. 66)

Friday, February 28, 2014

A Rising Tide Lifts...One Boat

Top 10 reasons we should all go see Russell Crowe as Noah next month:
  1. The movie is directed by the director of Black Swan -- clearly, someone who understands animals.
  2. Great date flick -- that is, a great movie to view in pairs.
  3. Neither Bill Nye nor Ken Ham were consulted in the making of this film.
  4. It was painful to watch Crowe fight the wild beasts in Gladiator, and now it will be heart-warming to watch him make up with them.
  5. Crowe, to my knowledge, doesn't sing in this one (‪#‎Putting‬-the-"Misery"-in-Les-Mis).
  6. If you beg her, your church youth group leader might pay for the ticket.
  7. Fortunately, everyone's forgotten Waterworld by now.
  8. There's a happy ending...um...sort of.
  9. This film continues the venerable Hollywood tradition in which older male leads are paired with much younger female actors: Emily Watson's character clocks in at a youthful 350 years old.
  10. Marvel Comics films, eat your heart out! I'd like to see Magneto pull off something like a world-wide flood.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Roots of Social Deviancy

So recently, as background for another project, I've been reading A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch. This Baptist theologian-activist worked as a pastor in inner-city New York, near Hell's Kitchen, in the late 19th century and later taught for two decades at Rochester Theological Seminary. Reinhold Niebuhr called him "the real founder of social Christianity in this country." This text comes late in his career (1917), and is his attempt to draw together, in systematic fashion, the theological implications of progressive social Christian faith and practice.

Before I proceed, a couple caveats. First, I'm no expert on Rauschenbusch. My exposure to his work so far has been a brief pass-through in survey courses and a very cursory overview of the Social Gospel movement when I used to teach a gen-ed course in American religious history. Second, however, I respect Rauschenbusch and the other early pioneers of social Christianity and more recent thinkers, such as Prof. Gary Dorrien, whose work is informed by this tradition. (I'll hold off, for now, on offering any critiques of this theology. "Seek first to understand," counseled the late Stephen Covey.)

The book begins with a hat tip of appreciation to representatives of the older orthodox theology (especially Rauschenbusch's friend and Rochester colleague, Augustus Strong). Still, to put it a bit tersely, he interprets orthodoxy to be too individualistic to adequately address the social problems spawned and exacerbated by modern industrialism. Then follows a three-chapter apologia for his social reconstruction of theological method.

Then comes the meat of the book -- the reconstruction (or truncating, as critics would have it) of classical Christian doctrines. As Schleiermacher had done nearly a century earlier, Rauschenbush boils theology down to the religious experience of sin and redemption, now interpreted (of course) in relation to social processes. Like many modern liberal Protestants, Rauschenbusch rejects the biblical literalism of traditional accounts of creation and fall. But he is keen to retrieve the doctrine of original sin within the logic of his own framework.

The truth of this doctrine, according to Rauschenbusch stems from the essential solidarity of the human race -- particularly the solidarity of bad moral influences. Essentially, each generation corrupts the one that follows it. He posits some (inexplicable) biological basis for this solidarity. "Idiocy and feeble-mindedness, neurotic disturbances, weakness of inhibition, perverse desires, stubbornness and anti-social impulses in children must have had their adequate biological causes somewhere back on the line, even if we lack the records" (p. 58). (Perhaps genetic scientists will soon show us the part of the human genome that causes "stubbornness.") But the main culprit for our malaise is "social tradition".

And, even though I'm adjusting for the fact that I'm reading a century-old text, my mouth gapes a bit as I read the following passage:
The evil habits of boyhood, -- lying, stealing, cigarette smoking [R. would fit right in with us today], profane and obscene talk, self-pollution [Oh my! Not sure exactly what that is, but it sounds dreadful], -- are usually set up in boys by the example and social suasion of boys just one stage older than they [consult C.S. Lewis' account of English public schools in Surprised by Joy to confirm this]....One generation corrupts the next.
And it gets even better (my expository notes are embedded in italics):
The permanent vices and crimes of adults are not transmitted by heredity, but by being socialized; for instance, alcoholism and all drug evils [excluding marijuana?]; cruel sports, such as bull-fights and pugilism; various forms of sex perversity [a Victorian reticence to be specific spares us here]; voluntary deformities, such as foot-binding [some feminists might balk at the notion that foot-binding is "voluntary"], corseting, piercing of ears and nose; blood feuds in Corsica [wait...what?]; lynching in America [which, apparently, is on a par with nose-rings.] Just as syphilitic corruption [nice!] is forced on the helpless foetus in the mother's womb, so these hereditary social evils are forced on the individual embedded in the womb of society and drawing his ideas, moral standards, and spiritual ideals from the general life of the social body.
I hope the rest of the book turns out to be as much fun as page 60.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Die Evangelischen Theologen: Breaking News—DET KBBC Book is now in print!

I was pleased when Travis McMaken and David Congdon asked me to contribute to a fascinating volume that puts the work of Karl Barth in critical and constructive dialogue with other theologians and philosophers, past and present. Now I'm even more pleased to see that the project has come to fruition. (Still, it's with some trepidation that I see a piece with my byline that attempts to assess, in part, the work of my grad school advisor!)

Check out the announcement over at DET, where you also can browse the blog conference where these essays first appeared in their incipient forms.

Stringfellow on the Freedom of the Word

Here is one of William Stringfellow's many bedeviling quotes about scripture and its role in the Christian life:

Paradoxically, the trouble with fundamentalists, as I try to listen to them, is their shocking failure to regard and use the Bible conscientiously enough. If they honored the Bible more highly, they would appreciate that the Word of God will endure demythologizing, that the Word cannot be threatened by anything whatever given to human beings to discover and know through any science or discipline of the world, or hindered by textual criticism or hampered by linguistic analysis, or harmed by vernacular translations. All these are welcome to Christians as enhancements of the knowledge of the fullness of the Word of God and of the grandeur of human access to the Word. More than that, if the fundamentalists actually took the Bible seriously, they would inevitably love the world more readily instead of fearing the world, because the Word of God is free and active in this world and Christians can only comprehend the Word out of their involvement in this world, as the Bible so redundantly testifies (quoted in Bill Wylie-Kellerman, ed., William Stringfellow: Essential Writings. New York: Orbis, 2013, p. 42).
Now what do we make of this?